So when the other two writers in my house decided to participate in NPR's latest Three Minute Fiction contest, I thought ... well, I thought, "nah." But then I did it anyway. I wouldn't say it's the best thing I've ever written, but it's certainly one of the most concise. The 600-word limit forced me to put the exposition truck in park and just get on with it. The challenge of the contest was to write a story based on a photograph they provided, and so with no further ado, here they both are ...
I nearly knocked over the old man. He was trying to squeeze into the bookstore’s crowded entryway, his overstuffed messenger bag knocking against the racks of free magazines. I thought I could get by, but my own bag caught on the strap of his, and as I moved forward, he lost his footing. He tried to catch himself by grabbing the community bulletin board, and as I cleared the doorway, I heard tearing paper and the pik-pik-pik of thumbtacks hitting the tile.
I threw a breathless apology over my shoulder, but I don’t think he heard. I felt like he was staring at me, maybe even shouting at me, through the store window as I tried to hail a cab. I nervously squawked “Taxi!” several times before a maroon Crown Victoria stopped at my feet.
“Columbus and Randolph. Please.” The driver was a solid woman with hair like a cloud of rusted steel wool; it moved en masse when she nodded and said, “Sure thing, hon.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to refocus. This interview had been arranged at the last minute by a friend of a friend of my father’s, and I assumed favors had been called in. I didn’t even know what the company was, but I’d been given a first name and phone number and told to show up exactly at 1:00.
I rode without speaking while a distant dispatcher’s voice crackled over the cab’s radio, demanding locations and impatiently reminding drivers of pick-ups. I could only see one side of my face in the rear-view mirror, the short hairs around my ears quivering in the full blast of the cab’s heat vents. It looked like I'd left most of my lip gloss on my coffee cup, but re-applying in a moving car seemed dangerous, especially at the speeds she was going. The waves breaking in my stomach reached higher crests at every turn.
I’d been at the bookstore longer than I’d planned. My grandmother sent me a birthday card with a crisp $50 bill inside, and I’d just stopped in to break the bill so I could splurge on a cab ride. I could have easily taken the el and walked from Wabash, but the temperature was unseasonably cold and my only coat was a campus-friendly down parka. Hard to look professional while puffy, I thought. The coffee line was interminable, though. When I finally got my order, I drank it in three hurried gulps and rushed from the store. I didn’t even see that old man until we were practically conjoined.
The driver came to a double-parked stop in front of an 80-story building. I wiped my palms on my skirt as I entered the lobby. An ornate gold clock on the wall read 12:58. A woman with a headset gazed at me from behind an enormous granite bunker of a reception desk.
“Where may I direct you?”
“Oh, I … just … just one minute.” I dug my hand into my briefcase. I’d written the interviewer’s contact information down on my roommate’s copy of the Sun-Times. I’d made sure it was still tucked into the side pocket of my bag as I got up to order coffee. I’d touched it like a talisman as I threw out my empty cup.
And then, I realized, I’d seen it out of the corner of my eye, being waved by an old man calling to me from the other side of the bookstore window.