A to Q: Quixotic

The celebration of a lifetown—lifetime, rather. Michael McClane’s entire family flew out to West Merrimack for his and Bonnie’s wedding. His father James entered the banquet hall with his eyes raised at the chandeliers. The size of small cars, they were, made of what looked like sharpened ice. James wondered if they were real crystals. He wondered how much it cost. Probably less than the flight.

Michael stood at the altar, shifting in his shoes, searching his side of the church for something to comfort him. His family was busy talking about the beautiful chandelier and the lack of stained glass, the lot of them disappointed at the secular affair. There was Aunt Mary, her blonde dreadlocks piled like spaghetti on top of her head. Uncle Ernest, Uncle Bradley, there was grandma, there was mom and dad in the front, mom dabbing at the corners of her eyes every time she looked at her son. There was Sue Anne, too, hair grown out to her chin. He caught her eye and smiled. She smiled back, mouthed “Good luck.”

“I always said I’d be at your wedding,” she told him when calling to RSVP. “Either in the audience or the aisle.”

Well, she was honest, if nothing else.

Then it began, a parade of their closest friends and family. Cousins, high school friends and mutual friends from college, matching dresses, matching ties. Craig Wu, Bonnie’s married friend from home. He and Michael had played cards together once, and now he was in his wedding. Well, a wedding is for two people, Michael thought. He was so busy watching the paired couples he nearly missed Bonnie’s appearance. She was gorgeous. All in white, wearing only one color for perhaps the first time in her life.

After the ceremony and photos was the reception, the part they’d all been waiting for. Michael and Bonnie had their first dance, reminiscing about how they met. She spun, but her hair was too neatly pinned to flutter against his chest.

After their dance they barely saw each other the whole night—they were whisked away to dance with fathers and mothers and little children, to change into smaller dresses and kiss elderly relatives goodnight. They ate briefly, laughed at the toasts, sipped cocktails when they had a spare moment.

Cut the cake? They whispered greetings to each other, giggled about the craziness of the wedding, ate the cake, and were pulled away from one another yet again.

Quixotic. Colors, flowers, smiles, sounds, songs, everything tailored exactly to them, the newest and youngest Mr. and Mrs. McClane.

Symbiotic. Bonnie shivered all night, hopping from space to space. Her high heels hurt her feet, her hair was getting in her mouth. She couldn’t find the bartender, and needed to order a drink for her grandmother, who was allergic to so-and-so and couldn’t stomach such-and-such. Craig saw her worry lines from a room away, as Michelle chittered on about the centerpieces.

“One sec,” he whispered to his wife, kissing her cheek. “Bonnie needs help.”

Michelle responded by finishing Craig’s drink and slamming the empty glass on the tablecloth. She went to the bar to get another.

“Hey,” Craig said, placing a hand on Bonnie’s back.

“Oh, so nice to see you,” Bonnie said, hugging him. She was acting on anxious routine, the phrase and hug programmed into her wedding dress.

“I’m here to help,” Craig said. She smelled like rose perfume, hairspray, and sweat, but it was the sweat that made him feel faint. It smelled like their long summers, like their short recesses in elementary school, like her skateboard tricks and her—damn. Here she was, wearing a wedding dress. And here he was, wearing a wedding ring that didn’t match hers. He wanted to feel something, but he didn’t. He needed to help grandma with a drink.

“Thank you so much, Craig,” Bonnie said, then immediately had to run, to dance, to find her new husband. Craig found the perfect drink at the bar, without so-and-so or such-and-such, and returned to his wife, wondering if he was missing jealousy or happiness, wondering why he couldn’t decide.

Erotic. Michael was at his sixth drink and was dancing with his beautiful Bonnie. Bonnie McClane. That night was spent in a little hotel room, tousled under the sheets, cycling between two or three different sets of lingerie Bonnie was given at her bachelorette party.

Exotic. The island, the trees, the heat, the salt water. The McClanes, busy, happy, hearty. Exploring like children, sunning like lizards, sleeping like rabbits, they spent their two-week honeymoon in inexplicable happiness.

Neurotic. I’m happy, Bonnie told herself in the mirror. Quixotic. “I’m so happy,” she told Michael in the kitchen. “I’m really happy,” she told Craig over the phone.

Five years into what Bonnie told herself was a happy life, she found a gray hair. She pressed her lips closed and plucked it.

A to O: Over

Bonnie was never satisfied with boys in high school. She would date them for awhile, get bored, and complain to Craig that she felt there should be something “more.”

“I know it’s just in movies,” she would say as they walked together in the hallways. “But the movies have to be based on something, right?”

Craig would nod, thinking of mud pies and skateboards, back when Bonnie would tell him talking about boys was stupid. He would nod until she began doubting the existence of love.

“No,” Craig said, hands pulling the straps to his backpack. “Love exists.”

Of course, though, how would he know? He dated exactly one person, a girl a grade above them with buck teeth and body odor, who he only really began dating because she asked him out and he didn’t know how to say no. For three months he held her hand when he was told, then finally wrung up the courage to tell her he didn’t love her. The break up was a disaster.

Bonnie, on the other hand, was far more successful (so to speak). She never asked people out, but was also never dumped. Always the askee, the dumper. She dated boys like she was eating cherries, taking what she liked and unceremoniously spitting out the pits.

After graduation but before college, acquaintances began fading away. It was clear within weeks which friends Craig was going to stay in touch with and which ones he would ignore until a reunion. Bonnie was without a doubt one he would stay in touch with—the two of them were inseparable that summer, the first summer Bonnie was single since eighth grade.

“College,” Bonnie announced one June day, her voice gravelly. They were licking ice creams at a park picnic table, their skateboards rolling back and forth under their feet.

“Yeah?” Craig responded when she didn’t go on, smiling behind his ice cream. She still looked like a kaleidoscope , but perhaps a more organized one. Her mane of curly hair was in something of a bun, and a loose blue tank top draped over her lanky body. Her shorts were hot pink.

“It’s stupid. I don’t want to go to college. I want to go to a conservatory.”

Three conservatories turned her down. The fact hung in the air, a stoppage to her complaints. It was easier to complain about not going places before, when it was all someone’s parent’s fault. Now it was her fault, and hers alone.

“I mean, I don’t want to go to college either,” Craig said, though in truth he was rather excited. He only wished his college was closer to Bonnie’s.

June left, and July began. They celebrated the fourth of July with the traditional West Merrimack fireworks. They laid in the grass together, cheering for the small ones and booing the big ones, laughing with each other at themselves.

“Why isn’t everything this easy?” Bonnie whispered at the smoky sky. She scooted closer to Craig and rested her head on his bicep. She did this sort of thing now and then. It was nice.

July, then August. They were both moving out next week and had to spend most of last week packing, so now they sat in Craig’s living room, suspended in limbo, Bonnie’s head resting on Craig’s shoulder. The television was on, but muted, and neither of them watched it.

Craig wondered why she leaned on him, why she led him by the wrist places, why he always followed. She had led them into every fad and every interest since before they knew the times tables. Had he introduced anything? Oh, yes, they were big bikers for awhile, and he got her into several television shows. Spicy food, too, and bocce. He was sure they were about even. Pretty even friends.

“I hope college is fun,” Bonnie said, breaking the solid silence. “But, I don’t know. How could it possibly be better than this? I don’t hate anything in my life, you know? Except my hair,” she added, and the two of them smiled.

“I’m really going to miss you, Bonnie,” Craig said, hugging her with one arm.

Bonnie shifted to her knees on the couch looking at Craig, her hair a blanket of red around her. “Is this all over? Our whole friendship, our whole lives?”

“No,” Craig said. “We’ll still be friends. We’re both coming back here for Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and all of the summer. And I’ll visit you on weekends.”

“Should we have dated?” Bonnie asked suddenly, her eyes shimmering, her shoulders curved.

She asked these rhetorical questions now and then, often when she was in the sort of mood that made her lean on him. Craig sucked on his teeth, studying his kaleidoscopic best friend.

Why had they never given into everyone’s wishes and dated? Why had he never asked her out, like all the others? Maybe it was because he had seen her suck the life out of every boyfriend, turning them into desperate zombies before cutting them loose. Dating Bonnie meant becoming a part of Bonnie’s body, an object for her to use as she pleased, a thing to hold her hand and her backpack. Craig turned a blind eye to her boyfriends because they may as well have not existed. When Bonnie had a boyfriend, she and Craig hung out nearly the same amount as always, just with a sunken-eyed leech attached to her arm.

Maybe, instead, it was that while he believed in love he didn’t believe in love with Bonnie. He liked her a lot. They were best friends. He supposed, if love didn’t exist, he could see marrying her, living with her. It would be great fun to just hang out with Bonnie all the time…but wasn’t there more? Like they said in the movies?

“No,” Craig said, and as he said it he realized he was right. “We work better as friends.”

Craig felt confident in his answer. He knew, no matter what, that Bonnie would be here next year, whether she found another leech or not. He knew he would be there too. What he didn’t know was the strength of Bonnie’s question, the fullness of her heart, the condom in her backpack, the stunted confession in her stomach, the stinging tears she was fighting to keep from falling. She leaned on his shoulder again, and Craig took it as a sign of contentment, perhaps of relief. Bonnie held her breath to keep from shaking.

“Summer is over,” she said in as even a voice as possible.

“Yes,” Craig said in a wistful voice. “A new adventure awaits us!”

A to L: Left

He loved her so much, but she was so perfect and he was terrible at everything. He knew he could barely write a word, and while he could type alright it was nothing compared to how her calligraphy scrawled across the page, how she could sketch perfect faces, how she could handle chopsticks with an amount of ease he could never even manage with a spoon. He would stay still, holding a phone or a drink or simply hidden from view as she made grand gestures, the life of the party and the focal point of the board room.

At home, she was just as lovely, chopping vegetables for Saturday lunch as he did nothing but hold the bowl, wishing he could help. After lunch they relaxed with television and he handled the remote, but when it started acting up she took control and clicked each perfect button with finesse.

They had a date at the museum to go to that night after lunch and television. After dressing he painted her nails for her, messy, all over her cuticles. She didn’t mind, and painted his, perfect, clear and smooth. He tried to fix hers a bit but they were out of time.

The left in love with the right, the wrists not having a clue, the rest of the body nothing but a vessel. Both hands run through their owner’s hair then sit folded in her lap, the left over the right, holding her tight while he can.

The woman with the loving hands met her boyfriend at the door and extended her perfect right hand for him to hold. Of course, the right…The boyfriend shook his head and spoke softly, the woman raised both hands to her tearful eyes. The boyfriend dropped to his knee and took out a small box. The two hands tried to dry her face but the tears came too quickly.

Then, to both hands’ surprise, the boyfriend took the left in his, delicately lifted the third finger, and slipped on a diamond ring.

Every person, every hand, every jewel in every crown in the museum admired him and his new diamond ring. The world changed for the left hand…he was the star of the night and the rest of the year. He got shown off to people, now.  He still couldn’t hold a spoon, but he sported such a beautiful ring. He still couldn’t use a pen, but he gleamed with importance.

Best of all, in left’s happy new life, the right hand held him more. She entangled their fingers together, she played with his ring, she squeezed him tightly. And later, when he was granted a second beautiful ring, she helped him carry a bouquet of flowers into their new, married life.

A to G: Goldfish

Mrs. McClane bought a goldfish when Mitch’s pet shop began having financial trouble. It was a usual morning, otherwise—her husband and sons were in the field, her daughter tending to the chickens, pig, and cows. She had gone to buy soap and fabric for new curtains, her leather coin purse lightening as she went, store to store. A floral pattern was on sale, so she with the extra money she decided to treat herself to a professional haircut, only the third or fourth she’d ever had. Well, business had been good. Her children had been good. She deserved it. And her husband would love it!

“How are you, Mrs. McClane?” asked Mitch Healy from the pet shop as she walked by its open door. She knew him from church. He spit tobacco into an empty beer bottle he produced from behind the pet shop counter and invited her inside.

“Hello Mr. Healy.” Mrs. McClane peered around at the small shop. Two dogs gnawed on one cow thighbone in a cage. A cat napped on the counter. Goldfish lined the back walls, and three birds hung from cages in the ceiling. “How are you both?”

Mr. Healy said, “Good,” then added, “Been better.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh, business is slow. Tends to get that way before harvest, you know. Kids are at that growing phase and between food for the animals at home and the animals at work I’ve barely enough money to feed myself!”

Mrs. McClane felt the weight of the coin purse tied on her wrist. She approached the fish tank. The ten or so goldfish were the strong majority, with only two hermit crabs and an angel fish for company.

“But, well, that’s a story for me and my Missus,” Mr. Healy said, smiling and folding his hands on the counter. “Never mind it, never mind it.”

Oh, sugar. Well, Mrs. McClane always was good with a pair of scissors. The ladies at church were growing it out longer anyhow. She gazed around the store for a price list—no way could they feed a dog. Maybe a cat, with all the rats in the horse barn, but she needed all the milk the cow gave for her kids and her cooking. She was terrified of birds, and the angelfish looked…expensive.

“I’ll buy a goldfish, Mitch,” Mrs. McClane said. And she did. She was halfway home with the thing held at arm’s length in a shining plastic bag when she realized she forgot to pick up blue thread for the curtains. Well, they’ll have to be in brown. After buying the fish, the bowl, the food, and the pebbles she didn’t have the money for it anyhow.

Her husband wasn’t too fond of the seventh mouth to feed, but after seeing how little the mouth required he began to warm up to it. The kids liked it too, and the four of them would poke sticks in the water, trying to get it to chase it like a dog. Little Bradley would giggle uncontrollably whenever he caught it pooping. Mary took to feeding it every morning before she went out to help with the chickens, and she began trying out names for it—all female, which the boys rejected. Dinner became a secondary activity to watching the table’s centerpiece circle around its home. Even Mr. and Mrs. McClane would find themselves watching the bright orange fins flutter around in the bowl.

Soon, as is apt to happen, the only piece of orange in the house faded to a sickly white. Fifteen days after Mrs. McClane came home with the goldfish, she was burying it in the backyard.

“I thought it would be a good present…it must have been sick. No wonder his pet shop is going under,” whispered Mrs. McClane to her husband as her kids said their final goodbyes to a shoebox labeled ‘Goldfish.’

“Mitch said his shop is going under?” her husband asked. “He’s has been pulling that line since the beginning. He guilts you into buying things, because he says he’s low on cash.”

Mrs. McClane sighed, and wrapped a strand of splitting hair around her fingers. She stayed outside as the boys pushed dirt over the shoebox, all but James holding back tears. Mary plucked a clover blossom and placed it on the grave, then ran into her mother’s skirt, weeping.

“Oh, my Little Miss Mary,” Mrs. McClane cooed, lifting her daughter by the underarms and placing her on her hip. “Honey, it’s okay. He lived a good life, and now he’s in heaven.”

“He didn’t live a good life,” said Mary, her little peach-colored face blotchy with tears. “He swam around in stupid circles all day and now he’s gone!”

Mrs. McClane rubbed Mary’s back. She wasn’t sure who to blame, Mitch or herself, so she settled on blaming the goldfish. God damn that goldfish and its tortured, circling soul for making her children weep and wasting her husband’s money. Godforsaken goldfish.

Late at night, she sat up in bed as her husband slept. She held her ear to the wall behind their bed and could hear her children chattering in whispers they thought she couldn’t hear. It was no surprise that the goldfish was a main topic of the late night chat tonight.

“Mom said he’s in heaven,” said Mary, after Bradley asked where he went.

“Nah, come on,” said Ernest, her eldest. “That’s dumb. How could he be in heaven if he never prayed?”

“Shut up, Ern,” said James.

Her husband rustled, then turned and smiled at his wife.

“You eavesdropping again?” he whispered, lifting the blanket for her to slide back under. She snuck in and held him tightly, silently crying into his chest.

“Am I a bad mother, Harry?”

“Not in the slightest.”

I would prefer not to.

“I would prefer not to.”

The famous words of the resistant Bartleby Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” are a quiet rebellion against society. It is not an outright refusal, it’s a preference. His words mark Bartleby as an individual who has his own ideas, exactly the sort of person the capitalist lawyer cannot understand nor control.

Bartleby is a scrivener—a low-tech copy machine.  He does nothing all day except copy papers, until he chooses to do nothing at all. He even refuses to quit, or leave the building.

I take this as an Office Space lesson in what the workforce does to people. When there’s no outlet for individuality or creativity, it bursts out of the seams in a destructive mess. If people can’t use their minds, their minds will use them.

If there’s no way to do anything fun, or engaging, or individual, one will eventually “prefer” not to do anything at all.

Bartleby’s job could be done by a 6 year old with good penmanship. A lot of jobs could be done with 6 year olds with good penmanship, or 6 year olds who can use a phone, or 6 year olds who can figure out a cash register. No wonder a lot of us feel useless.

Perhaps if Bartleby went for a nature walk after work, or took up playing guitar, or tried art lessons, or cooking, he would not have felt the need to rebel. Maybe if he unleashed his creative individuality in a healthy way it would not be fighting him from the inside for release. If Bartleby felt respected and important and alive, perhaps he actually would have preferred to work during work time as long as he could be himself during his off time.

Perhaps not. Perhaps I am looking at an old story with new values, with the knowledge of the severity of mental illness and a 21st century appreciation for creativity. But I do know that if Bartleby were alive today, the lawyer would have more tools at his disposal for dealing with who is likely a man dealing with depression. Then again, Bartleby would have more tools to express himself with. So if today’s world is easier for both parties…why do I and many like me relate to Bartleby?

Is it because we all feel useless and unappreciated? Is it because we are all individuals, ready to burst out of our skins? Is it because no one is ever satisfied, and everyone would prefer to just sit on a couch doing nothing? Is it because we’re all depressed? All caught under the thumb of a unforgiving world?

I suppose I understand Bartleby’s preference not to. I understand, but do not agree.

I prefer not to be like Bartleby. I prefer not to prefer not to.

I prefer to live.