WALK AWAY

by Joelle Steele

Arnie Pickett boarded the BART train in San Leandro bound for his office in The City. After removing his ratty overcoat and his dark blue polyester jacket, he urged his bulky 48 year-old body into a seat, then sighed heavily. It was a crisp, clear October morning in the San Francisco Bay Area, but Arnie had more important things on his mind than the autumn weather. He set his briefcase on his lap and opened it to reveal a short stack of manilla folders. He rummaged through the files until he found the one he was looking for: Richard Harley.

Harley's claim would not be paid. Arnie had seen to that. He had once again saved the company money. That was his job. Making sure that people like Harley did not get one dime more than they were owed on their insurance claims. In this case, Arnie had triumphed. Instead of paying over $80,000 to Richard Harley, he had seen to it that the claim was denied entirely. He had just a few last-minute notes to make and some forms to sign, and then he could close the claim as soon as he walked into the office. If his handling of the Harley case didn't get J. Jackson Hunt, head of the claims department, to extend a promotion and a raise to him, he didn't know what would.

Arnie had done everything he could think of over the past ten years to make his climb up the corporate ladder a successful one. He had sat silently as others with less experience passed him by, seemingly skipping a rung or two along the way. On more than several occasions, Arnie had questioned his own motives for continuing to struggle so valiantly with so little reward or acknowledgment of a job well done. The cost of living had risen considerably over the past three years since his last raise. Only two months ago he had met with J. Jackson Hunt regarding a raise and a promotion into the position just vacated by Helen Giuliani, who had requested and received a transfer to the Los Angeles office.

"I'm awful sorry, Arnie," explained Hunt. "Helen's position was filled long before she left." He leaned back in his executive chair, tapping his mechanical pencil on the edge of his over-large, ornately carved oak desk. His dark hair was just beginning to gray at the temples, giving him that distinguished look Arnie hoped would one day be his. Hunt's nails were covered with a clear polish, his white shirt cuffs unfrayed, the red and black striped silk tie spotless. "Have you considered making a move to the Omaha office? Or maybe Phoenix?" he asked offhandedly.

"Thanks for your time," said Arnie. He reached out and shook Hunt's hand, not because he wanted to, but because it was the right thing to do. He was certainly not going to act like an idiot and jump down the guy's throat. That would just make it all so much worse.

Omaha or Phoenix. Not likely. He would freeze in Omaha and roast in Phoenix. Those offices were smaller too. How would he be able to get anywhere there when he couldn't get upstairs at the San Francisco office where there were always openings? He had dreaded going home that evening because he did not want to have to face Bev with the bad news. She was constantly harping on him about one thing or another, and everything was usually about money when it came right down to it. Only this morning she had ruined any appetite he had for breakfast with her latest tirade.

"How can you keep working there? Look at the things you do to those poor people when you turn down their claims? How are they supposed to pay their medical bills? How can you live with yourself? Why don't you get a job that pays better and that doesn't create such bad karma for us?" The words spit out of Bev's mouth at rocket speed without a single pause between words or sentences.

When they had married some twenty-three years ago, he had found Bev's chattering personality quite charming. Over the years, that chattering had degraded into a series of nagging diatribes that made him loathe getting up in the morning and coming home at night. Since Jason and then Monica had gone off to start their own lives, the empty nest that was created a year ago had turned into a hotbed of bickering from which Arnie longed for relief. He often stayed out late, not to pass the time with other women, but just to be in a quiet corner of a café or coffee shop where he could be alone with his thoughts. He always told Bev he was working late.

Arnie had retreated deeper into his daydreams. He fantasized almost daily now. A typical one would begin with him getting up one day, probably on a Wednesday when Bev went to the market first thing. He would pack a small suitcase, and simply walk away from it all. That was the usual scenario he created, but where he went from that point on varied. Sometimes he headed for the bank and emptied their meager savings, then headed for the airport, maxed out his credit cards to buy a ticket, and boarded the first plane to ... Acapulco, Hawaii, Alaska, Miami, the Bahamas ... it really didn't matter where, he would just go however far the money would take him. At times he even daydreamed about time-traveling into the past to a time that was simple, when things were not so complicated and people were so much kinder. Perhaps he could find such a place in present-day middle America, a Mom-and-apple-pie kind of place, a tiny town tucked away in the midwest or somewhere. The important thing was to escape his present existence.

Bev had just about laughed herself into a convulsion when he revealed his fantasy to her. Mascara mixed with the tears that streaked down her reddened cheeks, as she slapped her hands against her pudgy thighs again and again, thoughtlessly reveling in the hilarity she perceived in her husband's fondest dreams. She did not understand. Nobody did. Arnie was living in a world gone crazy, a time when people were either spending beyond their means or living out of shopping carts. A time when drugs still ruled and the "me" generation was in control, oblivious to the poverty lying at its front door. And computers! He was being required to learn how to use a computer. Just how was that supposed to help him do his job? Was it so wrong to want to remove himself from this twentieth century nightmare?

Arnie shut his briefcase as the BART train pulled to a stop. Twenty minutes later, he had dropped the Harley file into Hunt's in box, and was sitting behind his desk, facing yet another day of saving money for the company by closing his heart, and finding a measure of guilt, rather than satisfaction, in the process.

"Hey, Arn!" Luke Benson from accounting cracked Arnie's office door open just enough to stick his blond, beach boy haircut inside. "Did you get that memo I sent you about those receipts? I really need you to get back to me on those today." He withdrew the hair and went on his way.

As if he did not already have enough to do, now he was supposed to review a mountain of ancient receipts and match them to an equally high mountain of corresponding documents. And all at the behest of that high-paid 30 year-old surfer dude whose MBA got him the job when his lack of experience could not possibly have warranted even a second interview. Arnie glanced around his pathetic hole-in-the-wall office, the shelves filled with stacks of folders, boxes of old files lining most of the walls, and letter trays overflowing with three- and five-part forms competing with each other for his attention. He felt a gnawing pain in the pit of his stomach at the mere thought of trying to finish Luke's assignment on the same day that he was planning to leave a few minutes early to have dinner in the Marina with his friends, Vince and Judy Petrillo.

Arnie had met Vince at a bowling alley five years earlier. Vince worked as a dispatcher at the Oakland airport. The two men had hit it off instantly and had become the best of friends. On Thursday nights, as soon as Arnie got off the BART train in San Leandro, Vince met him there and they went out for a quick dinner followed by a few lines of bowling. It was something they both looked forward to, and for Arnie it was part of his fantasy of the simple life. To make his life even less complicated, he neglected to tell the Petrillos that he was married. Vince had guessed that he was a widower, and Arnie just went along with the idea.

"Night Arnie," called out Jennifer, the twenty-year old receptionist for the department, as she shuffled quickly past Arnie's office in her too-tight cherry pink Madonna outfit complete with black fishnet stockings and short, black, ankle-high boots with three-inch spiked heels. Arnie sighed at the wonder of her appearance. When he had first begun working in 1962, such an outfit would have been found only on a street corner in the Tenderloin District.

He looked up at the clock. Everyone else must have had the same idea about leaving early today. It was only 4:35 p.m., the department was quiet, and the sun was almost down, the Sutro tower a black silhouette against a purpling and cloudy sky. He quickly gathered up the plethora of papers and files that overwhelmed his dented-up gray metal desk. The receipts! He had forgotten. He would have to come in early the next morning to work on them. Something else to look forward to. Right now, he had to catch the trolley to the nearby Marina, and then there was a short walk to the Petrillo's new house, a small Italianate structure near the Palace of Fine Arts that Vince had inherited when his grandfather died a year earlier. It was in need of a fresh coat of paint, but was otherwise a lovely little architectural gem in a pristine neighborhood.

The trolley ride was uneventful. Just a lot of tired people crowded onto a vehicle, many trying to maintain their balance as they stood in the center aisle, then scrunched out of the way of disembarking passengers. Arnie gave his seat to a young Hispanic woman with a sleepy-eyed toddler in a Winnie the Pooh T-shirt, and stood with his briefcase under his left arm, his right raised up to hold onto the pole above him. His mind reviewed some of the day's activities. He had tried to see J. Jackson Hunt twice, but each time the man was in a meeting. Finally, just before 4:00, Hunt walked into Arnie's office.

"You were looking for me?" he asked, standing amidst the dust and clutter in his immaculate attire.

"Yes, I was," replied Arnie, as he rose from his desk and cleared a chair for his guest who sat down, a small measure of disdain crossing his face as he did so. "It has been three years since my last evaluation, and I ..."

"I'm sorry, Arnie," he interrupted, rising from his chair. "I can't really get into the particulars of a review with you right now. Perhaps you can talk to Pauline and schedule an appointment sometime after I return from my vacation next month." He smiled weakly and walked out the door without saying another word.

Arnie sank down into his creaking swivel chair. Maybe it was just time for a change in career. He had read somewhere that your fantasies could be clues to the right career for you. If that was so, he might be happier working as a handyman. He had always liked to fix things and build stuff. Bev was always keeping him busy around the house replacing light fixtures, fixing the old doors that failed to close properly, patching the stucco around the chimney, building shelves for her collection of angel figurines. The list went on forever, and the pages of the Time-Life books on home improvement he had bought were well-worn and dog-eared from years of use.

Arnie also fantasized about being a gardener. He loved to work in the yard. Had always liked gardening, even when he was a kid and mowed the neighbors' lawns for fifty cents each. He could see himself getting up early each morning, planting flowers, trimming trees, watering lawns, and keeping other people's yards clean and well-manicured. It could be a good life. It really could.

The trolley jerked to a stop. Arnie excused himself repeatedly as he maneuvered among the other standing passengers on his way to the door. He finally reached the sidewalk and began his short trek to what would probably be the closest he would ever come to authentic gourmet Italian cuisine. Judy loved to cook, and her pastas and fish dishes were the best he had ever tasted. He knew she aspired to own an Italian restaurant, and he hoped that some day she would achieve her dream. Everybody had a dream worth pursuing, didn't they?

It all happened so suddenly that Arnie lost his footing just from the shock of it. The earth was rocking to a giant roar and rumble. Local residents came rushing into the street from the surrounding buildings, their eyes wide and glazed with terror. Arnie fell to his knees, his briefcase spilling open and emptying its contents onto the sidewalk. He made no effort to retrieve the papers as the night breeze carried them into the gutter. The utility poles swayed back and forth and a house collapsed right into the street less than a block ahead of him. It felt like the end of the world had come. The apocalypse. He looked to the sky, half expecting to see the Four Horsemen riding down from the heavens. Instead he saw a light pole topple onto the hood of a white Toyota, crushing the vehicle flat. He tried to stand up, but the rumbling had not quite stopped. His knees ached against the hard concrete and the small stone that was penetrating his right knee.

At last the shaking stopped. The power was out and the street was growing dark except for the light cast by the fire that was growing in the collapsed house. In the distance from every direction, the sounds of car alarms and sirens filled the air. Arnie at last found his way to his feet. He had never experienced such a jolt before, and he had lived his entire life in California, most of that time right in San Leandro, which was on the Hayward fault. All around him was chaos. He looked at his briefcase, barely visible in the encroaching darkness. A shiver ran through him, and he hugged himself slightly, then in a hard embrace.

"Hey, are you all right, buddy?" asked one of the firefighters en route to the burning house.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he replied, still holding himself against the cool air that was attacking the lingering beads of perspiration that covered his neck.

The firefighter patted Arnie on the shoulder and began running to join his fellow firefighters. Arnie moved away from the oceans of people now lining the sidewalk and street. He leaned against a mailbox, as he tried to find a single cell in his body that was not still writhing in fear. Seconds ticked by like hours as he watched the scene unfolding before his unbelieving eyes. At last, after what seemed like an eternity, he straightened up and released his grasping hold on the mailbox.

He was alive. Alive. He had survived a disaster that he knew would occupy everyone's attention on the evening news for days to come. He had been given a second chance at life. It was the opportunity he had been waiting for. The signal that he could actually live out his fantasy. It would not be exactly the way he had always envisioned it, but it could work. It would work.

Arnie took one last glance in the direction of his briefcase. It had disappeared somewhere in the crowd of fire-watchers. Behind him, cloaked in darkness, was Chestnut Street. He turned and looked around to be sure he was not in the line of view of any of the TV cameras that were parked along the rubble-filled streets. After brushing the dust from the knees of his trousers, he loosened his tie, buttoned up his overcoat against the chilly night, and walked away from his old life, into what he hoped would be the life he always wanted.