Tag Archives: short fiction

The Opportunity

 

Eric and Daniel had been working together for years, although technically it wasn’t a partnership. Daniel worked for Eric. It was largely agreeable: Eric gave Daniel status, a decent if underwhelming salary; modest benefits, an annual retirement contribution, plus regular flattery in collegial circles, patronizing the younger man’s erudition and clinical skills. Their arrangement was quite satisfactory, despite Eric’s reservations about Daniel’s lack of ambition; Daniel’s suspicion that his long-time employer took him for granted.

Matters changed when trouble emerged over some psychoeducational workshops, the scheduling of which was thrown into disarray because the junior staff Eric had originally slated for the six-month job had just quit, complaining of being underpaid and overworked. Poised to leave for a vacation in Cabo, Eric was scrambling, knowing the workshops were not Daniel’s thing but desperate to avoid a financial hit should he scrap his plans.

“Why don’t you do them?” Daniel asked, treading a line of impertinence as Eric floated the opportunity. Eric stared upwards at the ceiling of his office—a habit Daniel interpreted as a sign of annoyance, perhaps impending panic.

“I could do that,” Eric replied, tugging at his straggly beard, which Daniel interpreted as meaning, fuck that. “I’m going away next week of course, so I couldn’t do the first two weeks.” Daniel frowned. He thought Eric’s trip to Cabo was one week, not two. They always seemed to miscommunicate on such things.

“I guess I could take the first class,” Daniel said, swallowing hard upon this reluctant compromise. Eric brightened, sensing a swift end to this noisome dilemma. “That’ll help out, I think,” Daniel added, insinuating something else.

“You could have the whole job if you wanted. It’s right there. I could just leave it to you, and I think you’d be great for it.”

Daniel noted the way in which Eric spun the workshops as a gift, a job right up his alley, as if Eric had planned them with him in mind all along. He shuffled uneasily, half-plotting a methodical counter.

“Yeah, I don’t know. You say it’s on a Saturday, which is an off day for me, plus a Monday, when I already have other responsibilities.”

“You could change the workshop times if you want. Not the first week or two, but maybe in September—”

“That’s a lot of re-scheduling, Eric. Plus the students for the course wouldn’t appreciate the changes, I’m sure.”

“Well, you could just say that these things happen. Changes occur in life. I’d support you if anyone made a complaint, say it’s on me.”

Daniel paused. “Except that wouldn’t be true, would it? They’d know that changes were the accommodation of my schedule, since I’d be doing the teaching.”

Eric gazed upwards again, his arms fluttering then settling upon his head, pulling back hair. “Hmm, I don’t think so,” he tried to dismiss. He didn’t care for derailing, logical arguments, details. They intrude upon airy principles, the good things that can and should happen if only people had energy, guts, and desire.

“Plus, what about the cost?” Daniel persisted. “At what I assume is my current rate, I’d make a few extra hundred dollars a week, but that would be offset by my losses, because I’d have to cancel my Monday activities.”

“You’d maybe have to re-schedule, I guess. You could use this office if you want, for those other appointments. I’d waive the sublet cost.” At this point Daniel was biting his lip, wanting to say something biting; something about sales tactics. His thoughts turned to late-night cramming: a soldierly effort to rescue Eric’s initiative, his investment, while he sunned himself on a Cabo beach. Daniel pulled out his phone, clicked on its calculator feature.

“Let me just see here. So we’re talking about an extra three classes, over two nights. That’s…let’s see…about four hundred dollars, before taxes. Then defray the cost of losing at least three, maybe four client hours on a Monday.”

“Well, the class is only an hour and a half, so that’s only two hours, right?”

“Yes, but there’s the commute. The class is downtown, isn’t it? A half hour in the opposite direction of my office. So traveling there and back precludes at least two other hours.”

“Okay, I can see that,” Eric replied levelly. He scratched his chin thoughtfully, thinking of his next move, and noting, as ever, that Daniel was not a dull-witted prey. “I’d be willing to increase your fee, depending on the enrollment.”

“Meaning, I’d be responsible for how many students enroll?”

“Well no, the information is on the website. However, if you wanted to do a talk somewhere, or promote the class, that might bring in more students, make you more visible in the community.”

“Would you subsidize that?”

Eric chuckled. “You’d have to be responsible for your own self promotion, of course.”

Daniel gazed into his own head, not wanting to meet Eric’s eyes while he felt a rising ire. “But it’s not self-promotion, is it? It’s a job that someone else doesn’t want to do that you’re offering to me at the eleventh hour.”

Instantly, Daniel felt the stillness of the room, the silence except for the hollow pop of his stomach. Eric’s face clouded over. He stretched as if purging a demon and his gaze circled about Daniel’s frame, as if its center would burn him. Finally, he shrugged and said, “Hmm. I think it’s an opportunity. Anyway, I’m still covering your benefits, even though the premiums are going up.” His voice lowered, as it tended to upon muttered non sequiturs, “…there’s an extra couple of hundred there…for me, but if you don’t want it then…”

“It? Meaning, the opportunity you’re offering?”

“Yes. The opportunity,” Eric stated flatly, his voice suddenly clear, even loud.

“Doesn’t sound like a good deal for me, to be honest.” Daniel shook his ahead, now affecting a forlorn rather than affronted stance; his ire at once subsided into something unclear. For reasons further unclear, he found it hard mustering or rather sustaining anger towards his senior colleague, a man whose intangible gifts and intentions were due a thorough, scrutinizing inventory.

Eric nodded softly while maintaining his steely gaze aimed into Daniel’s head. His look was at once genial and menacing, containing a search for weakness, a patient wait for surrender. Expectation. After another silent gap he stretched his body again and yawned, releasing droplets of a permanently-managed tension. When he sat forward he looked aged, self-pitying. A previously concealed layer of flab now hung off his face as he glanced sideways, looking about his office, the floor: stray items, of books, files, documents–things he wanted others to deal with. He looked up, gave Daniel a bitter-looking smile, and spoke languidly, with near whimsy.

“Well, I may have to hire someone else, I guess. There’s a guy who I met at a meeting who may be interested, says he’s looking for some hours.”

A guy at a meeting? Daniel thought fleetingly. That sounds feeble, he judged, only to then parlay his disdain into a challenge.

“Is that a threat?”

Eric returned a surprised look, his eyes widened yet tired. Finally, he started to flail. “It’s not a threat, but I don’t know what you want me to say. I have an investment, a commitment I’ve made. I need to follow through or else we’ll take a significant loss, which affects everyone here. I need help on this thing. If you don’t want this opportunity, or others I may have in mind, I have to look elsewhere. As for the future, I don’t know. If I find someone who appears energetic and willing, then I may need to make a decision.”

Daniel gritted his teeth, and stifled a gulp. “On my future employment, you mean?” The two men stared at each other. It—what Daniel did—had never been called employment before.

“It’s not my intention to go there. Is this…I don’t know. Are you saying you want to leave?” Eric asked, turning it around.

Daniel didn’t answer at first. He got up, collected his jacket, his notebook, his thoughts, which now swirled upon peripheral and then center stage ideas. History. He tends not leave like this, he realized. That’s what others do, or did. He tends not to notice change until it’s upon him. Relationships: they don’t end.

“I don’t know,” he replied, matching Eric’s nonplussed air. “I’ll talk to you later. Maybe it’ll be different then.” He turned his back, stepped out onto a hallway leading to a waiting area, there to see one of Eric’s regular clients, a man who nods amiably at Daniel but otherwise says nothing whenever they pass each other. The man was the only point of normalcy as Daniel walked past. The room looked darker like it was closing in on him, while the light from outside shone through a doorway carelessly left open.

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Your Cashier Today Was Self

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Christine did a double take as she looked at her receipt from the grocery store. Your cashier today was self, it read. A mistake? Little did she know that it was an indicator of the newly installed self-service check-out stations. Was it a joke? she wondered. Otherwise, everything was more or less as she expected: the milk, the beans, pinto and green, the chicken and the eggs, all cost about what she’d expected. Her coupons hadn’t worked on some items; they had expired already. She’d have to take the bananas to the express check-out, wherein there was a moment of self-disgust as one of the coupons  was again rejected. Stupid oversight, she thought, turning away briefly from the surly teenage girl at the check-out stand. Christine flashed on the girl’s face as she left the store. As she passed the receipt, there had been a stifled yawn, preceded by a slight grimace. Surrounded by food, this girl exuded contempt for the product. She was tall, enabling her to look down at people; and she was thin, painfully thin. The glance she made at Christine’s over-stuffed basket was fleeting. She passed the items over the screening device like someone holding their nose as they held at arm’s length a soiled diaper.

Christine showed the receipt to her mother as she returned home. Christine’s mother, also bemused by the phrase on the receipt, made a gruff, bemused sort of noise. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked incuriously. Mother’s questions often seemed like that: dismissive, judgmental rather than interested. “It’s…never mind,” sighed Christine. “She reminded me of Erica, though”. Mother was nonplussed. “Who did, dear?”. “The girl at the check-out stand,” Christine replied with a hint of impatience, thinking her mother obtuse; “The cashier, see?” Mother mouthed perfunctory acknowledgement, and then set the receipt aside. The two of them began planning for the evening meal. Christine’s sister, Fatima, was coming over, mother said, so they’d have to watch what they said about Erica, Fatima’s daughter. After finishing an inventory of ingredients, Christine said, “Actually, I think we should say something. After all, it’s not getting any better.” Mother gave Christine an evil eye, and performed her idiosyncratic motion wherein her forehead appears to recede to a lower angle. It was an effective illusion; a warning of imminent disapproval. “I don’t think so,” Mother decreed. “I do wonder what happened between her and that nice young man, Derek,” she instead proposed. Christine rolled her eyes. “Please, I think he decided to date someone who fed themselves properly.” Mother disputed the premise: “No dear, it was Erica who didn’t want to call him back. “Whatever,” said Christine rudely. “Sorry,” she immediately said afterwards.

Fatima arrived just as the meal was ready. As usual, Christine and her mother had prepared too much, and both had the habit of dashing back and forth between the kitchen and the dining table, ever looking to perfect the eating experience. “Want some more chicken?” mother kept asking of her daughters, despite the repeated refusals. “We should have added sour cream to this,” Christine would moan halfway through. Fatima, the cheerful younger sister, indifferent yet indulgent of her family’s obsessive ways, just smiled as she placed an obstructing hand across her plate. “How’s Erica, darling?” Mother asked, following the main course. Christine was “dear”; Fatima was “darling”. Why? Christine always wondered, thinking “darling” was preferable. She never said so. “She’s fine,” Fatima replied pleasantly, yet with deliberate shortness. Christine’s knife hovered above her plate; she was behind in her meal, having barely sat down in the last hour. She looked tentatively in her sister’s direction, and peripherally caught the eye of her mother. “Is she going seeing that Derek again?” Mother asked. Fatima paused, and was about to say something when Mother interrupted. “He’s such a nice young man, quite good looking.” Fatima’s face flattened slightly; her head tilted to an angle, as it often did when she was about to say something a bit patronizing. “That’s not what’s important to her, Mother. I don’t think she found him that interesting.” Mother’s eyes widened, like she was incredulous. “Well, I don’t understand. He seemed like a perfect choice to me. Maybe she should speak to Father Lopez.” Christine nodded, but touched her hand to her Mother’s wrist. “Maybe, but I think an expert may also be a good idea.” Mother’s expression narrowed. Confused, she thought: what did Christine mean by an expert?

“She’s not seeing anyone,” Fatima said succinctly. The placid smile remained, along with her shortness. She looked at her plate, which was empty finally, after several attempts by either her mother or her sister to re-fill it. She felt stuffed; fighting back nausea. “What’s for dessert, dear?” Mother asked. Christine licked her fingers clean of gravy, and skipped into the kitchen. In the freezer was her prize, the item she’d spent the previous day baking, and which she’d most looked forward to sharing: an almost two-foot wide, four-inch thick apple pie. “Looks great, dear,” said Mother as Christine delivered the pie to the table. Fatima inwardly groaned. Then Christine lovingly sliced two over-sized pieces, and set them down on plates for her mother and sister. She left her own plate clear. Fatima, with her fork dithering over the crust, asked “what about you, aren’t you having any?”. Christine rubbed her stomach, gave a beatific smile, and said, “Not for me. I’ve had enough.”

**photo by Helnwein

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Last Flight to Costa Rica

 

 

On July 6th, 2013, George Lewis languished in the window seat of a Boeing 777 bound for Mexico from San Francisco. It was a quarter hour after departure time and the captain had just announced that there would be a delay. He delivered the innocuous-sounding news–“waiting for a flight plan”–in a bored voice. George Lewis felt the same way, despite this being the first day of a long-awaited vacation. Seated next to him was his wife, Jean, who greeted the captain’s words with a disgusted sigh and then reached down for a fashion magazine that she’d brought for the journey. It seemed a preemptive action, designed to counter George’s subtle nod in her direction, his supplicant overture. No chance, she was saying. Ok, we booked this thing and it’s too late to get our money back, and we’re on the plane and on our way. But don’t get any ideas. We’re not going there. Not now. In the seats ahead there were some teens gazing out the window and then pointing outward, behind their seats and over George’s head. Annoying, he thought. One teen, a disheveled skateboarder-type about two years younger than George and Jean’s now college-ensconsed only son, let out a shrill, excitable noise. Jolted and glum, George looked up past the youth’s hairy, undeoderized armpit, and stared down the doltish-looking, unsupervised child. 
        “Sorry,” said the boy, suddenly without expression. 
George softly grunted, bit down upon perfunctory forgiveness and turned back to the window by his side. Clouds. Or smoke. That’s what was behind them. He couldn’t tell, but the teens in front could. One kid was from Burlingame and was guessing there was a fire near his old school. “That’s my home, fool,” he started repeating, certain of himself but undisturbed. The other boy was from San Bruno. He reminisced about a fire in his home town from two years earlier–a national story at the time, George recalled. It was “crazy”, the boy recalled; his excitability back in force. Jean didn’t react. Her head was in her magazine, a half-fashion rag, half-gossip journal, featuring women, fully clothed, many bearing sizable bulges, each looking hopeful and happy. Glowing: that’s the expression, George noted. The cover was of the British princess whose name George couldn’t remember–a likeable, girl-next-door type who had stolen the Prince’s heart, earned her fairly tale wedding, and was now waiting on her next big day, ready to give the King-in-waiting an heir. The empowered and not-so-empowered everywomen of the world were waiting with her, living vicariously this princess dream. Meanwhile, George Lewis flashed through his mind thoughts of the skin of semi-clothed women. In Costa Rica, their ultimate destination, there would be plenty of skin, mostly of the exotic, caramel kind and not the ashen complexion of his anglo wife, or the anglo princess whom she so admired.
 
George caught himself. He closed his eyes and winced, and then tried the action that his new therapist had taught him the previous week; this 3-second rule that members of Sex Addicts Anonymous swore by. Give yourself three seconds–that was the rule. Give yourself three seconds, acknowledge the trigger, then watch those thoughts and feelings drift by, mindful of their power, but make a choice. “George, you have choices,” his therapist exhorted. George returned a sad, defeatist look, but nodded agreeably. Now he tried to put the rule into effect. Think of the consequences. That was the next part; the next “tool” to use. The problem was guilt. Consequences? Too late, the consequences are already here, he answered sourly. Ever since Jean had caught him with his pants down, with a white towel over his ass, lying face down on that padded couch in that sordid office, sipping that honey tea supplied by…that woman; that sexy yet unglowing woman whose happiness was actually not important to George. The fleeting visions of supple skin, conjured smells of delicious oils, and hardest of all to summon, the tactile sensations of friction, were now coupled with stinging self-rebukes…George’s self loathing. Somehow, back in the therapist’s office, listening to sage, asexual counsel, he’d forgotten to ask the most important question: what do I do with the guilt? What he asked instead was a question about Jean. As George glanced tentatively in her direction, he thought of the urgent question that dominated the previous session: how do I get her trust back? he’d asked, to which the therapist was non-committal and borderline dismissive, insisting that such things were impossible to predict and that trust wounds, in his experience, were always mutual, or something like that.

George’s eyes fixed upon an overhead compartment several seats down which seemed loosened from its catch. As an attendant walked by George thought to flag the man down, alert him to the problem, the prospect of luggage tumbling out and possibly hurting someone. He’d strike an earnest tone in his voice, make sure to emphasize the threat to passenger safety; make sure that everyone–especially Jean–knew that he cared. But the moment passed. The attendant skipped by as though distracted, his impassive expression glancing over the heads of passengers all around him; past the eyes of George Lewis and out the window next to his seat. The loose compartment made an insistent clicking sound and its cover tilted outwards by an inch. It’s leaking, thought George, transferring more terms from recent therapeutic pedantry. That compartment: they think they have it locked. They think it’s airtight and that everything’s safe and tucked away, but it’s not. George knew that now. Why hadn’t he known it all along? After all, it wasn’t as though he’d not dreamed of the worst happening. In fact, he’d felt it in his gut, the foreboding. If only he’d trusted his…

He glanced at Jean, still determined not to speak to him; perhaps determined to never speak to him again. He felt a chill and stood up tall, looking over the tops of seats, over the heads of noisy teens, and into the distance. An attendant at the end of the aisle was half on a phone near the cockpit, half pleading with an agitated male passenger to return to his seat. Around them there were murmurings, and within earshot, barely, there were emerging fears rippling through the cabin, and more numerous observations of drifting, grey plumes of smoke from an area just beyond the airport control tower. Not clouds. News was filtering through the plane of something big. Someone was on the internet, disobeying the captain’s orders, which had asked for all electronic devices to be cut-off in anticipation of a take-off that was imminent a half hour earlier but now delayed indefinitely. George Lewis started to become suspicious. Reflecting on his therapist’s words, he realized he was not feeling the trust.
            “Sit down, George,” Jean said irritably, though unlike him, she seemed unperturbed by the growing unrest around her. Denial. Good, George thought: she’s still speaking to me, at least. 
            “Sorry,” he replied to her.

At that moment, the captain’s voice sounded out over the intercom, his voice now sounding more tired, not bored. The flight to Mexico City with connection to San Jose, Costa Rica, was regrettably cancelled, he announced–the result, he declared, of an airport closure in Mexico City. He followed up with some rote instructions about how to redeem ticket purchases at the airline desk in the terminal. George was half listening, and now peering out the window by his seat, just like the boys in the seats in front of him. Like a frightened child, he pressed his face against the window, straining to look through the thick double plastic to the sights behind him. He knew now that something unusual had happened. Something horrible: something the captain, and perhaps many others would not talk about for a long time.

* this short story is not based on real events, or real people. If you like this story, perhaps you might read the synopsis of my psychological fiction, entitled Crystal From The Hills.  
 

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