Written by P.M. Wortham

Tuesday, 27 March 2012


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The "Service Engine Soon" light was the only thing that worked.

With both hands still positioned on the edges of his keyboard and a few visually interesting but inane documents open on his desktop, he hoped that a passer by would not notice the redness of his face and the firmness of his jaw muscles while he clenched his teeth.

It had been more than 15 minutes since Howard Kanupy had left an office carrying the presentation materials that the boss had asked for but summarily rejected.. Howard just sat in his repurposed desk chair replete with cracked vinyl armrests, facing the corner of his cubicle wall which was lined with esthetically pleasing light green grass patterned fabric. He remembered being told that the colors and patterns were selected specifically to help relieve stress.


The short declaration was not muffled, but the sound had only radiated out a few cubes in all directions, simultaneously creating a stoppage of typing noise for about 3 seconds. The typing then continued unabated everywhere except Howard's desk.

It was a frustrating year for the graying mid life crisis candidate. Hair was still there in full form, much unlike the domes on some of his office mates, but Howard had truly considered himself to be lucky; bad lucky.

Maybe it was his morning reminder that all neighborhood dogs seemed to enjoy, or rather the dog owners seemed to enjoy, curbing their 100 pound Golden Bohemian Wolf Labradors on Howard's front lawn without affording him the courtesy of a baggy pick up. Howard took some interest in the weekly assortment of well formed brown piles and their sheer size, with dead grass underneath, looking at times like large men had stopped over to Howard's lawn after dark because their respective wives were busy hogging the shower.

Maybe it was the Winning Lottery Ticket that almost was, by virtue of a smudge on his ticket that made a 5 look for a moment like a 6.

Perhaps it was the almost serious girlfriend that had finally left him, offering a departing soliloquy that could have been played from a recording of his four other unsuccessful gal pals. "It's not you, it's me". Howard, always making dinner, cleaning up after, massaging neck and back, fixing her car, paying her bills, doing whatever he could to make what he really couldn't call a "relationship" last just a little longer, always thought about responding with something like, "No shit it's you". Those assertive words were always unspoken.

Maybe it was his relatively new car with the "Service Engine Soon" warning light stuck in the "bright yellow and annoying" position. "I'm sorry Mr. Kanupy. We just can't figure out why the light won't go off", said the dealership service technician named Skippy with the clearly visible Angry Birds game up on his smart phone. "Thanks for bringing it in again", the punk had said. "Be sure to see the cashier to pick up your keys".

Maybe it was all those memories of being taken advantage of as a kid, then as a teenager, and that learned behavior of acquiescence that carried forward to his adult years. The words from grade school came roaring back like a freight train, "How can you pee?" they would say, carving up the syllables in his name for a cheap but devastating laugh.

Maybe it was just the way his boss dismissed the hours upon hours of work on a 53 page report showing the content, the exact content that his boss had asked for. Howard had indeed had enough. The proverbial mechanical pencil lead, if there was a Chinese proverb about a .5mm pencil lead, had been broken.

Howard had left the building.

Stepping into his two year old Honda Civic, Howard tore out of the parking lot with the intention of leaving solid 11's on the pavement and enough tire squeal to wake the neighbors, should they happen to be sleeping in the middle of the day. What Howard got, was a little chirp from popping the clutch and barely enough acceleration to scare the squirrel camped out in the middle of the driveway at the edge of his parking lot.

It made Howard all the angrier. He pulled out into traffic without looking. He was pounding on his steering wheel instead of grasping it, and felt a strange sensation in his face and left arm. He never saw the "Fresh Seafood" delivery truck, nor had time to measure the irony of that label given his location in the middle of Iowa. Howard's eyes went dark.

The odor was reminiscent of alcohol.

Not the sort that you poured into a glass and enjoyed with or without ice, but the kind that you found in the bathroom, under the sink, next to the finger bandages and tampons, only because she had forgotten to pack them."when the bitch left" mumbled Howard, surprising himself at the use of the word.

"No, not just alcohol. Maybe alcohol and Windex", Howard thought.

His right eye opened first but seemed to be fixed on white textured ceiling tiles. He could hear beeping noises that he was sure didn't come from a Honda engineer's design. His feet were cold. Howard could feel something attached to his left index finger. He could hear people talking
nearby but with an echo as if from a carpeting-free hallway. His senses were coming back quickly and seemed heightened for some reason. He could tell that there was someone in a bed in the same room, without seeing them or hearing any sound. He could feel the veins in his left arm were cooler that the veins in his right and concluded that he was in a hospital, hooked to an IV feeding him cold sugar, but not in Intensive Care.

Howard felt different without knowing why he felt different, as if something about him had been changed, which didn't make any sense to the man. Without panicking, or calling for help, or with the slightest interest in the fate of his car, Howard Kanupy had correctly surmised that he was in reasonable health given whatever accident he was involved in. Howard Kanupy simply decided to go back to sleep.

The following morning, Howard had called for the nurse by virtue of his bedside call button. The woman rushed to his bedside in a clear state of shock. "Hey there beautiful", said Howard. "I don't know what's on the menu this morning but I could literally eat the ass end out of a dead Rhino, unless of course we could scare up some eggs, sausage and toast?"

"Mr. Kanupy, you're awake?", said the not quite so young but still attractive floor nurse, Emily.

Howard looked down at the gurney. "Maybe I'm really sleep resting, and I've fooled you into continuing a conversation with a guy having a dream about talking to a nurse".

Howard Kanupy was trying to be witty. Howard Kanupy never tried to be witty.

"Mr. Kanupy, you've been in a coma for five days, I didn't mean to be shocked to see you, I just didn't expect you to be this chipper".

"And hungry. Can we get the doc to sign off on some foodage? Preferably hot, made from animals? This is shocking news I know, but I'm pretty sure I'm not a vegetarian."

"I'll see what I can do", said Emily with a smile.

Howard had found the controls to the bed and began to elevate himself to an upright position. His chest and his and abdomen were sore, no doubt the result of the seat belt jerking him backwards as his car spun. He couldn't feel any bandages on his head but then saw a cast on his left leg, down to his heel which explained why he couldn't flex the leg. Just then, Emily peeked from around the corner of the door before rushing off.

"He said that dead animals are a go, it will be up in a few minutes."

She didn't wait for a response from Howard, but he smiled at her attempt to be funny. He knew for some reason that if he really wanted to, he could ask this nice lady out and she would probably say yes. "She seems nice, she's pretty, and there's no ring". It was a level of confidence that had never been there for Howard. He didn't feel like a doormat anymore and he didn't know why.

The plate was cleared in less than seven minutes. All that was left was a piece of scrambled egg too small for a fork to pick up and the crumbs from his wheat toast scattered around the perimeter of his plate. Emily stopped in again. It was her third visit in les than an hour. Howard took note.

"Wow, should I call for tray pick up or do you want to lick the plate?"

"It was good. Thank you, really", said Howard. "I could still go for a sausage McMuffin and a monster Diet Coke though. It feels like I haven't eaten for days".

"You haven't, and we're glad to have you back". She smiled again and held eye contact for a moment.

The doctor made his pompous entrance about an hour later, explaining about the accident, the injuries, the clear MRI scan and the excellent prognosis now that Howard had emerged from his coma. "We think it was a minor stroke, and we have some medication we want to put you on. Was there anything going on in your life to have made your blood pressure spike?"

Howard laughed out loud. It hurt.

He went on to explain the series of unfortunate events leading up to his underpowered exit from the office parking lot.

"I feel like a character in a Lemony Snicket novel", said Howard. The doctor furrowed his eyebrows downward slightly, the universal body language for, "I don't have any idea what you're talking about".

"Well, we also need to manage the blood pressure issue as well. Maybe cut back on the dead animals a bit too, though your cholesterol is pretty good for a guy your age", said Doctor Shandeskar.

"What about my head?"

"As I said, the MRI shows no lasting damage. It looks like the air bags did their job well".

"I meant like, personality. Is it possible that the crash or stroke did something to my brain? I can't explain it really, but I seem to be viewing things in a different way and I've been responding to situations differently than before".

"Well, there have been reports of changes in personality traits for stroke victims, but they are rare and they go both ways", said the Doctor.

"Sort of like girlfriend number three", Howard was looking for a laugh, but got the furrowed eyebrows in response. "What do you mean both ways?"

"Some patients become more assertive, sometimes aggressive, other case studies show the patient become more docile or desensitized to stimulus. Anyway, it's good to see you bounce back as quickly as you have, that's a very good sign. You are going to be on crutches for a while and your abdomen is going to be sensitive for a couple of months. It's a really nice bruise".

"So when can I get out of here? I mean it's not like the food is all that bad, but a guy's gotta be free, you know?"

"We need to monitor you for a couple more days, get you up and around, make sure you can take care of yourself if released".

"You mean like getting dressed, walking around, working the remote and wiping my butt?"

Doctor Shandeskar finally smiled. "Yes Howard. When you can wipe your own butt you can go".

Even though the accident happened at the intersection right in front of his own office building, nobody had bothered to follow up on Howard's condition. He was forced to make a call into his company's HR department, telling them of his condition, his whereabouts, and his medical prognosis. They were nice but it's their job to be nice, right up to the part of the conversation dealing with his time off and how he would have to dip into his vacation pool to cover the days absent. Howard surprised himself again.

"So you would look for ways to reduce my accrued vacation balance when I've been in the hospital, in a coma? Hmmm. Seems like those days might just qualify as sick time rather than vacation time. I mean I'm no expert here. But I think a coma is probably a form of sickness, yes? Maybe that's only in Russia, this isn't Russia, is this Russia, Danny?" Howard, channeling Chevy Chase lines from Caddyshack. "I don't think I'm willing to accept the time off as vacation time. I'll be sure to bring the hospital bill in as proof, oh, and please let my boss know that I'm still alive".

Two days later, Howard received his release papers from the hospital on a morning when Emily was not on staff. Before being wheeled to the exit and an awaiting cab, Howard stopped by the nurse's station to leave a message for Emily. The station nurse leaned over and handed him a get well card, addressed to Howard with Emily's name and phone number inside. After days of conversation, and exchanges of ideas about passions and dreams and plans, Howard somehow knew that this simple card was the beginning to a different and welcome fresh start.

Howard took one more day to settle a number of logistical issues. His insurance agency had been contacted by the towing yard storing the totaled Civic, and his agent was ready with a settlement as soon as Howard had called. Howard's energy level was through the roof, crutches or no crutches. He ordered another cab to drop him off at a Dodge dealership, where in a matter of 3 hours, had purchased, licensed, titled and insured a new Challenger. Howard thought about getting the big V8 option, but realized that he still had to pay for gas. He didn't really have to worry about money; he just never did anything to spend it. Howard seemed to balance his new found gregariousness with logic. "No, the V6 will be fine. Black", said Howard. The test drive revealed that the V6 could still squawk the tires anyway.

He drove for an hour around town, stopped for a large Diet Coke at McDonalds, and parked the new ride in his driveway. He then grabbed a rake and with one crutch leaning against the car, walked down to the edge of his grass line against the curb. With one hand working the rake and the other on the crutch, he pushed all the fresh dog piles out into the street right past the curb. The fly ridden land mines would all be featured quite neatly across the walking path his neighbors took with their dogs. The message was clear. Watch your step, and maybe crap somewhere else.

The next day at work Howard came in on time, computer backpack across his shoulders, crutches and all, walking directly past his boss's office. The man lifted his head up past his own computer screen and yelled out into the hallway. "Kanupy, get in here".

Howard stopped and leaned back to make and hold eye contact. "I'll be with you in just a minute".

He dumped off his gear and his jacket, walking back to the office of one, Mr. Jack Anders. "You wanted to see me?" said Howard.

"So like you're gone for more than a week without calling in, leave me in the lurch over this analysis, and you just stroll in here, give me attitude in the hallway and expect to have this job waiting for you. Is that it?"

Keeping eye contact, something that Howard was never able to do comfortably before, he replied, "Well, it's sort of hard to dial the phone when you're in a coma, and I guess you can try to terminate me on those grounds, but I like my chances with HR".

Anders sat quietly, surprised at Kanupy's response.

"Well, I need some more changes to that research document. Can you help me out?"

"Let me know what you need and I'll try my best, just like always, to deliver", replied Howard.

It was the first time that Anders had ever asked Howard for "help". In the span of a few minutes Howard had repositioned himself as someone not to be stepped on or walked over. He was not a short or skinny man, Howard just tended to walk a bit hunched over, paying more attention to the carpeting than the ceiling. Even with the crutches, his whole posture had changed. He stood tall. His shoulders seemed to naturally stretch out rather than curl inward, and his eyes, a piercing blue, were fixed on whomever he spoke to. Without a shred of knowledge or spoken word actually changing, Howard's body language exuded credibility and strength.

Howard passed a co-worker in the hallway who was complaining about Anders, to which Howard replied, "But, do you know what really burns my ass?". Holding his palm outward and facing down he added, "A flame about this high". Howard Kanupy, Renaissance man, cracking questionably appropriate jokes with co-workers.

Little did Anders know, but Howard was only spending about half time on the boss's request for report changes. The other half of the day, Howard was searching the job boards and sending off resumes. He also kept thinking about Emily and if he should rush into calling her. His modest ranch home still needed to be freed of feminine products and evidence of the former not-quite-so-serious girlfriend, but Howard knew he would call and he was confident that she would agree to coffee, then lunch and eventually dinner. He wondered if she had taken a peek under the hospital gown while he was still in a coma. "Wow, and she still left the card?", he thought.

Howard left the office on time, without all of Anders' changes completed, and headed home to check a backlog of bills and e-mail from a few friends scattered around the country. He pulled into his driveway just in time to see one of his neighbors a few houses away, walking towards his house with a St. Bernard in tow. He walked on crutches towards his mailbox at the end of his driveway and waited just long enough to make eye contact with the woman as she passed by.

"Hi", said Howard. "Beautiful dog. I bet he eats you out of house and home". Howard thought better of adding, "and deposits it all on my lawn.". The woman smiled, replied with "He does", and walked on, avoiding the drying piles of doggy do in the process. Howard's lawn seemed to be pile free after that and his lawn responded in kind, trading brown for green.

The call went better than he had hoped. He was witty and charming and sensitive to her comments when she decided to share something personal about herself. Howard had learned enough about how to be a good partner but didn't have the necessary skills to be perceived as an equal one, until now. The conversation lasted an hour which seemed long for an invitation to coffee on a weekend, but short given the relative speed that time had flown by. Howard was smitten and hoped that it wasn't the Florence Nightingale effect talking, but he really did like this woman.

Coffee it would be, perhaps a pastry too. She agreed with some level of excitement evident over the phone. With luck she might play with her hair or casually touch his hand or give some verbal indicator that she liked the new Howard, though she'd thankfully never met the old Howard. He smiled and couldn't remove the memory of her face from his slightly altered mind. He glanced at the calendar hanging on his refrigerator to count the oversized rectangles blocking his meeting with Emily on Saturday, and he made plans to update his wardrobe before the meeting, even though sweat pants would be the only fashion statement he could muster with a cast. It was all he could do to contain the newfound excitement of coffee with Emily. Things were looking up for Howard Kanupy.

"Emily", he thought. "Maybe the final crush".

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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