Saturday, April 30, 2011
by Sean Kenealy
“Excuse me? Were you just staring at me?”
I look up from my book and see a middle aged woman.
“Right now. While drinking coffee. You stared at me. You rolled your eyes.”
“I didn’t roll my eyes.”
“Yes, you did. It looked like this.”
She rolls her eyes, using her whole head and neck to emphasize the gesture.
“I didn’t do that.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Why did you roll your eyes? Was it my phone?”
“My phone.” And she pulls out her phone: wide screen and bright light. “I was checking my mail. Not talking. Not doing anything to bother you, so why would you roll your eyes at me?”
“Because I was being rude? Is that why? Because I need technology?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you thought it.” People are staring at us now. The entire café. “Oh, I get it. I know what’s going on. It’s all clear to me now.”
“You. You’re clear. You look around, you see smart phones, and you think the most ridiculous thoughts.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The end of human connection; virtual versions of people, how smart phones are the downfall of civilization.”
“But it means nothing. Your thoughts. You can’t describe them. You have no idea what you’re actually thinking. You just like to blame. Like to roll your eyes.” She rolls her eyes again. “You’re not clever enough to do anything else.”
“Excuse you. That’s right. And you like to pretend you’re more connected to
“society” because you don’t have a fucking smart phone.” She shakes her phone. I don’t say a word.
“You know what I do for a living? I work for a children’s protection agency. And know what that means? It means I find foster homes for children who’ve been abused. That’s why I was checking my mail right now. I was contacting a family to meet a child tomorrow. A child that has no one in the world, and soon she will. Because of this.” She shakes her phone, this time much closer to my face. “I couldn’t have done it without it. Not as quickly, at least. A lot of people do amazing things with smart phones. We’re not all updating our statuses and social networking.”
Again, I say nothing.
“And what the hell do you do? Work at a bookstore? An artist? In your head all day? I suppose you don’t have time for smart phones. No time to check your e-mail, even if it is for finding someone a family.”
The woman coughs, wipes her face, and I notice how skinny she is, too skinny. I wonder if her clothes will shake off.
“And you see that book you’re reading?”
I look at my book.
“Guess what I have?”
“What do you have?”
“I have a Kindle. And I bet that really makes your eyes roll. I bet you think I’m destroying publishing; destroying an art. But you have no idea! Do you even know what would happen if we stopped printing books? That the book industry produces the equivalent of 12 million metric tons of carbon every year? Jesus, I mean, that’s what you’re fighting for. That’s why you want to look cool with your vintage novella, sit in café’s like this, and look down on people with smart phones and Kindles who are really just trying to do some good for the environment and find children homes.”
She shakes some more, out of breath, and I see veins surface on her neck.
“But it’s easier just to think we’re robots, isn’t it? Easier to roll your eyes without asking.”
She reaches for my book, rubbing against my sweaty hands, and tosses it to the table. We’re silent. The whole café is silent.
“Do you have a record player?” she asks.
I don’t say a thing. Too frightened. Wondering if she’ll hit me, throw coffee in my face, laugh like wild. But she’s still. She’s alone. And then she cries. Until she bawls, shaking her skinny body.
“I have a record player,” she says. She gasps for air. “It was my moms.” More tears, more stares. She then wipes her boney cheek and I see bruises on her arms. Some look bumpy, others scabbed. There are dozens of them, and I know right away she’s in pain.
“My mom,” she cries. “My mom. My mom.”
She then grabs both my hands, as if making sure to have every ounce of my attention. She does. I’m not rolling my eyes anymore, just staring straight ahead.
“Listen to me,” she says. Her eyes are red, but there are no more tears. “Technology could do a lot of good if you fucking people would let it.” And she’s gone, walking out of the café like she was never there. A ghost. In her purse I hear rattling.
Everyone exhales. I’m silent. I stare down at my book, breathing heavier and heavier, the last few minutes catching up to me in the last few seconds.
“Fucking cunt,” a voice says. I look up and see a young man. He’s about my age. Dressed similar, too. We both have clear skin. We both have old books.
I don’t respond. I just rub both my hands, cold from the woman’s touch, and I wipe them on my ripped jeans.
I abandon my book.
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
A man sitting next to me on the subway sneezed. So I said this: "Bless you."
Know what he said? Nothing. He just gave me a look. Like he couldn't fathom hearing "bless you" on a morning commute. And then he rolled his eyes - real, real big.
Au contraire mon ami.
I'm not a big man, but a little above average in height, making it easier to mask my actual size. So I sat up straight. I stared at him and taped his shoulder. He wasn't happy to hear from me...
"God. Bless. You."
And this time he was still, but by the muscles in his forehead I could tell he wanted to roll his eyes. Instead, he just gave a small nod and returned to his phone.
That was that.
So what do you think: is it worse to not having manners, or to want to rip someone's head off for not saying 'thank you'?
Either way, I have a funny feeling that will get me into a lot of trouble one day.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Not my best...but it's my b-day, so I had to share a story about an old man.
by Sean Kenealy
Seventy three year old Tate Gilbert was pleasantly surprised to find dog food and rat poison on the same shelf of his local supermarket. He bought both items, as well as twelve cans of spam in order to not look suspicious in the checkout line. Plus, Tate loved spam.
Tate returned home and mixed the rat poison into the dog food one scoop at a time, giving it a beige color that resembled the skin of a damp, leftover meatloaf. He laughed, knowing how ridiculous it was to take such preparation for an animal accustomed to eating its own feces, though Tate needed it to look perfect. It’s how he felt towards all food; a habit from his thirty year run as a Navy cook.
Tate carried the poisoned dog food on a metal plate and placed it on his front yard. The grass was knee high, the only house on the suburban street without a freshly mowed lawn. He then sat, heavy as could be, rocking on a wooden rocking chair to the side of three rusty lawnmowers. The only house that had these, too. Tate smiled. He looked out from his porch. And then he saw Penny.
Penny was a sheepdog, and she appropriately looked like a sheep. Bushy white hair, a fro body, and curly locks covering her eyes, which she often had to shake away like a teenage girl. Penny had no specific owner, and instead belonged to the entire suburban street just outside of Savannah, Georgia, peddling from house to house and doing what she did best: spreading joy, a true love to everyone she touched. Except for Tate that is; his true love was dead. And soon Penny would be, too.
Penny stopped at Tate’s lawn and scratched behind her left ear. She stared up, innocent as a puppy on her first day at the pound.
Little shit, Tate thought.
He whistled, encouraging Penny to trail the poison with her pink rose of a nose. She then walked, past the tall grass and the occasional lawnmower, closer and closer to the poisoned dog food, as if catching the scent of a forbidden flower. This is it, Tate thought: peace. He leaned forward. He swallowed. His lips quivered, though the rest of his face showed no emotion, like he was holding the most important hand in a poker game he would ever have. And that’s when Penny found the metal plate, hot and sticky; dripping with poison from the scorching Savannah sun. She sniffed it, nice and slow, and adjusted her adorable, fluffy ears. Beautiful, beautiful peace. And for the first time ever, Tate saw Penny just like everyone else did: a true love.
And then she took a shit on the metal plate; perfect aim. Legs spread and face shaking. Dogs can’t smile, Tate knew, but in this moment, Penny would if she could.
“Fucking dog!” Tate yelled. He stood from his rocking chair as fast as his seventy three year old legs would permit, yelling and flailing his arms. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!”
It’s what always happened.
Tate then turned, and as if on cue, saw a neighbor standing at the edge of his freshly cut lawn. Like all neighbors, he regarded Tate with a curious smile. His name was Franklin, middle aged, standing with his three little boys, all dressed in identical overalls.
“Everything okay, Sir?” Franklin asked. Tate usually would have liked being called Sir. Coming from Franklin, however, it sounded condescending, like he was viewing senior citizens in the same light as a toddler.
“Fine,” Tate said. And Franklin laughed, a bit unsure of himself, like he was watching a rabid monkey behind a thick pane of glass. Penny continued her shit.
Franklin was a rich man, which Tate easily assumed by the fact he never worked and took vacations weeks at a time. He was humble, however, too humble, always dressed like a farmer and explaining to anyone who’d listen that he came from “ordinary means.” As if done to reiterate this, Franklin had a gentleman’s farm in his backyard: six chickens, a half acre of vegetables, and two goats, all of it cared by outside help, none of who dressed like farmers. That was Franklin’s job.
Penny finished her shit and walked to the family’s side, letting each boy pet her fluffy body. One of the boys, Tate saw, held a chickadee, a new addition to Franklin’s gentleman’s farm, which Penny sniffed like a mother would a baby. Even animals loved her.
Disgusting, Tate thought. What kind of dog won’t kill a chicken?
Tate frowned, alone and hunched over. He wanted to explain why he’d yelled at Penny; tell the family he was more than just a crazy old man who swore at dogs, regardless if the current scene said otherwise. Tell them how Penny had tortured him for years, no matter how many times he screamed at her, sprayed her with a hose, or even called animal services, but she still came to his house each day: and it wasn’t to spread joy. Penny came to shit on his lawn Clockwork: fresh dog shit, always on a new section of Tate’s property, as if purposefully placed to better his chances of stepping in it.
It was enough to drive any man crazy.
And there was also the mail. Penny chewed Tate’s bills, his magazines, greeting cards, which were very, very occasional, until Tate began racing her to his mailbox each morning. And although he usually won these “races,” he was still the looser, for the simple fact he needed to race a dog; feet covered in shit. This was Tate’s retirement.
Franklin and his boys stared up at Tate, silent, all seeming to blink and swallow at the same exact time. Tate knew it was pointless to tell the family any of these things, for to them, and everyone else on the street, Penny was perfect. The winner. A dog everyone loved but him. And that was the real reason Tate hated her. It wasn’t because she tortured him; it was because Penny would always be their friend. And Tate, well, the moment he died he’d be just one thing: forgotten.
“Boys hunger?” Tate asked, and he picked up the metal plate dripping with dog shit and poison.
That evening Tate began planning other ways to kill Penny. The most obvious being his gun, which he quickly decided against. Other than that, he considered knives, archery, even electrocution, though they all had the same problems: one, very messy, two, they would all point to Tate. Tate was a grumpy old man, but not stupid, well aware that killing a dog, especially one as well liked as Penny, would surely toss him in jail or the loony bin: not the retirement he’d planned. Instead, he needed something that looked like an accident, or better yet, something no one would ever know.
And it was at 1am Tate woke up from a recurring nightmare, wide eyed, sweating; and now knowing how to kill Penny.
He walked to his front yard in pitch darkness. The street was still, as it usually was after sunset, and he began digging. In an hour he had a hole two feet deep and six feet wide. And in three hours he had something large enough that required a ladder to climb out of.
Tate then dragged two lawnmower engines into the hole, which he easily found on his dumpster of a front yard. From here, he adjusted the piping of each engine so small bits of metal and blades were facing straight up. Tate smiled, testing the sharpness of a blade with his index finger and slicing it. Blood dripped down, and he laughed like a madman.
The next morning there was no hole, or at least you couldn’t see it. It was now covered with a thin sheet, and the thin sheet was covered with dirt, leaves, and ripped up grass. Any person who saw it wouldn’t suspect a thing. Dogs, too.
Neighbors had often complained to Tate to clean up his lawn, so why not start by burying a few engines? And if Penny happened to fall into the hole and land on a sharp blade, how could he be held responsible? And better yet, if Penny happened to fall in, died, and then was buried before anyone saw it, who would know the difference? At least that was the plan.
Tate rocked in his wooden rocking chair and stared at his lawn. He rubbed his shoulder, sore from the previous nights work, a pain he’d not felt in many years, at least since retiring and battling Penny became his full time job.
Little shit, Tate thought.
Tate used to love sour muscles. After his days in the Navy he started a landscaping company. Tate cared nothing about his own lawn, never did, but kept all property under his company’s service as trimmed as possible, leading to sixty hour work weeks and utter exhaustion. But Tate loved it. He loved the work. It was the feel of lawnmowers vibrating against his body that he never grew tired of. It reminded him of being back a sea, with the infinity of space before him that only an ocean can hold. It’s odd, but Tate never much liked the feel of land.
Tate looked at his watch and saw it was noon. Penny was late. He then closed his eyes, letting the sun settle on his aged skin, rocking in his rocking chair and dreaming of a far away life. He dreamed of Penny: falling into the hole, over and over; his own piss and shit one day leaking into her soon to be coffin of his front yard. He thought of the ocean, cool water splashing against his bare flesh, naked as the day he was born. And he thought of peace: beautiful, beautiful peace, until soon he was fast asleep.
Tate woke up an hour later to a loud scream. Franklin’s little boys, still dressed in overalls, stood at the edge of his lawn, motionless, as if too frightened to enter the property. They were all staring down.
“Chicken!” a boy said.
Tate wobbled off his porch, right leg still asleep, and looked into the hole, no longer covered with a sheet.
“What the fuck?” he yelled. And the boys all jumped, obviously not used to such harsh language.
“What happened?” Franklin asked. He ran to their side, out of breath and sweating through his flannel and trucker hat.
“Mr. Gilbert killed a chicken,” a boy said.
“I didn’t kill no chicken!” Tate said.
And now they all looked down, at a bloody chicken sliced from a lawnmower blade, guts sprawled to its side. Franklin’s animals often escaped his gentleman’s farm, something Tate had not taken into consideration the previous night as he dug.
“Oh, my god,” Franklin said. “Is that Deborah?”
“You name your chickens?” Tate asked. And Franklin gasped, as if wanting to shout there was nothing wrong with naming ones chickens.
“Jesus,” Franklin said. He held his boys tight, like he’d never seen such horror. “Thank God, Penny got us. Another one could have fallen in!”
“Penny got you?” Tate asked. He looked down; not surprisingly, his feet were covered in shit.
More neighbors soon poured from their houses, forming a circle around the hole and staring at Tate.
“I was just burying some engines,” Tate explained.
“Burying some engines?” Franklin repeated. “What for? What if one of my kids fell in there!”
And it was then, between moving limbs and disapproving glares, Tate saw Penny at the edge of his lawn. Today, she was torturing from afar.
Tate was silent, knowing there was no need to explain himself. They were all thinking the same thing, after all: an innocent child could have died today because of Tate’s stupid lawnmowers. As for Penny, her nose was up. She then walked through the crowd, accepting lovable pats with each step, and began tugging on the sheet. It seemed no one had noticed it before, too distracted by chicken guts and blood, though Penny wouldn’t let it go unseen.
“What’s this?” Franklin asked, and everyone looked down, at a bloody sheet still stained with evidence of camouflage. It was done. Penny was the winner, and like every other time before, Tate was nothing but a tramp.
“I’m sorry,” Tate said. He sighed, wanting to say goodbye but not knowing how. And in the distance, still spreading her joy, Penny licked herself.
“Little shit,” Tate said. There was no point in just thinking it anymore.
He then walked, hunched over, alone, back up his porch. After a moment’s pause Tate carried his rocking chair inside.
Tate spent the following night in his car. Besides occasionally checking its engine, he hadn’t driven it in over eight years, preferring to either walk or take buses to the limited places he went. Tonight, however, Tate wanted to reacquaint himself. How the leather felt against his skin; how the steering wheel seemed to wrap around his calloused hands. He remained awake the entire night, turning the engine on and off, over and over, staring at his closed garage door.
In the morning Tate pulled out to the road. It was 9am, the time Penny usually began peddling from house to house. Tate drove with ease, watching children play on their freshly cut lawns and parents reading paperback novels on their porches: the American dream wherever he looked.
When Tate saw Penny, he smiled and sped up. Closer and closer. The front bumper of the car was dented, leaving half of it to hang down and spark against the pavement. Tate, a handy man, was more than capable of fixing this, but never did; wanting to remember the accident that caused the damage. He wanted to remember Cheryl.
And Tate drove closer.
Tate met Cheryl after his time in the Navy. He was fifty six years old, an age where he never thought to look for a companion. It was two weeks after starting his landscaping company, however, that Cheryl began requesting Tate’s service to mow her lawn, not wanting any of his much younger employees. She had him over twice a week, regardless if her property only required to be mowed half as much. Cheryl, a widow, spent the majority of her time on carpentry, owner of a small business which made homemade toys and furniture. She could make anything from wood, a true artist, always working on her projects outside as Tate mowed.
“Lemonade?” Cheryl asked. She wore sundresses, long necklaces, and very light makeup when Tate was there. Cheryl, who considered herself a natural woman, rarely wore makeup, but had begun making small exceptions for Tate.
“It’s delicious,” Tate said, taking a large sip. “Want to hear a little trick, though?”
Cheryl leaned in.
“Use frozen fruit, not ice. Doesn’t dilute the water as much. And add some fresh ginger. Most people don’t know about that one.” Tate smiled. He had a trick for all foods.
“You’re handy, and a cook,” Cheryl said. “What can’t you do?” She blushed and stroked her long, brown hair.
“I can’t carve things like you,” Tate said. “Everything you make is beautiful.”
“I just made a rocking chair. Would you like to try it?”
Tate sat, his muscular, sweaty body fitting right in, and he began to rock.
“It feels like the ocean,” Tate said.
“You like it?”
“I like it.”
Cheryl refilled his glass until it overflowed. “How about you stay forever then?”
And they were married two months later. Tate never knew a person like Cheryl: a person who made his flaws perfections. If Tate didn’t bathe, Cheryl didn’t mind; she liked the scent of him because he was a man. If Tate didn’t trim his lawn, Cheryl never cared, because she thought it was natural and carefree. And if Tate had leftover food on his shirt, which he always did, then Cheryl thought it was charming, nothing else. They were in love. Tate cooked her elaborate dinners, all with fresh, organic foods, and she carved him submarines and cars out of small pieces of wood. They stayed out late, danced, and often made love in Tate’s car, just to feel silly and young.
When Tate was sixty five, he and Cheryl decided to retire in Savannah, Georgia: to live out their lives in beautiful, beautiful peace, Cheryl said. They picked a house, had everything packed, and began driving to their new home, taking a road trip across half the county. And it was fifteen miles into the trip that Tate hit a gap in the road, which seemed to appear out of nowhere, and Cheryl’s neck broke against the dashboard. Tate didn’t have a scratch on him. That was the joke. He stayed in the car for over seven hours, holding Cheryl’s body until an ambulance came.
Tate never trusted land after that. He never trusted being still. Always rocking in his rocking chair, the same chair Cheryl first got him to sit in. He retired to Savannah alone. He shut down his landscaping company, though took many lawnmowers with him, and prepared to live out his life like he always imagined: alone. And it was then he met Penny. Penny. A sheepdog who surfaced childhood nostalgia in everyone she touched. She even tried with Tate, snuggling against his wrinkly legs, though Tate only shooed her away. He yelled at her; loathed her with all of his heart, until one day they were enemies. Until one day the entire suburban street hated Tate. And until one day he was driving down the road with Penny in his sights.
That day was today.
Tate sped up his car, tears now streaming down his face. Penny, as if feeling Tate breathing on her neck, began to run. She turned off the road, now heading towards a large tree. Tate followed, not caring what he hit, who he killed, or what damage he caused. He wanted just one thing. Penny continued towards the tree, shaking her adorable, fluffy hair, and Tate continued towards Penny. And it was just seconds before they hit that Penny ducked under a stump into a large hole, safely hidden from the car, and Tate crashed headfirst into the tree. His face hit the steering wheel, splitting his nose in two. His left ankle broken, crushed under the pedal. The looser. Tate opened his eyes and saw blood and smoke, just like he saw in the accident with Cheryl. He fell from the car, spitting out teeth. As for Penny, she was right there, as if knowing there was no reason to run, ready for Tate to scream and flail his arms, but there was nothing. Tate just stared at her, breathing heavier and heavier. He even smiled, as if understanding everything there was to understand about Penny. Tate then reached behind his back and revealed a handgun. He’d spent the entire night holding it against his heart. Tate raised it, blood still streaming down his face, and Penny was still. She looked out with large brown eyes, as if knowing what was coming, and accepting it with honor. Tate cocked the gun. He limped closer. He pointed it directly at Penny’s pink rose of a nose and closed his eyes. And then he heard sirens. Tate turned and saw a police car just yards away. A young officer stood outside of it, completely still, as if he’d never seen such horror in all of his life. Behind him were the neighbors. All of them, once again watching Tate with eyes reserved for a villain. Tate wept, he bled, and Penny began to whimper.
There was a knock on the door. Tate stood from his rocking chair as fast as his seventy eight year old legs would permit.
It was Franklin, dressed in a cowboy hat and tight jeans. “How are you, Sir? Haven’t seen you in a while.”
They were still; both realizing how much time had passed by their aged faces.
“I’m here because of Penny,” Franklin continued. “She’s been…Well, I just wanted to know if you’ve seen.”
Tate smiled. They both knew he hadn’t seen anyone in a long, long time.
“You see, I was petting her the other day and she bit my hand,” Franklin said. “And she also killed one of my…” He removed his cowboy hat as if showing respect for the dead. Franklin was beginning to bald. “She killed one of my chickens.”
Tate burped. “Why don’t you just use it for meat then?”
“Well, we’re a vegetarian family, Sir.”
“Oh,” Tate said. He hated vegetarians; always the hardest to cook for. “Oh.”
“I just wanted to know if you’ve see her, that’s all. We don’t…We don’t want her to bite anyone else. Especially a child.”
“You mean you’re trying to get rid of her?” Tate said. He smiled and scratched his crotch.
“We’re not trying to get rid of her, Sir. We loved that dog. All of us. Fed her, cleaned her, but…” Franklin stuttered, as if holding back what he really wanted to say. “She’s just getting old, that’s all…Things change.”
Tate stared at his wife beater stained with spam. “Yes, I suppose they do.”
“So you’ll let us know if you see her?” Franklin asked. He put his cowboy hat back on and smiled his humble smile. “I know the community would really appreciate it.”
Tate pushed his tongue against a gap in his teeth.
“Finally killed a chicken,” Tate said, and he slammed the door.
Tate returned to his rocking chair. He didn’t sway like usual, however, but instead was completely still, as if reconnecting with land.
He thought of Penny; the dozens of people who used to love her, just like Franklin said, and how they were all gone. She didn’t have a home anymore. She just had the woods: a whole sea of it, and for the first time ever Tate saw Penny as she actually was.
Tate cracked his nose, still bent from the car accident into Penny’s tree five years earlier. He then stood and looked for his gun.
Franklin woke up the next morning and found all of his chickens dead. There were eight of them, each shot in the head. Or the heart.
“What happened to our chickens, Daddy?” one of Franklin’s boys asked. He was crying, looking down at the horror. Some were stabbed, others decapitated, all of them tortured.
Franklin was shaking. He turned in circles, beginning to hyperventilate, and saw dozens of neighbors standing on their freshly cut lawns.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” Franklin yelled. He vomited on his son’s overalls and collapsed to his gentleman’s farm.
Back at home Tate sat on his couch. He ate chicken cordon bleu with a side of fresh vegetables and rice. Today wasn’t a day for spam. At his side was Penny, eating the same meal with three extra chicken bones served on a glass place. Two other chickens were frozen in the freezer, soon to be turned into another gourmet meal.
Tate burped. He rubbed Penny’s neck and felt ticks between his filthy fingers.
They might as well have been kings.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
The Work Hazard
By Sean Kenealy
No one was quite sure what to make of Mary Whemple’s behavior. For the past week she had spent all of her lunch breaks by the entrance of her office building looking up at the sun. Eyes closed, legs spread, still as she could be for the entire forty five minutes of each break, ignoring anyone who walked past her and the overabundance of confused stares. You would have thought she was watching an eclipse. When the occasional coworker did ask Mary what on earth she doing, however, she replied the same to each: “Vitamin D.”
And that was the truth. Mary needed the sun. At least that’s what her doctor told her one week earlier. She was deficient in vitamin D, a work hazard commonly associated with a fulltime office job, or in Mary’s case, a fulltime job that had kept her indoors 45 hours a week for the past 30 years.
“A pill to give you hours of sunlight,” her doctor said.
He wrote out a prescription in the famous illegible text that all doctors have, adding to Mary’s ever growing collection of tablets to fulfill one of her basic bodily needs.
Mary smiled, puffing up her chubby cheeks. Everything about her was puffy. She wondered why her doctor hadn’t just told her to spend time outdoors, go for walks, sunbath, perhaps, but Mary already knew why. At sixty three years old she was simply waiting to die, and everyone knew it. She worked, she ate, and she slept. A chubby, pale old lady who answered every question she could with a timid smile.
Mary returned to her office and filed her prescription in a folder appropriately label personal prescriptions. This was between personal mailings and personal withholdings; with sub folders in each. This was Mary’s life. She worked in human resources for the Sherman Right law firm outside of Dallas, Texas. Mary knew only the commonalities of law, but she did know the ins and outs of retirement. 401K’s, IRA Conversion, Capital Growth, Pensions. Paperwork is where she excelled; all of it geared to helping the employees of Sherman Right plan their retirement, her own included, though Mary gave little thought to that.
“Glad you’re back,” Mary’s boss said. He stood above to her cubicle holding a coffee mug with a picture of a dog on it. His name was Danny, a little man nearly half her age, someone Mary suspected only received his job because he was born into a generation that had an innate understanding of computers that she would never have. Danny wanted to go digital. He was the antithesis of filing.
“Doctor appointment go well?” Danny was nothing but nice to Mary, to everyone for that matter. He had a carefree approach to life that seemed to solve any problem around him in a timely fashion without him looking the least bit stressed. And Mary hated him for it. He was too good at being good, she thought. And if this wasn’t superficial enough to dislike him, there was also his name. Danny? For a grown man? Daniel or Dan would have been acceptable in Mary’s eyes, but Danny was the name of a child, as if he purposely chose it to remind Mary of his eternal youth and her incoming death.
“Well, we’ll talk more later,” Danny said, and he strutted off, not giving Mary the time to respond, a habit of many bosses who attempt to show interest in their employees without having the actual want to do so. In Mary’s case, however, Danny never needed to wait for her answers, because they were always the same: agreeable.
Can you stay late? Yes.
Extra work? Yes. A timid smile for everything.
On the day Mary returned from her doctor’s appointment, however, she wasn’t in the mood for timid smiles. A pill for the sun, she thought. What a silly idea. Arthritis was one thing. Ulcers, too. Both aliments which Mary subscribed to. But a pill for life? No.
And so it started, at 11:59am Mary decided to spend her lunch breaks looking up at the sun.
“What are you doing?” a coworker asked. He was exiting the building and saw Mary standing still with her arms wide: a crucified, lobotomized office worker sunbathing in a cheap woman’s suit.
“It’s my vitamin D,” Mary said.
“I don’t get enough sunlight.” Mary shrugged, as if this simple movement was enough to answer any other questions he may have.
It was the same for the next week. Every day, every lunch, Mary stared at the sun. It was done as an experiment at first, something she assumed she would grow tired of and return to her 30 year habit of eating at her desk. But she was wrong. The sun reenergized her; made her whole. She could feel it lay on her face, her hands, and her wrinkly neck, as if the wind had soft lips that choose to press against her flesh. Mary had felt lightheaded for years, she now knew, and the sun had given her the needed gravity to touch the earth. It didn’t clear her mind. It just made her feel it. It wasn’t coffee. It wasn’t diet coke. It was just life. Mary’s life. Though not everyone saw the positive effects in her newfound lunch activity.
“Looking Tan, Mary,” Danny said. He smiled and sipped his coffee. This mug had a picture of a hedgehog on it. “You know, there’s a park just ten minutes from here. A strip mall, too. Might be a better place to spend your breaks.”
“That would cut into my lunch,” Mary said.
Danny raised an eyebrow and rested his elbow on the partition of her cubicle.
“I have a forty five minute break,” Mary continued. “Taking a ten minute drive to a strip mall or park would cut it in half.” Danny looked at a large filling cabinet at Mary’s side, as if imagining she had printed out the documentation to prove her statement and could reveal it at any moment.
“Well, there’s a bench by the back,” Danny said.
“Those aren’t in the sun.”
“Well, I thought you liked to eat at your desk anyway.” Danny sighed, as if he had exhausted all of his attempts at being nice. “It’s distracting to have you standing by the entrance, Mary. Please just find another place.”
Mary smiled, but there was nothing timid about it. Instead, she showed all her teeth like an aggressive monkey. Danny walked away, less carefree than ever before.
At 12pm Mary didn’t stand at the front entrance like usual. Instead, she moved to the center of the parking lot, submitting to Danny’s orders in her own roundabout way. It all also put her in prime location for every employee at Sherman Right to have a clear view of her. Before, you only saw Mary if you happened to be entering or exiting the building during her 45 minute break. Now everyone with a window saw her. Not to mention anyone parking their car. Each day lawyers, secretaries, and even the custodial staff would peak out of a window and see if Mary was there. And she always was. Noon to 12:45pm became known as the “Whemple break.” Mary knew they were watching, of course. But she didn’t care. For the first time in decades she wasn’t someone just waiting to die. That 45 minute break gave her the time to think: life, friends, love, even retirement, which Mary never thought would actually come. She began going for walks after work. Saw movies, read more. It was safe to say Mary became addicted to the sun, soon rolling up her sleeves and pants, exposing new bits of flesh each day to expose new bits of life. And it was then, two weeks in to Mary’s sunbathing that Danny requested a private meeting with Mary, along with Mr. Sherman Right himself, the company’s owner.
“I tried talking to you Mary, I did,” Danny said. They sat across from Sherman in his large office; all of it seeming to be cut from an expensive oak. “I didn’t want to have to call you here, but I had to.”
Danny turned back and forth between them, directing the harsh part of his sentence to Mary and the pleading part to Sherman.
“What were you thinking, Mary?” Danny asked. “We talked about this and-”
“Enough,” Sherman said. “Let her answer your question.” He smiled. Sherman had a sweet face, large cheeks and soft features. It was a face Mary rarely saw in the office, but was always happy to find. Sherman had hired Mary 30 years ago, his oldest employee. They hardly spoke over the year, but had a quiet bond, one that can only be understood by two people who had grown old with one another. They had seen each other turn grey. They had shared a lifetime of friendly nods and hellos; decades of stares. All the while knowing nothing about each other’s lives. That’s what Sherman and Mary were.
Danny sighed and cleared his throat, causing Mary to look up from her pale hands.
“It’s my vitamin D,” she said.
“Oh,” Danny said. “Vitamin D. Yes, I’ve heard this.” Danny was sweating, regardless of the cool temperature Sherman kept his office at. “We can’t have you standing in the entrance, or in the parking lot, Mary. These aren’t unfair requests.”
Mary turned to Sherman, who was now looking down, hiding his sweet face. He was even older than Mary.
“Not on office property,” Sherman said. And that was all.
Danny smiled, as if finally hearing something that made sense after being subjected to hours of gibberish.
“It’s okay,” Danny said. He leaned in close to her side. “We all have are problems. But that’s what family’s for.”
And Mary began to cry. Her cheeks became puffy and her face bright read. It was the most color either Danny or Sherman had ever seen on her skin. Both men were still, letting howls filled up the oak office whole.
Family is where we go for are problems, Mary thought. Mary had no family. But she did once. At 28 she met a man named Bryan. A shy, skinny man with short curly hair who taught preschool and was an excellent musician. The only job Bryan ever seemed to want, however, was to love Mary. He played the flute, a passion he was always embarrassed of until Mary came along. He played for her every night, often rocking her to sleep with his music. He wrote over 30 songs for Mary; about her face, her body, her mind, and how beautiful he thought she was. Bryan was the first man to ever say Mary was beautiful. And he meant it. They were married at 29. Had a child at 30, a little girl named Deborah, and Mary’s world felt complete. Bryan was a horrible cook, an ongoing joke of their relationship, but over the years became excellent with eggs and pancakes. Breakfast was his unspoken job, which every relationship has. And it was a Saturday morning when Bryan was returning from a grocery store holding eggs, bread, fruit, and two year old Deborah in his skinny arms that a speeding car ran them both over. Their bodies mangled between eggs and leaking orange juice. Mary saw it all from the window of their apartment. After that, Mary never fell in love again. She never listened to the flute again, and she never ate breakfast again. Just two months after the death of Bryan and Deborah, Mary took a job at Sherman Right. She was placed in human resources, retirement, helping employees plan their future so Mary never had to think of her own. She worked, she snacked, and she stopped thinking about life, until one day she was an old lady: overweight, pale, puffy, with arthritis and ulcers. A sixty three year old woman who had spent her life waiting to die. And on top of it all, now she was deficient in vitamin D.
Mary left Sherman’s office and ran down the hall. She bumped into three people, knocked over a stack of papers, and began hyperventilating. It was as if she was underwater and oxygen could only be found in the sunlight. Mary didn’t care if it was time for lunch or not.
Outside, sweating and out of breath, she ran to the center of the parking lot. Everyone was watching from the windows. They sighed. They laughed. They wondered what she would do next. And that’s when Mary tore off her blouse. She threw it to the pavement and laughed like wild. She pulled off her skirt, kicked it to the side, and revealed to the world her pale skin that had been denied of sunlight for over 30 years. Only her bra and white underwear covered her flesh, which she began to take off until something happened that Mary had never expected. It began to rain. Then it began to pour. Clouds covered the sky and the world became dark. Cold and shaking, Mary stared back at her office. She saw dozens of scared face.
Mary then fainted to the sound of thunder, it sounded just like a car crash.
“Glad you're back,” Danny said. “Last week wasn’t the same without you.” He stood above Mary’s cubicle holding a mug with a picture of an elephant on it.
After Mary’s incident, which became known as the “Whemple incident,” she was advised to take a week off from work. She spent all of it in bed.
“You know,” Danny said. “Not sure how you feel about this, but maybe you and I could have lunch together sometime. Would you like that? I’d like that.”
Danny smiled and tapped the partition of her cubicle. Mary did nothing. No timid smile. No aggressive smile. Nothing, and Danny began walking away.
“You didn’t let me answer your questions,” Mary called after him.
“Don’t ask questions if you don’t want people to answer them.” They stared at each other for a moment until Mary returned to her filing.
At 11:55am people began to squirm. Mary’s first day back brought with it numerous questions, the most obvious being would the “Whemple break” live on. At 12:05pm Mary was still at her desk. She took from her purse a frozen pizza and a yogurt you could squeeze from a plastic tube. She stared at the items, and then up to her cabinets. Mary never remembered them being so tall.
Mary walked past the main entrance, past the parking lot, and stood on the side of the road, just a foot outside of the property belonging to Sherman Right. She was so far away that people back inside could only see Mary if they squinted their eyes, which they all did.
“What the hell is she doing,” a coworker asked, standing by a window.
“She’s not on office property,” a woman responded with a smile.
Mary felt the wind from the passing cars splash against her body. She would only have to move a few steps to touch them; only a few feet to end it all. She stared up at the sun, but instead of closing her eyes like she had done so many times before, Mary tried as hard as she could to keep them wide open. She wanted to see what it was that gave her life. Not just feel it, and tears began to stream down her face. When Mary could take no more, she looked back at her office and once again saw dozens of faces in the windows, except now there was something new. Sherman stood at the entrance: a little old man. He slowly walked to her, keeping his eyes straight ahead, only on Mary. Inside, the whispers and stares grew stronger.
It’s funny, Mary thought. For the first time in her life when she was excited to retire, excited for all the possibilities this world could offer, she would be fired. Mary knew only the commonalities of law, but she did know she was acting crazy. She knew she deserved what was coming.
Sherman stood at her side. He was still, looking out at the world with the eyes of a little boy. Mary smiled. Oddly enough, after knowing each other for over 30 years this was the first time she had ever seen him outside. He was as pale as her.
“I’ll stand with you, Mary.” And Sherman slowly took her hand.
That was all. There they remained, hand in hand for another forty minutes until Mary’s lunch break was up. People inside watched every second; you would have thought the entire office shut down. They stared in wonder; they stared for Mary, at two souls who needed nothing in the world but each other's soft touch. In this moment, they didn’t even need the sun.