Harold and Caroline: Part Two

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Part One

“Alright, and that’s the Shipping List, the last of the reports. Once you see all three documents you know you’ve got them all.” Harold picked the still-warm papers off of the fax machine and walked with Caroline over to the computer.

“Shipping List, Sales Timecard, Employee Report,” Caroline recited. “I mean Sales Report, Employee Timecard! Sorry!”

“It doesn’t really matter if you know their names,” Harold sighed. “Just make sure you get all three. Then you’ll come over to the computer. I’ve already created a guest account for you to login under. The username is ‘caroline’ in all lower-case. And the password is ‘enilorac’ which is just your name backwards, see?”

“Oh let me write that down.”

“Sure…Now as you can see there’s hardly anything here on the desktop. Just the shortcut for the web browser. And when you open that it should automatically load the two tabs you’re going to need. Just in case you ever open it and they aren’t already open you should probably write down these URLs.”

Caroline scribbled furiously.

“This first one is where you enter the information. See I choose the date first, then I get a form. Each field has a corresponding one on the paper, you just copy the values over. It’s very simple. Then this other one is the email. Here you’ll just need to send me an email with a few of the values from the faxes. The ones that I’m highlighting right now.” He pulled out a marker and began to run it across the pages. “Any questions?”

Caroline shook her head.

“Alright, then why don’t you go ahead and try it? I’ll watch and see that you do it right.”

“Oh…me? Already? Don’t you think I should watch how you do it first?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary Caroline, this is literally just transcribing from one form into another.”

“Oh, of course…Well I’m sure you have some other work you want be doing. How about you take care of that while I work on this, and then you can come back to check it afterwards.”

“Caroline…” Harold said testily.

“Of course…sorry.” Caroline pulled the keyboard over to her and began tapping away. She could feel Harold’s unflinching gaze on her, and she scrunched her shoulders as close to her body as possible. “Okay…so I guess I’ll do the Shipping List first…since it was the first that came through?”

“It doesn’t matter which one you– sorry, I mean go ahead. That’s fine.”

“Okay,” she said softly. “So this first field is the ‘Identification Number.’ Oh, but I don’t see that in the webform, just this one labelled ‘ID Number’ here. That’s probably the one I want…right?”

Harold sighed heavily. “Maybe I will go stretch my legs. Be back in a few.”

*

“Enjoy your break, boss!” Janet beamed from the receptionist’s desk as Harold left his office on the eve of his six-week vacation.

“Thank you. I’m sure it will be…an experience. Now I won’t be available at all these first couple days, but go ahead and email me about anything urgent even if I’m not responding. I’ll get around to things as I can.”

“Of course, sir. Oh, and Caroline is here.” Janet pointed over to the chair against the opposite wall.

“Oh good. Caroline, I just wanted to check one last time if you had any questions before I head out.”

“Um, no sir. I think I’m all ready.”

“Alright, well if anything goes wrong just send me an email right away. I’ll be sure to get things sorted out. HR already knows to expect your timecard changes, so they won’t give you any trouble about the extra hours. And thank you for volunteering to take care of this. I’ve–gathered–that your family is going through a trying time right now. You have my–best wishes.” Harold’s voice was uncharacteristically stiff and awkward, like he didn’t know how to talk about such things.

“Thank you, I’m sure we appreciate that.”

“I’m sure that you do,” Harold rolled his eyes, shifting back to his normal state of exasperation. “Alright then, have a good night Janet.”

“You too, Harold.”

Harold made his way to the elevator. As soon as its doors clanged shut behind him Janet rounded on Caroline with narrow eyes. “If anything does go wrong, you will not email him. You will let me know straight away and we will take care of it. You understand? Not that it’s any of your business, but this ‘vacation’ of his is nothing that we want to disturb.”

“Of course, Janet. Whatever you say. I’m sure I’ll manage alright, though. I’m certain of it.”

Janet’s frown seemed to suggest that she was less certain.

*

It was the second day of Harold’s six week vacation. He was in a hospital bed, listening to the doctor lecturing him as to what he could expect in recovery.

“…and certainly no heavy lifting for the duration,” the woman said, finishing her mental checklist.

“And the recipient?” Harold asked. “Things are…going well?”

“We make a point to not say anything definitive at this stage. It may be a matter of weeks before we know if his body is going to accept the kidney or not.”

“Of course, I understand.”

“But as far as the actual operation was concerned, everything went well and he is recovering just fine.”

“Good.”

“Actually…I wanted to ask you about something on your registration form. You said you were open to the possibility of meeting the recipient if they expressed a similar interest? Now I know its been a while since you filled this out and here in the moment you might feel differently–”

“No, no,” Harold said quickly. “I’m still happy to if they are.”

“They are. The boy is obviously not up to visiting just yet, but I could go and check on whether the family wanted to come over now.”

“I’d like that.”

“Give me a few.”

The doctor left him and Harold gingerly adjusted the pillows behind his back, careful not to disturb his tender side. He grabbed his book off of the nightstand, but soon discovered that his mind wasn’t in the mood for reading and he put it back. Instead he just breathed deeply and waited. The seconds slid into minutes, and the minutes into a half hour. He was just starting to think that his doctor must have gotten sidetracked when a soft knock came at his door.

“Come in,” he said.

The doctor swung the door inwards with a bright smile. “Alright Harold, I’ve brought you some very grateful visitors!”

She stepped into the room and off to the side, clearing the way for the family to come in. Two little sisters, about four and seven, a balding father with a large belly, and a mother who was…

“Caroline?”

 

That brings us to the close of Harold and Caroline. I mentioned a week ago that I tried to use a more meandering approach in how I crafted each of these scenes. I feel like this looser method made the story feel more organic, but it also resulted in a few sequences that distracted from the overall narrative.

One such sequence was at the very end when Harold was waiting in his hospital room to meet the family of his kidney recipient. I wanted this to be a quiet moment, which meant that Harold was going to be alone in that room. But that detail made me ask myself, “well why aren’t there any family or friends here with him?” As I reflected on that I started to see the character of Harold becoming better defined. He was a man who was alone in life, prickly and off-putting, but nonetheless trying to do something good in private.

I liked that idea, and I added a few lines about how he was thinking of the young boy that had received his kidney. He considered how that boy was supported by a grateful family, which brought on a wave of loneliness and Harold began to gently cry. Then he realized what a fool he would look if the doctor came back now, and quickly composed himself.

It was a nice, sentimental scene, but suddenly it was raising new threads and questions when I was actively trying to close them! Though I feel it made Harold’s character better, it frayed the overall story. So, as I recommended in my last post, I decided to remove that segment. If this were a larger piece that I was continuing to work on I might try to find a way to reintroduce those concepts elsewhere in the tale.

But…there’s something else about this piece I want to talk about: it didn’t measure up to my expectations. There are elements of it that I do like, and I do think it was a useful exercise, but I think it could have been better. The ending, in particular, just didn’t resonate in the way that I had hoped.

Any critic that only says “I just don’t like it” is wasting everyone’s time, though. If something is flawed there are reasons why. I know the reasons for why Harold and Caroline let me down, and on Monday I’ll explain them. I’ll also take some time to talk about why it’s okay to sometimes dislike your own work, and how to move forward when you do. Come back then for a healthy dose of unfiltered honesty!

Harold and Caroline: Part One

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“Janet said you wanted to see me?” Caroline asked cautiously from the doorway.

“Yes, yes,” Harold cleared his throat. “Don’t just stand there, come in.”

Caroline closed the door and shuffled forward timidly, coming to a stop a few feet from his desk. She had her arms wrapped around herself, as if trying to shrink herself into as small a form as possible.

“Please sit,” Harold sighed. Why did she always have to be so diminutive and awkward?

She tried to smile politely, though it came across more as a grimace, then perched herself on the edge of the leather-cushioned seat. She did not appear comfortable at all.

“How are you Caroline?”

She nodded. A few seconds later she actually processed what he had said. “Oh, sorry! I’m fine. How are you doing?”

“I’m fine Caroline” he sighed again. “Why don’t we just get right to what I called you in for?”

“Yes, good idea.”

“Alright, well that last week I said we didn’t have any of those overtime opportunities you were hoping for… But, I think I’ve found something that you might be able to help out with if you’re still interested.”

She nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, I’ll take whatever I can get! Thank you.”

“Well, let me explain it to you and then we’ll see if you’re still interested. In six weeks I’ll be taking a sabbatical for a while. I’m not entirely sure for how long, but perhaps as much as two months. Gus will be flying in to cover for me during that time. He’s a good man and he’ll handle the day-to-day things just fine. But he will have his hands full, and I don’t want to burden him unnecessarily.”

Caroline nodded.

“The thing is we have a few faxes that don’t come in until after hours. It’s basic invoicing from the Western shore after the factory closes, and I usually stay late enough to get those. They have to be received, transcribed, and filed before 8 pm. If you want it, then you’d probably be able to pull an extra hour or two each day taking care of that.”

“You don’t think that Janet would be better able to handle that?”

“I try to not keep Janet after hours when I can help it. I’m sure she would be willing if I asked her, but I thought I might as well offer it to you first, since you requested the overtime after all.”

“Oh I see. But would she be better at it?”

“It’s really not difficult. I would show you how I do it one evening and that’s all the training you would need.” Harold smiled. Clearly he felt he was doing a nice thing for Caroline, but she didn’t even try to hide the discomfort in her face.

“So…you said starting in about six weeks?”

“Yes. The fourteenth of June.”

She nodded. “I had been thinking to take some time off myself then, actually…I’d been hoping to get some overtime before then if possible.”

Harold shrugged. “Well I still don’t know of any overtime opportunities before then. If anything comes up I’ll let you know. On your way out could you tell Janet I’d like to speak with her?”

“Well, I’m not saying no,” Caroline piped up.

“Then what are you saying?” Harold said tersely, not at all amused by how she meandered around her decisions.

She bit her lip, and spoke out loud her inner reasoning. “I’ll just have to figure things out at home. I don’t know…but we can’t afford not to.” Caroline nodded resolutely to Harold. “I’ll do it.”

“Alright then,” he said slowly, as if waiting to see whether she would change her mind again. “When we get a little closer I’ll have you stay after hours and show you how everything works. That will be all.”

*

“How’s your son, Caroline?” Betty asked one morning after they had their first gap between calls.

“He’s doing really well,” Caroline asserted. “I mean, well, he’s still in a lot of pain of course, but he’s so patient and understanding with it.”

Betty tutted sympathetically. “It just kills you, doesn’t it? I always told my kids if you’re hurting go ahead and yell! It breaks my heart when they think they have to be so grown up all the time.”

“I never thought of it that way.”

“How are you and Dave holding up?”

Caroline sighed. “We’re tired. It’s really going to help things having some overtime pay, but the timing of it couldn’t be worse. I’ll hardly be there for Zach during recovery at all, but I guess its for the best. I’m just anxious about keeping myself going with the extra hours–”

A sudden voice from behind made both Caroline and Betty jump in their seats. “Yes, especially given that you can’t even keep up with your regular hours already!”

Both women spun around to see Harold standing behind them with a scowl on his face and hands on his hips. He slowly pointed an accusing finger to the blinking light on Caroline’s phone which designated a waiting caller.

“Sorry sir,” Caroline gasped, clutching her chest as her heartbeat raced. She inhaled and exhaled deeply, trying to regulate her breathing so that she wouldn’t huff and puff during the call. As she picked up the phone and answered she heard Harold’s feet stumping away.

“Tech support? Please hold while I transfer you.” A silent tear trickled down her cheek.

*

“Yes, come in.”

“Hiya Harold!” Lucas said brightly as he strolled into the boss’s office. He was holding a small woven basket with a pink bow on the front.

“Lucas,” Harold said in a measured voice meant to counter the other man’s overbearing cheerfulness.

“I’m not sure if you heard, but Caroline’s got a son who is going into surgery next month. Expensive stuff, and we figured we could do a good thing and ask people to contribute to help her out a little bit. I know it would mean a lot if the boss-man made a healthy donation himself!” He laughed and extended his basket expectantly.

The “boss-man” peered with a wrinkled nose at the crumpled bills already sitting in the basket. “You’ve been going around to the employees and asking them for money?”

“Yes, well…it’s for a good cause, you know!”

“The cause doesn’t matter, its against corporate policy. People aren’t supposed to feel pressured by their peers to contribute while at the workplace. Don’t you think if people heard that their manager had made a ‘healthy donation’ that they would feel obligated to do the same?”

“Oh, uh–I suppose you’re right,” Lucas’s face suggested that that was exactly what he had been intending.

“Lucas,” Harold sighed as he massaged his temples, “the company provides proper methods for those who need extra financial aid to receive it. There is the Family Hardship Fund which provides large contributions each year to qualifying employees. However–”

“Yeah, Caroline said she already tried that but you said–but she was told that she couldn’t get any help.”

Harold frowned at Lucas’s weak attempt to iron the accusation out of his complaint. “She only started here four months ago. Certain programs are only available after employees have been here for a year. But my point was that there are proper channels for this sort of thing. Another option that’s available to her right now is if you coworkers diverted a percentage or two off of your paychecks towards a general fund. Then include a note that you want the contribution to go to Caroline, and I’ll see that she receives a lump sum. That way everything stays anonymous and no one feels pressured to do anything they don’t want to do.”

“I see,” Lucas said flatly. “Thank you, sir.” He turned to go.

“And make sure you hand back the money you’ve already collected!”

*

“Well this is never going to work,” Betty scowled as she looked over the flyer Lucas had made. He dumped a tall stack of those fliers on Caroline’s desk. She also took one to look over and quickly frowned. Printed on the flier was a detailed list of instructions for how one could donate a percentage of their paycheck to aid Caroline.

“It’ll never work,” Betty repeated. “It’s way too complex.”

“I know,” Lucas groaned, “but Harold says that’s the only way.”

“What that man’s problem anyway?”

“He hates people.”

“It’s alright,” Caroline shrugged. “It was really nice of you guys to try anyway.”

“Caroline,” Harold’s stern voice rang as he marched into their cubicles.

“Uh-oh,” Caroline whispered.

“Caroline these forms are all wrong,” he said in exasperation as he dropped a stack of papers on her desk. “See that top one there? It’s the order sheet for Asper Co. and you’ve filled out the contact information for Jake Sutherland. But I know Jake personally, and he’s from DeltaRay!”

“What?–oh.” Caroline thumbed through the papers. “I must have gotten a sheet or two off from my call list. I’m sorry!”

“That’s nice that you’re sorry,” Harold rolled his eyes, “but we can’t bill any clients if we don’t know which company they’re representing now can we?”

“No, of course not. I’ll fix these up first thing tomorrow–”

“That won’t cut it, your team’s quota is due today. You need to stay and take care of this now.”

“Oh but she had plans,” Betty piped up, earning a frown from Harold.

“I don’t like asking people to stay late, Betty. I make a point of not imposing unfair demands, but when a team has made a commitment and then they don’t deliver on them that’s on their own heads.”

“Well I could cover it for her tonight.”

“Do you think I hired Caroline for you to do her work, Betty?”

“Um…no sir.”

“If I’m not made confident between now and my vacation that she’s capable of handling things on her own, then maybe she won’t belong in this company much longer! Do I make myself clear?” With the last question he steered his focus back to Caroline.

“Yes, sir. I’ll take care of it right now, sir.”

“I’m sure that you will.”

Harold turned a strode away, leaving the three in stunned silence. Caroline clenched her fists, screwed her eyes shut, and for a moment her whole body shook in stifled aggravation.

“That…man,” Lucas seethed. His pause between words suggested that ‘man’ was not the first word that had popped into his head.

“I’m never going to survive doing that training with him,” Caroline moaned. “The two of us alone for two hours, can you imagine?!”

“Well sure, he’s a monster,” Lucas agreed, “but so what? I get him angry at me all the time and you know what I say? I say ‘so what, I’m still going home at the end of the day and there’s nothing he can do to me.'”

“I just…when he gets angry he shouts and I really don’t like it when people shout. If I’m around him I feel like I’m waiting for a bomb to explode! I get so self-conscious, I make silly mistakes, and then he must think I’m making those sorts of mistakes even when he isn’t there! And even if he doesn’t shout, there’s still just the way he looks at me. It’s like he sees right through me! Somehow he knows everything I’ve done wrong and he despises me for it.”

Betty tutted sympathetically. “Just remember that you’re not doing anything for him. This is all for Zach, and that’s all that matters.”

Betty sighed deeply. “Of course. You’re right. I’ll manage…somehow.”

Part Two

 

On Monday I discussed how many stories treat the protagonist’s biases as gospel. If the hero views another character as evil, then that character is evil. In these stories there is little space for different perspectives, ambiguity, or misunderstanding.

And depending on what the objective of your story is, that might even be the best approach. But obviously for a more nuanced tale, you would probably also want a more nuanced take on the characters. That approach is my intention with this latest short story.

To help with this objective, I decided to not portray the story from just one character’s perspective. By using a third-person voice I am able to avoid having one character cast shade on the other exclusively.

Next it was obvious I needed two characters that were both flawed. I imagine most readers will take the dimmer view toward Harold. He certainly is harsher than he should be, but it is also understandable why he is frustrated. Caroline is legitimately incompetent, though sympathetically so. My hope is that characters can empathize with Harold’s frustrations, even while wishing he would give the poor woman a break.

Another thing I experimented with in this story was to make hard cuts between each scene. This makes them feel more like isolated vignettes, like a sample of everyday life for these individuals. It’s been an interesting format to experiment with, but one side effect I hadn’t anticipated was the significant pruning I had to or else the story would become too distracted.

On Monday I’ll take a closer look at this idea of how not every scene belongs in a story, even if it is a good one. Then on Thursday I’ll present the second half of this story. I look forward to sharing these with you then, in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!