The beginning of Lemmon Grandee’s second life began on the morning of the first weekday of March in the small town of Sheffield. A crisp morning just like any other, except this was a morning he’d wished to avoid. He had been dreading the arrival of this particular morning for months. Matter of fact since last year, knowing it was going to come no matter what. There was no avoiding the future. He turned sixty in February, so he of all people should know that. The future comes to you, as sure as death does.
His ears caught the rumble of a train in the distance and seconds later his eyes blinked open. He spied the onset of dawn through his window curtain. He was up usually before dawn, but not today. Today he wanted to grasp the moment, as if remaining in bed would drive away the inevitability of what today meant for him. Anything to stall the time. He took his feet out of the sheets, sat on the side, and massaged his face with his hands. Behind him echoed his wife Abby’s snoring breath. Wind blew against the French windows, ruffling the curtains. He admired the back of his hands with abhorrence at the way his slack flesh seemed to bunch around his knuckles, making his skin appear gnarled, like it was the first time he was seeing his flesh like this. His skin reminded him of a molting lizard. Lemmon looked to the window and observed the sky turning a shade lighter. His eyes went to his glasses beside his bedside lamp, but didn’t reach for it He left the bed as quiet as he usually did so as not to wake his wife, and grunted when he flexed his spine to lock his bones back in place. He stepped out of the room to start getting ready for the day.
His hand searched the bathroom wall for the switch and turned on the light. He washed his face in the sink then admired his reflection in the mirror. He hated everything about the face that stared back at him. It wasn’t the face of a man sixty years past his prime and content about it. His face was like that of a man awaiting his hour on prison death row, awaiting his moment to take the needle. It was hard to imagine he’d ever once thought of himself as young and handsome. Where have all the years gone? He pulled at the flesh of his cheek with his thumb and first finger as if it were a mask he wanted to rip off to reveal his hidden flesh. Nothing happened. He was saddened by the dowdy, pockmarked features with thick crow lines etched under his eye sockets. His gray-blue eyes stared back at him with cold resignation. They were the eyes of someone who no longer had any care for the world, resigned to its whims and caprices. His stubble of beard appeared gray as the ones on his head.
Lemmon forced the muscles under his cheeks to exude a smile to his lips; the whole thing felt contriving and stiff. He removed his pajamas and stepped back from the mirror to admire the rest of himself. His hands inspected his paunchy frame, his droopy pair of arms. He raised both arms up, down, and over his head like one performing rudimentary calisthenics, then finally he felt the heat under his arm pits. Everything seems normal, he smirked at his reflection. Wasn’t expecting anything else.
Lemmon shaved before stepping into the shower stall. Everything about him was slow and purposeful. The water rained down on him and he hummed a tune as he went about his business. Finished, he waited for the water to dry off before grabbing his towel outside the stall.
He was fixing his cuff links when Abby came awake. She rolled to his side of the bed and looked up when she didn’t find him lying there. He was wearing a stripped black and blue tie, a gift from her on his birthday last year, though this was one of the few times he’d decided wearing it. Today seemed like a fitting occasion after all. He wiped the lens of his glasses on his arm before returning it to the bridge of his nose.
“Morning,” she said to him.
“Good morning,” he replied. “Thought you weren’t waking up for another hour.”
She stretched her limbs and yawned. “Was afraid you’d gone already.”
“Another couple of minutes and I would have.”
She rubbed her fingers against her eyes to view him better. “You’re looking smartly dressed today.”
“It comes with the reputation.”
“You going to stop by the market on your way back?”
“I will,” he said. “Today’s the day, you know what I mean?”
“Yes, I know what you mean. You got the list?”
“Yeah, I’ve got it. I left it in my coat pocket before I came to bed last night.”
“I know it’s late, but do you need me to make you breakfast?”
He picked up his jacket where he’d draped it at the back of a chair. “No need, I’m already late. I’ll grab something at the cafeteria.”
“I thought you said you can’t stand the food they serve there.”
He shrugged. “I’m making an exception today.”
Abby came off the bed and walked round the bed to him. She straightened his tie for him and smoothened the shoulders of his jacket with her hands. She was a year younger than he. Her shoulder-length blonde hair had gotten lighter over the years. While his features had turned downcast over the years, hers remained sunny and smiling. The edges of her lips curled as if always in the mood for something hilarious. He seethed with envy sometimes reckoning that between the both of them, he was the only one who had aged. It wasn’t fair, he screamed inside himself. My God, life just ain’t fair!
“How’re you feeling?” she asked him pretty much the same way she’d have asked if he’d brushed his teeth already.
“I’m far from being great,” he said. “Other than that,” he concluded with a shrug.
“You shouldn’t think things too seriously. It’s not the end of the world, you know.”
“Gee, what a relief. I’m feel a lot better if the world really was coming to an end today.”
“Stop being naughty, you’re not fooling anyone, buster. And pull your chin up. You’re a good man, Lemmon,” she said to him solemnly. “I love you, and I’m proud of you. And they would, too.”
“Yeah. I guess so,” he managed a wry smile. Anything to take off the dour mood he was feeling. His wife gave him the real thing and kissed his cheek. No matter what, he could always count on Abby for strength.
“Stay strong. I’ll see you when you return.”
He picked up his suitcase and left the room. He wore his coat and hat from the rack beside the front door. Abby came to the living room in time to watch him open the front door and step out into the front porch, into the morning sunlight. She stood behind the porch’s screen door and watched him walk down the driveway and turn left, heading toward the bus stop.
He was ten minutes late to make the 7:00 A.M. bus and had no choice but to wait for the next one supposed to arrive in the half hour. He exchanged perfunctory pleasantries and shook hands with other familiar commuters there. Ironically he wished for the bus to take forever in coming—he won’t mind the wait.
The bus arrived a minute past its scheduled time and he and everyone else clambered inside and took their seat. The door shut and the bus drove on and they all watched the neighborhood slip past. A young kid rode by on a Schwinn, hurling rolled-up newspapers at each home. People sweeping the front of their stoop, unlocking their shops, some standing in their bathrobe on their porch drinking something out of a cup in their hand. It was the same picture he saw day after day each time he rode the bus to work. A lot of the neighborhood had changed over the years, like that wasn’t supposed to ever happen. Plenty of folk come and gone: some deceased, others relocated to a different town. Old homes torn down and new roads built to expand the Wal-Mart shopping mall here in Sheffield. The train yard was about the oldest piece of property still standing—a relic since the town’s founding years—rolling across whatever was left of the mid-west frontier like it’s got anyplace else to be. Lemmon relieved the same gloomy picture every miserable morning he woke up to get to work.
By the end of today, he knew none of this would matter anymore. This was going to be the last time, he hopped, in a long, long time he got to travel this route again.
The bus got to his stop which was a twenty yard walk from the intersection to the Birdwell Packaging Factory. The same company he’d worked thirty-six years of his life. Its brownstone structure stared back at him, each day welcoming him to his office located in the admin building behind. It was an unimpressive building that an eyesore each passing year. Looking at it, the building reminded him of something out of a Charles Dickens novel where sinister accidents happen to good people with little livelihood. How fitting it would be if a tornado hurled along, or even better a fire happened and burnt down everything, thought Lemmon as he approached its gate.
He’d started at the bottom and worked his way up to his current position, from meat-packer to Chief Production Manager. That was as high up the management ladder he could go. Today was his last day on the job. The company was downsizing and cutting down workers and staff they could do without, starting with those who’d attained or approaching retirement age. His name had unarguably made the top of the list. He’d been aware of the rumors since it started making rounds last year. Lemmon was grateful that through all these years he’d made it to this epic moment. Still it stuck a wedge in his heart knowing after today he won’t be walking past this gate anymore. Final and none after. So many memories, good times and bad, it felt hard giving all of that up in the space of a day.
He exchanged pleasantries with the security fellow seated inside the pillbox beside the gate before walking toward the building. He walked toward the end of the first phase of his life.
He was in his office eating a sandwich and doodling on his desk blotter when Simon Birdwell knocked at the door and stuck his head in through the opening. He was the grandson of Arty Birdwell, the patriarch who’d started the meat-packaging company. The same man who’d hired Lemmon back when he was a pup and wanted to earn a living prior to when he made Abby permanent in his life.
“Hi there, Lemmon,” Simon smiled at him. “You got a minute? Hope I wasn’t intruding or nothing.”
“No, not at all. Please come in.”
Lemmon dropped his pen and sandwich and wiped his hands before shaking his boss’s hand and offered him a seat. Simon was in his mid-thirties. To Lemmon he had the smug, cynical outlook of a kid who hadn’t yet become a man, at least what his impression of being a man ought to be. The same kid now held power over thousands of others working in subsidiary branches of the company across the country, like his old man before him. That was where the similarities ended between father and son. The truth was Simon never gave a farthing for the meat-packaging business. He was content been a major shareholder than the undistinguished Joes like Lemmon who ran the machinery of the place. He made it obvious with his flashy brevity whenever he dropped by to check on the well-being of his staff.
Lemmon satisfyingly counted his stars that he wasn’t going to be here to witness the painful losses the company was going to make down the road. The recession had taken a huge bite at the meat industry, and the pain was far from over. Lemmon was lucky he’d be leaving with his pension intact, though he couldn’t vouch for others soon to follow. Other poor sobs too will be getting the booth, but right now all eyes were on him.
They were hosting a party for him downstairs in the cafeteria at closing hours. Presently he was on lunch-break. He had opted to have his meal here than head down there and be the brunt of clamoring handshakes, smiles, and shoulder patting from his soon-to-be former colleagues. Lemmon didn’t want none of it and didn’t think he could stand the sight of them, though he knew in the end he was going to have to brave up and join them. It was his party after all, even though he wasn’t happy being the centre of attention. Already he thought he saw through his colleagues’ phoniness, all probably rejoicing about him getting shafted: Lemmon’s an old fart, anyhow! Surprised he ain’t dropped dead a long time ago. Then there was the annoying questions they’d most likely throw at him: What you going to do once you’re gone, Lem? Got any future plans? Lemmon doubt he could concoct a lie to satisfy such probing questions, especially when the truth scared even him to admit. The truth was he had no idea what he was going to do once he woke up tomorrow and realized he wasn’t needed here anymore. The past months since the impending rumor, he’d wrestled with plenty ideas of what to do with himself as the time approached and still couldn’t picture what his retirement life was going to resemble. It hurt to even think his way around the problem. He was like a sailor on a skiff lost at sea to a raging storm and didn’t know which direction the sea was carrying him to.
“How’re you doing, Lemmon?” Simon asked him.
“I’m doing good. Thank you for asking.”
“You looking forward to retirement?”
Lemmon shrugged as he thought how best to answer. The image of him lost at sea played in his mind. “Nothing to do but ride the waves when it comes.”
Simon laughed. “You’ve got enthusiasm all over you, I like that. Most old geezers here would be crying their eyes out right now.”
That hurt to hear, but Lemmon rolled with the pain. “It’s not going to be the end of the world. Good or bad, I’ll make it through.”
“That’s good to know. My grand dad was always fond of you, you know. The same with my dad, too. I know he’d been happy to be here today.”
“Yeah, I feel his loss. The same with your grand dad. They were both good men.”
“Yeah. It’s hard living up to your parent’s expectations, you know what I mean? Lots of trails can be too much of a burden, if you ask me.”
“It’s tough, but no pair of shoes you can fill besides yours. Nothing we can do except try,” said Lemmon. He couldn’t help it that he was suddenly thinking about Gloria and his eyes became misty and distant. He looked past his Simon’s preppy, gregarious features at the window across the room which faced the east section of the compound. “It’s hard, but we’ve got to try. One step at a time.”
“That’s a good motto,” Simon complimented before getting up from the chair. “Anyway, I thought I’d head down and meet with you. I don’t know if I’ll be around for the party. If by any chance I’m not, I want you to know it’s been a privilege with you working for us all these years. And no matter what, you’ll be getting everything good that’s coming to you.”
Lemmon got up and shook his hand. “Thank you very much. You’re too kind.”
Simon nodded. “Well, take care, Lemmon. I’ll be seeing you.”
Simon let himself out of the office leaving Lemmon to resume stewing in his lonely misery of noting the clock’s hour hand run toward the inevitable. Lemmon returned to his sandwich but couldn’t find the willingness to finish it. He opened a side drawer and found a napkin and rolled the sandwich in it then into his thrash bin it went. Lemmon’s eyes fell on a picture frame he’d laid face down on the bottom of his drawer. He hadn’t thought of the photograph in a long time since he placed it there. He took it out and wiped the film of dust on its glass surface with his palm and stared at the smiling features of his daughter, Gloria. It was an old photograph taken when she was twelve. A pre-pubescent smile on her face facing flickering candles of a birthday cake while he and Abby crouched beside her smiling as well.
A long time ago it was. Back then he knew what it meant to have a smiling face. Not anymore. That ship had long sailed, never to return again. Not since Gloria walked out of their lives.
Lemmon returned the photo to its place and slammed the drawer shut. He knew he would retrieve it when time came for him to gather his personal stuff, but for now the memory of his lost daughter was too much to bear looking at.
Lemmon resumed his doodling and turned his eyes away from knowing what the time was on his watch.
Abby was in her daughter’s room which years ago she had converted into her painting studio. A tarp covered every inch of the floor. Canvas paintworks lined the walls, some of them unfinished works in progress, along with cabinet drawers that previously belonged to her daughter but now housed her paint bottles, brush containers and assorted paraphernalia. It was getting dark outside and she was applying nimble brushstrokes to an ongoing portrait when she heard what sounded like a car pulling into their driveway. She went to the window which gave adequate view of the driveway and saw a truck coming to a stop in front of their garage. The passenger door opened and Lemmon came down and went to the back of the truck to take down some carton boxes. Abby dropped her brush and took off her paint gloves before leaving the room. Her shirt had stains of paint all over it but she was unmindful of that.
She hurried downstairs to the front door and opened it in time to see Lemmon lumbering toward the porch carrying two carbon boxes in front of him. She opened the screen door for him and he was grunting as he entered.
“Was that Hank?” she asked after she’d closed the front door.
“Yeah, it was Hank,” Lemmon dropped the boxes on the couch close to him. He leaned forward with his hands on his knees to catch his breath. “I packed my stuff and he offered to give me a lift. He waited out for me at the market before bringing here.”
“That’s kind of him,” she said. “Did it take you long to pack?”
“Not really,” he answered.
Abby opened one of the boxes and saw his memorabilia stuff and plaques that had used to be on the walls of his office. Stuff he wasn’t going to make use of anymore. Junk for a bye-gone era.
“Can’t believe everything you had would fit into just two boxes.”
“Other stuff I didn’t need I told my secretary help get rid of them later. These were all I needed.”
“How did it go?” she asked.
Lemmon was still wheezing with his breath as he unbuttoned his coat and hung it along with his hat on the coat rack. He opened one of the boxes and took out a nylon bag that contained items he’d purchased at the market and carried them to the kitchen; Abby trailed behind.
“How did it go, darling?” she repeated her question.
“Hold on let me catch my breath. It went all right,” he answered, trying to sound modest. He dropped the bag on the table and took out the vegetables and half gallon of milk he’d bought. “They had a party going on for me. I tried to avoid it, but some of the fellas came and dragged me down. I got a plaque and a gold watch, though I gave the watch to Hank. He didn’t want it, but I kind of forced it on him. I’ve got one already, don’t think I need another. Simon Birdwell came by my office before then to sort of wish me well.”
“Is he still looking like a weasel?”
“You know it. A spoiled, pampered weasel, though.”
She took the milk and the canned food items from him and put them away in the fridge. “This is it then between you and the company?”
“Yep,” he washed his hands in the sink then dried them with a piece of cloth. “This is it. I won’t be returning there tomorrow, or the day after. Or the day after that.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know, Abby,” he called her by the nickname he favored of her. “I honestly don’t know.”
“That’s the same thing you’ve said since we first talked about this.”
“You’ve got me. I guess I’m still going to be saying the same thing come tomorrow. And the day after.”
She saw the hurt look on his face. His eyes seemed to cry out at her, though he was too proud and tightlipped to say anything. She drew him to her arms and hugged him.
“We’ll get by, Lem,” she assured him, patting his back. “No matter what, we’ll get by.”
He held her tight in his arms. He inhaled her body lotion; he drew strength from her—he needed it more than ever now. His heart felt drained of words.