A Chance Encounter

Like the few previous posts before it, this is based on a prompt from the book 642 Things to Write About.

Twenty-year-old Janelle Anderson wandered through the mall, randomly popping in and out of stores while her mind also wandered; she felt aimless, adrift, and not sure where to go next. As she exited the store she was in, she flipped her black hair back, a bit more out of her eyes. Her head was half-shaved on one side, and while she loved the look, her hair always fell forward into her eyes, and it had started to become annoying.

Everything seemed annoying these days, though. Her boss had been on her case about everything and nothing was good enough. Whether she was a minute late to work, requested a specific day off, asked for specific shifts, or even asked for overtime, it seemed troublesome. It didn’t matter if she cleared more calls than any of her fellow call center employees or the customer surveys said the customers were happy after she helped them, it wasn’t good enough. Mix in her own feelings of inadequacy from a father who ignored her before walking out completely, not really knowing what she wanted from life, but knowing she wanted more, it was no wonder she felt like she was being carried along at the mercy of the current.

She stood outside Hot Topic, looked around and saw the Dillard’s department store at the end of the wing and traipsed towards it. As she entered Dillard’s, she made a beeline through the cosmetics section to avoid the overpowering smell of the multitude of fragrances, emerged from the overlit cosmetics section by the shoe department, with the men’s shoes on the right and the women’s on the left.

She spotted a man sitting in the men’s section, on a chair near the back wall of shoes. After taking two more steps, Janelle’s brain registered recognition. She turned, looked again and saw it was indeed Mr. Jeffries, her high school English teacher. Sophomore year, if she remembered correctly. She also recalled him being somewhat nice, even encouraging her to write more.

After a moment’s hesitation, she decided to go over and say hello. As she neared Mr. Jeffries, she noticed he was crying, hesitated again, thinking it might be an awkward moment to say hello. And, not understanding why, she decided to go over to him anyway.

David Jeffries was 36 and found himself sitting in a department store, looking at shoes that he couldn’t afford, although that didn’t really matter. Shopping for shoes made him think of his late wife – it had been one of their first dates. His teacher’s salary was barely enough to cover the basics, and his late wife didn’t have insurance when she was involved in a car accident that put her in the hospital for four days before her broken body finally failed. Those four days were the longest of his life, or so he thought. The next six months proved that feeling false; it seemed as if every day after she passed got progressively longer.

The first night after she died was a mixture of sleeping, crying, laying in a nearly catatonic state of exhaustion for an hour, finally falling asleep again, only to repeat the cycle. The emptiness was bottomless for those first few days, and while the depth of loneliness abated, its breadth expanded, taking over every part of his heart. His ambition, desire, and motivation were all gone. The emptiness had even spread to his classroom. Whereas before his students work, while not perfect, could bring a smile to his face, lately, even his best students’ work elicited no response from him. He was depressed, in a funk, knew it, and longed for a way out of the deep hole that trapped him.

“Mr. Jeffries?” Janelle said hesitantly, even though she was relatively certain it was him.

David jerked his head up. He had been staring at a pair of shoes in his hand, lost in thought. He paused, trying to place the face in front of him. Suddenly, he remembered. “Janelle!” he said, a smile replacing the frown that had just been there as he wiped away the tears that had been on his face. “How long has it been? You must have been in my class, what, about three or four years ago now?”

Surprise registered over Janelle’s face. She hadn’t expected Mr. Jeffries to remember her name. “I think so. I graduated in 2018, so that would be about right. How are you doing?”

“Well, I’m guessing you see these tears, so I’ll be honest: it’s been a rough six months,” he said in an embarrassed tone. “I don’t know if you heard, but my wife was killed in a car accident. On one of our first few dates, we’d gone shoe shopping for new shoes for me. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but it was one of our best dates. Enough about me, though. How have you been doing since you graduated?”

“Alright, I guess. I’ve been working at a call center, and it’s been a bit tough for me, too. My boss isn’t ever happy with me, and my schedule is a bit difficult. And, my mom has cancer,” she continued with exhaustion in her voice, “and ever since my dad left us, it’s been twice as hard.”

“I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. You’re a good daughter for taking care of her, and I’m sure she appreciates the sacrifices you’re making,” he said. Shifting the subject, he asked, “Did you ever continue your education after high school? I always thought you had some real talent for writing. Whenever I was grading writing assignments, I always looked forward to reading what you had written when I saw yours was the next paper in the stack.”

“Really? I remember we had to write several stories in your class. I always thought mine were silly. And when we had to write the ‘suicide essays’ where we had to write and defend a random topic in 10 minutes, I don’t think I did very well.”

“Hmm,” David replied, pausing and thinking for a second. “I don’t remember your final grade in my class, but I can’t believe it was anything less than a B, and I would have expected an A. Do you remember what it was?”

Janelle paused herself and thought back to her sophomore year. “I feel like it was a B, but I’m honestly not sure.”

“Wait a minute!” Mr. Jeffries exclaimed. “I remember it now. I believe you had an A, but you didn’t turn in an assignment that brought you down an entire grade. I specifically remember it, because I thought the topic was perfect for you, and I expected a fantastic story. And when I asked you about it, you didn’t have an answer as to why you didn’t do the assignment. It killed me to have to give you that zero.”

“Yeah,” she said sheepishly. “I remembered. I was mad at you for not letting me turn it in late,” Janelle said. “My mom’s cancer that I mentioned? She was in treatment then, too, and I felt overwhelmed. It’s been in remission, but just came back.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that. If I ever had a student I wanted to make an exception for, it was you.” He paused for a second, and then added, “I wish I’d known then. If you’d told me in advance, we could have probably worked something out, but I couldn’t do it after the fact. If I’d made an exception for you, it wouldn’t have been fair to everyone else.  But back to my other question. Did you ever continue with school?”

“No, I didn’t think there was anything in school for me. I remember thinking I couldn’t afford it, and I don’t even know what classes I’d take. It seemed out of reach.”

David sighed. He thought of the guidance counselor at school, Mr. Stevens. He was 58, a year away from retiring, and from what he had seen, he had been doing the minimum needed to get to his retirement and a guaranteed pension. Not that he blamed him; the system was so broken that it could drain the life out of even the most enthusiastic teachers. Fortunately, he was the exception and not the rule. But he had clearly failed Janelle.

David said to Janelle, “I’ll tell you what. I believe in you, and I really do think you have some writing talent, and I’d hate to see you not even try school. If you write that assignment for me that you never turned in, I’ll pay for your first English class at community college. What do you think?”

Of course, as the words were coming out of his mouth, his brain was screaming “You can’t afford this! What are you doing?” But at the same time, the other part of his brain told him that all this young woman needed was someone to believe in her, and give her encouragement. Too many kids had been raised without parents to encourage them, especially fathers. Because no matter how hard a single mom worked, regardless of how fantastic a mom they were, kids still needed fathers or at least a strong male role model. His heart warmed at the thought all his father had done for him.

Janelle looked at him kind of weird, her mind processing his offer. “Why would you do that for me?” she asked a little suspiciously.

“Because, like I said earlier, I always thought that you had a real talent for writing and I’d hate to see it go undeveloped. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’ll write down my phone number. If you want to take me up on my offer, call me within a week. We’ll meet somewhere – you can pick the place, bring a friend if you want – and I’ll read that assignment. When you enroll, I’ll go to the community college and pay for that English class. Deal?”

Confused as to why someone would do this for her, and still a bit suspicious, she agreed. “OK. But I can pick the place and bring a friend?”

“Absolutely!” he said with enthusiasm, trying to set her at ease.

He wrote down his number, they exchanged goodbyes, and as she walked away, David felt a little alive inside. It was just an inkling of the feeling he felt when one of his students had nailed an assignment, but it was something. As she walked away, Janelle felt encouraged, felt a bit of hope, and felt that perhaps maybe she had a direction to go.

Four Years Later

David sat in the crowd with his new wife, Dawn. While it had taken almost another year to get back to a place where he felt like he could breathe, that encounter with Janelle had been the turning point for him; it had reminded him of the joy he felt in teaching. He’d poured himself back into his teaching, eventually met Dawn, fallen in love, and they’d been married for almost two years.

A man announced “Janelle Anderson, magna cum laude.” Janelle walked purposefully and confidently across the stage, and the man handed her the diploma she had earned. David, Dawn, and Janelle’s mom stood up and cheered.

As she walked across the stage, she thought of all the times she had almost quit, but it always seemed it was those moments Mr. Jeffries had called, out of the blue, to see how she was doing and offer encouragement. And after he’d met Dawn, Janelle thought she would never hear from him again, but instead, she gained a friend and another cheerleader. Who would have thought that a random encounter with someone, let alone a former teacher who was crying in the mall at the sight of a shoe, could change the course of her life?

A Moment of Regret

My daughter gave me a book of writing prompts for Christmas. The story below is the result of one of those prompts.

Before including my story, though, I want to make sure people understand that it is not autobiographical. While I have suffered from depression at various times in my life, it has never been as serious as what I’m writing about below. If you suffer from depression or are thinking of hurting yourself, please get help. Tell a friend or loved one, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or you can even chat with them online. You can also text the Crisis Text Line by sending texting HOME to 741741 in the United States, and text with someone who will help you. If you’re thinking about taking your own life or even just experiencing a crisis, please reach out to someone, because you matter!

His view from the 40th story was beautiful and breathtaking, although none of that mattered anymore. It didn’t matter because a little over three seconds ago he’d placed a step stool up against the railing, slowly stepped up it, hesitantly leaned forward, and paused before remembering he was doing this to calm the incessant, discordant feelings that beset him on a daily basis. Those feelings made his days a constant up and down affair, almost as if he were riding on a merry-go-round, except each dip down went further down than the previous dip and never quite got back as high as it had the previous time. After that brief pause, he redoubled his resolve and leaned forward until gravity took over.

Knowing that the merry-go-round would soon stop, the peacefulness overcame him instantly. He heard nothing but the rushing wind as he continued his freefall; not the sound of the daily rush hour traffic below, not the sound of the construction of the skyscraper across the street. Even the tortured music accompanying his ever lower-dipping, merry-go-round faded into the background.

After a few seconds of falling, while freefalling past the 28th floor, a noise broke through his reverie of nothingness. Was that a phone ringing? It was a phone, and it jarred him back into reality. It resurrected the memory of the phone call – just yesterday – from his parents and the conversation about his upcoming visit, his father telling him how proud he was about the success of his business, and how well he balanced that with being a good husband and father. Pangs of guilt ripped through his mind as he realized he never had a chance to thank his parents for all they had done to shape him into the successful man he had become.

That memory quickly morphed into the ringtone on his phone for when his wife called, followed by the memory of the call yesterday and the sound of her naturally ebullient voice telling him how much she loved him, missed him, couldn’t wait to get home from her trip and feel his arms around her. He suddenly longed for the feeling of her body pressed against him in a warm, enveloping hug, while staring into eyes that radiated nothing but love back at him. He felt horrible guilt for leaving this amazing woman alone, a woman always filled with joy, who had done all she could to help him escape the spinning of his personal, hellish merry-go-round.

The ringing transformed into the sound of a bell on a bike ringing, and his memory quickly shifted to just a few days ago at the park when he glimpsed the beautiful, azure sky when he looked up to catch the pop fly his son had hit. A feeling of loss seared into his soul as he realized that he would never again have a chance to spend a fun afternoon at the park with his son, playing ball and helping to guide him into becoming a better man than he was.

Again, the ringing transformed. This time, though, the ringing was the sound of FaceTime. He remembered the thought of his beautiful, sweet, innocent, daughter looking at him with her brown hair and brown eyes saying “I love you, Daddy, and can’t wait until you come home!” after reading her a bedtime story via FaceTime, and telling her goodnight when he was on his last trip. To never see those wondrous, curious, brown eyes again tore him apart.

Another ringing sound played through his mind as he recalled a morning over ten years ago, his phone ringing, over and over again, finally realizing what the noise was, and then fumbling to answer it. The ringing was a reminder of that night of insanity as a younger man, a paragon of a single man’s night out with his best friend. He thought of his friend who had stood firm through the good and bad times, a friend who would help you bury a body at 2 a.m., no questions asked, if that’s what you needed. He was overcome at the thought of no more nights out with his best friend, and it filled him with a sense of loss and regret.

All these thoughts melded themselves into a sense of regret, rage, and a realization of the selfishness of his action. The regret was for what he’d done; that the death that was quickly approaching would strip him of the opportunity to ever again remember all the wonderful moments and people in his life. His action had revoked the chance to experience more moments like those that had flashed through his mind as he plummeted to his death.

The rage was directed at himself, for his inability to see everything that was good in front of him; rage at not doing more to get help when he knew he needed help. His realization of selfishness prompted rage and guilt at himself for leaving his wife to deal with the aftermath of his death, for leaving his children fatherless, and for leaving everyone with their guilt as they wondered “Should I have seen this coming? Could I have stopped this?”

He wished he could go back in time, just several seconds, and never stepped up on that stool. He wished he could have gotten off the descending merry-go-round, broken through the darkness, and found joy through the everyday moments of life, both the good and bad, because he realized the darkness wasn’t as painful as the regret he was feeling.

None of that mattered now, though. The words “I’m sorry” left his lips as the merry-go-round lurched as if the gear keeping it spinning and going up and down had broken. It began to slow over the next few seconds, finally stopping, all while its dark soundtrack slowly faded away into silence.