Short Story: Jim’s Day Out

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(This story is 3,555 words long. Reading time is approx. 15 minutes.)

Jim’s Day Out

James Thurston stood in the closet, watching his rack of neck-ties spin around and around. White ones, purple ones, striped ones, spotted ones – over 50 of the things, spinning around and around in a circle. He kept his finger pressed firmly on the button. The electric tie-rack had been a gift from his kids years ago. How long ago? Ben and Emily had given it to him for Christmas. They had been young then; they were still young, but now they had families of their own.

“Jim?” came his wife’s voice from the bedroom.

“Huh, yes?” James snapped out of his daze and pulled his hand off the button. The electric buzzing of the tie rack came to a moaning stop.

“Here’s your mug,” she said, “I filled it for you. It’s nearly 7:30, you know that?  Don’t you have to be at the interview by 8:00?”

“Um, yes,” he replied. “I’m about ready.” He turned and accepted the coffee mug from his wife and placed it on the shelf. Sarah was freshly dressed in a grey business suit, her long blonde hair neatly pressed and straightened. She smelled like a field of lavender.

“I’ve gotta run,” she said, “big client meeting this morning. Good luck today, honey. Let me know how it goes OK?”

“Yes, of course,” said James.

She left the room. A minute later he heard the front door open and close and she was gone.

James sighed in the silence. He stared at the tie rack again, even though it wasn’t spinning anymore. Finally he grabbed the blue tie with white polka dots, draped it over his neck, and pulled his collar down around it. What next? Oh yes, he needed to find his briefcase.  Where had he left it? He went into the living room to look.

His fresh mug of coffee sat forgotten on the shelf. He would remember it exactly two hours later, and curse himself for the mistake.

***

At 8am James pulled his cream-colored sedan into the last available parking space in the lot. Through his windshield he could see the entrance to the hotel where the job interview was being held. He had made it with no time to spare.

He hurried into the enormous hotel lobby. An upbeat employee from behind the desk said, “Are you here for the interview, sir?”

“Yes,” said James, “8th floor, right?”

“That’s correct sir.”

He rode the elevator alone to the conference room on the 8th floor. There was a mirror on the rear wall of the elevator and he took the time to straighten his tie. Just as he arrived and entered the conference room, a sharp young man was taking the podium and calling everyone to attention.

“Hello everyone and good morning!” said the speaker.

All 35 of the job candidates, seated in five rows of seven chairs each, responded together, “Good morning.”

To James’ dismay, the last open seat was in middle of the front row. He bumped and shuffled his way down the aisle and plopped into his chair. The people to his left and right were sitting sharply with their note taking materials at the ready. James fumbled to open his briefcase and find his notepad.

The sharp young speaker continued, “Welcome everyone. As you know, my name is John, and this is the fourth and final installment of our interview process. Congratulations to all of you on making it this far in the process. After today, our team will make their final set of decisions, and you will be notified within the week.”

James looked up at the speaker for the first time. Actually he knew John better than anyone else in the room. They had a history of closing a few big sales accounts together, one in 2004 and a few between the winter of ’06 and the spring of ’08. James had been a mentor to John back then, who was a young up and comer in the industry.

But now James was out of a job, and his old partner was rising quickly through the ranks.

John’s , “After the merger last year, the ownership became very vocal about transferring power back into the hands of the employees on the front lines. We believe that it was this simple, but fundamental shift in thinking that led to an unprecedented doubling of profits over the course of a year and half. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that…”

James wasn’t really listening. Instead he was noticing that John was wearing a skinny, sky blue tie. “Maybe I need one of those,” he thought. He looked over at the woman seated next to him. She was listening earnestly to the lecture and recording copious notes using a tablet and stylus. “She kind of looks like Emily,” thought James, “she’s certainly young enough to be my daughter.”

The morning wore on and James’ mind continued to wander. It wasn’t that he didn’t care. In fact, he was quite confident that he was going to get the job. Of course, he was less than thrilled to be taking a near entry level position, what with his 25+ years of experience. A month ago he wouldn’t even have considered it. But that was a month ago, and he was “too desperate now to be choosey,” as his wife Sarah had so eloquently put it.

Around noon the event finally ended. As everyone stood up and filed out of the room, James decided to approach and talk to his old colleague. Maybe John could help him a little, for old times sake. It was worth a shot.

“Hey John,” said James as he stepped up onto the stage, “Do you have a minute?”

“Hey there, Jim,” said the young man, who was gathering all of his materials into a black leather bag, “I don’t have long, unfortunately, I’ve got a meeting with the team this afternoon. I just can’t get a free moment to breathe these days, you know? I mean you know how it is.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said James, “I know what you mean.” He lowered his voice and leaned a little bit closer and said, “Hey listen John, I know you can’t officially say or anything. But I’ve got a lot riding on this gig, the mortgage and the house and grandkids and everything, you know? I just thought I’d ask you, what you thought my chances were? A week is a long time to wait for a decision.”

John chuckled nervously and looked around. “Jim you know I can’t say anything right now.”

“I know, but, if you could just tell me how things are leaning, it would really be a big help.”

Now it was John’s turn to lower his voice. “Listen, Jim,” he said, “I’ve got a lot of respect for you. You helped me when you were at ‘Milton’s’ and I was at ‘Sure Tech’. But if I were you, honestly, I’d try searchin’ somewhere else for a better position. This isn’t the right gig for you and you know it.”

“I’ve looked John. There aren’t many options out there, even for a guy with my experience.”

“I know, I know, well that’s just it. The company board, well, they’re looking for a lot of new, young talent. And some fresh faces, you know? And females too, the department is so stuffed with men that it’s starting to look bad…”

“What are you saying? They aren’t going to hire me?”

“I don’t know Jim. I don’t make the decisions. I’m just saying, as a friend, you know, maybe you should start looking somewhere else.”

James stared back in disbelief. He didn’t know what to say.

“Listen,” said John, “I’ll do what I can. I promise I’ll go to bat for you. I’ll try anyways. And look, if this doesn’t work out, well you know I can always keep an ear to the wall for ya.”

“I can’t believe they might not bring me on,” said James, “I’ve probably got more experience than all these other candidates put together.”

“Look, I’m sorry,” said John, “I wish I could do more for ya. You’re a good guy Jim, and I sure appreciate all that you did for me when I was coming up.”

“Well, thanks for telling me I suppose.” said James. He looked down at the floor. He was imagining explaining to his wife that they weren’t in the clear just yet, and that he had no good backup plan at the moment.

John looked at his watch, “Hey listen Jim,” he said, “I’ve gotta run. Meeting’s in ten minutes and I’ve got a few calls to make before it starts. It was great to see you again, I mean it.”

“You too John,” said James. He stepped down from the stage and gathered his briefcase. As he waited for the elevator, John was already fielding calls in the background. He sounded cheery on the phone, as if nothing in the world was wrong.

***

Outside in the parking lot, James leaned against the hood of his car and wondered what to do next. It was 12:30. Sarah wouldn’t be home from work until 6pm. She would be expecting a call about now with an update, but he didn’t feel like chatting at the moment.

He pulled off his blue tie with the white polka dots. He looked at it for a moment, and then he threw it into a nearby puddle. 

He looked up at the blue sky and marveled at what a beautiful day it was. The summer had been milder than usual this year. The hotel sat on top of a small hill that overlooked the city. In the distance he could see the river. And down by the river he could see the city park, full of people enjoying the sunshine. It seemed a shame that all those people were having fun. And here he was, embarrassed and lost.

It would probably take him a half hour or more to walk the distance to the river. But hell, what else did he have to do this afternoon?

Instead of getting back into his cream-colored sedan, he took off his suit jacket and wadded it up. He threw both his briefcase and his jacket into the front seat, locked the door behind him and started walking.

By the time he got to the edge of the park he was sweating profusely. His thick socks and dress shoes just wouldn’t do anymore. He went into a convenient store and bought a $5 pair of rubber sandals; they were white with pink flamingos on the bottom. Then he rolled up his pant sleeves and immediately he felt much better.

He grew lighter and lighter as he went along. He made it to the river’s edge and stopped to have a look around. Families were day-camping and a group of teenage boys was playing soccer, children and dogs were running around, adults were chatting, reading, and even napping in the shade. There was a breeze coming off the water and it felt good to have his shirt collar open.

He walked along the water until he stumbled upon a cafe with outdoor seating. A sign read, “Sunrise Cafe,” and showed a cartoon image of a smiling sun with arms and legs. It wasn’t the kind of place he’d normally sit down at, but it was past 1 o’clock now, and he hadn’t eaten anything today besides a bagel with cream cheese at the interview. Besides, the weather was nice and he wanted to sit at one of those wooden tables with an umbrella over the top of it. And why shouldn’t he?

He walked up to the counter. A 20-something boy was busy texting on his phone while tending the cash register.

James cleared his throat, “Ahem. Hello?”

“Oh, hello,” said the boy, looking up suddenly, “Yes, can I help you?”

“Yeah,” said James, “can I have a hot dog, and…” he was about to ask for an iced tea, but at the last moment he said, “what beer do you have?”

“We have Bud Light and Michelob ultra on tap,” said the boy.

“OK I’ll have a bud light,” said James. He handed over his credit card for the boy to process. Then he took his receipt and sat at the farthest table in the corner of the deck. The sun was high in the sky now, and he found a good, shaded seat under the umbrella. There were four chairs around the table; he sat in one and propped his sandaled feet up on another.

In the field next to the cafe, James watched a family of four. They had a cooler and a blanket spread out on the grass, and even a little day-tent for the two kids. At the moment, the mother was snapping pictures while the father played catch with the kids. They boy was not much older than 6 or 7 and the girl might have been 12. The father stood about 15 feet from the kids and tossed the baseball back and forth between the two kids. The girl was strong and had good aim, but the little boy had a wild, unpredictable arm, and he sent the father racing far and wide for his tosses. The father was sweating and wiping his brow with his forearm. The mother was laughing and taking pictures.

“Here you go, sir,” said the boy from behind his shoulder. He reached over and set down a pint of beer and a red basket with a hot dog and fries inside. “Would you like any ketchup or mustard?”

“Sure,” said James. “That’d be good.”

“Here you go then, enjoy your meal, sir.”

“Yup, thanks,” said James. It was a meal that he shouldn’t be eating, and he was going to enjoy it while it lasted. His first sip of beer went down smooth and clean.

James kept on watching the young family of four. They had stopped playing catch, and the parents were now relaxing on the blanket as the kids chased each other around the field.

James thought about his own kids. His boy, Ben, had loved sports from the moment he could walk. Emily had never taken to them, although she had been surprisingly good at them – even better than Ben. James had always wondered how far she might have gone…

Suddenly he was feeling lonely and wanted to talk to someone. His wife would be waiting to hear from him anyway.

The phone rang 5 times on his end. He was about to hang up when Sarah finally answered, “Hey honey,” she said.

“Hey there,” he said, “are you still on your lunch break?”

“Oh no,” she said, “I, uh, I had to work straight through. Things are crazy here today. How’d the interview go?”

“It was alright,” he said, and then added, a little more honestly, “actually it wasn’t so great.”

“Really?” she said, “What happened?”

“Ah, I just got a bad vibe from John,” he said.

“Well when will you find out for sure?”

“Next week,” he said. “I can tell you more tonight. But hey I wanted to ask you, are either of the kids planning a visit anytime soon? I was thinking about them today, and – I know that Ben’s so busy right now, but it’s been a few months since we’ve seen Sarah and the kids…”

Sarah didn’t reply at first. He could hear her having another conversation in the background.

“Sarah? You still there?” he asked.

“Yes, yes,” she said, “sorry about that. I’m gonna have to run soon honey. I’m about to step into a meeting.”

“Okay, but you haven’t talked to Sarah or Ben lately either?”

“No,” she said, “why don’t you give them a call?”

“I think I will,” he said, “OK, bye now.”

“Bye, see you tonight.” she said, and hung up the phone.

He imagined his wife walking into an important meeting with a room full of potential clients. And here he was, leaning back with his ankles crossed, eating a hot dog. The guilt crept in even though he tried to keep it out. He would have to start the job search again tomorrow. He would have to start all over from scratch.

“I’ll worry about that tonight,” he told himself. He scrolled through his phone again and found his son’s name. He called and waited. There was no answer. After seven rings he got Ben’s voicemail:

“Hi you’ve reached Ben Thurston, VP of marketing for Strider, Incorporated. Please leave me a message or, it it’s urgent, email me at ‘bthurston at stroud dot com.’ That email address again is “b” like boy, “T” like toy, “H” like hello, “U” like unicorn…”

James hung up the phone instead of waiting to hear the rest of the message. Ben wouldn’t have time to listen to a voicemail even from his father. James scrolled through his contacts and dialed his daughter Emily next.

She picked up right away.

“Dad?”

“Emily, Hi!”

“Hey dad,” she said, “is everything alright?”

“Yes,” he said, and then added, “why do you ask? Is something wrong?”

“Oh no,” she said, “It’s just that, you know, it’s not everyday I get a call from you.”

“Oh,” he said.

“Anyway, how’s the job search going?”

“It’s going pretty well” he lied, “I had another interview this morning… But I just called because I wanted to see how you were doing? Mom and I haven’t heard from you or Ben in awhile.”

“Oh I’m doin’ alright,” she said, “busy as ever. I’m taking care of all three kids this week. Our nanny’s out of town for the week.”

“Wow,” he said, “and how’s little Eli doing?”

“Ha,” Emily laughed, “about the same as last time you saw him. He still can’t sleep through the night. And he’s got his first tooth comin’ in, did I tell you that?”

James could hear one of his grandkids crying in the background. “Is that little Eli now?” he asked, “Or is that Bailey?”

“Oh yeah, that’s Eli.”

“Say I wanted to ask you,” said James, “is Cayla going out for any sports this year? She’s almost 10 isn’t she?”

“Actually she’s almost 11.”

“Oh right, right,” he said, “Is she going out for sports this year?”

“You know – I don’t know. Me and Clyde both want her to, but she can’t make up her mind.”

“Well,” said James, “I know you guys are real busy these days, but Mom and I would love to have you up for a visit – you know – whenever you can get a free weekend. I’d love to play some catch with Cayla too, maybe teach her a few things.”

Emily laughed, “Well aren’t you the lovable grandfather? I’m sure she’d like that, although I don’t know if she cares too much for baseball. She’s been talking about volleyball.”

“Volleyball?” said James, “well, either way, I’m sure I can teach her a few things. And it’d be great to see you guys.”

“OK,” said Emily, “well maybe I’ll talk to Clyde tonight and—” she was interrupted by a piercing cry in the background. James could hear his daughter bending over to comfort her little boy.

“Everything all right?” asked James.

“Oh yeah, he’s just been a little hellion all day. Isn’t that right Eli? Can you say hello to grandpa over the phone?”

James could hear his grandson crying and blabbering. His girl was such a good mother. How had she learned all that? He was damn proud of her. The thought of it made his eyes water, and he was glad that Emily couldn’t see him at the moment.

“Well Dad,” said Emily, “I’d love to chat more but I’ve kinda got my hands full here, as you can tell.”

“Oh sure, sure,” he said, “I’ll let you go Emily. Think about what I said, OK?”

“I will. Love you dad.”

“Love you too,” he said.

“Bye now.”

“Bye Emily.”

James set his phone down on the table and leaned back in his chair. A young couple and another family had now taken two more of the patio tables. The young boy and girl he had been watching earlier had made their way over to the riverbank and were tossing rocks into the water. Their mother was not far behind them.

Suddenly the register boy was at his shoulder again. “Can I get you another drink, sir?”

The feeling of the first beer had opened him up to the possibility of another. “Sure,” he answered, “I’ll have another.”

The sun was high and sharp in the sky. And a breeze came steadily off the water. James didn’t have many answers. He didn’t know exactly what he’d do tomorrow. But for some reason he felt a lot more at peace with everything. He felt better than he had in months. He had an undeniable feeling that everything would work itself out in the end. He’d convince the kids to come up and visit before the summer was over. He’d teach Cayla to throw a baseball, or hit a volleyball, whatever it was she wanted to do. He and Sarah would get back on track, get out more on the weekends…

James took a deep breath of fresh air. He locked his fingers and put his hands behind his head. Things were going to be OK after all. It was just one of those days.

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