2022, Senior, Creative Writing
Howard, by all accounts, was a middling man. He lived in a landlocked town whose most famous resident held a 1994 Biannual Speed Eating Championship title—there was no notable part about the victory except that it came by default. Howard had no relation to said suburban celebrity, though he too was perfectly content with letting things happen to him. He kept the path of least resistance well-trodden and paved with the cobblestones of “if you please” and “not a bother” and “alright with me.” His acquiescence landed him a position as a low-tier manager for a nondescript advertising firm, where he was quite happy piddling about for half of the day. He stopped often at the water cooler as his coworkers chattered about the weather and children. Few other topics were as important or invigorating, and none at all could compare to the novelty of discussing weather as it related to children.
“The little ones are all sullen about not being able to go on a trip. It’s their summer vacation and all, but these temperatures! We’re boiling like lobsters and, y’know, I’ve heard that in those Western parts, streetlamps are melting and those little dice that swing back and forth from the rearview—have you seen those?—guess what? They’re like putty. Unbelievable!”
“Unbelievable! And, see, this is what I’ve been telling my in-laws—”
“The in-laws, of course—”
“I’ve been saying, ‘let’s get out of the country, let’s go to the seaside,’ and they go, ‘Oh, but it’s just too hot, what about the kids, it’s burning!’ and I have no choice, of course—”
“Because they’re your in-laws, right—”
“Yes, exactly! Howard understands, don’t cha, Howard?”
Howard had none of his own commentary to offer, being indifferent to most every topic, but his services as a perpetual sideline nodder were appreciated. Offering a courteous smile, Howard maneuvered around the conversation and filled a cone cup to the brim at the water cooler. He had had his grievances with the flimsy things, with their pulpous brims and their inability to simply rest on a flat surface. The fact that he had to use one at all was annoying enough, but an odd stream of bubbles rose in the jug, a handful more than there was supposed to be.
Howard was all for divergence from the norm in cases that did not directly affect him. He was set on edge, now, his delightful mundanity carbonated against his will. He watched a different parched colleague obtain his own dunce hat. The faucet handle was lifted and water was procured, followed by an incessant drip-drip-dripping stream that flowed right over the grated tray and soaked right into the carpet. Howard’s floor of the office was not ground level, and his stomach churned for the moment the people below him would notice a coffee-colored splatter desecrating their fiberglass ceiling titles. Duty’s call echoed.
Twiddling his thumbs might have been Howard’s favorite pastime, for there was hardly anything more gratifying than hoping, wishing, and praying for something to be solved, then seeing another person arrive at a feasible solution weeks after the fact. It was the closest thing to magic in a universe of dress code khaki and 15-minute lunch breaks. Howard was a sorcerer, and empty promises comprised his grimoire. Naturally, he had his favored incantation. If Howard happened to spot the temp struggling to push a dolly’s worth of paperwork into the conference room, he’d avert his eyes and utter to his mind’s ear, Someone else’ll take care of it. And someone would—a kind receptionist scurrying over with a phone pressed between head and shoulder, or a passing handyman willing to help unload. His mantra applied to picketers, online petitioners, and television commercials featuring black-and-white animal shelters. When all was said and done, Howard had proven himself an expert at problem ratification again and again.
Howard made eye contact with his fellow cone-holder, as to commiserate, to cry out into the silence between two like-minded people: I notice! I feel! I grieve! His gaze drifted to the water dispenser and its unceasing dribble, while his coworker’s attention fixated on the clock.
When Howard drove home—a one-room flat in the bowl of the bell curve featuring a singular potted plant and a coffee table adorned with never-to-be-read books—he thought for the first time in a while. A survivalist instinct to stick in the middle of the pack perhaps would not come in handy for him on this occasion. He had flown too close to the sun in caring about a problem so humdrum yet so esoteric. However, his spell had not failed him yet, and he proceeded about business as usual with a minute change to his routine.
“The rain’s been terrible lately—”
“How is this happening every week? Thunderstorm warning here, tornado scare here.”
“It is such a hassle to wake the kids up and tuck them away in their bathtub with their blankies and storybooks to wait out the night. And y’know, the in-laws—”
“Ugh. The in-laws—”
“‘Why don’t you let them rest? If it was really serious, they’d get up themselves,’ on and on every single day.”
“I know. I know.”
“You get it, like—you tell them ‘there’s a flood scare tonight,’ and they say ‘oh, well, move to a better location’—”
“Who’s paying for it, Mom? Who’s gonna buy the property? Right? You get it.”
“I do. Oh, Howard, you made it! Awful rain recently.”
Howard lifted the corners of his lips, then made a beeline to the cooler. Grabbing a wretched paper cone, lifting the faucet handle, and watching the bubbles expand like shopping bags catching a breeze, he sighed. Someone else should’ve taken care of this by now, he marveled as liquid dribbled onto his Oxfords. With every day that passed since he had first discovered the water dispenser’s faulty faucet and exaggerated effervescence, he expected more and more people to take note. But the inane discussions continued, with nothing ever getting done. Howard was used to waiting, and so he waited a bit longer. Magic was unpredictable and inconvenient.
Weeks and weeks afterward, an unexpected sight greeted Howard as he waded through knee-deep water to get to his car. Luckily for him and his aversion to anything out of the ordinary, he was allowed some degree of normalcy. Several recognizable coworkers floated down the street in an inflatable yellow raft, sticking to a topic they knew.
“Had to tell the little ones today, ‘Mommy and Daddy can’t take you to the zoo right now, they don’t do those anymore.’”
“Such a shame. ‘Birdwatching’s not really a thing, sweetie.’ Breaks my heart.”
“It’s heartbreaking. It really is.”
“Howard, you can’t go back in there.”
Howard had taken swimming classes in his youth (though he had never been able to proceed past the intermediate level, too frightened to dive from the block), and his talent for breaststroke helped him cross the now-river and enter his office from a broken second-floor window. From atop a floating desk, he surveyed the situation, locating blue 0.7 millimeter ballpoint pens, sticky note memoranda, and a portrait of his own face blazoned with Employee of the Month in the mess.
When he laid his eyes upon the water cooler still standing strong in the corner, he was relieved at the sight. Howard was impressed by its durability, and though it had been failing him for the past handful of months, it at least did not fail him by drifting off to an unreachable location. Stretching himself from desk to desk and splaying his limbs every which way, he came close enough to hold prolonged eye contact with the cooler. It was not particularly fond of the privacy invasion and let out an excess trickle to notify Howard of the fact.
Frustrated, Howard reached forth with all of his might, seized the spigot, and twisted all the way to the right. Grabbing a loose paper cone meandering between “Number 1” gift mugs, he gritted his teeth at the sogginess and turned the accursed cold water tap up. He braced himself for another wave of disappointment—but it never came. Howard had done it. No more trickles, no unnecessary bubbles, no future coffee stains on the ceiling. He did not feel glee but a solemn sense of relief as he rotated the filled cone in his hand.
Why didn’t someone else take care of this sooner?
Howard represents a quality present in every person, a tendency to lose sight of the bigger picture and zero in on problems that affect us personally rather than the ones that may shape the future of humanity. We are often all too comfortable with leaving terms like "extinction event" in the same abstract category as "zombie apocalypse"; the former is just as tangible to us as the latter in our everyday lives. As we follow Howard, the state of the outside world is only revealed through snippets of small talk. He, generally, is stuck in his own head, fixated upon a minor aggravation. The rest of us may not be as narrow-minded as our Howard, but we, too, stick to our habits and what we know. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "The Stanley Parable" were my two biggest influences in capturing the extraordinary adventures of an extra ordinary person. Both are remarkably English in their humor—at one point in the writing process, I remarked to my mother, "I'm starting to sound like a forty-year-old British man!" The particular brand of tongue-in-cheek satire they share appealed to me when it came to making light of such a heavy topic.