1 of 52
Beetle woke at five, just like any other work morning. He crawled from his bed and staggered from his room to the bathroom where he took care of business and brushed his teeth. He was proud of the fact that, even at seventy-two, he still had most of his real teeth. Two were missing in the back, one on each side, but other than that, they were all his. His hair had thinned over the years, but he still managed a decent comb over that didn’t look like one.
From the bathroom, he went into the kitchen, pressed the silver button on his trusty coffee maker, one he had owned for nearly thirty years now. He went back to his bedroom to dress. Nice gray slacks and a white button-down shirt hung on the closet door’s knob, along with a blue and gray striped tie.
You can wear jeans and t-shirt tomorrow if you want.
That had been his boss, a woman twenty-two years his junior. He was certain many others would take her up on that offer, but he didn’t. No, Beetle went for his normal, everyday attire.
“Dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” he whispered as he knotted the tie. Gray socks and a pair of black shoes, polished the night before, went on his feet. He thought about putting on a blazer for good measure, but it was mid-summer and would be a blazing high nineties or even low hundred-degree mark by the time he left work.
Beetle poured a cup of coffee into his favorite mug, the one he took to work with him every day. It was white with a little crack in the side near the handle. On one side was a cartoon image of a beetle drinking coffee. He took a breath and released it. The mug was a gift from his late wife, Maryanne. He was still getting used to her not being around, gone less than ten weeks.
A minute later, he was out the door and heading down the steps, coffee in hand. The morning was cooler than he expected, but that didn’t matter. Some summer mornings in South Carolina could be in the low seventies at eight in the morning and the mid-nineties two hours later. In the car—an older model Buick he’s had since he was half his age now. Sure, it guzzled gas, but it was reliable and sturdy and rarely needed work done to it. He backed out of the driveway and flicked on the lights. Though it wasn’t completely dark, the sun was still down, and the moon still hung in the sky.
It was a half hour drive to the office, give or take two minutes depending on traffic and lights and if the CSX had a train running across Morninglow Road. He made one stop, as he did most mornings, at a little locally owned gas station that still had pumps out in front but hasn’t had gas in fifteen years. It wasn’t gas he went for, but a bottle of orange juice. He set his empty coffee mug on the passenger’s seat and got out of the car.
He entered Ned’s, named after the owner, but now ran by his son, also a Ned. The walls were a bland, out of the seventies, green. The shelves, metal and old. It smelled like ancient leather, but Beetle could never recall seeing leather anywhere. The glass coolers that normally lined the backs of other convenience stores were on the side, near the counter. Ned’s sold no beer, not that it mattered to Beetle—he drank no beer.
“Morning, Beetle,” Ned number two said. Like his boss and many of the people, he interacted with, Ned was younger than Beetle by several decades.
“Morning, Ned. How’s it going?”
“So far, so good. Are you ready for your big day?”
“I don’t know if it’s really all that big of a day, but I’m as ready as it gets to retire.”
“I’m sure you are. What are you going to do after today?”
“I have my garden, so I’ll tend to it. I’ve always wanted to write a book, so I might try my hand at that.”
“Fiction or nonfiction?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe a little of both. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”
“Are you going to miss anything?”
Beetle thought on it for a second, then shook his head. “Probably not.”
He went to the cooler and plucked out an orange juice—Tropicana was his favorite. At the counter, Ned rang him up and Beetle pulled two dollars from his billfold.
“Still paying with cash.”
“You’re one of the very few who do these days. It’s on its way out.”
“I reckon so, but I don’t plan on going the card route.” He tipped his head toward Ned. “Have a good day, Ned.”
“You too, old timer. Have a good retirement party.”
“I wouldn’t call it a party, just some folks getting together at the end of the day.”
“If you say so.”
Beetle drank the orange juice on the way in, capped the bottle and set it on the seat next to the mug. He parked in his usual spot, one not too close to the building, but not too far away either. He had been offered spaces closer but chose to keep the one assigned to him years before. He grabbed his mug, got out of the car, and walked across the parking lot. By then, the sun was up.
Inside, he was greeted with the same thing as always: a dark building. The first in on most days, he went about his normal routine of turning on lights and prepping for the day ahead. Slowly, almost one by one, workers trickled in, all of them younger than him. He delivered mail and did a few routine tasks, nothing requiring tools, many of which he had already taken home.
Around noon, Beetle was packing a few miscellaneous items into a box. A knock on his door had him turn around. Mitchell stood there, the young fellow who would take his job when Beetle was gone. It wasn’t without being deserved. The kid had worked hard, listened, and learned the way of the office and how to take care of the people. He had been a good study and Beetle was happy to suggest he get the promotion instead of hiring outside the business.
“Hey, Kid. You doing okay?”
The kid, a young twenty-six-years-old from a rough family and even rougher upbringing, shrugged his shoulders. Beetle motioned to the chair in front of his desk. “Sit down. Tell me what’s wrong.”
Mitchell sat. Beetle did as well. Beetle picked up his mug, drank a little of the semi-warm coffee he made half an hour earlier. “What’s on your mind?”
“I don’t know if I can be you, Beetle. I mean, you’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve only been here three years and …”
“You don’t have to be me, Kid,” Beetle interrupted. “You have to be you, and you have to do your best. That’s all you can do.”
“Yeah, but … these people. They know you. They trust you. They rely on you.”
“They will come to do the same with you. After all, you come highly recommended for the job.”
Mitchell nodded and shook his head. “Thanks for getting me the promotion, but do you really think I can do it?”
Beetle smiled. He and Maryanne never had children, but if they had, he would have wanted one of them to be like the young man in front of him. “I know you can.”
The conversation didn’t last too much longer. Mitchell excused himself to haul two boxes to Beetle’s car, even though the old timer didn’t ask him to.
“You don’t have to do that, Kid.”
“I know,” Mitchell said and picked up both boxes, one on top of the other. “I want to.”
With that said, he was out the door, a young man with his life in front of him. Beetle had watched him grow, watched him go from struggling to keep the job he had to flourishing and gaining his trust.
Lunch came and went amid offers by several co-workers to take him out. He passed on all of them and sat in his office with a sandwich and a small bag of chips Mitchell brought him. He thanked the kid, and after lunch, the two strolled the office, Beetle pointing things out, little reminders he knew the kid didn’t need. Then they returned to his office.
His plan was to check his emails one last time, turn in his keys and access cards and ride off into the sunset. He washed his mug and set it on his desk. He sat to check emails. The newest one was from Jen, the boss lady. The subject line read HAPPY RETIREMENT!!! He opened it and read the single line: Shut off your computer and come to the lounge.
His shoulders slumped. I don’t want a retirement party. He was specific about that little detail for his last day. I just want to treat it like any other day, just I won’t be returning once I leave.
Jen conceded, or so he thought.
Beetle took a deep breath, let it out, then clicked off his email. He shut the computer down one last time, stood and pushed his chair beneath his desk. On Monday, the desk, computer, chair, and office would be Mitchell’s. He knew the kid would do well and the others would grow to love him over time. The kid was likeable, for certain, and a hard worker. Beetle slipped a piece of folded paper from his back pocket and set it on the desk. He placed his mug on top of it. Then he looked around the office that had been his for three decades. He nodded, turned off the light, and left the office, closing the door behind him.
The lounge was on the second floor. As he made his way there, he saw no one else anywhere. Office doors were closed, desks were unoccupied. Betsy, the young woman hired not a year earlier to sit at the front desk, wasn’t in her usual spot with her usual bright smile and cheerful demeanor.
They’re all in the lounge, Beetle.
And they were.
There was no shout of Surprise as he entered the room, but there were plenty of people clapping, a few whistles and one loud yell of Beetle! That was Bob Larson from accounting. He’d know that voice anywhere.
“Come on in, Beetle,” Jen said. She waved him to the center of the room where a table stood, a black tablecloth covering it and a large square cake on top. She smiled. It was genuine. Her brown eyes dazzled. When he reached her, Jen wrapped her arms around him. It was out of the norm for her and was the first time since before Maryanne passed, he had been hugged. She was warm and smelled of vanilla. A surge of sadness rose into his chest and threatened to reach his eyes. He shook this off and faced everyone when she released him.
Jen gave a speech, one Beetle reckoned was given at any of a million retirement parties for old fogies like him. She said all the nice things and allowed others to speak. When Mitchell spoke, the kid choked up and wiped his eyes. When everyone was finished, someone started the “Speech” chant. Others joined in until Beetle finally raised one hand in a quiet down gesture.
He didn’t know what he would say. He certainly didn’t plan on saying anything. So, he spoke off the cuff and from the heart, if not the soul.
“When I started here, there were only a handful of people—eleven, I believe. We had a small building on the west end. I was nothing more than a gopher, running from this place to that place whenever Mr. Hayden asked me to. Now … now we’re a large business, making waves. I’ve made a lot of friends over the years, seen a lot of people reach the end of their rope, leave, and go on to do other things, live other lives. After all these years, I’m going to join them when I leave here today.”
He paused. Emotions swelled in his chest. He tried to keep them at bay the best he could.
“Thank you, all of you, for your kindness, your friendship and for trusting me with your needs, both great and small.”
He nodded, as if satisfied what he said was enough. “I’m not going to say goodbye, maybe see you later, but not goodbye. Goodbye is forever. That’s all I have.”
The cake was cut. It was chocolate with a cream vanilla frosting. He had a slice and talked to several people. He shook hands, gave hugs, and said his see you laters.
Like every other day, most workers were gone before him. They would be back on Monday and would carry on with the lives they had, doing the jobs they did. Mitchell stuck around and walked him out. At his car, they stood in awkward silence for several seconds.
The kid finally spoke. His voice cracked a little, but he kept himself composed. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, Beetle. You’ve been like a dad to me, and I can never repay you for …”
Beetle reached forward, pulled the kid to him, and gave him a hug. Like Jen earlier, it was completely out of the norm for him. When he let go, he looked Mitchell in the eyes.
“You don’t owe me a thing, Kid. Working with you has been one of the highlights of my career.”
Tears formed in the kid’s eyes. He nodded. “Thank you.”
“Get on out of here,” Beetle said.
“What about you?”
“I’m leaving. I just need a couple minutes before I go.”
Mitchell stuck out his hand. Beetle smiled and took it. He gave it a good squeeze, then released it.
“See you later, Beetle,” Mitchell said.
“Goodbye, Kid,” Beetle responded.
He watched the young man walk away, get into his car, and leave. Mitchell gave one final wave before leaving the parking lot and heading off into his weekend. Beetle waved back. When he was gone, Beetle got in his car, wiped his mouth with one hand and stared at the building where he spent most of his waking hours over the last three plus decades.
He had been wrong that morning when Ned asked him if he would miss anything. He had said probably not. Sitting there, alone in his car, he realized he would miss everything.
Beetle cranked the car up and headed home.
If he were forced to remember anything about the ride home, he wouldn’t be able to. It had been a blur with his mind somewhere else. He parked in his usual spot in the driveway, checked the mail to see two bills and a flyer for someone wanting to buy his house. Inside, he set the mail on the table. He sat down. Beetle cried.
His hand shook as he pulled his billfold out and flipped it open. He plucked out the black and white picture of him and Maryanne on their wedding day. Though some of the image had faded, he knew every detail of it. Again, his eyes filled with tears as he stared at the two young lovers looking into each other’s eyes just before they kissed. The photographer had great timing with that one.
“All these years, Maryanne … I worked all these years so we could grow old together. Here I am, all by my lonesome and you’ll never get a day older.”
His shoulders shook as the tears flowed down his face.
“I miss you. I miss you so much.”
Beetle took a deep breath and stood. He looked around the room. It felt so empty, as if the ghosts of days past were gone and they left behind nothing but a hollow shell of a building. It was no longer a home, but a house where his nights were long and now his days would be, too. He set the wedding picture on the table, then walked down the hall. He reached the basement door at the end, the one just beyond his bedroom. He opened the door, flipped the switch, and stepped onto the top step that led down. Beetle closed the door behind him, then locked it.
On Monday morning, Mitchell Windham arrived early for his first day in a new position. He entered a building completely dark and went through turning on lights and the coffee maker. Then he made his way to his new office. Once there, he smiled when he saw the mug with the beetle on one side on the desk. He picked it up along with the letter beneath it.
Mitchell read …
Then he called Beetle’s number. Frantic and panicking when he didn’t answer, Mitchell dialed the only numbers he could think of: 9-1-1.
The dispatcher spoke calmly, then listened as Mitchell all but screamed for him to get someone out to Beetle’s place. He thought about jumping into his own car and heading there.
It’s half an hour away.
“I don’t care.”
He ran to the parking lot and stopped when he reached his car. He stood for a second, his thoughts suddenly halted, not from what he knew the police would find, but in the realization that Beetle had told him his plan and he hadn’t picked up on it.
“Goodbye is forever,” he whispered. He also didn’t need to know how that goodbye came. He figured that one out, too. Beetle had reached the end of his rope, not just with the job, but life as well. And he hung from it.
Mitchell leaned against his car, his heart broken, his hands over his face. At some point, he slid down the side of the car until he sat on the ground.