The morning alarm sounds, piercing and repetitive. It’s too early. Something must be wrong. The clock stubbornly insists it’s six o’clock but my body vehemently disagrees. I suspect the alarm of playing a trick on me, a good-natured practical joke, before granting the clock may know more about time-keeping than my circadian rhythm, even if that fact is horribly inconvenient.
The warmth of the sheets makes the air in the room feel unnaturally cold. The only thing worse than being tired is being tired and cold. I quickly grab a shower while there is still hot water to be had. The chill of the morning temporarily retreats as the shower vomits pellets of warm liquid goodness all over my naked body. If I had the time I would let the shower resurrect the energy that has been traded away through the years for things like grocery shopping and poorly timed nightmares. But time is a commodity in constant short supply, so I cut the shower off and return to the cold dawn. If there is anything I hate worse than being tired and cold it is being wet and cold. I dry myself off as quickly as possible, put on pants, and shiver one last time.
After dressing I make my way downstairs and pour three bowls of cereal. One bowl of Trix with no milk, one bowl of Cocoa-Puffs with milk, and one bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with milk and half a banana. The kids storm down the stairs in a blur of mismatched clothes and dirty blond hair just as I take my first bite. I help Tony pour milk into his cereal, a task he insists on doing himself, before cleaning up after Danielle who spilled her cereal almost instantly. Once everything is situated the two munch in silence, enthralled by the Power Puff Girls and their disproportionately sized pupils. I finish my soggy cereal and prognosticate about who won the game last night, too tired to check my charging phone sitting all the way in the bedroom.
Sherry comes down as I am putting my empty cereal bowl in the sink. She makes herself a cup of coffee as we compare our schedules for the day. She will cook dinner, meatballs with pasta, while I drop Tony off at soccer practice, pick Danielle up from ballet, and go back to pick Tony up from said practice. Danielle gets an orange after dance so she will be fine until dinner but Tony will be starving when he gets out of soccer so I make sure to have goldfish ready, hoping to avoid the diabetic-type crash which he has been prone to. After I pick the kids up we will come home, eat dinner, and clean up. I will finish the quarterly tax project due by Thursday, sleep with my wife, if I am lucky, and to go bed to do almost the identical thing tomorrow.
We married too young, I think we can both admit that. It’s not an indictment of our relationship, just a statement of fact. Sherry was slumming it when we started dating. A tepidly rebellious period where pushing boundaries equated to sleeping with someone who had shaggy hair and a tattoo. I was meant to be a fling before she settled down with someone who wore pressed shirts and had five year plans. Then she got pregnant and the far off thoughts of financial security and dinner parties took a back seat to hormone swings and morning sickness.
I loved Sherry as much as she liked me and I was eager to make her an honest woman. If she were setting her bar low dating me I was scaling the relationship equivalent of Mount Olympus. She was pretty, she was funny, she was smart, and she pushed me. When she would get into intense debates about philosophy or economic reform with her well read friends she would make a point of asking my thoughts. It was the first time anyone ever asked, or expected me to have, an opinion on anything like that. It’s what impressed me about her. It’s what made me fall in love.
I proposed by presenting Sherry a CZ the size of your first. She cried and cried and finally said yes. In my excitement I assumed her tears were those of joy. Looking back, I’m not so sure. Come to find out Sherry is more fertile than a teenager in a trailer park, you know, the ones who have babies in gym bathroom stalls during their boyfriend’s third senior prom, and less than a year after our vows she was throwing up every morning asking how I could have done this to her, again. I am not sure we even had sex the second time, I just sneezed one night and the next day Sherry was sporting a bump. The goals I had personally set for myself quickly took a backseat to reality. Life was a commodity I no longer had the freedom to enjoy, I had three other people depending on me now. We had built a family never having intended to do so.
While Sherry was pregnant with Tony I took a job at an auditing company that makes sure other company’s internal documents meet governmental regulations and then, if their records aren’t in order, find out whose fault it was, shift the blame around accordingly, and fire someone. I knew nothing about the industry save it paid more, and more predictably, than the radio business where I was working as a tech when Sherry and I first met.
Time has taken on a relative meaning. Days turn to weeks and weeks blend to months. Seasons come and go without my realizing it. I bounce from one project to the next, work bleeding into personal life and vice versa. If I am not concentrating on a project at the office it is something to do with the kids. If not for the kids, then for Sherry. I do the best I can, and I do it well, and at the end of the day I am left feeling empty and unfulfilled at my job well done. It sounds selfish, even as I think it, but when my High school guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to do with my life I didn’t respond “be a balding, pudgy man who fills out tax audit forms and helps make scale models of the Coliseum out of sugar cubes for his kid’s history projects.” We train our entire lives for something, from elementary school, to high school, and into college. What that something is we are never sure, but we certainly know whatever it is will be definitive and fulfilling, otherwise why would we spend the most vibrant years of our lives training for it? It turns out we are preparing for nothing more than to perpetuate the cycle. We prepare for life because that is what our parents did, and our kids will do it because that is what we did. We aren’t told we are simply perpetuating the cycle until our training is complete at which point we are committed to the system to such a degree that to deviate would be to admit we have spent our entire lives preparing for nothing. Instead of throwing out the first third of our lives we accept our role, call ourselves blessed, and produce another generation. All this just to say, I wish I had been able to watch the basketball game last night while drinking a beer instead of reading The Little Engine that Could…Not Make Up His or Her Mind About His or Her Gender.
I leave the house later than I would like. Five minutes late out the door means an extra twenty minutes in traffic. I don’t understand the mathematics behind the equation but have felt its reality enough not to question its logic. The drive to work is long, over an hour even without traffic. We moved out of the city so we could get more space. Sherry fixated on the idea of having a backyard for the kids to play in. It sounds nice when you aren’t the one mowing it, or weeding it, or edging it, or fertilizing it, or pruning it, or any of that shit. I wouldn’t mind the upkeep if the kids used the yard but most of their time is spent hunched over some sort of electronic device tapping frantically as they try to collect falling fruit, or slice falling fruit, or gardening imaginary fruit
The traffic is brutal this morning. Construction forces five lanes down to one. The city usually waits until the weekend to do road construction but a sinkhole opened up and swallowed a family of six who were coming home from a baseball game last night, minivan and all, so this project is a priority. I call my boss to tell him I will be late. He starts yelling before he picks up the other line. I tell him I will make up the time over the weekend and that seems to placate him. “As long as you make up your time,” he says, finishing with the standard “I can make money, not time.” I hate it when he says that and he says it all the damn time. I make a mental note to purposefully waste a few minutes today as an act of defiance illustrating to corporate that their idea of time and productivity having a one hundred percent positive correlation denies the human condition, which I find odd since the ones who are so quick to enforce these rules, the rules they themselves don’t adhere to are, in fact, human. You would think they would be able to see the absurdity of their position, yet they maintain their stance with ceaseless optimism. “I will waste at least one hour today,” I tell myself. My boss will never know I shirked an hour’s worth of work over the course of a forty hour week, but I will, and that makes me feel better.
I use the time sitting in the car, watching the break lights in front of me (word) out unintelligible morse code, to re-listen to albums I have heard a thousand times over. I pay close attention to the distorted bass of Lemmie Kilmister with the same fascination I had when I was sixteen. Neil Pert’s clean, meticulous melodies maintain the luster and allure they had when I would lie in bed and dream of what it would be like to perform great music of my own one day. These crunchy chords and off-time shuffles always provided the comfort of passion. It was my dream to make music; the one thing I was both good at and driven by. I was studying music production when Sherry and I first met. She thought it was ‘dope’ I could play every instrument for every song from the ‘….and then there were none’ album. That seems like a lifetime ago now.
When I finally make it to work I glance at the mural of pictures that decorates the cabinets above my desk, a morning ritual I have developed to prepare myself for the day. A constantly evolving timeline tracks the personal growth that happens outside the static confines of cubicle farms and swivel chairs. There are pictures chronicling ultrasounds, first rides home, and visits to the grandparent’s house. A picture of the kids sitting on Santa’s lap catches my eye. Tony is screaming bloody murder with two fingers hanging off of his lower jaw while Danielle laughs hysterically. My favorite is one of Sherry and I at her company Christmas party. She is wearing a low cut red dress and I am in an ill fitting tux. We are magical.
I am rushed, late for a meeting I should have had an hour to prepare for so I don’t get to linger on my mural as long as I would like. This meeting is about the productivity of meetings. We discuss the best way to present ideas in an open, accepting environment so no one idea is given more consideration than any other idea. The meeting lasts an hour and a half before we decide to schedule another meeting to update the other groups in the company on our progress in this meeting. The best idea anyone has come up with is to have everyone put their ideas in a hat and select a foreman to read them all aloud, so no one knows who presented what idea. The plan is ultimately shot down because no one can decide on a nomination process for the foreman that doesn’t leave some feeling left out. I hate everyone in the room.
When I get back to my office I find my boss sitting behind my desk using my computer. I ask if there is anything I can help him with. After closing whatever it was he was looking at, he assures there is nothing I can do for him. He informs me he had tried calling me and I didn’t pick up so he came down to make sure I had made it in to work alright. I thank him for his concern and assure him I was just in a meeting. He eyes me with a hint of suspicion before leaving my office to badger his next unsuspecting victim.
I get fifteen minutes of work done before Mike comes by and tells me it is time for lunch. Normally I eat lunch at my desk, reading banally insightful ESPN columns, but we have a lunch meeting today. We all meet in the large conference room on the floor. Lunch has been provided. It’s sandwiches, again. I find boxed sandwiches let me down more often than not. Their meat to accouterment ratio is skewed and they never have any dressing on them. I eat my dry sandwich and wash it down with chips. The sounds of crinkling paper and smacking quickly replace the chatter that had previously dominated the room.
After everyone finishes their disappointing lunches, we listen to a guru discuss the new operating system we will be switching to next quarter. He warns us they anticipate some errors, which really means the product won’t be ready but they are going to give it to us anyway and try to complete it as problems arise. Hands begin to raise as people compete to voice their concerns over problems they anticipate. Every question asked is exceptionally specific, dealing with an issue affecting only the person asking it. The guru fields the questions like a press secretary for a disgraced politician, putting a positive, but obviously specious, spin on every question hurled his way. He never gives a solid answer but those asking the questions have to be satisfied because it is the only answer they will get. I start to fall asleep as I begin to digest my sandwich. Mike shakes me when the meeting is over and motions for me to wipe the drool that has accumulated at the corner of my mouth.
I check my watch. It’s 1:30 and I have gotten no work done. Normally I wouldn’t feel bad about my lack of productivity but I am under a deadline in this particular instance and not getting work done now means having to stay late or come in on the weekend. As I return to my desk I imagine doing this job for another thirty years, never reaching a stopping point and never being able to sit back and admire my final accomplishments. I work toward no discernible end. I will never be done with anything. One audit will follow the next, tirelessly, until one day my energy is exhausted and someone younger comes in to take my place in this grand hierarchy. I won’t be missed. No one is. Their jobs are simply taken over and their names lost to history. I have no idea who had this position before me and the person coming after me probably won’t pause to consider my situation either. Recognizing I have a finite amount of time on this planet, in this body, every second I spend behind my desk feels like I am mortgaging incalculable parts of myself. Each part of me I exchange for perceived security is minute, hardly noticeable until viewed in the context of my entire life, at which point the cost seems staggering when compared to the reward.
I work for an hour as I contemplate the ironies of life. So far it has been the best hour of my day. Then my phone rings. Tony has had an accident at school and needs a change of clothes. Since he is a boy and by coincidence so am I the obligation to bring clean clothes falls to me. I try to explain to Sherry that leaving now will mean working over the weekend. She sympathizes with me but also explains leaving a six year old in urine soaked pants may have an adverse effect on his psyche later on in life. Though I am tempted to make this a teaching moment for Tony I acquiesces and leave the office.
I always enjoy imagining what Sherry, the kids, and I are going to do each night. I think of how we will greet each other when I get home. How Sherry’s eyes will brighten as she smiles when she sees me. The kids will hug me as I pick them up and kiss Sherry on the cheek. We take turns between cooking and playing with the kids before we all sit down to eat dinner together, listening to the kids recount their day. After dinner we will put the kids to bed, alternating between who tucks each child in. This night I will read Harry Potter to Danielle while Sherry reads Tony The Berenstain Bears. After we tuck in our respective child I will pass Sherry in the hall. We might exchange a loving glance before we give a good night kiss to the child we didn’t read to. Once the kids are asleep I will pour Sherry a glass of wine and we will sit on the couch. She will recline back on me with her feet propped on the up on the cushions and I will rest my arm across her body. She will breathe in deep and sigh, contented at the end of a long day. We will exchange war stories from work, catch each other up on the other’s office gossip, and laugh at the absurdity of it all. Before we go to bed we watch whatever new show is on that eliminates a contestant from a competition at the end of each episode. I continue to hold her as we fall asleep. I feel her twitch as she commits to slumber just before I follow suit. The night never works out the way I imagine. My reveries don’t account for clumsy kids who are cranky at the end of the day and a tired, moody wife. My illusion doesn’t include bringing home work or the disposal breaking. Unforeseen circumstances will guarantee such fantasies forever remain a mirage. As my apparition dissolves my stomach tightens in anticipation of the unaccounted issues that, by life’s definition, have to arise.
I am able to sneak out of work without the boss noticing, a small miracle, and race to the house for a fresh set of clothes. It still amazes me how small the kids clothes are. I think back to when they were first born and how tiny and helpless they were. I was both terrified and enamored from the moment I saw them. The naïveté of their sincere devotion to me is one of the things I love most about them. They never question my knowledge or my ability to handle a situation. They believe in me when no one else does. Their faith gives me the strength to keep going when I don’t want to. Someone loving me so purely is the greatest thing that ever happened to me, twice. I get lost in a cascade of memories: first smiles, first teeth, first kisses, and first steps. I smile remembering the first time Danielle laughed at me while I played peek-a-boo above her crib. I had never heard a sound so happy or innocent as that high pitched squeal. I smile as I imagine all of the other firsts the kids and I will get to share before remembering my mission and pressing down on the accelerator.
I make it to the house in good time, dash up to Tony’s room and am back on the road in less than five minutes. I glance down at the clock to check the time when my wheel jerks hard to the left, as a Ford F150 slams into my driver’s side door. The world becomes a blur: trees, concretes, glass, metal. I feel my femur splinter with startling detail as the tendon, muscle, and skin part ways to provide a clear path for my leg bone to liberate itself from my body. My ribs flex as much as my sternum will allow before they begin to snap free, starting from my third most upper rib and working their way down, six in all. The side of my head shatters the driver’s side window with such ease the fact that the force has fractured my skull seems unlikely even as it happens. For an instant the noise of the crash is deafening, followed by total silence. Both vehicles come to rest, thousands of joules of energy dispersed through machine and flesh. I look down at my left arm to determine why it won’t work as I attempt to wipe the blood from my eyes. I am greeted by strips of flesh decorating a nub where my left hand and forearm used to be.
Pain beyond reason wracks my body as it deals with the trauma of the experience. Every cell in my body screams at once, attempting to deny their existence. I throw up in my lap, watching blood and bile drip down my chest as my body attempts to rid itself of anything that might distract from dealing with the task at hand. In the distance I hear voices through the roar of pain. I try to scream, to vocalize my internal suffering, to let someone know I need help. A moan, barely audible, passes my lips. A bubble of blood pops as I finish my exhale. The pain crescendos until I pass out, but not before pissing myself.
I am still in the car when I regain consciousness. The metallic and bitter taste of blood and spinal fluid drip down the back of my throat. My body instantly tightens again as pain regains its place as my dominant reality. My peripheral vision picks up on flashing lights. Someone tries to get my attention but the pain makes it difficult to concentrate. Someone else touches my leg. I try to scream but nothing more than a whimper escapes my throat. I pass out again before I die.