As of late, this blog has become less and less about me flexing my writing muscle and promoting my literary talent, and more and more about litanies of complaints about my life. It has become embarrassingly juvenile and pointless. This post is the first of many to remedy the issue. Anecdotes and information about my writing process and career are clearly valid fodder for entries, but all of the other nonsense has been sound and fury, signifying nothing. So, please enjoy this short story, as I am writing again. 🙂
DAILY PROMPT #1: “You inadvertently run an important paper through the shredder.”
The pulse of any office is the mechanical hum that constitutes the daily, incessant white noise. The thrumming electricity of the air conditioning, an illicit and discreet mini fridge, any number of computers and copiers and scanners and shredders and telephones, is the background to one thousand and one inane conversations, small heart attacks, hurried and hushed exchanges of gossip, and angry and bitter disappointments. Human society is merely comprised of many micro chasms of itself, linked intrinsically by human dramas resulting from the human condition; that is, a shared experience in which humans are defeated or victorious against a myriad of trials and tribulations and triumphs, all varying in degrees of difficulty and delight.
Allison often congratulated herself on how profound she could be standing before one the aforementioned pieces of office machinery, completing menial task after menial task, and feeling her brain go numb and die one precious cell at a time. If she was not constantly thinking of other things, thinking of things other than memos, customer complaints, returns, exchanges, and minimum wage, then she was sure to lose whatever intellectual prowess that had remained but was surely fading since college graduation. She had graduated magna cum laude, which was impressive, but had done so with a B.A. in English, which now seemed foolish because it did little to no good as she dealt with petty customer complaints for an embarrassingly shady online retailer, who really only acted as a third party and had no warehouse of its own from which to ship goods. Her passion for the English language was now limited to pretentiously polite e-mails to customers who ordered a 50-lb. bag of peanuts not intended for human consumption but for livestock, but ate some anyway and now demanded a full refund as compensation for any future illness. She composed not for literary greatness or analysis, but for customers who sent along a strongly worded e-mail insisting an item description is wrong and that the Santa suit pictured is not actually flame retardant. All her literary gifts and breathless wonder at the majesty of the written words lay dormant and spoiling within her.
Allison had understood as a freshman that earning a B.A. in English did not guarantee a glamorous occupation that garnered a six-figure paycheck, so she had done the responsible thing and received her teaching certificate. The economy was so horrible upon the completion of her four years at an accredited university that even finding a job that would supposedly always be in demand, like teaching, proved difficult. The wide-eyed and optimistic smile that had shone upon the newly conferred degree in May was now distinctly dimmed at the end of August, as aspiring author and academic analyst of literature Allison Wyke mindlessly made copies that had no consequence on the greater truths of the universe.
It was bad enough that she held a degree and was making just ten dollars per hour of work with no benefits to speak of at a dead end job she only found through a temp agency, but Allison was still living at home with no boyfriend and a car that only started on warmer days and if she whispered loving phrases against the dashboard as she turned the key in the ignition. The car barely rolled along to the less than impressive office building in the middle of a dangerous eyesore of a neighborhood. Coming for the interview, Allison had traveled with the windows rolled up and with the doors locked tight, even though the air conditioning did not work. Deep down, Allison understood she was being somewhat ridiculous and buying into stereotypes proliferated by urban legends more than anything else. Although, she certainly raised eyebrows when, in preparing for the interview, she had been advised to not be offended when her possible future employer refused to shake her hand as it was for a religious reason. Allison was a Roman Catholic born and raised among many other Roman Catholics in a white bread community, so differing religious customs and practices greatly intrigued her, almost like instead of traversing a town or two, she was traipsing across continents.
When Allison left the stifling safety of her barely operational Ford Explorer, and found cover from the blazing August sun, and entered the cool, dark and somewhat barren and disappointing retail space, her sense of adventure vanished. Seated at the reception desk was just another white girl. While it was far from scintillating, it was familiar and did make the situation more comfortable, so Allison smiled politely, gave her name and the reason for her appearance, and she did as she was told and had a seat.
The office was an appreciated contrast to the summer heat, but it was also exceedingly simple and plain and bare. Aside from the uncomfortable and unfashionable chair Allison was now seated in, there wasn’t much else to be entertained by. Her chair was one of three, pushed against the far, wood paneled wall beside a massive copy machine. To her left was a coffee table, upon which rested a cheap and dusty plastic plant in an equally cheap and dusty plastic vase. Everything was a dark brown, even the carpet, so the room clearly strived for comfy but came off as antiquated. Everything also seemed used and worn and long past its prime, other than the technology. Allison’s eyes, bored and therefore remarkably observant, roamed over the large space, dubiously regarded the various certificates and accreditations hung crookedly on the walls in expensive frames. There was nothing remarkable or personable about the room, not a single hint of personality. Allison was thinking about cold consumerism and wondering about her future happiness when a door somewhere off to her right opened. “Allison?” called a rather generic male voice.
Rising to stand, Allison smoothed her pencil skirt and turned. She began walking towards the voice, which belonged to an equally generic-looking man. He wore black trousers with black boots that offered no shine whatsoever. His button down shirt was an immaculate shade of white and his sleeves were very neatly rolled just above his elbows. His hair was an interesting shade of brown, looking as if it was flecked with rust and was probably more copper than it was brown. His eyes were dark and round and boring but kind. That being said, his features were utterly forgettable, other than the dark prayer sash hanging from his back pocket and his yarmulke. Allison smiled, shading her surprise, and said, “Hello, how are you?” She had to fight hard against her instinct to stretch her hand out towards her potential future employer. Not being able to shake hands made an already nerve-wracking introduction even more frustrating.
The man stepped back and held the door open wide, clearing the threshold and inviting Allison in. “Hello Allison; I’m Jacob. Come on in and have a seat.” Allison did as she was told and was decidedly unimpressed with the mundane office, with crooked and cheap frames, worn carpet, and distinct lack of any personality or human touch. She did not particularly care for the way Jacob lounged in his fancy office chair during the interview, reclining as if he were completely disinterested and utterly bored. But what could she do? Times were hard and she desperately needed the job, so Allison plastered a smile upon her face and did her best to be as charming as possible.
It worked apparently, because here Allison was five months later, mindless and miserable. She was now shredding useless documents, rapping her fingernails with their chipped polish in a surprisingly cheery rhythm. It was 11:00AM on Wednesday; not quite halfway through the day, but at least it was halfway through the week. A dreamy smile lit upon her face whenever she thought about 5:00PM or the weekend. The reverie that was just beginning was mercilessly cut short, well before its prime, by Jacob’s voice. “Allison, review this purchase order, have the sales office sign off on it, and then place it in my inbox by 2:30, okay? Thanks,” Jacob said, not waiting for a reply, expecting and accepting only complete compliance, and practically throwing the sheet of paper at Allison. Carefully, she placed the paper to the side of the others, not wanting to accidentally send it through the shredder. She worried about Jacob’s wrath were that to happen.
With the interruption over, Allison resumed sliding sheets of paper into the machine to meet their sharp demise, and she was anxious to resume creating fantastical plans for the weekend, which was a source of comfort even if the plans never came to fruition. What if she decided to join Melanie on a trip to that seaside bar where all those scruffy-looking guys in fashionable flannel shirts gathered? Would she meet a handsome musician with gauged ears and many tattoos? She wouldn’t know yet because her daydream was cut short for the second time that day.
But this interruption was welcomed. “Hey Allison,” said Eli, the only good-looking male in the whole office. More than that, he was the only friendly male in the whole office, not allowing his religious beliefs to completely segregate and alienate himself from the female gentiles. His face was sweet and innocent with an enviable clear complexion. He had dark hair and dark eyes and thin, pink lips. He was thin but was not frail by any means. Allison knew it must have been awkward and uncomfortable for Eli being eye candy for an office filled to the brim with women, so she always did her best to play it cool. It wasn’t like there would ever be anything to build on anyway because she was not Jewish and Eli was married. Still, it was the only mildly entertaining encounter with a male she would have all day. So she smiled and slanted her eyes ever so slightly before returning the greeting.
Oh, Eli …. Allison remembered the first time she had met him. She had been in a different office, in a different part of the building, and the room had been incredibly small – no bigger than a glorified closet, really – but Eli had done his best to turn it into a comfortable, let alone decent office. But the room was so small that if the door swung open, it would smack against Allison’s desk and most likely bruise her elbow. It was definitely crowded, but Allison was lucky enough to share the close quarters with Shannon, who was incredibly kind and empathetic; she too was a single, young woman who had recently graduated and was now being taken advantage of by brutal bosses in a bruising economy. They would often share harmless water cooler gossip in the tiny room, separated from the others and just across the narrow hall from the actual water cooler, and dissolve into girlish giggles at the thought of Eli and his good looks and his sweet manner, wondering if he would kiss Allison’s bruised elbow and make it all better. They had gone silent when Eli had entered the room, following the installation of an air conditioner, to hook up a second computer – Allison’s computer – with all the necessary software to make the machine productive. It was her second day and already, management had shoved her into cramped quarters. Eli had wondered if the new environment made Allison nervous, and if she wondered if the move mad some menacing ulterior motive. Allison had no such worries, and had been making idle and safe conversation with Shannon to pretend Eli’s proximity was not as titillating as it was. She did not notice the quick glance Eli stole before bending over the desk to check the wires in the back of the tower. As usually happened when among the women of the office, Eli felt eyes roaming over his behind and he surprised himself by hoping the eyes belonged to the new girl. They did; Allison had indeed checked him out, but Eli had missed it by not turning around in time. He had stayed still until the sudden heat that struck his cheeks had dissipated. Eli could not remember the last time he had blushed. He would never admit aloud or to anyone but himself that he found the new girl attractive. It wouldn’t be right – he’d be shunned and ashamed because she wasn’t like them. Straightening up, Eli turned to face Allison with blank eyes.
Suddenly, he couldn’t remember name. “Uh, um … ah …” he stuttered.
She smiled kindly. “Allison,” she reminded him. There was something like a hint of laughter in her voice.
“Right,” he breathed. “Allison, you’re all set up with the e-mails, programs and everything.” He leaned over her, careful not to touch her, to show her what he was talking about on the monitor. “If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. He smiled brightly and risked making direct eye contact. Allison’s eyes were wide, dark and deep, and her lashes and brows framed them elegantly. Feeling a few, tiny beads of sweat gather at the back of his neck, Eli knew he had to leave.
“Thanks,” said Allison. She was still smiling. “Thanks a lot.”
Eli had nodded and fled the room.
In setting up Allison’s e-mail, Eli had sent her a message to a) make sure it worked and b) to send her a username and password for one of the programs. He had kept it short and professional. Returning to his desk later that day, he saw he had a new e-mail. Instinctively, he opened it and he read it without much thought. The message was simple enough; “Thanks a lot!” Upon checking who the message was from, Eli’s face flushed. It was from Allison.
Still later that day, Allison’s second day, one of the ladies from accounting complained that the water cooler was out of water. Sighing heavily, Eli wheeled his chair back from his desk and headed to retrieve a full water jug. The jugs were kept neatly in rows of rounded cubbies beside the vending machine…and directly across from the office Allison shared with Shannon. Eli did his best to ignore this fact, especially since none of it meant anything anyway. However, as he slid the jug onto his shoulder from the cubby, Eli couldn’t help but notice the open door and saw Allison at her desk. Eye contact was made, but it was fleeting; he wasn’t even sure if it really happened, but he smiled anyway, to be polite. Allison smiled back, and the jug on Eli’s shoulder abruptly felt very heavy so he hurried back down the hall to the water cooler.
On Allison’s third day, Eli had walked into the lobby of the office and found her in front of the clock-in machine, anxiously bouncing from foot to foot. Her eyes shifted from side to side, like she was discreetly pleading for help. Cue the theme music for the conquering hero – he walked beside her. “Are you having trouble?”
Allison shot him a muted smile; the worry lines etched on her face robbed it of its normal brilliance. “Yeah, every time I try to use this thing,” indicating the electronic key clutched angrily in her hand, “the screen says, ‘Invalid Entry.’ Jacob just gave it to me yesterday before I left, but my ride was already here because my car crapped out on me.” Most likely stressed from trying to make the perfect first impression, this simple problem had developed into something like a thorn in Allison’s side.
Eli’s face fell. Sure, he was good with electronics and technology and whatever, but this was Jacob’s department; Jacob would be the conquering hero. Eli heard his theme music end abruptly. “Jacob will be in the office in an hour or so. I’d talk to him.”
Allison tried smiling brightly again, but this second attempt was even more pathetic than the first. “Okay, thanks.”
Eli gave her a small smile and slowly shuffled into his office.
For the next month or so, things had continued in the same vein for Allison and Eli. They shared small and polite smiles, and only spoke to inquire about the weather and the mornings. Eventually, Allison moved into a larger room with Shannon and other female employees and though she made friends, she felt unfulfilled and missed being intellectually challenged. Eli spent the majority of his time in the office with Jacob, arguing about this and that and trying to make important decisions as a team, while Allison sent out her resume and looked for any other job. Business was slow for Allison and Eli, and Jacob and everyone else, so many fell into the habit of checking for e-mail every five minutes or so to help pass the time and to create the illusion of appearing busy. Nothing new or interesting ever seemed to show up, other than right before quitting time, so Eli was shocked to discover an e-mail from Shannon. Quickly, his shock transformed into shock and awe when he realized the e-mail was about Allison. It read, “Hey Eli. Allison isn’t able to receive any e-mails. Please consult when you get a chance.” In the back of Eli’s mind, he could hear that theme music from long ago beginning again, and rising to a powerful crescendo. His chance had finally arrived. He did his absolute best to contain his nervous excitement and tentatively poked his head in the doorway (after sprinting down the hallway, of course).
If only Eli had known how long it had taken Shannon to compose the short, innocuous message. Allison had insisted on reading it over and making it as platonic and professional as possible to best conceal the giddy excitement at the mere prospect of seeing Eli inside their office. Allison was terrified all would be revealed the moment he walked in, but couldn’t keep from meeting his eyes almost instantly. Allison smiled and released a breath. “Hey.”
“Hi,” Eli squeaked. Clearing his throat, he blushed for only a moment before asking, “Are you still having problems with your e-mail?”
“Yeah,” Allison answered. She stood before him. “I can send messages fine, but I don’t seem to be getting any. Messages, I mean,” Allison said, blushing and laughing like a complete idiot. Eli smiled. They stayed still, exactly where they were, for just a moment before Allison stepped to the side, moving farther from the desk to allow Eli better access to the computer. “I even tried sending myself an e-mail.” Allison laughed and the adorable sound made the corners of Eli’s lips lift instantly.
“Alright,” Eli said and squatted in front of Allison’s desk where the chair would normally go. It had been wheeled next to Shannon’s desk, most likely for training purposes. Clicking around, Eli found the problem easily enough. He rectified the issue fast and explained it to Allison. “You’re good to go now,” he finished.
“Oh, thanks, thanks a lot.” Eli wondered if she’d reach out and touch his arm and couldn’t readily decide if that would be catastrophic or not.
“Oh, also, I should have your phone ready either by the end of today, or first thing tomorrow.”
“I really, really appreciate all of this and all of your help.” Every time Allison smiled, Eli smile – he couldn’t help it, but he didn’t want to give her the wrong idea. As discreetly as he could, Eli left the room and shuffled back down the hallway. He missed Allison share a look with Shannon and then dissolve into a fit of giggles. He missed Allison check her e-mail and the expression that passed across her face when she read his e-mail from yesterday that simple said, “You’re welcome.”
Essentially, he missed everything.
Allison remembered a Friday some time later. It was the much beloved end of the work week. As an added bonus, everyone got to go home an hour earlier since the vast majority of the office had to be home before the sun fell below the horizon. Eli had been early that day – maybe because he was anxious to end the work week – so he hadn’t seen Allison come in. He confirmed her presence in other ways, like when he had to exchange the empty water jug on the water cooler for a new one and shot her a friendly smile from just outside the door. On the pretense of making sure her phone was installed properly, Eli found himself brazen enough to also linger in her doorway and exchange incredibly brief pleasantries. Eli knew damn well that what he was doing was dangerous, that he was most assuredly playing with fire, but in the secret, intimate recesses of his beating heart, he didn’t care – at least, not on such a glorious Friday. Allison did her part by always allowing him to use the sink in the kitchen first, by feigning complete and utter ignorance whenever her computer malfunctioned (and pretended to be impressed when Eli simply restarted the machine, which she always knew would solve the issue), and by always requesting to be shown how to use any program or complete any troubleshooting. In fact, whenever one wanted to be sure to crack the other up, Shannon and Allison would say “Can you show me” in a breathy whisper.
One day, Allison was gushing about how attractive Eli was without realizing he had been behind the opened door, fussing with a water jug, the entire time. After that, conversation between the two had become easier and more genuine, as if refraining from simply admitting the mutual attraction had been insulting. So here they were, five months later, discussing their weekends like old friends.
“Are you still looking for a new job?” Eli asked.
“Absolutely,” Allison answered without even the pretense of a thoughtful hesitation. “I’ve been looking at publishing companies in the city.”
Eli grinned. “What about teaching? You have your certificate, don’t you?”
Allison sucked in air between her teeth. “Eli, please; I’m much too glamorous and passionate and wildly romantic for that.” She laughed softly to show she had only been kidding.
Eli had continued to grin, but his tone was serious when he said, “You’re right. You’re all of those things.”
Allison’s jaw dropped. Urges to say things and to do things to Eli and with Eli all came rushing upward and nearly outward. She needed to do something with her bothersome and troublesome hands, which now felt enlarged and tingly, but she had run out of paper to shred, meaning that she had shredded that incredibly important purchase order for Jacob. “Shit,” she said.
The color fled from Eli’s face. “Allison, what’s wrong?”
Allison covered her face with her hands. “I’m not going to have to quit, Eli.”
“Well, that makes me happy,” Eli admitted with a fairly troubled countenance.
“I’m going to get fired,” Allison groaned.