The bed seemed to have its own gravity this morning, pinning Robert’s body to the dampness of the sheets. He had that dream again, the one he always had but could never remember the details of. Something about… a house in the woods? Trees, definitely. A child? Maybe. Robert shook the sleep from his head and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
Today marked the beginning of month 2 of his unemployment. Every day that passed added more force to the pull of his bed. Robert felt useless to his wife. Thank God the kids were old enough to be out on their own. Holding his face in his hands, he took a deep breath, held it, and it weakly whispered out: “Uselesssss”
What the hell am I going to do for work?
His wife got a job as a secretary at one of the offices nearby to keep income trickling in while he continued his search, a sad attempt to preserve their modest savings account they kept together. Her fake optimism and reassurances were painful to him, each pat on the back made his soul heavier with the guilt.
As a younger man, he never would have believed his life would get to the point where his wife would work out of necessity for the well-being of the family. Being a travelling salesman was very good to Robert, it put his son into a good college. And he was really great at it, being able to find the good leads: New movie theater opening up in the city? He would find out about it and sell a package deal of vacuums instead of the typical one-per-house.
Robert was good, and he had plenty of opportunities offered to him in the past for some companies that now have become much, much larger. He never took them though, as he really enjoyed being a travelling salesman. He could never imagine being confined in a dreary office, shuffling papers. State to state, city to city, door to door. You would expect someone who made a living meeting new people and getting them to like him quickly would actually enjoy the company of others. Sure, people were nice enough, but mostly?
But mostly, it was the travelling. The new scenery, the rolling landscapes passing by his car windows, and the smells on the wind. Robert loved to travel. But he hadn’t been able to travel much in the last several years. Travelling salesmen were well past being on their way out. People used to invite him in, offer food and water with a side of conversation. Toward the end, he was lucky to get someone to answer the door. Something had changed in the past 20 years.
Or was it everything? It didn’t matter anymore. No prospective employer was very impressed with a man who was just a salesman for that long, and when Robert tells them it was by choice he gets the smirk that just says “Sure. Whatever you tell yourself to help you sleep at night”. Then comes the fake smile, something that Robert is very familiar with after all those years pretending to like strangers.
He had never been so tired in all his life. Standing from the bed and stretching, he pulled his shirt off of himself, soaked in the sweat from the night before. Not using the AC has been hard this summer, and each morning he woke up more tired than the day before. Whether or not the heat caused this, or his depression, he did not know.
It was probably a bit of both.
He started to walk but his head became heavy very suddenly and his heartbeat boomed in his chest like a timpani drum, vertigo setting in without warning. Robert went to lean against the wall nearby but rested his hand on a framed painting, where the sweat from his palms betrayed his stability and he slipped, falling. Falling and bringing the picture with him to the ground. His jaw hit the hard carpet and shocked his head with an explosion of pain, the glass from the picture shattered all around him like sharp snow.
He laid there for longer than he needed, opened eyes looking under his bed.
Dust. Old photos in a box. Shadows of a happy past. Frustration set deep within his bones and gave way to anger, the kind one gets when they bump their head on a cabinet mixed with that deeper anger one can have with life, and themselves.
“HONEY?? Are you O.K.?!”
Why was his wife still here? She was supposed to be at work now. For some reason, this made Robert even angrier. He could not even keep this embarrassment private from her. “Clumsy, stupid man”, the inner Robert spoke. He felt sorry for his wife, for marrying him. He felt sorry for his kids, since they had a failure of a father: this poor, clumsy man laying on the ground in shame. Now he was angry at himself for moping. Robert sighed again, a dry wheeze ending in a labored cough painful to hear.
“— I’m fine! Just tripped over my own feet again. Broke that picture you liked though, I am sorry”.
Silence. He began picking up the pieces of glass from the carpet, and he glanced at the picture. A landscape of rolling hills and mountains, Linda’s favorite. Naturally it was her favorite. Naturally it had a piece of glass piercing it right down the middle. She gasped when she opened the door and saw it.
“MY FAVORITE! OHH I LOVED THAT PAINTING! It was an original, a gift from my father!”
He looked up at her, like a dog looks up when it knows it did something wrong.
“I am sorry, Lin, really I am. I.. I just got dizzy an—”
“Good Lord, Robert, as if things weren’t bad enough already! You couldn’t have just fallen… Differently”?
Robert looked defeated. God he wanted to get away.
“I’m sorry, it was an accident. I will get a new frame soon, I’ll go into the city today and try and find a new frame”. She looked at him hard, with the stern eye that mothers can summon. They both knew that they couldn’t exactly ‘splurge’ on a new frame.
“… and a job. I will find one today, Lin. I.. I can tell today will be different.” Never in all of his life had he ever lied like this, not even to get a sale. He did not believe any of these words and couldn’t believe they came from him. But Linda believed that he believed them, and a smile found its way to her face.
“Let me help you clean that up, breakfast is on the table. I took today off so I could try to cheer you up.” This pained him, he was already such a burden and she did all of this for ME? Robert felt like a cheat, somehow. Like he fooled this nice woman, beautiful and dignified, to continue to love him. He walked slowly through their house, into the dining room, and sat down.
Eggs, over easy. Toast, perfectly tanned, lightly buttered. Bacon, crisped to perfection. Coffee, black, with cream waiting to be used in a cute little cup with a tiny little handle. Steam rising from it all. Any other morning he would have devoured this with a smile, but for some reason, he felt sick. A fiery heat burned his head and his torso, his legs were cool and felt filled with jam. He pushed his chair away and left his food untouched. He had to leave. He had to go, NOW. He HAD to do something, anything to get out of the house, away from his poor wife. Tears fell silently as he went into the laundry room to change, pulling his scratchy suit over the aching body that moved on its own.
He forced himself to run out into the car, suitcase with only resumes in it tucked under his left arm, keys in his right. Robert slammed the car door, and started the car as fast as possible. He absolutely had to get away before he was forced to see his wife’s confused, questioning face.
She wouldn’t understand, but I have got to be alone right now. Anywhere but here. I can’t face this anymore, I can’t face her, especially. My God, what have I done? I lost my job, I will lose the house soon if I can’t fix this. And my poor wife must suffer for my mistakes. I can’t bear this anymore. I have nothing to give, nothing to share. Even being around me has been hard on her, I’ve been short-tempered and rude when she has been nice, and accommodating, trying so hard to keep me happy despite all of this, working a job in addition to the housework. God, I really am terrible. I need to get away.
Robert drove for a little while, heading toward the city. Maybe he could pull himself together and try to get an interview, after all, the day was still young. But the tears just would not stop. The road blurred in front of him as he sped, passing cars when he could. One car, a sedan. The next, a pick-up with a fantastic sky blue finish. Then a truck carrying chickens. His engine struggled to keep up with his desire for speed, chugging around the big truck as the road curved to the right. He had never passed in a no-pass zone before, not in all of his life.
The city came into view, and slowly began to surround him with its buildings and its heat. Finding a decent place to put his car, he parked it on the side of the road next to the public park — filled with trees, an open field, and a small lake. His only little secret was coming here each morning, and taking a nap after the drive before making his rounds. There was a nice spot, under a large oak tree (at least a hundred years old) and flanked on one side by tall bushes. This place afforded a reasonable amount of privacy, and plenty of shade. The hill rolled down beneath this spot, offering a view of the park that he thought was the best.
He had calmed down, but his heart was still pounding.
Is this “away” enough for you, mister? Robert thought to himself. A small chuckle escaped his dour face as he rubbed his chin. He forgot to shave this morning. He couldn’t go to any interviews like this. Another chuckle.
He could not even feel angry anymore. Robert had calmed down, and seemingly had resigned himself to this wretched turn of fate. How many naps could he take in a day? How many dreams? A grand experiment.
Oh, Robert. What have you done? What will you do? How will you survive, and bring stability back to your family? How will you provide?
“Ah, shut up and let me sleep for a bit, anxiety my old friend. Just for a little.”
Robert stretched out his legs in the cool grass, and crossed his arms over his chest like a child pulls a blanket around itself.
“Besides, and how don’t you know this? My friends call me R.J.”