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American Fiction Friendship

I hadn’t been to work in weeks. I yawned as I pressed the start button on the coffee pot. As the familiar aroma met the air, my mind wandered to my daily commute and the monumental  to-do list that awaited me. My co-worker Bill's last day was Friday. So not only will I be catching up on work that I missed while I was away but also committing to the work of two people until Bill’s replacement can start in one more week. 

My other co-worker and close friend Mandi asked me if I could pitch in for the goodbye party for Bill. They got him a cake, a card, and a bird watching book. I pitched in a few bucks, just hoping it was enough to look like I cared but not too much for the occasion. I can’t really say I will whole-heartedly miss Bill. His musky cologne often preceded his presence and his incessant throat-clearing afforded me the luxury of wearing headphones all day to drown out the awkward interruptions. I often wore the headphones just to avoid small talk with Bill. Without the headphones, it seemed to notify Bill that my ears were simply available to be filled with the sound of his nasally voice. Without any inquiries from me, I knew about his kids going off to college, his wood-working hobby, and some of his marital issues with his wife of 40 years. I knew a little too much about Bill, really. He honestly just seemed a little lonely, like he needed a friend.  

I shrugged the thoughts away as I blindly reached inside the cabinet for a coffee cup. Deliciously anticipating the first few sips of this powerful elixir known as coffee. I marveled at how I went weeks in the mountains without caffeine, simply happy to awake with the sun and be invigorated by the idea of trails to be discovered. The minute I find myself having to put on my suit and tie and head into a large, municipal brown building with an office divided into cubicles for the masses; I find that I need rocket fuel to propel me forward. Yes, I’m instantly re-thinking all of my life decisions. But not this one. The coffee seems like the best decision I’ve made today.

After rushing through traffic and scrambling from my spot on the 10th floor of the parking garage, I finally slump into my desk chair at half past eight. Thinking that likely no one will notice that I’ve even been gone. I turn on my desk lamp as I remove my bag strap over my head and place my work bag next to me. It’s full of work I told myself I might do while I was out. Although nothing in that bag had been touched since I walked out the door of the office. I power on my desktop and my mind wanders to the coffee machine nearby. It’s not the best coffee, but it may be an alternative form of rocket fuel as I wait for the operating system to load. 

Soon enough, my desktop screen flashes awake and the light from the screen is almost as jarring as the light from my desk lamp. Just like riding a bike, I log into our database and fire up my email. I’m alarmed to see that I have 200 unread emails. I blink a few times and decide I will make my way to the break room first for that coffee. I grab my headphones to plug into my ears, in case anyone wants to welcome me back from my trip or ask me if I miss BIll. 

Oddly enough, the office seems eerily quiet and I haven’t noticed anyone at their desks. I look at the calendar on the wall while I maneuver a paper cup under the one-cup coffee dispenser. I find today’s date quickly at the bottom of the grid, Monday August 25th. Nothing stands out to me, not around a major holiday. Maybe it’s just a Monday, if only there were enough rocket fuel for us all I think. I turn on some tunes through my phone and blow on my hot coffee as I saunter back to my desk. 

200 emails, here we go. My left hand is positioned on the keyboard and my right hand is clutching my coffee cup as I decide to start from the bottom and work my way up. Lots of emails about Bill’s last day. Delegating who will get the cake, who will bring the utensils, can someone get the balloons, also don’t tell Bill, it’s a surprise. My fingers fly quickly through these emails and the junk ads I receive for menswear and hiking gear. It’s tempting to browse through the sales but I’m 50 emails down. The coffee seems to be kicking in because I am suddenly committed to this cause of making it to the last email.  

I must make it to the last week that I was out, there are a few emails from my boss asking Bill to update him on the status of his projects and to include me on these emails so that I can pick up where Bill leaves off. Always making sure that the work goes on, no matter what. No matter that Bill has pretty much built his life around this company’s motto of “Building a better future for tomorrow” by always thinking several steps ahead. Bill usually got to many of our projects before me, oftentimes tackling the more challenging spreadsheets and staying late to be ahead of deadlines. I wondered how much of that was related to Bill not wanting to be home alone with his wife. I knew he was looking forward to having more time to visit with his kids, they both went to the west coast for college. Bill said he wanted to make a cross country trip to visit them, he always wanted to do that when he was younger but he was busy raising a family. “It’s just the American way”, he always said, “there’s plenty to be done here at work and the home needs to be watched after.” 

I look over at Bill’s empty chair in the cubicle across from mine and take a sip of my coffee. I nod to him like he’s there. I hope he gets to witness some of the wonderful monuments and trails that I got to lay my eyes on the last few weeks. He certainly deserves this time away. I wish my Dad had ever thought to take that time to visit me in college. We would have had way more fun on a hiking trail than we ever did on our trips out of town for my away varsity baseball games in high school. Often, the rides home were filled with languishing disappointment about the team's performance and how I could be a better leader. 

I finally make it to the emails from Friday, Bill’s last day. “Cake in the break room in 15 minutes!” read one of the emails as the title of the email with the body of the email blank. This was everyone's notice to be there before Bill. I chuckle when I notice that Bill was accidentally included in that email. Something about best laid plans come to mind as I smile. 

The final email in my inbox was actually from Bill. It’s from last Friday at 5:35 pm. 

Dear Matt, 

I wish you could have been here today for my last day, but I am excited for your adventure. I hope it’s your breath of fresh air. I will miss our office chats. Thank you for reminding me that our days on this planet are numbered. While you are one of the most efficient partners I’ve ever worked with, you were always planning the next adventure for your life outside of here. I am looking forward to filling my final days outside of these walls too, enjoying time with family but also exploring the great outdoors. Hey, maybe I’ll finally get to meet that John Muir guy on the trails you talk about so much! Better yet, maybe I’ll see you out there one day too, kid. Take care of yourself, don’t work too hard at this place. I appreciate you entertaining me with your music and listening to my stories. It helped me make the decision to retire when I needed to and I appreciate you. 

Your friend, 

Bill 

P.S. I left you something in the top drawer of your desk. My going away gift to you. 

As I reach towards the top drawer, I think I see someone pass my cubicle. I look up but don’t see anyone nearby. I look back at the email and feel guilty about the measly monetary contribution I made towards Bill’s going away party. I look down at my empty coffee cup. Something about Bill’s email does make me miss him and also feel ashamed at not listening to more of his stories. I had no idea he wanted to go hiking, sounds like something we definitely could have done together one day. I shake my head and laugh a little to myself at the thought of old man Bill on the trails. Well, maybe we wouldn’t go together but I definitely could have given him some tips. 

I’m opening the top drawer of my desk when I notice someone standing behind me. It’s my boss. He startles me a little. The look on his face is more tired than usual. 

“Hey Matt, what are you doing here today?” He says in a gruff voice. 

“Hey Nate, today is my first day back from vacation. Anything fall apart while I was gone? Looks like Bill really had it under control!” I say as I motion towards his empty seat. 

Nate’s brow furls. “Matt, did you get the memo while you were out? I asked Mandi to text you since I know you’re usually not checking emails while you’re away.” 

“Oh,” I look down at my phone. “Maybe, but I didn’t have any service until I got to the airport yesterday. What’s up?” I’m a little concerned now that I’m not sure what would have been so important that he needed someone to send me a text memo to my personal phone. 

He sighs. “Matt, you shouldn’t be here today. Bill passed away unexpectedly on Saturday. His funeral is this afternoon. I gave most of our team the day off. You should go, Bill would have wanted you there.” He says as he slowly turns to walk away with his shoulders slumped over and a hand rubbing back and forth against his forehead. 

It takes me a few minutes to process his words. I’m stunned. He’s gone? I mean he’s gone but he’s also...gone. Almost robotically, I look inside the drawer of my desk and find a box wrapped in newspaper. My hands are trembling as I unwrap the package. Under the paper is a brown cardboard box. I open the lid and pull out a tissue wrapped object. It’s a wooden figurine. I set it on my desk to get a better look at it. It’s two men, standing side by side with canes. One of the men is visibly older with a walking cane and the other is younger with a walking stick instead of a cane. I slide my thumb over the smooth wood and inspect the figure. Underneath is an etching that states “Into the forest I go” with Bill's initials and the date of his last day of work. 

I set the figure down. I stand up from my desk. I text Mandi for the address to the funeral. I leave my work bag at work and I toss my empty coffee cup in the waste bin near the exit.

August 31, 2021 00:09

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15 comments

Marilyn David
18:43 Sep 04, 2021

Didn’t expect the ending. A message to us all is in there written between the lines.

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Holly B
21:11 Sep 07, 2021

Thank you! Life is not nearly as long as we hope for sometimes…

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A B
21:25 Sep 05, 2021

Wow that was a kicker at the end really good job through. You did great! 👍

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Holly B
21:12 Sep 07, 2021

Thank you so much!

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Jon Casper
14:14 Sep 05, 2021

As someone with an office job, this was a bit of a gut punch. I've heard too many stories of people passing away just after retiring. Part of why I'm here on Reedsy, to remember that life doesn't begin and end with the day job. Nice job!

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Holly B
21:12 Sep 07, 2021

It was a nice reminder for me too :-) thank you!

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Driss Boutat
18:37 Oct 11, 2021

Amazing your story. we have to pay attention to everyone surrounding us.

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Sharon Williams
20:18 Sep 14, 2021

Hello Holly. Critique Circle here. I thought that this was a clever, well written story, and the prompt was cleverly worked into it. I particularly liked the touch of the wood carving at the end. I found the first paragraph slightly confusing, and I think that this may have been due to verb confusion. Should it have read: my mind wandered to my *forthcoming* daily commute and the monumental to-do list that awaited me. My co-worker Bill's last day *had been on* Friday. I hope this helps. Good luck Sharon,

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Holly B
20:10 Sep 16, 2021

Thank you Sharon, that is very helpful feedback! I do seem to get caught up in the tenses. I appreciate your comments :-)

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Alex Hoang
14:21 Sep 07, 2021

What an ubexpected ending!. I was abit shocked and sad when reading to the line when Matt was told about Bill's death by his boss.:((

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Holly B
21:13 Sep 07, 2021

Life is fragile sometimes. I hoped to convey that message. I hope you enjoyed it!

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Thom With An H
13:35 Sep 07, 2021

This happened to a coworker of my father. He died two days after retirement. You struck a nerve with this one. Good job.

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Holly B
21:14 Sep 07, 2021

It something we often talk about at my job too. Thank you for reading!

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Yvone Mthembu
10:08 Sep 06, 2021

Folks watch this space Holly B is about to own it.Well written, emotional and relative keep it up

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Holly B
21:14 Sep 07, 2021

Wow that is quite the compliment, thank you so much!!

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