“I got the job.”
The smile on my wife’s face was enough to wipe away eight months of unemployment. Laid-off under the guise of “budget constraints,” her career as a defense contractor had been extinguished with a four-line letter. We were no stranger to seasonal layoffs, as the Navy’s dollars fluctuated with who was in power and whether or not it was politically correct to oppose a war.
At two months, the calls from her office began to thin out, and we went into dollar-saving mode. Cable television was trimmed to basic service, magazine subscriptions eliminated, and a chunk of my wife’s last check was diverted to paying off our credit cards and the car, so we could stay current on the house payment. Three of our four daughters ganged up on me over cutting back on the cell phones.
“What are you giving up?” they demanded.
I gave up the yearly trip home I made to reconnect with the family and missed the opportunity to see Aunty Mil one last time.
About the fourth month, the phone calls started — collection agencies. Pink envelopes arrived in the mail, telling me we’d missed yet another payment. On one occasion, the energy man appeared at the door to cut our service.
My wife’s unemployment checks were not helping enough. “You’re going to have to get another job,” I told her.
“Who’s going to hire me when they could hire some kid out of college for a third of the wages?” she countered.
The point was valid. After 28 years of defending this country, she would have to take a pay cut to compete with new graduates.
Two weeks later, she announced, “I don’t want to go back to government work.”
“Great,” I said. “What field do you want to work in?”
Another two weeks later, and subsequent to a visit by the repossession agent, my wife concluded that she wanted to work in the medical field. Her rationale was that with an aging population and the high number of biotechnical employers in the greater San Diego area, she would be able to land a job quickly.
Four months later, she waved a piece of paper under my nose. “I’m going to work at the body farm,” she said.
This sly reference to the Dr. Kay Scarpetta novels I enjoyed gave me a moment’s pause.
“I’m in the organ-retrieval unit,” she explained.
The vision I had of my wife riding around the countryside in a hearse, wearing a black cape and extracting brains from zombies, didn’t make sense, so I sought further clarification.
As it turned out, there would be a hearse, and she would be wearing black (a sort of scrubs attire), and her role would be to categorize organs as they arrived at a medical lab. I pictured a Far Side cartoon, my wife standing over a gurney. “One heart, two eyes, one kidney. Hey, wait a minute — this guy’s only got one kidney.” I checked my abdomen to make sure there were no new lacerations.
She was going to be the backroom girl, the one who took care of the logistical paperwork.
“It’s just down the road from where you work,” she said. “We can carpool together.”
Carpool? With my wife? This sounded more gruesome than the idea of her handling body parts. Halving our fuel bill…but a joint 40-minute commute every day? It’s not that I didn’t want to be in the car with her. We’ve done long-distance trips, crossed the country, even taken flights to foreign countries, but the idea of my morning solitude being — how shall I put it? — invaded. I wasn’t ready for that.
“Aren’t you going to be working at two locations?” I said, looking for an obvious out.
She saw through that straight away. “You don’t want to save money with your wife?”
She had me there. Two of us traveling the same route at $3.59 a gallon was repulsive. So I caved.
“I’m just checking to make sure I’m on the same page,” I said. “I’d love to carpool with you.”
My last day of commuting alone, I enjoyed the gridlocked traffic, including the 20-minute delay as rubberneckers stared at a vehicle broken down on the side of the road. Come Monday morning, this paradise would be lost.
My alarm went off at 5:00 a.m. Although it was summer, it was still dark outside. Normally, my wife wouldn’t rise with me, so I believed I had the house to myself. I went to the bathroom only to discover a locked door. I rattled the handle.
“I’m in here,” said my wife’s muffled voice.
This was not a good start. My bladder was used to instant relief. My schedule had been messed with, and I hadn’t given my body any warning. Jumping up and down and crossing my legs, I thought about how long my wife and daughters could occupy the bathroom. I ended up reverting to my bachelor days, much to the dog’s chagrin. As I came back into the house, she was standing there, waiting for me. She had caught me off guard, again.
“Is that what you do each morning?” she asked.
Finally, we left the house. We were 20 minutes late, eating up the buffer I’d built into my travel time for traffic.
“Whose car are we taking?” my wife asked in the driveway.
It wasn’t a choice. Her car was in the shop, and mine was the only other vehicle we owned.
“We’ll take the Rolls Royce,” I said. I opened the Buick’s passenger door for her, then got behind the wheel.
“Are you being smart with me?” she asked.
“No, no.” I put the car into reverse. “I’m just getting the day under way.”
We had not left the driveway — I had not even taken the handbrake off — when she started in. My Fleetwood Mac CD was playing “Go Your Own Way,” and then the music suddenly stopped and we were listening to a discussion on the New York City mosque.