Surcease: A short story

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Mr. Misery
Posts: 213
Joined: Tue Jun 24, 2003 6:10 pm
Location: The barren pathways

Surcease: A short story

Postby Mr. Misery » Fri Sep 02, 2005 9:36 pm

Through darkened streets I followed my nightly path to the library, arms laden with heavy books to be returned. It is dreadful to face the prospect of crossing the street; there is no dignity in it. Timing is the key—to begin with a fresh green light—but rarely am I graced with such good fortune. After the ritual humiliation of running too desperately or waiting too abjectly I headed for a circular route untroubled by traffic where all crossing can be done unthinkingly and in perfect privacy.

I cut a singular figure in my shabby genteel suit and fedora but ironically a mysterious aura of invisibility about me persists. It’s not that people find me unexceptional; it is that they don’t see me at all. The librarians continue private conversations while processing my books, the students and scholars do not look up when I enter, and I am an object of comprehensive indifference to all women. The suit represents my rejection of modernity and the hat is to cover hair loss. Eccentricity at least deserves to arouse some measure or manner of interest, but after forty five years I have accepted this anomaly. I didn’t recognize it for the first five, to be quite honest.

The book of philosophy was heavy in every sense but I had to renew the portly anthology, thus sentencing myself to an arduous return journey. I was getting a beat on the meaning of life and thought the extra two weeks might do the trick. The reading room was a gallery of the grim and the gaunt perusing newspapers on giant protruding sticks. There was a strikingly gorgeous and therefore incongruous woman reading a fashion magazine. She was standing beneath the section marked Mysteries.

I added Goethe’s Faust to my burden; it was also an unnecessarily hefty book. This weighty edition featured a Publisher’s Preface, Table of Contents, Introduction (by Carl F. Screiber!), A Note, A Note on the Illustrations, Dedication page, and Prologue. It’s possible there was no space for the actual text in this volume but I was feeling dizzy and didn’t verify this dark suspicion.

At a crosswalk a red muscle car with an understated yellow flames design on the side rolled over the white lines and prevented me from proceeding. A girl in the passenger seat rolled down the window, increasing the volume of the song issuing from within: “Didn’t even have to use my AK, gotta say it was a good day.” The stereo was abruptly shut off but the melody lingered. Miraculously the girl seemed to be addressing the invisible man but her words were engulfed by the hateful sound of her beastly boyfriend gunning the engine. I put my hand to my ear in the makeshift-ear-trumpet gesture. She repeated “Hey, where’s the liquor store?” Politely, I gave her precise directions. She laughed at me and he sped off.

Walking back is the sadder of the sojourns but to alleviate the hopelessness of it all I imagine I am coming home to a beautiful wife, many happy children and a hero’s welcome. The dream doesn’t match the reality; my life is not decorated properly. Not only am I alone but I have always been so, and the degree of my innocence is such that it is shameful to me. Let us speak no more of this for the nonce!

My house is on the bottom of a big hill but I always climb to the top to say hello to a dog, the cutest, friendliest, most neglected cocker spaniel in existence. She was there, smiling and wagging her tail, and I reached through the bars of the gate that imprisons her to pet her and say soft words.

The inside of my house greeted me with a wave of heat and oppression. There was one message on my answering machine. Conscientiously I depressed the button, though I knew in my heart that no good could come of it.

“Jude, this is your Aunt Matilda!” the recorded voice shouted. “I called to check on you! You need to call back or I will worry! Any time is fine no matter how late! Where on earth are you! Out dancing?” Nothing could be further from the truth, Matilda. “I’ve had some aches and pains but today I feel much better! I’ve been having oatmeal for breakfast all week but today I had—” It cut off. She forgotten she was leaving a message and had launched into her report.

“This is Jude.”

“Oh, it’s very late! Let me shut this off. Now then, how are you?”

“Fine.” This was not quite true. I had begun my nightly ritual of pondering how to kill myself in the most painless and pristine manner possible. Every method seemed to have a down side, mostly the bother to others. Sleeping pills were leading but I wasn’t happy with the choice, it made me feel unimaginative. I suspected that if I was unsuccessful I might render myself permanently logy. Plunging over the railing of the overpass into freeway traffic was in last place—it would hurt a lot and be inconvenient to the driver.

“Where on earth were you?”

“I was out dancing.”

“Oh, I don’t believe that.”

Her unexpected perspicacity took the wind out of my sails, but I pressed on through inertia masquerading as energy:

“It’s true, Aunt Matilda! By dint of a mix up I found myself on dates with two women at the same time ballroom dancing. I had to juggle them all night without letting either discover my suave duplicity.” I believe I took this plot twist from an old Brady Bunch episode. “I feel ashamed of myself but on the other hand I was successful and it was a feat worthy of Houdini or perhaps Henning. I’m constantly getting myself into such fixes; with my extreme popularity I suppose it is my fate.”

“What happened to your face?”

“Just a small bruise, it will heal in time.” It was the strangest coincidence; I had bruised my face rather badly. This twist of the conversation sobered me, as did her follow up:

“Well, I expect you’re rather lonely there with your mother gone and now your father. Everyone’s dead!” she pronounced with satisfaction.

“Yes,” I acknowledged. Matilda always got to the heart of the matter.

“I wonder if you would like to come and see me,” she continued unexpectedly. This caused me to put down the bottle of sleeping pills that I had picked up melodramatically and was regarding in the posture of Rodin’s Thinker. “We could have such a nice visit and it would help you be less lonely. You could stay for a brief time; you wouldn’t want to overstay your welcome. You could do some grocery shopping for me and many things in this house need fixing up, even though you’re not very well versed in that. You could—”

“That’s so kind of you, Aunt Matilda, I will look at my schedule and definitely figure out a way to do that!” I thought I had better accept before she added any more onerous obligations to the list.

I really could not believe I had said yes, and definitely! Such a visit was the opposite of what I wanted to do. There was the additional matter of money. She lived far across the country and I would have to scrounge up a budget method of transportation, probably by bus (hitchhiking is ineffective when one is invisible), with an excruciating series of transfers to be made, and then pretend that it was all because I valued the scenery. But I realized that she was the one who was lonely and was too proud to say so. Her mobility was decreased because of illness and so she really needed someone to do those things for her as well. Her own immediate family was too busy plundering to be of assistance.

“Lovely!” she said winsomely. “Now what were the names of the two ladies you juggled tonight?”

Amazingly, she had heard my whole fable. My equanimity was wrecked and I felt routed by the conversation but I said simply “Matilda and Marcia.”

Ignoring her own namesake she remarked “Marcia, like that young lady in the TV show about the awful family.”

“I’m not familiar with that show,” I said briskly, regaining my poise. “How has your health been, Aunt Matilda?”

Over the course of the next hour, she told me.

The remainder of the evening was mine, the boundless freedom enjoyed by the unwanted by the desirable. As usual I found myself listing toward bed and sensuous slumber. Dreaming was blissful peace, the scenarios for my happiness could only be found there.

The phone was ringing again; at first I could not understand what it was beyond being disagreeable. It was a collect call but I never worried about that kind of thing. A cryptic cognomen was used but I recognized the voice from a single, muted “Hey.” All the same there was a troubling tone to it from the beginning. Nevertheless I pressed on with our ritual joke dialogue lifted from a famous novel that happened to use his real name as a very minor character:

“Is this by any chance Jack Brewster?”
Oui, je sui Monsieur Brewster.” His French was humorously horrible, it never failed to make me laugh and we had been doing this ridiculous routine for thirty years.
“It’s funny; you don’t sound like Jack Brewster. I mean the vocal resemblance is not particularly striking. You haven’t rung to bother me about those long distance calls have you?”
“You do make them, don’t you?”
“Excuse me?”
“I said that I said that he had said that he had never—.” Athwart any level of inebriation he always managed to declaim this difficult line flawlessly. Now that our burlesque was done we could get on with the conversation. Because he started by boasting I thought that all was well, and that my premonition had been wrong:

“I met a beautiful girl in the supermarket recently.”

“That wasn’t on the shopping list,” I scolded. He laughed so merrily that I knew he had gotten her number. Jack’s success rate with women was extraordinary, no matter how broken down he was they all yielded to him. I hoped Faust might unlock this mystery.

“Well, that’s because I never have trouble remembering that item.”

“Those hot little items?” I never spoke this way with anyone else, but it was fun to pretend to be a playboy. Lifetime friends never call one out on such things.

“Those hot little items,” he amended with an appreciative laugh, which was one of the great things about Jack. “How about you, did you meet anybody there recently?”

“No meet, no produce. But come to think of it a lady cashier did notice the bruise on my face and told me I needed to be mothered.”

“That’s great!”

“No it’s not,” I said with the flat sad voice that always slayed him. “I don’t want to be mothered. I want to be girlfriended, fiancéed, wived!”

“That doesn’t always work out either,” he said with an abrupt seriousness that took me aback. “How did you get the bruise?”

“I was walking with my eyes closed and went straight into a pole.”

“What does ethnicity have to do with it?”

“You’re right, you’re right. God, you’re right!”

“Hmm, well, you didn’t tell her the truth about your accident did you?”

“She asked,” I explained feebly. To Aunt Matilda I could invent 1001 Arabian Knights stories, but to eligible women only the awful truth fell from my lips.

“You should have told her you got in a fight.”

“Hindsight is magical! How are the kids doing?”

My question was a sunny one but it caused a deadly darkness to fall. I had that rare conversational gift.

“I wouldn’t know, I’m not allowed to see them. It’s a court order, Caroline saw to that. She took advantage of my situation. She’s on pills and always sleeping. How can she drive the girls when she’s groggy? How can she look after them? She’s not a fit mother!”

I could picture him gesticulating as he thundered this litany of righteous indignation. I thought of Caroline and felt sympathy for her. He would always emphasize her shortcomings while placing himself in the best possible light. I once heard her in the background of our conversation sarcastically call him “Mr. Perfect” and I had to smile at the justice of the zinger, even though I loyally stayed silent.

“She’s on prescription drugs but you’re on illegal drugs,” I reminded him.

“I haven’t taken anything in weeks.”

“The only thing you haven’t taken in weeks is a lie detector test.”

“I’m clean,” he said with affected wounded pride that indicated guilt. “They put in me rehab but I had no business being there. They insisted that I go and then they threw me out. The guy who runs the thing accused me of stealing his bicycle.”

This account was so random and sad that it had to be true. I suspected that failing a drug test was the other part of why he was evicted, but it didn’t need to be spelt out.

“So I’ve been out on the streets ever since. A girl I know named Diane got me a room for the night.”

Little ditty ‘bout Jack and Diane.”

He ignored my Melloncampery: “But after this I have nowhere to go. I’m calling from the Vagabond Inn.”

“That’s one of Trump’s hotels, isn’t it?”

“You should see this place!” The horribleness of it animated him for a moment. “Drug merchants, transients, prostitutes...” Mr. Perfect, by his prim choice of vocabulary, indicated effectively that he found it a perfectly deplorable environment.

“Same story here,” I quipped. From my cozy room I looked out on the tranquil neighborhood nightscape. “Still, if you could stand more of the same you’re very welcome to stay.”

“Oh, no thank you,” he said with a courtly air. I assumed this was just pride, which was rather impressive because life on the streets as he had described it to me was truly harrowing and to be avoided if there was any alternative besides shelter or jail.

“You could do some grocery shopping for me and many things in this house need fixing up, even though you’re not very well versed in that.”

“What?” He sensed that I was quoting someone but of course had no idea who. Letting it go, he said “No, I won’t be able to, but thanks, Jude.”

“All right but if you change your mind you know how to let yourself in.” The moment I said this I regretted it. While I was away he and his Vagabond friends would break into my house and ruin it. What on earth was wrong with me! Why did I say yes to every lost soul in the world when I was lost myself! “Did you use the phone to call Caroline and the girls earlier?”

“I can’t even talk to them on the phone. She hooked up with a lawyer, he lives there now and after our divorce they’re going to get married.”

Suddenly my sympathies switched to Jack’s side. Caroline’s choice of a new mate was quite a vindictive betrayal on many levels.

“That’s sort of like Dillinger’s ex- wife marrying a cop, isn’t it.”

“I wouldn’t say she’s a diligent wife!” He must have been channeling Aunt Matilda. I let my inappropriate and poor joke go, it was a mercy and a kindness that he hadn’t heard it.

“I’m sorry,” I said, expressing my feelings simply and sincerely. “But you’re supposed to be able to talk to your girls aren’t you.” He loved his three daughters and they adored him. Strange to confess I was envious of Jack.

“I’m supposed to but Caroline’s lawyer-lover won’t let me, and I have no way of proving to the court that he’s stopping me. I’m a little down on my luck at the moment and don’t have recording equipment. I’d love to put a hurt on that guy but he might press charges.”

“That is a distinct possibility. How wise you are. How well you know the human heart.”

“So I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. They can make it so that I’ll never be able to see my children again, they’ll grow up without their real father and Caroline will poison them against me. They’ll call him ‘Dad’ after awhile. They’ll move into a high rent neighborhood, far from where I am. I will have nothing, no one.”

“You could always complete a rehab program and appeal to the court for your rights for regular visitation. Give back the bicycle and beg for clemency.”

“Yes, but I won’t. I love my daughters but I can’t overcome this anymore. As pathetic as it sounds I still love Caroline but I’ve lost her forever. You were right of course, I’ve been wasted on and off since I hit the streets, even before. I will never get better and there’s no hope. I don’t learn from my mistakes and I never will.”

This was all true. He made a compelling case.

“Those girls need you.”

“But I can’t see them and I’ll never be able to.” He was adamant. His words picked up tempo: “Do you know how I spent my day at the Vagabond Inn?”

“Room service? Tipping the concierge outrageously? Dancing on the ceiling?”

“I may have seen Lionel Ritchie, but no. First I took about twelve showers; you never know when you’re going to be able to get them when you’re out on the streets.”

“Good, good, that’s what I would do too.”

“The next part you wouldn’t do. I sat in the middle of the room and smoked all the crack I had. When I ran out of it I sold my only pair of shoes just to buy some more crack. When that was up in smoke I held a gun to my head and prayed for the courage to pull the trigger.”

“That’s not a thing to pray for!” I said, my heart lurching.

“I was like that for I don’t know how long. I finally realized that I wasn’t playacting anymore, I was really going to do it and wanted to call you first to say goodbye. You were a good friend to me and I’ve always appreciated it, Jude.”

“Please don’t do this, Jack.”

“Why not?”

I hate pop quizzes, now more than ever. “The girls” was the first reason I blurted out.

“We’ve covered that. Don’t make me feel worse than I already do.”

“You would be making them feel worse over the course of their entire lives. They love you.”

“They’d never even be told. It wouldn’t make a difference.”

“Oh God, it would. What about your belief?” He was as devout a man as I had ever known. When he was very young he told me he knew with certitude that there was a God, and couldn’t fathom how people could think otherwise given the evidence of all that was around us.

“God has always been so gracious to me, Jude. He gives me chance after chance and I always fail Him. I would have to take it up with Him in the afterlife, but I am ready for whatever reward I deserve to meet.”

“Caroline would be wracked with guilt over this.”

“That’s an argument for.”

“Touché. I don’t want you to die. I would miss you.”

This was all true.

I waited for the wisecrack in response, but instead he said “I’ll miss you too.”

“You’re only thinking of yourself. Don’t you realize how much I hate going to funerals?”

“It would cut into your weekend, wouldn’t it.” He chuckled softly.

“Not only that. I don’t have a black suit to wear and I’d have to buy one. Perhaps you’re fooled by my ostentatious lifestyle but I’m not exactly flush with money. I’ve got to take a trip to see Aunt Matilda and there’s the expense of getting there. In fact I was wondering if you could loan me something; that is the reason for this call. She really ought to pay me; it is what executives call ‘a working vacation.’”

“Give my regards to Aunt Matilda.”

“You can deliver them directly. She can always use more labor around the house and she is smitten with you.”

When Aunt Matilda lived nearby, and we were sixteen, I brought Jack to her house and she served us tea. She was taken with him and told me I should try to emulate my friend. He was on heroin at the time. I was on Bigelow.

I thought I heard Jack shudder at the prospect of labor, so I returned to the poignant funeral theme: “And you know they’d ask me to deliver the eulogy. I’m the world’s worst speaker, you will recall from school days. I get so terrified, I’m a disaster. Do you want to put me through that?”

“Oh you’re a fine speaker.” This was such a kind lie. I remembered the class in question, fear had built up in me all day and when I reached the podium I began to reel under the lights, with everyone watching me, judging me. My hands began to shake, my voice was tremulous, and I didn’t make eye contact with the audience. Everyone jeered at me afterwards except for Jack, who told me I did fine and grandly bought me lunch at the school cafeteria, the only known instance he had done so but a very meaningful one to me.

“Well, I’m telling you I hate to do it.”

“Okay, I won’t make you do that.”

Had I just saved his life?

“I think you need to go to sleep now.” My pulse was racing with exhilaration.

“Call it sleep,” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was joking. “Thanks for paying for the call; it must have cost you a lot.”

It could have cost more. He had promised not to cause me to have to deliver the eulogy; I held on to that hope.

“Don’t worry about it. Be well. Goodnight.”


I was too keyed up to go to sleep so I took a walk around the block, leaving my fedora at home. A communion with the Almighty in the crisp evening air, or satisfying reflections that I may have saved the life of my friend were certainly indicated but instead of course I found myself reluctantly dealing with more causes.

Lost in thought I found myself confronted with a homeless man, whom I certainly would have crossed the street to avoid if I had seen him. He was supine, and seemed to be mute, but held out his hat. I fished in my wallet, which I knew contained a twenty dollar bill and a one dollar bill, and gave him the one. He seemed moved and struggled to formulate the words: “You need a hairpiece.” The fedora next time! as James Baldwin might say. Returning my wallet to my front pocket, where I keep it on walks, I checked the pouch and of course discovered that I had given him the twenty.

I really needed that money so I was about to return and have it out with the old fool when something very pat happened—I saw a little bird on the sidewalk. It had fallen and was bleeding but still breathing. I knelt down and said soft words to her. She was so small that I saw that I could pick her up; it was the only hope of saving her. I cradled her in my woefully expensive Brooks Brothers handkerchief, which was quickly saturated with blood and thus ruined, my only one. The bird seemed so badly damaged that she probably wouldn’t ever recover fully, but naturally I had to try.

Miraculously the bird took some water that I poured out for her in a decorated dish. I kissed my imaginary wife goodnight, put my head on the coarse cloth pillow, and closed my eyes. When I did I saw my friend Jack Brewster with his eyes closed too. I had seen him sleeping so many times in class that I was able to visualize him perfectly that way. His face grew older in my mind until he was as he is now. As I drifted at last toward my own happiness, I preferred to picture him in peaceful slumber and not eternal rest.
I've had you so many times but somehow I want more.

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Postby verena » Tue Sep 06, 2005 5:46 pm

Mr Misery, I really liked your story.

All characters are erring in darkness, trying to make the best of the varied shots of dispair they are getting (no wonder, it's about human beings). Meanwhile the hero is a tough nut, miserable perhaps, but full of respect, and gifted with that sharp humour that doesn't hit you bad but makes you laugh. He is all patience and kindness.

Who would try to save a terminally damaged bird ? Actually many people do, but the story usually ends up fast at the vet, in a compassionate injection.
I for one, picked up and raised 2 newborn birds, when I was very young, cause I couldn't gather the strength to do what farmers tell you to (boot them right dead, so at least they don't suffer). My venture was a success (and very beautiful, even though it was tainted with misery). But it was not a great achievement, as my birds were not harmed at all, no, they were very healthy...

Mr. Misery
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Joined: Tue Jun 24, 2003 6:10 pm
Location: The barren pathways

Postby Mr. Misery » Wed Sep 07, 2005 12:18 am

Thank you for your perceptive interpretation and kind words. Humor is the unexpected key, it turns out to be a saving grace for his friend when all the rational arguments fail.

You did the right thing with the two birds, and in my book it is a great achievement.
I've had you so many times but somehow I want more.

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Postby lapinsjolis » Mon Sep 12, 2005 4:16 pm

I like that you have the ordinary doing the extraordinary-no sell out innate coolness of the character, a rarity these days. There is a realness in the truth that we stumble across redeeming and redemption in the course of a common day. Sharply written too.
"Be yourself; everyone else is already taken."

Mr. Misery
Posts: 213
Joined: Tue Jun 24, 2003 6:10 pm
Location: The barren pathways

Postby Mr. Misery » Fri Sep 16, 2005 5:19 am

I agree. In the everyday there can be living drama and great moral choices. The failure can prove to be a success, the loser a winner, and the lost man may save someone else. You have to watch out for the quiet ones.

Thank you dearly, LJ.
I've had you so many times but somehow I want more.

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