by Mike Nelson
If I was going to write a devastating short story (devastating in the sense of emotionally powerful, not in the “affecting the reader in an extremely negative manner” sense, because, as you’ve no doubt noticed, I’m able to do that with ease), I would use spare prose that would imbue each moment with meaning and a sense of emotional danger. Kind of like this…
“You should not do that to my hat,” he said, advancing a step and turning it to the light.
“But I am lost,” she replied. And coughed. His shadow fell across her chest, blotting out the gingham bear stitched on her front. The words “I Wuv Manitoba” were partially obscured. “uv Man” was all it
“I met you on a windy Tuesday. My hat blew off. You laughed,” he said. “I wonder if you remember,” he said, but it was not a question. It was too flat to be a question. Too flat and squashed on one end.
“You drove me to a lake and we fished for perch.” Overhead, a plane. Its shadow cleaved the space between them. I wonder if it’s going to Manitoba, she thought wetly [note from the author: I’m just trying that adjective out here. It might not be exactly right], and looked up through the hole in their roof, seeing a pale face in the plane’s window (The plane was at 25,000 feet so it was a very, very small face. Really, quite small – hard to tell it was even a face. Could have been anything, really. Though a face is as good a guess as any, and better than, “a piece of rope”).
“You wanted to catch a magic perch, one that would grant your wishes,” he said. “I thought you were a freak. We kissed and our teeth clicked. When I pulled up our line, there was a carp. We went to a field and made love for hours.”
“We went to Denny’s and had an omelet,” she said. “Then to your trailer where we made, I guess you could call it, ‘love.’ Wait, was I even there?l”
He moved to window and rearranged the grease on its panes, looking out into yard where a bear was rummaging through their garbage.
Picking up his shotgun, he busted out a pane with the barrels, even though the one next to it was already busted out, and fired a load of rock salt at the bruin. It ran off, as powder smoke curled around his – well, might as well say it – shockingly ugly face. A tear rolled down his eye, and eventually out of it, making a run for his cheek.
“It’s just the smoke,” he said.
The next morning he woke up to sound of omelets. He climbed down off the dresser and crept into the kitchen where a man with a Whitesnake t-shirt was pouring four lightly beaten eggs into a saute pan.
“Who are you?” he said to the man, who stopped his pouring and ran out the front door.
The police arrived an hour later.
“He busted into your house to make omelets?” asked the sergeant.
“Well, you don’t really have to ‘bust’ into this house. There are holes all over the place,” he answered.
“And your wife? Where was she during the omelet-related break-in?”
“I. I. Don’t know,” he said.
“Really?” He whistled through his teeth and rolled his eyes.
“Wow. What’s the problem – you getting some on the side? Is she?”
“Look, I really dont want to – ”
Another officer came on the scene. “What’s up, Hal?”
“Omelet crime. This guy’s old lady is out catting around. Apparently this poor dope doesn’t have what it takes.”
“Really. Wow. Poor son of a – ”
“Can you just take my statement?” the man begged.
“Sure. Unless you think you might be better off doing something about your wreck of a marriage?l”
Soon there were hundreds of police officers standing around him, as the din of innuendo grew louder, ringing in his – sorry to say – misshapen ears.
She arrived after midnight, he, asleep on the half-wall, drooling spectacularly and clutching his hat. He would often sleepwalk and wake up finding himself perched in precarious places. Once he’d woken up on top of the torchiere lamp.
“Doug?” she said tenderly.
He grunted like a tapir.
“Douglas,” she said, a little sharply.
He made an unappealing clicking noise in his throat.
“Hey, idiot!” she shouted.
He fell off the half-wall, face down into a cream cheese and pineapple dip that had been left, rather carelessly, there. He stood up and, using his forefingers like squeegees in the time-honored vaudevillian fashion, scooped the cream cheese from his eyes.
“May I help you?” he said.
“Your hat. There is pineapple on your hat,” she said dreamily.
“There is pineapple on my hat,” he said through clenched teeth, doing a “take” to a non-existent audience, sounding like Zero Mostel. “Yes!” he said to her, “There is pineapple on my hat!” He climbed onto an end table and went immediately to sleep. (They weren’t connecting at all.)
The next morning, she sat at the table staring at the Wire Owl Craft Kit that he’d gotten on sale at Pamida and given her for their 20th anniversary. She didn’t know where to begin with it, and he’d used the instructions to polish his bowling trophy. Tears fell on the table.
“Mustn’t rust, my little wire owl,” she said. She heard the crash of him falling off a bookcase. A moment later, he entered the room.
“We…” he began.
“Ye…” she said.
That kind of thing. Now, if I’ve done my job at all, it should be obvious that the hat is not just a hat. It is a really nice hat. With a lining, I would imagine.