Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Errand - A Short Story (unedited)


Choices - endless choices; realms and realms of possibilities. Lives lived (perhaps as a result of upbringing) in such a way that praised choice. “You all have a choice,” say the enthusiastic elementary school teachers, “to become whatever you wish to become.” Grocery stores provide a wide assortment of different goods so that the customer feels satisfied with the numerous options. Airlines offer the luxury of first-class seating, as if to privilege those honorable and well-to-do customers who are willing to spend more money. The presidential ballot gives one the discreet illusion of choice of two candidates.
            Harold Greenwood did not have choices. You see, his parents despised choice; they wanted him to experience the world void of freedom. Chad and Linda Greenwood came to an agreement that involved sheltering their son from what they called distress.
Modern society gave a revelation to this well-intentioned couple – it cautioned them against choices. When Chad met Linda in high school, he sought his place within society. His mother was a kind and generous woman who took a sort of laissez-faire approach to parenting. This strategy was implemented within matters of her son’s vocation as well. Chad was a bright student and excelled in all of his subjects. The success, however praiseworthy at the time of his schooling, soon developed into a mental infirmity when burdened with a social force to choose a profession. He was interested in so many things, and to choose a single path seemed regrettable. For many months, the distress of the situation clouded his being and caused him to plunge into chaotic thoughts.  
Linda experienced a different kind of distress. Her father, before early retirement, was a Wall Street businessman. His success in the stock exchange led him to the hasty conclusion that his job stood as the ideal image of American success. So, all throughout childhood, Linda’s father showed her how to conduct investments. She had the vivid memory of sitting on the walnut stool at the dinner table while he showed her complicated charts and graphs from the newspaper. She even remembered his magnifying glass, which soothed his eyes from the tiring effect of gazing. Her father would always tell her, “The fulfillment of your personal dreams are directly proportional to how much wealth you have, Linda.” He spoke these words as a man who viewed life from the obscured perspective of his pocket book - a perspective that only saw the light of day when removed from the abyssal confines of its dark imprisonment in order to gain the most miniscule financial advantage.
But the distress of Linda’s life was not simply due to her upbringing. As she  
matured in age and investment knowledge, her father gave her the great responsibility to work as his personal assistant. She scoured, day after day, the current standings of the stock market. Always a loyal child, Linda attempted to show her father unwavering competence. The burden of relentlessly trying to find the best and most suitable investment soon affected her personality. She became obsessed with the task, oftentimes skipping meals to observe the standings. In the end, Linda realized that the vast pages of stock abbreviations were the catalysts for her unease. To someone who took her assistantship seriously, the process of choosing became all the more crucial; a choice could lead to boundless profits or it could lead to a position less favorable than the previous one – which is, her father told her - the worst possible thing. The expectations of the task were too much to bear; Linda eventually succumbed to unhealthy amounts of depression. She vowed, during the whole ordeal, to never expose her future progeny to similar devastation.   
            So Chad and Linda retained a dutiful responsibility quite peculiar to many other parents of the time. The majority of children experienced life on the condition that freedom consisted of a finite number of appropriate decisions; they seemed to exist in a type of decision bubble – a bubble that, once popped, would cause the parents to frown upon them with disdain. Every moral boundary that a child crossed resulted in a barrage of disappointment instigated by the guardians. No child, whether young or old, wished this feeling upon himself; the feeling of failure was the punishment of a blundered task. This was the kind of conditioning that prevailed within the city of St. Louis during the time of this story, and one that Chad and Linda experienced in their younger days. The Greenwood couple, fully aware of this mechanism of shame, did not intend to raise their son in this kind of manner.

            Harold’s eyes seemed to sigh as he watched the computer screen. His back was bent and his hands gesticulated as he pondered. He was never fond of night classes, but it was the only time when the university offered the course. Momentarily, his attention wandered to the wall behind the monitor, browsing the numerous geometric formulas pinned up with red and yellow thumbtacks. Harold excelled in geometry, but calculus was his passion. This became evident if you looked on his four-tiered bookshelf in the corner of the room; it even had its own light that revealed the books: a few on algebra, logic, chemistry, and physics. All the rest consisted of graduate level calculus. It gave him the sense, however naively, of a bachelor’s degree obtained by his own volition.
             The moon embraced the clouds with its light while a lone tire swing bobbed under a lamppost next to the gravel path. From Harold’s upstairs window, he could hear the murmur of cars on the nearby freeway.
There was a cemetery a few blocks down from Harold’s house; he could sometimes hear the tires screeching from people who yielded to the funeral convoy as if a dead person could use a day where he encountered non-existent traffic. It is an interesting thing – how people entitle the dead. They entitle things that are just things and sacrifice their own living reality for the consciousness that recently passed. Harold liked thinking about this – probing, investigating human etiquette.
An itinerary for the mathematics club presentations clung to the wall, imprisoned by staples. Small, slightly faded type displayed his name in bold letters. The floor, littered with papers, was a landfill of failed ideas. The calculator rested from its profuse use. A protractor lay flat against a sheet of graph paper.
His lungs begged for a cigarette. Abandoning his desk, Harold descended the cherry colored staircase. He met eyes with his mother before clenching the iron knob of the front door. He wafted through the lush humidity and sat down on the concrete stoop. The lighter scratched like sandpaper and the embers glowed in the night.  

Harold woke up early the next morning. Toil had mocked him. He went downstairs to the kitchen and pushed a button on the coffee maker. The metallic click from the switch sent an almost electric titillation to his wary mind. “This is life,” he thought with foggy acceptance. “This is life.”
His father’s car was not in the driveway. He must have gone to work. Chad eventually found his place within society, although he often thought his occupation subordinate to some of the others. Harold faintly remembered his dad’s raggedy red plumbing truck. He recalled hearing his mother sigh, one day, while driving to the market in that shoddy box. “Chad, we should take my car to store next time,” she said and subtly licked her lips. They were parched from the cold winter air. Chad nodded his head without diverting his face from the road. He already knew what she was thinking. “If you say so, honey,” he said in reply. He seemed to relax a bit for he said, “We really need to get the convertible ready for the spring.” Linda smiled for an instant, then realized something and a look of seriousness drew across her matured features. “But Chad, we have to get a sitter for Harold, so we can have a date night,” she said, her excitement gradually returning to her. She glanced back at Harold who fell asleep in the back seat of the cab. Her voice descended in volume like the fade out of a dwindling track on the record player. “He needs to be watched, Chad. What if he gets” she hesitated. “What if he gets exposed to something?” Harold never thought anything of the memory.
Now, some time later, a redolent spice of dark coffee roast lingered in the kitchen. Harold sipped the coffee from a sky blue mug.  He noticed a note Chad left him that asked him to buy some milk at the gas station. Harold smiled at the thought of the task. He didn’t get out often. Even though the gas station was three blocks from his house, the freedom of the errand elated him. He glided on the newly paved sidewalk. The asphalt looked like a river of blackness beneath his tennis shoes. Harold strolled past the cemetery, which had a fresh pile of dirt recently displaced for burial. The mound had the consistency of crumbled cheese. Harold slackened his pace and felt the blatant assurance of an eventual death.
The gas station was encumbered by a chaotic bustle of morning commuters. Harold met eyes with the clerk and shyly parted his glance. The image of the clerk’s figure was imprinted on his mind like a newly pressed stamp. She was a young girl – maybe a few years older than he. She had blonde curly hair and a pink lotus blossom tied around her neck, dangling from a hemp rope. Her face was that of Calypso. Desire overcame Harold in that moment, but he had no time to act; he had to get milk. Walking over to the refrigerators, he searched for the white liquid. Apparently, dairy farming was a popular commodity. So many brands. Harold opened the transparent door and a blast of freezing air greeted him. He never saw so many different kinds of milk: one percent, whole milk, chocolate milk, soy milk . . . A familiar sense of limitation suddenly dissipated and Harold felt lost in the chasm of possibilities. Every now and then, when he found himself in these rare occasions, he felt an impulse to refer to his parents’ guidance. “What would they buy,” he thought to himself, very much like a particle in a chain of causes. Hesitation finally abandoned him and his pale arm grasped a plastic carton. Rubber flapped loudly when the door closed. He found his way to the counter and temporarily lost his footing on the tiles.
The clerk smiled at him. Her teeth were pearls. “Anything else for you,” she asked.
“That will be all, thanks,” said Harold in response.
Still smiling, the clerk put her hand flatly on the counter. “$2.59 please.”
            Harold was not accustomed to the attention. He handed her the change and he heard a buzzing sound as he nervously exited through the sliding doors.
            As he emerged from the parking lot of the gas station, he sat down on an oak bench near the sidewalk. His parents always told him to return straight home after errands. He would always inquire, “Why can’t I stay out for just a few hours?” They would look at him with a fatuous look and say, “Because, son, you have to do your studies.”
            Today, Harold had other plans. Seedlings of curiosity had already been planted ever since he went on his first errand. He wanted to see the landscape of the town and maybe walk around Delmar Boulevard. More than anything, he wanted to know why some people had a certain look of agency to them. He carefully observed people whenever he received the chance. Mathematical minds have impressive attentiveness, and Harold labored all his life to perfect it. People always looked so determined, so intentioned. They walked the streets as if they had total freedom. Harold loosened his grip on the milk carton and placed it at his side. The condensation felt balmy in the morning light. Without looking down to pick up the carton, he walked further down the street in the opposite direction of home.

            Delmar Boulevard had an air of eccentric energy. Harold gracefully dodged a sidewalk artist as he passed beneath the overhanging street sign, which made him feel like Jesus on his jubilant arrival in Jerusalem. Except, instead of people welcoming him, there were shirtless men who played guitar for tips. It was early afternoon now; people sat outside on restaurant patios and indulged in leisure.
            About halfway down the boulevard, Harold saw a woman carrying a sign in front of a business. He could not see what the sign said at his current distance, but the writing magnified as he approached. It was a green sign with neon orange text. It read: Electronic Sale: Today Only! Harold did not have any interest or money for that matter. He had more profound intensions during his walk down the elegant street. The sunlight glanced off her glasses and the glint collided with Harold’s eyes. He turned to the window of the electronics store. There were rows of televisions, each displaying a different channel upon a faded display. Harold did not recognize any of the programs. One particular advertisement invited his attention, and the same awkward feeling he experienced with the gas station clerk arose while he watched. The commercial displayed a woman in very sensuous lingerie while she lounged in a shaded gazebo in the backyard of a mansion. Harold noted the perfection of the recently mowed lawn and the grandiose architecture of the home. A small table stood next to the lustful woman, buttressing a martini. The woman turned and lethargically grasped the glass between her small, delicate fingers and brought it to her lips. Lust surged within him. Then, as if by deus ex machina, a suave voice said: “Patrick Gazebos. We complete the American dream.” Harold turned around and continued his walk down the boulevard. The commercial remained entrenched in his thoughts; he never realized how a gazebo could make such a considerable impact upon one’s life. He wondered what other things had the same effect.
            The St. Louis Artists’ Guild had an exhibition in the courtyard at end of Delmar Boulevard. Harold approached the exposed square. Smoke billowed from the grill at one of the barbeque restaurants, and Harold salivated as if he were a subject in one of Pavlov’s experiments.
He eventually arrived at the courtyard where the local artists enthusiastically talked about their work with inquisitive onlookers. Yellow tents and cheap tables lined the area. A man, about 60, unexcitedly reclined behind his wooden sculptures. Some were light red – cherry perhaps, and others were a slightly purple padauk. The legs of his chair were uneven and crooked and the man took no notice of its imbalance. Harold stepped forward and analyzed the shapes of the figures. Words like dimension and measurement arose in his internal commentary. Familiarity of such words allowed him to find substance in the art. The matured artist ascended from his seat, and the chair clanked against the concrete as the lifted weight disturbed its crude equilibrium.
The man’s droopy eyes found Harold’s. “What are you thinking, boy?” he asked.
Shyness descended upon Harold. “I . . .  I was just thinking about the art,” he replied nervously.
“Is that so?” The old artist circled around the table and settled himself beside Harold. He met Harold face to face and drearily turned his gaze to the sculptures. A fragrant smell of maple pipe tobacco saturated his flannel clothing. “You know,” the old man started after a brief pause, “people always come to me and tell me they like to think about art. Of course, I can relate to them. Sometimes, though, one just has to appreciate your own emotional response.” He said this without a trace of pretentiousness. Harold turned from the man’s kind, warm words and felt free. He felt pleasant under the overhanging clouds that protruded from what seemed like nothingness in the atmosphere. A heavy feeling of content embraced him, held him in its arms. There was a sense of pride in that moment and he perceived the world with emancipation. He disregarded, for that brief and subtle instant, the jurisdiction of his parents.
“Yeah, I felt it,” Harold said after a few seconds. “It was pleasant.”
            The man curtly grinned and radiated with mirth. “That’s the best thing I could ask for,” he said. He produced a pipe from his pocket. “Fortunately, I was not na├»ve to think that I chiseled wood for myself. It’s on display for those who wish to see it. Others create for money and pride, but I feel it’s my duty to humanity.” His eyes glimmered. He lit his pipe with a match and tobacco crept from the opening. “It’s different for everybody,” he said, the smoke pouring out of his nostrils. “What do you feel?”
Harold crept closer to the table. “I feel as if no one could dissuade me. The way the wood warps makes me think of liberation,” he added with optimism. “You, as the artist, have influenced the wood into a certain form.” Harold hesitated and began to feel a surge of triumph. “But the statue still exists as itself.”
The man nodded, the curls of his long sideburns animated by the subtle breeze. “Doesn’t it remind you of us? We are all forced – we are all accustomed in a way. We are raised into the world for the purpose of complying with the norms of our environment.” He took a puff from his pipe. “Feathers in the wind,” he said. “Feathers in the wind.”
Harold thought of his parents, said his farewell to the old artist, and continued down Delmar Boulevard with a mollified spirit. He knew that he would confront the unwavering wind that awaited his homecoming. As for now, he had a demeanor of utter intentionality. The sensation of freedom was so exquisite that it distracted him from his imprisonment. He vowed to discover a way to prolong that majestic sense of independence. The clouds began to merge, and the sunlight permeated the grayish puffs. Harold stopped and looked behind him before heading home.
Light rain descended upon the earth as Harold approached the graveyard. The black asphalt turned to glassy obsidian and the air smelled of a vague petrichor. Miniature water droplets settled on Harold’s clothing. He seemed totally unaffected by the dreary effect of rainfall. Harold moved with purpose toward his destination, hardly caring about the milk carton he left on the bench up the street.      



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