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Submitted into Contest #146 in response to: Start your story during a team building exercise.... view prompt

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Coming of Age

“There’s no I in TEAM!” the perky woman with the bubblegum pink hair screams from the stage.

If Henry had to hear that catch-all mantra from every “Ted Talk” wannabe one more time he was going to scream.

“Less than five minutes to finish your spaghetti towers! Remember the winning team gets 10 extra points for their Team!” Pepto Head spouts as she tries to talk over room.

Henry was dying inside, little by little, with every piece of tape he handed over to the Engineering genius in their group that took charge from the word GO. He kept looking at his watch trying to make time go faster.

“Don’t you just love these silly challenges? I learn so much!”, said the weekend porn star next to him. “Yessssss”, Henry replied with his best smile.

Mr. Maddox, Henry’s boss of three months, was convinced that a two day team building conference would be just the thing to make Henry feel welcome at the Suds and Duds. And in truth, it was a welcomed break from the daily grind of checking in peoples comforters that their puppy had puked on. Henry’s favorite days were when the local Senior Center drove their residents in to wash their “unmentionables”. Helping old people count out their pennies to come up with enough money for one load of laundry was always a challenge, and Henry’s change jar at home was getting pretty low from contributing to the cause.

A year ago, he was considered one of the hottest commodities at the architectural firm Henry was interning at. Monday mornings were spent recovering from the excitement of living in the city. And weekends were for hard chargers, like Henry, that wanted to move up as fast as he could. Social dinners, company credit cards for travel, and fridges stocked in the breakroom with energy drinks were all taken for granted. But then his world stopped. Henry’s Mom lost her corner bakery and asked him to move in with her to help with expenses.

Moving back to his tiny childhood town in the middle of a pandemic made him realize that he had it pretty good. After months of searching for a job, Henry finally accepted an offer from the local laundry mat. It was better than having no money at all coming in. And his Mom needed the extra income.

On the first day of work Henry caught a glance of himself in the hall mirror in his “Suds and Duds” polo shirt on his way out the door. “Wow, is that you?”, he asked his reflection. “What happened to us?” The hall clock was ticking loudly and reminded him of where he was and where he had to be. Grabbing his keys from the kitchen counter, he yelled “Bye Mom! Love you!” on his way out the door.

Walking into Mr. Maddox’s office for the first time was like that scene from Hot Tub Time Machine where you have to shake your head and ask yourself what year it is. Dented metal filing cabinets lined the walls, filled with papers from the era of paying bills by hand. A Mr. Coffee machine that looked like it had never been cleaned sat on an overturned bucket in the corner. If you were brave, you could have coffee in one of the many mugs Mr. Maddox apparently brought back from his getaways with his wife. The “Niagara Falls is for Lovers” one was Henry’s favorite.

“Hey there’s the boy genius”, Mr. Maddox crooned. “Come in and have a seat. It’s Senior day today so I only have a few minutes to talk with you before it gets crazy”, he said.

“Hey Mr. Maddox, I really appreciate you giving me this job”, Henry replied.

“No problem kid! Me and your Mom go way back” he said with a wink.

From that moment on Henry was his protégé. It was an answer to Mr. Maddox’s prayers. His own kids didn’t want to learn the business. All they wanted to do was play video games in the basement. It was so refreshing to find a kid like Henry to come work for him. And maybe he and the wife could get back to weekend trips away once Henry learned the ropes.

A scream from the table next to him reminded Henry of where he was. “You almost had it!” pouted the Ex-LuLaRoe saleslady. Their spaghetti tower had cracked in the middle and was in pieces on the floor.

Henry studied his team’s tower, which was leaning heavily to one side. “Turn it upside down”, Henry said. “Sure that’ll work”, snarked the laid off mall security guard. “No really, I’ve seen it before. It takes all the weight off the spaghetti.”, Henry replied. With seconds left to go, Henry reached across the table and flipped the tower upside down. “Well, I’ll be dammed kid! It worked!”, exclaimed the Iron Chef wannabe. Henry just smiled at his group while they screamed as the buzzer went off signaling the end of the team challenge.

“An extra ten points for team Ready For The World!” yelled the instructor. Henry stifled a laugh as her flamingo colored hair made it look like she was going to take flight as she was running towards their table.

Another crisis averted, he thought, as he made his way to the lunch buffet.

“Henry, how are you?”, a voice called behind him. It was his friend from high school who was busy serving food for the conference. Henry’s brain started going down the list of names trying to remember this one’s.

 “Hey Stan! Nice to see you. You work here?”

“Yeah, I like it. And Michelle and the kids get to swim in the hotel pool for free, so its not so bad”, Stan replied.

Stan and Michelle were the hottest couple in school, he being the football captain and Michelle the head cheerleader. It made Henry think how quickly life throws curve balls at you just to screw with you. He almost felt bad for them.

“You want an extra sandwich or something? I can get it for you.”, Stan whispered.

Henry looked down at his stained Suds and Duds polo shirt and realized he must have looked like he was down on his luck.

“If you need a place to stay or something, Michelle won’t mind if you spend a night on our couch.”, said Stan.

Stan’s sincerity caught Henry off guard. “He thinks I’m homeless”, Henry thought to himself.

Stifling a laugh, Henry put out his hand to Stan. “No man, I’m good. Moved back in with my Mom to help her out. I got to use the restroom before our break is up. Good to see you!”

Henry turned towards the back of the room. As he was walking away, an overwhelming sense of peace came over him. For he realized that life is as fragile as spaghetti, too much pressure and you can break, but just add water and it can be delicious.


May 19, 2022 05:26

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2 comments

23:44 May 23, 2022

Nice story, and I like the message of hope in how Henry is finding transitioning to a normal job working out fine, and that's also mirrored with Stan. It's funny how many of us thought of corporate teambuilding and a TED speaker saying "there's no I in team" for this prompt. Nice work having the characters sound different in the dialogue, mr maddox was funny, people of that age sound just like that lol

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Paul Wilhite
18:06 May 23, 2022

Very good. I was immediately caught up in this one. I had a similar change in my life so I can relate to Henry.

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