The sink had two compartments! To Roger Quat, this seemed extravagantly excessive – redundant – but then, he’d never washed dishes before. Soon he justified it, by filling one with dish liquid and hot water, the other, cold water. Wash and rinse and drying rack. There was Ford efficiency, maybe even Lean Thinking, to the method. What he forgot was his mother did it the same way.
This forgetfulness was not senility, for Roger was only 35. Neither was it the subconscious denial of influence so vital to the illusion of independence. It was that his mother never allowed him in the kitchen. His kid brother Norton, however, had always been allowed. But when you’re dying people will let you do a lot of things. When you’re a dying kid they’ll let you do anything.
Anyway, tonight his mother was at the cemetery board meeting, and in subservient rebellion, Roger had decided to do the dishes. Really, he could afford his own apartment, but not a “suitable” one, and his mother had “saved” him from “squalor” by insisting he stay with them. It had been an extended stay.
Both sink compartments were fulfilled in their roles, so he turned off the faucet, raised a scrubber and began:
“Some actors can stare into a camera as if challenging it to a duel,” he said. “Judy Davis is one of them.”
The forks smiled at this. Removing bits of spinach from their teeth, he continued.
“She has been called the patron saint of modern emotions by Michael Tolkin, and is regarded as one of the most exciting actresses in the world by Woody Allen. The woman played Judy Garland and Nancy Reagan. Who’s capable of that? And don’t say Meryl Streep, because she’s not. She’s not.”
The knives remained pointedly silent. After pausing out of respect for their opinion, Roger resumed.
“My Brilliant Career provided the actor with her breakthrough role, Sybylla, a girl who thinks she is a woman and a woman who everyone thinks is a girl. She wants to be somebody and she wants to belong to somebody. Davis embodies this state of becoming confusion with the vigor of youth and the wisdom of age, which is astonishing, considering she was 24 at the time of filming, and that she hated the character.”
On the drying rack, a bowl leaned in, and Roger lowered his voice.
“We all hate what we were. And we were all Sybylla, realizing that those who love us have a plan for us. But we are in love with a dream of something else. That is where we’re wrong; we think we dream, and others plan. But we’re all dreaming. Just different dreams. And none of them go according to plan.”
Roger submerged a compliant wooden spoon in the hot water, rubbing it with the scrubber, slowing as he felt an incision, and another.
A face had been carved into it.
It was one of his childhood toys. Before the reader fabricates some romantic folklore of rural poverty, it must be understood that the Quat family was not poor, but cheap. For example, for one of the brothers’ birthdays, their gift was one basketball, given on a day exactly halfway between their birthdays. What an insult to their imagination. Basketball had rules and logic, despicable offenses both.
But nothing excites creativity like spite. Morton was the one who stole the first wooden spoon and etched a face on it, but Roger was the one who told him to steal more. Soon nearly all wooden household items were disappearing without a face and reappearing with faces, with perplexing regularity.
As Morton carved, Roger narrated. The wooden spoons professed love, got married, had measuring spoon children. There was underlying Marxist resentment of the silver spoons, constant threat of takeover from the meat hammer. It was their daytime TV; Roger was sure that they would be in syndication forever. He could not forgive the unknowable corporate entity that cancelled everything.
Suddenly Roger was aware of the silence, of the blue tooth headset on his ear. “Hello?” he said. “Cindy? Are you there?” Pause.
“Are you done?” She asked, finally.
“Done with what?”
“Your talk show.”
“Oh. Sorry. Yes,” he shook his head as if to loosen something.
“What is that in the background? It sounds like you’re smothering a rattlesnake in bubble wrap,” she speculated imaginatively.
“I’m doing dishes.”
“This whole time?
“I thought you were reading that.”
“What? No. I was just talking.” He said.
“Listen to me.” Pause. Cindy was his only real friend, so Roger was listening. “You have got to write all of these reviews down and publish them on a website or a blog or something – ” She insisted, then interrupted herself, “No. You should do those commentaries. You know, the ones in the DVD extras menu you always want to turn on while we watch the movie and I won’t let you.”
Cindy preferred films within the genre Roger called “Romantic Communism,” where everyone was attractive and safely quirky. Often they starred Jennifer Aniston or Jennifer Lopez or Jennifer Garner or some Jenniferpetessake. Only the commentary could keep him awake.
Roger saw a lot of those kinds of films while managing the local independent movie theater. How long ago was that? Two years? Three. At that time, whatever the Hollywood dump truck unloaded, he took it. The bigger the flop, the easier to mock. It was like a testimony in church; the more terrible the sin, the more triumphant the salvation. Roger and Aaron were saved, temporarily.
Aaron. Three years ago, he had just graduated high school, that place of caricatures, where everyone concentrates on their one amazing attribute. Loud people thought he was quiet; smart people thought he was dumb. Actually, he was just trying to get through life without touching anything. He lived with an unrelatably older sister, Jackie, in a condo bought with their parent’s life insurance policy after the accident that killed both of them when Aaron was 16 and Jackie was 22.
Such a living situation, intentionally but incidentally revealed by Aaron during his job interview at the theater, established credibility and invoked sympathy within Roger, who hired him. Aaron was never rude to customers, never questioned authority, always worked holidays. So Roger invited him to the late night roasts of the new reweakses. This was a reward; this was motivation for the other employees; this is what Roger told himself, as he told Aaron, who smiled, bit his lip, nodded.
Roger would turn off the speakers and they would supply the soundtrack. Car chase scenes became an undercover pizza man in pursuit of a runaway customer; heist scenes became interior decorators breaking in to do a make over. Kissing scenes became a Halitosis specialist providing a consultation to a suffering patient. Usually this digressed into a lecture from Roger on the decline of cinema since the silents (“It’s no longer a visual medium”), which enraptured Aaron.
They sat in the middle of the theater at first, but every time they moved a few rows back. And a few more. Until they were in the last row. Obviously it was easy to hear one another, but still they would both lean towards one another, just a little bit, just to be sure. In Aaron’s heart, a drum majorette raised her baton and the beating began; on his arm the hair rose like houseplants towards the light of the movie screen.
This went on for a while, until one night Jackie came to pick up Aaron. A dazed and confused employee at the front told her where to go. In the theater, coated in light, surrounded by little dust angels, she found them. “What are you doing?” She asked. What are we doing? Roger thought. Talking in silly voices. Watching a movie without sound. Holding hands.
The next day Jackie came in the theater while Aaron stayed in the car. “Just let me get him through college, OK?” She said, every word heavier than the last. Through two windows Roger and Aaron’s eyes met.
“Hello?” Cindy intoned. “Roger?”
“Yeah.” He blinked.
“Well?” She prodded.
“I can’t do commentary.” Roger said. “I’ll talk to you later.” He hung up and placed the spoon in the drying rack, where the drops of water would drip until it was dry.
I had to read this literary trifecta twice to fully appreciate it. You have a gift my sweet. I love it when I get to see it.
Ben, how do you do this? This was a short story. This was nothing short of riveting. Also, every time I read your blogs, I place different people that I know in this life as your characters. Just for fun. You’re amazing.
Hi Ben, I am excited to see you doing longer-form posts. This one has the feel of a finely crafted story, one that I plan to re-read to get all the nuances. Have you thought about compiling a few stories like this into a book of short stories? By the way, you published on the same day as my sister’s wedding, so I applaud your timing!