Clarence Newberry, along with 140,000 other management employees could sense the sharpened blade about to strike. There was a gentle breeze to his back, caused by the executioner taking practice swipes with his instrument. The ax would fall soon.
Or at least that is what Clarence has heard.
Reduction in Force or RIF, the most frightening words ever invented; ones guaranteed to strike fear in even the boldest middle class heart. Thirty percent this year, more next.
East Coast Mega Telecom has been losing their war for the hearts and minds of the cable TV viewer. The big cable companies were not only holding onto their cable TV customers, they were taking ECMT's landline customers. Soon all ECMT will have left is its booming wireless business and that was not enough to keep Clarence and the other landline workers employed.
Clarence was forty-nine, having battled racism and a lack of college credentials to a low six figure middle management position. ECMT had long ago eliminated severance pay; Clarence's savings were nil so he had no safety net. His 401K would mostly be eaten up by repayment of his two significant loans; the rest by his need to pay something on his mortgage lest they take his suburban McMansion.
As was his habit, Clarence did not inform his wife Mae of his impending RIF. After twenty-two years of marriage he knew better to open his mouth; by the time he closed his mouth his wife would use his openness as a weapon, beating him down, describing in detail his shortcomings as a man, husband and father.
She'll even throw in how she doesn't get IT enough, he thought.
She'll say how he's letting down his children. For the umpteenth time Clarence felt a pang of regret. Five years ago, both of them having lost their minds temporarily, little Clarence was born. After having two girls who were nearly grown, they had another child. Mae would hit him with the 'C bomb': You're not setting a good example for your son. His ears bleed from the assault. You need to be a strong provider for the family.
Finally, when he's almost unconscious from the assault, she'll unload the big gun, the bunker buster. Show your boy what it is to be a man. It's her favorite phrase.
Clarence spent a couple week scouring the 'Net for a new job, assessing his prospects. He quickly found that given his age and his lack of college, his prospects were bleak. Black guy pushing fifty, he was a heart attack and the accompanying major medical bills, waiting to happen. He didn't even have the educational and career gravitas necessary to convince corporate America he was worth the risk. Plus the economy is in the toilet. There was no doubt in Clarence's mind that he would lose everything: house, cars, LCD TV, his son's love and respect.
Clarence was left with one option: death.
He was worth more to his family dead than alive. The half million dollar life insurance policy and another quarter million through ECMT would certainly take care of Mae and the children. The home and his big screen TV would be safe. Is that all his wife and kids care about? Their stuff and the mansion that holds it?
Clarence took a day off from work without telling his wife. Dangerous, yes, but he felt it worth the risk. He drove into the 'hood, deep in the jungle until he reached the abode of his ne'er do well Cousin Greg. Greg was nearly the same age as Clarence but still clung to the artifice of youth: XBOX, hookers, crack and living off your parents. For a man who like Clarence was nearing fifty, it was a pretty impressive feat.
After greeting his aunt, Clarence went down the basement, Greg's fiefdom. Greg was playing Resistance on the XBOX 360. He gave his cousin's hand a quick shake and went back to his game. Realizing that he would not have his cousin's full attention, Clarence started talking.
He told him about the upcoming RIF. (He spoke slowly since Greg had never held a job and the whole 'work thang' was a mystery to him.) He got a corner of his cousin's eyeball when he mentioned the LCD TV. Finally Clarence got to the point.
"I need you to find me a hitman," he said.
"Who do you want deaded?" Greg asked. He was very calm, as if someone stopped by daily to hire a killer.
"I don't want anyone deaded….dead."
"Ya'll sure? I would kill the bitch you married for nothing my damned self."
"I want to die," Clarence said. "I want the hitman to kill me."
This moved Greg to pause the game. "Ya gotta be shitting me, cus. You don't want to go out like that."
"I do," Clarence said. "And I'll give you a thousand dollars to make it happen."
"Bet," Greg said quickly. Clarence assumed that meant they had a deal and shook his cousin's hand. They spent a few minutes discussing the details and then Clarence handed over the cash (another loan from his 401K).
After declining his cousin's elegant offer to smoke crack – yo, just like old times, cus! – Clarence stumbled onto the harsh sidewalk knowing that he was finally being a man, THE MAN, for his family.
Clarence spent the next two days waiting for the shot to the head that would end his life. He had requested that the hitman blow his brains out with a high powered rifle, preferably when he was alone so that he would not scar his children for the rest of their lives. If he had the shot when Clarence was in the presence of his wife it was okay to kill him then. Mae Newberry would be too busy counting her money to be scared by something as mundane as Clarence's head exploding like JFK's.
Clarence wore brightly colored suits and shoes to work, in the hope that he would make a better target. He hoped to be knocked off before now because he had heard that today was RIF day, when the unfortunate thousands would learn their fates. By the end of today many heads would reside in the wicker basket, the executioner smiling underneath the hood.
Who would be Clarence's executioner?
Sitting at his desk in his lime green suit nervously tapping his pencil on his desktop Clarence got the call. His boss' boss, the Senior VP, wanted to see Clarence in his office.
"Nice suit," Mr. Westerly said as Clarence strolled into his office, a dead man at peace with the life he has lived. He gave the man a casual shake of the hand and sat in the uncomfortable chair facing a colossal desk.
"Thank you for coming to see me so promptly," Westerly said. He was smiling.
Clarence hated a happy hangman.
Just get it over with! he screamed inside.
"The reason I called you here is because we have made the decision to let Carol Harley go."
Clarence was stunned – Carol was his boss and, as an older woman, would have an even harder time finding another position.
"I'm sorry to hear that, sir. Carol is a good person." Okay, motherfucker, let the other shoe fall. I'm gone too, right?
"We've decided that you are the right person to lead her division. In fact, Clarence, with the consolidations, you will be leading two divisions, with a considerable increase in pay." Weatherly wrote down Clarence's total compensation package and Clarence's eyeballs nearly fell out and on to the paper.
The man droned on for another twenty minutes, discussing budgets, objectives, team building and other executive tripe, but Clarence was not listening. Soon the man stopped talking and Clarence floated out of the office and back to his desk. It was quitting time before Clarence thought of the hitman who was somewhere out there, ready to make his head explode. He called his cousin's house. His aunt answered and informed Clarence that Greg was high right now and would have to call him back later. Clarence hung up.
Somehow I have to stay alive until I can reach Greg, he thought.
He considered remaining at work until then. Mae would be pissed that he was late but better late than dead; dead being slightly worse than an angry black woman on your ass. The problem was he did not know what the hitman looked like. Given the shoddy security at ECMT's headquarters the killer could simply waltz up to Clarence's cubicle and blow his brains out.
Clarence spent the next twenty minutes perusing every individual who walked by. At this point, his pointy toed light green shoes were doing a nervous rumba underneath his desk. He stood; he would be a man and go home with his head held high.
High, but not too high. To cover his green suit Clarence borrowed a brown trench coat from the community closet. He slunk into the eighty degree heat of the early August evening dressed for a rain shower that was never coming. He decided against going for his car – parked on the rooftop of the parking garage – a lonely spot convenient for both a high powered rifle fired from nearby rooftops or the approach of a quiet assassin.
Clarence ran down into a nearby subway station. He purchased a dozen tokens and soon was riding the subway north. He kept a careful eye on his fellow passengers – his suburban eyes read danger in all their rough urban faces. There was one person who caught his attention, a black man in a white windbreaker and black cap. It occurred to Clarence that many killers wore windbreakers – better to hide a gun, my dear.
Clarence noticed that the subway doors bounced before their final close – open, closed, and bounced back open then closed for good. Timing his exit to coincide when his assumed killer was distracted, Clarence managed to bolt out of the subway car on the door's second opening. As the car sped away he looked in satisfaction as the black hat got smaller and smaller.
From there his took a southbound train back into downtown and a light rail out to the 'burbs. There was no transportation out to his house so Clarence had to hoof it, making sure he stayed off the road, in the shadows of shrubs and trees. It was nearly eleven when he got home. He was filthy, sweaty, and just plain dead tired. But, he was not dead, he had made it.
The phone was ringing as he entered his house.
"Where have you been, Clarence?" Mae asked as she handed him the phone. She shook her head and smacked her teeth as she stepped away.
"Clarence, it's me." It was Greg! Perfect.
"Greg, I want you to call it off."
His cousin laughed. Clarence had a sinking feeling – maybe he wouldn't call it off.
"You can keep the money, Greg. Just call it off, man."
Greg laughed again. Clarence could hear the XBOX going in the background – thousands of virtual men were dying while Clarence sweated out his oh so real life.
"Cus, it was never on. I knew you would have second thoughts about it, after you calmed yourself down. I even called that wife of yours – told her what you wanted to do."
"You told Mae?" Clarence now felt a pair of hard eyes boring into his back. He turned and instead of an angry look his wife actually appeared to be the picture of empathy and love.
"Yeah, cus, she told me that you've been under a lot of pressure at work." He laughed again. He sure did seem to be enjoying my misery, Clarence thought.
"But, pressure or not son, you ain't getting your money back. Already smoked that shit up."
Clarence thanked his cousin and hung up the phone.
Mae Newbery approached her husband and took his hand. "I think we need to talk," she said.
They sat on the couch, close for once, and Clarence poured his heart out. He told his wife of his fear of being RIF'd, his desire to take care of his family and to be a man.
Mae nodded her understanding and patted his hand on cue. This was the most comfort she has given him since their son was conceived.
"Obviously you were mistaken, Clarence. I tell you all the time that you underestimate yourself."
He told her about his increased responsibilities then he told her about his new compensation plan. He expected her to be happiest about that change but her expression did not alter; there was love and sympathy in her eyes. "I think you need to go upstairs and get cleaned up, my husband." Her ample lips softly brushed his cheek. "I'll have your supper warm for you when you come back down."
Clarence stepped into the master bedroom and before he could turn on the light he felt something strange under his feet. In the light he determined that it was some type of plastic painter's cloth. Was Mae going to paint the room?
He took another step in the room when a man stepped out of the master bath; it was the man in the white windbreaker. The jackets were good for concealing weapons. The man extracted a large pistol made even longer by the silencer on the end of the barrel.
Before Clarence could explain that it was all a mistake he was shot in the forehead. As he lay on the ground bleeding out, a pair of sensible shoes joined the white tennis shoes of his killer.
His wife bent down so that her face was near his.
She smiled. "For once, Clarence, you decided to stand up, be a man."
Clarence tried to make a sound but the only once he could muster was the sound of his bowels emptying.
Mae patted her husband's face. "That's okay, baby, that what the plastic's for." She laughed with a joy Clarence had not heard in twenty years.
"When Greg called I knew I couldn't let you punk out of this. This was my chance to make you a man that I and our children could be proud of."
A strange satisfaction flowed over Clarence's body. He actually felt good as the windbreaker dude deposited another bullet into his cranium, finally ending his life.