All Stories, General Fiction

Running Errands by Nathan Willis

We saw it coming the whole time. Chase was a nice enough guy; he just wasn’t cut out for this line of work. We watched him fail over and over, everyday. For a while we tried to help but there were just too many mistakes and most of them were pretty big. It would have been a full time job minimizing the damage he caused. When he had to answer to Fisher in the morning meetings he’d stammer out fragments of explanations he hoped one of us would jump in and finish. None of us ever did. We couldn’t. We were as blown away by his mistakes as everyone else. All we could do was look at our shoes and hope he wouldn’t cry again. That only happened a few times but that was enough for all of us.

I was the only one there the night Fisher and a couple other guys from management called Chase into the office. I wanted to stay and find out what it was all about but I was in a hurry. I still had to stop at the grocery store for artichoke hearts, portabella mushrooms, cream cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and cilantro to surprise Lilly with her favorite dinner.

When I got home, Lilly was upstairs painting. This has been going on for a week or so ever since she gave up calligraphy. She tried to describe the picture she was painting but I told her I’d have to see the finished product to understand. For the first couple days she would call me in and say, “Now do you see it?” I didn’t. I wouldn’t be able to see it until she was done. I didn’t have her capacity for projection and foresight.

She said it was a whim when she signed up for calligraphy classes at the library but if it was a whim, it was a pretty serious one. Every night she would practice for hours, filling notebook after notebook with the alphabet and eventually short words and sentences. Once in a while she would ask how I thought she was doing. If I said she was doing well she got upset and told me to stop humoring her. She knew she still had a long way to go.

A month or so later she wrote a letter to someone back home who did calligraphy. After that she checked the mail everyday. Three weeks later she finally got a reply and the pens, inks, notebooks and parchment went in the trash. Now we’re on to painting.

I took up woodworking during the calligraphy days. I enjoy it because I have no idea what I’m doing. I can’t get halfway into a project without realizing I’ve overlooked some major detail and need to head to the hardware store. I spend half the weekend in the garage pretending to know what I’m doing and the other half at the store telling the employees about my projects. It’s a good balance.

Fisher said there was to be no discussion about Chase or the circumstances surrounding his departure. That meant no discussions amongst us or any other employees. If asked, and we would be, we were to say he was no longer with us and move on like he was never there.

The weekend after they got rid of him I started making a shelf for the laundry room. Lilly had been asking for one since we moved in. It was time.

I was in the garage taking measurements and having a few beers when I caught myself thinking about Chase and his wife. It was no secret he stayed at the office as long as he could because he didn’t like going home. He talked about how much he loved her all the time; he just didn’t like being at home. There were a couple times I offered to stay and finish his work. He always said no.

Once, when we were the last people in the office we ran into each other in the men’s room. I asked him flat out if it was true that he stayed here to avoid his wife. He leaned in, draped his arms over my shoulders and began to sob. I stuffed a couple of paper towels in his hand, shut him in a stall and said to stay in there until he got himself together. Everything was going to be fine.

I finished a few projects I had been putting off waiting for him to come back out but he never did. I went by the bathroom on my way out and could still hear him in there crying. The next day he acted like nothing had happened. He was once again ready for whatever Fisher could throw at him.

That’s what they didn’t understand before they let him go. Chase didn’t have much in the way of ambition. He just wanted to stay busy. He would have emptied trash, filed paperwork or even scrubbed floors. They didn’t have to fire him. They just had to find something else for him to do. Sooner or later they would have found something he was good at.

There is no part of Lilly’s canvas that’s not covered with pastel geometric shapes and she says she’s nowhere near being done. I can’t tell if she’s making effective use of the space or just wasting paint. I’m not about to say a word. I never have any idea what her intentions are. I just ask how it’s going and it’s always going well so I tell her I’m heading to the hardware store if she wants anything. Just wine and whatever I want for dinner.

The guy working the paint shaker machine had something going on with his eyes. One of them was three shades lighter than the other. I did my best to look at both for as long as I could then pretended to get a call on my phone.

“Chase? How are you? Hang on a second.”

I apologized to the paint machine clerk and told him I’d be right back.

“That,” I said into the phone as I walked up and down aisles while my paint finished mixing, “Is what you should have done at work. You’d still have a job if you had lied to us. When you didn’t have an answer you should have said everything was going to be fine. You had it handled. It was all part of a bigger plan and we had to be patient.”

While we waited for the frozen pizza to cook, Lilly wanted me to have another look at her painting. She had added blurry white blotches that looked like flower petals, or maybe a windmill.

“What do you think?”

“I love it. Are you almost done?” I don’t know why I’m so anxious for her to finish.

“Why? Does it look done?”

“It’s done when you say it’s done.” We’ve had this conversation too many times. I was always reminding her that it was only done when she decided it was done. What I did was different. I set out to make a table and it was done when there were four legs and a tabletop. I set out to make a picture frame and it was done when you could put a picture in it. At work I calculate numbers until I arrive at a concrete solution beyond adjustment or modification. I send emails with data, directives and timelines. Everything I do has a definitive end.

That night we fell asleep on the couch watching a movie neither of us liked. We took the morning in over a breakfast of bacon, eggs, coffee and orange juice and found out we’d each had bad dreams. Lilly’s was about an apocalyptic future. Mine was about a mysterious tree dying in the middle of a town. All the townspeople were trying to save it with strange, unconventional methods. I was the only one who knew their efforts were in vain but didn’t have the heart to say anything. The outcome was inevitable and in the end I mourned with everyone else like I didn’t know any better.

All that was left to do was nail the pieces together, paint it and attach it to the wall with brackets. I didn’t have anything to secure the wood so I would have to hold the pieces together and pound the nails at the same time. The first nail didn’t go in quite right so I drilled a tiny guide hole and tried again. It worked like a charm. Twenty minutes later the whole thing was nailed together tight and I was applying the first coat of paint. I had a few beers while I waited for it to dry. Once I had a few coats done I called Lilly out to have a look.

Lilly said it was exactly what she wanted. And the timing was perfect. She was almost done with her painting. I grabbed a beer and went upstairs to see.

She had painted a long gray figure stretched across the canvas. She had written a column of white calligraphy within the figure. She told me not to read it but did I like it?

I did and I couldn’t wait to see it on a wall but first I needed to go get brackets and I was probably going to pick up more beer while I was out if she wanted anything. She did, just wine and something for dinner.

I stood before the bins of brackets trying to decide what was appropriate. I grabbed three six-inch L brackets. On my way out I passed a guy from the hardware department and asked him if they would be strong enough. He took a bracket and tried to bend it against the concrete floor.

“How much weight does it need to hold?”

“Twenty pounds maybe.”

He laughed. “You’re fine. You would need a lot more than that and a blowtorch to bend one of these.”

That’s all I needed to hear. I paid and drove to the grocery store where I sat in the car and took a few deep breaths while the painting beers caught up to me.

I wasn’t fifty feet inside when I saw him out of the corner of my eye. If I had gotten there ten seconds earlier we would have missed each other completely. It was Chase and his glaring wife. He didn’t have the common courtesy to pretend he didn’t see me. He walked right over, shook my hand, said hello and there was silence. His wife was watching. He was only half there.

I asked how he was. He said he wasn’t going to lie. He was miserable. He had no idea why they let him go. He was never given a reason.

I backed away to hide the alcohol on my breath. I don’t think he had noticed but I got the feeling that somehow his wife did even from the end of the aisle.

He told me he had applied for a job at ProCom. A position like the one he lost, and he hadn’t heard anything back yet. It had been almost two weeks and he was so miserable.

I told him I knew someone at ProCom. I would put in a good word and make sure his resume was reviewed. I asked if he had a card with his contact information. He started to stammer. I pulled out a pen and took his email and phone number down on the back of one of my business cards. I told him these things have a way of working out for the best. It’s all part of a bigger plan and he should just be patient. We shook hands and parted ways. I waved to his wife. She didn’t wave back.

I picked up the beer, wine, asparagus, peppers, rice, ground beef and cheese. I was all over the store and I didn’t see them again.

Lilly wanted to know if his wife was pretty. I said she probably had been at one point but not now. She asked me what Chase had said and I told her he said he was miserable over and over until I broke and said I would help him get a job at ProCom. Before she could ask if I really meant it, I asked about the painting. She had finished while I was at the store, then had a revelation and tore the canvas to pieces. It was in a trash bag in the garage with all of her art supplies. It wasn’t something that she wanted to talk about.

We spent the next hour and a half talking and laughing and drinking and making dinner.

The next day I carried the shelf to the laundry room, eyeballed where the screws should go and somehow got it right. With the exception of the industrial brackets the whole thing was just as I imagined it would be when we moved in almost a year ago.

We loaded it up with everything we wanted to get out of the way. There wasn’t nearly as much as we had thought. It’s strong as hell and probably holds five pounds at most. It will never break. That’s the definitive end.

That night I snuck out to the garage and opened the bag with her canvas. I was afraid that if she caught me I’d get the same glare I got from Chase’s wife.

I opened the bag enough to read the white calligraphy. I know who the shadowy figure is. I know who she sent the letter to. I know why she ripped it up before I could see it. She did that for me. And I know why she threw away the ink and pens and parchment. That was for her.

Next weekend I’m going to buy a couple sawhorses and a vise. After that I’ll be able to make almost anything and make it the right way. At least that’s what I think now. I’m sure I’ll find out otherwise once I start whatever’s next.

There’s another guy at work like Chase. No one can stand him. He scares people. He’s seven feet tall, lanky, has big teeth, talks loud and wears thick, round glasses that make his eyes look like ping pong balls. He moves faster than expected for a man his of size and age.

They created a position to keep him separated from everyone else. I hear he does well. He spends most of his time seeking out members of management to corner and trumpet on about his successes.

I ran into him one night when I was leaving. I tried to get out before he saw me but as I hit the stairwell he yelled, “Hey, you’ll never guess who I ran into the other day.”

My stomach boiled with a deep-rooted dread that everything is connected in all ways dismal and ironic. “Who?”

“Chase.” He bellowed, chest all puffed out. His eyes and mouth grew wide.

I felt myself deflate. There was an odd retraction in my abdomen. “How’s he doing?”

“He said he’s going into business for himself!” The abominable man looked at me with his big eyes and a gaping smile, waiting. “I guess that means he hasn’t found a job yet.” He let out a loud nightmare laugh.

“That’s a shame.” I said.

He didn’t move. He thought I was delivering the set up for a joke.

“I have to go to the bathroom.” I prayed he wouldn’t follow. I hit the door, found a stall, shut the door and threw up.

Susan Paren, that’s who I’ll say I talked to at ProCom. That wasn’t transparent was it? He would say he’s never heard of her. I would tell him I wasn’t surprised. She’s pretty high up and was hard to get a hold of.

Someone came into the bathroom. I turned to sit on the toilet and dropped my clipboard, sending my papers across the tiled floor.

Whoever came in cleared their throat and pushed one of the papers back under the stall with a dark leather shoe. It was Fisher. “You okay in there?”

“I’m fine.” My voice cracked and I heaved like I was going to throw up again.

“Alright. Just stay in there until you get yourself together.”

I shut my eyes, listened to Fisher leave and formulated the design for a bookshelf. I stayed there until I had every detail worked out.

I opened the stall and stooped to gather the rest of my papers, casting a shadow across the pastel tiles of the bathroom floor. My papers were spread like flower petals, or maybe a windmill. My solutions, directives and timelines were only fragments. Now, I see. I see the whole thing. I see the white calligraphy in the mirror. It says Lilly will be gone soon.

When I step outside, Fisher will be waiting for me. He’ll tell me there are some people here from management. They want to have a word with me in the office about my definitive end.


Nathan Willis

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4 thoughts on “Running Errands by Nathan Willis”

  1. Ooooh I had to think while reading this; and me without my glasses. Breakneck pace yet there remains excellent character development. I know people like the ones in your story. Maybe I am like one of them. Since you seem willing to listen, let me tell you my tale of whoa…two weeks without a word from LS if my latest work of genius…I think I have over shared. Fine work.
    Regards, Leila Allison


  2. Hi Nathan,
    There is a lot of perception and observation in this story. It doesn’t matter if we hate our work as we always worry. Whether this is simply about our job security or fitting in, it can give us some interesting subject matter.
    A very skillful and enjoyable piece of writing.


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