by Carl Moore
“Do you want the cancer coverage?”
I’m sitting in our corporate Human Resources office. The benefits counselor is distant, bored, toiling away on the assembly line of needy employees trying to get changes to their plans done the day before the deadline. I’m adding to the stack of maybe three or four hundred of these she has done this month, just before Halloween, this month of open enrollment, open season on the overworked HR staff.
I guess that Miss Benefits is in her early twenties. Young, too much so to be jaded in the dawn of her working life; perhaps Hawaiian, the girl could be downright pretty if she’d work on the personality and make eye contact occasionally. Her eyes are large, the brownish red of aged Carolina heart pine, framed in thick horn rims from when Hollywood made decent movies that needn’t rely on nudity and profanity, when fedoras were still en vogue and talk show hosts smoked on air. The thin sea foam sweater blouse that is wearing her is at least one size too small, clearly not her color. A silver ring and bracelet would stand out on her dark, unblemished skin, but she doesn’t even wear a watch; her long, thick black hair seems to have its own agenda.
“It’s only $4.72 a month,” she says, “and you don’t have to get it during open enrollment. You can sign up anytime.”
She’s not pushing the coverage, just asking another question on her list; a customer service rep absently following a script, perhaps thinking about another dinner from the microwave tonight while sitting in front of the television watching sitcoms, or how much she hates her boyfriend for sleeping with her best friend, but she’d take the bastard back if he’d just call.
“I’m not sure,” I say.
I think I want the policy, even if I have no clue what it covers. Insurance is such a mystical black box with a money slot in the brass padlocked lid. Two people in my office are undergoing chemotherapy for cancers that chased them into surgery, and it’s ignorant to believe I have any special immunity. Not that I believe there is something in the departmental water fountain, of course, but I’m a belt and braces kind of guy. Besides, it is only $4.72 disappearing into the slot each month, no digital rectal exam required.
Miss Benefits types constantly, never looking at her keyboard, staring into the glow of a wall-mounted flat panel monitor that swivels so she can point it at me to see information of vital importance: bimonthly deductions from my paycheck. I don’t have my reading glasses on, the ones I need since I converted from Baptist to Presbyopian, the religious affiliation of middle age, replete with lower back pain, uncooperative knees, and receding hairlines.
My hairline has long since retreated down the back of my neck, leaving in its wake a scorched earth policy.
“What about your life insurance?” she asks into the monitor, “this is an open enrollment year so you can increase it to your maximum based on your salary. This is how much you have now.” She slides a spreadsheet toward me with my current numbers circled. I can’t read the tiny print; it could be a page out of tonight’s television listings.
I miss Carson.
“This is how much you can increase it,” she says circling something else with blue ink. “How old are you?”
“I’ll be forty next month,” I tell her.
“Sucks for you,” she says flatly, looking something up on the Rosetta Spreadsheet. “At forty your costs go up to $16.40 a paycheck at your current level of coverage.”
I don’t know what I am paying now or my current level of coverage. Sixteen bucks doesn’t sound all that bad, not even half a tank of gas.
“I think I’m fine where it is,” I say, knowing life insurance for me at this point doesn’t mean anything near what I expected it to this far along in life.
When I was in college, I actually thought I could change the world, believed that an individual could move mountains. An undergraduate degree in anything was an initial step to a good life, the average life, attainable by the average guy: the girl-next-door wife, two point five children, a split level ranch in the suburbs, and a black lab that stole unattended sticks of butter off the kitchen counter. The perennial-puppy black lab, $54 from the Newberry County Animal Shelter, was the only part of the plan that worked out, and he lives with my mother and doesn’t need my life insurance. Mom cooks him three squares a day, plus snacks, and makes him quilts to sleep on in his own burgundy recliner; not a bad life by any metric.
Miss Benefits looks at me and says, “I see you are changing your marital status from ‘Married’ to ‘Divorced.’”
I nod. She returns to her typing, satisfying some need, I suppose.
Those bimonthly alimony payments further sour the frayed-edged portrait painted in youth, colored with what society expects of us. At least there is no need for child support checks or custody hearings.
I really do miss my truck, though.
Failure, divorce, wasn’t part of my plan. Life, however, has a way of occurring and intruding on living, shaping situations in unintended, impromptu ways, bending the uncharted river into blind curves and dead-end branches filled with rocks and sharp stumps and swarms of tiny, black mosquitoes with attitudes. For a long time I felt like a failure. No one deemed clinically sane joins in the holy state of matrimony with the intention of divorcing, especially when divorce itself can be so incredibly expensive in emotional coin and hard currency. Lawyers, not unlike stock brokers, always do well regardless of who wins, not that there ever truly is a winner. The court documents all listed me as “defendant;” my singular wronging that of finally learning to say “no.”
Living took a hiatus for a year as life toddled onward into tomorrow. Court dates came, oaths were taken, agreements signed in triplicate in blue ink, each page initialed by all parties, and one became two. This one sans significant personal property, things I had worked for years to acquire, plus sixty outgoing, tax-deductible, bimonthly alimony checks. Such are the inequities in life.
“Do you have any chronic conditions not already listed,” Miss Benefits asks.
“Well. I used to be Diabetic.”
“Used to be?” That stops her fingers on keyboard, garners her full attention for the first time. “What do you mean used to be? My dad’s been Diabetic for years and he’s not getting any better.”
“I used to weigh four hundred pounds,” I say.
That stops Miss Benefits for a minute. I can see she wants to ask me more, but I presume there is some Human Resources Oath that prevents personal prying beyond the colonoscopy-like questioning of demographics, financial history, credit rating, and insurance coverage. She recovers and returns to her computer monitor.
My body is very different than it was at twenty. For one, I am in better physical condition than I have ever been, something of an anomaly in this society. Once the destructive effects of Diabetes finally prompted me into losing weight, my quality of life improved measurably by all clinical benchmarks. Today I run in the woods, ride the sidewalks hard on my big, orange mountain bike, and strength train at the gym, just one of the other rats chasing the Fitness Gouda. I don’t, however, recover nearly as quickly. The results of leaving my bike rather abruptly and unexpectedly – a right shoulder separation then a left radial head fracture – register recovery time in months, even years, now instead of days or weeks. I have to take time off to let my body rebuild what I tear up during play.
While I’m a firm believer in Gore Vidal’s “never miss an opportunity to have sex or appear on television,” there is something inherently delightful about a good night’s sleep, or a Sunday afternoon nap in the recliner. Staying up all weekend, living on stale pizza and warm beer, sleeping on a tattered, fourth-hand sofa or concrete dorm room floor, together would kill my current body off in a month. The young, reckless me has yielded significant ground to the older, mellower me who understands nowadays that everything comes with associated costs, paid now or later.
Once I wandered through life not realizing I was running up a significant balance on my Karmic Credit Card, interest compounded twice daily, no credit checks, no limits, no late fees, and we are all pre-approved for this offer. There are things I refrain from, things I don’t “do unto others,” if for no other reason than to avoid getting backed over in the parking lot by the Chartreuse Karma Bus.
Age, one hopes, breeds some modicum of discernment.
Miss Benefits shifts in her black, leather-like office chair, reaches for blank forms which she then slides into the printer tray. She looks so young; I wonder what she will be thinking when she is my age, the age she has just tossed away with some derision.
She’s right in some sense, of course. According to governmental statistics, I’m over halfway to singing backup for Elvis. While I have nothing but respect and admiration for the King, I would like to put off post mortem sequin jumpsuits as long as possible.
Besides, I look much better in basic black.
Mortality is, however, something I actually spend time pondering. The knowledge that there are likely fewer years ahead than behind is humbling, engendering a sense of urgency to get that to-do list worked through, line items crossed off, contributions to humanity considered and pursued. With no offspring that I know of, this particular branch of the Moore Family Tree will, genetically speaking, wither and drop to the hard earth with little notice. This is something I have never had a problem with, feeling no need to procreate, though I do enjoy going through the motions. I’ve always thought this end of the gene pool would benefit from a little bleach. Besides, with significant advances in remote control technology, and my moving the outdoor trash bin closer to the back door, I simply have no need for children. Having a dog was responsibility enough, but I always knew he would never hit me up for college tuition or call from the local police station in the middle of the night. Once he stopped soiling the carpet and chewing up everything he could get his canines on, we got along fine. I always knew, though, if I couldn’t handle him, as a last resort, I could put him out down a long dirt road. Try that with a toddler and people really get upset.
Miss Benefit’s printer starts whirring and printing out form after form, all of which require my signature in blue ink, I expect. I take out my dollar store reading glasses, the 1.50 power ones I already know will need to be increased to 1.75 next year. She pushes the expected blue pen towards me and tells me to start signing. I begin to write my name on page after page where she indicates with fake French manicured fingers. I finish the stack, she takes them, gets up, and leaves the room. I hear the copier warm up just beyond the door and wonder where I will stuff this stack of paperwork away in some unlabeled folder at home, documents I never reference or need outside the HR office, boxes of paperwork someone one day will have to sort through when I’m on permanent vacation at Club Dirt.
There are, undoubtedly, useful things I would like to leave behind, a legacy, perhaps. I want to contribute to the world in some small, meaningful way, though I think it’s easy enough to rule out my addressing the big problems, the socio-political world issues. I can’t solve world hunger; I seem to own a refrigerator mainly to keep drinks cold and condiments I never use three years past their expiration date. My peacemaking skills aren’t exactly what are necessary to go out into the world ending border disputes and wars. At least one of my neighbors no longer speaks to me after I told her what I thought of her and the barking dog she leaves in the yard until midnight every night. No, I realize that, serendipity aside, I need to plan practically, do the things I am able while dreaming just a little larger than realistic, address those things that are accomplishable in what comes after today.
To think that by my age, Alexander had conquered the world, Hemingway was well-published, and Lincoln was a self-taught lawyer serving in the Illinois state legislature. One would imagine with technology and instant access to information, personal accomplishment would be easier. Then again, those guys didn’t have the distractions of the internet, video games, and cable television.
“So, do you want the cancer insurance?” Miss Benefits is back from the copier and staring at me in the impatient way Mrs. Blalock did in tenth grade English when my imagination wandered off, and I was on stage playing guitar with Van Halen during the David Lee Roth years. So far removed from the awkward adolescent me, so much of him remains at my core. I think through the options for a moment, considering the prudent course of action, what the responsible me knows I should do. Then I look up at Miss Benefits and give her what she needs to complete her checklist.
“You know,” I say, “I think I’ll pass.”
BIO: Carl Eugene Moore holds an MBA in Accounting & Finance, an MBA in Health Care Management, an MFA in Creative Writing, and is currently doing his doctoral work in Health Administration with a focus on Health Informatics and Health Care Quality. He has poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and photography published and is currently the nonfiction editor for a literary magazine and a feature editor for an academic journal. He teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in Health and Medical Informatics and English. His memoir, Passing Through – Recovery from Diabetes and Food Addiction and novella Bean Counter are available in paperback and eBook – http://www.carlmoore.org.