2016 Word by Word Short Fiction Contest
In only a few pages, “Incident at the Office” manages to pack a sizeable punch, balancing the tension of a threatening moment with a complex father-daughter relationship and a teenager’s concern about appearances. The writer’s inventive, descriptive language and deft changes of pace combine to surprise and satisfy the reader.
~ final judge, Hilary McMahon, Westwood Creative Artists
Incident at the Office
~ Dorothy Sjoholm
He stands in the doorway, leaning against the jamb – feet on one side, outstretched arm supporting his weight. Diagonal. Blocking my exit.
“Well, I haven’t seen you before,” he says, eyes drifting over the cleaning supplies, the bucket, the sponges that I hold. His gaze inches up my body, reaching, at last, my face. “There’s usually a man who cleans my office,” he says. “Tall, skinny guy. Talks my ear off. ”
“My father,” I murmur, lowering my head, avoiding eye contact. “Excuse me,” I say, moving toward the doorway. He doesn’t move. I stand there, wondering how to manoeuvre my exit.
“He’s your father?” he says. “Well, well, well. Quelle surprise! Tell your father he has a very attractive daughter. A very lovely, young daughter. Doesn’t he worry about you here? All on your own?” He runs his finger up my arm. I step back. His body language matches his words: insolent, arrogant, like his casual, expensive clothes. The threat of a red cashmere sweater.
I look him full in the face. Intentional. I force my eyes to rest, cool as a knife on his middle-age. Rounded and soft. His double chin. His hair, white and curly. carefully coiffed, makes me think of the hereford cows on my grandfather’s farm. I hug that thought and refuse to look away, hoping he can be repelled by disdain.
“He’s just down the hall,” I say, trying to sound more confident than I feel.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” he counters. “I just came in that way. No one was there. No one at all.” I feel my face flush. My palms sweat. I move back into the room and lean into the desk. Try to stop the shaking.
“This is nice leather. Is it for shoes?” I say, fingering one of the samples that cover the desktop. It’s cowhide that someone has dyed bright pink. It looks foolish. As if it’s embarrassed for itself and the fate that awaits it now that it’s separated from its cow.
The man is still there. He is saying something I don’t want to hear. No adult male has ever talked to me this way.
Sometimes on my way home from school, if I’ve stayed late in the library and had to walk home alone, young boys have slowed down their cars and whistled or yelled lewd remarks as they passed. Occasionally some have stopped, turned around, and come back for a better look. I’ve always refused to acknowledge their presence. Their close-up inspection coupled with my contempt seemed to be all that was required. Wolf whistles soon became jeers. I stared straight ahead as they tossed out insults like “four eyes” or “hers got little, skinny legs.”
“Look at the ugly bitch!” one of them yelled one day. “Perhaps we should run it over. Put it out of its misery.” But then they had laughed, and driven away in a cloud of blue smoke.
“That shit box of yours is burning oil!” I’d called out after them. Not too loud. Not wanting them to come back.
But this time is different. I am not outside, not walking along the shoulder of a road. There is nowhere to run. No one around. I know that my father has gone out to buy more cleaning supplies, leaving me to finish up the last few chores. I am on my own in this man’s office and he blocks my only escape route. He smiles as he speaks, soft and low, but his eyes are alarming. A deadly blue.
Then my father appears behind him. “Hi Bob,” he says. Unaware, as always, of what’s really going on. “I didn’t know you were working today.”
All friendly, Bob moves from the doorway. They chat about workloads, bosses, and weather. Sometimes my dad’s such a jerk, unable to see what’s right beneath his big, hooked nose. Sometimes I hate him just for being my dad. But mostly I loathe his dim-wittedness. Like the way he fails to understand why I don’t want to work here. Why I don’t want my boyfriend to know I spend every Saturday morning scrubbing floors and toilets in offices where his father works at a white collar job: no dirt under Kevin’s father’s fingernails. And he speaks grammatically correct English. I study my own dad. Why is he standing there holding that mop and smiling as if everything’s fine?
Averting my eyes from his calloused hands, I begin to gather things up. I leave the heavy equipment for him; load the lighter stuff into the trunk of our rusty Toyota.
Of course he decided to park right beside Mr. Butler’s Lincoln. I keep my head down. Hope that Kevin hasn’t come in to work with his dad. Why would he? It doesn’t make sense. But still, it could happen. It’s Saturday morning. Kev has a game this afternoon, and his dad always goes to the rink to watch. He may have just dropped in to pick something up from the office. It has happened before. And if Kevin’s with him, he’ll see me here like this. Grubby. Poor. An office cleaner. The kind of person he ridicules.
“I seen you eyeing the car,” Dad says. “Does that mean you want to drive?”
I do, but I say no, hoping he’ll see how upset I am. Hoping he’ll just get me out of here fast. But he takes his time. Wraps protective cloths around the polisher. Places it carefully on the floor between the seats. Takes it out. Rewraps it. Starts again. Whistles a hymn as he works.
He slides in to the driver’s side, slips the key into the ignition and turns toward me. “While I was out,” he says, “I deposited your share of today’s earnings into your bank account for you. You’ve already got over $500. It’ll help a bit if you want to go to college.”
College. The height of his ambition for me. Does he even know that I need a university degree to get the kind of job I want?
Then, as we’re pulling out of the parking lot, “Was Bob bothering you?” he asks.
“No,” I lie.
“Well, I don’t want you cleaning that part of the plant any more. Just do the main offices in the front.”
I look out the window. Study the dirty snow banks melting away to nothing. Think about Kevin’s father who works in those central offices, and sometimes works Saturdays. I picture Kevin, and how he’d react if he knew where I spend my Saturday mornings, and why I can’t come to his hockey games, Some fears are worse than others. I weigh the odds.
“I can take care of myself,” I say, stern and unbending— though I wonder if maybe my dad’s not quite as obtuse as I’d thought.
Second Place Entry
One Shower Too Many
~ Frank Westcott ~
There are some things that rock to their own tunes and some tunes that rock to their own things. It matters only that you and your partner are singing the same songs.
On the anniversary of the wedding that was the great betrayal, there’s a fly in the ointment, and on a spider moon dancing heartbreaks through hotels of Elvis tunes, waiting for the needle to hop a groove in vinyl, under skies of remorse. Blue Suede Shoes rocking to their own beat Cry in the Chapel of weddings futile.
“What wedding?” she said, asking it hard with her eyes and body and voice. Asking it hard, waiting for Time to Be on Her Side, rolling her stones so she could leave gingerly in a moment’s space, her waterfall sounds trinkling and tinkling in the toilet.
“Why do they call pissing, tinkling?” she asked, less hard this time, dancing around the sound of her own voice, in the song, as the needle jumped a track, a groove, where it always did where the scratch was. “Should fix that,” she stated, hard again, and harder than before.
“Put a rubber on it,” he said, watching the hardness in her harden more because he spoke. She didn’t want him to speak. She didn’t want to have to listen.
“What do you mean, put a prophylactic on it?” she said, softening a little, remembering a time when she had put a prophylactic on it. Him. When she feared getting pregnant, even if she was on her period. “You can get pregnant when you are menstruating” she had said, then, waiting for the cure, the prophylactic, the rubber, to roll over his dick down to its root. His root. “Good thing it’s hard,” she had said then, remembering the saying of it.
He started to speak. But she put her finger, her forefinger, her clit finger, to his lip, lips, shushing him.
“I don’t like it when you speak when we make love,” she had said, putting the clit finger to her own lip, lips, to deface the sound of her own voice holding him back with her fingertip.
“A rubber on it? How will that fix things? The groove hopping? The bouncing? From the rut? Where the sound holds itself like you do when you want to come later. In the morning. Especially after your shower. And you have to have another. After. Because you don’t want to take me, the smell of me, to work with you?”
He was about to speak. But she shushed him. With her finger. To her own lips. Not his. But the effect was the same. He did not speak. At all.
He waited like he did in the shower. When he would have to have another. Because he would fuck her, one more time. ‘Cause he had held it the first time. The first encounter. Of the morning. Because he wanted the explosion to be bigger when it came. When he came. And the semen in his canal waltzed through his channel in 2/4 time. Hop-Hop. Hop-Hop.
“Shoulda bin ¾ time,” he muttered. “Hop-pit-y. Hop-pit-y. Being a waltz…” And he was no longer afraid to speak. But wishing he hadn’t. Come in the morning. He wished he had held it. Altogether. All together. Not giving in to her. Not giving him to her. But holding himself away in his mind. Distracted. In the moment. Of the fucking. He could have done it. Kept his own finger, his clit finger on his own lip. Lips. Signalling his own body not to speak either with his mouth or his…
“Put a prophylactic on it?” she said again, wondering in that space in front of them, between them, where no lips were needed. Or fingers pointing away. A way. From each other. Or away and at each other. At the same time.
“Yes…” he said. Neither pointing away nor at. “Yes… Put a rubber on it. Not a prophylactic. Unless you’ve got a whole box. Need the weight. A rubber. Put a rubber on it. An eraser. The things you rub out with. Erase things with. An eraser. On the arm. Put it on the arm. Just above the needle. Keeps it in the groove. The one it is on. In. ”
“In…” she said. Not questioning.
“What?” he said. Questioning. Questioning the he saiding and she saiding.
“In… In the groove. You can’t have it on the groove. You can’t be on a groove. You can only be in a groove.”
He thought of hers. Didn’t put his fingers, finger, to his own lip to silence himself. But turned his wrist at his mouth so the groove of his lip, lips, held his finger in them.
“You’re right,” he said.
“I am,” she said. “So why did you have three showers today? Two in the morning? And one when you got home? From work?”
“I was in the groove,” he said. Smiling a little. But only a little. Because he didn’t want her to see how much he was smiling. Inside. Big. Like an elephant. Like an elephant’s memory. That’s how BIG he was smiling. About the third shower. The one after work. That he didn’t usually take. When he came. Home. After work. And his white shirt showed sweat stains. Around his neck. Collar. Where the collar was. Too tight. Around his neck. Like a noose. And somehow. For some reason. He saw. Thought of her clit finger. To the groove. Of her mouth. When he thought these things. Shushing him. Now. Even if she wasn’t shushing. Now. Really. But it felt like she was.
“So why did you have the third shower today?” she asked. Now. Neither hard nor soft. Or in her groove. And the record stopped playing. And she heard the click. Of the arm re-setting itself. And shutting off. Shutting itself off.
“The third shower?” he said, hearing the click of the arm, too.
“Yes,” she said. “The one after work.”
“Was in the groove,” he repeated. Wishing the record would start. All by itself. Remotely. Click. Click- click, went the arm in his mind.
“My groove…? Were you in my groove…?” she asked. Coldly. Hardly hearing the needle jump. Even though the machine was off.
He shushed himself with his own finger. And without putting it there to his lip. Or lips. And pointed to the player, quiet now, on the other side of the room.
“Try an eraser,” he said. Avoiding the question.
“My groove?” she persisted.
“No, the groove of the Holy Mother of…”
“Don’t adulterate the Mother of G__ ,” she said. And knew it wasn’t her groove. The third shower. The third time. Washing it off. And the dirt still on his neck from the shirt. Embedded there. In the fucking before work and after work, before coming home, and having his third shower of the day.
“Why?” she said, neither cold, nor hard, nor soft, nor shushing with any finger.
“Because…” he said, feeling his finger twitch inside his pants where his pocket moved around his fingers.
“Want a divorce?” she asked.
“No…” he said, “…only a rubber for your arm, so when the needle wants to jump… your groove… cracks on your record, you remember the showers.”
“The ones in the morning?” she said. Asked. Cold, again. Hard. Then soft. Remembering the time, times, she had had a third shower before he came home from work.
“The ones in the morning,” he said.
“They are the important ones,” she said.
They raised their fingers, twitching, her clit finger and his clit finger, and they shushed each other silently, knowing there would be two showers the next morning, and they would forget about the ones after work, or before work ended and he wasn’t home yet.
And it was on the anniversary of the wedding that was the great betrayal. The fly in the ointment hopped over a spider moon and danced a heartbreak through a hotel where bed sheets reminded her of Elvis tunes. She waited for the needle to drop-hop to a groove she hadn’t heard before. She let her blue suede shoes fall to the floor. She rocked to her own beat and wanted to cry in a chapel, just because. Weddings are futile, she thought. And she knew she would have a shower when she got home, and he wasn’t home… yet.
And they both knew they played the same tune. Sang the same songs. Even if they showered at different times. Some times. And didn’t sing in harmony. Or at least rarely.
Third Place Entry
Beyond the Fence
~ Corrie Adams ~
The teenaged girls from town came to the fence every day. They peeped at us through their lashes; they tugged and twisted their hair. Those girls were like a spring breeze after a long winter, and all of us camp boys were in love with them. But it was more than that with Geraldine and me.
“You stay away from those girls, Leon,” my mother would say. “You’re a man now, nineteen years old. You don’t need that kind of trouble.”
It was August when we first arrived at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York. The government officials called the camp “Safe Haven”, but Mother had her own opinions. She’d cursed the metal fence topped with barbed wire. It was too much like the concentration camps we’d left on the other side of the Atlantic. But now, I think she almost didn’t mind the fence. It kept us in, but it kept them out, too.
The girls’ happy smiles and carefree ways angered my mother. Those American girls seemed so young compared to us. Their childhoods hadn’t been spoiled by the Germans.
I’d noticed Geraldine from the beginning. When we were new to Oswego, the townspeople came to stare at us like we were monkeys in a zoo. But Geraldine stepped forward and stuck her hand through a gap in the fence to link fingers with Samuel’s baby sister, Eva. All the little ones thought Geraldine was an angel. I did, too. She was beautiful, with an easy smile, long, curly hair, and wide blue eyes.
I hung back from the fence and watched for Geraldine’s face in the crowd. She didn’t always come, but when she did, we’d talk until dark. She wanted to hear all my stories and I needed to hear all of hers. We exchanged our histories like gifts.
Finally, she arrived. She stood off to one side, away from all the other girls. I sauntered over, leaned against the chain. “Hello, Geraldine.”
She curled her fingers through the links, just inches from my hand. I shifted to be closer. Not touching. Not yet. Geraldine looked up into my face and smiled.
“Mother says you’ll all be invited to school. The children will get passes to leave the camp.”
“Yes, I heard,” I said. “They’re very excited.”
“What about you?”
“I’m nineteen. Too old for school.”
My heart beat a little harder when I saw her smile slip. She looked down at the dusty ground, the place where the fence met the earth. My fingers moved across the wire until they reached hers. I leaned in closer.
“Maybe I can get a pass. For a Saturday,” I said.
“Do you think so?”
“I can try. And if I did, maybe—“
I whirled around to glare at Samuel, who’d come up behind me while my attention was elsewhere. “What is it?”
“Your mother. She says to come.”
I waved a hand at Samuel and turned back towards Geraldine. “Tell her I’ll be there soon.”
“She says for you to come now.”
Geraldine tilted her head to one side and laughed. I wanted to punch Samuel in the mouth.
“Goodnight, Leon,” she said. She was already walking away. When she was out of sight, I kicked the fence, as hard as I could. The chain rattled and my toes hurt. I swore.
“I’m sorry, Leon. But she made me promise to get you right away.”
“It’s all right, Sam. Not your fault. Where is she?”
“The gatehouse. Mr. Smart’s office.”
I stomped towards the main building, pulled open the door, and entered. Mother sat at the tidy secretary’s desk she was so proud of, just outside the director’s office.
“Leon, my love,” she said. “I wanted to talk with you.”
I said nothing. The room was sticky with the late summer heat. A fan sat on the table in front of the only window, its spinning blades ruffling the papers on my mother’s desk and pulling strands of her grey hair free from the knot she’d tied it in.
“This town girl,” she said. “The one you talk to every night. You need to stop.”
I clenched my fists. My fingernails dug into my palms.
“We have to go home after the war,” she said. “You signed the paper, too. You know that.”
“There’s nothing for us there, Mother. Nothing for me. I want to make my life here. In America.”
“There are good girls, nice girls, right here. Inside the camp. Our people are on this side of the fence, Leon. The ones on the other side? They’re the ones who put up the fence in the first place.”
“I don’t want to hear about this Geraldine. You should spend your evenings talking with Manya Hartmayer. Or maybe Rena Schum. They know where we come from.” Mother began to cry.
I went to her then. “Mama, please. Don’t be sad.”
“Don’t be sad? You want to throw your life away. Everything we’ve been fighting for; what your father died for. And you turn your back? It breaks my heart.”
I took her hand and pulled her out of her chair. I folded her into my arms. She seemed so small.
“Shhh,” I whispered. “Don’t cry. I’m sorry. You’re right. Manya is a very nice girl.”
When I left the office, Mother had stopped crying. I’d promised to ask Manya to go out walking after supper.
Mother was now in better spirits, but I ached. I yearned for the world on the other side of the fence more than anything.
I turned to look out at that world, the one beyond the fence. I wanted all of it: the buildings and the cars and the freedom. And Geraldine.
And as though I’d summoned her with my thoughts, she was back, leaning against the fence. Waiting for me.
I looked over my shoulder at the gatehouse, thinking about Mother and everything she wanted for me. But then I looked at Geraldine and saw another way.
I started walking. Towards the fence, the world, and her.