Every Wednesday, on Writing Under Pressure, you’ll find a post based on Today’s Word (from Wordsmith.org). Past essays, poems, or flash fiction pieces can be found under Wednesday’s Word on the sidebar to the right.
enfant terrible. noun. a person, especially someone famous or successful, whose unconventional lifestyle, work, or behavior appears shocking.
The initial read of this word didn’t spark any sort of passion. What’s “successful” and “shocking?” I wondered. Isn’t it all about perspective? Though, the more shocking a person, the more successful they seem to become.
Anyway, while jotting down ideas and a very rough draft, coffee weaseled its way into the mix.
Sometimes you just can’t explain the path of a writer’s mind.
In fact, I can’t even say for sure that this story has anything to do with shocking success. But, what is shocking is how many times I can use the word “coffee” in one short story.
The Key to Success
Jackie packed up her pictures and her tape dispenser. She smiled and said thank you to everyone who passed her cubicle. She threw her head back in laughter when Mr. Carlson handed her a coffee cup that said “Hot tea is for wimps.”
Carolyn rolled her eyes and turned back to her hot water and lemon. She squeezed a package of honey into the cup and stirred. She took a sip. She surveyed her desk. She ran her finger across her keyboard and wiped off a layer of dust. Then, she reloaded her electric stapler, and she pressed the speaker button on her phone to make sure there was still a dial tone.
Carolyn ran the accounts of all the clients over 65. Their money sat in low-risk stocks and bonds. Her phone barely rang. Her clients never emailed. And, her profits never peaked. All those years studying at Brown did little for her except leave her with too many student loans. She’d been sitting in the same cubicle, earning the same salary, for the last three years.
But Jackie somehow managed to move out of her cubicle and into her own office on the second floor within her first six months of working here. And, her profits rose and fell on a daily basis. She was terrible at managing money. Carolyn thought all of Jackie’s meetings with Mr. Carlson were warnings and threats.
Now, though, here Jackie was, laughing and packing and drinking her Hazlenut coffee with low-fat creamer. Jackie lifted her cup high in some salute to success.
“Coffee is for wimps,” Carolyn muttered.
“What’s that Ms. Nelson?” Mr. Carlson stood at the opening of her cubicle. Carolyn didn’t know how long he’d been there; she never even saw his shadow.
“Oh, good morning, Mr. Carlson. I’m just…looking for something,” she said.
“Fine.” He put his hands in his pockets. “I need to see you Ms. Nelson. In my office.”
Carolyn scooted her chair back, stood up, and adjusted her skirt. She took one more swig of her hot honey water, and Mr. Carlson shook his head. In his office, Mr. Carlson motioned towards one of his leather chairs, and Carolyn sat down.
“Ms. Nelson,” he said, as he faced the window.
“You’ve been here a long time. Am I right?”
“Yes, Mr. Carlson. Three years.”
Three years and not one evaluation.
Three years and not a penny of a raise.
Three years and —
“And, you’ve never brought me a cup of coffee.”
“Coffee, sir?” she asked.
“Coffee.” Mr. Carlson turned from the window and glared.
Carolyn felt like she was sinking into the leather of the chair, so she sat up straight again.
“Oh,” she said.
“Coffee says a lot about a person, Ms. Nelson. Do they drink it black, with cream or sugar, or with both. Maybe they prefer skim milk. Or, two percent.” He walked over to her chair and stood directly in front of her.
“Do they offer a cup to a colleague?”
“Coffee,” he said, “is the pass-key to this world.”
“Coffee, sir?” she asked again.
“Coffee!” He pounded his fist on the arm rest next to her. “Aren’t you listening?”
“I’m listening, Mr. Carlson, but I don’t drink coffee.”
“And, that, Ms. Nelson, is the problem.” He let out a sigh of relief and walked back to the window.
“It’s all about marketing,” he said. “If you don’t drink coffee, Ms. Nelson, you won’t get anywhere.” With that, he turned to her again and stared right into her eyes.
“But, what do roasted beans and a bitter taste have to do with this company and profit margins, sir?”
He stomped over to his desk, scratched something out on a post-it, and ordered Carolyn to “call this number!”
Carolyn looked at the post-it on her way out of his office. It was the number for HR.
Damn right, I’ll be calling HR.
The woman in charge was named Nancy. When Carolyn walked in, Nancy pointed towards the plush couch next to the window. Her office smelled of fresh flowers and the only light on was a lamp on Nancy’s desk. Already, Carolyn felt at ease.
“So. Ms. Nelson. Why don’t you tell me why you’re here.”
Carolyn told Nancy everything: about the three years of her hard work with nothing to show for it, about the questionable promotions, and about Mr. Carlson’s weird, and somewhat threatening, lecture in his office.
Nancy sat quiet for a moment. She put her hand up to her chin and sighed.
“Well, it’s not sexist. It’s not racist. In fact, it’s perfectly legal,” she said.
“Legal?” Carolyn looked around Nancy’s office searching for the exit. “It’s crazy! I don’t know how this company stays on its feet if coffee comes before customer service!”
“Coffee is the pass-key to the world, dear.”
Carolyn sank into the couch and felt the pain of defeat. Or, maybe it was fear. Nancy stood up and walked to the couch with a cup of hot, steaming liquid.
“Maybe you should try it, dear. Just one cup.”
Carolyn swallowed hard. She took the cup in both hands and smiled.
“Sure,” she said. “One cup.” And, she pretended to take a sip.