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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.

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     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 33 comments. Post your own now!

Amanda U. said...
Jul. 8, 2009 at 8:07 pm
I really enjoyed the ending because it brings John back to where he really feels comfortable. He steps outside of his comfort zone and then the ending is very satisfying because he re-enters it, in a different form. Good job!
 
.:ArleneNicole:. said...
Jul. 5, 2009 at 1:46 pm
I think this has become my favorite piece! You did an excellent job and I wouldn't say you should change a thing! I especially like the ending where John thought of his family as being his real success. I like your style, and I look forward to reading more from you!
 
DakotaKnight said...
Jul. 4, 2009 at 7:45 pm
Great work, you portrayed the decisions and complications like black and white; making the reader think along the same lines as your main character; by actually standing in his shoes:)
 
autumnaleqnx said...
Jul. 2, 2009 at 11:54 pm
The dialogue at times was a little forced, but I think that with more experience, it will get there. Both the story idea and execution were fairly good, but the major question I have is-how realistic is this story? I understand that the effect is that John is able to form more meaningful relationships with people, but this character, as you describe him, is extremely intelligent and innovative, so would he really find complete satisfaction doing a menial job?
 
Wise_Idiot said...
Jun. 10, 2009 at 1:33 am
This is a wonderful story. I loved reading it. The adjectives put stunning and real pictures in my mind, whcih brought the story to life. Not to mention, great morale values. You won't see that everyday.
 
Chrissy L. said...
Apr. 21, 2009 at 8:35 pm
This is an incredible story. And you are right, success does not have to be the textbook definition.
 
WolfAngel said...
Apr. 4, 2009 at 6:09 am
This is a good story and i loved the idea that success is only important to yourself not anybody else.
 
AnAuthenticAuthor2B said...
Mar. 2, 2009 at 3:48 am
Great job! I love how in a way, you portray family and interest in others as the true success in comparison to high-powered jobs. Kutos!
 
ObseverG said...
Feb. 28, 2009 at 9:48 pm
I really admire the fact that you don't portray success only as an amazing job or something but what makes the actual person (or character in this case) happy. It's really encouraging.

Also, I have to admit that the "Ketchup or mustard?" thing was a bit random (were you eating a hotdog or something when you wrote this/had the idae for this?). haha
 
littleragamuffin said...
Jan. 11, 2009 at 6:41 pm
I liked that it was obvious he was never going to take the jobs, and probably end up as a hot dog vendor, and I liked that the interesting part of the story was when he would figure out how to make himself happy.
 
bbyruth said...
Dec. 27, 2008 at 8:45 pm
i really enjoy this story, it gives the reader a great perspective and has a simple but resonating message. I sincerely hope that you continue to turn oout more stories like this!
 
adrienne-the-writer said...
Dec. 20, 2008 at 9:42 pm
i love how the story is tyed with this question: "Ketchup or mustard?" i like how vauge john is. he's a good character.
 
ivy said...
Sept. 15, 2008 at 11:25 pm
I became increasingly frustrated when john continued to turn down offer after offer, but I was very pleased with the way the story ended. bravo
 
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