Monday, February 4, 2013

Fiction #41: Philip Miletic

The Strangest Places

“In life, one finds friends in the strangest places” – Seven Samurai

Jonathan set out for a walk in the early morning. He wanted a yellow orchid. Yellow like the dawn sun. So bright that it peels back squinted eyes, shoves clouds into a misty haze to reveal a light dazzling blue. But Jonathan lives in a town transitioning into a city, where green and gardens are receding like hairlines and the only flower shop is limited to corsages and boutonnières for the local high school proms. They certainly would not have a yellow orchid, thought Jonathan.

So Jonathan set out that morning to look for a yellow orchid outside the city. The city’s exterior is mostly long stretches of highway, but if you head north there is an escarpment. The escarpment is steep, but it has its paths and can be quite the retreat for those determined enough. It may have the yellow orchid that Jonathan sought.

When Jonathan stepped outside of his house he was immediately hailed by his neighbour, Peter, to the right of him. Jonathan approached Peter, who was lying on the hood of his car, scratching his stomach where his t-shirt was torn. Peter lifted his head to look at Jonathan, but remained sprawled on the hood of his car. Jonathan didn’t know what kind of car the car was.

“Jonathan.”

“Peter. How are you?”

“I’m stuck, Jonathan.”

“Stuck?”

“Yes…stuck.” Jonathan’s head fell back. He appeared tired. Like he had been lying there awake all night. Or for a really long time. Peter continued to scratch his stomach and play with the hole in his shirt.

“How are you stuck?”

“I’m stuck! I don’t know!” Peter squirmed and Jonathan watched. “Please help me get up.” A bird shit on Peter.

“Oh dear!” Jonathan rushed over to Peter’s left side. He grabbed Peter’s arm and tried to tug him upright, but Jonathan couldn’t lift Peter up.

“Ow! Don’t rip off my arm!”

“Sorry!” Jonathan then noticed the iron braces that were screwed into the car’s hood over Peter’s biceps. “You’re screwed into the car. Do you have any tools?”

“Yes, I have tools.”

“Where?”

Peter thought for a moment and answered slowly: “The garage.” Jonathan started for the garage but Peter hailed him: “Wait!”

“What?”

“I…I forget.” He scratched his side a bit lower than he had previously. “Some damn thing is underneath me,” he mumbled.

“What?”

“Just get the tool box!”

“Okay.”

Jonathan continued towards the garage. The garage door was closed but wasn’t locked. He opened the garage door, which was green and heavy, too heavy to lift all the way. So Jonathan stooped under the slightly ajar garage door and let it fall closed behind him with an echoing bang.

The garage was dark and smelt musty, but Jonathan could make out a silver line and a faint outline of a light bulb. He made his way to the silver line, concentrating on not losing it from his sights, tripping over a lawn mower, extension cords, and bumping into randomly scattered boxes filled with, what Jonathan thought, cinder blocks. Jonathan pulled the silver chain, but the light bulb only illuminated a small area around him. However, the walls now had outlines of objects and shelves. He can make out colours here and there too. Faintly. Jonathan had always thought that toolboxes were red. He wasn’t sure if the red colour of toolboxes he had in mind came from cartoons or from his father’s toolbox.

On the very top of one of the shelves was a red box and so it had to be the toolbox that Jonathan was looking for. But Jonathan was only a mere 5’5”, the shelf with the red toolbox towering over him. He needed a ladder, but after looking around the garage he could find none. He exited out of the garage, again stooping low to get under the garage door because of its weight, and asked Peter where his ladder was because the toolbox was on the top shelf.

“I put it on the top shelf!” Peter then thought for a moment. “Ah, shit. It’s over at Walter’s house.” Peter assumed that Jonathan knew Walter, so after a brief silence he asked who and where Walter was. “Walter Schwarts. He lives just around the corner on Halite Drive. 23.”

Jonathan briskly walked, without grumbling or any sign of annoyance, down Lakeside Street and around the corner to 23 Halite drive. The house looked like all the other houses down this street, and he didn’t know what they were called. He used to.

The door was a dark chalkboard green. He had the option of knocking or ringing the doorbell. For Jonathan, knocking on the door seemed violent, as if he were trying to break down the down and barge right in. He rang the bell and waited. He rang the bell again just when the door was opened, but not all the way.

“Yes?”

“Walter?” 

“Yes?” He still refused to open the door all the way, yet Jonathan could make out his features. Short black hair, a five o’clock shadow, and eyes that were either squinting or naturally like that.             

“Hi, I’m a friend of Peter’s­–” 

“Peter Who?”           

“I don’t know his last name…But he lives down on Lakeside!”            

“Oh! Okay. How can I help you?” Walter now opened the door so that he fully stood before Jonathan. Jonathan informed Peter’s peculiar case, the toolbox, and his need for a ladder. “Oh yeah, the ladder. Been meaning to give that back. Well, it’s just around the side of the house. It should be right by the well. You can’t miss it. Help yourself.” And with saying that, Walter closed the door.

Around the house, Jonathan noticed the well right away and the ladder just beyond it. As he passed by the well, Jonathan heard a voice. “Hello?” said the voice. It sounded like a child’s.

Jonathan looked around but couldn’t tell which direction the voice was coming from. “Hello?”

“The well! I’m down in the well!” Jonathan peered down but couldn’t see anything but darkness. Not even an outline of a boy. “Help me! Is someone there?!”

Jonathan didn’t say anything for a short while, wondering how could a child have fallen into this well. Its wall was pretty high up, at least to his knees. “Yes. Hi. I’m Jonathan. Are you Walter’s son?”

“Who?” Who was this child and what was he doing in a stranger’s backyard?

“Never mind. What’s your name, kid?”

“Nathanial.”

“Nathanial, where do you live?” Jonathan now sat himself down on the edge of the well, as if he were settling down to a conversation with a friend.

“Just down the street.” Jonathan became engrossed in his conversation with Nathanial, sitting on the edge of the well, dangling his legs in the well as he asked him what school he goes to, what he’s taking there, his favourite subject, sport, hobby, etc. The two things that Nathanial wanted in life, Jonathan found out, was to have a dog and to be an astronaut so he can go to outer space with his dog. Soon, Nathanial seemed to have forgotten that he was stuck down a well talking with a man he has never met before. After a brief silence, Jonathan said,

“Well, time to get you out of this well!” As he said this, he slapped his hands onto his legs for support to rise. He made his way to the ladder, thinking that the ladder would suffice. “I’m lowering down a ladder. Let me know if you can reach it and at least grab on to it.”  After Jonathan lowered the ladder has far as he could, even dangerously leaning into the well, Nathanial said he couldn’t reach it although he could see it a little. Nathanial suggested getting a rope from that Walter guy. Jonathan agreed that this was a good idea, but when he headed towards the house, he tripped and fell on the ground. Something had hooked around his foot, and when he tried to free himself of whatever it was, he discovered it was a thin black wire. When Jonathan lifted it slightly, he could see that it led straight to the well and into it. He tugged on the wire and realized there was a weight to it, so he began to pull the wire towards him and a walkie talkie appeared. Jonathan stared at the walkie talkie: “Nathanial?”

“Yes,” said Nathanial, innocently.

“Nothing, I’m going to see Walter now.” Jonathan followed the wire right to the back door of Walter’s house. He looked into the window beside the back door and saw Walter sitting on a couch with a walkie talkie in his hand and a big grin on his face. Jonathan spoke into the walkie-talkie: “Oh Nathanial.” He saw Walter respond. Jonathan knocked on the window. Walter looked over and smiled. Jonathan waved and so did Walter, making his way over to the window. Lifting the window up, “You got me,” Walter said. “Not too many people do.”

“You do it often? Why?”

“Well, it’s sometimes the best way to get the best conversations out of people. It’s sort of like how when you visit someone in the hospital and you can’t say something like, ‘So what have you been up to’ because they’ve been lying in the hospital and that’s depressing as fuck, no one would want to talk about their time in the hospital. ‘Oh, you know, just watched some bad soaps’ or ‘the guy next to me fell asleep with the remote and left the weather channel on.’ So you kind of talk around the situation that they’re in. Which is exactly what you did! You didn’t ask how I, or the child, got down in the well. You didn’t even ask if I was alright because you knew if I talked back I was fine and would be comforted by conversation. It’s what a doctor doesn’t do. A doctor says, ‘You’ll be fine’ and then says ‘see you in a couple of weeks’ or months, or never because by the time the doctor comes around, you’re dead! Or a nurse, no matter how much you give them thanks and praise, they just mumble ‘no problem.’ And if you want to start a conversation with them, forget it! They even sound pissed when you do.”

“How do you know all this?”

“My wife had cancer, my grandfather dementia, and I myself was hospitalized a couple of times for…stupid mistakes.”

“Oh jeez.”

“Yeah, but that’s life. Or at least my life anyhow.” Jonathan liked how Walter hung out the window, leaning on the windowsill, not really looking at him. Just occasionally. Walter smiled. “But I should let you go and get your ladder. I bet Peter is dying right now in this heat.” It was extremely hot today, and Jonathan shuddered thinking about the steel hood of the car. “It was nice talking to you Jonny even though our conversation was a little bit of a fiction. But then again, what conversation isn’t?” At this, Walter closed the door and walked back to his chair, still smiling.

Jonathan grabbed the ladder and walked back towards Peter’s house. Behind him he could hear the revving of a car’s engine, like a car speeding down the street towards him. He looked back and saw a red car barreling down the road. Jonathan looked away and continued walking along the sidewalk. All of sudden, a squealing of tires and the smell of burning rubber. The red car stopped alongside Jonathan and all he heard was, “You! Please! You need to help me! Get in the car!” Jonathan looked over to see the voice addressing him. The voice belonged to a woman, blonde short hair and very pretty eyes. Jonathan found her familiar and because he found her familiar, he entered the car. As soon as he closed the door, she stepped on the gas.

“What’s your name?”

“Jonathan.” Before he can ask her name, she said:

“Smile.”

“What?” Jonathan was still struggling to put on a seatbelt.

“Smile or I’ll crash this car.”

Jonathan remained silent and gazed at the woman. She turned sharply around corners causing Jonathan to slide back and forth in his seat (he hadn’t bothered putting his seatbelt on), yet he still fixated his gaze on her. She looked at him now and then with a quick glance, keeping her eyes on the road. She didn’t ask of him her demand twice nor did she threaten him a second time. She seemed to be holding her breath. Nothing was playing on the radio. Or it was turned down low. Jonathan had an idea.

“Okay I’ll smile.” She didn’t look him but responded flatly,

“Okay.”

“But…”

“But?” Okay, Jonathan thought, she said “but,” which means she’s open to a suggestion.

“Since you’re taking me a lot further away from home, would you please—if I smile—take me back to my house.” Without asking where he lived, she replied yes. “Okay.” He tapped her on the shoulder. “Ready when you are.” She stopped the car, again at a sudden halt.

He smiled. He smiled and held his smile for what felt like a long time as she stared back at him with a plain stone face, as if she were studying his smile. But he continued to smile until she showed some sign of approval. He smiled the smile that brought tears to brighten the eyes.

She smiled back.

“I knew you would. Thank you.” She shifted the car into drive. “Where to?” He told her.

When he stepped out of the car, he asked her why she asked him to smile.

“I needed to see a smile,” she said. “Sometimes I close my eyes while driving to see if I am driving.” Jonathan didn’t know what to say to this. “Okay, Jonathan. Thank you. And good-bye.” And before he could say good-bye, she had already begun to move forward and was out of thought.

“Did you get the ladder?” Peter said. Jonathan realized he had dropped the ladder when the woman picked him up. “Shoot. I dropped it.”

“You dropped it?”

“Be right back.”

Jonathan returned to where the woman had picked him up and he dropped the ladder. The ladder was right there but two girls were playing what looked to be hopscotch with it. Jonathan watched them play for a minute. The game, if it was a game, was simple as far as he could see: the first girl hopped on her left foot over one rung and landed on her left foot. She repeated this with the right foot and so on. The second girl started with her right foot and did the same as the first girl. When the second girl reached the first girl, they clasped hands and spun around in circles three times. They repeated this whole procedure in the opposite direction.

Jonathan hailed them and asked them what they were playing. They both stared at him, frightened. Jonathan, not experienced in these situations, said, “I’m sorry. I know you’re playing a game but that ladder that you’re playing with is my ladder and I need it right now.” He said this in the friendliest voice he could think of, attempting to put on the friendliest face. He even crouched to their level and kept his distance. Finally the two girls spoke.

“But we want to continue playing.” Jonathan again did not have a reply, so he asked their names. “I’m Patricia and this is Victoria.”

“Are you two sisters?”

“Yes. Twins.” said Victoria.

“Twins! Wow!” The twins looked unimpressed. “Well, why were you playing with my ladder here?”

“We ran out of chalk.”

“We told mommy and daddy that we needed more chalk.
 

“Because yesterday rained and washed away all our paintings and our game.”

“But it rained last night when we were asleep and we didn’t know it rained until we woke up and mommy and daddy had gone to work.”

“They go to work early.”

 “Well,” said Jonathan. “I’ll get you some chalk.” He really hoped he could fulfill this promise when he saw their smiles that simultaneously arrived on their faces. “So wait here and continue playing your game.”

“Okay!” They both shouted.

 “Okay,” he echoed back.

Not wanting to head back to his place, Jonathan knocked on Walter’s door. Walter answered and asked why he had returned so soon.

“Was the ladder broken or something?”

“No, no. See those girls over there?” Jonathan pointed in their direction. “They’re using my ladder to play their game of some sort.”

“Well how did they get it? Didn’t you have it?”

“Long story. Anyways, they want to continue playing their game and I don’t want to make them cry and ruin their day. So it appears that all they want is chalk to draw their hopscotch grid. Do you have any?”

“You kidding me!?” Jonathan was startled by Walter’s enthusiastic response. “Come in. I’ll need your help.” Jonathan followed him into his house and down the basement stairs. “I used to be a chalk fanatic when I was a kid. But like all kids, it was only a phase. I used to draw on the driveway with chalk that rivaled some paintings. My dad once said I was the Pollock of Driveways. And one day, for my birthday, they bought me this enormous tub of chalk. But by that time…well, it was that day, I had given up or got bored with chalk. Yet, I’m not one to just throw gifts away, so I’ve kept it here.” Walter removed a tarp and revealed a very large tub of chalk. Jonathan carried it up because Walter said he had pulled his shoulder the other day and he couldn’t do any heavy lifting. “Doctor’s orders.”

When Jonathan returned to the girls with the chalk, they were delighted. Before he took the ladder, the girls traced the outline of the ladder with chalk. They said thank you, and as Jonathan left he reminded them that they should get their parents to carry the chalk back home.

“It’s pretty heavy, so I doubt that anyone else will take it while you are gone. In fact,” he added, “only your parents can lift it other than me!” The girls looked in wonder at the tub of chalk. Jonathan waved goodbye and was glad he now had the ladder and can finally get to the red toolbox to free Peter so he can continue to look for his yellow orchid.

Peter asked what had taken him so long, but Jonathan just told him to be patient. He entered the garage, and angled the ladder against the shelf and climbed to the top where the red toolbox was. He went to grab it, but it moved, or he thought it moved.  Then he heard movement within the red toolbox. He opened it to find a little woman within it.

“Are you looking for something?” asked the little woman.

“Yes, I am, er–”

“Brenda. Et tu?”

“Jonathan.”

“Hi Jonathan, how can I help you?”

“My friend, Peter, is screwed into the hood of his car. I need to get him out and I thought this was a toolbox.”

“My home, a toolbox! Ha! Completely different than what you were expecting, huh?”

 “Completely…This is your home? Why did it seem like you were trying to get out?”

“Get out? Oh, I was dancing.” Brenda twirled, sending her dress to float up and then down when she came to a stop. “It’s one of my favourite pastimes. It’s how I pass the time.”

“So why are you in here?”

“Well, I was just like you. Height-wise I mean. But then one day, I didn’t like the demands that were being forced upon me. I felt small, so why should I just feel small. I found this red box and I thought it was perfect. I stepped inside and now here I am!”

“You shrunk, just like that?”

“Just like that, Jonny boy. I know, a bit unbelievable, but hey, I did it.”

 “Interesting, I never thought anyone could shrink themselves.”

 “Doesn’t just happen in science fiction movies. So! Help? Screwdriver? Perhaps I can help you!” Brenda opened the door at the back of the box that led, what looked like, downstairs. Brenda came back up with a screwdriver that could screw any screw. She handed it to Jonathan. Once the screwdriver was in his hands, it grew in size so that it looked like a regular screwdriver and not the tiny one she was carrying. “There you go mister! How do you like it?”

 “It’ll do just fine thanks!”

 “Alrighty. Well, if you don’t mind, I would like to continue dancing and I don’t think I’m ready for an audience yet.”

 “Oh come on,” Jonathan encouraged. “Dance once for me.”

 “Okay, well. Fine. But…you have to sing the song to me.”

 “I can’t sing.”

 “Hum then, just hum a tune or something!” So Jonathan started to hum a waltz and Brenda danced. When she had finished, Jonathan clapped, smiling.

 “That was great!”

 “You’re lying.”

 “Fine then! I’m lying, but I’ll say it again anyhow: you were great!” She blushed.

 “Just been practicing ever since I entered this box here. Now get the hell out of here! And don’t worry about the screwdriver. Just hand it back to your friend Peter, or keep it for yourself as a souvenir from the great dancer, Brenda!” Jonathan waved as he slowly closed the red box and then made his way out of the garage and beside Peter who was now nearly covered in bird shit from head to toe.

 “Hurry the hell up and unscrew me, man! I’ve got this itch under me I can’t quite get at!” So Jonathan unscrewed Peter as fast as he could. Once free, Peter rose up and hopped onto his feet and stretched himself as far as he could towards the sky. He patted Jonathan on the back: “Thanks man. Gotta take a shower. I owe you one!” Something on the hood of the car caught Jonathan’s eye and he mumbled something. “What’s that?”

 “Never mind.” Near the middle of Peter’s bird shit outline, right where his side had been, was a yellow orchid.

 Jonathan picked up the orchid, examining its fragile yet unbroken beauty, and smiled.

*

philip miletic is currently a teaching assistant and research assistant at Brock University. His short fiction has been featured in dead (g)end(er) and his poetry has been featured in ditch, magazine. He lives in Grimsby, ON.

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