“He’ll see you now.”
Jerry stood up and tried to readjust his tie. A lump in his throat was in the way, though, so he swallowed that down first, then finished with the correction. He dropped his hands to his side, flexing them as he exhaled deeply, bracing himself to march into the office before him with confidence and composure. Not just any office. The office of Daniel Bronn, who was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the entire city. And Jerry’s new boss.
Jerry could feel the receptionist’s eyes watching him, but the moment of action he’d been summoning his nerve for collapsed. He instead looked downwards, shuffled across the carpet, and knocked timidly at the door.
“Come in,” a bright voice called from within.
Jerry swung the door inwards, feeling strangely glued to its motion so that he presented Daniel Bronn with his left shoulder rather than his front. Looking downwards he saw that his sleeve had caught on the doorknob and he shook it loose and righted himself, now entirely red in the face.
Daniel Bronn pretended not to notice, and only beamed at Jerry while waving him forward with his hand.
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” Jerry muttered as he continued his shuffle up towards the great man’s desk. “Jerry, sir.” He extended his hand, then questioned whether he had the right to, and started to retract it. Daniel lunged forward though, caught the retreating appendage and shook it vigorously.
“Yes, of course, Jerry Blakeney!” Daniel boomed, as if recognizing an old friend.
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
“Don’t be sorry, Jerry. Have a seat instead.”
Jerry nodded appreciatively and backed into the seat awkwardly, not daring to take his eyes off of the man. Daniel was probably about the same age as Jerry, in his mid-sixties, but his eyes twinkled with a boyish fire and the corners of his mouth were crinkled in constant smiles. He had a run of baldness scurrying down the middle of his head, but it only served to make his broad, pleasant face all the broader and pleasanter. The man was not obese, but he had a jolly girth that quivered with his every laugh.
“Jerry, I’m glad to have you on my team,” Daniel said, still smiling but now with a tone that indicated he intended to get down to business. “It was Mister Ray that offered you the position, wasn’t it? Yes, well, he told me he had high expectations of your capabilities.” Jerry gulped. “Yes, he very much liked you. And now that I’ve seen you…. Well, I like you, too.” Jerry gulped again, wishing Daniel wasn’t so taken with him.
“Well I will certainly do my best, sir. Really I’d like to get going on it right away.”
“Aha, a man of action! All the better, especially given the importance of the work you’ll be doing here. Our very image to the world!”
Jerry started at that. “Oh… when Mister Ray explained the position to me it sounded like I was just going to be delivering some packages.”
“I suppose that is the technical description. But don’t you see that that makes you a representative? Most of the people I distribute to will only ever interact with a single member of my business. And it won’t be me, and it won’t be Mister Ray. It will be you. You are my extension!”
Jerry nodded blandly. He had had employers like this before, ones who felt it was necessary to excite the rabble with how significant their position was. Jerry wasn’t fooled. He knew that he was the detritus of any company he worked for, a body filling a space that could be replaced at any moment. He was okay with that fact, for he had made peace with his role in the world long ago. Admittedly the wages Mister Ray had promised him was more than double what he ought to be being paid, but no doubt that would change once the company got wise to their competitors rates.
“When can I start?” he said simply.
“Right now, if you’d please,” and so saying Daniel Bronn pulled open a drawer in his desk and extracted a medium-sized, brown package, bound both ways with a healthy length of twine.
Jerry rose to his feet and took the package in hand. It was heavy. “Just the one?”
“But of course,” Daniel Bronn tutted. “Each package is important and deserves its own moment. A cart full of deliveries would make it an overly-large assembly line.” He pulled a sour face at the idea of that.
“I’ll deliver it and be back for the next then. The mail-room is in the basement I suppose?”
Daniel Bronn shook his head. “Each package is important,” he reiterated. “You will receive each directly from me.”
It don’t sound like a particularly prudent use of Daniel Bronn’s time, but if that was how he wanted things to be, so be it. It made no difference to Jerry. So he gave a curt nod, and then turned and made his way out of the office, the floor, and the building.
Jerry caught the first cab he could and for the first time read the address on the package as he recited it to the driver. As the car lurched into motion Jerry frowned. The address was in one of the poorest districts of the city, not too far away from where he lived himself. Perhaps there was a factory in the middle that made use of all the cheap labor? But then there was the matter of the name on the package as well. It was not a company name, it was an actual person’s name “Gladys Monroe,” with no following qualifiers like ‘PhD’ or ‘CEO.’
He shrugged. It didn’t really matter he supposed. Instead he leaned back against the moth-eaten upholstery, lowered his hat over his eyes, and allowed himself a little nap. Somehow he sensed when the car had slowed up against the curb of their destination, and he slid his hat back up, paid the driver, and stepped out onto the street.
If he had been confused about the address before he was thoroughly baffled now. There was no factory, no offices, no buildings of importance at all. Instead he was facing a row of the homeliest homes he had ever seen. Each of them seemed to be leaning slightly off center, the gaping holes in their walls were patched with corrugated zinc sheets, and their yards were completely bare patches of dirt.
Jerry spun around to examine the other side of the street but it was all the same. He read and reread the address on the package but it seemed to match his destination exactly. He saw a rusted mailbox in front of the house and he wiped away enough grime to make out the name on its side. “Gladys Monroe.” He decided that he would have to go back to Daniel Bronn and explain the mistake, and spun around to see if his cab was still near enough to be hailed.
“Hello?” a voice called from behind.
He spun back around and now saw the front door of the house opened, a weathered little woman emerging tentatively towards him.
“Ahem,” he said, “I don’t suppose you know a Daniel Bronn, do you?”
“Daniel Bronn?” she repeated slowly, shaking her head. “Who’s he?”
He smiled, pleased with her confirmation that this wasn’t where he was meant to be. “No matter. Clearly there has been some mistake, I’ll just be on my way.”
“Is he by any chance a nice, rich gentleman?” she said suddenly. “Balding, a little large, and with the nicest smile you can imagine? Like it would light a room even in the dead of night?”
Jerry paused, and licked his dry lips slowly.
“I only ask because I saw the package. Such a man gave me a ride home in his limousine the other day and said he’d send something to me, too.” She looked down as if embarrassed. “I told him he oughtn’t bother.”
Her eyes shifted sideways to the package in Jerry’s hand, and Jerry found himself instinctively pulling the parcel back. It wasn’t that he disbelieved her, necessarily, just that he didn’t want her to have it. Somehow it seemed…wrong.
“And your name was…?” he prodded, grasping at any chance that this still might not be the intended recipient.
“Gladys. Gladys Monroe.”
He sighed in defeat and extended the package back out. “I guess this is for you, then.”
She seemed not to notice his reluctance, and instead happily received the parcel and began to open it right away. In spite of himself, Jerry’s curiosity kept him rooted to the spot, anxious to see what the great and mighty Daniel Bronn might have sent to such a woman. The heavy brown paper came off and Gladys drew out glass jars filled with all manner of expensive spices, enriched flour, and high quality lard. Jerry couldn’t resist a slight smirk. No doubt this woman could hardly afford her daily biscuits, and he had sent her seasonings fit for a king.
Gladys, however, didn’t seem to find the gift strange at all. Instead her whole face broke in a wide grin and she chuckled pleasantly. “What a thoughtful gift!” she proclaimed, then looked up to Jerry with tears shining in her eyes. “You see he met me when I was out with my cart of food. Bought some of everything I had. Said he liked it, but a man of distinction like him must have a refined palate. My food isn’t fit for such folk. Not that I’m a bad chef, if I do say so myself, but, well, there’s only so much one can do with the ingredients I have to work with. Now though…!” and she shook her hands enthusiastically, jars of spices clutched between the fingers.
Gladys took a step towards Jerry and in a moment of horror he realized she was opening her arms to give him a hug. He clapped his hand to his head and quickly backed away. He muttered something like “Well, got to be off then. So long!” and then sprinted away to find the nearest cab.
There was no nap for Jerry on the way back to the Bronn Institution. He was quite shaken up by his first delivery experience and he wasn’t sure why. So what if a wealthy man was wasting his riches giving spices to a nearly-homeless woman? So the man was a fool, all the better for Jerry. The more foolish Daniel Bronn was, the longer it would take him to get wise to the fact that Jerry’s position could be replaced by the postal system at a fraction of the cost.
Was that it then? That this setup was too good to be true? Jerry didn’t deserve so cushy a job, and so it seemed only a matter of time before it would be taken from him. He shrugged his shoulders. So one day he’d be back looking for a new job. So what? May as well enjoy a break when it came.
But no, that still wasn’t it. It was something about the way Gladys had looked at him with such tearful thankfulness. As if she had mistaken him for someone else, someone better. It unnerved him.
Jerry was still lost in his thoughts when the cab pulled up to the Bronn Institution. He paid the driver and got out in a daze before shaking himself and making his way back in. Hopefully Daniel Bronn would have a more sensible assignment for him now. Something like giving an eviction notice to a tenant, or disposing of evidence of corporate malfeasance, or shooting a stray dog that had annoyed Daniel.
No such luck. After asking Jerry to recount his experience delivering the package to Gladys Monroe, Daniel Bronn had plopped an even larger package on the desk and sent Jerry out to deliver that as well. It had smelled of beef, and the address took Jerry to a poor butcher. Next was a small package with no address, only a description of a homeless man that frequented Bowery Street. Next came a tall parcel filled with quilts that went to the orphanage.
That was the end of the first day at the Bronn Institution, and the following ones only saw more of the same. Every day was delivery after delivery, all to people that were poor and had only the most tenuous of connections to Daniel Bronn. In fact, some of them had no connection whatsoever! One time, when returning to Daniel Bronn for his next assignment he had found the man thumbing through the city registry, looking for a random home to send his next package to. It was maddening!
Every delivery seemed to splinter Jerry’s conscience like ice cracking in a thaw. As he considered why he felt this way, he came to realize it mostly had to do with the profuse thanks most recipients tried to bestow on him. It made him feel like he was an impostor, like he had somehow duped them into thinking he was more than what he knew himself to be. It made him feel guilty, and he became progressively grumpier and gruffer with each passing day.
Strange as it sounded, Jerry found himself hoping his surly demeanor might get him fired! Fat chance of that. He was pretty sure Daniel Bronn had never fired a person in his life. Even if he did fire Jerry, Daniel Bronn would probably feel so sorry about it that he would start sending him gifts too, and that would be even worse!
No, sooner or later Jerry would have to out-and-out quit. He didn’t know exactly how to approach such things, he had never before been employed long enough to even consider quitting. But he would figure it out, no doubt of that, because he simply could not continue like this for much longer.
Jerry’s mind was still caught up with these feelings of not deserving the praise being heaped on him and of scheming a way to get out of his job when an opportunity seemed to present itself to him. Two weeks into delivering Daniel Bronn’s charity parcels, Jerry had returned for the next package and had instead been asked to take a seat.
“Jerry Blakeney,” Daniel Bronn smiled at him, as though his very soul was warmed simply by seeing Jerry. “I’m so glad you’ve been helping us out with our business here. I must say you are very efficient. It seems each of your deliveries takes less time than the one before.”
Jerry nodded. “I try to not loiter about.”
Daniel shrugged. “Well I wouldn’t want you to overwork yourself, of course.”
Jerry merely grunted. Sitting in a cab all day wasn’t exactly his idea of overworking himself.
“But it’s not enough for me to be pleased with your work, Jerry,” Daniel continued, suddenly looking very serious.
Here it is, Jerry thought to himself, his heart skipping with excitement. He’s received a complaint and he’ll finally give me the boot. Now I’ll get to see him shout! I wonder what he looks like when he shouts.
But Daniel did not shout. “More important is the question of whether you are pleased with your work here. Are you?”
Jerry stared blankly, struggling to find words to express the conflicted feelings he had held of late. “Does it make any difference?” he finally asked, and a flash of concern wrinkled Daniel’s brow. “I’m a delivery man. If I didn’t like it you could replace me in an instant. Anyone could do this job.”
“Hmmm,” Daniel’s brow furrowed even deeper and he shook his head ponderously. “I don’t think so, Jerry. I could send anyone to just deliver a package, it is true. But I’m not sending just anyone. I’m sending Jerry Blakeney.” Jerry wasn’t sure why Daniel Bronn was saying his name like it meant something. “I send you because it is Jerry Blakeney I want to send, not just the package. Do you understand?”
“Well…that’s very kind of you. But I don’t know that anyone else cares to receive Jerry Blakeney. I think they just want the package.”
“Perhaps they haven’t been receiving the real Jerry Blakeney, then.”
Jerry wasn’t sure why, but a weight pressed on his heart at that. “Maybe,” he said slowly, “maybe I’m not cut out for this work.”
“Your work here doesn’t make you happy?”
Jerry shrugged. “I know it should, I suppose. It’s regular and dependable.”
“But is that happy?”
“Maybe it’s as close as anything can be.”
Daniel cocked his head inquisitively, inviting further clarification.
“It makes my life comfortable,” Jerry proceeded. “There’s three things that make me uncomfortable. My landlord coming for rent, my ex-wife coming for alimony, and the grim reaper coming for my life. Each of them is either appeased or delayed by money, though. You pay me well for this work, frankly more than you probably should. So whatever my feelings of the work itself, it does at least make the rest of my life more comfortable.”
Daniel put his fingertips together and then rested his lips against them, his brow furrowed in deep thought. “A man must survive first of all, I suppose.”
Jerry nodded. “I’d agree with that.” It was probably the first time he had agreed with Daniel Bronn on anything.
Daniel continued thinking deeply, going so far as to close his eyes and shut out Jerry and his office entirely. He remained so for such a long while that Jerry leaned forward, checking whether any snoring was coming from his employer. Just then Daniel’s eyes snapped open and startled Jerry so badly that he fell out of his seat and into the one next to it. Daniel pretended not to notice.
“Jerry, I want to make you an offer,” Daniel Bronn said with a gleam in his eyes. “You say the wages here are enough to keep you comfortable, though maybe not all the way to happy. Fair enough. Well I’m going to add this on top of your regular wages for today,” reaching into his waistcoat Daniel fished out a number of bills and from withdrew from their midst a crisp ten dollars. “But this comes with an injunction. You cannot spend it on anything that makes you more comfortable, only on something that makes you truly happy.”
Jerry’s eyes narrowed. He really didn’t see what this had to do with his not wanting to deliver packages anymore.
Daniel Bronn continued. “You find what truly makes you happy and I think you’ll also find out that you really are the right man to make my deliveries. Say we give it a week? If at the end of that week you would still rather not work for me, then I’ll write a glowing letter of recommendation to any employment opportunity you’d prefer.”
Jerry still didn’t seem to see the connection that Daniel Bronn envisioned, but he decided not to quibble over it. At the very least he had his path out of the company, and it had been far more painless than he had imagined. So he nodded, thanked his boss for his understanding, and took the ten dollar bill.
A few minutes later Jerry emerged from Daniel Bronn’s office with his hands full. In one he carried yet another package, and in the other he still clasped the ten dollars. He was staring so intently at it that he didn’t realize he had stopped in front of the receptionist’s desk. When at last he did glance up he found her staring at him inquisitively, a slight smile of amusement on her lips.
He merely shook his head in confusion. “I just don’t understand it, Miss–” for the first time he surveyed her name plate. “Miss Greensborough.”
“Most people struggle to understand our employer’s generosity.”
“Hmmm. Do you ever wonder if it’s a cover-up?”
“A front. A way to deflect suspicion while he embezzles money and makes deals with the mob.”
Miss Greensborough laughed. “Certainly not! Daniel Bronn is the only true philanthropist I’ve ever known. His only objective with his charity, is charity.”
Jerry sniffed. “Charity? I’d almost prefer embezzlement.”
“You don’t hold with the notion?”
Jerry looked thoroughly sour and shook his head. “Charity, by definition, means people getting things that they don’t deserve.”
“Oh!” Miss Greensborough exclaimed as if offended.
“I don’t expect you to see it my way. But I grew up in a gutter without anyone showing me any ‘charity.’ Everything I am I earned by grit, and I have no time for anyone who isn’t willing to do the same.” He glanced down at the bill in his hand. “And I have no time to be shown it, either.” He felt duty-bound to hold onto the bill until his employment was officially terminated with Daniel Bronn, but then he wouldn’t lose any time in tossing it into that same, cold gutter.
The next few days weighed on Jerry Blakeney in a way he didn’t understand. He tried to convince himself that he was thrilled to be changing jobs. Daniel Bronn’s recommendation would carry real weight and he wouldn’t have any trouble getting a job at somewhere he truly belonged. And yet, at the thought of finding some more menial labor he couldn’t help sensing that he was giving up on an important opportunity. What that opportunity was, exactly, he couldn’t say. But he was sure it had nothing to do with the excellent pay and comfort of his current station.
He even went so far as to wonder whether there was anything to Daniel Bronn’s challenge. Could he spend the ten dollars on something that would bring him actual happiness? He could enjoy a week of the finest dinners the city had to offer, he could buy a mattress fit for a king, he could get himself a nice suit for special occasions. But no, each of these would still be a gift he didn’t deserve. He would hate them even as he enjoyed them. Beyond that he had an idea that Daniel Bronn would be disappointed in such a use of the money, though he wasn’t sure why that particularly mattered to him.
Added to all of these complications was the fact that this last week of charitable deliveries was the most difficult yet for Jerry. He had started being recognized as Daniel Bronn’s personal emissary, which meant even when walking down the street he was barraged by all manner of friendly salutations and hopeful smiles. No one seemed upset when he passed them by on his way to someone else, if anything they might even follow him to share in the happiness of whomever fortune had smiled upon today.
It was not right for him to be the bearer of such goodwill in the world. He had done nothing to earn that role. It was simply another one of those charities Daniel Bronn was trying to inflict on him.
And so it was that Jerry finally came to the last day of his deliveries. Daniel Bronn did not mention the significance of the day when Jerry came into his office for the first morning package. He merely smiled at him as ever, beckoned him close, and withdrew the parcel from his drawer.
“It is going to a Miss Rose Dally right on the Southern border. She does laundry for a friend of mine, and that friend is worried about her. Thought she could use some positivity.”
Jerry nodded, took the package in hand, and stowed it in an inner pocket of his coat. By now he had a well-established routine for his deliveries, and he soon found himself in the back of his favorite cab, on his way to 344 Sycamore Lane.
Now, in the privacy of the rear bench Jerry allowed himself to palm his forehead and massage his brow. He did not care to return to the Southern border of the city. It was the region he had been raised in, and he did not care much for the memories he had from there. The ride to that portion of town started with streets steeped in poverty and only went down from there. No one chose to live on the Southern border, no one stayed here that had an opportunity to leave.
As the cab continued he felt the familiar shift from paved roads to gravelly paths, he saw streets through which the shadow of his child self still seemed to linger. The place was unchanging, what buildings had been erected here were left here until they collapsed or burned down. Old factories were repurposed into housing units, grocery stores into community markets.
It was in front of one of these repurposed buildings, an office space turned into an apartment complex, that the cab finally reached its destination. Most of the windows were shattered and boarded up and the wood was splintering underneath the peeling paint.
With a sigh Jerry stepped out onto the curb and considered the package he was to deliver. He noticed he was smelling a fragrance from it, so he raised it to his nose and inhaled deeply. Bath salts. He was sure Daniel Bronn meant well, but clearly the man hadn’t understood this woman’s situation. Hopefully she would have the common sense to sell the luxury for some essentials.
As he made his way into the building interior he spied an old lady seated at a makeshift counter near the off-balance staircase. She would be the landlord.
“Looking for a Miss Rose Dally?” he gruffed.
She sniffed unpleasantly. “Well she don’t live here no more. Couldn’t keep up with rent.”
His brow furrowed as he stared around at the walls of peeling wallpaper. The place was incredibly dark, due to the lack of any electric lights or oil lamps, in combination with the boarded windows.
“Is rent here much, then?” he asked.
“Only $4.50 a week.”
He did not try to hide the incredulity on his face at the exorbitant rate, which elicited a scowl from the old woman.
“If that was all you needed…” she said testily.
“Does she have a husband?”
“Died in the war. Has two children.”
“Do you know where she went?”
“No. I do not.”
He sighed after a moment of reflection. “I do.” There was a catholic mission nearby that accepted women and children. Surely that was where she would have gone.
Jerry stepped back out onto the street and began walking in the way of the mission. The cab that had brought him was only a block down, and the driver stuck his head out the window to see if Jerry needed another ride. Jerry merely waved him off, somehow the walk felt more appropriate.
It wasn’t far to the mission, and soon he was ringing its bell. The door cracked open and an old nun peered up at him.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Is Miss Rose Dally here?” he asked. “I have this parcel for her.”
The nun squinted at the package, decided it seemed harmless, and promised to go and fetch the woman. The door was closed and Jerry looked back at the package somberly. Bath salts. He was sure Daniel Bronn had meant well.
A minute later the door cracked open again, and he met the face of a woman artificially aged. She couldn’t have been more than thirty-three, and yet stress and sleepless nights etched lines across her face, giving it a desperate look. He had seen that same look on his own mother.
“Miss Dally?” he said.
“Sorry, Missus. I was sent to give these to you.” He handed over his offerings. She took the parcel, sniffed it, and tucked it under her arm somewhat bewildered. The crisp ten dollar bill, though, she held in grateful shock, pools of tears welling in her eyes.
“It’s none of my business, Missus,” Jerry said softly, “but in the middle of Patterson’s Street there’s an old lady by the name of Martha Hulce. She puts up women and children at a fraction of the cost what you were paying for rent. It’s better maintained, too, and a safer part of town.”
The door opened wider and the poor mother wrapped her arms around Jerry’s neck. She sobbed deeply. Tears that had needed to come out for some time now and finally felt that they could. This time he did not try to run from the tenderness, but instead patted her back soothingly until her breathing returned to normal. She stepped back and there was an awkward moment as each tried to think of what to say to the other, but no words came to either. So after a moment they both just smiled and nodded, then Jerry turned and began walking down the street, looking for a cab to take him back.
For the first time in years Jerry was smiling. It was small, it was subtle, but it seemed to let a warmth into him he had long been without. He was happy. “Well,” he sighed with an amused shake of the head. “I guess I’ll stay on with Daniel, then.”