It was the year when many men of a certain age wore high-performance athletic vests to work when all they did was sit at a desk all day, and accented their salt-and-pepper goatees by wearing porkpie hats with small upturned brims. Usually they were going bald, and the hats, which they wore both outside and indoors, in winter and summer, were intended to make them appear younger by sporting a retro/hipster look. Barry Haber realized he was developing a bald patch five months ago when, after the haircut was complete, his barber didn’t hold up a mirror to show him the back of his head. But Barry was not a hat person.
It was long past the year when people stopped engaging with others in the same room. For Barry, some of his closest connections were not with his wife of almost 20 years nor his two teenage sons—despite all living in the same three-bedroom house. Those connections were probably either on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter, most likely with past clients and colleagues from the various projects he’d worked on. With current clients, he stayed in touch by email or text or Slack or whatever app was the flavor of that particular nanosecond. Still, even those projects rarely involved face-to-face meetings. Barry, whose daily schedule was filled with virtual meetings of every kind, rarely ever met anyone in person anymore.
It was the year when almost everything was artisanal, including somewhat mass-produced items. And nearly every kind of food was gluten-free—even those (like potatoes) that never contained gluten, were proclaimed gluten-free. Which left Barry wondering, what are food manufacturers doing with the glut of gluten they extract from breads and pasta? Were foods in some third-world countries being sold as having “extra gluten”?
It was a time when, talking about farm-to-table foods, we all sounded like jazz DJs assuming an interest in obscure music facts bordering the obsessive. On the drive home from the local food co-op with eggs that came from cage-free vegetarian-fed chickens, as he swerved to avoid a red SUV that came close to hitting him, Barry imagined the jazz DJ saying, “These eggs came from chickens fed by Shorty Rogers with a mixture by Buddy Bedford and Kenny Hoyler.”
Yet those eggs were not organic. As his wife said, dismissively, as he handed them to her to put away in the fridge while he put away the other food he had picked up.
Barry and Nina had reached that stage of their marriage: a cold war of disappointment. Like the way Barry folded sheets and towels or eggs that weren’t organic enough. From the expression on her face (eyebrows furrowed, mouth tight), Barry knew trying to explain—that he got distracted, and besides, that it was only recently that she preferred organics—would make things worse. “Sorry,” he said, as he folded the reusable shopping bag, realizing that if she hadn’t been home, he could have gotten away with it.
When it wasn’t that, it was the hot war between Adam and Ricky, only two years apart but very different personalities. Sometimes Barry felt that, when not on their devices, the only real interactions the boys shared were their constant fights: accusations and denials when something crucial (like charge cords, headphones, sports equipment or candy) went missing (usually to be found somewhere under a pile in the accuser’s room) or was damaged (often when stepped on accidentally while Barry searched for the missing object).
The boys didn’t help his mood. They had begun to remind him that his 50th birthday was fast approaching, urging him to have a midlife crisis and buy a much cooler car—not so much for Barry’s sake as for them to drive.
Fifty’s an age when people take stock in themselves, Barry thought. There was a while, through his mid-30s, when his stock looked like a clear winner: a series of regular promotions, raises and bonuses until the financial crisis in 2008. Like many on his team, Barry was laid off. A decade later, he kept busy with projects for a range of clients—more so than some former colleagues whose Facebook and Twitter updates he scrolled through—but it was hard to build a career from a patchwork of gigs.
If forced to identify milestones like those on the backs of baseball cards (the disputed ownership of one particular card had once caused a two-day problem when the boys were younger), Barry wasn’t sure he had accomplished much of anything over the past year or two. His work was solid but it wasn’t the results that stood out. It wasn’t the impossible deadlines from hurry-up-and-wait clients. And it wasn’t the client who didn’t know what he wanted but blamed Barry when, despite following the client’s directions, the project didn’t meet unspoken expectations. What stood out was the client with boundary issues who, during their last call, lashed out at Barry by saying, “We’ve got a dysfunctional government fomenting an angry and increasingly divided electorate, daily mass shootings, and worse—but I don’t have any children. You have to live with the fact that your boys will inherit a world gone to hell.”
Nope, nothing for the highlight reel.
Looking back over five years, the only thing he could point to was having lost 25 pounds—not that Nina or the boys or his mother had noticed or said anything.
Actually, strike that: Nina did say something, when she went through their credit card bills. “Why did you spend almost $400 on clothes?”
“My regular clothes weren’t fitting well.” Barry said, bringing up the laundry basket after folding everything except the sheets and towels.
“Your old clothes were fine. It’s not like your clients hire you based on how your clothes fit. Or that you ever see them.”
“A lot of my client calls are done by video.”
“So get a couple of shirts,” Nina said. “And don’t throw out your old clothes. If you gain back the weight, you’ll need those old clothes again.”
He didn’t lose weight for public acclamation; still, losing and keeping the weight off had been his main accomplishment—one, he realized, that would not have impressed his ancestors starving in some Russian shtetl. For them, it would have been something to gain weight. Meanwhile the weight loss didn’t do much to improve Barry’s life; it had barely improved his cholesterol. And the discipline of keeping the weight off did not help him in other ways.
If he were a stock, Barry would have been urged to short it years ago.
His most reliable source of cash was from his stepdad, who still felt guilty because Barry’s dad found out about the affair and hanged himself shortly afterwards. Barry hated himself for occasionally having to borrow from Sid and always made sure to pay him back when possible. That was more than what his brother was willing to do. Fred, who lived in Florida near their mom and Sid, borrowed money and never paid Sid back. Fred wouldn’t drive the 40 minutes to provide tech support help when their computer crashed but could be available when plans included a fancy dinner.
His father had been roughly Barry’s age now when he took his life. And now, after all the years of guilt and shame, Barry felt he understood, had figured out why men in their 40s and 50s had high suicide rates. It wasn’t just his mom’s affair. It was the responsibilities, pressure and diminished prospects that accompanied getting older, the lack of an upside and the blame and lack of support. (Barry remembered earlier in the year when Adam complained that he was late to school because Barry hadn’t woken him up on time. “At 17, you should be able to set the alarm on your phone,” Barry said. “Why blame me?” Adam looked up from his phone. “Because mom always does,” he replied.) And when Ricky was in his foul I-hate-everyone-and-everything moods, Barry had to ignore Ricky’s cursing because it was a manifestation of his anxiety (according to his therapist). Yet no one seemed to care about Barry’s moods. The best times seemed to be when they all left him alone.
Barry could see why suicide might seem like an alternative. He knew that one legacy of suicide is that survivors never really get over it, that there’s an increased likelihood for survivors themselves to commit suicide. Barry had promised himself that he would break that cycle. Sometimes that was the only thing keeping him going.
It got dark so early, Barry had gotten to the point where the frigid days and the long dark nights filled him with despair. It felt much later than 6:30 p.m. when Barry drove the two of them to Hops, a local brew pub, for dinner Sunday night. The dinner wasn’t a date night, just time away from the boys.
After dropping Nina at the door, he parked the car on a side street two blocks away, walking in the street since no one shoveled sidewalks anymore. (In suburbia, Barry realized, people drove everywhere; they walked only if they had a dog or were a kid going to school.) Thanks to two snowstorms a week apart that had dumped two more feet of snow on what had already been a record-setting January, the streets weren’t much better. The plows had pushed the snow against the curb, forming four-foot-high snowbanks. It was mostly quiet until a red SUV careened around a corner, the sound of its engine startling Barry, its headlights shining past him, lighting the road in front of him, his shadow getting shorter as the car approached. The SUV—could have been any kind, he couldn’t really tell—swerved towards him. Even in boots, Barry slipped on an icy patch as he jumped and landed awkwardly on the snowbank. Because he wore dark clothes, Barry wondered if the driver hadn’t seen him, even as the snowbanks reflected the otherwise meager streetlamps. But as the SUV drove past, he saw the driver look at him, as he awkwardly held onto the top of the snowbank to avoid falling into the road. The driver pointed a finger at Barry like it was a gun.
Barry was shaking when he walked inside and joined Nina, already sitting down.
“How far did you have to park?” she asked, looking up from her phone. “Aren’t you warm enough in your coat?”
“I didn’t have it zipped all the way,” he said, as he hung the coat on the back of his chair. He didn’t tell her what really happened because what was the point? He couldn’t describe the car and maybe the driver didn’t mean anything by pointing at him. What could the cops do about it anyway? So they looked at the menu and placed their orders directly onto apps that featured the day’s specials and algorithms designed to upsell. When they went out for dinner with other couples, they often had no problem chatting, catching up, regaling funny stories about themselves as a couple or the boys, talking about news of the day (while avoiding politics as much as possible), just making small talk—even if Barry didn’t like the husband. But when it was just the two of them, Barry had trouble figuring out what to talk about. His father had always talked about work at the dinner table when Barry was growing up (when families used to eat meals together) but he and Nina had long ago agreed that talking about work over dinner reminded them of the pressures and responsibilities, causing more stress. It didn’t make Barry feel better noticing that they weren’t the only couples sitting mostly in silence; at other tables, people rarely looked up from their devices, instead focusing on the blue-white light that brought them updates from those who couldn’t make the effort to spend time with them in real life.
There was no point in complaining about the weather to Nina. They had three years until Ricky went off to college before Barry could even think of suggesting moving somewhere warmer. (And he didn’t know if Nina would be open to the idea.) Until then, he felt like a character in Waiting for Godot, waiting for a spring that didn’t seem to arrive. Climate change had thrown off the seasons so that the warm weather and sunshine that used to return in March or April sometimes didn’t reappear until May. He needed something to look forward to, and spring training—still weeks away—was a sign even though Barry wasn’t much of a baseball fan. As much as he loved Nina—and he was certain he still did, and that she still loved him enough to put up with him, anyway, a kind of love—he couldn’t ask for her help.
Instead, their conversations mostly focused on logistics, errands to be done, things around the house that needed taking care of, and scheduling, mostly doctor appointments, tutoring, practices and other after-school activities for the boys. He didn’t like to think it, as he added items from their discussion to the to-do list on his phone. But dinner by themselves was more like a status meeting with clients.
There had been a big snowstorm on Monday for the third consecutive week; another day with boys at home, interfering with Barry’s workday schedule. (Nina would already be at work so he had to make sure they got up, ate breakfast, did their homework, ate lunch instead of spend all day on the Xbox or holed up in their separate rooms.) He was tired from shoveling another foot of snow on top of the snow from the earlier storms, without real help from the boys; tired from their constant bickering and shouting. Intervening didn’t work and neither did ignoring them. He was frustrated because they couldn’t resolve piddling problems by themselves, and embarrassed that the neighbors could hear. He couldn’t take away their phones or the Xbox because that left them with nothing else to do but annoy each other.
They had school today, though with a 9:30 delayed start because the town still needed time to clear the roads. And at 11 a.m., he had one of his rare in-person meetings in Boston. It was with Hans, a client on one of his bigger and longstanding projects. The project had been going well but Hans’ company was going through a rough time, and Barry was sure this meeting didn’t bode well.
Barry decided to take the commuter rail because he still had to drop the boys off at school, and finding parking in Boston was tough even on good days. On the drive to the commuter rail station, the snowbanks, now taller and thicker, transformed the streets into a snow-covered maze. Two-lane streets narrowed to a single passable lane.
As he pulled into the parking lot, he noticed a few more empty spots than usual. I guess everyone else preferred to stay home, he thought. He parked, grabbed his fancy go-to-meeting leather briefcase (instead of his usual nylon backpack), put on his facemask (even though the condensation from his breath always fogged up his classes in the cold weather) and headed to the platform—when he realized he had left his phone in the cup holder. Barry went back, unlocked the car, grabbed the phone, locked the car again, and walked back quickly (while being careful not to slip) to make the train. As he tried shoving it into his coat pocket, the phone slipped, hit his boot and skittered across the slick surface into the end of one of the open spots. He left his briefcase on the side, and glasses half fogged up, went to retrieve his phone.
Barry didn’t hear the car come up from behind him.
Because the driver was on his phone, because he had to pull around a badly parked SUV to get into the spot, the driver of a red SUV never saw Barry, crouching like a football player at the line of scrimmage, clutching for his errant phone. Barry didn’t have time to realize what was happening as the SUV pushed him head first into the snowbank. The driver felt like the tires slipped a moment before getting traction in a spot that hadn’t been well plowed.
Hans wasn’t surprised when Barry was late; the roads were terrible. But he was surprised when he didn’t get a call or text. He was more annoyed at 11:20 a.m. when there was still no word from Barry. Hans figured this would make the news he had to convey that much easier (for him), and by 11:30 a.m. fired off an unpleasant email to Barry.
No one heard from Barry all day; Nina didn’t check in when she was busy, and she was usually busy. The first to notice were Adam and Ricky, who were pissed because he didn’t pick them up from school. After getting a ride home from a friend’s dad, they were ready to yell at Barry except he wasn’t home. By then, they were too busy playing video games to text Nina.
It was dark by 4:30 p.m. Hundreds of tired commuters trudged past the briefcase standing untouched where Barry had left it, increasingly damp where the snow soaked through the leather. After 7:15 p.m., one commuter nearly tripped over the briefcase, and cursing at it, continued to her car. At 8 p.m., near a parked red SUV, a police officer, making her rounds, noticed the briefcase. Circling it, with its tan leather stained dark from sitting in the snow, she doubted it contained a bomb but wondered who could be absentminded enough to leave behind a briefcase. She opened it and, using her flashlight, quickly found the owner’s phone number from a stack of business cards.
Who knows what the officer was expecting when she took out her cellphone to call the number? Maybe to reach a weary executive still in the office or finally at home, trying to achieve work/life balance yet not remembering where that damn briefcase went? What she didn’t expect: to hear the cellphone ring from inside the snowbank.