Standing in line at his favorite downtown coffee shop, Arthur waited to order and pay for his overpriced beverage with the fancy name. At times he thought the use of foreign terms and phrases to describe the sizes and contents of the variations on the theme of coffee to be pretentious. Today, he was feeling a bit more mellow, however, and he had to admit that caffè latte, caffè mocha, and macchiato sounded a lot classier than simply coffee with different additives.
As he stood at the condiments bar, stirring milk into his caffè Americano (espresso with hot water added), his peripheral vision caught sight of a familiar figure. Ralph Gruben lived not far from Stauf’s Coffee House. Even though Arthur lived more than thirty miles away, for three years he had worked out of an office in a building just around the corner from Stauf’s. He spent a lot of time in that quirky coffee shop during those years, and as often as not, he would see Ralph at his favorite table in the corner, often reading but sometimes simply lost in his own thoughts.
It was only natural that, after crossing paths at Stauf’s a few times, Arthur and Ralph would strike up a conversation that developed into a friendship. They were about the same age, both had daughters who were struggling single mothers, and both had lost jobs they loved late in their careers but years before they had planned to retire.
Ralph was a living example of the “Peter Principle.” After many years in middle management at a company that published high school and college textbooks, his faithful and effective service was rewarded with a promotion to an upper level executive position. It wasn’t long before it became obvious to everyone that Ralph was simply not cut out for strategic planning and something called “vision casting.”
When the company was acquired by a massive publishing conglomerate, and the new owners implemented a policy of streamlining operations for greater efficiency, Ralph was a casualty. He saw it coming, so he was not surprised. He was terribly disappointed, however, when the company refused to let him return to his old job. He was also sixty-one years old.
That was four years ago. After a few months of deep depression and self-doubt, he spent more than a year polishing his résumé and circulating it among companies where he thought his skills and experience could be most useful. When that proved fruitless, he branched out to industries with which he was only vaguely familiar and where he had no experience. That effort was even more futile.
Two years ago, after scores of rejection letters in which he was informed that the company had decided to “go in another direction” or had hired someone “more suitable for the job” (both code for “you’re too old,” he was convinced) he effectively retired from the job-search market. Arthur recognized his friend’s forlorn countenance. His job had been his life.
For a moment, assuming Ralph might rather be alone with his thoughts, he considered leaving the shop without speaking. In the end, however, he decided to intrude on his friend’s personal musings rather than risk Ralph’s perception that Arthur was trying to avoid him.
He walked over to the table where his friend sat, staring at a book but not really reading. Ralph looked up just as Arthur approached, smiled wanly, and motioned to the chair opposite him at the table.
“You look as tired as I feel,” Arthur said.
“I can’t seem to shake it these days,” Ralph replied. “I guess that is what the word retired really means… to be tired over and over again.” He snickered as he said it, and Arthur had to wonder if that play on words had just that moment occurred to him.
They engaged in a little small talk, followed by a few moments of awkward silence. Then, as Arthur prepared to take his leave, he heard Ralph clear his throat as though he wanted to say something.
“What is it, Ralph?” Arthur asked.
“It’s just that an apology would have been nice,” Ralph said. Arthur looked perplexed. Did Ralph expect an apology from him? He couldn’t imagine what he needed to apologize for. He waited to see if Ralph said anything else.
“I know they don’t think they did anything wrong,” he continued. “I know they believe they only made decisions that were best for the company and the stockholders. Maybe it was the only thing they could do.
“But it would have meant a lot if somebody… anybody… had written a letter to say they were sorry for the pain their decision caused. Just knowing that they knew, and that somebody felt bad about it, and that somebody cared enough to say that.
“But they never said that. It was like they really didn’t care about the people affected by their decisions. I know they think they had no choice, and maybe they didn’t. But it would have meant so much just to think they understood that their decisions caused some people some pain.”
“Yes,” Arthur answered. “Yes, I do.”
If you’d like to know more about Arthur Lough (my alter ego), you can read his story in the autobiographical novel called The Long Road from Highland Springs: A Faith Odyssey. Click on the title or the accompanying cover image, and you will be taken to the book’s listing page on Amazon.com. And thank you so much.