“Tickets to the opera!” cried Randal Paxton, holding them up for all to see. His employees applauded and cheered, a reaction as forced as his delight in receiving the gift. He shushed everyone and removed a card from its envelope:
“For the happiest of early retirements,” he read aloud from the cover, then, opening the card, “and,” it was difficult, the stock message being nearly obliterated by the graffiti of forty-seven signatures, “and an unforgettable second act!”
They all cheered again. But where, thought Randal, did they get the idea he cared for opera? Was it a veiled allusion to his lack of culture? A joke gift? From a sort of throne on a platform at the center of a hotel banquet room, he smiled down on his beaming employees. They’d hung streamers and balloons, printed a banner (“Happy Retirement Boss”), commissioned a vulgar, inedible cake, and bought several dozen bottles of cheap champagne.
“Speech!” someone piped rather half-heartedly, and immediately the crowd took up the chant: “Speech! Speech! Speech! Speech!”
Randal’s demur only egged them on. Finally he rose to his feet amid much clapping and whooping. A delicate little man, with the too large head and wide, staring eyes of an adolescent, he even managed to blush.
“It g-goes without saying,” he began falteringly, “that Groton Realty would, ah, never have become the company it has without the, ah, loyalty and dedication of its employees.” While everyone applauded themselves, Randal’s rat terrier, Jasper, threaded his way through the milling legs to squat next to his master’s chair. A sociable dog, he’d worked the room until he was gorged with handouts of cake and little sausages.
“When I arrived,” the speaker continued, “Groton was down for the count. But in a few, ah, short years, we were able to turn things around, catch up, and then surpass, ah, dramatically, the goals Max Groton himself set out for the company when he established it.” Applause was spottier, here; a few holdovers from the early days remembered the old man fondly. They had been there when he promoted his trusted assistant “to help us catch up with the times,” and stood by while the younger man set about taking over the company. Now Randal had sold them out and pocketed a rumored seven figures. The last anyone heard of the founder was years ago, when a Chanukah card arrived from a nursing home.
“What about our jobs!” a voice shouted from within the crowd. There was a smattering of false laughter.
Randal shrugged. “What jobs?”
Finally he let loose a cackle, and the employees of Groton Realty joined in with desperate hilarity. Randal flapped his hands above his head to silence them, then sat back down and took his time getting comfortable. He scanned the perspiring, anxious faces. In a barely audible murmur he said, “Of course we made the status of our present employees part of the negotiations.”
The parquetry squeaked as everyone shuffled closer.