Starting Small

“Help me out with my New Year’s resolution. I need some inspiration.”

“I have enough trouble with my own.”

“Sure. But you know my pluses and minuses. Just throw out an idea or two.”

“What, like lose a little weight or get more exercise?”

“If that’s what you think I need.”

“You definitely don’t need either of those two things.”

“O.K. So…?”

“Hmm. You could be a little nicer?”

“You don’t think I’m nice? How am I not nice?”

“It’s just that sometimes I think you think you’re not like everyone else.”

“I don’t get it. You mean you think I think I’m better than everyone else?”

“No, not like that. Not that you’re better. You just don’t seem to realize that we’re all in this thing together.”

“You’re talking about life? We all live and we all die?”

“Not exactly that either. It’s somewhere in between – not about thinking you’re superior and not about recognizing your mortality. I think that from day to day as you go about your business and deal with other people, you could be a little more compassionate. I don’t feel much caring in you. You could be a little more, well, kinder.”

“Wow. I don’t know what to say… You’ve surprised me there.”

“I’m not trying to make a big deal out of it. You know I love you. I know you’re a good person. Maybe I’m way off base here. Maybe you’ve got a caring side that I’ missing. I’m not saying you’re mean or anything – maybe just that you could warm up a little. Make a little more eye contact, including with me when you get up in the morning or when we’re arguing about something.”

“It’s not something that a person uses every day. Compassion, I mean. I can’t show up at work and walk around asking my coworkers how they’re doing. If I’m having lunch at a restaurant, I’m not searching my waitress’ face for signs of anguish.”

“You asked for a suggestion and I gave you one. Maybe we should leave it at that and move on.”

“I’m sorry. I did ask. Thank you for being honest. Your answer just caught me by surprise… You think I should resolve to make more eye contact?”

“Whatever. I was just thinking out loud a little bit. I overdid it.”

“No, no. It’s just that I can’t simply resolve to be nicer or more kind. I need something more specific. Something I can commit to. Maybe I should resolve to do something nice. Some particular thing, I mean.”

“That could work. If you’re going to do only one nice thing a year, though, I hope you don’t wait till next December to do it.”

“Come on. I mean, doing something nice for someone would just be a step. The sooner I took that step, the sooner I could take another. A good deed could lead to other good deeds.”

“I see. O.K.”

“A nice thing… Any ideas?”

“No more bright ideas from me, thank you.”

“I’m just trying to think of people we know. You’re more familiar with the neighborhood.”

“The neighborhood. You’ve got a woman who is eighty-five and taking care of her husband with Alzheimer’s. You’ve got a young mother with three children and a husband doing a twelve-month tour in Afghanistan. You’ve got a low-income man in his sixties with ALS, who at this point is a quadriplegic.”

“Good Lord. I was thinking about walking a dog or something.”

“They all have dogs. Walking a dog would be a great first step.”

“It sounds kind of funny. I resolve to walk a dog this year.”

“It does sound funny. All things considered, it also sounds nice.”

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Gizmo

“Sir?”

“zzzzzzz”

“Sir? Hello?”

“zzzzzzzz… Huh? Wha?”

“Sir?”

“Hunh. Must have dozed off. Big lunch… What can I do for you?”

“The man at the bus station said I could get some money here for a bus ticket. I’ve got to get to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.”

“From Area 51 to Devil’s Tower, huh? You some kind of extraterrestrial fanboy?”

“I’m not sure what a fanboy is, but perhaps I am.”

“Well, that’s a thousand-mile trip, my friend. What have you got on your person that’s worth the price of the ticket? And how much would that ticket cost?”

“$184. It’s a twenty-four-hour trip, the ticket seller said, on the big gray dog. He told me I could pawn or sell this. See?”

“Do you want to sell it or pawn it? Are you going to want it back?”

“I won’t need it back, I guess. I won’t be around these parts.”

“Then you’ll want to sell it, not pawn it… What is it, anyway?”

“It has many uses.”

“Like what?”

“It is my principal weapon.”

“Oh, yes? It is one strange-looking gun… Is it loaded?”

“Loaded?”

“Will it shoot? Will it fire?”

“Certainly.”

“Then get out of the store, Pilgrim! No loaded guns in a pawn shop! That’s a firm rule everywhere. Take that thing outside and remove its bullets. Don’t come in here with ammo, for Cry-eye! Not in your pocket and not in your gun.”

“I’m sorry, Sir. I misunderstood. There are no bullets in this… this gun.”

“Then why did you say it was loaded?”

“Earlier today, I tried to buy a car. The man told me it was fully loaded. It didn’t mean there were bullets in the car.”

“Say, you speak English real good, but you aren’t from around here, are you?”

“No.”

“You’re just in the U. S. to see Area 51 and Devil’s Tower and places like that?”

“Well, those are two popular sites, yes.”

“You didn’t buy the car?”

“No. The man wanted too much money. That’s why I went to the bus station. That’s why I need enough money for a bus ticket.”

“O.K. Well, give me the license for that baby. I’ll need to make a copy. I’ll pay you for the weapon and put it up for sale, and in case you might change your mind and want it back, I warn you, with all the sci-fi freaks around here, this baby will move fast.”

“A license?”

“Don’t tell me, let me guess. You don’t have a license. What is that thing, anyway? Where was it made? Is it military? Israeli? Rumanian?”

“Listen, it’s not a gun, per se. It has many uses. I just meant that, well, it could be used as a weapon, if need be. Please forget the gun appellation.”

“Say, what do you take me for? You want $184 for what? A toy? Give me something to work with here. What’s your name?”

“My name. Um. Brad.”

“Brad. You’re a Brad. Uh huh. Well, Brad, put that thing through its paces.”

“O.K… It can make food.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“Look. I press this, and…”

“What is that, a tomato? Hold on. I’ve gotta call my wife out here. Trixie! Trixie!”

“What!”

“Come out here. There’s something you gotta see!”

“I’m watching my show in here!”

“Tape your show in there! There’s something you got to see out here! Get a move on!”

“What’s so important I gotta miss my show? This better be good.”

“Wait, look. I press this doohickey here…”

“What is that, mashed potatoes? All over the counter? Are you nuts? Don’t call me out here again unless it’s a stickup or you won the lottery.”

“Aw, baby… She didn’t get the point, Brad. Like, how did these mashed potatoes get here, you know? Hold on while I pile them up… I can make… I want to make…”

“You’re making Devil’s Tower.”

“Oh, yeah? I’ve never seen it.”

“Let me clean this up…”

“Hey, my tower… At least you left the tomato. Say, that thing is amazing. What else can it do?”

“Music, like d e c c g… Re, me, do, do, so.”

“Oh, yeah? That’s the music from that space movie, right? What else can it do? What about that thingee there?”

“Time travel.”

“How does that work?”

“I’ll show you.”

“What about that thingee there?”

“Time travel.”

“How does that work?”

“I’ll show you.”

“What about that thingee there?””

“Time travel.”

“How does that work?”

“It’s hard to demonstrate, I guess. Let’s skip that one. This one over here lets you read somebody’s mind. It’s not half as much fun as you would anticipate.”

“Can I try it out on you?”

“No, I don’t have a mind, not the way you would think.”

“Hey, Babe! Get out here!”

“I’m not comin.”

“I mean it! I’ll horsewhip you!”

“You and what army, you old fool? Alright, what is it?”

“Hold on while I press this button… Lordy, Mister. You were right. It ain’t much fun after all. Go on back to your show, Babe… How about this slider, Brad?”

“It predicts the future.”

“How often does it get it right?”

“It’s never wrong.”

“Let’s try that one, then. Hang on while I call my man in Reno… Jose? Put a hundred down on… hold on… I slide this doohickey over… and more… a hundred down on Drizzle Foot in the fourth. Going off at eighty-to-one.”

“Be careful with that slider. If the evil-doers find out you never miss in your predictions, they’ll descend on you in a flash.”

“Don’t worry about that. I ain’t greedy. What about this thingamabob?”

“Don’t touch that one! Only touch that one when the environment is maximized for reproductive activities.”

“That would be never. You saw what I have to deal with.”

“I assure you, press this button in the dark of night, alone in your bedroom with your spouse, and serious, furious congress will occur. Repeatedly.”

“Hang on. Let me get this cash drawer open. I’m giving you $200 for the thing. That’s enough for your bus ticket and some meals along the way. Have a nice trip.”

Stopover

“Hi. You beat me here. Have you ordered?”

“Just coffee.”

“Miss… Another coffee, please?”

“How long will you be in town?”

“I’m just passing through. I stopped for gas. I decided to drive for a change, instead of flying. See the country and take some time to think.”

“Sure.”

“I wasn’t going to stop.”

“Looks like you changed your mind. It’s been a long time.”

“Seems like forever. Seems like yesterday.”

“You look good. Rumpled, as usual.”

“I’ve been driving, but yeah, I guess I’m still the rumpled type. You look good. Better than ever. When I came in and saw you, I…”

“Let’s not get carried away. A long time is a long time.”

“Is that a new scar in your eyebrow?”

“I got clocked by my son’s dump truck in the sandbox.”

“I heard about your marriage. Fill me in.”

“Let’s see. Got over you. Met a man. Got married. Two kids. I teach at a community college. It’s a quiet life. All of a sudden I’m halfway to forty. What about you?”

“No wife. No girlfriend at the moment. No children. Making a living with the writing. Never got over you.”

“Whoa.”

“I’m sorry. Where did that come from? No, I know where it came from. I just didn’t think I’d actually say it. Stupid.”

“You never came back. Never wrote.”

“Sorry. Pretend I didn’t say that. Forget I said that. ”

“Said what?”

“Right. Thanks. After you married, I couldn’t imagine coming back… So we’re both thirty-five. How did that happen?”

“Get yourself two kids, a teaching job, and a husband who flies airplanes and you’ll find out.”

“It went by fast?”

“Fast enough. You?”

“Fast, but a grind. I never thought I’d make it to thirty. In my head I’m still in my twenties.”

“You were thirty-five at nineteen. I’ve kept up with your work. On the page, you sound like you’re in your fifties.”

“My God.”

“No, it’s a good thing. You impress the hell out of me. You always did. When I read your stories, I sense a very large spirit.”

“You know me better than that. Evelyn Waugh came across as a wonderful human being in his books. He wasn’t. I write like I write, but it’s just a style. It comes naturally. I spend my days alone in a room. If I ever had a spirit, it’s shrunk to the size of a raisin.”

“That’s not what the media says. You’re in Paris, you’re in Vientiane. You’re in Bali. You’ve got a girl on your arm.”

“I’ve seen the world, that’s for sure. I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do with travel. And then some.”

“Did it change you, seeing the world?”

“Travel changed my perspective but I don’t think it changed me.”

“And the women on your arm?”

“On the arm. Not in the heart.”

“Poetic.”

“Sorry.”

“I won’t lie. I’m almost jealous.”

“You don’t look jealous. You look…”

“What?”

“I’m trying to remember. I know this look. It always got to me. It’s a wary look. Not a happy look. By the way, did you pick this booth on purpose?”

“Of course.”

“You’ve probably been in it a time or two since I left.”

“Many times. With my two kids standing where you’re sitting, looking over into the next booth and giggling. You always said you wanted children.”

“I do want children, but I need a wife first.”

“I’m amazed you’re still single. You seemed so pro-marriage. You said you’d marry me on the spot if I’d go with you. How close have you come since then?”

“You’re as close as I’ve come, and I blew it.”

“…Yes, refill it please. Thanks.”

“There’s that look again. I’m sorry. I’ll restrain myself. It’s just that I’m sitting here having feelings I didn’t expect to have. I’d say more than I already have if I thought it would do any good.”

“So we’re getting right to it? No, it wouldn’t do any good for you to say more, but I won’t lie. You and me together, that was the best time of my life. Followed by you and me apart, which was the worst, and I’m sitting here remembering it.”

“I don’t need to remember it, because I never forgot it. If you could do it over, would you make the same choice?”

“To stay here and go to college instead of running off with you?”

“Yes. Knowing what you know now.”

“I have my children now. That changes everything. Permanently. I’d stay, because otherwise, my children wouldn’t be here, and they mean more to me than you or my husband. So no, I wouldn’t go with you. What about you? Would you still go, knowing what you know now?”

“No, of course I wouldn’t. I could have sat in a room here and written just as well as I did in New York. I didn’t understand that then, but I understand it now. I didn’t have to leave, at least not then. I could have married you and learned my craft, and your children would have been our children and I would have saved myself ten years of regret. No, of course I wouldn’t have gone.”

“You know, I said that I got over you. Most of the time I do think I’m over you, but I don’t have any romance in my life to speak of, any more than you do, if you’re telling the truth. But then, most married couples don’t. Romance is for when you first meet and feel like you’re walking on air. It doesn’t last.”

“It lasted for us, as I recall.”

“Well, it wouldn’t have lasted forever. It would have been gone by now.”

“It doesn’t feel gone. Were you walking on air when you married your husband?”

“I love my husband. Did I say that already? Well, I do. He’s a friend. I trust him. I like him. I admire him. There was never any romance there, at least on my side, but even if there had been, like I say, it would have been gone by now. My days are about my children and my students and a man who sometimes wants me to be his mother and sometimes his housekeeper, who spends his time with flight attendants while I spend mine here in town with the same friends I’ve had all my life. What I don’t spend a lot of time doing is thinking about you and me. I wasn’t going away with you and you weren’t staying here, so now I’ve got my life and you’ve got yours. Our life together, our love, that just got… cut off, I guess. It got cut off the night you walked out of here. Ten years from now, neither of us will remember or care. Ten more and we might forget to mention it to our grandkids if they happen to ask, which they won’t.”

“You’re that bitter?”

“I’m realistic.”

“You don’t sound realistic. You sound angry. Listen. Life in the future doesn’t have to be like life in the past. Just because you’re not in love now doesn’t mean you can’t be.”

“Fine. Those women on your arm? Is that your future?”

“Those women on my arm equal several years of bad dates… All I’m saying is, sometimes you can see the error of your ways and turn it around and do something different.”

“As in, I could go home and collect the children and leave with you now? Like I didn’t before?”

“No, I didn’t mean that.”

“As in, you’re staying here now, like you didn’t before?”

“Would that be so wrong?”

“I probably want it more than you do. But if you chop off your arm, you can’t change your mind later and decide to sew it back on again. It’s gone for good.”

“What kind of analogy is that?”

“A bad one. Let me think of another… You have a large patch of fertile ground. You could cultivate it, build on it, base your life on it. But no, you choose to let it lie fallow. A forest grows on it and animals come to live in the forest. Finally, years later, you change your mind. You decide that you want the fields and the home and a life based on that patch of land. To get it, you’ve got to cut down all the trees and kill all the animals and turn the place into a wasteland full of stumps.”

“Jesus. Go back to chopping off your arm, please.”

“Look, I’ve got regrets, just like you. Yes, I’m angry, at both of us, especially me. I’m bitter. But I also have a life. Maybe not the best life, but a good life.”

“I’m not angry or bitter, but I’ve got an ache that won’t go away. I’ve been stuck with it for a long time. I keep waiting for the regret to fade. It hasn’t. I thought that if I came back, if we talked, if I could look at you and sit down with you like this, it might pull me out of the past. It might help me heal.”

“Well, I’m so sorry about your healing, but something just got torn back open over here.”

“I was stupid to come. Selfish.”

“You were stupid and selfish not to come sooner. I’ve been waiting forever. I haven’t felt this alive since I supposedly got over you.

“Can I…”

“No you can’t. Don’t even think about it.”

“My God, you’re lovely… There was a moment that night when I finally made the choice to leave without you. I’d been thinking about whether I should or not, or could or not, but there was a moment that night when I finally decided. That was the moment I wounded myself, and the wound never healed. You’re right. I cut off my arm. I cut out my heart. Now I can’t separate the hurt from the memory. I love you but it doesn’t matter, because that stupid kid made that stupid decision. It’s as if a ghost or a curse won’t let me touch you again.”

“It’s not a ghost or a curse. It’s my children. It’s my life. I settled for less when you left. It didn’t cure the pain but it dulled it. Or it did until now. It gave me my family and my career.”

“I settled for less, too. I just didn’t know it.”

“It’s going to hurt like hell when you walk out that door.”

“I could stay.”

“That would hurt worse.”

“Can we do this again?”

“Sure. Give me an hour for the tears to dry. Make that a day. Make that a couple of years.”

“I’ll stop for gas on the way through.”

“Call me when you do.”