Short Story

Bleak

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What was it? A waiting room? A lobby? A bus stop? Does it matter? Did it ever? Sure. At some point. It mattered to the person who paid for it. Who made it. The people who ate because of it. But now? No. Not for us. It doesn’t matter. Let’s move on.

They all sat in chairs. Mostly. Not all. One woman stood by a counter, exchanging words to convey purposes. Fulfilling her goals to some extent. Returning to a seat. Now they all sat. The people in the room were all seated. It was a room. We can agree on that. Let’s move on.

Another woman sat in another chair. She was watching people. People-watching, as they like to say. Whoever they are. Who are they? Some people. Generic now. It probably doesn’t matter. They mattered to someone at some point. They probably matter to other people now. Maybe to the same people now as in those other points in time. Maybe not. Let’s move on.

The woman who sat. The second one mentioned, not the first. Let’s not worry about the first one. She’s irrelevant. She always will be, won’t she? The woman sat and watched. She watched and thought. She thought and wondered and tried to decipher those thoughts that floated around. She grabbed one or two thoughts and examined them. Tried to decide why they floated. Why they floated in her head, anyway. She paused in her processing of those foremost thoughts to consider why she might draw back that layer. What’s the use in a metaprocess to consider those primary thoughts? “Am I questioning the purpose of examining the value of my thoughts? What’s the point in that?” She shook her head. This was going too far.

“Nevermind the why. That’s not really important. I’m going to go insane if I keep going. I’ll either go insane or decide it’s all pointless. I guess I’ll have to settle for a partial declaration of pointlessness. Only some of it doesn’t matter. Not to me. Not now.” Her face wore an expression of neutrality, or so she thought. In reality, it looked dark. Foreboding. “Don’t talk to me. I certainly don’t want to talk to you!” It broadcasted the message to any who cared to hear. Those who did address her addressed her by Jen. That really isn’t all that important, but endless pronouns are confusing.

“It certainly is a bleak day, isn’t it?” The lady next to her brought an aura of mental blandness. Jen could feel it. The new lady wasn’t malevolent. She didn’t know any words quite so long. She was quite proud of having remembered bleak. She had seen it in a magazine, next to a picture of the president. She liked the way it sounded. It fit her mouth. She moved through life by doing things. Why? Those were the things to be done. She had read in SILK that plaid was making a comeback. So she bought a plaid skirt. She had spent far too much on it, but with a laugh to assuage her guilt. That’s what credit cards are for, right? She drolled on about plaid and dark colors and how, when she watched John Samuels in the morning (oh, how she loved John Samuels), she would plan her colors for the day depending on his forecast. He said it would be a less-than-beautiful day today. Wasn’t that wonderful, how he kept sooo upbeat?

Always so reliable, that John Samuels. And, if she was honest, he was a looker, too. All this and more poured from her mouth. The useless drivel and recycled ideas tumbled from her brain as she upended it towards our lady in her seat. They contaminated the air as they mixed with the atmosphere. They obscured the background noises in their attempt to overcome Jen’s blockade of interaction. They succeeded. Jen looked at the new lady. “What should I call you, ma’am? I don’t really care, but I’ve decided that semi-unique names are better than entirely generic pronouns.” Barbara, as the hitherto generic ma’am was known by those who were required to refer to her specifically, blinked and looked vaguely surprised. She gave Jen her name.

“Well, Barbara, let me start by telling you, I’m not the best person to engage in small talk. In fact, I make a point not to. I used to try. I realized it was pointless, quite literally. Pointless for me, anyway. I don’t like interacting with people for no reason. It’s an exertion for me. It’s a chore I’d rather not have to undertake. It requires effort. Effort which usually isn’t duly rewarded. For example, normally, I’d say that I have nothing to learn from you. Nothing that matters to me. I don’t read SILK, and I don’t care about plaid.” Here, Barbara gave a patronizing smile, and began to say that she definitely understood differences in taste, but… “I don’t watch much television, and I certainly don’t care about personalities like your Mr. Samuels,” Jen finished.

Barbara’s face twitched for a moment as she reacted to being cut-off mid-sentence and insulted in her choice of style and men. “Well, now, I suppose, to each her own. I mean, I was talking with Clary the other day, and she said that she liked Carter Hoskins on channel 3! Haha! Of course she would. But let me tell you, she hasn’t gotten her copy of SILK yet, and when she sees my skirt, she’s going to just have to have one!”

Jen watched Barbara’s head as more and more of the seemingly endless supply of numbingly-unimportant prattle escaped from its constraints. Was it of its own accord? Was Barbara generating this? Was she just a conduit? A carrier?

“I honestly don’t understand it, Barbara.” Jen cut off Barbara again, and Barbara, though annoyed, was far too polite to protest. Not yet, anyway. She’d tell alllll her friends about this weird little woman who had acted so rudely. Maybe she could find a way to tease Clary about this, what with her dislike of plaid and all… “all this around us, for example,” Jen continued “it has a purpose. This room, it’s here for us to wait in. If we didn’t have to wait, if we didn’t have to be here, this room wouldn’t exist. These chairs… if we didn’t have to sit, or if the establishment here didn’t benefit from our relative comfort, these chairs would still be trees in some forest or lumber in some lumberyard. At some point, someone decided that someone else would need a chair, and some tree’s fate was sealed. From a seed, to a tree, to a truck, to a chair. All that because this place wanted you to sit here, and me to sit here, and nowhere in that line of events did anyone say ‘let’s make sure they talk to each other.’” Barbara didn’t get the point.

“Haha, you are really funny! Also, that’s so deep! I had never thought about a tree becoming a chair. Maybe that tree in my front yard will be a bench for someone one day! Hah!”

Jen pushed on. “So many things go on every day. Countless endeavors for the progression of events. Sometimes the events are related. Sometimes the endeavors fail. Sometimes I wonder why I’m doing them. I wonder why, in the vast world of events and interactions, happenings and failures and successes, why I’m doing the specific things that I do. That’s what I’m getting at, Barbara, somehow. Your endless shpeel on fashion, friends, and meaningless sundry. Why did you direct it at me? What was the point? I don’t care about it. I openly am opposed to it. I told you as much. When I talk about something, I do so with a purpose. I talk in order to think things through at a cooperative level. I talk about important things because they deserve to be talked about. They have to be understood, and sometimes to understand something, one has to talk through it. I talk about things that matter, Barbara. I despise the things that don’t matter. They only serve to distract from matters of importance. Now please, leave me alone.”

Barbara left her alone. She had lost her fake smile. Her face wore an expression of deflation. She turned to her new copy of SILK. She turned dolefully through the pages, and wondered, for the first time, if this really did matter. Then she remembered what John Samuels had said. What she herself had rephrased later. This day really was bleak. She couldn’t wait to tell Clary.

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Art

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An artist once built a park for the enjoyment of others. As he was a great lover of nature, he crafted the park in such a way that the benches and fountains and ornaments blended naturally into the wild theme. He made benches from great boulders, and his fountains resembled the streams that one may find in the Smokies or Appalachians. His touch left no detail undone. The paths through the park were paved with small stones, like a dry creek bed may boast. The edges even lent their aesthetics to those of a stream bank.

His work took him many years, and during that time many animals and people wandered through, amazed by the work, but unsure of its origin, for our artist worked in such secrecy that he avoided all human contact. Only the birds and smaller creatures saw his work, and though they often spoke of it, the tongues of men and birds do not easily mix.

One day, the artist found his work finished. His park was constructed and the piece was signed. His signature ran through the park like a birthmark, intertwined with the layout in such a way that none could argue the whole.

NatureThe residents of the surrounding town wandered often into the park, and they loved the artist through his work, though they did not know his name. The years passed, as years do, and the people gradually forgot the creation of the park. It became a seemingly timeless fixture. One day, a visitor came into the town, and a friend who was a local took him to the park.

“Look at our marvelous park!” exclaimed the local “We value and esteem this creation as our most treasured possession.”

“It is a beautiful place,” the visitor commented, “surely one of nature’s finest works.”

“But more than nature, my friend! This is the work of a man!”

“My good fellow, while your belief is truly quaint, I see no more than folly in your assertion. Take this large stone, for example. It has the same geological makeup as that boulder there, yet it resembles a bench. I suppose that you would say that a man carved this? For what? The pleasure of others? No, this was the work of the ice of prehistory. Look at the way the cuts are smoothed over, and the deep gashes in the sides. The force of water is greater than you might think. Look at the great canyons in the West, do you think those were the result of one man?”

The local looked, and though he thought the idea of chance was far-fetched, he saw the logic in his companion’s words. As much as the great rocks resembled benches, so might a fallen log, or some other luckily rolled boulder. He thought for a moment, before replying, “Ah, but you have forgotten the path upon which you now stand! Look at the detail with which these stones were laid! Look at how none jut up to impede our walk, and observe how clear of debris they remain!”

The visitor smiled, “Ah, but surely you don’t think that someone took the time to lay out these stones, just as perfectly as if they had lain in the bottom of a creek! Yes, a creek, for that is what I say these paths are. Nothing more.”

Perhaps these paths were no more than creek beds. The animals that wandered through these forests had their own paths, and these could have been formed by none other than the guests who came to admire them! Our local looked a fair bit more troubled as he reached for his last handhold. “The fountains! You cannot surely say that these are the work of nature! She may be powerful, but does she make such things of beauty for no reason?”

The visitor contemplated for a moment before replying, ” yes, I agree, the fountains are curious. I have, however, seen such a thing before. See how they sit on the side of a hill, and see how the brush cleverly hides the flow! It is no more than a ploy of gravity, my friend. These fountains are no more than tiny waterfalls and miniature rapids. You would see the same thing, if you looked, on a such a larger scale, in the mountains surrounding us!”

And so, in the mind of some, the signature of the artist was gradually obscured. His work was credited to chance, or nature, and the park itself became known as a great place to see wonderful natural fountains, paths, and beautiful natural ornaments. Every once in a while, though, if one were  to be quite still and to watch the park at night, he might observe a man come into the park and straiten the stones or pick up litter, and if the observer were even more vigilant, he might notice that the park itself never quite descended to a point of disarray, even though none of the locals kept it up.

The artist, though ignored, worked on his art.

~XK

The Man Who Could Not Win (Audio)

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Because, you know, microphones and fake British accents and an excess of coffee. (This is the audio version of this.)