When I hear yelling or whining, which is a lot at our house, I start to shut down. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s nothing that irritates me more than the sound of children yelling and whining. I know that, especially for my children, this is the time to engage with them, not pull away. I’ve been working on improving with this, but sometimes I feel that the only way I can cope, the only way I can stop myself from screaming back is to disengage.
I entered the NPR three minute fiction contest again (this time it was round six – I had also submitted an entry for round five). Although the character in my round six reject (yes, I was rejected again) is not autobiographical, I do have what the story calls her “dead look.” For more, check out my third “reject” (two requirements of round six entries were that they contain someone crying and someone telling a joke).
A Desire to Move
Sarah had fallen into the trap. She revealed her dead look at the grocery store. It was in the dairy aisle and she had seen the chocolate milk. While Abigail sobbed in the cart she thought about the tranquility of drinking chocolate milk with a straw. The dairy case lights buzzed in her ears and she shivered in the chill. As a matter of practice, she made it a point never to stop in the dairy aisle. She was the type that was cold in any manner of weather and even kept a large gray fleece jacket in her car just for trips down the dairy aisle. This time, even the gray fleece couldn’t help her. Abigail was only 15 months old and didn’t understand Sarah when she told her that crying made her feel as though someone was pricking her with a pin over and over. Since Sarah was not the yelling type, she resorted to the dead look. With the dead look, she became untouchable. She was out of reach of the dullness of everyday life. She had no fantasy life that she retired to, instead it was as if she ceased to exist. In her opinion, this numbness was better than any fantasy she could dream of.
While she was in this limbo, and while Abigail cried away, something unusual happened. Sarah felt someone’s hand on hers. It was a dark hand, and she momentarily stared at it before pulling her hand back. Her hand felt warm, yet dry as she focused in the owner’s name tag – Cashier Paul. Paul said, “I’m sorry ma’am, but you look lost.”
Sarah was blond, and in general, she liked light things. That had been true of her whole childhood, her whole marriage. The darkness of Paul’s hand startled her, and the dryness of his touch hung there.
When he saw that she didn’t respond, his focus shifted to Abigail. “Hey little girl, what’s wrong?” He offered her his finger, which she quickly grabbed. In a matter of seconds, she was smiling and giggling. Sarah managed to look Paul in the face; Abigail was never pacified this easily. “Check out what I just heard in the break room.” Paul said, while jiggling Abigail’s arm up and down. Sarah had never seen teeth so white; it was a mesmerizing contrast with his dark skin. “A termite walks into a bar. He says, ‘is the bar tender here?’”
Sarah waited. Paul waited. Finally he said, “I didn’t get it either. Look, termites eat wood. Bars are made of wood. He wants to know if the bar is soft.”
Sarah had never been in a bar. Without Abigail crying, it was quiet and she had a minute to think. She imagined that familiarity with bars was not necessary to understand Paul’s joke. She felt quite proud of herself that she understood. She wanted to tell Paul this, and she opened her mouth, but she hesitated and the pause seemed like hours. Paul shifted, he squeezed her forearm, and said, “Goodbye, have a good day ma’am.”
Out of desperation, Sarah reached for his hand. A sudden fear took over her, a fear that she might never again feel so connected to anyone. She no longer felt uneasy about Paul’s darkness. Loneliness quickly became more fearful to her than the unknown. But, he was gone, and Abigail was crying again, her blond pigtails shaking. From somewhere in the bottom of Sarah’s patchwork purse, her phone rang. For the first time in her adult life, she felt conflicted. Inside her, she felt a growing desire to move.