Saturday, August 17, 2013 Short Story---Running on Empty

(Author's note: trying something new and submitted a short story. The prompt was "running on empty" which I made the title. Still managed to screw up by again leaving html code in the body of my story. Was able to correct that mistake but who knows, the Helium gods might still reject the story.)

Jacob found the note on the floor next his shoes. He stared at it for a second assuming he had inadvertently pushed it off his desk as he shuffled the mounds of legal papers that seemed to dominate his life. The message was in his secretary’s handwriting and was painfully simple and efficient. It reminded him that he had dinner reservations with his wife Denise at their favorite Italian restaurant. Seven o’clock was written in large numerals clearly indicating the time he was supposed to meet her there.

It made no sense to Jacob, Denise would never leave such a note without saying something to him first. “Denise?” he called over the intercom. The lack of her immediate response was frustrating but Jacob just assumed she might have gone to the restroom. He might have puzzled over Denise’s absence further if the report analyzing the legal ramifications of a regional business being bought out by a huge corporation did not demand every ounce of his attention. So consumed by his work it took the ringing of his private phone line a few minutes later to pull him away again.

“Hello,” he said while still looking at the report, “This is Jacob Lane.”

“Mr. Lane,” his secretary said coldly over the phone, “you’ve obviously forgotten about the dinner date with your wife.”

“Excuse me? Where are you Denise? I need those updated figures from accounting.”

“Sir, I’m home with my family. In fact I have been here for two hours. You need to look at that ancient grandfather clock by the bathroom door.”

Jacob considered himself an important man but he had long realized that Denise was not to be trifled with when it came to keeping him organized and on time. Still his mind refused to let go of the work that occupied his every waking moment and it took several seconds to understand what the clock said.

The hands on the old clock said it was a quarter past six in the evening. A flash of realization hit Jacob, the restaurant where he was supposed to meet his wife was across town and it would take something of a miracle for him to get there on time.

“Don’t worry Mr. Lane,” Denise said, “I took the liberty of calling a taxi and it is waiting for you now downstairs. If you leave this very second you can make your reservation.”

Despite everything Jacob found himself weighing the necessity of even going. Not only did he have the report to finish but he needed to work on two other projects and begin making notes for a speech he had to give in New York next month. Jacob sighed deeply, it seemed he was constantly running from one thing to the other and something had to give. “Listen Denise,” he said, “can you call my wife and cancel?”

“With all due respect Mr. Lane, no. I am off the clock and enjoying my family. If you want to cancel this late you will have to call Sarah and do it yourself.” Denise then abruptly hung up leaving him no choice but to run downstairs and catch the waiting taxi.

Minutes ticked by as the taxi sped through the streets of downtown Atlanta towards the restaurant. This gave Jacob a chance to reflect about his situation. Any anger he might have felt about Denise’s refusal to call his wife was dampened by the fact it was the marriage counselor he and Sarah was seeing that was forcing him to leave his desk when there was so many projects that had reached a crucial phase. Months before, they recognized that there was a void in their marriage and that it was only growing larger as their outside responsibilities kept pulling them in opposite directions.

At his core, Jacob knew he wanted his marriage to continue, if for no other reason than simple inertia. Divorce was messy and while the kids were grown with the way he and Sarah’s lives were intertwined separating everything after so many years would be a nightmare. More to the point he had this memory of Sarah when they were younger; she was so vibrant that it almost hurt to be around her. It was that memory Jacob clung to and the reason he wanted to stay married.


Sarah Lane was angry on so many levels that it was hard to think. Her assistant had screwed up the time of the showing and now she was stuck watching the pretension couple wander around the empty downtown condo discussing possible paint colors and what decorator they wanted to hire. Sarah would have long since dumped their backsides back on the street but they overflowed with money and if the sell went through she would score big time.

As Sarah leaned on the condo’s granite topped kitchen counter she dreamed of all the dirty and demeaning chores her ditzy assistant would be forced to perform for condemning her to such a late and painfully drawn out showing. As if on cue, Sarah’s cell phone started buzzing with the caller ID indicating it was her assistant Cindy.

“Mrs. Lane,” the young community college dropout said breathlessly, “I confused the time and day for your dinner date with your husband. It’s tonight and you have about thirty minutes to get to the restaurant.”

Rage seethed through Sarah’s body and she fought the urge to cuss out the young woman. Firing her was impossible, Cindy’s mom owned Davis Residential Builders, the biggest development company in north Georgia. By keeping the young slacker on her payroll all the real estate agents that worked for Sarah got first shot at all new homes Davis Residential built. For Sarah, keeping Cindy was just part of the difficult business equation she had to wrestle with on a daily basis.

Like her husband Jacob had done earlier, Sarah’s first thought was to have Cindy call him and reschedule. “Sorry, Mrs. Lane,” Cindy responded, “I can’t reach him for some reason.”

Sarah bit her tongue in an attempt not to ask Cindy the question as to whether she actually dialed the right number. Instead Sarah began running the equation in her mind as to whether she should drop everything and leave since the restaurant was just a few blocks away or to just stay at the condo and finish up with the couple in hopes of making the sale.

Sarah was surprised to discover that she really wanted to stay with the couple since despite their glacial pace they appeared to be leaning heavily towards buying the place. But as Sarah continued to run the numbers through her head she remembered what the marriage counselor said about her insane pace of life and that if she wanted to stay married to Jacob something would have to give. Jacob had always been a good husband and father, simple decency required she try and make things work. 

“Alright Cindy,” Sarah said, “I’m leaving the condo to go met my husband, I want you to immediately come here and stay with the buyers. Please be sure to lock up once they leave. I’ll touch base with you after I’m done.” After saying goodbye to the couple she walked out the door and hurried toward the restaurant.


Sarah arrived just as Jacob stepped out of the cab. They looked at each other and hesitated, some echo of a memory whispered that they should be glad to see each other. They almost embraced but instead Jacob just opened the door and allowed Sarah to enter first.

After the host seated them they both attempted to tell each other about their day. The conversation was stilted as each noticed the attention of the other easily drifted away. They eventually abandoned any attempt to chat and just ate in silence once their meals were served. Both took refuge in their own thoughts and what would be required of them after they were free to run back to their jobs.

With the check paid they walked out the restaurant. “I’ll see you back at the house once I make sure Cindy didn’t scare that couple away and that she locked up the condo.” Sarah said.

“Oh, don’t wait up for me,” Jacob replied, “I’ve got that report to finish and notes to write for my speech. I may just stay at the office.”

For a moment they looked at each other before parting. Some flicker of whatever it was that once brought them together still existed but it was elusive as a fine mist in a dark room and neither felt they had to time to find it again. But what really caused them to run back to their own pursuits was the utter emptiness they could no longer ignore as they looked into each other’s eyes. 


Pixel Peeper said...

...if for no other reason than simple inertia...

It is so sad, but there are a lot of marriages out there based on inertia. I wonder how many couples manage to find their way back together again and how many end up bitter and lonely.

And I also wonder how many people worked like that only to get laid off during some downsizing.

Cloudia said...

Inertial guidance. . . .
perhaps there is more meaning to the inertial than we think?

ALOHA from Honolulu
Comfort Spiral

Rose L said...

So realistic. Well written.One typo I saw:
“Alright Cindy,” Sarah said, “I’m leaving the condo to go met my husband,..."
Instead of met it should be meet

Akelamalu said...

Oh how sad.:(

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Sad tale, but a lot of truth in it. If more couples were willing to put as much effort into their marriages as they put into their jobs, there'd be a lot let inertia in their lives, and a lot fewer divorces in the world.

Slick said...

Sometimes it's hard to find what it was that drew you to someone in the first place. It gets shoved to the back of your head by jobs, family needs, social whatever, etc..

It takes serious work sometimes to see the person I fell for without the rest getting in the way.

Teresa said...

Good story! Were the Assistants working towards getting them "together".