One Foot In The Jungle. 10-4-10
Bill Yardley had already passed two milestones on the road to retirement – the ones that read ‘62’ and ‘65’.
His family and his friends and, especially, his employees readily accepted and approved of his ignoring the first milestone, they all knew how much his work meant to him, and when the second one was passed without much of an acknowledgement they all accepted that too with scarcely a shrug. None of them, not even his likely successor, minded much that nothing was going to change because they liked him and were content with the status quo seeing that they were all well looked after as far as salaries and bonuses and benefits went.
However, when he got close to reaching 70 the heft of that number gave his family the right to query his plans and he promised that he’d think about what action to take.
He knew that he’d slowed a little when it came to making decisions and was all too sure that his eyes and his ears needed more and more aid and that the dreary list of symptoms that he’d been able to brush aside for so long were getting to be less and less easy to overlook. Even though it was difficult for him to embrace the concept of retirement after working for better than 50 years he wanted to be fair to those who were patiently waiting to advance one step upwards in the hierarchy and so he agreed to do it when he got to be 71.
That gave him an extra year to attempt to get reconciled to its inevitability but it also seemed to give everyone and his brother the right to offer him advice like, “Start taking it easy right now, you’ve earned it” and, “Don’t worry, your nephew can easily handle your job” and, “Once you get used to it you’ll love it” and many more equally hoary ones along with innumerable hints about the wonders of golf and fishing and travelling and, the most unwelcome one of all for him, “You’ll be able take up hobbies”.
His birthday arrived and at the lavish party they threw for him he confirmed that he’d be leaving the company at the end of that month but he warned them all that he was only giving it a six month tryout and if it didn’t ‘agree’ with him he’d be back.
He went to a Caribbean island for a month with his wife and found that he liked the complete lack of pressure and being able to spend days on end at the beach doing essentially nothing and reading only nonsense, and light nonsense at that, and that the only decisions to be made were what to order for each meal and what variation of rum drinks would they try when the sun went down. Toward the end of the month, he thought that he might be able to swing this retirement game after all.
When he got back home he just sat around mostly and so he decided that he’d better set up an every day routine and stick to it. So, he had his breakfast while reading the paper and then he opened the mail and then, for the exercise and to get out of his wife’s way for a while, he’d go for a three or four mile walk around town – he loved knowing that no matter what time he got back that would be lunchtime. He figured that he’d work out something for the afternoons later on – probably something that would include a nap in it somewhere and also some time to catch up on all the novels that he’d bought over the years but had then simply stuck in a bookcase for ‘later’. He also figured that the various electronic gadgets that he’d been given as gifts over the years, the ones that just sat there idle until his children and his grandchildren came on visits, should be put to more use.
On the first morning of his new routine, a Monday, he was on the return half of his walk around town and was way over on the other side of it on a quiet side street when he found a thick, scrungy, black leather wallet on the sidewalk. It had a driver’s license in it – which was months out of date, he noticed – and two photos of a woman with some children and little else except $300 in tens and twenties that were bulging out of the back compartment. The address on the license was just two blocks away from where he was so he decided to take it there right then.
The house was a poorly maintained bungalow with a newish cement block addition and was painted a disagreeable bright blue that would be just as disagreeable in Florida but less unexpectedly so.
He knocked on the door and it was opened by a big, ugly, bald black man who looked distraught. The reason for that became evident at once because when he saw the wallet in Bill’s hand the expression on his face changed rapidly from anguish through disbelief to hope and then suspicion.
He snatched the proffered wallet and opened it and when he saw that the money was still there he immediately started grinning and then whooping. He did a little dance – more of a sway with small leg movements really because his body nearly filled the doorway – then he turned and ran into the house, calling for “Bellene” and leaving Bill standing in the open doorway.
Bill could see into most of the living\dining room and it had a cruddy linoleum floor that had a worn out strip that marked a pathway to a passage that was on the far side. Spread across the room were folding, aluminum, patio-furniture type chairs, and a matching table, and some sisal oval mats and a cheap TV set, with a rabbit-ears antenna, on a wheeled metal stand and there was a glass-faced picture of Jesus with his heart in his hand hanging on the far wall.
The man’s wife appeared from one side to see what all the commotion was about and she was even bigger than he was. She had a huge bosom resting on an enormous belly – Bill didn’t think that it could be full up with a baby because she and her husband both looked to be well over 50.
“Wassup man. What you hollerin’ about?” she asked and the man showed his face and shouted, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! That guy at the door found it and brought it back, can you believe it? Listen, get on the phone to Bernie and tell him I’m on my way over with the money right now.” He then went back into the room but reappeared a minute later tugging on a jacket over his t-shirt.
“Do it now, babe. Do you hear me? Right now.”
He ran past Bill and out into the road saying, “Thanks man, you saved my life. I can’t stop to talk ‘cos I got to get this someplace. So long and thanks again.” He ran rather well for such a big man but perhaps the motivation, still unknown to Bill, helped him along.
Bellene however couldn’t have run anywhere, anytime. She couldn’t even walk well. Her massive thighs had to be eased one past the other and it took her a long time just to get up to the door.
“What was that all about?” Bill asked when she was nearly there.
“Can’t tell you, man, it’s too long to tell but that was a fine, fine thing that y’all done for us. Yeah! Without you done that we’d been out on the street by nightfall and not just standin’ around out there neither. So, thanks very much, mister.”
When she got to the door she put one massive forearm on the wall for balancing purposes and then she grabbed the door with her free hand and said, “Well, you heard the man, right? I got to go right now and get on the phone like he said.” and with that she closed the door in Bill’s face and he had to step back quickly to avoid getting hit by it.
He turned away and started walking home and he wondered how it must feel to live on the edge like that where the loss of $300 could mean disaster and total disruption of a family’s life for an amount that was less than what he’d often spent on dinner and a show for his wife and himself and had still been home by 11 o’clock.
He decided to put it out of his mind and to try to forget what he’d seen inside the house – the dirty linoleum and the patio furniture and, especially, the fact that Bellene couldn’t sit down in her own living room because the chairs were either too fragile to take her weight or didn’t have enough room between the arms to accommodate the expanse of her.
On his walk the next day he decided to cut through the Municipal Parking Lot rather than go around it and when he got to the middle he saw that the driver of an old, beat up, red Toyota, or Honda or some such, was waving to get his attention. He went over and the driver, a man of his own age, asked him if he was going to his car.
“No, I’m just walking through here, but I saw plenty of empty spaces down at that end,” he said to be helpful as he nodded in the direction that he had just come from.
“No, no,” the man said, “I’m just trying to save a quarter. You know how it is.”
Bill found nothing to say to that and so he walked on by.
No, I don’t know how it is, he thought to himself. To have an appointment at the Municipal Hall and then wait around to ask a passer-by if he was going to move his car so that he could scoot into his place and use the time left on the meter to save 25 cents? Whether the guy needed to save a quarter or not was neither here nor there. No, he certainly did not, “know how it is.”
The next day was a Wednesday and before Bill could leave on his walk his wife called down to him and asked him to pass by the Super-Market and bring back some half-and-half and some Cheddar cheese. After the initial and irrational annoyance at being given an order had subsided, he found that he quite welcomed the chance to do something useful which would also give direction and extra purpose to his walk. He had to take a road that was unfamiliar to him to get to the store and he was walking along deep in thought about something when he ‘came to’ with a shock. He found that he had left the sidewalk and was standing on the grass of somebody’s front lawn and that he was face to face with the trunk of a tree! He was completely bemused by this peculiar happening and he stepped back and looked around to see if anyone had seen him do it.
No one had, he was relieved to see, so then he looked up at the tree’s leaves in order to identify it and perhaps help explain why he had come over to it and he saw that it was a beech. This being October the nuts would be ripe and he reasoned that some part of his primal brain stem had somehow taken over while he was ‘elsewhere’ and had made him turn off the sidewalk and walk up to this tree to be sure that he didn’t miss the chance to stock up with nuts for the coming winter! This in spite of the fact that he hadn’t eaten, hadn’t even seen, a beech nut since the time that he and a bunch of friends used to build tree houses in the woods when they were teenagers!
The next morning he was in a hardware store that he’d dropped into on the homeward half of his walk and he was waiting, second in line and skimming through a ‘please take one’ pamphlet at the cash register, when he began to get the drift of an argument that was holding everything up and that was between the customer ahead of him and the cashier. It seemed that the guy didn’t think he should have to pay tax on the difference between the marked price and the ‘special’ price that was shown on the advert that he’d ripped out of a newspaper and that he was brandishing in the face of the woman as proof.
After several go rounds in which the cashier’s contribution was mostly, “Sir, I only work here”, a Supervisor was called and the customer went through the whole thing again waving the piece of paper in her face this time.
By now there were a dozen or so people in line and murmurs of discontent were bubbling up.
The Supervisor explained patiently that the tax situation in this case, though admittedly not logical, was State mandated and that there was nothing that anybody could do about it. She pointed out that he was paying $2.00 below the regular price and that the disputed tax was only 16 cents.
He would not give up and he started going through it all yet again when a woman in line behind Bill exclaimed, “Oh, for God’s sake! I’ll pay the 16 cents for him. Let’s get on here, I’m late already!”
The irate customer, now feeling overwhelmed, turned to the people in line and restated his position starting with, of course, “It’s not the amount, it’s the principle of the thing.” and on from there. And on and on.
Bill eased out of line and put the washers and batteries that he was waiting to pay for on an adjacent empty counter and then he walked out of the store. He didn’t need them urgently and he certainly didn’t want to see anymore of that hopeless, cornered, desperate, badgered look that he had seen in the guy’s eyes as he was explaining about ‘the principle’ involved and that the 16 cents meant nothing to him really but also, at that moment, everything.
The next day was a Friday and because he’d noticed that morning that the vitamin E bottle was almost empty he decided to include the local K-Mart in his walk. He picked out that store because his wife had told him that the vitamins sold there were nearly half the price that the drug stores charged. He had no idea how such an anomaly in good basic business practice could occur, except on a short term basis maybe, so when she assured him that it was “always like that” he decided it was best to treat it as one of those mysteries in the world of retailers and shoppers that he would never understand.
When he’d picked up his bottle of vitamin E and several other little items – like puzzles and magnets that he’d never seen before and that were nearly free and that fascinated him – he got in line at the ‘5 items or less’ aisle to pay and saw that the woman in front of him was wheeling a bike! It soon became obvious, to Bill’s relief, that it was new and that she wanted to purchase it and hadn’t been riding it up and down the aisles, vast though the store was.
When she got up to the register the cashier looked all over the bike to find a price tag and when she was sure there wasn’t one on it she picked up the phone and dialed the Public Address System and then used it to make the announcement, “Someone from the bicycle department please call 209”.
She hung up and a few seconds later it rang and so she picked it up again and explained the situation. The person on the other end obviously got very annoyed at what he or she was told because the cashier had to move the receiver about a foot away from her ear as she listened to the answer. She then hung up and explained to the customer that “that there bike that you have there” was for display only and was not for sale and that the bikes that were for sale came unassembled in cardboard boxes. She was to take the bike back where she had taken it from where someone would be waiting to help her.
By this time 30 or 40 people were looking on and listening in with a good deal of interest and the woman got very flustered and looked as if she wanted to melt into the floor.
“Oh! I can’t wheel this all the way back there,” she said plaintively, “It took me nearly 10 minutes to bring it here because it tries to go all over the place and it bangs into things.”
“Sorry, madam, you’ll have to, I’m afraid”.
A man, who must have been with her and had gone on through, called out from the bench up front where he was sitting, “Audrey. Why don’t you jump on and ride it back?” He was probably trying to be funny rather than helpful Bill thought, although in fact, he was neither.
The woman, Audrey, was by now angry and still very conscious of the fact that she was the center of attention and in her confusion she thought the best way to get away from the staring crowd was to follow his suggestion so she actually climbed on to the bike and started pedaling it down the front looking for an empty aisle to use to get back in to the main body of the store and then, presumably, on to the bike department at the far end.
There came a burst of applause from all around which quickly turned to boos when two red coated ‘Greeters’ closed in on her and stopped the bike and made her get off. They told her that they would take it back for her and that she should follow them but Audrey, understandably, wanted nothing more to do with it thank you and she walked out of the store after giving her companion, who was still sitting on the bench, a murderous look which did nothing to make him hurry to join her.
The next day was Saturday and Bill saw no reason to treat it differently from any other day seeing that every day was a holiday to him now so he went for his usual walk only this time his wife stopped him at the door and asked him to pop into the Supermarket’s meat department to pick up a Muscovy duck that she had ordered.
He re-arranged his route to include the Supermarket and he got the duck from the butcher and then waited in line at the ‘5 items or less’ aisle and when it was his turn to pay the Cashier asked him if he had a Store Card. Not knowing what that was he said, “No”, and was startled to hear the woman in line behind him say, “Here. Let him use mine.”
The cashier had evidently only recently started working there because there was a Supervisor standing at her side to train her and she chimed in to say, “No. No. That’s against the Store’s policy. You can’t do that. They are transferable only in the same family. Sorry.”
“Aw hell! Go on, give the guy a break, here take it.”
“No, Madam, that is not allowed. I just told you didn’t I? And anyway you’re not interested in giving him a break you just want his purchase on your account so you’ll get more points.”
“Oh! I do not. What a thing to say! Anyway, what difference does it make to you why I’m doing it?”
“It makes a great deal of – – – –
Bill and the new cashier cowered away from all of this and Bill proffered a $20 and a $10 note which she took and then she rang up the sale on the register and made change and gave it
to him along with the receipt and then she put the duck in a bag and handed it to him. She was a surprisingly pretty girl but her eyes were somewhat glazed and she looked as if she’d already decided that this job was not for her.
Bill walked away with his purchase and he could hear the two of them going at it, louder and louder and turning more and more personal, even after the sliding glass door had closed behind him.
On Sunday, Bill, before going out on his walk, checked his liquor cabinet because they were giving a small party that evening. He was glad that he’d done so because he found that he was low on Scotch and so he decided to stop by the liquor store on his way home.
When he walked in he was astonished at its size. He looked along the array of signs and then he went across to where the Scotch was and was dismayed by the enormous selection and was amazed at the range of prices. He found one of the brands that he liked and he saw that it was marked down an astonishing $5 on a 1 Liter bottle – ‘In Store Special. Unadvertised’ the label said – so he picked one up and walked around the other aisles to see what else was on ‘Special’.
He found, and couldn’t believe his eyes, a 5 Liter ‘box’ of Californian Chablis for $11.50! He took one thinking that even if it turned out to be undrinkable surely it had to be cheaper than the cooking wine that he’d seen his wife using at home.
There was no one around when he finally got to the cash register so he had to wait. He had limited his selections to the two items, although he had seen plenty more he would have liked to try, because he didn’t want to have to carry any more home.
Eventually a short, dark woman with an Irish accent came over to, “ring you up, dear”.
The wine was first and it came up on the read-out as ‘$11.50’ as it should have but the Scotch rang up at the full price and did not reflect the $5.00 off ‘Special’.
He, of course, brought this to her attention so she walked off to see the mark-down for herself and when she came back she nodded to confirm that she had seen it but even so she walked passed him and went over to a cubby hole that sported the sign, ‘Manager.’
She came back to Bill and said that she had asked the Manager about it and he had told her that although the price had been lowered at the rack it was not in the Computer yet so he, Bill, would have to pay the full amount!
This was no ordinary retail mystery to be merely marveled at and then dismissed with a shrug. This was both asinine and outrageous. He spoke loud enough for the manager to hear as he went on about how, “The price marked on the bottle on its shelf is the one that determines whether or not the customer will select it over the others alongside it and couldn’t be upped by 10 cents, no matter about $5.00, at the cash register! – – – – What the hell is the computer’s price to me? – – – – Is this a store or a Goddam hold-up joint? – – – – Why didn’t they adjust the computer price before they marked down the stock? Was that too Goddam difficult a concept for them to figure out?”
He said all that to her, and much more, and the Manager, a large man with white hair and a ruddy complexion, finally decided to come over to shield his cashier and he stood, arms folded, behind her, presumably ready to protect her from this, this rebel.
It became obvious to Bill, even though it was hard to believe, that they just weren’t going to knock off that $5.00 so he stormed out of there leaving behind both the wine and the Scotch.
He was still furious when he got home and he explained what had happened to his wife who further astonished him by not reacting much at all and who, when he’d finished ranting, merely nodded and said, “Happens all the time, dear. Everyone has to follow the rules and they all, whether clerks or managers, come out with, “I just work here, Ma’am. I’m sorry but there’s nothing I can do”. They also use the line, “It’s the computer’s fault”, more and more often lately. Don’t give it another thought, dear. You’ll soon learn to roll with the stupidities out there.”
Then she said, “Oh, wait a minute, Bill, perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway,” and she walked over to the liquor cabinet and checked the amount of whiskey that was in the bottle, “You know, only Rita and Charlie drink Scotch besides you so if you change to Bourbon seeing as how Rita only has one glass all evening there’ll be easily enough here for Charlie.”
Bill went to his office early the next day and asked his very disappointed ex-successor to see to it that at nine o’clock everyone on the staff was assembled in the reception area. When he was told that they were all there he went down and he stood on a chair and said, “You’ll all remember that I told you a couple of months ago that I’d come back to work if I found that retirement didn’t suit me, right? Well, my being here tells you that it didn’t suit me at all. Uh. let me hasten to say that to soften the blow for all of you who were promoted when I left that although you’ll have to give up your new title you’ll continue to get the raise that came with it.
“Now, as to my reason for changing my mind let me say this – I guess that some of us just weren’t made to wander out there among the crazies where spending money is twice as hard as earning it and where the customs and the systems in the lives of the idle and the unemployed have evolved so much that they now bear little resemblance to what we working people call normal. I found it very hard to merely co-exist and observe them out there no matter about trying to inter-relate and adapt to their strange concepts of what is rational behavior.
“Well, if I may, I want to tell you that because of my experiences out there I now have much more respect for my poor wife who has to deal with it everyday of her life and I urge all of you who have loved ones in the same predicament to give them all the support that they need and try to have a lot more sympathy for them. Believe me, they need it.
“Finally, I apologize for having caused all this turmoil and I want you all to know that the next time that I retire will be the day that men in white coats, carrying a straight jacket, come for me or other men in black suits do the same thing carrying a nicely customized pine box!”