Monday, January 24, 2011
Better Late and Never
Three Minute Fiction Contest. In this, the Sixth Round, a story needed to have a character who cries and a character who tells a joke. Of course, while I knew the contest was on, and the deadline approached, I hadn't made up my mind to enter. I hadn't written anything either.
Last night, about 10:15 pm, I started birthing a story for no reason. It was especially for no reason at all because the deadline was 11:59 pm . . . last night. As I started to type madly under the spell of some new muse, I knew I couldn't finish on time with anything worth entering. The following story is better late because, had I rushed to finish it last night, it wouldn't yet have been fully formed. And the story will never be read by NPR's judge, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, unless she mistakenly stumbles by here somehow. But I couldn't stop writing. Having finally finished it this afternoon, I thought it would be fun to post it anyway.
Here is my all-for-naught Round Six non-Entry:
The newspaper was open, wide and flat against the sidewalk, like a person completely sprawled out after stubbing a toe. It rose suddenly in the gentle wind, tucked into a roll and wrapped around her slim calf and ankle, like a hug. It was then he could see she was crying. Not a sob, but the slow moistening of her eye, with tears that seemed to slowly climb down her cheek as if ducking away not wanting her to know.
She didn’t really know how she had gotten sad. It was a beautiful day for a walk. The sun had crept into her office while she wasn’t looking, as if beckoning her to leave. A splash of prismatic color creeping across the bookshelf had startled her at first. She looked for what might have refracted the sunlight. She got up from her work, and even walked to the window, but she hadn’t found the sneaky prism.
Like an invisible wood fairy casting a spell, the prism had lead her to look down from her window toward the park. Spring had come without her noticing. Bright colors and deep green grass were creeping at the edges of the grey city. She grabbed her trench coat and rushed to the elevator.
Walking down the street, her open coat snapped and floated behind her. The sun was warm, but the breeze carried the lingering cool of the city’s cement and stone. The ends of her ears, and the tip of her nose, knew that Spring was still wrestling control from the stubborn, but tired Winter. She grabbed a coffee, but didn’t waste time eating lunch. She walked into the park and reacquainted herself with a favorite path. The bud laden trees waved at her gently and welcomed her back.
“You’ve been working too hard,” they seemed to say. “We’ve missed you.” In the hustle and bustle chasing some external definition of success, she hadn’t paused long enough to decide if she was actually happy.
He patiently held a peanut for the pigeon. The bird cocked her head slightly, trying to decide if she could trust him. The other birds surrounded him in a loose circle. They cooed and jumped and strutted, hoping another peanut would be pitched their way. He loved the sounds the birds made.
Ever since he started Fifth Grade, his mother had let him walk down to the market at 32nd and Van Dam to buy more bread when they needed it. She used to send his older brother, but he always came home with a big wad of bubble gum in his mouth and Momma’s change was always short. Now, when he went for bread, Momma’s change was always just right.
When winter came, he watched the birds poking around in the cracks of the sidewalk looking for something to eat. They picked at the shiny wrappers that blew along the curb. There were less plants and less bugs than in the Summer time, he knew they must be hungry.
One cold day, he was surprised to find himself at the market counter with a loaf of bread . . . and a little bag of peanuts. Halfway home, in a little park just past the office buildings, he’d stopped and fed the hungry birds. They were so happy, he never even ate any himself. When the bag was mostly empty, he poured the little peanut hearts onto the grass and the birds jumped all over each other to get at them. He felt good, even kind of warm inside against the cold.
Grabbing the cold doorknob at home, he thought of his Momma. He could see that look on her face as his brother stood there chomping on that bubble gum and handing her the crumpled plastic grocery bag with the half smooshed loaf of bread inside. Outside the door, a bag hung from his little hand, not quite touching the ground. The loaf should be fine, he’d carried it carefully, but the dollar for peanuts, missing from Momma’s change, was burning a hole in his pocket. He turned the knob and trudged in the door in his brother’s too big boots.
Momma was waiting in the kitchen, rattling around picking out pots for making supper. Looking toward the floor, he handed his Mom the bag. His puffy Winter coat drifted off the back of his shoulders. He shook his arms until the coat slid off and fell on the kitchen floor. The big zipper made a funny clunk on the tiles. The long sleeve of his shirt bunched up on this arm as he dug deep into his pocket for the change; short change. As he handed her the money, he tried to smile shyly at her warm face. Momma dropped the assorted coins into her jar and absentmindedly shuffled the bills, counting them. She worked at another store and counted money all the time. Her hands stopped at the end of the bills and she looked at him; not angry, just blank-like.
Her eyes twitched as she scanned him standing there. For almost a minute, she didn’t say anything. But he wasn’t sticky on his face or his hands. He wasn’t smacking his lips on bubble gum too big for his mouth. He wasn’t carrying a comic or some cheap toy. The twitching stopped and a twinkle passed across Momma’s eyes. The corners of her mouth almost turned up as a smile came but was stifled.
“Huh, the price of bread went up a little.” Momma said, and she tussled his hair. She just turned and went back to preparing supper.
He stifled his own smile then, and turned to pick up his coat. He put the coat and his brother’s boots away. Somehow, Momma seemed to understand that he was doing something good. Maybe she didn’t mind, like when he wanted to tell his grade school jokes to her friends. She’d heard them all before but she always laughed when the friend laughed. He could tell when an adult only laughed to be nice, but Momma always laughed as hard as she could.
Spring had started to sneak in under the snow. His little park had some color again. The grays and browns of Winter started to have little stains of green and yellow around the edges. The birds probably had stuff to eat now, but he brought peanuts whenever he could. One day, all the snow was gone and he walked a little deeper into the park. The birds knew who brought their peanuts, and he was soon surrounded by cooing and scratching and the flutter of wings.
He always pitched a nut at individual birds to see if they could get it before another bird stole it. The birds made him laugh. They climbed on each other and pushed and shoved to get at his peanut treats. Their wrestling and cooing reminded him of when he and his brother used to horse around together. Then he pitched three peanuts at once and caused a commotion. Five birds crashed together and rolled around. Two birds, tired of the ruckus, flew up to a tree branch over the cement pathway. He liked it when the birds flew. They clawed at the air and, almost by magic, let go of the earth and went wherever they wanted. Being a bird must be real cool, he thought. His eyes left the flying birds, and he saw a lady sitting on a bench about thirty feet away.
Somehow, he knew she was sad. Momma was sad once in a while, and he knew sadness, too. The lady looked down just slightly, and though her eyes weren’t closed, she didn’t really look at anything either. He shook the peanut bag empty, and little kernels scattered by his feet. The remaining birds fluttered and cooed while the lady wiped a tear off her cheek. When his Mom got sad, he would tell her one of his best jokes. When it was just the two of them, she wouldn’t laugh so much, but he knew the jokes helped her then. He didn’t understand how, but Momma might stop crying after a joke or two, so he knew it worked.
Cutting straight across the path, he put the peanut wrapper in a big green trash can. He brushed the front of his jacket and pushed at the bottom snap until it clicked shut. The lady sat her coffee cup down and leaned over to pull at a piece of newspaper that had caught on her leg. He wasn’t supposed to tell jokes to strangers when Momma wasn’t with him, but he wanted to tell this lady a good one. Trying to be brave, he walked toward the bench. His sleeve and his jacket swished against each other and made a happy zoom sound. In the Winter, the City put sand on the path to keep people from slipping. His shoes shuffled and scratched the leftover sand across the cement. He got to the bench and stood by the lady. Usually a stranger would look at you when you stopped in front of them, but the lady didn’t move for a time. He heard her sniffle and, finally, she looked up slowly. She tried to smile but just looked at him; puzzled.
“What did the cow say to the farmer?” he asked her. His voice sound a little funny in his own head, but he got the whole joke out without a mistake.
The lady’s makeup was bunched up around her eyes, and on one side of her face, a little black line rolled down toward the side of her chin. High on her cheekbone was a little smear. She looked at him for a couple long minutes. She didn’t smile, but he saw a wave of friendliness roll across her face. To him it looked like her face had borrowed someone else’s happy face for a second, but it only drifted by and didn’t stay put.
“I don’t know. What did the cow say to the farmer?” She had a nice voice and talked like some of his teachers did. Her eyes got a little brighter and warmer.
Slowly, with practiced nonchalance and perfect comic timing, he put a fist on each hip and cocked his head like a mother does when she tells her kids something; something happy. He took a nervous breath.
“Cows don’t talk, Silly,” he said with as big a smile as he knew how to make.
The lady choked and then smiled softly. The choke was more a laugh than a sob, but it sounded to him like both at the same time. She took a tissue from her coat pocket and wiped her eyes. She reached out, still smiling, and stroked the sleeve of his jacket. Her hand made the same zoomy sound against the fabric. Her smile twisted one way and then the other, then opened up and spread across her face. It was that somebody else’s happy face again, but now it was happy all over and it stuck.
“Thank you,” she said with a funny quiver in her nice voice.
He felt funny. Kind of silly, and lighter. Sort of floating in a way he had never felt. There was a little tingle in his fingers and his earlobes. This must be how a bird feels, he thought.
“OK . . . ,” he stumbled, “I mean, you’re welcome.”
He didn’t know what else to say, but it felt like he made the lady happy again; just like he did for Momma. His feet twisted in the leftover sand, and he turned to go. Two steps toward home, he heard the lady’s voice call after him.
“Don’t forget your bread. Doesn’t that grocery bag belong to you?”
Copyright (c) 2011, Todd R. Townsend.
Photo by Paul Goyette. Used without individual permission under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.