His name tag says ‘Walter’, but everyone calls him ‘Walt’. He is unmistakably middle-aged. Larger-than-necessary glasses sit on his nose; his large nose sitting above his large mustache. He is overweight, but not sloppy; the kind of overweight one might expect of someone you’d call ‘middle-aged’ and also someone you’d call ‘Walt’. He exudes a humility and modesty, possibly amounting to insecurity, that can’t be formulated or taught. It’s just an inherent part of his genetics and generation. He’s an average American boob: complacent, descending, and, of course, completely useful. And like any American boob, he could hold any of a number of lucrative yet mediocre jobs as, say, an accountant, or an architect, or even a lawyer. But for the past six and a half years, he’s been working as a cashier at the Au Bon Pain bakery at the smaller of the two airports in town.
He works the afternoon shift there five days a week, from three to nine. The job requires him to stand for most of those six hours; something for which his body is no longer equipped. His knees and back start emitting a dull pain about four hours into the shift, leaving the last two hours of the shift unpleasant, if not unbearable. He then punches out, grabs a small bag of several pieces and types of good bread that were baked earlier that day and would otherwise be thrown out, and then drives the twenty minutes to his average American home to place his trusty heating pads on his trouble areas. He then sits in his tattered reclining chair and takes in the latest episode of Law and Order or perhaps the early news until his eyelids drop involuntarily behind his thick-lensed spectacles. His real name is Henry.
Henry graduated from a respectable college. Not a great college, but a very respectable one. And he earned himself a degree in mechanical engineering, or some such bestowment. And not long after graduation, he found a respectable job. Not a great job, but a very respectable one. A mid-size city not quite in the Midwest was in the early stages of building a new, state-of-the-art, city-wide transit system, and Henry was to help implement the city’s modest light rail, working directly under the chief engineer.
Henry was not an outgoing person. He didn’t make friends easily, nor did he work all too hard to make sure he kept the ones he had. But he was a very likable man. Most could surmise this from seeing the subtle tight-lipped smile that rarely left his face. However, to some, it would appear that he was shy or even the slightest bit of a sociopath. But he really wasn’t. He was just very comfortable with solitude, quite happy with not having to make idle conversation with strangers.
But after a couple of years in this mid-size city not quite in the Midwest, Henry met Elaine, a young woman in her third year of law school. To Henry, obviously, there was something special about Elaine. Elaine enjoyed her fair share of solitude and quiet just as much as Henry. So, often when Henry and Elaine were together, it was as if they were each alone. Side by side, but very much alone. Now, they had great conversation and sometimes even great fun, but at no point did they ever have that pesky, neurotic feeling between two people that there’s another human in the room eliciting something to be said. So, Henry and Elaine became married after two laid-back years of courtship. They bought a nice home near the outer limits of the city, had a daughter named Kelly that they thought was the cutest baby they’d ever seen, and started what seemed to be quite a happy and comfortable family.
Give us this day…
Walt has been employed at the Au Bon Pain longer than any other employee there, and has been offered management positions numerous times due to his capabilities, even at the corporate level. He always turns them down, however, saying that he is quite happy as a cashier. He never lets on that staying on as cashier is actually a necessary and strategic part of his mission. Because, of course, no one can know about his mission, for even he doesn’t know it quite yet.
He could have taken on a number of disposable jobs in town, anything that could be forsaken at a moment’s notice. But there is something he always enjoyed about the Au Bon Pain. The smell of freshly baked bread and freshly brewed coffee, the sterile Ikea-like aura, the warmth of the oven and the overly-bright lights, and even the fact that it’s smack dab in the middle of the airport, with its bustling energy and harried customers; these all made the Au Bon Pain Walt’s first choice in decoy employment, believe it or not.
Pushing the same fifteen buttons on his cash register and mindlessly following the commands of its regurgitated reply gives Walt a Zen-like freedom to wonder the complicated halls of his mind throughout the day. Amidst the sporadic flow of faceless flyers coming in for their espressos and cinnamon bagels, Walt will imagine himself sitting in the back of a utility van outside the French consulate, listening through clunky headphones to the exchanges and goings-on of important officials over various tapped phones. He can see himself thwarting an assassination attempt on the president of Mozambique or Paraguay, taking out the gunman at the last second, unbeknownst to and unseen by anyone. He fancies the thought of breaking up illegal trade routes in southeast Asia, infiltrating the mansions of Columbian drug lords, and conducting top-secret espionage aboard a Russian submarine.
He doesn’t know when his opportunity will arise, but he is sure it will come. He doesn’t know exactly how the mission will be laid out to him, but he is sure it will be covert; most likely in some sort of code coming from his television or the newspaper, or a self-destructing communique secreted inside one of the chocolate croissants he scarfs down daily. He has no idea what his duties will entail, but he is sure they will be vital and even dangerous. So, he remains vigilant, his eyes and ears expectant, ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice. And, in the meantime, transient travelers need to pay for their blueberry scones and cappuccinos before taking off to their final destinations.
Henry and Elaine had been married almost twenty years when it happened. Their daughter Kelly, then the cutest college student they had ever seen, was finishing her second year at the same school her father attended. Not a great school, but a respectable one. Henry was still working for his local transit system, and was now the chief engineer. Elaine was about to become a partner at a very respectable law firm in town. Not a great firm, but a very respectable one. Things were very good.
Now, although things can be very good, it’s unsurprising that a person would start to feel something unsettling after spending decades of his or her life in the same routine. Surely, for some, it is the inevitable outcome of being a provider and something that you just accept. Or perhaps, it is a blessing of stability not everyone is granted, and something for which you should be grateful. For others yet, it is a curse or even a punishment; something that seemed to happen unintentionally and is suddenly a perfect reason for a mid-life crisis. For most, it is all of that, respectively manifested at various times throughout this slog of a life.
Henry’s outlook was gray, at best, and he swam through his grayness with little reflection. He didn’t dare feel cursed, nor did he quite feel grateful. He lived in a town where almost everyone held their routines for lifetimes; he was nowhere unique enough to feel blessed. He was more than less designed to be one who just accepted his fate and situation. But there was something small inside him that didn’t swallow this entire pill. After all, Henry was a dreamer, as it turns out. A very cowardly dreamer, but a dreamer nonetheless. He did want something more. He did want to be important, in that romantic sort of way. He wanted to be more like what he initially set out to be at some brief stretch of time in his young life, though, sadly, he couldn’t recall what that ever was.
Imagine the secret elation Henry must have felt then that day. It was a particularly difficult day at work, having found out that morning that the long-desired promotion and possible transfer to a different project wouldn’t be happening any time soon, after all. As drab outside as it was inside, there was a memorable stillness in the air. And at 5:00, Henry took the elevator alone down to the parking garage of his office building to make his way home through that God-forsaken suffocating stillness. He walked to his car, his head down, his feet dragging, and his briefcase at his side. He reached into his pants pocket and grabbed his car keys. And as he was about to unlock his Buick, a strange and stealthy man wearing a fedora and a long coat, and smoking a cigarette, called out his name. No one else was there to see it go down.
Separating the wheat from the chaff
So, day after day, muffin after muffin, Walt now spends his days waiting. And wondering. He wonders about his exciting future, of course. But more and more these days, with an increasingly nagging demand for clarity, he also wonders how he got to the present. He sometimes wonders back to that day when he was approached in that parking garage by the man that now resembles a shadow. And he sometimes wonders why exactly they chose him. He wonders why they wanted him to change his name, and why he ever chose a name like ‘Walter’ in the first place. Why not something sexily millennial like Brock or Paxton? He wonders why they wanted him to quit his career after twenty years. And why he was more than eager to oblige. And why Elaine didn’t stay. He wonders why his landlord still hasn’t fixed his shower, which noisily drips a single drop of water every ten to twelve seconds throughout his sleepless nights and has a markedly weaker water pressure than when he first moved in to that grubby little efficiency. Or why his daughter has such difficulty finding the time to call. And why this is all still unexplainably preferable to what he had had before.
Then, while deeply entranced in his wonder, his newest manager, about twenty years his junior, tells him he can go punch out and head home, sometimes a little early and sometimes right on time. And while trudging toward the small and unwelcoming communal airport break room to fetch his coat and punch the clock, he passes by the warm Au Bon Pain oven and takes in the unmistakable odor of toasting bread, wondering half-jokingly if the smoldering smell is instead the start of a severe stroke he is sure someday will strike. Only every so often, he wishes it is.
As he sits in his tattered reclining chair at night, taking in the latest episode of Law and Order or the early news until his eyelids droop, he wonders if he remembers things right. If the strange man was indeed really there like that; if he really did ask him to do all those things on which he unhesitatingly followed through. And if all the things he sees and hears amidst his daily bustle are always true, in the conventional sense. Alas, he wonders about other possible uses of the good bread that he takes home after every shift, that piles up stale on his kitchenette counter. And in the last weak moments before his mind shuts down for the day, he will sometimes think of Henry.
Of course, through all this, the thought occurs to him that he has fallen yet again into another routine, one just as ho-hum as before. But this current one somehow is hinting at a thing that sort of resembles hope. A hope that he again will be useful, of course, as the man in the parking garage had definitely promised. That he will become good bread once again, even after having become stale. A crouton of a man. So, with vigilant eyes and ears, from three to nine at the Au Bon Pain at the smaller of the two airports in town, Walt wonders, and waits to be told what is next.
Man cannot live on bread, alone.
Corey Rieger is an actor and writer based in Los Angeles. He writes mostly plays and sketches, which have been produced with varying degrees of enthusiasm all over the country. He sometimes ventures into prose, and is currently working on a book of his various pieces, which should be due out shortly before the apocalypse. Image: Bread on the Green, Pyotr Konchalovsky, 1913