Day 197: He Doesn’t “Get To” Go To Work Tomorrow
Nothing goes on in the Meijer parking lot at 4 AM. You might think that nothing good happens, but honestly, it’s probably nothing at all. All of the drunks went home. Nobody’s looking for trouble at this hour. They’re all warm in their cozy beds, couches, tents and other sleeping habitats. But he’s wide awake, running on fumes and emotion, sitting in his truck, staring out into the darkness. The AM radio makes faint hisses and pops, the same ones that have been his travel companion for most of his life. He’s ready. But he’s not ready. But he’s ready. Or as ready as he’ll ever be.
The weather in Flint is 34° & Pantone 19-3924. The wind blows north at a pedestrian 6 MPH. He’s probably under-dressed, but he doesn’t care. He turns off the ignition, takes a deep breath, puts his mask on and goes out into the night. He tries his best to make note of every sensation. Of the asphalt underneath his feet, the smell of the cold air and the hum of the lights overhead. This is it. The last stop on his route.
He takes it all in.
Because this will be the last time.
The store’s emptier than usual. The one night shift cashier stands at register 32, face buried in her phone. A couple of late night shoppers peacefully fill their carts. The floors are freshly buffed and his shoes squeak on them with every step. The back room reeks of cardboard and stale beer. The way it always was and the way it always will be. His stack of trays is higher than usual. They must know. Or maybe it’s because of Easter weekend. With a grunt, he gets it in motion and wheels it to his aisle. The shelves have seen better days. Holes everywhere, loaves on the floor, misplaced Wonder Bread. The way it always was and the way it always will be. That’s what he keeps reminding himself. The stores and the universe that houses them will go on and will always be the same. In both the physical realm and in his mind.
There’s a certain sense of satisfaction in stacking bread. It’s an imperfect, organic shape that only needs a little bit of precision to stack uniformly. But they have to be able to stand on their own. If the loaf next to it gets pulled out, it should stay put. It’s possible if balanced properly. Like a reverse game of Jenga. It’s an art form that he never expected to master, but life comes at you fast.
He started almost exactly 35 years ago. It was a Union gig that paid well, he had an extra mouth to feed and [hopefully] another one on the way. He was given a trusty steed that he aptly named Edwina and was given a route. It didn’t take long for it to click. He always enjoyed working at grocery stores and interacting with the good folks that inhabit them. He even met his wife at one. Not that he was looking for another one, but you know, some good people work in grocery stores. It became his own little community. Everyone knew his name, said their pleasantries, he’d get to work on the shelf and then be on his merry way. Never there sparsely enough to be a stranger, never there long enough to get sick of it.
Some men spend their time in the garage. Some men work on their lawns. Some men drink and some men watch too much TV. He worked. That was him. That was his thing. He always preached to his kids, “You don’t have to go to work. You get to go to work”. He found that working a job he enjoyed was a privilege. He also found that working any job was a privilege. If you saw what he probably saw, in inner-city Flint in the 90s, you’d probably agree with him. He never complained about working 7 days a week. He didn’t mind waking up at 3 in the morning. Even as Edwina deteriorated, he was happy to have her. When her radio died, he dug out an old handheld AM/FM. When the heater broke, he rigged a space heater (which definitely was not safe).
By the time Edwina died, things started to change. One by one, his friends were retiring. Some of the grocery stores on his route closed down. His kids grew up, one becoming an accountant, another being, well, umm, happy he guesses. Even though the money was no longer needed as much, he kept his foot on the gas. He picked up routes whenever he could. He’d only take vacation in December, in some crackpot hopes of getting a seasonal job at UPS or FedEx or god forbid DHL. He existed like a shark, always moving, never considering reprieve. He wouldn’t have it any other way. But the nature of his job started to evolve. His routes got changed exclusively to Meijer stores. Big, busy, heartless boxes where he was just a cog in the machine. He no longer had a delivery truck, as the bread was already waiting for him at every store. Suddenly, his purpose diminished. Nobody cared about the presentation of the shelves because they would all be wrecked by lunchtime anyway. But none of that bothered him, as he still had a job to do and shuddered to think what it would be like if someone else did it. We are all on a quest in life to find meaning and purpose. Some people choose religion, some choose human relationships, he chose his work. It was his own way of letting everyone know that he existed, whether it be by presenting a properly stocked and faced shelf of bread or by just a smile, a wave or a friendly conversation. Even if those moments were few and far in between.
As years went on, he knew it was time to hang it up. He chose 02/02/2020 to be his retirement date a long time ago. It was long enough in the future to seem like it would never come but still tangible enough to get everyone to shut up about the matter. But as that date got closer, it gnawed at the back of his head. What was he going to do? Who would he be? Is merely existing going to be fulfilling at the end of the day? Those questions ate at him, but then came to a screeching halt with less than a year left. He developed a cough. The cough got worse. It turned into a fever. And then the impossible happened: he called in sick to work. The act shook his body to its core, literally and physically. The shark had stopped moving. Suddenly, his body was vulnerable. His shoulder started hurting a little. In fact, it was hurting really bad. Actually, no, it was impossible to move. Turns out, it was fractured. Nobody knows how it happened or how long it had been that way. When the shark keeps moving, nothing can cause it harm. One little cough evolved into him being out of work for 4 months.
The experience was an awakening for him. He came to terms with his own mortality and how much work was affecting him. He got used to a different routine, albeit one much more relaxing. He got to spend more time with his wife, who believe it or not, he still loves immensely. The time he spent out was a fine preview of the life ahead of him. But adjustments had to be made. He decided to change his retirement date. Give himself one more year. One last score, as it were. But of course, it couldn’t be any date, it had to be a gimmicky date. He could do 2/22/22 or 12/22/21 or even 5/2/25. But one date called out to him. He set his countdown to 4/3/21.
Which is today.
Which is right now.
Which is the shift that is currently ending.
He takes one last look at the shelf before leaving. He tinkers with a loaf of Hillbilly Bread. There. It’s sturdy now. He says a couple of goodbyes to people starting up their shifts. He remembers again to feel the asphalt on his feet and stow it away for a rainy day. He slams the door shut, takes off his mask and tosses it to the dusty dashboard. The same dashboard that housed his rolled-up neckties. The neckties he doesn’t need anymore. The truck roars alive and he makes that drive. The drive that he memorized better than the back of his hand. The drive he did every day for 35 years. The drive he can probably do while asleep. The cracks and pops of the radio massages his head as he feels the weight. The weight of the world is now off his shoulders, which in turn brings on a whole new weight. What comes next? What is he gonna do? And the answer is simple: he’s going to do whatever he wants. Maybe he’ll get into Bond movies or take up repairing cuckoo clocks. Maybe he’ll visit his son and daughter-in-law more often. Maybe he’ll travel more in general. He could do anything. His life is suddenly a blank slate. He crammed all of his life with work so now there’s no riff-raff getting in the way of enjoying his retirement. It’s a rather unorthodox way of going about it, but he did it.
As he pulls into the driveway, he decides that if there’s one thing he’s going to do, it’s sleep. And he goes straight to bed to do just that. He lays down next to his wife and savors the moment. The birds are awake, chirping away and the first light of the day is creeping into the window. The outside world is waking up and going about its business. The way it always has, the way it always will. He closes his eyes and he’s instantly asleep. And there they are. Two sentient beings, both in love with nothing to do, ready to spend the rest of their lives together.
He doesn’t get to go to work tomorrow.
He gets to do whatever he wants.
I love you, Dad. Congratulations on starting the rest of your life.