“Do you mean I’m fired?” Edmund asked his boss, Clive Stanway.
The day had started like any other workday. Edmund had risen early, fed his cat, Chloe, exercised, and walked to work from his home in the Logan Square neighborhood of Philadelphia. It was a pleasant early summer day, sunny and not yet humid. Edmund’s walk was a brisk 15-minutes door-to-door, and the lovely weather put a spring into his step. While striding, he remembered how, as a child, he was so good at skipping great distances, outpacing his playmates in races.
Edmund worked as an accountant for a company that owned restaurants. He knew some of the dining places were performing poorly and had thought it a mistake to open an expensive one near Rittenhouse Square. There were already many fine eateries there, and the competition was challenging. However, knowing this did not prepare him for what followed that Friday morning. A note on his desk summoned him to Clive’s office.
“Good morning, Ed,” Clive said. “Have a seat.” Edmund had long ago given up on asking people to call him by his full forename, though he preferred it.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Stanway?”
Edmund regarded his boss. Though coeval, he always thought of Clive as significantly junior to him in age. Perhaps it was Clive’s supercilious nature. He was always quick with decisions and utterly confident in them, despite making many major misjudgments over the years. He treated with disdain anyone who raised an objection or provided a contrary viewpoint. He was haughty, arrogant, and often wrong but never doubted the truth of his vision.
“Unfortunately, I have been forced to declare my firm bankrupt,” Clive said. “I am letting you go immediately. Here is your final paycheck.” He passed a handwritten check to Edmund.
In response to Edmund’s question, Clive said, “No. No. No. You are not being fired. You have done your job. It’s just that your position no longer exists. Everyone will be let go, and all the restaurants closed. You can clear out your office and take your things home.”
Never one to fulminate, always calm and professional, Edmund was too stupefied to say anything coherent. “But the business is not doing that badly,” he blurted.
“It’s over; I’ve decided to close everything down. Don’t make this emotional.”
Stunned, Edmund picked up his check, stood, stretched his head towards the ceiling to bring himself to his full five-foot-eight-inch height, nodded at Clive, turned, and left the office. On his way to his room across the hall, he noticed what he had not seen earlier. Jenny, Clive’s long-suffering assistant, was not at her desk. Moreover, there were no photos on it. Jenny was married with two charming young children, who sometimes came to the office. She adored showing visitors their photos. She must have been informed the evening before when he was closing the books for May. Clive would have told her not to disturb Edmund on her way out of the office.
Edmund sat at his desk and began putting his few belongings into his briefcase. Unmarried and childless, he had only a few beloved pens, an aging calculator, and one paperweight to take home. The walls had a few posters he had put up to alleviate the drabness of the office, but he had no use for them at home. Before he left, he quickly checked the company’s cash account on his computer. It was empty; his check would bounce.
Edmund stopped at his bank on his way home and waited patiently in line to see his favorite teller. When it was his turn, he approached her and said, “Jessie, I seem to have a problem.”
“What’s that, Mr. Baker?” Jessie asked, concern clouding her face.
“I don’t believe there are any funds in this account to cash my paycheck,” he said, pushing the check and deposit slip through the slot in the glass separating them.
“Let me check,” she said. The restaurant business banked here also.
“You’re right,” she said. “It’s empty. Is something wrong?”
“Yes, the firm is bankrupt, and I have been let go. Clive told me this morning and gave me this last check.”
“Oh, I am so sorry to hear that. You certainly didn’t deserve that, Mr. Baker.”
“Thank you,” he said. “You are very kind.”
“Please leave this here with me, and I will check the company’s account when I get a chance. Should some new receivables appear in it, I’ll deposit your check at that time.”
“I would greatly appreciate that,” Edmund replied. “I may need it.”
Though he had saved diligently over the years, Edmund was far from wealthy. He lived a comfortable but simple life, occasionally splurging on a vacation to the Caribbean in winter or an extravagant meal in an elegant restaurant. He realized that at age 64, he might never get another full-time job. Who would want a highly experienced accountant when they could have a young, less costly one? Yes, he would need this last paycheck. He’d take himself to an expensive dinery, somewhere he had never been.
Chloe was happy to see him and came running to greet him when he opened the door at home. He fed her a treat of roasted turkey, and she looked at him quizzically. Did she know it was unusual for him to be home on Friday morning? Cats seemed to know much more than we credit them. Chloe always knew how to get attention when she wanted it and stop it when she didn’t. She was a pro at food requests. She was a house cat, so she did not need to know how to ask to go outside, but he was sure she would have learned if necessary. Aside from Chloe, Edmund was also fond of his two orchids. One was still blooming after five months. They sat on the windowsill with the most sunlight. He gave them an ice cube each, though they didn’t need it.
What to do? Edmund was at a loss. Work provided grounding, a purpose in life, structure. He would need to arrange his affairs for retirement. Meanwhile, he had most of a Friday ahead of him. Shouldn’t he be happy?
To keep himself busy, he would bring forward all his chores from Saturday. He could sort out his finances later.
Edmund liked walking. He prided himself on his ability to live in the city without a vehicle, and the walking kept him fit. As he stepped out of his front door, he noticed the foxgloves on his neighbor’s stoop were blooming. Weren’t they a poisonous plant?
He walked to Reading Terminal and picked up a large steak, potatoes, broccoli, and a baguette. On his way home, he picked up a bottle of Malbec, the most expensive on the shelf, at the State Store. He put this away carefully in his kitchen.
Later, he went to the dry cleaners to pick up his shirts. He passed the homeless man on the corner of Market Street who always politely asked for spare change and to which he replied, “Sorry.” At least this person wasn’t truculent like some of the homeless. But Edmund preferred to give to the local food banks; then, he knew that people were getting nutrition and not buying cigarettes and booze with his donated money.
Amy, the Asian clerk, was surprised to see him.
“It’s Friday, Mr. Baker,” Amy said. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve retired,” he replied, but the phrase sounded odd to him. “Today was my last day of work.”
“Congratulations!” she said.
“Thank you,” he said, and he almost felt good, but he was still pained by the memory of his talk with Clive. Thirty years of doing his accounting ledgers and nothing but a dubious one-month paycheck to show for it. The perfidious swine, Edmund thought, startling himself with his sudden anger.
While walking back to his row house, he stopped at the iron bar fence protecting the Mütter Museum’s garden. He gazed through the bars. The shrubbery was spectacularly green and lush, and some plants sported flowers of various hues. A hibiscus had large trumpet blooms of fiery red, changing to orange then yellow at its outer edges. There were several plants with florets of yellow or white. Every plant was healthy and seemed to be meticulously maintained. Every stone on the small path that wound through it was perfectly placed, though some were covered with moss. The benches look comfortable and inviting. How had he never noticed this before? He had walked by this garden, an emerald oasis, once a week for decades. He hadn’t been to the museum since he was a teenager. The deformed fetuses in formaldehyde and the skeletons were more interesting in those days.
He would plant a garden! That afternoon, he would visit the museum and discover what plants were in their tiny park.
He carried his shirts home, had lunch, and got on his computer. He looked up foxgloves and their medicinal value. They were toxic but not very deadly. If ingested, they could be fatal, but the irregular heartbeat, upset stomach, and confusion they caused sounded unpleasant. Then he looked up nightshade. He liked the ring of the word. It was also called deadly nightshade, devil’s cherry, and best of all, belladonna. Like the other plant, it had beautiful flowers, and it appeared to be more noxious than foxgloves. It also had particularly lethal berries: consuming ten to twenty could be fatal for adults. It was supposed to be one of the most toxic plants in the Western Hemisphere. However, the symptoms after eating the roots, leaves and berries were nasty – blurred vision, loss of balance, hallucinations, and convulsions.
Edmund purchased a ticket for the museum and printed it. Then he left for the Mütter, only a few blocks away, taking his mask with him. Upon entering, Edmund decided to refresh his childhood memories and took a quick tour of the permanent collection. It looked much the same as he recalled from his youth, lots of grim evidence of disease, often modeled in wax, deformed babies, skulls, etc. However, the special exhibit was about the influenza pandemic of 1918. It had been planned since 2015, and there was a video commemorating the 17,500 deaths attributed to the disease, made in September 2019. How prescient!
But he was impatient to see the garden, so he left the exhibit and exited the building. The heat of the day hit him like the blow from a large feather. It had been cooler inside than he realized. To his left, a brightly blossoming tree caught his eye. Behind it, ivy crept up the side of the building. The church facing him loomed over the garden, framing the park on three sides. He descended the steps to review the plants. Many were medicinal. Marigold was good for infected wounds, swollen glands, and skin disease. Thyme helped with chest infections, bronchitis, colds, and flu. Wild ginger relieved digestive spasms. There were many others as well, but no nightshade that he could find.
He walked the length of the garden, about 100 feet, and sat on a bench with shade near the iron bars. He pondered what he might plant in his garden, a project that would give his life structure while contemplating what to do in his remaining years. He would have an area devoted to herbs since he enjoyed cooking. He liked the idea of perennial wildflowers also; color was always pleasant, and wildflowers were hearty. He needed a tree or two for shade also. Currently, his small backyard was simply a patio of bricks. He would dig them up and replace them with topsoil.
His phone was ringing when he got home. It was Jessie from the bank. One of his firm’s bistros had recently deposited last week’s receipts; she had deposited his final paycheck.
He sat at his dining table and began making a list of pros and cons. On the left side, he put Chloe, Orchids, Planting a Garden, and Meal at a Fine Restaurant. Then, he added: Charity Work: Helping small businesses with their accounts?; and Hobby: Painting? On the right side, he could only think of a question: What is the point?
He set that list aside for later contemplation and started another list for his garden: wildflowers; herbs; trees, other flowers, and bushes from a nursery.
Satisfied, he turned on his computer and ordered the wildflower and herb seeds. He would research nurseries in the area tomorrow.
Before turning off his computer, he hesitated, and then he also ordered some nightshade seeds.
Options are always good, he thought. And the best thing about them was that you didn’t have to choose to do them.