Three Short Stories from Brian McKenney
FOR GOOD MEASURE, every Tuesday evening when Caleb Gorman’s fiancé drove into the city to play second violin for the symphony orchestra, he would wait exactly fifteen minutes before promptly heading out the door behind her. It took him approximately another fifteen minutes to arrive at his destination, leaving him all of 3 hours before his fiancé returned. Waiting expectantly for Caleb was Ellie Watson, one of his fiancés best friends and more recently- Caleb’s mistress. This particular status, in fact, did not sit well with Ellie and she had decided firmly to make it a topic of conversation as Caleb walked in through the side-door of her apartment.
“Sorry, it took me so long. Leslie would just not hurry up. First it was her hair then she couldn’t find her keys. I really don’t know what she’d do without me. It’s pathetic, I know. But, in a way, it’s sort of endearing.”
“Listen, Cal,” Ellie said, who had made up her mind to get straight to the point.
Now, with the floor open and her confidence trickling, Ellie struggled to come out with it. “I don’t know exactly how to put this. What I mean is— I don’t— I just don’t think… The situation you’re putting me in-it’s just not right. I’m sorry, but I don’t envision myself being a mistress to a soon-to-be married, supposed intellectual, who has absolutely no backbone.”
“I thought we agreed that now just isn’t the right—-“
“That’s just it. It’s always the same thing. ‘The timing isn’t right’ or ‘Her parents are in town’ or ‘Her godamn cat just died.” Ellie’s increasing frustration was made apparent by the rosy-glow of her normally pale cheeks. “There will always be something and I’ve got every right to just kick you out and move on with my life.”
“Christ, Ellie- you’re supposed to be her best friend. Leslie is going to be crushed- just devastated. The least we could do—“
“I’m sorry, but given the choice between home-wrecker and mistress, I’d have to choose home-wrecker. Otherwise, I’d lose all self-respect,” Ellie said, trailing off, but thoughtfully enough to give the issue a definite sense of finality.
“And what do you suppose I do? Tell her tonight?”
“I really don’t see what difference it makes.”
Overwrought with silence, Ellie, who had been up until this point lying, or more precisely, lounging on the couch, sat herself up. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a cigarette that noticeably showed the effects of having been sat on. She inhaled once, deeply enough and said, “Cal, this is terribly confusing for me and I hate to be demanding, but do try to understand my position. I want to be with you.”
As if weighted down, Caleb turned slowly and looked in the general direction of where Ellie was seated, though clearly distracted. “It’s all a terrible mess. Really, it’s my fault. I’ve got no conscience- absolutely nothing.”
“It is an incredibly difficult situation, it really is, but once everything is settled, things will work out for the best. I’m firmly convinced of it,” Ellie said.
“We’re just mismatched, that’s all. I should have left before, when things started to cool off, but I didn’t have the courage and now… If I had any nerve I’d just drop everything and move to Paris-”
“Honestly, how does that make any sense? Please try to be logical for once. You know I can’t go anywhere with work right now and I think for Leslie’s sake we should both do our best to be there for her.”
“God, that’s perfect-for Leslie’s sake,” Caleb said, with considerable indignation. “If you don’t remember correctly, you’re the one who is demanding I go straight home and absolutely tear her heart to shreds. Now, all of a sudden her emotional condition is a concern.”
“No one ever said anything about tearing her heart to shreds. And just because I’d prefer to be honest does not mean I aim to abandon her. She’s still my best friend. If it’s at all possible, I’d like to keep it that way,” Ellie said. “And you know, over time, I’m sure Leslie’ll agree that this is the best possible outcome for everyone.”
“Oh, I’m sure she’ll be ecstatic, overcome with joy even. She’ll probably want to have us all over for a nice grand dinner to talk things over. Maybe a ménage à trois.”
“Look Caleb, I really don’t appreciate the sarcasm. I’m trying my best to stay positive and I just don’t see the use in bickering back and forth like this. You said yourself there’s no passion left.”
“There isn’t,” he said, now pacing the same small strip of floor. Abruptly, Caleb came to a stop and looking at Ellie, he let out a heavy sigh, full of resignation. “Or not in the way there should be, anyway. It’s just a lot of pettiness. And Leslie’s so busy as it is… Truthfully, things have been falling apart for a long time, I mean, before us even. It’s just neither of us has had the strength to do anything about it. We’ve grown complacent and consequently bored.”
“Then, I don’t understand what the problem is. You admit that neither of you are happy, but are totally unwilling to take the necessary—-“
“I get it. I do. It still doesn’t make it any easier. Can’t you understand that?” Then, lifting his right arm and pulling back his sleeve he peered apathetically down at his watch. “In any case, she’ll be home shortly and I still have to figure out what to say. If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to give myself a little time beforehand.”
Ellie started to speak, but stopped, apparently reconsidering. Instead, she nodded, though almost imperceptibly. Without turning around, Caleb reached out, flung the door open and stepping into the night, mumbled something along the lines of, “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
When there was almost no chance of being heard, Ellie looked up and faced towards the door. “Just remember- I am meeting Leslie for coffee tomorrow morning. I’d like to have everything out in the open by then.”
The next morning came with bad weather, but either indifferent or unaware, Ellie left completely unsuited for the occasion. Only out of routine did she remember to switch on the windshield wipers, creating a small circle of vision. Incidentally, by the time she arrived, Ellie already had no recollection of the drive and only needed one glance in the rear-view mirror to confirm the state of her nerves. After a few deep breaths and another layer of cover-up, Ellie felt composed, or at any rate, presentable. The rain continued, but lightly. Then, finally making up her mind, Ellie walked through the doors of the coffee shop, doing her utmost to retain a feeling of calm.
Leslie was at her normal table and not surprisingly looked as if she had been up all night crying.
“Leslie-are you alright? You look terrible.”
“Caleb left me.”
“Les- I wanted—-“
“He just packed up his things and left.”
“Did he not say why?”
“All he said was that for him to value his life at all he had to end it. That he no longer believed in romantic love or no longer believed he was capable of it, which essentially amounts to the same thing…”
“He didn’t mention—-“
“And that he had met someone else.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Some 19 year old French student. Supposedly they are moving to Paris at once. And that the whole thing is irrevocable. He absolutely implored me not to try to stop him and said that if I needed someone to talk to that you would surely understand.”
IN HIS SOPHOMORE YEAR AT COLLEGE, after having already transferred schools twice, Perry Carslberg decided to try and attend a few classes to see what all the fuss was about. The class, a seminar in American rhetoric, didn’t catch his attention all that much and he spent most of the time daydreaming or staring at pretty girls and imagining scenarios in which they might approach him. Perry would wait outside the classroom until everyone else was seated and choose a seat next to the girls he found most intriguing, hoping that for one reason or another he would have a chance to speak to them. Incidentally, Perry never found a reason and would silently wait, trying hard to look disinterestedly interested.
By the third or the fourth class, Perry wasn’t holding out much hope and staying home to sleep began sounding infinitely more appealing than attending class. He certainly didn’t need much motivation to sleep through any class before 10am, and he was running out of pretty girls to sit near. But in Perry’s decidedly last day, he noticed a girl he had not seen before. She was nearly the epitome of Perry’s type, that is, if he had ever taken the time to materialize a type. Her hair was auburn and messy, the kind of messy that looks as if it could have been styled that way, but clearly hadn’t. And glasses, she wore glasses that accentuated vastly blue eyes. She was also tall, almost as tall as Perry, although he didn’t notice because she was already sitting down when he saw her.
Perry’s walk into the classroom was meant to exude confidence; instead, he spent most of the time watching his own feet, nearly stumbling when he tried to squeeze past somebody into the row of chairs. It was almost enough for Perry to abandon the whole thing, except, he was already too far in and really couldn’t bear leaving now. So he moved carefully along until he was just near enough to be comfortably in speaking range and promptly sat himself down.
By now, Perry hadn’t even breached the notion of how to begin a conversation. He had hoped, without reason, that things would fall beautifully into place once he was positioned next to her. And oddly enough, Perry did feel at harmony now that he was sitting down next to this beautiful mystery. He didn’t feel desperate, anyway, only eager. But, by the time the lecture had started no words had been spoken, and no salutations had been shared. For a few minutes, Perry couldn’t concentrate in the least. Furtively, he tried to glance at the girl a few times, but that proved to be too draining. Instead, he settled for looking at her notebook, where he was able to gather that her name was Ari Something –or- Other.
The rest of the hour and a half lecture passed smoothly enough. One instance did arise when Perry thought he could sense Ari’s gaze on him. Hardly giving it any thought, Perry turned his shoulder and looked in her direction. For a moment, it actually appeared to Perry that she had become flustered, but she managed to smile and turn away in such an elegant fashion, so as Perry couldn’t be sure that it had happened at all.
When it finally came time for class to be over, an introduction appeared implausible. Even so, Perry busied himself with whatever he could find, trying to make the time last as long as possible. He moved deliberately, elongating every gesture to the point of outlandishness. But, Ari took no notice, and simply offered a polite “Pardon me” as she moved quickly through the space directly in front of Perry. To which he managed only to murmur some word of acknowledgement and tried to stand up to create more room. Yet, by the time Perry was finally upright, Ari had already passed, hardly needing the extra space to make it through untouched.
That was the first and last day Perry Carslberg saw Ari Something-or-Other. He returned to the next class and even the class after that, but she didn’t. And so pretty soon Perry stopped going as well. At first, Perry thought about Ari a great deal. He stayed at home and imagined how they would meet and how it would be a great story to tell one day. Then without notice, other things began to take precedence, and Ari was now just a passing thought, and he wasn’t even sure if he would recognize her if he ever saw her on the street. And then suddenly Perry began falling in love with every girl he saw, and there was no more thought of Ari, only a vague memory buried deep in the back of his mind.
IT JUST HAPPENED TO BE A LITTLE AFTER 7:00PM, West Coast time, a minor detail, that over the past few weeks had taken Nathan and Ari, quite some getting used to. Now, some fifteen minutes since having eaten, with the table cleared and the dishes rinsed and stacked; there was one of those after-dinner lulls, seemingly perfect for cross-country phone calls and categorically catching up with friends. Nathan sat, or rather, collapsed, into his old-easy chair. It was the same chair; incidentally, that he had shared with Harrison before moving west, one of the only things he was actually able to hold on to, literally strapping it to the roof of his car, where it had remained for the duration. Firmly seated, Nathan looked down at his watch, and taking into account the three-hour time difference, uttered a little yell, not quite a shout, towards Ari’s presence in the other room.
“I think I’ll give Harry a call, you don’t think it’s too late, d’you?”
“What time is it, exactly?”
“A little after 10…for him, I mean,” he yelled, still not sure where-to and still looking thoughtfully down at his watch. “I’m sure it’s fine. I think I’ll call him.”
Then, without really waiting for a response, or, without hearing one, Nathan took out his cell-phone, reached for one of the cigarettes on the table and dialed the number from memory. By the sixth or seventh ring, Nathan, almost unwittingly, took a deep sip of his drink, preparing himself for one of those long-winded voicemails that are unique to old best friends, but only possible after the third or fourth glass of wine. Then through the silence, a hoarse voice, more of a mumble than a greeting, came through at the other end.
Placing his glass down and temporarily readjusting himself in the chair, Nathan exclaimed into the phone. “Harry? Hey, it’s Nate, did I catchya at a bad time? Were ya sleeping or something? I was just calling to say hello…”
At this point, Harrison could be heard audibly clearing his voice, the echo reverberating loudly through the receiver. Then, after a pause, he excused himself and said, “No, I wasn’t sleeping, I mean, I was in bed, but I was reading mostly. How’s it going, Nathan? I mean, how was the trip?”
“Good. Things are good. Mostly been looking for a job this past week.” Taking a final drag from his cigarette, Nathan crushed it into the ashtray and placed it delicately on top an already crumbling pile. “Nota whole lota luck so far, butchu know…just got keep at it, ‘til something turns up.” Now, somewhat altogether noticing the effects of the alcohol, Nathan sat himself up a little straighter in his chair, crossed his right leg over his left and finished his thought. “Ari just got this job, actually.”
“Where at?” Harry prompted.
“At this doctor’s office. Mostly receptionist work, I think. But at least it’s something. A foot in the door, or whatever.”
“Well tell her I said congratulations and everything.”
“Yeah, she sends her regards, of course.” Finishing his glass of wine and undoubtedly feeling another wave of sentiment, Nathan again spoke into the phone, this time more intimately. “We miss you guys. It’s been great, but it still sort of feels like we’re traveling, not already arrived, you know what I mean? I guess, it hasn’t fully sunk in yet, that this is it, that we’re actually home now.” He broke off. “Anyway, how are you? How’s Serena? I got your message that you decided to not live together this year.”
The pause that followed was one of those pauses that seem to drag on forever, with no real place in time, something that could take an hour or a year, but more likely had taken somewhere closer to a minute. In hindsight, and by no stretch, it could have been enough to foretell something slightly more ominous. But, for the present, with Harrison’s voice coming resonantly through the phone, any prescience was thoroughly deflated.
“Sorry about that. I dropped my cigarette, nearly caught the whole damn bed on fire… Anyway, things are going well. Serena’s busy as usual, but yeah, sh– or we, I mean, just thought with our schedules and stuff, it would be best for us to be able to sort of, keep our independence.”
Somewhat distractedly, Nathan asked “What about your job?” But his focus was on the other room, the kitchen specifically, which Ari still had not come out of. Taking down one last sip of his drink, he let himself continue. “You still taking the train in?”
“I really don’t mind that particular aspect of it. It gives me plenty of time to brood things over, maybe too much time, I don’t know. The job itself is the same, probably more so than ever before.”
Presently, with nearly twenty minutes having passed, and all the easy avenues of conversation now expended and no less important, his glass emptied, Nathan felt himself more-or-less inclined to get off the phone. But, to avoid any semblance of abruptness on his end, he faltered. “What else?” he said.
It wasn’t so much of a question as it was a filler and apparently Harrison understood, or was otherwise distracted, either way, he didn’t deign to respond. Nathan, still searching for something to say, fidgeted, feeling the unavoidable awkwardness of prolonged phone conversations. “So, anyway, I took Ari on this death-defying hike the other week. She ended up getting pretty ill due to dehydration and the increased altitude and all that…Thankfully, she was fine in the morning, but it still put quite a scare into us.”
To this remark, Nathan thought he might have heard a slight chuckle, albeit a forced one, from Harry’s end of the line. Nonetheless, the growing silence seemed to signify a decisive moment–either end the conversation or run the risk of floundering. Then, with one of those ready-made, unquestionable excuses, Nathan said, “Hey, listen Harry, I just heard Ari yell my name. It’s probably nothing, but…” he trailed off. “Anyway, it’s been nice to actually hear your voice. It’s been too long. And now that things are finally starting to settle in over here, we’ve got to keep in touch. Maybe you and Serena could even come visit at some point. We’d love to have you.”
“Sure, no problem. But, I’ll let you go,” Harry said, with no real indication if he meant to continue.
Still holding the phone to his ear, Nathan waited to hear the connection break. When it did, he set the phone down, stood and stretched, and headed towards the kitchen. As he entered the room, he saw Ari, sitting cross-legged at the kitchen table, smoking lazily, and apparently immersed in a somewhat engaging, if not grave, phone-conversation. Noticing Nathan, though not quite acknowledging him, Ari continued her conversation.
“Uh-huh, yeah. Here’s Nate now… Nate, didn’t you just get off the phone with Harrison? (In a whisper) It’s Serena. Yeah, Yeah, he just got off the phone with him… I don’t know. Let me ask… You want me to call you back? Okay, sure, no problem. Alright, well it was nice hearing from you, even under the circumstances… I’ll talk to you soon… Okay, you too. Alrlright, bye.”
With his curiosity heightened, peaked even, Nathan did not wait for an explanation. “What’s going on?” he inquired.
“Well, that was Serena. Essentially, she called to say that her and Harry have broken up. Or that she broke it off. At least as far as I could tell. He didn’t mention it?”
Somewhat shaken, or rather, noticeably disturbed, Nathan went over the dialogue is his mind–all surface conversation, no indication, no, nothing, not a word. “He didn’t say anything. I mean, he said things were going well. I didn’t think to question… You think I should I call him back?”
“I don’t know. How did he sound? He really didn’t say anything? I mean, did he sound alright?”
“You know Harry, he’s never been the biggest phone-conversationalist to begin with. But, considering the facts that have come to light, I guess that he did sound a little–detached. What did Serena say, exactly, anyway?”
“Well, I guess things have been sort of rough for awhile. She didn’t really say much. I think mostly she was wondering if Harry had said anything yet. Anyway, she seemed concerned, that’s all, like maybe he wasn’t stable or something.”
A FEW TENSE MINUTES LATER, Nathan decided finally to re-try Harrison on the phone. Passing directly by the arm-chair, he proceeded out to the porch, where it was still not quite dusk, the streetlights just turning on, carrying with them a promise of darkness he couldn’t seem to shake. Once again, Nathan dialed the number, assaying all of his anxiety, sending it back east, trying to soften it, kill it, bury it deep inside. Then there was the dial-tone, its ring an endless reminder. He tried to hold onto it, to grasp it, but before he could perceive it in its entirety, the line cut-out, off and away, with the slow-motion feeling of all things inevitable.