Copyright© 2020 by Lazlo Zalezac
“Hey, Carl,” Burl replied to the bank guard.
Carl was in his late fifties trying to hang on until he could retire. He was a fill-in while the regular guard took his lunch hour. Since Burl always stopped by the bank during the lunch hour, he knew Carl better than the regular guard.
“I see that it is payday again,” Carl said.
The pay envelope was sticking out of Burl’s top pocket. It wasn’t the first he’d seen that day and it wouldn’t be the last. The bank would have a line for most of the day.
Burl answered, “Yes. A little money to feed me and more money to feed the government.”
“Only two things are certain in life – death and taxes,” Carl said.
“And it is taxes until you die,” Burl said.
“Yep,” Carl said.
The topic of conversation was edging in a direction that was a sore point for Carl. Burl asked, “How is your wife?”
“She’s not doing so well. The last round of chemotherapy didn’t help. The cancer is spreading,” Carl said.
“Oh, damn! I’m sorry to hear that,” Burl said.
“I’m going to be taking a leave of absence to take care of her. I was hoping to make it to retirement age, but I don’t think I’ll make it. Right now, I’d be happy to make it to the New Year,” Carl said.
“I’m really sorry to hear that,” Burl said.
With a little moisture in his eyes, Carl said, “Emma and I had hoped to drive around the country a bit after I retired. We wanted to see Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Old Faithful, and the Redwood Forest. It doesn’t look like that is going to happen.”
Burl shook his head. He couldn’t imagine how Carl felt to be losing the fight to save his wife. He did understand the kind of loneliness Carl would be facing if she died.
“If I can do anything to help, let me know,” Burl said.
Carl asked, “I don’t think anyone can help.”
“Hey, I can run errands so that you have more time to spend with your wife. I mean, you’ll still need to do shopping and stuff,” Burl said.
“That’s a real nice offer,” Carl said touched by the offer.
“I’m serious. You need anything, just give me a call,” Burl said.
Carl said, “I could put in a word for you if you want a job.”
“I’m thinking about joining the Army,” Burl said.
He hadn’t come to a firm decision about going into the army yet. There wasn’t a rush and there were a lot of details he had to clear up first. He owned a house and he would have to make arrangements to either sell it or rent it. In the current real estate market, he doubted that he would be able to sell it. He wasn’t encumbered with too many debts so he could clear them up. Even if things went his way, it would be after the first of the year before he could join.
“The Army?” Carl asked. “Why would you do that?”
“I figured I could do something for the country. Besides, it wouldn’t really matter if I got killed. I mean, I wouldn’t be leaving a widow behind,” Burl said.
He thought that sounded a lot better than it would end his lonely nights. He didn’t think he could face the idea of living alone for the rest of his life. Living in a barracks or on a military base didn’t sound that bad to him. Even slugging around in a foreign country with a bunch of friends sounded better than spending nights alone at home.
“So you think you’re expendable and other men aren’t,” Carl asked looking at Burl like he was crazy.
“Well ... I ... maybe,” Burl said.
The reason he gave suddenly didn’t sound all that better than saying it was better than being alone. On reflection, it sounded pretty bad. He decided that he wouldn’t mention that aspect of his thinking again.
Carl said, “Don’t do it, Burl.”
“I’ve got to consider it,” Burl said.
He was nearly at the point of deciding to go for it. The quiet nights at home since Laura Lane had left were pure torture. He didn’t think he could take living alone much longer.
“Suit yourself,” Carl said.
Carl wasn’t going to badger a man that he shouldn’t serve his country. He might disagree with the reasoning behind the move, but he wouldn’t argue against it. He had served and it had been one of the best things to happen to him. He had grown up a lot because of it and gained a bit of discipline in the process.
Burl said, “I better get in line or else I won’t get lunch today.”
“I’d hate for you to miss a meal,” Carl said. “Just think twice about joining the Army.”
“I’ll do that,” Burl said.
Ten minutes later Burl was at the food court getting ready to order a taco. He couldn’t decide whether to get one or two of them. Juanita came out of the back and studied Burl. She had just heard some rather disturbing news and hoped that it was just a groundless rumor.
She said, “I heard a rumor that you are joining the Army.”
“I’m thinking about joining,” Burl said.
He wondered how she had heard about it already. After giving it a thought, he realized there had been people who worked in the mall in the bank when he had discussed the matter with Carl. It was kind of scary that he was the subject of discussion like that.
Juanita asked, “Are you crazy? We’re at war.”
“I’m not crazy,” Burl said.
“We don’t want you to go,” Juanita said flatly.
“Why?” Burl asked.
Surprised by the question Juanita answered, “We’re going to miss you. Who is going to make us feel safe?”
“They’ll find someone nice to take my job,” Burl said.
Hiring a security guard for a mall wasn’t hard. An ad in the newspaper and they’d have a hundred people lined up, particularly in the current economy. It was a good paying job compared to working in a burger joint. He was sure they could replace him in a day.
Juanita said, “You know everyone who manages a store. You help us out when we need a hand. There’s no way they’ll be able to hire someone like you.”
“I appreciate the complement, but I’m no one special,” Burl said.
“I remember when you helped over at the shoe store when their stock boy was in an accident. How late did you stay there helping them put out stock?” Juanita asked.
“Just a couple hours,” Burl answered. “It was no big deal.”
What Juanita didn’t say was that the stock boy was the manager’s son. The manager had run off to the hospital leaving the store short-staffed. The store had received forty large boxes of shoes. Burl had helped them unpack and put the stock out on the shelves.
Juanita asked, “What will you have today?”
“Two tacos and a medium iced tea,” Burl answered.
“Okay,” Juanita said while turning to prepare his order. She shook her head and mumbled, “He’s going to get killed.”
Burl was about to bite into a taco when Mrs. Temple stopped by the table looking irritated. He looked up at her and wondered what he had done to make her mad.
“What?” Burl asked somewhat defensively.
“I heard you were joining the Army,” Mrs. Temple said.
“I’m thinking about it,” Burl said.
Burl wondered how many people were talking about him. Life in a mall was strange. People spent a lot of time working there, but it wasn’t exactly a tight knit community. Managers and full-time employees typically spent all of their time in the store. They might talk to the people in the stores immediately adjacent to theirs during quiet times, but they were basically locked to their place of employment. People, like Burl, who knew just about everyone in the mall were rare.
“Why?” Mrs. Temple asked.
“I would like to do something for the country. I figured I would get trained to be a medic or something,” Burl said.