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Take a Breath

The downward spiral began when my cellphone died overnight, so my alarm didn’t go off. I rushed to work half an hour late, to be greeted by my boss’s less than pleased look. I explained the situation, but he warned me I would be written up for being late. He gave me another reason not to wait to get out of that hellhole.

Another day of sitting on my butt staring at a computer screen for eight hours had begun. Resigning myself to my present fate, I sat in my cubicle. I logged into the computer and plugged my headphones into my phone, which I then began to charge. I could at least have my music to make the day faster in a few moments. Then started the monotonous wait as computer part orders appeared on my screen.

My job was to order parts for a significant retail computer company. The computer technicians would order a part when the customer’s computer came in. I checked it to ensure it was done correctly and then copied and pasted it to an order for our parts department. Rinse, lather, repeat. Stare at the abyss as the abyss stares back.

The headphones served a double purpose. The music allowed the time to go faster and occupy my brain. Also, it drowned out Brenda.

Brenda worked in the cubicle next to me and loved her job and life. She also needed to let everyone within earshot know about it; how her kids were doing, what her dog did the night before, everything nobody really cared about. Many of us had learned that Brenda was a complete brown-noser and gossip. If you griped about management within earshot, somehow it made its way to some higher-up’s ear. And she had to give her two cents on everyone’s personal life.

Once a co-worker of ours had gotten pregnant by her boyfriend, and she needed to let everyone know how she felt about it. “Did you hear Mary got knocked up?”

“Yes, she told me. She seems excited about it.” I didn’t feel it was my place to talk about any one’s personal life when they weren’t there. I wanted to leave it at that and go about my day.

“Well, I just don’t think that’s proper, you know. She’s got no one to blame but herself for all the trouble she will have. I mean, what if her boyfriend decides he doesn’t want to be a dad?”

I gave my head a half-turn in her direction. “Well, first of all, I think that is her choice, and she is smart enough to be alright. If he chooses not to step up, she can handle it. Second of all, I don’t really see how that is any of your business what life choices she makes.”

She huffed and reddened a little. Her half-opened mouth reminded me of a fish out of the water, gasping for breath. “I didn’t say she wasn’t. But in my day, girls kept their legs closed until they got married.”

I rolled my eyes. “Brenda, do you want me to look up statistics on babies born out of wedlock by generation? Statistics show they are much lower as more people use proper birth control. Back in the day, many of these girls had to get illegal abortions because of social expectations. But again, I don’t see how that is any of your business. So why don’t we get back to work?” I then put my headphones back in and did an excellent job ignoring her puffing for the rest of the day.

Today I could hear Brenda yammering on about something again. I turned up the volume of my revived phone to drown her out. After several attempts to get my attention, she finally gave up. I heard her mutter to someone else in the room about someone in a bad mood, but I followed my first instinct and continued to ignore her. I did not want to get into a verbal confrontation with her, which I had a feeling would end in another conversation with my already pissed-off boss.

The day progressed, and I worked through my lunch to ensure I didn’t lose my half-hour of pay. Of course, even then, my boss had to make a point of nagging at me about my productivity that day, while Brenda, who loved to cherry-pick the quick and easy orders, was way ahead of everyone.

I muttered something about how I’d try to step it up tomorrow and clocked out. In my gut, I knew it would be the same thing I’ve been doing for the last two years after once again getting looked over for promotion; do enough to hit my average production but not go above and beyond. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, and I was by far not the only one that felt stuck.

I saw Mary walking to her car as I walked to mine. She waved and smiled at me. My wife had joked that Mary was my “work wife.” She was several years younger than me and had a very bubbly personality. I saw her more like a kid sister, and we confided much in each other. Mary was my go-to gripe partner. “Missed you at lunch. I heard Mike had you working through lunch for being late.”

I sighed and nodded. “Yeah, I guess you can say it’s been a rough one. Are you heading to class?”

Mary nodded. She was in cosmetology school and had the lucky timing of almost being done when she found out she was pregnant. “Yeah, one more month. The doctor said if it had been much longer, I’d have to drop out, with the chemicals and all. Speaking of which, you could use a trim. Come by this weekend, and I’ll hook you up.”

“Sounds like a plan. We’ll I got to roll. I think a couple of adult beverages are in my future.”

“Damn, that sounds good. Have one or two for me. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Mary hopped in her car, and I made my way to mine.

I glimpsed some of the other guys pointing and laughing. I rolled my eyes and fought the urge to flip them off. For some reason, a sector of the male population cannot grasp that a guy can be friends with an attractive female and not be pursuing her sexually. Since I was friends with Mary and neither of us was looking to hook up, they were convinced I was in the “friend zone.” Never mind that I was happily married, and she was taken. I chalked it to another reason I needed to get out of that place.

Even though the drive home was uneventful, the feeling of a rain cloud over my head wouldn’t leave me. It had been this way for a while. I hated my job, and I hated my life. Realizing I was stuck in a nowhere job, I returned to school to get my degree in education. Growing up with a love of history, I decided to try and do; become a history teacher. With the encouragement of my fiancé, now wife, I had gone for it.

Two years later and I was still stuck in the same dead-end job. Fighting the urge to just up and quit was an everyday struggle. When I got home, Janie greeted me at the door. She smiled brightly and asked, “So, how was your day?”

“Miserable, as always.” I attempted a half-hearted smile.

“I know, babe. But, something will come up.” She gave me a hug and a kiss which made me feel a little better.

Then I rummaged through the stack of bills and began doing the mental math. Money again would be tight this month. That was a given. I fought back the hot stressful tears I knew were welling in my eyes. Instead, I headed to the bedroom.

Changing into a t-shirt and shorts, I began lacing up my running shoes. Janie looked at me in the doorway. “I’m going to head to the park and have a run. I need to clear my head. Then how about we grab some food and a couple of beers?”

“Sounds like a date,” She said with a worried smile. “You want me to come with you?”

I shook my head. “I’d rather just go it alone today. I won’t be gone long. Maybe an hour.”

A few minutes later, I was jogging along the walking path of our local park. It was within walking distance of our house, one of the things I loved about the location. Children were at the playground, which made me nostalgic for when I was a child, back when I didn’t care in the world. They weren’t worried about bills and whether or not they were going to get chewed out by their boss the next day. Their biggest worry was when it would be their turn on the slide.

The course was great for working out, as the hills made for a steady incline and decline. The walking path made a circle four miles around the park’s center. I got into my usual pattern of walking, jogging, running, and rotating until I came to the other side. I waved at cars and fellow joggers as they passed.

The whole time I was thinking about what to do from here. If something didn’t change soon, I didn’t know how to make ends meet. Every day was a struggle, and I came closer to giving up each day. I concentrated on my breathing and the pace I was running. Still, I wasn’t feeling any better.

I slowed down as I reached the bottom of the hill and the final stretch of the track. I walked towards a nearby park bench where an older man was reading. I nodded to him as I took a seat at the other end of the bench, swigging from the water bottle I carried with me. I had left my phone at the house as the battery charged, something else I would have to spend money on, and was listening to my old MP3 player. I needed to catch my breath and rest a little before heading home. A side effect was that my mind began to fill with the same worries again. I hung my head and thought. I tried to focus on the music, but the thoughts kept lingering.

There was a soft tap on my shoulder. I looked up at the man that was sitting next to me. I pulled out one of my headphones to hear him. “I’m sorry to bother you. But do you have a minute?”

I thought for a second and then nodded. A quick conversation would give me a little more time to recharge. “Sure, go ahead.”

He held up the book he had been reading. “Have you ever heard of the Secret?”

I raised an eyebrow and nodded. “Yeah, I think so. Isn’t something about the positive energy that will get you whatever you want?”

The older man nodded and laughed. “A lot of wish fulfillment mumbo jumbo, you ask me. My grandson read it and told me it was life-changing. I guess I see the appeal, but it’s a waste of time the way I see it. What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging. “Way my life is going, some positive thinking may not be a bad idea. Might be worth a shot.”

“Well, let me tell you a story if you got the time. I’ve never been what you call a rich man, but I’ve been a happy man. Having a positive attitude and outlook on life will get you far. Being content with what you got will get you farther. Wishing for a million dollars and then not getting it,” he waved the book and smirked, “is just going to make things worse in your outlook. Finding something to make you content can help you get through the bad times. But you got to find your happiness and what you need to get it.”

I could feel my frustration growing again, but I knew this guy didn’t mean any harm. “Yeah, but when everything is going wrong, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve been stuck at the same dead-end job and wasted two years on a degree that is not helping me at all. I just got married and don’t know how we’ll make ends meet. It’s like life is stuck in neutral, and I’m about out of gas.”

The older man nodded as he took in what I said. “Believe me, and I know what you’re talking about. It took me a lot of job searches before I found my passion. I hated corporate America, and I wanted to do something better. I started working for a guy doing landscaping and found I loved it. I was designing and putting together people’s properties in a way that brought pleasure to their eyes. It became something I was good at. Then I discovered I had a mind for business, and my boss saw promise in me and gave me the business when he retired. But it took a lot of patience. Now, I know this will sound like a stupid question, but have you been looking for that dream job?”

“Yeah, I’ve put in I don’t know how many applications and have a few interviews. Nothing has come up yet. It’s feeling kind of hopeless.”

The old man patted me on the shoulder. He subtly wiped the sweat from my shoulder on his trouser leg. “Well, you just got to persevere. Like they always say, it is always darkest before dawn. I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, but let me give you some advice that always helps me through tough times. As you head home, think of everything you are grateful for. You’ll see you are more blessed than you realized by the time you get home.”

With that, he got up, grabbed his book, and went. I sat for a long moment more, thinking about what he said. Then I began making my way home. As I walked, I figured it would be worth trying, so I started listing my blessings. My family, fiancé, friends, and dogs; I kept going until I got home.

By the time I made it to the house, I felt a little better. Maybe that old man was right. I was just going through a rough patch, but I had a lot of good things going for me. I could make it through a while longer.

Janie and the dogs greeted me at the door. She was a little shocked to see me smiling. “What has you in such a good mood? Is Mr. Grumpy gone for today?”

I laughed. “Maybe. I got some good advice from someone I met in the park. Put some things in perspective.” I then noticed she was bouncing from foot to foot with a grin on her face. I knew what that meant. “So, what do you need to tell me?”

She picked up my phone. It showed I had missed a call from Parkland High School. “Listen to the voicemail.”

I swallowed hard and put my voicemail on speaker. “This is Mr. Crawford at Parkland with a message for Paul Hanson. I’m calling to inform you that we have decided to offer you a U.S. history teaching position this coming school year. Please call me as soon as possible to confirm and find the time to come in and sign your paperwork. Welcome to the team.”

I immediately hit redial on the phone. I just caught Crawford before he left for the day. We made an appointment for the next day to come in and sign my paperwork. I barely remember thanking him as I hung up the phone. Janie about squeezed the life out of me in her excitement. “So when are you going to tell Mike to shove it? I wish I could be there?”

I laughed. “I may not use those exact words. But I will be looking forward to putting in my resignation.”

We went out and celebrated my new job, and I felt the best I had felt in a long time. Janie could tell and asked me how I was feeling. I thought back to my conversation at the park. I smiled at her as I took a drink from my beer. “Grateful.”

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