He could feel the sweat begin to pool on his brow. It was 11:43, exactly seventeen minutes until he felt he could reasonably break for lunch. As he turned the Phillips screwdriver on the riveted glass of the light fixture, he thought about the sandwich he painstakingly made this morning. Two swabs of mayonnaise on both bread slices. Three leaves of lettuce. Four slices of meat. A slice of tomato and a two slices of cheese. His mouth began to water. Seventeen minutes.
At 12:01, he was replacing the glass to the light fixture when Terry arrived, asking if he could eat lunch first. The answer was an instinctual yes. Terry was known for taking longer than a half hour, but he could take a look at the flickering light in the foyer while he waited.
He bit into his sandwich at 12:46, the same time Mike – his manager – told him one of the A/C units was on the fritz at the main office. Let me know when you’re finished, Mike had said. But he ate the sandwich in three large bites and followed Mike, leaving the bag of chips and chocolate M&Ms for later.
Three-forty-five and the A/C unit was not yet working on a 90-degree day. The employees at the office were leaving suit jackets on the back of chairs and fanning themselves. He was due to take a break, but he knew if he could just isolate the problem, the solution would reveal itself. It was almost time to go home, and he didn’t want anyone to swelter the next day.
The cold air was moving through the office at 4:02. A few people clapped and one young intern cheered from the cubicles. Their last hour of the day would not be spent in an oven.
His cell phone went off at 4:16 while he was fixing a sticky window in the office of one of the assistant managers. It was his wife, and she wanted to know what time he would be home for dinner. He told her he didn’t know, that he had to stop and see his mother on the way home, and he still wasn’t sure what time he would be leaving work. She sighed and said she would put his dinner in the refrigerator so he could reheat it when he got home. Meanwhile, in the background he could hear his grandson squeal and scream near the phone.
At 4:58, Terry said he had dinner plans with his girlfriend and wanted to know if he could leave early. Before he could tell him to go, Mike appeared with the news that there was something wrong with the electricity in one of the auxiliary buildings. He could see the reluctance in Terry’s face as he offered to stay, so he told him to go on home and that he would take a look at it. Mike sighed with relief.
It was 6:30 when he got into his car.
He pulled in his mother’s driveway at 6:47. Her garbage cans were still by the street, so he brought them in as he entered the garage. He shouted hello from the kitchen, and he heard his mother greet him over the TV. Before he could go see her, he noticed her pill dispenser was out, and several pills were on the counter. He asked if she had taken her medicine with dinner, and she replied that she wasn’t sure which ones she needed to take. He sighed as it occurred to him that she was becoming more forgetful, and less independent.
He poured a glass of water and shuffled the pills into his hand and brought both to her. She smiled at him and asked if he had eaten any dinner, and he said had dinner waiting at home. Then he asked if she needed anything before he left, and she told him her bedside lamp wasn’t working. A simple bulb replacement later, he said goodbye with the reminder to call him if she had questions about the medications she needed to take at bedtime. She said she would, and thanked him again for coming to see her.
It was 7:59 when he arrived home.
There was no one to greet him, as he heard the water running upstairs, signaling it was his grandson’s bath time. He placed his keys on the shelf by the door and was about to head for the kitchen when his cell phone rang. It was Mike. When he answered, Mike told him that one of the managers of the main office had accidentally left his keys inside, thereby locking out the staff in the morning, and could he get there before 7:00am the next day to make sure everyone could start work on time. He said he would be there, and he hung up the phone.
At 8:15, he took his plate of food out of the microwave and sat down to eat.
After two bites, he heard his grandson’s quick descent down the stairs as his wife shouted instructions for him to say goodnight. His grandson appeared in his pajamas, smelling of Suave. He opened his arms and his grandson fell into them, quickly muttering something that sounded like “night” as he avoided eye contact with his grandfather. He said goodnight and wished him good dreams, and his grandson clapped his hands in front of his face eight times. The ritual completed, he ran out of the kitchen and back up the stairs, his deepening voice squealing at every step.
He ate his dinner quietly and methodically as he listened to his wife’s soothing bedtime stories travel down from the second floor. After two lullabies, he was finished with dinner, and he took a deep breath as he heard the soft shuffle of her gait.
She sat down at the table across from him and asked how his day was.
Fine, he said.
She asked how his mother was, and he considered telling her about the pills. Instead, he replied that she, too, was fine.
She wiped her face with her hands, clearly exhausted, before she began to recap her day.
She was late to work this morning because she was on the phone with the insurance company to dispute a denial of coverage for one of her surgeries. She was berated at work by a patient who was demanding a second round of pain medications that the doctor refused to fill. Then that afternoon she received a call from the middle school that her grandson had bitten another child, and they were holding him in the office until she could pick him up. On her way to the school, she stopped at the store for a few essential groceries. When she picked him up from school, he screamed the duration of the trip until she took him for an ice cream and he finally calmed down. Then she told him that their neighbor had been laying in front of her house, having fallen trying to go up the concrete stairs, and she had to call the ambulance to pick her up. She spent the rest of the evening keeping her grandson occupied until it was time to get ready for bed.
He sighed and said nothing.
She blinked a few times before suddenly exclaiming that she forgot to bring the groceries in from the car.
With being prompted, he immediately jumped up from his chair and started for the door.
He pulled the two plastic bags from the car in the driveway. Laundry detergent. Granola bars. Nothing that would have spoiled. No money wasted. This made him so cheerful, he was whistling when he walked through the front door a second time.
At 10:00, his wife turned on the TV. He settled into his favorite spot on the couch as she tried to engage him in more conversation. But the day was almost over, and conversation was as difficult a task as staying awake. He fell asleep three times before the 11:00 news came on, and his wife went upstairs to bed.
At 11:27, he turned off the TV.
As he got ready for bed, he reminded himself that he needed to be up early tomorrow, and that he should set his alarm accordingly. He pictured the faces of the staff as he arrived with the key, and smiled at the realization that he was both their savior and their prison warden.
His wife asked what he was smiling about, and he said nothing, that he was just thinking about work.
It was 11:59 when he got into bed and turned off the light.
And before he fell asleep, he remembered the bag of chips and chocolate M&Ms he left on the table in the break room.