This is an attempt at very short fiction. I started thinking about this after writing the poem “Since the Incident.”
I spend my lunch hour listening to the trees. It takes me seven minutes and forty-two seconds to get from the twenty-sixth floor to the street and another three minutes and six seconds to get to the square. That leaves me thirty-eight minutes and twenty-four seconds in the lush quietness of the park because I have to save ten minutes and forty-eight seconds to return to my cubicle on the twenty-sixth floor. I am allowed exactly sixty minutes for a lunch break and the boss is a stickler for punctuality. My corporate job offers little freedom. I treasure every second I spend amongst the towering giants.
Today I follow the cement path for two minutes until I reach my favorite bench. The bench rests across from an ancient oak that touches the sky. I take my usual seat, close my eyes and take a deep breath. The air smells like fresh cut grass. My skin prickles in the cool breeze. It is warm and the park offers relief from the rest of the city’s overheated concrete.
The trees whisper and moan in the breeze. I open my eyes and tilt my head up to the canopy. The branches stretch out as if to join hands. I follow the flight of a grey-green leaf as it twirls to the ground. It falls to the path. The leaf rests only for a moment and then is scraped into a dustpan by the only other inhabitant of this quiet oasis, an old man, a caretaker. He silently shuffles from leaf to leaf filling his receptacle over and over.
We have never spoken, the old man and I. Most days, I politely smile as he passes. He has blue eyes that crinkle at the sides but it is not a kind face. His mouth is set in a grim serious line as he works. The old man works the entire time that I sit. He sweeps every day in silence with only the trees making conversation.
“Hello,” my voice surprises me. It sounds needy and timid. Embarrassed, I clear my throat and speak again, “How are you today?”
The old man pauses. He looks at me as if seeing me for the first time. “Would you really like to know?”
“Oh,” I say. His gruff question tickles me. I smile, “Yes, I would really like to know.”
Dragging his bin, the old man trundles to the bench. When he sits next to me, I get a whiff of body odor, dirt and Old Spice. His coveralls are stiff with grime. He removes his cap and runs a gnarled hand over his balding head. The old man looks straight ahead, “I’ve been seeing you a lot lately.”
“I come during lunch. I like listening to the trees.”
He grunts. I think he understands. He says nothing. The breeze picks up and the leaves chatter. The ancient oak groans. I sigh and fill my lungs with the scent of decaying leaves and old man. My phone beeps a warning. Fifteen minutes passed.
“What’s that?” He asks with a glance at my hand.
“I have to keep track of the time. It’s my lunch hour and my boss is crazy about punctuality. She fired this guy I work with last week for being nineteen seconds late. Nineteen seconds late. How crazy is that?”
“You know it’s not a thing, right?” The old man says.
“Time,” he turns to look at me know. His blue eyes burn white hot. I can’t hold his gaze. I look down and pick at my skirt.
“What do you mean it’s not a thing?”
The old man removes his cap again and swipes a hand over the wispy tufts on his head. “Time is an idea… like faith. Seconds, minutes, hours, years… arbitrary units created by men.”
The conversation pressures me to unlock my phone. I look at its screen. Seventeen minutes and thirty-nine seconds. In twelve minutes and twenty-one seconds, the phone will beep again. Half time. I unwrap my homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It is mushy. I take large bites trying to make the childish lunch disappear as quickly as possible. I cover my mouth with my hand as I chew. Through a mouthful of peanut butter, I ask, “Have you worked here a long time?”
“Depends on who you ask. If you ask my kids, they would say forever. If you ask that oak, she would say I just started.”
I gaze at the tree and wonder aloud, “How old is it?”
“I’d say somewhere around six hundred.”
“Years!” My voice sounds shrill in the peacefulness.
“That tree was here hundreds of years before the birth of this country.”
“But whose counting…” The old man smiles at me but the warmth doesn’t reach his cold blue eyes.
I ball the remnants of my lunch and walk to his trash bin. He has filled the can half full with dead leaves, twigs and bits of paper. I add my junk to the pile. My phone flashes twenty-two minutes and eight seconds.
“Are you so afraid of getting fired?” The old man notices me check the time.
“ I guess. I mean… we have sixty-minutes. I just want to make sure I get back on time. The boss is crazy.”
“Seems like the boss has made you crazy.”
His comment makes me tuck my phone under my arm. I sit back on the bench next to the old man. The trees say nothing. I feel the need to fill the emptiness, “One of the girls I work with killed herself.”
The old man is silent. The trees hiss and rattle and moan.
“I was there… during the incident. She came in late. Amanda. Her name was Amanda. The boss doesn’t tolerate lateness. She fired Amanda right there in front of everybody. Amanda was a mess. She tried to explain why she had come in late. The boss wouldn’t listen. Amanda begged. I mean, she got down and begged. Crying and begging right there, on the industrial carpet… in the middle of the office. We didn’t know what to do. None of us could believe it was happening but no one did anything. I guess we were all afraid. Like you said. Afraid of getting fired too. The boss pulled Amanda up and told her to get her things and leave. We thought that was the end of it but the next day… Amanda sent an e-mail. To everyone. A suicide note. We all believed it was a prank. But Dave, one of the guys at work, called Amanda’s house. Her roommate said she took a bunch of pills. Turns out Amanda’s mom is really sick and she was in a lot of debt because of medical bills. We didn’t know. Amanda never said anything. I didn’t really know her that well but she had friends in the office. I think she dated Dave at one point. And you would think something like that would make the boss ease up, right? I mean, a girl killed herself. But then last week a guy from accounting came back nineteen seconds late from lunch… nineteen seconds and he gets fired. How does that happen?”
My phone interrupts my story signaling the halfway mark of my lunch break. I make a mental note to give myself thirteen minutes to get back to my office, just in case. My stomach begins to twist into knots of fear. It happens everyday at the halfway point. I think about eating at my desk but the air on the twenty-sixth floor is so thick. I need to escape. I need to hear the trees.
“I love my job,” the old man says. “I spend every day in this beautiful place. It’s quiet… lonely sometimes, but I love these trees. They have been with me through the birth of my children, the death of my wife. They will be here long after I’m gone.”
“They are beautiful.”
“Do you love your job?” he turns his fierce blue gaze on me. Again, I cannot look directly at him.
“I don’t know. I’m good at my job. It’s a good job. It pays the bills.”
“But you have to count the seconds on your telephone…” he reaches a gnarled hand over and taps the back of my phone. I jerk away. I check the time reflexively. Thirty-three minutes and fifty-four seconds. I stand.
“Look, you don’t really know anything about me. I should head back.” I pause. “I enjoyed talking to you. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow?”
The old man shrugs. I look at my phone again. If I leave the park now and walk back, I will waste sixteen minutes and eighteen seconds. The thought of the heavy office air and the hum of fluorescent lights feels like an anchor around my neck. Leaves skitter at me feet. The trees cajole me as the breeze dances passed. I check my phone. Thirty-five minutes on the dot.
I sigh. “What should I do?”
The old man pats the bench and I slump next to him. “You will get old very quickly counting the minutes of every day,” he pauses. “What would happen if you lost your phone?”
“I would probably get fired.”
“What would happen if you got fired?” The old man’s question hovers. My stomach churns. I feel like I’m at the top of the first hill on a rollercoaster.
The trees whisper, “What would happen?”
He leans in close. The old man’s body odor is winning the war against the Old Spice. “How much time will you spend counting minutes?”
My phone says thirty-eight minutes and twenty-three seconds. It will beep again at forty-five minutes. I tuck the phone under my thigh. We sit in silence. The tiny hairs on my arm stand on end. Inside my chest a tiny bird flutters. Not counting the time it takes to get back, there are ten minutes and forty-nine seconds left of my lunch break. I resist the urge to double-check the time on my phone. “It didn’t seem like such a big deal in the beginning. Sixty minutes is a long time really. I could go to lunch with a couple of people from the office and always get back in plenty of time, as long as I didn’t lose track of time. After Amanda, you know… the time seems… well, shorter somehow.”
“Since my wife died everything seems to drag out. The days seem slower and the nights are endless. But if I start counting the minutes that I’m alive without her I’ll go crazy. I think about how time passes for the trees. A whole day for us must be just a minute in their lifetime.” The ancient oak groans its agreement, as the light breeze grows stronger. The rustling from the leaves becomes a frantic murmur. “I saw you listening to the trees… all those other days. I didn’t want to disturb you. “ The old man looked down at his hands. “I’ll let you spend the rest of you lunch hour in peace. Maybe the trees will say something useful today.”
The beeping from under my thigh signals forty-five minutes has passed. I have four minutes and twelve seconds left to listen to the trees. The old man reaches out his gnarled hand and gives mine a squeeze. He stands and gathers his broom, dustpan and garbage bin. Before he leaves, he flashes a sad smile that reaches his eyes. Once the broom and dustpan are deposited into the bin, the old man drags it farther down the path. The wind teases him, pushing leaves into the path. I watch the old man attack the sidewalk with his broom. One by one, he traps the leaves in the dustpan. The trees sigh.
My phone says it is time for my to make my trek to the office on the twenty-sixth floor. I have exactly ten minutes and forty-eight seconds to get back to my cubicle. The little bird in my chest is slamming up against my ribcage. I turn toward the old man and raise my hand but he doesn’t notice. Ten minutes, forty-six seconds. I am cutting it close. My feet beat staccato notes on the path. I try not to panic. The wind senses my fear and shoves me along. Leaves hail down, crashing into my face. I exit the park. The countdown on my phone says eight minutes and forty-six second. I freeze. Not enough time, two minutes and two seconds short.
“Oops,” I say aloud, causing a businessman passing by to glance at me. The trees in the park laugh behind my back. I stare at my phone as the time slips away. A giggling fit takes me and the well-dressed woman in close proximity by surprise. I suspect the boss isn’t going to be happy when I return to my cubicle on the twenty-sixth floor. I toss my phone in the next available trashcan. Walking back I take my time. The tiny bird in my chest sings along with the trees.