The Transition Phase

By Ian MacMillan

art by Etn

Always a danger in that.

     He left the plant, and the grimy concrete walk to the parking lot was familiar, but then not familiar. He got into the car, buckled up and activated the engine, and looked at the little green readout: change level: 9.05. Another car pulled up. “Congratulations, Dan!” he yelled. Who? You? Bill Monk. Of course. But it still felt like part reality and part dream—the dash, the low hiss of the engine, the readout at 9.05. But then of course, it was the charge level. He poked the radio button. Music. He was retiring, that was it. His heart began to thump in his chest. Finally.

     “You’ve only to finalize your contract,” she said. She smiled. “I’m so happy.”

     “When do I finalize--”

     “This afternoon. I’ll go with you.”

     Outside in the back yard men were trimming hedges and mowing grass with strange woodwhackers on wheels. He watched, and in a while they all stopped, carried their tools to a truck, got in without saying anything to one another, and slowly pulled out of the driveway.

     “—beach, and that’s only two weeks from now.”


     “Hawaii. I’ve got all the brochures.”

     “What happened to the little pad Nissan?”

     She looked at him. He had an image of himself driving to the plant in it, remembered because of the muffler noise. In fact that memory was as fresh as if it had happened yesterday.

     “Well,” she said, “We’ll go finalize your contract.”

     The plant executive, a Mister De Cambra, did all the calculations with a respectful, sometimes even gleeful smile on his face. “59. That’s a good contract, and you must feel great.”

     “I feel all right.”

     Out through the window he could see the west wall of the plant. It was familiar but not familiar.

     He sat in the living room watching the Wimbledon finals on television. He knew, but didn’t know, the way the game was played. He had played when he was young. But the match on TV confused him—the moderators talked about 160 mph serves. Both players were tall. One, an American named Bud Sprague, was 6’7”, the other from Senegal named Nduku Nmedbe was 6’9”. The players played with little headsets, really no more than earplugs with straps around the backs of their heads. Each player had a coaching staff in the boxes above the court, and the coaching staff screamed instructions into microphones during the points.

     “—went wrong in the transition phase,” his wife said into the phone. “He doesn’t seem right.”

     Then the serve, and Sprague dove to the backhand slide and returned it for a winner. The staff had seen the Senegalese player’s grip, and then some subtle twist in his body as he served, and Sprague’s service return coach had yelled “Left!” before he hit it. They played the slomo replay six times.

     He knew but didn’t know that his son was in prison. For what, he wasn’t sure. He didn’t want to ask his wife because of the look of sympathetic skepticism on her face. He tried to remember what a “transition phase” was, but ended up visualizing his son at twelve, shooting baskets in the back yard.

     He went out on walks. His wife told him that it would be good for him. If he wanted to take a bus downtown, he had to carry his bar code card that he knew but didn’t know—it was old, grimy in the delaminating edges, but it felt in his pocket like something belonging to someone else. He took the bus to the center of the town, and in the distance past a fountain saw the plant. He walked there. It was a shift change. Men came out and went to their cars. Other cars parked and men went in. He thought he’d talk to one or another that he thought he knew but they all seemed intent on what they were doing, and looked at him blankly as they passed.

     “It was your medicine,” his wife said. “The R920. The doctor thinks that your transition phase was incomplete.”

     “I feel all right,” he said.

     “You remember the Nissan though.”

     “About like I remember coming home the other day.”

     “He said that’s not unusual. He said that in a few days you’ll be fine.”

     “Then we’re going to Hawaii. I want to go to Hawaii.”

     She smiled. “Finally,” she said. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

     He did not have the impulse to look further into it. Then he wondered why he did not have the impulse. He went to the library to read magazines. There he changed his mind and pulled out a Physician’s Desk Reference and looked for R920, but could not find it, unless Howes Brandt’s RLX9 series was 920, but the print was so small he couldn’t read it.

     When he was downtown he thought of his son who was in prison for five years for holding up a convenience store. He had known it all along but then did not know why he didn’t really know it when the subject of his son came up in his mind. Of course he was in prison and when he knew that he knew it, he thought of going to see him. Then he thought, looking at a busy intersection in the center of which a policeman directed the not-so-noisy traffic, “I don’t really need to see him.” Then he wondered why he did not really want to see him, and decided that he’d go and see him, and asked a man where the prison was. “What prison?” the man said, holding a newspaper to his chest.

     “The prison where they keep offenders who—”

     “Oh, community rehab,” the man said. “A short ride out of town that way.” And he pointed.

     Community Rehab was a cluster of small buildings that resembled condominiums. Men tended gardens, appeared to be making furniture or something in a warehouse-like building to the right of the office. Inside he stepped to a man’s desk and asked to see his son. “In the shop,” he said. “Around back.”

     Apparently he could walk over there to see him. There was no apparent security, not even a fence around the place. He walked across a well-tended lawn to the warehouse he had seen on the way in. Another man at a desk pointed out his son and said, “If you want, but—” and he shrugged amiably. His son was making furniture. This is what Dan had made at the plant. He did not think anything of this, and then wondered why he did not see the coincidence as interesting.

     “Dave?” he asked.

     Dave looked up. “Hi, Dad,” he said, and went back to hammering a leg into the seat of a chair, studying the pegs as the gap closed up.

     “How are you?”

     “Fine. I’m fine,” he said.

     He watched his son work. Then his son flinched and stood up straight and stared at him, then looked quickly around the warehouse.


     Then he looked at his hands.

     “Oh, man, here we go again. It doesn’t always work. Did it work with you? It must have worked with you.”

     “Your mother said I have problems with a transition phase.”

     His son stared at him. “I do too,” he said. “I was supposed to go into the entry therapy at the beginning of the five years, and then walk out the door, but—”

     Dan remembered the therapy a little now.

     “I remember being wired up, then given a bottle of pills, but—”

     “You were depressed,” Dave said. “I remember that. You didn’t even like weekends because you said on Friday night you’d start thinking of having to go back to work Monday, and the plant only gave you two weeks off yearly.”

     “I remember some of that.”

     “That’s why you seized the contract. There was a thing about that because you were one of the first long-term contracts. You were going to go to work one Monday morning, phase in, and then phase out twenty-five years later, retired and ready for—”

     “Hawaii. I remember the little red Nissan.”

     His son looked at the floor, thought a moment. “Yeah, that little car. You went to work in it the first day of the R920, and that was twenty-five years ago.”  He looked around, furtively Dan thought, then whispered, “I didn’t mind it.”

     “Mind what?”

     “Coming out of it. At first the idea was perfect. I got five years. I’d walk in and then the next thing I’d know I’d walk out. But the R920 doesn’t always work.” He looked around again. “I don’t know if they’d like it if they knew, but I come out every three or four weeks, for a day or so, and then it kicks in again.  All these guys—” and he waved his arm around at all the men patiently working. “—have no problem. There are some twenty or thirty year guys too. They’ll phase out and never know they were here. It’s just walk in, do your entry therapy, and walk out.”

     “Why didn’t I go week to weekend? You know, like fifty-two times a year?”

     “You were depressed. You wanted your work over with. Besides, entry therapy’s expensive. Nobody would be able to afford it. Only rich people—they even do entry therapy and get on a plane, then get off in their transition phases with smiles on their faces.” Now he looked toward the door, where a man stood surveying the workers. He leaned down and picked up a chair leg. The man wandered over toward Dan.

     “Howdy,” he said.

     Dan returned the greeting. Dave worked patiently on the chair. The man watched a moment, then left.

     “Did he look suspicious?” Dave asked. Dan said he hadn’t. “So are you going to Hawaii?” He said he was and Dave said, “I remember that. I remember you saying, ‘I’m going to work today, then when I come home I’m going to Hawaii.’ I remember being jealous because I knew I’d be too old to go with you.”

     “And this convenience store thing. That—”

     “I couldn’t get a job, of course,” he said. “I always applied, and in the application I said no to the R920, and they always declined. See, by the time I was twenty-five it was more or less assumed you would use the therapy. I mean, there are no more productive workers than R-niners.”

     “I know that,” Dan said, although he remembered now that he’d known it all along without knowing it. It was only his son’s mention of it that made him know it.

     “You’d better go,” Dave said. “Come visit any time, but I can’t predict if I’ll be like I am now. And it costs me too. When I come out I really do my time. I don’t mind it, but then sometimes I do. It’s boring. Congratulations on your retirement.”

     His wife asked him how she’d been all these years and he told her she was sweet. He liked to wander around downtown. He realized that he wanted less and less to go to Hawaii. But his mental equilibrium was back. Now he realized he was interested in all that had put him here. He easily found advertisements for newer and more popular R-niner packages: The Executive Slam Dunk—a plan that involved an eighty-four hour work week with only two entry therapies a year and two transitions out, leaving time off from Thanksgiving to the day after New Years’, and four months off from May through August. Because they’d found cheaper entrance therapies more people could afford plans—teachers could do therapies and transitions out four times per year, summer, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break. For some districts it was mandatory to insure responsibility and productivity.

     He was bored.  One day he walked into a seedy part of town and stopped for lunch at Chico’s Tacos. While he ate he listened to the noise and watched the workers, who argued, dropped things, and caused their manager no end of despair. On the window fronting the street he read the sign backwards: Help Wanted. He inquired.

     “Minimum wage, pops,” the man said.

     “What would I do, considering it’s entry level?”

     “Mop floors, do stuff in back.”

     “This is, what? Just a hobby?” she asked.

     “Yes, just something to do.”

     They went to Hawaii. While there, they wandered Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki, wandered the beach fronting the line of hotels at night, went on a bus to the Polynesian Cultural Center and Sea Life Park. At all those places, he could not drive from his mind the image of his floor and his pots and pans at Chico’s. Nor what had come to be his function, to keep those irresponsible kids in line. They fought, they had problems at home, they had them with boyfriends and girlfriends. They had begun to come to him, loud teenage girls with too much makeup, boys with tattoos. His minimum wage was for pots and floors and for being their sympathetic ear. He worked a lot of overtime because they kept failing to show up. Manuel was not happy that he was going on vacation. When they got back he went to Chico’s. “We had a near meltdown, Dan,” Manuel said. “I don’t know how we did it without you.”

     His wife planned another trip, this time to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. She brought home piles of brochures and set up a plan. He wanted to try to talk her out of it, because they needed him at Chico’s, but her enthusiasm put him off. At Chico’s he explained to Manuel that he would be gone for three weeks. Manuel said they’d hang on until he got back. At his lunch hour two days before their trip he went for a walk into the nicer part of town. The thought of leaving those kids was horrible and he wished he could convince his wife that he didn’t want to go. Then he whispered, “But I am a man of means.” It was true. His retirement package was lucrative, given the twenty-five years of responsible and productive work at the plant. He remembered where the Clinic was. He had time.

     “I want to set up a short term R920 plan, under the table if that’s all right. Can you do it so my wife doesn’t find out?”

     “Can do, Dan. Glad you’re not sick. We’ve made big advances since your time.”

     “Okay, this would start day after tomorrow, and go on for just three weeks.”