This is a short, short story I am fiddling with about perception.
Have you ever found a photo or note in a used book? Did you return it?
I have bits and pieces of stories sitting around, and I come back to them every once in a while to add a line or just read them through. It's like visiting a friend you haven't seen in a while—you may not have spoken in years, but you meet again, and you just pick up where you left off. Margaret is a good character, and I think I need to visit her more often. Give her a chance to finish her story.
Margaret waited at the corner to cross. She was always patient, as this was a busy time of day and none of the drivers who regularly took this route had any inclination to stop for a pedestrian. She was surprised then when a man, driving a fairly new Mercedes, slowed to a stop, with half a dozen cars behind him, to allow her to cross. All she could think, as she gave the man a quick wave without looking directly at him, was that he had calculated the damage to his car had she chosen to step out in front of him and he was unable to stop before impact. Undoubtedly, he understood the physics of a moving car hitting such a large, immovable object—something about kinetic energy and inertia—whatever it is, the damage would probably be substantial.
The car waited until she had stepped to the other sidewalk before moving slowly forward. She thought she heard someone say, ‘Have a nice day,’ but she couldn’t imagine it being directed at her. She kept moving, looking up now and then, but mainly scanning the familiar cracks and dips of the concrete at her feet. As her path rose, her breath became labored and she forced herself to walk slower and concentrate on breathing in and out through her nose so she didn't appear as a fish out of water gasping for oxygen. Margaret crested the hill and let out an enormous sigh as she started her descent. She looked up now, worried if she didn’t lean her head and shoulders back a bit her body would force its way closer to the ground and she wouldn’t be able to stop the fall.
She arrived at the restaurant as the lunch crowd was dispersing. This was her favorite time of day. The sun was high enough in the sky its rays didn't interfere with the room’s dim elegance. Her normal booth was occupied and she reluctantly sat on the other side of the restaurant, but still facing west. The seat, though just as cushioned and beautiful as the others, did not look the same to Margaret. She pushed her hands down, testing the spring and rubbing the fabric. Satisfied, she removed her sweater and the bag around her neck and placed them next to her. She didn’t need a menu, it hadn’t changed in the two years she had been dining there, but it gave her something to do while she waited.
“Nothing but water, thank you,” she said when asked. She didn’t like to have anything interfere with the flavors of the plated food.
She ordered the sixth item from the top of the entree menu, and asked for a basket of bread. She ate something different every day, but in the order it appeared on the menu, so she didn’t eat the same thing more than once in a two-week period. She liked everything, some more than others, and was excited for today’s meal—roast rosemary pork tenderloin with smashed red potatoes and gravy, and green beans with shallots. She asked for a salad instead of soup, opting for the balsamic house dressing. The croutons were made in house and Margaret sometimes wished there was no lettuce or vegetables at all, but just a bowl full of the garlicky, crisp, melt-in-your-mouth cubes of sourdough. She left the slice of beet on the corner of her plate like she always did. She could have asked for her salad without the offending vegetable, but it wouldn’t have the same aesthetic quality if the crimson round was absent.
Margaret ate slowly, taking time to feel the textures and let the flavors move across all her tastebuds. The pork was fork tender and the meat seemed to melt away in her mouth. The skin of the potatoes was salty and the gravy had a slight tang of garlic. The green beans, probably one of Margaret’s all-time favorites, gave a slight snap between her teeth before releasing juices and a lovely, almost nutty, flavor. She was unaware of being watched until the waitress, a young thing with a long blonde ponytail and too-plucked eyebrows, came and bent near her.
The girl’s eyes were wide and she furrowed what was left of her brows when she spoke.
“I’m sorry ma’am, but we’ve had a complaint.”
“A complaint? I don’t understand.”
“Well, it seems some of the other diners feel their meal is being disrupted.”
Margaret looked around, noticing only two other diners —those in her regular booth. “I’m still not sure what you mean.”
“They... well, they said they can hear you moaning.”
“Oh god, you can’t be serious, can you?”
“Actually, you kind of make sounds while you eat. Like some ‘mmm’s and big sighs. Do you know what I mean?”
Margaret put her napkin to her mouth, talking from behind the royal blue fabric.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize...I’m so embarrassed.” Margaret could feel the couple’s eyes on them, leaning a bit in her direction.
The waitress, her nametag said Emily, turned her back to the couple and faced Margaret directly.
“The rest of us,” she nodded toward the kitchen where a few wait staff stood in the doorway, “we're actually happy to see you enjoying your meal so much.”
She winked at Margaret, or at least that’s what Margaret thought she was doing. Both of Emily’s eyes closed in a squint that might have read as an expression of pain.
“If it makes you feel any better, they're finished with their lunch and didn’t order dessert, so they'll probably be gone soon.”
Margaret, still with the napkin to her lips, nodded and looked down at her near-empty plate. She pushed it aside as Emily had walked away.
What do your memories look like from moment-to-moment?
Harold lives in an ordinary house on an ordinary street. He works an ordinary job and each night he walks his ordinary dog in his ordinary neighborhood. Harold has an ordinary life, that’s why it came as no surprise when Harry married an ordinary wife. Well, at least that is what he was lead to believe. Mae was born in a midwestern town with a name like all the others. She never made a show of herself and was quiet and good. Nothing about her brought any undue attention—or any attention at all. Mae was a solitary child. She had no friends, her parents might as well have had only two children, her brothers, because they barely knew she existed. Mae had been left behind at the fair, the grocery store, a rest area, and finally in Canbin where she met Harold.
Harold parked in front of his favorite pub one evening intending to have a pint and his fill of lamb stew when out of the corner of his eye he spied a figure on a park bench accross the avenue. He almost missed seeing the person at all, they were so still as to almost have made themselves a part of the grey landscape. This was further helped by the dull gray overcoat pulled up over their head to protect them from the rain.
Harold had never been in the park. It was less a recreational area than a business center. Many a drug deal had been had on that very bench. Harold had a suspicion this person was not waiting to buy heroin. In fact, it didn’t look like they were waiting for anything, more as if they were just there—no purpose, no need to stay or leave. Harold filed away this peculiarity and made his way inside. He drank down half his pint straight away and was waiting for his stew when he glanced out the window past his own reflection. The person was still sitting on the bench, not having moved one millimeter in any direction. His stew came and the glass was soon fogged over with the aromatic steam of lamb and root vegetables. Harold ate slowly, chewing each bite completely before lifting his spoon for another. He was enjoying his meal so thorougly, he didn’t give another thought to the figure outside.
“How was the stew tonight Harry?” the pub owner, Tom Winston, asked Harold this every Wednesday, and every Wednesday Harold said,
“Just as I expected, Tom.” Harold was not inclined to call him Tommy like everyone else or any other name that was not his own, like the pub owner did to him. It was not Harold’s way.
“‘Spect I’ll see you on Friday.” Tom said to Harold, like he did every Wednesday.
“I expect you will. Good evening, Tom.”
And with that Harold put his money on the table, returned his hat to his head and headed back outside for his mid-week walk around the square before heading home.
He had almost completed his full turn in the misty rain when he found himself in front of the park ready to cross over to his car. Just as he started to step into the street he heard something. A whisper maybe, or a rustling in the wind. He paused, his right foot hovering slightly in front of the left. As he started on his way for a second time, he heard it again. This time he turned around, only to find himself face-to-face with the figure in grey.
Frank saw a straw, most definitely from a 7-11 Slurpee, standing straight up in the newly poured cement. On closer inspection, he saw it was exhausting steam into the cool night air.
I often wonder if I remember any part of my childhood correctly. I see scenes in my head sometimes, usually triggered by a place or a smell—small scenes, like the leftovers on the cutting room floor at the end of a day of editing. They’re so insignificant I can’t be sure they’re real. Are they just old photographs moving in my memory like an old flipbook? In the scene I recall most often I am three or four years old, and I’m lying in a tent. The tent is orange and the heat of the sun is oozing in through the shiny fabric and warming my skin. I’m sticky with sweat, but not uncomfortably so. I have an arm across my eyes and my legs are splayed in different directions- one crooked over the leg of my sister. The hair that has escaped her tight ponytails is plastered to the back of her neck. I wake slowly. I yawn and gulp in the warm, thick air—half awake, half asleep—that happy in between. In the memory I am sure we are at the park across the street from my grandmother’s house. I can smell the magnolia trees and hear the laughter and conversation of my parents, aunts and uncles. It’s one of the happiest memories I have and I can’t tell for sure if it’s even mine.
Shirley watched the trains go by wondering if the people knew how fast they were going or if they were going fast enough they felt stationary like when you close your eyes on an escalator, or avoid the window while flying on a plane, or even when everything around you is moving forward and your friends are falling in love, having families, finding good jobs and making something of themselves and you are just standing still, even though the hands on the clock have moved in rhythmic rotation day after day after day until you are dizzy from watching, and instead of feeling stationary you are falling — falling down a rabbit hole just like Alice did — tumbling head over heels into darkness and uncertainty, not sure when it will stop and you can stand still again, take a deep breath again, be happy again; all of these thoughts rushed through Shirley’s mind as she sat on her padded, rotating chair, taking the tokens that came through the small slot in her window, making her fingers smell like old coins or dirty keys, each one a one-way ticket to another place, somewhere filled with offices and paper filing, hot dogs and greasy hamburgers, wool scarves and perfume counters — somewhere that wasn’t here in her five foot by five foot cell with reinforced bullet-proof glass and broken fan, a free Audubon society calendar on the wall and red phone for emergencies only — real emergencies, like a person getting mugged or someone having a seizure — not Shirley’s kind, because who would believe her anyway, that her heart was broken and soul misplaced in the city of dreams and opportunities, where you can be anything you want to be and the whole world is open to you, even if that world is only five-by-five.
Waiting at the stoplight Henry tries to time his blinker with the car ahead of him, but it seems slightly off, like a badly dubbed Chinese film. The only way to make it work is to manually turn the blinkers on and off at correctly spaced intervals. He is so focused on this task he doesn’t see the man at his window. He looks up only after he hears the clicking of metal on glass, and turning his head, sees the red of the stoplight reflecting off the barrel of a gun.
Henry feels the cool night air even before he rolls his window down.
“What can I do for you Officer?”
The buttons on the man’s shirt strain against his overflowing gut. There are dark stains at his armpits and his mustache curls in uneven strands around his mouth, hiding his lips.
“You’re trespassing on private property buddy, you need to leave now. I have a gun and I have used it before.”
“Officer, the light is still red. If I go through now, there is no telling what kind of accident I could get into.”
Henry is a careful driver, especially when he has his two daughters in the car with him. He just picked them up from dance class and is only a few blocks from home. He can almost smell the pot roast his wife is preparing, his mouth filling with the flavors of onions and beef. The girls begin to squabble with each other and Henry tries to tune them out so he can deal with the policeman. The officer is shifting his weight from side to side, his gun gripped loosely in his hand, bouncing against his thigh.
“I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but I am losing my patience with you.”
“Officer, I promise to move on as soon as the light changes. There seems to be something wrong with the light, maybe you should focus your efforts on finding out what the hold up is.”
The muscles in the man’s neck twitch and his color deepens. The gun, which till now has hung placidly at his side, is now gripped with white knuckles.
“What is wrong with you? Are you crazy? There is no stoplight, there is no road and I am not a cop.”
Henry is hit again with the cold breeze, causing his skin to rise in bumps across his neck. He looks through the windshield ahead of him, noticing the spider web pattern of cracks. Dust cakes the wipers and his view is tilted, not quite parallel with the ground. A macaroni necklace, cracked and moldy, is wound around the rearview mirror, where he sees his own reflection, haggard and worn. His right foot is pushed down on the brake pedal, but where the gas pedal should be there is only a rusted and jagged hole.
Henry looks up at the man standing beside his car. He notices he wears no badge and his shirt is not the crisp blue cotton of a uniform, but a thin flannel in an unforgiving plaid.
Henry closes his eyes and hears his daughter’s voices fighting over whose pirouettes were better during dance class. He can smell their skin, the sweet smell of children’s sweat and powder. He can even feel the slight pressure of a leather wrapped toe pushing into the back of his seat. He begins to smile, but the breeze sweeps over him again and thoughts come unwanted to his mind.
The pavement was shimmering with rain and oil and he was impatient sitting at the unusually long light with the incessant bickering in the back seat. He watched the light for the cross traffic, waiting for it to turn yellow so he would know when it was his turn. As soon as it turned red he drove into the intersection, not even waiting for a green light. He was eager to get home after his long day of work. Then the high-pitched sound of car horns and screeching tires, fighting for grip on the wet surface filled his ears.
Screams, not of anger or happiness, but terror, reverberated through the car as the metal folded in on itself behind him. Glass sprayed his face and arms.
Then there was a cold breeze.
Henry looks at the man standing beside his car. He can feel the tears pooling beside his nose and his chin is quivering.
“Man is there anyone you want me to call?” The man in the flannel shirt tucks the gun into his pants and leans forward, resting his forearms on the door of the car.
Henry shakes his head and slowly turns in his seat, his heart pounding so fiercely it might push its way out of his chest.
Behind him there are no little girls in pink leotards with ribbons in their hair.
All that fills the car now is empty space. Looking around Henry can see cars stacked one on top of another, some suffering the same fate as his, others outlived by their drivers. A chain link fence simply marked with ‘no trespassing’ is all that holds them in. All around him, pieces of other people’s lives, forgotten and broken.
Henry is sitting in the pieces of his.
Afrophobia, Amerophobia, Androphobia, Anglophobia, Anthrophobia, Apotemnophobia, Australophobia.
Cacophobia, Cacomorphibia, Caligynephobia, Celtophobia, Chinophobia, Christophobia.
Dentophobia, Dutchphobia, Dysmorphophobia.
Ecclesiophobia, Ephebiphobia, Europhobia.
Germanophobia, Gerontophobia, Gynephobia.
Heterophobia, Hierophobia, Homophobia.
Iatrophobia, Ideophobia, Islamophobia, Islandophobia.
Maserphobia., Melophobia, Metathesiophobia, Mikatickoindicaphobia.
Obesophobia, Odontophobia, Optophobia.
Panophobia, Pediphobia, Peladophobia, Peniaphobia, Polonophobia, Potiticophbia.
Sedatephobia, Sociophobia, Sophophobia.
Technophobia, Teratophobia, Theologicaophobia, Theophobia.