You can call me Bartleby. That’s not my real name, but it’s close enough. I think someone once said…I write, therefore I am…or something like that. No matter. I write. And I am. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’ll tell you why I’m here. For years I kept quiet, even as I became more dissatisfied, more disconcerted, with what I saw all around me. Personal disappointments and frustration with a deteriorating world finally brought me to the breaking point. So I began to write. Do you dare to think you can now shut me up?
The door was partly ajar, and it was all I could do not to help it open a little more. The sound of music and gaiety poured out from within. Whoever was inside was enjoying themselves, clapping and singing along, and I thought I heard the sound of dancing feet. I remembered a night long ago, the sounds of a young couple celebrating the wedding with their families and friends. That was me and my bride, but that was so long ago that much had faded from memory. What had become of the happy couple was all those who knew them could now offer. Had they known the answer, they might have never asked. But my thoughts returned to what I was hearing now.
Walking the streets of Brugge, I was amazed at the variety of entrances and how many were so beautifully inviting. By American standards, an ancient city, canals, an inviting central square and friendly people all added to its old world charm. I think my European soul was awakened. But this one particular door kept me transfixed. Even if it wasn’t a wedding party that I heard, I reveled in the joyful sounds. Dare I look in? I thought it best to stand outside and let my imagination fill in the gaps of what I knew. As I started to turn…to walk on…a gust of wind provided what I’d been reluctant to provide. The door swung open wide, and I saw what I’d expected. Unlike so many moments in the world of late, in this moment, all I could say was…I see happy people. We…and certainly I…need to see more of those.
My allergies keep me from having a cat of my own, but I’m always glad to welcome a cat friend. My buddy actually belongs to my neighbor. I think he’d gladly change families if I could survive it. When he’s on my lap, there’s nothing his cat mom or dad owner can say to get him to go to them. Perhaps it’s a bit malicious on my part, but I never encourage him to leave to go home.
I heard cat mom calling. “Rusty! Here, Kitty!” Only a few seconds passed before she repeated her call. No response from “Rusty” told me he wanted to stay. When I looked toward their house, I saw the muzzle of a black and white dog poking through a hole in the board fence. In his eyes, I thought I detected longing…or maybe it was jealousy. He whined.
“Sorry, Killer. I know you’d like me to pet you too,” I said quietly, then finished my sentence, “…but I’m a cat lover.” My buddy just stirred briefly, then put his head down and fell back asleep. When there’s a cat sleeping in your lap, all is good in the world. Isn’t it?
He thought about the past year, and the fall he’d taken…the fall that laid him up with severe pain for months. Recovery came slowly, but finally was complete. Now, the return of Winter and more ice and snow filled him with a new dread. All he could do was be careful. Until he fell, he’d thought he was careful enough. Nope. The cost was more than the pain of feeling like his leg was being ripped off. Nine months later, he was still unsure whether all the bills would be paid without having to resort to a lawsuit. What a pain that would be. He was as fond of lawyers as he was of dentists.
There’s no rest for the weary. Harley topped off his coffee mug and leaned back in his chair with a book about the reign of Richard Nixon, one of the worst U.S. Presidents, and the only one who had to resign in disgrace. A thought crossed his mind, that brought a smile. If only George W. Bush had been similarly compromised. History is strange enough the first time. Why do so many seem to want to repeat it…or make it worse the second time around?
Billy’s a normal guy…maybe a little too normal…and not the player he brags about to his buddies. The fact is, last night was his first time out in a month. A blind date, Lola was a friend of a girl at work…or so he thought. A night of drinking, dining, and a night in bed was unusual for him. He now realized he’d been a dutiful sucker. Ginny was gonna hear about it when he got to work on Tuesday. But, for now, he had phone calls to make…to cancel his cards before Lola, if that was her name, could run up a huge credit card tally. Not even 8am, and he’d already called 3 companies. He’s lucky he had the latest charge statements handy…the cards gone, he’d never have been able to get the right 800 numbers. There goes the weekend, he groused. He hoped he hadn’t gotten a social disease…Billy actually prayed the worst was over.
Tuesday came. Ginny was there before him, but when he asked her about Lola, she looked puzzled. “I spent Friday night with Lola. That wasn’t Lola who robbed you.”
Billy knew he hadn’t dreamt what happened. The money and credit cards were gone. The other shoe was yet to drop…the debit card he’d forgotten to call to cancel. When he went to the bank before lunch, he had his checkbook, but the teller said he was overdrawn. Billy protested, “There’s gotta be a mistake. I made sure there was $500 in checking on Friday.” A look at the bank records said otherwise. That $500 had been withdrawn early Saturday morning. There was nothing but chicken feed left. Billy wondered if there was more bad news to come. Even as upset as he was, he chuckled as he thought to himself…was he going to find out now that he was pregnant? He sure felt screwed. Whatever else he felt, he didn’t want to talk about it with his buddies. That night never happened. He decided that was his story…and he stuck to it.
“I’m going to disappoint you. But you knew that already.” Bennie flashed a sheepish smile, as he sat down. Sue wasn’t amused. She’d heard that line before, and it was his way of breaking bad news. She waited for both shoes to drop. It wouldn’t take him long to disappoint her.
“So what is it this time? You know I hate bad news. There’s been too much of it lately.” She stared at him, clearly irritated…again. “Can it just once be good news, Bennie? I don’t like to always be arguing about things. We’re doing it all the time.”
Bennie looked at her, trying to gauge how upset she was. He paused, to think about what to say next. He’d already realized he’d started a serious discussion by putting himself on the defensive, riling his wife. How dumb of me, he thought, shaking his head. Would he ever learn? He stared down self-consciously at his hands clasped together on the table.
“Spill the beans, Bennie,” shocked him to attention. “If it’s bad news, just get it over with.” Bennie felt her eyes boring through him. When he mumbled something about X-Ray vision, he heard, “What?” Bennie hesitated, knowing there was now probably no way to save himself…or an ounce of his pride.
“You know that job I bid on…to remodel the old Hermann place?” Sue was listening. He knew he had to somehow make himself out as less than a fool. Good luck with that, he now feared. “I put in what I thought was a good bid. And they accepted it.”
“And?” Sue was already putting things together in her mind. “You goofed! Didn’t you?” When he heard the truth so bluntly stated, he felt three inches tall. But there was no taking anything back.
Bennie swallowed hard. “When I bid, the cost of hardwood was down. And now it’s gone up…way up. I was cutting my profit thin, hoping I would get a shot when Hermann was ready to build more hardware stores. Now I won’t break even, unless I do a lot of the carpentry myself.” He let that all sink in.
“So how does that affect us, Ben?” Sue was less upset than he’d expected. He knew the other shoe would make a difference.
“For me to do all that carpentry, not hiring two guys, I may make a small profit.”
Sue was eying him, now suspiciously. “And?”
“The downside is that we can’t take that vacation this year. I’m sorry, Sue…but what can I do?” He sighed, waiting for the blowup he’d felt was coming. Sue was staring at him.
“You thought I was going to beat you up over this. Didn’t you?” He had. “Well, here’s the thing.” She paused, then went on. “I’ve been thinking about going back to teaching, now that the girls are old enough to take care of themselves. I’d need to take a couple courses this summer to get up to date. You just made my decision easier. The vacation can wait. I’ll be in school.”
It’s always a shock when a long-married couple doesn’t know more about each other, but it shouldn’t be. It’s way too typical. Bennie took her hand and squeezed, at the same time mouthing, “I love you.”
He was glad he had a wife who did a better job of reading him than he feared…or than he read her. He was also glad to know how lucky he’d been to be sharing a life with her. His thoughts drifted to thinking he’d dodged a bullet…no divorce court dead ahead. He smiled at that thought. Maybe it’s time to ditch the line that made him fear his wife’s response. A learning experience. Who says an old dog can’t learn?
© 2016 Robert Mihaly
(Entry in a Writer’s Digest short story contest)
© 2016 Robert Mihaly