A Short Story by Alice Embree

Alice Embree
September 19, 2007

Char nursed a large, iced mocha in a trendy café in the near-trendy North Loop neighborhood of Austin. She was the oldest person in the place. By far. She was musing on a pension – no not the one where she and Raul had had hot sex in Cuzco. Not the pension with brilliant blue shutters and copper-colored tiles on the roof. Char was musing on the pension that you get when you turn 62.

She had finally done it. No, not turn 62. Her birthday was still a few months off. But, she had made an appointment at the Social Security office where a really nice 20-something young man with earnest eyes filled out her application.

“This is a kind of erratic earnings history,” he had ventured. “Is this accurate?”

He was sitting in a numbered cubicle in a hallway of similar cubicles. Char leaned over to view the screen he was looking at.

“Well, yes,” she said. “See those years I was working in a collectively run restaurant,” Char said pointing at the screen. “And there, I was going back to school. It took me nineteen years from start to finish to get my B.A. and then I went for a Master’s.”

“You were an undergraduate for nineteen years!” he blurted.

“On, no,” said Char. “I dropped out of college. It was the sixties, you know. We lived communally on as little as possible. We didn’t want to be consumers. I guess now you call that having a small carbon footprint. But then we just thought it was righteous. I went back to school when I had kids and needed insurance.”

Peter turned his attention back to his questions. “So, these amounts look right to you?”

“They do,” Char said. “That’s my life history you have on that screen – well, my working stiff history.”

Char was part of the “Get it While You Can” generation. The baby boomers who had listened to the throbbing beat behind Janis Joplin as she closed her eyes and sung her heart out. “Get it while you can” meant sex. But, you know, it could also mean money. Char had a state annuity and she was going to get a federal pension in about six months.

She could wait three years and get more. But, Char wasn’t really inclined to wait because “Get it while you can” had another meaning as well. If the privatizing Neanderthals in the president’s administration had their way, the Social Security fund would be allowed to shrivel up like a tomato vine in a Texas drought. They wanted to put the final nail in the coffin of the New Deal. No, she’d better get it while she can.

Peter did a few calculations, then handed Char a paper. “You’ll get something in the mail about eight weeks before the first disbursement. Call me if you have questions.”

“Thanks, Peter,” Char said. “You’ve been very helpful.” Char rummaged around in her purse and got out a leaflet on single payer health insurance.

“Here,” Char said, handing the paper to Peter. “We’ve really got to build on the Medicare model so that everyone has access to health insurance. Don’t you think?”

Peter stammered, “I really am not supposed to venture opinions while on my job.”

“Well, I’m sure you have coffee breaks,” said Char. “Put this up in the breakroom. Or do they have cameras watching your every move?”

Peter took the leaflet, folded it and put it in his pocket. “Best of luck to you,” he said.

Char walked out through the crowded lobby. There were babies squirming in strollers, desolate people in wheelchairs making disability claims, young muscular Latinos trying to get Social Security cards so they could participate in the American dream. The place was teaming with a younger generation and Char knew she’d depend on their contributions soon enough.

She got into her little Corolla in the parking lot with its bumper sticker message broadcast system: “If you want peace, work for justice,” “Out of Iraq NOW,” She turned on the ignition and got the air conditioner to battle the baking-oven heat. Then she slipped in a CD and chose the track she wanted. Janis’ voice came on strong and urgent, “Get It While You can,” Yeah, Janis. She would.

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