Flash Fiction: Happy Hour

happy hour

When the clock struck 5 at Bowman Insurance everyone tried their best not to get trampled as the crowd raced toward the exit. It didn’t take an ostensive tour to see why the workers were so elated to leave their temporary internment at the end of each day. Audible sighs could be heard around the office as the underwriters, account executives, and data analysts slouched over their gray, barren cubicles persuading themselves to complete whatever mindless task laid before them. Phrases like “I hate Mondays,” “Hump day,” and “TGIF” were so engrained into the vernacular at the agency that strangers might wonder if the well-worn building was the epicenter for such weary work clichés.

Bowman Insurance wasn’t necessarily a bad place to work however. The pay was fair, the people were agreeable (enough), and the employees weren’t overworked—most of the time. Fatigue was simply a byproduct of the day-in, day-out corporate grind of the insurance industry. Seasoned staff members had come to despise the mundane trappings of their environment, which, in turn, created woeful atmosphere that was inherited by new employees. No one had any desire to spend more time than necessary at such a place—no one except for Elaine Kaufman.

Elaine stayed late most nights despite knowing little would come from her efforts. She wasn’t getting paid overtime for her salaried position, and as a senior underwriter there weren’t many opportunities left for her to conquer. That lack of motivation had slowed many of her peers, but not Elaine. She cared about her work even if nobody else did. Her property accounts had the lowest loss ratio of any other underwriter’s in the agency—an accomplishment that gave her great pride. That’s why when she ran out of work she often asked her colleagues if they had any potential business they needed help with. Such enthusiasm was met with begrudging looks and sullen grunts, but that didn’t stop Elaine from persisting. It was important for her to stay busy. It was important for her to stay important.

When the rest of the office adjourned for the evening, Elaine stared straight ahead fixated on her monitors. The doors would creak and then slam behind her as colleagues exited to the parking lot. Occasionally someone would wish for her to “Have a nice night” and she’d let the faceless voice know that they should do the same. The majority of Elaine’s peers had stopped saying their farewells over the years. Seeing her continue to peck away at her keyboard well past quitting time had become as customary as the sun setting in the West at the end of each day.

Elaine’s coworkers could often be seen leaving the building together. She would hear groups arranging plans for happy hour from adjacent cubicles. Their preparations were more akin to those of bandits organizing a bank heist rather than a bunch of over-the-hill desk jockeys agreeing to assemble and get blotto in a nearby tavern. Elaine found the entire process somewhat pathetic. Maybe if her colleagues spent as much time coordinating their workloads as they did orchestrating their drunken evenings last quarter’s combined ratio wouldn’t have resulted in a loss. It would be worth bringing up at the next company meeting if she weren’t afraid that everyone would see her as a scorned brown noser hell-bent on seeking vengeance against the people who had never invited her to participate in any off-the-clock shenanigans.

By the time 6 PM came around anxiety started to fill Elaine’s stomach. She blamed her appetite for the nauseous rumblings even though two packages of animal crackers from the vending machine suggested hunger was not the issue. Elaine had cleared out today’s accounts and already had a strong start on tomorrow’s quotes. That should have been enough to call it a day, but she scoured her spam email folder making sure no surprises would be awaiting her tomorrow. What might seem like due diligence to the untrained eye more closely resembled a crack addict flipping over couch cushions and licking the insides of baggies hoping to find those last few remnants to stifle their craving. Elaine’s legs began to bounce rapidly underneath her desk. Soon her jaw was clenching down on the edges of her fingernails, roughly shortening them to the ventral layer. To Elaine’s dismay, there was little left for her to do except go home.

While packing up she tidily put away her belongings that were strewn across her desk. Elaine turned on her out of office voicemail, turned off her computer, and turned to leave the office. Halfway to the exit she stopped as if two ominous forces were pulling on her arms in opposite directions. She wavered in the hallway for ten seconds until the side pulling her back to her desk won the tug-of-war. She double-checked her monitor, made sure everything was prepared for tomorrow, and then finally made her way to the car.

On her way home Elaine could feel her heart thumping its anxious beat against her ribcage. The balmy heat from the hot midday sun still lingered in her car. She rolled down her windows to let in the cool air, but it couldn’t wash away her discontent. The worst ten minutes of each day were the ones Elaine spent with herself to and from work.

When her car finally pulled into the driveway she saw her husband’s blue pickup tucked away in the garage. Elaine’s nose tensed and her lips puckered at the sight of the untamed metallic beast that bore a resemblance to the unkempt sloth likely reclined in front of the living television inside her home.

She missed seeing her daughter Brooke’s dark green Honda sitting alongside the curb. Brooke had instilled a liveliness inside the home that was sorely missed ever since she had started college. Now the only reprieve from silence that Elaine was granted came during Thanksgiving and Christmas, which seemed as distant as the few stars that sparsely decorated the city skies when night fell.

With the car now in the garage and the door descending behind her, Elaine pulled herself out of her car. She paused before slowly creeping to the mudroom door. A greasy chemical smell had formed a covalent bond with the oxygen that filled the garage. Elaine wanted to take a few deep breaths to steady herself before proceeding inside, but she feared that each inhale of oily air would cost her brain cells. With apprehension she twisted the tarnished gold handle and made her way inside the house.

Throwing down her keys in the bowl on the counter she rang out into the living room where the television was turned on, “Hello, honey.”

She thought she could hear a faint, “Hey.”

“How was your day?” she rang back.

“Fine,” the voice answered.

With the pleasantries out of the way, Elaine began her dinner preparations. She sliced vegetables on the cutting board noticing the forceful thwack echoing through the kitchen each time the knife fell to the counter. Each divide punctured her cranium and splintered her nerves. The silence was deafening and all Elaine could think about was how nice it would have been to be at a noisy bar with a bittersweet drink in hand.

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