In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Ten months prior to being eligible for his company’s pension and benefit plan, after almost twenty years, Ben Ross was fired.
It was an error.
It wasn’t an error. His paycheck was stapled to a brief announcement that his services had been greatly appreciated but were being terminated that day, the end of the fiscal year.
It was a mistake, of course.
Of course it wasn’t a mistake. One month’s severance pay was attached and signed by the vice president. Ben Ross couldn’t read every word of the note because the letters seemed too fluid. His throat was choking on a pulsating red muscle that had somehow floated loose from his intestines. Rivers of damp goose flesh rippled his body and The Wall Street Journal echoed like bird songs in his head. ECONOMY IN UPSWING SAYS PRESIDENT.
This had to be a silly foul-up at the Boston home office where everyone detested any office beyond their little orbit. That’s what it was. But Ben Ross also knew that such pernicious matters weren’t controlled by computers. BANK TO DROP SMALL CUSTOMERS. Headlines like black crows flew before his eyes. He placed the check and termination letter in his jacket hanging in the closet. Why am I hanging up my jacket, he wondered? He again took out the envelope and held it in his hand. Why am I holding this in my hand, he wondered? Then he placed it back, removing two specks of white lint from his jacket. Thirsty, he nibbled on two paper cups of water. THE BLUE-CHIP BANDWAGON CONTINUED TO ROLL THROUGH WALL STREET YESTERDAY. He stared at the closet containing his jacket and the strange envelope. No one in the office was watching him. But how could he leave such a private matter, such a horrendous message, stuck in an envelope and in a dark closet? Would anyone search his jacket pocket? Was there someone here perverse enough to collect such letters of termination? Did his jacket hanging there appear suspicious? Certainly he, Ben Ross, appeared suspicious. He should put on the jacket. It was a thick navy blue flannel. “In the best of taste,” his wife said. “Cardin.” It was an attractively cut cloth having the misfortune of becoming fashionable. CABLE TV WILL HELP REDUCE UNEMPLOYMENT WITH PROBABLE HIRING OF 50,000. That jacket, judiciously selected by his wife, contained the end of his almost twenty years employment for a firm he had joined upon graduating college. NEW GRADS FLOOD JOB MARKET. Ross had to put on his jacket and talk to his boss, the new vice-president. Something was radically wrong on the business landscape.
“Nothing’s wrong,” the vice-president was saying for the third time. “Like I don’t want to see him. For Christ’s sake! I told you before! Like I hate those old guys crying about — ”
“But Mr. Tipton, he knows you’re in,” his secretary pointed out. She stared at him, noticing he had two molars missing. He was twenty-eight, she was thirty. I’m next, she knowingly told herself. He’s afraid of having anyone around who’s older and maybe knows more. She decided his face was a coral reef. So she dared. “What are you afraid of? I didn’t fire him. You did. It’s your executive responsibility.”
“Me?” Tipton almost vomited the thought. “Like I can’t help it if he’s old!”
She shrugged. “Ross is forty-two.”
“That’s real old,” Tipton laughed. “Like I don’t want any old deadwood around here.”
“Mr. Tipton, I think you had better talk to him for just a few minutes.” Her sassafras breath exhaled with proper insincerity. She had already lost interest. “Anyway, I must get out your letters.”
Bitch, his eyes unleashed a history of petulant iridescence. I’ll get even with you for this. “Let’s get it over with.” He kicked at a leg of his desk which reminded him of his mother’s ankle.
Ross sat facing Tipton, hands squeezing edges of the desk. YOUNG NEW EXECUTIVES ADD FLAIR TO AMERICAN BUSINESS.
“So that’s the way the ball bounces,” the new vice-president explained, thinking that a perfectly designed answer. By the time I’m his age I’ll have enough dough to retire. Go away, creep.
“Ten months more,” Ross heard his voice strain like a reedy pipe. “Ten months more and I would be eligible for several retirement benefits. With that . . . I . . . well, I could . . .” A new tack. “Surely, a man with my knowledge of this business must be useful in any number of departments.”
“Like this is a tough, competitive business,” Tipton said, his face unusually puffy from exertion. “Like this isn’t a charitable institution. Like we’re trying to bring young blood into this organization.” Tipton stood up.
“Ten months more!” Ross said incredulously. “I — ”
Tipton smiled. Now that the ordeal was almost over, it struck him as a remarkable test of his superior ability. It was somehow funny to watch a guy crawl without dignity. He found a growing pleasure thinking that things around the office were going to be done his way from now on. “I’ll write you a damned good letter of reference. Like let me know how you make out. Good luck.”
Ross stood up. “Reasons?” He could see his shrunken reflection in Tipton’s eyes.
“Like progress, new blood, stuff like that,” Tipton recited, painfully bored. “Come on, Ben. Like I’ve got other things to do. Take the day off. Like do what you want. Shoot a game of golf. You’re paid off.”
“Yes,” Ross said, fumbling for the envelope. “It’s in my pocket.”
“What’s in your pocket?”
“Your check. My final check.”
“Right. Good for you, Ben.” Tipton buzzed his secretary. “Bring in those finished letters.”
Finished letters. The young razor voice sliced Ben Ross’s jugular, but he refused to make a scene. No one ever bled in a business office.
Ross felt ill. BANK VP ESTIMATES THAT THE WAR ADDED ABOUT 113,000 NEW JOBS IN CALIFORNIA. There wasn’t a war in sight. Ross knew he had impetigo, flu, a headache, a brain tumor, a toothache, clogged ears, cancer of the lungs and was going blind. Also his bladder felt distended. 42 ACCUSED OF GIGANTIC STOCK FRAUD.
He brought the check to the bank but sat at the wheel of his car certain his legs were paralyzed and that a teller would laugh at him for being fired. FORD UP 78½ CHRYSLER 39½ GENERAL MOTORS 83¼. Ross waited, studying the scene. People were alive, moving, walking, talking, driving, making money. He was the only one not doing any of those activities. No one was crying. Didn’t they know what had just happened? Didn’t they care? Or were they much too busy protecting themselves? THE NATION IS UNDERGOING A HOUSING BOOM OF STAGGERING PROPORTIONS. He squinted at all the busy people, stores, even trees housed with birds. A woman opened a newspaper, then closed it as though no longer interested. A buxom young girl was munching an ice cream cone and staring into space where vast armies of teenaged heroes fought bloodily for her chewing gum kisses. Now a dog barked and an unfriendly insect banged its coarse wings against the windshield. A slender man richly dressed and with that faggy insouciance found only in old cities, levitated past, his face a mask of deceptive saintliness so adored by American women. A boy shuffled up the street, eyes restless dark hatpins of pugnacity. Then a delivery van pulled in and two men emerged laughing. Why were they laughing so early in the day? How could anyone laugh today of all days? What had any of these people to do with him?
Leaves were inconsolable green tears. He wiped at his eyes and drove very slowly, conscious of empty time, nibbling on a tasteless sandwich fixed by his wife: banana, lettuce, mayonnaise on ghostly white bread. He had lots of time. Maybe a movie. TAKE YOUR FAMILY TO A MOVIE THIS WEEK. The film was about an aging artist, unknown, undiscovered, who meets an eccentric and beautiful heiress, marries and becomes internationally famous. Ross knew that that was the way it should be done, but somehow he had missed out, done something wrong, alienated himself from success. He couldn’t blame young Tipton. Wasn’t Tipton obeying the rules of the business game? Ross had played by those same rules for twenty years. Isn’t that what had made America great? Wasn’t it? Could anyone answer him? STOCK MARKET BREAKS ALL RECORDS.
In the men’s room pissing became a small pleasure. He pulled rolls of toilet paper into long, thin, whirling banners, and threw them into commodes. With the hard heel of his foot he cracked the mirror and soap container. Plastic toilet seats were snapped in the same violent manner, along with a few slender copper pipes, and in almost ceremonious and complete silence. The wall above the urinals was clustered with graffiti. With a black pen he saw himself print, I AM ONLY 42. FUCK YOU. He blushed furiously and felt as though he had been racing for miles. A bunch of unavoidable syllables gargled in his brain: He had to go. He had to go home. He had to go home to his wife who thought Tomorrow was a neat pink ribbon tied to a tree.
It was getting dark early. The moon was a sliver of icicle across the sky. Everything that had transpired that day was a stupid silent film with the wrong actors, wrong director, wrong lines. I am part of a rotten film and therefore the constantly resurrected dead. Slowly he drove toward home.
“I’m home,” Ross told everyone.
His two children shouted something. The girl was thirteen going on twenty-one, and the boy was fifteen hoping to remain fifteen.
“You’re a few minutes early.” His wife glanced at her wrist watch.
“Yeah,” Ross said, kissing her cheek.
“Careful. I’ve just had my hair done.” Her hair was a series of circular loops, sticky as nests made by spiders. “You’re eyes are bloodshot. You’ve been smoking too much.”
Her husband turned away. He wanted her to keep talking so that he could postpone saying anything. Their marriage was an agreeable regulation of immaculate picnics from room to room, relative to relative, holidays to holidays, where light conversation waltzed to light conversation. She didn’t like people who were ill, crippled, had cavities, lost their hair, wore very thick glasses, and especially avoided married women without children. “No. I quit smoking days or weeks ago. Anyway, I’ve some . . . bad news.” BIG NEWS ABOUT TAX-SHELTER INVESTMENTS.
“Nothing can be as bad as having two kids on your hands all day,” she said. “Why do they have so many school holidays?”
He thought of HAWAII ACAPULCO VANCOUVER TOKYO HONG KONG. “My job . . . my job has been eliminated. In . . . in other words, I’ve been fired.” He spoke quietly, holding her shoulders, fixing her to one spot of reality.
“That’s not a funny joke,” she replied, then motioned to their daughter. “Help mother set the table.” ALLIANCE TOOL & DIE CORPORATION ANNOUNCES YESTERDAY THE SIGNING OF A $7 MILLION CONTRACT WITH THE USSR TO BUILD A TABLEWARE FACTORY.
“Aw,” the girl moaned in awake-asleep adolescence.
“It’s no joke,” Ross held his wife. “I’ve been fired. I’m unemployed. I’m-out-of-a-job.” His voice threatened to go in several shaky directions. “I’m jobless. Get it?” He heard his words hit the ceiling. NO CEILING TO STOCK BOOM SAY WALL STREET BROKERS.
She studied his face. She said nothing, making infinitesimal movements with her body, apron, fingers, lips. She had pale blue eyes, wide open, amazed and large as daylight. Behind the shutter of her lids she existed privately. Faintly, remotely, but positively she felt that the world out there, beyond her eyelids, beyond her house, contained a contamination which she must alertly hold off and spray with her own social-family disinfectant. “No,” she finally said, her head rocking between stunning polarities.
“It’s true,” he insisted.
“Wha . . . what did you do?” Her eyes questioned her transmogrified husband.
“You must have done something?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
“I’ve been promised a good letter of reference.” DOLLAR REGAINS SOME GROUND.
She waited to collect all her quivering into one verbal peristalsis momentum. “You’re . . . you’re not normal. I’ve never heard . . . anything . . . anything so . . . so disgraceful in my entire life! You must have done something . . . terrible . . . terrible . . . stolen something misplaced vital papers gambled got drunk insulted your boss maybe I don’t know something because no company in this country would fire a person after almost twenty years unless that person did something so terrible he deserved it who do you think you’re fooling my God!” And she cried. Phrases from the New Testament flagged in the clenching soteriology of her being.
Ross realized he had shattered forever the positive norm, a norm not only of their life but of their marriage, meaning their relationship with the entire world of relatives, friends, neighbors and strangers.
His wife cried in monochord. “My God the neighbors mustn’t find out I hope you’re not arrested my God if you did something tell me and we’ll get a lawyer but don’t get arrested in the house in front of the children not in front of the neighbors my God what am I going to tell my parents!”
“I did nothing,” he said. “It’s just that I’m no longer twenty-eight.”
She burst a flow of words: “No no I don’t believe it don’t lie don’t keep on lying we’ll discuss this later I’ll call my father he’ll know what to do maybe we should both talk to someone else a psychiatrist a minister I don’t know all those years of my life I never knew you were that kind of man but but but you’ll leave the house every morning at your usual time and you’ll come home at your usual time so no one can find out no one my God!”
Ross nodded and wondered when was the last time he heard of anyone over forty getting a job in San Francisco. He put his hand out. GOVERNOR CONDEMNS WELFARE STATE HANDOUTS.
“No don’t touch me you . . . you liar you make me sick!” She trotted toward the kitchen, turned, her tight face livid. “How could you do this to me to the family!”
“The new vice-president — ”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME!” she screamed, shuddering from an innate repulsion of a mysterious evil. From me from me from me splattered across the room, bounced into the kitchen, hit the windows, shook up Corn Flakes, rattled bottles of ketchup and Coca-Cola.
His thoughts chewed. THE PRESIDENT TO SPEAK ON NATION’S ECONOMY OVER TV TONIGHT. Yes, there must be something wrong with me. I must have done something, committed some abnormal and despicable act offensive to American business. My armpits must stink and my mouth exhale abominable putrefaction. I’m a walking pollution. I’m a fool, a flop, a curse, a failure, a criminal. People laugh when someone falls downstairs. Why shouldn’t they laugh? Those who fall don’t walk properly. There must be something terribly wrong with me. Maybe I should become a vegetarian or try yoga? Or is it too late. Or do I believe one word I’ve been thinking? All I know is that my name is Ben Ross. For a great many years his friends called him Benny. Now they called him Ben. That was it. That was life. That was the end of the fiscal year.
Leslie Woolf Hedley