A Pleasant Surprise

by: T.E. Cowell ((Header art by Simon Siwak.))

A melancholy view into the life of a man longing for the path of least resistance. When the appeal of giving up eclipses the ambition required to succeed…

In the morning Ted couldn’t get out of bed. He’d slept well enough and he wasn’t hungover, but his back was hurting in a way it had never hurt before. Each time that he tried to get up, and each attempt he made to roll over onto his side, the pain gripped him so fiercely that he had no choice but to return to lying on his back. Only there, on his back and lying still, was the pain bearable.   

Ted was thirty-four and had always thought of himself as being in decent shape. Sometimes his back hurt a little while he was at work, when lifting a particularly heavy package for instance, but the pain was always tolerable.

Ted was a delivery driver. He’d been a delivery driver for several years. Far too long by his estimate, but he didn’t know what else to do, so he mostly tried to suck it up and not complain. He’d look for other jobs from time to time, perusing the ads on Craigslist after he’d had a few beers, but none of the jobs he found seemed appealing. He figured he’d have to go back to college and finish his degree if he ever wanted to find a job he actually liked. But he didn’t feel as if he had the necessary motivation to go back to college, and besides, wasn’t he too old?      

Ted was supposed to go in to work on the day his back started acting up, but now he was sure it wouldn’t be possible, unless the pain miraculously disappeared within the next hour or so. He wasn’t sure what the time was, but he figured from the light outside his bedroom window that it was around seven-thirty.   

Ted’s phone was in the living room, on the couch where he’d left it the night before. He didn’t have a clock in his bedroom or an alarm clock of any kind. Ted always woke up around the same hour every morning no matter how he slept and he was ensconced in a routine whether he liked it or not.     

Attempting to get out of bed again, Ted tried to sit straight up like he was doing a sit-up instead of rolling over onto his side. He managed this fairly well. Now seated upright, he pushed with his hands against his bed until he had slid its full length, and his legs had fallen over the end of the bed and his feet were touching the floor. He then tried to stand up, finding to is relief that he was able to do so without trouble. While slowly attempting to turn his neck, the agonizing pain in his back immediately returned. As long as I don’t turn my neck, he thought, I can do this.

He had to relieve himself, so he took careful steps to the bathroom. After peeing he washed his hands and splashed warm water on his face. Ted examined his reflection in the mirror. His eyes were full of wonder, and also fear. What’s happening to me? Ted wondered. He figured he must have slept wrong, hoping it was as simple as that and that the pain would go away sooner rather than later. But a part of him hoped the pain never went away, that it stayed with him always. He imagined loafing around his cramped apartment for the rest of his days, living off of disability checks, and never having to work again.

Ted twisted his neck again and felt the pain in his back just as sharply as before. Now he was sure he wouldn’t be able to go to work. He left the bathroom and went into the kitchen, finding the time on the stove read 7:35 AM. He started making coffee, and as the coffee maker percolated he went over to the couch and picked up his phone. Before calling his supervisor, he twisted his neck one more time, just to be sure. 

Putting his phone to his ear, Ted dialed and heard ringing followed by his supervisor’s voice.


“Hi,” Ted said. “It’s Ted.”

“Hi, Ted.”

A moment of silence grew between them. His supervisor wasn’t big on talking. She was nice enough, just quiet, and frank.

“So I can’t come in today, unfortunately,” Ted said plainly.

“How come?”

“I hurt my back. Must’ve slept on it wrong. I can hardly move.”      

“Oh no,” Ted heard her say, and then he heard her let out her breath and he imagined her thinking about the day ahead, of who would cover his route, of whether or not she would need to call one of the subs to see if they could come in. Then she said, sounding disappointed and tired, “Okay, thanks for letting me know. Get some rest now. We need you over here.”

“Okay,” Ted said. “I plan to.”

After getting off the phone Ted instantly felt relieved. He almost felt happy, despite his back. He had the whole day ahead of him now. He could sit on the couch and take it easy. Maybe he’d finish the book he’d been reading. Maybe, he’d even try to write something new, or finish something he’d started months ago. Writing was something Ted did on the side, when he wasn’t working, when he had both the time and energy. He wrote short stories, mostly thinly-veiled fictional versions of a reality not too different from the reality Ted felt more or less locked in. Reading and writing was better, he figured, than watching television. It kept him thinking, kept his brain from turning to mush. That was the idea, anyway. A good number of his coworkers were always talking about some show or movie they’d recently seen on Netflix or Hulu, and whenever Ted listened in he felt as if he were surrounded by dim-witted juveniles.

When the coffee finished brewing Ted grabbed a mug and filled it from the pot. He raised the mug up to his face and inhaled, felt the warmth of the coffee on his cheeks. Then he went over to the couch and sat down. He set the mug on the coffee table next to him and positioned some throw pillows up against one of the couch’s armrests. Then, carefully so as not to feel the pain in his back, he backed up against the pillows and raised his feet, stretching out his legs over the remainder of the couch. He reached for his coffee, brought the mug slowly to his lips and took a sip. He looked out the window, at the slowly brightening sky and thought how nice it was to have a day off during the week. It was a pleasant surprise, a welcome break against the bland monotony of his life. Ted wondered how long it would take for his back to heal, and wondered if it would still hurt the same tomorrow as it did now. He hoped it would. He thought again of loafing around his apartment all day and living off what the government sent him each month. It didn’t seem like a bad life to Ted. Compared to the life he’d been living, it didn’t seem bad at all.

Ted twisted his neck one more time, just to make sure the pain in his back was still there. Then, satisfied, he sipped his coffee some more before looking back out the window.

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