By Autumn Simpson
The day looked like God had given up colors for Lent. Even the air seemed gray, weighed down by some dark morning mood. I felt it too, and I couldn’t shake it. I flipped up the collar of my wool coat and trudged on in the mist, trying to focus on the steaming cup of coffee I’d get at work. It was my only incentive to go, besides losing my job and ending up homeless. I could handle the endless walking and asking for spare change, but this weather was too much.
Janice, the overly perky receptionist, greeted me with her fake white smile. I grunted, grabbed a mint from the “customers only” bowl, and stepped into my office. I didn’t mean to slam the door.
I guess I was lucky to have an office—cubicles were all the rage at Walbertson Plastics and Co. I was important, or so the happy little sign on my wall told me. Accounting: the job I’d sworn I’d never do back in high school, when adults wanted to hear things like “astronaut” or “engineer.” You were supposed to dream big. That’s what I did. That’s why I now sat in an office with “Chief Accountant” outside the door, on this dismal gray morning with a dismal gray attitude.
Janice came in without knocking and stood for a moment, smirking. She eyed the mint wrapper on my desk but said nothing. I’d just opened my mouth to ask why she was here when she interrupted. “Mr. Bryant, don’t forget there’s an important meeting today, at noon, in the conference room. You need to be there.” She turned to leave, and I stood shocked, coffee momentarily forgotten.
“Janice?” Her foot stopped halfway into the hallway. She swiveled her head to look at me, smiling innocently.
“Why didn’t you tell me this before? Do I need to prepare anything?” I didn’t bother to hide my frustration.
“Oh, nothing much. Just the complete audit of the last fiscal year. I thought you knew already.” She flashed me another fake white smile and left. I clenched my teeth to keep from exploding, ignoring my dentist’s specific instructions. An audit. Last time it took me a week, and it was already 8:30. I was willing to bet Janice knew about this meeting for weeks. She’d had it out for me ever since my promotion. We’d both started out as assistants, and I was trying to get a job in research and design. Instead, my attention to detail got me moved to accounting and she ended up as the receptionist. Her job placement, at least, made sense. I never understood why she was jealous of a job I didn’t even want—besides the paycheck. Which I was now in danger of losing.
I sat down heavily, running a clammy hand down my face. There was nothing else for me to do but get to work. I opened my laptop and pulled up every relevant file, then moved them to Excel. I let my mind wander as my fingers clicked through the numbers. I couldn’t believe it--- an art degree at a liberal arts college, and here I sat crunching numbers. I glanced at the clock and urged my fingers to go faster.
Quarter to twelve, the printer spit out the ticket to keeping my job. I grimaced, closing my eyes, and tried to shake off the mood. I didn’t usually feel this way, but something about the gray day and Janice’s ploys pulled threads of dissatisfaction from deep inside, weaving them into something stronger. I signed the top of the paper with a trembling hand. I just needed some coffee.
The conference room was packed. The CEO, Mr. Fitzroy, filled the head of the table, surrounded by other bigwigs. Nervous looking assistants crowded the wall. I tried to ignore the folder getting limp in my sweaty hand. Janice had really outdone herself this time. Someone directed me to a seat—I was almost surprised I had one.
Fitzroy cleared his throat and the room fell silent. “Today is a very important day, to discuss something, uh, very important.” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. I wondered for a moment if CEOs were chosen for their skill or lack of it. “We’re as close to a monopoly as the government will allow, but Walbertson Plastics and Co. isn’t finished yet. We were recently offered a contract that could prove very, uh, important. But I refuse to sign it without the blessing of my department heads.”
The others thanked him for the honor with proud smiles. I stayed silent, shooting a pleading look at the assistant with a coffee pot. She ignored me—probably one of Janice’s minions. Fitzroy accepted one last compliment and cleared his throat again. “This contract could turn the industry upside down, in an upward way. We would be providing the materials and designs for…” he let the suspense hang, and I can’t deny that I was on the edge of my seat. “Plastic clothing.”
I sat back in my chair, trying to make sense of what he just said, while those around me applauded enthusiastically. “I’ve decided to make Janice the head of the new design department. Her commitment to this company, and a portfolio proving her artistic talent, merits my appointment.” More clapping as Janice beamed. My stomach dropped. I’d seen her drawings—she had zero knack for it. If anything, she was better at numbers. Fitzroy winked at Janice and turned to me, his second chin jiggling as he smiled. “And you, Mr. Bryant, will lead a new set of accountants. So we’ll be raising your pay. And your hours.” The room went quiet as he waited for my response.
I heard a chair scrape and realized I had stood. I laid the report on the table. “I’m sorry sir, but I can’t accept the promotion.” My voice was calm but firm. “I’ve only stayed in this company hoping to do design. I’ve never been a numbers guy. I’ve been applying for a job in the design department for years, Mr. Fitzroy. I know I’m qualified. And now you hand it over to… Janice?” His mouth hung open and the room was as shocked as I was angry. My temper only rose. “I don’t understand how you think plastic clothing is a good idea, but best of luck to you. I can’t take this anymore. Here is my report. Thank you for your time. I quit.”
I pushed my chair back, grabbed my coat, and left. I just needed to be out, anywhere but that suffocating room full of stupidity. I walked past my office, out the doors, and into the street. I wasn’t going back. After ten years, I didn’t even have a picture on my desk. A cold wind ran its claws down my face, and I almost smiled. The weather suited me just fine.
I’d walked three blocks before the realization that I was now unemployed worked its way through my fevered brain. I stopped walking. I was too old to start a new career; that much I was sure of. I stood on the sidewalk, outside of a bookstore that looked empty. On a whim, I went in, pleased by the tinkling bell that announced me. A pretty clerk stood behind the counter, reading. She looked up as I walked in, eyes bright and happy. I realized on closer inspection that she was older, almost my age.
“You wouldn’t be here to buy a book, would you?” she asked, her eyes dancing.
My mouth quirked up. “Is that what this place is for?” She smiled and said nothing, opening her book again. It was up to me.
I turned and walked among the shelves, trailing my fingers along the rigid spines. Some of the books were brand new; others a little worn around the edges. Each one was finished; their story complete. Their stories were certain, but I was stuck in the middle of mine. Was I the main character, pushed around by the author’s whims? Or was I the author, choosing where I’d go next? I’d chosen to leave, to walk past everything I’d known and could have had. My fingers stopped at random and I plucked the book off the shelf without looking at it, swinging my arms as I walked back to the clerk.
“This one.” I said, thumping it on the counter. She raised her eyebrows but said nothing. I paid for the book, and she slid it in a plastic bag, truly smiling at me. I walked out, the bell tinkling goodbye behind me, and looked at the book.
It was a journal.
I laughed, tucked it under my arm, and turned towards home. The sun peeked its head over the clouds, warming the chill wind. I felt my mood shrug off me, and I walked on, leaving it behind on the sidewalk.