Thursday, December 31, 2009

Year's End

Goodbye old year--Hello, new one. I wish I could say something profound or interesting, something other than a cliche, on this, the last day of 2009.  How grateful I am to still be alive, for family and friends and another year to look forward to.  For all the interesting things I've learned and fellow writers I've met, albeit not in person.  Other bloggers, like William Michaelian over at Recently Banned Literature, does it so, so much better!

And, wouldn't you know it, my friend down in the States, the one who gave me the "Write 10 short stories by Christmas" assignment, reminded me this morning that I hadn't made my deadline, and that I should try, before midnight tonight, to crank one out one more, so as not to have left such a dismal record of compliance. And so I did, being "under the gun" so to speak; I just sat down and ... wrote.

What to write about, on such short notice, at the end of the year, when a dozen yet-to-do tasks loom waiting? The state of the world today, our awful economy, gratitude for what one still has ... love in small gestures?? None or All of the above?

At least I can say I spent some minutes of the last morning of the old year ... writing. (Not that that gets me off the hook for my 'assignment'). But I plan to stop procrastinating in the new year. Honest.

So here is my little story. Some of it is semi-autobiographical (the smuggling episode). Some of it is recently factual (the state of my toast this morning). Some of it is based on memories or random observations of human behavior. Most of it, though, is purely imaginary. I call it:


There are, they say, no coincidences in life. An event you might think is accidental is not really accidental. Fate determines where you’re eventually going to end up and though you may try to maneuver things toward a different outcome, circumstances arise, randomly and completely out of your control that put you back on the path to your destiny.

Who IS this mysterious “they” that seem to know what we do not? What if your destiny is, oh  ...  sameness?  How, in heaven's name, do you climb out of everlasting sameness?

Such were the dark thoughts that gathered like a heavy cloud in Dennis’s head this morning, the last day before the beginning of yet another new year.

“So what resolutions did you make for New Year’s?” his wife asked, scraping the burnt toast with a butter knife, sending blackened flecks of toasted ash cascading into the sink.

Dennis was tired of burnt toast every morning for breakfast. He’d fixed the damn toaster eight times and still couldn’t get it to work right. If you pointed the knob to “Light”, the bread came out the same way it went in, slightly tanned but still too soft.  If you selected “Medium”, the toast burnt to a charcoal-black crisp. If you selected "Dark"--well, they never did, after it first started malfunctioning.  If "Medium" could practically incinerate a slice of bread, what might "Dark" do?  He could not even imagine.

“My resolution for the new year,” Dennis replied, “is to buy a new toaster.”

“You know we can’t afford that, honey,” said his wife.

She had to go and remind him, again, how poor they were. Some people replaced their toaster every year, not out of necessity, but simply because they grew tired of its style, or color, or wanted one with more sophisticated and unnecessary gagetry. My fate, thought Dennis, is to have to endure burnt toast for the rest of my natural life.

“No, really,” said his wife. “What are your New Year’s resolutions?”

That, of course, was a trick question on her part. Dennis knew that his wife knew that he broke every resolution made at the beginning of every year, well before the first week had even ended. It was like a game with her, he chuckled.   It’s as if a little alarm goes off in her head at that exact time every year, alerting her: “Hey look, it’s that time of year again. Let’s remind Dennis how little things have changed, how after almost 45 years of couplehood we seem to have gone right back to where we started,still in the same boring little house in the same depressing neighborhood, still eating burnt toast and unable to afford even the smallest of new appliances.” 

It was, of course, not that way at all. Dennis's wife thought no such thing. They certainly could afford to buy a decent toaster.  They were even given one as a gift--twice--by their grown children, but Dennis's wife, unbeknownst to them,  gave them away.  Her reasoning was that they already had a toaster, while their next-door neighbor, and a newly married niece, at the time had none.  Dennis just got defensive from time to time, about his inability to move mountains, which is what it would take to change their economic situation so that buying a new toaster, or a new anything, wouldn't create such a perceived dent in their finances.  Dennis's wife was what they called, a "penny pincher"  Even if they had had the money, she would have balked at spending it.

In the beginning, when they'd first married, he found this quality admirable.  He knew no other woman who-- say if her washing machine broke down and couldn't be fixed or replaced for another month or so--would willingly, and even cheerfully, wash every single item by hand, including the bedding and braided carpets.  But Dennis's wife did, and thought nothing of it. He was impressed, at first.  Then it just got ... tiresome.  If she'd only work less and stop trying to do everything herself, she'd have more time for, well ....him.   

Dennis filled his cup with the dark, steaming coffee, grabbed the plate with the toast, and shuffled off to his chair in the living room to read the paper. Another day, another year, what’s the difference.

His wife, who knew his routines by heart, settled back into her own. She put aside the scraped and now buttered toast, turned on the faucet and rinsed the sink, poured herself some tea, and headed for her favorite chair to resume her knitting. Another day, another year, another wrinkle, another few gray hairs, another age spot on her arthritic hands. She examined the little baby sweater she was knitting for their grandchild, smiling with pride at her expert craftsmanship.  It cost her only a few dollars for the yarn and she had all the time in the world.  Were she so inclined she could have sold it for more than $50 to the Baby Boutique in town, who would have sold it for even more, that's how fine a garment she could make.  But the thought never occurred to her; this was a product of love and her entire heart went into each and  every careful stitch.

“Hey,” called Dennis from the living room, making her lose her train of thought.

“Hey what?” she called back.

“Wanna go take in a movie today?”

“You know we can’t afford the movies,” she reminded him. Dennis’s wife tried to remember when was the last time they had gone to see a movie. She remembered that their daughter, who lived in the city, called movies “films”.

The neighbor across the way was shoveling snow out of his driveway. Sounds of metal scraping against frozen asphalt, a familiar sound that took her back to her childhood, her father scraping snow from the concrete porch, the same sound … scrrrraaape… scrrrraaape … scrrrraaape. She smiled at the memory.

“So,” said Dennis. “You wanna go or not?”

“We have exactly $12 in the cookie jar,” she reminded him.. “And that’s to go for a new toaster, remember?”

“Oh what the hell,” said Dennis, rising from his chair and folding his newspaper. “Why the heck not? Do us good, to see a flick once every coupla years.”  Dennis's wife never heard him call movies "flicks" before.

Another year coming and more likely than not, they would still be eating burnt toast every morning. Dennis was sure of it.  How he managed to convince his wife to go see a movie, he couldn't remember.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the movie theater that afternoon. As they crossed the street, just before they got to the other side, Dennis’s wife spied a shiny object sticking out of a trash can on the upcoming sidewalk. It had a cord dangling from it. She let go of Dennis’s arm and went over to investigate. It seemed to be intact—no rust or dents or noticeable damage. She looked at Dennis. Dennis looked back and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, “Well?”

Without saying a word, Dennis’s wife lifted it out of the trashcan and began stuffing the shiny object into her coat (because it would not fit into her  purse) and they proceeded into the theater to buy their tickets for the matinee. When they got inside, the usher, noticing the uneven bulge under her unbuttoned coat, wondered if she might be trying to smuggle a giant bag of home-popped popcorn into the theatre, to avoid buying it at the concession stand, whose prices, in his opinion, were outrageous. He decided to just let it go--his good deed for the year.

The next morning Dennis and his wife slept in, it being New Year’s Day, and when they got up, Dennis’s wife cleaned up the shiny toaster they’d found in the trash, put it on the counter and plugged it in, and placed two pieces of bread inside it.  It was missing a knob so one couldn’t predict the Light/Medium/Dark outcome. They both stood there, in their bathrobes, coffee and tea in hand, in front of the toaster, and waited.

“What if it explodes?” Dennis’s wife suddenly asked, thinking no person in their right mind would ever throw out a good, working toaster. It was thrown into the trash because it didn’t work. What was she thinking, to bring it home with them last night?   Theirs was still perfectly fine.  She imagined an enormous bang and a cloud of black smoke filling her small kitchen, the walls catching on fire, the cubboards melting, all their possessions … gone.

But the toaster didn’t explode. It just emitted a low, mechanical “mmmmmmmmmmmmmm”. “It’s humming,” said Dennis. That means it’s working!

It wasn’t a hum exactly, more like a cat purring.  Dennis’s wife came closer and bent over the toaster and peered inside.  Warm air was coming out of it and the coils were slowly turning red.   She became hopeful. In less than a minute a small, soft "clink” was heard and the two pieces of toast popped into view. Dennis grinned. His wife clapped her hands.

But when they pulled out the toast, they discovered why the toaster had been so readily abandoned. Each piece of toast had a lightly toasted half and a completely burnt half. How very bizarre. They tried it several more times with different types of bread, they turned the toaster upside down and shook it, they even cut the bread into half-pieces, but no matter what they did,  it always came out that two halves would be lightly toasted and the other two halves completely burnt.

Dennis sighed. His wife laughed.

Now, nothing seemed to have changed for these two people. Although Dennis tinkered with the toaster and tried to fix it, the results were still the same.   Sameness prevailed.  And so they made do, just as they had  always done, just as they planned to always do, for however long remained to them upon this earth.

One thing, however, had changed. Dennis began looking forward to his toast in the morning. He, of course, chose the lightly toasted halves of the two slices that came out of the toaster. His wife took the burnt halves and stood over the sink, as she had always done, scraping the blackened flecks into the sink.   Then she'd spread a thick slab of butter on the now well-crusted but still perfectly edible toast, add a dab of orange marmalade, take a sip of tea, and head for her reading chair. Neither her toast nor her routine had significantly changed.  It was, after all, her little ritual, the scrape, scrape, scraping of the toast every morning. And she did not like altering her routines, however weird other people might think them to be.  But she liked going to the movies that time with Dennis.  That was fun.  Perhaps they might do it again.

The $12 in the cookie jar soon climbed to $25, then $50, then $75—more than enough to buy a new, quality toaster, one that would make perfect toast, every time. And in due course, one was purchased, and the old, humming former shiny reject found in the trash can, which had nevertheless served them well for so many months, found a new life--or at least its parts did--at the recycle center.

Another year rolled around, and to all intents and purposes, nothing had really changed. Or had it? Was it this couple’s fate to be forever stuck in their sameness and inability to rise to a higher level of happiness? They didn’t seem to be unhappy—except about the burnt toast, and that was only Dennis, and that situation, as we have seen, eventually resolved itself.

Did Dennis view himself as stuck in sameness?  This thought had once briefly crossed his mind. Their increasing lack of money, brought on by retirement, a reduced income, and an unstable economy, bothered him. But everyone he knew was in the same boat. They had a roof over their heads, they had enough to eat, and the neighborhood, though sometimes boringly predictable, was full of memories and--familiar. Their daughter visited often, they would soon welcome another new grandchild. Dennis had his routine. His wife had hers.  He was okay with things.  The "same", he reflected,  could be both frightening and welcomed.

His wife concurred—or would have, had he asked her. Each of them greeted each new year hoping some things would stay  the same, that there would be no new catastrophes, no new unwelcome surprises, nothing approaching that they could not handle. But they looked forward to some changes. They planned to re-do the kitchen at some point; Dennis's wife talked about their maybe taking a little trip somewhere.

“So," that little voice that picks apart your newly written prose to probe its worth, suddenly whispers in my mind before the ink is even dry.  "And the moral of the story is ....?"

There is no moral to the story.  It’s just a story.
About a man,
and his wife
and their toaster.

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL. And I emphasize the word Happy. :)

No comments: