Six Short Stories

 

 

There’s a good chance you’ve heard the following well-travelled quote many times:

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

You’ve likely seen it attributed to Mark Twain. Until recently, I would’ve thought that was correct. It was, in fact, originally written by French mathematician, physicist, inventor, and writer Blaise Pascal (thanks for that nugget of knowledge, Eric).

But let’s get back to the quote…

What does it mean when it’s applied to writing short fiction, as it regularly is? Well, if it isn’t obvious, it means short stories take a lot of time to perfect — they’re difficult. You need time to trim the fat, or kill your darlings as the literati like to say. Some of the greatest novelists who’ve put pen to paper didn’t, or don’t, have the skill (or, perhaps, the temperament) to write short fiction. Many authors over the years have said writing a short story is far more difficult than writing a novel; there’s less room to play, there’s certainly less time to say all that you want to say — basically, you’re more restricted in the short-fiction world.

I’ve been writing short fiction on and off for a number of years while working on a number of screenplays and a novel. Am I near as strong as I’d like to be when it comes to the shorter work? No, but the more I write the better I get. And I’m putting together a short story collection that I hope to publish in the future (out of all the titles I’ve created over the years, this one is my favourite).

I’ve also been reading short stories for a long time. Some writers I’ve been reading for years, some I’ve only discovered, and some I’ve known about but have only gotten round to devouring recently.

With that in mind, I thought I’d list a few short stories worth reading written by American writers. I won’t go into much detail, as going in blind is always better. Of course, I do recommend buying the collections in which these stories feature.

So, here they are:

 

 

1. Nathan Englander — The Twenty-Seventh Man

From the collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’ (1999).

Englander 1

Nathan Englander made an immediate impact on the literary world with the release of his debut short story collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’. The first story in the collection, The Twenty-Seventh Man, is an allusion to the Night of the Murdered Poets  the execution of 13 Soviet Jews on the orders of Stalin, on August 12, 1952.

The short story isn’t available online, but you can read the script for the play based on it here. Or, you could go buy the collection in your favourite second-hand bookstore (for you Irish readers, it’s gotta be Chapters on Parnell Street).

 

2. Jennifer Egan — The Stylist

From the collection ‘Emerald City’ (1993).

Egan - Emerald City 1

Jennifer Egan is probably best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction ‘A Visit from the Good Squad’. I say ‘work of fiction’ because the book has been characterised as both a short story collection and a novel — Egan herself has stated that she doesn’t consider it to be either of the aforementioned.

What is unequivocal about her first published work ‘Emerald City’ is that it’s most definitely a collection of short stories. The Stylist, the first story in the collection, focuses on a divorced fashion stylist on a shoot in Africa with a photographer and three teenage models.

Read it here.

 

3. Raymond Carver — Errand

From the collection ‘Cathedral’ (1983).

Carver - Cathedral 1

Raymond Carver has inspired countless short and long fiction writers since he became one of America’s best-loved writers with the publication of his collections ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ (the latter of which has had its title borrowed by a number of writers, including Haruki Murakami and Mr. Englander mentioned above).

One of the greatest influences on Carver was the great Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov. In Errand — a tribute to his idol — Carver re-imagines the final hours of Chekhov’s life, but brings the focus of attention on a young bellboy.

(Note: This idea has prompted me to develop a short story about Carver’s final hours, the same way he wrote about his idol. I’m still working on it…)

You can read Errand here.

 

4. John Updike — Pigeon Feathers

From the collection ‘Pigeon Feathers’ (1962).

pigeon-feathers

The American heavyweight John Updike is considered by many to be the greatest writer of the 20th century. He’s most famous for his ‘Rabbit’ series, which centres around the life of former high-school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Two novels from the series — ‘Rabbit Is Rich’ and ‘Rabbit at Rest’ — won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

In Pigeon Feathers, a young boy adjusting to life at the farmhouse he’s recently been moved to with his parents and ailing grandmother, faces a spiritual crises after reading a work by H.G. Wells.

Read it here.

 

5. Stephen  King — Premium Harmony

From the collection ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ (2015).

Stephen King 2

Stephen King. He’s probably the most famous author around; the man who’s seen countless stories and novels he’s written find their way onto the big screen, who’s been on the bestsellers list more times than he can remember. He’s not someone this writer has read very often (honestly, I just haven’t been able to get into his books), but he has written a short story in a similar vein to Raymond Carver, which is probably why I like it so much. In his introduction to Premium Harmony in the collection, King confesses that he’d only discovered the work of Carver shortly before writing the story, which is quite surprising since the work was published in 2009 — some 21 years after the short-story master’s death.

In Premium Harmony — which is unquestionably a pastiche  a car ride to a birthday party takes a turn when a couple stop off at a gas station to pick up a gift. This one is darkly comic, and hugely enjoyable.

You can read it here.

 

6. S.J. Coules — Photographs

From the collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’

photographs-3

You’re damn right I’m plugging my own work.

My short story collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’ is definitely a work in progress. Out of all the short stories I’ve completed, four, maybe five will feature in this collection. The rest are to be written  many have been fleshed out and partially developed, some I haven’t even thought of yet. Of the completed works that I plan to include in the book, one has been published, the others have either been submitted to literary magazines, or are sitting on the laptop, eagerly waiting to be read.

In Photographs — my first published short story  a crotchety man who’s found himself old and with nothing but pictures, alcohol, and television to pass the time, encounters an irritating local kid.

You can read it here.

 

Anyway, last orders have been called.

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .

 

At a Loss

Since she died I’ve noticed that my ability to speak with others is being slowly eradicated, gradually fading away like this emaciated pink bar of soap I use as I bathe.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

This water will soon be cold and I’ll step out, dripping. I will shiver. The bathroom will be unwelcoming and I’ll leave in a hurry; my scrawny, pathetic body with its limp flesh covered by a damp, frayed, yellow towel.

But for now I will bathe.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

This is not the first instance in which I’ve considered my verbal constipation. It’s been a number of years since this inadequacy began to rear its ugly head.

I stumble over my words, if I’m fortunate enough find them.

The water in the porcelain tub swashes as I sit forward and look out the bathroom window which is ajar. The cool air envelopes my face. The day is bright. I see the woman from one of the houses opposite mine (number forty-four, I believe) as she hangs her washing in her back garden. I consider masturbating, but my thoughts are too busy to construct a pleasing fantasy. Once again the water dances as I rest my back against the cool tub.

I wash my underarms.

There is a great void in my mind, it seems — I cannot express myself with the requisite words when prompted.

And what if I do not speak? What if I instead choose silence? Where will I be then? How will I live — in this highly connected, this garrulous world — when I find it such a challenge to assemble a satisfying sentence? How can I, for instance, charm a member of the opposite sex with my daft tongue? (It’s not just what lines the pockets that dictates a woman’s interest in the male of the species. The power of words, ah, yes. Powerful, indeed. Powerful, too, is a distinct lack of them.)

Drip. Drip. Drip.

But not my short supply. A silence that is chosen can be a cunning tactical move, but a silence that indiscriminately finds one during discourse is as debilitating as a thunderous kick to the groin.

Like, for instance, only a week ago when — against my better judgement — I agreed to meet with a number of work colleagues. Upon being asked a question about my education (Where was it you studied all those years ago in Germany, Felix?), I faltered. Of course I responded by stating the name of the exact place where I had studied, but that was it. No substantiating or elaborative information followed. Instead, a silence of immense discomfort. Only when the group had moved on to another topic had I conjured up the desired information I had wished to share with them, but by then it was too late.

I was forever missing trains; always knowing where I wanted to go but never reaching my destination in time.

I debated whether or not I was suffering from a crisis of confidence, that perhaps the youth of today was somehow intimidating me, but even when I spoke to those with whom I’ve been familiar for years I found myself lacking. There appears to have occurred some catastrophic incident within the cerebral cortex, an incident which I cannot comprehend. For when I write, it is fine. When I sing, it is perfect. When I dance, my steps find themselves effortlessly. My thought process isn’t fazed in solitude. The frontal lobe does not shut down when I’m alone. Is the frontal lobe really responsible for my social deficiency? Is it merely a result of some sort of social anxiety? Perhaps. Do I feel anxious? Not to my knowledge. I’m merely struck down with some sort of ‘dumb’ syndrome at the most inconvenient times.

Or, perhaps, it’s delayed grief.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Even the tap which I cannot turn any further is more prolific than me.

I splash the ever-cooling water onto my chest and run my soapy hands over my well-fed stomach.

I am not an object of desire.

I place my hands each side of the tub and pull myself forward. The woman from number forty-four is still in her garden. I’ve watched her on many occasions. The female form is forever distracting, invariably alluring, occasionally tormenting. I cannot remember the last time I had sex. I do, however, remember the final time I had intercourse with her.

 

***

 

My current state of vocabularic impotence hadn’t found me at that time. Her name was Lucy. She was American (from Pittsburgh) and weighed approximately 15st, and what attracted me to her was her brown eyes which suggested an open, warm heart. We met when I was in my late-forties. Lucy was two years older.

Together we enjoyed simple pleasures in life. For hours each day we would sit indoors reading and listen to music. Her favourite authors were Joe R. Lansdale, Stephen King, and John Saul. Her favourite musicians were Billy Idol, INXS, and Blondie. Her favourite snack was a chocolate éclair; I would regularly find her in bed, wrapped in a duvet reading Night Shift while devouring the oblong pastry.

Lucy engendered in me a firm belief in being oneself: she wore what she pleased, however unflattering. She sang at the top of her voice, despite her inability to hit one correct note. She ate her éclairs whenever she felt the urge.

Now that I think about it, I recall an instance when my apparently latent inability to form an articulate sentence may have signalled its existence during that period.

In our apartment, which was situated above a Chinese restaurant (the smells from which would regularly slip under our door and greet us and our guests like irksome door-to-door salesmen), we were hosting a small gathering of friends — Lucy’s friends.

Lucy had spent the afternoon cooking. Beads of sweat on her forehead captured her russet fringe, so it stuck there until she would wipe her brow with the greasy tea towel. She would regularly swear when she cooked; becoming vexed by the slightest inconvenience.

“Fuckin’ macarone,” she’d say. “Boil, you basta’d kettle!”

Of course I found these outbursts rather odd. One may get angry and curse, sure, but to scold a kettle for not boiling fast enough?

I would make myself scarce as frequently as possible when Lucy prepared food, and afterwards I would scour the kitchen for any stains she may have missed when cleaning — a product of my OCD.

During the friendly gathering Lucy’s friend, Noel, a reticent, plaintive and socially awkward fellow, found the courage to ask me where I grew up.

“Speilenstanz,” I told him. Then, I rocked from heel to toe as we both stood waiting for the other to continue to speak, as the numerous conversations taking place in the room swirled around Noel and I as if to mock us. We both smiled. I rocked back and forth some more. This is when I should’ve known there was something on the horizon, that some sort of irreversible malfunction had occurred up there.

Noel, sensing my dishevelment bordering on despair, pushed himself to his conversational limit in a bid to sustain the pathetic attempt at a discussion.

“It’s charming, or so I’ve heard.”

“Yes!” I enthused, quite relieved. “Yes, it’s very quiet. It’s, um, a quiet place.” I gave him a sheepish smile and excused myself, entering the kitchen as Lucy was muttering swear words at a carrot she was chopping, and I quietly sank into a chair by the kitchen table.

I put my inability to converse down to fatigue; I had been feeling tired most of the week, after all. Work had indeed been long and arduous at the time.

While I sat in a daze, I looked over at my lovely Lucy as she prepared the carrot.

“I thought you’d cooked everything earlier today?”

“We’re out of pre-meal snacks. I’m chopping some carrots for dipping into the hummus.” She stood upright and flopped her wrist back so that the knife pointed away from me. “You look off colour. Did you have too much to drink? You know you can’t handle more than two gin and tonics.”

“I’ve barely indulged, my Lucy. And I can handle more than two G&Ts. I’m not a bloody child.”

“Sweetheart, get yourself a drink of water and get back outside. We’re the hosts, we can’t both be absent from the living room at the same time. So if you don’t mind…” She flipped her hand back the other way, so she was now pointing the knife at me. I’m still unsure as to whether or not this was a threat.

Eventually, after a couple of G&Ts, I found my voice once again and the words rolled off my tongue like marbles off a coffee table. I freely participated in conversation while poor Noel stood by nodding his head and sipping his drink uncomfortably.

Fatigue, yes! That’s all it was.

The night had proved a success, and Lucy and I had intercourse soon after everyone had left. The next morning, a Sunday, I had forgotten about Noel and those few embarrassing minutes, and Lucy and I took a morning stroll to the supermarket where she purchased three fresh chocolate éclairs.

Back at home we lay in bed together while Debbie Harry told how once she had a love and it was a gas. After finishing two éclairs Lucy turned on her side and, as I read Faulkner, I placed one hand on her massive hips as I held the book open in the other.

“Felix?” she asked me in between deep, laborious breaths.

“Yes, my dear?”

“Rub my back.”

I placed the book page-down on the duvet so I could resume reading where I had left off, as Lucy turned onto her stomach — her face becoming lost in the pillow.

Placing my knees either side of her and resting my bottom on her calves, I lifted up her carmine red T-shirt, revealing the pale white and acne-covered skin. With both thumbs I pressed deep into the muscles causing the skin to crease and Lucy to release a number of low moans.

“Don’t be afraid to be tough,” she said — her words muffled by the pillow in which her face was nestled.

Halfway through the massage I changed the CD from Blondie to INXS. Lucy had a thing for Michael Hutchence, and — fully aware that I offered little sex appeal to the female of the species — I would play his band’s music in a bid to conjure up a sexual fantasy in her mind: INXS were nothing more than an aphrodisiac, and quite an effective one.

After ‘Mystify‘ had finished, I moved my hands from her back to her enormous thighs. With much effort I parted her legs — it was like lifting two massive slabs of beef — and began to rub between her inner thighs and her buttocks.

By this stage I had developed an erection, and with one hand continuing the massage, I manoeuvred my penis from my underwear with the other and began to touch myself.

Soon thereafter I noticed that Lucy wasn’t being receptive to my massage; which by now had moved to her vagina. This wasn’t unusual, however, as she would prefer to lie static during intercourse more often than not. Highly aroused, I continued, and, positioning myself higher up the bed, I rested one hand on the pillow by her head and used the other to position my penis between her legs.

After no more than twenty thrusts I climaxed inside her.

Never Tear Us Apart‘ began to play through the speakers as I used the bed sheets to wipe my penis clean. I lay on my back looking at the ceiling, spent.

“A little quicker than usual,” I snickered, then turned to Lucy whose face was still buried in the pillow. “Were you thinking of him or me?” I asked.

Lucy didn’t respond.

“Lucy?” I called, but still she failed to acknowledge me. Had she grown tired of me? Of us. Did the latest round of lacklustre sex arouse in her a latent depression?

As Hutchence declared that we could live for a thousand years, I rested my hand on her shoulder nearest me and shook her gently. “Lucy,” I intoned, but still there was no reply.

 

***

 

When I called for the ambulance my voice trembled.

“Where is she now?” the woman on the other end of the phone asked.

“In bed,” I answered, my words laced with panic and shame. “We were… having sex.”

The paramedics arrived a short time later and pronounced Lucy dead at the scene. Before they left one of them noticed the case of the INXS record.

“Good, huh?” he said.

“They’re OK,” I opined quietly. “Do I go with you?”

“My colleague here is going to ask you a number of questions.”

I looked at Lucy, who by now was spread on the gurney with a white sheet covering her whole body. With her massive belly and pointed feet the sheet looked like a miniature model of a snow-covered mountain range. I imagined tiny people skiing down her stomach and over her breasts, towards her thorax.

Later that evening, having attended the mortuary, I returned to the apartment and sat myself down on the bed on which Lucy had been lying only hours earlier. I reached for the remote for the stereo system and pressed play; the system automatically choosing disc three.

Driving drums began and Billy Idol proceeded to sing ‘Mony Mony’.

I lay my head on the pillow next to Lucy’s; the indentation made by her head still remained, and Billy sang with great vitality. I had never cared much for that track, but somehow it was the perfect song to accompany me at that moment. I reached my hand over to the empty space next to me where usually I would find Lucy’s hefty presence. I ran my fingers over the now cold duvet cover.

Lucy was gone.

 

***

 

The bathwater is now quite cool. My skin is puckered and the room lacks condensation. I move forward, reaching for the tap, twisting the handle, but all the hot water is gone. I look out the window once again; the woman from forty-four has long left the garden. A chill envelopes my face and I settle back into the tub.

I picture Lucy and think about my worry over words, and a faint chuckle arrives. When I think about her and I together, and when I consider our exchanged words, my memory serves me monosyllabic ones like ‘love’, and ‘rub’, and ‘soap’. Words such as ‘back’, and ‘hug’, ‘kiss’, and ‘play’. These are the important ones. I wonder, for a moment, if I’ll experience another relationship before I die. I’m in my mid-fifties, hardly an old age pensioner. I can still muster an erection. Even the thoughts of that last sexual encounter with my lovely Lucy had me mildly aroused, despite the morbid nature of the recollection.

I cannot be sure if my struggle with words is a result of Lucy’s passing, or something that predates her departure from us. I cannot be sure if I’ll ever be able to attract another woman, given my current predicament. What I am sure of, however, is that I have a window in my bathroom.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

And that’s something.

 

Youth

 

The boy is stirred by the sound of bickering.

His eyes do not open, though he can tell that it is morning. He lies still. His ears translate the scene to his brain which creates the imagery. His mind has already mapped out this austere room; the single mattress, the bare concrete walls, the dusty floor, the paneless window. The entire one-story home made of concrete is etched into his memory like the face of a loved one. Like the loved ones who argue outside. He needn’t open his eyes. Soon he will have to, but for now he keeps them shut.

He’s curled up on the thin mattress, sheltered under a ragged Najafi abaya, which he found while wandering along the Tigris a few days earlier with his friend, Aban. He thought about all the possible prominent figures who may have worn such a luxurious cloak, hand-woven from refined wool; an oil-rich sheikh, a prominent politician, a visiting emissary. Most abaya weavers had stopped working after the US invasion of 2003, and the market was flooded by foreign goods not long after Hussein’s trade embargoes were lifted. His abaya was an original—however tattered it may be now—and had it been brand new it would have been the most expensive thing he’d held in his hands.

The bickering is between husband and wife. Nothing more natural, nothing more human. In his abaya cocoon he brings his knees to his chest. He feels safe here. Here he feels inviolate despite the inimical nature of the world outside. He takes a deep breath, and as he exhales as quietly as a gentle breeze, he hears a series of distant thuds, one after another, and then the journeying cacophony of chaos.

And the bickering ends.

Conversations with Family Members (and the Bits In Between).

 

 

The mother (i)

 

My mother calls while I’m in the middle of editing a piece that’s to run in a tabloid.

I pick up, because she’ll keep calling until I do.

‘Hey, Mam. I’m kind of busy.’

‘I know, you’re always busy, can you just do something for me for a sec?’

‘What’s that?’

‘I can’t get into the Facebook.’

Sigh.

‘Why can’t you get into your Facebook?’

‘It’s asking for my password. What’s my password?’

‘I don’t know; it’s your password.’

Silence.

‘But, is it my email?’

‘Is what your email?’

‘Is my password my email?’

‘Is it your email address?’

‘Is what my email address?’

Frustrated deep breath and closing of eyes.

‘Are you asking me if the password for your Facebook is your email address?’

Silence.

‘No, is the password for the Facebook the one I use for the email?’

‘I don’t know, Ma. I told you to write down all your passwords in the notepad I gave you after I helped you set them up.’

‘I did!’

‘Well, where’s the notepad?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Okay.’

‘It says,’ she begins again. ‘Beside the box for the password it says. . . email or phone. If I press phone will that put me through to a helpline?’

‘No, Mam, that’s your username.’

‘What’s my username?’

‘Your email address or phone number.’

‘Oh.’

Audible exhale on my part.

‘Can you ring Aaron? I really need to get this done and sent before ten.’

‘Okay. Are you working on something?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is it good?’

‘I think so.’

‘What’s it about?’

‘How the sexuality of men can be shaped by the toys they had as kids.’

‘Oh. . . That sounds interesting. Will that be in the paper?’

‘Yes, I’ll pick up the paper for you.’

‘Your dad used to play with your granny’s clothes when he was a boy. It makes sense, I suppose.’

‘Mam, I didn’t need to hear that.’

‘And you used to play with Barbie with Amy across the road.’

‘No, I didn’t.’

‘You did.’

‘Did I?’

‘You did, and your brother played with anything he could get his hands on.’

Smile on my part and think about that one.

‘Mam, I really have to get this done-’

‘Can you try blog-in on your computer?’

‘Blog?’

‘Yeah, can you get in to the Facebook for me on your computer?’

‘Mam, I can’t get into your Facebook if I don’t have the password. Did you click on forgot account? I told you this before.’

‘Where’s that?’

‘It’s below the box where you enter your password.’

Silence.

‘But I don’t know my password.’

‘Okay, bye.’

‘Oh, you’re always so impatient, I’m only asking!’

‘Bye, Mam.’

 

The brother (i)

 

My brother calls an hour later as I put the final touches on the article.

‘Hey bro, I’m in the middle of-’

‘Did you tell Ma to call me about her Facebook account?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Dickhead.’

‘Hello?… Aaron?’

 

The piece I’m editing is something of a throwaway article on a recent study about how men’s sex lives are fundamentally shaped by their childhood toys – Stretch Armstrong and cable ties featured prominently from ages six through eleven so I’m not entirely sure what that would indicate for me, but anyway, I tell myself it’s okay that I’m writing a frivolous article because these additional jobs pay for the additional expenses, i.e. fun things like drinking (fun apart from the hangover) and films (fun apart from the bad ones and the cost of a cinema ticket and food) and gym (fun apart from the big men who look at themselves in the mirror psychotically, and who release audible exhales and loud groans similar to those of a Game of Thrones character being disembowelled, and with whom I’m afraid to make eye contact).

Snuggling Up to Self-Doubt

If someone were to ask me, “why do you write?” I’d have to respond with something along the lines of, “Well, why do you eat?”

Writing is something that I have to do. Or, rather, it’s something that I feel is essential to my well-being, and to the well-being of others: If I don’t eat, I’ll eventually kick the bucket. If I don’t write, I’ll eventually kick someone, or at least become quite difficult to be around.

So, I write short stories, I write short scripts, I write feature-length screenplays, I write copy for ads, and I’ve just written a novel. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some of those short scripts turned into short films, and one of those feature screenplays made into a feature film. Next on the list is finding a publisher for that novel.

But then there’s that voice that whispers in your ear every time you’re revising what you’ve just written, or perusing the manuscript you’ve spent months, maybe a year, maybe years labouring over. That voice sounds the same to us all, and we call it Self-Doubt.

I mean, how do you know if your writing’s good or not before you share it with the world? Before you share that latest blog post, before you direct people to your latest short story, before you approach agents politely begging them to read your damn manuscript! The simple answer is: you don’t.

Not really.

For most writers I’ve spoken to or read about, Self-Doubt has always been by their side, breathing down their neck as they type away. Bukowski lamented that “the bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have selfdoubt.” Zadie Smith says that when it comes to the writer’s work, satisfaction will never arrive, no matter how long they’re willing to wait out in the cold for it. And Virginia Woolf opined that the writer “could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”

However, I think you do know when you’ve made something as good as you feel you can possibly make it. That’s the best you can hope for. But Self-Doubt is something that tends to be there. Like it or lump it, it’s there, and it’s going to be there, like your partner’s morning breath.

For me, Self-Doubt will be a morning fog that will never fully clear. Confidence does grow as you develop your writing skills, as you read more books, study more writers, and write, write and write. You become more assured of your own work when you’ve finally found your style, when you can finally say “this is how I write.”

But Self-Doubt isn’t planning on walking out on you. It’s not going to disappear, apart from the few times it needs to wander off and badger the other writer a few blocks from your place. So, if you’re waiting for it to leave, stop waiting. Grab a blanket, and grab Self-Doubt. You’re a couple — try make an effort to get along.

And don’t forget to snuggle every now and then.

Until next time . . . I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar.

Photographs

 

There was an old record player there.

He’d never made the transition from vinyl. The turntable rested on an ugly sepia sideboard by the window. The curtains hadn’t been opened for months. The drawer sideboard had chunks taken from it — probably from when the grandchildren had been over, but he didn’t remember them much and couldn’t put it down to that.

The couch was where he sat.

Really, there was no need for any of the other furniture but he hadn’t considered getting rid of it.

A few months back he’d found himself looking through photo albums. Then, about three weeks ago, he decided to stop looking at the pictures. There was one which had belonged to his mother, and in it he posed next to his sister. They had been swimming in a lake somewhere upstate and he was only wearing shorts and his hair was wet, as was hers.

He’d studied the picture intently: there was a cut on his left kneecap but he couldn’t remember what had caused it. His face was untouched by time and his body was firm. From what he could remember he was twelve that summer, or thereabouts.

The lake had small fish in it and they weren’t shy. He had tried to catch them with his hands but they were always too fast; too slippery. They always swam in groups. He thought that their swimming together would make it easier, but it didn’t. He never caught one.

His sister would’ve been fourteen if he put himself at twelve, and she was smiling. The two of them were.

That was the last picture he’d looked at.

He wanted a drink.

He slid his feet into his slippers and stood up, then ambled into the kitchen. Beside the refrigerator were four crates of beer stacked atop one another; two of them empty. There were no cold ones in the fridge. He’d forgotten to fill it, so he took one from the stack and cracked it, taking a sip, took three more and put them into the freezer, before taking another three and placing them in the refrigerator door. He walked back into the living room with his beer in hand and sank into the couch, catching a glance of the photo album as he sat down.

He grunted, took another sip.

In the past he had enjoyed silence but now he would rarely leave the TV off. It would be low so you’d barely notice, but there was something. He picked up the remote and switched channels, then got back to his beer, again catching a glimpse of the photo album in the corner of his eye.

When he took his second from the freezer he sat at the kitchen table and lit a cigarette. He looked around and the glow from the TV was prominent in the living room. He didn’t want to think about the photographs. The problem was that they made him think, and he was tired of that.

He tried to take his mind off of it so he sifted through the build-up of mail on the table. There was more in the hallway that he had failed to pick up. He simply hadn’t bothered. Most of them were old bills and those promotional ones that annoyed him. The telephone had been cut off almost seven months ago. He didn’t use it so he didn’t care. He wouldn’t throw the mail out, though; he’d just leave the envelopes on the kitchen table or on the floor in their pile.

Something to do, eventually.

After he finished his cigarette he got back to the couch with his beer, flicked the station again. He wasn’t watching anything in particular.

There was a knock on the door.

He waited a moment until another knock arrived. He hadn’t removed his slippers so it saved him from sliding them back on, and he stood up, pulled the curtain slightly and peeked out at the overgrown lawn. He couldn’t see who was knocking until they took a step back and looked up at the upstairs windows. Then they looked in his direction and he quickly removed himself from view, but it was too late — the kid had already seen him.

A knock on the window followed.

“Hey mister, I know you’re there. I saw you looking out,” the kid said as he shaped his hands in front of his forehead and around his eyes and stared in the window.

He was standing by the curtain, separated from the kid by an inch of glass.

“Come on, mister. Open up!”

“What do you want?” He wanted to sound grumpy so the kid would go away. He didn’t need to put much effort into it.

“My ball, mister,” the kid said. “It’s in your backyard. Marshall has a really bad throw.”

“Who?”

“My friend, Marshall. He has a really bad throw.”

“Well, tell him to practice.”

There was no response. He stood at the curtain, using his finger to move it a little and stared furtively at the kid who was looking around outside.

“Well?”

“What, mister?”

“Well, what do you want me to do?”

“Get it, duh!”

He sighed, and as he walked to the door he kicked one of the photo albums out of his way.

He hesitated, turned the latch and opened the front door.

The kid was probably twelve or thirteen. His hair was like a bird’s nest and his face was covered with freckles.

“Well, what kind of ball is it?” he asked from a crack in the door. He didn’t want to let too much light in.

“A football,” the kid said.

He looked to the kitchen towards the backyard.

“The grass is a mile high out there, I’d croak before I found it.” The kid didn’t respond. “It would take me too long to fish it out.

“I can get it, mister. I’ll be quick. I saw which direction it went in.”

“Why would I let some kid into my house?”

“I just want to get my ball, mister. I’m not going to rob you.”

He took a moment before he opened the door fully, squinting at the light.

“Hurry up.”

The kid brushed past him and on into the kitchen. He tried to follow him as quickly as he could and left the front door open in case people were watching and started talking like people tend to.

When he got into the kitchen the kid was waiting by the back door.

“It’s locked,” the kid informed him.

“I know it’s locked,” he grumbled.

He felt around on top of the refrigerator where his wife had always kept the key.

“You’ve got a lot of mail, mister,” said the kid as he stared at the stack of envelopes on the table.

He didn’t respond as he took the key and opened the back door.

“Be quick, now,” he ordered.

The kid was, and came back with the football in a matter of seconds.

For some reason, he felt a little embarrassed by the overgrown backyard. He hadn’t felt embarrassed in a long time. He closed the door after the kid had re-entered the kitchen, and locked it, placing the key back on top of the refrigerator.

“Is your wife coming home?”

“Why do you wanna know?”

The kid shrugged his shoulders as he gripped the ball with both hands and looked around the kitchen without much regard for the old man’s privacy.

“That’s a lot of beer,” the kid said.

He didn’t respond, instead he opened the freezer and took his third can. It sprayed a little and he tried to catch the trickling alcohol with his mouth before it made a mess. He was usually to be good at this maneuver, but this time the beer spilled onto the floor.

The kid just looked on.

“Well get me that towel over there, will you?” he barked as he motioned with his spare hand.

The kid handed him the already damp towel. He shook his head as he looked at the kid and placed the can on the kitchen table before slowly kneeling down to clean the spillage.

“I’ve never seen your wife, mister.”

“I’m sure you haven’t seen Mars either.”

He held out the towel and the kid looked at him.

“Well, take it!”

The kid did.

“Help me up will you?”

He used the kid’s shoulder to pick himself up. He considered how difficult the simplest things were now. He looked at the football resting in the kid’s hands and he momentarily recalled his childhood.

Feeling a little out of breath, he picked up the beer and took a sip, then proceeded to walk the kid to the door. In the hallway the kid noticed the photo album by the living-room door. The earlier kick had opened it.

He looked at the kid, who was staring at the photographs, and he waited for him to say something, but the words didn’t arrive. Then the kid looked up at him, and he was looking at the youngster for longer than he had looked at anyone in what seemed like years.

He waited.

The kid squeezed the ball with both hands.

“Well thanks, mister,” he said as he left.

He closed the door and went back into the living room, stepping over the photo album. He stood by the curtain and looked at the grass and tried to think of the last time he had mowed the lawn. There was no one outside, and he couldn’t hear the kid or his friend. He sat back in the chair and drank from the can of beer. He looked across at the photo album and he thought about the picture of himself with his sister at the lake. He looked away, changed the station on the TV and hired the volume.

Born Quitter

Well, I decided I’d quit after I’d heard about Stuart Frost’s father. I’d just turned 21, and Stuart’s father thought he had a year or two left in him. But it wasn’t to be: he died after a short battle with lung cancer a few days after my 21st birthday, aged 51. I decided there and then, on the spot, that I would never smoke a cigarette again.

Then I had a beer in Stuart’s father’s memory and said a few smokes with a beer was all right.

 

I was determined. I’d think about Stuart’s father, and I’d think about the toxins and all the horrible things smoking does to the body. I’d read up on it, you see. That book by that guy. It was all in my head. I got myself some of the gum that’s supposed to help with the cravings. This was a year after Stuart’s dad’s death, so, needless to say, I hadn’t done incredibly well in my early endeavours to quit following his passing. But, like I said, I was determined. For two weeks I chewed the gum and I only wanted a cigarette around four times a day, which wasn’t too bad.

At the time I was dating Lorraine O’Neal. Now, there was a babe. Jesus, she was wild. We’d been together a few months after I’d met her at a fair, and there was this chemistry between us right away; only a few hours after meeting we were tearing each other’s clothes off and going at it like rabbits at her friend Wendy’s apartment.

Jesus, she was wild.

And things were going well with us, I thought. I thought that that kind of physical chemistry was something unique. Hell, it was to me. But to Lorraine, well, I soon learned that she experienced it with a lot of guys, and on the night I found her in Wendy’s apartment with Ritchie Landis I must’ve smoked about two packs. I deserved them, of course. In the event of heartbreak I was entitled to allow myself some form of comfort. I never saw Lorraine again.

Jesus, she was wild.

 

So a few years passed and I hadn’t quite managed to quit. But I’m a pretty determined individual, and I found myself in the midst of a new attempt at kicking the habit. They say the years go by and, boy, do they go by. I was 28 and it felt like only yesterday that I was hanging out with Stuart Frost and smoking cigarettes on the hood of his car. Now it was seven years to the day since his old man had bit the dust and I was back in town for a special service being held for Mr. Frost and poor Stuart’s poor grandma who’d died a few days earlier.

I was feeling good at the time. I felt healthy, and fit. I looked good, too. I hadn’t smoked in three weeks. When I saw Stuart I shook his hand and we embraced.

‘Cigarette?’ he asked, holding out a pack.

‘Sure,’ I said.

 

I met Sarah Jane when I was 31 (10 years after the death of Mr. Frost). SJ was so damn beautiful. God, she blew my mind the moment I laid eyes on her. She took a bit of work, mind you. She wasn’t as keen on me as I was on her. But I got there in the end. I was cigarette-free, too. I’d been cigarette-free for seven months (apart from one before bed and a maximum of five with beers, allowing myself a maximum of three drinking nights per week). Well, SJ and me eventually got together after I’d hounded the life out of her. I’d told her. I’d said, ‘I’m going to marry you. As God is my witness I will marry you.’ And she’d rolled her eyes at me and said she wasn’t interested in getting married until she was at least 35, but two years after we met we were hitched and on a honeymoon in Italy, where I allowed myself full licence to smoke as often as I liked—you only get one honeymoon, after all.

Well, sometimes.

We had our first child, James, a year later. The kid—for the first two years of his life—was a  goddamn nightmare. Every time that little monster screamed his head off I’d have the urge to smoke a full pack there and then, right in front of the exasperating little bastard. Then I’d calm down and regret thinking like that and I’d hug him and kiss his forehead and tell him ‘daddy loves you’ and then I’d feel bad for a day or two for thinking that way. Of course those days would be filled with regular smoking intervals at the office as a way to help assuage the guilt.

 

You know, some things stick with you, and some things fade from your memory like fog on a spring morning. One thing that never seemed to leave me was poor Stuart Frost’s father. No matter how many years passed by, I’d always think of Stuart’s old man. How he’d once been so healthy, only to croak after less than a few months of being sick. If anything was gonna make me quit smoking, well, that poor man’s end was going to do it. He’d been dead twenty years when I crumpled up my last pack of cigarettes and tossed them in the trash next to the back porch. I kept one from the box to celebrate my intentions, of course: one last smoke.

Me and SJ? Well, we were great, still. Never did a day pass by without us laughing. Not one day. No matter how stressed we got, we’d always laugh, be it first thing in the morning or right before bed. We’d laugh. In between those laughs we’d argue, of course. What couple doesn’t argue? And SJ would know when she’d see a cloud of smoke on the front porch that she’d pushed me too far. She’d have to take some responsibility when she’d driven me to drive to the store to buy a fresh pack. And as for when her parents visited. Jesus, you may as well have sparked up ten at a time and stuck them in my mouth. It’s typical, isn’t it, that the mother-in-law is a nightmare? How clichéd. But, God help me, a vegetarian would work in a slaughterhouse if it would help shut that woman up. She never stops talking.

 

When my parents died within a year of each other it was a difficult period, and I told myself I’d quit once I’d allowed myself time to grieve.

 

When I was 49, coming up fast and furiously to the ‘Big Five-O,’ I decided I’d quit smoking. I really meant it this time. I was only a couple of years away from being the age Stuart Frost’s father was when he died all those years ago, and so I said ‘no more mucking about, for real this time.’

I arrived at my 50th birthday a non-smoker. We toasted the big night with whiskey and cigars and I thought, Okay, this is nice. My youngest, Sophie, had brought her boyfriend (who, if we’re being honest, was a little bit of a wiener, and I knew she could do much better – I’d even told James to do something about it but he told me he’d ‘do it later’). When I noticed The Wiener getting a little touchy-feely with Sophie, I grabbed him by the shirt collar and slapped him upside the head, and warned him to keep his hands off of my daughter and to get out of my party. I knew the little bastard smoked so before he left I told him to give me his pack and I shared a cigarette with him before I told him to take a hike.

 

I’d just turned 63. My doctor told me it’d be a good idea to quit smoking. I told him that I’m a determined man—always have been. He told me he’d been a smoker, but he’d quit seven years earlier and hadn’t smoked since.

I asked him, ‘What’s the trick?’

He said, ‘I got divorced (hahaharr)!’

Sophie’s wedding was happening a few weeks after my appointment with the doc. She was marrying The Wiener. It was a long time coming, but he was all right. Her mother wouldn’t stop encouraging James to pop the question to his girlfriend but that was about as likely as peace in the Middle East, I’d told her.

Sophie took me aside one day. She said, ‘Daddy, I want you to do something for me. For my wedding gift, I want you to promise me that you’ll quit smoking. It’s something I’ve never liked, and the thoughts of you getting sick and leaving mom and James and me. . .’ Here she got a little emotional. ‘That’s all I want. And I want you to know I’ll help you every step of the way.’ And she kissed me on the forehead like I’d kissed her and her brother when they were kids.

I said, ‘Okay, sweetie. Right after the wedding.’

 

After Sophie had her first kid I made a promise to myself. I reminded myself that I was a determined man—had been all my life. I’d worked hard, raised my kids, provided for my family. The promise I made to myself was that I would quit smoking. It was having the first grandkid, you see. Well, it tickles the heart; made me as emotional as my wife watching Titanic. So I’ve decided that I’m going to kick the habit once and for all. And I bumped into Stuart Frost, too. Yeah, a few weeks back. Good ol’ Stuart Frost. Looks well, he does. His old man, huh, I remember his old man well. Gave me my first pack of cigarettes, he did.