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The Greeter


Bob Hyman

Charlie awoke with a start. Reaching for the nightstand, he felt around carefully at the base of the lamp for his glasses. His eyes became gradually accustomed to the half-darkness as the room jumped into focus. Glancing over at the clock he realized that he was fully one hour behind in his normal routine.

"Damn this Daylight Savings Time," he thought to himself. "I should have set the alarm last night!"

Charlie almost never set the alarm. Conditioned by endless years of early rising, his body automatically revived every morning at five o'clock - even if he wanted to sleep in late. He knew it would take a few days for his internal clock to synchronize with the new arbitrary time that the world had imposed.

Fortunately, the loss of an hour would have little impact on his morning schedule. He might have to forgo his usual cup of hot tea and single slice of buttered toast, but he knew he could easily compensate by grabbing a muffin and coffee from the vending machines at work. He really didn't mind drinking coffee; after all, caffeine is caffeine, no matter what form it takes. It's just that tea was much simpler to make at the apartment, when only a single cup was required.

Besides, tea didn't bring back the memories that freshly brewed coffee did. He remembered how Marie had always made a pot of coffee each morning at home. She would get up when he did, grind the beans in the little grinder one of the kids had sent as a Christmas present, and have a steaming pot ready by the time he had finished shaving and showering. He thought momentarily about the morning coffee, and of all the other little things that were now so different in his life.

He got up and headed for the bathroom. Peering into the mirror, he contemplated skipping the razor but quickly discarded the idea. One of the advantages of wearing a full beard was that one could, if necessary, skip shaving for a day. Not today. He remembered the important interview with the new department head at nine o'clock. "Probably should look good for the boss," he thought to himself. "After all, first appearances do count for something."

He lathered up and quickly removed the excess stubble from his neck and cheeks.  Carefully drying the disposable razor, he placed it back onto the folded towel lying on the shelf under the wash basin. He couldn't remember how long he had been using that same old razor ... could it really be six months? He wondered about the whole concept of disposable products. Maybe it was just a ploy by the manufacturers of consumer goods to get him to buy more things than he actually needed - to change just for the sake of changing. In any case, he knew that he wasn't being fooled. He would continue to use that razor as long as it kept doing its job.

He stared at his beard in the mirror. Marie used to call it "salt and pepper" because of all the gray interspersed among the black. He realized that pure salt would be a better description now. A few black hairs still peeked out here and there, but they were definitely in the minority. He sometimes considered shaving it off altogether but always stopped short of actually going through with the deed. Marie had always liked him with the beard. "Makes you look distinguished," she would say with a grin, every time he mentioned he might shave it off. "Of course, I know better," she would always add. Now he kept it on simply because she would have wanted it that way.

The younger workers called him one of the "graybeards." It was a term generally applied to all of the senior staff members, whether or not they sported any facial hair. In his case it was entirely appropriate. Supposedly the graybeards could mentor the junior members because of their vast experience. Inwardly, he knew that they often disliked the older workers, not so much for the accumulated knowledge they possessed, but for their unsolicited attempts to share life's lessons learned.

He recalled the wise words of Will Rogers about there being three kinds of men: "The one that learns by reading, the few who learn by observation, and the rest who have to touch the electric fence for themselves." He smiled as he pictured a few of the wise-cracking young engineers at work, all convulsing violently as they tried to let loose of the wire.

He dressed in his best "business casual" outfit, not wanting to look too informal, but yet not overly conservative. The younger engineers always seemed to look natural in their Dockers and sport shirts. He hadn't been able to find a pair anywhere that fit comfortably. He still wore his suit pants, sans the jacket, with a dress shirt. No tie. Not today ... not ever. No one seemed to wear ties anymore.

He looked at the countless ties hanging on the rack in the closet. He couldn't recall ever buying one himself, but he seemed to have accumulated more than any one man could ever hope to wear in a lifetime. Wide ties, skinny ties - even a clip-on bow tie - all hanging there like anachronistic relics of a bygone era. Marie had always loved to see him in a coat and tie. He tried to remember the last time he had worn one. It suddenly came to him; of course, it had been at the funeral.

He hurried into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Grabbing the bologna and cheese, he threw together a quick sandwich. An apple and can of tomato juice rounded out the well balanced lunch. Marie had always put fruit and vegetables in his lunch. Pulling the box of sandwich bags from the cupboard, he noticed that they were just about gone. He made a mental note to stop by the Wal-Mart on the way home and buy another box.

Sandwich bags were one of the few compromises he was willing to make with the disposable world around him. Marie had always used her Tupperware containers for his lunch: one for the sandwich, another for the carrot sticks or celery stalks, and a third for some type of fruit desert. Not the most kitchen-savvy person around, he seemed unable to track where the matching lid for any container was located at any given time.

He hoped that Sam would be on duty at the Wal-Mart this evening. Sam was a good friend and former co-worker. He had recently retired and now worked part time greeting shoppers as they entered the store. Charlie thought that Sam had the ideal position. No cares, no responsibilities ... just greet everyone with a smile and pass out the shopping carts. Kind of like a horse being put out to pasture after many years pulling the plow. Sam was always telling him that they needed more greeters. "Maybe someday," he thought to himself, "...maybe someday."

Charlie grabbed his slide rule from the desk and clipped it onto his belt. He actually didn't use it much anymore, other than to show amused coworkers how things used to be done.  He really just wore it because he felt naked without the cell phone or pager that everyone else seemed to wear. Like a badge of distinction or a medal from some long forgotten campaign, he wore it proudly as a memento to the past.

The morning went by quickly, but his stomach was grumbling from the unfamiliar coffee he had drunk earlier. Glancing up at the clock above his cubicle, he noticed that it was nearing the preordained time for the interview. He grabbed his notes about the new project and headed toward the office. Although he didn't know the exact purpose of the interview, perhaps the new boss would want his input on how the activity should be managed. Maybe he would even be asked to manage it personally. "Heaven knows," he thought to himself, "someone needs to bring some sense to this project. And who could do it better than me?"

Preparing himself mentally for the interview, he thought about different ways to tell the boss how these types of projects had been done in the past. He knew he had to strike a fine balance between being forceful and articulate, but not threatening. These young managers sure needed to learn a thing or two about how the real world operated. After all, he had kids older than them. Their newfangled theories might work; then again, they might not. At least his ideas had a long history of success.

He closed the door behind him after the quick meeting had concluded. He stopped by the restroom on his way back to the cube. Staring at his reflection in the mirror, he looked into the eyes of a man whose time had come and gone. At least the manager had thanked him heartily for all the years of service. "Take some time now to enjoy life," he had said, "you've earned it."

Charlie knew that he couldn't enjoy life without working. After all, without Marie, what else was there to enjoy? He wondered what he would do next. Then he thought of Sam. "I still need those sandwich bags," he thought to himself as he cleaned out his desk. He began to prepare himself mentally for the interview.

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