This is another previously unpublished short story. And for the record, I write fiction and some of it is odd. If I were still writing under pseudonyms, this would no doubt have been written by Eric Stringer. At any rate, I am not Clark and my wife is not Clark’s wife. Enjoy.
At the Moment
a Dark Scenarios short story by Harvey Stanbrough
Clark’s office was just off the living room. He sat in his desk chair and swiveled around sideways to look through the door into the living room. Outside the day was hot but inside the temp was closer to 75 — a ridiculous difference of about twenty degrees — and he’d caught a blast of cold air from the overhead swamp cooler duct when he came in.
He’d been outside and sweating a little on his way back through the heat from his writing office, which he maintained at around 80 degrees, and the downdraft of air chilled him to the bone and caused him to frown. The stupid swamp cooler was always running, the attendant noise seeming to mock him and stick pins into his headache even as the downdraft shivered its way down over his bald spot and neck and shoulders. But now he was in his chair and out of the direct draft and at the moment everything was perfectly fine.
To his right was his desk and his business laptop and just this side of the laptop lay the same knife with which he’d accidentally sliced the tendon in the knuckle just above his left index finger. The knife was incredibly sharp, so much so that the wound hadn’t even hurt at first. It hadn’t even bled. But when it started throbbing, lordamighty it was really something else. He never used that knife for anything silly again and had transported it from his writing office to his home office for safekeeping and he would use it in the future, if at all, only for something serious. Until then he liked to keep it close where he could watch it but he probably wouldn’t be tempted to use it for anything spurious. Because that day when he’d sliced that knuckle the knife had seemed very much alive and treacherous with intent. He’d meant to put it somewhere safe and someday he was certain he would do just that, but at the moment there it lay.
And in the deep sill of the north window beyond the left edge of the desk, lay his cat, her pretty little head on a pillow he’d acquired just for her. His tortoise-shell Siamese kitten. Napping. He grinned. She was eight years old, but he called her his kitten, and she was. He also called her his angel with a dirty face, and she was that too, although he always cringed inwardly at that “with a dirty face” part. Because it wasn’t really. She was really just an angel. Her name was Little Bit, which was easy to rhyme, and he was a writer after all so he’d written a song for her in two versions: one like a Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star kid’s song but not to that stupid tune and one with a bit more jazz-snap to it and a syncopated beat. She liked both versions, but as she grew older she seemed to prefer the second one.
On the screen of the laptop to his right on the desk, a game waited. Spider Solitaire.
It wasn’t a “real game” up to “gamers” standards but he didn’t care either way about that. It was a pastime to rival baseball. And really, Spider was interactive, so it was actually better as a pure pastime because when you were playing it you were a participant.
You had no more chance to leave during a game for a hotdog and a beer or a quick wizz than a baseball player had to do those things while his game was going on and he was on the field. Or catch a bag of peanuts or do the wave or catch the fat guy squeezed into the seat next to you with an elbow and glance over and mutter, “Sorry,” which Clark had never done but had imagined several times.
And in his imagination the fat guy was always also very tall and very bulked up like maybe he was a former weight lifter or firefighter or something and if he ever had to fight again he hoped it would be with someone like that, someone who had a significant weight advantage and a significant reach advantage and a couple of decades’ age advantage and whatever other advantages you might want to slap on. It was a binary outcome. Clark would take him or he wouldn’t. If he did, it would probably make him angry at himself and if he didn’t, well, that would probably be a sweet relief though he wouldn’t tell anyone else that.
He thought about the Spider game again only for a second although he didn’t look at it but continued to peer through the door into the living room. Really, technically, you could leave for any of those things except maybe the peanuts because he’d never seen those little bags of peanuts outside the ball park except in a silver tube screaming through the air at five hundred and some miles per hour or however fast they go, but Clark had a solid rule: If you were gonna play the damn game, well, then you should play the damn game.
But at the moment he wasn’t playing the game. At the moment the game was waiting, which at the moment was its only job. And Clark was relaxed, which at the moment was his only job, rocked slightly back in his desk chair, arms on the arm rests, knuckles white — except the knuckle just above his left index finger, which was white mixed with an angry pink — as he gripped the ends or the arms rests with his fingers.
Above his head, a 4-blade fan turned slowly. In a bar it would be mixing cigarette and cigar smoke with the heady aroma of whiskey and beer. And in some of the bars he’d been in long ago, the stinging slight stench of urine filtering past the chipped-paint bathroom door that read Gents and would never quite close. But in his office the fan was mixing nothing but the musty smell of the ugly blue carpet, the cat-shed dander and the slight burning-rubber smell left by the vacuum cleaner his wife had run over the carpet sometime while he was in his other office writing. It wasn’t even driving much of that frigid air down on him at the moment so being right there in the chair was not a bad thing.
Through the door was a few feet of saltillo tile, then the back of the couch, and protruding over the left side of the couch was the brown lump that was the back of his wife’s head. Graying in a spider web that looked a little like a really fine head-sized lace doily but still brown. Well, brunette women call it. Probably French for brown. No, that was marron. And the Spanish was the same word but with an accent mark over the o to make sure it wasn’t mispronounced. Still, brunette? Probably some exotic word for brown from some fancy schmancy language. Women always had to have fancy words. Like brunette for brown. Or blonde but spelled with an e at the end. They probably had some other fancy word for redhead too.
He shifted his gaze to the right, passing over his own empty spot on the couch. It looked empty too. Vacant. He grinned again. Out front, conspicuously, there should be a red flashing neon sign advertising Vacancy. That would be a hoot, wouldn’t it? But usually the vacancy wasn’t there. Usually each day when the writing was done he sighed himself down on the right cushion of the couch and together they watched whatever the television gods had to offer. Our father in heaven, Hollywood be thy name.
Well, really, she watched. She seemed to actually care and looked for programs she was interested in. But all too often she handed him the remote and left the decision-making up to him. Only he didn’t care and he didn’t want to care. He only wanted a mindless diversion. He wanted the television to talk for awhile in lieu of his characters. He loved his characters, but several hours with anyone in one day was generally too much of a good thing. He wanted to relax. He wanted pictures to flash by without him really seeing them or needing to see them or being invested in them, characters spouting mindless drivel in the background between recorded laugh tracks.
The laugh tracks, those were just stupid. Whoever originally came up with those probably hoped to mimic the sound of a live audience, but whoever was running the laugh tracks now had discarded any pretense of reality. Like so many things in life, they simply were what they were: fake gasps, fake laughter, fake emotion all around. The only thing about them that wasn’t fake was that whoever was running them now knew the television viewing audience had caught on that there wasn’t really a live audience. And in that way whoever was running them now was both being honest and snubbing his nose at the rest of us.
It was stupid and when sitcoms first started using laugh tracks years ago Clark felt cheated and a little angry. But he had the last laugh. Now and for some time the laugh tracks were just another part of the buzz of ambient sound that enabled him to escape everyone: the characters in the stories and novels and the wife sitting to his left and the laugh-track guy. He just wanted to relax for a bit before he turned in for the night.
But the television wasn’t on at the moment. The screen was dark and blank. A little red light shone below the screen in the center of the plastic. A light to let you know a device is not turned on. Like the lack of a picture or sound wasn’t enough. There’s a stroke of genius for you. Some recent MBA grad hoping to justify his ridiculous salary. Whatever.
He glanced back to his wife’s head. Yes, it was tilted forward slightly. So she was reading. When her head looked like that she was always either reading or doing a crossword puzzle in an attempt to sidestep the dementia that had claimed precious older female members of her family. And if she was doing a crossword puzzle her head would be working left to right and back as she went from clue to answer, clue to answer. So she wasn’t doing a crossword puzzle. She was reading. And that was fine, not that doing a crossword puzzle would have mattered. The girl was sharp as a tack, to steal a phrase. Dementia would never get her. Nothing would ever get her. She would live well into her 90s and if she was ready then, hair and nails done and dressed to the nines, she’d nod at Death and say, “Okay, let’s do this.” Well, or something like that. She’d never been that forward.
But at the moment, none of that mattered. She wasn’t doing a crossword puzzle anyway, and if she was napping the reclining back of her seat on the couch would be reclined and her head wouldn’t be leaning slightly forward. No, she was definitely reading. Focused on the storyline and the characters and reading. By another author, of course. But that was fine too. Everyone has different tastes in stories and other reading materials. And after he passed she would inherit his stories and novels and go well into her 90s at least and live wherever she liked and that would be fine too.
His right hand left the arm rest seemingly on its own as: he continued looking at the back of her head and: even as the knuckles on his left hand turned whiter gripping the left arm rest more tightly and: even as his mind tugged a fantasy across the corner of his mouth and slipped it up into another quick grin.
And the heel of his right hand touched the base of the hilt of the knife, the blade of which was safely tucked into the hard black plastic sheath even as his wrist contacted the jagged, splintered leading edge of the desk and the sharp little Dairy Queen point of lacquer that one day would claw the underside of his wrist and cause him to snap and curse and jerk his arm away and fling a few drops of blood onto that stupid blue carpet — he’d meant to sand down that rough spot and hadn’t gotten it done yet — and his wife, without complaining because she generally fell silent when he yelled would come in, eye the evidence and then collect the right materials to go about erasing it.
He allowed his head to turn and his gaze to fall on his right hand and the knife beneath it and without conscious thought he flexed the fingers on that hand, wrapping them around the hilt and lifting the knife and feeling its comfortable weight and rolling it over and over in his hand and wouldn’t it be something if —. Most of his stories started with that thought: wouldn’t it be something if —.
And he lay the weighty knife that was so comfortable in his right hand, that felt so good and so right and so appropriate in his grip back on the desk, using a conscious moment to be sure that dangerous, stabbing, slashing, biting blade slipped safely back into the sheath and his hand trembled as he released it.
And he looked again at the back of his wife’s head and how it was tilted slightly forward, perfectly, at the moment and moved his right hand back to the right arm rest and a silent breath went on tiptoes past his lips. Too strong a sigh would evoke questions and he really didn’t want his mind explored by an outsider at the moment. Too many characters. Too many dark scenarios.
And he stood and reached far across the left side of his desk to run that same right hand gently over his sleeping kitten’s side, which pulled up a quiet purr as she shifted her position and buried her face against the side of the pillow he’d placed there for her, a plain signal she’d worked out with him, one that said she’d prefer to be left alone at the moment. “I love you, little girl,” he whispered without moving hardly any of the air between them, then turned and walked into the living room.
He thought about touching that brown hair but not the way his right hand wanted to a moment earlier, and the whole thing seemed absurd so he didn’t. He angled right, walked past the right end of the couch and the little hexagonal table there, sighed himself down onto the cushion and picked up the remote from that same table. Looking at the television, he murmured, “Do you mind?”
And she thought he was talking to her and she lowered her book to her lap and said, “Not at all.”
And he offered her the remote. “You want to pick something?”
She smiled. “Anything’s fine.”
And he thought, Of course, and he nodded and forced the corners of his mouth to turn up slightly as he pressed the On button on the remote and watched the little red light at the bottom of the television screen blink off to indicate the television was now on.
And he thought, Well, not really anything. Not at the moment.