Fill ‘Er Up

From the series: Old, Embarrassing Shit that Lies Dormant on Writer’s Cafe That’s Gonna Get Lost if I Don’t Transplant it Somewhere. So here’s its new home.

Robert fills his car up on Monday. He drives it to his job, Monday thru Friday, and runs his kids to indoor soccer and the dentist and church on Sunday where he might stay afterward to help clean or prep for something or another like bingo this Wednesday. This week he’ll also run to Home Depot for an extra box of Christmas lights. His wife has her own car and is pretty religious though Robert really isn’t.

By Sunday night, Robert’s car is empty. He’ll need to get it filled up on Monday morning, which he does religiously, before starting this routine in most of its details all over again.

Dan fills his car up on Monday morning too, after he goes to the bakery around 6:30. He gets a cinnamon twist and a danish, unless either is already sold out. He likes pastries with chopped nuts on them and wishes they had bear claws. He always liked bear claws as a kid, but maybe just because they sounded neat. On his way to the bakery, he will amuse himself with the thought “time to make the donuts” many times. This will go on for a while, until he’s eaten them.

After donuts, Dan likes to fill his truck, which is usually close to empty.  Robert and Dan are often at the same station, around the same time, on Mondays. They both like using their weekly accumulated fuel points at this station, both of them being at least fairly frugal guys.

If they see each other, Dan always nods to Robert in recognition. If their pumps are close enough, they might even speak. There were a few times when Dan’s nod went unacknowledged but he let it slide cause, all in all, Robert seems like a pretty good fella.

Other days Dan gets up around 10 a.m. He has his morning coffee, showers and prepares to head out for lunch and the paper. He usually wears a hat outdoors, more out of comfort and habit than vanity. He’s bald but frequently removes his hat when indoors or driving, proving to himself his lack of self-consciousness. Being a thrifty fella with only scalp scraps left, he buzzes his own hair. “No need to pay for what I can do myself,” he tells himself. Plus, there is no discount for trimming a half rather than full head, which irks him some. “Why don’t they charge by area?”, he’s thought, giving no further consideration to the impracticality of the measurement and calculations involved. His lack of vanity allows him to forgo the typical post-cut preening that might otherwise highlight a trim sometimes as uneven as a lawn mowed with a dull blade. Thankfully, there’s the ball cap, worn in even unseasonably cold months, to conceal that when it happens.

Dan takes pride in being “old school” by reading the printed version of the paper, though the partial catalyst for this is fear of using a credit card for the online version, which a subscription to the digital form requires. Sports and the obituaries are his favorites. The classifieds and funnies, not so much. The city used to have two newspapers, which was pleasant when he could disdainfully smirk at the other as he paid the thirty-five cents for his daily dose of editorial affirmation.

Today, after picking up the paper at the convenience store, he weighs his lunch options. Chicken fingers or nuggets, bacon cheeseburgers, soft tacos and gordita crunch? Dan is tight with a dollar and realizes that the best value is usually fast food. Plus, you don’t have to leave a tip.

So he deliberates over his lunch choice as most people might over what outfit they’ll wear for the holiday. It’s one of those things that, when there’s little else to think about, it begins to carry far more weight than it might otherwise.

He decides today it’ll the be the XXL Triple Stuft Burrito, Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes and Cinnamon Twists. He already has a bottle of cold soda brought from home, green bottled and sharing space in the cupholder with a few coins and fingernail shards. He remembers that later in the week KFC will be bringing back the Double Down, which he’s anticipating like the season premier of his favorite television series. They have an advertisement hanging in their window for it, much like a movie poster. But today he’ll be satisfied with Mexican.

He pulls his Hemi Ram round the drive thru. In exchange for some money, the kid at the window hands him the sack and some change.

“Thank you”, says Dan, sternly.

The kid in his stupid outfit and headset barely replies, “Uh huh.”

“I said, “THANK YOU””, Dan barks, demanding recognition for his social grace.

The kid looks upward in exaggerated exasperation. “Thank you too, SIR.”  By now the kid knows the routine and doesn’t need any extra hassles from some slob paying $8.36 for his lunch to a nineteen-year-old making minimum wage, in a stupid outfit and a line of cars still to be served. Long ago this kid’d accepted his role as “burrito flinger” as well as punching bag for the peons of the world with chips on their shoulders. Feeling a bit flushed, Dan pulls on through while the kid thinks about the next order with a vague hope for getting drunk or handjobbed on Friday.

Dan drives over to the park to delight in his meal. The feeling of self-righteous for this act of unsung social justice is a condiment to this lunch that ought to go down especially easy today. He slams the V8 into park, thinking, “A punk like him needs to be put in his place and learn some respect and manners.”  It’s a moment of reflective self-gratification in a world that doesn’t afford many opportunities for that.  Dan is full of aplomb as he unwraps the burrito and takes a generous bite. Its infused chilis sting the whitish bump on his inner cheek that he’s aroused by nipping at it with his teeth and probing it with his tongue. So he switches his chewing to the other side.

He likes pulling up to the lake this time of year, when it is cold and there are no screaming kids running around the water park. He enjoys eating and reading the paper in peace. In winter, on days like today, he likes to crank the heat. In the summer, he likes to crank the A/C even though these cause that Hemi to really suck the gas while he sits there idling for the next hour or so. This practice goes against his scrimpy sensibilities but he’s even more averse to physical discomforts such as hot and cold, so he makes the exception.

Being one of those people who eats one thing in its entirety before moving on to the next, he finishes the burrito, then pops the lid on the tiny styrofoam bowl containing the side of Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes. He rests the bowl precariously between his thighs, an obviously calculated risk as a point of attack. The bowl is white and barely warm, with the burrito company’s logo tacked around it.  With plastic fork, he spreads the centric golden goo and dollop of sour cream as evenly among the golden cubes as possible. This way, in attacking this side item at its epicenter – from the standpoint of physics, the better spot to apply force – his first bite will consume an amount of accoutrement roughly equal to those on the perimeter, so that those at the end aren’t left naked.

His choice of first piece is not haphazard. First consideration – it must be centrally located, lest to send the bowl tumbling from acute imbalance. The second is a purely subjective, aesthetic response with each chunk representing a unique blend of color and form. It’s a visceral, not intellectual, choice, as one might react to a Rothko over Pollock or vice versa. In this case, however, the medium of his masters is corn or soybean oil rather than the linseed of the abstract masters.

He targets a wishfully succulent one. He pierces it gently through the marbled mix of processed cheese and sour cream and green onion garnish. Though lukewarm, it is still satisfying. He repeats several more times, working from the middle outward. On his fifth or sixth probe, the bottom of the styrofoam bowl completely splits. Like children through a tubular slide, the potatoes and cheese burst through, leaving a yellowy processed pile in the lap of Dan’s navy fleece pants. “FUCKING DEFECT!!!!!!” he rages. The cab barely contains the violent eruption. A group of mallards look up from their nearby pecking as he slams the steering wheel with his fist screaming, “fuck, fuck, fuck!!!!”, wondering why he is such a victim of the world’s hateful follies and throwing caution to the wind regarding a potential triggering of the airbag.  He scoops the vengeful pile into handfuls of napkins, tossing them out the window in disgust and fury. The mallards wonder what it is and alertly waddle their way in his direction, curious but cautious from the outburst. Dan wipes at the mess, which leaves him oily stained with a film resembling flaxen phlegm or semen. Or egg yolk. Resembling a monkey picking at lice, he removes the bits of green onion with his fingers. The onion bits blend in well with his navy sweatpants and confuse him with the pilling. This all gives strain to his aging eyes and adds to his already considerable anger.

He violently discards the newspaper into the passenger’s side footwell. He realizes that impulse has ruined the crumpled mass and he hasn’t yet completely read the sports section. He takes a moment to compose himself. His heart is racing at RPM’s unhealthy. HIs face and ears are fiery. It occurs to him how his sister-in-law had told him how utterly childish and worthless these outbursts are. He still dislikes her for the criticism, no matter how correct.  He takes a deep breath and exhales it through dilated and black-haired nostrils, hoping to shift into a higher gear.

He decides to try calming himself by absorbing the serenity of the the scene. He takes several more deep breaths, noticing that the cattails are mostly bent and broken and khaki. Deep breath. The thinks how some days there’s a runner running in the distance. Deep breath. Other days geese or ducks may fly overhead, honking or quacking in formation. Another day there’d be a deer, maybe two or three. Sometimes, nothing. Today the lake is partly frozen. Deep breath. The mallards are close to his truck now, inspecting. The sun reflects at different angles and intensities whether from the water or the ice that lay on the surface like continents on a map. Deep breath. The sun makes Dan squint, which isn’t enough, so he flips down the visor since the newspaper’s of no use for that anymore.

Dan absorbs all this, nutrients both internal and external, but his inner peace rarely mimics the tranquility of the world outside that sweltering cab. He has an acknowledged tendency to think about too many things, most frequently, his family. Plus, today’s potato spillage has him especially pressurized.

He’s been divorced nearly 40 years now. The bitterness of the divorce is something he feels far beyond the years of its initial pain, kinda like an emotional phantom limb. The wife had left him over some series of trivialities that he’d yet to fully understand or forgive her for. Then, when their daughter was 16, she moved her all the way from Ohio to Oregon. The daughter is married now, with a daughter of her own, Melissa, and husband, Chase. She still lives in Oregon and Dan can still remember the amount of each of those monthly child support checks by year.

He sits for a few moments reflecting on what bitches most women are for abandoning and neglecting decent guys like him. He’d always worked. He hadn’t beaten his wife. He wasn’t a drunk or junkie or pedophile or a pathetic racetrack bum. After they’d divorced, he paid his child support on time and even took his daughter to where she wanted to go for her birthday, at least a time or two. Not only did his ex-wife and daughter not seem overly enamored by the glamor of all his principles and righteous conduct, neither had any other women been drawn by the magnetism of all these acts of sober responsibility. His mind switches channels to a memory of all those Harlequin Romance novels his mother had piled in her bedroom when she was alive. She’d barely known who Gloria Steinem was and was still the most admirable women he’d ever known.

Dan kindles his harassing ruminations by turning on the radio as he normally does around this time. Today the host is screaming and ranting about Christmas. Dan is more or less a bah-humbug sorta guy when it comes to Christmas so he has to settle all this vitriol with a higher cause, which the bellicose voice is happy to oblige him. Thankfully, when the micro isn’t an easily self-identifiable principle, there’s always at least a few macro principles for that truculent voice to formulate it into. So, even if you aren’t a Christian or Christmas reveler, the attack on Christmas is still an attack on free-speech and freedom of expression, something every upstanding and conscientious American can relate to. Dan can relate so obviously it pisses him off real good too.

Like most days, he’ll fester in that cab for a while, allowing his percolating consternation to further stratify a mind already well fortified against efforts at self-analysis or reflection. He doesn’t need those anyway because the angry voice reassures him of his self-conception as a rather simple, wholesome and one-dimensional patriarch for freedom and common sense, the former of which he has the plate frame to prove.

Dan knows he’ll be especially entertained today if the hectoring turns to how men like him get fucked in divorce court. He finds the topic delightful. There are still a few embers in his tepid soul that this voice is a master at stoking, which is a refreshing reminder that this mostly feckless spirit retains at least a slightly cullable vigor.

Hopefully they’ll get to the divorce thing before he has to leave to get home in time for CHiPS. He’d thought CHiPS was a trite show when it originally aired but now he tries to catch the reruns most afternoons. His mother had always remarked how handsome Eric Estrada was. In the meantime, it’s fun to hear the welfare pukes and illegal immigrants degraded and smeared. There seems to be a perversion in this pleasure of wallowing in these portraits of the worst of society’s worse. But Dan never reaches the level of self meta-analysis to ever comprehend this or question why it appeals to him as it does. Dan’s thoughts are rarely existential. Thankfully, his lunch is digesting rather nicely today.

Still, there are times when all the ranting and raving and nonsense do incite pangs of discord, even if unconsciously, from the difficulty of settling ideologies that seem at odds. On the drive home, he might try to temper this angst by switching the station to classical music or classic rock or sports talk. These sometimes help sooth his mind in a way he hopes the Prilosec might ease the looming heartburn from that XXL burrito. So today, he pushes button two. The radio lands on Werewolves of London. “One fucking song!!! Always the same one!!!”, he says aloud. “This guy doesn’t have any other hits?” He hates the aloofness of the tune. He presses program three. It’s sports talk, more like sports complaining, about why the star pitcher of the team on his hat lost control of his slider last season. The sports talker knows why and what the pitcher should do and  now Dan does too. He leaves it on program three.

He pulls away from that spot by the lake, sufficiently primed for the rest of the day and night with fear of Russian identity theft and hatred for most people and ideas that don’t agree with his own. He cracks the window just a bit, giving some fresh breath to that cab and a freedom to the whims of its ventilation that stir smells of fried food and Armor All and contempt and a body chemistry not quite right. Not foul…..but off. Off – like a dairy product on the cusp of expiring or the smell of pear blossoms that might get mistaken for puppy piss if indoors. But he is used to all this. There is nothing funny or strange or peculiar about any of it, including the odors. Driving away in a different direction, he flips the visor back up.

A few minutes later, Dan pulls into his driveway. The neighbor’s dog, Bullet, runs to its fence, happy to see him. Dan likes the dog. He’d been given permission to toss him a treat or slip one through the fence every now and then. Dan prefers poking it through the fence, bestowing it to him like a communion wafer. This way he can really see the depth of gratitude in Bullet’s slippery eyes that express more endearment than any stupid Christmas cards left unsent.

Bullet loves Dan’s dollar store treats, the selection of which had been more than a petty decision. For, before the initial purchase, Dan’d gone to the store and inspected all the packages for their country of production. Thankfully, they were all made in America, proudly proclaimed by some patriotic graphic on each package. This further confirms his skepticism of all those foreign processed foods being suspicious if not outright unacceptable for human consumption. After all, if the dog treats were proclaimed American made, it had to be because of who-knows-what the Indonesians and Peruvians put in theirs, just like the chemicals and rodent parts and whatever else they’re allowing in the sardines and olives they send us. So, he was right again. It was heartening to know too that this discount store, by shelving all Made in U.S.A. dog snacks, was relieving him of several of the variables of moral consideration in making this purchase…..considerations of quality, value, cost, safety and patriotism that, for him were necessary in this decision and most others.

He turns off the ignition and opens the door to be slapped by the December freeze. He shuffles his ass to a farty sound until one foot is able to reach the ground, toes tapping first, like a decidedly decrepit version of a sideline catch. He lurches and wheezes one last time to release his asscrack, now furrowed in the bucket seat’s outer ridge. The knees are getting old so he exchanges the weight from seat to legs easefully. Bullet barks. Before he enters the house, with 10 minutes to go before CHiPS, he thinks for a moment about the old Ram and all the life it’s given him. For most folks, a car is just a car but, like most things with Dan, if it is his, it has to be special. This applies to his vehicle as well as his routine thoughts and actions, such as buying those dog treats. For, unlike most,  he could see the consequence in the inconsequential. As pertained to him, the ordinary was usually extraordinary – the bland became grand. In keeping with this principle, he’d named his pickup Old Brute or just Brute for short. Naming it might seem silly, but Brute has been reliable and faithful to him unlike most people. So why not personalize the relationship?

Brute has over 250,000 miles on her which makes him very proud. You see, by Brute still running, it’s proof that he’s gotten some real shit straight about the world. It is a living testament to Dan’s rightness and practicality and his more than sound decision making.  “Right isn’t wrong and wrong isn’t right,” he likes to say, indulging in a double dip of ontological truth while wilfully disregarding considerations of degree or amount. Now, Brute’s legacy is as much about Dan being right about something important as it is about getting him from point A to point B.  For there is a gleaming satisfaction in the revealed truth that needing to change the oil every three thousand miles is a complete fallacy. And you don’t have to waste money on premium gas like a lot of nitwits think. Brute’s longevity is a daily testament to this secretly held and rarely shared wisdom. He attempted to share these with a few in his inner circle who, for whatever reason, chose not to follow. “Their loss. It is what it is,” he muses of their cavalier attitudes toward life and mechanics.

Dan is as proud of the sensibleness of Brute’s tires as somebody else would be of the most expensive, raised white-lettered set.  And, he doesn’t care that the baked on brake dust distracts from whatever modest cosmetic allure his tires might possess. There are just a couple of bubbly rust spots around the wheel wells semi-circling those sensible tires. But those spots haven’t even broken the surface like a zithead yet so, overall, she’s in damn solid shape.

He treats Brute with far more care than he does himself, in most part because its maintenance can be handed off which, even at $90 an hour in mechanic’s labor, is worth the averted frustration and learning involved in doing it yourself. Plus, there is just as much satisfaction in paying for it yourself as there is in doing it yourself. Both have equal merit with the common denominator being self. This is a conviction Dan loves to share, though few seem that interested in being enlightened by it. Again, their loss.

He slams Brute’s door, then walks up his cracked concrete steps, playfully sneering at Bullet, who is now wagging and jittering and hopping and yipping to breath that looks like engine exhaust in the winter cold.

Dan hears his neighbor yell from inside “Settle down!!!!!!”

Dan thinks, “It’s okay. We’re buddies.”

Bullet continues to bark.

As he jingles his keys, waiting for the right one to emerge from the clattering chaos, he hears, “Shut up!!!!! He doesn’t have any treats!!!!!!”

The right key presents itself. He inserts it into the lock and it turns.

The screaming at Bullet came from the fat sausage of a wife of the deadbeat who lives next door. Her name is Andi and, no matter what she wears, looks like a mettwurst set to split its casing – especially in the back yard, bending over to scoop up Bullet’s waste, saying a time or two, “Daryll’d be out here doing this if it wasn’t for his vertigo.”

“What garbage this Daryll is,” he’d thought. She outta scoop him up and dump him out like she does Bullet’s shit. Daryll can’t even be fifty yet and is living off the disability of this “vertigo”. By the looks of things, he just bought a brand new Nissan. Where’d he get the money if he wasn’t working? From her? His parents?, he wondered.

As if to spite him, Daryll is always out in the garage or yard doing something to cause a ruckus and draw attention to himself. To Dan it is his neighbor’s way off exclaiming, “look at me, I got nothing better to do than fuck off with these petty chores all day.” In fact, just yesterday, he was out in the driveway with the leafblower. The leafblower in December? The leaves had fallen and been cleaned up over a month ago. In warmer months, Daryll always mows his grass within a day or two of Dan mowing his, regardless of the time between his previous cut. If Daryll mowed his grass on Monday and Dan mowed his on Tuesday, Daryll’d be out there mowing again by Thursday. “It’s just his way of showing the neighborhood he’s not a complete layabout,” he deduces.

The deadbeats and lowlifes like this neighbor really set Dan off. He’d labored over 30 years at the hospital, treated like a dog for much less pay than his surplus of intelligence ever rewarded him.  He’d done what he hadn’t wanted to week after week –  year after year – for his gas and heat and food and vinyl loafers and a couple of Timex watches and his Dodge Ram and child support payments. So why couldn’t this asshole do the same?

Before retiring, Dan was Senior Computer Operations Associate 1, just above Secretary, later turned Administrative Assistant.. Since he first accepted the position, the sum of words and numbers in his title had far exceed any proportional increase in pay. Above him were Coders and Programmers and Data Analysts and Data Management Specialists and Network Administrators and IT Education Officers and Managers and Directors, all of which required more education and social savvy than Dan possessed, though he saw it as something quite different. At least he was titled Senior Computer Operations Associate 1, giving him a degree of status above Junior.

Dan held one of the same two positions that existed because the hospital needed 7 day a week coverage in the event of critical departmental malfunctions. He mostly handled phone calls and fixed printers and installed new monitors and handled orders for new ones when they broke and filled out work tickets for the things he couldn’t fix. Preferred requirements were Associate degree or certificate or 1 year previous experience. Minimum requirements were high-school education or GED. In the days when his opinion seemed more valued, he used to pull for the degreed kids to get hired. He reasoned that they’d work harder and would want and need it more to justify their effort at obtaining a degree. There was also an element of associative displacement in all this which he remained largely unaware of, though all the signs were present had he chosen to examine them. They were expressed mainly in the holiday snarking at his brother’s dinner table about these “lazy college know-it-alls” who he had to coddle like infants into competence in the corporate world – a real punch clock messiah, he was.

His sister-in-law facetiously referred to him as Corporate Dan while his brother would plead for her to show Dan sympathy. “Sympathy for what? He’s an obnoxious windbag,” she’d said. “Coming here every year with his store bought cakes and eating and blabbering like a conceited clown all day. If it wasn’t for not wanting to ruin the day, I’d have called him on his shit a long time ago.”

Last year, between forkfuls of her candied carrots and turkey and scalloped potatoes, he embarked on his “laziness of the younger generation” spiel. His sister-in-law sat through it like Brutus, thinking to herself, “and when’s the last time you broke a sweat over anything other than an extra large pizza?”  She kept it to herself but later vented her vexation at having this demigod occupy space in her home every year.

“But he’s lonely with nowhere to go and nobody to talk to on the holidays. Let’s just keep it to ourselves, okay?”, his brother asked her. She agreed and played the game as an unwilling accomplice to his ego aggrandizement. Dan always liked his brother and could never figure out why he married such a ball-buster.

He started at the hospital as patient transporter but moved his way into this job 25 years before retirement. There had been a lot of rotation in the junior position in that time. There was the kid with some strange skin condition with warts all over his body. His name, he thought, was Ron and he lasted maybe a year. There was a woman, Alison, who smoked a lot. Her breath always smelled of cigarettes or coffee and her boyfriend was an alcoholic. She had very large feet for a woman, he always thought. At least that was the impression her shoes gave. Alison had quit to sell collectible doll figurines at the flea market and online. A lot of his other colleagues presumably went on to bigger and better things but these were the ones he remembered most.

As the economy tightened, the junior position was filled more and more with kids with Associate degrees or even BA’s or BS’s. It was Dan’s job to show these kids the ropes, which, as the years went on, began to wear on him more and more. Most of these kids, with no worldly experience, used his experience, experience he so generously gifted them, to foster themselves to better careers within the hospital or elsewhere. As time went on, Dan had to be called to HR a few times with complaints from the youngsters of him not being cooperative. But, by then, he was a long standing member of the union, being a member since his “wheelchair jockey” days, so he wasn’t too concerned about getting fired or reprimanded. Maybe his raise at year’s end might be lighter by a few cents per hour but it would be worth it to show the tykes, as he liked to call them, that the senior associates – all of them, not just him – deserved respect and consideration and some grace for the sacrifices they were showing the younger and less experienced generations. He’d seen their hair and shoe styles and choices of sugary drinks change and change and change but one thing remained constant – their overall lack of respect. If nobody else would take a stand for his generation, then he would – the martyr of the vested and tenured and technologically detained.

He labored in that position like a polio patient in an iron lung until most of the hospital’s IT finally got outsourced. He was offered two weeks pay for every year he’d been there, plus insurance until age 65, if he decided to leave. He calculated and formulated his future with the care and attention of a general preparing for a foreign invasion. He concluded he could stretch that severance and his saving to 65, then collect his pension and social security. So, he decided to leave.

At work, he’d been a considerable malcontent, inclined to stir things up over how ingracious the hospital and union were in treating him and his fellow employees with disregard and how rising prices in the cafeteria weren’t keeping up with their raises and how nobody ever consulted him anymore about who to hire in his junior position which was mostly to account for all the turnover. Or how their holiday thanks used to include a turkey to take home, now they just got pizza and shared two-liters of soda the week of Christmas. Much of it seemed petty on the surface but, cumulatively, it was a disgrace that Dan was glad to inform anyone who was too stupid or timid to shut him off.

For many years his most precious quibble was over the cafeteria’s coconut cake. When it eventually went up to two dollars…..”two dollars!!!!!”……he protested as if his civil rights had been violated or his favorite song remade into hip-hop. “This gouging is corrupt and vulgar,” he’d dramatically insisted. Dan had reached his breaking point. After that, each new petty offense became a capital crime against the cake – a ten cent increase in price, a sliver less in size, fewer toasted coconut shaving on top. He became a forensics expert of the confection and the cashiers were a particularly easy target for his grousing. Most just nodded in agreement, saying things like, “you’re not the only one to complain but we don’t set the prices” or “yeah, but I ain’t the chef, so……..”  A hospital visitor, unaware of the ritual, once interrupted his sermon to the cashier saying, “Sir. It’s just a piece of cake. I’d like to buy my coffee.” Had he not been at work and at risk for losing his job, he’d loved to have given her an earful about her and the cafeteria’s impropriety in the whole matter.

Still, throughout the years he’d quite enjoyed this variation of the coconut cake, as evidenced by his continued but reluctant and carefully considered purchases. In three layers rather than two, white rather than yellow cake, and pudding rather than frosting between layers, it well-served his sensibilities both culinary and artistic, though not fiscal. He’d also enjoyed having that petty cause to fight for with far more zest than it ever merited.

The complaining about pencils and sticky notes and the duration of orations reflecting self-appointed departmental martyrdom had at times affected morale and tested the limits of meeting-goers’ patience, whose tolerance was already being taxed by yet another round of concern about layoffs and poor raises. Co-workers were already exhausted from trying to read between the lines of the latest rounds of corporate initiatives and cheerleading and the annual introduction of new vocabularies that further shrouded whatever message they were trying to send within another volume of exhaustive rhetoric. But Dan’s grievance about wanting to wear his Ohio State lanyard and how his freedoms of expression and style were being stifled by the hospital’s request that all employees wear the one being handed out, which had the hospital’s logo printed on it…that grievance had to be heard. But his fellow employees had enough concerns without this blowhard adding his ten cents about something so benign.

So, once again, a manager, this one an MBA tool named Chuck, long since promoted, had him summoned to HR to discuss these discontents and their effects on overall moral. He spend nearly an hour therapeutically bellyaching about the kids they hired and how they had no work ethic and how he had no voice in who was hired, even though he’d be the one to train them. And he’d been passed over for promotions and never consulted about the minor format changes in the work tickets. And how health insurance costs were increasing and how the executives were making lots and spending lots but guys like him were getting less and less. He was assured his venting would remain confidential  and would be carefully considered. There would be no retaliation against him for leveling accusations. The catharsis felt really good but in his zeal he’d forgotten to mention anything about the coconut cake.

He knew if any of this led to problems, there was the union to back him up and the manager, in his silk half windsors and buckled, slip-on Florsheims and incompetence, was just looking for a scapegoat for his own mismanagement.  When it came to all this stuff, most of his contemporaries just humored Dan with nods and “I hear ya”s.  Given the passion of his complaints, most understood there was no point in arguing against him. It simply wasn’t worth it. So Dan interpreted their compliance or capitulation in his fervent expressions of discontent as affirmation of all their mutual mistreatment.

Dan signed up for the severance but his co-workers kept mostly mum about it. Word had gotten down to them and spread that he might be cashing out but, given his secrecy, he was obviously keeping it quiet for a reason. His co-workers kept up the ruse, not wanting to spoil the dramatic exit for him and most of them.

The day of his retirement came and in a symbolic “fuck you” to the department, he walked out in silence to the feigned surprise of everybody else on Monday. He walked out the hero of those who, like him, had wanted to tell their bosses and union to go to hell for screwing them over on raises and health insurance and the politics of who got hired and fired and promoted. He walked out leaving his former colleagues to pick up his pieces. It was a grand gesture that, surprisingly, in the weeks to follow, wasn’t much recognized or congratulated through emails or phones calls at home. Or Christmas cards on the holidays. And, truth be told, there wouldn’t have been many clamoring to give him a departing celebration had he announced his plan beforehand anyway. This was a fact he was probably aware of, though a departing piece of coconut cake would have been a light-hearted gesture he might have enjoyed and remembered, especially if he’d received it boxed and bowed.

Bullet is still barking.

Dan holds onto his previous labor as one might a precious jewel or memory of their favorite pet. To many their labor was mostly a trinket. But, to spite Darryl and his kind,  it has to be seen as something much more, like a statement of character or badge of resolve and morality and commitment to family or community standards and well-being. Most of those cashiers who’d humored him considered their labor as just a job.

“Fucking Darryl,” Dan thought to himself. “Sucking on that disability even though he can get out there with the leafblower in December, doing nothing but disturbing the neighborhood.” Darryl and Andi are Ohio State fans as evidenced by the flag hanging on their front porch. Last Saturday had been a big game. There were a lot of cars parked in their driveway and along the street out front during game time. Dan hadn’t been invited to the party, even though he gives their dog treats.

He steps inside the house, removes his hat and prepares to check his email real quick before CHiPS.  He wonders if his daughter or granddaughter have sent a thank you for the gift he sent. Of course, he stopped expecting a card by regular mail long ago, which, to this day, still upsets him slightly. And these emails. They can’t even call?

This email is brief and to the point. His granddaughter thanks him for the present, a 100 dollar bill. The email is otherwise short on details, though she does wish her grandfather a Merry Christmas. These sorts of communications from his family have become the norm.

“Maybe we’ll see you on Facebook,” the email concludes.

“Probably not,” he thinks, in stubborn refusal to assimilate. He gets by just fine without social media.

He recalls how once, a few years ago now, his daughter had hinted at hoping for some support to help send Melissa to college. At least that’s how he interpreted her unexpected college savings plan talk. But they all knew Dan wasn’t made of money, so the hint was fairly clandestined, strategically nestled in what few bland details were given about themselves and their lives. She and Chase were doing well in their jobs. Missy was doing well in school and was getting tall. It nagged him whether or not this was the reason for these email’s continued brevity, maybe a rebuke for not being more forthcoming in offering support for Missy’s potential college career. He quickly dismissed the idea by imagining that, for all he knew, she’d end up studying something stupid like English or Philosophy or something else that’d turn out to be a waste.

He has his pension and social security which get him by comfortably, living by himself and for himself. But there isn’t a ton to spare. He wondered what would they have him do anyway? Go to Walmart like some needy schmuck wearing one of those goofy blue vests, sitting on that stool and greeting the ingrates and low-class creeps in their slippers and pajama bottoms and worn out Mickey Mouse sweatshirts? Just to help his granddaughter through college? Absolutely not. He has dignity and she can find her way just like he did. In fact, she’ll be all the better for him helping her make her own way. Plus, he has bad knees.

Well, in all honesty, who knows….maybe there is a bit more he can do. So he decides this year he’ll send Missy fifty extra bucks for her birthday. He probably won’t send the gifts she asks for and really wants. She’s got parents for that. That’s their hassle, driving to the mall and parking and packing and shipping and all that shit. The extra fifty oughta cover things good enough, even though the thanks for it will still only come through email if at all.

But today’s email, in its brevity and curtness, will cause him to sleep less than soundly…his underappreciation settling as poor on his conscience as the XXL Triple Stuft Burrito flushing through his bowels; a journey that will ultimately lead to aggrieved and tender hemorrhoids that aren’t so conducive to sound slumber either. All in all, Dan’s had a pretty rough night. “Those fucking Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes”, he mutters in a slightly off-base analysis of his colonic distemper. That Mexican had been a gamble that he lost and is now regretting as he sits acutely angled, weighing the force of the next wipe between considerations of hygiene and comfort. It is too late and Dan’s mind too muddled from restless repose to weigh the variable of patriotism into the equation. Had he the clarity to do so, it was likely the key to solving the dilemma.

****************************************************************

Monday rolls around again and Robert and Dan find themselves filling up at adjacent pumps. It is cold outside so Robert is sorta dancing around while the pump does its job. There is salt on the ground that crunches under his feet as he dances.

Dan asks, “So what you got going on?”

Robert replies, “Well, work’s pretty backed up. The holidays are coming up so we’re trying to tie up a bunch of loose ends. It’s gonna be hectic.”

He goes on, “Then we gotta finish shopping for the kids, put up decorations, the daughter’s got karate. There’s probably more I’m forgetting.”

Dan sighs to himself, “Thank God I’m outta the rat race. Look at this guy. Barely hanging on by a thread.”

The pump handle clunks and the nozzle clangs in its extraction, signaling that Robert is finishing up. Dan always notices how Robert uses premium gas. He’d told him before that it was a waste. “Just look at Old Brute,” he’d said. “Regular’s been just fine for her.” But Dan keeps on wasting his money. Maybe it gives him a sense of superiority or chicness, like buying Starbucks instead of McDonald’s coffee.

Robert returns the question, “So how about you?”

“Well, I got another appointment with the foot doctor this week.”

Robert remembers, it was something about bunions or corns or hammertoe. He also remembers how Dan can turn his ailment into a thirty minute Shakespearian soliloquy so Robert cuts him off, politely.

“I hope that goes well. Well, I gotta be off. I got a meeting I can’t be late for. Merry Christmas if I don’t see you before then.”

“Same to you,” Dan says.

He senses he’d been courteously rebuffed and wonders why a guy like Robert, not a total fool, is so determined to shorten his life with the stress and anxiety of all his running around.

“The rat race kills them without them even knowing,” he thinks to himself and about how Robert already looks older than his style of dress sometimes implies. How old is he, anyway? Forties? Early fifties? He remembers the time he saw Robert on a Saturday or Sunday in the grocery store in worn out Chuck Taylors and a faded Ramones t-shirt, a surprising and utter betrayal to his work-week’s drab attire and personality. “Trying to hold on to something long gone,” Dan amused himself by thinking. “Some people just can’t let go.”

Robert eases away from the pump, monitoring all mirrors and angles. From behind the windshield, crusty and salt spattered, he flashes four fingers from behind the noon position. Dan nods in response. He can see the yellow and black Batman air freshener dangling from the rear-view as Robert passes. It had been a stocking stuffer from his wife and kids last year. “They never grow up,” he thinks.

Dan finishes topping off his tank too. He walks over to the little shack with all the cigarette prices on display. What appalling prices, he thinks. He can remember when a pack was less than forty cents. He pays the lady for his gas in cash and replies “yes” for the receipt. As she gathers his change, he wonders who smokes all those cigars and whether or not she’s warm enough in there.

She puts his receipt and change in the trench. “Thank you,” he says, already determined to receive a tolerable response. The transactions, both financial and social, have gone smoothly so he climbs into the cab, glancing at the package in the passenger’s seat. “Time to make the donuts,” he thinks as he puts her in drive.

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