|© 1989, bardsmaid
Author's Notes: This story had its genesis in...
two days of substitute meter reading.
Mr. Brown reads meters. Mr. Brown has read meters for years, walking the streets with his little rod, lifting up the metal covers, reading the red numbers and jotting them down in his book. He knows all the neighborhoods: the ones with the new paint and lush lawns where the lots and the meters are farther apart; the tracts where all the houses are one of three styles and children's toys lie scattered near the sidewalk--but not too many, because to buy a house nowadays means two jobs and daycare and nobody is home much--and the tired ones where the paint jobs are cracked white and mustard yellow and burgundy and the yards are left to fend for themselves.
Mr. Brown has a wife who stays home because they bought their house so long ago that the payments are only $125 a month, and a daughter who has married and moved to Tucson. Mr. Brown is good at what he does and the city has plans to reward him with a shiny gold-plated plaque that proclaims "Twenty-five Years of Outstanding Service".
Most of the time Mr. Brown just does his job, lifts the metal covers, sweeps away the sand or the ants or the spider webs and records the information. He does not notice how the record book bends open backward in his hand, pressing his fingers hard between the hanging covers, or how the lever that opens the loose-leaf mechanism cuts into his palm, or the way his back feels after having to bend far over to peer through the scratched covers on the meters.
But sometimes he thinks about how his wife stays in her bathrobe until 1:30 in the afternoon, or he goes to the library on his lunch hour to look at picture books about Hawaii. Sometimes he even thinks of the upcoming city awards dinner and wishes he were not getting the plaque. There are times when the thought of "Twenty-five Years of Outstanding Service" leer at him as if they said "Twenty-five Years Willingly Wasted", because his days are spent in commendable hard work that leaves him so tired that all he can do at night is to eat and get drowsy in front of one of his wife's TV programs--sitting in the same room with her is nearly the entire extent of their communication--and go to bed and get up to read more meters. There are things he thinks he would like to do--he is sure there is an aspiring being tucked away inside his orderly exterior--but by the time work is over there is just no time or energy remaining and another day slips by. Twenty-five years of them to be exact.
He has thought of leaving, just packing up a small suitcase and driving off into the sunset. But he is not na´ve. He could end up in dire circumstances, without a job or an income; he might end up like the homeless. Sometimes he wonders if the souls of the homeless are really much worse off than his own. Most of the time he tries not to think about the possibilities, because they only make him more dissatisfied, and he knows he could never leave Doris that way. What would she do with no income, without her soap operas and coffee maker?
Still, he finds himself more and more irritated as the day of the awards dinner approaches. He bristles imperceptibly every time Doris asks him which dress she should wear or which shoes, or when she wonders aloud whether she should get a new handbag and earrings. She is looking forward to this with delight; somehow it only accentuates their differences. It seems she is looking forward to basking in his glory. He thinks of them together--Doris and the plaque--and the gilt letters begin to tarnish even as he pictures them. Twenty-five years.
The day of the dinner he is calm, though. He goes about his job in his most professional manner, the one that has brought him up for recognition, expertly flipping open the metal covers with his little stick, waiting for the crawling and the flying things and the black widows to move away from the face of the meter, then reading the numbers. He calls to tell Doris he is working late; he will meet her at the awards dinner. She is still deciding which shoes to wear.
Doris does not see him when she arrives. in fact, when his award is presented he is still not there and she is asked to go to the podium to accept it for him. She enjoys the trip to the front of the gathering; it is like going up to accept an Oscar. She is so taken with the plaque that she hardly thinks of her husband through the rest of the ceremony, and it is only when she arrives home that she finds a copy of the plane ticket and a penciled note on the kitchen table