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The Lesson

After my graduation from high school I took a clerical job with a Buenos Aires insurance company. The job was extremely unpleasant and I found myself among some pretty annoying people with whom I had nothing in common, but as I was barely eighteen years old, I didn't much care.

It was a ten-storey building served by four elevators. Three of them were assigned to the personnel in general, without regard to rank or position. But the fourth elevator — which was carpeted in red and had three mirrors and special décor — was reserved for the exclusive use of the company president, the members of the Board of Directors and the general manager. This meant that only they could ride the red elevator, but this would not prevent them from using the other three.

I had never laid eyes either on the company president or the members of the Board of Directors. But, every once in a while, and always from a distance, I caught sight of the general manager, with whom, nevertheless, I had never exchanged a single word. He was a man of about fifty years of age, and had a "noble" and "lordly" bearing. I considered him to be a sort of cross between an old-time Argentine gentleman and a thoroughly incorruptible magistrate of some supreme court. His graying hair, his neatly-trimmed mustache, his conservative suits and his affable manners had made me — and I detested all my immediate bosses — feel some degree of fondness toward don Fernando. That is how they addressed him: don plus his given name and without the family name, a form of address somewhere between what might seem like familiarity and the veneration owed to a feudal lord.

The offices occupied by don Fernando and his retinue took up the entire fifth floor of the building. Our section was on the third floor, but, since I was the least important employee, they would send me from one floor to another to run errands. On the tenth floor there were only some ill-tempered old men and ugly women who always seemed to be enraged about something or other. Up there a kind of dossier was kept active in which, five minutes before leaving the premises, I had to — without fail — leave a bundle of papers containing summaries of all the tasks carried out in our section that day.

One evening — having already handed in those papers — I was on the tenth floor, ready to go home. I was waiting for the elevator. I was no longer in shirt sleeves, I had put on my jacket, my hair was combed, I had adjusted my necktie and looked in the mirror. I was clutching my leather attaché case.

Suddenly, don Fernando himself was standing beside me, looking as though he too was waiting for the elevator.

I greeted him with the utmost respect: "Good evening, don Fernando."

Don Fernando went beyond a simple greeting. He shook my hand and said, "I'm pleased to meet you, young man. I see that you concluded a fruitful day's labor and are now leaving the premises in search of your well-earned rest."

That attitude and those words — in which I thought I perceived a certain nuance of irony — made me nervous. I felt my face redden.

At that moment, one of the elevators assigned to the "commoners" arrived, and the door opened automatically, revealing a deserted interior. I held the door open by keeping my finger on the button, while saying to don Fernando, "After you, sir."

"No, no; by no means, young man," don Fernando replied with a smile. "You go first."

"No, sir, please. I couldn't. After you, please."

"Get in, young man," he sounded impatient. "Please."

This "please" was pronounced in such a peremptory manner that I had to take it as an order. I bowed slightly and entered the elevator. Don Fernando came in after me.

The doors slid shut.

"Are you going to the fifth floor, don Fernando?"

"To the ground floor. I'm going home just as you are. I believe that I too have a right to some rest, don't you think?"

I didn't know what to say. The presence of that captain of industry — and so close — made me extremely uncomfortable. I forced myself to bear up stoically under the silence that would last for nine floors until we'd come to the ground floor. I didn't have the nerve even to look at don Fernando; instead, I kept staring at my shoes.

"What section do you work in, young man?"

"In Production Management, sir." I had just noticed that don Fernando was quite a bit shorter than I.

"Aha," he stroked his chin with index finger and thumb, "your immediate boss is Mr. Biotti, if I'm not mistaken."

"Yes, sir. It is Mr. Biotti."

I detested Mr. Biotti, who I thought was a conceited imbecile, but I did not give this information to don Fernando.

"And didn't Mr. Biotti ever tell you that you ought to respect the chain of command within the company?"

"Wha, what, sir?"

"What is your name?"

"Roberto Kriskovich."

"Oh, a Polish name."

"No, sir, it's not Polish. It's a Croatian name."

We had finally landed on the ground floor. Don Fernando, who was next to the doors, stepped to one side to allow me to go out first.

"Please," he ordered.

"No, sir, please," I answered. I was extremely nervous. "After you."

Don Fernando gave me a look that seemed to bore a hole in me.

"Young man, please, I implore you, get out."

Intimidated, I obeyed.

"It's never too late to learn, young man," he said, as he stepped out into the street ahead of me. "Have a cup of coffee on me."

And so we went into the corner cafeteria, with don Fernando leading the way, me following behind. This is how I found myself face to face with the general manager with nothing but the table separating us.

"How long have you been working for the company?"

"I began last December, sir."

"In other words, it hasn't even been a year that you've worked here."

"It will be nine months next week, don Fernando."

"Well then: I've been with this firm for twenty seven years." He gave me another of those hard looks.

Since I felt he expected some reaction from me, I nodded my head, trying to show some kind of restrained admiration.

He slipped a small calculator out of his pocket.

"Twenty seven years, multiplied by twelve months, make a total of three hundred twenty four months. Three hundred twenty four months divided by nine months come out to thirty six. This means that I've been with the company thirty six times longer than you have. What's more, you are merely a common employee while I am the general manager. Lastly, you are only nineteen or twenty years of age, and I am fifty two. Isn't that so?"

"Yes, yes, of course."

"Besides, you're taking courses at the University, aren't you?"

"Yes, don Fernando, I'm majoring in Literature, with a specialization in Greek and Latin."

He made a face, as if he had been personally insulted. He said, "At any rate, let's see if you actually graduate. On the other hand, I have the doctorate in Economics, having graduated with extremely high grades."

I lowered my head to show humility.

He continued, "And, things being as they are, don't you think I deserve special consideration?"

"Yes, sir. Absolutely."

"Well then, how did you have the gall to get into the elevator ahead of me…? And, as if that show of audacity weren't enough, you got out before I did."

"Well, sir, I didn't want to be impertinent or stubborn. It's just that you were so insistent…"

"Whether I'm insistent or not is my business. But you should have realized that under no circumstances whatsoever should you get into the elevator before I do. Or get out before I do. Or, worse yet, contradict me. Why did you tell me that your family name is Croatian when I told you it was Polish?"

"But it really is a Croatian name; my parents were born in Split, Yugoslavia."

"I don't care where your parents were born or where they weren't born. If I say that your name is Polish, you cannot, and must not, contradict me."

"I apologize, sir. I'll never do it again."

"Very good. So your parents were born in Split, Yugoslavia?"

"No, sir. They were not born there."

"And where were they born?"

"In Krakow, Poland."

"How strange!" Don Fernando opened his arms, showing his amazement. "How can it be that you have a Croatian family name when your parents are Polish?"

"The fact is that, due to a family dispute with legal ramifications, all four of my grandparents emigrated from Yugoslavia to Poland. And my parents were born in Poland."

Don Fernando's face darkened with an enormous sadness.

"I am much older than you, and I believe I don't deserve to be made a fool of. Tell me, young man, how could you even think of weaving such a web of bald-faced lies? How could you even think that I could believe that hare-brained fairy tale? Didn't you tell me previously that your parents were born in Split?"

"Yes, sir, but since you told me that I shouldn't contradict you, I admitted that my parents were born in Krakow."

"Be that as it may, you have lied to me."

"Yes, sir, that's right: I've lied to you."

"Lying to your superior betrays an enormous lack of respect and furthermore, just like any false information, constitutes a danger to the welfare of the company."

"That is true, sir. I agree with everything you're saying."

"Well said, my boy, and I'm even inclined to see a modicum of value in you, now that I see you so docile and reasonable. But I want you to undergo one final test. We have had two cups of coffee. Who will pick up the tab?"

"I would be glad to do it."

"You have lied to me once again. You, who receive a very low salary, cannot be happy to pay for the general manager's coffee when you know the general manager makes more in one month than you will in two years. So, I'm asking you not to lie to me and to tell me the truth: Is it true that you like paying for my coffee?"

"No, don Fernando, the truth is that I don't like it."

"But, despite the fact that you don't like it, are you prepared to do it?"

"Yes, don Fernando, I'm prepared to do it."

"Well then, go ahead and do it! Pay and don't make me waste more time, for heaven's sake!"

I called the waiter over and paid for the two coffees. We went out into the street, don Fernando ahead of me. We found ourselves at the entrance to the subway.

"Very well, young man, I'm going to have to take my leave of you now. I sincerely hope you have internalized the lesson and that you will profit from it in the future."

He shook my hand and went down the stairs to the Florida subway station.

I've already said that I didn't like that job. Before the year was up, I took a less unpleasant job with another company. During the last two months I worked for that insurance company, I saw don Fernando a couple of times, but always from a distance, so I never again received any other lessons from him.