I’m still in Tolstoy’s short stories. Again, one particular sentence just struck me as perfect. So here’s the challenge: In the below comments, let’s see if we can write with similar excellence. (One sentence.)
The bonfire was extinguished, the forest no longer looked as black as before, but in the sky the stars still shone, though faintly.
Here’s my attempt: The young boy stopped running, the city moved even faster, but he still felt her hand in his, though now she did the squeezing.
If by ashamed you mean ‘to chuckle’, then “Yes” I am ashamed when I see your eyes notice all the piles as you enter my home.
Immediately to your right, you see what is quite possibly the most random pile. It consists of a bowling ball bag, winter gloves, hats, and ski goggles. You next notice a kitchen table and chairs that reorient the word ‘messy’. As you gather your bearings, you see that under the kitchen counter there is an overstuffed book shelf, upon which sit more books and beside which rest two stacks of even more books. Recoiling a bit, you scan left and conclude that there must be at least one child living here because there is a small chair surrounded by children’s books and a panda bear and a remote control car with two pony passengers. The 88-key electronic keyboard and its bench have items upon them, as does the adjacent Steinway B and the instructor’s stool. Somehow that piano’s bench is without pile.
(Before walking down the hallway you pretend not to notice one more bookshelf and end table too ceased their resistance long ago.)
If your visit surprised me, I may not have had a chance to close the bedroom doors. In my bedroom you won’t see a massive pile of clothes at the end of my bed, because it is under a king size comforter which H- recently managed to place on top.
(If she’s anything like me, carrying something that big and soft from her room to mine was probably a delightful chore.)
In disbelief as you roll your eyes, H-‘s room snags your attention. Though admittedly more pink-themed, her bedding is likewise piled on her bed, and at every spot where the walls meet the floor there are piles. They are either piles of books and papers, piles of junk, piles of stuffed animals, or they are piles of clothes. Piles, piles, piles.
Why? you wonder. Why so many piles? You speculate that surely one of the books has to include both teaching on the importance and the ‘how to’ of cleaning.
Well, you asked, so I’ll tell ya. For me, piles equal happiness. Here’s the mathematical proof. If I begin to clean my piles, I’ll eventually decide to clean H-‘s piles. Half-piles do not exist. It’s all or none. And therein lies the problem. You see, H- and I spend very little time together in this junked up home. But when we do, she behaves like a Tasmanian angel. Whether coloring books, stuffed animals, reading books, or dolls, she is constantly relocating everything as she plays inside. To suggest that she “put them away” as you might think, is not really an option she would understand. And I wouldn’t know how to answer her striving for obedience, though honestly inquisitive, response, “Where, Daddy?”
This entire situation is adorable to me. Just watching her play is endlessly fascinating. How is she determining what to play with and for how long? Does she get a thrill out of not having to “clean” like I do? I’ll never know.
Anyhow, the point is, when I’ve tried to clean these piles in the past, it’s unbearable. I cannot touch her toys without thinking of her and I cannot think of her without remembering, as strongly as fire remembers hot and as ice remembers cold, that she is not here. And I cannot think that, without being sad–very, very sad.
So I maintain piles and I maintain that piles equal happiness.
I’ve been reading Tolstoy’s shorter fiction and almost each story contains writing so good that I want to never make the attempt again. Here’s a few examples.
From The Death of Ivan Ilyich:
Ivan Ilych knows quite well and definitely that all this is nonsense and pure deception, but when the doctor, getting down on his knee, leans over him, putting his ear first higher then lower, and performs various gymnastic movements over him with a significant expression on his face, Ivan Ilych submits to it all as he used to submit to the speeches of the lawyers, though he knew very well that they were all lying and why they were lying.
From The Kreutzer Sonata:
“What is wrong with education?” said the lady, with a scarcely perceptible smile. “Surely it can’t be better to marry as they used to in the old days when the bride and bridegroom did not even see one another before the wedding,” she continued, answering not what her interlocutor had said but what she thought he would say, in the way many ladies have. “Without knowing whether they loved, or whether they could love, they married just anybody, and were wretched all their lives. And you think that was better?” she said, evidently addressing me and the lawyer chiefly and least of all the old man with whom she was talking.
From The Devil:
During coffee, as often happened, a peculiarly feminine kind of conversation went on which had no logical sequence but which evidently was connected in some way for it went on uninterruptedly.
Well done, Count.
As for myself, I had a coffee date with a young lady the other day, something I have not made an effort to do in years. As is often the case in situations like mine, I told myself that I was willing to re-enter the dating world for several clear and distinct reasons. Firstly, it is not good for the man to be alone. Secondly, the idea of sexual congress with a woman has not yet become altogether repulsive. Thirdly, and ever present, there is in me still some remnant of fire, quite incapable of scientific scrutiny, that wants to prove–or fail trying–that I might yet possess some quality desirable to a member of the fairer sex.
As for her, she was highly educated, well-spoken, and cultured. And beautiful. On these points there would be no dispute. Not wholly unlike the much publicized cases of celebrity progeny, however, her parents’ more modest wealth still seemed nearest the root of her inability to properly arrange cause and effect. On this point there may be dispute.
After falling flat to his face, he did not stay down. He would not stay down. The voice was unmistakable. He knew where he had to go and he knew he must run.
The door tried to stop him but failed. Once outside he ran unbridled. First the parking lot then the field then across the river that was too wide.
Nimbly dodging any cars that refused to slow, he made it past the last man-made obstacle. Only one voice could stop him now.
Beauty was unable to keep pace.
Like the periphery that faded with focus, his memory too was stunted by his remarkable speed.
He did not hear the cheetah give up. He did not feel the eagle miss.
Eyes fixed onward and upward, he did not see the blades of grass become shards of rock or the blood with which his path now painted.
His shirt lost to the wind. He welcomed the new freedom and speed.
The rocks grew bigger as he ran higher. His hands coated the terrain with their own hue as they helped climb.
Above the clouds, the sight tripped him. He tucked, rolled, and landed in stride, not even slowing enough for sound to catch up.
Closer closer, higher higher, he bounded from one boulder to the next, leaving behind more than his mark.
All false summits forgotten, his focus sharpened for the last time. Plans filled the remaining moment.
He saw the rock. He saw color become colors. He saw round become flat. He saw smooth become textured. He saw now become ancient. He saw high become low.
His fingertips reached skyward as he powerfully planted his right foot. All creation below searched in vain to see what he grasped as he pulled himself high into the air.
Chest out, shoulders back, fists balled at the end of arms flexed behind him, his body reached its summit. He cried out one word.
As his blood-drenched toes felt the earth once again, his legs did not have the strength or desire to fight the fall. He heard his flesh smack as he crumpled to his knees.
Covering his face with his pained and bloodied hands, he sobbed.
Then he prayed like a sinner.
The baby is not the last thing that will be removed during an emergency C-section. Neither will the baby be last in a planned C-section or vaginal delivery for that matter. The last thing will be the placenta.
Attempting to quell some of my new-found, seemingly limitless nervous energy, I quickly flipped through the CD book. I was searching for the one she wanted to hear.
“This is it. This is the last car ride as a childless couple,” I pointed out, hoping to distract her. Her musical request now playing, I put it in reverse and slowly backed down the driveway.
She was ten days overdue.
Almost from the moment of conception, though definitely intensifying during the Lamaze classes, I had witnessed her become more and more terrified by the thought of a C-section.
“Do we have the movies?” she asked, playing along in our little game.
“I put them and the DVD player in the backpack three days ago,” I reassured her, tapping the bag stowed behind me.
Having completed the stretching of her skin, the doctor will cease to give consideration to anything or anyone–whether the room’s familiar beeps and buzzing, his assistant’s breathing, or even his own thoughts–as he silently and hurriedly slices through the exposed portion of her tough, clammy, and purple uterus with precision.
Like a consecrated moment of silence, his worth can now be demonstrated solely through execution.
“Well, looks like you’re all settled in. This seems silly. We’re going to sit for twelve hours, eh? Just waiting? Do you want me to put on one of the movies? Or I can read to you from one of the books? I brought T.C. Boyle’s new one.”
The hospital room’s television was already on. She was viewing it from her bed as she shifted her attention over to me briefly. I kept talking about random trivialities, but we both knew there was only one thought being entertained.
Guys at work, fathers, had recently reminded us–unhelpfully–how doctors were paid more for performing C-sections. “That’s another reason why there are so many these days,” they would speculate. “But the female body needs to experience a natural delivery if the mom is going to come out of the pregnancy alright,” they would continue, with a look that meant alright in the head. “There’s a lot of stuff going on in a woman’s body during a pregnancy and just cutting her open and pulling out the baby does not let nature take its course,” ran the last theory explained before I noticed her dilated pupils and silenced them.
Back in the hospital, she said, “I can’t eat, but if you want to grab some food like we planned, now’s a good time.” She tried to smile.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay by yourself?” I asked before leaving.
Her rushing breaths will never abate even as she unavoidably seeks the eyes of the motherly voice that just announced, “Okay! We’re getting ready to pull baby.”
Four hands will squeeze into her abdomen. They belong to the doctor and his assistant who will have positioned themselves on opposite sides of her. Not even sparing the moment it would take to make eye contact with each other, they will then begin to alternate a violent pulling and tugging. Their pace for stretching her skin will be a mean one–precisely between reckless and urgent. Pull-tug-pull-tug-pull-tug.
“Why don’t we see how laying on your left side works again?” nurse number five suggested. I had just finished my burger.
The nurse–like the others before her–mechanically touched the bedding and then my wife as she waited for task completion.
“I’ll be back in a bit, after we see if that works,” she said on her way out the door.
On one of the screens near the bed, I noticed that the green number relaying my wife’s heart rate had climbed ten digits since last I looked.
Only two of the twelve hours we were told we would have to wait before they would induce delivery had elapsed when a tall forty year old doctor that we had never seen before walked into the room.
“The baby’s heart rate is staying consistent through your contractions which is good,” he began. “But the baby’s heart rate is dropping after them.”
Hearing nothing, I turned to her in time to see her hold back her tears by nodding rapidly in response.
“We need to do a C-section to deliver the baby,” he concluded. Then he left the room.
All I could think about was what the guys had said. The doctor is greedy. He knows the baby would probably be fine, and the only reason he told us anything is to justify his payday.
“I can’t believe this,” I began aloud with an undignified tone that feigned a feeling of helplessness. “Can you believe this?” I asked her as she trembled uncontrollably. “This is exactly what everyone told us would happen. I am so sorry. We don’t even know this man and we were supposed to wait twelve hours before even beginning to induce. It has only been two. What the hell is going on here?”
Waiting for help, she cried.
These days scalpels under a new name are plugged into a power outlet and cauterize as they cut. There will be no blood.
I came into the operating room after being shown how to put on all the disposable sterile gear. The room appeared to still be under construction. A nurse led me to my wife’s side along a path that ensured that the blue sheet hanging over her torso, the sheet meant to obstruct her view of the procedure, would also obstruct mine.
Arms and legs strapped down, the woman will lay on a padded table awake though nauseous from the anesthetics.
“How are you doing, sweetie?” the nurse will ask just prior to the doctor making the initial incision. The doctor will not hear this, his thoughts centering instead on getting the baby out.
The hot blade will then slice through her unfeeling skin, fat, and muscle with little resistance.
Her restricted hand moved. The finest edge in the room was the courage behind the words that I will never forget. Piercing every form of fear, she filled the world with five syllables.
“Will you hold my hand?”
To be clear, this is the working end of H-‘s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles flavored kid’s toothpaste tube. Though more slowly than after brushing with my Arm and Hammer Baking Soda toothpaste on vacation because I forgot to pack hers, she still runs to get a drink of water after spitting because–her words–“Hot!”
(I just wanted to give you something to ponder while you wait, breath bated, for me to complete the first short story I’ve written in 355 days.)
My son’s shoulders were red and his tank top was drenched with sweat. He smelled bad too and though I didn’t want drive away–not yet–I couldn’t help but think how if I didn’t, his car seat would get sweatier and sweatier and probably never not stink again. Only the very top section of his hair was not plastered to his head and was standing straight up as if he was still running around with the other kids. If you looked close enough, you could almost see little chests sticking out of each of the hairs as if they were proud to be counted among the few who held out to the end of the battle.
“Mommy, what’s funny?”
I didn’t raise my head from the steering wheel where I had just placed it. As for me, I was warm for a different reason and in a different place. My shoulders were red from the sun except for where my spaghetti string tank top had only slightly covered each of them, and now that I was away from the man I could finally allow my face to fully flush and match the hue. But I didn’t want Billy to see and comment. Not expecting nor suppressing the giggle that erupted, I deliberately focused on memorizing every feature of his face, physique, and sense of humor. He was perfect. I did not want to forget him. And yet I forgot to give him my number. Dammit. What was his name again? Steve? Brian? Eric! Eric. His name was Eric. Whew.
I did consider raising my head when I heard a knock on my window followed by “Mommy, the man from the park is knocking on your window.” Shocked and not wanting him to see me in this state, as I raised my head I kept my hands where I had had them at the ten and three and I tensely looked away. There was a second round of knocking and a second round of Billy announcing the knocking. For a moment I wondered how long he would stand there and for a briefer moment I wanted to test him–only partly playing–but I didn’t. Finally, turning my head with no small amount what-I-knew-would-be-an-enticing flash of my shoulder length, cute, jet black hair, I looked up at him, smiled, and attempted to lower the window. I had hoped my skin’s normal color had returned to my face, but as I pressed down on the window button, I was certain my face regained whatever red it had lost, this time due to embarrassment. I had forgotten to even turn on the car. No wonder I was so hot. Poor Billy, I chuckled to myself. I could hear the local news’ coverage already: “Local boy and mom rushed to the hospital earlier today. After recovering from a mild case of heat stroke, the mom admitted she had become absentminded after talking to a nice man for the first time in years and subsequently forgot to turn on the car after getting in it to drive home.”
Luckily, the car started and I had the a/c on and window down in no time.
“Hey-” I began.
“Hey-” he interrupted.
“What’s funny, mommy?”
He didn’t seem like he would start again so I finally said, “Yes-” right as he did begin again with, “So-”
We laughed again.
Billy laughed from the back seat.
We laughed harder because of it and Billy kept laughing.
“Should we ro-sham-beaux to determine the order of speakers?” Eric asked.
“Ro-sham-beaux?” Billy repeated.
“No. I’m sorry. Please, go ahead,” I insisted, looking right through his only lightly tinted, tan designer sun-glass lenses and into his remarkable and piercing dark brown eyes.
He looked back at Billy, waived, and then said, “Before you go, I just thought you might want to see this,” as he handed me his phone.
“Can I see, mommy?”
I almost gave the phone right back to him as the screen did not have whatever I was expecting, which I guess I would have to say was another cute meme like the ones he had already shown me. Only a moment before that awkwardness, I realized what he was doing. He was so considerate. He had given me his phone on the “Add New Contact” page with my name so that I could give him my number without the kiddo knowing. He remembered my name. You better believe I triple checked the number, even going as far as texting myself and checking my phone to see that I got it before handing his phone back to him.
“Funny,” I said finally. Turning to Billy, I said, “Not this time, sport.”
“Well, it was my pleasure. Nice to meet you, Billy. Be good for your mom.”
I then watched as he stepped back a ways and stoically raised his open right hand. I would’ve kept looking at him, but when he coolly smiled and winked, I couldn’t keep a straight face so I pretended to clear the passenger side of my reverse.
I plan on giving it to Glenn of Glenn Hates Books at the end of next week. Please don’t let his review (as awesome as it will be) be the first/only one posted.
“That’s it. That’s my dream,” Ryan concluded. “What do you think it means?”
“So before your walk-off, World Series winning, grand slam home run landed on the other side of the wall, the baseball hit a naked Scarlett Johansson in the vagina?”
“I think it’s pretty clear that you want to have sex with Scarlett Johansson.”
Ryan chuckled and sheepishly added, “You’re probably right.”
“Here’s one for you. This dream is the most vivid dream I’ve ever dreamt. To me, that makes it the most important as well.”
“I’m all ears.”
“The setting was right out of the latest Rambo movie–the one in Burma. Do you remember it?”
“Well there was a part where the bad guys were torturing the civilians. They made them walk across this ankle-deep rice paddy pool of muddy water in the jungle. Picture a square pond thingy. The bad guys had thrown in a bunch of landmines and then were forcing the folks to cross it at gunpoint. It was kind of a variation of Russian roulette. The bad guys were all betting in the background.”
“I think I’m with ya.”
“Okay. So in my dream, the water was deeper, but only like thigh-deep, and roped off in lanes like a lap pool would be. There were no good guys or bad guys, just people. And there were bleachers on the sides, where everyone sat waiting for their turn. It was some sort of military training thing-”
“Wait. Did you have this dream while you were still in?”
“-No. This was after I got out. But not too much after.”
“Back to the pool. In my dream, there were no landmines. Instead, there were anacondas or boa constrictors or something. Whatever their name, they were huge snakes that wrap around their prey to kill it. What the people who were running the training wanted us to do was feel what it was like to be wrapped up by the snakes. But obviously they didn’t want us dead, so they would kill the snake before the snake killed us.”
“No thank you.”
“Right? Anyhow, what was supposed to happen was we would climb into a lane and start wading across to the other side. Then the snake attacks, and then, not a moment too soon, the staff jumps in to cut us free.”
“Well, here’s the kicker. A buddy from work was in the dream. He was also a veteran. He was sitting beside me on the bleacher, towel-drying off. He had already done it. I was waffling back and forth unable to decide whether I wanted to or not. I knew it would be probably the coolest man-card hole-punch ever to be able to say that I was wrapped up by a thirty foot long killer snake, but I’m not terribly fond of snakes as it is, nor did I really want to trust my life to the hope that other men would time their rescue just right. So I was trying to tell him that I didn’t want to do it. He began to kid me about being afraid and I got angry and serious and began to tell him how I was done with all this “prove myself” nonsense. But then, right as I was sure I was leaving, I began to think about the glory and nearly decided to just do it.”
“So what’d you do?”
“I don’t know. I woke up before I had made up my mind.”