Wicker Man

Gary ate another palmful of antacids. Didn’t seem to matter what he ate for lunch these days. Or even if he ate. By mid-afternoon a bubble began to grow low in his gut and propagated up through his digestive tract until he felt like an iron fist was gripping his esophagus. On the long drive home, he huffed acrid fumes into his tiny car. This time of the year, with almost daily icy rain, cracking the windows to bring in fresh air usually wasn’t an option. In any case, with the number of diesel pick-up trucks clogging up the highway, if he dared open a window he’d be sucking down nauseating exhaust all the way out to his ring-road apartment complex.

Gary was tired. Tired of the drive. Tired of the indigestion. Tired of his small car and his smaller apartment. Tired of his ridiculously small life. And very tired of his job. 

It was fun in the early days. Or at least he seemed to remember reasons for why he chose this career. Because he did choose. Sort of. Yes, there was the usual degree of inevitability, but he could have done other things… if he hadn’t gone the safe route. But he chose the path of least resistance as a young man. Which is understandable. When you’re young, it always seems like you can do something for a while and change your mind later. Until suddenly you realize that you’re not young anymore and there isn’t much later and there wasn’t much else you could have done anyway. What with one thing and another, he’d remained in this industry — rising only enough to be considered middle management — for thirty-seven years. 

Gary would be turning sixty soon. He was still years from retirement age. And at the moment, the way the market kept fluctuating, he didn’t have the funds to stop working — though he’d been contributing to an IRA for his whole working life. Every few years, he’d watched his account bleed out decades worth of investment no matter where those funds were stashed. So Gary was stuck. 

Not that he was looking forward to retiring. Yes, he wanted to stop this job, stop this commute, stop this autopilot life. But there wasn’t anything on the other side of stop. The time between ending his career and ending his life was a void that he could not imagine filling. He’d never managed to build a life for himself after the divorce. No hobbies to speak of. Not much of a social circle outside work. Parents both dead. Sister spending her remaining brain cells on finding herself in some desert monastery. His daughters were strung out across the country, none of them within driving distance. And they had their own lives. Two were married, though no grandkids yet. Not that he’d get to play grandpa that much, except maybe through Zoom, like he did birthdays and most holiday family gatherings.

Gary focused on the computer screen and tried to focus on the budget he needed to submit before heading home tonight. Tried to draw his attention back to these numbers and projections that were nothing but so much empty conjecture and mattered not at all even if they turned out to be accurate. Because nobody would ever remember what this report said, if they read it at all. But he had to complete it. Had to pretend to be useful, one of those necessary workers. Or somebody higher up might realize there was, in actuality, no reason for Gary to receive a paycheck at all.

When Gary was a teenager all those decades ago, his father had a saying: “That’s why they call it work and pay you to do it.” Typical of that generation. One clichéd coffee-mug quip after another. Like they’d invented banality. It wasn’t until after he’d closed the casket that Gary realized that his father never once gave him any advice that didn’t sound like it came off an oppressively cute bumper sticker.

Gary thought, they call it work because it’s the opposite of anything anyone would ever voluntarily do. And they pay you for the same reason… No idea why they want this done to begin with though.

He squinted at the screen and hunched over the ragged pile of papers next to his keyboard. 

“Hard at it, Wentworth?”

At the booming voice of his boss, Gary jumped and almost knocked over his cold coffee dregs. (Would have been the third keyboard this year…) Sandler was at least twenty years younger than Gary — not even out of grade school when Gary started this job — but he was picked for the regional division head because of his innovative approach. Meaning he could squeeze out more returns on less money. Gary was the first to concede that he, himself, had never been innovative. Just kept his head in the game and did the job. So he didn’t resent Sandler… too much… though he could do with a bit less fake joviality on a deadline Friday afternoon.

“Got a minute, Wentworth?”

Gary blearily looked up from his budgetary mess. He knew the correct answer. No, he really did not have a minute until this pile was sorted — and he wanted that to happen before he headed home, for a change — but he responded according to script and followed Sandler out of his own office and into the lair of the supervisor.

Twenty minutes later, he shuffled back to his desk and sank into his chair, having been officially determined a redundancy that was slated for termination. He felt sucker-punched. Deflated. Undefined. There was a gauzy edge to his hands splayed on the desktop. He was sure they were fading, becoming translucent. He tried to make them solid again. Bent over the keys and entered a few more figures. But why, really?

Gary realized he’d never learned to type properly. He watched his old fingers as he pecked out the characters. He spent almost as much time back-spacing as going forward. Which seemed an apt metaphor all of a sudden. And then a spasm bent him double over his gassy gut. He managed to close his office door before the sobs escaped.

Now, what? He didn’t know. They weren’t even offering much of a package. Just “here’s your hat; turn off the lights before you go.” Business was bad, he knew. That was the point of this budget he would now never finish. Nobody needed that budget. Nobody needed this work. Nobody needed him. 

Turns out, he was the opposite of those necessary workers. And upstairs had certainly noticed. Cuts had to be made. We know you’ll understand. Sometimes we just have to bite the bullet and take the hit. (But who is we?)

So this was the expected sacrifice. Thirty-seven years and goodbye. Just like that. And now… that void. Probably get a job in retail or something to keep the bills paid. And then…

©Elizabeth Anker 2022