The secretaries who worked in his father’s outer office didn’t even say hello to Casey. That was because two of them weren’t really a secretaries at all but just students at the university. They kept typing on their typewriters and listening to their Dictaphones. And Mrs. Tish, the real secretary for the outer office, didn’t say “hello” either because she was talking on the telephone back at her desk.
Well, it didn’t matter. Casey walked right past the secretaries’ desks into the second office.
“Hello, young man.” said Mrs. Paskow, who was his father’s personal secretary. She had a drawer of one of the file cabinets open.
“Is he here?” said Casey.
But he had already gone over to the door and looked in. What he saw was his father’s big desk and his father’s big chair pushed back from the desk and the painting of rounded hills of corn fields and rounded trees up on the wall behind his father’s chair.
“The president called for him,” said Mrs. Paskow. “And, you see, young man, when the president of the university calls for you . . . .” She smiled again. “Just a minute.”
She went over to her desk, picked up the phone, dialed a number, and then Casey heard her say, “Hello, Clara. Yes, yes. No, no, not at all. Well, as a matter of fact, I’ve have a very important person here in my office. Yes. He’s about 12 years old. Yes, very important. Well, shall I send him over? Now? Oh, I think he knows the way.”
She hung up.
“Young man, I’ve announced you at the president’s office.”
Mrs. Paskow opened a desk drawer and Casey knew what she was reaching for: a chocolate.
“A little gift from me to you.”
Casey took the chocolate.
“Thank you very, very much.”
“And say hello to the president.”
This time as Casey went through the outer office Mrs. Tish said hello to him and asked him how he was.
“I’m fine, thank you very much.”
But the other two other secretaries, the student secretaries, didn’t look up from their typing.
Casey pushed against the door of the outer office and stepped into the huge central room of the Old Capitol building with its stone walls and stone floor that always echoed to the sounds of his footsteps. He walked over to the spot where he always went when he crossed this room — to the exact center, right in the middle of the round crest for the University of Iowa — and looked straight up at the hollow underside of the dome. It curved all the way up to where it came together. A painter had painted pictures on it, the pictures also curving right up to the top, scenes of farming, again rounded hills and rounded trees.
“Hello!” said Casey.
“Hello!” his words came back at him.
“How are you?”
“How are you?”
After saying these things he went over to the fireplace that was twice as tall as he was and stepped in. The opening to the chimney up at the top of the fireplace was still blocked up.
“Hello,” said Casey.
But inside the fireplace his words just got swallowed up.
So he went over to the big door on the other side of the room with the bronze plaque beside it which said, “OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT,” and under that, “The State University of Iowa.” Casey pulled at the door until it opened.
The president’s outer office was even bigger than his father’s and had more secretaries, too. And real secretaries, not student ones. The room even had a railing that separated the secretaries from the rest of the office. On his side of the railing at least 10 people were sitting and waiting.
Casey didn’t know what to do. Was he supposed to go up to one of the secretaries and say who he was? Or was he to sit on one of the chairs with everyone else and wait his turn?
“Yes?” said one of the secretaries looking over at him. She sat at the desk closest to the railing. “May I help you?”
“It’s all right, Margie,” said another secretary getting up from one of the back desks. “I’ll take over.”
This secretary came up to the railing.
“I believe you’re the boy who has come to pick up his father?”
“Yes,” said Casey.
“And I think your father is Dr. O’Brien?”
“Yes,” said Casey.
“Follow me, young man.”
Casey followed the woman down a hall and then through a door into another room. This room was also bigger than his father’s inner office and it had three secretaries in it, not one. At the far end of the room, near another door, he saw his father standing with a short, wiry man with a bald head wearing a blue, double-breasted suit with gold buttons. Casey knew that this man was the president of the university. His father had introduced him last year out on one of the sidewalks of the university when they had happened to meet.
“Well, well, well, well,” said the president suddenly coming across the room and taking Casey’s hand, “the new candidate!”
The president squeezed Casey’s hand.
“About time you showed up!”
Casey didn’t know what to say.
“All you’ve got to do is raise 25 million the first year. That’s not much. Maybe 35 million the second year. That’s not much either. So you’ll take the job, won’t you? By God, you better!”
Casey saw the secretaries smiling and his father smiling and realized that the president was joking with him. That he was pretending to offer Casey a job. Give him a big office with lots of secretaries.
So Casey said, “Sure, I’ll take it.”
Everybody laughed, his father, the secretaries, but most of all the president. He laughed in an almost shouting, barking way, one hand on his stomach.
Then the president turned to Casey’s father. “Bill, I think our problems are totally over.”
“Maybe he should finish his schooling first,” said his father.
“Schooling! Schooling? What the hell good is schooling? All we need is some kind of thug!”
“Sure, I’ll take it,” Casey tried again. But this time no one laughed.
“Bill,” said the president reaching a hand out to Casey’s father, “one word.”
The president steered Casey’s father over to the corner of the room and started talking to his father in a low voice. “Yes, yes,” he heard his father say. Then, “Yes, of course.”
The secretaries went back to their desks. Casey took out the wrapped piece of chocolate Mrs. Paskow had given him.
“We’ll need this thing signed, sealed and delivered by Monday, Bill,” was the last thing the president said to his father.
Casey stuffed the chocolate back into his pocket because he thought the president would come over and shake his hand. But he didn’t. He didn’t even say goodbye. Or make any more jokes. He just went out a door at the end of the room.
“Goodbye, Dr. O’Brien,” said one of the secretaries to Casey’s father.
“Have a good evening,” said another of the secretaries.
“And a very good evening to all of you,” said Casey’s father.
Casey followed his father down the hall and through the room with the five secretaries and all the people waiting, then down another hallway to where his father pushed against the door and let himself and Casey out into the huge stone room with the fireplace and the dome.
“Dad . . . ,” said Casey. Now he was going to tell his father what he had been waiting to tell him all afternoon: that he had gotten an “A” in his vocabulary test.
“Yes, Casey?” said his father.
But suddenly a man came up to his father. This man wore a baggy sweater and horn rimmed glasses and had hair that stood out from the side of his head.
“Yes,” said his father.
“I need to speak with you.”
“Now?” said his father.
“Can’t it wait?”
“I’m afraid it can’t,” said the man.
“Casey,” said his father. Then to the man, “All right.”
The man and Casey’s father walked over next to a window. The man started talking, slapping one of his hands down on his other hand. His father stood and listened. Outside the window it must have already turned dark because Casey could see that some of the cars on the street bordering of the campus had their headlights on.
Casey went over to the big fireplace and once more stepped inside and tried to look up the chimney. But that the chimney was still blocked off. And, furthermore, nothing in the fireplace was dirty, or anything like that. Even the black paint on the metal grate sitting on the floor of the fireplace was bright and shiny. So that meant that no one had had a fire in the fireplace.
But it had to be a real fireplace. Not a play fireplace. Because a long time ago they had used it. They really had. Casey knew this because he had learned it in school. This building used to be the capitol building for all of Iowa and the government of Iowa used to meet here. Right in this room. With the governor. So they kept the room warm by burning logs in this fireplace. They must have. About a hundred years ago.
“But why?” he heard his father say over at the window.
“Why?” said the man. “Why?”
Then his father turned toward Casey and said, “Casey, I have to go back to my office. You can either wait or not.”
The man with the horn rimmed glasses stuck right at his father’s side, even pulling open the big door to his father’s outer office. Casey followed right behind, but not into the inner office. The student secretaries kept typing. Mrs. Tish, looked up from her desk.
“Back again?” she smiled.
Casey found a chair and waited, mostly listening to the clicking sounds of the typewriter. After a while he saw some magazines on a table and got up and went over and started looking for a sports magazine. He found one that showed the entire Iowa football team on the front cover. The team wore black and gold. Those were the Iowa colors.
“Casey,” said Mrs. Tish who had just answered the telephone, “your father says you might as well go home. That it’s going to take him longer than he thought.”
“How much longer?”
“He didn’t say, Casey. But a quite a bit longer, I should imagine.”
“Something came up, Casey.”
“He didn’t say.”
The student secretaries still didn’t look up as Casey left.
Out in the huge stone room his footsteps clattered back and forth as they always did, especially right in the center of the room under the dome.
“One, two, three,” Casey said up to the center of the dome.
“One, two, three,” his words came back.
Outside on the stone porch of the Old Capitol Casey looked up at the two rows of pillars that came down from the roof of the porch. Perhaps, he thought, it was right here, right here where he was standing, that the governor of the state had stood and made his speeches to the people. Back when this was the real capitol of Iowa. About a hundred years ago. The governor had to give his speeches somewhere. So why not right here?
“Fellow citizens,” Casey said, “I have called you together because . . . .” But he didn’t say this out loud.
Instead he walked down the white marble steps of the Old Capitol and out along one of the sidewalks toward the street where the cars were going back and forth. He waited until he was almost at the street and then turned around.
Yes, there it was. The Old Capitol Building, all lit up, the white steps climbing up to the porch with the double rows of pillars coming down, and above the roof of the porch the golden dome shimmered against the evening sky.
Casey looked at that shimmering.
“Fellow citizens,” he said to himself.
Just as he turned to walk over to the bus stop he saw five or six people had gathered half way down the street. Casey went along the sidewalk to where they were and slipped in front of the other people so that he could get a better view.
A big, fat woman stood next to a pickup truck arguing with a policeman. Casey saw that the policeman was in the middle of writing out a ticket and that the fat woman didn’t like getting the ticket at all. She was probably a farmer’s wife because she was standing right next to a man who wore overalls and had a John Deere cap on his head. This man wasn’t saying anything and stood with his hands in his pockets.
“I’s got my rights!” said the fat woman to the policeman.
The policeman kept writing out the ticket.
“I’s got my rights! God damn, I do!” the fat woman repeated. Then she turned to the man in overalls. “Henry!”
But the man in overalls didn’t say anything.
The policeman went around behind the pickup truck to copy the number on the license plate.
“No you don’t! By God, no, you don’t! By God!” The fat woman said this also going around behind the pickup truck. “Henry!” she shouted back at the man in overalls.
Casey didn’t understand why the fat woman was arguing. Anyone could see it was a “no parking” zone. There were hash marks right on the pavement. That always meant you couldn’t park there. And there were signs between the street and the sidewalk, too, signs in red. That also meant that you couldn’t park there. So why was the woman making such a fuss? And why was she shouting at the man in overalls?
“Listen, you!” The woman followed the policeman back along the side of the pickup truck. “Henry!”
The man in overalls just stood there with his hands in his pockets.
The policeman pulled the ticket off his pad and reached up to put it under the windshield wiper of the pickup truck.
“No, mister! Oh, no, mister, you don’t do that!”
The woman reached out, grabbed the ticket from the policeman, tore it up, and threw the pieces toward the street.
The policeman put his pad back in his pocket, waited for the traffic to slow and crossed the street.
“Henry!” screamed the woman at the man in overalls.
“Now, Laura,” said the man.
The woman slapped the man’s face and stepped out into the street to follow the policeman.
That’s when it happened, the howling of tires, the thump, the woman coming to rest on the pavement, the car plowing into another car, that car jumping sideways and a horn going off.
Oh, my God, thought Casey. Oh, my God!
He looked at the woman lying on the pavement. She didn’t move. She just lay there. Blood came out of her mouth. And one of her legs was twisted way back, doubling under the other part of her leg. The policeman who had crossed the street came running back.
Casey felt his stomach coming up into his throat.
More people had stopped to look and Casey didn’t see any way through them back to the sidewalk. So he just pushed. He pushed as hard as he could and made it out to the other side. Once there he bent over the little fence that separated the sidewalk from the grass of the campus lawn and everything in his stomach come up and out through his mouth. He saw all that yellow stuff splatter onto the grass.
By the time he’d wiped his mouth and stood up he could hear the wail of a siren.
I won’t look, thought Casey.
I can’t look, he also thought.
Instead, he fixed his eyes the other way. He fixed his eyes on the Old Capital building. The white, marble steps. The pillars holding up the roof of the porch. The golden dome shimmering against the evening sky.
That’s where my father works, thought Casey.
My father is a dean at the university.
He climbed over the little fence, ran across the grass toward the shimmering dome, up the white, marble steps, to the porch where the pillars came down, pulled open the heavy outside door, ran across the huge stone room with the sound his steps banging back and forth and then pulled open the door to his father’s office.
This time the student secretaries looked up.
It didn’t matter!
Casey ran right through that room into the next office.
“Casey?” said Mrs. Paskow.
Casey didn’t even say hello.
He pushed into his father’s office and stopped. His father was sitting behind his big desk talking into the telephone. The man with the horn rimmed glasses sat on a chair on the other side of the desk, leaning forward with his elbows on the desk.
“Just a moment, John,” his father said into the receiver. “Yes, Casey?”
“Dad,” said Casey.
But he couldn’t go on.
He couldn’t go on because his stomach had started coming up into his throat again. He barely made it out through the two offices and into the huge stone room. But he didn’t make it past the fireplace. That’s where he had to stop. That’s where he leaned in. That’s where he let go.
He saw his own yellow stuff splattered over the black metal grate at the bottom of the fireplace. It wasn’t so shiny any more.
He straightened up and turned around to look at the rest of the room. It had a stone floor and stone walls. The government of Iowa had met here. With the governor. About a hundred years ago.
Casey walked slowly over to the exact center of the room and stood right on the middle of the crest of the University of Iowa.
He looked straight up.
“I’m fine,” he said.
“I’m fine,” his voice came back at him.
Karl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) and he has had over 90 publications of his 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 his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories and thirteen of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.