Burned out. That's what I was on the occasion of my boss's 4th of July party last year. I was 26 years old, just three years out of UC Heritage's school of Business, a junior accountant at one of the most prestigious firms in the greater Heritage area, and I was just as burned out as a man could be and still drag himself into work each day.
I had been at Breckman, Remington, and Dowel since my graduation and I had been working a minimum of eighty hours every week since. My wife - who had been my high school girlfriend and had put me through college by working as a waitress - had put up with my extended absences for 16 months before packing her bags and boogying on down the road to greener pastures. Our divorce had been finalized just weeks before the party. I think the lack of any social life in the wake of our separation contributed to what happened that night.
Stephen Remington III was one of the senior partners of the firm and was the direct boss of my division. He was a chubby, balding man in his fifties and a stern, unforgiving taskmaster to his underlings. He was also a very rich man, as were all of the partners, and he owned a winery in one of the lush valleys of nearby Lake County. It seemed that in order to reward the efforts of the sixty-one accountants that had spent the past year slaving under his command, he decided to throw us an Independence Day party at his spread, complete with barbeque, drinks, dancing, and fireworks. Attendance at the event, as was the case with any company function, was pretty much mandatory.
And so it came to pass that instead of sitting at home and enjoying one of the few days that the firm's offices were actually closed down and locked, I put on a stylish pair of khaki shorts, a stylish blue polo shirt, and hopped in my car for the ninety minute drive to Lake County.
The winery that Mr. Remington owned sat upon five hundred acres of prime real estate nestled against the side of a valley. Most of the land was of course taken up by the vineyards, which stretched up and down a series of gently rolling hills along the main road. The winery itself - a majestic, three-story building of classic Spanish architecture - sat on the far west end of the property, right off the paved entrance road. It was surrounded by a huge, immaculately maintained lawn that was landscaped with hedges, flower gardens, palm trees, and a large brick barbecue enclosure. Just beyond the lawn, between the winery building and the start of the vineyards, was a round duck pond, about three hundred feet in diameter. In the center of this pond was a small island that was covered with more of the hedges and five or six of the palms. In all, the property was a very impressive chunk of land, an opulent display of our boss's considerable wealth - wealth that we peons at the bottom of the ladder had been responsible for earning for him.
It was ten minutes after four when I pulled into the winery and parked my Mercedes (which was leased of course - my ex-wife was entitled to alimony and child support that amounted to nearly forty percent of my salary) among the other high-end automobiles of my peers. A short walk brought me to the barbecue area, which seemed to be the center of the activity. A bar had been set up here and two uniformed bartenders were on duty, mixing and serving drinks. There was also a bandstand upon which amplifiers, microphones, a drum-set, and a keyboard set were sitting idle. Recorded music was currently playing at soft volume from the speakers. Milling about everywhere, in groups of four or six or eight, were my co-workers, mostly men but a few women as well. Nearly all of them had a spouse or at least a significant other hanging on their arm or hovering close by. I felt a small pang of regret that I had been forced to attend alone but my busy schedule of late had precluded the possibility of even digging up a platonic date, let alone an actual one. I greeted people as I entered the crowd, shaking hands here, giving hugs there, passing a few phony words as if I really liked them. In truth, I detested almost everyone that I worked with. They were money-grubbing back-stabbers who would do anything that it took to get ahead and who would do anything they thought they could get away with to keep others down.
I found Mr. Remington near the bar and headed over to make the obligatory greeting. He was dressed in his own pair of khaki shorts and his own polo shirt with the firm's logo upon the breast. His ample stomach, forged from years of three martini lunches, bulged over his waistline enough to conceal his belt. He was sipping what appeared to be a scotch on the rocks and puffing on a large cigar. Standing next to him was his wife, whom I had never met before but who I recognized from the pictures on his desk. She was a trophy wife in every sense of the word. A striking brunette, she was slim and petite, her body firmly toned, undoubtedly from sessions with a personal trainer. Her breasts were small but firm, an aristocratic size that did not have the unnatural symmetry of enhancement surgery shaping them. She was decked out in a cute but fashionable summer dress. She looked about twenty, twenty-four at the oldest, but I knew from company gossip that she was actually thirty-one. That same gossip had informed me that she was his second wife, replacing an older model about five years before, and that she herself was now approaching obsolescence and eventual replacement.
"John," Remington greeted when I walked up. "Glad you could make it son. We've got quite a party in store today." He held out his hand to me.
"Uh... it's Jeff," I corrected, shaking with him.
"Sorry, Jeff," he said, shaking his head in amusement. "That was some good work you did on the Feller account last week. We couldn't have wrapped that up without you."
"Thank you sir," I mumbled, doing my best to appear gracious even though I had not done any work on the Feller account or anything remotely related to it. "It's nice to be here. A beautiful place that you have here."
"It's a good hobby," he said, looking around in pride at his acres. "Not a bad tax write-off either. Have you met my wife?"
"No, I don't believe I've ever had the pleasure," I said, casting my eyes on her and smiling.
"I'm Suzanne," she said, returning my smile and holding out her hand to me.
I shook it, feeling the soft skin of one that has never done a day's work in her life. I told her that I was pleased to make her acquaintance.
"Are you here by yourself Jeff?" she asked me. "Surely a good looking guy like you didn't come stag."
"I'm afraid I have," I told her. "I've been working kind of hard lately and wasn't able to find a date." I shrugged as if it didn't matter. "What can you do, huh?"
"Well hopefully we'll keep you entertained," she told me.
"Yes," Remington cut in, "I've hired some professional pyrotechnic technicians for the fireworks display tonight."
"Really?" I said, as if interested.
"Indeed," he assured me. "Of course I had to apply for a special permit in order to have a professional quality display, but it helps when you're poker buddies with two of the county supervisors." He laughed at his own wit. "Anyway, these guys are from Ukraine and they have ten years of experience in this sort of thing. They help with the New Year's Eve show in downtown Heritage every year. They've promised me a hell of a show."
"Is that right?" I asked, marveling to myself over the thought of Ukrainian pyrotechnicians running an American Independence Day show.
He nodded. "They're going to set everything up on the island out there in the duck pond and shoot them straight up. It cost me a pretty penny but it should be well worth it I hope." He winked at me. "Besides, it's all a write-off, right? Since this is a business gathering."
I spent another minute or so making idle chit-chat with the two of them and then Steve Randall and his wife showed up to make their own niceties to the boss, allowing me to slip away. I immediately headed for the bar and ordered a stiff drink.
Soon, the barbeque was fired up, filling the air with the odor of burning briquettes. As the fire roared and then settled down, bringing the coals to optimum cooking temperature, I mingled with my co-workers - as was expected of me - mostly listening as they talked of upcoming projects, past projects, current projects, and their own hopes and dreams of someday making partner in the firm. It was a commonly accepted notion that that particular reward could conceivably come after only twelve to fifteen years of eighty-hour weeks. They all seemed excited by this thought. It only served to depress me.
Most of the other accountants and their significant others visited the bar infrequently, getting a single drink and then sipping on it until the ice was completely melted. This was a company function after all and the boss was present. Nobody wanted to be seen swilling down the booze like they were having a good time. It might reflect badly on their careers and add a few years to that twelve to fifteen that making partner took. They did this despite the fact that both Mr. Remington and his wife were pounding down scotch like it was going out of style. I made no such accommodations. I put away four whisky sours in my first hour there, getting myself a premium, grade-A buzz going. I received a few strange looks from my peers for doing this but I ignored them, caring less with each sip that I took. I figured that since I had been forced to be here, ninety miles from home on a work holiday, I was going to have myself a good time and fuck what people thought.
.... There is more of this story ...