A Quiet Way Out
By Chip Jett
Kirby was nervous because he didn’t like attention. He had a problem with turning red, red as a red balloon, and when people brought attention to him, his face would go so red you’d think his head would pop. He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t turned red; as far as he knew, he had done it all his life. There was never any special trigger for his redness, and he couldn’t control its intensity or duration. The more he worried about turning red, the more it would happen. Sometimes he would blush just wondering if he was blushing. The fallout of this encumbrance meant today was not going to be a good day for Kirby. It was October third, the one day Kirby wished would just be forgotten. This day always brought the worst kind of attention; October third was Kirby’s birthday.
Birthdays at work were always a big deal. Last January, for Erica’s birthday, Kirby and several coworkers had met at the office on a Saturday to really get her good. They spent hours decorating her cubicle. Kirby got the idea from a joke show on television, and they wrapped everything she owned in bright pink birthday paper. Everything. Stapler, computer, pens, photos on the desk, calendar on the wall. Kirby even climbed a ladder and wrapped the ceiling tiles over her desk (the desk, also wrapped). It was great, and they all had a huge laugh. But when Erica wanted to know whose big idea it was to wrap all her stuff, Kirby’s face went red. And the more they talked about it, the redder it became. Marsha from accounting, who never knew when to give things a rest, always made it worse. That day she had really turned up the heat.
“Look at how red Kirby’s face is! I guess the cat’s out of the bag now, huh Erica? Wow! Have you ever seen anybody’s face get so red? I mean really! Just look at it!”
They had all looked, and they had all laughed at Kirby’s bright red face.
Truth be told, in spite of Kirby’s propensity toward embarrassment, he did these things with the sincerest of hopes that his day would not be forgotten. The contradiction was not lost on Kirby.
Behind door number one lurked the realization that, if forgotten, he meant very little to people who were supposed to be his closest friends. Door number two meant everyone would remember his birthday and bring him the attention he so inexplicably feared. There was no door number three, no host to say, “I’ll help you out by showing you what’s inside.” Kirby was, as always, on his own to choose. Neither option held much appeal.
Kirby was friendly with most of the thirty or so people on his floor, even the new guy, Hal, from accounting; he hated to miss out on the comradery because of something as trivial as his red-faced affliction. But one thing over which he had no control was his birthday. Whether anybody remembered the day or not, he knew he could count on his birthday to bring with it the most anxiety.
Kirby arrived on time, as usual, and parked in the lower deck. Having worked out a plan to minimize attention, he grabbed his briefcase and took the stairs instead of the elevator. His company’s offices were on the eighth floor of the TrustCo building in downtown Atlanta, and Kirby usually rode up with a few pals from the office. Not today. He could imagine the entire staff gathered outside the elevator, waiting to shout “Happy Birthday!” at him when the doors parted like the red sea to reveal a red-faced Kirby. He knew such a gesture was all in good fun, as they say, and it showed they cared, and blah, blah, blah; he hated every second of it. His plan today was to sneak off the stairway and slide into his cubicle, unnoticed. He thought it was a good plan because nobody took the stairs. Not to the eighth floor they didn’t.
As he arrived at the landing, he held his breath, put a hand on the door’s bar, and gave it a quiet, gentle push. Through the small crack between the doors he could see the elevator across the hall. There was no crowd gathered. He pushed the door wider and stepped into the hall. He looked left. He looked right. He almost jumped out of his skin as Marsha rounded the corner headed his way. She looked up from the stack of papers she was arranging and said, “Oh, hi – good morning. I didn’t see you come in.” She offered her hand and said, “I’m Marsha.”
“Good morning,” he said shaking her hand, a half-smile on his face.
Hilarious, he thought. He had no choice but to play along, though he knew this must be part of the birthday nonsense.
Marsha was headed in the direction of the cubicles, and that gave Kirby a frightening idea. What if they had decorated his cubicle? It made sense; she was probably the lookout. He imagined she was even now whispering quiet, frenzied instructions, placing everybody in position to jump out and start the Kirby Goes Red Show.
But when he got to his space, all was as he had left it the day before. They must have something else planned, he thought. Great. Anticipation would make the day drag.
And drag it did.
Kirby focused his energies on the Rooney insurance claim, and not a soul disturbed his work. Each time someone approached, he knew that would be it, party time. But it never was. No special delivery at lunch, either. Kirby even paid for the new guy’s food because Hal had left his wallet at home. Lunch ended, and still no birthday surprise. He was mostly relieved not to have to endure the humiliation. But something else nagged at him.
Just last year, everyone had pitched in and got him a drone with a camera mounted on it, and the year before that, tickets to see the Braves play the Yankees, though he never made it to the game. They had never forgotten his birthday before. In spite of his aversion to attention, Kirby was curious to discover that finding nothing behind door number one hurt more than a little bit. Had he suddenly become so easy to forget?
After lunch, Kirby spent the afternoon finishing paperwork. At five, he joined a few coworkers and took the elevator down, half hoping now that a crowd would be at the bottom when the doors opened to reveal the punchline to the joke.
The elevator stopped. The doors opened. Nothing. He thought he might find his car decorated, but no, like Kirby, it, too, had been left alone. Nobody had snuck his keys and planted balloons inside, either. Laughter echoed through the parking deck as friends said goodbye for the evening.
Nobody said goodbye to Kirby; nobody wished him a happy birthday. Kirby watched everyone he knew get into their cars and drive away.
When he hit I-20’s Tuesday afternoon traffic, Kirby couldn’t remember how he had gotten there. He didn’t recall pulling out of the parking deck, sitting through six traffic lights (all stuck on red for what seemed like ages), or flinching when he almost missed his turn onto the interstate. Kirby’s mind was somewhere else. As bothered as he was to have attention for his birthday (the singing was always the worst part), not having it made him feel worse.
* * *
Kirby and Angela had an arrangement about nighttime meals: Kirby was responsible for Mondays and Wednesdays, Angela had Tuesdays and Thursdays. Weekends were difficult to plan; between the kids having sports, school functions, or sleepovers, the family dealt with those days as they came. Weeknights were a comfortable routine, and Angela had most of supper prepared by the time Kirby rolled into the garage. Tuesday meant she would be making hamburgers on the grill.
Even though Tuesday wasn’t his responsibility, Kirby helped out by stopping for potato salad at the Shop and Save near home. It was such a routine that Lacy, the ever-present checkout girl, knew Kirby by name and usually had his potato salad bagged by the register when he walked in. But not today.
Lacy had either forgotten it was Tuesday, or, more likely, she was busy and hadn’t yet had time to ready his order. Kirby wandered to the deli and searched for what he needed. No luck. They must be out, he thought, picking up a tub of macaroni salad and putting it back down. First time in forever they’re out of potato salad.
Lacy emerged from the stainless-steel double doors behind the counter and smiled at him. “Can I help you, sir?” she asked. He was saved.
“Hey, Lacy, yeah. I was worried when you didn’t have my stuff up front, but I don’t see it back here either. You guys all out?”
Lacy dropped her chin to her collarbone and smacked her gum like a champ.
“Mister, I don’t know what stuff you mean, and I don’t know why you’d think I’d have it for you.” She propped her hands on her hips and dug in for a fight, the sharp rise in Lacy’s attitude taking Kirby by surprise.
From somewhere behind, Kirby heard, “Is everything okay here, Lacy?” A dark-haired man with gray streaks in his hair and ‘Mr. Abercombie’ on his nametag had been listening to the exchange and moved in to protect his employee.
Kirby felt his face glowing red and hot. “Hey, look, I didn’t mean anything. I just need potato salad. I thought,” he started, then decided against making things worse. “I thought it was here in the deli.” He picked up the container of the nasty noodle alternative. “Macaroni salad will do.”
Kirby paid for the food and walked out the door feeling foolish and confused. He circled the parking lot, twice, before he found his car parked in the space up front. He stood for a moment, looking at it. He felt he should remember having luck enough to find such a great spot. But he didn’t remember.
Coffee, he thought. I need coffee. Something to straighten out my head.
The best coffee, night or day, was at Gwen’s Country Kitchen. The coffee at Gwen’s was so strong it could cure the flu. That wasn’t a motto, it was Kirby’s firm belief. A few years back, Kirby had had a bad case of the flu, with a dose of strep thrown in for good measure. Angela had come home that evening with some of Gwen’s finest, and Kirby had drunk that coffee as if it contained the sweet nectar of life. He was so sick he couldn’t really taste it, but the hot liquid did wonders for his throat. That night, Kirby’s fever had broken. By morning, the flu and all that came with it was an ill-begotten memory. Ever since, Gwen’s coffee was the cure-all for whatever ailed him. He was there almost every morning before work, and on particularly stressful days, he repeated the stop on his way home. Tonight, of all nights, Kirby’s mind was ailing him something fierce, and he knew Gwen had the remedy.
“I’ll take the usual,” Kirby said when he, at last, made it to the counter.
“And what would that be, honey?”
Not again. “What?” he asked, face beginning to glow.
“What is your usual, sweetheart?” Gwen smiled at him, but he could sense her patience eroding; it was a busy night.
“Decaf, two cream, no sugar. Same as always.” Kirby’s face flushed a deeper shade. “Please tell me you know that, Gwen.”
“Sweetie, I can’t remember every face that comes in here, but don’t you worry: one decaf, two cream, no sugar is on its way.” She whirled away and came back shortly with his coffee.
“Gwen.” Kirby clutched her wrist. “What’s going on? Are you messing with me? Is there something I should know?” If this was part of some larger birthday ploy, the coordination was more than impressive; it was staggering.
“Yeah. You want to know something?” She jerked her arm free of his hand. “That coffee is $2.95. You can pay me here or settle up at the register on your way out.” She looked for all the world like that girl at the Shop and Save, the one with the furrowed brows who smacked her gum a hundred miles an hour.
Kirby left Gwen’s, the coffee, and five dollars on the counter, the only clue that he had ever been there at all. A short while later, Gwen would pour out the abandoned cup of coffee and wonder who would leave a five dollar tip for doing nothing.
Gwen’s was about four miles from his front door, and Kirby couldn’t get home fast enough. It was odd, then, that after a good twenty minutes, he still hadn’t reached his destination. The drive should have taken five minutes at most. Maybe. He figured he must have had one of those moments when the world skips a beat.
He’d done it a thousand times before. He always came to, so to speak, just in time to make an exit.
This time, however, he missed his turn completely.
He slapped his face to make sure he was awake and began looking for a good spot to turn around. He checked his cell and had no service. Ahead, the road was dark. There were no streetlights and no familiar landmarks. He must have passed his neighborhood, he reasoned, but couldn’t recall
In the high beams ahead, Kirby saw a man, thumb out, hitchhiking. Kirby edged the car left to give the man room (he had no intentions of picking up a hitchhiker), and almost hit his brakes as he passed.
He couldn’t swear to it, but the man on the side of the road looked an awful lot like the the new guy, Hal Mayo, from accounting.
Kirby hadn’t had much of a chance to get to know Hal yet, so he wasn’t sure where the man lived. Seeing him out this far shouldn’t seem odd; what was odd was that he should be out this late at night, hitchhiking. ‘This late,’ Kirby checked his phone, which still had no service, was nine-fifteen. Where had the time gone?
By the time Kirby came to terms with his thoughts, Hal was no longer visible in the rear- view mirror. Just as well; Kirby still hadn’t found a suitable place to turn the car around.
Ahead in a curve in the road, something reflected light through the trees. He hoped it was a mailbox, which would mean a driveway and a place to turn around. As Kirby came out the other side of the curve, he saw it wasn’t a reflector; it was the new guy, Hal Mayo.
Kirby slammed on the brakes and came to a stop. It was impossible. He had passed Hal only minutes ago, maybe two miles back. There was no way Hal could have covered that distance to get ahead of Kirby.
Hal was jogging up to the passenger’s side of Kirby’s stopped car, one hand raised in a wave, the other shielding his eyes from the glare of the high beams.
“Hey, there, Kirby! It’s Hal Mayo, from accounting. I was hoping you’d come this way. Mind if I get in?” Kirby was stunned for the third time this evening, but his face wasn’t red this go-round.
The night was full dark, no stars. The usual nighttime sounds of tree frogs and katydids hummed, but there were no other signs of life. The road was edged on both sides by deep ditches; no place, still, to turn back for home.
“Boy, it gets dark out this far,” Hal was saying as Kirby pulled the car back onto the blacktop. “If you’ll keep going this way, there’s a tunnel ahead. It’ll take us where we need to go.
“By the way,” Hal reached out a hand and patted Kirby on the shoulder. “Happy birthday, old man. Has it been a good one so far?” It had not.
“Man, Hal, it hasn’t, it really hasn’t.” Kirby gripped the steering wheel a little tighter. “First, everybody at work forgot my birthday, which I really don’t care about, but then Lacy at the Shop and Save forgot my potato salad, and Gwen forgot my coffee. And now, I can’t remember which way I need to go to get home.” He looked at his passenger. “And here you are.” Kirby kept his eyes on the new guy. “I passed you on the road, Hal. Twice. How’d you get ahead of me?”
Hal Mayo sighed a deep, mournful sigh. “Kirby, my friend, I need to tell you something.”
Great, Kirby thought. I’m being kidnapped by the FBI to start a new life in some other part of the world. Angela will kill me.
“I’m not with the FBI, Kirby. But it is something like that.”
Kirby almost stopped the car. “How’d you do that?” he said. “How’d you know that’s what I was thinking?” He started tapping the brakes. “I’ll let you out right here, man, and you can walk the rest of the way.”
Hal gave Kirby’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Not yet, Kirby.” He pointed to the road ahead. Kirby could see the mouth of a large tunnel looming in the darkness. He had no idea where he was. Kirby checked his phone. It still had no service, and the time was still 9:15.
Hal began. “It’s over, Kirby. You died last night, quietly, peacefully, in your sleep.”
Kirby kept the wheel steady and shook his head. “You’re nuts.”
“I’m not, Kirby. Think about it. You remember today, right? You remember your friends forgetting your birthday, other people you interact with forgetting about you. But what about you. Can you remember even getting up this morning?”
Kirby searched his brain, but he couldn’t recall.
“You don’t, Kirby, because, like the people in your life, you are starting to forget.” Hal looked out the car’s passenger-side window. “Dying is hard to do, Kirby. The people who are forgetting you were friends, family. But it’s your time to go. If you had left suddenly, there would have been too much hurt for the ones you’re leaving behind. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
There were moments in Kirby’s life when he had ‘just known’ something was right. It was like the time his wife misplaced her wedding ring. Kirby had told her to look on a shelf in the garage, next to the gloves she had put on to plant flowers. He had ‘just known’ the ring would be there. This was one of those times.
His wife. What was her name again?
Kirby had a bad feeling Hal wasn’t messing around. He also wondered who ‘we’ referred to. At that moment, a more pressing thought was making its way to the front of the line of questions queuing up in his head.
“My wife. Hal, what about my wife? She was still in bed when I left this morning. I don’t think I told her goodbye. Can I at least go back and tell my wife goodbye?”
Hal shook his head. “I’m sorry, man. This is it. Your wife got up this morning to a brand-new day, no Kirby. She’s already forgotten you. The kids, too.”
Kids? What was Hal talking about? Kirby didn’t remember any kids.
Hal’s voice came again, “You don’t need to worry anymore, my friend.”
They were close to the tunnel now, a bright glow emanating from somewhere deep within. Hal leaned over and took the wheel. Kirby dropped his hands into his lap. “Not much longer now, Kirby.” Kirby relaxed. He realized that his foot was not pressing the pedal, yet the car continued forward. The car entered the tunnel, and the light intensified. Kirby could see nothing of his surroundings; he wasn’t sure where he was.
He tried to remember. Something about his birthday. Or coffee. Or potato salad. Such thoughts would, under normal circumstances, have painted his face every shade of red under the sun. Kirby’s last coherent thought came as he closed his eyes. These are not normal circumstances.
The car slowed. The power locks clicked, and Kirby heard the handle of the car lift, from the outside. The door opened. The door closed.
A chorus of voices said, “No, Kirby. These certainly are not normal circumstances.”
A single voice – a man’s voice he did not recognize – said, “Happy birthday, old man.”
For the first time he could remember, Kirby’s face did not turn red.