One Minute Ghost Story

Posted in Ghost stories, Poems, The Literateria on 08/26/2014 by Janet Fitch
The Hand Of Fate by Claudia Kunin

The Hand Of Fate by Claudia Kunin

A while ago, I participated in an afternoon sponsored by X-TRA, the art magazine, at the Hammer Museum, where artists and writers were asked to pick an image, any kind of image, and speak about it for one minute.  I picked an image from my fabulous photographer friend Claudia Kunin’s portfolio ‘3D Ghost Stories” called “The Hand of Fate” (guess whose hand it was?)  Here’s the image, and this was my minute.

 

Richard Quincey was a promising young man.

He used to meet Beth Ambercrombie down by the river.

No one knew what went on by moonlight.

 

Soon after,

He left and wed the daughter of a Boston merchant,

a handsome marriage.

A promising start.

 

Yet, from then on, nothing went right.

Whatever he tried was doomed to failure.

Lawsuits ran against him.

Children sickened and died.

He bore his failures nobly.

What a shame, people said, about Richard Quincey.

 

While Beth Ambercrombie walks in her strange garden by moonlight

She never did marry.

By moonlight she peers into the basin

where she studies Richard Quincey,

And again draws the sign in the water.

 

 

Human Resources

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , , on 06/22/2014 by Janet Fitch

The Word: GROUND

Jet  set down her battered briefcase on the chair next to Nora, slipped off her jacket. Her girlfriend was hunched unhappily over an unfinished Sudoku on the dining room table, still in her work clothes. “Susan again?”

Nora appraised her with red rimmed eyes. “I am going to kill her. I’m going to hide behind the door of her office and when she comes in I’m going to staple one of her fucking memos to her forehead.” She clapped her hands smartly, the retort the sound of the staple through Susan Balt’s cranium.

Jet could smell the electrical storm rising from her girlfriend, the ozone under the slighty stale scent of her hair. A few months ago, Gelco had hired a new Human Resources Director– a position which everyone assumed would go to Nora. But they’d brought someone from HQ in Delaware, a petite woman who wore neat ladylike skirt-suits and flat shoes and pearls. Corporate drama. Academics was bad enough, but from what she heard from Nora, it was nothing compared to this kind of Machiavellian byplay.

She’d met Nora’s new boss a couple of times. Jet instantly pegged her for class fink — pursed lips, a smile she’d had to practice, the perennially anxious look in her eyes. A straight A girl—but not one of the naturally gifted ones, the ones who had to be heard in class no matter what, who came into her office and plopped themselves down anytime they liked, and began arguing about points in history from some weird but interesting point of view. No, your Susans of the world respected office hours, took perfect notes, they were the ones buttoned down so tight you worried about a breakdown, they crossed their legs at the ankle. The ones whose mothers made them take piano lessons all the way through high school, who had never had an original idea or a puff of marijuana or a really satisfying screw in their whole lives. The Susans lived to rise to a position of power, where they could force others to walk a mile in their little tight shoes—‘others’ who were, for the moment, her girlfriend Nora.

She tried to massage Nora’s shoulders, smooth in her sleeveless black dress, but Nora shrugged her off. Nora had more than a scoop of the good-girl thing too, which was why her new boss goaded her to such rage. Nora already tried hard. She was already careful and punctual and helpful. She never took sick days, never got into it with anybody. But Susan treated her as if she were a detention student, pointing out sloppiness, carelessness, handing out demerits in a mock-helpful tone.

Her darling girl lay her dark head on her arm on the cluttered tabletop.

“Glass of wine?” Jet asked helpfully. “Doobie?”

Her lover glanced up from her outstretched arm, skeptical, hurting, like an dog with a thorn in its paw, her lower lip turned out and nodded.

Over a glass of Beaujolais and a fatty in the living room, Nora poured out the details, the latest drama, each X-Acto-bladed insult, the whispering cabals. Jet nodded, murmuring sympathetic noises, though honestly, keeping a certain distance, a little remove. She had to keep it hidden, she had to be careful or Nora would accuse her of indifference, turn her fury on Jet. You don’t care at all, she’d said to her more than once. This, my life, it’s all a joke to you, isn’t it.

Jet sucked at the reefer, passed it to Nora. Was she soulless? she wondered. Her ex-girlfriend Hollye used to throw things at her and call her soulless, because she couldn’t get herself all worked up when some neighbor looked at her  funny, some woman at the store. “Fight back!” Hollye used to shriek, clawing at her. “Goddamn you! What makes you so superior?” But Hollye was a hot and cold raving lunatic, drama queen extraordinaire. Jet could still picture her, a small, wiry blonde, taking Volume 2 of Churchill’s World In Crisis from her shelf, a precious first edition, and tearing the cover, flinging it across the room. “How’ja like that, you passive aggressive freak! Mad yet? Hit me why don’t you? ” She had not punched Hollye. But she had begun packing that very night.

Jet smiled understandingly at Nora. This was was no Hollye. Nora was a Human Resources manager, smooth shouldered, patrician. She didn’t break things, she wasn’t insane. Jet did what she could to make Nora feel loved. She refilled her wine, passed the joint to her. Her girl looked better now, more animated, the color coming back into her face as she ranted about on about Susan and her ‘henchmen’ and the Quasimodos of headquarters. But Jet had to admit, it was all junior high to her. Just so much sturm und drang. She’d learned as a kid to let her parents’ fights wash over her. It would be done eventually, there was no point in getting struck by lightning. She used to think of it as ‘grounding out.’

But she tried to interject sympathetic phrases when she could: . “That was way out of line,” “What a bitch.” Just to show she was listening.

“I was talking about Victor,” Nora finally said, squinting at her. “Are you even listening to me? This is real, this is happening.”

What could Jet say? Nora worked for a bunch of dickheads and they were being dickheads. News at eleven. Maybe there was something wrong with her, maybe these girls were right all along. That something was missing in her, that she just couldn’t feel what other people were all up in arms about. Even Nora. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, it was that she just didn’t see the point of getting all worked up about something that would soon settle itself out one way or another. No crisis lasted for ever.

“You think this is nothing. I can see that superior look on your face. Just a tempest in a teapot,” Nora said, sliding her feet off the coffee table, planting them on the oriental rug. Leaning forward. Ready for a fight. Why did women always want to fight with her? Why couldn’t they let her do what she did well and cut her some slack.

“It’s not me you’re mad at, remember? I’m on your side.”

“You should be outraged!” Nora said, her lips stained from the Beaujolais. “This is my life. These people are fucking your woman around. And you just sit there like it has nothing to do with you. It’s ghoulish how you can be so calm at a time like this.”

“Maybe I should be in Human Resources, eh?” Jet tried to give Nora a hug, but her girlfriend shoved her away. “Come on, N. It was just a joke.”

But Nora was staring to cry. “It’s not a joke! This is real, Jet, you just don’t get it. You never get it. You’re behind this windshield, looking at me like I was a bug in Bugland. You’re like encased in this rubber suit, walking through the world.”

Jet did care. She cared deeply about Nora, her happiness. But she couldn’t walk into the electrical storm wearing a metal suit. That would be idiocy. There was too much drama in the world as it was, both ephemeral and dangerous, enormous lightning storms, and she didn’t see the point in letting herself be electrocuted if she could allow a strike to pass safely into the ground. She loved Nora, but she didn’t feel what she felt, the humiliation, the torture by a thousand paper-cuts.

“I am listening.” She put her hand on Nora’s sleek bare knee. “Vic’s siding with Susan. Susan wants you to take on reordering the records, and it’s not your job.” And what if Jet did get upset about all this stuff? What if she was like Nora, or Hollye, and screamed and wept and slammed doors and threw first editions? What woman really wanted a partner like that?

“I’ve decided, I’m going to quit.” Nora gazed into her wineglass, turning the dregs this way and that, rubbing at her tears with the back of the other hand.

Jet gazed at Nora’s determined profile, the firm clean jaw, the smell of her light perfume. Would she really do it? No, her Nora was a tenacious creature, she wouldn’t let Susan run her off. Not in a million years.

Nora brought in the bulk of their income, this was her West Hollywood duplex. Restaurant meals and vacations on beautiful islands… In a month they’d be in Java.  Jet knew she wouldn’t really go through with it. She was just talking. If she wanted to be broke, she could have gone on for a PhD in industrial psychology. But she’d weighed the intellectual stimulation of academia against the cold cash of the corporate world, and went the way that would support her aesthetic, her sweet way of life, the designer clothes she was wearing. Not to mention allowing Jet to be the semi-fuckup she was, a college prof but non-tenure track–she’d screwed up her tenure situation years ago, there was no going back.

“If you want to quit, quit,” Jet said with what she hoped was a bit of passion. She’d learned long ago that trying to stop an angry woman from doing something was to insure she’d do it, just to prove that she could.

“You think I won’t?” Nora asked. And then she growled, like a tiger, a grizzly, like she wanted to tear Jet’s face off with her strong straight teeth.

Jet had to say something. “I don’t know, babe. I don’t have a lot of say in this, do I?” And if Nora did quit? Now Jet smelled ozone, the tickling hair, the fizz of electrical storm, she was losing her grounding.  Oh, surely they had enough dough to tide them over. It was Jet’s recurring nightmare–having to move back to a shitbox apartment in North Hollywood around a pool-less courtyard with kids screaming and people’s TVs blaring on all sides, the place she lived when she first moved to LA… No, Nora would never do that… Or worse–move out of LA entirely. They both knew people forced to do just that, fleeing to Ukiah, or Davis. Charles had moved back to Missouri, he was teaching high school. Erasers hitting him in the head when his back was turned.

“Maybe when we get back from Java…” Jet said. “Things’ll look different.”

Nora wrenched her mouth into a schwa. “Oh, didn’t I tell you?” Swallowing the rest of her wine.  “Susan said it wasn’t convenient. She’s set a big Gelco HR conference that week. We’ll have to cancel.”

Susan had put the kibosh on their trip?  Lightning broke around Jet’s head like a crown of thorns, the crackle of fire in dry leaves.  “That bitch!  What a fucking cunt!”

Now Nora smiled, and poured the rest of the Beaujolais into her glass. “Yeah, that Susan.”

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: GLOVE

 

A Pain In the Neck

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , , on 06/08/2014 by Janet Fitch

The Word: THROAT

Deborah’s sore throat starts after work. She’s gone to dinner with her boss, Avery, and four other lawyers, to a fusion sushi place near SciArc downtown. She can feel the tickle beginning, on the left side, and drinks a good measure of sake to try to sterilize it. She hates eating out with the Lapels, as she calls them privately. All of them in their jackets, the Kevlar of the business world. By the time she gets home, she can feel it coming on, a bad one, she heads for the bathroom and stares down her throat with a flashlight, examining it as she’d once examined her own intimate zones, Our Bodies Ourselves. This looks much the same.

Hammy lounges in the doorway, still in his pajama bottoms. At 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night. “So how’d it go with Aviary and the gang?”

“My throat hurts.” She takes a swig of Listerine and gargles vigorously, watching the clock. A full minute, and spit, eyeing the green globs in the sink. Hoping she’s got it all out.

“Of course it hurts. From the effort of not telling them to go piss up a rope,” he says. “Disease as metaphor.”

He hasn’t shaven. His shaggy blonde curls woolly and unwashed. His t-shirt has stains on the front. He smells of cigarettes. She knows it’s a good sign, he’s been writing all day. If he’d smelled of pot, that’s the bad sign. Whiskey, even worse—that he hadn’t been writing and he felt bad about it.

She doesn’t state the obvious—if she’d told them to piss up a rope, she would be fired, and then neither one of them would have a source of income. But of course, doesn’t say that. It would hurt his feelings, and it’s hard enough to be a writer without one’s girlfriend pointing out that one is being supported by her unpleasant but lucrative job as a corporate attorney.

“You get these sore throats because you don’t say what’s on your mind.” Rubbing her neck, looking in the mirror over her shoulder. His unshaven cheeks. Little specks of gray were starting to appear.  Their lives aren’t as fluid as they’d once been. They’ve chosen their paths, and now they have to put up with their choices, she as a corporate shitshoveler, he as a brilliant but unappreciated writer of quirky literary fiction.

She feels her nodes with her fingertips, swollen.

What if she did tell Avery she hates him? Hates everything about him, from his big gold Rolex to his blue shirts, his blue eyes, his tan, his handball, his alma mater. What if she tells Robert and Yvonne they don’t have a chance at making partner? Takes Geoff by his Lapels and shouts  stop being so mean. Just because you can’t face being gay is no reason to take it out on the rest of the world. What if she tells her client the Upland Group their exurban gated communities are a crime against humanity.

Why stop there? She could tell her mother to stop shopping and find something she could do that would be of some use to another human being. And tell her father to look up the definition of codependent. The things she would say if she started speaking her mind. Then what would happen, Hammy my love?

She watches her boyfriend in the mirror, Birmingham Walker III, about whom many things are true, and not all of them lovely. The truth is everybody always wants you to speak up, to speak your truth–about other people. But never about them.

She cannot, will not say, what would you do if I told them all off, Hammy? How far would you go for me? Would you get dressed and go out tomorrow looking for work, would you take whatever you found? Would you wait tables for me, wipe up people’s hamburger slop? Would you be a crew member at Trader Joe’s?

She already knows he would not. He would become paralyzed by self-loathing, fall into a depression, drink excessively and move back in with his mother.

 She gargles again, spits out another wad of emerald green Listerine-stained mucous into the sink. She will have this throat kicked by morning, she can already feel herself besting it.

The truth is, if it’s left up to her, she could always wipe up hamburger slop. The difference between them–she could work at a Trader Joe’s without even blinking. Does that make her codependent,  like her father with her mother? That she lets everybody else follow their horrible hearts, while she only allows herself to do the sensible thing? Does that make her strong or weak? Is there an AlAnon for people like her, with the will to go on, who take it and  go to work with their sore throats and Lapels?

She imagines it, their basement meeting rooms–All the reliable people in their workclothes, sitting on folding chairs drinking burned coffee, practicing telling people off, practicing quitting.

“What’s so funny?” Hammy asks, wrapping his arms around her, resting his chin on her shoulder in the mirror, his dark eyes next to hers, his ..vulnerable unshaven face.

“Never mind,” she says. “Come, read me something.” She begins to undress for bed, hanging her jacket neatly on a hanger, to air out for the night, till tomorrow.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: GROUND

 

The Beginner

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , on 05/30/2014 by Janet Fitch

The Word: TABLE

She pulled her chair up to the table and sat. She piled her chips by her elbow. She played Noir. She played Rouge. She put a stack on 9 and lost. The table was hot. The table went cold. She anted. She passed. She called. She held pairs. She lay down with a flourish a grand royal flush. She played games she didn’t know the rules for, where things shook and jingled and smacked down hard.  Men with snap-fronted shirts coached her. Men in tinted glasses sneered. Fingers moved across the table and took her chips, or brought more.This was what it was to be 23. 24. 25.  You pulled up to the table. You didn’t know what you were doing, but you began to play.  You learned as you lost. You lost, sometimes you won, but there was no saying, really, why, or when.

Some of her friends preferred not to take their places at the table. Too risky they said. They moved back home, where they would stay through their thirties, into their forties. They dated a little but not much. They ate wisely. They went to the movies for the six o’clock show. They had a single glass of wine. Olive oil. Yoga,  sunscreen. They felt themselves canny, to have avoided the whole thing.

For her, it wasn’t  enough. She had to pull up to the table and play. She had to try. She had to fail, fail outright, to know what that felt like, it was important, to taste it, to play the game they were playing, if it was Texas Hold ‘Em or Pai Gow or blackjack. It was her time at the table. She pulled up a chair. Her cards set before her. She picked them up, sorted them as best she could, anted up, began.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: THROAT

 

Portrait in Black and White

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , on 05/17/2014 by Janet Fitch

The Word: FRAME

Julia turned onto her side, where her head didn’t hurt so much. Before her, family photos in white frames hung in a cluster. Photos from different eras, scanned and resized, in harmonious black and white, all in white frames on the dove gray wall. So very elegant. All that black and white. She and the designer both agreed.  But now, there was nowhere she wanted to rest her eyes. oh, for a patch of blue.

That photo. Of her with her grandfather in the early Seventies. Reduced just to its pictorial elements–couch, the moire of the family room paneling, the collie’s darks and lights. Her grandfather’s face brightened so his features were clear. What had been in real life a small square snapshot in the rusts and golds of the early Seventies, his dark face, copper brown, the caramel and white of the collie, the golden swirls of the woodwork.

In black and white it reminded her of a news photo. Have you seen these people? The warmth had disappeared. Those rich browns, those golds. When she was that girl in the picture, she’d taken all her photographs in black and white. Wound her own film onto the spools, developed them in the bathroom, printed in the highschool darkroom.. It was how she saw the world, high contrast, black and white. Taking no pleasure in the golden browns and coffees and yolk gold. She’d liked white subtitles against stony Swedish beaches too, and rainslicked Noir boulevards, and the preternaturally pale movie stars. Dietrich and Garbo.

She’d made a mistake to let these prints be made. A crime.  That party dress with the cut lace collar her mother had made for her seventh birthday was burgundy, not black. Her first formal gown turquoise with gold thread on white silk. And there, at her first house after college, lying in the backyard under an apricot tree—the grass long and green and stitched with flowers, her long hair was newly red, the flowing hippie skirt the saffron of the fruit. Or there–the chalked nursery school pavement, Kayla in her favorite dress, flying as she hopscotched, barefoot—but the dress, just dots and movement, no rainbow. Her chocolate curls now licorice.

What had she been thinking, when she’d allowed the decorator to create this room, its gray walls and white furniture, white duvet, and black and white photographs.

She certainly hadn’t realized she’d be dying here.

Towards the center of the cluster of photos, a toddler in Fifties garb held a clutch of plastic keys. She could still remember how enticing they felt, smooth and a bit soft, pastel as Jordan almonds, eminently biteable. The little rounded Peter Pan collar, the smocking across the bodice—all of her clothes had smocking then. What color? Sky blue–even as a tiny child. Her hair like buckwheat honey.

She really had been born in another time, hadn’t she? All that smocking. Eisenhower was president. His bald head replacing Liberty’s on the silver dime. Their TV resided in a wooden box, with vents into which she’d secretly smuggled love notes to Mighty Mouse. The young decorator had marveled at that picture, the way Julia herself had once marveled at photos of her mother in Forties lipstick and padded shoulders, or her father in Depression overalls and bare feet.

She hated all these black and whites. How could she have allowed it? To take the color away, so that they would all go together. The mishmash of all that life, turned into her teenage aesthetic ideal. All drama but where was the life? Life was not an art object, it didn’t hang together—ha. Her head hurt, but she couldn’t help it, she could never resist a pun. But life didn’t have to create a unified whole. Some moments were overexposed and others, badly composed. It was just like her to let a decorator redesign her life so it looked good in white frames on a gray wall. Like death in life. Like a newspaper morgue.

Well, she wanted her grandfather’s coppery arms back. Her daughter’s rainbows, the gold and turquoise of that Indian brocade, the flowerdappled grass. She didn’t care if it looked like a mess. It was a life, in all its colors. Just for a little while more, until all the colors were gone.  And give that girl her sky blue dress, and keys like Jordan almonds.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: TABLE

 

 

 

The Artificial Heart

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , on 05/02/2014 by Janet Fitch

The Word: BILL

What led him to open the mail that day? He normally didn’t do mail, that was Carolyn’s province. The bills, the house, the painters and plumbers, taxes and whatnot. She was presiding angel. He made the money, she spent it. That was their joke. But he’d come home from work early, he’d had a breakthrough towards the silicone armature for the artificial heart. He deserved the afternoon off.

On the hall table among the other mail was a card, clearly a birthday card for him, from his old college friend Kathy Setzer, now heading her own lab at MIT. Kathy always remembered birthdays. Funny old Kathy. Carolyn had met her once at a John Hopkins reunion–his beautiful new wife had looked like a peacock in a barnyard. He never realized how plain the scientists were before. Carolyn had taken one look at Kathy and whispered, “She’s a full professor, for god’s sake, does she really have to shop at Penney’s?” Well, Kathy was a scientist, and Carolyn was a designer– recommended by the realtor when he’d bought the La Jolla house after he’d made his first five million.  She’d just swept him up. Beautiful, organized, decisive. Saved his life, really.

The card from Kathy was so sweet. A Sierra club photo of people kayaking on Chesapeake Bay. Kathy had always been game for the outdoors, hiking, backpacking… That made him laugh—Carolyn’s idea of the outdoors was white wine on the patio looking out at the sunset. These days he went kayaking alone. He propped the card on the table, knowing his wife would have something tart to say about Kathy. His friends bored her. She preferred the money crowd of La Jolla, people she met through the museum.

Oh, what did he  care who they had dinner with, at fundraisers and so on. He had her, he had his work. She took care of him in a way Kathy or a woman like her would never be able to.

Which was how he came to open the envelope.

It was just a bill. An Amex bill or something. He glanced over it, still thinking of kayaking Chesepeake. The old Hopkins days with Kathy Setzer.

The name on the bill stopped him. It wasn’t his, or even theirs. It was Carolyn’s brother Frankie’s. This address, but Frank Norman. For $12,586.35. Thank you for your last payment of $7,452. He stood looking at the bill, blinking. Why was he getting Frankie’s bill? And who in the world would have given Frankie Norman an Amex card? Let alone let him rack up a tab like that? Frankie Norman was a nice enough guy, but basically a surf bum—this was almost $20 grand worth of what? Carlsbad Mercedes, lease payment, $523. Frankie didn’t even drive a Mercedes… or did he? Some kind of sports car, yes… though honestly, he couldn’t remember the last time he saw Frankie.

David could feel a shocked redness creeping up from the collar of his polo shirt, up his neck and into his face. Thank you for your last payment… Car payment, restaurants… Bessell Custom Surfboards. Airline tickets for two, LAN airlines, to  SCL. LAN?  SCL? He was about to Google it on his cellphone when the mystery of the acronym resolved itself a moment later–Hotel Grand Hyatt, Santiago, Chile. Grand Hotel Gervasoni, Valparaiso, Chile. Two weeks at the Gervasoni, Valparaiso, Chile. A suite.

Frankie couldn’t have gotten an Amex card. He began to search through the fat wad of mail. Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus, Another Amex, this one for Carolyn’s mother, living in a retirement community in Vero Beach. He gutted it.  $3,267. About the same the month before.  Well, at least the old lady wasn’t so greedy.

His head was bursting. His heart… he couldn’t afford a heart attack—RepliCorp’s artificial heart was years away. He couldn’t afford this.

 Citi Card. Carolyn N. Stein. He ripped it open with such fumbling hands that he tore the bill as well. $88,273.67. Even as his senses reeled, the computational wheels spun in his head. He’d always been good at numbers. Words he distrusted, but numbers… Thank you for your last payment, $47,928. He couldn’t help adding it up. So far he’d seen a two month outlay of $160 grand and change. A year– that was almost $700,000. He hesitated to multiply by 24 days in a month that mail arrived. It was close to the end of the month, maybe this was the bulk of it. God knew what was on the other cards.

He thought of all those afternoons he’d come home and see her leafing through the mail. Anything for me?

He thought he might vomit.

His love, his beautiful wife. Carolyn, what have you done? But his eye kept scanning the bill. DeMolay Jeweler’s–$71,495.   He pulled out his phone, frantically punched in the phone number that was conveniently listed with the entry on his bill, misdialed, had to start again.  “Yes, DeMolay? This is Dr. David Stein. I wanted to ask you about a bill—yes, I’ll wait.”

The billing office came on. “Yes Dr. Stein?” A smooth woman’s voice.

“My wife was in there last month, she bought something from you, I just got the bill. What was that item, please?”

He could hear clicking. Of course DeMolay Jewelers was completely computerized, they could certainly afford it. “Yes, Mr. Stein? I see it, but I’m not sure, it might be a gift…”

He felt a twinge. What if she had bought a gift for him? But, she had not bought two weeks at the Grand Hotel Gervasoni for him. Or six Hermes scarves. “What was it?”

“A watch, sir. A Patek.”

“A man’s watch?”

“Yes, sir.”

He hung up and slipped the phone back in his pocket. He couldn’t breathe. He opened the sliding doors to the patio, went outside into the clean, cool afternoon, sat heavily in a patio chair, always scrubbed and ready for use. He sucked great lungfuls of ocean air. Out in the water, down at the edge of the Pacific glinting in the lowering sun, surfers rode the bluegreen waves. Frankie, on his custom Bessell surfboard.

But maybe it was a birthday gift for him… Maybe—

He saw her, in her white tennis dress, racket over her shoulder…

Did he have any money left at all? Was this all just a dream? His daughter, his wife… Should he wait for his birthday, to see if maybe–?

But he was no fool.

Then he stopped himself in mid-thought. Ha–of course he had been. A fool was exactly what he was, what he’d always been. A perfect fool. Was that how she’d seen him? As she discussed carpet and couches and lamps? A fool who owned a biotech company and ten major patents.

He looked down his list of contacts on his phone, and rang the lab at MIT. “Hi, Kathy?”

Her voice, so familiar, a bit nasal. “Dave! So cool, you called. How’s life in the big leagues

“Kind of crazy. Look, just wanted to thank you for the card,” he said. Someone caught a wave, riding it towards shore. “I mean really. It means a lot.”

“Hey, no problem. Hey, Dave–you okay?”

He was crying. Took off his glasses and wiped his eyes on the back of his hand. The trendy glasses Carolyn had insisted he buy. Sprucing him up. “No. Yeah. Probably. You know.” What was the chance that Kathy, running her lab at MIT, would understand any of this, have any idea. $70K for a fucking watch. What did Carolyn do with all the stuff? Sell it on Ebay? She was an Ebay nut—he knew that, but he never….

He had to get his shit together. He couldn’t fall apart now. He had to be very clear now.  “I have to go now.  Just wanted to say… thanks.”

“You coming out for the reunion?”

“Maybe.  If I can afford it.”

“Funny,” she said. “How’s your glamorous spouse?”

“Ever more glamorous,” he said, and rang off.

He glanced at his watch. His old Timex. His father gave it to him when he graduated from high school.  Carolyn would be home any time now. He had to get ready. He had to clear his mind.  He wouldn’t open any more of the envelopes.  No, he wanted to watch her leafing through that stack of mail with that same calm, bland look on her face. Anything interesting honey? No, not really. He wanted to see that look, one last time.

 

Part of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: FRAME`

 

 

Mr. Man

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , on 04/06/2014 by Janet Fitch

The Word: PLASTER

Edie tried so hard to walk in the light. To look for things to love. The wind tossing in the trees, the shimmering of palm fronds, flowering cherries and plums. Someone being kind to someone in the street, a young person walking with an old person, matching their slow careful steps. A good dog, sitting at a corner, waiting for his owner to give the OK. Orange cars, and green ones, especially screaming orange and green, like cars from the ‘Seventies.

But her mother was in the hospital now, something terrible going on, some cosmic struggle, she was spitting and biting and calling out, talking about “Mr. Man,” who started as her old boss, Mr. Manfred, but had been transmuted through the relentless procession of dementia into a looming, punishing, Godot-like figure. Mr. Man the Boogie Man.

Edie paused at the table before the pile of receipts, her taxes spread out, wondering if she could stand going back to the hospital today and have her tiny, bruised mother bare her teeth at her and tell her, as Mr. Man, to ‘stick it up her ass.’

She needed to finish her expenses before she did anything else. It was actually a relief just do something so mechanical and impersonal. Unreimbursed medical, office supply, parking. It took a full day to recover from these visits with her mother. She’d rather do her taxes every day for a month.

The cat wandered in. Charley. What did he want, food? Edie checked. Food in his bowl. The cat didn’t want his food, he wanted to show her–oh no.There on the floor, a just hatched baby bird. Fuzzy, with a yellow breast, a pointed little beak. Hummingbird? Thrush? Barely moving. Goddamn it, and she was usually so careful not to leave the door open, so the cat had to ask to come in and anything in his mouth would have a chance to get away. But today, this lovely spring day, she’d left the door open.

That damned cat. Her husband Vic was the cat lover. And her kids. She didn’t have anything against the cat per se, Charley was nice enough. But. She’d never wanted a cat. If he was inside he ignored the scratching posts and trained his sights on the furniture. If he was out, he killed things.

Now it was spring, and the birds were nesting, such easy targets for this furry killing machine. Charley didn’t even eat what he caught, just played with his victim—lizard, bird–until exhausted, it died.

Edie disagreed with cat ownership. People owning millions of small tigers, thinking it was nothing. These relentless predators. She hadn’t seen a robin in years, they’d been so plentiful when she was a child. She purposely didn’t spray the yard, even in the flea infestation, not to harm the birds.

She took the bird outside and put it in the bushes, but she knew a baby had little chance without the nest—and now the cat was yowling to go out, walking across her paperwork, clawing at the table legs and then at her leg. She didn’t want to let him out, now he knew where the nest was. She thought of the grief of the mother bird. But the cat dug its claws into her kneecap, into the carved center post of her grandmother’s dining room table. She let him go, gone in the whoosh of an orange tail. She, Edie Holland, was Kali, bringer of death.

“It’s a cat,” Vic said. “It’s what they do.”

Leave it inside! She could already hear her podiatrist friend Marjorie saying, with her four rescued cats and her house full of clawed furniture and cathair. But Edie worked at home, she couldn’t deal with all that sharp-clawed yearning. She was a dog person. A lover of birds.

Even as she wept, she knew that it had something to do with her mother, screaming and spitting and ancient and lost, with only Edie to care for her. The death of the vulnerable. The birds just trying to raise their blameless children, and cats which didn’t need to kill, killing. The harshness of life. The waste.

So how did one walk in the light? How did one find a way to be happy in this kind of world. She didn’t want to go out and get plastered. She hadn’t had a drink in 18 years. She just wanted to know how to live.

The blameless thing to do was keep the cat in. The only one who would suffer would be herself. You could get a second cat to keep the first one company. And then you’d have two cats you didn’t want instead of one.

Or just accept that the world was going to hell, and she was part of it. She was on the roller coaster car about to plunge over the broken rail. She would not be blameless. Her mother was suffering and she wasn’t able to do anything about it but fight with the smarmy doctor, with his patronizing smile and his pink shirts, knowing all the while her hatred of him was just a distraction from the real suffering.

She always felt responsible. Even as a little kid, Edie could never just laugh and have a good time. The cat was just a metaphor. The problem was how to be happy in a terrible world where old ladies suffered horribly and innocent birds were killed in the nest for the amusement of well-fed housecats.

She wanted to be happy, a happy person, not someone always fretting and feeling guilty and surrounded with the horror of everyday life. She would be old soon herself, tiny as a bird and stuck in a bed shrieking at the invisible “Mr. Man” and never would she have even enjoyed her life. Even the birds would forget about their babies in a day or two, while she still remembered that French cabdriver she’d undertipped ten years ago, when she was so ill and only had a huge bill she didn’t want to give him. How could you be happy when you were a person like that? She still remembered a friend making fun of her during a sing-along party when got the lyrics wrong. She thought they were good friends, but it was the end of the friendship. She never got over it.

She couldn’t get over things the way other people did. The way the birds did, or the killer cat. As her mother would if they ever got her meds right. Only Edie wanted to cry, only she remembered things. Was she destined to be a professional mourner, Elektra of Encino? Why are you people happy? Why are you people not rolling in the mud and screaming to the gods? The tragedy of the house of Atreus was that no one forgot a thing.

She left the taxes on the table. They could wait another day. She took a book and an apple and headed to the hospital, after which she would treat herself to a cappuccino and a croissant at an overpriced hipster coffee house, and sit in the filtered sun under bright-leaved trees listening to birds her cat had not yet killed, and see if she could clear out a tiny space for happiness.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

 Next week’s word is: BILL

 

 

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