It was hot. Then again it was always hot in August. But this wasn’t the kind of hot that prompted a trip to the beach. It was the kind of hot that led to afternoons complaining with a cold cloth on your forehead, trying to get your parents to turn on the AC while you sweat in places you didn’t know were possible. But our hero did not care for such things. His problem was much greater than the weather. At approximately 10:23AM on a particularly hot Tuesday, he was called into the office of the man he worked for, Mr. Brayden. As he talked, our hero picked up words like downsizing, and stock value, and knew what it meant.
“I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to you, Kenneth.” Mr. Brayden said, and Ken, who hadn’t been called Kenneth by anyone other than his mother since the third grace, looked up at Mr. Brayden, trying to contain just how shocked he was. How couldn’t he be? He thought over his morning, to all of the moments that stuck in his mind. Alarm going off at exactly 7AM, rolling out of bed and looking in the mirror, seeing the same brown eyes and curly black hair, the same pillow marks on his face making his skin look like brown corduroy. Heading out the door by 8:05 he had made his way to work, his morning routine intact just the way he liked it.
Walking down the street he stepped up to his first morning stop. “How are you today, Peter?” He asked the vendor,
“How’s Annie?” Annie was Peter’s wife, a pleasant woman, despite being married to Peter.
“Good.” Peter said, “At her mother’s this week for one last mini vacation before the baby comes.” Ken handed over two slightly crumpled one dollar bills and Peter added sugar to the cup. “There you are.” Peter dropped $0.37 into Ken’s palm, and gave a rare smile. Ken continued down the street dropping the change into the same homeless man’s Styrofoam cup as he did every other day, rounding the corner to his next destination. The small newspaper stand that had promised to set aside a copy of the Times every morning.
“Here he is!” Dave the newspaper vendor said, “Same time as always.” Ken put his sunglasses on top of his head and looked at his watch, 8:24AM. He was right on time. He asked Dave about business, and if his daughter had made the honor roll at school, before using the coffee he had bought only minutes before to salute him. Turning on his heel, he continued towards the subway that he had been taking for years, walking underground to where it was cooler.
The subway was particularly crowded today, full of people who normally walked trying to get out of the sunlight as much as they could. Ken stood reading his paper, after giving up his seat to a young woman with a swollen belly. She thanked him, dropping into the seat with a sigh of relief, opening up a copy of Vanity Fair, while using another magazine, Parenthood, to fan herself. He overheard a conversation between two women who had just moved into an apartment with a third party named Michelle, whose mention always prompted an eye roll from both, as they discussed how they’d tell her that while they loved when she had parties on Wednesday’s, they had jobs and needed sleep. He watched as a woman spoke in rapid Spanish on the phone braiding her young daughter’s hair.
Ken’s stop came before theirs, and he left them, allowing himself to be led by the throng of people making their way to the financial district. He walked through the station, listening to the mechanical voice that echoed the tunnels, telling everyone to “Stand clear of the closing doors please”. As he made his way to the top of the steps he pulled his sunglasses on, his world transforming into a blend of earth tones as an almost audible sigh escaped him, opening his eyes from the squint that the daylight had reduced him to.
He had made it to work on time, catching an elevator heading to the 16th floor, squished between a man who smelled like beef jerky and a woman filing her nails. When he made it to his floor he was engulfed with the sound of telephones and boring conversations, most of which had nothing to do with investment in any way. He walked through the office, making his way to the small IT department that he shared with two other technicians. He spent at least an hour watching them trying to build part of a computer out of car parts until a secretary rushed through the door, phone in hand, eyes panicked.
“My phone’s broken!” She said, “Can you fix it?” She held it out in both her hands, as if it were sacred.
“Did you try turning it off and back on again?” The response he gave to everyone and that worked most of the time.
“Oh.” She said, “No I didn’t.” He watched as she forced her phone to shut down and then turned it on. “I can’t believe that worked! Thanks!” She turned away for a moment before backtracking, leaning on the doorframe. “Mr. Brayden would like to see you.” Ken didn’t know what to expect from his meeting with Mr. Brayden, but he didn’t imagine that it would end with his dismissal from the company.
“We just don’t have the resources we used to, and we don’t need three people working IT.” Mr. Brayden said, “We felt that you have been falling behind recently, and that it would be better if we just let you go now. No hard feelings I hope.” Mr. Brayden stood up and straightened his tie. Before holding out his hand, his sad smile only somewhat genuine. Ken shook his hand and returned the smile, in his mind going over all the things he wanted to say to Mr. Brayden but knew he never would. Instead he collected himself and walked away, heading back to the small IT department that had been his work for three years. He picked up the name plate that sat on the desk Kenneth Todd. Never in his life had he felt like a Kenneth. That was a name for someone who had accomplished things, someone who had moved up in the ranks of business and had their own office. He was just Ken.
Cleaning off his desk was easy. All it contained was his name plate and a stapler. When he had wandered into the building three years ago he had no intention of staying there. Fresh out of college and looking for something to pay the bills while he looked for the kind of job he wanted, One that would let him help people, one that would make him a hero. But he had fallen into a routine that was safe and comfortable just the way he liked it.
After putting the belongings in his bag he headed for the elevator, looking away from all of his ex-coworkers, denying them the satisfaction of knowing just how upset he was. He instead held his head high and sang Bohemian Rhapsody to himself all the way down to the first floor. Exiting the air conditioned vacuum, and entering the humid and horn filled world that awaited beyond the doors of unemployment.
Ken found it hard to see the good that could come from his current situation, but he had decided to make the best he could and take his usual route home. At least his routine wouldn’t be too altered. Heading away from the building and wandering toward the corner that always had his favorite donut stand. There was usually a line of high school and college students, just finishing their intern jobs for the day, but at 10:24 in the morning, they were nowhere to be found, and much to his’s despair, the donut stall was gone as well. Ken decided he would not be thwarted so easily, and shrugged it off.
He continued on and looked for the hot dog stand that sometimes served as his dinner, deciding today it was the right choice. He found himself whistling, watching the people around him more closely than usual. He made his way to the corner where Carl’s Hot Dog stand always was, but on this particular day in August, much to the dismay of Kenneth Todd, there was instead a stand with the name, Margaret’s Homemade Ice Cream in place of the hot dog stand.
“Hi!” The girl at the stand said, “Welcome to Margaret’s Homemade Ice Cream.” She smiled, “I’m Margaret, and what can I get you today?” She seemed cheerful enough, but Ken had been denied his job, and a donut, and was not in the mood for her smile.
“Where’s Carl?” He asked.
“He’s not here yet.” Margaret seemed a little taken aback, but her smile didn’t waver for even a second. “He’ll be here at three. I have the corner until then.” She stared at Ken, and he did his best to return her smile. She didn’t deserve his bad day. It wasn’t her fault he got fired, it wasn’t her fault that the donut stand had been nowhere to be found, and it certainly wasn’t her fault for doing her job. He looked at the sign. Ice cream did sound good.
“What flavors do you have?” He put his sunglasses on top of his head and listened as she listed them off.
“I’ll have some salted caramel.” He said, “In a dish if you don’t mind.” She nodded, and got to work, Ken taking out his wallet almost reluctantly. He was without employment now, and wouldn’t be able to afford snack runs everyday as he did now.
“There you go.” Margaret said, handing him a dish with a spoon sticking out of it.
“Thank you.” He paid, looking around at the city that existed before 5PM. He saw nannies with small children, families on vacation looking around and taking pictures of everything, the everyday hustle and bustle of the city that he always missed. He stood next to Margaret’s stand a little while longer, eating his ice cream, taking in the city, letting the caramel and salt melt on his tongue before continuing on towards his apartment.
The next morning when his alarm went off at 7AM Ken got up, showered, and headed out the door, stopping first for his morning coffee and then for his newspaper. His transition to unemployment came easy he found. It was a simple routine to fall into, and for this he was grateful. Spending his days leaving his apartment at 8:05AM, and reading the classified ads in the morning newspaper while riding the subway trying to find anything that looked like IT work. Stopping at Margaret’s for ice cream everyday was always the last thing he did before heading home. It was usually around 11:24AM, and by day three she knew his order.
“Salted Caramel again?” She asked when he walked up, and he nodded, taking out his wallet again, and pulling out some of the last dollars he had left. A few days before he had calculated that he could be unemployed for another month before having to cut anything from his routine. Ken had never been a big spender, and now that he had no income he was grateful for this.
Margaret handed him the bowl of ice cream, spoon sticking out of it as it had been everyday for two weeks, the same smile as she made change and handed him a small printed receipt. Ken stood a few feet away from the stand as he had been everyday, noting that even this small part of his day was now routine, loving the simplicity of it, when a man dressed surprisingly similar to himself walked up.
“Hey sweetie, just stopping by.” He said, and put his hand on Margaret’s shoulder, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek. Ken watched as Margaret began to prepare another bowl of ice cream, listening to the man talk about his new business.
“Things are going better, but the teenager in Queens I told you about won’t leave us alone. He’s broken into our system four times this week.” Ken listened with curiosity as the man described his predicament, using terms that Ken knew well, and knew how to fix.
“What kind of Security do you have set up?” He asked, causing both Margaret and the man to look at him, as if they had forgotten there was a third party standing within ear shot.
“I uh, I don’t know.” The man said, “We just started business a few months ago. I thought it would be years before anyone tried anything.”
“What have your IT guys done about it?” Ken asked, intrigued by the situation this man was in.
“We don’t have IT guys, it’s hard to find people these days who know that Firewall isn’t an actual wall.” He turned to Margaret and rolled his eyes, sharing a joke that only they understood.
“I’m Ken by the way.” Ken held out his hand and the man gave a small smile.
“Daniel.” He shook Ken’s hand, “Tell me Ken, what line of work are you in?”
“I’m an IT guy.” He said, “If you want I could come take a look at the kind of damage this guy has done and see what I can do to fix it.” Ken said, biting the inside of his lip, had he offered too soon? He just met this man!
“Would you?” Daniel asked, “That would be fantastic, I’m not sure if I can pay you for your trouble because you’re not a real employee, but if you can fix our problem I’m sure the other members of the board would be willing to consider hiring you to work IT at least part time.” After discussing the problem Daniel’s small business was facing the two men exchanged contact information.
“I’ve got to get to the office, but I’ll text you the details tonight.” Daniel said, shaking hands with Ken again before turning to Margaret. “I’ll see you tonight.”
“Go get ’em tiger.” Margaret said, laughing as he kissed her nose. She watched him go, hands on her hips shaking her head, playful smile still present on her face.
“What kind of business is Daniel in?” Ken asked, and Margaret turned to him.
“He started his own loan company.” Margaret said, “Daniel used to work for a huge corporation and he hated to see how they took advantage of people by adding interest to their loans. So he decided to start his own company that would help people who didn’t quite have the means to take loans from bigger companies. He put everything he had into it and if it doesn’t work out he’s going to be back making Ice Cream at our apartment all day.”
At 1:24PM, Ken opened the door to his apartment, dropping the newspaper on his kitchen table, the pile that laid there starting to reach new heights as he made his way through the small rooms, settling down on the old couch, sinking lower than every before as the springs groaned. Ken opened his bag and took out the name plate he hadn’t bothered to take out from the day Mr. Brayden had fired him, looking at the name engraved on it, wondering if he would ever do something worthy of the name Kenneth, and if this opportunity with Daniel could be it.
At 5:37 Daniel texted him, an address, and a time. It was later than he was used to, and Ken wondered if this was going to ruin his routine. Would he still be able to leave at 8:05? Would his coffee and paper be there for him when he wanted it to be? His thoughts kept him awake much later than his preferred 11:30, and when his alarm went off at 7:00, he really thought about hitting the snooze button, but his routine meant too much to him as he pulled himself out of bed, and began his day, but today he got onto a different train, making his way to a smaller sector of the financial district, being pulled through the streets by a smaller crowd of people.
When Ken made it to the address Daniel had texted him, he walked inside immediately knowing he was going to like it. Small and dimly lit, the main room gave off a warmth that seemed both professional and sincere, as he looked around and found desks with couples holding hands as they told their story, hoping to get a loan for their first house, a new car, trying to start a business of their own, all while a secretary took notes, before passing it on to whoever made the final decision. Ken looked around, and saw Daniel walking towards him.
“Welcome to our little loan company!” he said, shaking Ken’s hand, “I talked to the other two members of the board, and while we can’t get anything in writing just yet, they’re willing to use this as kind of an interview. If you can make this problem go away, we’ll consider hiring you full time as IT and security.” He led Ken through the office, taking him past the elderly woman who gave lollipops to anyone who asked, the broom closet that was used for office romances more than storing brooms, and eventually to a small office with a single computer sitting on a desk.
“You can get set up here, and I’ll go tell the other board members you’re here.” Daniel left him for a moment, and Ken opened his bag, looking again at the name plate that he still carried with him. Daniel came back a moment later, followed by a man and a woman, both of whom introduced themselves and shook Ken’s hand.
“We have decided as a group that if you perform well now, this will be your interview as I’m sure Daniel told you.” The woman named Celia said, “He can show you the problem we’re having.” Daniel nodded and turned the desktop on, explaining to Ken what was going on. Screens flashed before him, his brain worked faster than it had since college, as he wrote out in his head how he would fix the problem. The soothing sound of typing rang in his ears as he began to fix the problem, fighting his way through the virus that had taken over the hard drive.
It took him over an hour, it took two cups of coffee and one bathroom break, but eventually at 11:37AM Kenneth Todd had fixed the system. He ran a few tests, and sat back, looking up at the three board members who had all been sitting across from him while he worked.
“It’s done.” Ken said, smiling at them. Daniel was the first to stand up, moving to see what the screen of the computer looked like,
“Jesus, it looks better than it did before all of this started.” He shook his head and looked up at the other board members, “So what do you think?”
“Well, it might take a few days, but we’ll draw up the papers to make you a full time employee.” Celia said, turning to the other man who nodded.
“You can start work tomorrow, fixing some other bugs in our system, and updating software, however we won’t be able to pay you until next week.” The other man, who was named Brian said, “But I think for all three of us when I say welcome to the team.”
“Thank you so much.” Ken said, shaking hands with all three once more.
“I’m feeling some ice cream how about you?” Daniel said as Celia and Brian left, “Margaret needs to hear the news.”
The next morning Ken left the house, his bag in hand, sunglasses on his head as he made his way leisurely down the street, taking his time as he made his way to the subway. He still stopped by Peter’s for coffee, and still got his paper from Dave, but as he made his way into the financial district, he didn’t even look at the building he used to work at. He walked into the building he would soon officially work at, and made his way to the desk that Daniel had shown him the day before. It was small and a little worn, but it had a view of the rest of the office, and the families that came in everyday, with their own plans for the future. Allowing Ken to witness the happiness they expressed at hearing that they now have the resources to do all of things they dreamed of.
Ken sat down, putting his bag on the floor and opening it up and taking out his stapler, placing it on the desk, before smiling and taking something else out of the bag as well. A picture of him and his parents the day he graduated college. He pulled out another, a picture of him and his little sister the last time she visited him. He smiled at the pictures, and realized happily as he looked around, he was going to be here a while.