On his last day of work, Ben Warner woke up early, an hour ahead of the sun. As usual, he was glad to be awake, relieved to be alive, to feel his heart beating, lungs filling and emptying, his mind gradually emerging from a dream. For a minute he strained to remember it, something about a blond in a clinging sea-green dress, a young boy beside her, laughing at a deer dead in the road. Then he let it slip away.
At first he thought his wife Cerise was next to him, still asleep. The bed seemed filled with her scent, a soft mixture of mint and lilac. Then he remembered that she was at her sister’s place in South Carolina, supposedly happier. And why wouldn’t she be? She was rid of him finally; she slept alone, probably soundly, without having to worry where he was or with whom, or if he’d come home in the middle of the night after drinking too much and topple over a vase or a lamp, or simply pass out on the bathroom floor where she’d have to step over him in the morning.
He swung himself out of bed, shuffled to the kitchen in his boxers, punched on the coffee maker and sat down at the table with a pack of Salems and a book of matches. He was almost always up early, which seemed like a good sign, no matter what anyone else said. He was sixty-three now, but he still looked fine: his thick hair had gracefully gone over to silver from gold, and his body had thickened into what he saw as a natural and healthy plumpness. But doctors saw it differently. Lately each visit to Prescott Regional brought another specialist out of the woodwork, heart men, lung men, blood men, all with their own obsessions, their own experiments they were itching to perform. One wanted to strip veins from his thigh and somehow connect them to his heart—to start rewiring him completely, the whole tangled, sludge-filled mess. Sometimes he could feel what the doctors must’ve seen in their x-rays, the frayed old wiring about to short out, the sickening weight of the cholesterol plugging his arteries.
At work, on his way back upstairs to his office after three thick buttered roast beef sandwiches for lunch, he often listened to his heart thudding in his chest and wondered how much more it would take. The suspense weighed on him—which artery would close first, would it be a heart attack or a stroke, what would they say when they found him dead at the bottom of the staircase. Or, smoking his fifteenth cigarette of the day, he’d sometimes feel a strange queasiness, and picture incipient cancer cells, microscopic and scheming, squirming and multiplying, planning their first attacks on his lungs or lips or throat. First thing in the morning, it was especially easy to believe the doctors, as he wobbled across the cold wood floor to find the bathroom. But now, at the kitchen table, with his first cigarette lit and sweetly fragrant, its crucial dose of nicotine seeping into his lungs, and his first cup of coffee steaming in front of him, Ben felt like a prize instrument, a Stradivarius expertly played, a sail billowing with an exquisite wind.
His daughter Joanna had left a note on the counter. It was in green ink, on the back of an envelope. “Dad—your last day! We’re so proud of you! RETIREMENT! Don’t forget tomorrow morning—all my etc, Jo.”
He got up, opened the fridge, slid a couple of Parker Cheese Pastries out of the box, piled them on a plate with his Salems, matches and a napkin, and took the plate and his coffee through the sliding glass doors onto the deck. Leaning back on a damp plastic deck chair, he exhaled and took a big bite of the first pastry. It was delicious, in a low class, no-bullshit kind of way—an indescribably buttery, flaky crust with a good slathering of cream cheese frosting. Just the sort of thing he wasn’t supposed to be eating, but usually was.
By now the sun was up. It played in patterns on the surface of the pool, flickering golds and silvers, as a breeze rippled across the water. Ben leaned back, imagining he was drifting on the water in one of his grandson Kenny’s play-floats. It was one of his favorite things to do, to lie back, preferably drunk, on a summer afternoon, on the back of the enormous purple hippopotamus, and make a mental list of the women he’d made love to, dream of the continuing robust health of his mutual funds, plan future football games with three year-old Kenny, providing Ben was still alive in a few years, and could still move that much if he was.
When it was time for work, he dressed in the sewing room, in front of a small mirror, actually a door detached from an old medicine cabinet, leaned against a broken radio. Cerise had always chosen his clothes for him. After each shopping spree, she’d call her friends and describe his new outfits to them as if they were desserts: peaches and cinnamon, blueberries and cream, nutmeg and French vanilla. Not long ago, she would have had the week’s worth hanging in the closet, cleaned and pressed, and he would have dressed in the sewing room so he wouldn’t wake her. Now the cleaning and pressing were his own work, but he still dressed here, hunching over to look at himself in the little mirror as he straightened his tie.
On his way out the door he remembered he’d left his termination letter on the table, under the paper. He pulled it out and without thinking started to read. “…your many years of service, which made it difficult for us to make this decision. Nevertheless, it has become obvious…” He folded it and slipped it in his pocket. The last thing he needed was for Joanna to find it. She’d been helping out since Cerise went to South Carolina—a little cooking and cleaning, after-work visits to keep him up-to-date on what was happening with Cerise, since she wanted no part of calling him directly. All he could do was hope that neither of them would discover his lie, which after all was only his latest.
Ben pulled his F-150 into the Granite State Savings parking lot, huffing up the walkway and through the front doors at seven sharp, early enough to slink upstairs without having to speak to anyone. Years ago, he would have shown up later and lingered a while in the lobby, maybe spent a pleasant quarter-hour in the company of Beth Simpson, who worked the commercial window in warm mists of cinnamon perfume, or Trish Rafuse, the summer temp who wore the most bewitchingly flowing pastel dresses, and with whom he’d shared more than one lunch hour, usually at her Maple Street apartment, making love. But since then everything had changed. For an old unreformed pig like himself, the current social climate was terrifying, with its bewildering political correctness and hair-trigger harassment suits. His most recent trouble had been with a teller named Francesca. She was tall, thin, dark, half-Dominican, from the Bronx originally, conspicuously stylish among the North Country natives in her vest, skirt and scarf outfits. She had the look, walk and wit of someone who’d been around the block a few times, but it quickly became clear she had no intention of going around again with him. His brain understood, but not the rest of him. “But why not?” he’d teased her once.
“Because my father is younger than you are,” she said.
“With experience comes wisdom.”
She slid a pack of twenties into her drawer. “You need to back off, Ben.”
She’d left a month ago—offered a better job at a competing bank—but there was still plenty of animosity left to go around. The current head-teller, Sara Tate, had caught him looking at her breasts more than once, and never had a civil word for him; most of the part-timers had heard some probably true stories about his piggishness, and looked at him when he spoke sometimes with disgust, sometimes with a sort of pity. David Duchem, the only male teller, nervous and fidgety during business hours, elated and energetic at closing time, hated him for more obscure reasons.
“We don’t have to worry, with old Greenspan on top of things,” Ben had commented once, walking into the lounge to see Duchem perusing the Manchester Union stock pages.
“Greenspan is a sick fuck,” Duchem responded, giving him such a glare over the top of his glasses that he seemed to add without saying so that he thought Ben was, too.
On his way to the back staircase, Ben bumped into Scott Tolan—cool, cocky Scotty, the new branch manager, shipped North a year ago from Down Country, with his bleached teeth, white starched shirt, shined shoes and a gelled hairdo that wouldn’t budge in a hurricane. Tolan knew Ben’s story, of course, but his shtick was to pretend that all he had to go on were the few hints Ben dropped his way. The fact was the sneaky little bastard had probably known about it all along; he’d probably been right there in the room, doing his Cheshire cat impression, when they decided to cut Ben loose.
Tolan spoke first. “Hey, Ben.”
“How many days left now?”
“No más. Oy es todo. Es el final.”
“Si, es bueno. Nice. Guess we should’ve put together a little something. Well, what are your plans after you’re done? Fish—”
“Hunt, fish, read the paper, eat, get fat. Fatter.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Same as I do now. Just a change of scenery. Don’t have to look at your puss all day.”
Tolan grinned. “More time with the wife?”
Ben shrugged. “Sure. Have to.” His story at the bank was that Cerise was in South Carolina for a vacation: they didn’t know there was a possibility, maybe a probability, that she wouldn’t be back.
Tolan took half a step down the hall. “Well, don’t overdo it on your last day,” he said as he walked away. When he was out of sight, Ben slipped around the corner to the lounge, grabbed a Mars Bar and two bags of Doritos from the vending machine, then headed up to his office to play his first game of solitaire.
Around eleven Ben pulled some construction paper, stickers and colored markers out of his bottom drawer. He drew a large red heart and a fat pink man in a dress shirt, tie and a New England Patriots helmet. Underneath he printed in careful square letters, “Love from Gran-pup. Gran-pup loves his Kenneth!” Around the edges he traced in a few footballs and helmets, and finished it with a sticker of a Labrador puppy. “Gran-pup loves Beetle too!” he wrote. “Does Kenneth love Gran-pup?”
He looked it over again, folded it into a manila envelope, locked it under his desk and dialed the phone.
Joanna answered. “Hey, Dad.”
“Hey, kid. Found your note.”
“You didn’t forget tomorrow morning, did you?”
“The retiree gets a morning on the town.”
Ben cleared his throat. “You spoken to your mother lately?”
“She called last night.”
“She wondered how you were doing.”
“She doing okay?”
“I wouldn’t call her yet. I’d give her a chance to—”
“No, wasn’t planning to.”
“That’s good. Give her time.”
“The problem is…”
“At my age you don’t have much of that to give.” He shifted the phone to his other ear. “Is Kenny right around?”
“He’s outside playing in the sand with Darrel.”
“Oh. Well, don’t disturb him. Just tell him I called and said hi. Give him my love.”
“And what do I get?”
“Same as you always get. Love ya, kiddo. Bye-bye.”
In the old days, all the old-timers—Ben, his uncle Louis, Joe Vingtois, Camille Robinson, Irleen Wagner and maybe two or three others—would’ve proceeded to the Prescott Grill at one, ordered chalkboard specials and a few round of drinks and killed off two or three hours without much fuss, before returning to the bank to work into the evening. But now Ben felt a little self-conscious finding a seat in a corner booth and ordering a beer during working hours, as if the waitress might call headquarters as soon as she saw him take his first sip of Long Trail.
Irleen met him at one-thirty, in a white blouse and pressed jeans, wearing the small gold sunflower earrings he’d bought her for Christmas a few years ago.
“Hey, Benjamin. How goes it?” She sat, sniffed, looked at his glass. “A wee bit of Long Trail this afternoon, eh?”
“Naturally. It’s a celebration. You?”
“Nah.” She waved the waitress over and ordered a Caesar salad.
“Watching the waistline?”
“Hmmm.” She was short and trim, with short, dark silver hair and a perpetual though now somewhat leathery tan. “I see you got the non-smoking section.”
“Not thinking, I guess.”
“So this is it, huh?”
“What does Joanna think about the retirement situation?”
“She thinks I ought to be proud of it. All my years in the business, so many loans to small businesses, how we helped the local economy, et cetera.”
“You still haven’t told them the real scoop.”
“They don’t know, it won’t hurt ‘em.”
The waitress arrived with Irleen’s soda water, which Ben didn’t remember her ordering. “Your entrees will be ready in a minute,” she said as she left. She was a perky, sexy little thing: blond, with short, muscular legs, brown-gold eyes and a tight, twitching behind.
“Still the same old Benjy, I see,” Irleen said.
He smirked. “Who did you expect?”
She sipped her drink. “So have you heard from Cerise? How’s that looking?”
“You’re probably lucky she stuck it out that long.”
“Lucky and unlucky.”
“It’s like a sentence I had to serve. Living with the, uh, guilt, I suppose.” He tried to put quotation marks around “guilt”, as if he couldn’t be sure he had to mean it.
“And whose fault is that?”
“Whose was it usually?”
The waitress returned after a minute with their lunches—Ben’s roast beef sandwiches, Irleen’s salad. As Ben watched the waitress walk away, Irleen said, “Last time we met here you were mooning over that Puerto Rican girl.”
“Poor thing. Did she break your heart?”
“I’m not sure it was exactly my heart—”
“Of course it wasn’t. Was it ever with you? Maybe with Cerise.” She lifted her drink. “That’s the big break. But Francesca—she had a lot of spit, that girl. Piss and vinegar. Was it two, three kids?”
“From the Bronx. She moves up here with her husband, he leaves her, she gets a teller job to support her girls, then she gets hit on by a fat old guy with Doritos on his breath.”
“In a nutshell.”
“But what did you think she’d see in you? Forgive me, Benjy, but you’re a fat old man with a hell of a lot of bad habits.”
“Pero yo hablo español.”
“Ahh, you thought that’s all it would take. The old dog learns a new trick.”
“Thought it was worth a shot.”
“And was it?”
Ben shrugged and turned to his sandwich. Irleen’s eating style was halting and persnickety; she’d slice a tomato in half, put one piece in her mouth, chew and swallow, wash it down with water, then cut up a few cucumbers and look around the restaurant before turning back to her plate to see what was left to do. Ben finished first, and ordered a piece of banana cream pie while Irleen continued working on her salad.
“The party’s at seven, remember,” she said.
“What should I bring? Joe say?”
“Just yourself. It’s more or less in your honor, so…”
“Should be a good time.”
Irleen shrugged. “Same crew, same old song and dance.”
Back at the bank, Ben took the back entrance and chugged up the stairs. He knew Tolan would probably have something more to say before the day was out. He’d come in, shake hands, offer warm wishes, best of luck, something from a manual he’d read once. He probably still kept it under his desk. Emily Post’s Guide to Being a Two-faced Backstabber; How to Say Good Riddance and Make It Seem Like a Compliment.
They were waiting around his desk when he got there. Meredith, Gert, Brindey, Peach and of course Tolan, turning with a broad smile at the perfect moment. A few hadn’t come—Sandy, Regina, Duchem. The ones who couldn’t stand to look at him.
“Happy retirement!” they sang in unison. There was a small white cake on the desk with an envelope, paper plates, plastic forks and some leftover Christmas napkins.
“Thanks, guys. You didn’t have to do all this.” He tried not to let it come out sarcastically, and it basically didn’t.
“Least we could do, after all those years,” Tolan said.
“We thought about a low-fat cake, but then we thought we better not,” Brindey said, nudging his stomach with her elbow.
“Good, ‘cause I’m still a growing boy.”
“Cut it, cut it!” Meredith broke in. “Peach and I have to bring the other girls their piece and make sure Sandy gets her afternoon break, or we’ll have a mutiny on our hands.”
“He’s got to open the card first,” Gert snapped. She was Ben’s age, a part-time receptionist, constantly commenting on the younger girls’ dress code violations—today, probably Peach’s culottes and Brindey’s too-tight aqua top—but Ben figured she wouldn’t’ve cared for them no matter what they wore. The teller line was like Charlie’s Angels now, anyhow, everyone gorgeous, everyone a different type—a cute brunette, a leggy blond, a flirtatious redhead… He tried not to think about it.
“Open your card, Ben.” Tolan handed it to him and made room for him to sit at the desk.
Ben sat, tore the envelope open, pulled out the card and read what they’d written inside. “Enjoy your retirement.” “It’s been so nice working with you.” “Now’s the time to stop and smell the roses.” He looked up and smiled and realized that it could just as easily have come from a group of strangers.
“Thanks, guys. I appreciate it.”
“Hey, Ben, you deserve all the best.” Tolan put his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Good luck in whatever you do.”
Meredith touched his arm. “It was nice workin’ with ya, Ben. Take care of yourself and keep in touch.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Now we have to get back to work and give poor Sandy her break.”
The girls went with their pieces of cake and paraphernalia and left Ben and Tolan alone.
“You shouldn’t’ve gone to the trouble,” Ben said.
“Least we could do. I just hope there’s no hard feelings. The girls think you’re retiring, they don’t need to know.”
“Wouldn’t matter if they did.”
“That bunch down in Concord is tough, Ben. You know I have to support whatever decisions they make.” He paused, to make sure Ben noticed the warmth in his smile. “But I had nothing to do with it. I hope you believe that.”
“It’s not a matter of believing. It’s a matter of why should I care.”
“The best thing for you to do is let me finish packing in peace.”
Tolan turned and hurried off, like a kid who hadn’t gotten things his way. As he left, Ben called out after him, “No hard feelings,” but all he heard were Tolan’s footsteps on the stairs.
There wasn’t much left: a couple chipped coffee mugs, some old shoes, a few neckties he balled up and threw on top of everything else; his arts and crafts stuff, and the new card. Anything with a bank logo on it he left in the garbage can under his desk. He’d meant to go back through the lobby once more to say goodbye, but after he dumped the box in his truck he changed his mind. He got in, started up and drove away.
At home he got out of his work clothes, pulled on a baggy pair of swimming trunks and sat shirtless next to the pool with a six pack of Corona, a saucer, a paring knife and a couple of limes.
Cerise had left a message on the answering machine. “Hello, Ben. Joanna said this was your last day. She thought I should call. To congratulate you. Well, I do want to talk, but not now. I have some choices to… Anyway, I’ll be in touch. Remember the doctor’s number is by the phone. It’s time for another appointment, if you haven’t already made one. I told Joanna too. Take care of yourself. You know what I mean by that, I think.”
He pushed a slice of lime into a new Corona and pictured her there beside him, in a bathrobe the color of lime sherbet, tapping her bare foot to the Stan Getz she would’ve had on the stereo, holding a piña colada in her hand and looking at the water with a slow buzzed smile. Cerise. She was too smart not to figure him out. But then why hadn’t she left till the end? Maybe she’d just been sticking to one of those eleventh, twelfth or thirteenth commandments drilled into her by her mother, a scrappy little backwoods gal who stayed with Cerise’s drunken lumberjack father for fifty-three years. Whatever her reasons, they weren’t enough when Francesca called with her final warning. Cerise answered and relayed the message without bothering to look at him. “Francesca says please don’t send her any more gifts. Francesca says cut the shit.” She snatched her robe off the sofa and went upstairs to lock him out of the bedroom. The next week she flew to South Carolina. “I need time,” she said. “Please don’t call. Forget you have the number.”
Until Cerise’s escape to South Carolina, there hadn’t been any blowups that he could remember. But as the years passed, it had become harder for him to touch her somehow. When he came to bed at night and heard her soft breathing, smelled mint and lilac rising from the folds of her sheets, he was filled with love and fear, as if, just lying there, she had already begun to slip away. Eventually he began to love her in the way he might’ve loved an old song that reminded him of his childhood, or the high school sweetheart that got away. She had gotten away from him somehow, the sharp-tongued lover whose scattering of freckles—little rust-fleck constellations that seemed to shift nightly from thigh to back to shoulder—had always delighted him, though he had stopped giving them his full attention years ago.
Like everyone else he knew back then, he had taken a vow, and believed it was possible, to love and cherish till the end. He polished off another Corona and watched as the sun began to set and cast shadows across the rippling surface of the pool. Now he had to face the consequences of having been wrong.
By the time the party was well under way, he was cripplingly, beautifully drunk. His first few drinks were small works of art: a carefully calibrated whiskey sour, a salty, tasty margarita. After a while he lost track and drank whatever he could pour. He got the sense that everyone else was avoiding him, which seemed strange, since he was the guest of honor. But he didn’t mind. After he stumbled past Joe’s pool table and almost crashed through the gigantic fish tank, Irleen took him aside and sat him on a couch in the back den.
“Listen, Ben, I think you better take it easy for a while.” He listened to her, nodded, stared into her eyes, which were a very calm and reasonable shade of gray.
“A drink?” he said after a while, meaning that, though he wasn’t feeling particularly steady at the moment, he hoped she might bring him one.
“I don’t think you need anymore to drink right now, hombre. I got Joe to make you a pot of coffee so we can get you started on that.”
She had taken his hand in hers and was smiling ruefully at him, as if he were a naughty little boy and she didn’t know quite what to do with him. “No more work for me,” he said.
“That’s right. You did your share. You did a good job. Now tomorrow you start your new life—”
“Yes it is.”
“Everyday is Saturday for me,” he said.
“You have to think about making some changes, amigo. You’re not getting any younger. And Cerise…” She let go of his hand. “Well, not wandering around drunk would be a start.”
“Changes,” he repeated, trying by saying it aloud to get the sense of what she was saying. “Mississippi Slammer,” he decided softly. “Bring me the Mississippi Slammer.”
“Never heard of it.” Joe came into the room and handed Irleen a cup of coffee. He suddenly seemed very old: his face was shriveled, and all that was left of his hair was a tuft of gray at the very top of his head. Is that you, old Joe? Ben almost said. Is that really you? “Camille made some instant,” Joe said.
Ben took the cup and sniffed it, then drank. “Not a Mississippi Slammer,” he said.
“Just sit tight and drink your coffee,” Irleen said firmly. “We’ll be right back.”
They returned to the party and left him with his coffee. After he finished, he went out to join them.
They were sitting around the table in the living room, playing cards.
“What’s the bid?”
“Six. Camille and I, six, Joe and Irly, five.”
“I just don’t have any cards.”
“Who’s got all the spades?”
At first they didn’t notice him crossing the room toward the table. When they did, they lifted their heads from their cards and began to speak to him. His good friends. Kindly Irleen, with her calm eyes. Beautiful, silver-haired Camille, and her husband Jack. Poor old Joe, with the shrunken face.
“What’s going on, Benjamin?”
“Feeling better, Warner? Shall we deal you in?”
He smiled and nodded and made his way toward the table, but from their concerned looks he decided they didn’t understand how happy he was to see them. He thought he was speaking aloud, but no one was answering. Hello, my friends. Please have a drink on the house. Indeed, it’s Joe’s house. But let me be the first to offer. Let me be the first to congratulate you all. I’m not old, though I look it. I look old, but don’t fear! We’re all old in one way or another. But to believe you are young is the original sin. To believe in youth is a fear of mine. Let’s all drink and be merry. Let’s all pretend we’ll be young forever.
Just past the bench where Camille and her husband were sitting, Ben lurched to his right and fell into a peace lily, knocking over the pot and crumpling in a heap on the floor, crushing the lily under him into the carpet.
Somewhere in the back of Ben’s mind when Irleen rolled him into bed that night were the words, “You’ll pay for this tomorrow.” In the morning it came, as usual, not when he opened his eyes, but when he first pulled himself up and tried to cross the room. His first step came with a price: a series of heavy sledgehammer blows inside his skull, as if John Henry were in there trying to fight his way out. He limped into the bathroom, peed, ran some cold water over his head, then shuffled into the kitchen.
The coffee was already perked—someone must’ve set the timer, or maybe he’d set it himself. As he rummaged in the cupboard for a mug, cursing, he felt his pulse hammering away in his head, and the outline of his swollen heart, hanging in the hollow of his chest like an old piece of fatty meat. He poured himself an enormous cup of coffee, brought it with him in both trembling hands to the table, set it down and took out a cigarette.
He lit it, crumpled the match into the ashtray and took a deep drag, washing it down with several gulps of coffee. He exhaled, feeling the nicotine seeping into his lungs, the caffeine washing through his veins. His heart was bruised, but still beating; everything was going to be okay.
Joanna got there a little later, after Ben had struggled into a shirt and slacks and was hunting for his sunglasses, smoke curling from two half-finished cigarettes in the ashtray, a third cup of coffee in his hand.
“Happy retirement, Dad. Feeling okay I hope?” Kenny was with her. He peered around his mother’s leg, fixing Ben in an uncertain little blue-eyed gaze, but he didn’t say anything. Both of them wore sky-blue polo shirts and shorts; Joanna had her hair fixed, as Cerise often did, in a haphazardly pinned pile of red, with selected curls dangling out at the sides. She nudged Kenny in front of her. “Do you remember what today is, Dad?”
Ben tried to stand, choking back the urge to throw up as he steadied himself. He thought about the question, and pictured the weeks ahead—fishing, hunting, more card parties, if they would have him; more doctors, tests, maybe even surgeries; occasional calls from South Carolina that Joanna would have to relay to him, and interpret for signs of understanding or forgiveness; probably one or more truths to stretch until they broke. “Sure,” he said, forcing a smile. “First day of the rest of my life.”