Monte is Summoned to Building One
by Ed Peaco
Monte Thompson was trying to walk quickly from the parking lot to the heavy doors of Building One. He was hoping to stay ahead of the big boss, who Monte felt closing in on him. Derick Blockmenn, the Principal Partner and CEO of DataProbing Network, was someone to avoid. However, Monte had to be careful on his titanium hip, installed six months ago, and which had been causing as much pain as the human hip that had seemed to slowly disintegrate. In recent years, he hiked Mount Washington with three buddies, ran a half-marathon, and slogged through a mud-obstacle course. A year ago, he hit 55, and AARP ratcheted up its barrage of mail and pressure to enroll, but what was worse in that year was a boatload of torture in the left part of the pelvis. Complaining to himself, he denigrated the surgery as an old-man’s thing, but it had to be done. Rehab had been extended with physical therapy sessions, three per week. But there was more than just the physical pain. He had been taking off numerous half-days to visit neuro specialists and to take a battery of tests and an MRI to determine what was making his thinking so sluggish.
Today was one of those days when he had to slip away for a follow-up appointment at the big hospital downtown. The neurologist wanted to show Monte the findings of the MRI from a few weeks ago. Monte hoped he could dodge Blockmenn.
Entering DataProbing’s front lobby, Monte heard some banging behind him. It was Blockmenn, shoving the hydraulic mechanism of the front door, barging through the entryway, shouldering the door as if he were a linebacker, causing a metal-on-metal screech, muttering obscenities down the main hall. Monte ducked into the men’s room, hoping that hanging out there for a few minutes would be sufficient to shake the boss. Monte came to Building One rarely, to check if any of his mail was lingering at the front desk, and for the occasional staff meeting. This morning, looking this way and that, he thought the coast was clear, but he was wrong. Gangly and clumsy, with long, springy hair, graying and unruly—a twisted Einstein—Blockmenn almost knocked down Monte at the men’s room door.
“Hang on a minute,” Blockmenn said.
Then, while urinating, Blockmenn told Monte, “Get with Buster about the Natural Deep pitch. We need audio, video, text, today!” Monte wondered what Natural Deep was. Blockmenn told Monte to call Buster King, Monte’s supervisor, the hefty put-upon Managing Partner, and have him provide details. Blockmenn’s request threw Monte; he paused to gather his words. Buster was a prickly manager who tried to conceal his girth with billowy shirts. Standing by the sink, Monte phoned Buster, but the call went to voicemail, which made Blockmenn stomp away, fuming.
The DPN campus was composed of three small buildings, spread apart along a spacious greenway, with a wooded area beyond. Building One contained administration. Building Two quartered the specialists and investigators. The communication services were housed, including Monte’s team, in Building Three. “Blockhead,” as the staff called Blockmenn behind his back, could blow at any moment, for any reason. Longstanding employees said he had trouble with anger, pharmaceuticals, and substances, precipitating meltdowns and blowups, including one featuring fisticuffs with Buster and another with an investigator. A visit to Blockmenn’s office could be frightful, with swords and firearms mounted on the walls. From time to time, Monte thought about how he’d avoid those outbursts, or worse, an assault. He often cringed at the mismatch between the helping function of the organization and its dreadful creator. Like a terrible jingle that he couldn’t get out of his mind, Monte couldn’t stand the pretentious phrases of the mission statement, the fatuous boilerplate. What a load of crap!
DataProbing Network: a platform for those who need investigative solutions for casualties of catastrophic events, fraud, crime, and corruption. When government and law enforcement can’t or won’t help, DPN can perform functions tailored for the client, including investigators, litigators, scientists and communications experts, providing data-visualization tools, research resources, and voiceover video.
Eventually, Monte tracked down Buster in a meeting in which Blockmenn was ripping Buster a new one over the latest disaster. Monte listened briefly in the doorway. He learned a few things: Natural Deep was a natural gas producer. One of its offshore platforms in the North Sea had recently exploded. Blockmenn was livid about an investigator’s blunders that could lose the Natural Deep account.
“We have to be the first to know about shit like this, and know everything about it,” Blockmenn said. “Get off your lard-ass, Buster. If something blows up or somebody gets screwed, we need to be on it immediately!”
And Blockmenn to Monte: “Crap out all the appropriate proposals by the end of the day. Show them what we can do before somebody else does. Don’t waste time!”
Monte understood that this would not be a good day for slipping away for a doctor’s appointment. He shuffled back to Building Three and set aside the typical office morning chat, except for one dumb-ass Blockhead story: “I had a standing meeting in the men’s room with Blockhead!” Everybody had a good laugh, then Monte described the heap of work that had been dumped in their laps: the Natural Deep account. It was a setback for everyone and meant long hours ahead.
Monte took a moment to think about his own personal setbacks. His declining health and mental issues had recently caused the loss of a sweetie who had soured on him—one in a short list of sweeties following his divorce, including the dazzling Natalie, with whom he fumbled as she gave up on him. More important, he had trouble communicating at work: increasing forgetfulness, slow on the uptake, not finding the right words, all of which required co-workers to repeat discussions. Physically, his hip was flaring up with spiky shoots of pain, which required another visit to the physical therapist and the surgeon’s physician assistant. There would be no more running or hiking for a while, and not much walking, either. Just a mess all around.
He tried to recall when his mental fog started. It might have been with the hip replacement, or even before. Long after the anesthesia should have lifted, his head was still muddled. He went to a rehab place for ten days, then spent two weeks rehabbing and working from home, with the help of his nephew, Cable, who had plenty of time to help his uncle, as he’d been laid off from his job when the bar where he worked closed. Cable welcomed the cash Monte gave him to help with chores around the house, although Monte sensed Cable, who lived in a nearby remodeled barn, wasn’t really up to playing full-time nurse. Then again, Cable was the one who insisted Monte get a referral for a full neurological work-up, including an MRI for cognitive impairment.
— — —
Monte had arranged the time of the doctor’s appointment closer to lunch in hopes that his absence might not be noticed. He and Cable met the neurologist in her office to discuss the findings from the MRI. During a few minutes of pleasantries and questioning, the neurologist was looking at her screen. Then Cable piped up. “Sometimes when he talks, he sounds loopy, but not from those pills, because he won’t use them.”
“Loopy?” Monte asked.
“And a couple of times, he didn’t know where he was,” Cable said.
Grinding his teeth, Monte told Cable, “Hey, could you stop talking?”
She shot a glance toward Monte. “So, the report,” she said. “There’s no stroke, no tumor; but the scan detected mild atrophy of the brain.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” Monte said.
“Well, few very small foci of increased T2 signal in the bilateral subcortical white matter. …”
“What?” Monte lost her; nothing made sense, even after two attempts.
“You have mild cognitive impairment,” she said. “You might have early-onset dementia. The anesthesia from the hip replacement surgery some months ago may have accelerated cognitive decline. Tests show word loss and halted speech suggesting a progressive trajectory.”
“Meaning it gets worse, right?”
“Yes, you may eventually lose speech entirely.”
“Oh, that sucks!”
“There are many kinds of dementia, and there is no cure. Sorry to say.”
“Sorry to what?” Monte asked.
“I’ll set you up for a PET scan. It’ll show more about what your brain is doing.”
Cable tried to calm him down, but Monte got worked up when he heard sorry to say. Then he stood up and walked out, reeling from the doctor’s words.
— — —
Back at DPN and eating lunch at his desk, Monte took a moment to calm down and count his blessings, such as they were. At least he worked in Building Three, as far from Blockmenn as possible. His team was talented and energetic. The three people in the media studio were versed in writing, editing, and producing. Each had a specialty: Michael (words), Charity (visuals), and Monte (audio) including voiceover for video. He was known for his gentle vocal tone, even when describing the worst explosions, natural disasters, and massacres around the world. Ironic that his diagnosis would affect his speech.
He and his team thought of the people in Building One as super-conservative and themselves as embracing a lefty fellowship. If anybody needed anything, Tori, the sharp-witted courier, would provide it. Tall and thin, she often speed-walked from building to building, pulling a red wagon filled with everything from printer cartridges to Earl Grey green tea. The best perk was the bucolic feel of Building Three, ensconced near trees and bathed in green space. Monte had always enjoyed walking around the grounds and into the woods on his lunch hour. A few years back, he hooked rope ladders over a weighty branch of a big oak and climbed just for fun. That was before the hip problems arose.
Michael, back from lunch, stopped at Monte’s desk. “I heard about fireworks at Building One today. Could it spread here?”
“You mean Blockhead might come to Building Three with a flamethrower? Not likely,” Monte said. “Blockhead likes to push around the sycophants in Building One.”
“I’ve been thinking about—this might seem silly—but, what about an escape plan?” Charity said. “Do we have one?”
“Like a secret passageway, a false wall?” Michael said as he chuckled.
The concerns of his co-workers, in lieu of that morning’s eruption, seemed to make sense. “Maybe we should think about that,” Monte said.
Tori interrupted this conversation with her daily visit to Building Three. She stopped, as usual, at Monte’s desk to tease him about his work. “Here you are: The Michael Bublé of Bloodbaths, The Pavarotti of Panic, The Sinatra of Sorrow.”
“Thank you very much. Just trying to make terrible events a little bit more pleasant,” he said with a little bow, while trying to get back to work.
Reflecting on the appointment with the neurologist, Monte knew he’d been lethargic and forgetful since coming back from his hip replacement surgery. He spent much more time in the sound booth than he would have before the surgery. Colleagues had to address him more than once to get his attention. He had trouble pulling words out of his mouth. Moreover, he noticed that people were seeing him speaking off a script, and when the discussion went beyond the script, he went silent as he worked through a speech block. It was scary. What was happening? Dementia, more goddamn dementia! What were his co-workers thinking? He worked through dinner and into the night, eventually collapsing for a few hours of sleep on a couch in the studio. Still he wasn’t done.
The next morning, seeking coffee, he already felt fried. Buster tromped into the studio, elbows out, standing over the three co-workers. With a loud sigh, he said, “We lost the Natural Deep project. You guys were too slow yesterday. The big guy is not happy.”
The threesome looked at each other, making grave faces. Buster conveyed again how disappointed Mr. Blockmenn was and described other work coming up.
Then Buster pulled Monte aside to ask him about his health and questioned the quality of his work. This was the first time anything like that had happened to Monte—ever. Both men remained silent for a short time.
“So, you’re the leader in Building Three. We need you, but, what’s up?” Buster asked.
“I’ve had some pain with the hip, and I don’t get enough sleep.”
“What can we do to get you back into the swing of things?”
“It’s up to me.”
“Yeah, but think about what’s going on with you. I don’t know what it is, but it might be more than just sleep. I’ve heard stuff about you, like, you’re not all there. We need you to be on top of things, all the time. Do you grasp what I’m saying?”
“Give me a little time to get myself into shape.”
“I’ll be checking in from time to time.”
No way was Monte going to use the word dementia, or mention his visit to the neurologist. How long could he fake being fully functional? Occasionally, he looked at a word and couldn’t pronounce it, or it made no sense unless he focused on it for a while. His work pace had been slowing down, and he knew that Buster and Blockmenn had become aware of it.
— — —
A few weeks later, Blockmenn summoned Monte to his office in Building One on a Monday morning. Monte arrived early. Blockmenn was not in his office. His longstanding admin, Victoria Deutsch, with ash-blonde helmet hair and extensive makeup, extended a hand toward a chair for Monte. “Feel at home, this is an amicable settlement,” she said.
“Didn’t he say?”
Suddenly, Blockmenn surged into the office and dropped loudly into his chair.
Victoria gave Blockmenn a stern-mother stare. “Be civil,” she told him. “Apparently, we have to start from the beginning.”
“Make it quick,” Blockmenn said.
Monte sat across from the Principal Partner, who began pushing papers into a single pile. Victoria presented a packet of termination and compensation documents.
She said, “Mr. Thompson, we know about the issues you’re confronting—”
What she said made Monte flinch. He wanted to eke out a few months more. Stuff gets around. Who blabbed? Who cares? Nobody had to tell anybody. The issues showed up every time he opened his mouth.
“—and we want to help you in any way we can,” Victoria said. “We will extend to you twenty-six weeks of severance compensation and health insurance.”
Monte felt like he was wandering in a thick fog. There was a lot of talking from Victoria that he seemed to hear from a distance. He wasn’t surprised, but he felt a little queasy. Victoria proceeded with the exit protocol. She described each document and showed the stickers pointing where Monte was to sign. The process became lengthy as Victoria recited various paragraphs that she seemed to think important.
“Thanks for the generous payout, Derick,” Monte said. “Could be worse!”
“Whaddaya mean? You want more?”
“I meant to say—”
“I don’t want to know what you meant,” Blockmenn said, fidgeting with pens and a stapler. He opened a drawer and brought out three handguns, fondling each, one by one, somewhat like he was strangely washing up with a big bar of soap. Then he placed the guns across his leather desk pad. “Which gun would you want to have?” Blockmenn asked.
“Now Mr. Blockmenn, not that,” Victoria said, with a withering gaze, as if she’d seen this routine before.
Monte recoiled. “What the hell?”
“Oh, Monte will like it.”
Monte certainly never had anything to say to Blockmenn, even on a good day, which was almost never. What a ridiculous exit interview!
So Monte responded first with a smirk, then pointed to the more compact piece. “If I must, this one, but—”
“The Smith & Wesson Governor,” Blockmenn said. “Excellent choice.” He picked up the Governor in both hands and raised it a few inches as if it were a large piece of gold.
“This one looks like the gun that Dick Tracy used from comic books and funny pages I read as a kid,” Monte said, then he snorted, which escalated to a nervous cackle. Monte was surprised with his outburst; he was scared and boiling mad. If only he could find Blockmenn without firearms, I would beat him to a pulp. Monte listened to the thumping of his charging heart, like it might explode at any moment.
“What’s so funny?” Blockmenn lurched up from his desk. “Do you think this is silly? It’s a matter of death or life.”
“Come on, Derick. What would I do with a gun? This is weird!”
In a spark of rage, Blockmenn swiped the weapon off the desk and to the floor, where it crashed with a sharp smack, spinning like a top on the ceramic tile. Seething, Blockmenn threw his head back petulantly. The gun lay spinning on the floor. Victoria sat there like nothing had happened.
Bug-eyed, mouth agape, Monte shot out of his chair, which fell back to the floor. “What’s this all about? Butterfingers! Screw you!” The gun spun slowly to a halt. Monte looked down and found that the barrel was pointed at his feet.
Victoria stooped to collect it. “Be careful, Mr. Blockmenn.”
“I’m fine,” said the CEO. “Take care of these papers. Show me where I sign. Be sure he signs the non-disclosure.” Blockmenn grabbed some documents from the desk and others from the floor, and stalked out.
Victoria leaned to Monte, close to his ear, whispering. “You deserve a reason for Mr. Blockmenn’s demeanor. He is a gifted leader, but he has challenges. He sees things. He hears things. He has treatment, but he doesn’t take heed. Today, he went off his meds, and he has upped his vodka intake. Don’t worry. Everything will be all right in the end.”
— — —
Blockmenn had designated Buster to escort Monte off the premises, but Buster was pulled away to deal with the current Blockhead tantrum, allowing Monte to hobble back across the green space to Building Three. He was eager to tell everybody about the disturbance that Blockmenn fomented.
“I was summoned to Building One today, and the place was totally toxic. More bizarre behavior from Blockhead—he’s barking up and down through the corridors, he’s pulling a full-blown roid rage. He pulled out three handguns for me to examine. When he left his office, I saw he had another piece in a shoulder holster. He is absolutely unhinged!”
“Creepy, but we all know that he experiments with all kinds of alcohol, drugs, and pills. He’ll make mush of his brain if he keeps going this way,” Tori said.
“Oh, and so why was I summoned to Blockhead’s office? He fired me. This is my last day at DPN.”
Hubbub broke out as people wanted to know when, how and why; it went on for a while, requiring Monte to provide answers: Any feelers yet? Where ya looking? Try the local broadcast outlets? Great voice for radio. You’ve got connections.
“You guys know why I’m leaving, right?”
“You’re lucky,” Tori said. “You’re getting out of here.”
“Not exactly lucky,” he said, after which he looked for some way to get away from the crowd. He thought Buster would have already kicked him off the premises, but he wasn’t around. Monte went to the basement to find his plastic storage tub. He scrounged about in the tub, finding a few obsolete devices, old manuals, and binders, the rope ladders that he had stopped using, and a full set of clothes for back when he used to bike to work. He lugged all of it upstairs, where he unloaded the printed material into the recycling bin, and dumped the rest in a trash can. He kept the clothing.
He steered Tori into an empty hall. “So, I want to tell you, but you probably had some notion,” he said. “It may be early-onset dementia. Brain power just gets less and less.”
“Some of us were thinking—”
“If I’m lucky, the disease will go slow,” Monte said.
“—I wanted to say something.”
“Dementia comes gift-wrapped in many ways. Google it,” Monte said.
She briefly covered her mouth. She said, “Sorry.”
“You can tell anybody,” he said. “Tell them I said you could. I don’t want to talk about it. Maybe later.”
He spent a few minutes with Michael and Charity showing them around the soundproof booth used for making audio tracks, extolling the quality of the end result, better than your own voice. In the bottom drawer of his desk he found a dusty Doctors Without Borders tote bag, and he stuffed it with the clothes and a few books. As he packed, the idea of leaving felt better and better.
A squawk from the intercom startled the people of Building Three. The intercom was ancient and hardly ever used. The sound was loud and distorted. It was Buster. He was blurting hysterically. “Blockmenn’s on a rampage. This is real. He’s going after Monte. Active shooter alert! Active shooter alert! I couldn’t stop him. Go, go, go right now!”
Monte yelled through the halls of Building Three, “Let’s get out of here! Run to the woods!” He limped as rapidly as he could toward the trash can to retrieve the rope ladders. “Don’t go to your cars. The parking lot is next to Building One. Toward Blocker. I mean Blockhead. Who wants to run for the fence? I’m going now.” He pocketed his phone, gathered his rope ladders, hollered, “Last chance!” Then he went toward the trees. Five co-workers—Tori, Michael, Charity, and two others whose names he couldn’t remember—followed Monte’s limp-shuffle adrenaline-fueled gait across the green space into the brush. Some of the group were frantically texting and calling 911. He trudged through the prickers, the saplings, the big sycamores, and the downed-and-rotting trunks. Now he was hurting. He kept looking behind to make sure the others knew where he was. The escapees sped up when they heard a short spattering of gunshots. Monte stumbled upon two homeless men camped out with blue tarps and sleeping bags. He invited them to come along to avoid the crazy guy with guns, but they were only startled, and waved Monte away.
At last, the fence came into view. Monte hooked the first ladder over the top of the fence on the DPN side, then awkwardly climbed half way up, feeling something like a butcher knife jabbing into his thigh. He paused, then took it slow, placing the second ladder on the other side, and went over to check that the ladder was properly placed. Oh, throbbing pain! He waited for the pain to subside a bit, and he found a way to pull himself up mostly by his arms. He went back over to the DPN side to help those who needed it. Tori had trouble trudging in her sandals, and she was apprehensive about the ladders, but she managed to get over. One of the guys whose name Monte couldn’t remember, a hefty fellow, decided not to attempt the ropes. Michael said he had something like these ladders on his bunk bed growing up, and he hastened up, over and down. Charity, looking jittery, threw her pumps over the fence, and took the steps quickly. Monte followed.
“We made it!” Monte said. “So far, anyway.” He collected the rope ladders and carried them under each arm.
Charity looked around at the scrub trees and high grass lining the road, then she declared, “Whoa, we’re in the boonies. I’ve never been on this edge of town.”
“Me, neither,” Monte said. “When you enter DPN, you’re still in the city. But over the fence, we’re really out there.”
“I’ve been beamed up to another planet,” she said.
Wincing with every other step, Monte led the crew down a gravel road toward what he hoped was a main road.
“Hey, we have to keep moving,” Monte said. “We need to get far enough away so we can’t be seen.”
“Why are you toting those ladders?” Michael asked Monte.
“For crying out loud. I’ll carry them,” Michael said.
Monte fell back from the group, and they went around a bend. He slowed down, looked back where they had walked, then looked ahead. He didn’t see anybody. Panic set in.
— — —
Well, shit, let them go wherever they’re going, but I’m gonna sit here and feel each throb. Too loud to think. Am I thinking?
Can’t process. Getting canned: that calls for an up yours! Psycho Baby playing with guns, shit for brains. Those gunshots: that demands a full-throttle mother fucker!
Spent my best years in pig slop—that boilerplate, the pretentious crap that I wrote!
Blockhead, why didn’t you fire me long ago?
Early on: Got divorced. Then there was Natalie. Wow Natalie! Posted to Dublin. Could have followed her out of bumfuck DPN. What a sledge head I was!
I’m the blockhead!
No more hikes, no more races.
Gimmy a wheelchair and fuck yourself.
Surgery stupor, now dementia, what’s next?
Aphasia, my sweetie till death?
Won’t see the guys anymore. No trails. No mountains.
No woman would mess with this mess of me.
Oh, what’s this? Something’s wrong. What’s happening?
Where am I?
— — —
As the first one to notice Monte was nowhere in sight, Michael back tracked and found Monte on the shoulder of the road, panting, howling in a gutteral basso profundo.
“What’s wrong?” Michael asked.
“I’m kinda messed up,” Monte said. “Really lost. Scary.”
Michael pulled him up to sit and put an arm around Monte. “You OK?” Michael asked.
Monte looked around and saw the ladders. He said, “Oh, ladders. Yeah, yeah, ladders.” He didn’t want to stand up yet. Something had hit him like that wigged-out feeling from that anesthetic. “When I saw the ladders, I knew everything again—weird.”
Tori held his hand. “How do you feel? What do you need? You can’t help it, right? It’s that dementia, right? Sorry. I gotta shut up.”
“I think it was that I didn’t see you guys,” Monte said. “I was nowhere. Not sure where I was.”
“I don’t know either,” Charity said. She gave her water bottle to Monte.
“It’s a different not-knowing,” he said. “It’s not, it’s different—I can’t find the word. Sorry.”
“Hell, no. Don’t be sorry. You saved us from that madman,” Michael said. “You’re our hero!”
As Michael and Tori helped Monte get on his feet, Charity went ahead to a Smarty-Mart store. The others arrived in a few minutes. She bought bottled water for everybody. They sat on plastic chairs and called family and friends to say they were OK.
“Oh, my brain let me have that word. No, it went away. No, yes, I got it: embarrassing. A different kind of not-knowing.”
— — —
Monte wanted Cable to stay with him that night. Next morning, Monte’s phone was crammed with calls and texts with concerns for his wellbeing and news of what happened at DataProbing Network. Buster’s voice message: Blockhead went just-a-stumblin’, the Governor in one hand, bottle of Grey Goose in the other. I called the cops. They came in five minutes. When Blockhead heard the sirens, that was when he tried to blow his fuckin’ head off, but he botched the job. Nobody else got hurt.
— — —
Two days later, Tori came to Monte’s house and sat outside with iced coffee.
“I’m not going back,” Tori said.
“We’re still alive!”
“Another thing. I have a business proposition for you,” Tori said.
“Oh, really? I have no money to invest.”
Tori laughed. “Just saying, I’m gonna be a personal shopper—woo-hoo!”
“Cable gets my groceries.”
“You’ll need more help than that. Come on, you could be my first client.”
“Not sure I’m ready for that,” Monte said.
“You can function almost all the time, except for when you can’t.”
“I’m going back to the neuro doc to have a PET scan,” he said. “That’s supposed to be the be-all, end-all for the diagnosis.”
“Just carry on until I can’t, whenever that is.”
Ed Peaco is enamored with the short story. Many of his stories involve love (or like), blundering and redemption. He held editing posts at a newspaper for 27 years. In the next decade and continuing, as a freelancer, he’s writing about local music; and editing books, magazines and articles. The villain in this story, “Monte is Summoned to Building One,” is modeled on an eruptive boss. Peaco quit quickly, but Monte kept working too long. Peaco lives in Springfield, MO.