This story is a short story written for a creative writing course in 2005 that incorporates a personal experience from my childhood that was originally an anecdote written for my parents. Request permission to reprint through the contact page.
The walls of the basement were two-by-four framed but not yet covered with drywall. Dim light emanated from the single overhead bulb, and boxes were haphazardly piled along all four unfinished walls. I was sitting on the concrete floor, legs crossed, with an open cardboard box in front of me. There were several piles of mementos from my youth placed in an arc around my legs.
The phone rang. I startled at the sharp sound after having sat alone, in silence for most of the morning. I took a slow, deep cleansing breath to calm my increasing heart rate as I ignored the fourth ring and then the fifth. It stopped and I knew that the voice mail had connected. I sighed in relief. It could be checked later.
I stayed home sick today. Upset stomach, loss of appetite and diarrhea were my symptoms, but they weren’t the result of the flu. The current fiasco at work was the culprit. My stomach churned at the thought of work – dealing with that pompous ass in the cubicle next to mine. Gerald Mc – not Mac – Master, as he asserted when introducing himself, had only worked in Industrial Accounts at Integrity Insurance for a month, but he treated me as though I was inferior.
At first, I ignored his abrasive manner, like when he interrupted a meeting I was having with the representative from Allied Steel, one of our bigger accounts. He motioned me to the glass door of the boardroom with a dual flick of his upward cupped hand. Apologizing to the rep for the interruption, I excused myself. I was expecting whatever he wanted to be urgent since he’d interrupted a client meeting.
“Missy–” he began, before the door even closed behind me. He raised his arm and pushed aside his cuff with his middle finger exposing his expensive watch.
“It’s Melissa,” I interrupted, resisting the urge to roll my eyes. I tightened my lips to prevent myself from saying something I’d regret.
Pointing to his Rolex, he added, “I need the boardroom. I have a new potential client arriving in ten minutes. Your guy’s not going to bail.”
I forced myself to breath calmly, controlling every muscle in my face to maintain composure. “Allied Steel has been a client for six years because of – ”
“I’m not questioning your sales ability. I’m telling you I need the room.” Tapping his watch a few times with his index finger, he turned away, and strutted down the hall. He turned back and barked, “Ten minutes,” tapping his watch one last time as he rounded the corner.
Clenching my files to my chest, my knuckles were white as I compelled myself to smile at my client through the glass. I moved my client to my modest cubicle to finalize the policy updates, and Gerald occupied the boardroom with his client. Much as I wanted to defy him, I didn’t want to appear unprofessional to my client.
Entering Mr. Biggs office for a personal meeting later that day, I was unable to mask my disappointment at the sight of Gerald. I thought this was going to be a private meeting – one that signified personal advancement. As I was taking my seat, Mr. Biggs announced that we were to work on an account together. I dropped my coffee spilling it on the carpet. Trying to recover the mug, my agenda and files slipped from my grasp as well. Excusing myself, I began frantically soaking the coffee out of the carpet with half the box of tissue from Mr. Biggs’ desk. Gerald remained seated while I was crouched in a short skirt wanting to disappear. They began discussing the particulars despite my current position. Mr. Biggs was expecting us to work together to prepare a quote including, in detail, the specific policy rates and deductibles. Securing Mammoth as a client would be a profitable gain for Integrity. Finishing my posthaste cleaning, I slouched into my chair next to Gerald. He asked several inane questions, yet Mr. Biggs answered them like they were eureka moments. When I asked a question that wasn’t rudimentary sales protocol, Gerald coughed dryly as he leaned back in his chair.
“Oh, you’ll get the specifics in the file,” Mr. Biggs said, pushing his chair away from the desk and standing. Dumbfounded, I sat with my mouth hanging open like an idiot.
“We’ll get started on it as soon as we receive the file,” Gerald stated as he stood and reached across Mr. Biggs’ desk to shake his hand – like he was a client or a business associate – and Mr. Biggs grinned and nodded briefly at Gerald. They sauntered out of the office talking about Mr. Biggs’ upcoming weekend golf game while I stood there with a handful of coffee soaked tissues.
Wanting to spend as little time with Gerald as possible, I suggesting dividing responsibilities and meeting periodically to combine our results. To my relief, he agreed without argument. Unfortunately, our cubicles are side-by-side, so I couldn’t completely escape his presence. I’d be at my desk determining rates based on current statistics, and I’d become aware of him standing behind me.
“Hi,” I said as I glanced up at him.
He nodded, not looking away from my computer screen.
“You need something?” I added. Not answering, he continued to stand too close. I couldn’t turn around without his crotch being a couple of inches away from my face. “Are you done your analysis?” I added, in hopes of getting him to move away from me.
“Your premiums are too high,” he spat, lightly spraying my screen. “We won’t get the account with those figures,” he scoffed.
“These are fair rates based on the figures, and –”
“Lowball for the first year and raise the rates the next.”
“Lowballing with a corporation this size –”
“I won’t allow it. You’re going to have to change them.” He turned on his heel and returned to his desk on the other side of the cubicle divider before I could respond.
A few days later, with a knot in my gut, we met to combine our report. He argued his point. I argued mine. He pushed his leather portfolio away from him with a snort and a roll of the eyes and leaned back in his chair. As I stared at the figures on the page in front of me, he was tapping the end of his pen on the arm of his chair, wagging his head and scoffing every few second.
“I’m going to get a coffee,” I said.
“I take mine with milk, not cream, and one sugar,” he called to my back.
When I returned with the coffee, he was examining the figures on my papers that he had taken from my portfolio while I was in the staff kitchen. He didn’t even acknowledge my presence as he took his coffee from the table and took a sip. Mr. Biggs walked by us and Gerald sat back briskly and swivelled in his direction.
Gerald called out, “Hey, Mr. Biggs. I saw you on the news last night. Great promo, sir.”
Mr. Biggs, who had been perusing the front page of a not yet unfolded newspaper, stopped and turned to look at wide-eyed smiling Gerald.
“Oh, you saw that did you?” He cleared his throat and looked down briefly as he tapped the edge of the newspaper on the palm of his other hand. “I, uh, wasn’t expecting press at the fund raiser last night, so I was a little caught off guard,” he laughed with a hint of discomfort.
Standing, Gerald unbuttoned his suit jacket, stretching his mid-section while adjusting his belt and waistband. “Well, you sure can think on your feet, sir.”
“Well, thank you,” said Mr. Biggs as he slapped his rolled newspaper into his hand. “Working on the big quote, I see.”
Before I had a chance to say anything, Gerald said, “It’s all under control, sir. I won’t let the ‘mammoth’ get away.”
They laughed in perfect synchronization, like the canned laughter in a tv show. Mr. Biggs was already half into his office before his laughter diminished.
I had to go to a medical appointment that I had made months ago and wouldn’t be returning to work until the following morning, so I gathered my things and told him we could talk about the proposed quote tomorrow. I breathed deeply to ease my suffocation as I stepped onto the sidewalk from the rotating doors at the front of the building. At twenty eight years old, I was the most senior sales rep in this department. I was next in line for a promotion – or so I thought.
The next morning, Mr. Biggs stopped at Gerald’s desk and complimented him on acquiring the Mammoth account. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. We hadn’t agreed on the figures. We hadn’t yet met with the client. We were supposed to meet with them at the beginning of next week.
I was standing with a coffee in hand, and I could feel heat rising from my chest up to my face. Mr. Biggs hinted at giving Gerald a promotion if he kept doing ‘such good work.’ Unbelievable! He had stolen the account – and my portion of the commission – and he was being praised for it. Noticing me then as he walked away from Gerald, Mr. Biggs approached me. He placed his hand on my arm holding the coffee and leaned in to my ear.
“It’s understandable – under the circumstances – turning the account over to Gerald. Just let me know if the stress is too much for you in the future. Take care of yourself,” he added as he squeezed my elbow, and smiled at me like he was consoling a child.
Slamming my coffee onto my desk, spilling coffee on my papers, I stormed into Gerald’s cubicle. “The Mammoth account wasn’t just yours. How dare you go behind–”
“Chill Missy. You were going to make us lose the account. I did what I thought was best for I.I.”
His cell rang and he motioned me to be quiet with his hand as he answered it. “Hey, Brad. I’m glad you called,” he started. Then he walked away like we hadn’t even been talking.
The completed proposal was on his desk. I snatched it and skimmed the clauses. They were my figures. He used my figures to get the account.
Still in cross-legged position on my basement floor, I took another cleansing breath and then exhaled deeply. I decided to stop thinking about Gerald McMaster. I began picking through the yellowed, dog-eared photos in my lap. As a slight girl of six, I had wispy blonde hair cut in a bob and was smiling like my face was about to explode in every one of them. In each, I had two plastic barrettes in my hair placed an inch down on each side of my middle part keeping the hair out of my eyes. The barrettes were shaped like tied ribbons and were a different colour in every picture, sometimes even mismatched. I discovered a picture of myself with a baby chick cupped in my hands, smiling like it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was suddenly wistful for the farm on which I was raised.
Leaning over the box in front of me, I reached in and rummaged through the toys I had kept from my childhood. Under my teddy bear and my pink blankie, I felt something thin and plastic. Unsure what it was I pulled it out of the box. It was a simple plastic toy belt. I stared at the belt, wondering why it was in the box. It must have been mistakenly placed there. I couldn’t think of why I’d keep it. As I pulled the length of the belt through one hand and reflexively folded it in half, a recollection formed like a thickening mist. I smiled faintly as I remembered the rooster.
It was a Saturday in June, one of the first really warm days that felt like summer, at the end of my year in Kindergarten, that the rooster and I had our showdown. The day before I had been so angry at that cocky bird. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t care if he got eaten by a fox. It irritated me that he strutted around the corral all day like he’s the most important creature on the farm. His colourful tail feathers were usually spread like a fan. That afternoon, the rooster sauntered toward me where I was leaning on the second rung of the wooden rail fence. The fence surrounded the corral next to the barn. As he passed, he spread his chest a little higher. Following the rooster, one a little to his left and the other a little to his right, was a pair of Bante hens. Their fluffy white feathers were bouncing as they walked in rhythm with the rooster. Their necks jutted forward in unison with each step. I swear that rooster swung his coxcomb head away as he stopped to flick dirt in my direction with his scrawny chicken feet.
“Haah,” I yelled suddenly through the rail. The three chickens jumped because of my loud noise. They knocked into each other and fluttered their wings in an attempt to get away from it. A mess of wings and feathers poofed into the air, and I laughed at their discomposure. After getting over his shock, the rooster wheeled around pivoting on one claw and stared at me with his puny left eye, which he squeezed slightly as he watched me. All the while, his pointy tongue was jutting from his open beak as he stood motionless.
“Boo,” I yelled again. This time he only took a sidestep back. Then he lunged toward me with a single “squawk,” but he was still careful to stay out of my reach.
“Why don’t you come through the fence you ol’ chicken?” I said sticking out my tongue at him. “Scared, aren’t ya,” I called after him as he walked back to the barn.
That was just after I’d had a difficult time of getting the ducks down to the creek because of that vigilant rooster. The thing was that the ducks’ pen was inside the corral. I had to get past that nasty rooster to do my job!
The first time I did my job of opening the duck pen, I stood at the fence for a long time before I made my move. It was terribly exciting. I was on a mission to get the birds to the creek. I already knew that the rooster was going to attack me, but I had a plan. First, I stood at the fence in the spot that was the closest to the door of the pen. Just as I thought, the rooster bobbed over to make sure I was not going to enter his turf. I waited a long time for him to forget about me and wander to the other side of the corral. Once he was far enough away for me to get in and out without being attacked, I slipped through the second and third rail, ran to the pen door, unhooked the first large hook and then the second, and swung the door wide between me and the rooster that had just rounded the corner of the pen. I was able to scramble back to the fence out of reach. My heart was thumping in my chest as I caught my breath on the safe side of the fence. The ducks were slipping under the bottom rail in a crowd, honking loudly as they waddled in a rush to the creek, tripping and stumbling over each other as they proceeded. I looked back through the fence at the rooster who I thought would be staring at me meanly, but he had already turned away from the scene and was returning to the shade of the barn.
After my first success, I was sure that I could do this job, and I was looking forward to out-smarting that rooster again. The sky was clear blue and the sun was already beating down on this Saturday in mid-June as I stood at the rail waiting for the rooster to forget about me. He’d peck the ground and take a few steps, giving me a sidelong glance periodically, wandering further and further away as I waited. He was smarter than I first realized. Each day it took longer and longer. He’d glance a little longer and pause even longer between pecks as well.
Finally, he was at least halfway across the yard. In a flash, I shot through the fence and ran to the pen in my thin plastic slip-on sandals, side stepping cow patties in my path. I unlatched the first hook and began to unlatch the second when the rooster rounded the corner squawking fiercely. Flapping aggressively in my direction, he attacked me, painfully pecking at my legs and ankles. I screamed in terror as I ran back to the fence and dodging the rooster my left sandal landed right in the middle of a cow patty. Once safely on the other side, I burst into tears and cried all the way back to the house. I couldn’t stop crying as I told my mom what had happened. One thing was clear in my mind at that moment: I was never doing that job again. They couldn’t make me. I didn’t care what consequence they might give me and I told her so too.
She had me standing in the kitchen sink while she tended my wounds. She didn’t say anything while I cried, even after I was done telling her my story. The whole time, she was quiet. I watched the bubbling of the peroxide as she poured it on my cuts, and the stinging lessened.
I was sure I had convinced her that I shouldn’t have to do this job anymore. How could she want me to do it after what I’d been through?
“Come with me,” she said as she took my hand and led me out of the kitchen and into the den. As she began to look through my wooden toy box, she said, “I have an idea.” I wondered what she could possibly be looking for in my toys. “Here it is.” She pulled out a plastic toy belt and holster. I just looked at her. “I know you don’t want to go back in there, but you have to. You can’t let the rooster think he’s in charge. You need to show him who’s boss.” She paused. “You’re boss, and you need to show him.”
She was right – about me not wanting to go back in there– , but I also didn’t want to be scared of him anymore. I had to go back. She had me change into jeans and rubber boots to protect my legs. Then she removed the holster from the belt, folded the belt in half, and put it in my right hand.
“If he comes at you, you hit him,” she said forcefully. Then she opened the screen door, pushed my out onto the patio facing the corral, and shut the door behind me. I wasn’t sure about all this. I’d never hit anything before – on purpose – except a fly or a mosquito. And noone likes them anyway. I reluctantly shuffled across the yard to the corral.
I stepped into my usual spot and the rooster zipped over with a little extra attitude. He stayed close for awhile, clucking angrily. Then, gradually, he moved about ten steps away. I’d have enough time to get through the fence and get ready for his attack. I sucked in a large breath as I slipped through the rungs of the fence. Before I had both feet on the ground inside the corral, he was squawking madly and propelling his body in the direction of my legs. I stood ready, my heart beating fast. As soon as he was close enough, I swung at him and missed. I swung again more aggressively and connected. Thunk! He stumbled backwards. I was surprised to detect a look of fear on the rooster after he’d been struck. Then he ran at me again. When I swung this time, I was confident. He was afraid of me. Thunk! I connected again. He stumbled away still squawking as if relaying a high-pitched, crazed Morose Code message, but he stayed away from me while he examined me. The rooster started toward me again but moved slower this time, but all I had to do now was lift the belt while looking him in the eye and he’d back away.
I finished my job that day and every day after. Over time, I didn’t even have to hold the belt anymore. I wasn’t scared, and he knew it. In fact, he would actively maintain a three foot buffer of space between us at all times.
Still holding the folded belt in one hand, I began tapping it on my other hand rhythmically. After standing slowly, purposely, I whacked the box with the plastic belt, then tossed it in the box and bounded up the stairs two at a time. It was just before lunch. If I hurried, I could make it to work by one o’clock.