Part 2: The Lull

Usually, that time of day, there’s nothing to do but unload the dish sanitizer, balance the till, denominate large bills, break open coin rolls–stuff like that.  It’s that lull between lunch and happy hour.  We keep the switches dimmed because so much light is coming in through the windows.  TV’s are on but muted.  Pretty peaceful, actually.  Sometimes, when my manager steps out (I think she’s met somebody but doesn’t want it public), I catch up on social media.  Alleviates the tedium.  You have to be mindful of customers, of course, but like I said, it’s the lull.  Customers are sparse, especially on a Tuesday.

 

So I was leaning forward with my elbows on the oaktop, phone in hand, thumbscrolling, and this guy came in.  I watched to see if he would come to the bar.  Usually, that time of day, customers go to a table in the dining room.  But no, he was coming my way.  He walked with calm and measured steps.  With the exception of the eyes, his face was expressionless . . . but those eyes!!  Crazed and elated, or was it relief?  He unzipped his jacket but didn’t remove it.  Nor did he sit.  It seemed like he needed some time to process whatever was going on behind those eyes.

 

“Afternoon,” I offered.photo (1)

 

“Hey,” he said, shortly.

 

“What’re you having?”

 

“Ummm, do you have anything seasonal?”  His words were calm and measured like his steps.

 

“Winter Ale,” says I.

 

His response was a cheerless but certain, “Perfect.”  And he finally slid his haunches into a barchair.  Something was brewing with this guy.  Mid-life crisis?  No, too easy.  Whatever this man wrestled with, he was in it alone.  It wasn’t some universal male condition.  I know I’m taking liberties, basing an awful lot on a set of crazy eyes and a handful of words, but like I said, it was the lull–I had time, then, to think about it and I’ve had time since.

 

For a full fifteen minutes, the man stared at a silent television, never lifting his pint.  Then, as if jolted by a current, he exclaimed to no one, “I’ve been an irresolute lion, licking my paws in diffidence, giving them the power!  Today was the day, and I did it!”  The eyes flashed.  He dug out a five and flung it onto the bar and exited, his puzzling declaration still charging the air.

 

To this day, I don’t know what he did or what he was talking about, and likely never will.  What I do know is that the thing behind those eyes could only be madness.  I truly believe that I served someone crazy that day.

 

 

Part 1: We’re All in This Together

photoGary had an important job.  It was respectable enough.  Whenever someone outside the factory asked about it, he always impressed.  The terms involved had a way of sounding–specialized.  In truth, the work was specialized, though the superiors of the upper floor rarely saw this.  What they saw, firing accusatory glances at us from an interior window, were profit margins and bottom lines and various other abstractions of vague financiality.  In times of restlessness, the bosses would flex their authoritarian muscles by descending to the plant floor and solving problems that didn’t exist.  Gary avoided this meddling inasmuch as he was able.  After all, he did fine work, and this is what he would insist upon if ever his compliance with policy was in doubt.  It’s true, though, about the good work; the products of his workstation benefitted people.  So if he was to be watched–he and his coworkers alike–as if on probation (I know this is how he felt), at least he could be proud of his work.

 

My own station was a couple of units over.  I could see the bosses glaring from the little window, but it didn’t bother me in the same way it bothered Gary.  Nevertheless, when he would rail in private against the ever-multiplying, nonsensical corporate initiatives, I was right there with him.  Remember what I said about solving problems that didn’t exist?  Well, the company was afflicted with this recreation, from headquarters in I-don’t-remember-what city all the way down to our little plant.

 

One day there was a meeting announced by the supervisors.  These occasional meetings were called “roundtable discussions,” a ridiculous epithet calculated to imply equal status for all employees, as if everyone’s opinions would be considered.  Gary and I rolled many an eye at the mention of these.  Attendance was not always required, so I stayed behind to work, thinking that Gary would relay anything pertinent.  But he never came back.  I saw the others returning.  Familiar, sarcastic voices out of sight behind the workstations said things like “culture of excellence” and “we’re all in this together,” followed by mocking laughter.  The very use of such phrases only showed how out-of-touch the higher-ups were with the rest of us.  I thought that maybe he got sick and went home early.  When he didn’t show up the next day, I asked my super about him.  The super stared at me as though I was speaking French.  That was it–no explanation.  Now I know.  That is just how people tend to disappear around here.

 

 

*This is a departure from my usual posts in that it is a work of fiction.  Any resemblance to actual persons, places, or events is purely coincidental.  No, really.  It is.

Back to School, Fifteen Years Later

On campus.
On campus.

It has been fifteen years since I strolled across the stage in Union University’s chapel, shook Dr. Dockery’s hand, and officially ended my college career.  Then began fifteen years of life experience–some of it hard, some of it triumphant, some self-inflicted, and some not.  For fifteen years I have been figuring things out.  And while many riddles remain unsolved, there is one thing that I knew it was time to do:  go back to school.  The time was ripe for pursuing that master’s degree that I had long claimed to want.

 

Returning to school was an adjustment in some unexpected ways.  Having always enjoyed that setting, I thought that I would slide back into it with ease.  But here is the thing–I am not who I was fifteen years ago.  No one is.  We are ever changing–tastes, styles, likes, dislikes, views, routines, relationships, underwear–and often imperceptibly.  Age, alone, brings about changes.  It was naive to think that I would transition so easily.  In our late teens and early twenties, we are kids who think that we are adults.  In my late thirties, I have no such illusions–the kid years are long gone.  By the way, college kids have not changed.  They still wear ridiculous hats and pajamas to class; they still stay up all night “studying”; they still sneak around and smoke cigarettes (they have to sneak at Belmont, as the campus is smoke-free).  The smell of identity-searching fills the air.  Conversely, my dress is fairly conservative, I have a wife and a two-year-old, I go to bed by ten, and I gave up smoking years ago.  Every night on campus (graduate classes are mostly all at night), I am aware that my peers and I are in the minority.  There is much less leisure for us.  Whereas the undergraduate may spend the hours between classes hanging out in the dorm or the student center or at Bongo Java across the street, having animated, idealistic discussions about the subjects on which they are now experts, I am navigating a toddler drop-off with my wife on the other side of town in rush hour traffic or arranging to be late for work so I can turn in a paper in hard copy, which my teachers unscrupulously demand, despite the age of email in which we live.  These are not complaints, however.  Let me emphasize that.  These are merely illustrations showing how the rules of the game have changed on this second go-around.  I am thrilled to be back in school, but the logistics of making it happen have become much more of a balancing act.  That said, semester’s end brings an elation like I never felt as an undergrad.  There is more reading and writing in one graduate English class than in a full course load at the undergraduate level (at least it feels that way).  A completed semester feels like an enormous accomplishment.

 

There was a point near the end of the most recent semester when I finally felt like a part of the school, integrated into the body of learners, professors, and buildings.  Walking to class from the parking garage, passing between two lines of fiery red maples, it finally hit me.  It had taken two semesters to sink in, but I now felt like a student.  Of course, I had known I was a student since summer–my student account attests to that–but I did not feel like one.  For much of those first two semesters, it felt like I was pretending to be a student, reading and writing a lot in the early morning hours and showing up once a week on campus with a backpack.  It was like a very aware dream.  So much time had been spent in frustration over a job that had grown tedious that the thought of pursuing something different seemed forever out of reach.  But it was, and is, happening.

 

Speaking of that job, it has taught me something very valuable.  It has taught me how to work when I do not feel like working.  After an inspiration-sapping shift, when the easy chair calls most vehemently, an inner voice reminds me that the schoolwork has to get done.  It just has to!  Thankfully, it is a rewarding endeavor.  Never have I regretted sitting down to my assignments.  As discipline triumphs over lethargy–a battle fought often–the academic effort becomes increasingly satisfying.  And there is something else that will be satisfying:  commencement.  The day will come when I will stroll across a different stage and shake a different hand.  That will be its own kind of elation.