Flash Fiction: Back Left Corner

Here is my flash fiction for this week. I’d love to get any constructive criticism you can offer. Truly! If it stinks, tell me. If parts of it stink, tell me. If all or parts of it work, tell me that, too.

Thanks so much for reading, and if you’d like to read more flash fiction from a great group of writers, search #fridayflash on Twitter or visit Mad Utopia.

Back Left Corner

“Where’s the bathroom?” was the question Eleanor answered most often since starting her job at the bookstore after agreeing to an early retirement to help the Library cut costs.

The frequency of the question (1.2 times an hour for a five-hour shift) surprised Eleanor, but after taking care of the Customer Service Desk five days a week for the past six years, with no sick days and no requests for vacation, she barely needed to think about her answer anymore. It became conditioned, just like taking the correct number of steps from the front of the store to her locker in the back (42), and knowing the precise location for the pen on the Customer Service counter (2 inches to the right of the phone, blue ballpoint, cap on, point facing me).

“Oh dear,” she would say when her customers asked the question, worrying as she often did, about their well being. She’d quickly smile and say, “Back left corner,” as she looked and pointed in the direction of the bathroom. Then she would watch them hurry off to ensure they were headed in the right direction before going back to organizing, shelving, dusting, or whatever task was awaiting her careful attention.

She found that showing and telling was the best way to help her customers. She wouldn’t just point, because that would simply be rude, but saying only “Back left corner,” without offering visual guidance confused her customers, leaving them uncertain if she meant her left or theirs.

Before settling on “Back left corner,” she experimented with more explicit verbal direction.

“Go straight to the magazines. Make a right when you get to the travel section, then follow left around the corner straight into the bathroom.”

The blank stare on her customer’s face told her that was not the way to go.

No, no, she scolded herself. Too much detail. When a customer asks for the bathroom, as when they ask for anything, keep your answer short, clear, and complete.

It was a lesson she learned over and over during her 37 years at the Library, where, in her interest to be helpful, she could sometimes be too helpful. In those moments, she found that it was because of her natural shyness, not in spite of it, that she could provide the best service and give the Library patrons exactly the help they needed with the least amount of wasted effort.

Not that she was ever stingy with her time or assistance. The Library did not afford such behavior, and that’s one of the things she loved most about it, its constant, steady need for her attentive care. Early on, that meant days filled with the meticulous indexing, filing, and cataloging of cards and books. When the Library installed computers, Eleanor worried that she wouldn’t be needed anymore, but she found she was as busy as always. Patrons still needed her help researching topics or finding books, but the addition of the computers allowed her to find enough time to start working on the back stacks and archives she waited years to organize.

“Crazy,” her husband called her one night years ago, after growing tired of her constant cleaning, sorting and organizing at home.

“Committed,” she said, hoping to make him understand.

“You should be,” he frowned.

A few months after that, she came home from work to find a note on the kitchen table telling her he’d moved out. She put the note back down on the table and sat stiffly in her chair, staring at the folded paper for a long time. She knew her habits were strange, but she believed some of them were among her best qualities. She didn’t understand why Donald got so irritated when he found her refolding the laundry before putting it away or when she stayed home every night to clean the house, instead of going for a drive with him, or bowling, or to the movies.

She finally picked up the note again and carefully realigned the bottom edges to straighten the crooked fold. Holding the paper down with one hand, she slowly ran her finger along the top edge three times, giving it a new crease, sharp and straight right across the middle. She brought the note into the spare bedroom where she kept her filing cabinet and she put it in the front of the folder labeled, ‘Ford, Donald.’ Then she went back to the kitchen to make herself dinner.

Eleanor worked even harder after that, sometimes getting so involved in a task she wouldn’t check her watch until an hour or two after her shift was over. She’d just shake her head and smile at her good fortune. Even if she had created her dream job, it could not have been a more perfect fit than the one she had.

She was not quite as well suited for the bookstore. Her supervisors often pushed her to make more sales or to work faster, but she was grateful for the job and for the opportunity to keep working with her beloved books and her customers.

She missed the Library, though, especially this time of year when they were swamped with donations, volunteers, and preparations for the summer book sale. She was standing at the Customer Service Desk with a distant smile on her face, lost in her memories, when she realized someone was talking to her.

“Excuse me, ma’am?” the male voice said a second time, trying to get her attention. Eleanor looked up, slightly startled, taking a moment to bring herself into the present. “Yes?” she said cheerily.

“Where’s the bathroom?”

“Oh, dear,” she said. “Back left corner.” She smiled and pointed him in the right direction.

© Olivia Tejeda and Liv Loves Lit, 2008-2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Olivia Tejeda and Liv Loves Lit with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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17 thoughts on “Flash Fiction: Back Left Corner

  1. Oh, Olivia, this was wonderful. Truely. The poor woman trapped in OCD. But then again, she seems perfectly happy. I cracked up when she refolded her husbands good-bye letter and filed it. LOL. I’ve been an organization freak since I was two. (And as karma & genetics go, I now have a four year old than also has to line up his books in a certain way that I can’t “mess up”) so I totally feel her pain. Two thumbs up! 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comments. Yes, somehow Eleanor has found a way to live a life that makes her happy. I loved what she did with the letter, too. That came at the last minute during a re-write, but I think it might be my favorite part. I’m an organization freak, too … sometimes too much, but hey we all have our quirks! Honestly, though I don’t mean to make light of OCD because I do know that it can destroy lives, but in Eleanor’s case, it’s had its negative effects, but she has learned how to handle it, even use it to her benefit.

  2. No, Olivia, no complaints here. This was a great story!

    I laughed at her first attempts to direct customers to bathroom. Magazines, then Travel section, then…customer is glazed and lost.

    Though I felt sad, you made her happy with her lot so glad she’s not suffering.

    Congrats!

  3. What a great look at OCD. I feel sorry for the woman, and it really is a sad story, but at least she seems content. My favorite snippet is:

    “Crazy,” her husband called her one night years ago, after growing tired of her constant cleaning, sorting and organizing at home.

    “Committed,” she said, hoping to make him understand.

    “You should be,” he frowned.

    I laughed out loud there. Very nice piece.
    ~jon

    Oh, and thanks for the Mad Utopia shout out.
    ~jon

  4. Olivia –

    Talk about tugging at the strings of someone’s heart. Trapped in the only world this woman knows. . . and you nailed it perfectly. I could just picture her veering off course one time and then everything else seems wrong.

    I must say that I chuckled when she filed her husbands letter.

    Great story!

    Jim
    http://tinyurl.com/yjgov4l

  5. Olivia you nailed Elanor’s character perfectly. I loved how she sat and looked at the note for so long before deciding what to do with it. Throw it out? Oh no, that wouldn’t be good enough. I’ll file it! Hilarious! 🙂

  6. This one I let soak in for a few hours. Tough content, and you brought the subject out fairly well. I like the focus on giving directions. I had never thought of this before, but it seems like a great way to convey this subject with something we are so familiar with. The character comes across nice.

  7. I like the writing, but I wonder: how big is that bookstore? Can it really be that at the customer service desk of a bookstore there aren’t enough questions to break up the monotony of the bathroom question?

    1. Oh yes, there are plenty of questions, but the most prevalent was the bathroom question. I take that from personal experience having worked in B&N stores, both big and small, it is by far the most frequently asked question. It’s actually kind of an inside joke with employees. However, you bring up an interesting point. If it reads to you like it’s the “only” question, I should look at that and consider revising. Thanks, Mark!

      1. Thanks Olivia. I really wasn’t nit-picking. I’ve done a lot of customer service work and while that is the #1 question there are many, many more – questions that don’t even have anything to do with the business.

  8. I liked this a lot Olivia. The tone and humor were spot on.
    The filing of the note was perfect….especially the Ford, Donald ….that really got me….would have loved it as Ford, Donald [husband] too lol.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Karen :0)

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