Olivia Folmar Ard

Short Stories & Poetry

January 13, 2016 was important for me. On that day, I, for the first time in my life, began taking a creative writing workshop class. Several of my friends, family members, and readers were surprised to learn this. Many of them said, “But you’ve already written two books! Don’t you already know how to write creatively?” 

Well, yes and no. Yes, I am now quite comfortable with my abilities as a full-length fiction writer, but I would not (and probably will never) call myself an expert. There is always something new to learn, and I am an eager lifelong student.  

The course I took focused mostly on short fiction and poetry, two forms that legitimately terrified me. While I’ve always enjoyed reading short stories and poems, I have not been inspired to write either in several years. I was skeptical about what I would be able to produce for the class, but nevertheless I soldiered on.  

The results of our various writing exercises, discussions, and assignments comprise most of what you will find in this short, sweet read. Despite my initial misgivings, I was pleasantly surprised with the work I produced over those four short months, and after a few more rounds of editing, I have decided to share them with you.  

I must warn you, these are nothing like the work I’ve shared before. If you’re looking for a companion piece to my novels, you will not find it here. But if you’re interested in traveling with me as we take short, compelling glimpses into the lives of those on the margins, you will enjoy reading this quick foray as much as I did writing it.

 

But the Benefits are Great

Somehow on that muggy April morning, my humors were out of balance. My usual melancholic disposition was temporarily buried beneath a burst of the sanguine, and I managed to push past the day’s ill omens to find the scant silver linings. So what if I caused a fender bender outside a sketchy used car dealership? So what if my GPS pretended to know where we were going, only to dump me on the side of a four-lane highway like an unwanted infant? Sometimes bad things could be good luck, like rain on a wedding day.   

That was a thing, wasn’t it? It rained on my wedding day, and despite that, everything seemed to have turned out well enough in the marriage department. Surely today would be no different. I was even wearing the same shoes I got married in—small yellow ballet flats with little leather roses dotted like a garnish along the rounded end. They seemed to relish in threatening to pinch my toes off, but I didn’t mind. The numbness in my feet worked for me that morning. After the fender bender, it helped pull my attention from the slight headache pulsing behind my ears and the pain radiating from my sternum, which had not yet begun to show a visible bruise from its tangle with the seatbelt.  

Sure, I was in pain, but I was okay. My car was a little junkier than it had been an hour before, but it was still drivable, and the other car wasn’t damaged at all. It would all be worth it if I could just get this job. I needed this job more than anything.  

Since my GPS had decided to be worthless, I pulled my thoughts apart frantically in search of the landmark directions the HR recruiter had given me over the phone the day before, when she’d called to invite me to the interview. The directions I’d only halfway paid attention to, because I didn’t need them, because I had a GPS. Those fifteen minutes were harrowing, but after a few wrong turns and near-misses, I finally found the corporate drive.   

But it wasn’t a corporate drive at all. Instead, it was barely more than a paved trail branching suddenly off the main highway, as if the two had once had an argument that just couldn’t be resolved. The path almost immediately narrowed and steepened and I swallowed nervously, but my dinky little car seemed up to the challenge, despite the close call we had earlier. The engine grunted and shifted to a lower gear without being told as the path began a winding ascent up the side of a small, previously unnoticed mountainside. Instead of the paved sidewalks and high rises I’d been expecting after looking at the address, towering trees flank both sides of the road like sentinels, never shifting in their soft shoes of browned pine needles and the silent, curved bodies of snakes nestled beneath.  

The parking lot appeared around me, snagging me out of the ear-popping daze, and the heaviness in my chest lightened when I saw that the very first parking spot was empty. At least I had one thing going for me.   

Despite the layers of faded tar slashed over with lines of bright red and green paint, the space seemed natural, somehow, like it had been carved into the ground by the hands of nature and time instead of carefully planned by a construction committee. Sunlight spangled out from oak leaves covered in dew drops, and clouds the size of continents soared overhead in an unviolated sky.  

I reluctantly left my mangled car behind with the promise that, should the interview go well, I would have its wrinkled bumper fixed soon, and struck out across the pavement. I covered several yards of ground before I paused to take stock of my surroundings. I could see the building ahead, slivers of sparkle framed between the waving branches of trees, but there didn’t seem to be a direct path leading from the parking lot to there. After a minute of searching, I found the footpaths paved with flattened stones scattered throughout the medians, half-covered by shadows and dead parts of trees. The stones shifted and groaned beneath my feet, sinking ever so slightly into the damp, rich soil they shielded me from.  

Before I reached the building, I came across a pond that I was almost completely sure was man-made. Like the parking lot, though, it somehow seemed to belong there. Bright orange, white, and black fish the size of steaks flitted carelessly beneath the surface of the deceptively clear water, circling an iron-wrought fountain composed of their own graven images, giant steel fish that regurgitated pond water in a hypnotic, predicable arc. The strange sudden urge to hum the chorus of “Hotel California” overwhelmed me.  

I shook my head and forced my attention to the building in front of me, to the place I would soon be working if everything went well with the interview. Although I knew this could not really be the case, everything appeared to be made of glass. The building straddled the pond casually, like a willow tree, and the angles were shockingly random and precise; startling, yet somehow exactly what I was expecting. My thoughts raced back several years to my eleventh grade literature class, when I was forced to shuffle through all seven hundred and freaking twenty pages of The Fountainhead. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Howard Roark was the one who designed this building, fictional character or no.   

Through the many windows and glassed-in hallways, people dressed in power suits scurried by like worker ants with nothing on their backs but the invisible weight of unanswered e-mails and unfulfilled daily quotes. They shimmered like heat off moistened pavement, and their slow methodical rhythm beckoned me to join them, to become part of their world.   

My phone buzzed inside my pocket—a text of encouragement from Mom—and I remembered that someone named Nancy was waiting for me just inside. With a pang of anxiety, I pushed myself forward to the entrance. The stairs leading up to the main doors were plain wood slathered in gray paint, not unlike a boardwalk at a lakeside summer camp. The doors were glass and appeared to be as fragile as an eggshell, but in reality they were heavy and difficult to push open.   

I found myself in the midst of a thickly carpeted hallway with no clear indication of where I was supposed to go. My teeth worried the edge of my bottom lip as I walked a few steps first in one direction, then the other. Just as I was about to give up and retreat back to the parking lot, a phone rang off to my left. Relieved, I followed the trail of noises and came upon a reception desk manned by a pretty young woman with hair the color of a hazelnut.   

“Can I help you?” Her voice was perky, like a caffeinated cheerleader’s, but her eyes betrayed her true boredom.   

“I’m here for a job interview?”   

I squeezed my eyes shut, momentarily chastising myself for phrasing this statement as a question. It just made me sound weak and uncertain. It was the kind of thing that made me think the interview would not go well.  

An awkward silence passed before the receptionist cleared her throat and asked, “Who are you meeting with in HR?”  

“Nancy.” No question mark. No hesitation. I was right about this. Nancy.  

“There’s no Nancy in HR.” 

Well, crap. “There’s not?” 

“Do you mean Francine?” 

I didn’t know. Did I mean Francine? But I nodded with artificial certainty and replied, “Francine. Yes. That’s what I meant.”  

With a sigh, she rose and motioned for me to follow her. We rounded the corner and she deposited me in a room filled with just comfortable enough furniture and a few stacks of old magazines. Giant canvases of photographs hung on the walls, depicting poison tree frogs and rainforests and the baby of someone who supposedly worked there. In the picture, the baby wore a frilly bonnet, the kind I thought fell out of fashion in the nineties, and there was a mixture of saliva and melted candy smeared across her one-toothed grin.  

Something in the corner caught my eye, and I nearly screamed out loud before I realized that the coiled rattlesnake in the corner was not real. Well, was not alive, at any rate. As my stomach sank in nauseated, twisted relief and unnecessary adrenaline pumped rhythmically into my blood, I couldn’t help but wonder who would ever think that using a stuffed snake carcass as decoration was a good idea.   

 

The actual interview passed in a blur, an assortment of typing tests and pleasantries and handshakes and leading questions that left me exhausted and disoriented. Keywords like “flexible hours” and “great health insurance” floated around in my brain like soap bubbles, reminders of why I really did want this job that would force me to buy a new wardrobe and spend roughly ten hours a week on strange, congested highways.  

Marilyn was the one who interviewed me, and eventually the one who called to offer me a job. She seemed fidgety and awkward, but sweet. I liked her almost instantly because she had a Storm Trooper bobble head front and center on her desk. She liked me almost instantly because I had “proficient in the Spanish language” typed in bold on my résumé. It was kismet.   

I felt like I was floating while I scrambled for a pen and started scribbling down the details, the things my husband would ask me for when I called him with the news.   

First day will be next Monday. Pay will be $13.50 an hour. Full benefits—family health and dental, life, retirement, accidental death and dismemberment. Shifts are 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. until training is complete; after that, can work choice of time between 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. to get in forty hours. Attire is business casual. Bring two forms of ID and license plate number.  

After we worked out the particulars and I formally accepted the position, I dropped the phone with shaking hands and covered my mouth, trying hard to process the truth of what had just happened. No more wearing disgusting black polyester uniforms. No more sticky soda residue or melted ice cream yuck gluing my wedding ring to my finger. No more rude customers talking to me like I was stupid and disrespecting my personal space. Hello, cubicle. Hello, business casual. Hello, benefits.   

 

For the first time in my working life, I did not have to work Labor Day weekend. I wasn’t sure that I liked it. It was nice to have a day off, but all I could think about was the work piling up on my work computer, coming in from our offices in countries who don’t consider labor something to celebrate. 

Crystal, my cousin’s new girlfriend, took a few hesitant steps in my direction, dipping her fork in a pile of coleslaw as she eyed me speculatively. “So, Violetta,” she said in a faux casual manner, pretending to come up with the question on the spot, “are you still in school?” 

“Oh, no,” I said, straightening a little as I remembered I was proud of that fact. “I graduated last December. I’m working now.”  

When I gave her the name of the company, she nodded slowly and twirled her fork through a piece of pulled pork. “I’ve heard of them, I think. What do they do?”  

I forced out a chuckle. “A little of everything, really. They own real estate developments and companies that manufacture hunting and fishing equipment, but mainly they deal in subscription services, which is the division I’m in. Like, managing institutional subscriptions for hospitals and libraries and universities . . .” I trailed off when I took in her blank stare and cleared my throat. “Like, if these places subscribe to a lot of journals and magazines—say, five hundred or more—they’ll pay us to order the subscriptions for them and deal with handling stuff like missing issues or updating information, so they don’t have to pay someone on staff to do all that.”  

“So.” She frowned, and I could see by the way she looked past me into the next room that she regretted starting this conversation. That she wanted a way out. “So, what do you do, exactly?”  

“Um, a lot of stuff. Database coding, internet research, data analysis . . .” Her eyes appeared even more glazed over than before, so I sighed and switched over to the simplified response. “It’s a little difficult to explain.”  

“Do you like it?”  

Did I like it? I nearly laughed out loud. What did liking it have to do with anything?   

“It’s a little boring, and a little lonely, but it’s a good job,” I finally said. “The benefits are great, you know? Good health insurance, flexible hours, and they match up to ten percent on retirement.” 

Her mouth dropped open. “Ten percent? That’s amazing! You’d better stay there forever.” 

“I just might have to,” I said with a thin-lipped smile.  

 

Everything started to go downhill when Marilyn tried to frame me for wearing jeans without donating to the charity. Somehow Janine forgot to put me down on the list of people who had paid for the privilege of trading denim for polycotton blend all in the name of women’s health issues. Normal people, I thought, would have given someone like me, someone who never said no when it came to overtime and extra work, the benefit of the doubt.   

But Marilyn wasn’t normal. Instead, she sent me a three-paragraph-long diatribe while I was out for vacation, explaining how my alleged actions threatened the rest of the group. Because of people like me who gamed the system and didn’t play by the rules, she said, we might lose the privilege of having the opportunity to pay to wear the clothes we already owned for a charity that, let’s face it, most of us didn’t care about. Sure. That made sense.   

Then, the layoffs came. Our department would gather for widespread meetings where our assistant supervisors and supervisors and department directors and division heads would assure us our jobs were safe as could be, and then two weeks later another round of cubicles mysteriously emptied. Then, Marilyn wasn’t really the boss anymore.  

They shuffled us from this cubicle to that, from one floor to another, and they took away the flexible hours in exchange for a schedule contract we had to fill out and sign. It was decided that because I knew Spanish, I should handle the German and Dutch and Portuguese accounts singlehandedly while the normal person took vacation. I wasn’t allowed to use my pain relieving salve after I returned unhealed from an oral surgery because the smell bothered an unnamed person.  

They started watching us. They spied on us to track how long we were in the bathroom, and how many times per day. They installed a camera in the lunchroom to see how long we sat there. They made us swipe a card whenever we left our wing of the building.  

They told us at our weekly meetings how far we were falling behind, how short-handed we were, and yet the cubicles around me kept fading into emptiness. The nameplates kept changing, until finally I stopped bothering trying to learn them at all. 

 

The next straw would be the last. I could feel it in my bones. If I received one more passive-aggressive e-mail, I would march right into the office of whoever sent it and scream. Who did these people think they were, anyway? They just kept piling more work on me, request after request and responsibility after responsibility, while the catty freeloaders in the cubicles around me talked about nothing all freaking day and never got punished. How was any of this fair? How long was I expected to sit here and take this?  

Everyone there was so fake. It took me a while to understand this, nearly a year, but now I saw it clear as day. They all seemed so easy, so natural, smiling at me like we were the best of friends while secretly plotting to take me down. Lacey didn’t hesitate to throw people under the bus to save her own skin. Miranda pretended not to understand how to do things until her supervisor got frustrated and passed the work off to me instead. Tammy liked to collect secrets like tokens and cash them in when she needed a favor, spilling everyone else’s dirty laundry neatly inside the boss’s office.  

I didn’t have friends here anymore, and I didn’t want them. I just wanted to get out. 

I snuck my phone out of my pocket and typed out a quick “illegal” text to my husband, because apparently possessing cell phones was now a firing offense, even though we were already short-staffed:  

If I could walk out of here right now, I would. I swear I would. I would throw everything I own in a box and walk out without saying a damn word. I’m so miserable here, baby. I can’t trust anyone anymore. I’m going crazy.  

My phone buzzed back before I could shove it in my pocket, and I stole another glance at it, even though I know what it’s going to say.  

I know, honey, and I wish you could quit today. Maybe something better will come along soon. But for now, you know . . .   

I sighed, hanging my head dejectedly, and pressed the power button. “I know, I know,” I whispered to myself. But the benefits are great.