Archive for happiness

Mr. Man

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


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



Summer and Sobaka

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , , on 07/23/2010 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Rib

My mother finally relented, and I was going to spend the summer at Aunt Thea’s. In L.A. At last. I never got to go by myself before, because my mother and her older sister don’t get along so great. But that summer, my dad and mom weren’t getting along so good either. In fact, Dad had moved out and Mom just wanted to lie around crying , and I kept saying, let me go to LA and see Aunt Thea, she asks me every year when she comes to Hartford for Christmas. But my mom always says no, she wouldn’t trust Aunt Thea with a plant, let alone a human being.

When Aunt Thea stays with us, she sleeps in the other bed in my room, and tells me stories about ghosts and stuff my mom and her used to do when they were kids, that I can hardly believe. We consult the Ouija board, but I don’t tell my mom. She’s, well, she wouldn’t go for that.

I love Aunt Thea. She’s got to be forty, and tan, with long hair down her back like a hippie. She’s getting wrinkles and she doesn’t even care. And she laughs more than anybody I ever saw. Once, she laughed so hard at a joke my brother Brian was telling she actually peed in her pants. “I’m going to pee in my pants!” she shrieked, and then she did. And thought that was so funny, she laughed until tears spilled down her tanned, wrinkled face.

My mom got so mad, like Aunt Thea was a bad dog that had peed the rug. “I can’t believe you just did that.”

“Oh, you’re no fun,” Aunt Thea said, holding her stinky wet pants away from her skin.

My mom can be fun, but she’s the “first you brush your teeth and then you get the story” type.

Whereas my first morning in LA, we had ice cream for breakfast. “What kind do you like?” my aunt asked me. She has this old fridge from the Fifties, and the dinky little freezer was packed with ice cream. I took one scoop of lavender mint, and one of espresso. and we ate out on the porch overlooking the lake.

A lake, right in the middle of LA. I never heard of that. With houses all around, up on the hillsides, like a foreign country, like France or something. We hung out on her porch and ate our ice cream, and I thought I was in heaven, I mean, heaven. LA, and this funky old house, and the lake and breeze in the trees and her dog Sobaka, which means dog in Russian. Sobaka has pretty white eyelashes. A white sort of greyhound, but hairy. And I have to admit, I felt bad, that my mom and my dad were breaking up and I was in LA eating ice cream for breakfast. It felt kind of heartless.

I thought about married people. “Why didn’t you ever get married, Aunt Thea? Didn’t you want to?”

She licked her spoon and put the bowl on the ground so Sobaka could slurp up the rest. “I had a love affair,” she said. “But he wasn’t the type who’d ask you to marry him.” The way she said ‘marry,’ she didn’t exactly roll her eyeballs but her voice did. “Being with him it was like fifty years squeezed into five. That was it for me. I’d had enough love for a lifetime.”

I never heard of that. someone who’d just had enough of something for their whole lives. Especially love, wasn’t that what everyone wanted, some guy to marry you and all that? I wondered how it would be for me.

That afternoon, she took me to a Vietnamese temple in Chinatown. It was kind of scary, there were no white people, and inside it was all red and yellow and crowded with bowls of fruit before the Buddhas and this weird incense. We went around and sort of prayed to the Buddhas, and she put some coins in their dishes and then gave me a thing of bamboo, full of sticks, and said to think of my question. “Do have to say it out loud?”

“Sure. Now think hard.” She frowned, which made all her wrinkles stand out.

I thought of my question. Will my parents divorce? Well duh. Why waste a question on that? “Will I be happy?” I finally asked. And shook the bamboo cup until a stick came out. Then the old wrinkly priest read my fortune. He talked and I guess he thought he was speaking English but I didn’t have any idea what he was saying. We thanked him and went outside. I was relieved to be out of there, though it was beautiful. Maybe if I hadn’t been so scared I would have enjoyed it more.

We went back to the car where Sobaka was waiting, her nose stuck through the window. “Could you understand what he said?” I asked Aunt Thea.

“Hungry?” she said, strapping her seatbelt. Mom does the same thing when she doesn’t want to answer a question.

She took us to this shack place nearby, a barbeque stand, kind of dodgy, but it smelled really great. I was surprised she chose barbeque–she’s a vegetarian. Maybe she made exceptions. She bought two giant beef ribs, and handed me one and we went to sit down at the picnic tables.

I started to eat mine, and she put the other rib, this big meaty thing, on the ground for Sobaka. For the dog! You should have seen the eyes of the other people eating there, staring at her, like they wanted to punch her lights out. “Aunt Thea. People are staring. You just fed your dog what they’re having for dinner.”

“So?” She looked around and smiled at the people aiming daggers at us. “Sobaka isn’t vegetarian.”

I ate in silence for a while, embarrassed as hell. Trying to understand. Why we were here, and what the priest said. “Aren’t you going to tell me what he said?”

She watched Sobaka happily gnawing on the end of the rib, having already stripped the meat clean. “He said, this year not so likely.”

A whole year. Well, duh. How happy was it likely to be. My parents divorcing. Chewing on my rib, trying not to cry, trying to concentrate on the wonderful gooey char. It hurt my feelings that my fortune was so lousy.

But really, the rib was fantastic.

And the breeze was cool, and Sobaka looked up from hers, all dog-smiley, and I was glad I was here. Whatever the guy said. And his dumb bamboo sticks. “I am happy though.”

“Me too,” she said, wiping Sobaka’s face with a napkin.

Part of a 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.” Feel free to post your ‘Rib’ in Comments.

Next week’s word is: CHARM