Stand for something
A Short Story
Many of you may knowfrom his heartfelt, vulnerable and deeply human essays that he posts over at his Just Enough to Get Me in Trouble Substack. A few of you insiders may also know him from his past musical exploits. But I wonder how many of you know that our man Lyle also has a way with the short story too?
I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise given the natural storytelling qualities that comes through in his real-life inspired essays. He certainly has a way with a sentence and a way for painting a scene in prose as todays offering demonstrates.
The more storytellers the better I say and it certainly seems that the STSC is inspiring a whole heap of writers to try their hand at fiction. The world needs more of this.
Paula had heard the question so many times, and yet she still didn’t have a good answer. “What does CPS stand for?” customers would ask on the phone.
Was it Carbon Products and Supplies? Or maybe California Pacific Supplies?
The thing is, though, she didn’t really care anymore.
“It stands for Consumer Plastic Supplies,” she might say. That was a common go-to for her. It was bland enough to not completely register with the person on the other end of the line. Most people didn’t really question what she said as long it ended with the word “Supplies”. Almost anything reasonable she made up for the first two words could conceivably make sense because the company sold so many different kinds of supplies—just about any type of tape you could imagine, all manner of plastic bags, and even those little things on the end of your shoelaces.
On days when she was feeling particularly snarky and annoyed with her job, she’d make up nonsensical answers and see if anybody noticed. Corporate Puppetry Supplies. Cobalt Pluot Supplies. Coordinated Philanthropy Supplies. And so on.
It turns out that CPS is quite the common acronym. She would often get calls from concerned parents trying to reach California Parenting Services or a frantic call from someone trying to contact Child Protective Services. Those were always tough. She would have to cut them off and tell them they called the wrong number, but sometimes those callers were so distraught it was hard to get a word in edgewise. Those calls were also a reminder of how pointless her work seemingly was. Somewhere out there, there was another person answering a phone just like her, except that person was truly helping people and not just sending them more reams of toilet paper or paperclips or whatever.
More like Career Punishing Succubus, Paula thought.
Years ago, back when she was an eager new employee, she tried to figure out what CPS actually stood for. She asked her manager, then her manager’s manager, then her manager’s manager’s manager. But to no avail. The closest approximation to a real answer she received was from Molly in the shipping department. Molly had been with the company for nearly twenty years—certainly the longest of anyone else, including the CEO. “I’m pretty sure it was Carbon Products and Supplies back in the day,” she said, “See those filter things way up on that shelf? The ones nobody buys anymore? Pretty sure those were the first SKU we sold. But that was way before my time.”
As time went by, Paula cared less and less about the answer. And as even more time went by, she cared less and less about her job.
She originally took the position thinking it was going to be a short-term thing while she continued the search for a different, better one, or maybe even go back to school. At any rate, she didn’t expect to still be there seven years later.
For the first few years, she would still have the occasional daydream. Maybe she’d get excited about some new hobby or business idea. She’d do some research, even stealing time away from work to go down some rabbit hole on the internet, all the while ready to quickly alt-tab to her work email if her boss walked by. She dreamed of being her own boss. She craved the freedom to do what she wanted and not have to worry about someone watching over her shoulder. She yearned to travel and work from anywhere. She wanted to learn the guitar and play at an open mic. But life got in the way and CPS at least provided her with a steady paycheck—the seemingly only reliable thing in her life.
Couldn’t Possibly Succeed on my own, Paula thought.
She didn’t want to blame her woes on her divorce or her son, but both the legal fees and his college tuition weren’t cheap. She had paid off the legal bills, but even now her meager pay barely covered her rent and the minimum college loan payments. If she pinched pennies and scrounged up enough coupons, she could treat herself to the occasional latte. It didn’t quite feel like she had golden handcuffs keeping her at CPS. Maybe more like brass handcuffs. She had received raises, she was a good employee, after all. But they barely kept her on pace with inflation.
Can’t Purchase Shit, Paula thought.
One day, she was in the break room filling up her coffee mug when Sean and Janet walked in. Everyone knew they had a thing going on. It was painfully obvious because Sean was always flirting with Janet. It was harmless stuff—he’d try to get her to laugh by telling a dad joke or blush by winking at her from across the table during a sales meeting.
Corny Punchline Services, how may I help you? Paula thought.
Janet was the latest new employee on the sales team. And just like when Paula first started, she was itching to unpack the company acronym.
“But it must’ve stood for something in the past,” Janet said to Sean. “They wouldn’t just pick three random letters like that, would they?”
“You know what I always say?” Sean smiled and Paula braced herself for the inevitable lame joke. “I think our company tagline should go like this: At CPS, we stand for something.”
“Oh my gooossshhhh,” Janet said as she gently slapped Sean’s shoulder, “that’s hilarious!”
Cheesy Premise Sean, Paula thought as she rolled her eyes and added sugar to her coffee.
But then she stopped and thought about what he said again: We stand for something. Obviously, part of what made it funny is that nobody knew what CPS stood for. She got that—a simple ingredient for a dumb joke. But she also thought, what the hell does the company stand for?
Cash Profit Sales, Paula thought.
That was about it. They existed to sell generic products to generic companies in the hopes to eke out a small profit, some of which they would share with employees like her. If they had a good year, she might get a small bonus. But that usually went straight to one of her credit card balances. There was no future for her at CPS. Yet she felt stuck.
Complicated Problem Situation, Paula thought.
But then she stood up straighter, tilted her head to the side, and said, “Wait, what do I stand for?”
“I’m sorry, did you say something, Paula?” asked Janet.
Do I stand for Complacently Prolonging Stress? Paula asked herself, not hearing Janet’s question.
“Is everything okay?” asked Sean.
I Can’t Persist Slogging, Paula thought as she dropped the whole sugar packet into her coffee, placed the mug on the counter, and turned to leave the room.
“Paula?” Janet and Sean asked in unison.
Paula walked to her desk, collected her belongings, walked to her manager’s office, said, “I quit,” and walked out of the building.
Calm. Peaceful. Sanguine, Paula thought, and a smile beamed on her face.
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Completely Peerless Sentences. Wonderful as usual, Lyle.
It occurred to me that if Paula would CPS ( Curtail Parental Support ) and allow her grown son to work and earn scholarships to pay for his own college, she might be able to afford a Latte every day! Just saying. Great story. Funny!