• Jake Corbin

Small Talk


Art by Paul Rios

Jeff didn’t talk much to his coworkers. It wasn’t that he didn’t like them; he just didn’t feel a strong urge to converse with them. The fact that he was a 28-year-old male in an office heavily saturated with women in their 40s might have played a role in that as well. Until he had a kid or started watching HGTV, there wasn’t much to say that wasn’t work-related.


Lucky for Jeff, things changed when the office hired a new round of student assistants. Plucked from the various universities and community colleges in the area, the new “not quite staff, but definitely not interns” helped pump a little fresh air into the office—or at least some younger air.


One of the new assistants making a go of it was Chris. He was an attendant of American River College. “Attendant” of the school not “student,” because he had absolutely no scholastic plan in place. School wasn’t a place he went because he had an end goal; school was a place Chris went because he had nowhere else to go. At least it made him qualified for a job that was off on the weekends.


Jeff and Chris quickly became friends: Just two slackers moseying through life, knowing they were destined for something better than their current situation. Aspirations without motivation, however, tend to keep things at a stand-still. At least they had each other.


******


“What bad decisions did you make over the weekend?” Jeff asked Chris with a smirk on his face and a look in his eye’s that slurred “I’m not awake yet.”


It was Thursday morning. Jeff usually reserved that question for Monday mornings; however, he had been out of town in Santa Cruz. Monday was the Fourth of July, so he decided to take an extra couple days off to reacquaint himself with the ocean breeze.


“Umm… none,” Chris replied with some hesitation.


Chris always said “none,” but he was always incorrect. He always did something that, after a short amount of reflection, was at least a bad idea—that’s why Jeff always asked. It was their version of an inside joke, but Jeff was secretly hoping Chris would start to see a pattern and make a few changes in his life.


“Well, we did shoot off some illegals while getting faded.”


Looks like this wouldn’t be the week.


After some small talk and an immature retelling of an incident involving Roman Candles, Jeff asked Chris if he wanted to “roll to the ‘Bucks?” If there was ever a more ridiculous way to ask someone to walk to Starbucks with them, Jeff had never heard it. He found amusement in talking like a character from Malibu’s Most Wanted.


“Nah,” Chris said, literally sweeping away the thought with his hand. “I need to head back to my desk; I’ve been walking around for, like, 30 minutes.”


More bad decisions.


“Whatever, man. Next time.”


Chris gave Jeff a fist bump before he meandered off towards his cubicle on the other side of the building. Jeff shuffled papers on his desk for a second, made sure nobody was looking his way and made a dash towards the exit. He slipped out of the door from his office area into the main lobby, walked down the hall and silently slipped out of the cold, cement building—that day’s java mission was to be a solo one.


******


Jeff was running late the next morning, but it was Friday so nobody noticed. He turned his computer on and sunk into his chair, sliding forward a few inches and slouching back. He used to sit the same way when he didn’t want to be in his high school English class. Same problem, different desk.


“Coffee run—let’s do this.”


The e-mail to Chris was short and to the point. Jeff had been trying to cut back on his trips to Starbucks, but his caffeine infatuation cancelled out any effort towards spending less money at the corporate coffee chain. It was tough for him to start the day without equal parts coffee and blood running through his system.


More than 15 minutes passed without a response. Maybe he called in sick, Jeff proposed without much thought; after all, that is one of the luxuries of state work. A few more minutes passed. Not able to withstand caffeine’s siren song any longer, Jeff made an executive decision: With his head down and a quick stride, he escaped the confines of his building and walked alone again down P Street towards the coffee shop.


Without a partner in crime to walk and talk with, Jeff’s return from break happened a lot quicker than usual. As he walked back towards the entrance of his cubicle, he was stopped short by his boss, Alice. It was hard to hide when he had to walk past the two large windows that framed the front of her office.


“Come in here, please—now.”


“Great,” Jeff muttered with as much sarcasm as he could fit under his breath. As he walked into her office all he could think was: I was gone for 15 minutes. How did I get in trouble?


“Close the door,” Alice said as Jeff passed through the off-white door frame. She motioned at him to sit in one of the two chairs perched in front of her desk. This wasn’t a good sign.


“I just got off the phone with Jocelyn,” Alice said.


Her tone was serious, but her eyes were sad. Jeff was thoroughly confused now—how could this possibly have anything to do with him? Jocelyn was the manager over the student assistants.


“She had to fire Chris yesterday.”


Alice’s underlying sadness was justified. She had taken Chris under her wing during his now-brief tenure in the office.


“I guess he clocked in on Tuesday and snuck off for the rest of the day,” she said, shaking her head. “He had one of the other students clock him back out, then he lied about it when they asked him Wednesday.”


“They’re still trying to figure out who the other student was.”


Jeff slumped down in the chair again, but this time it was for good reason.


“Keep this between us for now,” Alice added. “I just thought you’d want to know.”


Jeff thanked her and left her office feeling blind-sided and largely disappointed. It wasn’t just that he lost a friend in the office—his only friend, really—it was more about the fact that he’d been trying to point out the error in Chris’ ways and failed. Maybe he should have been a little more straight-forward with his advice.


******


Time went by and Jeff watched it pass silently. He still didn’t watch HGTV; he still didn’t have any children. He tried finding common ground with a few coworkers by starting a Pinterest account, but that didn’t last long. No, Jeff went back to old ways. He was polite to everyone, but didn’t have much to say. That’s OK, he thought, at least I can get some reading done at lunch again.


Jeff still goes to Starbucks on an impressively regular basis. To the surprise of almost no one, he still does it alone, too. Jeff can’t help but think of his old pal, Chris, on some of his caffeinated excursions; those trips really were a lot more fun with someone to joke with.


“I’ll be busy for a while,” Alice told Jeff after he resurfaced from his most recent trip to the ‘Bucks. She grabbed a stack of papers and a folder before walking out of her office. “We have a few new student assistant positions we’re interviewing for, but I’ll be available if you need me.”


“Sure thing, boss,” Jeff replied.


“Hopefully this batch will turn out a little better, huh,” Alice said more as a statement than a question before walking down the hall and disappearing around the corner.


Hopefully this batch will make better decisions.


Jeff’s thought was interrupted as Mary, the 42-year-old divorcée with two kids and a failing cross-stitch Etsy business, walked by and said hi. Jeff looked up, smiled, and said “hello” back.


He didn’t talk to anyone for the rest of the day.

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