An Important Man



Jerome Turken

It was one of those old factory buildings in a run‑down industrial section of Brooklyn, abandoned by established firms fleeing the prevalent crime, and snapped up by crafty realtors who subdivided them, then sold or rented them to smaller businesses looking for cheap space.  The facade’s lower portion was garnished with a colorful turbulence of graffiti along its entire length save for a smattering of bright gray smears of cement that had recently been stuffed into cracks in the decrepit brick.  Iron grates protected the ground floor windows, while those on the second story were sealed with dull gray sheet metal.  The sidewalk in front of the building was uneven and clumsily patched, and broken again.  Beside the entrance were open cellar doors.  And just below the roof a huge sign in bloated blue letters on white background that traversed the entire width of the building, blared out: H. PERLMAN & CO.  STATIONERY.  WHOLESALE ONLY.  Serving America.  We take pride in our merchandize.

He had to use more than normal effort to overcome the back pull of the front door.  The small vestibule had a reception window through which he saw the broad back of Mr. Perlman, sitting at a desk facing the opposite wall, talking on the telephone.  Beside him, bent over the open drawer of a filing cabinet, was a large blonde woman.  She was strangely motionless, her hands lightly holding the sides of the drawer as if for balance.  And Mr. Perlman—his entire forearm was under her skirt, the fluttering of which attested a very busy hand working somewhere on or beneath her huge buttocks, while she stood there relaxed, nonchalant, like a cow being milked.  At the sound of the door closing she grabbed Mr. Perlman’s arm and thrust it away and got busy flicking through the file folders. Mr. Perlman looked up at her dumbfounded, his arm still angled, then as something dawned on him, turned to the reception window and gaped at Lou.

“Let me call you back, doll,” he said into the phone. “Hey, Lily, if I said I’ll call you back I’ll call you back.  No, I won’t forget.”  He got up and approached Lou, looking at him in searching meekness.

“How did you get in?” Mr. Perlman said.

“How did I get in?” Lou said. “Through the front door.”

“We got a bell that rings when the door opens,” Mr. Perlman said.  “Why didn’t it ring?  Why didn’t the damn bell ring, Wanda?  Who turned it off?”

Wanda was still bent over the file drawer.  “I don’t know,” she said without turning.  “Probably Tyrone turned it off when he took in that shipment from High Score and forgot to turn it back on.”

“Those damn flybrains,” Mr. Perlman said.  He came out to the vestibule and stared at a small throw switch on the wall that was in the open position. “What goofballs.”  He closed the switch and opened the front door and a loud bell sounded in the office.  He closed the door and the ringing stopped.  He opened and closed the door a few more times to test the bell.  Then he took a peek outside.

“Jesus Christ!” he yelled.  “The cellar doors are open again!  Who left them open!  Who left them open, Wanda!”

“How should I know?” Wanda said.

“Someone could trip over them and kill himself,” Mr. Perlman said.  “And my insurance goes up.”  He stepped out to close the cellar doors.  When he came back he was shaking his head.  “Jesus Christ, what beanheads I got working for me.  If you don’t do it yourself it never gets done.  What are you standing there for?  Come on in.”

Lou followed him into the small office and he took his seat at his desk, which was entirely covered with stacks of paper.  On the wall beside it was a plastic plaque with the dictum: JUDGE A MAN BY HIS ACTIONS AND NOT HIS WORDS.

“Hey, Wanda,” he said.  “I think you spent enough time pitzling around with those files.  You better get back to your desk.”

Wanda closed the file drawer and went to her desk in front of the vestibule window and got busy typing a form that was already in her typewriter.  Her buttocks overspread by half the seat of her small secretary’s chair.

Mr. Perlman searched Lou’s face a moment. “What are you doing—”  He had a sudden realization.  “You’re standing.”  He got up and reached behind a cabinet against the wall, fished out a skimpy folding chair and opened it beside his desk.  “Take a seat for crissake.  Make yourself comfortable.  What are you doing here this time of the day?  It’s only four o’clock.”

“You said any day any time,” Lou said, “and since I was in the area looking over the facilities of my company’s new vendors, I thought I’d finally drop in.”  He smiled.  “You know, I got tired of your digs for ignoring your invitation.”  Mr. Perlman didn’t seem to respond to his little joke.

The phone rang.  Wanda answered.  “H. Perlman.  Just a moment, Mrs. Perlman.”  She pressed the hold button.  “It’s your wife again.”

Mr. Perlman closed his eyes and picked up his phone.  “What is it now, doll?  I know I said I’ll call you right back, but I got an unexpected visitor.  Lou.  How many Lous do we know?  Beverly’s Lou.”  He handed Lou the phone.  “She wants to talk to you.”

“Hello, Lou,” Mrs. Perlman said. “Did you hear from Beverly?”

“I talked to her last night,” Lou said.

“Did you call her or did she call you?”

“She called me.”

“I don’t know what’s the matter with that girl,” Mrs. Perlman said.  “She calls you but she doesn’t call us.  She hasn’t called us for three days and no one ever answers the phone there.  She promised me she’d call at least once every day.  I’m going half out of my mind worrying.”

“What about?” Lou said.

“What do you mean, what about?”  Mrs. Perlman said. “A girl alone in Fire Island isn’t something for a mother to worry about?”

“She’s not alone, Mrs. Perlman,” Lou said.  “There are three other girls who have shares in the house.”

“Still and all,” Mrs. Perlman said. “Did you see the house?”

“I spent the Sunday before last there,” Lou said.  “Four bedrooms, well furnished, decks all round.  It’s a beautiful house.”

“It should be for what it cost us for one lousy share,” Mrs. Perlman said. “Isn’t the water there kind of dangerous?  I hear the waves are huge with all kinds of rip tides and undertows and everything.”

“Well, the water does get rough sometimes,” Lou said, “but Beverly is a very good swimmer.  Besides, they have lifeguards on duty all day.”

“Still and all, that doesn’t prevent a mother from worrying,” Mrs. Perlman said.

“Well, you don’t have much longer to worry,” Lou said.  “She’ll be home next week.”

“Home next week,” Mrs. Perlman said. “All that means to me is another week of worry.  Listen, do me a favor, if you talk to her again before I do tell her to call me.”

“All right,” Lou said.

“Don’t forget,” Mrs. Perlman said. “I’m worried.  Let me talk to Harry again.”

Lou handed Mr. Perlman the phone.

“Yes, doll,” Mr. Perlman said. “All right.  All right.  I will.  I won’t forget.  I did write it down.  Jergen’s Lotion and Toothpaste.  Colgate.  The large size.  I don’t have to put a note on my steering wheel.  I won’t forget.  All right, all right, I’ll put a note on my steering wheel.  I won’t.  Bye bye.”  He hung up and looked at Lou. “A man’s work is never done.”  He got up. “Come on, let me show you the facility.”

On his way to a door to the stock area the phone rang again.

“It’s your wife again,” Wanda said.

Mr. Perlman rolled his eyes and returned to his desk.  “Yes, doll.  Shirley, please!  How many times are you going to ask me about the balloons?  If I said I took care of it, I took care of it.  Bye-bye.”  He looked at Lou.  “They’re for our anniversary.  You’re coming, aren’t you?  It’s going to be some shindig.”

“Beverly hasn’t mentioned it,” Lou said.

“She didn’t invite you yet?”


“Well I’m inviting you right now.”

“Maybe I’d better wait for Beverly to invite me,” Lou said.

“Don’t worry, she’ll invite you,” Mr. Perlman said.  “All right, come on. He paused to look over Wanda’s shoulder at the form she was typing. “Hey, Wanda,” he said, “What did you do, give the cold shoulder to the legal pads again.  I don’t see legal pads.”

“Oh, my, did I?” Wanda said.  She looked over the form. “Yes, I did.”  She picked up a pen and wrote something in.

Mr. Perlman opened the door, then paused and turned to Wanda again.  “And don’t forget the discount.  We get an extra one and a half percent discount with Carpenter.”  He turned to continue then turned back, causing Lou to almost collide with him.  “And leave off the carrying charges.”

“But I left them off last time and they complained about it,” Wanda said.

“Let me worry about that,” Mr. Perlman said.  “Everyone has their hand in your pocket.”  As soon as he went through the door he yelled: “Hey Manny!”

A short man with pants so wide they looked like they were flapping appeared from behind some shelving.  “I’m here, Mr. Perlman, right here.”  He hurried up to Mr. Perlman and gawked at him with eyes that were almost completely buried in huge puffy bags under them.

“That Tyrone left the front door bell off again,” Mr. Perlman said.

“Tyrone left the front door bell off again?” Manny said.  “Ooh, that’s very bad, Mr. Perlman, that’s absolutely very serious.  I gave him strict instructions.  Strict instructions!  You have to be careful with the element that walks in nowadays, especially now in this neighborhood.”

“The question is, what are you going to do about it?” Mr.  Perlman said.

“What I’m going to do about it?” Manny said.  “I’m going to give him hell, what do you think?  Such hell he’ll never forget.  I’m going to let him know under no circumstances will leaving the bell off the front door be tolerated.”

“Be sure to do just that,” Mr. Perlman said.  “Because if that bell is left off one more time someone is going to pay the piper.  Heads are going to fly.  Understood?”

“Yes, understood, Mr. Perlman,” Manny said.  “Of course it’s understood, by all means.”

“Number two,” Mr. Perlman said. “Are you aware the cellar doors were left open again?”

“The cellar doors were left open?” Manny said.  “Again?  Oh boy,  I don’t believe it.  Whssht.  That’s terrible.  Terrible.”

“Yeah, that’s terrible,” Mr. Perlman said.  “And if there’s an accident and my insurance premiums go up to the sky it’ll be even more terrible.  What do I, rack my brains and cogitate to keep costs down for nothing?  If those cellar doors are left open again I’m going to read the riot act.  Heads are going to roll.  You got that?”

“I got it Mr. Perlman,” Manny said. “I’ll be personally responsible.  If it happens again you can roll my head first.”

“Remember my motto.”

“Action speaks louder than words?” Manny said.  “Of course I remember it.”

“Don’t forget it.”  Mr. Perlman stared at Manny terribly for a moment.  “All right, Manny, we wasted enough time talking.  Go back to work.”

Manny hurried back behind the shelving.

“He crosses corners then goes around in circles and cuts into the wrong bridge before he comes to it,” Mr. Perlman said.  “That’s Manny.  Come on, I’ll show you around.”

The isles between the shelving were crowded with cartons.  About half a dozen young men and women, mostly black or Hispanic who looked to be in their late teens, were busy either shelving merchandize or picking items from them for orders and putting them into baskets.

“Quite a stock, eh?” Mr. Perlman said. “Six thousand square feet.  Two to three hundred thousand dollars worth of merchandize at any one time.  Impressive, eh?”

“Quite impressive,” Lou said.

“Over on this wall we have—”  Mr. Perlman’s attention was caught by a girl with a clipboard who had just come into view from behind some shelves. “Hey, Margie, how you doing with the inventory?”

“I’m almost finished,” Margie said.

“Let’s see.”  He took the clipboard from her and his eyes descended the  list; then he closed them and faced the ceiling.  “Get a screwdriver, somebody. Margie’s head is loose again.  What are you requisitioning Venus red for?”

“We’re out,” Margie said, then added, “Ain’t we?”

“Requisition yourself a new pair of brains,” Mr. Perlman said.  “We are not out.  Ten dozen boxes just came in.  Look at the shelf against the Horton Street wall.  Bottom, all the way on the right.”  He snatched the pencil from her and scratched out the Venus red sharply, then thrust the pencil and clipboard out to her like they were a pair of daggers.

Margie took them timidly and went back to her work.

“See what I mean?” Mr. Perlman said. “You think I was joking.  You have to watch these people like a hawk.  If you don’t have eyes in back of your head you go blind.”  Lou followed him for the next twenty minutes as he moved along the isles.  “Over here we have the paper.  Paper you move in rotation, it ages … What do you say, Sammy, lets get the stock off the ground and onto shelves … got to give me a hundred percent … the 8 1/2 x 11 pads come in different …  three hours to pick a little order …  missing the paper clips …  Without lines, stupid … A good eraser nowadays is harder to find than Jennifer’s tits …  these address books are eye openers …  Hey, Wanda, don’t take no more orders, everyone in the stock room is dead …  Juan gets paralyzed once in a while …  You don’t cut off your throat to spite your appetite … half a stapler is not better than none, Jose … think business is fun and games … Paper work makes the world go round … Well?”

“Well what?” Lou said.

“What do you think?”

“You have a great operation here,” Lou said.

“I know it,” Mr. Perlman said. “And I’m proud of it.  Don’t think I’m blowing my own horn, but God gave me a pair of brains and I choose to use them.  I’m second to none when it comes to using my brains.  It’s few and far between that I make a wrong decision.  Nothing gets past me, nothing.  You saw.  I got a mind like a trap.  And I get due respect.  You saw how they shit in their pants when I go out there?”

“They sure do,” Lou said.

“Damn right they do,” Mr. Perlman said. “But that’s neither here nor there. “Come on into the office, we’ll talk.”

As soon as he opened the door to the office Mr. Perlman said: “Hey Wanda, call up Old Town and tell them their carbon paper is coming in thin again.  One more time and we send it right back at their expense and tell them to eat it.  We’ll include the mayonnaise.”  He seated himself at his desk and looked at Lou. “Well, are you convinced?”

“Convinced of what?” Lou said.

“Of the advantage of being your own boss.”

“Well, I can see the advantages, but it may not be for everyone.”

“Of course it’s not for everyone,” Mr. Perlman said. “But I’ll tell you this: owning your own business makes you feel important.  I feel important.  I’m an important man.  Listen, there are only two kinds of people in this world: workers and bosses.  There are a lot of schmucks out there who’ll work for someone their whole lives.  And when they’re too old and outlived there usefulness working for someone, where are they?  They’re left out to dry.  And if they don’t outlive their usefulness long enough they’ll die working for someone.”  He wet his thumb with his tongue and pressed it against his chest.  “I get a medal.  I died working for someone.  And what did they accomplish with their life?”  He formed a zero with thumb and index finger.  “Zero.  Zip.  The bottom line is, someone who works for someone don’t own himself.”

“Well, that’s not always true,” Lou said. “Sometimes someone who thinks he owns a business wakes up one day and finds that the business owns him.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Let me ask you something,” Lou said. “You have a tooth that’s been bothering you for two months now.  Did you go to the dentist yet?”

“No.  What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Well, you have a tooth that keeps bothering you but your business won’t let you give yourself permission to go to the dentist.  You said so yourself.  Your business is your boss.”

“Oh, come on,” Mr. Perlman said. “Talk sense.”

“Ah, I’m only kidding,” Lou said. “But you really ought to find time to get to a dentist.  Your teeth are important.  They can give you a lot of misery if you don’t take care of them.”  He got up.  “I really have to go.  I have to meet someone at six.  Bye, Wanda.”

“Bye bye,” Wanda said, looking up from her typewriter with a big rosy smile.

Mr. Perlman got up and walked Lou to the door and followed him into the street.  “Listen, between you and me,” he said, “what’s what with that situation with Beverly in that house?  You were there.  What did it look like?”

“It looked like she’s having a good time.”

“Of course,” Mr. Perlman said.  “I know she’s having a good time.  But I mean …  I’ll be more direct.  That house, those girls, me and Lily are a little concerned.  You know, it’s not like the old days.  It’s a different picture today with girls, a different element altogether.  We trust Beverly without reservation, but we don’t know about the other girls. You know, Lily wanted to meet them, but Beverly wouldn’t hear of it.  We’re prying, she said.  We don’t trust her.  Boy she can get stubborn when she thinks we don’t trust her.”

“Can you tell me what you’re so worried about?” Lou said.

“All right, I won’t mince words.” Mr. Perlman said. “Does it look like there’s any hanky panky going on?”

“Hanky panky?” Lou said.

“Come on, you know what I’m talking about,” Mr. Perlman said.  “Five girls alone scares me.  They can get pretty wild.  All kinds of hanky panky can take place, especially on Fire Island.  It doesn’t sound like such a good situation to me.”

“I think you’re overly concerned,” Lou said.  “They’re all very nice girls, on the quiet and reserved side.  I met two of their boyfriends, very nice, straight‑laced guys. Come on, stop worrying.  Beverly’s got a good head on her shoulders.  She knows how to take care of herself.”

“Well, all I got to say is, I hope you’re right,” Mr. Perlman said, and went back in, then his head popped out again. “I’d just like to say one more thing. I don’t know what kind of boss you have but you can bet your bottom dollar whoever he is, he doesn’t particularly have your interest at heart.  Because when it comes down to it I can guarantee you he gets more out of you than you get out of him.  So give some thought to our conversation.”

“I sure will,” Lou said.