In the last moments before waking, Keli was a tour guide at a sheep-shearing plant. During a shearing demonstration for several families, the adults broke away to tinker with a row of rusted backhoes. Keli knew she’d get docked if the adults damaged the backhoes further, but they had left their small children at the shearing demonstration. She couldn’t leave the children unsupervised, especially since they kept reaching for the shears and wandering towards the sheep, who were the size of horses and poised to kick anyone who came up behind them.
Keli opened her eyes, and for a moment the shearing plant sat next to the reality of her bedroom sat like an atrocious Gucci knockoff paired against the genuine article. Why would adults bring wrenches and welding torches to a shearing plant? What use were backhoes in a shearing plant, anyway? She went into the bathroom and heard her husband through the shower wall as he conducted a meeting in the spare room he’d made into his office.
She did her tai chi, then made eggs over easy, toast and decaf coffee. She’d binged a few British dramas and several real housewife locations over the summer, so she perused her numerous streaming services for something new. She had barely finished her eggs and started a series about a mysterious woman arriving in a remote Alaska town when Glen came out of the spare room for his lunch. He moved to the kitchen quietly, always deferrent to her TV time, though he started making tuna without much regard for her keen sense of smell.
“This dream,” she began, shaking her head, and she described the situation at the shearing plant. She left out the fact that this would have been her first day back at school, had she not retired. She wanted to see if he’d make the connection on his own.
“Sounds like an anxiety dream,” he said as he scraped every smidge of tuna from the pouch. Glen abhorred waste. He always cleaned his plate, whether eating out (when they could eat out) or at home, even if he didn’t like the food. He stuck his finger into the pouch to coax out a couple more flakes. He added rosemary and dill to the tuna and mixed. He added onion salt, which only intensified the stink.
Keli had spent the final three months of her thirty-four year career staring at her students in grids through her tablet screen, which only magnified their sucking up or total disinterest. The Sunshine Committee canceled her retirement party. Glen wore a tie and squeezed her hand as the superintendent thanked Keli for her service at the online Board meeting, but Keli only took note of how the Board President pronounced her name as though they’d never met. Her department sent her a plaque. What could she do with a plaque? She had gone into teaching straight from college, so she was only in her late fifties. Plenty of time, she thought when she put in for retirement, to paint, to travel. But now there were travel restrictions, and a painting class over Zoom made no sense. She couldn’t even go north to spend time with her mother–the nursing homes were a high transmission zone.
Keli and Glen were empty-nesters. Robbie was starting a cannabis dispensary in Colorado. Glen still had a half-dozen years before he could pull a pension. He was a supervisor in public transit, and she’d never understood what a meeting about public transit entailed. He never griped about his day the way she used to, even when his office was just on the other side of the master bath. He never had to bring paperwork home.
Glen cut up some gherkin for the tuna and remained oblivious.
Keli decided to give Glen a hint. After all, his year began in January, not September, and for him, time off in the summer was two weeks at most. With pay.
“Makes sense, I guess, that I should have an anxiety dream today.” She turned towards him.
Glen kept his focus on the gherkins. “I know. Everyone’s under a lot of stress these days.”
She realized she was peering at Glen over her glasses, the look she’d given to kids who were being obtuse. She recalled the faces of the adults who’d ignored her as they headed for the backhoes, the kids who reached for the gigantic sheep over her objections. The ambivalence, the way they acknowledged her existence but didn’t recognize their need for her.
Keli sat back, turned up the volume.
Richard Weems has recently published in North American Review, Flash Fiction Magazine and Tatterhood Review.