Friday, October 21, 2011

Terrible Minds Challenge: Nobody Understands Anybody

If life is a highway, Chuck Wendig runs a disreputable dive bar right off of the exit ramp. This week's flash fiction challenge involves three of the following five words (cockroach, bottle, box, tax, fountain) plus a vampire in some way, shape, or form. My story is called "Nobody Understands Anybody".

It was a pleasantly warm fall day, the sort of day that makes you think nature is trying to pull a fast one. I came out of the lobby, emerging from the fake reflected warmth into the honest sunshine, wanting to eat my yogurt and fruit sitting on the gorgeous stone fountain that made the front of our building, an ordinary insurance company in Nowhere, New Jersey, look a little bit like a location in a James Bond movie.

It was a popular destination for those of us who couldn't afford to dash to Chipotle every day- spend 20 minutes or so eating, then walk or just sit, absorbing some rays and looking at people before returning to the fluorescent world of spreadsheets and budgets and phone calls. I saw lanky Tom, who worked in my department, talking on his phone in a hissed whisper. I sat down near him, but not too near, opening my yogurt and decidedly not listening.

"Look, I have to go," he said. "Yes. I know. I'm sorry. Yes. OK. We can talk about it when I get home. Yes. OK. Fine."

He looked puzzled for a moment, then lowered the phone from his ear, shaking his head slowly. His dark hair was mussed, like he had been running his hands through it.

"Hey, Tom," I said.

"Hey, Jules," he said. "I'm sorry you had to hear that."

"We all have those moments," I said, trying to sound cheery. "I guess I don't have to ask how you are."

He barked out a laugh. "No, no you don't."

I looked at him, in stained Dockers and a dress shirt that was starting to come untucked. I wanted to take care of him, like you would a lost dog.

"Is it Caroline?"

He took a long sip from a bottle of Orangina.

"It's Caroline, it's the baby, it's this place, it's everything. I really don't know how to deal with it." He looked pained. He was staring down at the ground. I watched the sunlight hit the little fake gem on top of my shoe.

"I'm sorry, Tom. I wish there was something I could do to help."

He looked up at me, his face full of hope.

"Me too, Jules."

He finished his drink and got up to put it in the trash. His walk was slow and unsteady. He seemed unable to look anyone in the eye.

I waited for him to sit back down. "Being a Dad really sucks the life out of you, huh?"

He laughed again, harshly, indicating the opposite of laughter. "Yeah."

He paused, then continued.

"It's so taxing- there are a hundred problems that you don't know the answers to, and she doesn't know either, and the kid, the kid is just constantly unhappy, and you don't know why. I love them, I love them to death, but it's like they are these vampires, just draining you of your essence. You feel like a total failure, all the time, and I'm not sleeping well, and then she calls me today and starts yelling about how I bought the wrong wipes, and now she's out of them, and she's too tired to go to the store, and..."

He stopped again. It sounded like he was swallowing back a sob.

"I just had this thought, this image, of just taking the whole box of wipes and just throwing them at her. And you know I'm not like that. I'm not that kind of person. It really feels like I'm losing it, Jules."

I didn't know what to say. I had met his wife at the Christmas party, a short, dark woman who looked me over with suspicion. It was off putting, because I hadn't done anything yet.

"You're not like that, Tom. It's just a thought. It's like that comedian says, if you haven't contemplated murder, you haven't really been in love. I'm sure you're just going through the same thing every new parent does. You'll be OK."

"I hope you're right," he said, his voice tight. I could picture holding him, letting his tears fall onto the shoulders of my jacket. I felt this compelling need to comfort him, to tell him that I would listen, that I wouldn't yell. I had never thought about him romantically, but suddenly, there on the edge of the fountain in the sun, I pictured him telling me about it over a drink, and then following me home to my tiny, sad apartment. I wasn't going to do it. I wasn't that sort of person. But I could see it.

He cleared his throat and stood up. "I'm going to take a walk," he said. "I need to clear my head."

"OK, Tom. I'll see you back inside."

"OK, Jules."

I watched him walk away. He seemed broken. It was so sad that his wife didn't understand him. Or maybe it was Tom who didn't understand her? I scraped the last bit of yogurt from the bottom of the container. Maybe nobody understands anybody.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"I Like Ponies" (Indie Ink Writing Challenge)

For the Indie Ink Writing Challenge this week, Diane challenged me with "I'm the lie living for you so you can hide" and I challenged Kurt with "If you love someone, set them free".

The house was too warm- the combination of the oven and the bodily warmth making the house a steamy mess. The kids, fueled by appetizers and sugared drinks, still buzzed around with boundless energy, occasionally checked on by half drunk parents and uncles and grandparents. The meal had been prepared and dishes washed, and we were in the uncertain part of the afternoon where those with long drives thought about sucking down some coffee and finding their coats.

My niece Emily appeared at my knee, tugging at my pant leg. She looked at me, eyes wide. Her voice had the edge of a whine in it- all the younger kids were whipping past the point of no return, where every thwarted wish and denied treat results in tears and recriminations. .

"Auntie Lauren? Color with me?"

How could I say no?

"Of course, sweetheart."

She had a box of fat Crayolas and a store brand sketchpad in her tiny fists. We found adjoining seats at the table opposite her mother, who was pecking away on an IPhone.

"Mommy, Auntie Lauren gonna draw with me."

"That's great, honey," my sister said, in a distracted tone that told me she wasn't listening.

Emily unfolded the book, a great expanse of blank, off white paper.

"Draw a horse," she commanded, and I did. It was one thing I really could do well.

"That's a really good horse," she said, and began intensely coloring one of the legs in blue. "Now draw a yellow one." I did as she said.

"Mommy never draws with me," she said, face scrunched in concentration as she intensely worked on the horse's leg..

"Your mommy used to draw all the time," I said, distractedly. "When she was younger."

"Now a purple one," Emily commanded. I complied.

"But Mommy had to grow up," my sister said under her breath. I caught the dig. Years of training meant I didn't miss the flash of a switchblade when it was meant for me.

"Auntie Lauren's a grownup," Emily protested.

"Yes, she is," her mother said, and then stood up, putting the phone to her ear. She was overdressed, like she always was, slacks that probably cost more than my car payment over her long legs. She always had to be the best dressed, best equipped, best everything.

"Yes, Carl, I know it's Thanksgiving, but listen," she said, stepping through the sliding door onto the porch and closing it behind her, giving us a rush of chilly air.

"Mommy's always working," Emily said sadly.

"I know honey," I said, trying to sound cheerful. "Mommy works hard so you can have nice things."

"Color in the yellow one," Emily ordered. I picked up the yellow crayon and began to fill it in. I thought about my big sister, ordering me sternly to never compromise, never give in as I watched her leave for college. She went as an artsy rebel and returned a buttoned up, Ann Taylor clad zombie, talking about gross profit margins and ROI. I was stunned by the change, but all she would say for explanation is that "someone has to be the adult around here."

"Why did Mommy stop drawing?," Emily asked as her mother reentered the dining room, the blast of wind ruffling her silk blouse.

"Mommy had to get a real job," my sister said. "Someone has to watch out for Grandma. You can't spend your whole life drawing ponies."

I let that go, picturing a softball skidding into the dirt, low and outside.

"Your Mom made different choices," I said to Emily, trying to paper over the crack. "People do different things, that's all."

"I like ponies," Emily said.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Once more, from the top...

"Yesterday it was my birthday-
I hung one more year on the line-
I should be depressed-
My life's a mess-
But I'm having a good time."

-Paul Simon, "Have A Good Time"

Sunday, October 16, 2011

100 Word Challenge: 2:35AM

The Velvet Verbosity 100 Word Challenge is willing to hit the ball to the right side to move the runner over. This week's word is "Satisfied", and though my faulty brain came up with it too late to make the list, here's my entry, "2:35 AM". It is based on one of the many Steve Jobs stories making the rounds these days.

I clawed my way out of deep sleep. I looked at my phone with one eye. Calls at 2:35 AM aren't good news. I stabbed at the answer button.

"Yeah?," I said. Manners end at around 11 PM.

"It's John," the voice said. My never satisfied, omnipresent boss. He sounded wired.

"What's up, chief?"

"I had an idea. There are three screws under the battery on the prototype."

There were. He was never wrong. "Yeah, there are. Why?"

"Let's make it two."

"But John, nobody takes the battery out. Nobody will know!"

"I'll know."