Never let people plan your parties. No matter how well intentioned or disarmingly high pitched their requests are. Never let them. That’s the only thing I could think of as I wandered from one tedious conversation to the other. I was in a ballroom the size of a kindergarten classroom with cheap windows lined with dust and jealousy. I didn’t expect it to be packed. I would estimate a hundred people in that little space ranging from old to “they have more wrinkles than hair”. I hardly recognized anyone, but they certainly seemed to know me. It was a real roll call of how many times and in how many different ways I could hear “Oh you’re all grown up now!”.
“So you’re making it out of here,” someone stated behind me as they placed a heavy hand on my shoulder, “a big city man now, eh?”
“Well, I’ll give you the big city part on a technicality, but a firm no on ‘man’,” I quipped.
The offer letter had just hit my center table, and instantaneously I could feel the magnetic attraction from my parents’ eyes to the standard white envelope. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I could hear the party-planning gears turning in their skulls the millisecond they picked up that letter.
There was no debate after that. I’d applied, I’d interviewed, I’d gotten it, and now I’d be set to leave in a few weeks. I’d be a fool to even consider turning that job down. The company that was to be my employer had more employees in their one building than my whole town did. It was the shining concrete-grey pillar that everyone ran towards, and I was the lucky one that made it there.
I sauntered from one conversation to the other, a roving eavesdropper in plain clothes, and a plate of overpriced cake in hand. I’m not exactly sure what I was looking for, but I definitely did not share the enthusiasm that these people had for my career.
A 70 kilometer drive. A majority of the road from my little town to the city I was doomed to, or as my nonchalant partygoers would say, privileged to work in, was long stretches of winding mud roads with the occasional remnant of an effort to apply tar. About three-quarters of the way there, the road suddenly transforms into a smooth, shining black asphalt road. It was quite the shock to me the first time I drove there. The uncaring dirt road, littered with stones and the occasional roadkill carcass switched up into a polished, near perfect road. My car seemed to respond in kind, where the begrudging fatigue of my engine turned into a satisfied hum as soon as the wheels climbed over the tar. Maybe that’s what these people thought would happen to me. I’d turn into a polished gentleman as soon as I was in a respectable radius of a cell phone tower that worked without a hitch all hours of the day, a suit and tie would transpose itself onto me.
I don’t think I would’ve had any issue continuing my fine tuned facade of pride as I wandered across the hall, but it was the lack of any stimulating noise that actually charged my feet into walking towards my parents. They were situated in a conspicuously well lit corner of the hall, surrounded by a smattering of well dressed people who I was certain knew me very well, despite my not recognizing their face, voice, or name. I channeled some of the apparent pride I was supposed to have into interrupting what I am sure was a conversation from which I could “learn a thing or two”.
“Do you mind if I take a walk downstairs?”, I asked in my mother’s ear.
“What’s downstairs?”, she replied in a voice that was probably a decibel or two louder than mine.
“I’m not sure actually, but this hall is stuffy, and I think the windows aren’t functional”
“It’s been a half hour, you can stay here a little while longer. There’s people who haven’t seen you in decades, stay for them.” She extended her hand to gesture at the impressive influx of people still coming in. On instinct my eyes followed her hand’s motion clinically, like a camera operator at a golf tournament following the ball.
“It’ll take me fifteen minutes. If they’ve waited a decade they can wait another fifteen minutes.”
Feeling the pull of my father’s, what I’m assuming was a harrowing retelling of the time he was delayed at the airport for four additional hours, my mother turned her attention back towards the guests.
I walked out of the impressively packed ballroom onto the descending flight of stairs. They led down to what seemed to be a speakeasy-esque bar, except for the lack of customers and pillowing plumes of smoke. The only lights were affixed at the bar, which sprayed a subtle orange glow to the green-top stools in front. There was no bartender, just two elderly gentlemen with almost identical drinks in glasses in front of them. They were seated far apart. I walked down on the streaked carpets, my overpriced shoes making a clop sound with every step. My intrigue was piqued.
“They serve alcohol here?” I asked the man who I was now sitting next to.
“In here they do. And only if you shut up.” He responded. He was old, but now old in the way I’d seen too often before. He was a man of medium build. He was in mute colors and in what seemed to be a really oversized sweater. The light glow reflected off his bald head in an almost cinematic way. I had an urge to know more.
“Oh, there just happens to be a speakeasy in the basement of the tackiest convention hall in town?”
He craned his neck to look towards me. The bags under his eyes were drooping, nearly closing his dark brown eyes. His lips were dry and didn’t seem to be able to close. He stared daggers back into my eyes. I’m assuming he saw sufficient evidence of my fear in my eyes, as he turned back down to look at his drink.
“Probably shouldn’t call it a speakeasy at a speakeasy,” I mumbled in a low voice to no one.
Before I could finish, he replied, “Aren’t you the one they’re honoring up there with the obnoxious music and the whooping?” His voice was gravelly, and I couldn’t help but follow the shine on his head as he gestured up the stairs.
“Not by choice, but yes.” I said.
“Shouldn’t you be up there, celebrating…. Whatever it is you’re celebrating?”
Again, he gestured with his forehead towards me, using his wrinkled but surprisingly flexible neck, and once again I couldn’t help but follow.
“Oh, I got a job. Not here, out in the city. They must be really happy to see me go.” I laughed weakly at my own joke while embarrassed at the inconsistent volume of my voice.
“Congratulations. My friend here will pour you a drink once you’re done with your party.” He looked towards the other man sitting five stools away who didn’t even look up.
“Oh I don’t drink. My parents would most likely disown me.”
“I know.” He snickered, and the other man joined in. That went on for a minute.
“I’m sorry, do you know me or something? Have we met before?” It wouldn’t surprise me. Apparently I’m a hit with older people in this town who insist that they once changed my diapers when I was a baby.
“Do I know you? No. But I’m sure I can figure you out.” He again met his gaze with mine, and slowed his speech. “Although I’m not sure it’d be worth the effort.” He looked back down into the dingy bar table.
I was just about ready to leave. My adamance to make my presence felt there had reached its end. But I simply had to know what this guy’s problem was. I stopped my motion to stand up and, quite awkwardly, sat back down.
“What do you mean?” I said.
He sighed. The man across the bar from me was still silent, like a highly trained stage animal waiting for his cue.
“Look, I’ve lived in this town a long time. I’ve sat at this exact stool hundreds of evenings under the wall of this tacky light and the dreadful whooping coming from the hundreds of parties upstairs.” He took a breath. “Let me guess, you’re going out for college? No, wait,” he pointed at me, like I’d not already told him what I was celebrating, “A job. You got a job. I’m guessing a desk riding job in a shiny metal tower on the 15th floor. You’ll type until the bell rings, and you’ll eat the same slop that everyone else around you is.”
I stood up. I walked a step towards him, but my feet tensed. “I’ll leave,” I said.
“Good. And if you would be so kind, look into how expensive it would be to soundproof the ballroom. With your new big city salary.” The man at the end of the bar laughed. It was a hearty, bloated chuckle, a mean spirited one. I stood in my spot.
“What is your problem, man? Did I do something to you? Or are you just some jealous old prick?”
He stayed completely calm. “Jealous? Of what? Your hand-me-down dress shirts and a watch you won in an arcade?” he said. My face felt warm, and my stomach flipped. “And you haven’t done anything to me. You could, if you got your parents’ permission, though.”
Once again, the man at the end of the bar let out a gross laugh, and this time the man in front of me joined in. Both of them looked at each other, and in some wicked symphony, spewed insolent cackles into the air. I had goosebumps on my arms, and I could feel myself getting ready to run. There was a rage in me that I’d never felt. More than anger, it was a sense of control that pulsated through my body. Every heartbeat effused this numbing feeling to every cell in me.
I slammed my fist against the bar. The glasses rattled. Both men fell silent.
“Oh. we better get out of here now, he’s angry. He might throw some parentally approved punches at us.” They laughed again, as they left some notes against the bar counter, turned off the lights, and walked upstairs. I stood there frozen, hearing their footsteps recede. Once they stopped, I felt like I could breathe again.
I turned to the staircase. It was silent. Only the intermittent conversations from my party seeped in. It was dark and I suddenly realized how cold it was down there. I walked towards the staircase and up in an uneasy stride, in every step my past felt unimportant, and my future more tangible. When I reached the landing, the ballroom was on my left. I don’t think anyone could see me standing outside. My mother might; she would be looking for me by now. She would’ve told my father, who would also be keeping an eye out. They would’ve spotted me. But for once, I didn’t care. My neck eased, and a few knots inside me were undone with quivering but certain motions.
I looked to the right. The exit. The man was walking in the distance, alone.
I suppose it was rage. Or perhaps curiosity, or self righteousness. Or, for once I didn’t care. I felt my legs fight me as I commanded them to walk forward. I walked forward. Outside the building. I didn’t look back once. It was terrifying, and for some reason exhilarating. I was a shaken paint can of anxious shades. Still, I walked behind him, formulating my nervous thoughts into footsteps.
I couldn’t tell you the time. Or what I was wearing, or what the weather was like. I walked behind at a continuous pace, but at a respectable distance. We walked down under the evening sky, on the tired dilapidated roads for what seemed to be hours. Eventually, the man made a wide left turn into a modest looking house. I waited for him to enter, and the door to close.
I came out to face the house. The tacky green paint on the outside was peeling. I could see the faint marks of tires on the pavement outside, but no sign of a vehicle. I was terrified. Every nerve in my body told me not to do this. Every atom collided against themselves to pull me back to my party. To forget this. To treat this as some old coot’s jealousy. I couldn’t. You know that feeling when every ounce of wisdom you’ve learned feels like it’s been corrupted, like your conscience has been hijacked by a rampant force? I felt hijacked. I walked up the small set of stairs and stood in front of the door.
I just stood. I stood for a while. I was certain about what I wanted to do, and how I was going to do it, but I felt paralyzed. My feet bonded to the floor, preventing me from moving.
Then, a voice shouted from the inside: “The door is unlocked. If you want to get in, get in. No one will open the door for you.”
So, I did.
The inside of the house was just as nondescript as the exterior. A single leather chair adjacent to a brown coffee table. The whole room was lit by a dim yellow light, similar to the basement. He was in the kitchen, drinking something out of a mug. His back was turned to me. I walked into the room. I didn’t take my shoes off, I didn’t even look around.
The whole house had an aura of pure bliss. The dingy, unrelentingly beige interior induced a sense of calm in me, the reason for which I can’t quite place. This home felt like a home. It felt like my home. The anger and turmoil in me faded into the silky carpet under my shoe. I felt at place with everything, despite everything here being somewhere between 15–20 years older than me.
He walked out of the kitchen, and into the living room. He sat down on the chair, placing his mug, and its suspiciously golden-brown contents onto the table.
He must’ve seen me looking at the mug, because he laughed and said, “Don’t worry, I’m not offering you any.”
I stood in place, unaware of what to say, just sliding my foot on the floor back and forth. After taking a swig from his mug, he spoke again.
“So, why are you here? Are you going to ask me why I was so mean? What I was doing in that little bar under your party?”
I said nothing.
“Aren’t you going to say anything? Or is there a cavalry of family members driving over here to scold me? I can tell you now, I don’t care.”
Once again, I soaked in every word of his through my pores, into the hull of my chest. I couldn’t feel any anger, even as I maintained eye contact with him. He looked at me, perplexed, but still determined. There wasn’t even a twinkle of fear in those tired eyes. A warm glow of orange encircled his pupils.
“So, nothing then. Got it. Well, feel free to leave anytime you wish, I only called you because you were standing there like a wax statue, and it might freak the neighbors out, so-”
“How did you know about me?” I interrupted.
“About you? I don’t know anything about you. I told you that before.”
“How did you… Why did you say it then?”
“Do they still teach kids how to speak in full sentences?” He quipped.
“You said you could figure me out,” I said, wasting no time.
“I can,” he said.
He took another drink from his mug.
“Do you really think you’re that unique?” he stared at me with a look of confusion. “No, do you really think that I can’t tell from the way you talk, the way you dress, the way you followed me here, that I can’t tell what type of person you are?”
“You’ve never even met me before though,” I pleaded.
“Oh, what does it matter?” He stood up from the chair and walked towards me, his eyes still boring into mine.
“Your parents are throwing a party for you because you got a job! Do you think it was difficult for me to guess based on that?”
I stood in place, frozen. My skin didn’t feel like my own. I felt foreign to myself.
I think he sensed my fear, because the edge in his stare died down into mellow pity.
He seemed to consider sitting back down, but decided against it, to avoid breaking the stare.
Finally, I was able to contort my lips into the correct motion to produce “But why would you care?”
As quickly as he could, he replied “I don’t”, and sat back down.
I took a step back.
“You do. Of course you do. Why else would you berate me, let me into your house, everything? What is your problem?”
“Well, why don’t you try knocking next time?”
I couldn’t stand in that spot anymore. I dragged my leg forward, nearly tripping over myself. Out of the corner of my eye, there was a jacket, placed on the kitchen counter. I walked towards it, feeling the slick step under my shoe shift to a stony tile. The jacket was faded. Polyester. A heavy rain jacket. I can’t tell you the last time it rained in this town. We’ve gotten the occasional drizzle in the summer, but nothing warranting this type of gear. I ran my finger along the seam, breaking the accumulated dust on my finger. I traced the seam until it turned over onto the back of the jacket. I turned it over. I heard him sigh disapprovingly as I did so.
The colors that I’d forced myself to be accustomed to, loyal to even, stared back at me. A stock blue and orange, in a diamond pattern, designed with as little effort as possible. I remember it from the envelope that had dominated the last two weeks.
Under that logo was the words “Mors-Animae” were stitched on, once again in the most corporate-advisable and uncreative font there could be.
“Why do you have this?” I asked him, gripping the jacket in my hand with as much strength as I could conjure.
“I sold my soul for it.”
He said nothing.
Then it hit me. Why he was at the hall, why he wasted his time talking to me. He worked there. He knew what I was going into.
“You worked there?”
“27 years. I sat there for 27 years, day in, and day out. I remember how excited I was to be hired. When that letter came, I would’ve thrown a party too, if I had the money. Then, I went there. You know what I realized?” He turned his head to me.
I stood there, astonished. His voice was softer, the gravel in his larynx had been ground down into soft sand.
“Every single guy in every single cubicle looked like me. The same shirt, the same haircut, the same second hand perfume. We all talked about the same thing in the break room. We all stood in attention when the manager walked in. And back here, all my family would talk about is how lucky I was. I did that for 27 years. I got that jacket when I retired. That’s what they gave me. The ‘thank you for your service, now don’t get wet in the rain’ memento.”
“But,” I stuttered. The incoherent gibberish that I had become my trademark of late followed.
“There was a clock,” his eyes bore tunnels into mine, “on the wall behind me. I suppose the mechanics on that were especially loud, or it was just the lack of any other sound on the floor, but I heard that ticker constantly. Think about it, 27 years, hearing that clock, hearing the time tick by, but your time won’t ever change.”
“Why didn’t you quit?”
“Same reason you won’t. My family didn’t want me to. In fact, they would’ve had me work there until I died. The prestige I brought back home was more important than my identity. So I worked. I sent back every pointless letter of commendation, every positive report from HR. I think it’s all framed somewhere. I made them happy. After nearly three decades sitting at that desk, I can’t tell you one line of new code I wrote, or anything new I built. Not one.”
Would it be redundant to say that I stood there speechless?
“Look, I’m sure you’re a great person. I’m sure you’ve achieved everything you’ve been asked to. But I’m certain you haven’t had a single minute of your life to yourself.” The mist of tears in his eyes were overpowering his eyelids. They left a thin trail as they caressed the wrinkles on his face.
“You’ve been riding the wave. That’s all. People pushed you around, and you listened. ‘Do this, go here, eat this, work here,’ and you listened. You’ve sauntered from one day to the next, simply doing. You’ve got no knowledge, no skill, no foundation, and you know why? Because you haven’t done a single thing for yourself. The roots of a wandering flower don’t grow any deeper. And you haven’t either. You asked me how I read everything I needed to know from you? Well there you go. It’s because I’ve seen hundreds of you in the same room, for 27 years.”
“But why do you care? If I take this, if I live or die a boring life?”
“It’s not boredom. You’re put inside a glass bottle, placed in a humid room, and told to type. Reasons don’t matter. You wait for the end of the month to cash your check, then leave. It can’t be called a life. How much stale coffee will you drink till you remember what real coffee tastes like?
“And I don’t care. You’re not the first person Mors-Animae hired from this town, and you won’t be the last. Labor is cheap, dreams are dangerously low, and we’ve all got just enough ambition to believe that the salary raise is just around the corner. But you should care. In a year’s time I’ll be back at that bar drinking whatever I want,” a knowing smile crept over his face, “I’ve served my time. I’ve paid the price of my naivete. You will be hunched over a computer, listening to that clock tick by. I’m trying to save you. Listen, if you will, or leave.”
He stood up, placing the mug back on the table, and walked into a dark bedroom. I dropped the jacket on the floor and took a step back. This place felt like home. More so than my home. I felt like I knew every square inch here. I could feel my heart struggling to pump enough blood to keep my body warm. I was losing it.
Or no, I should’ve been. I definitely did not have the fortitude to survive the anxiety that came after that conversation, but for some reason, I felt absolutely calm. I’d sweat through my shirt, my hands were trembling, and I was afraid the ground would collapse under the weight of my brain trying to rip itself apart, but I felt calm. Completely at peace. I walked out of the house, back into the chilly air of the night. The wind blew my hair into a wild mix, but I didn’t correct it. I stood at his doorstep, facing the road, completely unsure of what I was going to do, but for the first time in my life, I felt like myself. It was terrifying, my chest felt empty, but I wanted to feel it, I chose to feel it. I’ll take that.