Mark Johnson stared at the gifts strewn across his office desk. In the center lay the leftover cake from the party, mangled from the assault of many forks but with the letters “py retirem” still intact in the middle. How many years spent at the company? Twenty? Somewhere around that. His memory was getting slower every day. In the last few years, people often had to remind him their names, and on several occasions he had mixed up the invoices of clients. It was time to retire, time to move on.
He had paid his dues—no one could deny that. He had joined the company when they still operated from a basement. He had worked hard, treating every sales call as sacred. He had pushed and pushed, and the company had finally gotten off the ground. He hadn’t slowed down even as they moved into much bigger offices, often working late into nights till the lights were turned off and the janitors came in giving him suspicious looks. He had worked always with an eye towards this day, his retirement, when he would stop and look back at his life’s work and be proud.
And was he? Perhaps. He had thought it would be an overwhelming feeling that would make the pain of all the years disappear. And yet, as he looked at the company he had helped build—hundreds of employees, the sleek offices, the Aeron chairs—he felt—was it pride? Yes, but it wasn’t what he had imagined as a young man. He had thought it would be a magnified form of the smaller proud moments he had known till then—winning a race, getting a school award, completing a thesis. But it wasn’t. The pride was magnified, yes, but it was also tainted by cynicism. He had painted a grand life goal for himself, but by the time he reached it, the colors had faded.
His phone rang.
“When will you reach home?” His wife, Julia.
“I’ll leave in fifteen minutes.”
“Laura is organizing a party. Act surprised.”
Mary peered in from the door as he kept the phone down. “All ready and packed?”
“Yup. Thanks for all the help today, Mary.”
“Of course, sir, that’s my job,” she said as she walked in. “You know I’ll miss having you around.”
“And I’ll miss you, Mary.”
“Go on, I am sure your family waits for you. I’ll have the gifts sent over tomorrow.”
“Thanks Mary,” he said as he got up, then added after a pause, “We can still meet sometimes, you know. Perhaps over weekends.”
“I’d like that, sir,” Mary replied with a smile.
He nodded and walked out. He wondered for a moment if she meant it, then felt stupid even asking that question. Of course she did. She was completely devoted to him. In her twenty years as his secretary, many more lucrative job offers had come her way and been tossed out.
He took the elevator to the garage and walked to the spot where he always parked his car. He could find it in his sleep. He turned on the ignition, backed out, looked at the spot for a few seconds, and drove away.
Turn right. Two miles on Ryder street. Turn right onto Holland avenue. Drive for a quarter of a mile. Left. 3121 Miguel Street. Home.
He expected to see Julia opening the door. But, it was Mary. She let him in, closed the door and shouted, “Surprise!” He turned to find his friends standing around his living room. He stood there for a second blinking his eyes, confused. Didn’t he just leave Mary at the office? And where was Julia? He didn’t say anything. He felt he was missing something. He simply smiled and walked around with Mary, shaking everybody’s hand, while he raked his mind. Slowly, he remembered.
Of course, Julia couldn’t have called in at the office. She had died in a car accident twenty years ago. He still remembered when the doctor told him they couldn’t save her. What about the child?—he had asked. She had been seven months pregnant at the time. The doctor had simply shaken his head. Mary was with him at the time. She had held him, comforted him, as the doctor walked away. He had felt like his whole being had suddenly become weightless, floating in open space with no anchor.
But Mary had provided the anchor. She had tended to his broken soul and slowly, inevitably, they had fallen in love.
They never had a child, however, and even now he often thought about his unborn child. It was a girl and they had even decided on a name—Laura. She would be in college now. He always imagined her as adventurous, full of life. She would have traveled the world, and done things he had only dreamed of doing.
It was hard work keeping up the small talk, but he had to—it was his own retirement party. Mary kept caressing his shoulders as they walked around, and that seemed to provide some mysterious energy that kept him going. People started trickling out eventually, and when the last guest had left, he mumbled, “I think I need a shower.” Mary smiled and left his hand.
He felt his muscles relax as the hot water sprinkled on his body and the steam rose around him. A long day. Just a long day at office. And there would be no more of those. He came out of the shower and peered at his face in the mirror. He saw the deep wrinkles on his face as if for the first time—when had he grown so old? He hadn’t had a lot to drink, but there was a heaviness in his head. He wore his robe clumsily and staggered out of the bathroom.
“Some hot cocoa, dad!” Laura’s voice came from the kitchen as he walked out of the bathroom. A moment later she appeared with two steaming cups in her hands. “Feeling better?”
He nodded and sat at the couch. Laura kept the cups on the table and sat next to him. “Mom got another call from her office, she is upstairs. Movie?”
“Sure,” he replied absently. Always the calls. He didn’t remember the last time he had had an actual conversation with Julia. She was always busy with her office. Sometimes, he felt it was her way of avoiding him. Laura had acted as a bond between them when she was younger, but she had left for college last year, and he felt that with her their last excuse to remain together had left the house as well.
But Julia wasn’t the only one to blame. Hadn’t he found himself making up excuses to stay late in the office, attending calls that could have been easily postponed? And then convincing himself he was too tired to drive, he’d often walk out with Mary to the coffee shop across the street. It was so easy talking to Mary. She listened, but more than that she understood, in a way that Julia never did. And so he sat with Mary in the tiny shop and talked and talked, while Julia waited for him at home all the while …
A pang of guilt hit him and he picked up the hot chocolate to distract himself. Laura sat next to him, engrossed in the movie.
He hadn’t done anything wrong. He had never touched Mary, they weren’t having an affair. They just talked, that was all. Can’t a man have a friend?
And was it really surprising that his marriage with Julia had fallen apart? They had known each other for less than two years when they had decided to get married. It seemed like a lifetime ago: he was still a guitarist in a struggling band. He had met Julia at one of the restaurants they had played at. They had found an instant attraction for each other. But he had never thought of it as a long term commitment. But everything had changed one day.
They had just finished playing a set and were having a smoke outside. Julia had come to him and said she wanted to tell him something, alone in private. He remembered being annoyed at having to put out his cigarette, then walking inside with her, wondering what could be so important. Then, she had gently held his hands and told him, almost in a whisper, that she was pregnant. She said she would get an abortion if he wanted, but he could see the tears in her eyes as she said this and knew that wasn’t what she wanted. He remembered the agony, and then the sudden clarity as a decision formed. They would have the child and get married. And he would leave the band and get a real job so they could support the child.
He turned and looked at Laura—he had always thought of her as a blessing. She had been everything he had hoped for. She was good at everything—her grades, her theater class, her enormous circle of friends. She somehow managed to juggle a hundred things with grace. It had been worth it, because they had created a wonderful life. He exhaled and slid a little on the couch.
Yes, it had all been worth it. He had created and sustained a good family. His legacy was Laura. And if his hands still missed hitting the strings, if he still sometimes heard a tune and found himself wishing he could play it with his band, if he still missed being on stage—what of it? He closed his eyes and found himself drifting off to sleep.
He woke up in the middle of the night. His neck ached a little; he had fallen asleep on the couch again. He had been dreaming, but couldn’t remember what the dream was. A glass of whiskey lay on the table, a few cigarette butts in the ashtray. He tried to get up and hit the guitar that leaned against the couch. As it fell on its face producing a disharmonious sound, something moved next to him on the couch.
He panicked for a second. Who was it? Then he remembered. The waitress. They had gotten talking after the show. There was nothing new about it; in his years of performing, numerous women had ended up on his couch in this way. He exhaled a deep breath, stood up and lit another cigarette.
He knew she would be gone in the morning. The night had been a haze, fed by alcohol and music—the music he was creating with his instrument. And she stood there, right at the front of the crowd, swaying gently, adding to the room her own quiet energy.
But now it was over, and all of that would mean nothing in the morning. In the morning, they would wake up as if from a dream, realize that they have nothing in common, and after a brief and awkward goodbye, she’d be gone. And he would sit alone in his apartment, an old musician, at the end of his career and life, chain smoking cigarettes, feeling lonely and miserable, just like last morning and so many before it.
He had walked on to the balcony now. Dark clouds hid the stars and a slight wind blew. He looked below on the cars parked on the street and a red battered Chevy caught his eye. It reminded him of someone from long back. Was it…Julia?
Yes. Julia. He had met her at a restaurant where he had played one night. Their band was still struggling, desperate to break through, not realizing how close they were. Things had been different with her. He remembered having thought about getting serious with her, becoming an “item”, as Greg would say. But he could not make up his mind. It seemed too much of a commitment. One day, she had finally asked him, and he had said no, finally. A few months later, his band landed the deal with the music company that changed their fortunes, and he happily forgot about it all.
But now, he often found his mind wandering back to her memory. What would it be like if he had said yes? Would they be married by now? Would he be less lonely?
He shooed the thought away. What was the point? He peered back in and looked at the clock. It was two in the night. He took his phone out and called Greg.
“Yuuup,” Greg’s cheerful voice boomed from the other end.
“Meet at the bar?”
He thought about Greg as he waited at the bar. Greg had been a member of their band, but had quit to raise a family. They had kept their friendship over the years, and on nights like this, he would often call on him for company. He never refused.
“How’s it hanging, young man?” Greg said as he walked in.
“Not too bad, how’s you?”
“Well,” Greg settled himself in the chair and waved to the bartender, who began preparing his usual drink. “Son’s got his final exam in a week and he is going nuts about it. Wife’s appraisals are coming up and she is going nuts too.”
“Well, I am holding it tight young man,” he said, “we can’t all go crazy!”
Mark laughed as Greg’s drink arrived.
“Tell me Greg,” Mark said, “do you ever wonder how your life would be if you stayed in the band?”
“Well, maybe sometimes,” Greg said and took a sip from his drink. “But you know, life hands you the cards, and those are your cards. You just try to play the best hand you can.”
“Then you roll with it, old man!”
A loud knock on the door woke him up. It was followed by Laura’s shout, “Wake up dad, just because you’re retired doesn’t mean you get to sleep all day!” He moved a little and slid the blanket down. Sun streamed through the window and Julia lay next to him, still asleep. Her face looked very calm this morning. Laura knocked again. “Come on dad, breakfast is ready!”
“Yeah, coming in ten mins, sweety!” he shouted back.
Julia opened her eyes a little and smiled. “Good morning, honey,” she said, in a voice heavy from sleep.
“Morning, love,” he said and caressed her cheek. “How’re you today?”
She took a deep breath, stretched a little, then smiled as she carelessly threw her arms on the bed. “I am good!”
They walked to their dining table, but it was empty. The door to the yard slammed open and Laura ran in. “Breakfast is in the yard.” He looked at Julia. She shrugged while trying to suppress a smile.
They entered the yard and found a long table filled with food. But Mark wasn’t looking at that. Because sitting around the table, along with their families, was his old band! Greg was there, Fred too, and Steve! He looked at Laura, astonished. He’d been in touch with Greg a little, but he hadn’t talked to Steve and Fred in years. How did Laura find them all?
Laura walked up to him, kissed him on his cheek and whispered in his ear, “Did you think the party was over?” Then she held his arm, and she and Julia walked him to the table.
“Happy retirement, young man!” Greg shouted. And Mark felt himself smile like he hadn’t in years. And so they sat at the table, enjoying the sunny morning, laughing and eating, and sharing old stories. A while later, Greg said, “So, now that we’re all here and Mr. Johnson here is finally done with his job, how about a little jam session?” Everyone hooted and cheered.
“I haven’t played in years,” Mark said.
“Don’t worry,” Greg replied, “I am sure you’ll get back your zing in no time.”
And as always, he was right.