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’m David,” the guy said, extending his hand.
His handshake was firm, and while the whole situation caught him by surprise, he was glad it was over. He had always wondered what it would be like to meet the ex’s boyfriend. No big thing. In a way he was almost glad to see that she’d latched on to someone else. Maybe there’d be a day when he’d finally be done paying her way.
The next time he saw the two of them, Pete noticed nicely wrapped presents under a well-placed Christmas tree. Seemed like a lot considering Santa hadn’t come yet.
“Whatever,” he thought, brushing off any emotions.
Perhaps it was the monotonous sound of the shovel against the concrete, but a curious thought formed. Standing still, the shovel parallel to the ground, he thought, “Wasn’t her long-lost love named David?” Thinking back to the news video she showed him of this David on the computer screen in his parent’s basement years ago, he instantly flew into a rage. “You gotta be shitting me. No way. I can’t believe it. She’s back with the guy that didn’t take her with the first time around. What the fuck?
“Why would she ever marry another man and have a child with him if all this time she just wanted this other guy? Holy hell. I have never felt so used in my entire life. It’s like I’m slowly becoming white-trash because I met one person,” he thought, as a feeling of madness encroached.
“I can’t wonder on this one; I have to know for sure.”
He pulled his glove off, and took his phone out of his pocket. Looking around to make sure no one saw him texting-while-shoveling, he shot her a quick inquiring text, “Is that David the ol’ PJ, love of your life David?”
Trying to calm himself through work, he found snow-removal’s singularity only accelerated his passions.
“It all makes sense. She didn’t work a day during the marriage. And from what I remember this guy is not one to want for money. Here I am essentially working two jobs to pay her off and stay out of debt that should have never accrued, and she’s living the high-life with an old fling. Are they living together? She better not be planning to do something stupid like move out of Denver. There are things I can take, and things I can’t. I’m not fighting a woman for my child because she’s a gold-digging, lazy, negative louse. Her and her folks. The whole clingy, enabling lot of them can join in a chorus of ‘blood’s thicker ‘n mud’–I’ll stick with right action.
“Surely she’s responded by now.” He checked his phone. “Nope. Why not? I know they’re awake. The little girl can’t sleep past 7:30 for anything. I should’ve seen this coming. I’d always heard about women, and yet I thought I was smarter than other men. So much for that. Should’ve never spent a day with that girl. My God, what have I done? It’s like crazy Charlie Sheen said, ‘You don’t pay a prostitute for sex, you pay her to leave.’ Isn’t that turning out to be the truth?”
He anxiously checked his phone again.
“At last a text!” he muttered. It was just the library letting him know the book he ordered had arrived.
“Come on woman.”
Now inside, his warming fingers checked the device again. Finally she responded. Her text was beautiful for its simplicity: “No.”
“Perhaps she’s not entirely an evil succubus,” he thought, his relief more acute than his shame.
“Oh God, yes! I do, I do,” I confessed, closing my eyes tighter.
Opening my eyes, I could see disbelief in his baby blue eyes as they maneuvered to find my eyes through the tendrils that now covered them. Never having the courage to broach the subject myself, I instantly affirmed his suggestion. After so many years, I was still unable to resist his eyes–those intense, honest eyes.
Immediately, I regretted everything. What if I was wrong? What if this is all he was really after and after he got it he was going to leave me? No. He wasn’t like that. Not this one. At least that’s what I told myself in order to sustain the warmth that had come over me.
“You ready hon? I don’t think I can wait any longer,” I half-heard him say.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I answered, trying to hide my excitement. I wondered if he knew how excited I really was. I felt like a volcano about to erupt. Just think of it. No, I couldn’t think of it. Just the thought of it was too much.
“Michelle! What are you doing up there?” I later heard him call from across the house. I was so thrilled that I didn’t even realize I had stopped buttoning my blouse and taken a seat on the edge of our bed. Flushed, I stood up, straightened my skirt, finished buttoning my blouse, looked at myself in the mirror, pulled the comforter back to perfect, and headed down the hall to the stair case.
“I’m here. Sorry, I still can’t believe this is finally happening,” I burst.
“Geez. If I would’ve known you were into this, we could have been doing this for years,” I heard him say with his decisive, genuine voice; a voice that reminded me why I loved him.
The way he was standing, so far below me, head tilted up, slightly turned–it was striking.
“You’re sure you meant it?” I couldn’t help but double check, feeling ashamed for infecting the moment with doubt.
“Yes. Wow. You really are something. I’m just sorry it took me 35 years to ask. Why didn’t you ever say anything all these years?” he inquired.
“Oh, I don’t know.”
Thinking it was not worth the energy it would take to say “bye”, he looked simply looked at the screen to confirm the call was over.
With an uncommon hunger for clarity, he mindlessly walked to the kitchen. “Hah,” he chuckled, expelling a little air from his lungs, amused that there were always dishes in the sink.
Today should’ve been a good day. He had accepted a new job.
But now? Now he just wanted clarity. He had to trust himself. “Focus man. Focus,” he lectured himself. “Just like you, she’s hurting. You know the truth of the situation. You know what you value, and you know how you came to value it. Look to the Truth. The solution is living in the present. Don’t let yourself get distracted. You know how to filter out the chaff. The conversation was just chaff. Filter it. Filter it.”
Before he knew it, he felt the stainless steel faucet handle, cool and sterile, giving in to his fingers request. The pot, soiled by left-over spaghetti sauce, filled with warm water.
“Time to do the dishes,” he breathed, his energy building.
Her elbow as the hinge, her hand lowered the phone to the bed after she finished her morning dose of Dieter. She pushed the sheets off her body, bumping him, and climbed out of the bed.
Pulling her underwear followed by her pants over her hips, she remembered feeling the electricity of his fingers as he took them off only hours ago.
Fully dressed, she closed the door to his house and began her walk. Thinking about the night, she recalled her surprise at his home’s level of décor. At the bar, he was nicely dressed, but so were most of her other conquests. She discovered early on that not many men had the stamina to match the presentation of their home to the presentation of their body. But he did. She liked that.
She recalled that the wine he served her was remarkably smooth. “Then again at 2:00 am, (or was it 3?) what wine wasn’t?” she laughed to herself. They drank it in his wine cellar before he led her upstairs. She remembered thinking that she didn’t need the comfort of a bed. Loving how he was so in control, she willingly followed.
Already 9:00 am on a Sunday, she was sure everyone driving by could guess how she spent her night. After all, her hair was disheveled, she was in heels, and her clothing was not exactly the type women wear for a coffee run. Let them wonder, she thought. They would never guess everything. They would never know her feelings for him. They would never suspect that afterwards she turned his head–always heavier than expected–so the draining blood wouldn’t soil her half of the thousand count sheets as she slept it off.
In Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter,” the experimental application of chronology renders it a textbook example of how post-modernistic writing can be a welcome return to storytelling as an end in itself. While clearly based in a very familiar late-twentieth century suburban neighborhood, the short story’s delivery of information elicits a most visceral reaction from the reader. Babies, toddlers, children, teenagers, adults, television characters and pinball machines are manipulated by men, women, boys and girls in a sequence that screams to be silenced. Not wanting to discover our worst fears, we read on.
More than simply a description of a Friday night gone wrong, “The Babysitter” uses a seemingly unorganized sequence of events (which incidentally can be organized if enough time is given to it—though doing so falls in the category of crime, I think) to simply affect the reader. The successful employment of this technique results in a victorious argument for the joy of reading.
Did a father molest a girl? Did that girl sleep with those evil boys? What the heck happened in the bathroom? Those questions are only asked by readers who just recently finished Aesop’s Fables. For Coover there is no moral. There is no guiding principle. There is no lesson. And this real-time affect the story has on the reader? It dissipates in the same amount of time it takes to read from the opening paragraph to the second paragraph’s first line.
The taboo subject matter is not taboo—though certainly still intended for adults—when conveyed using this post-modern form. There is a certain genius demonstrated in the ability to make what is become what is not. In “The Babysitter,” we enter a house full of distorting confusions and leave feeling better for it.