A short story in which one of the good ones come face to face with their moment of reckoning…
by: Chris Klassen
The light in the room was soft, comforting, and consistent with the paleness of the walls and ceiling and even the floor and furniture. Nothing to draw your attention in or to distract. The view through the lone window was a large flat snow-covered field. In the far distance was an inauspicious highway. No traffic sounds could travel this far.
Despite the serenity, when the door opened and Manager walked in, smiling as he was, William felt a brief bolt of anxiety and sighed and trembled slightly.
“It’s ok, William,” Manager began, sitting down on a small beige chair, “this is a pressure-free discussion, nothing more. You can be calm.”
“Thank you,” William replied. “I guess it’s natural to be a bit nervous.”
“It certainly is,” Manager agreed. “Do you need a moment to compose yourself? Would you like a glass of water?”
“No, thank you, let’s just begin.”
Manager said nothing at first, deep in thought. Then he began with, “You’ve been with us a long time, William. I’ve watched you grow and mature, have successes and make mistakes. I’ll be honest, there were a couple times when I wasn’t sure you were going to make it. But right from the start I recognized there was goodness in you, and the potential. Overall, I have to say you didn’t disappoint me much, certainly less than a lot of others.”
“Thank you. That makes me happy.” William noticed his breath had already slowed and he felt more peaceful than before.
“What would you like to say about your experiences here?” Manager asked. “Let’s begin with some of your thoughts.”
“Well, I guess I always tried to do my best,” William replied after a silent ruminating moment. He looked out the window briefly at the snowy field and its tranquility. “I always tried to get along with everyone, you know, to not be too antagonistic or impatient or selfish. That was always the most important part. When I could do this, it seemed other successes just naturally followed and it was best for everyone.”
“That’s an honorable sentiment, William,” Manager responded, “although I’m not sure if you’re being completely honest with me. Because it wasn’t necessarily like that in the early days, was it? Our conversation today has to be honest, William, otherwise there won’t be any benefit. Tell me about Laura.”
William blushed and felt his face get warm with sudden shame. “You know about that?”
“That was in the early days, you’re right,” William continued after a pause. “I was so young then, completely inexperienced and naïve. I thought I loved her but later I realized it was just lust. I used to leave cards and messages and gifts for her all the time until I heard her talking to a colleague and I knew it was about me. She said, and she was so obviously angry, “I wish he’d just leave me alone.” I never bought another gift and from then on I was cordial and pleasant and completely non-threatening. I guess today it would be considered harassment. But back then I didn’t know.”
“Did anything like that ever happened again?”
“Oh no, definitely not.”
“Then it was an enlightening experience for you and you learned from it. Is that fair to say?”
“I guess so. Do you still have her contact information? Maybe I can reach out and apologize?”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
“I understand.” William looked down at his hands, then glanced out the window again. A blackbird flew by.
“And what about the drug use, William. What would you like to say about that? I knew about it too, despite your best efforts to hide it.”
“You didn’t do anything to intervene?” William asked, more testily than he had intended. “That was a rough time. You could have helped.”
“You know my style, William. I’d rather observe from a distance. I wanted to let you figure things out for yourself because I knew you eventually would. Tell me what happened. You said you always tried to be unselfish, but that was a very selfish time for you.”
“I just wanted to fit in. Some of my friends were older and I knew they were doing drugs and so I asked if I could try. It started innocently enough, a smoke here and there on the weekends, then more frequently. Then I started going to parties and was introduced to harder and more dangerous…well you know what was going around at the time.”
“And how did it affect you during the day? How did it alter your behavior?”
“It made me mean sometimes. I remember yelling at people for no reason. I remember still being high one morning after a party the night before and being a bit violent and spreading lies the next day. Sometimes, I just felt so horrible. Physically and emotionally. But I wanted to fit in.” William stopped and swallowed. “Those were challenging days. But other friends confronted me, told me I was on a dangerous path, and fortunately I took them seriously. I needed a while to regroup but after some time I was able to confront the people I had upset and tell them how sorry I was. They may have forgiven me, I’m not sure. They said they did. Others were already gone so I never got the chance. That’s still upsetting.”
“The ones you talked to, they did forgive you,” Manager said. “Trust me. They were upset for some time, but they saw you were sincere and they did their best to not hold a grudge.”
“I’m glad to know that.”
“And what about things that made you feel good?” Manager asked, changing the direction of the conversation. “So far we’ve only talked about difficult experiences. What brought you joy here?”
William stayed silent, reflecting.
“Your hesitation alarms me, William,” Manager said. “Why is it taking you so long to answer this question?”
“Because mostly, when I think back, I think of what I did wrong and who I should have helped and who I betrayed and who I didn’t defend. Often I put my own wants or fears ahead of everyone else, even when I knew it was going to cause them grief.”
“I can’t argue with you,” Manager agreed. “You did do all that, you’re right. And it was disappointing to see. But let me suggest that you also learned from it all, that those mistakes helped make you who you are now. They gave you wisdom, which you have shared that wisdom with others. Am I correct? Without the bad you never would have developed the good.”
William nodded and looked outside. The whiteness of the snow was calming. The voice of Manager was calming too.
“So what brought you joy?” he asked again. When William remained silent, he continued. “Who was Kevin?”
“Kevin? I’m not sure.”
“Yes you are. Tell me.”
William took a moment, then replied, “He was a young guy when I met him, just out of college. Very personable and inquisitive. We got along well right from the start.”
“You were incredibly influential for him, you know.”
“I was? I knew he liked being with me. We had a lot of the same interests. I didn’t know I mattered to that extent.”
“Of course you didn’t know. You’re humble and a bit insecure. It wouldn’t have crossed your mind. Kevin idolized you. Whatever you liked, he became interested in. Whatever you tried, he tried too. He became a giving, loyal, and successful person because he didn’t want to let you down.” Manager stopped, continuing to gaze at William who looked back. “So I’ll ask again,” Manager said. “What brought you joy?”
“That brings me joy,” William replied softly after hesitating. “It didn’t bring me joy at the time but it does now.”
“I guess, in hindsight, once the tough times were over and the drugs were in the past and I became a little less selfish and a little more centred, the best times were just hanging out with friends, listening to them when they were down, laughing with them when they were up.”
“And, again in hindsight, how do you feel about your achievements in general? Did you use your time wisely?”
William thought. “Some of it, I guess, sure. I could have done more and tried harder but that’s true with every human. My achievements were as satisfactory or unsatisfactory as most everyone else.”
“You could have achieved more if you had tried harder, I agree,” Manager offered. “You were lazy sometimes, just wanting what was quick and easy. Not always, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes. But I also know you recognized this as you got older and your priorities changed. To be totally honest with you, I’ve been pleased with you the majority of the time, despite your shortcomings, which you’re allowed to have.”
“So the final inevitable question,” Manager said, “the one I ask in all exit interviews, is this. Looking back at your years of service, if you had the chance, what would you have done differently?”
William looked out the window again. It had started to snow lightly with big and fluffy Dickensian London flakes. He turned back to Manager’s inquisitive face looking at him seriously.
“That’s difficult to say,” William began. “I mean, everything that happened then led to how everything is now. If I cancel out a bad experience from years ago, maybe I cancel out the knowledge that came from it too. And if I’ve used that knowledge to assist someone and it helped them get through a tough situation, then I can’t wish the experience never happened.”
“A sound philosophical answer,” Manager agreed.
“But if I’m being totally honest, I would say I wish I’d put more effort towards finding something to love. There were so many opportunities around me all the time, many that I didn’t even know existed. I think I could have found them if I’d tried harder, if I’d asked for more assistance. Maybe I was more arrogant than I realized, trying to figure everything out on my own.”
“I think many opportunities were presented to you,” Manager suggested. “You just weren’t ready to hear them at the time. Not all of them anyway. But you have come far, no matter what. Years ago we couldn’t have even had this conversation.”
“Thank you, that may be true.”
“It is. Overall your time here has been positive. I am pleased.”
“Yes, honestly. You know my priorities and how I manage. I recognize the fallibilities of people and I can accept them as long as I see that an effort is being made to make those foibles temporary. Sometimes there is no effort, then I have to let those people go. The trajectory is never a straight line but if the direction over the years indicates overall improvement, then I’m happy. You’ve had your up’s and down’s, there’s no doubt, and you know it. But you’ve become, for the most part, decent and kind and successful and you were an asset to those around you. And so, I’m pleased.”
No one spoke for a few moments. William took a deep breath, feeling at ease. The snow was falling more steadily than before. Through the window, he noticed that the highway in the distance was no longer visible.
Manager, standing up, broke the silence. “Well, William, I think we can conclude our discussion. I hope you are pleased with it as I am. My time with you is done. You can take your time, gather your thoughts if you need, and go when you’re ready. I thank you.” Manager smiled and placed his hand on William’s shoulder, then turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.
“I’m pleased too,” William said quietly, noticing for the first time the softness of the pillow under his head and the warmth of the blankets that covered him. “I’m ready.” He crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes as his breathing began to slow.
Chris Klassen lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. After graduating from the University of Toronto and living for a year in France and England, he returned home and worked the majority of his career in print media. His stories have been published in numerous journals including Fleas on the Dog, Literally Stories, Vagabond City, Dark Winter, Ghost City Review, The Raven Review, The Coachella Review, Sortes, Toasted Cheese, and Mobius, among others.