idol season 11 | week 1 | 1300 words
"But it was just a little chest pain," Harold Mackey told his doctor. "I mean, c'mon. Let's not get crazy."
"Too late," the doctor said. "Look at these numbers." He had Harold's chart and some incriminating vital statistics. "They're terrible. You're headed for diabetes and an early heart attack, at the rate you're going. Do you want to die young, like your father?"
"Of course not!" Harold said.
"Then you need to make some serious lifestyle changes, starting now."
Harold drove to work in a funk. He hadn't been that depressed since 1978, when his mother married that fathead mechanic, Joey Biggles. That had been a life sentence, too.
The rest of the day was a blur, his coworkers' voices droning behind him like a swarm of drunken bees. When Harold got home, he went straight to the kitchen and started pulling things out of the fridge and dumping them in the garbage can. Leftover pizza, fried drumsticks, half a cheesecake, and mac and cheese. Then he went to work on the cupboards.
It wasn't the dietary changes that really bothered him. He'd half-expected that bomb to drop years ago, and if he had to, he could live off sawdust and water. He'd survived his mom's cooking, after all.
No, it was the other part he was stuck on, the part that was like asking a bear to perform ballet.
The doctor had said he needed to cut back on his stress and learn to let things go. But Harold was not a letting things go kind of guy. He was still mad the Bengals had lost the Super Bowl, and that had been decades ago! The whole thing went against the very core of who he was.
But somehow, he would have to become different. Meditation, soothing music, magic candles, whatever it took. Harold was committed to making it work—his life depended on it.
One way or another, he was going to learn to develop some god-damned patience!
He spent the rest of the evening looking up suggestions on the computer, and decided that counting to ten and a mantra of calm were good places to start. They sure couldn't hurt.
Easier said than done the next morning, when someone cut him off as he was merging onto the freeway. He was halfway through a string of curse words when he remembered. "Oh," he said. "Yes. Um…" He thought for a moment. "So, luckily, no one was hurt."
He wasn't sure he felt any better. That might have been the most spineless thing he'd ever said.
The office would be a huge challenge, he knew. It was a battleground of constant irritation.
And the grocery store.
Hell, the real problem was basically people.
He practiced deep-breathing during the drive in to work, and made it into the parking lot without wanting to kill anyone. Progress!
But during his first meeting of the morning, when Dwayne Pinnabaker launched into his inaugural interjection of stupidity, Harold felt rage like the rising roar of Yosemite Sam trying to burst its way out of him.
"Grrrrrrr…" he growled.
"Harold?" his manager said.
Harold coughed. "Nothing," he said. "Excuse me for a minute."
He went out to his desk and got a rubber band to put around his wrist. He spent the rest of the meeting periodically snapping it under the table as a reminder to keep quiet. An hour later, his wrist was sore but he'd only lost his temper once.
More progress. Maybe he could do this after all.
At lunch, he sat at his desk and chewed through his mayo-less turkey sandwich instead of going out to grab something. He was finished in ten minutes. Now what?
He decided to go out for a walk. That was supposed to be good for stress, right? He took his apple with him.
It was nice outside. Sunny skies, a few clouds, not too hot. He made his way down to the park, and ate his apple on a bench next to the pond. Not bad.
He felt refreshed after lunch, though his mantra got a workout as the day went on. Who forgot to call Spears and Thorpe about their account? he thought, and This is the worst logo I've ever seen! before he remembered to calm himself.
"Sleeping dogs," he muttered, "sleeping dogs…" He flagged both files for follow-up, and sent an email to his boss. Then he went back to working on his own assignments.
He made it through the evening commute fairly smoothly, and dined on grilled chicken with broccoli and a baked potato. He watched a few comedy re-runs on TV, but finished with a science show on outer space. Amazing stuff, he thought.
He slept soundly that night, and awoke to the daunting prospect of practicing his new principles all over again. But at least he knew it was possible.
Car horns and a traffic snarl on the freeway had him feeling pretty frazzled by the time he got to work. He paced in the break room while waiting for the coffee to brew.
Buddy from accounting walked in "Hey, Harold," he said. "Everything okay?"
The coffee machine started to erupt over the edge of the filter tray. "Ugh!" Harold said, as he rushed to pull the plug out of the wall and then tried to feel calm about that. "Not really," he said. "My doctor is trying to kill me."
"Wow," Buddy said. "You should report him."
"No, not literally, you moron!"
"You are such an a-hole, Harold," Buddy said. "I don't know why I even talk to you."
Probably because you're too nice to even say 'asshole', Harold thought. But instead, he took a breath and said, "I'm sorry."
It felt unnatural. But Buddy looked at him and nodded. "Thanks." So, maybe Harold had made the right choice.
He took his lunch with him when he walked to the park for the noon break, and thought about how nice it was to be relaxing outside again. There was an old man sitting on the bench next to the pond, but Harold decided he could live with that. "Mind if I join you?" he asked.
"Knock yourself out," the man said. "I could use the company."
Harold hoped the man wouldn't be one of those people who talked just to hear themselves, but for the most part, the man just sat and looked at everything around him while Harold ate.
"Are you retired?" Harold asked, when he'd finished his sandwich.
"Oh, yeah," the man said, "about fifteen years now. It's nice."
"What did you do before?"
"I used to work at the factory. Dullest job you can imagine, and it was hell on my knees, but what can you do? It fed my family and got my kids through college."
"That's fantastic," Harold said, and meant it, but the man's words had caught his ear. "What can you do?" he repeated to himself.
"Right?" the old man said. "Life is what it is, and you just gotta keep going the best you can."
Harold thought about the stepfather who'd always had a harsh word for him, who'd made Harold work so hard to reach the point where he could leave home. It had been awful, but Harold had lived, and he'd made something of himself.
And that job that aggravated him so much was better than most, and it paid well. Plus, he was good at it. Maybe that was some kind of victory.
He walked back to the office with a swing in his step, watching the birds and smelling the breeze.
The afternoon would be full of meetings, and life was full of Dwayne Pinnabakers, but what could you do?
Just shrug your shoulders, I guess, and keep on going. It'll all work itself out.
If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here