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Severance Package
by Darby McDevitt

     Strange coincidences can be quite unremarkable under dire circumstances when the setting is not friendly and warm. The sour reality of unpleasant lodgings often drains the delight from innocent happenstance. Take week-one of August, 199-, for example, when we heard that each member of our friend group had been laid-off from his or her place of employment. This discovery was rather serendipitous: Starved for a humble Sunday dinner we had run into one another by chance at a soup kitchen in the center of town. This was our first indication that something was amiss. Years before our group had had a robust conversation on the prospects of unemployment, and all of us had agreed tacitly that a publicly funded soup kitchen was the ideal place to escape one's shame.
Granted, none of us were official guests at this homeless shelter yet - our unemployment checks would keep us floating for a time - this was our town, our place of birth, and we felt we had a moral right to make use of its widespread utilities without approved permission. We loved our tiny city with its quaint, verdant parks and its splendid public transit. We were not upset to contemplate, strange as it sounds, that we might very well die here when we grew old and useless. We were, in the academic manner of speaking, realists - not romantics.
For hours, over starchy bread and warm bullion soup, we discussed our individual tribulations as comprehensively as a large group can manage in a public forum bustling with transients. It became obvious as we conversed that our individual situations were not so far removed from one another as we had first suspected. In some cases our stories overlapped substantially. But, as we became more comfortable with each other, we grew increasingly uncomfortable with our present surroundings - the dirt, the smells, the bland food.
This led to the scheduling of a second, more intimate gathering, to be held within the week. It wasn't clear what another reunion would accomplish, but having so many things in common as we did it did seem like a worthy expenditure of our time. We parted that day with a single phone number committed to our collective memory, which, in three days time would be the sole means to discovering the secret location of the gathering.
     In three days each of us on our own time called the number and heard the secret prerecorded message. We were directed by a garbled and hissy voice to a house in the suburbs. Of course, on the morning of that third day many callers got a busy signal, over and over again. It took quite a while for everyone to get proper directions.
     The gathering kicked off late that same afternoon; it was Wednesday. To our great delight, everyone invited to this second gathering showed up, and on time too, in moods ranging from tolerant to positively electrified. Each person brought with them alcohol or vittles or both to share around. We gushed swiftly through the standard half-hour of histrionic greetings, past overindulgent fish-tale-telling, through competitive drinking and face stuffing, and on into sentimental wistfulness. Old friendships were forged anew and brittle acquaintanceships were reinforced.
     The day sunk speedily and disappeared, but as we were holed up inside a warm and cozy homestead we could not tell light from dark, nor sun from moon. We huddled immodestly in the basement den, crumpled into beanbags, sofas, easy chairs, futons, a king-sized bed, running our toes through navy shag carpet, smelling the must of a full wall of shelved books, old wooden beams, and a stale hearth built of mineral stained bricks. Two table lamps let off an orange glow. People had been smoking marijuana between sips and bites of drink and food. However, at one critical point, a common silence sterilized the room and people sat inertly, regarding each other with conspicuous, wide eyes.
      It must have been Tom - old Tommy from Appalachia, bless him, his foresight - who suggested we pop in some music to leaven the mood and enhance our powers of memory for better, fuller storytelling. Not a soul in the house disagreed, because music was seen as having, above all other forms of creative expression, the most diplomatic effect on the imagination. Tom rustled around in a rucksack he had beside him and produced a clean, white jewel case. The compact disc within was reflective gold, rather than the usual rainbowed silver; a pirated copy.
     This trite legal transgression was not an accurate representation of our baseline attitude towards intellectual property rights - most of the time we followed laws to their letter and awkward punctuation - but it did tickle us because we'd never seen a copied CD before. Current leaps in technology were so fascinating and so omnipresent yet so out of reach and expensive, or seemed to be, that we couldn't help but covet both the act and the product. Mary asked if she could hold it before Tom put it in the player. Oh, look the bottom is a turquoise color, not silver. We all bent over to see that she was right.
     Just get on with the damned music, Pete huffed. When we stalled and loitered like this, it cultivated a feeling that the world was not progressing forward like it ought. Pete's reaction was the correct one in this case. The music was rapidly queued up. John got on his feet and headed for the mini-bar in the corner. He asked if anyone would like another beer, or a light beer, or a whisky, or a whiskey, or a scotch, or a bourbon, or a gin-and, or a rum-and, or a wine cooler or a glass of Merlot, or a glass of Pinot Noir, or a glass of Zinfandel, or a shot of Jager, or a glass of water, or you know, or what have you, or nothing. We all said yes. John said he'd be right back.
     For added drama, before the <play> button was pressed, it was suggested that we hit the <random> button. We will leave the shape of our mood up to the numbers, Liz ("Lizard") explained. She held a BA in physics and most of us were confident that she could explain in 10 words or less why a dash of chaos added to our lives would be healthful and not at all dangerous. None of us of us asked her to back up the claim at first, but Kathy, suppressing her acute doubtfulness for a few minutes, eventually challenged the authority of the equations Liz endorsed. The numbers you are talking about, Kathy said, are merely God's clever disguise for order! You can't "count out " the Prime Mover.
     Thus the seeds of a possible schism were planted. The two were locked in bitter metaphysical combat, while the rest of us traded our attention between them evenly, considering their claims. It could have been messy - our whole congregation might have collapsed - but quick-witted Marcus suggested a compromise and the last possible moment. We'll call it Fate, he said, and however you want to define that, is up to you.
     In this way, we activated the <random> function on the compact disc player without having to worry about whether this was a parochial mandate of divine intervention or secular act of free will - a moot argument in any other circle. Then we hit <play>, and by the Miracle of Fate, or by the Natural Machinations of Fate, whichever, our inaugural song was randomly selected. The compact disc player settled on track three.
     When the first euphonic note rippled the air and caressed our ears (a bloated description, but everyone in the room agreed that there was no better) we breathed in deeply and then sighed at precisely the same time. This jarring loss of breathable atmosphere reflected on every face in the den - we, a pleased, dumb, and drunk crowd of asphyxiates, smiled. The resultant buzz was clearly satisfactory.
     That is a saxophone isn't it? Ricardo asked with slow, ponderous words.
     Yes, Amy replied, that is definitely a Sax.
     Alto or Soprano? Ricardo asked.
     You mean Alto or Tenor÷ that's a Tenor, replied Amy.
     Oh, said Ricardo with a beat, they don't make Soprano saxophones?
     No I don't think so, sighed Amy.
     I think you're wrong, said Ricardo.
     This is so sublime! Rita whispered ebulliently. Doesn't this song strike you as the soundtrack to a movie - our movie, I mean? Like this is the contemplative scene where we all realize that we're best friends and that we'll always be together, even when we're apart, because we'll always be with one another in our hearts and memories?
     Not really, someone said.
     I love jazz, Rita qualified.
     I think Rita is right-on, Bobby defended. It does feel to me like a movie - you have to let it happen. But not like she's saying. I think this is the anti-climax, 2/3's of the way through the film. This is the false sense of security scene. We've come together one last time and after tonight, the rest of our lives begin. I should know÷ I feel the unremarkable future creeping up on me as we speak. I'm also high, drunk, out of money - the tragic figure, I guess.
     Bobby, Tyrell said, why didn't you say so? You can borrow some from me. Don't be afraid to ask, buddy. You need a hundred? Two hundred? Three? Bobby bit his lip and nodded. He mouthed the words, Thank You.
     Gosh, it's like - someone began to sniffle - it's like when I dropped out of University and I rented a smelly little apartment in the city and got a rotten job at a dinner theater. It's been two years of that, and yesterday I admitted to myself that I still have nothing definite 'on my plate' as they say; nothing but the rest of my life. That's an awful, feeling. And this music is amplifying my sordid÷ um÷ loneliness.
     Not for me, said Keith. I finished University and had places to go immediately after graduation. You'll find something too, just give it time. Of course, for me, leaving school was a relief. I had a job lined up and a relationship to develop and explore. And because I like to travel I went to France and Italy and Poland and Ireland and South Africa and Thailand and Japan÷ and Cuba, Keith said with a flicker of his eyes.
     Cuba? Diedre gasped. My god, I saw a movie about Cuba, she stated. It didn't seem so bad a place. But is that why you were fired? You flaunted the embargo?
     No, that's not why - nobody knows about my Cuban vacation, he replied. Or, nobody who matters, he winked, looking around the room.
     I saw that movie, too, Rebecca answered. It won some awards.
     Our randomly selected song was slow and well paced. Truly, music was the space between notes - whoever first observed that we couldn't recall. These silences were the slots we plugged with our words; we filled them with our words and our own silences, too. We stacked quiet upon quiet and the net gain was more music. Joe interrupted after one of one of these beautiful spaces. I know this song, I recognize that piano riff right there. My parents owned this record. This song is nearly over. I mean to say, it's going to end soon.
     We all saw this as a horrible thing.
     We're not finished with this scene just yet! Ha! No! Replay the song! we shouted.
     I wouldn't mind.
     And neither would I.
     Hear, hear; aye, aye!
     I have an idea, postulated Joseph, who leaned over and depressed an underused little button labeled <repeat>. This just might work,
     We waited with rapt, well - no, curious anticipation. The song turned over and replayed as expected. Except for the whine of the disc player's play-head backtracking, and disappearance of some ambient analog noise from the speakers, the repeat was barely noticeable.
     This is a perfect song for this repeat function, Macy observed, it's so languid and sparse and drawn out that the pause when it's repeating feels just like a pause in the song. Just imagine the sax player is taking a deep breath between his phrases, and the pianist is scratching his ass, ho ho! And the drummer has pulled up his brushes and-
     You mean sticks?
     No, I mean brushes. This drummer is using two little brushes with metal bristles. It softens the beat.
     Oh, I had no idea. That's lovely - this song is so full of nuance.
     We concurred in a chorus of low-pitched, non-lexical moans; inebriated bellows for our never ending song. Our scene will play forever! we cheered. Hooray! we shouted and returned to our friendly social probing, as was meant.
     What is your greatest, deepest fear, Paula ventured daringly, other than being laid off?
     Who me?
     Everybody! She qualified.
     This was a tough question and we all respected Paula for it. We considered her challenge and then, each in turn, traded our secrets like cheap stickers or sports cards or pats on the back. We became amateur confessors, spawned from a socioeconomic group that generations back had dispensed with its fear of God and had little experience with guilt and moral redemption. It was difficult at first. Misdeeds of the kind we admitted to were not pleasant nor easy to voice aloud.
     We found that we were similar in many ways. Our father's had said to us when we were young: "whatever you want to do with your life is fine by your mother and me. Just so long as you are happy". Our mothers had said nothing, or had silently agreed. In the former case, however, we took it to mean the latter, regardless. "Do whatever makes you happy." As adolescents we used that advice on a daily basis to justify our inactivity and our recklessness, mainly because we felt happy already, in that hazy, brash adolescent way. What more was there? We traded heavy secrets like this with one another and felt ashamed and laughed and cried some too. Our callow generation÷ we are prone to overacting, we contended, and knew we were right, and whooped and hollered. Someone said, "I'll drink to that" and we loudly raised our beverages high in the air and drank to that.
     We should be writing all this down, suggested Cameron.
     The benefits of our enhanced mood were revealing themselves. We were becoming better friends because of our slipping inhibitions. We were wondering if diversity wasn't merely a divisive tactic used to hold universal understanding at bay. Or was it the other way around: Were universals being used to hold diversity at bay? Either way, we welcomed the influx of ideas, aphorisms, and theories into the room, whether true or false, and rated them according to their ambitiousness and visceral appeal.
     Our theme song, endlessly repeating, interminably consistent, was the glue keeping our group epiphany afloat, often amplifying it to hysterical proportions. These were the 'iffy' times, tense moments on the brink of verbal meltdown. But even our darkest times passed after a while and the mood remained consistent. It had been hours since the first sax riff played, yet its impact had not lessened. Gallons of devilish drink had been swallowed over that time and people were now closing in on each other, pairing up and getting cozy.
     The talk continued. Private confessions dropped like dead flies swatted from flight.
     I killed a nest of birds once, said David. With a baseball bat.
     Oh my god! Like, real wild birds?
     Yes, real baby robins. Three of them. Their nest fell from a tree in my yard one evening, and in the morning I found it, and I just went and got my bat. I was only 12 or 13.
     Did they have feathers yet? Or were they naked, with those big, blistery-blue sightless eyes?
     They were ugly! I think that's why I did it. I was young.
     We used to do that to pine moths with tennis rackets, said Diane. But that's a different story÷ sorry to interrupt.
     I was finished.
     Ricki said: How are you being let go from your job? I mean, what are they calling it? I was "asked to leave". Ridiculous.
     This was a good question, Ricki. Many of us had been waiting for this broaching. So we made a list:
     A casualty of Corporate Evolution.
     - of Departmental Restructuring.
     Getting Canned.
     Laid Off.
     Let Go.
     Sent packing.
     Discharged (Honorably or Dishonorably for our military brethren).
     In the ensuing silence, one person imagined that the timbre of the muted trumpet resembled the bleat of a sick but inspired lamb. A second person cringed at the use of the word "Terminated", just as she had with the words "God Damn" and "Naked". Another person was enjoying the scent of someone's vanilla scented conditioner/shampoo. Two others were holding hands, while a third stared them down from across the room, through a wine glass with crimson legs running down its sides.
     By now, we were sure an entire day had lapsed. The song bounced on. It had become as essential to our thought processes as oxygen and language. We had committed every note to memory and incorporated each swing of the beat into our own bio-rhythms. There was no sign of exhaustion from anyone; there was no signal that the party was going to reach its terminus anytime soon. We continued to drink and eat and some over generous soul went right on supplying the weed without requesting payment or compensation.
     It's hard to believe a human produced this music isn't it? Raquel sighed. It sounds as if this music came straight from heaven. Don't you agree?
     No, said Brendan. I can hear the guys playing the woodwinds breathing. He raised a finger in the air and opened his wide mouth, about to speak. Right÷there, he said and pointed at one of the speakers. That was the fellow on the clarinet.
     Raquel slumped further into her beanbag, crossed her arms and pulled her knees up to her elbows.
     I apologize, Brendan offered, but I am a musician. It's no illusion for me anymore.
     Are most clarinet players black? Penny asked softly and was not heard by most.
     God damn, said Thomas, it really doesn't matter one way or the other whether this track is divinely made or not. The plain fact is, I can't escape this wonderful melancholy we have organized here. I am blissfully unaware of any contradictory or nullifying states of mind. I believe, though you may not, that I have reached emotional stasis.
     I wish I could say the same my friend, said Craig from one of the easy chairs, but I am afraid my physiology is conspiring to interfere with my ability to sustain this séance. I'm still very drunk and I need to take a piss and, well, frankly, because of all the food I wolfed down I need to make a bowel movement.
     This was unexpected and unfortunate news. We all instantly recognized Craig's problem as a serious one. The bathroom was on the first floor of the house, on the opposite side. This was too far from the stereo speakers for him to effectively remain within the mood. Risking a trip to the bathroom might put Craig's reverie in jeopardy. We discussed various workarounds. Craig was very helpful, bless his soul, in spite of his pressing problem. Lay down, we told him, and think of frozen lakes while we work this out.
     Could we increase the volume of the song? we thought. That would enable the sound to forcefully navigate the twists and turns of the house - up the stairs, through the kitchen, down the corridor, into the bathroom - and still remain an effective sedative. Additionally, all the surfaces on this proposed journey were hard and reflective - drywalls, plaster and paint, linoleum, slatted hardwood, bathroom tiles. Only a small percentage of sound absorption would result. This was a decent plan, except:
     I think that will just about kill it for us down here, Patricia remarked, shaking her head. That's too loud for us and our mood, here in this den.
     We will follow him to the bathroom! said Kenner.
     ALL of us? Are you kidding?
     Maybe not÷
     Besides, increased movement will nullify the mood too. We have to remain as still and silent. One or two people slinking about is okay. It's kind of sexy. But not an entire wagon train. That's out.
     Craig was prone when we looked at him again, his back on the floor, his hands gripping and releasing the shag carpet in cycles. When he felt our eyes on him, Craig admitted to us: Guys, I may have lost the mood already, I'm sorry. My bowls have a different idea about how the world should be run, and which actions are priorities and which are luxuries. I need to poop - seriously.
     With awkward words like "God Damn", "Terminated", "Naked", and now "Poop" hanging about the room, Craig wasn't the only one losing his composure.
     I got it! beamed Art. Does anyone have a portable stereo with them?
     Yes. Here.
     "A Very Excellent Mix Tape, Vol. 3" - Is this one okay to record over? Do you still need this?
     There should be some room on Side A. Careful though.
     Art crawled to the Compact Disc player and opened one of the cabinets below. Inside was an old cassette player/recorder from a bygone era of industrial design. The face was frosted gunmetal gray, the casing around the face was faux wood-grain plastic. There were large silver knobs and breaker switches on the front panel. If you can hold on for a couple more minutes, man, Art said, we'll save you yet.
     By now most people were hip to Art's meritorious ploy. It deserved a silent round of applause and approvals, and indeed, it got one. Art inserted the tape into the deck, forwarded some, then hit record. Two leaping LED strings seemed to indicate that the device was recording properly and that the song was being transferred successfully.
     Well? Well? Art was praising himself with raised eyebrows and upturned hands.
     It was a very good plan, we commented variously.
     Craig grunted, okay man, okay, lets get this thing going Art. Let's see some results, man.
     One minute, Art begged. He gathered up the portable stereo and headphones. Do these work okay? He asked. Yes, someone said. Art pushed the device's <play> button anyway. There was no tape inside so he held the unit up to his head and listened. His nod indicated approval. Craig, remember: frozen lakes. It's all down to will power. You know, I hear that some Orthodox Jews have learned to stave off their bowel's influence for months at a time. Something to do with intense Talmudic scholarship back in the-
     SHUT-THE-FUCK-UP, ART!÷ and do what you're gonna do, please, he roared and whimpered. Everyone sat motionless. Had this outburst upset the balance? We listened. There was our song, backing us up, riff after riff. We felt good. Okay.
     It's right here, its right here, calm down, Art whispered. Craig sat up deliriously and took the headset, placing them over his ears immediately. Art handed him the tape. Rewind a bit, and you're all good. There's only about two and a half minutes so you've got to make it quick.
     Craig pushed rewind. His hands were white and stiff with pain. We heard the wheezing of the cassette as it spooled backwards. Craig regarded all of us with a pathetic smile, tears running down his cheeks.
     This has been so good for me, guys, he sobbed. You're all so generous÷. He stood on shaky legs, about faced, and started for the staircase. We heard him depress the play button just as he reached the bottom step. He tilted his head at a sideways angle and listened. We could not see his face. Oh damn, he said without drama, it's working. You nailed it.
     For an instant we saw a contortion of lunacy chiseled on his face, which might have scared us had we not know the depth of his urges. He leaped out of sight in a single awkward stride. We heard him stomp up the stairs to the kitchen.
     I pray to God that works, Art, Billie said. She shook her head and closed her eyes. I've never had to use the toilet so bad as that in all my life. Not even after I got Dysentery down in Cancun a few years back.
     Shhh, somebody hushed. It was a close call, sure, but it would be a mistake to dwell on it. Let's all resign ourselves to the mood again, before we completely fuck it up for good. It's so delicate÷ do you realize that? How close we were to stepping back into the boredom of the work week. It's a very tender, transitory space we've created here.
     Like tissue paper, someone added.
     Or sweet, whipped cream.
     Or smoke (hand me the÷).
     Like crisp cold air outside, warmth on the inside.
     That makes no immediate sense, but I understand what you mean.
     Like nature - Mmmm - which is good.
     Now, I feel I could die without worry. That is the only option left so far as I can see. This is the gist of my argument - this den has become the finale' of a fabulous movie, like we said, or that of a wonderful book, or a melancholy symphony - the pleasure increases as you approach the inevitable end. And dying - with a fat, hokey grin on your face and endorphins in your veins - is the only way to avoid the final come-down, it's the only way to make it last. This seems to be the condition of all popular entertainment÷ hmmm. But look what have we done here! We have sustained it, the euphoria of the finale'. This is our own hopeless miracle, perfect and permanent. Congratulations are due all around, friends.
     Always the most articulate of the group, we nodded in agreement, both humbled and awed by our friend's perspicacity.
     And thus morally encouraged by this description of our present situation, we whispered congratulations into our neighbor's ear (Congratulations, Felicitations, Thank You, and You as well, indeed Congratulations), recited some short and memorable lines from forgotten poems and lyrics (Song, let them take it, For there's more enterprise, In walking naked; The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had), replenished our plates and glasses with combustibles (Spirits, Wines, Cheeses, Kalamata Olives, Sesame Crackers, Rye Bread, etc.) and basked silently thereafter in the rarefied pleasure of the impossible.


Darby McDevitt was born in Spokane. He currently lives in Seattle.


The Exciting, The Compeling, The Breathtaking, Jeopardy (Western Washington University), Spring 98. Call Western Washington University's English Department for a copy. (It's a free publication!)


Other work (and resume) can be found at: http://www.geocities.com/kidubiquity

Email: arbyday@hotmail.com

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