Friday, December 4, 2009

Fiction For Friday II

It's COLD here today.

The temp when I let the dogs outside this morning was fifteen degrees, and it never made it as high as twenty. The photo above is from last January or February. Victor and Roxie in the backyard of a house I never felt warm, or for that matter at home in. I've been living in Minnesota for over a year now, and I finally feel like I belong.

But I cannot complain. We just finished the second-warmest November in Minnesota history, and I'd like to think that it's MY presence here in the Upper Midwest that has made it so.

That, and the combination of Nestle's Double Chocolate Hot Cocoa and strong coffee I've been drinking all day anyway.

Here's another short story since I seem to have a heavy case of writer's block this week when it comes to relevant topics.

UNTITLED - by Jonathan K. Lee

Looking out the window at the lengthening shadows in the garden, he still did not feel any peace. The accounting ledgers were heavy on his knees, and as he shifted their weight to a more comfortable angle, some loose papers slid to the carpet. He could hear his wife, Judy, in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner, and he knew that after the kids were in bed she would want to come in and talk and he didn't think he was up to it. He felt a weariness that started somewhere at shoulder level, and seeped down the length of his body.

Lately, the arguments had seemed endless, and he was worn out with the battles. He felt like a rock embedded in the middle of a stream as things swirled on past it. Some nights he would lie awake, while beside him Judy tossed and turned in some angry dream state, rolling out daily conflicts in a tangle of bedding into another morning of veiled dialogue--words that conveyed nothing, but were heavy with portent possibilities of injustice, and refractive assaults. He felt there was never a pause to the argumentative challenges she threw down. Just then he heard the dishwasher door slam shut, and the familiar clicks that started the wash operation He could hear Judy telling the kids to go to bed, and he braced himself for the inevitable words that would be delivered with that familiar cutting edge in her voice. Picking up his pencil, he looked down at the ledgers again, and tried to look busy. Eraser shavings littered the middle of the ledger like small dark lashes, and he puffed out a breath to blow them away. He heard Judy coming down the hall, and as she walked into the room, carrying a full glass of wine in one hand she asked, "Do you think you feel up to a walk tonight? Or are you too tired--or what." The challenge was there already behind the long pause and the 'or what.'

Might as well get this over with he thought. "Yeah, as a matter of fact, I am too tired." And so what's the next move?

"You're always tired. Too tired for a walk, too tired for just about anything I can think of to do," and she swallowed the last of her wine with a gulp. "What do we do now. Sit and stare at each other. Or I could watch you work. And you could work. And I could watch. Is that the sum of it?" Check.

"Look, I come home every night. I don't drink. I don't run around. What more do you want from me? I come home, isn't that enough?" And guard.

"Well, now that you've asked, no, it isn't enough. Other people do things together. We used to do things together. We used to do things with the kids. We even used to go to a movie ourselves, now and then. Now we don't do anything. And certainly not together." She was gathering up steam, he thought.

"You haven't even touched me. Every time I come near you there are those damn papers between you and me. You're too tired. You're this, you're that. There's work. There's always some excuse--something always in the middle. If you could only...." Check.

She seemed to run out of words, "Oh, what's the use," and standing up quickly, she put the wineglass down and walked to the window. He watched her wrap her arms tightly around her chest, and he thought to himself, here it comes. Here it comes, any minute now, and closed his eyelids as a protective shield against the words.

"Look, why don't we call it quits. Why don't you just leave?" There it was checkmate.

There it was. He opened his eyes and looked at her. He studied her back. He remembered once he could run his fingers down the long curve of her spine, and she would laugh because it tickled. There was a brown mole on her shoulder, and freckles from the sun speckled her shoulders. But of course they were hidden now by her clothes. She didn't turn around.

"Right now. Tonight?"

"Why not. Tonight is as good as any other night. It's not like you have something else to do, some joint activity, or a pressing social engagement?"

He picked up his pencils, closed the ledger books and put them under his arms. He picked up the papers from the carpet. She didn't turn around. He could see her face reflected in the glass, but he couldn't read the statement. If he could have only thought of something to do, he would have done it, but there was in fact nothing he could think to do. Only that awful stillness and space that pressed against the walls of the room. She still had not moved from the window. He stood there a brief moment, willing his feet to walk towards her. But she seemed so far away, so still. He turned the other way, and walked out of the room. He had wanted to walk to her, put his arms over hers, and hold her tightly to his chest. Run his fingers through her hair. He wanted to stop the words. He wanted to cry, or hit her very, very hard. But he had not done any of these things. He had walked away. Move, countermoves, game over.

Moving quickly on through the darkened kitchen, he grabbed his car keys from the key rack by the door, and walked through the back hall to the garage. The kids' schoolbooks were on the floor, a backpack spilled out a half-eaten candy bar. He stopped and looked at the books. He wondered who would bring Beth's homework to her if he wasn't there to do it. Judy had refused to do it in the past, claiming it was the kids' responsibility. But he had disagreed, and told all the kids to call him at his office, and he would often get a call during the morning, leave his desk, drive home to pick up homework, lunches, gym shorts, whatever they wanted, and deliver it to them at their school. Kneeling, he tenderly wrapped up the candy bar and put it back inside the backpack before he clicked the flaps on the bags tight.

Suddenly he heard a rush of sound behind him, and felt something hard hit his back. An empty wooden hanger clattered to the floor. A dresser drawer followed, sailed past him, and as he ducked, flinging an arm over his head. It hit the wall, spilling his underwear and socks around him on the floor.

"Let me help you pack," she spat out.

He didn't look at her. Couldn't see--didn't want to see anything. Turning, he stood up and as he moved to the car he heard her sharp intake of breath, but if she said anything he didn't hear it, or didn't want to hear it. The game was over. Checkmate. Opening the car door he sat down, closed the door, started the ignition and backed slowly out of the garage. He didn't know where he was going as he shifted the car into forward gear and drove away from the house. He knew there was a twenty in his wallet, and he had his charge cards. He had the account books, the ledger sheets and his car. It would do for now.

Tomorrow was garbage day, he thought, and wondered if she would remember to put the cans out by the curb tonight. He had trouble seeing when he reached the corner of the street, and was surprised to find he was weeping. He wondered what she'd say to the kids in the morning. What she would tell them. Then he remembered it would be Easter, it wasn't garbage day at all. She would be home all day. The kids would be home all day, too. He came to the corner of their street, and turned left. He felt weightless enclosed in the bubble of the car as he passed the shadowed buildings on the street. These were not his hands holding the wheel, but he decided they must be his hands feeling the texture of the tied leather bands on the steering wheel, and so he gripped harder until he couldn't feel them at all.

She watched the car's tail lights until he turned at the intersection, and then he was gone. Twelve years washed away with a half-dozen spoken words. Words that had crystallized and hung tensile in the air, and as a result of those words, he had gone. She took a deep breath and walked slowly to the kitchen. She had gone the limit, and he was gone. It was over and she felt almost relieved. With a sigh, she retrieved her glasses from the kitchen counter where she had thrown them earlier, pushed them up on her nose, and decided that tomorrow, Easter morning, was not going to be any different from any other Easter. Life will go on, bonds will stretch, and somehow she would tie any loose strands together with all the daily, ordinary timelets of dull routine.

The plastic eggs were going to get outside in their proper places like they did every year. All she had to do was find the damn plastic eggs, and the rest was simple. She thought she remembered putting the eggs away a year ago in a basket on the top shelf of the pantry. Scraping a chair across the wood floor to the pantry, she climbed up, and opening the small upper doors, she reached in among the hurricane globes, party platters, and spilled piles of paper party goods. She thought she saw the basket, and reaching for it, managed to move it just enough that it spilled over the edge of the cabinet shell, and all the plastic eggs fell to the floor, clinking in all directions.

"Shit," she muttered, getting down from the chair amid a shower of paper cups that followed the rainbow descent of colorful plastic eggs. Dropping to her knees, she crawled about the floor retrieving the eggs she could see. One of the eggs had rolled deep under the dough table in the corner, and as she started in its direction, the dog, Bruno, trotted over to it. He was more efficient, he was shorter, and he fit under the table. Pushing his haunch aside with her arm, she rolled on her side under the table, and tried to scoop the egg over to her but it eluded her, rolling further into the corner. "Damn it, Bruno, move over," and with a desperate lunge of her fingertips against the orange egg, she managed to sweep it to her, feeling the outraged pull of a back muscle as she did, knowing it would all hurt tomorrow: her back, the headache, and the canker sore she would have from the vodka screwdrivers she would drink tonight to make herself sleep alone in the bed.

Holding her skirt up in one hand, she dropped the plastic egg halves into it, together with the white crumpled pieces of paper bearing the carefully handwritten verses with clues that told the hunter where to search next. Every year the kids saw the same eggs, and the same verses on little squares of paper hidden inside each egg each Easter. The egg hunt had been the family tradition year after year. This year would definitely be different she thought. Perhaps it would be better. As she walked to the apple tree to place the first egg in its low branches, it was too dark to read the papers. She thought that with the kind of day it had been all she had to do was put them in the wrong places, and totally screw up the Easter hunt for the kids. Just like I finally turned the screw on this marriage, she reminded herself.

Next morning, the three children had been looking for the eggs for half an hour, and Jenny, in the lead and being the oldest, had finally figured out what had gone wrong. She said, brightly, "I bet I know what it is. The Easter Bunny started in the wrong spot. These are supposed to tell us where to go next, right? But each time, the message is telling where to go, but the problem is, we're already there. Get it? The egg is already at the next spot. Understand?" Hopefully, she added, "The bunny just made a mistake, and got mixed up. Cheer up. I have it all figured out."

Beth and Bennett, the two younger children, looked at her with mute disgust at the failure of the verses to work their usual magic litany that led to the Kingdom of Candy. Taking the lead, Jenny forced a note of cheerfulness into her voice saying, "Why don't we just go on. Bunny will just be one egg late. He's never let us down. Follow me." She knew the path of the eggs by heart. She had written the verses the first year they had lived in this house. That was before Bennett was born, and before Dad looked like he had something on his mind all the time. Judy, their mom, had seemed so pleased with the verses then, and had carefully saved all the little pieces of paper and the colored plastic eggs for every Easter hunt. Now it was four years later, and everything seemed to be all mixed up. This morning, Dad wasn't there, and Mom said she didn't know where he was, and didn't care, she said. Jenny thought this last comment was very puzzling, but she decided it would not be a good idea to press Mom for an explanation. Dad didn't usually take part in stuff they did anyway.

She looked down at her little brother. Bennett, at four, didn't understand the rules of the Easter game. This morning, all he knew was that he was supposed to get a basket of candy, his feet were wet and cold in his footed sleepers, and he wished his big sister would stop talking, and get on with the egg hunt. He put his thumb in his mouth and clutched his blanket to his face, rubbing its comforting soft knots across his eyes. He heard his mother calling from the kitchen door, "Hey, guys, did the Easter Bunny come?"

As Jenny turned to the sound of her mother's voice, she saw her mother's pale face framed in the upper half of the kitchen window; her thin white arms extended up alongside her head like two parallel bars pale against the glass. Her head seemed to float disembodied over the curtained lower window, wobbling like a balloon that might break free any moment, and rise with a quick bursting curve into the thin cool Easter morning.

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See you Monday.

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