A FOUR-LETTER WORD
by James Brennan
Jack Broderick, who worked in human resources at a prestigious university’s school of government, had made a career out of playing it safe, so he wasn’t crazy about the exposure this year’s summer picnic would give him.
At the Harding School of Public Policy, scholars who enjoyed lucrative careers guiding Middle East peace talks couldn’t avoid bitter arguments over what kind of rice cakes to stock in the kitchen. Celebrity professors, adept at conversing with presidents and other world leaders, weren’t able to say good morning to the guy who watered their plants. The most educated people in the world didn’t know how to submit a Spot Award—a nominal staff bonus rewarding extra duty—for an assistant who had given up his weekends over an entire semester to prepare their PowerPoints for a humanitarian summit. As Assistant Director of Human Resources, Broderick had heard it all.
At this school of government, the only thing faculty members enjoyed more than discussing power—its intricate forms and varied uses—in the classroom, was demonstrating who had it and who didn’t everywhere else on campus. And it was a place where the trivia contest for the summer picnic was anything but trivial.
The dean liked the trivia contest. And when he’d declared that the picnic was still on, calling it a morale booster, after the University had gone through one of the ugliest layoffs in its history, the contest fell in Broderick’s lap like an 800-pound gorilla on steroids.
Hearing the weather report during his morning commute just made Broderick mad. It was supposed to be much nicer on the Cape and Islands today. But not everyone had that kind of choice on a Tuesday. He was already resigned to looking like he’d pissed himself. He’d taken the cover off his coffee to let it cool. He liked his coffee hot 365 days a year. But not that hot. He’d barely avoided rear-ending the car in front of him. His mood improved somewhat after he’d squeezed his quivering Corolla, a vehicle purchased new during Reagan’s second term, into one of those tight spaces under the concrete eaves in the administration building’s underground garage, a place he didn’t even consider when he arrived at his usual time.
Broderick and Amelia sat across from each other at the faux-oak table behind closed doors in the HR conference room waiting for one of them to come up with a good idea. Amelia sat with her back to the floor-to-ceiling windows. The sky had opened and it was a real drencher out there. Broderick couldn’t see across the campus courtyard.
“Did you burn yourself?” Amelia smiled, not so innocently in Broderick’s estimation.
He was sorry that he’d told her about the coffee incident. But what choice did he have? “All this rain may cool things off a bit.”
The hang ‘n’ store file boxes, still not archived from the layoff, were stacked along the front wall. These files were thick. Employment applications, payroll change notifications, a performance appraisal here and there, 403B deduction forms, and, of course, the legal reviews, assessing not only the risk of lawsuits—age discrimination cases were the most prevalent—but, more importantly, the University’s chances to prevail, were all that remained of the recently departed. Many of them had come to see Broderick after their managers, following HR’s prepared script, told them: Your position has been eliminated. It is not personal. Please leave immediately. “They’re not going to change their minds,” he’d said to each one, a box of Kleenex in hand. He tried to help them leave with some dignity.
Broderick turned from the boxes to Amelia. “Don’t ever let them see you grovel.”
“Focus, Jack. The picnic’s this Friday.”
Amelia was twenty-six and had that perfect skin the young take for granted. Her face was framed by dirty-blonde hair cut in a bob. She had wide-set brown eyes, high, angular cheekbones, a dimpled chin, and her upper lip formed a little heart when she blew on her herbal tea. She had been hired before downsizing began. Hers was a replacement position not an add to headcount, and HR was spared the cleaver because someone had to process all the layoffs.
She’d come east from Missouri, following a boyfriend who was attending the business school. He was no longer in the picture. Greeting her in the reception area of the HR suite the day of her interview, Broderick had liked her right away. “Nice poster,” she’d said, looking at his Led Zeppelin U.S. Tour 1977. He was unnerved by the way she scanned every inch of his office, before taking the seat he motioned to in front of his desk, as if he would wait for her to take it all in. He had.
The probing Broderick typically conducted during his interviews had been nothing more than flaccid inquiry with her. Did she have any experience with payroll in that HR coordinator job listed on her resume? She replied that her only experience with payroll was getting a paycheck every other Friday. He smiled and pretended to jot notes on her resume. He followed up with, “And how did you like that?” She smiled. “Getting paid? I loved it.” Then she pushed back her hair and smiled again.
Her title was HR Specialist. On paper she reported to Broderick’s boss, but he, Broderick, had trained her during her first few weeks, and she’d go to him whenever she came up against something she couldn’t handle, which wasn’t often.
Her friend request, when it showed up in his inbox one weekend, had surprised him, in a good way. He clicked on the accept button as if she might change her mind at any second. Then he thought of all the reasons why this might be a terrible idea. And as he scrolled through her posts and pictures he thought about what he would say to her on Monday. Family holidays . . . The Harding School was like a dysfunctional family where one wrong move could get you disowned. Barbecues . . . Caution, like LIPITOR, wasn’t pleasant to take, and while it didn’t guarantee longevity, it was prudent and all you had. Okay, maybe not that. Having fun at the beach. . . Lots of beach pictures. . . As they say, Facebook’s for fun; LinkedIn’s where business gets done. Nag’s Head. She’s knee-deep in the surf in a turquoise bikini, a hand on her hip, the other hand waving, sunglasses on top of her head, smile suggesting, Come on in. Maybe he had no business offering Amelia social media advice. He decided not to say anything. He also decided to give up beer and to renew his gym membership.
Now Amelia was waving her hand in front of Broderick’s face. “Are you there?” He could smell the orange she was having with her tea on her fingers. He started writing. He wanted to capture this spittle of inspiration before it evaporated. He pushed his notebook across the table. Then, having second thoughts, he reached for it, but Amelia grabbed it and started reading.
“If you were to take off all your clothes right now and run across the Harding School’s South Lawn, you would be labeled, at best, a politically-incorrect nut job. If you had done this in the seventies, however, you would have simply been called a−−
This was Amelia’s first summer picnic, and their boss had put her in charge of the whole thing. Timothy Dunwright, or Dun, as he wanted everyone to call him, said she was an “up and comer.” When Dun had asked him what he thought of Amelia after her interviews, adding that his input wouldn’t be a deal-breaker, Broderick had said that he thought her English degree made her interesting.
Broderick had been Assistant HR Director for longer than he cared to remember. When they hired Dun from outside, he’d been passed over like a leftover clam chowder no one remembers putting in the office fridge. His involvement with the picnic should have been to make decisions, if necessary, to avert any last-minute disasters, the kind that could derail a career. But he could take solace in the fact that he’d once been good enough to be good at something his heart wasn’t in.
His first job at the University had been for a paycheck, and it was supposed to be temporary. He’d wanted to be a writer. But by the time he’d gone from loving everything he wrote to hating everything he wrote, feeling like he’d had a breakthrough, the first layoff in the University’s history hit. With a wife and kid, Broderick did what he had to over the years to survive. He was still paying down the loans he’d taken out for his son’s college tuition. The undergrad degree was in the court order, but he was paying for the graduate degree too.
Broderick’s number one goal in life today was hanging on for the pension. It was simple math: age plus years of service; the higher the number, the higher the payout. Finding love again was a close second, but there was nothing simple about that.
On his good days, Broderick allowed himself to imagine a relationship with Amelia that was more than just colleagues or friends. Sure, he was older than her, but these things happened. And not just in the banal manuscripts he’d read in those writing workshops at the Adult Ed Center, including the interminable one where the Cougar has to decide between her lover and Fluffy her cat, a story that when it stalked his dreams would make Broderick sit up straight, unable to catch his breath as if he had a huge hairball lodged in his trachea.
On his bad days, Broderick saw the future. He was an old man sitting in the hall of some nursing home, staring at the urine puddle on the floor, reaching out for the nurse’s aides and flashing toothless smiles at them when they brought him apple juice and his pills. The pleasure of caressing a woman’s thigh would be a foggy notion; he would simply be seeking human touch. They would find his liver-spotted, bony hands pushing on their legs annoying, or worse, amusing.
Amelia was pushing her notebook toward him. “What about this?”
What’s a four-letter word that sums up the seventies?
The sweat from Broderick’s armpits trickled down his sides. He couldn’t adjust the AC. The thermostats had been in clear plastic lockboxes since Al Gore’s post-White-House speaking tour. Fuck was the first word that came to his mind: not the verb of an awkward adolescent when the seventies were waning, wanting to get some before it all crashed and burned, but the noun of a timorous teenager summing up his experience during a decade he couldn’t wait to have done. Amelia pushed her hair behind her ears. Then she repeated the motion as if the strands hadn’t complied. Broderick thought he’d read somewhere, maybe in one of those sex manuals he started picking up after the divorce, carefully concealing them in the big art books from the bargain table until reaching the cashier, that when a woman played with her hair it meant she was interested. He didn’t recall reading how to signal her back that he was interested too. Being direct would’ve been reckless.
Broderick handed back her notebook. “A long time ago.”
“The seventies are going to be fun.”
“If you say so.”
“It begins with l. Make love not war? All you need is love?”
Amelia was confusing the sixties with the seventies. But what was a decade or so among friends?
The seventies theme was her idea; giving Broderick the trivia contest was Dun’s. He knew his boss hadn’t meant it in a good way when he said that the seventies were going to be fun.
The dean liked the trivia contest. Dun’s predecessor had made the mistake of dropping it at what would be her last summer picnic, opting instead for a mechanical-bull-riding contest. That year’s theme was rodeo. With thirty-two years at the School, she should’ve known better. Maybe she did. Broderick imagined her backing out of the administration building in a blaze of glory, brandishing a severance agreement in one hand, a Harding School-engraved clock in the other. It was a good thing nobody on the outside knew what they were doing. Even the School’s most media-tested celebrity professor would have a hard time fielding this question from Anderson Cooper: Your HR people spend how much time on a trivia contest?
On Wednesday, Broderick was in Dun’s office giving him the update he’d requested. The boss had told the dean that the trivia contest was going to be fabulous.
“So show me fabulous.” Dun grabbed the draft out of Broderick’s hands. While he read it, Broderick stared at the plants along his wall-length window. His Norfolk Pine needed watering. The sun was trying to come out.
Dun leaned back in his executive leather chair. He wore his platinum hair spiked, perhaps an attempt to create the illusion of height, much like the arrangement of chairs in his office making Broderick look up at him.
“Running naked? Across the South Lawn?” Dun took his glasses off. “What is that?”
“I mean what’s it doing in your contest?”
“It’s seventies trivia.”
“Can you imagine what the dean would have to say about that?”
“He might like it.”
“Questions about people running naked in public do not cut it around here. We don’t want a call from Legal telling me we have to run another sexual harassment refresher. Do we?”
Dun unfolded the piece of paper he grabbed from his inside suit-coat pocket. The guy was always dressed for business, as he liked to say. “How about this?
“June 1970, this event in New York City commemorated the first anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion and became the first—
“Oh come on, Jack.”
“In 1975 the United Nations declared this year the—
“Work with me here.”
“The seventies were kind of a blur for me.”
Dun waved the paper in his hand like he was holding an endowment check from Bill Gates. “I have an entire list of these.”
“That sounds like important stuff.”
“I thought trivia was stuff that nobody cared about.”
“Jack, I’m trying to help you. I know you’ve been at the School a lot longer than I have, but I know what sells. And what would sell better in the Harding School of Public Policy’s seventies-summer-picnic trivia contest than important political events from the seventies?”
Broderick knew better than anyone not to trust someone from HR who says he’s here to help. He slouched in his chair. He knew his days were numbered: he was a bit old—and expensive—for an assistant director. But he’d studied his younger boss enough to know that he’d want neither an age discrimination suit nor a sizeable severance payout gumming up his career trajectory. That left Dun two options: He could wait for Broderick to do something so egregious that he could fire him for cause. Or he could make him so miserable that he would leave on his own. The legal term for that? Constructive discharge. The trivia contest was going to be an attempt at both—Broderick was sure of it—until Amelia decided to attach her name to the contest too.
Amelia and Broderick were in the conference room finalizing the contest. The picnic was tomorrow. She’d just organized the volleyball competition—another thankless task, but a crowd favorite—setting up an elaborate scoring system that would’ve been the envy of the NCAA. “I couldn’t think of a way to really make it seventies.”
“I’m pretty sure volleyball was played in the seventies.”
“You know what I mean.” The sunlight filling the room brought out the sprinkling of tiny nutmeg-colored freckles under Amelia’s eyes. “And I have an update for you on the T-shirts. They’re a go. Tie-dyed.”
Dun had been reluctant to spend money on shirts for everyone until Broderick told him that he remembered the dean liking T-shirt giveaways. The dean did not like them.
Apparently, seventies retro was in. Broderick wasn’t one for knowing what was in and what was out. Freshman year in high school he’d walked into a head shop with hard-earned cash from his bagging job at Star Market and bought a Nehru jacket. Choosing from what they had left on the rack, it was a size too small. It didn’t matter. Nehrus went out of style the next day. The rest of the seventies didn’t go much better for him.
“What about this one?” Broderick was pointing to his next question.
18. Only three films have won the top five awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay). What movie from 1975 set in a mental institution was one of them?
“Movie trivia is always good,” she said, getting up to adjust the blinds.
No longer squinting from the sun in his eyes, he smiled. “I thought a question about a nut house would play well here.” He was thinking how Dun had tucked that list of questions in his, Broderick’s, shirt and patted his pocket as if it were on fire.
Amelia came back to the table. She leaned across, put her hand on his arm and said, “How about literary references?”
Jack smiled and nodded. She was great, but she had to be careful. Even up-and-comers only have so much currency to spend. “What is it with you and the seventies anyway?”
Amelia shrugged. “Lots of things, I guess. But mostly that whole question authority thing?”
“That was a hold-over from the sixties, but we did our best with it.”
“Well, you don’t have to do literary references,” she said, breaking the awkward silence. “I was just thinking.”
“How you think.”
The humidity had broken and the weather on Friday, sunny and low eighties, was perfect. The list of things for which Broderick would risk his pension was extremely short, but he was pretty sure it included running naked with Amelia across the lush South Lawn on a beautiful late-June afternoon. He smiled as he tried to keep up with her. She was wearing the tie-dyed shirt, a couple of sizes too big, over black yoga pants. They were coming from reprographics where they had picked up their rush job on the contest.
Fast Eddie, a communications officer in the Media Relations Office, was the DJ, and he stood elevated over Broderick and Amelia on a makeshift platform outside of Mooney Hall. They had set up a table in front of the music, where people could get a copy of the contest and then drop it off in the hemp basket Amelia had found at a yard sale. Passing on the tie-dyed, Fast Eddie wore his own theme outfit as was his practice every year. With white polyester pants flared out from the bottom of his knee to the tops of his black platform shoes and the barely-buttoned purple shirt that looked like it might have been Quiana, he looked more eighties than seventies.
Across the courtyard, it appeared that Marcie and Bibi, staff assistants from Student Services, were on their way to another volleyball victory thanks to the guys they’d recruited this year from the Military Leaders Forum. They’d sent an e-mail with flowers and peace symbols to the entire school inviting everyone to come watch them win another championship. It was signed, The Rock Star Volleyball Players. Broderick wondered how you could make yourself relevant simply by declaring it.
“Look.” Amelia pointed to the empty basket.
“Is it too late to go streaking?”
The smell of peppers and onions wafted from the grills. People spilled across the courtyard, some dancing to “Play That Funky Music,” others in cliques chatting away and chomping burgers and dogs. The dean, arriving fashionably late, was wearing granny glasses and a Stars & Stripes top hat. He liked to show the hoi polloi that he was a regular guy. Onlookers were cheering the Rock Star Volleyball Players as their team shocked and awed everyone. Their military guys were a hit. This wasn’t really the seventies. Several folks came by to ask Fast Eddie to pump up the volume, and there were some requests to get imported beer next year. Dun, ever mindful of the budget, had Amelia order kegs of the domestic stuff. Broderick suggested to Amelia that they go grab something to eat.
When they returned, the basket was still empty. Amelia, leaning into Broderick, said, “I think we have a great trivia contest.” He detected a vaguely familiar scent, musk or something.
Broderick sipped his Diet Pepsi, trying to come up with something to say to her, when April appeared, waving her contest in front of their faces. Amelia picked up the basket and offered it to April. “Do you want to drop your contest off?”
“What did you say?”
“I said do you want to drop your contest off.”
“Oh, this music.” April held a hand over one ear. “Too loud.”
Over the course of her long career at the Harding School, as documented in her HR file, she had distinguished herself by serving four professors, a department chair, two deans, and by making countless faculty assistants cry. She’d landed into Amelia once or twice over some payroll adjustments.
“I wish to wait while you correct it,” April said.
Feeling protective of Amelia, Broderick took April’s contest. When he finished correcting it, he longed for the good old days when the prize was a Dunkie’s gift card. Nobody beyond their ivy-covered walls would’ve believed that they were giving away an iPod. A big prize was money well-spent, Dun had said. It showed the dean how big the contest was.
April leaned over the table. “And?”
Broderick couldn’t bring himself to tell April that she had them all right.
April picked up the basket. “Where are all the other contests anyway?”
Amelia was about to say something, but Broderick interjected. “They’re all locked away in the HR secret vault waiting for our auditors to come in on Monday and validate the results. Only then can we let you know if you have won the iPod.”
April paused for a moment and then said, “I see. Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.” She started to walk away, then turned and grinned. “And I’ll be sure to tell the dean just what a pleasure it’s been.”
Amelia looked at their one contest entry. “Why did she have to win?”
“We should’ve put in your four-letter-word question. She never would have got that one.”
“Don’t you think this place could use a little more love?”
Amelia had no idea. April was walking over with the dean and his entourage.
The picnic was HR’s thing, and that gave Dun the right to tag along today. It might have been the extra layer making him sweat—he was wearing the motif T-shirt over his white long-sleeved oxford, the knot of his paisley tie barely visible—but Broderick had another theory. For all his fawning, Dun knew better than anyone that the dean didn’t like him.
The dean had met Amelia at one of his new-hire coffees, but he insisted on an introduction. He held Amelia’s hand a little too long in Broderick’s estimation. And he wouldn’t take his eyes off her. Broderick held a copy of the contest up to the dean, trying to shield Amelia from his gaze. “I think you’re going to like this year’s.”
“I’ve already heard a lot about it.” The dean nodded at April, taking the sheet. “I’m going to take this with me. I have to go over and congratulate Marcie and Bibi for winning the volleyball tournament. Again.” He handed the sheet to Dun. “Here. Hold this.”
When the entourage was out of earshot Broderick said, “I almost feel bad for Dun.”
“That dean would’ve had his office taken over in the seventies.”
Broderick liked Amelia’s version of the seventies much better than his. “What do you say then? Monday morning we’ll stage a sit-in.”
She smiled. “I like—”
“How I think?” Broderick put his hands up as if he were trying to quell the applause.
“That too. I was going to say that I like you.”
Broderick was ready to request “Colour My World” and slow-dance Amelia across the South Lawn. He imagined her draped over him, his fingers gently pressing the small of her back, rocking her side to side, her hands cupping his shoulders, head resting on his chest, the smell of patchouli letting him know everything was alright in the world.
But their DJ cut the music. The dean was back and, apparently, Fast Eddie thought he might have a few words for everyone. The dean shook his head and waved away the mic. He handed his trivia contest to Amelia, the fabric of his suit moving with him like another layer of skin. “How did I do?” He smiled behind his granny glasses.
Broderick gave Fast Eddie a nod to put the music back on but he just stood there with the microphone hanging limply in his hand.
With the entourage looking on, Amelia corrected the contest. While he waited, the dean made small talk. He liked the streaking question.
“I loved that one,” Dun said. He hadn’t seen Broderick’s final version. “After all, trivia contests are supposed to be light and fun.”
The dean, looking at his contest upside down, pointed to the last question and said, “How could that one be wrong?”
20. Some might say this southern writer was for the birds, but her work won a National Book Award in the early seventies.
“You wrote down the wrong name,” Amelia said.
Broderick felt a flutter in his stomach as the dean insisted that his answer, Harper Lee, had to be correct because of the reference to the title of her book. Amelia kept shaking her head. He had never seen anything like this. Sure, the dean liked the contest, but he’d never cared about winning it. It wasn’t like he was eligible for the damn prize.
He had them all right except that one question. Broderick had been thinking peafowl when he came up with it for Amelia. “Didn’t she die in the sixties?” she’d said. Amelia didn’t know that Flannery’s story collection took this posthumous award in 1972. April did.
This was an easy one. They accept Harper Lee and say the dean won. As the second-place winner, April would get the iPod. Everyone happy.
The dean looked at Broderick. “I don’t understand.”
“You didn’t get it,” Amelia said.
Her defiant look stirred something in Broderick from a long time ago, before fear started waiting for him every day like a schoolyard bully.
Dun lunged across the table and grabbed Broderick’s arm. “For heaven’s sake. Amelia is simply mistaken. Jack. Is the dean right or isn’t he?”
April smiled, arms folded, as if she knew the correct answer to this one too.
That Monday, smoky-gray clouds hung low over the campus. Seventies trivia had had its run. By the time HR would be working on the holiday party, people would chalk up Amelia’s faux pas, if it was remembered at all, to youth. She would be forgiven. Broderick could see her sitting one day, not quite comfortably, in an executive leather chair perusing the budget report on her desk. By then, she would know that sometimes decisions had to be made to avert disasters.
Amelia didn’t have a window office yet, so she wouldn’t be able to see Broderick on the South Campus lawn. But she’d hear about it. He took one pained step after another. Something was constricting him. It felt like an ill-fitting Nehru jacket that he couldn’t seem to lose.
But that’s crazy, he thought, lumbering across the lush grass. He was naked.
About the Author:
James Brennan lives and works in the Boston area. His stories and essays have appeared in Charles River Review, Colere, Slab, Edge, and First Line, among others.