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John Takes Both This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

     Sounds of constant traffic and busy sidewalks roared throughout the park. To any other man this would be the worst environment for thinking, but for John, the rainbow of noises was the perfect escape.

“Sir, would you like ketchup or mustard?”

John wasn’t an average man. He was average to the extent that he put his pants on one leg at a time, but with John, the problem wasn’t putting on his pants. To any other person, John would have been categorized in the “one heck of a lucky kid” group. John was the son of two entrepreneurs. So naturally, he had been raised to become somewhat of a Renaissance man. He had attended the best schools and was instructed by the best tutors. He had had the best coaches for every sport and had always been the star player. All of the choices John’s parents had made had earned him success, success in everyone else’s eyes, at least.

“Sir, I ain’t got all day. The question ain’t that hard. Ketchup or mustard?”

“Oh, I apologize,” said John, “I’ll take both, please.”

Walking away from the stand with his covered hot dog, John had to once again face reality. The noise of the street still remained but it had lost its effect when answering the question, “Ketchup or mustard?”

John had just graduated from college, first in his class, of course. Job offers were flying at him like Pottery Barn catalogs came in the mail. He had gotten offers from law firms, publishing companies, and other large companies. John had interviewed with many of the high-paying jobs, but when he was offered the job, his stomach would turn and he would reject it.

Finishing his hot dog, John began to get nervous about the interview. He wasn’t nervous because he was afraid of getting the job, but because he was afraid that once again his stomach would turn.

A few hours later, after long interviewing and stomach turning, he was once again sitting on a park bench by the hot dog stand. It was the same stand where he had felt satisfaction from answering the simple question about a hot dog topping, and the same bench where he could drift away lulled by the street noise.

When John was a kid he often felt like something was wrong with him. In his parents’ eyes, he was a prodigy. Adults had always called him a genius and told him how he was going to be very successful. Whenever John would win at sports, he felt like people felt better for him than he did for himself. John had always been interested in other people, not himself. At one point in his childhood, his parents noticed his lack of smiles and hired the famous therapist Odys Seus to help him. John had hated his sessions with Dr. Seus because he couldn’t stand talking about himself.

“Watchu all dressed up for? Not often I see a successful-looking guy like yourself getting a hot dog.”

Somewhat annoyed that someone else wanted to hear about him and his “success,” John hesitated. “Well, I just had an interview with Lynyrd Publishing.”

“Lynyrd Publishing!” the man exclaimed. “That’s the biggest publishing company in the city! How’d ya do?”

“I got the job ...” replied John, “but I turned it down.”

“Turned it down? Why on earth would you do that?”

John thought about the question. Why did I turn it down? According to other people, it was an amazing job. “I guess it just wasn’t for me. Well, I’m on my way to another interview now. Thanks for the hot dog,” said John.

“It’s what I do,” chuckled the vendor.

John finished his hot dog and felt ready to take on life. The hot dog was his excalibur. He soon reached the building. There he stood at the foot of his last hope: Richards law firm. Though it was last, it definitely wasn’t the least. Richards was like the owl and all the other law firms were mice. So, of course, it was also the interview that John had been afraid of the most. He saw that he wasn’t the only person admiring the building. A few others stood next to him. Whether they were sightseeing or wishing they could be part of that firm, John knew they weren’t in the same boat as he was.

He walked into the building and felt even more frightened when he noticed eerie, black-marble walls. He could see his reflection in each of the black tiles and realized how nervous he looked. John rode the elevator to the top floor and waited.

“Sir, we’re ready for you,” said the over-exuberant secretary.

John entered the office and met eyes with his interviewer. She stood and looked him up and down like a hawk staring at its prey. She wore all black that covered almost all of her body. It seemed as though the only visible parts, besides her face, were her heels that hung out of her small shoes, as if they were her only weakness. She walked toward John and gave him a handshake like a robot. John could tell that she was the more masculine of the two of them. She was a devil, offering him worldly goods.

The interview was John’s last chance to be successful. Because of that and the frightening, robot-like interviewer, John could barely breathe. From his point of view, the interview went horribly, but like everyone else, the interviewer thought he did a successful job and welcomed him to the team.

John closed his eyes and waited for his stomach to turn. He opened his eyes, saw that the black marble was as dark as the inside of his eyeballs, then closed his eyes again.

“Are you all right?” asked the robot-woman.

John said nothing.

The woman noticed he was sweating, so she pulled up the blinds and opened the window.

At that moment, John opened his eyes and saw the light bouncing against the black marble walls, as if a message from God, and John saw hope. His stomach didn’t turn but the light pouring through the window gave him the answer he needed.

John stood up. Confident.

“Sorry, but I can’t take this job.”

“What?!” she exclaimed. “Are you serious? Do you know how many people would like to have a job here? You will never be more successful anywhere else! You’re crazy!”

Slightly frightened by the screaming robot-lady, John quietly replied, “Sorry, ma’am, but I’m going to go get a hot dog now.”

Thirty years later at a park bench near a hot dog stand, two boys laughed and waited for their hot dogs.

“Shouldn’t you kids be in school?” asked John.

The boys laughed, “Yeah, right. Like we need be go there.”

“Well, if you don’t go to school, what will you do for a living?”

“Who knows, old guy? I’m pretty sure we’ll be more successful than a hot-dog guy, that’s for sure.”

The boys paid for the hot dogs and walked away laughing like two hyenas.

John stared at the kids and chuckled to himself. He no longer had to hear people be interested in him. Now he was just the hot-dog guy, taking an interest in others by talking to his customers. John was married with two kids and a grandson. He was the most successful man he knew.

John had found success in what may seem like the most unexpected place. Every day he looked back on the moment he realized what success was to him. The day when he was asked, “Ketchup or mustard?”

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the December 2007 Teen Ink Fiction Contest.

Join the Discussion

This article has 45 comments. Post your own now!

TheEvergreenThis teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. said...
Jan. 23 at 2:51 pm
Very insightful! To have a character like this is almost refreshing, and definitely heartwarming. A good message :)
Paakhi said...
Jun. 17, 2016 at 12:18 pm
Amazing post!
E.Inis said...
May 4, 2016 at 3:47 pm
Brilliant work! Wonderful, creative ending. I was skeptical about the wording of the beginning, but fell in love with the character development and the underlying meaning. Well done.
SomeoneOnTheInternet said...
Dec. 2, 2015 at 12:15 pm
Amazing! One of my favorite on the site!
writer-violistThis teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Nov. 10, 2015 at 6:57 pm
Awesome! :)
Camomile_AddisonThis teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. said...
Jul. 23, 2015 at 5:51 pm
A new favorite. Fantastic job
wanderingminds said...
Apr. 26, 2015 at 1:21 am
This story was perfect. Amazing work!
ellwist said...
Apr. 4, 2015 at 6:04 am
Absolutely flawless.
RedPhoenix said...
Feb. 19, 2015 at 2:54 pm
This is epic. Great job!
RedHadan This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jan. 28, 2015 at 3:47 pm
really good! I like the concept.
conman873 said...
Jun. 22, 2014 at 12:01 pm
GREAT ending! And Dr. Seus?! I love it!
conman873 replied...
Jun. 22, 2014 at 12:04 pm
Actually no...Odysseus! Is that because John is on a quest for his own version of success? Does it represent something else?
freeday15 said...
Mar. 26, 2014 at 5:49 pm
Wow! I honestly was not expecting that... at all! It really grabbed my attention. I love this piece, it's brilliant work.
Pseudonym329 said...
Feb. 10, 2014 at 6:40 pm
OK, I really need ideas dor a WWII play/movie and if anyone here has one, could they please post it as a comment on one of my articles? I know it might seem random to put/read, but I can't think of anything. I promise that if I choose your idea, or even if you submit an idea, I will let you know, and I will read it. If I like yours, I'll put your name on the credits, and I'll send the link to you (or I'll try anyways). Please, thank you, and I hope you have ideas!!!!!!!!
SpeakerofWolves replied...
today at 8:55 pm
Maybe you should talk about the perspective of a jew that lives in poland and has to escape the evil clutches of Hitler and his racial polices. The jew maybe went to the Allied Power nations to escape and till he got America that is when he started to feel safe and stayed down while supporting war effort till the end of the world war II. You could also maybe do one about a scrawny boy who joined the war by joining on the Battleship Texas? I'm running out of ideas and I hope you find some help ... (more »)
xelawriter97This teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jul. 27, 2013 at 1:35 pm
Terrific job! This hooked me right from the beginning. John is one of the most likable characters I've ever read.
CDHLegend said...
Feb. 26, 2013 at 9:52 pm
This may be the best story I have ever heard in my life Thank you
satellite23 said...
Feb. 26, 2013 at 1:53 pm
Outstanding! Absolutley amazing!!!! I loved the character of John. Such an ordinary name for such an ordinary guy! And I loved the silimes, hyenas and magazines. It was beautfully written. Well done!
SilverSun said...
Apr. 29, 2012 at 12:34 am
Wow! I love the whole denouncing materialistic needs and all. It was reallllyyy good in that it really defined success and what it meant to John. Awesome awesome job! Ps- love the whol hot dog vendor thing!!
Jay P. said...
Apr. 2, 2012 at 2:23 pm

That was good, and I realize something-

to some extent you do need money to be happy, but having a family that loves you is WAY more important

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