Monday, June 30, 2014

Fiction #52: J. J. Steinfeld

Wrong Numbers

Thaddeus was sitting at a window stool of the coffee shop he had visited nearly every day for the last ten years, for a half hour before work in the morning and then stopping in again to pick up a coffee-to-go after work. It was Sunday, though, and this was the first time he can remember ever coming to this coffee shop on a Sunday. And even more unusual, he had gone to church this morning, the first time in he couldn’t remember how long, but throughout the sermon about the need for forthrightness with oneself and with God he kept thinking about going to the coffee shop and having a coffee. It was the church his parents had attended, and he had stopped attending even before he graduated high school. He was certain it was the same minister, the intense, God-evoking, sermonizing voice seemed to remain forceful but he was now grey haired and stooped. Thaddeus recalled a loud argument with his parents when he told them that going to church was a waste of time, especially on a Sunday, and the minister didn’t have a direct phone line to the Lord even if he had such a loud voice. Thaddeus thought the word forthrightness was perfect for describing his behaviour that morning, and wished he had used it in his argument with his parents. He didn’t recall ever using the word before, and whispered it over and over, until it sounded like the strangest word in the world.

The coffee shop was not only walking distance from the church, but also a few blocks away from the liquor store where Thaddeus has worked as a clerk for ten years—ten years a month from tomorrow. He had started almost six months ago to think in terms of that upcoming ten-year milestone, pondering it every day, often several times a day as if it were a perfunctory prayer he needed to recite: ten years, an astounding decade, at one job. Ten years… He had started the day after his thirty-fifth birthday, determined not to lose another job, nervous as a teenager on a first date, but he had made it through the day and a couple thousand or so more liquor-store days after that.

Thaddeus saw himself outside the window, shaped as a bronze ten-year trophy. He blinked away the human trophy and began to write numbers on a napkin. He liked numbers, figures, making calculations: he was calculating how many people he had sold liquor to in the last ten years as he was stirring his third cup of coffee of the afternoon. Then how much alcohol had been purchased. He actually attempted to visualize the ten-years’ worth of booze flowing all around him. An enormous sea of booze, he thought. Better yet, a booze ocean. He wondered who in the history of the world had consumed the most alcohol and how much that would be. He thought of his old life of drinking, a little lake of alcohol, that would be an approximate image, remembering hearing the poet Al Purdy describe a lake of beer. That was years ago, at the only poetry reading he had ever attended; his ex-wife had made him go to the reading, saying yet again that he needed an infusion of culture, and that time he had gone along, just to please her. Purdy, he recalled, described being in a rowboat in the middle of a lake of all the beer he had consumed in his poetry-writing lifetime. Purdy was tall and as he chatted with him after the reading, Thaddeus felt he was half the famous poet’s height. He timidly told Purdy, as he waited for the poet to sign the book he had purchased, the only poetry book he had ever bought, that he also had a weakness for beer but couldn’t write a poem to save his life. Now he hadn’t had a drop of alcohol in a decade, not even a rain puddle’s worth. He was always struck by the realization that he had stopped drinking after getting the job at the liquor store. Yes, how much liquor had he sold, bottles of all sizes—he estimated it would be close to a half million, maybe more. Staring into his coffee, he imagined looking into a whirlpool and could see himself swirling and being pulled down into the water. If this were a fantasy film, he thought, there might be another world he could wind up in. He liked the thought of going to another world.

“Do you mind if I sit next to you?” a woman, holding a paper cup and a small metal tea pot, said, as she stood at the empty stool next to Thaddeus, causing him to slow his stirring.

“Of course…certainly,” he said.

“My name is Celeste,” she said as she sat down and placed her cup and tea pot on the counter.

“What a lovely name,” he said, still stirring his coffee.

Celestial, wouldn’t you say?” she said, and smiled.

Her teeth were beautiful, and it reminded Thaddeus that he had a dental appointment next Friday. He had waited nearly three years for his six-month check-up and cleaning. He sure could put things off. During one of their innumerable arguments about his negligent habits, his ex-wife called him a procrastinator of the highest order, often referred to him as The Procrastinator during their five-year marriage. She left him before he found his job at the liquor store and embarked on his new life.

“I’m tired of being shy and unassertive,” Celeste said, and offered her right hand to Thaddeus. He noticed how long her fingers were, longer than his, and that the forefinger was slightly bent.

Lifting his arm out of the whirlpool, he gave her a tentative handshake. “Yep, shy and unassertive could characterize me fairly accurately also.”

The woman sat down and slowly poured a cup of tea from a height that Thaddeus thought excessive, expecting her to miss her cup but not a drop did.

“The only time I ever drink tea is when I’m not feeling well,” Thaddeus said, seeming to be confessing a secret.

“Hope you don’t want any tea.”

“I’m not feeling bad at all, but when I was a child, if I complained of a sore throat or feeling lousy, my mother would make me a tea.”

“My mother died when I was eight,” the woman said sharply, looking at the counter.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Under suspicious circumstances, that’s the way I remember people describing it,‘ she said, and he recalled two TV dramas he had seen lately where mothers of young children had died under suspicious circumstances, but caught himself before revealing this.

As Thaddeus resumed stirring his coffee, the woman lifted her head and looked out the window as she continued her story: “My father told me before he died ten years ago, that he really wasn’t my father. Talk about taking an axe to the family tree. That little biographical tidbit affected me more than my mother dying when I was three.”

“That’s a shocker and a half.” Thaddeus wanted to ask the woman the date of her father’s death, curious how close the man’s death was to the day he had started working at the liquor store, but quickly discarded that thought.

“I think he was lying,” the woman said, and took a tentative sip of tea.

“Why do you think that?”

“He was always blaming people for his dissatisfaction with his life, including my dear mother who he claimed slept around a lot even after they got married, deciding at the end that he couldn’t have been my father.”

“That wasn’t very fatherly of him.”

“I’ve never told anyone this before, not a soul.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Say you understand that it is difficult to be a human being.”

“That is indeed true.”

“I can talk to you,” the woman said, pouring another cup of tea, and began drinking it quickly.

“And I like listening to you. You are very forthright, and I find forthrightness an admirable quality,” he said, wondering if he would go to church next Sunday.

“I have to go now,“ she said, barely finishing half of her second tea.

“Oh, no.”

“We’ll talk again soon, I hope.”

“I don‘t see why not.”

“You promise to call me?”

“It will be my pleasure.”

“You swear?”

“My word of honour as a coffee drinker.”

Celeste borrowed Thaddeus’s pen and wrote down her e-mail address and cellphone number on the napkin with his earlier calculations. “I can say things over the phone that I can’t in person, I don’t know why.”

“But you told me about your father.”

“Other things. Not like that.”

“Must be something psychological, not that I‘m a psychologist or anything.”        

“It’s as if I’m a different person.”

“I can relate to that,” Thaddeus said, and drew some designs with his fingertips on the counter close to Celeste’s cup. “What sort of things?” he asked as light-heartedly as he could.

“You know, things of an intimate nature.”

“That sounds exciting.”

“Or frightening.”

Celeste touched Thaddeus gently in the shoulder, he so wanting to kiss her, but she hurried off, explaining she was already late for visiting a friend in the hospital.

Thaddeus watched Celeste leave the coffee shop and as the door closed behind her, he looked out the front window, to see where she was going. He waved at her, but she was already across the street, starting to run.

*

Thaddeus wasn’t able to sleep and felt horrible in the morning. All he could think about was the woman from the coffee shop…Celeste…celestial Celeste. He imagined talking to her again, began to anticipate it. He called in to work early, before anyone had arrived, and left a message that he was wretchedly ill, stomach flu or something, and wouldn’t be able to come in. He apologized at great length and hung up, surprised with himself for talking so long to an answering machine. Ordinarily he had an aversion to leaving personal messages with a lifeless contraption. At least this time he didn’t curse the impersonal recorded words. He kept thinking about the most marvellous woman he had ever met, the first time he had had anything that resembled a fully formed conversation with a woman in he couldn’t remember how long. On the day his wife had left him, telling Thaddeus, among other criticisms, that he was the most uncommunicative person she had ever known, and in order for a marriage to work and love to last there had to be communication, even as simple as everyday conversations. She told him he was as unconversational as a horse’s ass, and that she meant it literally. He tried to imitate a horse’s neighing, and she laughed at his feeble attempt. He wasn’t comfortable talking with strangers or meeting new people, and that was why he was so surprised when the woman sat down next to him at the coffee shop and started talking, bringing out something incredible in him. Their conversation hadn’t even lasted a half hour yet he felt drawn to her. He looked at her e-mail address and cellphone number, touched the sheet of paper as if trying to touch the woman, wondered when the best time to call her would be. She had wanted him to call her, she had been emphatic about that, and he imagined asking her to spend sometime together soon, how about this weekend, perhaps the entire weekend, they talking about everything under the sun and becoming intimate through words and their bodies. After a rejuvenating early-morning reverie, he decided to call her, no procrastination this time. Nine o’clock certainly wasn’t too early. Maybe she was at a job. She didn’t mention what she did, but it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try. Five melodious rings, a briefly mesmerizing rhythm, and a man with a raspy voice answered.

“Is Celeste there?” Thaddeus stuttered out. Husband? Boyfriend? Lover? He hated these words, the questioning thoughts.

“Who is this?” the man asked.

“I told Celeste I’d call her. This is Thaddeus.”

“My name is Thaddeus.”

“Not the most common name in the world.”

“No it is not. Celeste never mentioned you.”

“We just met yesterday.”

“Tell you the truth, I met her yesterday also.”

“You’re lying,” Thaddeus told the man.

“Watch who you call a liar, you stupid idiot.”

“I just don’t think your name is Thaddeus.”

“Well, stupid or idiot, I don’t know which one to call you, I don’t think your name is Thaddeus. I have to get to work.”

“I took the day off,” Thaddeus explained.

“I can’t be taking any days off,” the man said. “I’ll leave Celeste a note that you called before I go to the liquor store,” the man said and hung up.

Liquor store… How could he work at a liquor store? Maybe he meant that he wanted to pick up some booze before going to work. That had to be it, Thaddeus concluded.

An hour and two coffees later, hoping maybe that Celeste had returned home, he called again, and an unfamiliar woman’s voice said that there was no Celeste there, even though she has a sister named Celeste whom she hasn’t seen in a year, and he told her the phone number he wanted and she said that phone number wasn’t anything close to the one he had just called. The woman suggested he try more carefully, advising him to try calling at a time when the weather conditions weren‘t so threatening, to which Thaddeus replied wryly, “The weather is beautiful outside. You couldn’t ask for a lovelier day.” “It’s raining cats and dogs here,” the woman said, and clicked off rudely. It hadn’t sounded anything like Celeste’s voice, but he was hoping she was disguising her voice, some sort of game he didn’t yet understand. No harm in that, nothing sinister, he rationalized. Just a playful, harmless game with a man she had met in a coffee shop yesterday. Thaddeus called once more, hoping third time lucky, and a person with his voice, that was unmistakable, answered, Thaddeus smiling in expectation of a wonderful conversation, but quickly berated himself for calling; worse still, saying accusingly, “Talking to oneself is a madcap slippage.” “A slippage from what?” the other person asked, toying with cleverness and the confusion at hand. “Slippage from a life of reveries and coffees,” the impolite words shrill with ear-splitting betrayal. Thaddeus hung up, spilling anger all around him, wondering who in the world he might call next.

He went to his computer and typed the name “Celeste” into a search engine, visited a few websites at random, then he typed in “Thaddeus and Celeste,” visiting even more websites, and finally “Thaddeus and Celeste and love,” and finds a newspaper article from a New Zealand newspaper about a couple who had celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary by going on a week-long hike through one of the most rugged parts of the country.

Thaddeus’s uncertainty and apprehension increasing, he typed a message to Celeste: “There seems to be something wrong with the phone number you gave me yesterday. I would like to talk to you, to see you soon. Please e-mail me. Maybe we could meet for tea and coffee.”

Thaddeus sat in front of his computer for most of the day, waiting for Celeste’s response. He actually attempted to write a poem, describing their meeting at the coffee shop. He cut and paste the poem into a second e-mail and sent it to Celeste, hoping she wouldn’t think he was foolish. He looked around the house for the one book of poetry he owned but couldn’t find it. Instead, he began to look up poetry on the internet, starting with Al Purdy’s poetry, and even found websites where he could listen to poetry being read. One of the poets he found, he thought, sounded very much like Celeste but he knew that was wishful thinking and besides, most of her poems dealt with space travel and other worlds, and nothing about love. Nevertheless, Thaddeus felt elated, reading and listening to poetry and even starting a second poem, and decided to get a bottle of wine, to celebrate with Celeste when they did get together. Celebrate their meeting and how she had inspired him to write his first poem since he was kid. And he decided to pick up some beer, it wouldn’t hurt, but of course he would go to another liquor, not where he worked. His meeting with Celeste made him feel optimistic about the future, and he was certain a beer or two wouldn’t hurt, would help relax him as he waited for Celeste’s message.

*

Fiction writer, poet, and playwright J. J. Steinfeld lives on Prince Edward Island, where he is patiently waiting for Godot’s arrival and a phone call from Kafka. While waiting, he has published fourteen books, including Our Hero in the Cradle of Confederation (Novel, Pottersfield Press), Disturbing Identities (Stories, Ekstasis Editions),  Should the Word Hell Be Capitalized? (Stories, Gaspereau Press), Anton Chekhov Was Never in Charlottetown (Stories, Gaspereau Press), Would You Hide Me? (Stories, Gaspereau Press), An Affection for Precipices (Poetry, Serengeti Press), Misshapenness (Poetry, Ekstasis Editions), and A Glass Shard and Memory (Stories, Recliner Books). As of summer 2014, more than 300 of his stories—with five over the years in The Danforth Review—and 700 poems have appeared in anthologies and periodicals internationally, and over forty of his one-act plays and a handful of full-length plays have been performed in Canada and the United States. 

Photo credit: Brenda Whiteway.

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