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"A better life through weight loss," said the flyer.
But Harrison had long since lost the art of believing in promises, and already regretted accepting the bit of paper that had been thrust into his hand. He crumpled it into his pocket and started to hurry across the crosswalk.
And that was when it happened, five minutes from the office and the robotic routines of the rest of his life. He got a muscle cramp. The big muscle in his left thigh locked up. It was agonizing.
"Help me," croaked Harrison.
But the commuting crowd abandoned the crippled one to his fate. Honking steel surged forward. He was going to be clipped into paraplegia, smashed, crushed. A red paintjob breathed past his face.
"Poochie," he begged. "Help me!"
But childhood was many years back, and little dog Poochie was many years dead.
And then the crosswalk was alive with pedestrians again, and his cramp was easing, and he found he could stumble to safety, which he did, appalled at how badly he had been humiliated, at how completely he had been broken. Praying to Poochie, of all things!
"A better life," said Harrison.
He would have to get a better life. But weight loss wouldn't do it. His weight was already optimal.
The notion of a better life stayed with Harrison through the day. But what was he going to do to get his better life started? He had no idea. Nothing in his life had changed by the early afternoon, when Gander came round.
"Late this morning," said Supervisor Gander, the stopwatch man, the guy who ruled and was ruled by statistics. "I know I've got your transfer request on my desk."
The transfer request had been on Gander's desk for almost six months, during which period Gander had reminded Harrison about it at least once a week, always under unfortunate circumstances.
"Sorry," mumbled Harrison. "It won't happen again."
And clicked his make-work program into life to hide the fact that he had run out of things to do, and consequently should have been downsized on the spot.
For a few minutes, Gander openly surveilled Harrison, watching him click important-looking decision boxes, then he went away again. The good thing about Gander was that he understood very little apart from how to tie his own shoelaces.
"A better life through drinking coffee," said Harrison, looking at his watch.
He had no idea where this revolutionary idea had come from. An idea, surely, that it was impossible to implement. After all, it was only 2.37 pm, and the afternoon coffee break, which the staff were encouraged to take in "group informational transfer mode" in the cafeteria, was not scheduled to start until 3 pm.
"I don't dare," said Harrison.
But, given that his weight was optimal, how else was he going to transform his life?
Of course, starting on your coffee break early changes nothing. It was far too insignificant as a source of transformational initiatives. To change your life, you need to do something more daring, like climbing Mount Everest or getting that face transplant.
The truth of this came home to Harrison as he sat in the cafeteria long, long after the end of the afternoon's mandated "informational optimization segment," as the daily gossip sessions were called. He had tried to transform his life, and he had failed.
Harrison was still sitting there in the cafeteria at 4.42 pm when the big boss, Mr Smogman, sat down across from him.
"Taking a break, Harrison?" said Smogman, pulling the tab on a caffeine drink.
"I guess," said Harrison, who had no excuses, and no time to formulate any.
"Well, as I always say," said Smogman indulgently, "a dead employee is an embarrassment ... albeit a minor one. Don't work yourself to death, son. By the way, are you in on the Edenbrith merger?"
"No," said Harrison, wondering how to signal the fact that he was way too many years old to be called "son" by anyone, even Mr Smogman.
"Well, you should be," said Mr Smogman. "It's a fascinating deal. Let me explain ...."
And he was still at it half an hour later when Supervisor Gander came into the cafeteria.
"Harrison!" said Gander. "There you are!"
Mr Smogman, interrupted in midflow (and displeased to be interrupted, since Harrison had proved such a very attentive audience) looked up.
"Gander, isn't it?" said Smogman. "I was just discussing the Edenbrith deal with Harrison here. You're not going to snatch him away to count paperclips or something, are you?"
"No, sir," said Gander.
And was gone inside of seven seconds.
When Harrison finally dawdled back to the office, he found his long-delayed Transfer Approval form on his desk, duly stamped and signed by Gander. The universe, evidently, had changed. And all it had taken was that decision to go get an early cup of coffee.
Evening, and Harrison was home in his apartment. He opened his usual can of cat food and poured himself a glass of cooking wine to accompany it. Then, in memory of the revelationary events of the day, he added a picture of little dog Poochie to the graffiti on the wall.
With an iron, he smoothed the creases from the morning's flyer, and thumbtacked its message next to the Poochie pic.
"A better life through weight loss," said Harrison.
A better life, that was the key thing. His life was full of transformational possibilities. Things were going to happen. After twenty years in the company, he had secured his long-desired transfer to the Contagious Warts Section. He was on his way!
This lifechange story, "A BETTER LIFE," was first published when posted online by Hugh Cook 2004 September 25 Saturday. Copyright © 2004 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.
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