Note: I’m teaching a class in short fiction, which is weird for a novelist and writer of essays. So, I’m doing the assignments along with the class. Our assignment is to write a short, short story. So, here’s the first draft of mine…
Zelda and the Smell of Fall
Zelda Small put down her half-eaten salami sandwich, unexpectedly feeling too fierce to eat. So some poor, depressed guy had shot himself. Life is untidy. Things happen. You cope and keep going had always been her mantra. She, of all people, should know this. And just in case the lesson hadn’t sunk in yet, she had this morning been presented with yet another opportunity to learn it.
Tilda was messing around with her vegetable soup, wearing her signature expression of confused innocence. “Everyone says he was such a lovely man, and then he goes and blows his brains out in his own driveway where his wife will mostly likely be the one to find him. And that just doesn’t seem nice.”
Surely even Tilda could not possibly believe that niceness existed in humans as some kind of pure state? If she did, she was living in la-la land. Zelda had figured out when she was ten-years-old that niceness was a matter of interpretation. People thought other people were nice when they didn’t make you uncomfortable. “Well, it was certainly a rather hostile thing to do,” she said. “Blowing your brains out where your family will have to find you screams ‘why the hell haven’t you morons done a better job of noticing I’m in really bad pain over here!’”
“Oh.” Tilda looked crestfallen. “Well.” Any kind of human messiness alarmed her, and this was human messiness on steroids. Tilda was obsessively neat. This frequently drove Zelda crazy, but also made Tilda a terrific office manager. She road herd over Zelda’s professional life like a drill sergeant.
Zelda took a deep breath. Not everyone in the world had lost both a husband and a daughter before their times the way she had. She really should keep this in mind when dealing with Tilda, who had led a pristine life as far as jagged loss went. “You do remember you never actually met the man?” she said, trying to be gentle.
Tilda poked at a large chunk of carrot with her spoon. “It’s just that I feel I did meet him. His brother’s written a book about the whole thing. I bought it last week at his signing, and I couldn’t put it down. He certainly seemed like a nice man in that.”
Zelda was ready to move on. “Well, he could still be a nice man, don’t you think, who did one mean thing because he simply couldn’t stand being so nice anymore?”
Tilda looked quite shocked. “I suppose,” she said. “Although that’s rather a harsh way to speak of the dead.”
Zelda stifled a little huff of impatience. “Eat up, Tilda” she said. “Everyone dies at some point, and I need to get back to work.”
Now Tilda looked concerned. She knew her boss well. Such a complete lack of empathy meant something was unsettling her. “Are you all right?” she asked.
Zelda could not bring herself to lie and say nothing, so she said “none of your business,” instead.
Tilda sighed. “You do realize, don’t you, that I’m the only person in the entire world who could have put up with you for twenty-seven years?”
Again, Zelda felt compelled to go with truth. “I do,” she said.
Tilda leaned forward, and fixed her boss with what Zelda thought of as the look. “And you do appreciate that, don’t you?”
Enough. Zelda stood up. “None of your business,” she said, again.
They’d driven Tilda’s car to lunch at the sandwich shop, but, as Tilda had some errands she needed to run, Zelda decided to walk back to her office.
While she still could.
Which, according to this morning’s chat with her doctor, would not be for long.
Fall, Zelda noted absently, had finally come in earnest. Golden sun and golden leaves rained down upon her as she trudged along the sidewalk determinedly trying to sort out how she felt about death. Not death in general, but her own death specifically. The tests had all been done. The results could not be more definitive. She was about to die. If she started treatment right now, the doctor said, she had maybe a year. If she didn’t, if she just went ahead and died, maybe five months.
You cope and you keep going …
Except when it came to your own death. Then you coped until, abruptly, you weren’t anymore.
And it is the weirdness of not being anymore that gets to me, she thought.
Zelda had reached the small park that she cut through to reach her office. It wasn’t much of a park, just a couple of moldering benches plunked under half-dozen maple trees that were today glorious in red and gold. A young woman sat on one of the benches staring at her cell phone, keeping titular watch over two small boys who apparently saw their mission as kicking every fallen leaf to kingdom come.
Not being anymore.
How do you get ready for that?
The question stopped Zelda in her tracks. She’d always found religions’ various claims to have penetrated the curtain between life and after-life rather unnecessary, tied up with humanity’s knee-jerk fear of change. And death certainly did mean change. Perhaps the biggest of life.
You cope and then….and then… you what?
It was at that moment the smell hit Zelda, tangy with an underlay of mustiness and something else that was all its own. It was, she knew, the remembered smell of fall, coming at her from her own childhood. Zelda had been eight when they’d moved into a neighborhood where there were only three other girls and a zillion boys. The girls played dumb games like dolls and dress-up. The boys, however, played football.
Zelda was the youngest of four sisters, her father’s last chance for a sports buddy, and so she had become his sports buddy. As a result, she could throw a spiral and dodge a tackle. She still remembered being at the edge of the vacant lot watching the neighborhood boys getting their after-school game organized. They’d ignored her as a lesser being. But never-the-less, there she stood, not having a clue how to get herself into their game, yet absolutely, entirely positive that she could pull it off. Already, at eight, she’d grasped that a person didn’t need to see clear through to the finish line, just where to start.
Which she had. Going home afterwards with a black eye from falling on the pointy end of a football.
Just then one of the little boys up in the park aimed a particularly successful kick and booted a geyser of red-gold leaves into the air. The fall smell intensified. Zelda felt the dull ache of that long-healed black eye. I’ll pull this death thing off just fine, she thought.