I have been reliably informed that the first few chapters of my current WIP are among the most depressing words ever written. Given the reaction to last weeks Monday writing sample I’m no longer sure that’s the case. So feel free to compare and contrast, the themes are similar, but the setting is very different.
Chapter 1 – The birthday boy
My name is Jack Davis. August 13 2014 was my 38th birthday. It was the worst day of my life. It was also, in retrospect, the best day of my life. Make no mistake, this is not the story of my mid-life crisis. This is the story of my rebirth. This is the story of a man who looked at his life, didn’t like what he saw, and changed it.
On the morning of my thirty-eighth birthday I woke up in bed alone. Despite the fact that I had been married for over a decade this wasn’t surprising. My wife had always been an early riser, and I had never been a morning person, but I still felt vaguely dissatisfied, cheated somehow. I’m not saying I expected breakfast in bed, or even a birthday blowjob, because at that time in my life I didn’t feel like I deserved to expect anything. I wasn’t special, I was just another middle aged, middle management worker drone who spent too much time hunched over a computer in a climate controlled office with too many fluorescent bulbs. But even so, I felt cheated.
I’ve often looked back and wondered what would have happened if my wife had been there to greet me that morning, even if only to smile and say “happy birthday”. Would that one bit of sunshine have changed things? Or would I have still come to the same conclusions and taken the same actions? I like to think it wouldn’t have changed anything. I like to think something that small couldn’t have derailed me from the path that led me here. But I just don’t know.
So I woke up alone, to an empty and silent house on my thirty-eighth birthday, and the truly sad thing is that I couldn’t even muster more than a slight sense of disappointment in the way my life had turned out. After showering and getting dressed, I ate a breakfast of cold cereal , and got in my car to drive into the city just like I had every weekday for the last 10 years. The only thing that made that day any different was that instead of going in to work, I was heading to my doctors office for my mandatory insurance physical. Happy birthday to me.
At the doctor’s office the vague feeling of uneasiness continued. It wasn’t that there was anything different, or unfamiliar about Doctor Shriev’s waiting room. It was the overwhelming sense of sameness, of crushing monotonous boredom. I couldn’t have verbalized this then, but looking back I understand what I was feeling that day. It was the overwhelming sense that my life would never again contain anything new. It was the feeling that every day moving forward would be a repeat of the past. Its was the beginning of the realization that my future was less a blank canvas and more of a paint by numbers project. The doctor’s assistant called my name in the same bored tones she always had, and I walked through the same door I had walked through so many other times, and all I could think of was a line from some old movie “you have always been here”
After the tests, the needles, the obligatory peeing into a cup and the finger in the rectum I had learned to get used to over the years I sat down on the bed and waited for my results. As I was sitting there on the bed in exam room three I couldn’t help but fantasize about the doctor coming in and telling me that I had some obscure medical condition that would kill me in short order. I was so bored with my life that a terminal condition would have at least made things interesting. The news I actually got, while no less depressing was not nearly so dramatic.
Dr Shriev came in, absentmindedly reading through my chart as he always did. He avoided even looking at me as he always did, and fidgeted with his glasses like he always did. And all I could think in that moment was “please, please tell me I’m dying”. Instead he told me that if he had to make a guess based on the test results he would have thought I was a 75 year old man. My lung capacity was virtually non-existent, my level of fitness was that of a sedentary man thirty years my senior, my resting heart rate was much too high, as was my blood pressure, I was at least 30 pounds overweight and my bodyfat percentage was in the forties.
I sat back stunned. I mean I knew that I wasn’t in the best of shape. I knew that I had spent too many years working sixty hour weeks and eating whatever bad takeout would deliver to my office. I knew I had let myself go, but I didn’t realize, until that moment just how far. I had rowed crew in college. When I first met my wife shortly after graduation she had remarked to a friend of hers that I had the body of an Adonis. And now I was just another overweight office slob with bad posture and a beer belly, despite the fact that I didn’t drink. The only consolation I could offer myself was that my hair was still just as thick and dark as it had been when I was a college freshman, and my teeth were still straight and white.
I left the doctor’s office depressed, and with an admonition that if I didn’t start taking better care of myself I would find myself uninsurable at my next checkup. But how could I take care of myself better when I didn’t believe I deserved better? I didn’t realize it then, but that was how I felt. Like a prematurely aged body and a sexless marriage was all I deserved. Although with hindsight I now know my marriage wasn’t precisely sexless, I just wasn’t having any. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Pulling in to my reserved parking space in the garage attached to my building I hung my head for a moment as I turned off the engine and listed to my own breathing. For a moment I was nearly overwhelmed by the urge to cry, but even then I had just enough pride left to not be “that guy”. Fighting back the tears, I put the false smile on my face that was my workday mask and punched the button on the elevator for the thirtieth floor, so I could turn my medical clearance in to HR.
As I walked into the HR department, I couldn’t help noticing the difference between the atmosphere in the HR department as compared to the atmosphere where I worked as a mid level manager. My department was gray, cold, and quiet; like a foggy morning I had once experienced on the Scottish moors. The (mostly) male employees were subdued and mousey. We always spoke in low tones lest we be accused of being too aggressive and thereby creating a hostile work environment. Our cubicles (And the fact that at 40 I didn’t even rate an office had not escaped me) had few if any decorations. We would maybe have a picture of our wife and kids if we had family, but little else. The idea of decorating our cubicles with anything that held a clue to our actual interests, or that had any trace of our personality was anathema to us. Too many of us had seen a colleague get cited, or even fired for seemingly innocuous touches that somehow managed to offend someone.
The HR department on the other hand was a riot of color and personality. Every desk had multiple pictures, and various novelty items, each one a bright beacon of that persons interests. Risqué calendars’ of firefighters and impossibly toned men in various states of undress were common, and funny signs that would have gotten me fired in a heartbeat were hung up everywhere. The women, almost uniformly overweight, spoke in loud brash voices and horse like laughter echoed through the room. I couldn’t see everything through the small square of lexan glass that sperated the clerk from me, but I could see enough to know that these women had no fear of censure.
As I stood there waiting for a corpulent woman with elaborate false nails to finish clacking away on her computer and take notice of me so I could hand her my paperwork I felt an old familiar anger begin to rise in my gut, and as always I forced it down lest I be just another causality of the drive to make offices a “safe space” for women. Finally deigning to grace me with her attention the woman said “what?” without even looking up from her screen. “I’m here to turn in my annual medical reports for insurance” I just wanted the experience to be over as quickly as possible. “Hhr” she grunted, sticking her hand through the small slot in the bottom of the window, still not taking her eyes of whatever had her so captivated on her computer. As I handed her the reports and test results she finally looked away from here computer, not to look at me but to flip through my confidential medical files. “Looks like you need to start working out” She said in the smug tones of a woman who knows she has no such concerns. “Hey” I shouted, “That’s confidential, what the hell do you think you’re doing”
That got her attention. “excuse me?” she sneered.
“Those are my private medical records they are not to be read by anyone other than the medical liason, its company policy”
She rolled her eyes “Oh please, no one cares about your little problems” Now don’t you have some work to go do?” I thought about saying something, or filing a complaint, I thought about taking a stand. I really did. But what would have been the point, other than to have myself labeled a trouble maker? Silent, I turned around and walked back to the elevator. I heard her exasperated sigh as I waited for the elevator and wanted nothing more than to grab her by her fat face and pull her through the 9 inch slot in the lexan, but as always I forced the anger down. I did not take a stand. I did not file a complaint. I did nothing.
The rest of the day went exactly as every other day had for years. I checked my emails, I filed reports, I attended meetings where nothing happened and nothing was decided. I pushed paper and filed papers, and nothing I did made any difference or had any real value to anyone, least of all me. At the end of the day we had a little birthday party in the break room where my colleagues sang “happy birthday” as if they were bored and gave me a cupcake with a single candle on it. As sad is this is to say, I knew even then it would be highlight of my day.
As I was leaving the office, my supervisor Bret leaned his head out of his office “Jack, I need to speak to you for a minute” At first I just figured the HR woman had complained about me and prepared to yessir my way through yet another brow beating. But as I entered his office I didn’t see the familiar expression of a man who has an excuse to castigate one of his underlings. I’m not sure I can describe, even now what it is I saw there, but it almost resembled compassion. That’s when I knew what was coming.
I sat there, in a daze, barely hearing the familiar litany of reasons why I was being let go. A bad economy, the need to “right-size” our workforce, the need to stay competitive in the new business environment. If you’ve ever been laid off you have probably heard the same speech. He included all the platitudes designed to soften the blow. He told me I had been a valuable member of his team, that he was sorry to see me go, that he knew a “guy as talented as I was would land on my feet”. But there were still two members of security waiting outside his office when he finally shook my hand. They still watched me like hawks as I cleaned out my cubical. They were still on each side of me as we rode the elevator down. And they still “escorted” me to my car.
Driving home, depressed, and thinking semi-seriously about suicide I decided to break the monotony by stopping at a bar there in the business district. Usually I went straight home and watched TV until my wife came home but that day I didn’t feel like going back to an empty house just yet. I parked at a public lot and I got out of my car. Not knowing where to go I eyed the two bars in front of me. One was a standard pseudo-irish bar of the type you’ll find anywhere in the western world. The other was a bit of a dive that promised live rock every Friday and catered to a much younger clientele. Normally I would have never walked into that kind of place, I would have felt too self conscious; that’s just the sort of person I was. But that day, for some reason, maybe because of the crushing sense of monotony in my life I decided to do something different. Thinking back on it now, I wonder if even then I somehow knew what I would find. I don’t think I did, I’m not even sure I made the decision to something different consciously. But if I hadn’t my whole life would be different.
I walked into the dimly lit room and sat down at the bar not sure what I was even doing there. The music was too loud and too young, just like the people in it. Hell, I didn’t even drink. When the young woman came over with a smile and asked me what I wanted to drink I felt a moment of panic, afraid that I would stammer and make myself look like a fool. “whiskey sour” I finally said, remembering that that had been my favorite drink when I was in college.
As I waited for my drink I looked around the room, even now, just a few minutes after five the place was already getting crowded. The young professionals who still had their entire lives ahead them were milling about, confident smiles on their faces, just knowing that one day they would be the masters of the universe. Remembering that I once felt the same way I hated them for the fact that they hadn’t yet thrown away the best years of their lives. The cold consolation that many of them would, just like I had, sat like a bitter little pill in the pit of my stomach, and I hated myself just that little bit more.
When my drink came I downed it in a single gulp and ordered another, only a double this time, and asked for directions to the men’s room. Even then I could have walked out and my life would have remained unchanged, even then there was still a chance to go home unscathed, but I didn’t know that. Looking back on it now, with the wisdom of hindsight I’m glad I didn’t. If I had had a clue of what was about to happen I would have ran home rather than face the unpleasant truth. Thank god I didn’t know.
As I walked into the bathroom I could hear the unmistakable sounds of a couple having sex in the only stall. The woman’s moans indicated that she was close to coming, and the man’s heavy breathing indicated he’d been working at arranging that for a while. Sitting there with my dick in hand trying in vain to piss was an unpleasant experience. I was afraid someone else was going to come in, see me, and assume I was some kind of pervert. I worried a lot about things like that back then. It’s funny now. But at that moment I just wanted to piss and get back to the bar.
As the woman finally came, something about the way she moaned sounded familiar. At some level I think I knew even then, I had to have at least on some level. But since they were finally quiet I could finally urinate, and the relief of emptying my bladder was a more pressing concern. Then I heard the woman’s voice. “Oh baby thank you, I needed that sooo bad” I heard her say in the same satisfied tones I remembered, and the stream of urine cut off like someone had turned off a faucet. As they came out of the stall I turned around in horror. I hadn’t even thought to zip up. So there I was, literally standing there with my dick in my hand, staring at my wife as she came out of a bathroom stall with a man half my age.
I opened my mouth and no words came out. I closed my mouth and tried again. Nothing. As and she turned and saw me, I could swear the look on her face wasn’t shame, or even embarrassment. It was triumph. I couldn’t even blame the young man when he knocked me out. What would you do if you came out of a bathroom stall and saw a middle aged man with his pants around his feet, holding on to his flaccid cock?
Anyway, this is the beginning of “The Brotherhood of the Iron”. If anyone has actually read both excerpts you might be able to tell that there has been a lot of (or there is supposed to have been a lot of) character development. The question I ask is; has there been?