The Last Employee

 by Karl Harshbarger

     Ackerman was always the last employee to leave his office.  Some years ago his boss had asked him if he wouldn’t mind staying a just a little bit later than usual to make sure everything was in order before he left.  Ackerman agreed to that request, then another like it, then another, and after a while everyone assumed, including Ackerman, that part of his job was to be the last one to leave the firm.

     So, in that sense, for Ackerman, this particular evening in November, 1951, was no different than any other.  He worked at his desk entering figures in his ledger until 5:30.  By that time all his fellow-workers, including his boss, had left.  At 5:37 he stood up, made sure the ledger was in its proper place and that his papers were in a neat pile, went to the back of the office and checked that the door there was double-locked, stopped at the thermometer on the wall and lowered the temperature setting for the night, checked the door to his boss’s office to see if it was locked (one time it wasn’t), went to the front door of the office, set the burglar alarm, turned off the series of lights in the proper sequence so that the light at the front of the office was the last to be extinguished, stepped out into the hall, closed the office door and double-locked it.

     On any other winter evening Ackerman, after having stepped out into the cold and drizzly darkness, would have continued down the steps of his building, turned right along the sidewalk, at the intersection of the two main streets wait for the green pedestrian light, then cross in front of the stopped cars to the other side of the street and join the line of people at the bus stop.

     Except on this evening he didn’t.

     He didn’t because he saw something just a bit out of the ordinary:  Seven or eight people had formed a small group down on the sidewalk in front of his building and were looking up at the sky.  One man among them was pointing.   In fact, Ackerman saw other people running up to the group and now everyone was pointing upwards.

     Ackerman, of course, also looked into the sky.

     But he didn’t see anything unusual.  Just the lights of the city illuminating the low clouds.

     Suddenly the group at the sidewalk let out a collective, “Ahhhhh!”

     What in the world?  thought Ackerman. 

     As he started down the steps to also join the group the knot of people on the sidewalk visibly relaxed, turned to each other, started talking, some laughing, some shaking hands and Ackerman even saw two men hug each other.

     A small man with a rather owlish face detached himself from the group and approached Ackerman.

     “I’ll be goddamned,” said the man.  “I’ll just be good and goddamned.”

     “Can I ask . . . ?” started Ackerman.

     “Absolutely, totally, unbelievable!”

     Ackerman again looked up into the sky.  He saw the same thing he had seen before:  the lights from the city illuminating the low clouds.

     “Mind-boggling!” said the man. 

     “Could I ask . . . ,” started Ackerman again.

     “Just incredible!”

       

* * *

 

     After the group dispersed Ackerman did what he did every evening after work.  He walked back along the sidewalk toward the intersection of the two main streets, crossed the street when the green pedestrian light came on and then stood in line at the bus stop.  Other buses came and went and after a while Ackerman saw his number 45 approaching.  When it stopped he followed the other passengers on and, even though the bus was somewhat crowded, managed to find a free seat next to a window.

     Because it was cold and rainy outside Ackerman couldn’t see through the fogged-up bus window.  But that didn’t really matter because he’d taken the number 45 bus to and from his stop near his apartment so many times that he almost always knew where along the route he was.  Also, on this particular evening, Ackerman even recognized a few of the “regulars” he often saw.  That business-executive type who was always so busy, for example, sat right in front of Ackerman already hunched over and jotting notes on his tablet.  And sitting across from Ackerman on one of those side seats he saw that very sensibly dressed, middle-aged lady with the gray hair and a tic in the upper part of her face.

     After a while (the busy, executive-type had already gotten off, but the woman with the tic was still sitting across from him) the bus approached Ackerman’s stop and he pushed the red button on the railing beside him to let the driver know he wanted to get off.  The bus swung over to the curb and even dipped toward the pavement as Ackerman stepped out into the drizzle.

     From the bus stop Ackerman walked past the bakery shop and the shoe shop at the corner, turned down the next street and continued on until he came to his apartment house.  He let himself in the building’s front door, walked up two flights of stairs and let himself into his apartment.

     Immediately he smelled food smells and knew that his wife, Barbara, was preparing the evening meal.  Without taking off his hat or coat he went down the hallway to the kitchen.

     “So?” said Barbara smiling at him from the sink.  “Good day at the office?”

     “Pretty normal,” he said.  “Very normal.  That is, except for one thing.”

     “Oh?” she said.

     “Yes, except for this one thing.”

     “Could you check that pot on the stove?” asked Barbara.

     Ackerman went over to the stove.

     “This pot?” he said.

     “Yes.  And give it a stir.  And make sure the burner is on.”

     “I think it is,” he said looking down at the red light just beneath the burner.

     Barbara came over to the stove and looked.

     “Oh, yes, it is.”

     She went back to the sink.

     “You want to hear about it?” said Ackerman stirring the pot at the stove.  “This thing that happened?”

     “Of course.”

     Ackerman explained that after he left his office building he saw this small group gathered down on the sidewalk all looking up into the sky.  At first only one man was pointing, but, then, all of them were pointing.

     “But when I looked I didn’t see anything.”

     “What do you think they were looking at?” Barbara said.

     “Well, that's what I’m trying to tell you.  I don't know.”

     “They must have been looking at something.”

     “Yes, I imagine so.”

     “So what did they see?”

     “I don't know.”

     “Well, they must have seen something.  Maybe an airplane.”

     “No, I don't think so.”

     “Why not?  It could have been an airplane.”

     “I don't think it was.  Not anything like that.”

     “How do you know?  You said you didn't see anything.”  

     “That's just what I'm trying to tell you.”

     “So it could have been an airplane.”  

     Suddenly Ackerman realized that he still had his hat and coat on.  Normally he would have taken them off by now.  That is, before he came down the hall to the kitchen. 

     He gave the pot a final stir.

     “I’m just down the hall,” he said.

     “Oh, okay,” said Barbara.

     Ackerman went down the hallway to the wardrobe next to the front door.  But when he opened the door of the wardrobe he saw all the coats and sweaters jammed in there.  In fact, in a way, there really wasn’t any room for his coat.

     It was always that way.  Always had been.  He and Barbara no longer needed most of those things.  So what were they doing in there?  Why were they taking up space?  Why hadn’t they been thrown out?

     It occurred to Ackerman that someday, maybe next week, maybe even tomorrow, he'll just take the day off and clean out this wardrobe.  And other things around the apartment.  Throw out everything that wasn’t absolutely essential.

     He pushed his hand in among the coats, found a hanger, extracted it, shrugged his coat off his shoulder, placed it on the hanger and pushed the coat and the hanger back into all those other things.

     Suddenly it all fell down.

    Ackerman saw that the dowel along the top of the wardrobe had given way and everything, all those coats and sweaters, had dumped onto the floor.

     Nuts! he thought.

     He bent down to deal with this mess.  The problem was, he saw, that he couldn’t lift the dowel up with all those coats and sweaters hooked to it.  So he would have to take each coat and sweater off the dowel, not to mention the hangers, then try to fit the dowel back in its original sockets at the top of the wardrobe and finally hang up all the coats and sweaters again.

     Except to hell with it, he thought.  Just to hell with it!

     Leaving the pile of coats and sweaters right there sticking out of the floor of the wardrobe, Ackerman glanced down the hallway to the kitchen, walked into the living room, at the far end of the living room opened the door to the balcony and stepped out into the cold and the drizzle. 

     He placed his hands on the cold railing of the balcony and looked at what was in front of him.  Mostly he saw the backs of other apartment buildings, the fire escapes zig-zagging down, but in a gap between two buildings he saw the next street and heard the sound of car tires on the wet pavement.  A siren wailed from somewhere in the distance.

     That’s when Ackerman looked up into the sky. 

     He searched.  He really searched.

     But he didn’t see anything.

     He only saw the low clouds illuminated by the light of the city. 

 

 

 

About Karl Harshbarger: I am an American writer (living in Germany) and have had over 90 publications of my stories in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review and The Prairie Schooner. Two of my stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories and thirteen of my stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.