Wind whipped at his suit as he stood on the edge. It was simple in theory. Just take a step and gravity would do the rest. But this was no longer theory. One step would mean either life or death. It just depended on the direction he would choose.
“Happy anniversary sir.”
His reflection in the window cast a transparent smile back to her as she set the tray of coffee down on his desk. A baseball passed from hand to hand as he watched the deep orange of the morning sun sneak up behind a curtain of high-rises. He stared at the city crawling to life from high above, the way a hawk watches for its next meal.
“Two years seems like a lifetime ago.”
“The gentleman from the Times will be here at 10. Are you sure you want to go through with this?”
He turned and met her eyes with the calculating stare of blue-gray eyes that had dominated countless boardrooms. The gentleness that filled them these days was stronger than the anger that once burned there. Silver hair helped soften the intimidating presence that his tall lean frame and piercing eyes created.
“But Rose, clear my schedule for the afternoon. I will want to see him when it’s over.”
Fighting to contain a smirk, Rose nodded in response to the order. Only after closing the doors to the office did she let the smile spread easily across her face.
“My, he really is a completely different man than before.”
David Hobbs sat in the reception area. The spacious outer room was more luxurious than anyplace he had ever been. It was a stark contrast to where he had grown up. Heard people say that they grew up on the “wrong side of the tracks” always made him laugh inside as he remembered the sounds and feel of the trains that shook him to sleep growing up.
For more times than he could count since receiving confirmation of his request, David fell into the routine of trying to figure out how this all happened. William Burton was famously private. He never granted interviews. David was a nobody in the newspaper world, but he had made it a habit to send one request for an impossible interview each day before he left his desk at the Times. The few responses he received were merely standard rejections. That was, until last week…
“Mr. Burton will see you now.”
David was struck by the simple beauty of the expansive office. Light flooded the room from a wall of windows behind a mahogany desk creating a silhouette of William Burton playing with a ball.
There were no expensive pieces of art, no flaunting with the latest technology, no trophies of conquests, in fact there was very little at all. What little furniture filled the office was of the absolute highest quality. David was surprised to see books lining the entire wall to his right.
“Please sit down.”
He realized he was still standing just inside the entryway and chided himself for being so easily awed. The room echoed with soft clicks as he walked over to one of the two black leather chairs in front of the desk and sank into its softness.
“You like baseball?”
His mind immediately began calling himself a flood of names (starting with idiot and getting progressively worse) as he realized that he had meant to start by expressing his gratitude for being granted such an exclusive interview.
“I have recently come to find great pleasure in the game.” He said as looked down at the ball in his hand and ran his thumb over the crimson seams.
“Yeah, my son plays little league and seems to really love it. He’s still afraid of the ball though.”
William lifted his head and looked at David with a steely gaze, making sure he felt the importance of what he was about to say.
“Fear is the worst kind of disease. If you catch it early, you can contain it. Don’t let that fear grow in your son.”
This was not at all how David had expected this to go.
“Mr. Burton, I wanted to thank you for this opportunity, but I have to ask, why me?”
William returned to tossing the ball between his hands and turned to look out the windows once more.
“There was a certain honesty in your request. No attempt to try and impress me with fancy writing or credentials. I had my assistant Rose do a little research on you. You have never written what would be considered a big story and I wanted to give you a very dangerous gift. Whatever you write from today, because of my association with it, will gain national attention. I must warn you, though, that success and popularity are very powerful. They have a way of revealing a man’s true character. Most men do not like what they see when that happens. But it is a rare gift. After you publish this story, you will have a chance to see yourself more clearly than you ever have before. Your test will be what you do with that knowledge.”
David sat there in silence for a moment. There was an intensity in everything this man said that he was unaccustomed to. Swallowing deeply, he reached down to retrieve his recorder and notepad.
“Um, thank you again.”
David set the recorder gently on the desk and placed the yellow legal pad on his lap. He had whittled the list of questions down to five pages. Some were his, but most had come from some of the more experience journalists at the paper that he had gone to for advice.
“Are you happy?”
David was caught off guard by the question and looked up to find William staring at him.
“Uh, yeah, I mean yes. I think so.”
“You think so?”
Without moving it seemed as if William had pulled David closer. His eyes held a warning that his questions were not be taken lightly. The email David received instructed him that he had two hours for the interview, but he got the distinct impression that it could end in the blink of an eye if he made a wrong move.
Nervously he responded, “Well, I think I am as happy as the next guy.”
“And do you think that people in general are truly happy?”
David sat and thought about the neighborhood he grew up in. He thought about his co-workers. He thought about the people that served him his coffee each morning.
“I think so, on some level.”
“On some level.” He spit these words out like they tasted bitter in his mouth. He laid the baseball on his desk and said, “Come with me.”
David grabbed the recorder, but left his notepad as he followed him out of his office. This was not going to a normal interview.
112 stories down it had been a calm day, but the wind whipped at David’s jacket as William led him around a few pipes and over to the edge of the roof. William rested his palms on the small wall that stood between them and a fall that would mean certain death. He looked over the city calmly, while David fought to control his fear of heights.
“This is why you’re here isn’t it?”
Shock held David’s tongue like a vice. This was the spot. Exactly two years ago to the day, this was where William Burton stood ready to commit suicide. The man who had the world in his hands had almost thrown it all away.
When word had gotten out, stock prices plummeted. It was all over the news for months. But over the following two years everything changed. The company rebounded and was exceeding quarterly projections like clockwork. William Burton had gone from ruthless CEO to one of America’s leading philanthropists. Countless news outlets had guessed at the how, but not one had a clue as to the why.
Shock loosed its hold on David’s tongue and gave way to the curiosity that drives all journalists.
“Is this the spot?”
“Does it scare you to come back to this place?”
“No. I am a different man than I was back then.”
“I met someone who changed my life.”
William laughed for the first time revealing a soft side, the existence of which David had been wondering about since he first shrank under William’s stare.
“No. Not a woman. I met a master of life. A guru of sorts. Something like a life coach to help me along the way.”
“Where did you find this person? Who are they?”
David caught himself being drawn into the mystery. William turned away from the city below them and looked at him. The fierceness in his eyes had returned.
“The doctors have informed me that he does not have much time left and I will not destroy that time by allowing hordes of reporters to harass him.”
“I’m sorry. Can I ask what he has taught you?”
“He taught me how to see. I used to think having vision was the most important thing. Vision was what allowed me to take this company from nothing to a Fortune 500 entity. I was proud of my ability to look ahead and see trends and opportunities. I had a gift that other men dreamed of. But I missed the details of each day. I saw what this company could be and drove it there, but I lost sight of myself along the way. I was so busy becoming successful that I never stopped to ask if that is what I truly wanted. I worked so hard to reach the top that I never even considered that it might be the wrong mountain.”
“And this man taught you this?”
“Yes. And so much more.”
“He taught me how to laugh.”
A picture of William Burton sitting in a desk as a teacher lectured on “Laughing 101” flashed into David’s mind and caused him to chuckle. To his surprise William joined him and let out a joyous laugh with him.
“Everyone knows how to laugh.”
“Two years ago I was filled with so much anger. I don’t even know what I was angry at. Myself I guess. Did you know that the average child laughs 150 times a day, but adults laugh less than ten? Everyone knows how to laugh when they are young, but some forget along the way.”
David thought about that for a moment and mourned.
“What made you listen to this man?”
“He lived it. It wasn’t some philosophy that he had learned in college or a set of ideals that were easy to sell. He was happy. And I found myself in a place where that was all I wanted and the only thing I could not get on my own.”
David found himself amazed at the man who stood before him, but not in the way he had imagined he would be.
“What was the first step? The first thing he taught you?”
William looked down as his mind searched back to those first days. A smile broke out on his face as he looked up.
“He taught me to appreciate the little things. The things we overlook each day. They are all special and unique. A breeze brushing across your face. The funny way someone sneezes. These little things are what life is made of and only by enjoying them can we see what life is about. They are like the cells that make up our bodies. A billion tiny pieces make the whole. If you ignore the cells in your stomach they will cry out for food. If you keep ignoring them, eventually they will stop. Ignore them long enough and you will die. When we ignore all the little moments and idiosyncrasies of life we slowly kill the spirit within us.”
They talked on top of the world for another hour sharing stories, fears, dreams, and laughs. As William led them back down to the reception area to end their time together, David felt like he had just spent the morning with an old friend and not one of the most powerful businessmen in America.
“Thank you for your time today Mr. Burton.”
“Thank you for sharing it with me. I feel like I made the right choice in selecting you. The world needs someone to remind them that life is more than everything we have been made to think it’s about. I hope you can do that.”
The weight of that statement pressed down on David’s mind.
“I realize that this is very unprofessional, but may I ask you a favor?”
“Could I call you sometime, about life stuff. I feel like I’ve grown just by being here today, but I know that I will have a million more questions. I don’t have anyone to go to that I know will have the answers.”
William pulled a business card out of his breast pocket and handed it to him. It was a sacred trust between men and one that David knew he would never betray.
After their goodbyes, David watched William head back into his office wishing they had more time. His last glimpse of the man he would now call his friend was of him heading straight for his desk. Just as the doors were closing William picked up the baseball once more.
William was lost in thought when the familiar bump bump of the railroad tracks signaled that he was almost to his destination. Spending time with the one who had taught him how to live again was one of his favorite things, but thoughts of the disease that would take him away assaulted the joy he felt. All his money and power could only delay the inevitable for a short time and that time was almost out.
The driver pulled up to the small brick house with an overgrown lawn and stopped. He had offered to take them out of this run down neighborhood, but they stubbornly refused. In fact they had refused every gift he had ever tried to give them.
He placed the baseball into the glove on his left hand and knocked on the door. Moments later he was greeted with the words that never ceased to make his heart skip a beat.
“William! Mom, William’s here! Can I go out and play?”
Without waiting for an answer, the small 11 year-old boy, made even smaller by the disease that wracked his body, grabbed his glove off the table by the door and closed it behind him.
“Hey buddy! How are you feeling today?”
“Ah, I’m ok. It doesn’t matter how I feel. It’s just how I choose to feel that matters.”
William took a few paces back to begin their traditional game of catch. The distance had shortened considerably in the past few months as strength slowly ebbed in his best friend. He threw the ball softly and they fall into the rhythm of conversing with each toss.
“I told a man about all the great things you have taught me today.”
“Whatever man.” He said with a laugh before throwing the ball back. “I showed the kids in my class the pictures from Fenway. They couldn’t believe I got to meet Dustin Pedroia!”
They laughed and talked with each toss until the sun slipped behind the horizon.
Copyright © 2011 Adam Drake