It would be impossible for anyone to lead a more ordinary life than Bobby Parker, whose life was ordinary to the extent that the more you saw him and the more you knew about him, the less you would remember him and the less you would think about him.
He was pizza without toppings. Bran flakes without milk.
He lived for seventy-two years, the average allowable age for a married white male in his particular milieu. Two hours after his funeral, Libby, his wife of thirty years, was deep in a game of bridge. When her best friend, Laura Jenkins, who’d arrived at Bridge Night late because she had just returned from her grandfather’s funeral in another town, said: “I’m so sorry, Libby, dear,” Libby, who’d done badly in the first round of play replied without taking her eyes off her cards: “That’s OK, Laura. I think I’ll do better this round.” And she smiled so sweetly, like a little darling.
Within days of his death, even his children, Roxanne and Leo, had difficulty remembering his face but then they wouldn’t have remembered it when he was alive, five minutes after talking to him.
Here’s what Bobby Parker looked like: his face was sort of round in a kind of square way that wasn’t so much long as it was short and nobody seems to recall the color of his eyes. He wasn’t tall but he wasn’t squat. His weight was right on the money. He dressed in clothing appropriate to the occasion and he never mixed pink and gray. He may have been losing hair but one thing is certain: his hair was dark brown.
Or was it light brown?
But one thing is certainly certain: Bobby Parker worked for thirty-five years in an accounting firm. He wasn’t exactly an accountant, more like just a clerk, doing clerking things that involved forms and files and filling in blanks. At the beginning of his career he had a rubber stamp that he could apply to those forms. He loved that rubber stamp. At some point before he retired, he stopped using the stamp. Nobody at the firm remembers that stamp. Nobody at the firm can recall a form needing the application of a rubber stamp. Nobody at the firm remembers, recalls, recollects, reflects upon, or reminisces over Bobby Parker. This was true one minute after he left the firm on his retirement day. This was true for the entire thirty-five years that he worked for the firm.
The fact that he received a pension check at the end of each month is probably proof for the existence of God, or at least a remarkably successful test bed for payroll software. In fact, everything that happened to Bobby Parker from the moment of his birth was anticlimactic in the way that turning off a tap stops the flow of water, but might allow a continuous drip.
When Bobby Parker was five years old he lived in a small rural community close enough to the city to smell the smog on humid days but too far from the country to see the occasional cow munching grass behind a wire fence. On one particular day a certain number of days after his fifth birthday, Bobby Parker was walking along a sidewalk thinking about nothing in particular.
Oh, this and that, his thought train went.
Ahead of him lay the community’s busiest intersection. One of its traffic signals was malfunctioning. When it turned red, it turned red in every direction. When it turned green, it turned green in every direction. Fortunately, the community’s busiest intersection saw only a handful of cars on Sunday afternoon and this was Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, a car was approaching the intersection and the driver was thinking more about being stopped than he was about driving in a manner that would ensure that he wouldn’t be stopped. The driver’s name was Ted Jenkins, the father of Laura Jenkins, who would one day be Bobby Parker’s wife’s best friend. Ted Jenkins was worried about being stopped by the police because he’d just finished a day of fishing and drinking, and his quota of downed beers far exceeded his quota of caught fish. In fact, after he’d run out of bait without catching a single fish, he’d just watched the fish jumping in the middle of the lake as he drank the entire twelve bottles of beer in his cooler.
He was traveling a tad over and then a tad under the speed limit. His car wound just over the centerline, and seconds later, a tad over the right shoulder. For about three seconds out of every minute Ted Jenkins kept his car traveling perfectly in the center of his lane, so perfectly in fact, that he could very well have won safe driving awards for each of those three seconds. But then he would have flunked the urine test.
Ted Jenkins was about a mile away from the intersection. Bobby Parker was less than a block away. The light facing Bobby Parker was red at the moment, which meant that it was also red for Ted Jenkins. Bobby Parker was whistling something. It might have been a show tune; it might have been a hymn; it might have been a few bars from song he’d heard on the radio. It didn’t matter what Bobby Parker was whistling because now he was less than half a block from the intersection and the light was red again which meant it was red for Ted Jenkins who was so involved with trying to win safe driving awards three seconds out of every minute that he didn’t even see the light, even though it was now easily within view.
For no reason other than to change the rhythm of his movement Bobby Parker began to skip. He wasn’t very good at skipping but neither was he the world’s worst skipper. He had about as much chance of winning a skipping award as Ted Jenkins had of winning a safe driving award every three seconds but Bobby Parker’s skip was satisfying to himself and he rarely ever tripped and fell. Today for some reason he skipped somewhat slower than normally and this somewhat slower pace brought him to the intersection at the exact same time that Ted Jenkins arrived at the intersection smiling and nodding to all the people lined up along the road applauding him for winning his safe driving awards three times a minute.
Fortunately for Bobby Parker he was on the sidewalk as Ted Jenkins was experiencing three seconds of fame in the exact center of his lane. He nodded appreciatively to Bobby Parker who stopped skipping to wave to him, and then he crossed the center line and smashed head-on into the pickup truck that would have killed Bobby Parker if Ted Jenkins hadn’t stopped Bobby with this nod and the truck with this car. Ted Jenkins died instantly, but since Laura Jenkins had already been born, she would still get to be Bobby Parker’s wife’s best friend one day.
As a fifteen year old Bobby Parker was pretty much like any other grade ten student at Chester C. Chester Memorial High School. He had a locker, books, pens and pencils, and he wasn’t going bald yet. He had his own homeroom desk that he shared with four other students of grade ten Math during the day. But then he would be butt-warming other chairs in other rooms, and some of them would undoubtedly be the homeroom desks of other students, so it was just fine with Bobby Parker that other students would use his homeroom desk…if this were something that would ever occur to him to think about.
Chester C. Chester Memorial High School had been built more than a hundred years ago in the days when buildings were built to last more than a hundred years, when builders built with a sense of craftsmanship and bricks were cemented into place with thoughts of permanence occupying the minds of the builders: This brick I am cementing in place will still be here more than a hundred years from now. And although the wooden floors had dulled with age and there were cracks and dents, they were still level more than a hundred years after they were laid, glued and nailed. Chester C. Chester Memorial High School was about as solid and permanent as a building or anything else on the planet could be.
Which was the exact opposite of Bobby Parker. His presence was about as solid as a rat’s fart and as permanent as free beer. He was never chosen to be on a team. Teachers never thought to ask him questions. The students on either side of his locker could never remember his name, nor could they have described him in terms other than: “Oh yeah…that kid. Yeah, I think he was wearing a sweater, or something.”
He had the substance of ant breath on a windy day.
And then one day his fifteen minutes of fame finally closed around him with all the potential of an obscure sonnet written on river water. On this day Bobby would, for the first time in his life, stand up before an entire class and talk about his summer vacation. He’d spent two weeks working every night and all through his weekends, every lunch break, every study period. He’d even waked up half an hour early each day to work on his fifteen-minute speech. In it, he described how he mowed the lawn twice a week (making sure not to bump into the dwarf pines with the mower), how he had long meaningful talks with this dog, Rex (while the dog laid on its back all summer staring at him as though wondering who the kid was who wouldn’t shut up for five minutes and let a heat-pooped dog get some rest on a summer’s day), and how he even stayed up (omigod) right up till 9:30 one night. And that was where he’d ended his speech because it just don’t get any better than that, no sir.
Bobby was ready for his fifteen minutes of fame. He hungered for it. He’d acted it out in his mind over and over again like a telemarketer selling garden benches to apartment dwellers all day, five days a week, week after week. Each enactment was the same. He took his position in front of the room. A hush fell over the class. Every eye and every face turned toward Bobby Parker. No one spoke a word. No one thought a thought. Even Corey Burke, the school bully, softened and awaited Bobby’s words. And then he began speaking and his words flowed from his mouth like syrup waltzing out of a tuba, and then sentences flicked from his tongue like verbal spikes of rap music and the excitement built in his delivery and the eyes of his classmates widened as their mouths opened and tears poured out of Corey Burke’s eyes. His teacher closed her eyes to enjoy the beauty of words measured perfectly with yardsticks of meaning and emotional content. And by the time his voice carried his listeners to the brink of that canyon from which inspiration overflows into life, he swooped in furiously with the grand finale: “And I stayed up until 9:30 one night.” Corey Burke wailed. Cynthia Wortman fainted. Charley Davis’ head slumped onto his desk, his brain suddenly too heavy with thought to fight gravity. His teacher slipped into an intellectual coma and would never open her eyes again. And then, one by one, they stood and applauded, first politely, and then in a frenzy. And Bobby glowed. And then he bowed and returned to his seat, side-stepping through a double row of admirers.
That was the plan.
Unfortunately, Bobby was the only student at the bus stop that day and, as always happened when he was the only person at the bus stop, the bus didn’t stop. Bobby missed his bus and was late for school. English was the first class of the day. He was to be first up to speak. The teacher didn’t even notice that he wasn’t there. She asked if Gretchen Kidder was ready to speak and Gretchen took her place at the front of the class right where Bobby was supposed to be standing and right at the time when he was supposed to be standing there. Gretchen Kidder stood in the spotlight of Bobby Parker’s fifteen minutes of fame. She bathed in the glow of his moment of recognition with words about summer camp and swimming and horseback riding and canoeing and…and then her hair curled and the skin on her face glowed red and melted as her head separated from her body and flew into the blackboard behind her. It stuck there with its deep black eyes registering nothing. Her right arm, all covered in flames, thudded into the board beside her head. Her legs evaporated.
She didn’t do any of this alone. About the same time that she was spreading herself on the blackboard and evaporating all over the spot where Bobby Parker was supposed to have had his fifteen minutes of fame, the rest of the class was doing pretty much the same thing. Arms and heads were popping off all over the room. Skin, which is mostly water, was boiling and fizzling and turning into smelly air. And only a few yelps managed to escape through the furious speed of the heat, which filled the room in less than a second and mixed the bodies of children and one teacher with the parts and pieces of desks and chairs and pens and notebooks and chalk. Everything in the room became part of everything else in the room, all the bits and stuff of everything mixed in steam molecules and barely identifiable classroom shrapnel to create what could only be called school mush. Within seconds, even the solid objects like chalk and wood were beginning to evaporate as though they were made of water. And then all that blazing school mush turned its fury on the walls and ceiling and blew them apart.
By the time Bobby arrived, fire trucks and police cars crammed the street in front of Chester C. Chester Memorial High School, their lights flashing red and blue as firefighters and police officers scurried and scrambled, screaming orders and moving hoses and equipment into place.
But it was too late for Bobby Parker’s class. Corey Burke had missed his chance to cry. Cynthia Wortman would never get her fainting debut. Bobby Parker’s teacher would never know what it was to be comatose with emotion. Gretchen Kidder’s father, a firefighter, stood, arms hanging by his sides, yellow coat open, yellow hardhat under his arm, eyes wide and unbelieving, staring at the unbreakable building burning with all his daughter’s parts sizzling into black tar. He screamed. And then he screamed again. And he screamed and screamed. And then he ran like a bolt of screaming yellow rage right past the police lines and around the fire hoses and right through the flaming doors and into Chester C. Chester Memorial High School, and twenty-five minutes later, when the entire structure collapsed because the supremely-crafted wood slats in the ceilings and floors had dried like tinder bombs, there was nothing left of more than a hundred years of Chester C. Chester Memorial High School, there was nothing left of Gretchen Kidder’s father except the same black tar his daughter had become.
The explosion, apparently, had been caused by a new furnace installed right under Bobby Parker’s class a few days before to replace the one that had heated the school safely for more than a hundred years.
In his last year of high school (in the new Morton L. Kidder Memorial High School named after Gretchen Kidder’s firefighter father, who’d selflessly given his life trying to save his daughter when the Chester C. Chester Memorial High School burned down) Bobby’s history class went for a tour of the Stanley B. Burroughs Cemetery which was chock full of famous people, albeit dead, but famous nonetheless. There was Wilma R. Randall, the town’s first woman to go to college and graduate, and there was Jimmy H. Johnston (aka JJ) who ran for federal office and although he didn’t win because of a fatal heart attack halfway through his election campaign, there was never any doubt in anybody’s mind that he would have changed the course of national affairs for many years to come if he’d just lived a little longer. And there was Lawrence O. Billings, (aka Larry O) who unofficially broke the world’s record for the total number of nonstop jumps over a park bench from a dead start―meaning without a running start – his total number of jumps being one hundred thirty-two and a half (On the last jump, his left foot brushed the lower part of the bench, but he cleared the top and he didn’t fall on his face, but in fairness, he called it a half jump.). The record was unofficial because when Larry O and his sponsors―one of them federal office candidate Jimmy H. Johnston, who had two more days to live before his heart stopped jumping its own personal benches―for all their efforts couldn’t find out where to register Larry O’s feat and soon learned that nobody anywhere in the world had ever tried anything like it. Unfortunately, before they could invent a new world record classification anywhere, Jimmy H. Johnston keeled over halfway through a campaign speech and died and Larry O tripped on a bench while trying to break his own record and cracked his head open on a slab of pavement. The only place his one hundred thirty-two and a half jumps ended up being registered was on his headstone, which read:
Lawrence O. Billings
1925 – 1952
World Bench Jump Champion
132 ½ Jumps
June 4, 1952
There were a lot of great people in Bobby Parker’s town and they had all been planted in a graveyard worthy of their greatness. Stately Dutch elms spread their magnificent foliage like giant green sorrels endowing the grounds with a sense of classical art like something out of a Rembrandt or a Turner, something hazy and ancient suggesting midsummer grandeur. And the grounds were impeccably manicured by Glen Boson, the caretaker, who many thought was older than the yard’s oldest tenant. No one, not even the town’s oldest living resident, Selma Hartt, could remember Glen not being the caretaker of the graveyard and everyone was certain that he had always been old and wrinkled, but also spry and strong. He dug the graves with a spade, tended the flower gardens on his knees and mowed the lawns with a push mower.
Every day after his usual chores, he toured the yard with a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels and he washed the pigeon droppings off the headstones, and what a splendid array of headstones they were, a rich blend of time-stamped sandstone, alabaster, granite, marble, feldspar, and serpentine. There were mausoleums and obelisks and plaques; there were headstones in the shapes of crosses, pointed arches, rounded arches, square slabs, rectangular slabs, and double hearts…all inscribed with names, dates and epitaphs. There were flower gardens and a three-tiered fountain that bubbled and dripped quietly all through the summer. There were benches and a wooden case with a map of the grounds even though the entire graveyard was visible no matter where you stood inside its wrought iron fence.
Sometimes the mysteries hidden behind the graves winked as you walked by.
The Stanley B. Boroughs Cemetery reeked of mysteries and history, stories and questions peeking out from behind the inscriptions on headstones, like the Brown family, both parents and three children all dead on the same day; or suggested by the homage paid to the dead, like the Wilburs, three generations of skyscraping obelisks and the most recent, Eddy R. Wilbur, a plaque in the ground with his name and death date. One entire section on the North end of the cemetery housed almost all new graves, each with the same date of death, which was the same day the Chester C. Chester Memorial High School had burned down.
Every year Marilyn Pringle brought her grade twelve history class to the cemetery for a tour. She knew every prominent site by heart and had even read and memorized the obituaries of almost everyone buried there. Not only could she tell you that Duncan T. Wilson died in a car accident at the age of twenty-nine in 1978, she could tell you that he was survived by his wife, Sara A. and his daughter Donna M., and that he would be missed by his co-workers at Marty’s Auto Repair. She knew which plots to point out (like Jimmy H. Johnston and Larry O), and which to hurry by without comment (like Eddy R. Wilbur).
Marilyn Pringle had even written a small history of the Stanley B. Boroughs Cemetery, which she aptly called A Small History of the Stanley B. Boroughs Cemetery. In her small history, she recounted the lives and accomplishments of all the cemetery’s famous people like Thelma R. Randall, Jimmy H. Johnson, Lawrence O. Billings, every single Wilbur except Eddy R, and she most certainly would have devoted an entire chapter to Gretchen Kidder’s firefighter father if only he had given his life so heroically before she’d written her book.
Strangely, not a word was written about Stanley B. Boroughs, after whom the cemetery had been named. Also strangely, his grave was nowhere to be found in the cemetery and neither Selma Hartt nor Glen Boson could have told you anything about him. The identity of Stanley B. Boroughs was a mystery as mute as the bodies turning to dust in the ground of his namesake; that is, until Bobby Parker stumbled over his own loose shoe laces and plummeted arms out into Glen Boson’s meticulously manicured lawn. Normally, this would have been a fairly safe, injury-free, scramble-up-and-get-back-into-the-tour kind of thing. George Killam, the boys’ gym teacher had Bobby and all the other boys in his class fall from a standing position into a push-up position twice a week, and that was on a hardwood gym floor. This was just soft cushiony grass.
On the surface.
Just under the surface it was not so soft and not so cushiony. It was hard as rock. It was rock. Granite to be exact. And there’s something about a sudden impact against granite when you’re expecting cushiony grass that takes your mind and body by surprise, and that’s exactly what it did to Bobby’s mind and body, so much so that instead of landing in a push-up position and then bouncing back up, he sprained both his wrists and let out a terrible bellow.
Dozens of grade twelve history students turned to face Bobby, most of them wondering who he was, some of them vaguely recollecting having seen him somewhere, one of them thinking: Oh yeah…that kid. Yeah, I think he was wearing a sweater, or something, all of them, including Marilyn Pringle, wondering what the hell all the noise was about. This was no place to be waking the dead. Bobby Parker sat on his knees staring at his swelling wrists, tears and confusion streaming from his eyes.
It was Billy Morris who noticed the gray granite just barely visible where Bobby’s left hand had torn away a clump of grass just before its not-at-all-cushiony hardness sprained both his wrists.
“Miss Pringle!” he called. “I think there’s something buried here!”
Marilyn Pringle strutted over, curious about this ‘something buried’ that she was certain was mentioned nowhere in her little history. Visions of a revised and expanded version crowded her mind as she and dozens of grade twelve history students gathered around the shallow hole in the ground made by Bobby’s hand.
“It looks like rock,” said Billy Morris.
“Could be,” agreed Marilyn Pringle, and she pushed aside bits of dirt and grass with her index finger. “Yes, I think it is.” And she pushed a little more vigorously to reveal what looked like part of a plaque buried under the grass. Within minutes, Marilyn Pringle, Billy Morris and several other students had the entire plaque exposed. It was badly worn. The letters and numbers carved into the stone were barely legible, but legible enough. They read:
Stanley Bertram Boroughs
Buried in earth, burning in Hell
Hanged? Everyone thought it at the same time. Marilyn Pringle’s vision of an updated short history evaporated. Most of the students felt something like a chill rolling over their bodies, standing there in a place of death named after a man who’d been hanged, a man who was buried right in front of them and apparently burning in Hell. Billy Morris beamed. “Wow! A real live hanged man!” he said. “And I found him!”
After a few minutes Marilyn Pringle and her grade twelve history class moved on, abandoning the tour and starting the two block hike back to the school half an hour early, jabbering loudly about their discovery and sneaking up behind each other and yelling: “Yah!”
Bobby Parker walked with them quietly, trying to hide his tears but nobody noticed him and nobody snuck up behind him and yelled: “Yah!” Nobody even noticed that he was missing from class while he was in the school infirmary having his wrists bandaged. Ten minutes after Bobby Parker left the school infirmary, the school nurse was back to reading one of her romance novels and had completely forgotten about Bobby’s sprained wrists. But everyone in the school remembered Stanley B. Boroughs, hanged man. And of course, Billy Morris became pretty much the most popular boy at Morton L. Kidder Memorial High School.
Bobby Parker took Social Psychology 303 in his sophomore year at college. That year he had a particularly heavy load of courses and everybody knew that Social Psychology 303 was a “bird” course. It was impossible to flunk Social Psychology 303. This was because the head of the Nursing Faculty had made the course a prerequisite for a degree in nursing: if you flunked Social Psychology 303, you didn’t get to be a nurse because apparently you didn’t know how people acted as individuals in groups. Professor Erik Vonnegut, who taught Social Psychology 303, called this utter nonsense. “After all,” he argued, “can anyone point to a thought or an emotion that needed a suture or to have its temperature taken?” But the head of the Nursing Faculty, Dr. Ramona Harvey, was adamant: pass Social Psychology 303 or forget about nursing. So Professor Erik Vonnegut said, “Fine. But don’t expect anyone to ever fail this course. Ever!” And he made it virtually impossible for anyone to fail his course. To pass Social Psych 303, you had to write an exam at Christmas. If you had passed any first year sociology or psychology course (which you would have, because at least one first year course in sociology or psychology was a prerequisite for Social Psychology 303), then you didn’t even have to study for the exam. It was that easy. And if you passed the exam, all you had to do for the second term was write an essay, a short story, a poem, or a letter to Professor Erik Vonnegut explaining to him why you felt that you should pass his course.
Dear Prof Vonnegut,
I feel that I should pass Social Psych 303 because I went to some of the classes when I didn’t really have to. And I passed Psych 100 last year.
Dear Mr. Landry,
You have a direct and uncluttered style of presenting all that you learned in Social Psychology 303.
Sometimes, there were more than four hundred students in the amphitheatre for the first day of Social Psych 303. They were there just to make sure that they would be permitted to pass the course without having to do any work, and each year, Professor Erik Vonnegut would assure them: “No one will fail. There will be regular classes, and I will try to make them interesting. Your Christmas exam and your second term project are the only compulsory elements of this course.” After which the class shrunk to five or six students for the rest of the year.
So the line-up for Social Psychology 303 was the longest line at registration. It was a two or three hour wait, but it was an entire full-credit course for less time than it took to register. Bobby had been waiting in line for two hours and fifteen minutes. There was a woman with long chestnut hair in front of him. He fell in love with her hair, with the way it flowed so confidently over her shoulders and the way it complemented her perfect posture. There was something about her hair that stirred feelings so deep in Bobby Parker that even his DNA rippled with excitement. Strands of his life code threatened to unravel as they vibrated madly in the presence of this woman’s chestnut hair, so shiny and silky and shimmering and reminiscent of something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
It had exactly the same effect on him in the registration line-up for Social Psych 303 as it had had at the village market in Catal Hoyuk nine thousand years earlier.
That’s when he’d first met her.
Her name had been Opa and his name had been Tuk, which in the language of the Neolithic peoples of southern Anatolia circa 7000 BC, meant “he who is easily forgotten and ignored.” Opa was Neolithic for “in your dreams.” Opa was a potter, a creator of things made of clay. Tuk was a gatherer of clay, a muddy and sodden thing that blended in well with riverbanks and escarpments. Tuk brought clay to Opa and the other creators of things made of clay. If you were to ask any of them where the clay came from, they would answer: “From the river bank.” Although, some might say: “No, I think it came from the escarpment.” But none of them would remember Tuk, not even Opa, who saw Tuk almost every day when he brought her fresh clay from the riverbank. Opa was one of those who thought the clay came from the escarpment, and she had never been quite clear on how the wet buckets of gray stuff got from the escarpment to the potting hut even though on several occasions, Tuk had handed them to her directly, and she had even thanked him.
Tuk was in love with Opa. He’d always been in love with her, right from the first time he’d seen her walking down the main street of Catal Hoyuk, the largest of the Neolithic settlements with more than two hundred huts, completely naked. She’d been three years old then and he’d been completely naked himself although nobody had noticed. It was just the way children dressed nine thousand years ago. What Tuk had fallen in love with were Opa’s huge brown eyes. They were like huge clay saucers full of beef stew. Tuk loved beef stew. And even at the age of three, walking stark naked down the main street of Catal Huyuk, Opa moved with a relaxed gracefulness that threatened to strangle Tuk’s heart with joy, and as she grew so did her hair, and Tuk’s obsession with her beef stew eyes moved to the chestnut waterfall of her hair, the way it flowed so confidently over her shoulders and the way it complemented her perfect posture.
He left things at the door of her hut, which was on the hut’s roof as were most of the doors in Catal Hoyuk. They were things like fish bones he’d found by the riverbank and interesting twigs with shapes that had caught his attention. Opa’s parents kicked these gifts off the roof and into the street and complained about the culprits who kept throwing garbage around their door. “It’s enough to drive you back to hunting and gathering and forget about all this farming and crafting and being the seat of modern civilization,” said Opa’s father even though it was too late for him to forget about civilization. He’d become too civilized and his gut was much too big from drinking beer from the clay gourds his daughter sometimes fashioned for him to even think about romping around in the woods and plains looking for berries and prey. Given a bow and arrow, he would almost certainly have shot both his feet off. He was about as likely to return to the hunt as he was to surf in the desert around Catal Hoyuk.
But Tuk never noticed that his gifts had not been accepted. After all, he never approached Opa’s hut until after dark, so he thought that she had received every one of them and that she would be wondering through every moment of her days who this wonderful boy was who had given her such wonderful things.
One day he decided it was time to declare his love, to reveal the source of all those magnificent offerings. He wore his best cowhide thong and took a gift he’d been saving for years, a small piece of driftwood with tiny branches broken and twisted in on themselves to form an intricate maze of tube-like patterns. Tuk had rubbed the palm-sized artifact with his thumbs for more than three years so that all its surfaces were smooth and refined just like Opa’s hair, he thought. He approached her hut with gift in hand, penis erect under the thong (after all, Opa had developed gifts other than beef stew eyes since her naked walk when she was three) and the gait of a man about to fulfill his destiny. He arrived just in time to see Opa leaving her childhood home hand-in-hand with her new husband, a tall sinewy farm boy with bluish-black hair named Akma.
Tuk stood and watched as Akma helped Opa out through the door in the roof of her parents’ hut and then led her to their marriage hut. He watched her chestnut hair flutter in the wind and sparkle in the sun. He watched it flow confidently over her shoulders and felt it wind around his heart and squeeze it to death.
Nine thousand years later Tuk, reborn as Bobby Parker, fell in love with that hair again and fell in love with Opa once again. Now she was Karen Tillson and she was standing right in front of Bobby in the line-up for Social Psych 303. They were both registering for the same course; they had something to talk about. Bobby took a deep breath. He steeled himself and lifted his hand to tap her on the shoulder. He didn’t know what he was going to say. He didn’t even know why he was going to tap the shoulder of this strange woman with the beautiful chestnut hair. He just knew that he couldn’t not tap her shoulder, that his hand was drawn up by an unseen force that might have been nine thousand years old, or something like that. At the exact moment that Bobby’s hand was about to touch her shoulder, she turned and faced directly at him. There was something about her eyes that reminded Bobby of beef stew. Her eyes broke away from him and she glanced at his hand and stepped around it. She smiled as she walked past Bobby as though he was nothing more than a parking sign and she said: “Akma! Are you signing up for Social Psych 303 too!” Karen giggled and even her hair seemed to giggle with glee as she walked up to a tall sinewy boy with bluish-black hair and put an arm around his neck, the other arm being full of books, binders and purse. Akma smiled broadly and said: “You think maybe psych stuff too hard for farm boy from old country?”
A vague sense of river and mud drifted over Bobby Parker like familiar clothing as he stood invisibly in the lineup for Social Psychology 303, trying not to hear the girl he’d loved for millennia fawning over the boy who’d been a wedge between them for nine thousand years.
Four years later, Bobby had a degree in business administration and was one of a handful of students ever to attend every class in Social Psychology 303, although nobody, including Professor Erik Vonnegut, noticed. It was time to get a job and get a job he did.
The first one he applied for.
Here’s how it happened…
The interviewer, Mr. Burpee, had the flu. His nose was clogged, his lungs were congested, his arms and legs ached, his eyes watered, his ears buzzed, his teeth hurt, and his mind was slow. Very slow, like phlegm dripping off an ice cube. Normally Mr. Burpee was a good interviewer with that rare aptitude that all first-rate interviewers possess―the ability to make the final assessment of the interviewee thirty seconds into the interview.
Today, Mr. Burpee should have stayed home in bed, drinking plenty of fluids, getting lots of rest, and downing chicken noodle soup by the barrelful. But Mr. Burpee had a character flaw, or more like a career flaw. He felt that since he was in the human resources department of Waterside Insurance Inc, and since he was in a position to decide who would be hired and who would not, and since he was in a position to say who would stay and who would not after they were hired, and since he was in a position to determine who would be promoted or not if he let them stay, since he had such a potential impact on the lives of just about everybody who worked at Waterside Financial Inc, he felt it was his duty to set an example. He was never late for work, he never took longer that the allowed fifteen minutes of coffee break in the morning or the forty five minutes of lunch break and he absolutely would not take a single minute of sick leave unless he was completely incapable of standing erect.
Today, he was barely capable of standing erect. And his mind was slow.
Thirty seconds into the interview with Bobby he still hadn’t made his mind up one way or the other; in fact, he had to squint his watery eyes at Bobby’s resume just to remember his name before saying: “So, Mr…Parker…can you tell me why you want to work for Waterside Financial Inc?” The buzzing in his ears was so loud and the throbbing in his forehead was so intense that he didn’t hear a word of Bobby’s reply which included a five minute description of what he’d done that summer – mowing the lawn, talking to his dog, staying up till (omigod) 9:30 – in fact, Mr. Burpee had dozed off a few minutes into the reply and waked up just as Bobby finished saying: “…9:30.” Mr. Burpee thought that Bobby meant that he had to leave at 9:30 and, checking his watch, noticed that it was exactly 9:30.
“Well, Mr…uh…Parker, thanks for coming in…and we certainly appreciate your interest in working for Waterside Financial Inc.”
They shook hands and Bobby left. Mr. Burpee looked at his checklist. Nothing was checked. Nearly an hour of interview and not one single checkmark. Nothing like this had ever happened to Mr. Burpee before. Every interview he’d ever conducted had resulted in a meticulously checked checklist with each check supported by notes in the margin, observations and insights scribbled at the top and bottom of each page and on the back. Everything from posture and quality of voice to the color of each interviewee’s teeth was documented and signed off at the end of the interview.
Three minutes after Bobby Parker’s departure, Mr. Burpee couldn’t even remember what he looked like except that his hair was dark brown.
Or was it light brown?
Mr. Burpee opened a file on his desk containing his interview notes on the other six candidates for the job. He blinked and rubbed his eyes as he scanned the sheets of paper and concluded that all of the other candidates had scored low to average, and not one of them had gleaming white teeth. Bobby Parker may have had gleaming white teeth. Who knows? And maybe his hair was dark brown. And the position was only for a junior clerk, a position that would be virtually unnoticed in the sprawling Waterside Financial Inc building. Mr. Burpee did the only thing that seemed right in the situation―he completed the checklist, notes and all, and gave Bobby Parker the highest score of all the candidates. He buzzed his secretary and told her to notify Mr. Parker by phone the following day and send letters to the other candidates.
Then he fell asleep at his desk. When he awoke three hours later, he couldn’t remember a thing about Bobby Parker or the interview and, although he would pass Bobby in the halls and see him at company functions until he retired twenty years later, he would never recognize him or recall his name.
Thus it was that Bobby Parker’s professional career was launched by a man who’d forgotten that he existed within minutes after hiring him, and that pretty much set the tone for the next thirty-five years of Bobby’s working life.
It was an entry-level position that Bobby was to hold right up to the day that he retired. And although his salary increased a bit each year, he never went beyond the position, never transferred to another office, never went on a business trip, never attended a convention or trade show, never applied for another position within the company, never did anything except things that involved forms and files and filling in the blanks that others had missed because they didn’t think they were important enough to bother with. By the time the forms and the files reached Bobby, they’d already seen their usefulness. They’d already initiated and finalized whatever it was they’d been designed to do. In effect, they were the dead remains of transactions that no longer transacted, making Bobby something like an undertaker or gravedigger for expired documents. He stamped them, filed them, forgot them.
As did everybody else.
His office was gray on gray. One desk. One chair. One stapler. One phone. Six large file cabinets. Everything was distinguishable only by its degree of gray.
And there were four walls.
Bobby Parker liked his office. In fact it was mainly this that got him to work on time and kept him at his desk till exactly five o’clock each day, this and the fact that he had nothing better to do. He lived in an apartment, so he had no lawn to mow and his dog, Rex, had long since pooped out. All he had to do, really, was stay up till (omigod) 9:30.
Oh yes, there was one other thing in Bobby’s office: a rubber stamp with matching inkpad. Even more than his gray office, Bobby loved his rubber stamp. He used it to stamp all the dead documents that came into his office before he buried them in one of the six large file cabinets. The stamp made it official. The document was dead and Bobby Parker had the last word. It gave him the only sense of authority he was ever to feel in his life. It gave him his only sense of purpose.
Until he met Libby.
Her name was Libby Freeman. She was the darling of the Communications and Marketing Group at Waterside Financial Inc. “You little darling,” people used to say to her because she was so happy and carefree, and she took an interest in people who weren’t popular or intelligent. She couldn’t pass an open guitar case, a wooden box or a hat on the sidewalk without dropping a coin. From three blocks, she could make a panhandler’s nose twitch. She gave the dumpy pimple-nosed boy who delivered interoffice mail a hug once or twice a week, giving him something to feel good about and something to fantasize when he masturbated right afterward in the staff washroom.
Libby wasn’t what you would call beautiful but she was harmoniously attractive in a this-piece-fits-nicely-into-this-piece way. All the parts of her were connected appropriately: her arms, though long, were joined high to her shoulders; her head, though small, grew a natural Afro that completed her head space nicely; her legs, though short, extended from a long butt. There was something cooperative and team-spirited about her body that made people think: “You little darling.”
On top of this, Libby Freeman took care of herself. Her teeth gleamed, her skin was clear, and her eyebrows were plucked to perfection. You would never see a run in her stockings, a missing button on her blouse, or a tear in her slacks. She left a hint of soap scent in the air wherever she went, and the sound she made when she blew her nose was like good clean air passing through a field of clover, like a sniffle from fairies hiding under the dandelion leaves, a sound to make even the hardest heart say: “God bless you Libby Freeman, you little darling.”
One day Libby sat at her desk pondering two problems. Lying directly in front of her on her desktop was an Equipment Purchase Approval Form A-21-Z (e34). It had been used to purchase a new typewriter for Libby. The typewriter was sitting on her desk, all shiny and new. The problem was: what to do with the Form A-21-Z (e34)? Libby had never purchased anything as expensive as a typewriter with company funds before, so she had never even seen Form A-21-Z (e34) until just a few days ago. Now it was sitting on her desk beside her new typewriter. The form had been used to initiate a transaction and now that transaction was over and the form was a dead document.
Libby called the receptionist.
“What do I do with the EPA Form?”
Libby Freeman stood up and walked to the door with Form A-21-Z (e34) in hand. She was aware of the difference in her motions since yesterday, how she moved with more care, with a new awareness of her body, a body that she now realized could be a damned unforgiving thing. Yesterday her doctor had told her that she was going to be a mother. He had to repeat this message a few minutes later when she regained consciousness, and the message―with all its implications―was still sinking in.
Libby, that little darling, was single and although she knew who the father was, she was certain that the Director of the Communications and Marketing Group at Waterside Financial Inc was not about to leave his wife and three children so that he could marry a woman in his department with whom he’d exchanged no more that a few dozen words before exchanging several million bits of genetic information.
Libby Freeman was now a desperate little darling on her way to Room 95-C with a newly dead Equipment Purchase Approval Form A-21-Z (e34) clutched in her hand.
Sitting at his desk in Room 95-C, Bobby Parker stamped a Preliminary Fiduciary Assessment and Recommendation Form F-44-N (a07) which had initiated and finalized more than twenty million dollars worth of transactions but was now a dead document, a stationery corpse, stamped and ready for burial in one of the file cabinets lining Bobby’s walls. Bobby looked at the black ink left by the stamp. He read the big black letters:
Those letters―in that order―had become a sort of motto for Bobby. He carried them around in his mind and thought about them frequently. He noticed that none of the letters in the word repeated themselves. Each letter was used just once, and the first letter in the word was also the first letter in the alphabet. Plus, take out the V and you had the name of Bobby’s favorite comic book character. Bobby liked to think about these things because he took his job and the big rubber stamp seriously. After all, he was the last human who would ever see the documents that came through his office. Once they were in the file cabinets, clams would wear hula skirts and do the Dirty Boogie before they would be removed, read or remembered.
As Bobby sat at his desk rereading the stamped letters on Form F-44-N (a07), the farthest thing from his mind was that, in a few moments, his entire life was going to be changed or, at least, modified.
All that Libby Freeman could think of as she walked down the hall to Room 95-C was: I can’t tell Richard. He’ll want me to get an abortion. This was not an option for Libby, being firmly against abortions and being, of course, a little darling. So her next thought was: I’m going to have the baby. Which naturally led into: I need a father for the baby. And considering the circumstances: Soon. I need to find someone soon. And suddenly, she was standing in the doorway of Room 95-C looking in at a man with a round face in a sort of square way whose hair was…was that light brown or dark brown? But he was dressed appropriately.
Just as Bobby was about stand up to take the officially dead Form F-44-N (a07) to its final resting place he noticed movement in his doorway and looked up. There was a woman standing there looking at him. She had a form in her hand, her teeth gleamed, and she had no missing buttons. Bobby immediately fell in love.
Libby spoke first: “Is this…?”
“Yes,” said Bobby.
“Yes,” said Bobby.
“Yes,” said Bobby.
Two weeks later:
That night they had sex, and seven and a half months later they had a baby girl named Roxanne. Bobby never did do the math.
A year after Roxanne’s birth, they bought a modest house in the suburbs with yards front and back and a garage-mounted basketball net that nobody ever used. Libby was happy with the house and the baby and rarely thought about Bobby, who was content to mow the lawn twice a week but, because Libby had allergies, was not allowed to have meaningful talks with a pet dog. He could, however, stay up till 9:30 (omigod) whenever he wanted. Libby, being Catholic, refused to allow Bobby to use contraceptive devices which was an excellent excuse for her to not have sex with him until as she put it: “I’m ready to have another baby. Some day.” Bobby nodded at this and went outside to mow the lawn. At midnight.
Three years after Roxanne was born, Libby was pregnant again, which meant it was time to have sex with Bobby. Which she did, for the last time ever. Seven and a half months later she gave birth to a baby boy, Leo, who would never know that his real father was the Director of the Communications and Marketing Group at Waterside Financial Inc. Of course, like his sister, he would barely be aware of the man who was purported to be his father. He wouldn’t even be able to tell you if his hair was dark brown or light brown.
And that was about as good as it ever got for Bobby Parker: job, wife, house and two children. Mow the lawn. Stay up till (omigod) 9:30. Stamp dead documents and wonder, occasionally, why neither of his children looked even remotely like him.
He knew as soon as he woke up that morning that the day was going to be different than anything in his entire life. Even before his eyes opened―during those seconds when dream disperses into the murky world of reality―he felt a strange tingling in his stomach, a buoyancy in his head, and a quickness in his breathing. Nothing, other than sex, was ever quick in Bobby Parker’s life. And when he opened his eyes the ceiling seemed higher, the windows larger, Libby’s snoring quieter. Everything seemed to shine with internal light as though basic essences were declaring their purpose in the chain of life and the rendering of reality. Yes, it would be a day of discovery and revelation.
Bobby did something he rarely did: he smiled. It wasn’t a big smile, more like a rearrangement of his mouth into a configuration that could not be mistaken for a frown or anything sadness-related. It was something like the expression on a clam when, presto, it was dressed in a hula skirt and doing the Dirty Boogie. That kind of smile.
On the other side of town, Karen Farq awoke feeling like a sponge that had soaked up a river of sadness, as was the norm in her life these days. Karen Farq, widow of Akma Farq, had been mourning the death of her husband for one year, two months, three days, two hours, seventeen minutes, three seconds, four seconds, five, six…
She measured her days by the chokes in her breath and the tightening of her stomach. But just as she was about to feel that familiar catch in her breath, the catch released and elation swept over her skin and into her muscles and deep into her organs, and her breathing became deep and satisfying. Today was going to be different.
Back on the other side of town, Bobby Parker sat alone at the breakfast table munching Cheerios with skim milk. A playful light danced in the corners of his green―or were they blue―eyes. The Cheerios exploded against his palate with an oatiness of almost unbearable intensity. The skim milk flowed over his tongue like a tidal wave of calcium goodness. Today was going to be the most special day of Bobby’s life. Something good was going to happen. He knew it with every crunch of milk-sopped Cheerios. Today was that day that he’d been waiting for―whether he knew it or not―for every day of his entire life, and maybe even for millennia.
Karen Farq was doing the same thing in her shower, feeling every square inch of her body surface throw its pores open and sop up the warm suds. The follicles of her shampoo-soaked hair sang songs of waves and silkiness. Karen hummed a tune of balance and smooth sailing, a melody whose joy transcended time. She carried the tune with her from the shower to the bus, and all around her people swayed imperceptibly and Karen’s tune quieted their busy lives.
On another bus, Bobby Parker whistled a tune that he hadn’t whistled since he was a kid. It might have been a show tune; it might have been a hymn; it might have been a few bars from a song he’d heard on the radio. He didn’t know and he didn’t care and none of the people around him even noticed that he was whistling. He didn’t care about that either. All he cared about was the way his body attached to the floor of the bus: with lightness, as though he floated over the hard rubber surface just far enough to feel the vibration of travel but too far to feel the bumps as he rushed toward whatever wonderful destiny that permeated this day.
As Karen Farq walked along the sidewalk, it seemed that birds sang in unison with the pulse of blood in her fingertips and toes. Her long chestnut hair caressed the wind and guided its path through the crowd, shushing its flight so that it touched the busy flood of bodies with millions of microscopic kisses. She was getting closer to something, she could feel it in her stomach like a balloon about to pop, or spore about to drop from a mushroom. This was a thing of destiny and it was seconds away from manifesting itself.
A block away, and heading directly for Karen, Bobby Parker felt the approach of something special as though it were a mouthful of walnut fudge and every step he took was a chew swallow and bite into the next step toward that walnut fudge special something that sweetened everything around him.
And Karen Farq felt that her heart would burst and her mind would explode any moment, any second, and maybe every cell of her body was already bursting with joy as she stopped at the intersection―just as she was destined, just as it was written in some eternal journal―she stopped and held her breath and looked around…
…while Bobby’s heart soared right out of his chest, or so it felt right down to the exquisite pain of flesh splitting like a cocoon releasing the next phase of his life …
…as Karen’s eyes scoured the intersection…
…and Bobby, right across the street from her …
…just as her eyes panned ten feet within spotting him …
…and he looked down at the sidewalk in front of him …
…as her eyes panned five feet within spotting him …
…and his heart nearly jumped physically out of his body …
…as she panned two feet within spotting him …
…and he bent forward to pick up the quarter on the sidewalk …
…as Karen Farq’s eyes panned right over Bobby Parker’s stooped body and she saw Louise Fullman, her one and only female love from those first high school forays into sex, and she realized that, yes, she had loved Louise all these years and yearned for her gentle feminine caress. She hurried across the street through honking horns and catcalls.
And Bobby picked up the quarter. A brand new one, so shiny that it must have just come out of the mint, sparkling and bright. It was just as Bobby had known: this was his day. How could things be any better than this? he thought as he stared at the gleaming coin in his palm.
Twenty feet behind him, Karen Farq threw her arms around Louise Fullman, and Louise, who’d recently come out of the closet, planted a hot-tongued wet one right into Karen’s mouth. Traffic and passersby be damned.
For the rest of the day Bobby tasted walnut fudge and whistled something that might have been a show tune or a hymn, or maybe just a few bars of from an old radio song. Who knows? It was the best day since those summers of his youth when he had a dog to talk to and staying up till (omigod) 9:30 had that special magic of a summertime thing like beaches and baseball.
We won’t get into what Karen Farq tasted for the rest of the day except to mention that it wasn’t particularly dependent on any season.
So, what did Bobby Parker feel when he looked at his children?
Not a hell of a lot.
Instead of recognition, he felt what might be described as an itch. It was an itch somewhere inside his head where he couldn’t scratch it without gouging his eyes out or slicing off the back of his head with a letter opener. They were like strangers, like two people who were suddenly on the doorstep of his life and he let them in without knowing where they’d been or whose germs were on them. He let it go for nearly ten years.
And then he couldn’t take it anymore.
He had to do something.
So he took them camping, just him and nine-year-old-Roxanne and six-year-old-Leo…in the woods. It was supposed to be a three-day trip but it didn’t get past the first night.
It was a trip that couldn’t survive a campfire.
Not that they had a campfire. Bobby had never been camping before. He’d never had to start a campfire before. He’d never had to contend with swarms of bugs (ouch), figure out the directions for assembling a tent that was made in (ouch) Korea, or be in such close continuous contact with other human beings before.
And now he was alone with nine-year-old Roxanne and six-year-old Leo and it was the worst eight hours of their lives. They’d had nothing to say to their father during the hour-long drive to the campsite and he’d had nothing to say to them. Roxanne, the oldest, sat up front beside her father. Leo sat in the back where his father stared at him in the rearview mirror for nearly the entire trip, and it wasn’t a warm smiling stare of a loving parent or something like a wink and a nod as though to say: “Lookin’ atcha kid!” It was more like a clinical probe, a visual catheter, or rubber-fingered poke up the butt to check for hemorrhoids. It was a stare full of doubts and questions, and the happiest moment of Leo’s life was when they reached the gates of Carson W. Higgins Memorial Park where Bobby had to keep his eyes on the narrow wooded road through the campgrounds.
It took Bobby nearly two hours to put up the tent. It was right out of the box new, and the directions for assembly were written in an indecipherable Korean-English dialect based on the philosophy that random words arranged on a page might eventually bear meaning. Or maybe not.
Bobby had the ‘or maybe not’ arrangement.
The whole time he was putting up the tent he thought: This is not as easy as stamping dead documents. And by the time he was finished, his face, neck and arms were swollen with mosquito bites.
While he was putting up the tent and feeding the mosquitoes, Roxanne and Leo huddled off to the recreation center where they played ping-pong. They didn’t talk much, except to say things like “Nuts.” and “Why do we have to do this?” but after a few minutes at the ping-pong table, they were oblivious of anything but the small white ball bouncing back and forth. Back and forth. For two hours. Without a word. Back and forth. Ping. Pong. Ping. Pong.
If they didn’t have Bobby’s genes, they certainly had his ability to obscure time with simplicity.
When they went back to the campsite, a big green tent with yellow trim towered over them. It was pushed right up against a stand of spruce and alders; in fact, the back end of the tent had about a foot of alder bushes under the floor. This caused the guy lines for the rain fly to be misaligned giving the tent a tilted and skewed look. Bobby was bent over an orange rusted fire grill blowing into a white plume of wood smoke that diminished with each blow.
“Do either of you know how to start a campfire?” he asked.
Roxanne and Leo shook their heads no simultaneously.
They ate peanut butter and jam sandwiches for supper. Then Bobby went to the park store and bought a fire-starter brick. The brick burned well, but it didn’t do anything to the logs other than blacken them, and while the brick blackened the logs, Bobby, Roxanne and Leo sat around the grill, the kids gazing into the burning brick and Bobby gazing into Roxanne’s and then Leo’s eyes. The deeper he looked, the more intense was the itch at the back of his mind. He gazed deep into Roxanne’s eyes, looking for the tiniest resemblance to himself. There was nothing he could latch on to, nothing to make him think by bringing this child into the world, I reveal myself. There was just nothing of himself to see.
The same was true when he looked into Leo’s eyes. Everything bounced back like a telephone ringing in the desert. After a while, the kids started to glance back at Bobby, at first irritably, and then angrily. It was Roxanne who settled it:
“I want to go home. Now.”
Half an hour later, half disassembled tent stuffed in the trunk beside loose sleeping bags, and a brick still charring the surface of logs in the grill, Bobby, Roxanne and Leo were pulling away from the campsite, on their way home, away from a thicket of questions so thick you couldn’t set it on fire with a burning brick.
Not a word was spoken on the trip back. Not a glance was exchanged after Bobby flipped up the rearview mirror. Not a suspicion was felt as they pulled into the driveway and the Director of the Communications and Marketing Group at Waterside Financial Inc climbed out the back window.
And then one day, Bobby Parker stopped using the stamp. He wasn’t sure exactly how it happened. He’d heard rumors of a thing called the paperless office and around the same time, large plastic objects with screens and clickity-clackity keyboards began to appear on everybody’s desk except his, but he noticed that, although his desk seemed to have less paper, the stacks of papers on everybody else’s desks seemed to grow rather than diminish. He overheard some people at the cooler one day saying that these new things were called computers and many of the employees at Waterside Financial Inc were afraid that one day they would replace humans. They weren’t sure when this would happen, but guesses ranged from a few months to a few years.
It took exactly one month for them to replace Bobby Parker.
Three months to the day that the first computer appeared, dead documents stopped flowing into Bobby’s office. Now, the forms were all completed on the new computers and then stored on them when they were no longer needed. A file named C://ARCHIVE.DAT replaced all the file cabinets and the stamp with the big black
There was no reason for Bobby to come into work but since nobody knew that he was there anymore―now that they weren’t bringing dead documents to Room 95-C, and not that they knew he was there even when they did bring the documents―he kept coming in. He sat at his desk each day and waited for dead documents. He waited for seven years. He went to the cooler for water twice a day but nobody noticed him, nobody spoke to him. He bought coffee and a donut when the coffee cart came around but nobody ever saw him, not even the succession of coffee cart attendants who would have been hard-pressed to remember anybody in a building where the men looked like penguins and the women dressed in mostly gray, let alone remember somebody whose hair might have been light brown. Or maybe dark brown.
He waited for seven years and every day he thought about that brand new quarter he’d found on the sidewalk and he remembered how special that day had felt, and during that time nobody was replaced by the computers. In fact, new people were hired to fix the computers and put new programs on them and connect them and upgrade them and administer the computer network, and the only things that seemed to be replaced were the typewriters, including Libby’s brand new typewriter, which she had only used for a few weeks before marrying Bobby and leaving her job to raise her boss’s family.
One day Bobby came into work and there was a letter on his desk. He opened it and read:
Dear Mr. Parker:
The management and employees of Waterside Financial Inc congratulate you for thirty five (35) years of dedicated service and wish you all the best in your retirement. Our new ABR System will process your retirement benefit and begin direct deposits effective immediately.
Once again, many thanks.
Please note: Remove all personal belongings from your office as it will be renovated beginning next week. Thank you.
Director, Employee Benefits and Insurance Plans
So that was it.
No more waiting for dead documents. No more coffee and donuts from the cart. No more being invisible at the water cooler. No more Room 95-C. No more Waterside Financial Inc. No more bus rides to work in the morning. No more bus rides home at the end of the day. No more bagged lunches. No more 9 to 5.
Bobby Parker thought that he would miss all of these things, especially the rubber stamp, but he didn’t. He quickly settled into days of soap operas and walks in the park. In the summer, he mowed the lawn almost every day. In the winter, he shoveled snow into one pile and then shoveled the pile into another pile. In the fall, he raked leaves. In the spring, he planted things and fertilized the grass. He read a lot of books but he wouldn’t have been able to tell you what they were about a day after reading them. He wouldn’t remember the name of the lead character or the protagonist.
His children had grown up and left school for college. He couldn’t remember anything about them except that, now, it was easier to get into the washroom in the morning. Occasionally he met his wife, Libby, in the hallways or in the kitchen. She always seemed to be on her way somewhere as though she had a job or some very demanding volunteer work. What she really had was a series of torrid affairs that had started with the Director of the Communications and Marketing Group at Waterside Financial Inc and moved up the ladder into the offices of executive directors and vice presidents. It was almost like she still worked at Waterside Financial Inc, only now she rarely worked sitting down. A few years after Bobby retired, the affairs dwindled away as her face wrinkled and her figure became…less appropriately connected and team-spirited. But they still referred to her as “that little darling.” When she was within hearing distance.
She left the world of obsessive romance and entered the obsessive world of bridge. It was her former high school buddy, Laura Jenkins, who introduced her to the game.
“They meet three or four nights a week,” she told Bobby, hoping that he wouldn’t ask if he could come as well.
“Didn’t Laura Jenkins have a father who died in a car accident?” said Bobby.
“Yes, she did,” said Libby, glad to change the topic.
And that was it. It was the last time they spoke to each other for the rest of their lives. They lived in the same house but their hours were different and, since Bobby’s presence on earth was so much like a pebble that disintegrated right down to the atomic level when it hit the surface of the water that it left no ripple, Libby was barely aware of his presence. Her new lover was bridge and she dove into her new lover like a fifteen-year-old on a hormone high.
Which, for Bobby, left only one more thing to look forward to besides bursitis and incontinence.
But let’s back up a bit first, back to that Sunday afternoon when Bobby Parker was walking along the sidewalk thinking: Oh, this and that, and for no reason other than to change the rhythm of his movement, he began to skip, somewhat slower than normally.
Somewhat slower than normally.
And why would somebody like Bobby Parker, even as a child, do anything slower, faster, and in any way different than normally?
Well, in Bobby Parker’s case, it was because Death was momentarily distracted. You see, Death was watching Bobby that day, drooling and rubbing his hands together and goading Bobby on, putting silly thoughts into his head like: Oh, this and that, and causing him to whistle something that might have been a show tune or a hymn, or maybe a few bars from some old radio song, anything that would take Bobby’s mind off the world around him. Death was nudging Bobby toward the intersection with the faulty light, the light that would be green all around when he reached it. Green for Bobby, and green for a certain pick-up truck.
And then Death saw Ted Jenkins.
He saw him drive just over the right shoulder and then veer toward the center line, but before reaching the line, for three entire seconds that could have been three centuries in Death’s waiting room, for three splendid seconds, Ted Jenkins’ car was aligned perfectly in the center of his lane and Death let out a whoop and a cheer, and then frowned when the car broke from the alignment and crossed the center line. But then, Ted Jenkins nudged the wheel and his car was once again, for three eternal seconds, aligned perfectly in the center of his lane and Death was ecstatic.
Death was so wrapped up in each of Ted Jenkins’ three seconds of perfection that he completely forgot about Bobby Parker. He stopped nudging him forward so that Bobby slowed down and skipped somewhat slower than normally, and when he reached the intersection, Death was cheering Ted Jenkins’ perfect alignment just as Ted saw Bobby on the sidewalk and nodded to him. And, of course, as Ted’s eyes turned in Bobby’s direction, so did his car, out of its perfect alignment in the center of the lane and over the center line and right into the pick-up truck that was supposed to kill Bobby Parker.
Death was pissed.
This hadn’t been the plan. Now there would reports to write. Interviews. Interrogations. Excuses to make. Cross-examinations. Hearings. Forms to complete. The plan had been changed, and now there would be change management on a cosmic level. Bobby Parker was still on earth. Ted Jenkins wasn’t. Fortunately, he was only supposed to have one child, Laura Jenkins, who would one day be Libby’s best friend, except that, now, Libby’s last name would not be Perkins and the humor of matching up Jenkins and Perkins for Bridge Night would never happen. The driver of the pick-up would have survived in either case. And since Bobby would never have children genetically related to himself in either case, things were not as bad as they could have been.
After the reports were written, the interviews and interrogations and cross-examinations conducted, the excuses made, the forms completed and change management implemented on a cosmic scale, Death forgot all about Bobby Parker, as did most of the world around Bobby (after all, if even Death isn’t interested in you…) until Bobby had lived his average allowable age for a married white male in his particular milieu―when nobody would notice―and then Death came to Bobby Parker as he mowed the lawn.
“Time to chalk it in, Bobby,” said Death.
Bobby just kept mowing the lawn.
“It’s time, Bobby,” repeated Death.
Bobby just kept mowing the lawn.
“It won’t be painful or gross,” said Death. “By the time the worms come, you’ll be somewhere else.”
Bobby ignored Death and mowed his lawn in perfectly straight rows that would have made Ted Jenkins proud of him.
“It’s inevitable,” said Death. “You will come because you have to come.”
Bobby mowed and mowed the lawn, row after perfect row, from one end of the yard to the other.
“There’s nothing for you to hang on to here, Bobby.”
Suddenly, the lawn was completely mowed.
Bobby Parker smiled and died.
When they found his body in the back yard, collapsed beside the lawn mower, there was nothing much in Bobby Parker’s face except Oh, a little of this and a little of that. His mouth was slightly puckered as though he might have been whistling, and he looked completely satisfied with the way things had turned out.