Piper

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One Page Stories

Things are just different now, Beth thought, sitting down at her desk.

She had planned to work for a few more years; she had planned, in fact, to work as long as possible, because retirement sounded so boring. But when Harry had gotten sick, it seemed prudent to consider an earlier retirement, so that she could stay home and take care of him.

And then he had died.

Coming to work alleviated the sadness of the empty house, and kept her mind occupied. After Harry was gone, it felt better just to work, and work, and work. But things at the office weren’t as cheerful as they used to be. At first she thought that was because she was grieving, but as the months wore on, she realized that the changes coming down from the top were not particularly changes for the better. They seemed to be more the kind of changes people make because they want their superiors to think they did something. No one around her was happy anymore, and it had been that way a lot longer than some ordinary adjustment period. No, things at the office were not likely to ever be happy again.

But how would the house feel if she was there all the time?

Well, I wouldn’t be, she thought. I could go anywhere, do anything. She had plenty saved up. She wouldn’t have any worries.

And she wouldn’t have Harry.

They had had a thousand plans for their retirement. A thousand dreams of travelling and seeing the world, of relaxing on beaches and skiing in Europe. They would sell the house and buy a motorhome, or maybe they’d just buy a lake house somewhere and visit it in the summers. Or maybe both. They’d take dancing classes, or open a candle shop, or just sit in the garden and watch the world go by.

It was all over in an instant, and now those dreams all sounded so hollow and pointless.

The garden didn’t seem sunny anymore; the road to anywhere seemed desolate. Every destination would bring the same result – a bed without Harry in it.

No, she should stay here, working until she couldn’t work anymore, working and keeping her mind off things she didn’t want to think about anyway. It kept her busy, kept her thinking, kept her from getting lonely. What difference did it make if things weren’t being run the way they used to be? It wasn’t like it was her responsibility to keep the company in business; if they made too many mistakes, it would be on them to fix it, not her.

Her friends were here, almost all of them. She had grown up here. The house was one she had shared with Harry for forty years. If she retired, she’d be obliged to leave it all behind.

Why? she asked herself. Why would I have to leave?

Because spending even more time each day in that big, empty house would be intolerable.

She sighed, and looked around the office. It was all so different here now – there was an air of stress and irritation that had never been there before. It did take her mind off things … but it didn’t take her thoughts anywhere happy or good. And at the house, forty years of memories of Harry were inaccessible to her behind the smothering weight of silent rooms and mourning. That house was not the place to remember Harry – he would be best found on the road, his spirit sitting beside her as she lived out all of their plans.

“And I certainly can’t put up with this place anymore,” she said. She reached out and picked up a pen, scribbled her signature at the bottom of the letter of resignation she had been staring at for an hour. She folded the paper and tucked it into an envelope; she put the envelope into her bag next to the empty coffee mug and the stack of family photos she had kept on her desktop. The desk was clear now, as though she had never been there.

She shouldered the bag and left her cubicle, stopping by her supervisor’s office to slide the envelope under the door. “So long,” she murmured. She crossed the lobby and pushed open the large main door. That’s interesting, she thought. It’s not nearly as heavy as it seemed this morning. She walked through the door and headed for the parking lot.

She didn’t look back.

One-Page Stories

Garbage

The little girl burst into tears.

“But I never get to play the games I want!” she wailed. “Tommy gets to play in his room, but I don’t have any games. Can’t I ple-e-ease play in the living room?”

“No, Madeline!” Selena snapped, searching in her bag for the wad of bills that she was sure she had thrown in there. “Don, where’s the change?” she asked her husband irritably. “Didn’t I put it in my purse?”

“I don’t know,” Don answered. He picked up Madeline and pushed her hair away from her face. “Did you put it in the bag with the food?”

“Why would I do that?” she barked, scowling, still rummaging in the bag with increasing agitation. “It was, like, twenty dollars!” she complained. “Madeline!” She turned and glared at the girl, who was still wailing. “Stop that! You know I don’t like playing games in the living room; there’s not enough room. Everything’ll get knocked over.”

“Can’t we just move the furniture back?” Tom asked, rolling his eyes. “What’s in the living room that’s so important? It’s all just weird stuff from a long time ago.”

Don reached out and put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “You know that’s stuff that Grandma left for Mommy. It’s all she has left.”

Madeline kicked a foot out at her brother. “Yeah,” she said. “Don’t say mean stuff about Grandma!”

“It’s not Grandma!” Tom protested. “She told Mom to get rid of it!”

Selena felt close to tears; they swam in her eyes. “How can you be so cruel!” she hissed at her son. “Don’t you want me to remember my mother?”

“You’re not going to forget her!” Tom argued. “Plus you’ve got photos and home movies. It’s creepy to have all that stuff when she’s gone now.” He pushed his sister’s foot away from him. “We can’t ever just relax and enjoy anything. Jim’s family just enjoys things! Why can’t we be like them? His mom doesn’t get so upset all the time!”

Don looked distinctly alarmed. “Tommy, don’t talk to your mother that way,” he said firmly, hoping that Selena wouldn’t let this upset her any more than it already had. “Our house is good enough. Not everyone is the same.”

“But we’re not even normal!” Tom shouted. “We don’t even get to just sit and watch TV without a whole bunch of weird rules!”

Selena began to cry, and to feel both anger and a strong anxiety. “I can’t believe you’re comparing me like that,” she said in hurt tones. “I guess since it’s such a big deal, we’ll just get rid of all the game systems, and the TV, and everything else! Then maybe you’ll learn to appreciate things!”

Don, praying that she could be talked down from this plan, tried to put his arm around her, but she brushed it away. She dropped her bag on the ground in frustration, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I must have put the money in the bag with the food,” she decided in despair. “The bag we just pulled all the food out of and threw away!” She looked down the street, toward the alley dumpster they had passed on their way back to the car. “Why couldn’t we just eat it at home?” she asked, as though this oversight were her family’s fault. “Now I have to climb into a dumpster!”

“I’ll do it,” Don said. “I’m taller anyway.” He headed toward the dumpster, but Selena pulled him back.

“No,” she said glumly. “It was my fault; I’ll do it.” She stalked away from her family and over to the dumpster. It was as tall as she was, but there were some boxes beside it … she stopped abruptly, staring into the alley.

A man stood there. He had just pulled the used sack out of the dumpster; he had two french fries hanging out of his mouth, and in his hand – a gnarled and dirty hand with a worn-out glove wrapped around it – he held the wad of bills that she had carelessly thrown out. His clothes were filthy and full of holes, and all of them added together didn’t seem like enough to keep him warm. His eyes as he gazed in absolute awe and gratitude at the handful of cash were lit up as though he held a million dollars instead of twenty. He had already felt fortunate to have found the discarded fries.

Selena blinked at him for a moment in silence. Then, as a thousand emotions passed through her heart, she felt the anxiety and anger melt away from her. What the hell have I been doing? she asked herself. What the hell is wrong with me?

She turned back to her family waiting for her on the sidewalk, all of them looking resigned and none of them looking happy. “It’s gone,” she said. She put her arm around Tom’s shoulders. “Let’s go home,” she went on, her tone somber but pleasant. “We can push the furniture out of the way, and we can all play games. ‘Kay?”

The others stared at her in apparent confusion. “Really?” Madeline asked, her eyes filling with hope. “We can all play in the living room?”

“Yeah,” Selena said with a small smile. She didn’t say how ridiculous it sounded to her now, to have been doing things the way she had been doing them; she didn’t reveal how stupid and horrible she felt about it. “But I’m probably just going to watch, ‘cause I’m going to start sorting that extra stuff and getting rid of it. It’s time, I think, and other people could probably really use it.”

“Really?” Don asked. “What –?” He looked behind him toward the alley. “What happened back there?” He was staring at her as though he had never seen her before.

She took his hand. Everything, she thought. “Nothing,” she said. “Let’s find the car and go home.”

The Thing I Like About …

Murdoch Mysteries: the progressiveness within the time period.

Murdoch Mysteries is set in 1895. It’s about a police detective with a good head for science – especially the very latest science. To modern eyes, the “very latest science” is fairly banal, but to the 1895 crowd, it’s so new as to be unheard of and possibly suspect. The inspector is a nice enough man, but he runs his precinct the way the 1895 crowd would – physical “enticements” for the suspects to confess, conservative attitudes about social politics, a notion that a shot of whiskey solves most emotional troubles, etc. The townsfolk behave as people would have behaved at the time – with a reservation and sensibility not seen much these days. Things that were illegal – such as homosexuality – are depicted as illegal without apology, and things that were legal – such as denying a man a promotion because of his religion – were fully expected and understood (if not liked).

But within this true-to-the-times framework, the main characters push the envelope – becoming willing to examine their own views about seemingly incontrovertible things, accepting other human beings as inherently equal, experimenting with new ideas and technologies with an open mind – and, within that 1890’s framework, they represent all the people whose shifting attitudes slowly transformed the world into the one we have today.

Our world may not be perfect, but seeing the beginnings of change – seeing how dramatic those changes felt to the people who were being asked to experience them, seeing how very different things were not really so very long ago – puts things into perspective; while there is probably always room for improvement in such a complex world, we don’t have to be cynical or discouraged. We’ve actually come so far.

And we don’t have to be afraid of change going forward, any more than the 1895 crowd needed to be as afraid as they probably were to see their world get turned on its ear. We should be vigilant, to be sure, to try as best we can to make the changes positive … but change in itself isn’t bad. It’s difficult, and scary, and some of it might even seem suspect, but being willing to face change and embrace it will make everything go a lot more smoothly, and peacefully.

To paraphrase Detective Murdoch as he pondered a murder case: If the killer had just accepted the situation for what it was, instead of reacting with fear, no one would have been hurt in the first place.

The Thing I Like About …

Sleepy Hollow (TV-2013):  Ichabod.

Ichabod Crane has been transported from his time – the late 18th century – to our time.  He faces a world much changed from his, but he accepts his circumstances with good humour and courage.  He welcomes learning about the new things around him, which makes his fish-out-of-water days rather brief.

Part of his acceptance stems from the fact that he is not so different from us as we might have imagined; he sees very quickly that the world in many ways is just the same as in his time  – bad guys are still bad, good guys are still good, people are people – and we see that, while he may sound like he walked out of a Jane Austen novel, he is perfectly “normal” (intelligent, sarcastic, and funny).

We live in a world where it bothers us if the coffee shop is closed today, or if there’s a new picture on our money, or if others aren’t doing/watching/listening to/liking exactly the same things we do.  We don’t like change, even when it’s the change we asked for.  We also live in a world where we think we are the culmination of civilization – that all that came before us are ignorant savages completely foreign to our “sophisticated” ways of thinking and living.  We forget what Ichabod knows – that people are people, that they always have been, and likely always will be.  We forget that people-being-people isn’t a bad thing particularly, so we criticize all that seems different, assume the worst, and resist growth, change, or learning.  We would be terrified and lost in Ichabod’s world, and often we’re terrified and lost in our own.

Neil Postman wrote a book called “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century” … thank goodness Sleepy Hollow took him up on his suggestion.  I look forward to seeing the world through Ichabod’s eyes.

The Thing I Like About …

Transformers III: Dark of the Moon:  the part where Dutch goes all ninja.

Sam, Simmons, and Dutch have entered an unsavory situation, filled with several (probably armed) people who don’t like them.  Just when it seems that the good guys are about to get in serious trouble, Dutch starts breaking arms and taking guns, quickly placing himself in charge and glaring at everyone with cold calm.  When Simmons speaks to him in German – admonishing him, clearly – Dutch’s expression changes to one of contrition, and he drops his guns and apologizes to the bad guys:  “I’m so sorry!  That was the old me!”  He instantly transforms back to the easy-going, placid man he had been during the rest of the movie.

We all spend way too much time rehashing our pasts to ourselves – not just the hurts that others have caused us, but also (or even more so) the hurts we have caused others.  We question our right to let things go, because what if we haven’t been “punished” enough for our transgressions?  We question our current worth based on the mistakes of the past – mistakes we made years ago, maybe even mistakes from our childhoods.  But one of the reasons we can’t let these things go is that we can’t go back and un-do it.  We don’t have the ability to go back in time and change what we did, and so we do the next best thing:  we live in the past in our heads, and we feel bad for our crimes forever.

What if we went “Dutch” instead?  What if we committed to changing our ways, and simply moved forward while our mistakes stayed behind us?  What if, when we found ourselves repeating old habits or attitudes or actions, we just accepted that it happened, and apologized, and recommitted to the “new” us?  What if we accepted that it really is okay to do that? – no punishment, just improvement.  No rehashing, just making amends and moving on.  No baggage, just a one-way ticket to the person we wanted to be in the first place.

Practice with me, now:  “That was the old me!” – and then let the old-me go.

… Unless at some point you need to go ninja.