sonder

short story

 

It was a bad week for Terrance. 

On Sunday, he had planned to picnic with his girlfriend in Dolores Park. A technical rapport had replaced their romance in recent weeks, but he wasn’t doing it for her. His King Charles Spaniel, Jerry, had developed a lethargy over the last year. Only if he heard ‘food’ or ‘w-a-l-k’ would he whip his unbendable limbs around in attempt to right himself. A day in the park would do him good, Terrance thought. But when he called, Jerry remained. It was his last day on earth.

In the days that followed, Terrance arranged to have Jerry cremated. He agonized over the exact shape and grain of the wooden box that would hold his dog’s remains, only to get home and realize that he didn’t really have a good place for it. After a dozen attempts elsewhere, he decided to put the box in the pantry. Eating was his favorite, Terrance reasoned. Still, lying in bed in the sleepless hours before dawn, he would wonder if Jerry would have approved.

Yesterday, his girlfriend bought him tacos at Poquito, his favorite dinner. He felt bad for assuming there was an ulterior motive. She never paid for anything. But he felt marginally better when she broke up with him. At least he was right about that.

Terrance couldn’t believe she’d picked this week. “It’s been like three days,” she snipped. “I was going to do it at the park.” Terrance considered how irrevocably doomed his Sunday had been. He never had a chance.

And now on a Friday morning, by his count just sixty-one hours until his fortieth birthday, his latent loneliness settles in. He’d spent some of the morning wondering if his ex of fourteen hours ever cheated on him. Probably, he concluded. He wondered why she always insisted that Jerry was gay. It didn’t bother him if he was. But she never even walked him, he thought. Who would just assume like that?

Ding! Order’s up. Terrance sits in a mostly empty diner, Darlene’s. It is to breakfast what Poquito is to dinner. After this, the week of all weeks, he needs his favorite meal on earth. 

And here it comes.

Steam wafts into the air as a perky twenty-something waitress swings the hot plate into view. She sets it down so the steam hits his face. The Chef’s Omelette contains half of the pick-it-yourself veggies and meats. It comes with bacon, cheese grits, and if you want it, some french toast. He did.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asks.

Terrance snaps to, shakes his head. The waitress bounces away, but remains in his mind like a pebble in his sock. He feels old, and for no good reason blames this waitress. All her best years still ahead. And what’s with this joy dripping off her? She probably thinks he’s a schlub. He bets she’s already forgotten about him, and after mashing all this joy into his miserable face. Forget it, he thinks. That’s your ex talking. And anyway, the best breakfast in San Francisco wants his company.

Terrance picks up the salt shaker and flicks it over his plate. The top was unscrewed.

It takes a moment, when tragedy strikes, for time to speed back up to normal. But when it does, the sour taste of a plate full of salt gnaws at his nostrils. Terrance wants to cry.

The waitress has already returned. He didn’t realize he made an audible squeal.

“Let me see if we can salvage that for you.”

He lets her take it and remains quiet. Empty salt shaker in hand, he thinks about squeezing it hard enough to break. He wonders if he’s strong enough to do that. Would the glass cut his skin? Would he be so lucky to just die right there in his favorite diner?

Two hours earlier, a group of teenagers sat at that very table. They paid their bill, after a ten minute conference on how to split three pancakes and an egg white scramble. 

“I only got water though,” said Eric. 

“Whatever,” retorted Steve.

Only then did Eric notice Francis’ sardonic smile, his hands twisting the cap off a salt shaker with controlled ease. 

“Dude, don’t,” says Eric. 

Francis maintains, “But I must.”

The group chortles. Francis gently rests the cap on top of the shaker, and slides it back to the pepper. 

“Seriously?” Eric asks rhetorically.

“Just let me do it,” Francis says. 

Steve jumps in, “Eric thinks it’s sugar. Don’t waste it!”

Laughter descends again. Eric is heavier than his friends. He’s too self-conscious to think of something clever. He could have easily taken the shaker and tightened the cap. Instead, he looks toward the window.

Standing on the other side is a homeless man. He looks unclean, his clothes slept in, his nails caked. But it's his expression that hooks Eric. A sullen, forlorn gaze. His puffy, sunken sockets cradle eyes that see deep into the cracks of life itself. His almost hairless head holds a mind that never forgets what he sees. And this entire package is aimed right at them.

“Ew,” offers Steve. They all notice him now. Eric thinks about the meal to be ruined, some time in the near future. It would be their fault, a plate of food gone to waste, when here stands a man that would surely appreciate it. Eric wishes he lived in a world where he could give this man all the food he’s trying not to eat. His weight loss could be this man’s gain. But who is he to this homeless man? He knows before he finishes the thought that he would never actually meet him.

The man’s name is Marc, and he’s not homeless, just depressed. There was a time in his life when he thought having to correct people in the spelling of his name would be the figurative tag on his shirt. But he’s lost his shirt altogether now.

The last year has been one long court battle, the modern accompaniment to love’s decay. He knows it’s his fault. He cheated on his wife with their housekeeper. There’s no excusing it. He knew even at the time, for months at a time, it would devastate her if she knew. That fact was of course part of the act itself. To hurt her. 

It was his drinking however that ultimately drove the courts to favor his now ex-wife. What the housekeeper couldn’t suppress in him came out in loud, violent rages. He once broke a wine glass by squeezing it in his hand, drawing blood which remains to this day as a soft, pink blush in the carpet. At the time, it drove his ex to call her neighbor, who in turn called the police. The whole world would know of their troubles, of his true nature. Yet there was no opinion strong enough to withstand an evening of three-fingered bourbons.

But Marc hadn’t considered the true cost. His daughter, Layla, starts ninth grade this year somewhere in New Jersey. She must be nervous, he wonders late at night. Judge such-and-such deemed him unworthy to act as his child’s father, and so Layla moved away with her now sole parent.

Marc looks through the glass at this group of teens, murmuring something about him. Up to no good no doubt. He imagines Layla with a group of her friends, about the same age. I hope she’s not getting into trouble.

He’s on his wary way to his first AA meeting. He can’t imagine that anyone else in the world could feel the way he does right now, but he hopes to find out. Regret, he finds, isn’t a wet blanket or a burden. It’s a spotlight. It’s the dark corner in which he used to tuck all his shortcomings now shone in full view to the world. That light used to wait at the door of the bar, but now it never leaves. And when everything is illuminated, darkness has an appeal.

He hopes one day his daughter will have reason to be proud of him. It’s the only reason he’s going. That and the chance that some day he can address in person his daily thought, I hope she’s happy.

Layla lives in Princeton, where her mom Tracy has family. She considers calling her Tracy, just to piss her off. “Call me that again and it’s a week with no phone,” Tracy has threatened. Layla knows what her father did. His drunken, violent lapses used to frighten her to tears. But Tracy moved her to the other side of the universe. In Layla’s eyes, he’s a car that needs a mechanic, and her mom just tossed him into the river.

Nevertheless, she likes her new town. Princeton has seasons, which is a new fascination. The colonial architecture is like nothing in San Francisco. Now that it’s fall she loves to wander the Delaware & Raritan Canal, trying not to slip on the thick layer of mashed multi-color leaves. Even the pavement is a painting.

Layla is an okay student in all her required classes, but it’s her after school pottery class that really excites her. At first, she was frustrated she could never center the clay on the wheel. Parts of her father would surface sometimes as she’d clench her fingers through the clay and throw it to the floor. “Tiny nudges,” her teacher, Mrs. Namura, would say. “Don’t be rash. Only little movements.” Sure enough, with practice, she managed to center her clay. Her pieces grew taller and taller. Her buds became bouquets.

Today, she’s twenty minutes early. Her biggest piece yet is being pulled from the kiln. Mrs. Namura climbs her white step ladder, typically splotched with glazes. She looks inside. “Uh oh,” she says. Layla holds her breath, unable to decipher Mrs. Namura’s unflappable positivity.

She pulls out the flower pot. It’s cracked in several places around the circumference, some pieces broken off completely. “Air bubble,” Mrs. Namura projects.

Layla yet again feels her father’s rage surface, but aimed inward. “Sorry I wasted your clay,” she murmurs meekly. Her teacher meanwhile lines the pieces up on the work table. “Perfect,” she says. “We’ll do Kintsugi.”

“What’s Kensugy?”

“Copper dust and resin. Mix it together. Glue the pieces back. We don’t hide the cracks, we show that they’re supposed to be there.”

“But they’re not supposed to be there. Can’t we just fix it?”

“We are fixing it.”

Over the next hour, Mrs. Namura guides Layla as they paint the seams of her broken pot with lacquer. The result is something she never could have imagined. A stream of copper rivers surround her perfectly symmetrical planter. “Brilliant,” Mrs. Namura says.

“It feels like cheating.”

“Why?”

“I didn’t design it. It’s just randomly broken.”

“Life is sometimes random, that doesn’t make it broken. This clay used to be soil, it used to be trillions of little pieces that never knew each other. And now look at them, put together one way or another. Not broken. Beautiful."

Born in Kyoto, June Namura never met her father, a fact she rarely shares. Layla is the only student to know this about her. June said it one late afternoon in an effort to comfort her when she broke down about her own father.

In July of 1945, June’s father, Toshihiro, received word that his mother had fallen ill. She lived a train ride away in Hiroshima. Toshi didn’t feel good about leaving his wife and kids. They had just endured air raids for the last six months with rumors of more on the way. And it was near impossible for civilians to secure transport since the military had taken over most train services. But Toshi was quick to make friends, including some military personnel. He was a craftsman and ceramicist who traded his most priceless pieces for a spot in the cargo hold of a train to Hiroshima.

Toshi stares out the crack of the giant steel door on an early August day. Against the sprawling countryside, some bombed out cars have been grouped together in a ditch. He thinks about his mother, about the uncertainty of his life. At any moment, untold hellfire could strike him where he stands, even on a moving train. And yet, with his unflappable positivity, Toshi conjures a reason to be thankful. He gets to be with his mother. For now, I should feel lucky, Toshi thinks. Maybe everything will be fine.

Joe Moyner, a physicist on Tinian Island, wipes his brow on break from assembling the bomb that would kill Toshi three days later. He writes a letter to his sweetheart, Abby, back in Savannah, Georgia, despite the fact that he can’t send it.

Joe writes, I wake up every morning with you in my mind. It’s the same story when I sleep. It’s all I can do to keep from thinking about how scared I am right now. After this, it’s a whole different world. And whatever world that is, I can’t wait to share it with you for the rest of my life.

The Abby Joe knew was a sorority bound blue ribbon pie baker. Wartime Abby welds ships. And what she cannot send in a letter to Joe is that she likes it. It’s sure meaningful work, and she likes using her hands for more than stirring. Most of all, she likes her co-worker Jolene. A lot.

The war would end and years would pass. Joe never fully got the message but would go on to have four children with a different woman. Abby and Jolene kept their love concentrated behind locked doors and in disposable notes. It wasn’t until the 60’s that they felt a rising wave pushing them west. They sacrificed families, friends. They left a lot of tears in Georgia. But San Francisco, they knew, would be their salvation.

It was a disquieting bliss. Abby got a job at the shipyard doing what she loved. She and Jolene together weathered every upheaval, every bout of spontaneous turmoil. In the 90’s, they would adopt a little girl named Eleanor. They withstood the backlash from that too and made a home out of love. It’s too good to be true, Abby would think at the ceiling, stroking Jolene’s greying head on her stomach.

They’re older now, as happens. Abby thinks about those simple nights before, when they’d play Patti Smith with the windows open as they taught Eleanor how to dance. Jolene strokes her head tonight as she rests it on her wife’s stomach. They’re at home, but it doesn’t feel like it. The tank of a medical bed overwhelms the bedroom now. Even with the hospice nurse gone, the clinical decorum remains. 

Cancer. It was in Jolene’s lymph nodes, but unchallenged spread to her bones. Eleanor just got in a few hours ago from Chicago where she works in community outreach. She keeps a tight grip on Jolene’s other hand. It’s been minutes since anyone cared to speak.

“When you bitches are done moaning,” Jolene suddenly spouts, “could one of you run out and get me some peaches?”

Abby laughs through her tears. “Please don’t call our daughter a bitch.”

“It’s a term of endearment,” Jolene smirks. “Right? Isn’t that what all you bitches say now?”

“I’ll go if you stop saying that,” says Eleanor.

“It’s past ten,” Abby reminds. “You need peaches?”

Jolene looks wryly at her wife. “On the hierarchy of needs, maybe not. But I’d really like one.”

Abby slides her fingers into Jolene’s hair, “I’ll see if the farm’s open.”

She grabs her coat and shuts the door quietly for some reason.

It’s still raining. Abby should’ve taken the car, but tonight she wants to be distracted. The bay windows turn to sky scrapers and she notices herself in the financial district two miles away. Everything’s closed. She knew it would be.

But there’s a light on. Through the thick downpour flicking her hood she spots a single office in a building of hundreds. Abby always thought that lights on in distant buildings at night were part of some automatic office security thing she never really understood. But this light is the only light.

Her eyes are soaked and not what they used to be, but it looks like someone is standing in the window, looking back at her. He’s standing like a guy, she thinks. I wonder if he can see me.

Abby’s mind unglued, she pauses to consider this man in the window. He works two miles from where she lives. She bets they’ve walked right by each other at least once in their lives. Abby wonders if he has anyone in his life. Is he alone? That’s why he’s in the office so late. There’s no one to go home to.

Or maybe, he’s having an affair. He totally is, Abby realizes. It almost looks like another person in there with him, or a shadow. How did he get to this point?

He’s probably fifty, and as the kids got older and his wife became a mom and his one day off was increasingly encroached upon he began to resent the whole situation. It’s possible.

And yet, there he is, looking right at her. He’s not doing anything but thinking the same thing she is, that they will go their whole lives never knowing they shared this moment. And she’ll wonder without answer if this man has had a life as deep and rich as hers, if his dreams and nightmares all came true too. Did he date the prom queen? Or break a bone? Is he allergic to rice? Does he envy his friends? Has he traveled to New Zealand? Or bungee jumped? Or saved someone from drowning? Does he have cancer? Will he? Thousands of days all different from the next, stacked on top of each other and tabulated into a person whose name she will never know, but knows there are thousands who will. 

There must be a name for that, Abby thinks. She’ll never know.

The man she’s looking at is in fact a lamp. From the steep angle, the shade looks like a head. The shadow is real though. It belongs to the cleaning lady. She’s vacuuming.

But four offices down, Bernard sits in the dark. He’s forty-six. He brought a bottle of Buffalo Trace into the office today, which is unusual for him. He didn’t tell anyone. He’s been drinking it alone since the office closed.

There’s a gun in the desk, Bernard marvels to himself. He looks out at his eighteenth story view, fogged and wetted from the weather. As soon as the cleaning lady four offices over leaves, he’s going to do it. Bernard figures all of his co-workers will be the ones to find him, not some overnight staff. If he was going to do it, it was going to be done right.

So he waits, and drinks, and searches the empty night for anything. 

He spots a single person, walking down the street without an umbrella. She walks like a girl, he thinks. Suddenly, she stops. 

Bernard sets his drink down and wheels closer to the window. He presses his face against the ice cold glass, squinting to see through the water pouring past.

I’m drunk, he realizes. The cold feels good, and to lean on something. That lady isn’t moving. In fact, she seems to be looking right at him.

Bernard squints harder. There’s no way, he assures himself. 

And yet, there she is, looking right at him. He can’t tell a thing about her, except that she’s drenched.

Bernard has a daughter, Clara. She just came to his mind. They had a fight recently. It was something about who pays what bill but it doesn’t even matter now. She’s there.

That could be her. That could literally be her, he thinks. He imagines her in the rain, freezing without him. He’d never have an answer to all his questions about who she’ll be and what she’ll do. There’s so much he never got a chance to tell her either. Soon not just his memory, but the potential memories of others would be gone.

Bernard would wake up six hours later, his neck in pain as he peels off from the window. The rain has stopped and the view cleared. Bernard always held the opinion that every sunrise you see is the best because you’re seeing it. That no one has ever voted down a sunrise. But this one on his drive home from the office feels pretty good. For just a second, he wonders what happened to that lady.

A few hours later, Bernard calls Clara just as she leaves for work. It’s a conversation that only means anything if you know them, which you don’t really. But it means the world to Clara. All their fighting took so much energy, and this one phone call replenished it all. They still have a road to walk, but at least now they’re walking the same direction.

Later that morning at her job waiting at Darlene’s, she couldn’t stop thinking about that phone call. Normally she slogs through the job that helps pay for school. Today, she feels light, the world passing like air around her.

The head chef chides her from time to time, and today is no different. I wonder who hurt him, she thinks to herself. One of the patrons poured salt all over his breakfast, but the chef still wants to charge him. He remakes the meal, and dings the bell, reminding her to charge him twice.

As she waves the steaming plate over to the pudgy, slouched man, she just can’t bring herself to tell him. Clearly it’s not been his week. He looks like he could cry.

Clara sets the plate down.

“Here you go. It’s on the house, don’t worry.”

Terrence looks up at her. Her smile, it was so blindingly annoying before.

“Thank you,” he answers sincerely.

“Of course,” she responds.

He’ll never know that ‘on the house’ wasn’t an expression, that she would actually pay for his meal. Clara knows that to tell him would make him feel worse. Some things are better left unknown, she thinks to herself.

Terrance once again lets the steam waft into his face. This one smells better than the first. Opting to forgo the salt, he skewers a hunk of french toast, sponges up a swirl of syrup and butter, and engulfs it with his mouth. It’s poetry.

Clara hums by to warm up his coffee. As he readies another bite, his week fades into the distance, and there is only what’s next.

Maybe everything will be fine.

 

© C G 2018