Project 52: Toppling Atlas

1 short story a week. 52 weeks a year.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hoping For a Symphony, Hearing a Funeral March. 

     Thick walls of solid oak do well to mute most of the noise kicked up by the wind outside. The house is cancerous; its furnishings and decor whispering of a long since missing period of good fortune, at least financially. Now the rotting floorboards and stained walls appear as through stricken with some strange plague. Dark water marks make abstract messages on the wall.     
     A green, circular splotch on the wall - its insides smeared and surging to the floorboards - reads "you're all alone," not needing language to convey the words. Holes punched in the ceiling - gray liquid lining its edges - tells a tale of missing the past. An old table - pocked by clustered communities of furry, black mold - sighs, not even bothering to try anymore. In stark contrast to the tables apathy, you can hear sobbing coming from the skeletal remains of a chimney; if you listen hard enough, that is. A cracked window stares as though the glazed eyes of a fresh corpse. There is no hope hiding in the cracks and corners of this house.   
     In the middle of this living room, a ragged man sits on a leather-backed chair, its stitches all frayed and the stuffing oozing out. His patchwork robe hangs from his rail-thin body, its material just as grimy as the man it sticks to. Its dark colors hint at perhaps a lighter color, many years ago. A patchy beard mirrors the robe. His eyes reflect no color. Unwashed skin filled in the bare patches of his facial hair, wrinkles dance across the majority. The man appears to be in his late 40s. He is 25.     
     He has a blank stare directed towards a wall, not looking at all the phantom images flickering in and out of the room. A mother dragging a toy back to its proper place; a father striking up a match for his pipe, its smokey, familiar scent haunting his nose. A sister crying over a minor scrape on her right knee, probably picked up from climbing the apple tree in the back yard. A dog, laying near the chimney, softly moaning and kicking in his sleep. He doesn't look at any of them.     
     It has been around 15 years since the world was wiped out: invisible burials. The man woke up on a warm spring morning, and everyone was just gone. We take for granted how beautiful communication can be. The subtle bits of slang and accent, the varying degrees of emphasis and punctuation. The astronomical combination and choices of words. Every living person has such a unique and incredible voice. 15 long, quiet years missing that is just too damn terrible to wish on even the worst of enemies. You cannot possibly imagine after being defeated for so long, what a voice sounded like when it met his ears on the evening to this story.     
     "Gilman," the voice calls, slipping through the cracks of the broken window. As I mentioned before, there is no hope in this house, but the man does stand up, slowly. Everything is done slowly. His legs quiver as they make their way to the front door. His hands are shaking so hard, the rusty old handle of the door snaps off, bits of its clockwork insides falling to the floor. Stepping out onto the front porch, he stares down the hill his house was built on, and watches the trees at the bottom. They sway and shudder just as he does in the cold, evening wind.    
     Again, that voice is heard, only this time, from right behind him. Turning to greet whoever is playing this grand symphony for him, he doesn't even blink in disappointment. Similar to the past 15 years of his life, no one is there. Those of us who have been broken do not let disappointment linger. It is is seen briefly, much like a flame, flickering on a candle. We acknowledge it, draw ourselves near, and we swallow it whole. Needless to say, it leaves a small burning in the person chest, but you can get used to it. You can get used to all sorts of awful things.
     The man starts to head back inside, when he realizes the door is now covered in boards, haphazardly nailed on, keeping him from entering the house. Craning his neck around, he sees that all the trees are now withering memories of the beautiful giants he saw only moments ago. Everything looks so much bigger now, and to that extent, lonelier.
     Sinking to his knees, Gilman stretches his body out on the porch, pressing his face to the wooden planks, his eyes starting to stream. His expression is the same as when we first met him, rotting on that chair. A strange rasp escapes from his throat - it no longer remembering how to form audible words - and mouths "please let me in". Over and over, he begs, the only answer is a loud groaning from the house.     
     Even as the ceiling starts to cave in, and the walls begin to crumble, he stays there: begging to fall with it. The house implodes, turning into a dusty pile of brick and splinter. Nothing is left standing, except for that door. That damn door stands straight up, as though a gravestone. He just laid there, his eyes closed, and never got up again. He heard that voice calling to him until the very end. The wind picked up his clothes, and carried them down the hill, to dance among the remaining trees. I'm sure it must have felt peaceful. I’m sure of it.

     “Gilman,” a frail old voice calls from the plain concrete porch of apartment 212. A large sign stands in the background, “Lemongrass Meadows,” it reads. This apartment complex was a copy and paste sort of place. “Store bought”, “cookie cutter”, and “soulless” are all adequate descriptions. “212” was the only thing that separated Gilman from any other body in this building.
     Mrs. Krasinski, the owner of that voice, called “Gilman,” over and over again. She was the gossip of the entire complex, but specialized in Building D: rooms 205-252 at Lemongrass. It had been 7 years since her husband passed, her powers of amateur sleuthing and exaggeration progressively improving and refining steadily over the years since the awful moment he passed away. Actually, reporting Gilman’s recent absence to the landlord would be the first time her nosey personality did some good. Subsequently solidifying an arrogance - and thus defense - that would help to promote her idiosyncrasies, and  steel her hands while digging through peoples proverbial garbage until the end of her days.      
     Mr. Johnson was a bloated man, who rubbed his eyes sleepily as he worked his thick fingers through his set of keys to unlock the door to apartment 212. He nearly fainted when he found the state of Mr. Gilman Chatsworth. Gilman had lain in the middle of his small living room, curled into a fetal position. A small piece of rubber tubing was wrapped around his arm, and an empty needle lay on the ground, near an unmarked orange bottle of pills, now empty. It wasn’t the sight of these miscellaneous instruments of the man’s death that sent Mr. Johnson running out of the room, but rather the humming of flies that flocked around the man’s body.  Most unnerving of all, though, was the genuine smile on the face of Gilman. This was all too much for Mr. Johnson’s delicate stomach.     
     The apartment itself was - oddly enough - in pristine condition. The only peculiarity, if it could be called that, was that all the picture frames in the room has been placed face down. Police reports would later provide signed papers from a certain Elizabeth Finch from a few months prior. The documents were the final stages of a hasty divorce.
     Gilman’s cold body offset a room that may have otherwise felt warm as you walked in. Potted plants, tacky framed art, and a beautiful mahogany table sat in what would have been a dining room in a larger house. Dusted shelves full of miscellaneous decorations lined the walls, and a large bookcase sat in the corner. Lemongrass Meadow’s flier boasting a 350+ residency, with a communal pool, tennis courts, and laundry room. Even with all these people, Gilman still felt alone in this world.
     There is a saying I sometimes recall my grandmother telling us kids, when we would gather around on the holidays and watch her cook up a pot of her famous gnocchi soup. “Why not buy the carrots bagged like everyone else, mom!” our father would call from the living room. “You’re too old to keep growing your own vegetables”. “You watch your talk now, boy!” she’d holler while waving the spoon towards the room. However, she’d always have a smile on her face, trading being the butt-end of a joke for the sake of the company.      
     It was always some sort of prodding that would have her swinging that spoon like some barbaric weapon, but shortly after, she’d lean down and whisper for us to come in for a secret. “Your daddy never understood it, but I’ll tell you kids right now, everything in life is about quality, not quantity,” and with that, she’d produce a small piece of homemade toffee for each of us, and we’d scamper off, her laughter fading behind us. It had never even occurred to me before this incident that none of us kids ever asked for a second piece. Without even knowing it, our grandmother force fed us her philosophy inside those delicious pieces of candy, and I owe much of my good fortune in life to that sweet lesson.    

     For whatever reason Mr. Chatsworth lost his wife, a thousand people couldn’t fill in the part of his life she has helped him make. Having seen that swarm of flies around his body myself, if only for just a split second, it made me sad that I couldn’t have helped him out. If only I could have told him that you need not think in numbers when you say “you want more”. I suppose that’s neither here, nor there though.  
    Shrugging off the guilt like that makes me sound like a bad person, and I’m ashamed to be writing these words to you now. However, I am human, and that is a very important part of our natural defenses. I couldn’t tell you if that defese came from the heart, or the brain though. Like everything else I've come to learn, probably both.     
     We sometimes make the mistake in thinking that time is cruel to us. I’ve come to believe this to only be a half-truth. We assume that time is cruel to us, and to those we have come to love, but time only exists so that it may be equally cruel to everyone. Some of us just have the luck - I’m neither sure if that luck is good or bad - to not realize this. As sad as it sounds to put those words on paper, it is also liberating in a way I cannot tell to you. I can only hope to show you through this story how wonderful life is when you realize you're not alone in your suffering.
     You may be a victim, but so is every damn person on this planet. That man sitting across from you on the subway, what manner of tragedy has befallen his family? The woman ahead of you in the grocery store check out line, what sort of fear eats at her stomach at night? The taxi driver that didn't stop for you, that teenaged employee at the resteraunt last Wednesday, those old couples that throw stale food to appreciative pigeons at the park? Can't you hear the heavy steps of all your brothers and sisters in this city? Can't you marvel at how they all walk the same as you, just one foot in front of the other, always running running from something just out of sight?
     It's for all of these reasons that I believe that if Gilman had understood this small lesson, he wouldn’t have wept and shattered over the hole left in his life. Instead, he may have chosen to find the most beautiful soil around to fill with, and spent his days admiring what sort of plants - vibrant flowers and their opposing weeds - would bloom.      
     “But what would I know?”, right? I haven’t even introduced myself yet. My name is George; how do you do? I collect coins, vintage typewriters, and old clocks. I am left-handed, in my mid-40s, and am one of the many channels through which Mrs. Kravinski nurses her addiction. I am also - and perhaps most importantly - married to my wife Kathleen, for 18 wonderful years now. I make an honest living as an editor of a local newspaper, but this is not how I define myself. I consider myself a master gardener, and I love the many shapes and colors my life has shown me so far.
     When you are faced with difficulties in life - of which I’m certain you will - I hope you can think back to my voice now, and choose to enjoy it. Enjoy the good moments, along with the bad, so you don’t have to end up curled up on a floor somewhere, with puncture marks in your arms, and an invisible hole in your chest. I hope the last noise you hear is a the beauty of life, and not whatever it is death must sound like. I hope you hear the symphony, not the funeral march.

You are all alone”, a voice said.
You don’t have to be” said another.
Only the first was heard.

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