Nine to Five
By Thomas G Wier III
It wasn't like I wanted to be late for work that morning. After all, I already had two strikes against my attendance record and the wrath of our Department Leader on my shoulders. You would think that after seeing me walk in, soaked from the rain and muddy from the knees down, he would be a bit more understanding.
Well, it just was not to be. Instead of being asked what had happened, I was handed a demerit sheet by the DL and verbally crushed right in front of my fellow employees. It was not the way I had hoped to start the day off. My original intent had been to be behind my desk an hour earlier than normal, put my feet up, turn on the radio and drink a nice cup of coffee while I finished up the rate increase projections for the next executive board meeting.
What ended up happening was my car broke down, and so I had to walk all the way from the main highway down the exit ramp and into work. Of course, it would just have to start raining as I went, the dark sky above me opening up in the surreal stillness of the early morning air.
So, I plodded along, fighting back anger and resentment at my unreliable vehicle as I kept my eyes lowered to the ground. As I walked, the rain grew worse, and I ended up using my new briefcase as an umbrella. Other cars drove by, heedless of one they must have thought to be a "slum bum" from down the pipe. As they did, my pants gradually collected an impressive collection of mud. (The same mud, I now realize with a sort of sardonic joy, that is slowly dripping on my DL's shoes.)
"This is the third time this year you have come late to work, Mr. Hale!" I watch his mouth twist in a contorted chasm that reeks of cheap whiskey and cigarette smoke. The hint of amusement that can be seen almost betrays his desire to appear menacing yet professional; I know better. He enjoys every moment of his job, finding a bit of pleasure in ruining his underlings' days.
"Do you realize that every day you are late, you cost this company thousands! If I had half a mind I would..."
Half a mind. I almost laugh at him. Indeed, his bald pate had often drew many stares, but the idea that perhaps that large, polished dome held little inside but fifty percent of a working human mind...well, it made much sense. After all, you would think that there would have to be nutrients for the grass to grow, so to speak. Stifling my humorous outburst, I recall what was said about management types around the water-cooler...that the higher-ups did indeed have them brainwashed, or lobotomized...you know, whatever to keep them in line. Still, many people traded rumors about the company, and while they were fun to pass the time, one knew to take them with a grain of salt.
I finish up with my sorry interrogation and slump off, dejected and disgraced. Slumping behind my cubicle, I riffle through my paperwork and listen to the sounds about me. After witnessing my humiliation, the office went back to business as usual and started working through their own projects. Dane Powell in the next cubicle over was working on something exciting to do with the companies new advertising campaign. Someone else in my division also received an exciting commission from the science department. Me, I was to work out the proposed budget for our division and submit it to the Rates Council that oversaw corporate retail prices and marginal trading costs. I know, exciting stuff.
Oh yeah, my name is Randle Hale. I am married, have three beautiful girls, and work in a crummy little office and earn just above minimum standard office pay. My DL makes five times as much for doing ten times less. It is my world, welcome to it. Not that I am complaining by any sense of the word, far from it. I love my family very much, and they bring me all the reason I need to live and keep fighting for them. My little girls are my purpose.
I know that many people have families that they are proud of, but it is that special feeling you get from YOUR family that makes you want to wake up and shout for joy, even at the prospect of facing a dreary day at the office. It is all worth it, because I know that when I get home, my wife Margie will give me a big hug and kiss, my little girls will clamber to me, and I will be able to play with them and tell them stories before it is time for the to go to bed.
Then, I get to help my wife with the dishes, talk with her about our days, and cuddle up with her in my arms for the night. It may sound pedestrian, but it is what I live for. I cannot ever hope for anything to ever compare to the feeling they give me. Even as the loud trucks and machinery outside my cubicle window blare into a harsh, shrill cacophony of sound, I can still hear my three girls sing to me, my own little choir of angels. No noise could ever drown them from my mind. Even as the drone of humanity wears on, they sing for me, each time louder still. So now, as the day starts, I cannot wait until I get home. Five o'clock seems as thought it will never come.
I start to shift through the papers, knowing that once I lose myself in the figures and charts, the time will pass much faster. As much as it pains me to do so, I gently put my girls out of my mind and concentrate on the paperwork before me. The sooner it gets done, I realize, the better. My eyes run over the papers and I let out a sigh. Another fifteen percent increase. Not even the employees could ever hope to dodge this hike. Looks like Margie and I will have to tighten our belts a little more, although soon we will have to start making our own notches, it seems. This fifteen percent just barely gives us enough to cover expenses. I could always cash in my life insurance policy early and take the penalty if things got really bad, but I hope it doesn't come to that, since I am still making rather large payments even on that. For all that is good in life, I guess there is an equal weight pulling in the other direction.
Pushing back from my desk, I notice a creme colored envelope on my desk. For some reason, it had not caught my eye. On it, the corporate logo is proudly stamped and several official signatures adorn the lower left-hand corner. Cursing, I open it roughly, running one finger under the envelope. As I tear it open, I cut myself and wince.
"Stupid..." I mutter, controlling my temper as I wrap my finger in a tissue. It would do no good to shout out against the company this time. Instead, I finish opening the letter and pull out the paper within, knowing very well what it means. As I start to read, I can feel my heart sinking into my chest, threatening to push its way out of my back and leave me a shallow husk...the perfect employee. I run my eyes over the words several times and think about my plans for the day. Shot to hell, that is one way of putting it. Once again, I look over it, this time reading the full message, hoping to find one small backdoor out of this mess.
Hale, Employee # A34-009 From: Corporate Audits and Management
Congratulations. You have been selected for this week's inspection survey team. After normal hours, please check in with your Department Leader for compensation wages and report to Sector one for further instructions. Your Inspection Team Leader will be selected on site.
Thank You For Your Cooperation Corporate Office A32
Congratulations. Yeah, right. All it means is that I have been selected to serve in corporate's "slave program." It is their one legal loophole where they can force people into extra hours by promising "compensation wages" that usually amount to bus fare for the ride home. It is the people like me that they know cannot afford to say no...the people who need their jobs to support their families. Sitting back, I can feel my finger throbbing in time to my own irritation. The day is going to be much longer than I thought...much longer. Inspection audits on site usually take hours to complete, especially with the slackers in the first few sectors. Probably there was an accident or something and we get to go in an assess the damage. I might not be home until midnight, if that early.
Reaching for the phone, I dial my wife and hear her sleepy reply after a few drawn out rings. Obviously, she had taken a nap after taking the girls to school.
"Hi, Hon. It's me."
A pause. She already knows that something is wrong.
"Nothing yet," I answer. "I got a letter from Audits."
A sigh. I have been on inspections before, and she knows very well what it means.
"The girls have their concert tonight, Hon."
I knew. I was just trying to keep it out of my mind. I had missed each concert that the girls have had because of audits, and now it looks like I would miss this one, as well. Tears stinging my eyes, I choke back before answering.
"I could look for another job..."
"No, Hon...where would you find one in this town? Corporate controls everything you know. It just means that I have to tell the girls."
Suddenly, my anger becomes too much, and I tear the letter in half, putting my head in my hands. What the hell kind of father am I being to my kids? What kind of husband puts this kind of pressure on his wife?
I look at the clock on my phone. I have thirty seconds left before the automatic hang-up for personal calls takes effect.
"You don't have much time," Margie adds, as if reading my thoughts. "I will tape it for you, ok?"
"Ok, Hon," I mutter sadly. "I love you."
"I love you, too, Hon. Just try and be home before too late, alright?"
We hang up, and I start filing papers, images of corporate fatcats living it up on the top floors while we sacrificed family and life for their pocketbooks dancing teasingly through my mind. Finally, the steady, rhythmic procession of the day wears on, and I settle into the routine, now dreading the five o'clock hour.
I finish up the last of my reports and head down to my DL's office, a small, cramped little room that smells like it has not been aired out in years. Smoke-stained walls are dotted with dusty picture frames of awards and certificates. Behind the tiny oak desk is a picture of the man himself, about thirty years younger and a very pretty lady standing in his arms. They are both smiling, and I wonder how that could possibly be him and his wife. Having met the woman myself at a company picnic, I know that she no longer smiles. At least, she doesn't in public. Now, she is as haggard and incongenial as her husband.
"They picked you after all, eh Hale?" he says, looking over his own files and scanning my name. His cigarette is poised at a sharp angle from his mouth, as though he were smoking a fine cigar. "Compensory wages will be the same as always. I think the shuttle is waiting for you. Get your ass in gear."
With that small pep-talk, I am sent on my way, wondering once again how the athletic, happy couple in the picture could possibly represent the slouching, grouchy half that was now my Department Leader. I knew that I never wanted that to happen to Margie and me. Never. I would rather die than stay with the company that long.
You hear the story all the time: First, you finally start to do well after busting your butt for years in a tiny office, when you are then promoted to a better position. You begin to develop a sense of company loyalty, and they start to walk all over you, handing you assignments that take more and more time out of your life, and you are more than happy to oblige so that maybe, just maybe you could get another promotion. Finally, after you have exhausted yourself and your family to the breaking point, you have nothing left but the shell that you dwell here on the planet in. Then you are valuable. Then you are a part of the company, because the company is all you have left.
Well, none for me, thanks. I plan on getting a lot more out of life than that. I plan on having a happy family, and I don't mean one like the higher-ups have that pose with plastic smiles for the annual Christmas cards. I plan on having a life.
I think about this as I walk down the halls to the waiting shuttle car that will transport my team to the site. Apparently, there was no accident, or at least that is what my preliminary report said. Instead, it was just a routine check-up. I might be able to make the concert after all. With this secret knowledge, I smile as I walk onto the platform where the shuttle is waiting. I am the last one in a series of grim-faced, sleepy old men who look over their clipboards with an almost comical indifference. You can tell that they aren't looking for conversation; they just want to get home before the game is over.
I sit in the back of the shuttle, a wide bus-like deal with a wide aisle down the middle. The whole contraption seats about thirty people. On the floor are cover sheets of annual reports, cigarette butts, credit card receipts and so on. Taking one of the offered newspapers, I flip to the want ads, hoping to maybe find another line of work. No dice.
The shuttle takes off and you can hear a few scattered moans from the older men of the team. Indeed, it does make your stomach sort of lurch forward. Still, my mind is not on the moment; my mind is on my family. I can already picture my angels up on stage, singing with their beautiful voices that make me cry no matter what they sing. I don't ever remember being so proud in my life as I was the first time when I heard them all sing together, their mother's hand in mine, both of our eyes brimming with tears. It was for our anniversary, and the girls had made us breakfast in bed. Then, they lined up and sang the song that my wife and I had danced to on our wedding day. It was all I could do to jump out of bed and thank God that I had such wonderful little girls.
That chorus streams through my mind now, a wonderful hum, a powerful symphony of voices unequaled by the greatest choirs in history. People often search all of their lives for something spiritual, something to give their lives meaning. When I hear my girls sing, I have found that meaning, and no church or high priest could ever do more for me. I close my eyes and can feel my wife's hand squeezing mine, the soft scent of her hair playing in my nostrils, and three smiling children whom could very well have given me nothing and yet given me everything. I know that I do not deserve the family that I have, but I am so thankful for them.
With a smile still playing across my lips, I look over to the man sitting next to me, a tired, chubby man in a gray suit who looks like he comes from the Sciences Department. I wonder what sort of joy he has waiting for him back home. I wonder what he has to look forward to when the inspection audit is done. From the sad look on his face, it doesn't seem like he has much. The company sure did their work well on him, and my heart begins to ache. All people should be able to feel what I have felt with someone close to them. The smile fades, and I see the site come into view.
The shuttle comes to a jarring halt and the doors woosh open. As we all file out of the transport, we are greeted by a fat, bearded man in a green suit. He chuckles loudly to himself as he explains the procedure, as though it were the most entertaining experience we would ever face in our lives. After our preliminary instructions, he pumps his fist in the air and send us out on our duties.
My job is to inspect the core operating units on site and make sure that there is no natural warping or rotting. Corrosion is a big problem with some of the early models that the company produced, and energy generators are no exception. So, I am given a flimsy hard hat and sent on my way, clipboard in hand. Taking the stairs, I pass uniformed guards who nod suspicious greetings at me as I pass with my keycard. The air is heavy, musty...like a gigantic humidifier left on all summer. My breathing grows deeper as I descend the poorly-lit stairwell. I can taste the coppery scent of rust on my tongue, so heavy is the moisture. This, I always imagined, would be like the opposite of those bright lights people see when they die. This is more like the stairway to hell, a winding, snake-like affair of cold steel, slick with the accumulated condensation of years of subterranean existence. Finally, I emerge from the stairwell and enter a well-lit room. Below me is a narrow catwalk that hangs over a large pool of water, churning as gears and pistons pump it into large cylinders. This is the cooling room, and the mist that rises from below seems almost a refreshing experience.
From under the water come lights that are arranged for the benefit of the engineers who maintain the cooling system. It looks like a miniature city, but lord knows no one could live down there for too long. It would drive them mad. Then again, maybe that would only please the company more.
As soon as those thoughts are pushed into my head, they are soon pushed back out. My little girls see to that. I smile at that knowledge. They protect their daddy better than any weapon or armor ever would. It is times like these that I remind myself why I am down in pits like this, trying to provide for them, to protect them as they protect me. It is miraculous to me to think that this dark place, this ill-kept dungeon of technology, could there be a place that reminds me of hope and love. My girls work miracles every day in my eyes.
Then I see my wife, as radiant now as the day we were married. The vows that we made were eternal, binding. For her I sit in that office all day, trying to give to her all that a pathetic man like me can give her. All I want is to make her happy. Contentment, they say, comes from success. I will never count myself as being successful until I know that my family is as well off as they deserve to be. I love them so much.
In fact, Margie and I plan to take a vacation when I get my bonus. My mom has already agreed to watch the girls while we travel west to some exotic port of call. I have been very lax in showing my wife how much she means to me, and I intend to make up for all of that by treating her like the queen she is.
We have lots of plans, most of which center on the girls. Only the best schools will do, and we have already set up a fund for their education. It is not much now, but the bank promised that it would grow exponentially over the next ten years. At the same time I am excited and apprehensive about this, as I know I will be proud of my angels no matter what they do, but also sad to see them grow. You know, daddy's little girls syndrome. I guess it happens to all of us.
One of the Science clerks motions me over to one of the reactor tubes, breaking me from my silent reverie. I walk over and look to what he is referring to.
"See that? High density corrosion. These people have been slacking off like it was in their job description."
I nod, making a note of the damage on my clipboard. "Well, put laziness IN the job description and maybe they will get to work." I smile, and the tech lets out a sardonic chuckle.
"He he...yeah. That and no donuts on the job."
I make a final grin and walk over to another tech who has found similar corrosion. What a surprise. After noting it, I make my own rounds on the bottom level, noting the cooling system filters have not been changed in quite awhile. Ghost-like strands of bundled dust stream frowsily through the grating as the industrial-powered fans keep time to the pistons. It is no wonder those things are forgotten; the fans are big enough to shred a man whole. I would never volunteer to change the filters in those things.
The check-up starts to progress, but slowly, as more and more wear and tear are found. I look at my watch, frowning as the seconds creep ever closer to my girls' concert. Another hour is all. From my watch I look up to the office scaffolding about thirty feet above the lower catwalk. The reactor employees are looking over us nervously, talking quietly amongst themselves. Obviously, every movement of my pen is noted with an uncharacteristic diligence on their part. A bad report from our team means a failing grade for them...and a failing grade means termination for the entire department. This is the part of my job that I hate. I wonder to myself how many children are represented by the men and women standing above me. Sighing, I turn to another of the techs who has found a coolant leak. That is one of the worst violations of all.
"It is a miracle this whole damn place hasn't gone up like a cinder!" the tech notes with a smoker's cough. "One stray spark and BOOM!"
His voice echoes throughout the cavern, causing those above to jump. Certainly they know what he is referring to.
"Just keep it down," I mutter, my ears ringing from his voice.
"Whatever," the tech replies, looking over the coolant leak with an air of smugness. I am about to correct him when a sudden violent tremor shakes the whole cavern, knocking everyone off their feet. At first, I think that maybe someone had turned the reactor on, but as it continues, we all begin to panic, shouts of surprise filling my ears. Fire begins to erupt from the walls, pushing out the scaffolding above like a bullet from a gun and sending it crashing into the opposite wall. I don't hear their cries above me anymore.
I fall back and look up in time to roll out of the way as a large light panel comes crashing down toward me. It misses, but the spray of glass that results sends several shards into my arm. Pulling them out, I struggle to rise to my feet, the tremors continuing. All about us, rock falls from above, tearing through the catwalk and splashing into the water below. The tech team is in a frenzy, running toward the only exit, the stairwell. People are shouting, running at full speed, clipboards falling into the cooling pool. I begin to run also, but stop short as I hear an anguished cry.
"G'aa! Help me!"
I look back and see the tech who I had only moments ago been talking to. He has been pinned down by one of the unseen girders that held the cavern together from above. His leg has been horribly smashed, and I know that it is beyond broken, it will never heal. Running back to him, I try and pry the girder off, but it is too heavy. Looking back at me with large eyes, he begins to plead, as though I am making a conscious effort not to move the girder.
"Please you haveta help me please get me outta here I don't wanna die!!"
"Hold...on!" I grimace as I try and push the thing off of him. My mind is racing, furiously trying to decide what to do. In a moment, the whole room is going to cave in without the support girders. I don't have much time.
"It must have been the terrorists!" the tech cries out. "Damned Avalanche!! What did we ever do to you, huh?!"
"Calm down!" I shout, resorting to pulling on him, hoping to move him from below the rubble. He cries out in pain, and I know that his leg must be excruciating, but I cannot help it. I have to get him out of there.
The tremors continue to grow worse as the weight of the rock above us becomes too much for the structure to bear. I struggle to pull the man out, my ears ringing, almost to the point where I would have been unable to hear his next exclamation.
"No! The s-s-stairs!"
I turn and look where he is pointing, and my heart sinks into my stomach. The stairwell has become completely blocked off by sliding rock from the overhanging mineral deposits above. Suddenly, there is nothing in the world but me and this wounded man. The sounds die out, and the realization hits me even as the chaos continues. We are going to die.
Sitting down, my eyes brim with tears, and I clasp the tech's hand, suddenly unaware that he is even with me. It is not his hand, but a tangible comfort. Even as the ground shakes, I look at my watch. The concert will be starting in ten minutes. Even as my mind is flooded with these thoughts, I can hear their voices, my lovely angels, beginning to sing to me, sending away my fear. Remembering myself, I look at the tech and ask him, "What is your name?"
There are tears in his eyes, his weeping loud and pronounced, and looking back to me, he is barely able to answer, "Alex."
"Alex, I am Randle." I smile at him and hold his hand tighter. Not surprisingly, he clasps back. We sit their, my girls singing to me, and I begin to hum. It is all I can do. In one moment our fate had been determined, with no way out of that room of death, I felt little fear. I had my girls with me. Soon, I would be with them, too.
I can feel the catwalk begin to give way, and I sit there, humming to Alex as he clasps my hand with both of his now, crying wildly as I try and soothe him. I think of Margie, my girls, and I worry for them, even then I pray for them, hoping that they will be all right. The cruel wait that we have for our end is an endless torture, prolonging Alex's fears and my worries for my family's well-being. Hopefully, it will be over soon.
"Alex, we're going to be ok. Just think like that and it will be so. There are others who are going to suffer a lot more than us tonight." I swallow, my anger rising at my circumstances, thinking of the company page who would be sent to deliver the news to her. Still, Alex clings to me ever tighter. I am not sure if he understands my words, but he is grateful to have me with him. Noticing a lack of any wedding band on his aged hands, I realize that any other way he may have died alone.
They continue to sing, and I can once again imagine holding my wife on that wonderful anniversary morning, driving all anger out of my heart. How could I be angry when I have them with me? How could I ever hate even Avalanche? I have had the greatest gift a man could ever receive in my family. I was ready to thank God for them personally.
An ear-rending noise erupts from above us, and I can hear the collapse begin.
"Alex," I say in an even voice, "look at my hand and do not look away from it, ok?"
He nods, bringing my hand to his forehead as he weeps. Clenching his eyes shut, he whispers something to me that I cannot hear over the din. I have but little time as to look up and see the rock falling down, enough rock to bury an active volcano. My girls sing louder still, and Margie hugs me ever tighter. The looks in their eyes, that treasure of love that will be with me always, that wonderful, fulfilling emotion that only they could bring me. I am a happy man. I am ready.
Looking up to my oncoming death, nameless, soulless hunks of rock, I smile inwardly. I feel no more fear, the song in my mind far too strong for that. It is a melody of such soft grace and beauty that it has to but breathe itself into life as to overpower the noise about me. Just moments before the rock meets us, I whisper my final words.
"Hurry up. I have a concert to get to."
-Dedicated to my Melli-Bear. I love you more than I could ever say