Fiction

The Hill

By: Don Tassone

Henry Valentine sat straight up in bed, awakened by the morning sun, thinking he had overslept.  Confused, he looked over at his clock.  7:18.  His heart raced.  Is this Saturday?  Yes, it’s Saturday.  Thank God.  For a minute, I thought I was late for work.

     Then he remembered his retirement party the night before and realized he would never be late for work again.

     He got up, went downstairs and made himself a cup of coffee.  He sat on the tall, swivel chair at the end of the island in his kitchen and sipped his coffee.  He pulled his cell phone from the pocket of his robe to check his messages, but there were none.  It was the first morning he could remember when his in-box wasn’t full.

     He made some toast and brought it into his study along with his coffee.  He sat down at his desk and opened his laptop.  He browsed news headlines but saw nothing of interest.  He opened his email again, but there were still no new messages.  He ate his toast, sipped his coffee and stared at his computer screen, waiting for a message to pop up.  But none did.

     Henry closed his laptop, went upstairs and got dressed.  He came downstairs, made himself another cup of coffee and went out onto his patio.  The sun felt good on his face.  He had longed for a quiet morning like this for years.  Now that it was here, though, he wasn’t sure what to do.

     All that day, he walked around his house, a mansion, with six bedrooms, only one of which was ever used.  He had bought it years ago not because he needed the space but to make a statement.

     Now he walked through rooms he hadn’t seen in years, rooms tastefully decorated by interior designers he barely knew, whose names and faces he could not remember.  Having toured the inside of his house, Henry walked around the outside, on grass he had not cut, admiring flowers, shrubs and trees he had not planted or trimmed and fieldstone he had not stacked.

     He had a five-acre lot, heavily wooded around the perimeter, so there was no chance of seeing a neighbor.  He didn’t know his neighbors anyway.

     Tired, he came back in to take a nap.  Before he lay down on the sofa in his great room, he checked his messages once again.  Only spam.

     When he woke up, Henry shaved, showered and got dressed for dinner.  He went to his club, about a mile away.  The valet, a young man he had seen before but whose name he didn’t know, parked his car.

     He went in and immediately saw people he knew.  He knew most of them by name, but he didn’t know any of them well.  A few offered congratulations.

     He walked down the hallway to the dining room.

     “Good evening, Mr. Valentine,” said the host.

     “Good evening, Charles,” he said.

     “Your usual table?”

     “Yes.  Thank you.”

     “Right this way.”

     As usual, Henry ordered a bourbon and a steak dinner.  He ate by himself, occasionally nodding or waving to other diners.  He kept checking his cell phone for messages, but the only ones he got were spam.

     He drove home, poured himself another bourbon and thought about his retirement dinner the night before.  He didn’t like elaborate retirement parties, but he expected more than brief remarks by his successor at FillMore Foods.  He also thought the party would last longer, but he was home by nine.

     He finished his drink and went up to bed.  He lay there, looking up at the ceiling, illuminated by moonlight.  He could see the full moon through his window.  It made him think of the light bulb that used to hang above his bed when he was a boy.

     Tomorrow is Sunday.  It felt strange not to have work to do or even think about.  He wondered if, from now on, every day would be like this.

#

     “Henry?  Henry Valentine?” Mrs. Chamberlain, his first grade teacher, said.

     “Here,” Henry said.

     Mrs. Chamberlain looked at him and smiled.

     “Do you prefer to be called Henry?”

     “We call him Hank!” a student yelled from the back of the classroom.

     “Are you okay with Hank?” Mrs. Chamberlain asked.

     “Yes,” Henry said, having been taught to respect his elders.

     It was Henry’s first day of school.  The kids on “the hill,” as it was called, went to kindergarten.  But for some reason, none of the kids in “the valley,” the poor part of town where Henry lived, went.

     Henry knew all the kids in his class.  They all lived in the valley.  At lunch and at recess, he saw kids who lived on the hill.  He didn’t know them, but he had seen them in church.  Now he realized they were in a different first-grade class, and for the first time in his life, he felt less.

     In fact, Henry and his family had very little.  Their house was tiny, with just two bedrooms.  His parents shared one, and his two sisters shared the other.  Henry slept in a cleared-out closet, barely big enough for his small mattress.  A bare light bulb hung from a cord above his bed.  His father had removed the closet door and tacked a sheet up across the open door frame.

     His father seldom worked.  When he did, it was usually at the IGA in the valley, bagging groceries.  Most days, though, he drank or slept on the couch.  He drank and slept a lot.

     His mother didn’t work.  She had enough to do raising three kids.  Henry used to go with her to the grocery store and help her carry their groceries home.  Sometimes he would see his father working there.  That always seemed strange to him, watching him bag their groceries.  His mother paid with food stamps.  Henry didn’t think that was strange because most people he knew bought their groceries with food stamps too.

     But as he began to meet kids in school who lived on the hill, Henry became aware that most people pay cash for their groceries.  He also learned that all of the fathers of the kids who lived on the hill had good jobs, and they worked at least five days a week.

     At recess, he met two boys named Rick and Art.  They lived next door to each other in a neighborhood on the hill.  Henry became friends with them, and they invited him up to play basketball one Saturday.  He walked there because he didn’t have a bike, his mother didn’t drive and his father was asleep.                Henry had never seen such big houses and such nice yards.  When he got there, Rick and Art were playing basketball with a few of their friends on Art’s driveway.  They introduced Henry—as Henry, not Hank—to their friends.

     “Where do you live?” one of them asked.

     “In the valley,” Henry said.

     “Oh,” said the kid.

     He said nothing more.  He didn’t need to.  Once again, Henry felt less.

     A little while later, they all went inside Art’s house for lunch.  Art introduced Henry to his mother.  She asked him where he lived.  When he told her, she said, “I see.”  That was all.

     Through his grade school years, Henry made more friends who lived on the hill.  He began spending more time with them at their houses and less time with the kids he had grown up with.  He spent many Saturdays playing basketball, working on school projects and having lunch with friends up on the hill.  Henry never invited them to his house, though, because he had begun to feel ashamed of where he lived.

     All through grade school, the classes were made up of kids who lived either in the valley or on the hill.  By high school, though, students from these two parts of town and several nearby towns were blended together. 

     At the start of his freshman year, Henry insisted on being called Henry.  He even made his parents and his sisters start calling him Henry.

     Henry was smart.  He had always done well in school.  Now, though, challenged by more smart kids and tougher subjects, he began to excel in his classes.  Every semester, he made first or second honors.  He beamed when he saw his name on a bulletin board in the school lobby with the elite group of students who made the honor roll.

     When he was a junior, for the first time in his life, Henry began to get his own mail.  It came in the form of letters and brochures from colleges, inviting him to apply.  He hadn’t even heard of most of the colleges, and his parents were of no help.  So he asked one of his teachers to help him decide on his best options.  In the fall of his senior year, he applied to five universities on his own, using money he had earned working at the Dari Whip on the hill during his summers. 

     He got letters of acceptance from all five universities.  Not only that, but they all offered him scholarships and financial aid.  Henry realized he could go to college virtually free, thanks in part to the fact that his father made so little money.  For the first time, he was grateful his father bagged groceries for a living.

     Henry enrolled at Oklahoma University.  That September, after telling his parents and sisters goodbye, he took a bus to Norman, Oklahoma and became the first person in his family to attend college.  He decided to major in business.

     In college, Henry continued to excel in his studies.  He loved university life.  He hung with “the rich kids” and set three goals for himself.  He wanted to be wealthy and powerful and have social standing, all things he had never known growing up.  He wasn’t sure how he would achieve these goals, but knowing how far he had already come boosted his confidence that he would find a way.

     Over the next four years, he came home only at Christmastime.  Otherwise, he stayed in Norman.  During the summers, he worked for a local meat processing company, first in the plant, then in the business office.

     Henry graduated summa cum laude, at the top of his class.  His senior year, he interviewed with a dozen companies on campus.  Most offered him jobs.  He accepted an entry-level marketing position with a large food company in Chicago.  He moved there a week after graduation, without even going home.

     Henry was assigned to a campaign for a new line of baking mixes, which became a top seller.  His work got him noticed, and a year after he started, he received his first promotion. 

     Henry enjoyed his work, but he really loved his new social life.  He got to know people from all around the country and a few from outside the country.  He met colleagues and made new friends at trendy restaurants and got invited to dinner parties.      It was at one of these parties that he met a beautiful young woman named Barbara.  Henry was plain-looking, but he dressed well, and he had learned the art of making small talk.  Barbara’s friend, who hosted the party, had invited her there for the express purpose of introducing her to Henry, who worked with her husband.  She had told Barbara Henry was “a catch,” a man whose fortunes were surely on the rise.

     When she introduced them, Henry was gobsmacked.  He had never met anyone so beautiful.  He stared at Barbara, mesmerized and barely able to speak.  For a moment, he felt like he was back in the valley.  He imagined she thought him a fool, but she found his awkwardness charming and tried to put him at ease.  It worked.  By the end of the night, Henry managed to ask Barbara for her number.

     He called her the next day and asked her to dinner, over which Henry began to fall in love.  They started dating, and six months later, Henry proposed.  They were married a year later.  Henry’s mother was the only person from his family who attended the wedding.  He offered to buy her a plane ticket, but she had never flown on a plane and was too nervous at even the thought of it.  So he bought her a bus ticket and reserved a room for her at a posh hotel in downtown Chicago.  She had never seen a place so grand, let alone stayed there.  It made Henry happy to make that possible.

     By the time he and Barbara got married, Henry had been promoted to director of marketing and was making a very handsome salary.  He found his work challenging and satisfying.  He began traveling every week to New York, where one of his company’s main advertising agencies was based.  For a small-town boy, Chicago was big, but New York was almost beyond his imagination.  He fell in love with the Big Apple.

     Unfortunately, Henry’s marriage was not nearly as satisfying.  Barbara found him a bore, all work and no play.  They stayed married for five years before Barbara could take it no longer and filed for divorce.

     Henry was sad, not because he had lost a soulmate, but because he would no longer have a lovely wife to bring to parties and company events.  It’s not that he didn’t have feelings for Barbara.  But to him, she had become a trophy wife and, as such, in any crowd, she had given Henry instant cache.  Now he would have to make it on his own. 

     Fortunately, his career was as hot as his marriage was cold.  The food industry is a tight club.  People know each other.  The winners stand out, and Henry was a winner.  Every week, he had offers from a wide range of food companies looking for chief marketing officers. 

     He routinely turned them down until he got an offer he couldn’t refuse:  from a major sugar refining company based in New York City.  They offered to triple Henry’s salary.  That, the CMO position and the lure of New York were too much for Henry to resist.  He took the job and moved to a flat in Manhattan.

     Three years later, he was appointed chief operating officer.  He was now working virtually non-stop, but he was making more money than he had ever imagined, and he was on-track to become CEO.

     Then one day he got a call from a headhunter looking for a CEO for FillMore Foods, a once-great manufacturer of food extenders and fillers. 

     At first, Henry thought it was a joke.  Then the headhunter made his pitch.  FillMore was a family-run company grossly underdeveloped in a market that was growing by nearly 10% a year.  The CEO, grandson of the founder, was ready to retire.  FillMore was ripe for a modern CEO and needed to go public.         

     Then came the kicker:  FillMore was prepared to offer a salary three times greater than Henry was making plus a generous bonus and a stake in the company once it went public.  Even if he became CEO of the sugar refiner and stayed there the rest of his career, Henry would never make nearly the money FillMore was offering.  He agreed to an interview with the CEO, who liked him and offered him the job on the spot.  He took it.

     As CEO, Henry got FillMore growing again.  After his first full year on the job, sales were up 7%, profits 12%.  The following year, he took the company public.  The initial stock offering was valued at $45 a share.  As FillMore’s largest individual shareholder, Henry became a multi-millionaire overnight.

     Soon FillMore reemerged as the leader in food extenders and fillers, just as food companies around the world were looking for new ways to offset growing profit pressures.  Bulking up their products became a popular strategy, and FillMore became many food companies’ preferred supplier. 

     Henry had achieved the three goals he had set for himself growing up.  He was wealthy and powerful and, because of his CEO position, everyone looked up to him.  He also endeared himself to many charities.  He gave away millions, mainly for tax purposes, but also to build his reputation as a leading benefactor among the elite in New York.

     He received offers to become CEO of some of the biggest food companies in the country.  But he knew none could top the money he was making at FillMore.  Plus he loved New York and his mansion in The Hamptons, where he could entertain and impress colleagues and customers.

     Henry worked hard for his money, and his work was his life.  He had little time for friends, and although women were interested in him, and he dated more than a few, he was skittish about alimony.  He remained single.

     Henry stayed at FillMore the rest of his career, retiring at 65, the company’s mandatory retirement age.  He handpicked his successor, a gregarious man named Bob.  Employees really liked Bob.  Watching him interact with them, Henry began to wish he had spent more time with these people.

     At his retirement party, everyone came up to Henry to extend their congratulations and wish him well.  He was glad they were all wearing name tags because, although many faces looked familiar, he knew relatively few names.

#

     Henry sat on his front porch, drinking coffee and waiting to see a car go by on the road just beyond his enormous front yard.  He had been retired a week now and, aside from his housekeeper and yard man and Charles at his club, he had spoken with no one.  What’s more, no one had called him or sent him an email or a text message. 

     When he was CEO, his in-box was always full, and someone always wanted him for something.  Now he concluded that he had been useful and important to people because of his title.  Without it, he had lost his relevance.  Now no one wanted him for anything.

     Henry sipped his coffee and thought of his old house in the valley.  He thought about his mother and her funeral.  He thought about his father, whose funeral he had missed.

     He wondered what had ever happened to Rick and Art, his friends who lived on the hill.  He wondered if they were still living there, in that same small town, or if they too had gotten out.

     He thought about Barbara, whom he hadn’t seen in many years.  He knew she had gotten married again because his attorney had told him he would no longer need to pay alimony.  He wondered if Barbara was still beautiful.  He wondered if she was finally happy.

     He wondered if he had set the right goals and if he had made the right choice to focus so much on work and not make more friends or have a family.  He wondered what his house would have been like if it had been filled with children or, by now, grandchildren.

     Out on the road, he saw a white mail truck slow down and stop at his mailbox.  Great.  More bills and junk mail.

     Having nothing else to do, he got up and walked down his long and gently winding brick driveway.  At the end of it, he reached over the gate and opened his mailbox.  He reached inside, pulled out several envelopes and closed the door.

     He looked at the envelopes.  Two were bills, and one was addressed to him in unfamiliar handwriting.  He looked at the return address.  It was from a Rich Wilson in Tremont, in the West Bronx.

     Henry didn’t recognize the name and wondered who would be sending him something like this.  He walked back up his driveway to the front porch and sat back down.  He put aside the two bills and slid his index finger under the seal of the envelope from Wilson.

     Inside, he found a handwritten letter, which he unfolded and read.

Dear Mr. Valentine,

We have not met, but you have changed my life, dramatically and for the better.

Several years ago, I was homeless.  I had nowhere to go, and I was cold and hungry.  Someone told me about an emergency shelter in South Bronx.  I went there.  They gave me food and a place to sleep.  And they gave me something else, worth much more.  They helped me find a job, bagging groceries in a local grocery store.  It was my first real job.  I loved it.  I loved helping customers.  I was still living at the shelter, but soon I was making enough money to afford to rent an apartment.

I’m still working at the grocery store.  Now I’m the assistant manager, and I’m taking evening classes at SUNY.  I’m majoring in business.

I’m sure you know this, but you’re the biggest donor to the emergency shelter in South Bronx.  The woman who runs it told me that, without your support, they’d probably have to close.  If they hadn’t been there for me, I don’t know where I’d be right now.

I’m writing just to thank you, Mr. Valentine.  This letter is long overdue, but it’s heartfelt.

If I can ever do anything for you, please let me know.  It would be an honor.

Sincerely,

Rich Wilson

     Henry folded the letter and slid it back into the envelope.  He had never heard of the homeless shelter in South Bronx.  He knew little about his charitable giving, which was managed by his PR folks at FillMore.

     He grabbed his mail and his coffee and went inside.  He walked down the hall to his study and sat down at his desk.  He opened the upper right drawer and pulled out a sheet of stationery.  Using his favorite pen, he composed this letter:

Dear Mr. Wilson,

Thank you for your thoughtful and gracious letter.  I am delighted to learn of your success and honored that I have had the opportunity to help enable it in some small way.

You kindly asked if you can do anything for me.  There is one thing.  Would you meet me for coffee or lunch sometime?  I will be happy to meet you anywhere and anytime you like.  Just let me know.  I am enclosing my card.  Please feel free to email, text or call me anytime.

I will look forward to hearing from you.  Thank you again for your wonderful letter.

Warmest regards,
Henry Valentine

The End

###

Don Tassone is the author of three short story collections and a novel.  He lives in Loveland, Ohio.

Categories: Fiction

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