He worked five days a week, Monday to Friday, from 8:30AM until 4:30PM. He arose at 6:00AM so that he would have sufficient time to groom and dress and commute. He was out the door at 7:55AM, always on foot in summer or winter, spring or fall, and he was back in at 5:05PM. Because he arose at 6:00AM, he went to bed at 9:35PM. This gave him 4.5 hours of free time in the evening, Monday to Friday, when he would buy groceries, cook dinner, eat, wash the dishes, and then sit quietly, for the last hour or two, reading a book, or watching a movie, or listening to a record. Sometimes he did nothing at all and just sat. Work was hard and he was expected to do a lot in exchange for a very little. He didn’t have much energy left in the evening. It didn’t take him long to fall asleep when he went to bed. He awoke briefly every morning at 4:00AM to pee.
They call that a forty hour work week but work dominated his days and nights. It’s just that he was only paid for forty of those hours.
At the end of each month he paid his bills. His rent, his internet, his phone, his hydro. Most months, he had a little bit left over. Sometimes he bought books or records. Sometimes he put a little away. That little bit never accumulated for very long. There were always new medical or dental bills to pay as his body aged and his benefits were slowly clawed back (“our bargaining unit is just too small to compete for a better offer,” the HR Manager dutifully reported at the beginning of each fiscal year). Poverty wasn’t a thing that bothered him although every now and again he went online and looked at pictures of faraway places and found a recording on youtube of a thunderstorm in the Amazon or of whales singing in the Caribbean or of water falling in Iceland or of waves on a beach in Fiji and he closed his eyes and imagined himself gone.
He used to tilt his head back and let the water wash over his face when he walked to work in the rain but he stopped doing this after his Supervisor reprimanded him because of his appearance. Now, when it rains, he carries an umbrella. It has been years since he last went out to jump in puddles. His feet and knees and hamstrings ache at the end of the day. He knows he should stretch more and use the instructions and colour-coded rubber bands provided by his physiotherapist but, when he finishes the dishes and sits down to rest (“just for a minute,” he tells himself), he finds it hard to get back up again and the remaining minutes pass and then it’s time for bed.
Every quarter, he received a letter from the financial corporation handling his pension. “If you remain on this trajectory and retire at the age of 65, you will have an annual income of $12,500.” Most of his mail isn’t really for him. He receives a letter every month from a furniture store telling him about a sale, all because he bought a couch there years ago and he must have accidentally checked the box that said he would like to receive offers in the mail. Or perhaps he forgot to ask them to uncheck that box. He isn’t sure. Every few weeks, he receives mail from competing phone and internet providers. He has a sign that says “NO JUNK MAIL OR FLYERS PLEASE” on his mailbox but all of these offers are addressed to him personally.
Sometimes he tries to dance his feelings. His joys and sorrows, his little loves and little losses – although, for him, they had been plenty big enough. If he could do it all again, he would be a dancer. Or, at least, he tells himself he would try to be a dancer. Because, for most of his life, there was often a gap between what he wanted to be and what he was. He was never very good at being what he wanted to be. For a few years here and there, perhaps, he felt that the gap had narrowed. Mostly, though, he worked and paid his bills and sat down for a few minutes and then went to bed. And at 6:00AM he was up and off again. But when he first heard Ólafur Arnalds’ “Living Room Songs,” he closed his eyes and drew arches in the air with his hands and lines on the floor with his toes. He swayed and spun and bowed, and he imagined himself young and supple again. He felt graceful and grateful and sad. When he went to bed that night he remembered the space she used to occupy and how he would smell the skin between her shoulder blades and wrap his arms around her as the waking world faded and the world of dreams awoke.
Sometimes, in the grocery store, a woman would pass who was wearing her scent. For a long time this was difficult. The first time it happened, he pulled up his hood and quietly cried in the canned fruits and vegetables aisle. Eventually, he came to appreciate it.
He stopped making plans for his weekends once he realized he was almost always too tired to fulfill them. Old friends were always so busy. Activities that were affordable when he was young became expensive as he aged and the price of everything went up except the price paid for the labour of those who work a forty hour work week. He learned to enjoy sitting or strolling by the river in the day. He knew the places along its banks where people who had nowhere else to go would congregate to share a few drinks and feel a sense of belonging. He imagined he might join them when he retires. On weekend nights when the moon was full, he would lie in the grass of the closest park and try to discern the stars and planets and satellites. He was never really fully sure about what he saw or which was what although, once upon a time, she was his sun and he was her moon and, for a while, she gave him daylight and he showed her the way in the dark. He stopped going to the park after a local homeowner called the police to report a man loitering there (“I don’t know if he’s high or if he’s prowling for kids or teenagers that might come by but he looks like a total creep” the concerned citizen said to the 911 operator). The officers who responded to the call were friendly but firm and he was never one to overstay his welcome. Quite the opposite, in fact, because he was never sure when or where or for how long he was welcome.
He learned contentment was one of the perks of resignation. He learned loneliness, like sobriety, can be dealt with one day at a time. In his dreams, he heard music – classical orchestral compositions that he did not recognize and could not recall when he awoke at 6:00AM the following day. He contentedly faded away. His death went relatively unnoticed. Only the folks by the river the following summer paused and wondered at his absence. One or two poured a little out for him, half serious, half in jest. His position at work was posted and filled within a two week period. His replacement worked five days a week, Monday to Friday, from 8:30AM until 4:30PM.