flash fiction by Phil Benton
For the third time in as many minutes, Sam glances toward the opposite wall at the exact point where, in his opinion, a clock should be. Watching this imaginary clock has become a habit since joining the team of service techs at M&M Mailing Services. He’s also quite fond of counting the holes in the black rubber floor mat that runs the length of the service counter. Right now however, he’s content to pace back and forth on his cushioned runway, waiting for the next faceless customer to walk through the door. A Talking Heads tune loops in his brain:
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down Letting the days go by, water flowing underground Into the blue again after the money’s gone Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground…
With the sudden awareness he is again drumming the counter with a wooden pencil, a habit that drives his boss insane, Sam stops to process a fax order, while keeping one eye out for potential customers; well, actually one particular customer.
Six short months ago, now an eternity, New York City was Sam’s home. A recent graduate of NYU, he planned on scoring an easy gig with a publisher while continuing with his graduate study. Majoring in English Literature, Sam embraced a “highbrow” persona and enjoyed the attention garnered from the like-minded students and faculty of his school of discipline. He hung with the requisite Village scions, schmoozed with bloated faculty members at wine and cheese affairs, and boldly championed the brilliance of both Henry James and Fran Leibowitz to anyone within earshot. He navigated the mine fields of the East Village “scene” without a hint of doubt or self-consciousness. He embraced all that was New York and considered himself an insider. And, there was Pippa.
Pippa and Sam met during an open mic poetry reading at Penny’s Pub. He was going through his “poetry phase” at the time. That particular evening, Sam worked up the courage to stand and deliver some of his own “words” for the anxious crowd of caffeinated hipsters. To his surprise, Pippa approached him afterward and they discovered a mutual love of Twentieth Century British poets. Never that confident with women, Sam was flattered by Pippa’s attention and completely captivated by the understated class that seemed to ooze from her very essence. Later, he would come to learn such an aura only comes from years of casual interaction with Society’s elite but, by that point, Sam would be too far gone to care. Despite warnings from friends that Pippa was “slumming” her way through NYU before returning to her rightful social station, Sam barreled, full throttle, into a committed relationship. Within a month or so, they were living together in the “quaint” little loft Pippa’s dad purchased to keep her housed in the manner to which those of her “station” required. As a couple, Sam and Pippa cut a swath through the Village intellectual scene and, in Sam’s estimation, the City was theirs for the taking. He made plans. She made excuses. Graduation came for both of them. The two sets of parents met awkwardly after the Commencement Ceremony outside Yankee Stadium. Pippa was whisked away by limousine for a luncheon at the 21 Club. Sam and his parents took a cab back to the Village for beers at the White Horse.
One week later, with Sam busy securing a publishing internship, they had the talk. A few well-placed suggestions from Daddy, a ticket to Vienna, and a Black AMEX card were more than enough to bring poor Pippa to her senses. They were just “too different”, she said. Sam took it hard, reached out to friends, only to find they were more her friends than his. The requisite booze and drug binges continued for several weeks until the reality of his situation sobered him briefly. He was out of school and out of money. Life on the street seemed unappealing, and the publishing business offered little promise for drunk, angst-ridden poets. What else could he do? He settled for the easiest available option. He went home. Home to Norfolk, Virginia, a city only 350 miles to the south, but a world away nonetheless. He would return in the absence of fanfare, to little opportunity, an aging father worn by years of asbestos exposure in the shipyard, a withering mother, and a town no longer his own.
“Hey Sam!, that Century order ready yet? That little girl’ll be comin’ by soon to pick up.”
“Yeah, Eugene. It’s been ready.” Euu-gene, Jeez I can’t believe I work for someone named Euu-fucking-Gene.
What Eugene, the Manager, doesn’t know is “that little girl” is the highlight of Sam’s week. The weekly visits to pick up her company’s promotional flyers are one of the few bright spots in his new life since returning home. Since accepting a job with M&M Mailing Services, a small company on Granby Street, Sam’s life has assumed a kind of stasis or comfortable predictability. He works, walks the three blocks to his waterfront condo, fishes occasionally, writes in fits and starts, and, all the while, licks his wounds. On Sunday, he visits his parents in Ghent. On rare occasions, old friends from high school will ring him up for a drink at one of the few decent pubs in town. This routine has softened him. The self-assured brashness that characterized his New York persona fades with each passing day; replaced by the introspective, soft spoken southern boy that left four years ago to make a mark in the big city.
“Yes ma’am, just put your card in the slot and follow the prompts…here, I’ll show you…”, Sam makes his way from behind the counter to help a lady use the copy machine. He glances distractedly out the window, hoping she is not coming while he’s helping another customer. God forbid Eu-fucking-gene gets to help her. He gives the imaginary clock another glance as he feigns patience with the faceless, technologically clueless customer.
Her name is Adele Middleton. Sam knows this because she has to sign for her weekly package. Her signature is emblazoned in his mind, as are those lovely hands and the way she embellishes her stately name with loops and flaring lines. A petite young woman with blond hair and an impish air, Adele’s hands are small with modestly trimmed nails, polish chipped and worn away in a lovely, playful fashion. Usually attracted to brunettes, Sam is a bit baffled by his obsession. With hair the color of golden sand and her skin fair and smooth as porcelain, her beauty is undeniable, but her eyes hold the key for him. From first glance, those eyes held him as a bull’s-eye would a sniper. Alternating between shades of green and brown, her hazel eyes, ringed with a dark outline, call for him, scream actually, come dive into my soul. Her simple beauty both attracts and terrifies him. Her visits, all too brief, end with a playful wiggle of her fingers and a quick flash of a smile. Sam is left to stare after her, speechless, cursing himself for yet another lost opportunity. Is she aware of the effect she has on him? Can’t she see it in his eyes?
Following another futile glance at the imaginary clock on the wall, Sam checks his phone, only to discover she’s running late. Four fifteen, he notes, ten minutes late. Staring though the large storefront window, the pedestrian traffic is sparse. His experience tells him business will likely surge during the five o’clock hour as office workers will flock in to either pick-up or drop off on their way home from work. If she’s late, other customers may prevent him from doing what he is resolved to do. Today is the day. I’m gonna do it this time dammit. I’m gonna ask her out. But where will we go? Coffee, lunch, drinks? Shit!…just be cool. Keep it casual. You can do this…
His inner debate is silenced by the electric chime signaling the entrance of a customer. To Sam’s dismay, it’s a rather matronly forty-something who appears intent on tying him up for, at least, the immediate future.
Sam manages a weak smile of greeting, “May I help you ma’am?”
“Yes, I’m here to pick up the Century order. We faxed it over earlier today.”
Silently cursing his luck, Sam manages to present the order he has already bundled and placed on the counter in preparation for Adele’s grand entrance. With all the casual curiosity he can muster he asks, “Where’s Adele today? She usually picks up you guy’s order?”
“Oh, well Adele’s not with us anymore. She left to go back home to Charleston.”
“Oh…really, I didn’t know she was from there. Uh…nice town. So, guess she’s not coming back then huh”.
“Well, I highly doubt it. She was just with us for a while as a favor to her father. Her father is one of Century’s largest customers. Our boss gave her a job after she graduated from ODU. I think she needed something to do before she leaves for Europe.”
Startled, Sam looks up from the invoice he’s preparing. “Europe, wow…that’s great, uh, must be nice”.
The lady smiles and gives him a wink. “Yes, it must be nice to come from that much money. While the rest of us work, the rich get to play. Well, I guess you’ll be seeing me from now on. Hope you’re not too disappointed.” With a knowing chuckle she turns to leave, “Thanks, see you next time”.
Sam, dumbfounded, stares at the woman’s back as she exits the door. He watches her briefly as she prepares to cross the street. With a sigh, he glances toward the imaginary clock on the wall once more before turning toward the office behind him. “Hey Eugene!”, he yells, “Can you cover the counter for a second? I really need to grab a smoke.”