No Map and No Directions


Robert Hayes stared out the window listening his partner tell the new admin some lame joke; listening to her laughter, bright and thin and so utterly expected.  Part of the requirements of the job, he supposed.  Nothing like the laughter of his mother. 

He smiled and took a sip of his tea, thin and green and disgusting.  Celeste had forced him to abandon coffee.  And meat.  And dairy products.  He wondered what his wife—in ever pursuit of eternal life—would press him to give up next.  What would be the next thing to drop out of his life completely?

If he were to examine the facts—and that was his job, wasn’t it?  To sort through the facts and find some Truth within them?—he would have to admit the fault was his.  He had allowed it to happen.  Had started it, actually; had set things in motion all those years ago. 

He put his mind in reverse, reeling backwards a single frame at a time, each important moment a snapshot in his memory: The purchase of the Lower East brownstone.  His Columbia degrees—three in all.  His move to New York.  His mother, the day of his high school graduation, pushing him out the door towards town.  “Go, Bobby Joe,” she said.  “Go and make something of yourself.  Go and make me proud.”


Just before leaving, he took one last look around that cabin—except for the bathroom, one main room, with beds all around the perimeter.  No decorations, save the calendar tacked to the wall and his various paper awards, yellowed and curling up at the edges: perfect attendance certificates—twelve in all; his National Honor Society card; his name printed upon the honor roll year after year after year.

After he left, he never looked back.  As his awards grew, as his brain expanded and filled with Important Things, he found his family—his past—his history—embarrassed him.  He discovered that it was easy enough, to change one’s name; to lose one’s parents in a tragic accident.  With enough money, it’s simple to invent a life.

And one day, Bobby Joe Jones died.  And Robert B. Hayes was born.

But inventions were often illusory and realities pressed deep.  It didn’t take much to call memory back.  Sometimes all it took was a laugh to bring back the memory of his mother and his siblings. 

Momma had grouped them, for the sake of convenience: The Little Ones, the youngest boys.  Twins.  The Middles.  Also twins.  His sisters.  Two by two, twins marched from his mother’s womb. 

Except for him. 

Oldest. 

Oldest was alone.

Oldest was expected to Know Better, but often he didn’t.   

* * * 

It had been meant as a joke.  The Little Ones were always trying to introduce a bit of levity, to fill a situation with enough hot air to lift the tiny cabin from its formidable foundation and move it, on the trails of their laughter, to a happier place.  To a Someplace Else.  To that place everyone wanted to find.

There was no map.  There were no directions.  And yet, it was a place everyone sought.  A place that to this day everyone seeks.

Momma finished the breakfast dishes and then poured herself another cup of coffee from the blue spatterware pot that boiled nonstop on the woodstove.  She wore her thin threadbare nightgown that ended just above her knobby knees.  Her feet were jammed into fuzzy pink slippers.  In one hand she carried her cup of coffee.  In the other, a bottle of dollar store lotion.  Once a week, Momma would bathe and then rub that lotion over her tired sagging skin, the only luxury she’d ever known, in an attempt, Robert supposed now, to smooth away the harsh realities that were her life.

Momma walked into the bathroom.  Shut the door behind her.  They could hear her humming.  Could hear the shower curtain drawing back.  They started at one another, biting upon their lips and pressing grubby hands against dirty faces to keep the laughter inside.  Bobby Joe wondered whether the Little Ones had gone too far.

A moment later, Momma emerged, hands on hips.

“Do y’all mind ‘splain’ how the hell our donkey got into the bathtub?”  She paused.   Crossed the room to the kitchen area and parted the curtains with one hand.  “That is our donkey, ain’t it?”

One of the Middles giggled.

Momma laughed then.  “Well, at least it ain’t a elephant.”  She sank her bony self into a wooden chair and for an instant Bobby Joe got a profile view of his twin brothers growing in her womb: Last Ones.

Momma laughed long and hard, and her laughter gave them the permission they needed to laugh also.  They all joined in and that little cabin, deep in the mountains, surrounded only by trees and abandonment and hopelessness, filled with laughter.  And despite the fact that the house remained resolutely upon its foundation, Bobby Joe felt them travel to that place that had no map and no directions. 

***
Robert looked out the window and watched the people on the sidewalk, thirty floors below.  The rich rubbed shoulders with the artists who rubbed shoulders with eager interns, all of them taking care not to spill their coffee as they stepped with eyes averted  around the homeless woman who begged at the corner every day.

Every day, he, too, averted his eyes from the face of the woman, so as not to see the truth of the facts contained therein.  But today, as she’d turned to a woman with a designer dog and held out her torn paper cup, Robert had noticed the gentle swell beneath her shirt; the roundness of her hips.  He wondered whether the child within would be Oldest or Last One.

He stood and slipped on his coat.  The new admin, the laughing, briskly efficient admin removed her glasses.  “Where are you going?”

 “Can you cook?”  His voice was harsh and impatient.

She reddened.  “I didn’t realize that was a job requirement.”

“Can you stone a squirrel, gut it and fry it up for dinner all within the span of an hour?”

She blanched.  “I’m a vegan.”

He sighed.  Another one.  He tried another tactic.  “If I dropped you off on the side of a mountain, how many days would you survive?”

“You mean like one of those reality shows?”

“No.  I mean like reality.  Hold my calls.”

He took the stairs, thirty flights of stairs, because that would be faster than the elevator at this time of day.  He walked to the corner, drawing his coat up closer, wishing for his thick scarf.


He went up to the woman.  Smiled tentatively.  “Are you hungry?”

She stared.  Waited. 

“Come with me,” he said.

“I’m no hooker.”

“I’m not looking for one.”  Robert removed his coat and wrapped it around the woman’s bony shoulders.  “When was your last meal?” 

“Tuesday.”

“That was two days ago.”

 “I can count.  I’m homeless, not stupid.”

“I’m taking you home.”

“I’m not a stray you can take home to your momma.”

Robert cringed.  He hailed a taxi and flashed the driver a hundred dollar bill.  He saw the driver curse as he pulled to the curb.  But even in New York, a hundred dollar tip was a hard thing to come by.

Robert opened the back door, helped the woman slide across the vinyl seat, dull and green, yellow foam pouring through a hole in the center.  He sat beside her; gave the driver his address and leaned against the back of the seat. 

Neither of them bothered with seatbelts. 

The driver pulled up to the brownstone.  Robert helped the woman from the car.  He felt the curious eyes of nameless neighbors upon him. 

He unlocked the front door, led the woman inside. He removed his coat from her shoulders and hung it in the closet.  He studied her fingernails, blackened and bruised; her sunken eyes still holding a touch of pride; her mouth, slack and harsh and challenging.

His cell phone buzzed.  His admin.  “Excuse me a moment.”  He stepped into the library, the library full of books nobody had ever bothered to read.  “Hello?”

“Robert, where are you?”

Before he could respond, there came a scream and a shattering of glass.  He dropped the cell phone, returned to the door.  His wife stood there, perfectly made up, blond tints, muscles hardened by her daily jogs in Central Park and weekly yoga sessions.  There was a shattered vase upon the floor; a packet of florist flowers wrapped in green paper.

“Robert, there’s a homeless person in our foyer!”  She pronounced it the French way, faux-plump lips tripping across the word, expanding it into three syllables rather than two.  Foyer.  A foyer the size of his mother’s cabin. 

The homeless woman sighed and sank her bony frame into a chair.


“You’re sitting on Louis XIV!” Celeste had the ostentatious habit of slipping in the names of their fancy furniture whenever she could, quick as a lemon drop and twice as sour: What Celeste called Louis, Robert simply called expensive.  "Get off of Louis!"

The woman grabbed the arms of the chair.  Hauled herself up.  Gave a neat little bow to the seat.  “Begging your pardon sir.  I didn't see you there.”  Then she doubled over herself and laughed and laughed.

Robert!

“Celeste, I want a divorce.”

Then Robert laughed, too.  And the laugh was loud and mighty and for an instant Bobby Joe Jones thought he could feel the house rocking upon its fine and stately foundation.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week,Lance challenged me with "explain how the donkey got in the bathtub".  I challenged SAM with "frostbitten fingers on a ninety degree day."

Labels: ,

Writing in the Margins, Bursting at the Seams: No Map and No Directions

Sunday, January 8, 2012

No Map and No Directions


Robert Hayes stared out the window listening his partner tell the new admin some lame joke; listening to her laughter, bright and thin and so utterly expected.  Part of the requirements of the job, he supposed.  Nothing like the laughter of his mother. 

He smiled and took a sip of his tea, thin and green and disgusting.  Celeste had forced him to abandon coffee.  And meat.  And dairy products.  He wondered what his wife—in ever pursuit of eternal life—would press him to give up next.  What would be the next thing to drop out of his life completely?

If he were to examine the facts—and that was his job, wasn’t it?  To sort through the facts and find some Truth within them?—he would have to admit the fault was his.  He had allowed it to happen.  Had started it, actually; had set things in motion all those years ago. 

He put his mind in reverse, reeling backwards a single frame at a time, each important moment a snapshot in his memory: The purchase of the Lower East brownstone.  His Columbia degrees—three in all.  His move to New York.  His mother, the day of his high school graduation, pushing him out the door towards town.  “Go, Bobby Joe,” she said.  “Go and make something of yourself.  Go and make me proud.”


Just before leaving, he took one last look around that cabin—except for the bathroom, one main room, with beds all around the perimeter.  No decorations, save the calendar tacked to the wall and his various paper awards, yellowed and curling up at the edges: perfect attendance certificates—twelve in all; his National Honor Society card; his name printed upon the honor roll year after year after year.

After he left, he never looked back.  As his awards grew, as his brain expanded and filled with Important Things, he found his family—his past—his history—embarrassed him.  He discovered that it was easy enough, to change one’s name; to lose one’s parents in a tragic accident.  With enough money, it’s simple to invent a life.

And one day, Bobby Joe Jones died.  And Robert B. Hayes was born.

But inventions were often illusory and realities pressed deep.  It didn’t take much to call memory back.  Sometimes all it took was a laugh to bring back the memory of his mother and his siblings. 

Momma had grouped them, for the sake of convenience: The Little Ones, the youngest boys.  Twins.  The Middles.  Also twins.  His sisters.  Two by two, twins marched from his mother’s womb. 

Except for him. 

Oldest. 

Oldest was alone.

Oldest was expected to Know Better, but often he didn’t.   

* * * 

It had been meant as a joke.  The Little Ones were always trying to introduce a bit of levity, to fill a situation with enough hot air to lift the tiny cabin from its formidable foundation and move it, on the trails of their laughter, to a happier place.  To a Someplace Else.  To that place everyone wanted to find.

There was no map.  There were no directions.  And yet, it was a place everyone sought.  A place that to this day everyone seeks.

Momma finished the breakfast dishes and then poured herself another cup of coffee from the blue spatterware pot that boiled nonstop on the woodstove.  She wore her thin threadbare nightgown that ended just above her knobby knees.  Her feet were jammed into fuzzy pink slippers.  In one hand she carried her cup of coffee.  In the other, a bottle of dollar store lotion.  Once a week, Momma would bathe and then rub that lotion over her tired sagging skin, the only luxury she’d ever known, in an attempt, Robert supposed now, to smooth away the harsh realities that were her life.

Momma walked into the bathroom.  Shut the door behind her.  They could hear her humming.  Could hear the shower curtain drawing back.  They started at one another, biting upon their lips and pressing grubby hands against dirty faces to keep the laughter inside.  Bobby Joe wondered whether the Little Ones had gone too far.

A moment later, Momma emerged, hands on hips.

“Do y’all mind ‘splain’ how the hell our donkey got into the bathtub?”  She paused.   Crossed the room to the kitchen area and parted the curtains with one hand.  “That is our donkey, ain’t it?”

One of the Middles giggled.

Momma laughed then.  “Well, at least it ain’t a elephant.”  She sank her bony self into a wooden chair and for an instant Bobby Joe got a profile view of his twin brothers growing in her womb: Last Ones.

Momma laughed long and hard, and her laughter gave them the permission they needed to laugh also.  They all joined in and that little cabin, deep in the mountains, surrounded only by trees and abandonment and hopelessness, filled with laughter.  And despite the fact that the house remained resolutely upon its foundation, Bobby Joe felt them travel to that place that had no map and no directions. 

***
Robert looked out the window and watched the people on the sidewalk, thirty floors below.  The rich rubbed shoulders with the artists who rubbed shoulders with eager interns, all of them taking care not to spill their coffee as they stepped with eyes averted  around the homeless woman who begged at the corner every day.

Every day, he, too, averted his eyes from the face of the woman, so as not to see the truth of the facts contained therein.  But today, as she’d turned to a woman with a designer dog and held out her torn paper cup, Robert had noticed the gentle swell beneath her shirt; the roundness of her hips.  He wondered whether the child within would be Oldest or Last One.

He stood and slipped on his coat.  The new admin, the laughing, briskly efficient admin removed her glasses.  “Where are you going?”

 “Can you cook?”  His voice was harsh and impatient.

She reddened.  “I didn’t realize that was a job requirement.”

“Can you stone a squirrel, gut it and fry it up for dinner all within the span of an hour?”

She blanched.  “I’m a vegan.”

He sighed.  Another one.  He tried another tactic.  “If I dropped you off on the side of a mountain, how many days would you survive?”

“You mean like one of those reality shows?”

“No.  I mean like reality.  Hold my calls.”

He took the stairs, thirty flights of stairs, because that would be faster than the elevator at this time of day.  He walked to the corner, drawing his coat up closer, wishing for his thick scarf.


He went up to the woman.  Smiled tentatively.  “Are you hungry?”

She stared.  Waited. 

“Come with me,” he said.

“I’m no hooker.”

“I’m not looking for one.”  Robert removed his coat and wrapped it around the woman’s bony shoulders.  “When was your last meal?” 

“Tuesday.”

“That was two days ago.”

 “I can count.  I’m homeless, not stupid.”

“I’m taking you home.”

“I’m not a stray you can take home to your momma.”

Robert cringed.  He hailed a taxi and flashed the driver a hundred dollar bill.  He saw the driver curse as he pulled to the curb.  But even in New York, a hundred dollar tip was a hard thing to come by.

Robert opened the back door, helped the woman slide across the vinyl seat, dull and green, yellow foam pouring through a hole in the center.  He sat beside her; gave the driver his address and leaned against the back of the seat. 

Neither of them bothered with seatbelts. 

The driver pulled up to the brownstone.  Robert helped the woman from the car.  He felt the curious eyes of nameless neighbors upon him. 

He unlocked the front door, led the woman inside. He removed his coat from her shoulders and hung it in the closet.  He studied her fingernails, blackened and bruised; her sunken eyes still holding a touch of pride; her mouth, slack and harsh and challenging.

His cell phone buzzed.  His admin.  “Excuse me a moment.”  He stepped into the library, the library full of books nobody had ever bothered to read.  “Hello?”

“Robert, where are you?”

Before he could respond, there came a scream and a shattering of glass.  He dropped the cell phone, returned to the door.  His wife stood there, perfectly made up, blond tints, muscles hardened by her daily jogs in Central Park and weekly yoga sessions.  There was a shattered vase upon the floor; a packet of florist flowers wrapped in green paper.

“Robert, there’s a homeless person in our foyer!”  She pronounced it the French way, faux-plump lips tripping across the word, expanding it into three syllables rather than two.  Foyer.  A foyer the size of his mother’s cabin. 

The homeless woman sighed and sank her bony frame into a chair.


“You’re sitting on Louis XIV!” Celeste had the ostentatious habit of slipping in the names of their fancy furniture whenever she could, quick as a lemon drop and twice as sour: What Celeste called Louis, Robert simply called expensive.  "Get off of Louis!"

The woman grabbed the arms of the chair.  Hauled herself up.  Gave a neat little bow to the seat.  “Begging your pardon sir.  I didn't see you there.”  Then she doubled over herself and laughed and laughed.

Robert!

“Celeste, I want a divorce.”

Then Robert laughed, too.  And the laugh was loud and mighty and for an instant Bobby Joe Jones thought he could feel the house rocking upon its fine and stately foundation.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week,Lance challenged me with "explain how the donkey got in the bathtub".  I challenged SAM with "frostbitten fingers on a ninety degree day."

Labels: ,

24 Comments:

At January 8, 2012 at 4:39 PM , Anonymous Elizabeth Young said...

Excellent! I was held right until the end and ready for more! How about continuing this and making it into a novel?

 
At January 8, 2012 at 5:17 PM , Anonymous kgwaite said...

Maybe if I ever finish the one I'm working on! Thanks for reading, Elizabeth. This one was tough.

 
At January 8, 2012 at 6:18 PM , Anonymous Lance said...

wow

I was hoping you'd find a way not to make is slapstick funny. You nailed poignancy and depth of character.

Robert is so interesting. I like how you used the prompt as meaningful memory to his different time in his life

I would read the hell out of this book. Excellent job, Kelly. You are so talented.

 
At January 9, 2012 at 7:48 AM , Anonymous Leslicollins said...

"Celeste had the ostentatious habit of slipping in the names of their fancy furniture whenever she could, quick as a lemon drop and twice as sour." - Brilliant; very succinct window into both personalities!

 
At January 9, 2012 at 10:17 AM , Anonymous Head Ant said...

I'm glad to see he hasn't forgotten where he came from.

 
At January 9, 2012 at 12:46 PM , Anonymous Seasidesmores said...

In our house we too were divided into bigs and littles!

 
At January 9, 2012 at 1:43 PM , Anonymous StoryDam said...

I have to agree with some of the others - I think this would make a pretty damned good book! Thanks for sharing this. Nice response to a prompt.

 
At January 9, 2012 at 3:25 PM , Anonymous kgwaite said...

Thanks for reading! Lance gives out some thought-provoking challenges.

 
At January 9, 2012 at 3:25 PM , Anonymous kgwaite said...

That's neat. We weren't, growing up, divided this way, but I liked the idea of it.

 
At January 9, 2012 at 3:26 PM , Anonymous kgwaite said...

Me, too. Thanks for reading.

 
At January 9, 2012 at 3:26 PM , Anonymous kgwaite said...

Thanks for reading!

 
At January 9, 2012 at 3:26 PM , Anonymous kgwaite said...

When you told me the origin of this prompt, I got nervous. I was afraid I'm make it slapstick, too, and I really wanted to avoid it. Thanks for the great prompt.

 
At January 10, 2012 at 8:41 AM , Anonymous CB said...

I really liked the denouement. (Wonder if Cecilia can pronounce that one?)

 
At January 10, 2012 at 12:00 PM , Anonymous Tara R. said...

I like Bobby Joe's return to his true nature, and you brought in the prompt perfectly.

 
At January 10, 2012 at 2:18 PM , Anonymous SAM said...

I really really enjoyed this. I love that you weaved in the prompt as a memory of laughter and good times in his childhood and how that played a role in the end too. Great writing, Kelly!!

(And great prompt you gave me too!)

 
At January 10, 2012 at 4:35 PM , Anonymous Jaum said...

Ditto on Les's comment on twice as sour.... and loved the title "No Map No directions" Then working in the challange... had to be a challange!

 
At January 11, 2012 at 4:23 AM , Anonymous Magi Fowler said...

I enjoyed this story very much. You have shown Robert’s disillusionment with life and his almost self loathing of what he has allowed himself to become. His conversation with the beggar woman is witty, allowing her to reveal some of her character. However there were some parts that I found needed a second reading for them to become clear – e.g. your first para mentions his partner – was this a business partner or his wife? The abrupt mention of his mother at the end of this para had me wondering whether his mother was actually present. Perhaps re-phrasing the sentence might work better – such as ‘Nothing like the memory of his mother’s laughter so long ago.’ The pace of the story was excellent and made me want to know more about how Robert fared in his decision to seek a divorce. I think it has the makings of a much longer story – thank you for letting me read it

 
At January 11, 2012 at 7:25 AM , Anonymous Inkpuddle said...

I loved this! And second, third, fourth everyone who suggested turning it into a book. The only thing that gave me pause is that the names weren't consistent in a few places; he's Robert Harris in the first para and then Robert B. Hayes a little later on, and Celeste is Celeste until he asks Cecilia for a divorce. Yet, it kind of flowed with the theme of reinvention. Really, really loved this piece.

 
At January 11, 2012 at 11:27 AM , Anonymous kgwaite said...

Thanks for reading! Good catch on those names! Thanks for letting me know. Changing now...

 
At January 11, 2012 at 11:32 AM , Anonymous kgwaite said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. I'll take a look at your suggestions and see what I can do to improve it. You're right: When I went back and read "partner" it felt vague.

 
At January 11, 2012 at 11:32 AM , Anonymous kgwaite said...

Thanks!

 
At January 11, 2012 at 11:33 AM , Anonymous kgwaite said...

Thanks - Is your post up? I haven't seen it on II yet.

 
At January 11, 2012 at 11:34 AM , Anonymous kgwaite said...

Thanks, Tara!

 
At January 11, 2012 at 11:34 AM , Anonymous kgwaite said...

Ah, doubt it. Thanks for reading!

 

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