Monday, June 1, 2015

Story #1: "Checkered Shirt Past"

If you know me at all, you can probably attest to the fact that I am full of ideas of all kinds. Many of them are bad ideas, many more are at best benign, and a few of them are darned good ones. Time will tell whether this latest endeavor will have been a good idea or a month-long disaster. But here goes nothing. Starting today, I will attempt to write a brand-new short story each day for a month and publish it here on my blog. I don't know if I am up to the challenge or not, but I'm going to attempt it nonetheless. It's Day 1, so here is Story #1. I do hope that you enjoy it. But if you don't, please do your best to wipe it from your memory and I'll try again tomorrow to do better. Thanks,  JH

"Checkered Shirt Past"

  You may think you know me, but you don't. You only know the me that I let you see. I have a past. It's not as sordid as all that, so you may as well get your mind out of the gutter. But it's a past nonetheless, and since confession is good for the soul, let's just say I'm craving soul food today.

  I wasn't always the t-shirt-and-jeans-wearing guy that you know and tolerate me as today. No, my friend. I was once a card-carrying, suit-and-tie-wearing, corporate slave, climbing the ladder to success one backstabbing rung at a time. And I was no slouch at it, either. In the game of that life, I was winning and winning big.

  So…what happened? The inevitable question. In searching for a succinct answer, I can only offer this: It started with a checkered shirt.

  Solid-colored shirts, heavily starched and pressed, were the mark of a true team player in the corporate world, and I was the captain of that team for longer than you'd believe. But one day, I found myself in front of the clearance rack of the local big-box department store of all places, gazing in awe and wonder at an orange-and-blue checkered shirt.

  Sure, it was a designer label, perhaps the economy line, but by no means a no-name piece. But it was plaid. And not a jaunty, country-club plaid at that. This shirt was two rungs shy of grunge. And, as much as it pained me to admit it to myself, I wanted it. Badly.

  Like the proverbial fugitive, I furtively glanced first over my left shoulder, then over my right. No corporate types in sight, and especially not any of my coworkers. Why would they be shopping here anyway? (Why was I, for that matter?) I lifted the shirt from the circular rack, examined the price tag casually (shockingly low for its obvious quality), and folded it over my arm.

  I beat a hasty retreat to the nearest checkout counter, which just happened to be a self-service aisle. My credit card in hand, I promptly scanned the shirt, dropped it in the bag, tapped out the appropriate numbers on the keypad, and completed my purchase.

  Fortunately I'd parked illegally in the handicapped space, so my SUV was merely steps away from the store's entrance. I had gotten away with it. (In both cases.)

  The only question then was where to wear the surreptitiously acquired top. The obvious answer, to me at least, was church. I had attended the church of my youth as often as I could, and being in the field that I was, had no reasonable expectation that I would encounter anyone from my place of employment at the service. Which is, of course, exactly what I did encounter.

  The first person to greet me at the front door of the church, serving up a bulletin with a hearty smile, was the trash guy. In truth, he was probably called a janitor or some other less-demeaning title such as "facilities coordinator." But I knew him simply as the guy who dumped my wastebasket each morning. A quiet man with whom I'd exchanged only a few passing words in the five years of my employment.

  The "trash guy," as it turns out, was the head usher at my church, newly appointed so. He greeted me by name – the look of astonishment on my face must have been evident – and patted me on the back in genuine welcome. That he added "Nice shirt" to his greeting, merely as an afterthought, must have had no effect on him – at least not as great as it had on me.

  A genuinely nice man the trash guy may have been, but apparently – as seems to be the case with many "facilities coordinators" in my experience – he loved to talk. Word of my ingloriously non-corporate attire eventually made its way to my supervisor. 

  In the cutthroat world of business, one success can make you as easily as one mistake can break you. I was broken. Shattered is more like it. Within days, I was looking for another job, having unceremoniously been relieved of my hard-earned one. All because of a checkered shirt.

  You won't see me out in public wearing a checkered shirt these days. In truth, all but the most deeply discounted ones are beyond my ability to afford now. I wear t-shirts and jeans because frankly, they're cheap. 

  Life hasn't been the kindest to me of late, but one thing remains constant. I am happy. Happier than I've ever been, in fact. I am free from the pretentious, ruthless, win-at-all-costs slavery of corporate America. I am devoid of market-changing, world-altering responsibilities. I no longer have a demanding boss breathing down my neck to see if I am meeting up to his standards.

  I live a simple life now. I'm a trash guy – well, facilities coordinator, to be precise – at the state zoo. It's a thankless job, but I love every minute of it. Not every job affords one the opportunity to converse – albeit one-sidedly – with a red panda on their lunch break. Indeed, not many workers have experienced the joy of seeing not one, not two, but a hundred kids' faces light up with joy the first time they see an elephant.

  That one checkered shirt has made all the difference. The power of plaid has changed my life. And I don't regret it for a moment.

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