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To continue undeterred

by S. J. R. 5 months ago in Short Story

Skyscraper, I/VIII

What had occupied him was the notion of starting over, and standing here now he considers three things carefully.

The loose straw in the corner is curious. Glancing over it, he finds he can trick his mind into seeing faces among the shadows. He isn’t sure whether the former owner—owners?—had left it all here on the ground out of some intention of the transaction or if it was just an assumption of setting, like a light fixture, a shower curtain. Nor, for that matter, did he know what straw—hay?—was even used for in the first place. Are animals involved? Who was it that he had argued with decades ago about the decision to adopt a dog. Odd that so many arguments, so many struggles, concern the self-made illusion of a delayed reality that never quite arrives: the shift from working more often to less, the looming question of relocation. Movement from somewhere bustling to somewhere more quiet, was the common talking point between them. Packed into identical apartments a bus ride away, monuments to minimalism, or else plucked down the freeway past toll booths between stretches of bumper-to-bumper, because We Could Have a Yard. Not unlike strands of straw bound into bales, the two of them, back then. Everyone, for that matter. Were there bales resting along the walls here, before, and was there a third meaning for the word ‘bale’? His own life trajectory seems like a line leading him to this late afternoon of déjà vu. In fact, it had been a collision between two illusions, actually, like the intersection of two winding streets that met once, but too early on to ever lead to the same far-off place reliably. There is only a single toll booth in the sixty mile northwest-southeast stretch between his skyscraper and his straw. He calculates how many rolls of quarters he should ask for at the bank each month, average number of trips times fourteen times two—there and back—with forty quarters per roll so perhaps three rolls to be safe. A future problem, imagined and solved. When You Say ‘Make a Mental Note’: That Bugs Me. The strewn straw, like the dead prairie grass outside, was a version of carelessness so novel to him that he remains frozen, comparing the scene to yellowed ethernet cables abandoned on the floor of his office after the harsh walls of the server room had been otherwise stripped ahead of renovations. He kicks his heel uncertainly at the dust of the structure. How could he have known his own direction, that the destination he defended would not persist, that she might have been standing right here. Their intersection had occurred too early. The idea is to take as few trips back as possible but best to ask for three rolls of quarters just to be safe. So that he can continue undeterred.

Second, the way of the walls. They feel closer to those of the server room in the skyscraper than his own former preconception of a barn—red, wasn’t it? Thinking, now, he finds it more difficult to picture the space as he had anticipated it to be. When the flooring back at his office had been torn up he wasted a morning pondering what it had looked like prior, reluctant to ask his colleagues whether it had actually been red before the renovations, aware that his fixation had no explanation. Parsing through real estate listings online, waiting for his computer to load satellite imagery from the county’s parcel viewer, reading through categorized digits of acreage, what was tillable and what was not, as if that would matter—why would there have been any caveat that the barn on the edge of the property traded pastoral charm for utility. Considering now that the walls are of course some kind of steel—‘prefab,’ had he read that word?—he pictures pond-sized sheets of it being folded like origami into crooked, six-sided half cylinders, shipped en masse via fleets of semis to be bolted down in pastures all the livelong day, each of them a single tooth on a zipper stretching across the midwest. Identical, either full of bales or golden detritus, their walls mere aluminum foil to the machines doing the initial folding, probably. Curious. That this is another moment on the same line that had once crossed hers, and that to tear down these walls to build something red instead would itself be a course correction on a route in which he now struggles to place any faith. As if he made a wrong turn far too early for reconciliation, out here, now. Out here he finds that he does not possess the proper language. Bale: a large number of identical things tied together, but also in the more antiquated sense ’woe,’ ‘great sorrow,’ etc. He has always liked the dictionary phrase ‘as defined above.’ Why Do You Have to Always Look Things Up, Can’t You Just Talk With Me. The process of building one better out of red wood is likely too complex and, visualizing it instantly—initial demolition, contractor bids, material sourcing, consideration of placement, property tax adjustments, impact to investment—only as paralyzing as the prospect of explaining his own reasoning for such reversed momentum to everyone involved, such backward historical movement through the hard materials of property. Out here he finds he has no trust left in beginning again, struggles with the sensation of having followed his own directions to each place so precisely and yet ending up somewhere he does not remember at all. This is Not What We Had Planned. Someone with a practical purpose for this space would not have minded, would perhaps have preferred the sturdiness of prefabricated steel over wood, someone whose trajectory was not caught upon a false memory of vertical slats of rustic red that let in curtains of evening sun across the straw on the ground. An image of a place planted during conversations he cannot seem to remember or else drummed up by the color missing from the renovated office flooring sixty miles and fourteen quarters from where he stands.

Lastly this lack of light. Yes, human faces, if he looks at the straw just right and squints just so in the dark. Not at all like the permanent fluorescence that lit up all his time spent sequestered away in the skyscraper between nostalgia and anticipation. He runs his hands through his hair and feels several strands come loose from their follicles, float down to the ground. If there had ever been a flicker of an imagined version of this moment before, back down the line, then surely a small part of it was the act of overhearing someone outside explaining how He Is a Quiet Man. Watching her shadow from the slits formed by the uneven red wood of a place where he would be, he had listened to her explain his own ways so he would not have to.

He ponders the notion of starting over surrounded by the steel walls of the place where he is, stares all evening at pieces of straw scattered far from each other while it grows dark on the rest of the property.

Short Story

S. J. R.

Based in Chicago, submitting sporadically.

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S. J. R.
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