It was another slow Sunday at work. A silent football game projected onto the wall opposite the bar. It was a late season game in another losing season. A man with a motorcycle helmet next to him sat at the bar. He was staring at the game, sipping on an ale. A group of two couples with dogs were lounging at the tables outside, running up a decent tab. A classic rock playlist was on the speakers, turned down. The place was dead.
I’d go home with just under twenty dollars in tips, at least that was my expectation for today. But I could drink for free here in my off hours, within reason. That’s always a nice benefit to have.
I found myself happy. I was making enough money to scrape by, but had cut my expenses down enough to where I could survive. I didn’t own a car. My rent was low, and I could walk or bike to work. I paid out of pocket for health insurance, but it wasn’t killing me. I never accumulated any student loan or credit card debts. That’s easy to do when you never went to college in the first place.
In a past life, I was a successful IT engineer. I was self-taught, and found myself in the right place in the right time. I landed a position that paid $15 an hour at the age of 19. This, after an average high school career that left me with a GPA of 2.3. Fuck school, I thought, I was now rich, beyond my wildest dreams. Over the course of the next 16 years, my salary would keep rising. When I walked away over a year ago, I was making $100,000 per year.
The downside was that I hated what I did for a living. It was the ultimate curse: be good at a high value skill, but hate doing it. Others would run home and build systems in their spare time. I ran home and did anything but look at a computer system. I cringed when friends and relatives asked me to help them with their computer problems.
Now here I am, age 35, working at a dive bar four days a week, lucky to pull $15 an hour with tips.
I was the only one working for the rest of the shift. My boss came in to help me open, but left around four in the afternoon. It was now six, and the sun was setting behind the aging brick buildings across the street. The outside group closed their $80 tab and left a decent $15 tip. The man with the motorcycle helmet ordered a coffee, and turned back to the game. He’d finish, cash out with a $2 tip, drink a glass of water, hit the restroom, and take off. He was my last customer of the day.
I ran through the closing checklist that we filled out and signed at the end of each day. The owners of this place were former military and government employees. They loved SOPs, which means ‘standard operating procedure.’
I checked off items one by one. Turn off the open light. Lock the door. Mop the floor. Clean and cover taps. Account for and lock away the cash box. Check for unclosed tabs and abandoned credit cards. Mop the floors. Do the dishes. Wipe down the bar and counters. Shut down the lights, music and projector.
I counted up my share of the tips (we would be splitting 65/35 based on time worked that day), which came out to $19 for me. I entered it into the system, clocked out and went for the door. I didn’t even remember to drink an end of shift beer, I just wanted to get out of there.
I locked the front door as I exited, walking across the dead street in a brisk autumn wind. I heard a train approaching in the distance, on the tracks down the hill a couple of blocks south of here. Its horns went off in intervals, getting closer and closer.
I walked down the street. My hands were in my coat pockets. My hood was up, my head down. I pushed forward facing the wind. The train rumbled by. Some people curse the cold weather, as fall gives way to winter. Not me. It made me feel like a working class stiff in some northern town. I imagined myself in Buffalo or Cleveland. I don’t even know why. This was a small civil war town in the south a long way away from those places.
A few blocks later, I was home. It was in a neighborhood of modest brick row homes. They were all built in 1913. They replaced a slum of ramshackle dwellings from which poor people were displaced. The poor people ended up in apartment blocks to the east of here. Then when those blocks were demolished, they were dispersed to cheap homes on the west side of town.
I shared the house with two roommates, one of whom owned it. I walked in and the house was dark. My roommates had gone to the football game that I half-watched on the projector at the bar. I warmed up a plate of leftover spaghetti, and watched a show on Netflix while eating it. It was a show that I had seen over and over again. By 9:45 that evening, I was ready for bed. I heard my roommates come in as I was turning my bedroom light off. I drifted off to sleep.
Early in the morning, I began to dream. I was wandering through a small town, walking on a crumbling sidewalk. The sidewalk was between some shuttered shops and a busy two-lane road. Cars zoomed by, faster than city speeds. I walked for a bit, then found myself in a cemetery.
I recognized this place. It was the cemetery of the church I had attended as a child. I had never actually stepped foot in the cemetery, only driven by it many times. It was not part of the main church lot. It was on a plot of land on which the original church stood. Now it housed the coffins and urns of the deceased church members. They were under dirt, a well-cared for lawn and granite blocks.
I saw a tombstone. It was a plain, rounded block of granite. I inspected it, and read the inscription:
Here Lies Henry
He Accomplished Nothing
He Finished Nothing
It took a moment for my dreamy mind to process this, before I began to panic. It was my own tombstone, and it indicated that I was to die this year.
The dream turned bizarre. There was a church picnic going on in the cemetery. Fried chicken, various casseroles, salads and baked goods. They were all laid out on tables with red and white checkered plastic covers. I saw people from my past, but they did not seem to notice me. There was my maternal grandfather, talking to some other old men. They were laughing, smoking cigarettes. He’d been dead for 15 years.
My second cousin, who I hadn’t seen in 20 years, was there, kicking a soccer ball around with some children. Various aunts, uncles and friends were there, sitting and standing, talking and laughing.
I turned back to the tombstone. I felt a sudden rush of indignation. I never wanted a tombstone, nor did I belong at this church. I told my parents I wanted my body cremated and the ashes tossed into the river. I announced that I was never stepping foot in that church again. I had too many disagreements on doctrine and politics. I was agnostic, then I was an atheist. Also, tombstones were a waste of money and space. Yet, here lies my embalmed corpse, dressed in a suit that I wore maybe twice a year. Displayed in a funeral home, covered in makeup. Religious rites read over me in front of a crowd at the church in a last ditch effort to save my soul. Carried over here and lowered into the ground.
This wasn’t right, none of it was right. And I accomplished and finished nothing except life?
I turned back to the picnic and it was gone. Bells started ringing, first distant, then louder. As the bells rang, the picnic scene faded away. Now it was nothing more than a plot of browning grass with a backdrop of white. I then realized that the bells were the alarm on my cell phone. It was time to wake up.
I dragged myself out of bed, and completed my morning routine. I departed the house in the darkness, dressed in clothing fit for someone ten years younger. My mind drifted back to the words on the tombstone. Now they made sense. Here I was heading to some undergraduate university classes in the early morning. I wasn’t going to some office or a worksite.
He accomplished nothing. He finished nothing. These words haunted me as I waited in traffic. There was always traffic on this road. It was the only one feeding onto the main interstate that goes into the big city. This small town had turned into a commuter suburb. Everyone was leaving at the same time. They’d sit in even more traffic, 90 minutes or more to travel the 30-40 miles into the city.
I moved here to go to school and work. And for the cheap rent. I resolved to finish something in my life. Even if it was a worthless bachelor’s degree that would find me still bartending when it was over. One of my bartending friends had just graduated, summa cum laude. He had a degree in environmental engineering. Without graduate school, he could make $12 an hour to start from the bottom. He’d be an intern. Maybe a lab or field technician if he was lucky. He currently made $22 an hour slinging fancy cocktails for yuppies. Even with graduate school, he could only bump that up to $18 an hour. But at least he’d have weekends to himself. He said he’d been bartending so long that he didn’t even think of Saturday and Sunday as the weekend. His weekend was Monday and Tuesday. He’d only been bartending for three years.
Every morning when I pulled into the parking lot of the university I thought about my life. Only for a brief moment, but I still thought. 35 years old, a university freshman. Three more years of this to go, and for what? Just to say I finished something?
I started relationships, and they had ended. I was married once. It didn’t work out. When I was 19, and landed that $15 an hour job, where did I think I’d be 16 years later? Married, a homeowner, maybe a child or two, definitely a dog or a cat. Living the American dream. I was so close.
My ex-wife and I had a dog, who lives with her parents now. We had a family-friendly car, which she kept. We went house hunting. We talked about having children. Then she changed her mind on everything. She told me I wasn’t meeting her expectations and I wasn’t emotional enough. I found out what those expectations were. I learned about healthy emotions. I went to therapy to get there. I got there. But she said it was too late. The damage was done, and she couldn’t meet me. So she left. I haven’t spoken to her in two years. It’s been longer since I’ve seen the dog.
I suppose I could have curled up in a shell and told these newfound emotional expressions to fuck off. But I didn’t. I kept working at it, stayed in therapy. It was good for me. My friends told me they could tell the difference. I was more open, honest. I asked more questions, I listened more and spoke less.
There was one negative effect of this newfound emotional freedom. I felt resentment towards my ex-wife. She told me she didn’t think I could improve. Then I did improve. I didn’t do it to prove her wrong or anything. I did it for myself, and it was a positive development. But this resentment that kept asking why didn’t she give it a chance? But even resentment has a way of fleeting over time. I accepted her decision. I’m moving on.
I got out of my car and walked towards the buildings in which I had my morning classes. I joined other students. Younger kids, aged 18 and 19, with the occasional non-traditional, older student. Many of the older ones were prior military. I wondered who amongst these people had any crazy life stories we could share.
I’d go on to attend my classes, eat a quick lunch in the cafeteria, and then go to the library. I put on headphones connected to my phone, and started some music. Before working a term paper, I did a quick scroll through social media. There were pictures of babies, toddlers, adolescents, houses, puppies. This was my view into what others my age were doing with their lives, while I was stuck here. They launched their lives, while I could not.
I wondered if they were all as happy as they portrayed themselves. I wondered how peace and happiness had found their way into their lives, and not mine. I became aware of the song playing through my phone into the headphones I was wearing. The chorus of the rock song rang out.
I need to stop comparing my life to everyone else.
What timing that line was. Written by a man from Ohio, same age as me. Contemplating existential crises. Like I did on a daily basis, in my non-traditional life.
By Thursday, my classes would give way to a working weekend. Thursday through Sunday, behind the bar. Open beer cans and bottles. Pull the tap handles. Pour shots. Mix basic cocktails. Tell at least two people a weekend that no, you cannot get a martini here. We don’t stock vermouth. How about a gin and tonic?
By Sunday, I’ll have a pocket full of cash. I’ll go to the grocery store, buy some meat, vegetables, fruits and pasta. Milk, eggs, bacon. Oatmeal. Come home, watch Netflix, go to bed. Rinse, repeat. Accomplish things. Finish things. And object to comparing my life to everyone else’s.
Here Lies Henry
He Accomplished What Made Him Happy
He Finished What He Could