By David R. Stookey
Copyright 2016 David R. Stookey
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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I had often joked to my wife that my car could probably drive itself all the way from our garage to my usual parking spot at work. I barely had to think as I wound the old minivan through the maze of factory buildings to lot D-127, where everybody in my lab parked. I grabbed my lunch bag from the passenger seat, spun on my heel, slammed the car door shut and beeped the doors locked in one fluid movement. I guess I should be pretty smooth, I thought to myself. I’ve done it every stinkin’ weekday for the last twenty-some years.
As I passed by Bill Putnam’s usual spot I couldn’t suppress a grin. Bill’s car wasn’t in yet, which meant that Bill wouldn’t be waiting with his usual “Thanks for coming in!” or “Good afternoon!” jabs, despite the fact that it was only about six o’clock in the morning. I could now turn the verbal ambush on Bill, whenever he showed up. How many years had we played this stupid game?
Several other early birds’ spaces also sat unoccupied. Given the monstrous workload that we’d been dealing with for the last three weeks, I expected quite a few more cars in by now. Every engineer in our group had worked long hours for many years, but the recent ramp-up in pace and pressure had us working harder and longer than ever. Was I the only one worried about falling behind?
A cold blast of wind caught me full in the face as I turned the corner by the loading dock. Won’t be long ‘til winter. With another practiced move, I flipped my wallet up to the card reader at the building entrance. I spun through the turnstile and passed by the empty desk where human security guards had performed this same function less than four months ago. I allowed myself the usual nod to the vacant desk; an admittedly odd gesture of respect for more victims of downsizing and cost-cutting. I hadn’t really known the security guards by name, but we had always exchanged a friendly smile and greeting whenever I would pass by. You just don’t get that with a steel gate.
I trudged through another door, down a long hallway and finally through the second to last door on the right. Our team used this small lab as a lunch room and lounge. I tossed my lunch in the fridge and turned to the important task of brewing the morning coffee. Two full pots typically awaited me by the time I got in, but this morning I found them cold and empty. As I rinsed the pots, I glanced at the posters on the bulletin board. Nothing new caught my eye. I had practically memorized the ads for the old used cars, mowers, boats, furniture for sale, ads for pet sitters, yard services and the like. I prepped one pot of regular and had just started another of decaf when the door blasted open.
“Whoa – morning Frank! Didn’t think anyone was around!”
“How’s it going, Walt?” I greeted the building custodian.
“’Bout as good as it can – for a Monday. No coffee yet?”
“Just put it on. Should be just a minute or two.”
Walt crossed to the cupboard to grab his “World’s Best Grandpa” mug. Beside his personal mug, I could see several of the “U.S. Air Force – Talon 5” mugs that seemed to pop up everywhere. We had just landed the big Talon 5 military contract, and it literally tripled everyone’s workload overnight. At least we all had plenty of work to keep us busy. I supposed I should feel grateful just to have a job these days.
“Seems like no one’s around this morning,” observed Walt. “All the lights are off. You guys have a big party or somethin’ last night?”
“Not that I know of. A few of the guys said they were going to Marty’s to watch the game. Supposed to be an early game, though.”
“Well,” shrugged Walt. “I just wanted to give ‘em my money for the lotto pool. I missed payin’ for last week. Just got back from vacation Sunday night.”
“Where’d you go?” I asked, mostly to be polite.
“Just a few days o’ fishin’ with my brother. He lives down state. Caught a few bass, but nothin’ to write home about.”
“I’m sure ol’ Bill will be glad to take your money, plus any extra bass you happened to bring home. And probably any bait you didn’t use, too!”
Walt laughed and filled his mug. Bill Putnam collected money from everyone for the weekly lotto drawing and any other kind of betting pool you could think of. He also enjoyed a well-earned reputation as the biggest cheapskate since Ebenezer Scrooge.
I often took great sport in telling Bill that the lottery was like a tax for people that were bad at math. The true value of the ticket should be no more than the total winnings divided by the total number of chances to win. If the price of the ticket exceeded that amount, you were wasting your money. Bill had a graduate degree in statistics, so he knew this fact better than I did.
“It’s the simple concept of expected value!” I would explain, knowing it really annoyed him to admit that his own naive greed outweighed his educated sense of reason. After the first few weeks, Bill wouldn’t even ask me to participate in the pool anymore. Nearly everybody else in the lab played, but since I had two kids that needed to go to college and seemingly endless home repairs, I really had a hard time justifying something so frivolous. I would buy a few squares on his Superbowl board every year, though, and sometimes I’d even win a few bucks. Bill’s kids were already done with school and had young families of their own. He could afford to fritter his money on crazy long shots.
I grabbed my own mug of coffee and headed down the hall to my office and lab area. To some it might look like a labyrinth of hallways, badly cluttered cubicles and lab benches, but I knew my way around this place better than I knew my own home. Even blindfolded, I could have described the exact layout of each cube and lab bench that I passed.
More than once we’d commented on the fact that we spent more time here with our coworkers than we did with our own families. I really liked the fact that everyone kept pictures of their spouses, kids and pets all over the place. Most of us had worked together for so long that we thoroughly knew each others’ family members, though we rarely saw them in person. We had all watched our children grow from babies to school-age sports stars to newlyweds to parents themselves, all right before our eyes. Any one of us could tell you what everyone else’s vacation plans were this year, what home improvement projects they were working on, and maybe even the names of their pets. Knowing these people the way that I did seemed to make the daunting workload almost tolerable. We might be sinking fast, but at least we were all in the same boat. We were family!
I rounded the last corner to my own cubicle and powered up my PC. The test I had set to run over the weekend should have finished, and the results would have automatically plotted out on a chart on my screen. The outcome of this test would direct not just my own work, but the test plans of several other team members for the rest of the week.
My monitor hummed brightly to life, but a completely blank plot appeared on my screen. For whatever reason, my eighteen hour test did not run at all. What could have happened? Did the power supply fail? What could I have missed? I made damn sure it was running when I left on Friday! I tiredly dropped my head in my hands.
Just at that moment, I could hear someone stomping their way towards my desk.
“Frank! Frank?” It sounded like a very upset Walt.
“D’ you read the paper yet?” Walt tossed the morning paper on my desk. By the frantic tone of his voice, I assumed the worst.
The picture under the headline showed Marty, Susan, both Mikes, Lisa and Tony all laughing and pouring bottles of champagne over Bill. I turned the paper to read the headline, but the stunning realization already pounded in my chest.
“Local Co-workers hit State Lottery Multi-Million Jackpot!” As if to answer my next thought, the caption beneath the picture read “Bill Putnam, the organizer, announced that the entire group plans to retire immediately.”
“Can you believe that crap? The one week I miss? He’s got to count me in, Frank, don’t ya think?”
I took a long sip from my coffee, put my feet up on my desk and looked back at the empty plot on my screen.
Other titles by David R. Stookey
The Last Survivor
The Helpful Neighbor
Punch and Parry
Dead Man’s Shoes
A Curse Eternal – The Tragic Account of the Flying Dutchman
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