Knowing What to Do

I met him on a snowy night in January. I was up to my ankles in slush and up to my knees in failed New Year’s Resolutions. I was in Chicago with a group of higher-ups from my company, helping to negotiate a multi-million dollar deal. Today, I had gone toe to toe with the CEO of one of the country’s biggest book publishers, one which we were in the process of acquiring. I started the day with the mission of talking down his selling price by ten million and ended it by getting him to agree to fifteen. In other words, just another day in the life of Jane Worthington, businesswoman extraordinaire.

The rest of the white collar crew I travelled with had reserved a room at our exclusive hotel’s steakhouse, but I was in no mood to celebrate and faked a stomach ailment as my means of escape. The fact was, the deal we were brokering was huge and I should have been thrilled. But I was miserable and confused. I had drained over a decade of my life into a career that I had never loved and now hated, just because it promised a cushy lifestyle and an impressive business card. It was getting unbearable.

It probably hadn’t been the best idea to leave my room in search of “fresh air”. This air sure was fresh, but it was also freezing. Now, I was leaning into a gusty white wall of winter, and very quickly figuring out the reason for the windy city’s nickname.

So it was that about fifteen minutes into my blizzardy walk, I spotted a glowing “OPEN” sign and burst into Spaghetti and Meatballs Restaurant. I could barely hear the sound of the bell above the door jingling over the storm outside, and I stopped right inside the entrance to stomp my feet and brush the snow off my Michael Kors trench coat. It took me a second to realize the place was empty of both patrons and workers, and just as I was trying to decide if I should leave, a man appeared through a swinging door at the back of the room.

“I told Joey to unplug the sign on his way out,” he said as he slammed a dish towel down on the bar. “You give a guy one simple job…”

By now, he had marched his way to the door and leaned behind a table to roughly yank a plug from the wall, cutting off the juice to the OPEN sign instantly. It was only then that he bothered to give me more than a glance, and when he finally did, we stood there a little awkwardly, me not quite willing to offer to leave, him not too interested in inviting me to stay.

I can still see him standing there. His white chef coat was spotless, the only sign that he had been cooking a streak of flour across his cheek. As neat as his jacket and perfectly ironed black pants were, you would have expected his hair to match. But it was dark and thick and wild, sticking out in various directions,  and a five o’clock shadow traced a path over the lower half of his face. All of this may have made him unappealing if not for the fact that he had been blessed with strikingly good looks, straight from his Mediterranean ancestors I’m sure.

Often, I wonder what I must have looked like to him, soaked from the snow in my khaki coat, dark wash skinny jeans, impractical leather boots and my shock of red hair pulled back school-marm style in a tight bun. All business, I suppose.

“You’re not from around here,” came his astute observation.

“No, I’m from-”

“New York.”

“How did you-”

“The clothes, the hair...you can tell a Manhattan girl from a block away,” he said. “I should know. I grow up in Jersey. Worked in a few kitchens in the city before I came out here.”

We stood there then, in silence. I was a little hesitant to speak, seeing as how he had cut me off during my last two attempts to complete a sentence.

“I’m Will,” he finally said, extending his hand. “I’m the head chef here.”

“Jane,” I responded while shaking his hand with a firmness I had practiced for years to survive in the boys club at work. “And I’m...well, I’m the foolish New Yorker who wandered too far from her hotel in a snowstorm. I had hoped I could wait it out a bit while having dinner, but it looks like I’m out of luck.”

“Yes, well, we cancelled dinner service once it started getting heavy. I was just heading out, but with the way it’s coming down out there…” He hesitated then, looking between me and the door several times before he went on. “I guess I can see what’s left in the kitchen. Pick a seat and I’ll be back in a minute or two.”

I scanned the room and immediately chose the table that sat against the front window, where I could watch the snow come down. I was so mesmerized by it that I didn’t hear Will come back into the dining room until he put a plate in front of me and settled into the seat across the table.

“Well, miss, what we have here is a thin crust pizza, with homemade dough, fresh mozzarella, my very own sauce -or do you say gravy- and the secret ingredient, broccolini,” he said with unmistakable pride.

The little pizza was an irregular circle, crusty and gooey and...perfect. I bit into it and let out an involuntary sigh.

“This is so good,” I managed to garble out through my second bite.

“It better be,” he answered. “That was supposed to be my dinner.”

I instantly dropped the slice onto my plate and passed the plate towards him.

“I’m so sorry!” I said, embarrassed. “Please, finish it. I didn’t realize.”

“I didn’t tell you,” he answered and pushed it back in front of me. “I’m not in the mood to eat anyway.”

“Rough day?” I asked with a raise of the eyebrow.

“You could say that. I got some bad news this week.”

“Do you-”

“I DON’T want to talk about it.”

“Ooookay.”

“Sorry, I just…” his voice faded as his gaze wandered to look at the falling snow out the window. He seemed to check out of our conversation for a moment, and when he looked back, I could have sworn he was fighting tears back. “How about...how about we talk about you. What brings you to Chicago?”

“Work,” I said with what amounted to zero enthusiasm and took another bite of pizza.

“What kind of work?”

“The awful kind,” came my reply before I could process and filter it. I slapped my non-pizza-eating hand over my mouth, but it was too late. He was already laughing at me.

“That good, huh?”

“Well, it’s uh-”

“Complicated?”

“Sure.”

“Listen,” Will said as his expression grew serious. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, but it seems like you have something on your mind. If you want to talk, go ahead. After all, I need a good distraction from my own problems, and you can tell my anything, because after that pizza’s done, you walk out the door and never have to see me again.”

I took a second to think before I spoke. I should be clear on the fact that I don’t normally unload my baggage on complete strangers. But I guess he just met me at the perfect moment, when I was in just a desparate enough state, because right there in Spaghetti and Meatballs Restaurant, eating Will’s pizza, I told him everything I had been feeling. About the emptiness in my life, the disillusionment, the longing for more. And he just sat there and listened. Then he leaned back on the back two legs of his chair and crossed his arms, staring at me all the while until finally he spoke.

“My work has me up at the crack of dawn and out until midnight six days a week. I don’t have time for hobbies or a girlfriend, the pay isn’t that great, and neither are the benefits. I yell half of the day and bang pots and throw spoons every now and then, but I do it...well I do it all because I care so much about cooking. Because I love it, and I’m thankful for every day I get to spend in a kitchen. Every new day is a gift. Do you feel that way about your work?”

I was almost ashamed to answer, hearing his deep passion. Here he was, doing what he did because he loved it and was meant to do it. Meanwhile, I was just chasing the almighty dollar. How sad.

“Listen Jane,” he said with a deep smile that opened up a dimple on the right side of his face. “It’s really none of my business. I just think that everyone deserves to wake up with such strong feelings about what they do that they would go crazy if they did anything else.

“So,” I said weakly, suddenly feeling like oxygen was running mighty thin in the restaurant, “You’re saying I just walk away from my job? My life?”

“Your job, yes.” With that, he reached across the table and covered my hand with his own. “Your life? No. I say you walk towards that. RUN towards it.”

How do you respond to something like that? How do you begin to even process it? I couldn’t. I knew he was right, but it was too big, too overwhelming to take it all in right then. So I just nodded and offered a half-hearted smile. Then I pulled my hand away and took my wallet out of my pocket.

“No, no, no. The pizza and the counseling session are free.”

“I insist-”

“No, I do,” he said as he picked up the empty plate and stood. “To be honest, I think I needed this more that you did.”

“That’s hard to believe.”

“It’s true.”

He started heading towards the kitchen and I took that as my cue to leave. Thankfully, the snow had slowed as we sat. I pulled open the door and it jingled again, easier to hear now that the wind had died down.

“Thank you Will,” I called out and turned to go.

“Hey Jane,” I heard him say loudly when I was halfway out the door.

“Yes?” I looked at him, and we locked eyes like we had known each other for decades.

“You know what to do. So just do it”

With that, he offered me one last smile and whistled his way through the swinging service door. I stepped outside and hurried back to the hotel as quickly as my Manhattan shoes would take me.

*

I was due to fly out the next night after hours of business meetings to wrap up our big deal. But I risked missing the flight so that I could stop by Spaghetti and Meatballs one more time. When I entered, a girl who looked like she was in her early twenties was setting tables. I approached her before I could convince myself it was crazy for me to be there.

“Is Will working today?”

“No,” she answered as she continued to set the table. “He doesn’t work here anymore.”

“What? But he was here last night.”

“Yesterday was his last day,” she said with a flip of her blonde hair. “He thought it was best to move on now, before the treatments started.”

The world got a little hazy, unsteady, for a few seconds at her words.

“Treatments?”

She looked at me then, evaluating the situation before she spoke again.

“How did you say you knew Will?”

“He...he’s a friend.” It was a stretch, but I couldn’t help myself. I had to know what she was talking about.

“Well,” she said with an eye roll, “If you were his friend, you would know he just got diagnosed with cancer.”

I must have looked pretty bad by now, because she pulled out a chair for me and I fell into it. Once I recovered enough to think straight, I begged her for more information and she spilled. By the time I left, I knew it all. Stage 4. Pancreas. Aggressive treatment plan, being administered in a city the girl didn’t know, where he had family. He hadn’t left any way to contact him. And that was it.

What struck me the most as I left the restaurant in a fog and hailed a taxi for the airport was that in the midst of the worst moment of his life, Will had somehow found a way to focus on me. A stranger to whom he owed nothing. And had given everything.

*

Will changed my world that day. Like an angel in a chef coat, he spoke truth to me exactly when I needed to hear it. He made me realize that I could be a better -much better- version of myself if I only had the courage to try. And every day I live, I think of Will and his cancer and how that new day is a gift not everyone is given. So I try to make the right choices and live fully. That meant leaving a swanky job, moving to a small town, and taking a job that pays very little and gives back a whole lot. When I was interviewed for the position, I was asked why I would make such a move. I told them about Will.

I’ve thought about looking him up. A few times, I’ve even gotten as close as entering his name into Google. But I never pressed the search button. I think part of me is afraid of what I’ll find, maybe an obituary with phrases like “fought a brave battle with cancer before…” thrown across the screen. That would be too much for me to bear. I would rather imagine him alive, in a kitchen somewhere, with that sloppy hair and contagious smile, yelling at line cooks but smirking all the while. I like to think someday, I’ll get hungry and wander into a little Italian bistro, and there he’ll be, and I’ll get to thank him for what he did. And tell him I knew what to do. And I did it.

Short Story: The Day That Was Different

About the short story posts: 

In these little stories, I work with a photograph I took of something that caught my eye, and write a story inspired by that photo. The stories are complete fiction and in no way related to or about the people (or even places) in the picture.

The Day That Was Different

by Nicole M. Burrell

Bee had been living a little life in a big town for a long time. Born and raised in New York City, she still slept in her childhood bedroom overlooking the Central Park Zoo. At forty years old, her parents were gone and her sister now lived in California with her tech-savvy husband and two surfer kids. That left her alone in a sprawling apartment decorated in the finest trends of the 1980s.

Every day, Bee woke up and ate one egg, fried with one piece of toast, lightly buttered. She chose one of her seven suits, either navy blue or black, and slipped into a pair of one inch black pumps before picking up her black umbrella and carefully pressing the button on her private elevator. She always carried her umbrella for fear of unexpected rain. She didn’t trust anyone, let alone a weather man.

Once on the street, a brisk walking pace landed her in her favorite, and only, Starbucks of choice in three minutes flat. The kind barista, with the horrifying nose ring and shock of bleached blonde hair, was the only person who knew her name outside of work, and even though he spelled her name wrong on the cup (“B”...as if that was a name), she was all too happy for the moment of personal connection. But then, three minutes after entering, she was back on the street, vente black tea in hand.

Bee had worked for a publisher since they accepted her into their internship program during college. Now, she edited cookbooks. Five days a week, forty hours precisely, you could find her in her cubicle, slowly sipping her tea and tapping a red pen she never used while making suggested corrections on the computer screen. Five days a week, her mouth watered at the recipes she saw, and she imagined trying them at home. But by the time the elevator door opened back home, her adventurous spirit was safely at bay, and she settled in for her salad with a perfectly boiled egg perched on top.

It’s not that Bee was an unpleasant person. Really, she wasn’t. But she had always been painfully shy, and losing her parents had severed the last easy relationship she had in her life. Add to that the fact that they had passed unexpectedly when she had decided to take the opportunity to study abroad in Paris, a trip her father had staunchly opposed. These days, she didn’t take risks like that. Bad things happen to people who took risks. People who lived simple, scheduled lives didn’t get disappointed.

And so, at the end of an especially long day of imagined red pen slashing, and actual computer backspacing, Bee set her salad on her laughably large dining room table and took her first peek at the day’s mail.

Every day, it came the same, wrapped in a large orange rubber band. She had a whole drawer in the kitchen full of the bands, and she sometimes argued the merits of saving them. But old habits died hard.

At any rate, today was a special day. It was, in fact, her favorite day of the month because it was the one in which her National Geographic subscription came in the mail. She pushed aside three bills and one clothing magazine, and a sunshiny smile broke out as she opened to the first glossy page of her favorite publication. She made her way through it slowly, savoring each picture, pouring over each article. She had just finished a journey with the penguins of Antarctica and was chomping on her very last iceburg (lettuce leaf, that is) when she saw it.

The advertisement wasn’t terribly attractive. It featured a smiling family standing in front of a tent on a little grassy patch of fenced in land. But what caught her attention was the words that ran in an arch across the top of the page: “Explore your own backyard”. She scarcely noticed that the ad was for a sale on tents, and couldn’t have cared less that it was her last chance to buy one before the megastore went out of business “FOREVER!”. Something about the catchphrase excited her and set her thoughts in a whirl.

She didn’t have her own backyard, not exactly, but when she was a little girl, she had pretended Central Park was all hers. She would spend hours wandering from the playground to the Shakespeare garden to the Conservatory Pond with her sweet mother. Her mom had been quiet like her, and Bee had never felt more understood than when they were together. She avoided the park these days mostly because she was too busy to deviate from her carefully planned schedule. But also, maybe a little, because it reminded her of her mom.

Today, though, in this moment, with the salad gone and half of the National Geographic already devoured, Bee that perhaps, just maybe, she should indeed try to explore her own backyard, unconventional though it may have been. So, off she went to her bedroom. She carefully hung up her suit, and standing there in her practical flannel robe, evaluated her wardrobe for the proper attire needed in such an exploration. She finally settled on a black cotton skirt that fell just below her knees and a comfortable gray tank top. She didn’t have sneakers, but she thought she knew where she could find them.

Marching down the hallway, now determined on her mission, she hesitated only a second before opening the door to her sister’s old bedroom and entering. She had been so quick to move out with her California man that she had never even packed up the things from her childhood and teenage years. Bee yanked open the closet, which was stuffed to capacity with clothes, accessories, and two decades of sentimental treasures. She fell to her knees and dug around until, much to her delight, she unearthed a worn pair of Keds. They had always been her sister’s brand of choice. She slipped them on and smiled in victory when they fit perfectly.

On impulse, she grabbed an old backpack out of the closet too, and took it to the kitchen to search out a snack to put in it. A stale pack of Tate’s chocolate chip cookies would have to do, so she dropped them in with a bottle of water. Next in went the National Geographic, and finally, a smaller, foldable version of her usual umbrella...because you can never be too sure.

The daylight was starting to fade to dusk by the time she arrived at the edge of the park, and she stood there, at the outskirts, wondering what direction to take. Then she remembered her favorite of all the memories she had there, and took off down a path before she could change her mind.

It wasn’t as close as she remembered it, and the space of time gave her unwanted room to walk down memory lane. The concerts in the park had been wonderful years ago. On balmy summer nights, her entire family would wander out with a blanket and basket of food to enjoy them. It was the only time when their father joined them for an outing and Bee had soaked up the feeling of togetherness in those moments, with the four of them all crunched together, listening to famous symphonies played by some of the world’s greatest orchestras. Her father didn’t like her to talk during the music, and that suited her just fine...she was happy just to be near the ones she loved.

Finally, she rounded the corner, and there it was: the bandshell. It was just like she remembered. Well, maybe a little smaller. But it was still beautiful and stately with its carved stone reaching high into the sky. She realized with disappointment that no orchestra played tonight, though she shouldn’t have expected to be that lucky. She stared at it, imagining days gone by, a tear forming and freeing itself to track down her cheek.

She had just convinced herself it was time to leave when a man with a huge instrument case walked in front of her and straight towards the stage. He didn’t hesitate before he unceremoniously unlocked his case, pulled out a cello, shoved it up onto the stage, and then vaulted himself up and onto the platform himself. Bee was indignant at his behavior, and wondered who you called to report a trespassing cello player to. But then he started to play.

The song was one so familiar, so haunting, she knew she must have heard it many times in her childhood. The notes were long, slow and sweet, even a little sad. She closed her eyes and smiled softly as the memories returned, of dancing to this very song with her sister, back when they were friends. Of piano lessons with her mother plucking out the tune before her father decided the practicing ruined his concentration. Of falling asleep on his shoulder as the concerts in the park ran late into the night, the only time he put her to sleep. The bittersweet memories of a grown woman looking back on her past with a mix of reality and the rose-coloring that comes with such nostalgia.

As she remembered, Bee crept closer to the stage until she stood at its feet. She moved like a sleepwalker, wanting to be closer to the source of the memories that now ran through her mind, clear and beautiful. And suddenly, she was a child again. One who thought she would grow up to climb Mt. Everest. One who dreamed of teaching kids to read in the jungles of South America. One who imagined anything was possible. One who hadn’t yet lived the reality of a difficult father who didn’t live to see her graduate college. Or a wonderful mom who had been her rock before she was left foundationless. She crossed her legs casually, the careful poise that she carried with her everywhere falling away all because of a simple song and a few memories.

Where had that girl gone? When had she abandoned her dreams, her goals? And why? For what? The questions ran to the rhythm of the music, and when it suddenly stopped, she jumped back quickly, the silence taking her off guard and scattering her thoughts with it.

“Would you like me to play anything special?” came the voice of the man and Bee looked up, startled. She hadn’t even given him a second thought once the music had started. The trespassing musician.

“No, that was perfect,” she murmured quietly back.

“Well,” he said with a smile as he pushed his glasses up his nose, “Shall I play more for you or do you have someplace to be?”

Bee noticed despite herself that he was handsome, well, in an assuming kind of way. And probably about her age, too. She blushed and thought before answering.

“I think after this I’ll have a great many places to go,” she said hesitantly. “But I would like to hear another song...if you have the time.”

“I have all the time in the world,” came the answer, and he began to play a lively tune that she didn’t recognize while never taking his eyes off of her. And on he played, until night fall over the park and they walked slowly out together.