This is a very short story written in response to the writing prompt at http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts/dry-erase-board-notes My post went well over their 500 word limit, but I wanted to write it anyway.
I stumbled through the street – my briefcase in one hand, my sad excuse for an umbrella in the other. Just what I need, I though as my foot sunk three inches deep in another of the city’s missed potholes on John St. North. ‘The Forgotten Wasteland’ as this area was known to locals, was rarely services by the overpaid fat cats pulling the strings down at city hall. They call it ‘The Arm Pit’ – I call it home. But, in reality, it wasn’t much of a home. This city had chewed me up and spit me back out onto its desolate streets over and over again as the years of my life unfolded.
As I made my way from the bus stop to my office building, I reflected on the many things that had gone wrong in my life. I remembered the idyllic childhood I thought would last forever, until the day I came home to find my parents screaming over a stack of legal papers with the words “Divorce Agreement” scrawled across the top. I thought of my own failed relationships; the years in and out of the beds of more women than I can count. I reflected on the dreams of my youth, all washed away in the ditches and downstreams of the economic collapse which struck our country with the blindside of a clean left hook. It hit our small industrial city hardest of all, eliminating virtually 60 percent of the job market along with my dreams of becoming a hot shot downtown lawyer with a corner office.
I tripped over the tattered shoe of an elderly gentleman as I came to a stop under the rain-soaked awning at 135 John North. He grumbled beneath his makeshift paper hat and I spat a few choice words in his direction, “Lazy fuck.”
Upstairs, the office was abuzz with the sounds of its busy worker bees toiling away wasted minutes and hours peddling insurance deals to people who couldn’t afford them. I rubbed my temples in a furious attempt to relieve the stress which hadn’t even yet begun.
“Hey Craig!” Marie called from behind her reception desk. She was fiddling with something and only half paying attention to my presence as I moved toward the coat rack.
I managed a mumble in her direction, still trying to shake off the fog of last night’s personal beer binge as I hung my coat to dry.
“Did you see last night’s episode of Survivor? I just couldn’t believe it! Could you? I just couldn’t. They voted Rena right off the show without even waiting to hear her side of the story. I mean, I know it looked bad, but how could Adam seriously think that she’d lied to him,” she babbled on and on, hardly taking time for a breath and leaving no room for me to respond. Not that I really had much of an intention of responding. I just wanted to get to my desk and get this day over with. She continued on and on about this episode of this show I’d never seen and never intended to see as I rested my umbrella against the rack and changed to my indoor shoes.
Halfway through another of her never-ending sentences the phone rang at her desk. As if she hadn’t been speaking to me at all, she snatched up the receiver with one hand, her other still clearly struggling with something beneath her desk. “Hello, thank you for calling McCreaty Insurance Brokers, how may I direct your call?”
I came around her desk, making the escape to my own while I had the chance. That’s when I saw her. Marie’s three year old daughter, sitting on a footstool at the edge of the reception desk, her hair all bundled up between her Marie’s fingers. She smiled at me and waved in my direction.
What the hell? This is a workplace, I thought. How did Gary let her get away with such an obvious violation of office policy? He was always letting her get away with shit like this. Some fucking boss he is, I thought. Always intimidated by his employees. Letting them do whatever they want. If she wasn’t coming in late, she was leaving early. If she wasn’t dressed unprofessionally, you could bet your ass she would find a way to mess up putting calls through. What kind of idiot can’t manage to get a call through to the right person, anyway?
I ignored the girl and continued on to my cubical. A fucking cubical. I was top of my class at Ryckman High. I was star of the football team, leader of the debate club, and class fucking president. I broke all the rules and blazed all the trails. What the hell am I doing in a fucking cubical!?
I was about an hour or two into making senseless calls to grumpy people when my eyes finally fell upon the note scrawled on the little whiteboard Gary had pinned to my cubical wall.
“I hope you have a great day!” it read, with a smiley face drawn beside it.
Hmm, I thought. Strange. A sudden shock of something warm bubbled up inside me.
My day progressed, like any other. Boring beyond belief in a way that made me contemplate the very purpose of my existence. But the bills needed to be paid, so on I forged, pasting that smile on my face so that potential customers thought I loved my job.
The next morning was as drizzly and dreary as the last. I swear this town has taken ‘pathetic fallacy’ a step too far. When I look back on my childhood I remember sunny days; days filled with the sweet smell of grass and flowers. In the years since the economy fell it seemed that the days became increasingly grey. The skies shed more and more tears of rain upon us all and the clouds rarely broke for a single ray of sun.
I muddled through the streets, dodging sweepers and beggars and those kids with squeegees attached to their arms. Don’t make eye contact, I thought to myself as I passed that same man I’d tripped over the day before. Today he held a sign in his hands,
“Will work for food or rent. Down on my luck but trying to get up. No handouts please.”
“Nice try,” I mumbled. Jedi mind tricks won’t work on me. You want a handout as much as the rest of them.
Marie’s eyes lit up as she saw me enter the office. Same old routine. On and on she went with all her ramblings; “You know what I heard last night? I heard that there’s gonna be a party down at the square this weekend. Are you gonna’ go? I’m going. I think it’ll be nice to get out of the house for a change. Sophie could sure use something to look at other than those four walls.” And on, and on, and on.
I glanced in her direction, taking note of her dark sunglasses. Another night of partying, I thought. It’d be nice if we could get a receptionist who has her shit together. I escaped to my cubical, letting her ramble on as I walked away.
I looked up to my whiteboard, hoping to indulge a sweet solace in its little happy message. It was gone. In it’s place:
“You are a mean man. You make people sad. Bad people like you shouldn’t be allowed to work here.”
What the fuck?
I was taken aback by how hard those words really hit me. I mean, I guess I’m not the nicest person in the world, but why would someone write something so rude on my whiteboard? As I collapsed back into my desk chair I heard a faint shuffling behind me. Of course. It must have been Randall. That guy’s had it out for me for quite some time – jealous that my returns are so much better than his. Always accusing me of stealing his clients.
I turned to face him; to really let him have it. I was so sure that he was standing there, snickering at me over his bulbous nose that I even stuck out my arm to jab him in his pompous chest. I stopped dead, half spun around, my arm jutting out in the air as my eyes fell upon a three-foot tall, blond-haired, doe-faced child with tears in her eyes. Marie’s daughter.
She stood strong, but said nothing – just staring up at me as a single tear careened down the curves of little cheek.
“What are you doing?” I snapped at her.
She just looked at me, even more intensely.
“What do you want, kid?” I snapped a little more forcefully. “If you’ve got something to say, out with it. Otherwise, go find your mother.”
“You are a mean man,” she said, her delicate voice cracking beneath her words.
My first instinct was to yell at her. To really lay into her. To tell her she had no right saying things like that to people; that she shouldn’t ever touch anyone else’s things, much less write things on their whiteboards; that she shouldn’t even be here. But I didn’t. I settled back into my chair and decided to challenge her logic, instead.
“Oh I am, huh?” I said. “And just what makes you say that?”
She pointed her eyes toward the floor and turned the toe of her foot around in circles. “You were mean to my mommy,” she said matter-of-factly. “You were mean and you made her sad. And she was having a really bad day, because Daddy was mean and hit her again and we have no food and her job is hard and I got lice at school and the man on the telephone last night said that we might have to move.”
I didn’t know what to say. I just looked at her – this little kid; this tiny little kid. This little kid with her little kid pig tails and her little kid clothes and her little kid voice crying little kid tears. And suddenly, my heart broke. My face fell to my hands as emotions overwhelmed me. I am a mean person. I made this kid cry. This kid is crying because I’m a jerk who can’t get his head out of his ass long enough to give a shit about anyone around me. How did I become such an asshole? My thoughts swirled and swirled until a tiny hand fell upon my shoulder.
“It’s okay, Mister,” her tiny voice squeaked in my ear. “We all get sad. The secret is to remember all the things that make you happy and use them to help you make other people happy.”
I lifted my head, my eyes locking onto hers. She looked so full of hope.
“Wanna’ know what makes me happy?” she asked. “The rain makes me happy ’cause I get to play in the puddles and wear my favorite pink rubber boots.” She paused. “What makes you happy?”