From the Desk of the Editor;
Hello and welcome to Issue Eight, Volume Three of Larks Fiction Magazine! In this issue we are featuring works of magical realism and real magicism (the second one is made up but I think works).
We are close to having Larks Year One finished. It will be free and available in all e-book formats from Smashwords. If you just cannot wait however make sure to check out our First Issue of Larks Monthly to hold you over.
We are enacting some exciting changes in preparation for corporate growth... or that we are going to actually have more products/services/publications soon--stay tuned to us on twitter @LarksMedia for our business news and @Filozophy for my personal news.
Daniel J. Pool
The Angry Vegetarian
By Jerry Guarino
Sam didn’t start out angry. He didn’t start out as a vegetarian. This was the culmination of repeated frustration over a long period of time. It wasn’t even Sam’s fault; virtually all of the conditions he had were genetically passed on from his father. You can’t pick your name or your genetics. But no one would have guessed how he would react when faced with the final, insurmountable obstacle.
After school, Sam would work in the diner that his father had bought back in the 1950s. Burgers, fries, sandwiches, blue-plate specials and the coldest, thickest, most delicious milk shake in town, nicknamed, the iceberg. If a customer could drink one with a straw, the shake was free. At the end of the day, Sam would sit with his father in a corner booth; his pop would challenge him to drink a strawberry shake with a straw. One day, this ritual was interrupted when a lovely teenage girl came over to them and questioned Sam’s father.
“Excuse me sir, do you need any waitresses after school?” Sam kept one eye on her while continuing his milkshake, hoping to impress this angel and praying that his pop would give her a job. Her name was Veronica (very popular back then). She was 5’9” with long, light brown hair, horned rimmed glasses and a beautiful smile. It was the 15-year old Sam’s first crush.
They worked together for two years until Sam left for college upstate. Veronica went to a local college and continued to work part time in the diner; Sam would come back to the diner every holiday and break, in order to see her. For the next three years, he tried to maintain a connection with her. Then just before Thanksgiving, Sam’s world changed; his father died.
He left college and returned to run the diner. College life seemed like a vacation now compared to 12-hour days, 7 days a week. At least Veronica was still working there. He vowed to find the right time to ask for a date.
It was an unusually busy morning. Veronica was scurrying around, trying to keep up. “Sam, we need more pastries out front. They’re selling like hotcakes. And table three just ordered four servings of hotcakes” she said smiling at him. He warmed up now to the object of his affection. “Right away Ronnie. Joe, get more pastry from the back and give them to Ronnie.” Meanwhile Sam hurriedly made more batter.
Since he had taken over, business had increased. He could tell from the inventory and receipts. But what was the reason? He had maintained his father’s menu, cooking techniques and advertising, even the staff was largely the same. Could it be that his presence gave customers the feeling that the business was continuing? His father was well liked, but people could tell he was slowing down before the heart attack. Such little things can effect people’s perceptions. Maybe this was a sign that he should finally pursue his feelings for Veronica?
On a cold day in February, Sam gave her more attention than usual; Veronica flirted back. Could all the stars be aligned? Sam knew that if he was going to ask her out, it should be now. As they were closing down that night, he made sure to let the rest of the staff off first.
He made two milkshakes and set them in a corner booth, and then went back to wash his hands. “Ronnie, why don’t you join me for an iceberg?” She winked, took Sam’s hand and walked him back to the booth. Sam knew what he had to do now. “What is this?” he said, seeing a candle in a heart shaped muffin between the milk shakes. “It’s Valentines Day Sam. Don’t you know that I’ve wanted you to ask me out for years.” Sam couldn’t believe it. “I’ve felt the same way. I was always too scared.” Holding hands in the booth, this was the beginning of a lifetime of happiness for both of them. They were married in the summer; Veronica finished college and then joined Sam full time in the diner.
But years of diner food took its toll as Sam developed the same ailments that his father had succumbed to: high cholesterol at 40, diabetes at 50 and a kidney stone at 60. Each diagnosis meant another restriction on his diet. First cut out fat, then sugar and finally protein. Sam had become the angry vegetarian.
Sam thanked God that Ronnie never had such health problems. Although she picked up the slack when Sam’s health declined, keeping up with supply purchases was always difficult.
It was Valentines Day again. Ronnie put out two milkshakes and a heart shaped muffin with candle, just as she had done each year for 40 years. She took Sam’s hand and led him to the booth, kissed him on the cheek and sat him down. She could tell something was wrong. “Make a wish sweetheart. Anything you want.”
He boiled over like Yosemite Sam would when confronted with Bugs Bunny. A slow burn is putting it mildly. “What would I like? I’ll tell you what I’d like. I’d like some food, plain old American food. Nothing fancy, nothing extreme. Just some wholesome, everyday food.” Sam thought about how his father died.
Trying to cheer him up, Veronica pushed the cold, thick strawberry milk shake in front of Sam. He looked down. “Sweetheart. This is dirty. Would you mind getting me another one please?” Veronica gave her best pouty face, put her hand on Sam’s shoulder and gave him the bad news. “I’m so sorry dear. That was the last straw.” Sam laughed.
About the Author;
Jerry Guarino’s short stories have been published by dozens of magazines in the United States, Canada, Australia and Great Britain. His first collection of twenty-six critically acclaimed stories, Cafe Stories, was released in November, 2011. It is available as a paperback on Amazon.com and as an e-book on kindle.
By M. S. Palmer
There is a cat sitting in the room near me with his eyes closed and his paws tucked underneath him. We call him Erwin, short for Erwin Schrödinger. Outside, men are working construction on the street, rattling and sawing and banging away at the concrete. For awhile, Erwin would jump at the sound of the jackhammer or the rattle of the backhoe scraping up loose pieces of road. But now his eyes are closed, only coming open at the loudest sounds (of which there are relatively few). I’ve tried to coax him back to sleep with gentle words and soft, fatherly tones, but cats don’t listen to things like that. They are impossibly afraid of the unknown. If I shine a light on the floor he chases it uncontrollably and for so long that eventually he’s only laying nearby stretching out his paws for the next sweeping arc. He plays that way until he can’t stay awake anymore, and I find this is the best way to get any sort of writing done, as, when he is awake, he demands my undivided attention. Right now he is asleep, and the construction outside has stopped. There is only the sound of passing cars idling slowly by in a bottlenecked jam that opens back up just down the road. This time of day is good for writing.
I don’t know any good stories. I'm sure that’s disappointing, but listen to this: my father knew good stories. He would sit us down on the porch, my brother and sister and I, and tell us long tales, adventure stories with us as the characters. We would sit before him on that dim porch enthralled. We were climbing into our Vanagon, driving around the parking lot, around and around, and we’re suddenly whisked off to the forest of the lost cave. That was his name for the stories, The Forest of The Lost Cave. I don’t have any clear recollection of plot-lines. My memory doesn’t work that way. What I have is feelings associated with those stories. The mystery and wonder, the dark forbidding forest, the black mouth of the cave. All of it drawing out emotions unexpected and lasting, the kind that well up even today writing these words. I tried to call my father just now, to ask him about the stories, maybe get some plot-lines to put down. But he didn’t answer, so I’ll have to go on.
When I say that I don’t know any good stories it’s only because I worry that I don’t. I have that fear that every writer experiences. The one that holds us all back the moment we sit down to write. I go through this every day. But what I think it really is, what I think that a writer has to understand in order to move forward in his writing, is honesty. There is a voice, a simple one, our own. Each of us has it. The problem that writers run into is trying to sound like someone else. When I first sit down to write, I want to be my father talking about that van and that cave, and I want my readers to be my younger self, sitting unable to leave. And I want the stories to last the way that those did for me. I want all of you to have an unavoidable impression left behind. I want to stay with you for a long time until one day you call me up long after my books are out of print and ask me wasn’t there something I wrote earlier, and can’t I help you remember it since all that is left of them are these feelings, these dim and distant pleasures? I hope that I'm home when you call and not out for dinner somewhere fancy or just in the middle of a really good movie.
Here, I’ll do this for you: 1(***) **4-2482.
There, now you have my number and can call later on, after I’ve written all those great books and after you’ve read them and they’ve all gone out of print and you don’t remember all of the titles but know they were your favorites.
Of course, the editors are going to black out the numbers. They’re bound to fill the spaces in with little black boxes, maybe leaving a few numbers revealed. You can’t blame them for it, they’re only doing what they think is best. And, though I would much rather have you scribble them down and save them for later, I know that the numbers would eventually get lost. I know that you would probably forget to call, forget to remember where you wrote those numbers down. And anyway my number is bound to change. You would call that number and someone else would answer and the conversation wouldn’t make sense to either of you. He (the person answering) wouldn’t have any idea who I was. He (the person with my old number) wouldn’t know any of my books or my name. And He (a little short tempered) would demand to know just where you got his number from. This is a restricted number, He (a little drunk after work because, Hey, it’s his life and he can screw it up if he wants to, can’t he?) would tell you, though the number won’t ever be restricted, and even if it ever is I don’t believe there are any rules against calling it, just that you aren’t really supposed to know about it. But even though you try explaining this to him, He (having just finished heating up his frozen Hero Man Meal) will tell you that he doesn’t have time for this, that he has to go, that he knows what you’re up to and that you’d better knock it off or else He (who has a brother who was recently let go from ((read: kicked off of)) the local police force for indecent ((read: cellphone pictures, high school girls, case of beer)) behavior unbecoming of an officer) might just get his brother on the phone who is chief of police and gets off on arresting people. You won’t believe any of this because you aren’t stupid. And I will try as hard as I can to keep that same number for all the long years it will take.
The cat’s woken up again. He’s moved over to my desk now and he’s sitting facing me with his eyes half closed and his tail curled around in front of his feet. He’s orange and white striped. More orange than white. I’m fighting against the temptation to look him in the eyes because if I do it sends to him a signal to come over and purr in my ear. To push his face against everything. We humans have a natural tendency to look at things in the eye. Its instinctive. Babies do it. We are drawn immediately to the eyes no matter how hard we try to look elsewhere. Apparently, for cats the look is code for purr in my ear. Press your face against my arm. Roll over on the keyboard and hit all the keys at once. But I’ve resisted looking him in the eyes so far, and so far he’s still sitting beside me waiting. His eyes are almost closed.
When you call that number I gave you, don’t immediately ask for me. I'm telling you this for a number of reasons, but the main one is that I don’t want that short tempered man getting my name stuck in his head. I don’t want him to wake up the next morning after ten or twenty phone calls the night before and have each of those people asking for me. My name will be the only thing left in his cloudy morning haze. And a simple search will reveal for him who I am. And he will likely be able to track me down. I’ll have to tell him about my father, about the stories and about my memories. I’ll have to tell him about this story too, maybe I’ll even save a copy to show him, the phone number and all. I don’t think he will be very happy with the situation. I think after working himself up enough to come all the way here to find me, building up his anger and rehearsing the violent things he was planning to do, after all of that he will be hard to convince. I anticipate him taking a few swings at me. Maybe even a shove or two. But I am confident in my ability to defuse the situation.
Or else the whole thing will begin a new kind of relationship. He and I might start something unique: an imaginary friendship. After all, we are nearly the same age. And, while both of us have lived very different lives, each finds the other’s past interesting. It turns out he has read my books, has even liked some of them. When people were calling him asking for me, it didn’t immediately become clear to him who I was they were asking for. He didn’t remember my name as the name of the author of so many books all long since out of print. Though there was an emotional attachment. Something inside came to life at the sound of my name, something that had remained dormant all the long, hard worked years since his youth. Standing in my living room talking about my father, he noticed the copies of my books on the shelf. He recognized the spines, the colors and letters. Without even asking he had pulled one down, flipped the pages, stared at the cover confused, getting there. I kept on talking, trying to talk. When I told him all that I could about my father, I told him about my cat. When that was used up, I talked about the pasta sauce I made the night before, how good it was and I how I had saved it in portioned containers, offered some to him. He had stared down at the book, never looked up, never met my eyes.
There’s a point here. The attentive reader will notice that I’ve jumped ahead quite a bit. I’ve skipped over all the years of writing and publishing and becoming eventually forgotten and made the present tense the time at the end of all that. This man standing in my living room looking down at the books that I’ve published trying to remember them isn’t doing all of this in the present, the actual present, he’s doing it in the far distant future. There are a lot of assumptions being made. Perhaps the biggest one of all being that I have enough talent to write a lot of books, and that those books will be so good that they will stick with you enough to make you dial that number up there long after I’ve written this. I don’t know if that assumption will come true. But I think that everyone begins everything in this way. At least I hope they do.
A young musician does not pick up his newly purchased instrument, however lacking in skill he may be or untrained he is, and think of anything but sitting atop a stool slouched over this now-worn-through guitar muttering words about the first song he ever learned and strumming a few simple chords. No amateur artist ever buttoned up an un-paint-splattered oversized shirt, mixed together a few colors to get an earthy, puke green, and thought of anything but standing before a scattered crowd in a well lit gallery talking about youth and all the passionate, driven work. And no writer ever began a story thinking of anything but a podium on a stage before a silent crowd, remembering the early days and the spark that came when new writing was really alive. Or about the phone calls from old fans he would receive some day. Or the short tempered man sitting on the arm of his sofa looking down at the cover of his second novel, trying to remember.
So I ask him if he’s ever read that one, if he’s ever heard of me. He says maybe, and he looks at me and he flips back to the author page with a picture of me and he goes back and forth between it and me and says he thinks he remembers. I tell him its alright, it was a long time ago, and he asks me what the book is about. I tell him, though I can’t tell you now because the me that is telling him has already written that book and a lot of others and they’ve all been loved and all been forgotten, but the me that is telling you has only just begun to write them. Go ahead and read that back, it makes sense.
When I’ve finished telling him about the book, about the characters and the plot and the bigger themes of the novel, he starts to smile and I think he might have gotten some of it back. He names a character who comes along later in the book, one I hadn’t mentioned but who has an important effect on the overall plot-line. He wouldn’t have known that name if he hadn’t read that book all the way through. The act of telling him has reconnected some jumbled pathways in his mind, pathways once replaced by other, more pressing matters. Now they are reconnected and now he is flipping through the book, reading a passage here and there, and I can tell that he isn’t a fast reader. His lips mouth the words. His finger traces the lines. And I think, it must have taken him a long time to get through all of this. He must have worked at it night after night. And I wonder why anyone would bother? But also I know that what I have written has made some kind of a difference to him, has meant something to him, enough to make him want to struggle through it. I stay quiet and I let him read on.
The construction outside has started up again. I believe they’re taking up the concrete to get to pipes down beneath. They have to use a large jackhammer for this. One that attaches to the front of a backhoe. It’s loud and shakes the floor. The cat isn’t asleep anymore. The men working are doing a terrific job. If construction is to be valued by the amount of noise that is made, the amount of destruction, then these guys are professionals. I haven’t ever been in an earthquake, but I imagine this isn’t too different from what the beginning of one feels like. Even with the windows closed the sound is huge. A giant tapping, and the rattle of huge chains. And scraping and scraping. Repeated.
It’s getting late. I notice over his shoulder out the window that the clouds have built back up and the sun is nearly down. The sky is a yellow grey pink. Sometimes almost green. The loudest noises have stopped. The voices of the workers, round and raspy, float in through the window. I can’t understand a word of it. For a few minutes, standing looking down at the work, this short tempered man laughed at something he heard and deciphered, something I couldn’t make out but that he could understand.
Now we’ve moved into the kitchen, to the table that I’ve had forever. He’s taken me up on the offer for leftovers that I thought he’d missed. I warmed his in the microwave first and now mine is humming away. I told him not to wait and he started right in, said it was good, ate like he was starving. We don’t have any napkins so I rip him a paper towel and fold it neatly and slide it over to him and fold one for myself. The only sounds in the kitchen are his chewing, slurping, and the mechanical hum of the microwave. I watch the numbers count down on the display until they nearly hit the bottom and I stop it just before they do. I set my spattering meal before me and stir it up.
He says to me, Your father made you want to be a writer. It’s a statement, not a question. He’s finished his food and pushed it away from him. I notice Erwin’s tail whipping out from his lap under the table, wagging with great pleasure. His father was never anything, he tells me, just worked until he died a few years ago. Cancer. He was a smoker, so no one was surprised. He says that even though his father didn’t teach him anything useful, he still misses him. He was his dad, after all. And I tell him that I know what he means, but I don’t, and I think he knows it but appreciates the words. Like he’s heard them a hundred times before, at the funeral or maybe the wake, or in the hours and days and weeks spent numbed and tearless. He gets that faraway look on his face. The one people get when they remember, when there aren’t words for the memory.
I pick up the dishes and walk them over to the sink. By this time, Erwin has gotten up and made it to his own food dish. He crouches down low when he eats and makes a mess of the whole process. I flip the kitchen light on and notice how dark the house has gotten. I walk around closing blinds and turning lamps on. My wife will be home soon.
There is something you took away from your father, I tell him. He looks confused. And I tell him about the time when he was younger, much younger, and his father gave him a book. I walk to the shelf and finger along until I find the right one, my fourth novel, and I take it down and hand it to him. It takes time. There isn’t any recollection immediately, but it works it’s way up and then he’s got it. He says, We were on a trip. That’s right, I say, a long drive in the car. The whole family. Yes, he says, and he kept pulling this book out to read along the way. Because, I say, your mother had to drive. He never drove, he says. Yes, I say. And we laugh together like thieves. But his face turns down, How did you know all of that? Because I made it all up, I tell him. I made you up.
He takes a long time with this, standing at the window looking out into the dark. Where the construction had been but no longer was. The roadblocks blinking faint orange off and on and off again. He traces a line on the windowpane with his finger, turns and says he doesn’t remember anything. He looks worried, almost scared. His eyes are glassy and distant. I tell him it’s alright, that everything will be alright. I go to the fridge and get out a couple of beers. I handed him one and he goes into his pocket and pulls out a keychain opener and opens his. He puts the keys back into his pocket.
Am I doing all of this because you’re making it up, he asks me. Yes, I say, I was telling a story and you came out of it. I had to fill you up with character. What he wants to know is why I would give him such a tough life? Why, if I was making all of him up in my head, would I need to make his life tragic? What was the use of it? I don’t have an answer for him. I just shake my head. And he says, What am I supposed to do now? Nothing, I tell him. But what happens to me? Nothing happens to you. There isn’t really any you at all. You walk out the door and you no longer exist. You’re only here for the story. You’re only here because I started talking and couldn’t stop. He looks down and he looks sad. He says, it isn’t fair. And I agree, but I’ve also seen it all before. He isn’t the first character I’ve created from nothing, he’s just the current one.
But what if I want to go on, he says, and his face lights up with his line of thinking. What if I want a life outside of this, a life beyond what you create for me? I tell him it doesn’t work that way. I tell him there isn’t anything outside of this here and now. What about the books, he says, what about all those people living in those books? They go on, right? They do, I tell him, as long as people keep reading them. So put me in there, he says. Put me in a book and make me live past this, past right now.
The like his idea. Up until this point I’ve known what it is he is going to say because I’ve been putting the words out there for him. But this idea, this new idea, feels somehow outside of my own creation. But the idea isn’t a bad one. Characters like him can live on, in some way, so long as they have a place to live.
Listen, I say, I haven’t even given you a name yet. And the shock is apparent on his face, as if this simple forgetfulness is abhorrent. A name. He mouths the words. A name. He says, I don’t have a name yet, only just fully understanding the implication. He sits, deflated. Again he picks up one of my books and leafs through the pages. He sees a name. What about Jack? Jack’s a good name. And I laugh and I want to tell him about Jack, but I don’t. No, I say, that name’s already taken. He keeps flipping through the pages. Closes the book and picks up another. What about Sam? It isn’t a name in the book. Sam, I repeat. Sam, he says. And we’ve decided. His name will be Sam.
I have to go back then, I tell him. I have to change the whole story. No, he says, don’t change it. Leave it just the way it is. Leave all of it just like it is. This is where I came from. He looks around him, taking it in for what looks like the first time. He touches a lamp, an end table, runs his hand along the frames of the pictures on the wall. This is where I came from. He looks happier now, standing and leaving, more alive, more real, and as he closes the door behind him I hear the sound of a car in the driveway. My wife, no doubt, home from work. The cat stirs beside me. Opens his eyes and closes them again.
When my wife comes in she has two grocery bags filled with dinner. I take them from her and kiss her and ask how her day was. She puts her things down, sheds her purse and coat and shoes. She sees the two bottles on the kitchen table, the dishes in the sink. Who was here? For a moment I don’t know how to answer. Sam, I say, and she doesn’t immediately reply. Finally she says, Oh, and then, Sam didn’t finish his beer, and she walks to the sink and pours the remainder out. How is Sam, she asks, and I tell her he’s alright, that we were having a long talk, that he was having a bit of a crisis but that we worked through it. She smiles and walks off to change out of her work clothes. I fill a pot with water and start the burner for rice.
Two days later and I'm working on something different. A new story that isn’t going anywhere. It’s frustrating work, but every writer learns that it’s best to keep going, force your way through it, because sometimes something can come out of it. The construction outside hasn’t started up this day, so I know they’re either done or it’s already the weekend. The sky is cloudy but the air is still.
I hear the footsteps outside the door before I hear the knock and I know that Sam is there, but when I open the door he’s not alone. I need your help is what he says as he pushes his way through. Pulling along behind him, attached by the hand, is a bleary eyed woman wearing clothes that don’t fit, shoes that don’t match. He sits her down on the couch. She slumps to one side, staring ahead empty. He walks off into the kitchen and motions for me to follow him. As I pass, a thin line of drool like a shiny morning spider’s web dances down to the armrest from her sagging mouth.
He says, I screwed up, I think I screwed up, I don’t know what to do. He’s pacing back and forth, running his hands across his head and through his hair. The shirt he has on has a small tear down the side and through it I catch glances of what looks like blood dried to his side. What happened? Who is she? But he doesn’t have any answers yet. I say, Alright, settle down, and I go to the fridge for a beer. He takes a few deep breaths, a few deep swigs, yanks the chair out and drops into it. I sit across from him. What’s going on, Sam?
This is what he tells me: he messed up. He says it over and over, and though I know the words don’t have any specific meaning, I have an idea. You tried to do it, I say, you tried to create a character. It was so easy for you, he says. You made me from nothing, like it was nothing. I thought it’d be easy. But I'm a professional, I tell him, I’ve been doing this for a long time. He waves that idea away, No, I don’t care about that. You have to fix this. And I sit back in my chair and I know that he’s right, that his problem is my problem too. I created him. He created a mess. Therefore, I created a mess. Terrible logic. We hear a scream from the living room.
Rushing in we find the girl on the couch curled up in the corner pushing back and as far away as she can from Erwin, sitting calmly one sofa cushion over, staring straight at her, his tail wrapped up around his paws. She’s scared of him, or she doesn’t understand what he is. I say to Sam, didn’t you tell her about cats? And he throws his hands up and looks confused, shakes his head. But she starts to calm down, even smiles. Erwin stands and walks to her lap, lays down with his head draped over one of her knees. Immediately he’s asleep. She runs a hand across his back. Smiles. Does it again. Sam kneels down next to her, puts his hand on her shoulder. She looks up at him and he asks if she’s alright and she stares back at him with wide eyes but still she smiles a little and keeps petting and petting. Does she speak, Sam? Not really, he says, I didn’t know how to make her speak. I pull him up and we go back into the kitchen.
Now I'm worked up. The thought that one of my characters, someone I created from nothing, would go around making their own characters is not a pleasant thought. What were you thinking, Sam? I wasn’t thinking, he says, I just got lonely. I wanted someone, anyone. I wanted some company. But you don’t know what you’re doing, Sam, you aren’t a writer, you can’t start with such big characters and expect so much from them. You have to start small, work your way up. She’s flat, Sam, as a character she doesn’t have any real distinct qualities. She seems boring. Hey, he says, she isn’t boring. You don’t even know her. Maybe not, I say, but I know you, I created you, and I know what you’re capable of. That’s right, he says, and that’s why I came to you. You made me everything that I am. You can make me into a good writer, one who’s characters are interesting and believable. Characters with life.
He has a good point. Or I have a good point that I gave to him and that he gave back to me. Either way, the point is good. We both stay quiet and work on this. The day is getting later and the clouds outside have cleared. A bird in the maple out back is singing a song on repeat, its pattern barely discernable. I hear the sound of my wife’s car in the driveway. I don’t know what we’re going to do. I tell this to Sam and he sits up straight and we both stay frozen. The key in the front door lock turns in slow motion and the creak of the handle is like the wheels of a cell door.
Sam and I are standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room when she comes in. She stops halfway and says, Oh, hello. She uses the same surprised look whenever someone new pops up unexpectedly. Erwin hears her voice and races to her legs. I say, Hi, honey, and walk over to take her coat and bag. Sam remains, and the girl, without the cat on her lap, looks slouched and empty again. Sam’s got his head down, concentrating hard on something. Honey, I say, this is Sam, you remember Sam, right? And she smiles at me because she doesn’t remember Sam, but she smiles at him because she’s too polite to let on. She approaches him with her hand out. He straightens up, smiles and shakes her hand. And who’s this, she asks, turning now toward the girl on the couch. This, Sam says, looking my way and smiling a very different smile, is Anne.
As soon as I know this can’t go well, everything changes. Anne is standing up, holding out her hand and walking over to my wife and smiling. She’s wiped the drool from her mouth and straightened her clothes. It’s very nice to meet you, she says, and my wife says the same back. You have a lovely home. Erwin is working his way between their four legs. Thank you, my wife says. And we all stand together, smiling politely and waiting for someone to make the next move. My wife says, Let’s all have a drink, and she walks off into the kitchen. I follow, motioning with my eyes at Sam to keep his character company. He’s smiling still, proud of himself.
My wife takes out glasses, ice, liquor from the cabinet. She breaks the cubes and pours the drinks. She turns around, startled by me standing behind her watching. Anne seems nice, she says, she’ll be good for Sam. And she carries the drinks into the living room and hands them out.
The four of us sit uncomfortably. Sam and Anne are on the couch close together, my wife’s in the recliner with the cat on her lap. I’ve got a chair pulled up from the dining room and I'm searching for a place to set down my drink. No one says anything for a long time, until my wife says, So how do you two know each other. She’s looking down at the cat, stroking his back. The rest of us aren’t sure which two she means, Sam and I or Sam and Anne or Anne and I. I'm about to make something up, when Anne says, I'm a figure skater. My wife’s hand stops for an instant, then resumes petting. A figure skater, she says, how nice. Yeah, that’s how we met, Sam says. I'm watching him, trying to guess what he’s going to say. I know that I should have more control over my own characters, but I don’t. It’s becoming more evident with every word. I say, Yes, Honey, Sam played hockey in college. I think I told you about that. I was all-conference, Sam says, right up until I broke my ankle. He’s proud of himself, I can see. He says, Still like to get out on the ice when I can. My wife hasn’t looked up from the cat. Her hand is working over his back and his eyes are closed but his ears are perked up.
My drink is empty, but when I look at everyone else’s they are all still very nearly full. Anne’s is tipping off her knee, about to spill over the edge. She hasn’t noticed. I catch Sam’s eye and I give him a serious look and nod towards Anne’s drink and he looks down at it and up to her face and a moment later she’s brought the glass up and emptied it entirely. He gets a grin going, satisfied. My wife asks if anyone wants another, but Sam says, No, we couldn’t, we should get going anyway, let you guys have your dinner. You should stay, my wife says, and Anne’s face lights up, but Sam cuts her off with a line of excuses. We really should get going, he says. They all get up and start heading towards the door. My wife for the first time notices the different shoes on Anne’s feet, but as quickly as she sees them she’s looking back up and she’s smiling. We crowd together at the door and we say our goodbyes and our nice to meet you’s and in another minute the door is closed and they’re gone.
She goes around picking up glasses and straightening chairs and doesn’t say a word and I know she’s angry. It’s dark out now, the blinds are all still open. I go around closing them, feeling the tension between us, not wanting to face it but knowing we will have to sooner or later. She’s in the kitchen, running the water, cleaning the dishes and getting dinner started. I go in and without thinking I decide its best to just get this fight over with now. I say, Listen, I didn’t mean to spring that on you right after work. But she turns off the water and says how nice they were, how we should see them again soon. She’s smiling and she means it. She hands me a beer from the fridge and asks how my day was. And I tell her, and everything is normal when it shouldn’t be. But I go with it because I don’t have any idea what else to do.
That night I'm lying in bed unable to sleep. The air in the bedroom is thicker than normal, the sound of the cat’s purrs wrapped up by my wife’s head beside me are louder than normal. I get up and I go to the kitchen at sit at the table with a glass of water. I know that what is keeping me awake is my own anxiety over Sam, but I'm having a hard time letting myself think about it. Outside the night is heavy, the sky full black without any stars. The street out front is glowing and the quiet is deeper contrasting against the daytime sounds of construction.
When I get back to bed I reach an arm in first and hit against another body lying in my place. I can see my wife’s silhouette across the bed and the cat and the window, but this body in my place is not my own. I flip on the light and his face is awake, his eyes open and his mouth open, but he’s staring off at the ceiling mindless. I can see a thin line of drool leading from his mouth off towards the pillow. And my eyes go up to my wife’s pitying eyes. She sits up and she says, Listen, Honey, and I know what she’s going to say but I tell her to stop, to wait, and I walk out to the living room. From the bookshelf I pull my second novel. It was my favorite, the one I reference most at colleges when I’m teaching or standing at a podium before a large audience. I flip to the last chapter. The main character, Jack, has just come home to find his wife in bed with another man. He flips on the lights, slaps his wife across the face, and shoots the adulterer in the chest. Jack is the kind of character who knows how to deal with anything. He always knows the right words, the right actions. I know that I am not a character like Jack. I know that I could never be the kind of character that she wanted, not forever. Replacing me was inevitable.
I go back to the bedroom and they’re both sitting up facing each other. This new guy’s come more to life now, she’s been filling him up. He’s wearing one of my t-shirts. My wife sees me and says, Hey, Honey, Listen I'm sorry. This just wasn’t working out. She’s working her hands back and forth between herself and myself, gesturing the give and take of any relationship. And I nod, because I knew that it wasn’t. She says, I just don’t think I'm meant to be married to a full time writer. It’s just not stable enough for me. So who’s this, I ask. This, she says, and she takes her time looking him over, thinking hard about it, This is Thomas. He’s a Retail Manager. Thomas is facing me now, smiling a stupid smile. And she’s smiling at her own creativity, at her own ability to make exactly who she wants when she wants them. She had the same smile on her face the first time I saw her. He puts up a limp hand for me to shake, and there isn’t anything left to say.
I turn and leave the room, find my shoes and my coat. Erwin is sitting on a rug at the front door, his tail curled around his front paws. He’s looking up at me, right up into my eyes. I pat his head and run my fingers down his back and he climbs up my leg and stretches long. I kneel down and scratch some more. His purrs are loud. He drops beside me, watching as I pass the door, the front porch steps. Outside the night. The empty street.
About the Author;
M. S. Palmer lives and works in Portland, Oregon.
Happy Late Valentines Day! Oh--you know I had to. Thank you for reading and join us next week for more great fiction!