I’ve waited 36 years for this to come. It was 36 long years. Many people like their line of work, or at the very least, find it tolerable. Every day, every single day, I heard my alarm go off, and I stared at the clock and saw 6:15 staring back at me. I was instantly filled with dread. Some people wake up in the morning, and the first thing that they think about is the hearty breakfast that they’re about to eat with their hot cup of coffee. I wake up nauseous. Every morning for 36 years.
I started as a cashier for T-Mart for a summer job while I was in school. I was 23 and in graduate school studying for my MBA. Two years later, I found myself a proud owner of a diploma without a job to show for it. All that I had was T-Mart. I tried, Lord knows I tried. So many applications, fewer interviews, but no job. I always had the welcoming arms of T-Mart. I had steady hours with little pay. The job was like a cheap watch that never died.
The next year, they offered me a promotion to a shift supervisor. I received a 30-cent raise and a boatload of responsibilities. I did my job adequately, just telling myself to be patient; that I was above all of this; that my diploma would eventually pay off in the end. In two years they promoted me again to assistant manager. It was then that my hopes and dreams vanished into the abyss where dreams die. If I accepted, it meant that I’d be a T-Mart employee until my retirement. T-Mart would be my end and I wouldn’t have the chance of a lucrative and exciting career. I had a wife and a two-year-old daughter. I accepted the position, and I did it for them.
My life was not glamorous. I received the expected 30-cent raise and had the pleasure of enduring even more responsibilities. They expected me to fulfill all the duties as if I was the manager. No, it was worse. The duties that the manager decided were beneath him, I completed. I had to oversee the employees and their training; I had to delegate all the deliveries; and I had to field all the customer complaints, and when we were short-staffed (which was always), I still had to run a register. All that our manager did was sit up in the office and stare at the monitor that showed the videos that the hidden cameras recorded throughout the store. And he received a big yearly bonus. All that I got was a 30-cent raise.
Every night on my drive home from work, I could feel all the tension fall to my feet, my aching feet. I wore all my stress and anxiousness like lead boots as my car led me to the open water. Sometimes I would sit in my idled car and close my eyes. I would dream about my retirement. Visions of a quiet cabin out in the woods swirled in my head. I wasn’t alone in the serene wilderness, but with my wife. There wasn’t any noise but just calmness. I could feel the crisp chill in the air as the wind caressed my skin. This dream didn’t last long. I opened up my eyes, and I stared at the steering wheel of my Hyundai Accent, and heard the rumbling in my stomach. I didn’t take my lunch break because there wasn’t enough time to finish all of my work. Nevertheless, I wasn’t hungry. My stomach was queasy on the car ride home, always queasy. The only good thing, my saving grace was who I got to come home to, my Sheila. Oh, my sweet Sheila. She was the reason that I was alive. Without her, all the insults, long hours, under-appreciation, being overqualified and underpaid, and boredom would eat me alive. She made it all worth it. I adored my daughter Claire, but my wife was the medicine for my crushed soul.
My feet always hurt after my long shift. When I arrived home, I always stepped out of my car and limped to my front door. I usually worked the night shift, so it was late when I made it home. The first thing that I always did was to creep upstairs and sneak into Claire’s room and tuck her in a little tighter. I’d then quietly go into my bedroom and kiss Sheila, being careful not to wake her. This was my nightly routine. On one particular night, I went back downstairs to make myself something to eat. I limped to the kitchen and found a surprise lying on the counter. It was a pair of new slippers with a note on the side. It read: “Put these on your aching feet. They will make you feel better. Dinner is in the fridge.” As I sat and ate my dinner, those soft slippers cradled my feet, and Sheila was right. They felt better.
As the years went by, I missed many of Claire’s milestones. I missed her first step. I had to work a double during her high school graduation, and I missed several Christmases and birthdays. Sheila did her very best to document everything and tell me every detail. She tried to make me feel a part of everything. But I wasn’t. It wasn’t my choice; Lord knows it wasn’t my choice. Money was tight, always tight, and I worked every shift that I had to in order to pay the bills. Sheila and I always had arguments only on one subject. Sheila wanted to help financially. She wanted to release me from some of the burden, but I was stubborn. I didn’t want to send Claire to daycare. I wanted her to have a happy childhood, being raised by her mother, not some stranger. And besides, if Sheila worked, most of her paycheck would go towards daycare. There wouldn’t be much leftover. It wasn’t worth it and Sheila knew the reality. She just didn’t want to see me struggle. I knew she felt helpless. I couldn’t let her go back to work. If I had two happy girls at home, then all of my hardships would be worth everything. I always used to say, “Let me be the miserable one.”
I almost always had at least one day off a week, but I must admit, I wasn’t always fully there. Work was almost always on my mind. I could sit on the floor working on a puzzle with Claire, and I’d get that vacant look. I should’ve been fully engaged with Claire, but instead, work was on my mind. It was sickening to always worry about the cashier who was about to quit, the planogram that I was two weeks behind on, or the budget that was completely over. Sheila would notice, but never nag. Sheila knew the stress that I was under. She’d always tried to add comforting words, “God will make things right.” She always repeated this sentiment, and I could tell that she believed in its validity with a trusting heart. All I could do was feign a smile. I didn’t believe in any of this foolishness. I was completely overqualified, working for a company that undervalued, underpaid, and overworked me. And they did it because they could. So, how was God going to make this right? Would he give me a raise? Would he make them give me a promotion, not to store manager but district manager? Yes, that sounded nice. Better yet, another company would hear of my work ethic and would take notice of my education and credentials, and offer me a seven-figure deal to work in upper management. This was all just hoping for a miracle that would never happen. So, I just faked a smile. I then laced up my shoes and kept my mouth shut as I prepared myself for another beating.
I had to make it until I was 59 and ½ years old. T-Mart did very little for me, but the one thing that they gave me of value was a 401k. I invested from the beginning and did so aggressively. Once I knew I was a T-Marter for good, I knew that my only way out was retirement. When the 401k matured, I knew I wouldn’t be rich, but it would be enough to live on, to survive. I wasn’t aiming for luxury; I just wanted to spend what little time I had left on this Earth with my family. When I could retire, I knew Claire would be an adult, living her own life. She wouldn’t be my little girl anymore. That time that I was away on the job, missing life with my family was forever lost, stolen by T-Mart. Luckily, Claire didn’t decide to move across the country. She lived a few towns over. Oddly enough, she liked the heat of Arizona. I didn’t have any strong attachments to this State, but I was eager to see other sights. I’ve only left Arizona twice; once I went to Texas to see my dying grandmother and the other time I went to New Mexico for Sheila’s sister’s wedding. I wanted to see something different. Arizona was fine, but I lived here my whole life. There comes a time when you tire of the heat, the sand, and the dryness. I wanted to see another note. I was sick of beige. Claire may have her own life when I retired, but Sheila would be right by my side. I didn’t have any wild plans when I had more time on my hands. Maybe I would read more or pick up the guitar again, but one thing was for certain: I wanted to travel. Oh, I knew that I’d never get to see Paris or Peru, but maybe I’d make my way to the East Coast just for a visit.
I didn’t start this practice from the beginning but started a year ago. If I were to receive a forty-year prison sentence, I wouldn’t start crossing off days on the calendar on day one. No, the goal would be too far away, not close enough to see the glimmer of hope. When I knew I had only one year left, I could see the ray of sunshine, the refreshing oasis that awaited me. I got myself a nice calendar that had pictures of wildlife with each passing month. I then marked off the days, counting down until my relief would come, the day I could finally retire. And when the day finally came, nobody could understand the glee when I crossed off that final X. On my last day, there were no tears or hearty handshakes. Just a “good luck”. It didn’t matter. There were no bonds broken. Nobody would be missed. My last day was like any other. I pushed overstock, got into an argument with a couponer, was chided by the manager for coming back late from my break, but it didn’t matter. As I hung up my vest for the last time and clocked out, I didn’t receive any awards, no hugs goodbye, or even a thank you for your 3 decades of service. I just walked out of those doors silently and the only triumph that I had received rested squarely in my head. It was all that I needed. As I drove home, I wasn’t smiling but laughing.
Sheila was waiting outside when I arrived home. She was holding a big sign that she made of poster board and it read, “Congrats and thank you to my wonderful husband.” It was corny, but it made my smile widen. My car door shut, and she came running over to me and gave me the biggest hug and kiss. It was what I dreamt about for the last 36 years. There was no shame when the tears rolled down my cheeks. T-Mart gave me nothing except for my few years of freedom. I was old, but I had a few good years left. Maybe I was lucky. Maybe I should be grateful. Many poor souls worked right into their graves. At least I had some time to enjoy.
When I went inside, I saw an envelope sitting on the counter. It had my name on it. I opened it up and found two plane tickets. There were two tickets to New Hampshire. Sheila stood smiling behind me. “You always wanted to go hiking in the woods. What better time than now?” My Sheila always knew how to make me smile.
When the plane landed, it was nighttime. With the length of the flight and the difference in the time zone, the sun dropped quickly that day. As we waited for our bags, I had a permanent grin on my face. Sheila looked at me. “Why don’t we go to the hotel tonight and get some room service? We can explore tomorrow.”
“That sounds perfect,” I responded.
In the morning, we went out for breakfast. There weren’t many options. We traveled down the main highway, which was just a one-lane street that was winding but long. I didn’t see any IHOP’s or Denny’s. There weren’t any shopping complexes. There were a few scattered gas stations that were almost 10 miles apart and then finally we saw a free-standing restaurant that looked old but quaint. It was called the John Beaverhead Eatery. There was a lighted sign on the side of the road that displayed the specials. I expected a couple of letters to be missing and although some were discolored; they were all there. We both had a fine meal. I had stuffed French toast and Sheila had a Western Omelet. We didn’t rush, but we held ourselves to one cup of coffee, as we were eager to hit the road.
We decided to take a drive to Miller State Park and take a pleasant hike. I loved the trees out there and couldn’t wait to take a nice, refreshing walk with Sheila. We asked for directions from our server. He said it was about an hour’s drive, but it was mostly straight. Seemed fine by me.
I’ve never driven in snow before and even though there wasn’t any new accumulation, there was still a couple of inches on the road. It was difficult for me and I found it hard to break and turn. I took it slow and there were a couple of angry truckers behind me. One trucker broke across the yellow lines and passed me. He blew his bellowing horn and gave me the middle finger as he passed. This didn’t bother me much. I didn’t work for T-Mart any longer. I didn’t have to take any more abuse. So, I smiled as I gave that trucker a middle finger of my own.
The radio was on. We only could get reception for one station. It was country, which wasn’t my favorite, but I paid no mind. Sheila and I talked the whole way. I felt my heart flutter with excitement as we discussed our plans for this trip, our plans for the rest of our lives. I was on cloud nine. My heart beamed, my nostrils breathed in stressless air. My life of overwhelming hardship was over and now I could wake up and finally find the joy with each new day.
Sheila was telling me she wanted to learn photography when she got a funny look on her face. “It’s after twelve.”
“Umm….yep it is. What’s wrong?” I inquired.
“Our server said that it only should take us about an hour to get there. It’s been over two.”
“I know. Time flies when I’m talking to you,” I smiled. I then noticed the wrinkle on her forehead and the crease near her lower lip. “I’m driving slower than the locals. It’ll probably take us longer because I’m not used to driving in this snow.”
I took out the slip of paper that I wrote the directions on. “We go all the way down Salem Road and turn left on Elk, which dead-ends into 101. Miller Park should be on the left.”
“I wasn’t paying attention to the road signs.”
“I was,” I reassured her. “I haven’t seen Salem Road yet.” In retrospect, I hadn’t seen many crossroads or cars. I tried to convince her it was my slow driving that held us back and so I pushed forward. After another 2 hours of straight, pointless driving, I conceded, as rationality gave way to my stubbornness, and I turned around. The only hue I saw was white, desolation, and the mountains off in the distance. And then it happened. The engine of the car bucked. It kicked forward and made a racing sound, but there was no acceleration. I heard a few clucking sounds before the engine died completely.
“Did we run out of gas?” Sheila asked excitedly but wasn’t yet panicked.
“No, we have over half a tank and when we received the car, it was full.”
“Something must be wrong with the car,” she stated the obvious. At first, I was pissed off. I paid extra for the Camry because I wanted a reliable rental car and they gave me a dud. Realizing the situation we were in, I was eager to get back on the road so that we would still have time to find the park. Nothing happened as I turned the key. I tried it again and looked at the dash to see if anything was blinking. I saw a wrench icon pop up.
I asked Sheila, “Can you reach into the glove box and hand me the owner’s manual?”
She popped the door open and then looked at me. “There’s nothing in here.”
I looked for the release for the hood and had trouble finding it, but I finally located it hiding under the steering wheel. I opened the door and ventured outside. As I popped the hood, I realized what a futile and foolish act I was performing. I knew nothing about cars. What could I possibly accomplish by looking at the engine? Besides looking like an asshole, I found out one piece of useful information. It was flipping freezing outside. I was outside for two minutes and already my cheeks froze. I ran back into the car and brought my arms real close to my torso as I started to shiver.
“I didn’t notice any buildings for quite some time. I was looking when I first thought that we were lost,” Sheila observed.
“Neither did,” I agreed through chattering teeth. “I guess we should call AAA.”
Sheila nodded in agreement. Bringing out my cell phone, I called the number on the back of my card, but I didn’t hear a ringing sound. I looked at the phone and didn’t see any bars. I looked at Sheila, “No reception.”
“I’ll try my phone,” she said. She tried, but she came to the same result as I had. She looked over. “A car or truck is bound to pass through. We’ll just have to wait and be patient.”
I tried to turn the ignition. I never expected the engine to catch, but I wanted to at least use the battery power to run the heater. The battery was dead. It wouldn’t take long for the cabin of the car to become an icebox.
Sheila took my hand. The wrinkle on her forehead was gone; the crease below her lip had vanished. “Someone will come.”
We bided our time. We talked little, but we both kept our eyes focused. There wasn’t one moment of excitement, not one sign of hope. It was perfectly clear that the road was vacant. The only weary travelers on that frigid day were us. During the many hours that we waited, I furiously tried the engine and tried dialing out with my phone countless amount of times.
I knew it was bad when I could see my breath. My patience ran out. I went for the door. Sheila grabbed my arm. “What are you doing?”
“I’m looking for help.”
“Robert, we have seen nothing around for miles. It’s freezing out there. You could get hurt.”
“I’m not just going to sit around here doing nothing. I have to save us.” The sun had fallen already.
“A car will pass through, if not tonight, then tomorrow. And besides, I will not let you go out there alone. You spent most of your life struggling alone. This we’ll get through together.”
I was shivering and couldn’t feel my feet. “I’m so cold,” I whined.
She instructed, “Recline your seat back and unzip your coat.”
I did as he asked. Sheila unzipped her coat as well and then climbed on top of me. She wrapped her coat around me. I followed her lead and wrapped my coat around her. It was still freezing, but it felt much warmer this way. She whispered in my ear, “Try to get some sleep. We’ll see a car tomorrow. Don’t worry, we’ll get through this.”
She soon fell asleep, but I couldn’t. Worry was all that I did. If we didn’t find help soon, we would die out here. I didn’t even notice that we hadn’t eaten in twelve hours. It wouldn’t be the lack of food that would kill us. It would be the cold. I didn’t think that we could last long in this car, maybe a day or two more. This was unbelievable. I struggled all those years, slaved through work only to find myself here. What kind of sick joke was this? I couldn’t let myself die out here. Not like this. I worked too hard. Desperation leads to futile acts, but I had to try. I did something that I never had in my life. I prayed. “Please God. Please don’t let this be the end. I don’t want to die. I’d give up anything to wake up in my bed in Arizona. Anything. Please, God. Please.” I then cried. And soon I drifted away.
I woke up with my eyes still shut. My feet still felt cold, but I felt more comfortable. I opened my eyes and saw a popcorn ceiling. I moved my arms and felt the covers that wrapped around me. There was a sharp sting on my hip. I reached under my pajamas and pulled something cold out. It was a clump of snow! I jumped out of bed and looked out the window. It was my bedroom window!! It worked. My God, it worked!!! My prayer was answered. I looked over in bed. Sheila was still sleeping.
“Sheila!!! Wake up!!!”
She didn’t stir.
I jumped on the bed. “Sheila, we’re home!!!” I shook her. She still didn’t wake up. She felt cold. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. She was ashen white. She wasn’t breathing. No heartbeat. No pulse. “No!!! Sheila no!!!!!! I said I’d give up anything, but not this!!! Dear God not this!!!”
Chad Miller has a B.A. in Psychology from Syracuse University and a Pharm D from the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. He’s a pharmacist and lives in Delaware with his girlfriend, Natasha and her daughter, Sasha, and his three kids, Killian, Willow, and Halina. His novel, The Prisoner of Fear, is being published by Hear Our Voice and will be out fall of 2022. His short story, The Thorn, is being published by Sweety Cat Press and will be included in the anthology, Beautiful: In the Eye of the Beholder and is coming out 04/01/2022. His short story, Guilty Pleasure, is being published by ILA magazine and is out now.