I still don't know what I was looking for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets
Changes by David Bowie. It was my ringtone.
Glancing around to make sure my boss wasn’t around, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and checked the number.
My heart skipped. It was the call I was waiting for.
I ducked down behind my cart just in case Mr Burson saw me and ripped me a new one. We weren't meant to be on our phones during work hours.
I pressed the button, “Hello” I said, my voice barely a whisper. “Hello,” I repeated, louder this time.
The voice on the other end was cold, formal. Stale. I imagine if week-old bread could talk it would sound like her. “Hello, is this Elijah Harris?”
I nodded. Swallowed and said, “Yes, it is.”
“Hi Elijah, this is Suzanne from Smith and Gordon Associates.”
This was definitely the call. The call that was going to change my life.
“Hi,” I said, swallowing again. Why was my throat so dry? “How are you?” It was a question but there was expectation behind it. I wanted to know if they were going to offer me the job.
“I’m good,” was the reply. Flat, dry, uninterested. Instantly I knew, and dread filled me, like a truckload of crushed stones poured down my gullet. Suzanne continued, “Elijah, I’m calling about the Junior Accountant role you interviewed for last week.”
My heart was beating in my chest like a drum and all I could get out was a non-committal ‘mmhmm’.
And there it was. One single word that, like the word of God, destroyed my hopes and dreams. My heart ceased drumming, instead it froze, and my shoulders slumped. I was standing in the confectionery aisle of the Food Pantry, where I was employed as a shelf stacker. I looked at the cart, at the stacked boxes and all I saw was my future.
“Mr Harris?” Suzanne’s voice broke me out of my reverie. I didn’t hear a word she said after ‘unfortunately’.
“Yeah,” I choked out, my voice cracked, and my eyes prickled with tears. I blinked them back as she spoke.
“I’m sorry I don’t have better news for you.”
That was a lie. She couldn’t have cared less. I was a number to her. No, not even a number. I was less than that. A speck in the timeline of her life. She would go home, to her husband and kids, or her dogs, or a bottle of wine. Whatever it was, she was about as sorry to give me the news as a lion was sorry to eat an antelope. In reality, she was probably relieved. One less person to cross off the list.
“Yeah...yeah. It’s ok. I understand.”
That was also a lie. I didn’t understand. I nailed the interview, or I thought I did. I did my research, I knew the history of the company like I was the founder, and they were impressed, even saying I told them things not even they knew. Then I answered all the questions. I mentioned my strengths, my weaknesses, I knew about the job and what it entailed and what I had to do. I knew I would be starting in the basement, having to work my way up. But it was a career, and it was the best chance I had at getting one.
“I wish you the best in your future endeavours."
“Thank you. If something comes up may-” I started to say but the line went dead. I stared at my phone. She’d hung up. My name was already checked off and she was probably calling the next successful, or unsuccessful, candidate.
I closed my eyes and squeezed my phone just enough it creaked. I needed that job. I wanted it. I was excited for it. But it ended in failure. Just like the others had.
Just like everything.
I opened my eyes and looked up. Not at the roof, but beyond it. Past the sky. Past the stars, and the planets and other lifeforms. To the top of the universe where I presumed a higher being. God, Allah, Buddha, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whatever it was.
I don’t know how much more of this I can take, I thought to whoever was listening.
I gave whoever it was a look. A look that said give me a break. Give me a chance.
The voice boomed down the aisle and I blinked. “God…?”
“Elijah,” the voice was closer now. And familiar. It wasn’t God. It was my boss, Bernard.
“I don’t pay you to stand around staring at the roof,” he said in his usual way of speaking down to me, like he thought I was a bug worth squashing.
“Sorry, Bernard,” I said, turning back to the cart.
Bernard was short, stocky with stringy hair spread across his pate in a sad denial at his obvious baldness. His lip was always sweaty, making the pencil-thin moustache look like a raft in the ocean.
“Mr Burson,” he said.
“Mr Burson” I repeated, and he walked off to find something else to nit-pick or someone else to order around.
I sighed, took one more look above me, and went back to work.
I finished work at lunchtime and left with my mind on the failed job, where I went wrong. Replaying the interview in my mind and what I should have said instead.. The day was cool and overcast and I shrunk in my jacket trying to keep the chill away. Autumn leaves danced around my feet, pushed around by a light breeze and I manoeuvred my way past the sea of lunch-goers heading to the food court in a nearby shopping centre. I was pushed and prodded by people in a hurry, pinballing between them until I was able to cross the road to Garrett Park.
Garrett Park was a massive park that was out of place surrounded by tall, windowed buildings built for function and not character.
The park had numerous playgrounds for kids, ponds, statues, rose gardens and was littered with maple and oak trees. Emerald green grass, lush enough to sleep on, rolled off into the distance and just as I reached the park, my phone buzzed.
Mr Harris. Your payment has failed. Again. Contact me to organise payment ASAP!
It was from Gary Crawford, the property manager for the apartment I rent. Another failed payment. I groaned, today was not a good day.
I needed time to think. Rather than go home, I decided to cut through the park. I’m not sure why, home was my comfort. Where I felt safest.
But with this newest blow, I had to think things through and maybe a change of scenery would help. The path cut through a channel of tall oaks that rustled gently in the breeze, causing yellow and orange leaves to fall gently to the ground. The clouds were dispersing, and the sun broke through, warming me against the chilly air. Leaves crunched under my shoes as joggers ran past me, heading in the other direction. Their steady short breaths expelling carbon dioxide in rhythmic fashion, and I admired their dedication to their health.
I thought of my own lifestyle, the takeaway, the hours of watching Netflix or playing video games. I thought of my rubbish bin filled with chip packets and chocolate wrappers. The fridge filled with chocolate milk and coke. The vegetable crisper empty since...ever.
Maybe I should go for a run. I hated running. It was boring. But then I realised there was no easy fix. A healthy lifestyle requires sacrifice. Giving up the snacks, going for a run.
It all mattered.
Another thing to add to the ever-growing list.
But at least I was walking. That’s a good first step.
The path rose and I reached the top and followed the path until it split into two; the left leading around a huge pond where kids with pieces of bread fed the ducks, while others sat on park benches watching them glide across the leaf-littered pond. The duality of the ducks swimming fascinated me, looking calm and graceful without a care in the world on top. But underneath their little webbed feet were kicking, thrashing to get them moving.
The right path led to a rose garden. Petals of reds and whites and yellows burdened thorn-covered stalks running in long rows and I caught a whiff of their fragrance on the wind.
Which path do I take?
I decided on the right path, heading towards the roses and I saw an elderly couple talking and discussing roses, sniffing them, cupping the corolla in their hands as if they were at a spice market.
As I passed by, the couple saw me and gave me a smile and I absently nodded in return.
Beyond the roses was a huge maple tree with riotous shades of yellow, orange and red leaves, like a Halloween-inspired abstract painting and beneath it was a park bench. I brushed off some leaves and took a seat. The shade was cool, and I shivered a little but stayed put, happy to rest for a minute.
My phone rang and I pulled it out of my pocket. Caller ID said it was Jerry, my best friend.
“Hey,” I greeted.
“Yo, man. What’s up?” Jerry was always peppy, like a cheerleader for life. Nothing ever got him down and he was always the life of the party.
“Not much,” I said. “I’m just heading home from work.”
“Did you hear from them?”
“No good,” I said.
“Aww man. I’m sorry. I know how much you were keen for that job.”
He did. I remember how excited I was telling him I had an interview. How I told him how I felt like I had a good shot after nailing the interview.
Boy, do I feel like a moron.
“It’s just not meant to be,” Jerry said. Always the philosophical one. He believed in fate and ‘meant to be’. I’m not sure but he might be into astrology as well as Buddhism and generally just being annoyingly positive about everything.
I shouldn’t think that way about him. He’s always been by my side, always been supportive of my endeavours and knew pretty much everything about me.
It’s just that I’ve never met anyone so positive. Nothing ever gets him down. But it’s easy for him, he’s smart and has a great job, a beautiful girlfriend, and a nice house. He’s one of those people who oozes success, is liked by everyone and fortune favours him. He’s also grounded, he never let money or success change him. I love him but I’m also jealous of his success, luck, whatever you want to call it.
“Why don’t you come out to Club Fifteen-one tonight with Maddy and I? It’s Friday, let's forget about today and see what happens.”
I thought about the text message from the property manager and my very limited bank account. One of the things Jerry didn’t know about me was my money troubles.
“Nah. I’m not really in the mood.”
“Come on, man. You can’t dwell on that job. It’s their loss and you’ll find something better. I know it.”
“How do you ‘know it’?”
Jerry laughed and I wanted to punch him, “You’re not dumb, Elijah. Your problem is you have no faith- no belief- in yourself. You are too rigid. You’re the type who needs someone to guide him. A map to tell him where to go because you’re too afraid to go off the beaten track.”
“I applied for this junior position!” I protested.
“Because I found it for you and suggested you go for it.”
That was true.
“So you coming?”
“I’m not in the mood,” I repeated.
The good thing about Jerry was that he knew when to push and when to back off. He knew now was the time to ease up. “Alright. Let me know if you change your mind. I’ll get your name on the list.”
“Sure. Maybe I will,” I said, knowing I wouldn’t. “I’ll talk to you later.”
After I hung up, I stared at my phone. Staring at my plain wallpaper, a picture of a sunset I took. It was a nice photo, but it wasn’t a great photo.
The breeze picked up, rustling the maple tree and I watched the elderly couple move on from the rose garden, heading down the path hand-in-hand and I felt a pang of yearning. In my mind they were high school sweethearts, married for 50 years, and as much in love now as they were when they first laid eyes on each other. As they slowly moved towards the pond, I felt inspired and pulled my phone out of my pocket, maybe there would be hope after all.
I opened the dating app I’d been using for a couple of months now. I’m not usually one for them, but it was a fun way to meet new people and I’d made some connections. A couple of dates here and there, a few gamer friends. Nothing everlasting though. Flitting in and out of my life like all these people jogging past me. Brief encounters that would have them forgetting me six months after we stop talking, much like the joggers will forget my existence six seconds after they run by.
There were no new messages. No requests for chats. No answers to anything I’d written. I opened my latest message, wondering if I sounded creepy. It was always a concern. How do you approach a stranger in this day and age, even online, without sounding like a creep? I studied my message with a critical eye, it was pretty plain. Introducing myself, my interests and if they were interested in chatting. I think it’s ok.
Just no interest at this stage.
What a day.
I leaned back in my seat and watched the world go by. Joggers, parents with prams, elderly couples, middle-aged couples, young couples, teenagers, kids. Everyone. The world moved on and I watched it go by, the conversation with Jerry playing in my mind.
Was he right? He knew me better than most, maybe he was onto something.
The wind was stronger now, gusty and blew through the trees, blowing leaf litter across my shoes and over the grass, colliding with each other like a leafy destruction derby.
It was when something light landed on my head that I realised I had been sitting here for over an hour. Daylight was shorter now and the sun was well on its way down. Startled, I instinctively reached up, expecting to find bird poop in my hair, because it was that sort of day, but instead it was a maple leaf. I brushed it off and watched it lazily drift to the ground.
The orange-red leaf landed amongst the debris of other maple leaves around my feet, and it dwarfed the others. It was easily double the size of the others. More wind blew and the other leaves flitted off, but this huge one stayed near my shoe, the outcast amongst its brethren.
I reached down and picked it up by the stem. It was bigger than my hand with five lobes. It was in perfect condition. I held it up to the sun, twisting it around.
As the sun filtered through the broad leaf, everything changed. Branching out from the base were five veins, one for each lobe. Dozens of thinner veins broke away from each one, creating a fractal effect. I studied each vein, the bright sun lighting it up like an x-ray on the light board. I saw the insides of the leaf, the bones, and I studied them.
And there I saw my future. Or to be more accurate; my futures.
Each of the five veins represented a major part of my life. I followed them and as I did I caught glimpses of the choices I made.
Where I stayed at my current job.
Where I went to university.
Where I quit my job.
Where I moved back home with my parents.
Where I decided to leave everything behind and travel.
And each of those major veins and their outcomes lead to even more outcomes. What jobs I would have if I went to university. A job in an accounting firm. A law firm. An office admin, a tech worker. Or where I quit my job and took up a trade, or travelled. Where I became an admin assistant; where I worked for an optometrist. I became a baker; a used car salesman; a mailman.
I saw myself in jail, full of tattoos and scars. My knuckles bruised and battered. My teeth missing. I was there for assault. For murder. For insider trading. For a hit and run.
Every vein was a path, telling me my future. Dozens and dozens of them and I saw them clear as day, as if I was living them right there and then.
I saw myself in a canal in Venice, it was a clear night, stars smeared the sky. I was holding the hand of the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I was on one knee. Ring box in my pocket.
I saw her saying yes.
I saw her saying no.
She became he. And he said yes. He said no.
I was an environmental activist, protesting coal. Protesting low wages.
I was the police officer pushing them back as they tried to charge a world leaders summit.
I saw death. As an old man. A young man.
At once I was terrified and amazed.
I saw my entire life mapped out before me and hope bloomed in me like an autumn rose.
I stood up, amped for my future. For the possibilities.
Now I had one choice to make:
Which path do I take?