This is my first mostly polished short story. Now I'm looking for criticism. Don't be afraid.
Paul enjoyed the whistle of the wind as it whirled into the truck and through his hair to the broken rhythm of the rattling toolbox in the back. The day had gone alright, nothing special, and he wondered what Cixi had made tonight. Maybe it was her lasagna with the squash.
After years of a specific routine, people notice when something is out of place. In some cases furniture is just moved around; in others, a light-bulb has blown. On this particular day a folded note lay on the kitchen table, but there was no use in reading it. Paul knew something was wrong when the scent of dinner was non-existent when he walked into the house. Maybe I should take a nap, he thought, to relax.
Mid-nap, a knock at the door woke him and Paul lifted his head to peer out the window. Great, he thought, what does he need now?
Opening the door, Paul had not enough time to greet John before he started in.
“Paull You’ll never guess what happened today.”
“Not now, John.”
“Dennis said he’ll help out----“
“Please, stop while you’re ahead. I’m not in the mood right now.”
“Jesus Christ John! I told you to shut the fuck up. Do you understand?” he said, waving him away like a fly. “I’ve had a long day.”
“Ok--should I come back tomorrow, after you get some rest?” John asked.
“No no. I’ll call you when I’m ready to get back to work,” Paul said.
Just before John shut the door Paul stopped him.
“Wait. Before you leave, grab me some Tylenol from the kitchen--I’ve got a pretty wicked headache.”
“Yeah, no problem Paul.”
John began to worry after a few days and no call. Around town few took notice of Paul’s absence, like the falling of an old statue in a deserted part of town. Perhaps because he had not been around working and maintaining his business they assumed he locked himself inside, depressed again. Whatever the case, John wondered in contemplation about what should be done.
The next day when he woke up there was a slight stutter in John’s step as he got out of bed to follow his routine. A cup of coffee and the newspaper. Shower and get dressed. Except today he put on his Calvin Klein button-down and ironed a pair of khakis, the kind without cargo pockets. Instead of his tan Timberlands it was his Nordstrom loafers. Then he left for Paul’s place.
“I can’t seem to motivate him,” Cixi said, weeping.
“Alright, it’ll be okay,” he said, rubbing her back. “How long has he been in there?” asked Mr. Brill.
“It’s been about two weeks now, since he lost his job.”
“And he hasn’t moved this whole time?”
“Not from that bed, except to go to the bathroom. I’ve tried everything, Mr. Brill.”
“I’ll see if I can do anything, but I can’t promise it will help. Okay?”
“Thank-you so much, Mr. Brill,” Cixi said. “This has been so hard on the kids and me. If he doesn’t get moving soon, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Mr. Brill nodded and turned to walk down the hall towards Paul and Cixi’s bedroom. Pictures of the kids--their own as well as nieces and nephews—surrounded a larger 8x10 family portrait, all smiling with what seemed like glee.
Opening the door and peaking in, Paul’s body formed a crescent atop the flannel bedspread as he stared out the two windows facing the street.
“Hey Paul, what’s going on?”
Paul did not answer, his gaze unbroken. Walking in front of Paul, Mr. Brill waved his hand and when it had no effect he nudged Paul, gently reintroducing his presence.
Still without a response Mr. Brill sat on the bed in front of Paul, resting his hand on Paul’s shoulder and looking out the window in a daze alongside him.
A few moments that seemed like minutes passed before Mr. Brill finally interrupted the silent screaming present in the room.
“Paul, you’re a wreck.”
Looking up at Mr. Brill, a streak of tears slid down his face.
Like watching a glass about to tip over the edge of a countertop, Mr. Brill wanted to scoop up the tears and make them stop but he could not reach the source. He hoped the glass did not shatter upon impact.
“I know this is tough for you, but you’ve got a responsibility. I can’t be the man of your house, Paul. I’m going to come back at the end of the week and when I do you better be up, dressed, and shaved.”
With an expected no-reply, Mr. Brill turned and left the room.
When Paul found himself consoling Mrs. Brill for her loss, a new responsibility shifted to him. One that went unsaid. One that any grown man would pick up on without having to be told about it.
It also became a way for Paul to make up for his indebtedness to Mr. Brill. And he did so without any hesitation.
“What’d you have in mind today, Ms. Brill?”
“Well, Paul, my flower garden hasn’t been weeded in a month or two. I’ve called my son every few weeks. He always tells me he’s going to come over for a day, but of course he hasn’t yet.”
“Aw, don’t worry Ms. Brill, I’ll get this back into top shape.”
“Oh, I trust you will. When you’re all done make sure you stop inside. I’ll make you a cup of coffee,” Ms. Brill said, opening the creaky screen door to her house.
Paul was aware of what happens to those who venture inside for coffee at Ms. Brill’s. First it’s coffee, next you are getting your ear chewed off about ungrateful kids and spoiled grandchildren.
Out of politeness he gave her a bleak smile and nodded as she hobbled inside.
When Ms. Brill’s garden reverted to its well-kept old looks Paul scribbled an apology on the back of a business card and stuck it in the screen door. Dinner was at five and Cixi would be waiting.
“Hey babe, how was your day?” Paul asked as he walked over and kissed her on the forehead.
“It was okay, but before I forget to tell you, John called earlier. He wanted to know if you were free tomorrow—said something about helping with the barn, or something in the barn, I can’t really remember what it was.”
“Well I’m pretty busy tomorrow, but I’ll be sure to give him a call tonight to see what’s up.”
“Okay, great. And how was Ms. Brill? Everything holding up over there?”
He walked over to the pantry to dry off his hands.
“I didn’t dare go inside, but her flower gardens weren’t as bad as I thought they would be. They only needed a little weeding to get them back to presentable.”
Paul loved his wife’s cooking, even more so than he loved his mother’s. And that was a big deal to him, since his mother really knew how to cook. But beyond anything else, he had an admiration towards Cixi that never weakened over the years of their relationship.
He did not understand how she took care of the kids all those years, day and night, never failing to make a dinner. Or how when the kids moved out she went back to school to help take some burden off his hands in the future. At first he resisted the idea but Cixi explained how she had always wished to finish her degree. Paul changed his mind when he noticed the excitement Cixi had when she explained her goals.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you, I have a meeting with my advisor tonight. Sorry I didn’t tell you earlier, but it’ll only be a little bit.”
“Don’t worry hun, whatever you need to do. I’ll just take a bath and get to bed early.”
He wanted to ask more, but then he might seem too curious so he just left it at that: a meeting with her advisor.
She walked up to him, gave him a quick kiss and said, “Thanks babe,” with a smile.
The day the Methodist church called Paul with a window problem he answered with reluctance. The pastor had asked for an estimate to get a leak fixed. Paul agreed to come by and check out the problem.
His reluctance was a result of much uncertainty that had eventually led him to dismiss the whole idea of religion and church as nonsense. He never completely understood what caused so many people to devote so much time to do so many ludicrous rituals and ceremonies. Even so, Paul had also seen drug addicts and felons develop faith and transform their whole being. He still did not buy into it, witness to both the good and bad.
If people are too anal to admit they do not know what happens when they die then that is their problem, he thought.
On the day Paul went to examine the leaky windows it started much as he expected.
“You know Paul, there’s always a spot here for you,” said Pastor Troy, “But I know that’s not what you’re here for today, so I’ll let it be for now.”
Paul made a slight smirk.
“I appreciate it, Troy. Now where’s the windows that needs to be looked at?”
Pastor Troy led him down to the cellar all the while asking about Paul’s wife and kids. After a few terse alrights and okays he got the point.
Pointing to two small rectangular windows at the far wall, Pastor Troy said, “It’s those two. The company building the houses around here brought in some dirt and now when it rains a lot of the run-off leaks through over there. It’s making our cellar musty and unfit for storage.”
“Yeah, no one wants that,” he said, walking over to the windows. After a quick measurement he looked up at the ceiling, estimating the cost. “These are custom sized windows,” he said, “so it’ll be a bit longer for them to come in but I’ll take some cost off the labor—they shouldn’t be too hard to switch out.”
“About how long are you thinking, so I know how long we have to keep it clear down here?”
“Shouldn’t be longer than three weeks, four max. I’ll give you a call when they’re in and we’ll take care of it then.”
“Thanks, Paul… and don’t for----“
“Yeah, I know Troy. See you in a few weeks.”
Like religion, Paul tried to keep his life separate from politics. That was until he was set up with Dennis Schuster. At the time Paul took the job because Dennis offered good money that Paul could not turn down. After a few visits and discussions Paul was impressed by Dennis’s amicability. Most politicians of that caliber had enough courtesy to leave a typed up you’re-not-important-enough-to-speak-with-so-I-left-you-a-to-do-list.
But not Dennis.
Now Paul had called Dennis to ask for a favor. John, another friend and client of Paul, had been looking for funds in order to develop and renovate some of the town parks.
In his youth John was the kind of student liked by teachers and parents yet always in question of what path he was headed down. Parents, teachers, and family thankful, a short stay in the county jail finally seemed to lead John in the right direction. He had a maintenance job for the town and his boss did not regret taking a risk on John.
Paul noticed the new efforts John had underway and decided to take a chance, as John’s boss had when hiring him.
Paul set up an appointment between the two hoping Dennis could help John.
“What the fuck are you wearing?” Paul asked.
“Well, you told me----“
“I said dress nice, khakis and a button down.”
“But that’s what I’m----“
“No, dipshit, those are cargo pants!”
John averted his eyes to the floor kicking at the carpet gently.
“Let’s go,” Paul said.
On their way to meet Dennis the dim grumble of the tires accented an awkward silence. When the explorer pulled into the lot Paul grabbed John’s arm before he stepped out of the truck, “Just be friendly. Dennis is a good guy, especially for a politician.”
His knees no longer hurt from weeding Miss Brill’s gardens. His back stopped hurting from moving lumber at work. His chest stopped aching from that bitch.
Paul laid out on his back, serene as ever. On the table next to his bed set a half empty bottle of Maker’s Mark, with a small glass setting next to it.
John walked up to the bed and paused before gently tapping Paul’s shoulder.
Paul did not move.
He leaned over, closer to Paul’s ear.
“Paul,” he said, louder, but not shouting.
He turned his head, listening for Paul’s scratchy breath.
And now he was certain.
How could this have happened? John wondered. Paul was in good shape, and it was not like he had never had a few drinks in his day. John walked around the bed and opened the night stand’s drawer. An empty Tylenol bottle rolled on top of three envelopes. The first letter, addressed to John, read:
You will do a great job in life. All of my closet is yours. Take care of it. I also left a little diagram to help you with specific appointments in my loafers.
The other letters, one addressed to employees of his business and the other to Cixi, John slid into his front pocket. He picked up the phone and dialed Paul’s wife; she was out of town on business.
“Hello… who am I speaking with?”
“I’m sorry ma’am. It’s John, um----“
“John why are you calling from my home phone?”
“Well, um, Mrs. Degauw, I don’t know how else to put this…”
He paused, unsure about how to say it.
“Quickly John, I have a meeting in a half hour.”
“Uh… I came over to see Paul today, because he hasn’t been out around town in a few days so I thought I’d check up on him. Thought maybe he caught the flu or something, but when I got here he was just laying on his bed, no covers or anything. And so I tapped him to wake him up and, um, well.”
He hesitated briefly before finally admitting it to her.
“Paul’s passed on, Mrs. Degauw.”
Cixi let out a deep breath and set the phone down with a gentle click in John’s ear.
In Africa, Nuer boys become men during the gaar ceremony. Here an elder cuts the boy with his ngope parallel along the forehead, three lines. If the boy flinches the line becomes crooked and he will forever be marked as a disgrace to the tribe, facing criticism into and beyond death. In the West, there is no gaar, but there are many ways to get crooked scars. Now John knew his responsibility, and he was going to make sure no one knew of Paul’s crooked scar.