Another short story...
by Christina Carson
“Do you ever feel like your life is empty, without meaning?”
Jen smirked as she pushed her coat off her shoulders and onto the back of her chair. Freed from it, she waved a waiter toward us. “Well that’s a hellavu start to the end-of-the-week happy hour. What’s got in your craw?
The noise of the Downtown Bar and Grill was still low as people were only beginning to arrive for the Friday night unwinding ritual. Jen and I often spent Friday evening here as the food was excellent and the crowd friendly. With a beer in front of her, Jen settled in her chair and stared at me like Mother Superior waiting for my confession.
“I was sitting in my cubicle today. Even that word, think about – cubicle. Like a cell or stall or pigeonhole. Well I was sitting in my cubicle at the bank keeping the numbers in the correct columns, receivables, payables, all of us trying to stay awake more than anything else, and a wailing siren screams past the building making the next moment just a fraction different from the last. I swear every head in that room lifted and stared in the direction of that sound as if paying silent tribute to it for its momentary reprieve. That’s my life. That’s why I asked that question. Do you ever feel like that?”
“Well, Abby, the harbor’s a bit different scene from a bank. There’s a certain mystique to international shipping. Besides, secretarial work there isn't so bad and there are some damned fine looking men that traipse through that office.”
“I guess you just answered my question, Jen. A little flirting, a lot of typing, that’s all you expect from life?”
“It’s not all that bad…”
“Let me stop you right there. Is ‘not all that bad’ all you expected from life? That’s my question, I guess. What did you expect? What were you hoping for when we graduated and went out into the world?”
“I think I was hoping that I’d never have to spend another night studying. I wasn't the greatest student. Not bright like you, Abby. So I think I was hoping for something that didn't tax me, something I could walk out of each night and have the rest of the time to myself.”
“To do what?”
“I watch TV. I go out to the pub. Occasionally I have a date, and I keep hoping to find Mr. Right. I don’t know, maybe I don’t have any big dreams or need much in the way of meaning.”
“Could you do thirty more years of that? What then?”
Jen sighed and let the carnival-like atmosphere of the bar and grill grab her attention. A burst of laughter came from one corner. At the center of the room, a table of ladies, who had arrived early and were now finished their meal, watched as a huge birthday cake with burning candles headed their way. It caught the eye of most of the patrons. Two waiters sang an operatic version of Happy Birthday that stopped the entire room for a moment. Everyone cheered the singers and the birthday girl after which the crowd quieted back into talk and eating.
Then Jen said quietly, “What’s the matter with this? It’s fun here. The energy is pleasant, though it might be better if I had a happier date.” She eyed me dolefully.
“But, Jen, this is called vicarious living, sort of like leeches which live off of someone else’s blood or parasites like mistletoe that live off other plants’ resources? They are the ones whose lives are making them laugh. We’re just jetsam on their sunny beaches.”
“Abby, I think your drink isn't quite stiff enough tonight. You need help.”
The food we ordered had arrived and made the silence that had settled between us feel less onerous. I noticed that Jen had started eyeing a guy two tables over, flirting in between forkfuls of Fettuccine Alfredo. By the time Jen had finished her plate; the fellow stopped by and invited us over to his table already hosting a few of his friends. I had barely eaten my supper and decided I’d do the world a favor and spend the rest of the evening at home.
The fellow made a point to ask me as well, which I found very thoughtful, but Jen butted in and said, “Leave her be. She’s in one of her philosophical moods. Trust me she could dampen the joie de vie of Mardi Gras when she gets like this.”
I raised my eyebrows and my hands as if to say, guilty. I pushed my chair back, folded my napkin, left it on the table and told her I get the check in penance. I winked at the fellow who, as he was directing Jen toward his table, looked back at me. He mouthed to me, “Maybe another time.” I shrugged and smiled laughingly and left.
I walked out into a perfect spring evening and decided to walk home. There was certainly something bothering me, and I wasn't sure it was as simple as finding a new job. The fullness of the apple blossoms made the trees look like low lying clouds. And the great silent forests that surrounded downtown Vancouver were scenting the night with cedar. It was a beautiful place to live, but my life didn't feel like it was doing it justice.
I lived in the attic suite of an old historic house. Four flights of outside stairs kept me in good shape. The top floor landing gave me a view west toward the ocean and included the tail end of a flaming orange sunset. I sat on the landing and let the night close down around me. What was it that was missing? I had a nice place to live, some good friends, fine health and a beautiful city, so I almost capitulated to Jen’s sentiment for it seemed I should be nothing but grateful. But even gratitude didn't fill in the emptiness I felt.
The very early light of the next morning found me on Third Beach. I wanted quiet. I wanted solitude. I sat on a wet log, one that had escaped from a logger’s boom somewhere up the coast and had found its way here. I was enjoying the unpeopled landscape when a stocky man carrying a length of six inch diameter iron pipe and a seven foot long iron bar walked onto the beach. I heard myself say, “Damn it.” I so wanted to be alone.
He walked purposefully and stopped at a shady spot, pushed his suspenders aside and removed his outer shirt leaving him in a long underwear type top. He pulled his suspenders back up and pushed his sleeves up to his elbows. He tucked his thermos and lunch bucket behind some driftwood, covered them with his shirt and stretched himself, first side to side, then tall. With that, like a man starting a day’s work, he picked up his pipe and bar and walked over to the closest large rock. I wasn't sure where these large rocks came from—off the jetty or in with the tide—but they were always showing up on that beach and were much too big to pick up. Between the pipe and the lever, he began to roll that rock back to a place in the jetty. I watched amazed. The rock was almost three feet in diameter and yet he moved it. The work was so strenuous that he was soon soaked with sweat.
The first couple of the day walked onto the beach around 9:00, and he gave them no notice. He was busy with his third rock. They too watched for a bit, curious, but soon lost interest and lay down in the sun. I hadn't moved. He intrigued me. Nothing I could come up with could explain why he was there involved in that activity. When he broke for lunch, I walked over to where he sat eating a sandwich and drinking his coffee.
“May I talk with you while you eat?” He nodded and I went on. “This is incredibly tough work. What possesses you to do this?
He smiled patiently as if he had answered this same question many times before. “Hit a bad patch some time back and ended up on the dole. I've never felt right ‘bout taking something for nothing, and I decided to tidy up the beach and shore up the jetty in return.”
“Is it interesting to you. I mean do you get tired of doing it sometimes?”
He looked at me as one might look at a child who had just asked a question beyond their scope to understand. “Do you mean do I like it? Does it satisfy me?
“Yeah, I guess that’s what I meant?”
“Why wouldn't it?”
His question stopped me in my tracks. “Well I just thought it might get boring, doing this every day.”
“Something so mundane and without much value to the world? Is that the rest of your thought?”
I felt my certainties slipping away. Me, the great philosopher, had suddenly met a graduate of the school of life. “That’s how I've been feeling about my work. So I guess I just assumed most people feel like I do.”
He didn't reply so I trudged on, my thoughts tumbling out with no regard to how they were embarrassing me. “I told my friend yesterday I felt so empty, and yet couldn't imagine life was meant to feel that way. The answer feels bigger than just changing jobs. And now watching you, I get a sense that job may have little to do with it.” I stopped, feeling like I had just stripped down naked in front of someone I not only didn't know but also would never have imagined baring my soul to.
The stranger poured another cup of coffee, secured the top back into his thermos and stared at the sand in front of his boots. I was almost in tears by then. Hearing what I’d been stuffing down for so long come blurting out, left a frightening sense of desolation behind.
“You are right. It isn't work that gives meaning. In fact, interesting work can often hide the fact that your life is yet empty. Touching your soul is what brings peace. We mistake peace for meaning. We don’t need meaning. We need peace. I can be very peaceful when I roll rocks. What stops you from being peaceful at your work?”
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