“It’s time for you to retire.”
The CEO’s words were still ringing in Charlie’s ears as he waited for the traffic light to turn green. After almost forty years, his blunt and honest management style was suddenly a problem, making him an embarrassment, refuse to be tossed out with the trash, yet another victim of the politically correct world. The “Me Too” movement. His contributions to the company’s bottom line, boosted by the recent acquisition of strategically located transshipment facilities throughout the world, apparently meant nothing. Political correctness was more important than running an efficient operation, making sure that the goods and services demanded by Americans were delivered on time—even more than profits. Charlie Worth was not ready for retirement. At sixty-three, he was in his prime, a fact attested to by the rush of shipping customers wanting to sign contracts utilizing the warehouses that would soon be available. All because of his hard work.
Charlie’s reflection was interrupted by a brief toot emitted by the horn of the car behind him, prompting him to notice the green signal but, before entering the intersection, he stole a glance at the driver in his rearview mirror. A black woman’s impatient eyes urged him to get moving, so he pushed the throttle pedal and shot forward, barely missing a delivery van that had run the opposing red light.
The black woman following Charlie didn’t pass, but instead followed so close that he was able to examine her facial features in detail. He recognized her as the branch head who’d filed a complaint against him for an innocuous comment made during a recent division meeting. After she had ranted about the lack of racial diversity in the company’s hiring practices for ten minutes, he’d asked her a straightforward question.
“What does racial or ethnic background have to do with hiring warehouse employees? We hire whoever is available in the area and then we train them. The location of the facility is determined by logistical constraints, not by what minority group lives within commuting distance. We can’t hire Hispanic workers if they don’t happen to live in central Kansas, but there are plenty of Americans looking for a job there.” He’d shrugged and added, “I wouldn’t want to live in Kansas but…we work with the people who are available. Frankly, I don’t see what your problem is, unless you’re one of those people who likes to make a tempest in a teacup. You know what? You remind me of that Marvel character, in those X-men movies: when Storm got excited, there could be a tornado, a snowstorm, whatever… Maybe she was your mentor? At any rate, you don’t have Halle Berry’s figure so you should present more facts and less speculation.”
Charlie kept an eye on the rearview mirror as he joined the line of cars entering the expressway. The blue Toyota finally passed him, the driver studiously ignoring him. But he knew the driver.
He was welcomed home with as little enthusiasm as usual by his wife of almost forty years, dinner on the table along with a glass of Zinfandel.
The black woman who had followed Charlie the day before greeted him as cordially and coolly as ever, her countenance revealing not a trace of their vehicular encounter the previous afternoon. Despite his imminent retirement, or perhaps because of it, Charlie had no time for reflection, grabbing a quick lunch from the cafeteria, only to find one of his replacements inviting himself to share the table.
“Do you mind if I join you, Charlie?” the Pakistani man, whose name escaped Charlie at that moment, asked in his mild accent.
The nameless marketing manager sat down and unwrapped his plastic utensils as he said, “You are a very difficult man to replace, Charlie. As you know, it will require four people to fulfill your role within the company, and I don’t know if we can do it.” He paused to attack his spaghetti with his plastic fork and knife, probably expecting Charlie to say something. When no response was forthcoming, the uninvited lunch companion continued, “You are a legend whether you know it or not, but you are more than that, you are an inspiration to all of us, to work hard and apply our talents to their greatest effect. You are a great leader.”
This caught Charlie off guard, considering his early retirement. He and the unnamed associate ate in silence until Charlie finished his salad. “You’re a Moslem, aren’t you?”
A quick nod confirmed Charlie’s suspicion, so he continued, “I was recently informed, just before I was also told that I should retire, that I’m Islamophobic. I didn’t know there was such a word.”
His lunch companion put his plastic fork down and said, “These are crazy times we live in, Charlie. I have the greatest respect for you, as do the other employees who have filed complaints against you. You are not a bad man. You aren’t even racist or xenophobic, much less Islamophobic.”
Charlie nodded. “Thank you for recognizing that I never intended to hurt anyone. I’m not as stupid as my age suggests. Or my words!” He laughed aloud and was joined by his lunch companion.
Head down, he swallowed his pride and said, “I’m sorry about whatever I did to you, but at least you won’t have to deal with me anymore…”
His Pakistani lunch companion’s arms flew into the air as he struggled to swallow, pouring water into his mouth before stammering, “Your words didn’t hurt anyone but they did reveal the difficultly of working with people who are unlike ourselves, wouldn’t you agree?”
Charlie nodded warily and replied, “I suppose that I probably should have given more thought to my public pronouncements.”
His lunch companion’s head shook methodically, a pasta-laden fork hovering in front of his mouth as he said, “I respect you because you spoke what was in your heart, and it wasn’t hatred. I have experienced hate, even from Moslems, and you are not like that. You have always been an honest man, Charlie.”
Confused and embarrassed, Charlie was compelled to ask, “What is your name? I haven’t bothered memorizing my replacements’ names because I’ll be gone next week and I’ll never see you again…”
“Harib,” was the response, accompanied by an extended hand, which Charlie accepted as Harib added, “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Worth. The pleasure is all mine.”
Charlie shook his head quickly, his thoughts jumbled after what he’d heard, and tried to smile at Harib. “I think it’s a shared experience…”
Charlie spent the afternoon with the people who would replace him. What he had expected to be a difficult and unproductive meeting proved fruitful and enjoyable, thanks to his lunch companion’s diplomacy. Charlie realized that if someone like Harib had been there to speak plainly and without rancor, he wouldn’t have been forced to retire at only sixty-three. Feeling good about his legacy, he left the building at his usual time and strolled to his parking space near the building entrance, indicated by a sign that stated his contribution to the company’s growth over the years in two words: “Logistics Manager.” He admired the sign a moment before stepping around his five-year-old Buick, chuckling to himself at the parking problem his retirement would create: They would need four reserved parking spaces near the door to replace his one.
Traffic was light but that didn’t make the commute go away. Confronted by a red signal and going nowhere anytime soon, Charlie glanced in his rearview mirror to recognize Harib behind the wheel of the gray SUV behind him. He refrained from waving, or even holding his hand up in recognition, because he was suddenly uncertain about the identity of the driver, whose dark complexion and narrow face no longer appeared to be Harib’s. This epiphany startled Charlie, causing him to respond slowly when the light turned green. A long blast on the horn of the SUV was proof that this was not his lunch companion.
“I can’t tell one dark-complexioned man from another,” Charlie complained to the rearview mirror. “I grew up with nothing but white people, and then all these dark people started arriving, but they weren’t Negroes with their black skin tone, living in the ghetto, but more like Mexicans or…”
Charlie glanced in the rearview mirror to see the same dark face, now clearly not that of Harib. He was prompted to scold himself, “Maybe you had trouble identifying details of facial features for Pakistanis, but that was no reason to make so many insensitive references to Moslem practices. Your comments were no different than telling a Baptist that Jesus was an itinerant boozer. I know you don’t buy any of this religious nonsense but why do you give those loser evangelicals a break but come down so hard on the equally delusional Moslems?”
He didn’t have an answer.
Charlie’s past improprieties haunted him that night, unwelcome memories keeping his mind in turmoil, leaving him tossing and turning in bed. The agony was finally interrupted by the first rays of sunlight peeking around the curtains. His bleary eyes greeted the new day hungrily, desperate to escape to the solitude of his office and the work that awaited. He dressed in a typical blue suit but went a little wild and donned a bright red tie his wife had gotten him for Christmas that had been relegated to the back of the drawer for more than ten years. He had never worn it because he’d read that red ties were power symbols, a visual message totally out of synch with his personality. After eating his usual breakfast of a banana and bowl of oatmeal, he brushed his teeth and said goodbye to his wife before going to the garage.
The rearview mirror was turned to face him when Charlie sat behind the wheel of his car, reminding him of his drive home the previous day, a trip filled with self-reflection and recrimination. But this was a new day. He adjusted the mirror and backed out of the driveway.
He hadn’t driven a mile when traffic came to a standstill, probably because some idiot had run the red light ahead, a notorious intersection where three streets crossed. There wasn’t a day that someone didn’t run the light on MLK Boulevard. Glancing in the rearview mirror, he recognized the driver of the red Ford behind him as a Hispanic woman who’d filed an HR complaint against him for an innocent remark that he’d made during a staff meeting. As he recalled, she was pregnant with her fourth child and he’d suggested that she was taking the pope too seriously, spending all her time pregnant. She should try focusing more on work.
He’d wanted to fire her but HR had told him that was out of the question.
Traffic crept forward. Charlie’s lane was apparently blocked by an accident and traffic was merging to the right, directed by a police officer. Charlie signaled his intention to move into an opening when the car behind him lurched forward, barely missing his fender, cutting him off and slowing traffic down even more. He wished he was driving one of those big four-by-fours so he could force his way past her but, certain she was driving on luck, with Jesus at the wheel, he waited as she crept past. He glanced at her to discover that it wasn’t his coworker. Just someone the same age, her attention focused on the smartphone held up in front of the steering wheel.
When he got clear of the traffic jam, Charlie had time to reflect on his reaction to mistaking the woman for someone who’d been a continuous thorn in his side, not because she was a poor worker. She actually had performed very well during and after her pregnancies, even while raising what eventually became a full house of five children. That was why HR had nixed his idea to fire her. But why had he cared about how many children she had, much less insult her publicly, and even try to fire her?
Charlie turned the mirror to see himself, examining his face carefully, peering into his own eyes for something abnormal, maybe evidence of a brain tumor that would eventually kill him. Pale blue orbs gazed back at him silently, giving no hint of what was going on behind them.
“What is wrong with you!” he shouted.
He answered his own question. “You know the answer. You don’t think before you shoot off your mouth, Charlie Worth. That’s what wrong with you. And the first thing that crosses your mind is always based on bias and prejudice because you are a white guy who, even though you came from a similar socioeconomic base as people like Harib, it was always easier because you aren’t a minority, a person with a different skin tone. That’s what’s wrong with you.”
He readjusted the mirror for the remainder of the drive to his office, where he parked in his reserved space, soon to be replaced with four reserved spots. That brought a smile to his face. He was irreplaceable, at least not without hiring four people to do his job.
It was Wednesday. With only two more days of coming to the office, Charlie felt there was something he’d overlooked, maybe an old acquaintance, or a misplaced key that would open an abandoned lock securing a repurposed room. He set to clearing the drawers and shelves in his corner office, quickly filling the trash can. On a lower shelf, buried beneath years-old technical manuals, he found a folder that awakened more of the memories he’d been struggling with recently.
Charlie sat in his chair and perused the colorful brochures and fact sheets that had underpinned the company’s diversity training a few years previously. He was browsing them when a knock came at his door.
“Come in,” he said.
His secretary entered and held the door open for a tall man, at least ten-years younger than Charlie, the head of human resources, David Bowman. The door closed behind the secretary as she left.
“I thought you might have forgotten our appointment,” David began.
“I knew there was something I’d overlooked,” Charlie responded. “I was cleaning the office, searching for a reminder but you beat me to it. Do you remember this?” He held up the brochure for David to see.
His guest scoffed. “Believe it or not Charlie, that was a very successful program. HR complaints decreased in every division, even yours.”
“I can believe it because I had a recent conversation with one of my replacements, who expressed respect and understanding of my restraint in dealing with people of different backgrounds. However, I think the decrease in HR complaints from my division was related to my team’s recognition that my racist and misogynist remarks were semantical defenses of my own insecurity, rather than reflecting a fundamental bias against them.”
David scoffed and said, “If you’d acknowledged that a few months ago, you wouldn’t be retiring on Friday.”
Charlie scoffed. “I’m sixty-three. My job has expanded tremendously and now, four people will be responsible for different aspects of what I was doing alone. To be honest, it has become a burden. I could have continued for a few more years but it would have cost the company. The world is just too complex nowadays, but we didn’t have crystal balls back in the day. For all I know, I became an asshole because my attention was focused on my technical duties. I was too busy to think about people…”
David nodded. “I think that’s exactly what happened. The owner, the CEO and the Board agree, which is why I’m here today. I have the pleasure of informing you that you will receive more than a gold watch as your retirement bonus. Your severance package includes not only health insurance and a moderate monthly stipend, supplemented by your personal retirement plan, but a bonus, in recognition of your outstanding contribution to the company, of eight-hundred-seventy-four-thousand dollars. That is a cash bonus.”
Charlie’s jaw dropped. “That’s more than five years’ salary! Have they lost their minds? That wasn’t in my contract so what’s going on?”
David was grinning as he responded, “This isn’t a Christmas present, Charlie. If there was a contest within the company for the most valuable employee, you would have won the prize a dozen times during your tenure. The company is in an excellent position because of your prescience and this is a token of the owners’ appreciation.” He held up a facsimile check and passed it to Charlie’s quivering fingers.
Charlie looked in the rearview mirror. The black face he saw was strangely familiar, another of his employees following him. After so many mistaken identities, it was comforting to know for certain that he was being followed by—the name escaped Charlie, but he recognized the face. He had reluctantly hired this man, who hadn’t been his first choice, under pressure from HR, which meant that top management was serious about minority hiring after the diversity training that had been imposed on every division. Their first conversation presented itself as Charlie gazed at the black face in the review mirror.
“There are better-qualified applicants than you, but apparently the company has a quota system, and you’re the lottery winner. I’m certain that you are highly motivated and will do a mediocre job, not because you are a member of a minority that has certainly been subjected to systemic racism all your life, an obstacle you have obviously overcome, but because you are not the person I would have hired. And to be clear, I am well aware of the advantages I had, despite coming from a disadvantaged, poor-white background not that different from yours, because I am light skinned. When I look at you, I don’t see a black man. I see someone who is not my first choice. You should thank Jesus, which I think is the preferred deity of African-Americans, that you will get this job. But you have to meet my performance standards to keep it. Do you get my drift?”
The man’s dark complexion partially obscured his expression, which Charlie interpreted as neither contriteness nor rancor as he replied in a professional tone, “I am confident that I will prove myself to be the best person for the position. Your resistance to my being hired over your objections is perfectly understandable—I would have felt the same way—but you won’t be disappointed. In fact, I’ll make a pledge to you, just between us, that if you find my job performance unacceptable after six months, I will voluntarily leave the company and seek employment elsewhere.”
That had been ten years ago.
Charlie pulled into his reserved parking space and was immediately met by Nathan Adams (the name had suddenly come to him), who had followed him all the way to work as if in a convoy. Nathan would be taking over part of Charlie’s duties, having proven himself a capable manager just as he’d promised.
“You know Nathan, I was just thinking about when we first met, after recognizing you in my rearview mirror, do you remember that?”
Nathan scoffed. “I sure do. And I especially recall that you didn’t call my bluff about quitting on your say-so but gave me a chance to prove myself. Oh yes, I certainly remember, but you know I actually was intimidated by your attitude, and my wife almost took my head off when I told her about my challenge. You proved to be a tough but fair boss, and I learned a lot from you.” He paused a moment, contemplating, before adding, “But you have to admit that you wouldn’t have hired me if not for the intervention of HR, right?”
Charlie stopped at the front door, turned to Nathan, and replied, “That’s why I love working here. Teamwork. We get the job done together.”
Nathan opened the door and said, “After you, Sir.”
Charlie’s second-to-last day at work was filled by short meetings with the people who would take over his responsibilities, all of whom conveyed their anxiety at assuming their new duties. He still had full access to the computer system but refrained from correcting minor errors committed by his replacements. He emailed his comments, but sometimes they needed a face-to-face discussion to fully comprehend his admittedly brief and acerbic comments. These meetings ended amicably. Then he had an impromptu meeting with the Jewish man who would take responsibility for calculating the financial costs of the current expansion of warehouses, using proprietary software created under Charlie’s critical supervision.
“This software is antiquated, it’s so old my grandmother would be comfortable using it, I mean what the hell have you done?!”
Charlie scoffed and, feeling calm in the knowledge that he would probably never see Jerry Bessemer again, said, “What did you expect? This is a trucking company, not a software development firm. The antiquatedprogram you are referring to was written before the cloud or servers or even mainframes existed. It ran on desktop computers, Intel 386 chips for Christ’s sake. I kept this kaleidoscopic software running as the internet evolved, from dial-up connections, broadband, all the way to 5G, whatever the hell that is, so now it’s your turn to keep it working. For starters, I would suggest that you demand an in-house software expert.”
Jerry retorted, “I can’t fix this mess. I can’t even contract it out for a reasonable cost. Nothing within the budget…” He paused, his expression suspicious, before adding, “You knew this! You left me with a Gordian knot to untie, didn’t you!”
Charlie scoffed and said, “You people are so paranoid, and I don’t blame you, but you are simply inheriting the mess I created, just as I had to deal with what my predecessor had done…I don’t think any thought went into the logistical nightmare I had to deal with forty years ago. Do you get my point?”
“We people? What does that mean?”
“It’s too late to file an HR complaint, Jerry. If there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that Jews are great problem solvers…”
Jerry retorted, “You can’t leave me with the mess you made, your only defense being a racial insult—”
Charlie interrupted, “Actually, that is exactly what I’m doing, but your being Jewish is a strength because your people are like mine, the Irish, in accepting a challenge and facing it. The only difference between our ancestors is that yours travelled the world, picking up knowledge along the way, whereas the Irish just sat there and stewed on nothing. I envy you Jerry because your people have had a wild ride and, despite some serious setbacks, the Jewish race is far ahead of the Irish…or anyone else to be honest.”
Jerry rolled his eyes and between pursed lips said, “So, you really trust me to carry the baton, to fix the mess you created as you tried to keep up with the evolving digital world?”
“Naturally. Remember when I hired you?”
“I spoke about your unique ethnic background, which I thought made you especially qualified for your position. I was thinking of this day, Jerry.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
Charlie shook his head slowly before saying, “Jews aren’t the only people who can plan for the unforeseeable, otherwise you’d be running the world rather than just dominating the scientific and entertainment sectors.”
Jerry’s head was slowly nodding as he said, “I guess you have confidence in me?”
Charlie scoffed yet again and said, “It’s my job to know the people I work with. You will make me look like a fool, a possibility you have already alluded to, but you will also solve the problem of connecting our truck drivers—this is where the software meets the real world—using this 5G technology.”
Jerry abruptly stood and extended his hand. “You are a coarse man, Charlie. You would have made a good Jew.”
Charlie felt pretty good about his last commute to the office. It had been a rewarding week, getting his replacements up to speed on current and planned facilities projects. He’d also learned that he wasn’t reviled by his coworkers, as he might have assumed from top management’s comments, but was instead perceived as plain spoken, a trait that rankled people and motivated them to complain but not to openly hate him. He was okay with that. The truth was that it was time for him to move out of the office he’d occupied for forty years. He’d never wanted to be a manager. What he loved was solving puzzles—jigsaw puzzles, anagrams, crossword puzzles, sudoku, and of course logistical problems involving thousands of people moving commodities between hundreds of cities in trucks and on railways. Not that he would be spending his time solving the New York Times crossword. He’d already been contacted by several consulting firms and even offered a position teaching part-time at a business school. Charlie Worth wasn’t being put out to pasture, not for several more years.
The morning commute went smoothly. He laughed at himself for seeing so many ghosts of Christmas past in his rearview mirror, glad to see what could have been a stressful week ending on a high note. There was an informal send-off in the lunch room just before quitting time that included alcohol and a visit from the CEO, who spoke humorously of expecting to have to pay Charlie an outrageous consultant fee to get his unfiltered opinion in the future. Charlie didn’t mind people poking fun at his coarse personality (to use Jerry’s term) now that he was leaving. Retirement was a good time to clear the air and make a fresh start. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Charlie was tied up in traffic on his way home and, waiting impatiently to find a way forward, he glanced in the rearview mirror. The Mercedes behind him was at a politically correct distance (the thought made Charlie laugh aloud)—neither jammed against his bumper nor hanging back so far you could park a Greyhound bus between them. What got his attention was the driver of the black sports sedan.
He was looking at himself in the rearview mirror.
Adjusting the rectangular mirror didn’t change the view, so Charlie laughed aloud again and said to himself, “Here we go again! Another mistaken identity in the mirror. I can’t goddamn believe it!”
Charlie responded to his own uncertainty sarcastically. “What did you expect? It isn’t that you’re hallucinating—the brain can play tricks on us at times, like all week. That driver is just an old guy like you, maybe it’s his last day at work too?”
“Yeh, that’s probably what it is, but I’ve never had so many similar experiences—”
Charlie’s alter-ego cut him off. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to adjust your behavior, after so many people speaking honestly about their perceptions of you over a period spanning decades.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Charlie retorted.
The other Charlie scoffed and replied, “The worst thing in life is to be perceived as someone you aren’t. Do you get my drift?”
“So, you have a lot of issues, Charlie, starting with thinking of yourself as some kind of self-made man but nevertheless feeling inadequate, not quite up to speed, not qualified to use the executive washroom. Am I right?”
Charlie nodded again.
“I think you got the message from your co-workers: You are a pain in the ass but not quite an asshole, so let’s move on. We are way past—”
A horn blared, breaking Charlie’s train of thought, urging him to move forward a few feet.
“This week was a lot of fun, don’t you think?”
Charlie nodded again.
“Let’s keep it up as best we can. I know what you’re thinking, that this retirement experience was like attending Easter service and rededicating your life to Christ, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Just try and remember that you will always have to answer to—”
The goddamn horn blared again, interrupting Charlie’s thought. He wanted to flip-off the driver behind him but had to concentrate on creeping ahead, negotiating the intersection, avoiding blocking it when traffic came to another standstill.
Charlie instinctively looked at the rearview mirror and, when it showed an elderly man with gray hair, he adjusted it and gazed into his own eyes. He finished his alter-ego’s statement. “I will always have to answer to myself. Like right now. I like the way it feels to retire with nobody wishing I was dead. That’s a nice feeling. I have to find a way to maintain this agreeable sensation of co-existence when I move into my next career. I get it.”
Traffic cleared and Charlie accelerated to a breathtaking speed of 30 mph.
Looking at himself in the mirror, Charlie said, “Can I change who I am? After twenty years of HR being on my back because of my unedited comments, I think the answer is ‘No,’ so let’s cut out all that turning over a new leaf crap. At any rate, I won’t have to deal with employees anymore—”
The other Charlie interjected, “You’re right about that. It could be a lot worse. For example, if you take the teaching job, you’ll be dealing with college students, young people with sensitivities you can’t even imagine. You wouldn’t last two weeks in an academic environment.”
Charlie thought about that as traffic moved along in fits and starts. He glanced in the mirror at a face he barely recognized, puffy cheeks starting to collapse towards his jaw, eyes buried in slumping and swollen sockets, thoughtful wrinkles now permanently written into his brow and emanating from the corners of his mouth. His facial examination was interrupted by a blast from the horn of the car behind. The rearview mirror wasn’t positioned to verify his suspicion that the same person was still following him, expressing frustration with their slow progress through the medium of high-decibel outbursts. Without thinking, Charlie’s right fist flew up with the middle finger extended. He retracted it immediately.
“Great job, asshole,” his alter-ego said in the mirror.
Charlie responded by shooting across the intersection as the light turned red, his car partly blocking the crosswalk. Before he could formulate a response, his head was slammed into the headrest, accompanied by the muted sound of plastic crumpling. Dazed but uninjured, Charlie opened his door and climbed out of his car, annoyed to see traffic moving along now. He walked uncertainly towards the vehicle that had rear-ended him, contemplating his own contribution to the accident. His indecent gesture may have been the catalyst for this driver’s frustration reaching the boiling point. Charlie wondered, as he approached the vehicle, if this was a reminder from the universe that he should be less impulsive in the real world. The unremitting flow of cloistered work, which had defined his career, punctuated by a series of social blunders, had left Charlie uncomfortable dealing with people, preferring the company of spread sheets and the data they contained. He scoffed and knocked on the driver’s window, not knowing what to expect.
The window lowered, to reveal a white guy about Charlie’s age, wearing a blue, pin-striped suit. The airbag hadn’t deployed.
“Are you okay?” Charlie asked.
The bald head nodded and thin lips, still trembling from the experience, said, “I thought traffic was moving and I could make the light…”Remembering his conversation with himself in the mirror, Charlie smiled amicably and replied, “We all make mistakes. That’s why we have insurance.”