Feeling Less Alone (or some other trite) In Four Convoluted Acts
Fiction. Quirky characters, riff raff, loneliness, etc.
I – Hello and Sorry About Word Count
Hello. I really take no pleasure in this scenic route. I hate descriptive language. If it were up to me this story would be three paragraphs long, it would take you two minutes to read through twice and then we could all go home. Just an economical, non-partisan sequencing of events is all I want, and probably all you want as well.
Though a more direct route would save me personally a lot of hassle it would, undoubtedly, underwhelm you. The story would appear inexplicable, and feel weird, and seem arbitrary. As a result I wouldn’t be able to effectively communicate to you the point. The theme, the goal, the essence. You know, the didactic, universal moral that every good story has? – which I am still pretty stuck on to be honest, really I've got no idea, but will hopefully have sorted by Part IV. And so the scenic route it must be. Of course that is not to say that it won’t still be underwhelming. That is very possible. And now it will also be long.
I am no happier about this reality than you are.
II – Who We Are Dealing With
Maria, the woman in activewear, expected too much of her dog. She marched along the sweltering cobblestone beachside promenade, Whippet in tow, simmering, always simmering, on how lonely dog walks made her feel. The Kennel had promised companionship, evolutionary co-dependency, and inevitable, unconditional love. The Kennel had said nothing of shit on the carpet.
The woman looked like an off duty police officer for the simple reason that she was one. Her hair was diligent. She stood tall. She spoke proper. She looked at everything sharply, and this she had been born with. Even in babyhood Maria had had a sharp look, and had made goochy-gooing cradle fawners uneasy, and strangely guilty, and ultimately hostile. She pursued police work when it became apparent that this sharp look could not be turned off.
Then there was Maria’s crippling tendency to say, in almost every sentence, at the start or the end or sometimes in the middle, “Oh, don’t get me wrong.” She vomited it out hurriedly, habitually. "Don'tgetmewrong," she seemed to say. This tick was due in part to her police training, which encouraged being got right, but it was more a consequence of her failures in love. Spooked as men are by relentlessly sharp looks, it was from being got wrong that Maria had been driven to the Kennel for co-dependent love.
And now even in her internal monologue Maria would say, “Don’t get me wrong,” because there were ugly parts of her lonely brain that wanted to come through loud and clear. They wanted to assure Maria in a way that was gotten right that she was hideous and unlovable. Of course she was just born unlucky, with moderate asymmetry and facial disproportion, but anyone who decides emphatically that they are unlovable is probably, ultimately, inevitably, correct. It becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy for the facially disproportionate.
Maria walked her dog along the promenade completely unaware of all this subsurface contempt that brewed for Whippet and herself. All that she was consciously aware of was her gait. She was very proud of her long, even strides. They made her feel like she was swimming upright and gracefully through the air. They made her look like she was sort of late to a meeting but not late enough to run.
The boy in blue jeans was afraid. He was afraid generally, but now also specifically, because he had done in broad, scorching daylight what should only be done at night. He had written his name in aerosol paint. He’d defaced a green garbage can at the unloved extreme of the promenade, jammed the cans into his backpack without even zipping it up, and now fled parallel to the sea.
Daniel was twenty-three and he was deathly afraid of heights. This was a corrosive fear. It oozed into everything. It meant he strove only for medium success. Any great love was, to him, tainted by the expectation of an equally great fall. Consequently he was underwhelming and quite alone.
Daniel was also afraid of dogs. And they just knew it, too. They could smell it. He was also quite terrified of singing in public and telephone calls and getting stuck in elevators and snakes and global catastrophe and going blind and needles and suffering in general, but his fear of dogs and heights seemed the most pressing. And the most constant.
The boy in blue jeans was by and large a good egg. The occasional, fraught writing of his name in aerosol paint was his only vice, and it was relatively benign considering that most people can only express their fear in homicides or panic or making other people scared too.
I’ve seen Daniels work. It’s not so great. The boy is no artisté. He does not produce the colourful, bubble-lettered kind of graffiti that you see in trendy alleys, nor the “How the hell did those kids even get up there!?” kind of graffiti that you see up and down the train line. He specialises in the ugly kind. The kind on rubbish bins and telegraph poles. It is always the same: a series of harsh, angular lines that spell out “DANIEL” but only if you know that’s what they’re meant to spell. It is always done in chromatic gold, glittering silver or blue like the sea.
Petty vandalism calms his nerves. His graffiti habit stems from a fairly common subconscious yearning to alter reality. Had he the dominion over the physical universe, the godlike control of flesh and metal, that he truly desired, Daniel would have laid all tall buildings flat on their side and extinguished dogs from the Earth. Though obviously small in comparison to these ambitions, the angular spray painting of his own capitalised name seemed to quench his thirst somewhat, somehow. The minds of scared and lonely young men are very complicated.
Whippet was a stately brown Labrador retriever and though you wouldn’t know it from the carpet shitting he was actually very self-aware. Indeed the pooch possessed a rich, dizzying, miserable internal monologue, and thought many coherent thoughts about consciousness and pooing indoors. He just had trouble expressing himself. Maria and cats and postman all saw him, he knew, as a dog. Just a one-dimensional dog. And yet every time he tried to recite his poetry or call out for help from passers by he received a curt zapping from his bark collar.
Whippet resented his master. He was humiliated by being told to sit, and to heel, but obedience was one of few languages he could communicate his intelligence in. He hated being led and he dreamed, through his days of endless sleepy boredom, of collaring Maria and telling her to sit. Whippet would trot along behind the sharp looker’s long and even strides, annoyed by the graceful pace, and think, Why can’t I just be me? Why must I be what you think I am? (In this case, a dog). Even further and even worse, why am I reduced to what I think you think I am?
Whippet knew that Maria and cats and postmen considered his emotions to be hard binaries. If his tail wagged, to them he was nothing but happy. If he pouted he was wholly sad. But this did not do him justice; like you or me the pooch was quite capable of carrying three or four conflicting emotions on his person at any given time. This feeling of grave misunderstanding, more than the extended hours of empty-housed solitude, made him feel alone.
He hated the 1’s and 0’s of emotion he lived inside of. They made him feel trapped, fickle, cheap. Whippet knew he could only make a convincing point if he committed totally to a binary for a noticeably long period of time. Thus currently he pawed the promenade in a whole-bodied long face, fighting meekly against the lead, oozing sadness, in spite of his ecstasy to be outside, in order to legitimise his pout over breakfast.
And if Maria didn’t take it seriously he would shit on the carpet when they got home.
The geriatric, nominal jogger had come to think of herself as the last living Laurel on planet Earth. At least, she was the only Laurel that she was aware of and lately she had come to think of her knowledge as at the absolute limits of human kind. She could not, in all honestly, remember the last time she had been wrong.
Her jogging was actually a narcissistic shuffle. Laurel pumped her atrophying arms, held a small drink bottle in either hand, slid her feet forward six inches at a time, made a heavy and frequent exhaling, and kept her eyes locked on the middle distance of the promenade. This technique was her secret sauce. That is to say, it was by going slow and loud that she received the most unsolicited kudos from passers by. The more she huffed and puffed, the more inclined people were to yell, “Good on you!” or “Well, look at you go!” or “Gee, I hope I run like you when I’m seventy!” At this last one Laurel would smile, not breaking her shuffle, and say, “Eighty-four next Wednesday, actually!”
Laurel was in fact sixty-eight, and she knew what she was about. She was the kind of older lady who didn’t look before stepping out on to the street. She’d crossed enough roads in her life to know when a car was coming and if she got bumped, so what? Family members would be forced to grovel around her hospital bed and she probably needed a new hip anyway.
Before the advent of Caller ID it had been much easier to test the loyalty of loved ones. “Hello, it’s me,” she would say, by way of introduction, and leave it to hang. Follow up questions were severely punished. Beside her landline telephone was a notepad with a full list of the children, grandchildren and reluctant friends she called regularly. There were strikes beside each of their names. Failing to answer or call back or laugh at obviously well constructed anecdotes filled Laurel with a hot, lonely rage that she could only appease by tallying.
She would dream of the full list of relatives and acquaintances crying at her funeral, the depth of their remorse in direct proportion to the number of strikes beside their name. She wanted them all to suffer, especially at her own expense, like that deep dark part of a flight attendant that, while conducting a largely ignored safety briefing to a rowdy cabin, pines for catastrophe just to teach them all a lesson.
“Don't get me wrong, but wow! Look at you go!” said a woman with a dog. Laurel waved at her benevolently and came to a halt, given it had been a hot and slow morning of compliments. She placed her drink bottles on the ground then moved in for the kill, preparing to milk this moment for all it was worth.
III – The Actual Story, Finally
Three people and a dog move past each other in different directions on a cobblestone beachside promenade. An older woman approaches a dog and her owner saying first, “Well you just have to stay active,” and then, “My, my, what a handsome dog. Reminds me of the one I had as a girl in the early ‘40s.” At such high praise the dogs tail excitedly wags once left and once right, and then it comes to an abrupt and self-conscious halt. The dog whimpers. The third person, a boy, who had been power walking with eyes fixed on his shoelaces, recoils at the whimpering of the dog, stepping absently back and on to two stray drink bottles. He is flung into the air like a child off a log roll, and three cans of spray paint fly out of his hastily zipped backpack. The first spirals high, long and far, and then comes down with an emphatic smash into some scolding hot asphalt and explodes. There are traces of sea blue in the carnage. The other two cans tumble and sputter along the boardwalk, where they are punctured almost simultaneously by miscellaneous debris. They gush onto two unwitting seagulls. After a good soaking the birds take to the sky, complaining to one another in their seaside shriek, weaving in and around themselves, one blazed in chromatic gold and the other sparkling in silver beneath the hot sun.
The moment hangs briefly in time. It is strangely beautiful. The three people and a dog look at one other in disbelief, and with a strange sense of joy at the fortuitous sparkled-dousing of two gulls, and with the feeling that they had somehow participated, together, in quite a spectacular moment. This thought hangs too.
Eventually time goes back to normal. The boy finds himself being stared at by a woman who, his paranoid anxiety aside, looks very much like an off duty police officer. But her sharp look softens and she smiles. The boy timidly but resolvedly pats her hound and walks away southward, singing, albeit quietly. The dog stops whimpering, possessed by a hankering for colourful birds, and sprints north towards the seagulls with master in tow. The older woman remains for a few moments. She jogs away at a fine pace and breathes from nose to mouth in quiet harmony.
IV – Apologies and Goodbye
And well so there you have it: the scenic route. I told you from the start I took no pleasure in it – this escapade has wasted as much of my time as it has yours. And for what? I never did work out the point of the whole thing. Was it to always zip your bag up? Don’t adopt a dog? Keep a tally of all the people who have wronged you? Shit on the carpet more? Whatever. I’m sorry. Goodbye.