Monday, June 30, 2008

Brooke's Mushrooms (Short Fiction)

"Do you know how long a year takes when it's going away?" Dunbar repeated to Clevinger. "This long." He snapped his fingers. "A second ago you were stepping into college with your lungs full of fresh air...A half minute before that you were stepping into high school, and an unhooked brassiere was as close as you ever hoped to get to Paradise. Only a fifth of a second before that you were a small kid with a ten-week summer vacation that lasted a hundred thousand years and still ended too soon. Zip! They go rocketing by so fast. How the hell else are you ever going to slow time down?" Dunbar was almost angry when he finished.
"Well, maybe it is true," Clevinger conceded unwillingly in a subdued tone. "Maybe a long life does have to be filled with many unpleasant conditions if it's to seem long. But in that event, who wants one?"
"I do," Dunbar told him.
"Why?" Clevinger asked.
"What else is there?"

-Joseph Heller, Catch - 22

Brooke's Mushrooms

It was 8:03; 8:01 on the downstairs clock on the stove, with the coffee pot lagging still one minute behind. The morning was pushing in over the half-blinds of the bedroom--insistently, it's worth noting--and the suede-ish comforter had turned an inviting shade of green, like the olives set out by the bucket in the Italian Market.

David was running late by one, two, as much as three minutes depending on which appliance you asked and he was seriously considering calling out.

Not because he was running late, he could fix that with a few smart turns in Conshohocken and by being a prick to the people in the right lane on the bridge ("desperate times call for asshole measures"). No it wasn't that.

For the first time in 30 years--26 of which he could reliably remember, ya know, stuff for--there was no dread in the daylight. here for the full post.

He was fine with sunsets, those were okay. More than okay, he loved sunsets. They popped up again and again in things he loved. His favorite song, the ending scene to his #4 movie of all time, his favorite between levels cut-scene of a classic Nintendo game and the two moments that had been the closest to Zen that he'd ever had so far had all owed something to light after noon.

Oliver stretched, taking the stringless bow of his body into the path of the light. The slits of his eyes squeezed tight and were swallowed by his slowly closing lids and the rising rumble of his purring.

Rough life.

No, morning light was different though. There was a sharpness, a chill to it that had nothing to do with the temperature.

When he was young, David thought it was the simple correlation of morning was when high school happened and that sucked, thus vis a vis...

But on his first college summer, when he had no responsibilities other than digging garden beds and lining them with river rock so that he could line his own pockets with enough for dinner and movies with his friends he had still felt it.

Anne had once boiled it down to colors."I think light in the morning is" she said, carefully choosing each word. "It feels colder. Light in the afternoon has more orange and red. It feels warmer."


David looked at the bed, hastily-made but made all the same, and at the spot she filled every day.

Except today.

And yesterday.

And tomorrow in the morning.

It was only 3 days and he was happy and proud for her. At 30, to have even the chance to present at an international (as in global, as in worldwide, as in planetary) conference was so huge that the question was not whether or not Anne would go, but whether David would ditch the white-hot world of insurance--property and casualty, marketed exclusively to the professional wholesaler, please hold all applause--to go with her.

Ultimately, it didn't make sense. The airfare, hotel stay and all the other things they would foot with their own funds just so he could see her presentation on the last day forced the idea into the world of good intentions.

He'd taken her to the airport with a note tucked into her luggage, woken her up with a phone call each morning, and he'd be at the carousel with flowers when she came in because he was so proud for her, and because he really did miss her when she was absent from the day to day framework of a life they'd built around each other.

It was why he was running late.

When she was gone, David packed the early evenings with everything he could. He'd have dinner with Mom, hang out at Finn's house or got to class and go out with the guys in town afterwards.

But it was the later parts of the night that got harder. Running with the cool kids was thrilling and nostalgic (for a life he'd never actually lived, but David tried not to dwell on details), but when he came home the house was empty; empty in a way that expanded hour by hour as the clock made it impossible to pretend she was coming home, just after some late-night event.

Going to bed was that last admission of truth. It meant he had given up on Anne coming home and it was an uncomfortable (toe sticking through the sock all day kind of uncomfortable) glimpse of what it would mean to live without her after having lived with her.

Yeah that sucked.

So when 1:00, 2:00 and even 3:00 in the morning came around, the living room was still lit as David replayed favorite video games for the 10th time through, or surfed the web (with the occasional sweep of the history and cookies) until his need for sleep broke his fear of bed.

Then when that asshole, Morning, came by David was tired, and cranky, with that sore and stretchy ache behind his eyes, and hit snooze many many more times than was wise. was now 8:04.

Again he thought of calling out. He reached out and stroked the fur on Oliver's belly, already warm from the light. Oliver responded by stretching even further--out to his claws--and turning into David's fingers for maximum scratch area.

David knew that if he called out and crawled back in he wouldn't even go under the covers. No, at that moment he'd be happy to crawl onto the green suede of the comforter and fight Oliver for his spot. It was a dicey proposition, but David was bigger and relatively confident that he could take his house cat if it came to fisticuffs. But the reality of work crept into his head, filling it with "The Minimum Premium Project," submission activity reviews for each one of his customers and the work he'd already printed last night--after 5:00--that was already sitting in a phone book sized pile on his desk, waiting for "first thing in the morning."

With a sigh David scratched Ollie on the head and watched his green eyes close languidly against the light.

Then he scrambled for pants

11:17 a.m.

David's screen was a cluster of task bars and windows as he put the finishing touches on a commercial casualty quote. By the top corner of his keyboard his Ipod faithfully churned out music, adding a needed streak of variety to an otherwise regimented work day.

The account he was underwriting was a rental home on Fire Island. David's customer, George Schep, represented the guy who represented the guy who owned the house and wanted it insured to cover the liability. The owner also wanted the home covered for 727,500 dollars of replacement value should it burn, explode, implode, sink, settle or suffer any kind of damage that needed dollars to repair. If so, David's company would step in to fill the money gap. Problem was though, that as a smaller carrier, David's company had decided to cap the dollar amount they'd offer on a coastal property at half a million dollars.

Small point of fact: Fire Island is in the frickin' sea.

Thanks to Google Maps and a growing understanding of New York geography that was developing daily David was forced to revise the terms requested. It wasn't new. He made these adjustments every day--seemingly all day--to the point that his typing accuracy (adequate otherwise) was stellar with certain phrases.

Within the gray skeleton of boxes and data that formed the company quote system was a dull white box the color of city snow where he could type important notes and conditions for his customers. The assumption was that these "p's and q's" would be reviewed by David's customers before they sent the terms down the line to the end consumer who owned the rental home, ran the daycare, carpentered the carpentry and so on.

David sighed heavily, without noticing, and selected a wrote phrase from memory. He hit "Caps Lock" for max visibility and typed his disclaimer.


He looked at it. It stood out, bold and unmissable. He saved the quote and prepared to send it but stopped. David thought of George and what he knew of the never-was-but-should-have- been-car-salesman insurance broker. George might forward the quote without even opening the attachment to read it.

David went back to the quote's title screen and sank the cursor into the line where the applicant's name appeared. Right after "LLC" he added the words--still in caps--LIABILITY ONLY. SEE NOTES, boxed it in with parentheses and hit "send." This way, he thought, even if George didn't open the attachment the quote's title, which also became the title of the outgoing e-mail, would give him the heads up.

David stood and looked toward the windows, all the way across the florescent lit office floor. The light from outside was still there, fighting to get through the glass and put a sharp edge on the muted grays and greens, the cubicle corners and the dust layers in this place.

The stack of submissions on his desk had diminished some in the last few hours, and even with whatever else came in before the daily cutoff he was confident that he'd be able to leave at 5:00. If he left then he'd be able to make it downtown to Kung Fu and get his mind away from work and Anne's absence. He wouldn't even have to ask his co-workers for help. He'd already exceeded the "recommended" daily number of submissions reviewed, and most days ended the day ahead of the majority of other underwriters in his department. He could manage what was left on his desk today as long as the others around him managed to do the same, and the stragglers and gossip queens at least saw to the basic daily requirement. He still regretted not calling out, but class would take the sting out, so long as he left on time.

"...because they grow in poop."

The tail end of a sentence and a laugh snapped David from his dayplanning. Still standing, he looked over his desk wall to the cube on the other side, where Brooke was chatting with Elizabeth. David bent awkwardly over the wall of his desk to look at his coworkers with a slightly incredulous smile.

"I'mmmmmmmm sorry," he said, the exaggerated accommodation in his voice already pulling a laugh from both women. "But that's a very strange place to come into a conversation. Brooke, please do explain."

Brooke had moved into the cube next to David's in March of last year.

She was gorgeous.

It was--frankly--distracting.

With wavy brown hair and bright blue eyes, she was the kind of person who could slap on a blond wig and the Seven Year Itch dress for Halloween and get no scoffs or catty comments behind her back. Although he prided himself on being a little better than just "work friendly" with all of his neighbors in the office, David had truthfully become friendly with Brooke just so he'd stop staring like a retard.

Almost a year later, he'd gotten an honest friend out of it and was now close with Brooke and her husband, Richie--who was just as nice--while Brooke and Anne had become friends and even workout buddies.

And then, on the way home from a couple's night, Anne had said something to restore David's faith in his own fidelity...

"She's beautiful," Anne said. "Frankly, it's distracting."

"Honestly I hadn't noticed."

"I was telling Liz that I don't like mushrooms," Brooke said in the here and now, "because they're grown in poop."

David smiled, sensing the thread of a joke and hoping his wit was good enough to pick it up.

"Brooke, you're vegan right?" David asked, even though he knew she was.

"Uh huh," Brooke replied with her hallmark cheeriness.

"When your options are that limited are there any vegetables you can really afford to piss off?" he said, cracking a smile.

Elizabeth laughed out loud, a laugh that crested cubicles across the floor, and across the row, Julia laughed, showcasing her eavesdropping. Brooke stuck her tongue out at David but with a smile in her eyes and their laughs made him laugh and for a few seconds the workday and the workplace dissolved around him.

"Where I went to college," Brooke said with mock snark, "there was a thousand acres of mushroom farms nearby and it smelled like poop all the time. And now, I can't have mushrooms without being reminded of the smell," she finished with a "so there" barb at the end of her voice.

"Well then," David responded. "Brooke, I apologize" he said with a momentous tone in his voice not unlike a British admiral apologizing for the Slave Trade. "Your aversion is not your fault...clearly those little button-topped bastards are to blame."

The phone rang.

David grinned with good humor, and as he dropped back behind his side of the wall, Brooke was still smiling.

"Good morning. David Ardleigh," he said.

"Read the title, George!"


David left the office and walked out into a white, winter sun. As he blinked the after-image from his eyes the cold began to clamor for his attention.

He ignored it.

He shivered.

He tried to ignore it. But his fingers were already clumsy and thick with it when he pulled the car door open and tossed his bag onto the seat.

"Cold as winter, bright as spring," he muttered as he plugged in his cellphone and then fastened the ill-fitting bud to his ear.

He started the car and let the hand-brake drop with a "clonk" and waited for the indicator light to go off. It always took longer in the cold.

"C'mon," he said until it winked out, leaving only the fluorescent glow of the check engine light and the "SRS" (short for: "Your airbags might not be working anymore. Don't say we didn't warn you.") light. David reminded himself to drive safe--again--and pulled out.

He steered his head away from the day and blessedly away from insurance. Unhooked, his thoughts ran ahead of the car to home. But when they got there, he felt the same saturating disappointment that had squeezed him out of the door to work that morning. He imagined himself as a poorly photo-shopped head between the two paddles of Pong; one labeled "work," one labeled "home." His thoughts came back to the car and rested there, focusing on the here and now, on the robotic actions of driving a route he knew better when he didn't think about it.

But it was better this way, better than the back and forth. So his mind fell into the breath-like rhythm of clutch, shift, clutch-gas, signal, clutch, shift, clutch-gas, turn.




He made his way home with the mechanized motions of the recently living-impaired.

David pulled into the driveway, got out and walked up the back steps to the sticking door to the kitchen. He shouldered his way in and although there were still threads of light above the tree line of the back yard the house was dark and mute; even Oliver was silent somewhere in the beds upstairs.

He threw his bag onto the puffed pink back of one of the kitchen chairs and tried to decide what to do with his evening that wouldn't make losing his class time a total waste.

He reached instinctively for the handle of the fridge and then stopped.

It couldn't be ordinary.

It didn't have to be extraordinary (the kind of evening that required an opera cape, 2 mongoose...mongeese? and a snake bite kit) but it couldn't be routine.

Even if all he did was call mom and passive aggressively hint that he hadn't put out anything for dinner until she "why didn't you say so, come over for dinner"d him and he made the 5 minute trip to her couldn't be routine.

If he made dinner, and watched Jeopardy on his own then it was too easy to start down the path of porn, video games and 3 a.m. He backed away from the fridge and turned through the archway into the living room to collect the mail at the front door.

"If I am going to freeload off of mom tonight," he said to the quiet house, "I might as well appease karma with some semblance of responsib..."

He stopped.

It was there.

In the wood floor limbo between the dining room rug and the living room carpet the light had come back. It was oozing through the tiny window off the front-door vestibule to sit on the floor. David watched it, watched its stillness. It looked thick, almost touchable, like foam or cloth. But, unlike the raucous intensity of the morning glare it was pregnantly quiet as it sat.

A burst of kinetic energy pistoned through David. Recapturing the morning, redoing his decision to call out and a night less-ordinary all seemed possible as he hobbled to the space between the rugs, yanking off his still-laced shoes and toe-torn socks until he stood next to the space, the spot.

He inhaled deeply and slowly. He could do this. He sat down in the beam, folding his legs in a half-lotus the way they'd ended every Kung Fu class for 4 years now. He breathed in as his hands came to rest on his knees. His eyes closed and his sight became a murky red veil that could still feel the light. He straightened his posture without rigidity and exhaled. Then he waited.

He waited for the light to seep in, to make him warm like that perfect moment (inhale) when the breeze ripples over sweat-wrapped skin (exhale); the sublime thing that he had glimpsed this morning and had turned away from.




Nothing was happening.

It wasn't working.

David didn't see his shoulders curl forward and his back slouch in a barely perceptible telescopic collapse as he began to deflate.


He shivered.

He shivered and it wasn't the galvanizing ring of wind hitting water. It was the shiver of a 30 year old who was barefoot on the wooden floor of a cold house in February.

Dumbass chills.

He opened his eyes to a hazy, half-lit living room that was miles away from where he'd hoped to end up. He breathed out again and things became heavy again, heavy on him and around him.

He should have called out.

The light hadn't changed this morning, the world around it had.

David's calloused feet squeaked against the floor as he shifted off the cold wood to salvage the debris of his foot ware. He sat on the couch like a sensible adult, turned on the light and pulled on his shoes.

New Year's felt like yesterday. Halloween felt barely a week old and next month the house--their house--was a year old, no longer qualifying as "new." Still it felt borrowed, like the real owners would be storming through the door any second, demanding to know why their dining room was now "Portsmouth Olive."

But it wasn't borrowed. He and Anne had woken up in their bed to come down these stairs more than 300 times--25 dozen. In short, Time didn't give 2 shits how long it seemed.

It was what it was.

Now shod, David leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and his knit hands resting on the edge of his lips. The blank places inside his head filled with pithy sayings that ended with things like "wasted on the young," and "waits for no man;" the type of trite sayings that punctuated the e-signatures of the would-be-witty and the obnoxiously optimistic.

The fact that--in this moment--each and every one of these hackneyed phrases was true pissed David off more than anything.

Outside it finally went dark.

David had lost track of how long he'd sat on the couch staring at nothing. His adrenaline--first from excitement, then from disappointment--had begun to ebb. His living room, his house, ceased to be his enemy as the lights inside strengthened to meet the final lapse of daylight outside.

Another minute, or three, passed without a tangible thought to be found between David's ears. Then suddenly, but not quickly, David twisted his torso to reach behind the couch to pluck the phone from its stand and dialed.

"Hi mom."
"No, just checking in."
"What? Oh no, I got out of work too late."
"Just rooting through the freezer. I forgot to put anything out this morning..."
"Are you sure?"

Sleep came sooner that night--and a little easier. And sure enough, that asshole, Morning, followed it with depressing punctuality. David hit snooze...but just once. As he did he climbed over the covers to look at the room through the haze of heavy eyelids.

The light was back, spilling over the green comforter, a strange and bright parallelogram that Oliver had already claimed. David smiled and crawled awkwardly over the blanket to spoon the sleeping cat.

For the next 8 minutes and 30 seconds he stayed there, eyes shut, feeling true sleep start to fade. But as it did, something replaced it. It wasn't sunset Zen, or holding Anne after they'd made love but it was something.

The music started again, but this time he let it go. And while he listened to the Ipod churn out his morning mix of Nick Drake, Alexi Murdoch and Cat Stevens he had a feeling that today might be better, could be better...even if only a little bit.

It was pretty okay.


Lisa said...

It's a heinous crime that you're not a world-famous, kick-your-ass kinda, kung-fu writin', author-guy. Because you should be.

Duffy Batzer said...

Well, I didn't need this on my third night alone. Two more to go. It also occurred to me a couple of hours ago that I have not seen a living person today. If I hadn't walked the dogs, I wouldn't have even unlocked the front door. This is the downside to a teacher's summer vacation, my friends.
Anyway, it was interesting to read your style in something other than fantasy. It's a well done stream of consciousness piece, and that is not easy to do.
If I had to make any suggestions I would say watch some of the non sequiturs. I got a little lost on the tangents. Also maybe cut some of the details about the insurance.
But you conjure some very rich images and the bland and poignant moments of day to day life.
I on the other hand have made Jesus the hero of my piece, and I still can't figure out where it's going. I figure if I get fed up, he can just bless something and call it a day.

lauren said...

Your writing is a combination of....Dave Barry, Anthony Bourdain and....heck I think Neil Gaiman!
Very good writing, kept my attention and kept me reading.
Find the character's names...interesting...
Oliver! luvs that kitteh!
You should write more, you're very talented! ^_^