Stanley lies in his bed wide awake, staring into the darkness. It’s nearly 5 a.m., although he has been up for a while. Like he’s done for the past 35 years, he reaches over and shuts off the alarm clock before it makes a sound.
He turns and looks at the slumbering pile of blankets beside him and sighs. He rises quietly, careful not to wake his wife, and enters the bathroom.
As the shower water warms, he glances in the mirror at his sallow eyes and lined face. He sucks in his gut and stands erect, but it only looks more ridiculous. Where have the years gone?
He laid his clothes out the previous night as he always did so as not to disturb his wife, who typically sleeps in. He lets the dog out, makes himself an egg and toast, and fills his thermos with coffee as he always does.
As he screws the cap on, he realizes he doesn’t need the thermos today. He’ll only be in for a few hours -- enough time to pretend he’s surprised when everyone brings the cake down to his office, sings the “Jolly Good Fellow” song, and wishes him good luck in his retirement. They’ll send him home early after that. That will be it. Decades of hard work and dedication, wrapped up in 20 minutes.
He goes to the side of the bed and lightly kisses his wife. His mind suddenly sees a flash of her 35 years ago in a yellow sundress, driving him to the office in the only car they owned at the time, her face beaming with pride as he nervously got out and straightened his new suit.
“I’ll be here waiting at five, Mr. Handsome. Knock ‘em dead, honey.”
The blankets on the bed begin to stir, and he snaps out of his trance.
“So you’ll be home early,” she mutters from within the afghan nest.
“Yes,” he whispers, “I should be.”
She reaches out of the covers and pats his hand. “OK -- then we’ll have a nice lunch together, huh?”
He kisses her again and leaves.
He knows it should be a happy day, but his heart is heavy. Thirty-five years of the same routine will all come to an abrupt end today.
As he drives up the highway ramp, he thinks about that first day all those years ago when he was so sure he could do anything he set his mind to. He checks the mirror as he merges.
“Oh, well,” he sighs, “I guess we did pretty well.”
Mark gets up early, too. He’s on the treadmill at 4 a.m., and is now drinking a protein-and-whey milkshake. He grabs his cell phone from the charging cradle and reviews the first 20 messages, making mental notes.
Today will be Stanley’s last and Mark’s first day as head of the department. He has plenty of ideas, but has been politely waiting until Stanley is gone before implementing them.
He writes himself a sticky-note as a reminder to pick up his daughter Ashley on the way home. This is his visitation evening; sometimes he gets so caught up with work he’s late to pick her up. His ex-wife informed him that their daughter felt bad about that, so he has vowed not to do it again.
He’s glad it’s the ex’s weekend with Ashley, though, because one of the online dating services he uses has set up a Saturday event for him, and he’s looking forward to meeting someone new to go along with his new job and invigorated approach to starting life over.
The Next Generation
Stanley’s eldest daughter, Eva, awakes to her baby’s crying, and takes a deep breath. This second child was unexpected, and she and her husband were already struggling to afford the first. She stumbles to her feet and grabs the crying child before she wakes the 2-year-old, sleeping in the same room.
She gently closes the door and carries the baby to the kitchen, where she prepares a bottle, sits at the table, and begins to feed Rebecca, who takes the milk anxiously. Eva smiles and exhales slowly.
She hears her husband fumbling with the keys at the back door, and he finally enters as quietly as possible. He too looks exhausted, but the swing shifts are paying him double time, and they need every nickel to afford this apartment. He smiles at her and comes over to gently kiss them both.
Later, with the baby back to sleep, he emerges from the shower and joins Eva in bed, where they fall asleep in each other’s arms as the snow falls softly outside.
At the office, Stanley cleans out his desk, finding photos that were meant to be framed, but never were: his wife with the kids on that fishing charter boat. Eva was so seasick her face was almost green.
There is a picture of Lee when he played Little League at 10 years old, and Stanley was the coach. He shakes his head at his slim waist in the picture.
Another photo is a good one, but his wife had such a solemn look on her face. Then he remembers -- it was of a Fourth of July picnic the year she miscarried what would have been their third child. His arm was tightly wrapped around her waist, but he could see she was emotional.
He packs the photos among the other items, and closes the box. How much has happened in all those years. He looks up to see his staff rolling in the office door with a cake and wearing party hats. “Which nobody can deny, which nobody can deny.”
A Gut Wrench
Mark is proud that he picked Ashley up on time, and they had a nice dinner together. As he returns her to her mother’s home, he sees a strange car in the driveway. He walks Ashley to the door as he typically does, but when he starts to follow her inside, his ex-wife, Angie, meets him in the threshold.
“Hi, Ang,” he smiles, “what’s wrong?”
She closes the door behind her, and they stand in the cool night air.
“Nothing’s wrong, I just have a guest.”
Mark feels something in his chest drop into his stomach. “Oh,” he tries to say casually, “I see.”
Her lips form a tight smile, and she shrugs. “You don’t have to walk her to the door anymore,” Angie says. “Just watch her until she gets in the house, OK?”
Mark nods and tries to collect himself. “Sure thing. No problem. See you next week.”
He gets into his car and backs out slowly, looking over the car in the driveway more carefully than he did at first. He hopes the date on Saturday is a good one. He’ll tell Ashley all about it so she’ll be sure to tell her mother.
The Curve Ball
Stanley pulls into the driveway and leaves the boxes in the trunk. He has the next 35 years to put them away.
As he rounds the corner to the dining room, he sees across the entrance a banner that reads, “Finally, We Get a Turn!” On the table he sees what looks to be a feast, and his son Lee with his girlfriend, Eva with her husband and two kids and, of course, his wife, still looking as beautiful as ever, even though she’s clearly been cooking all day. Their waiting for him freezes like a snapshot in his mind, and a tear rolls down his cheek.
“Speech,” Eva shouts, “speech!”
Stanley swallows the apple in his throat, and thinks about the lives he’s touched, the friend and boss he’s been, the father, the husband, the listener and the “fixer” for people. He thinks about his substantial pension, paid-off mortgage and other blessings on this day of celebration.
He clears his throat and whispers, “Thank you -- I am a very blessed man.” He sits at the head of the table, and Eva hands him the baby.
“Tomorrow,” his wife says, “we start looking for colors to paint this dining room.”
As Mark says good night to his date, she asks if they will see each other again. He tells her he’d like that very much. Indeed, she is a sweet girl, not quite the career-minded gal he had hoped for, but very nice and easy to talk to.
He switches on the radio and heads home.
A few miles away, his ex-wife, Angie, says good night to her new “friend” and smiles as she closes the front door behind him. Deciding to sleep with some music on tonight, she turns on the radio.
Stanley falls asleep in the rocker with Rebecca in his arms. Eva gently takes her from her father and reaches to turn off the radio, but the tune catches her ear, and she smiles, sits back on the hassock by her dad and the baby, and listens.
Her mother looks on and smiles, wiping away tears as she clears the table.
All of the radios are tuned to the same station, but each person is listening in a different way as Mick Jagger sings: “You can’t always get what you want. You can’t always get what you want. You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find -- you get what you need!”
Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.