Tune In To Life

Stanley lies in his bed wide awake, staring into the darkness. It’s nearly 5 a.m., although he has been up for a while. Like he’s done for the past 35 years, he reaches over and shuts off the alarm clock before it makes a sound.

He turns and looks at the slumbering pile of blankets beside him and sighs. He rises quietly, careful not to wake his wife, and enters the bathroom.

As the shower water warms, he glances in the mirror at his sallow eyes and lined face. He sucks in his gut and stands erect, but it only looks more ridiculous. Where have the years gone?

He laid his clothes out the previous night as he always did so as not to disturb his wife, who typically sleeps in. He lets the dog out, makes himself an egg and toast, and fills his thermos with coffee as he always does.

As he screws the cap on, he realizes he doesn’t need the thermos today. He’ll only be in for a few hours — enough time to pretend he’s surprised when everyone brings the cake down to his office, sings the “Jolly Good Fellow” song, and wishes him good luck in his retirement. They’ll send him home early after that. That will be it. Decades of hard work and dedication, wrapped up in 20 minutes.

He goes to the side of the bed and lightly kisses his wife. His mind suddenly sees a flash of her 35 years ago in a yellow sundress, driving him to the office in the only car they owned at the time, her face beaming with pride as he nervously got out and straightened his new suit.

“I’ll be here waiting at five, Mr. Handsome. Knock ‘em dead, honey.”

The blankets on the bed begin to stir, and he snaps out of his trance.

“So you’ll be home early,” she mutters from within the afghan nest.

“Yes,” he whispers, “I should be.”

She reaches out of the covers and pats his hand. “OK — then we’ll have a nice lunch together, huh?”

He kisses her again and leaves.

He knows it should be a happy day, but his heart is heavy. Thirty-five years of the same routine will all come to an abrupt end today.

As he drives up the highway ramp, he thinks about that first day all those years ago when he was so sure he could do anything he set his mind to. He checks the mirror as he merges.

“Oh, well,” he sighs, “I guess we did pretty well.”

New Beginnings

Mark gets up early, too. He’s on the treadmill at 4 a.m., and is now drinking a protein-and-whey milkshake. He grabs his cell phone from the charging cradle and reviews the first 20 messages, making mental notes.

Today will be Stanley’s last and Mark’s first day as head of the department. He has plenty of ideas, but has been politely waiting until Stanley is gone before implementing them.

He writes himself a sticky-note as a reminder to pick up his daughter Ashley on the way home. This is his visitation evening; sometimes he gets so caught up with work he’s late to pick her up. His ex-wife informed him that their daughter felt bad about that, so he has vowed not to do it again.

He’s glad it’s the ex’s weekend with Ashley, though, because one of the online dating services he uses has set up a Saturday event for him, and he’s looking forward to meeting someone new to go along with his new job and invigorated approach to starting life over.

The Next Generation

Stanley’s eldest daughter, Eva, awakes to her baby’s crying, and takes a deep breath. This second child was unexpected, and she and her husband were already struggling to afford the first. She stumbles to her feet and grabs the crying child before she wakes the 2-year-old, sleeping in the same room.

She gently closes the door and carries the baby to the kitchen, where she prepares a bottle, sits at the table, and begins to feed Rebecca, who takes the milk anxiously. Eva smiles and exhales slowly.

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