New Fiction: The Story I Tell Myself

There is a lot going on in the world and, as Ian Woollen’s story says in its first line our “return-to-normal plot needs tweaking. Some days I feel optimistic, some days not so much.”

This feels like a fitting story for where we are right now as a society and as a world. It appears in NDQ 88.3/4 which should be on its way to subscribers even as we speak. You can read more from this issue here. Ian Woollen’s story is the final contribution to this issue of NDQ and I always try to give whatever appears on the final pages of the issue a bit more publicity, just in case people don’t quite get to the end. Plus, this story feels right for our current mood.

As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. So even if NDQ doesn’t float your boat, If you can, consider buying a book from a small presssubscribing to a literary journal (like our UNP stablemate, Hotel Amerika), or otherwise supporting the arts.  

The Story I Tell Myself

My return-to-normal plot needs tweaking. Some days I feel optimistic, some days not so much. It used to be a “best of all possible worlds” kind of vibe. What goes around, comes around. The universe wants me to succeed. We’re put on this earth for a reason. My bushy eyebrows make me look mysterious and therefore are attractive to Margie. She and I have an opposites-attract energy. Margie, a veteran bank teller, depends on me for a minimum daily adult dose of silliness. Until recently, I believed that if I grilled our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, she would never leave. That is no longer part of the story.

The snooze button is my new best friend. It truly understands me. The dark mornings are difficult. I no longer jump out of bed and announce, “It is Monday on the Taconic Parkway of Life.”

Or Tuesday, or whatever. Margie would groan and say, “You mean laconic.” She was referring to my approach to employment. My position was then and is now that the next job, like my next dog, will appear of its own accord. The job will spontaneously come to me, just like the window-washing gig. A guy falls off a ladder leaning up against the apartment house next door and his foreman sees me reading the newspaper on our porch at ten in the morning and asks if I need work.

Yours truly became a squeegee jock. Olympic level. In school, I never participated in sports, but this was different. Ooomph, I hoisted and carried ladders on my shoulder and expertly let them fall into place, without any damage to the window frame. Scampered right up. The job was fun and fulfilling, while it lasted. Almost a year, until the pandemic hit. The results of my rhythmic swipes were immediately visible, and the customers were grateful. The rising smog levels in our megalopolis leave a grimy residue. Clear, clean windows can make occupants happy and inspire them to pay tips. Also, there were some voyeuristic perks. Many glimpses into many bedrooms. I like to see other people’s messes. They validate my own.

Margie was not impressed. “There’s no future in it. You’re barely one step up from the kid on the corner charging fifty cents to do my car windshield.”

“Dear, here’s what you need to understand,” I said, “Cleaning windows is essential work.”

She said, “Next you’re going to claim that you’re a hero.”

“Window cleaning provides an essential service, a new perspective, a fresh view out onto the world.”

“So why don’t you clean ours?”

She had a point there. But about the dog thing. Margie took the dog with her. Both she and Pepper just disappeared off the screen. It was a Thursday on the Laconic Parkway of Life. No warning, not even a note. Sorry, this makes Margie seem cruel. She’s tough, but not cruel. And a little flighty, for a bank teller. She claims that her childhood dog, a schnauzer, was her grandmother reincarnated. Grandma Florence died just before Margie was born and bequeathed her a collection of clunky clip-on earrings. Our dog, Pepper, sort of resembles my grandmother, same long snout and big watery eyes. We rescued the mutt from the local shelter. Truth is, she rescued us. We walked Pepper together, bathed her together. Shooed her off the couch together. That’s one thing we agreed on. No canines on the couch.

I’d walk Pepper downtown to visit Margie at the bank. She keeps a bowl of candy and dog bones at her window, to sustain her regulars. She’s a pro. Her fingers play a calculator like a concert pianist. We first met when I showed up in the lobby, lugging a paint can full of loose change. A couple years’ worth of pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, subway tokens and pesos (from a spring break trip to Mexico). After repeated attempts, I could not get the coin counting machine to function properly. Margie stepped over from her window to assist. We spilled half of the coins. She laughed her what-next laugh and we swept them up and eventually the machine generated over a hundred dollars.

“Would you like it in small bills, sir?” she asked.

“Twenties would be fine,” I said.

I offered to use the money to take her out to dinner. Possibly my finest moment. A yak fest ensued. One topic led to another. We each discovered that we had a lot to say that we didn’t even know, until we were in the presence of someone who could hear it. Books and movies and Mayan ruins and reincarnated grandmothers. We ended up watching a pink sunrise from the observation platform on the train bridge that crosses to our borough.

I wish Margie would talk to me about visitation rights with Pepper. I deserve to see the pooch occasionally. There should be a law. Margie thinks she was doing me a favor. Or she fears I would be a bad pet owner. She insists on needing some “space.” We are not speaking at all. She won’t answer my calls. Instead, we text vague, third-person accusations, disguised as no-hard-feelings advice.

“She is never too old to make the same mistake again. She just keeps getting better at it,” Margie wrote.

“What goes around, comes around to bite his sorry ass,” I wrote. “Who is going to inform the lady about the spinach in her teeth?”

“She wonders if perhaps she is throwing bad money after good.”

Margie sees me as a risky investment that has been downgraded to “sell.” She studies the psychology of investing, especially the emotional hang-ups around cutting losses. She aspires to a job promotion into the wealth-management department at the bank. Her goal is to become the tough advisor who specializes in instructing clients how and when to unload their GM shares. Our recent break-up is an opportunity to practice what she preaches. It is a test of her ability to pull the plug on an underperforming equity.

“Margie, please, this relationship is different. What we have is more like a bond than a stock.”

I considered it a good joke. She thought I was making fun of her.

Anyway, two Blursdays ago, a waiter job appeared out of nowhere and dropped into my proverbial lap. I was veering into an agoraphobic boredom (read, lonely), and it gave me a reason to unfriend the snooze button. I informed Margie via text and added a string of excited emojis.

Margie replied, “The dude waits until after his partner is out of the house to start speaking her love language.”

“Soon I might be fluent.”

Margie worked as a waitress in college and she recognizes that waiting tables is a true profession. She cites the proud tradition in France, where waiters have a national union. Fortunately, Margie did not ask me where exactly I was working. Neither did I specify to her that my waiting job was not with a restaurant.

It was a waiting-in-line gig. A tip from a talkative bro in a Dodgers cap who, ironically, was waiting in line behind me at the post office to get a passport photo. My passport had expired and I was thinking maybe that was my problem. Hello! The job spontaneously appeared in the form of a discussion about phone apps. The guy demonstrated WaitForU and urged me to apply.

“You get paid real money for just hanging out,” he said.

Sweet. And easy, a sort of a Lyft type deal, except that instead of driving clients around in my car, I stand in line as a placeholder. My customer pays me to stand in line, for groceries or medications or to appeal fines or whatever, until the line moves close to the front and I text them to get their butt over here pronto. Meanwhile, they go do other stuff for a couple hours. Or several hours. Some lines move right along, some just inch, some stop and start and stop and start.

The waiting-in-line gig is booming. Tickets, medications, voter IDs, unemployment benefits, vaccinations, refunds, firewood banks, passport photos. Waiting-in-line has become a way of life, kind of like the old Soviet Union. The pay is standard, minimum wage plus tips. There is plenty of time to read a book and soak up some sun (don’t forget an umbrella) and listen to music and meet interesting people. The lines have a leveling effect on moods and attitudes. A long, around-the-block line creates a communal, Hydra-headed entity. We are in this together and beware anyone who tries to cut.

I met a fashion designer from Honduras. We had a conversation in Spanish, and I discovered that my high school vocabulary is not too bad. A sociologist hired me to stand in line as a research experiment. I spent one noisy afternoon with a gaggle of retro-punk superfans desperate for concert tickets. I’ve passed several hours at several different pharmacies, holding a place for patients hoping to score leftover booster shots against the variants. That’s where I met the retired political science professor who hassled me about class conflict in my job. Wasn’t I just a stooge for the elite? Wasn’t I betraying the have-nots, the elderly who could not afford to hire someone to stand in the pharmacy line? Things got heated, but we ended up having a constructive exchange. In fact, we’re scheduled to meet again for lunch next week.

Margie discovered my secret by accident. It was bound to happen. I was booked to stand in a line at her downtown branch, during one of the recent bank runs. I confirmed the appointment before realizing exactly where I was going. Margie spotted me on the sidewalk outside the conference room window. The staff had been meeting to discuss how to handle the crowd and the publicity. She came outside during a smoke break to accost me. Her grandmother’s gold blob earrings glowed in the sunlight. She always looked nice in her work outfits, although now she looked a little tired, probably from having to let Pepper out at five a.m., a duty I usually performed.

“What the heck are you doing here?” she asked. “This reserves failure stuff is all disinformation. You should know better. And, OMG, what have you done to your eyebrows?”

I admitted to some self-inflicted barbering to improve my appearance on the job. Sheepishly pulled off my hat and revealed the full damage. I also confessed the true nature of my employment, expecting Margie to recoil at my dissembling and scoff at my wage status.

To her credit, she took a deep breath and nodded and smiled. “You’re not making this up,” she said.

“No, dear,” I said.

“You feel this is essential work.”

“Yes, totally.”

I introduced her to the couple in front of me, Ed and Linda, a pair of ballroom dance instructors on cruise ships. Margie bumped elbows with them and turned to me and whispered, “Okay, I admit it. This is the perfect job for you. This is what you were meant to do.”

“Agreed, there is a certain existential fit,” I said. “Speaking of which, standing outside your bank this morning, I realized what it is—”

Cough, sniffle. I had to pause for an uncharacteristic choke-up.

“What it is what?” Margie said.

“That I am standing in line for. What I am really waiting for.”

“And that is?” she said.

“I am waiting for you and Pepper to come home.”

“You might be waiting a long time,” she said.

“I’m willing to make the investment,” I said.

This time, not a joke, and in her heart of hearts, she knew it. Somewhere in her thoughtful breast, in her aorta or left valve or ventricle, a tiny seed of recognition sprouted and slowly, over time, it will grow and amortize and eventually bloom into a blue chip epiphany of reconciliation. That is my story and I’m sticking to it.

~

Ian Woollen lives and works and writes in Bloomington, Indiana. His day job is psychotherapy. Recent short fiction has appeared in Five South, Moon City Review, and Fiction Southeast. A new novel, Sister City, is out from Coffeetown Press.

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