A combination of holidays, travel and illness had prevented our writers’ group from meeting for weeks. Three-quarters of us finally reconnected Thursday night. The assignment was to have a first line and a last line, then write the story in between. We each wrote two lines, shuffled the papers, then drew ones not our own. Here’s what I began with:
First line: “The shrink leaned back on his padded chair and tried not to grimace.”
Last line: “Two steps in and already turning, turning, to exit unnoticed.”
The shrink leaned back on his padded chair and tried not to grimace. The screen above flashed, “64A, 14H, 29C.” He glanced at his own ticket, 42H, once again. At the pace they were progressing, it’d be Thursday before his number came up. Good thing he didn’t run his own office like this. And the filth! He glanced around at the other clientele. Not a one like him. Sweatpants and bad skin. He recrossed his legs, admired his perfectly cuffed pants. He found that cuffing the pants made them lay better, flatter in the front. No tacky bunching for him. He’d read the advice in a men’s magazine once – he really did read the articles. He wished he had something to read, anything, right now.
“65A, 16H, 33C.” The latest numbers came up. He’d left his phone in his car, deterred from bringing it in by the signs explicitly stating, “No cell phones.” Apparently, no one else had paid attention. Or maybe they couldn’t read, he thought. Without fail, all the sweat-panted, bad-haired people in the waiting area had phones in their hands. A teenage girl, pink sweats and skyscraper hair, jackhammered her thumbs without a pause. He waited for her to pause. Minutes passed. More numbers popped up on the screen. Perhaps she was writing a novel, he thought. Wouldn’t that be something, he thought. Maybe he had these people all wrong. Maybe they were all secret creatives, slack-jawed on the surface, burning underneath, about to step away from their jobs as janitors, temp agency receptionists, discount grocery clerks to be big time mystery authors or famous rappers.
He wondered if he could name any famous rappers. No, he thought, he could not.
The florescent light nearest him flickered, once. A beat. Again. A beat, again and now without stopping. He closed his eyes to ward off the madness. Breathed in through his nose, held it, counted to four in his head, exhaled, counted to four again, inhaled.
“Sir? Are you okay?” The teenager was looking at him, brown eyes clear in a face pitted with acne.
“Sure,” he said. He pulled himself more upright, recrossed his legs. “Why?”
“You looked like maybe you’d passed out.” She shrugged, turned her attention back to her phone.
“66A, 22H, 34C.” The numbers moved forward unevenly. The ticket holders shuffled forward. People entered, people left, but the sluggish turnover reminded him of eddies on the side of the river where too little movement turned the clear water to algae-ridden muck.
When was the last time he’d been to the river, he wondered. Last year? The year before? He’d loved the river once, the way it bent around the rocks, water seeking ever lower ground in an unstoppable quest to get to the ocean. An irresistible force. They would go to the river together, tromp to their favorite spot, just far enough away from everyone else, but not so far that they’d waste the day hiking. They’d pull each other’s clothes off, in love with the feel of skin on skin but unable to withstand the heat of the day, they’d pull away and jump in, the relief of the water a world away from the monotony of the office, the arguments about money, the threatening stagnation of their lives.
What he loved more than anything, almost anything, was to get back out, lie on the flat rock, so hot in the midday sun that he had to be dripping wet in order to place his skin upon it, to lay there until the sun had dried him and between the air and the rock he felt as if he was literally baking like bread in an oven, so near to passing out, and then he would rise, dizzy, and step off the rock, torpedo eight feet back into the river, bam, the cold shock reanimating every cell within his body, making him, as they say, in the moment, all else but the physical pleasure evaporating away. He could spend hours alternating between the heat of the rock and the cold of the river. Once. Now he only traveled between the air conditioned office and his air conditioned car and the air conditioned upscale food boutique, inconvenienced by the bursts of heats in between as if it were a bothersome fly.
“67A, 23H, 41C.” He slumped back into the padded chair, this time giving way to the grimace. He glanced at his watch. If he left now, he could be at the river in 40 minutes. What would happen if he left, he wondered. The clerks moved without buoyancy and the rent-a-cop security had more gut than awareness. He stood up, slipped his ticket, damp now from being clenched in his palm, into his pocket, which lay flat against his thigh, the crease in his pants intact. He made for the door.
“Sir?” The “Start Here” clerk called out. “Sir, if you leave, we can’t guarantee your place. Sir?” The rent-a-cop shifted his weight, rolled his shoulders back.
“You might as well wait,” the guard said. “It doesn’t get any easier when you come back.” He put his hand on his belt, a belt above pants that bunched badly, but he didn’t make a move to stop him.
He pushed by the guard, leaned on the glass door handle, felt the grease from all the hands that had been there before and pushed out into the sunlight. The heat dizzied him, but he had purpose now and moved fast. Keys in hand, car, driving, open road, trees edged gold by the sunshine. Better to be in beauty, he thought. In beauty, we are alive, he thought. So much of living involved resisting the dullness and ugliness, he thought, rebelling against the inertia in which death was a matter of degree by minuscule degree so that by the time it arrived he would be too numb to notice.
Car parked, trail traversed, river reached, clothes stripped away. It was too early in the year, really. The air was hot like summer, but the water retained winter’s cold, ran high and powerful. He was reminded of the flip side of tranquility as he stepped to water’s edge. Two steps in and already turning, turning, to exit unnoticed.