Archive for April, 2010

2010/04/20

A Measure of Success

by mdjb

Peck wakes from a dream of flying to the sound of someone knocking on his door and finds he has slept all night on his couch. Never made it to the bed. He stumbles past the litter, and rubbing his eyes, he asks, “Who is it?”
“Open up, I’ve got something for you,” says a female voice he recognizes.
He hasn’t seen Sheila in almost a year.
He lets her in and accepts her assessment with equanimity. “This place is a pigsty. I would ask how you’ve been doing,” she says, “but I can see you’ve been doing nothing. Sleeping a lot again?”
“Umm,” Peck says.
Sheila is carrying something the size of a newborn baby wrapped in brown paper, which she places on the only chair without clothes draped over it. She says things to Peck that he feels are supposed to fill him in on what she has been up to during the time they’ve been separated, but he is distracted by an idea he’s been tossing around in his head.
She goes into the kitchen and he can hear the sound of water running. Is she getting a drink? Is she washing his dishes?
“I’m sorry,” he says, but he doesn’t know exactly for what he’s apologizing. He sits on top of shirts and pants in a chair facing the one with the package on it, and asks, “What is it?”
“In a minute,” Sheila says. But he nods off again. He’s so damned tired all the time now.

Another knock on the door disturbs him, just when he’s on the point of finding the key to his Concept. Almost had it. Damn!
This time it’s Faith and she’s come with her secretary and the woman from the grant committee.
“Sweetie,” Faith says after bussing him on the cheek, “We’ve got good news for you.”
He lets the women in and apologizes for the appearance of his apartment.
“What’s wrong with it?” Faith asks. “The place looks fine.” And when Peck looks around, he can see that it does. Everything is in its place. There are no clothes lying around. There are no Chinese food containers dripping soy sauce or oozing lo mein on the tables. “Go freshen up a bit,” Faith says. “Put some water on your face. Mrs. Donner has some things to speak to you about.”
Peck knows what the woman is going to tell him. It’s what he’s been waiting for. He is suddenly wide awake and feeling happier than he has for a long time. He kisses Faith and wraps his arms around her. It’s all her doing. He doesn’t know where he would be without her taking care of his interests.
He notices that behind her, Faith’s secretary Sally is blushing and when they disengage he sees Mrs. Donner blushing also.
“Oh, you two,” she says, “So in love. It’s wonderful to see.”
Talk of love rattles Peck a bit. He never likes to think of the possibility. “I’ve kissed Faith in gratitude many times,” he says. “I’ve kissed Sally once or twice. I’ve kissed the woman in the kitchen many times. I don’t know about love.”
“The woman in the kitchen?” Faith asks, looking a little crestfallen. “Have you got company, Peck?”
“Just an old friend,” he says. “Let me introduce you.”
He walks around the dividing wall and looks in the kitchen, but just as he is about to utter Sheila’s name, he sees she is not there. Everything is spotless. There are no dirty dishes in the sink nor clean ones on the drain-board. Everything is, is… The only word he can think of is justified. He returns to look in the chair but Sheila’s package is not there. Did he dream her visit? The apartment doesn’t look the way he remembers it.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I was up so late last night. I guess I fell asleep in a chair and I just woke up when you all arrived. Listen, let me go wash my face and then I’ll put on some coffee and we can talk.”
“I’ll make coffee,” Sally says.
To Peck, Faith says, “Yes, Sweetie, that’s a good idea. Go freshen up. We need to talk.” To Mrs. Donner she says softly, “I’m sorry. He’s been working so hard on his current project. You understand…” and she shrugs her shoulders. Peck doesn’t know just what a diplomat Faith can be. He doesn’t always see the smile with which she wins people’s affection.
Mrs. Donner returns the smile. She does understand. She has dealt with people like Peck several times. She almost always makes good choices and does well during review time. “Oh, you’ve got a treasure there,” she says, “I know the two of you are going to be very happy together. I can see you’re so…so simpatico.”
* * *
Twenty years later, Peck is walking beside the lake on their estate, which is within walking distance of the university where he teaches part-time. He’s enjoying the soft breeze and doesn’t feel cold thanks to the scarf Faith insisted he wrap around his neck. He’s wearing the sweater she likes to see him in also.
On the other side of the lake are the young ones. They used to call them hippies and after that they were Generation X but the alphabet has now been used up. He knows they’re sycophants, but he enjoys having them around and Faith doesn’t seem to mind.
The sleeping bags are spread on the ground though it is almost noon. He quickly calculates the matrix in which they have ordered their positions and sees the outbuilding, the tool shed, as a table header. Late risers they are, and he understands that. Some of his own best work was formulated during those late dreaming hours. He knows there are four or five very bright intellects among the group.
They are loyal and committed. At their own expense, they travel to his conferences and stand in the back and supply the confidence he needs to expound his latest theories. Sometimes, when he draws a blank, he sees the smiling faces and is able to ad lib. A couple of times this has enabled him to come up with something new on the spot. Something with legs that walked on its own.
Keira, the blond with bright eyes, appears to be their leader. It was she who pressed him to let the group camp out on his property, seeing as he had so much, and he wasn’t taken back by her audacity. He readily agreed. People had always helped him when he needed it and he felt the need to give something back. To help young minds develop a better future.
Keira is there on the other side now and she waves to him.
Peck walks around the narrow end of the lake and goes up to her. “Good morning,” he says.
“Well, it’s almost noon,” she says, “But the rest will be getting up in a few minutes. Are you going to give us a class today?”
“I thought we might have a discussion in the library this afternoon, yes,” he says.
A couple crawl out of a sleeping bag and the young man says, “Good morning, sir.” The young woman smiles in a shy fashion and then averts her eyes, and in that aversion Peck realizes the power he has over the group. He can do or say anything and they will take it for truth. The couple walk over to the water and splash their faces.
“Keira, I’ve always wondered, why me, why you?” Peck says, waving his arm in the direction of the young people, more of whom are rising.
“Why you? I think the answer to that is obvious,” she says. “You have a great mathematical mind and we all want to absorb from you.”
He picks up a soiled pair of jeans. The knee-parts are brown with earth. “And you? I mean, why are you their leader?”
“Predestined, I guess,” she says, “My mother was a great fan of yours. When I was little and you began to get notoriety, you were all she talked about. She collected magazine articles and newspaper clippings. She said she met you before you were famous, but that she always knew you would be.”
Peck is looking at the jeans and getting an idea, but he is listening.
“Does she know you’re here now?” he asks.
“Well, she died five years ago when I was fifteen. Heart attack. I’ve lived with relatives until I went to college. Somehow, I always knew I’d come here, though.”
“I see,” Peck says.
“Did she? Know you, I mean. Her name was Sheila Martin.”
Peck remembers a dream he had twenty years earlier; he sees a brown paper-wrapped package sitting on a chair. “Yes,” he says, “Yes, I believe we worked together when we were young.” Suddenly, he realizes he has made all the right choices. Even those that were made for him have turned out well.
Now the rest of the group is awake and folding sleeping bags. Some gather around Peck as if waiting for a revelatory announcement. He takes the soiled jeans and hangs them on a nail in the door of the outbuilding. Giving them a whack, he raises a small cloud of dust and a madness of yellow butterflies flutter out from within the shed. For several moments, the scene is a swirl of blue, red-brown, and yellow.
“You see that?” Peck says. “If you took a picture of that right now and printed just the name Levis below it, you could probably sell another million pairs of jeans.”
A young man with a small digital camera does snap a few shots.
Peck remembers Faith will probably have some lunch ready just about now and will be looking for him to come back to the house.
“See you all this afternoon,” he says, “In the library around three.”
Keira says, “Thank you,” and hesitates. Then, addressing him by name for the first time, says, “Peck, my mom was a great person, and she was right in telling me never to stop learning.”
He walks a little bit until he has passed the small woods. When he is sure the trees are between him and the young ones and he cannot be seen, he raises his arms to shoulder height, flaps them slowly at first, and then gaining force, lifts himself off the ground. He doesn’t want to fly so high that he can be observed, but low, he enjoys the breeze surrounding his form. Butterflies accompany him. A couple of them, lazier than the rest, ride on his flapping scarf.
He has just a little time for a flight before lunch.
Someday, when he’s perfected the method, he intends to show Faith how to fly so they can take off for the clouds together.

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2010/04/10

The Best Friend

by mdjb

Time was running out. I needed a copy of William Saroyan’s Chance Meetings for a report due on Wednesday morning, and here it was Monday afternoon. I couldn’t find much online about the book, and recalled little of the text from when I had read it years ago, remembering only that it struck me more as a literary news report rather than entertainment.
I walked the half-mile to Hemlock’s Bookshop, where one could always find the second tier of an author’s work, even though I knew I could probably find a copy at Border’s. I guess I was just putting off the inevitable.  I headed slowly toward the extensive non-fiction section, to the end, scanning for row “S-Z.”
I found the book too quickly, opened it and ran a finger across several lines, one of which struck me as pithy. I glanced around, and seeing no one, read it in a soft voice, “Human memory works its own wheel, and stops where it will, entirely without reference to the last stop, and with no connection with the next.”
“That is so true,” said a voice behind me. It was Susan. I knew it was she before turning. Susan with whom I had spent my freshman vacation in London; with whom I had planned to return, perhaps as soon as Christmas because of the glorious time we had shared walking all over the West End and then making love for hours afterward.
I looked at her in silence, and noticed there were already lines at the corners of her eyes.
“Don’t stop,” she said, and I remembered something she had quoted to me years before, and wondered if she did also.
“Do you remember,” I asked her, “when the silences between our conversations were comfortable spaces?”
“Of course, I do,” she said, “but we were best friends then.”
“And now?”
“If you go silent on me, I’ll run screaming from this spot.”
When I returned to the dorm room, the other guys had gone out somewhere. Alone, I decided to look in the scrapbook Susan had given me on our ten-month anniversary. The book into which I had continued placing odds and ends until what would have been our first year together, when I stopped regretting and put the damned thing into a box  kept in the back of a closet. I found the ticket she had left on the table beside a half-eaten container of peach yogurt and her used spoon, and read once again the phrase she had scratched across London, Heathrow with a crayon. “Anywhere but here.”

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