Although we had but that moment been at the school, we were instantly in the busy streets of a city where hurried pedestrians on last-minute Christmas missions passed and re-passed, heavy laden with packages and shopping bags full to the brim with presents for friends, relatives, and those for whom gifts were obligated. Business-people spilled out of the office buildings and onto the streets, walking the crooked line of post-office party inebriation. The streets were lit with festive lights of all colors, and the bass beat of dance music pounded through the doors of nearby bars and clubs, momentarily louder as revelers opened the doors to enter. Here was a thriving metropolis, not the dead city in whose suburbs I lived.
“Where are we?” I asked Clarence, both disoriented and energized by the sudden busyness around me.
“Why, it’s your hometown. Don’t you recognize it?”
I looked around for something familiar on which to anchor my perception. “I don’t see anything.” Just then I noticed the street names on the corner sign. “If this is my town, well, then it’s been revitalized overnight. This is the warehouse district. There’s been no life down here for years.”
“In a way, it has been ‘revitalized overnight’ as you say. In less time than that, actually.”
He motioned for me to follow once again, and I complied until we were at the base of a megalith of a skyscraper, the like of which had never existed in my distinctly lowrise burg. Silently, Clarence craned his neck until his nose pointed to the top of the building.
I followed Clarence’s gaze. There, at the top, I could just make out the red and green neon letters that stretched across. I blinked and read the sign again.
“They’re lit that way especially for Christmas,” Clarence said, shaking his head. “Isn’t that pretty?”
“But that’s my company’s name up there. We could never afford a display like that. We’re in the red, not the red and green.”
“This is your company’s building. They . . .”
“That’s crazy. I work out at the old Industrial Park. Out of the city. We don’t even own the space there, we rent, and the lease is up soon, and we can’t . . .” Remembering my work troubles took some of the rush off of the trip with Clarence.
“Remember, my friend,” Clarence said, and reached up to put an arm around me. I had him by a good half-foot. It was like being comforted by the grandfather I never knew. “Remember that you don’t exist. Never have. You weren’t there to fake your resume to get that job with the company. You weren’t there to sneak out when you were supposed to be working, or to inflate those expense reports.” I must’ve looked awfully down because I saw a wisp of sympathy in his expression just then. “You were never really qualified for that position. That’s all. You did the best you could . . . most of the time.”
“But I’ve been loyal.” Loyal to my paycheck anyway. “And I’ve done some good things for the company.” Please don’t ask me to name them, I thought.
Clarence just continued his spiel. “The woman who got the job that you weren’t there to beat her out of – well, there was a woman of vision. She developed a new process in the first year she was with the company, and they patented it and things just took off from there. She’s the president now.”
“So, they were better off without me? Like the high school baseball team?” I took in the activity around me. My city had grown up around my company. But that wasn’t exactly right. It was neither my city nor my company. Not anymore. “I kept all this from happening?”
Clarence grinned and patted me on the arm. “It sure looks that way. You really messed things up, didn’t you?”
“Clarence! The baseball team, the company . . . the whole city! HA! You’re not making me feel better. You better start making me feel better, Clarence. One of us might end up getting hurt.” I knew it came across as a threat, but I didn’t care. I just needed to decide which one of us I was going to hurt. People walking by began to swing wide around us as I grew more agitated. “I think you’ve forgotten the drill. You show me how things are worse because I wasn’t around, then I feel all better and me and Donna Reed . . . I mean me and my wife . . . live happily ever after. And you get your wings.”
“Already got them. They fold up under my clothes.” He smiled proudly and pointed over his shoulder. “You’d never know those wings were there.”
A besotted young professional had stumbled next to me. I reached out and steadied him by his elbow as Clarence talked on about his wings. At first the young man looked surprised, and then like he was going to accuse Clarence of being out of his head. But when he looked at my escort, he smiled with recognition, signaled a thumbs-up, and said, “Atta boy, Clarence!” The young man took a couple of steps away from us and, without looking back, pulled a flask from his overcoat. He shook his head as he threw the bottle into the trash.
The nature of this encounter took the edge off my antagonism, and I just wondered where Clarence would take me next to further pummel me with my failure.
(Part Three – Outside Looking In . . . click HERE)