bakers wall
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A hot string of up-moves through positions of increasing responsibility and compensation landed Charlene Posey a job interview in 2007 with Craig Baker. They sat in his office directly opposite each other in matching visitors’ chairs with seats too shallow for his six-four frame. She was confident in estimating his height since she had made herself adept by habitually comparing others to her own five-eight stature—a useful skill whenever an incident report required physical descriptions of persons involved. She noted his flat stomach and deep tan, was certain she knew the salary range for his position. Enough leisure and willpower to keep fit. Outdoor guy because he wants to be. Big office. Likes to come out from behind his desk, sit with the mortals. Got more than enough juice to secure furniture he can fit into. Maybe he thinks he won’t be here that long.

They met the first Saturday in November, a weekend because she had flown in the day before and had a Monday morning flight out. When she arrived, Baker rose and strode around his desk. He wore Levi’s, the ones with recycled zipper and rivets from their new line, plus a green eco-friendly shirt, a recent sartorial introduction from Barneys. Without thought, her mind linked the clothing to the November 12th announcement of that year’s Nobel Peace Prize, a shared award between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore.

“Tell me something about yourself,” he began.

 “Well, my father worked in local government, so government service has always seemed a good fit for me.” She kept it informative enough but within narrow parameters. Beyond that, he could choose to open whatever doors he wished. She was prepared.

“What did he do, exactly?”

She smiled to suggest fond memories of a childhood, firm foundation for a well-adjusted employee. “He was a county auditor.”

He reached behind him and snagged a folder from his desk. “You were a psychology major at Bryn Mawr. Why psychology?”

 “It pulled me in. I got addicted to studying faces, observing demeanors, predicting what people might do next.” She told the truth. “It became something of a game, I suppose.”

She studied his reaction, detected neither surprise nor disapproval. She knew nothing of his personal background but sensed that if he didn’t play poker, he should. He would be good at it.

Without moving her eyes from his face, she said, “I see you know Phil.”


“There on your wall.”

Within seconds of entering the room, she had taken it all in, including the wall of framed documents and photos, shots of Baker gladhanding others. His University of Montana diploma had caused her to wonder whether he was into fly fishing. Supposedly God’s country for that sport, and she wanted to try it, loved the idea of a new challenge. Scanning the vanity wall, considering fresh air and waders and flies, her eyes had skimmed across a man with regular features under perfectly groomed hair.

Baker hesitated. “Phil?”

She gestured toward the wall, toward an area over his left shoulder. “My husband. Phil.”

His face told her the name brought no immediate recognition. She pointed to the photo. “Phil Evans. I didn’t know you knew each other.”

A smile she interpreted as relief at not having to admit his apparent lapse of memory flashed across his eyes. “You’re married to Phil! That’s great. I didn’t know.”

“I kept my maiden name.” She couldn’t resist pushing further. “How do you know Phil?”

Baker leaned forward in a gesture she thought practiced, artificial. “We met at an event. Tell him hello for me. And congratulations on the Nobel. I assume the whole team is heading off to Stockholm to witness the awards. Will you be going too? Will you need time off?”

“The ceremony is in Oslo, but either way, no worries.” She shook her head. “I’m here to work.”

That night when she recounted the conversation to her husband, he had no immediate memory of Baker.

“Phil, he has your picture smack in the middle of his vanity wall.”

“Pretty weak vanity wall if he’s got me on it. Did he say anything?”

“He asked me to congratulate you. Odd that he thought the ceremony was in Stockholm. It’s not exactly a small detail. As for you, he’s got your picture up but he didn’t recognize your name.”

“Actually, I think I do remember him after all. I wasn’t the only one in the picture, right? Was there someone next to me with a beard?”

“Might have been. The photo was cropped to just the two of you, but, you know, other shoulders pressing in on both sides. So, yeah, it could have been cropped down from a larger group.”

“What does Baker look like?”

“Brown hair, tall, fit ...”

“Sounds like a guy who showed up at our working group to talk to Sean. They disappeared for a while and when they came back, Baker gave Sean his phone and asked him to take his picture with some of us. Had him take several, actually.”

“Why do you think Baker wanted to talk with Sean?”

“No idea. Sean’s freelance like me. Works one specialist consultancy to the next. I assumed they might be discussing another job. Lucky for Sean if it panned out. Or it might not have. We’re all just scrounging for the next project.”

Charlene noted Phil’s disparagement of both Sean’s life and his own. References to Phil’s non-linear career path were always lingering just below the surface, stark against her success. Hoping to avoid another disagreeable evening, she pulled the conversation back to Baker. “He could have cropped the group picture into smaller ones so he’d have different shots to spread around the wall. You know you can’t take a bad picture. Always the most polished person in the room. That’s why he had your photo centered.” She hoped she could lighten the exchange and end it.

“So how do you like the guy?”

“He’s what I expected. Seems to be cultivating an image, though. He was wearing those jeans that came out this year—the Levi’s with recycled hardware. Also, he had one of those green Barneys shirts. That and a picture of himself hobnobbing with the team. He’s either committed to the climate agenda or trying to impress somebody who is.  Could be both, of course.”

 “Sounds like he’s faking it if he didn’t know the presentation happens in Oslo.” Bitterness in Phil’s laughter caught her off guard. “Maybe he thinks somebody who comes through his office will assume he knows Al Gore. I have to say, I have my IPCC consultancy on my resume, and people have asked me about the Nobel. And couldn’t I introduce them to Al Gore? Like we must be pals, probably hang out together in Oslo. Except I won’t be there, of course.”

Sharing his disaffection but surprised at the level of bitterness, she tried again to lighten the exchange. “Well, hey, for what it’s worth, you’re on an important person’s vanity wall. He’s got you center stage and he has some big shot visitors and they’ll all see you.”

Phil’s mouth shaped into something between a grimace and a smile. “Sure. He’ll say, ‘That’s Phil with the team that won the Nobel.’ And they’ll nod like they know me, which they don’t, and say ‘Oh, of course, Phil.’”

She tried laughter. “So, you’ll get some good press, if nothing else.”

“You told him I wasn’t going to Oslo?”

“No ... uh ... well ...” She had to work to remember the exact words in the exchange. “It’s just he asked me if I’d need time off for the trip and I told him no.”

“Then he’ll tell people I’m going. Which I’m not, of course. Which is worse? ‘That’s Phil. He’s going to Oslo.’ ‘That’s Phil. He’s not going to Oslo.’”

“I just said it’s in Oslo but no worries, I’m there to work. Does it matter?”

He went silent, and she realized it did matter, but “it” wasn’t Oslo. “It” was the wall. “It” was his unending dissatisfaction with his life’s trajectory.

 She recalled prior disgruntlements, unreasonable expectations, expected privileges not honored that sent him into sulk. She had tried to understand all of them, and it hadn’t helped. Do you want this guy you don’t even know to think you’re going to Oslo even though you’re not? If you don’t like your stupid life, why don’t you fix it? You had all the advantages, good family, fine education, even did a stint at Oxford.

They sat in silence. Finally, nearing repentance of her feelings toward him, she affected empathy. “Is this really bothering you?”

“No.” It came out wrong, petulant, and his face told her he knew it. “Actually, it does. Yeah. It bothers me.”

She tried to conceal her impatience with his frustration. “Phil, you didn’t really expect to go, did you? You couldn’t possibly have.” She failed—and knew she failed—to keep distain from her voice. “You were only a temporary part of the team.”

“Yeah. I know.” He stood and paced, finally stopped at the window. Stood looking out at the early November sky. He turned from the window with his face tightened in resentment. She felt her own face tighten at the nonsense of him.

He paced. “Well, I’m glad you’ve got a shot at working for this guy. He’s a player. An important guy like that put me on his vanity wall. Makes me look like I matter.” A long silence while their resentments settled in and made it all worse. “And when he finds out I don’t matter, he’ll take me down.”

She elbowed her disgust aside and tried again. “Look, forget it. It’s just a picture on a wall. If he takes you down, this will all be over. Nobody will even remember your picture was there. It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters. When he takes me down, I’ll be gone.”

She stared at him. This is what he’s pushed us to. “Fine. When he takes you down, you’ll be gone.”

Baker offered her the position the following week. As she expected. Her qualifications were impeccable. She settled into her new role, acclimated herself to what lay ahead.

December came, and its days passed one by one. If Baker had been trying to influence someone who cared about ecology, he must have failed because he ended the effort. When his new furniture appeared, office chairs so lush and deep she had to choose between support for her back and having her shoes flat on the floor, she detected no great change in Baker’s demeanor or actions. But on the occasions in which she saw him outside the office, she never again saw the recycled-zipper Levi’s or the green Barneys shirts.

Phil gloated. “Whatever he wanted, it looks like he didn’t get it.”

She shot back, aggression to aggression. “If he didn’t, it looks like he’s accepted it and moved on.”

Christmas that year fell on a Tuesday with Monday off. They held a Christmas party at work on Friday, spouses invited. Sensing Phil’s reticence, Charlene encouraged him to use the event to network. As office holiday parties go, the gathering was unremarkable. They drifted into separate conversation groups, she making the most of the opportunity to size up her new colleagues.

When others began to leave, she scanned the room for Phil. Not finding him, she stepped from the conference room into the hall. At the far end, light from Baker’s office spilled across the carpet. She found Phil standing alone at Baker’s wall, shoulders slumped in a familiar pose of self-pity. Regretting her inability to remedy the damage done, she went to her husband.

As she crossed the room to guide him away, the arrangement of photos and documents pulled her attention to the focal point. As she already knew, his photo was no longer there.

About the Author

Richard Schreck

Richard Schreck (he/him) is a writer living in Maryland. Richard is the author of over 30 non-fiction works and a former publication editor for TESOL, the largest professional association of persons who teach the English language. “Baker’s Wall” as well as his fiction in The Mailer Review, Gypsophila, Backchannels, and Mollusk Lit explore a fictional world he began while living on the Gulf coast. Richard is developing that world in Brain Game, a novel set in Baltimore and New Orleans in the years following Katrina. He holds the Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, where he began a lifelong interest in technology as a contribution to linguistics and education. Among other fun things, he directed the delivery of the first online university course in central Siberia.