A loner tries to make the best of his vacation time before year's end.
|“You still have a week’s worth of vacation days,” Harold’s boss told him. “And you’re going to lose them if you don’t take them by the thirty-first.”
Harold returned to his cubicle and sat, staring at the calendar on his wall. It was one of those free calendars that people sometimes receive from various religious groups, charities, or local businesses. This particular calendar was from an insurance company that had sent it to Harold with the hope that he’d buy some coverage. But Harold didn’t own a car or a house, and his apartment contained nothing of real value.
He never took more than one or two days off at a time, because he had no close relatives or friends, and no place he particularly wanted to go. The last time he’d taken a vacation day was back in August, when he won a hundred dollars on a scratch ticket, and he treated himself to a bus trip to the town where he’d grown up. There, he spent his time walking the streets he’d known, standing in front of his childhood home, and staring into store windows. He assumed some people he’d known still lived there, but he had no interest in talking to any of them.
Staring at the calendar in his cubicle provided no insight into how to spend a week’s vacation in December. He assumed he’d spend an hour or two wandering the local streets, taking in the holiday decorations, but that left a lot of unfilled time. For no reason at all, he flipped the calendar’s December page to see if it also had January, as calendars sometimes do. There was no January, but it wouldn’t have mattered to Harold if there had been.
He decided to be unconventional - something he rarely did - and take two vacation days one week and three the next. “Whadda you want to go and do that for?” his boss wanted to know. “That just complicates things.”
“Okay,” said Harold.
The following Monday morning, he started his week-long vacation by watching the local news while he ate breakfast. Some football player he didn’t know had been arrested for assault, the weather was expected to be seasonably cold, and the local soup kitchen was asking for volunteers. Harold had passed that soup kitchen daily on the way to and from work, but he wasn’t the volunteering type.
After breakfast, he sat by the window, sipping a now-cool cup of coffee and staring out at a few wisps of snow that drifted past. He’d always liked snow. As a boy, he and a few other kids in the neighborhood had enjoyed building forts that were never secure enough to hold together under attack, and sledding down the slopes of a local golf course, and building snowmen that they decorated with various pieces of clothing they swiped from their parents’ closets.
Sitting at his window, Harold saw the sun trying to break through the gray, and he could
sense that the snowflakes wouldn’t be falling much longer. He set his now-cold coffee aside, bundled up to meet the chill, and left his apartment for a stroll to no place in particular.
Out of habit, he headed in the direction he always took to work, which led him past the soup kitchen. “Harold,” he heard behind him. He turned to see a woman he knew from work. He didn’t remember her name, but he did remember that she always seemed nice. “Are you playing hooky today?” she asked.
“No,” said Harold. “I’m using up my vacation time.”
“So am I,” said the woman. “I do this every year.” She gestured to the door of the soup kitchen. “Volunteering here really makes me feel good about myself and, well, life, I guess.”
“Oh,” said Harold. “You volunteer here?” He knew immediately that it was a dumb question, but he’d never been good at small talk.
“They never seem to have enough volunteers. They need people to unload donations, people to prepare the meals, people to serve, people to clean up. It’s a lot of work, but it’s very gratifying.”
Very gratifying. Those words had rarely applied to anything in Harold’s life. He hesitated at the thought of hard work on a vacation day, but it would be a very different kind of work than his job entailed. More physical. Probably more emotional. And, possibly, very gratifying. “Do they need help right now?” he asked. “I mean, right now at,” he checked his watch, “at eight-thirty?”
“Absolutely,” the woman told him. “Are you thinking of trying it?”
Harold hesitated only for a moment. “Yes,” he said. Here was an opportunity to help people in need, as well as give Harold something to do with his time. He joined the woman - who he later remembered was Marie - and entered the building. And several hours later he left, but just until the next morning. And for the first time in years, he felt truly happy.