by: T.E. Cowell
Two offerings of flash fiction that paint a portrait of life as it is, not as we would like others to believe it to be…
Max Arnette hated his job as a delivery driver. But as far as Cheryl knew, he liked it just fine.
Unlike Max, Cheryl liked her job immensely. She said so sometimes when she got home from work. She’d put her keys on the kitchen counter, slip off her shoes and say, “I love my job” or “I work at a library!” A booklover, Cheryl’s eyes would be bright, her expression sincere. Max would nod. He’d try to smile. Then he’d sip his beer. Max always had a beer handy when he returned home from work. It was the first thing he did after taking off his shoes in the hallway.
He knew Cheryl wanted him to like his job as much as she liked hers. Sometimes she’d ask him about it, his job. And to please her, to ease her mind, Max would make things up. He’d tell her how nice all the people on his delivery route were when in fact he hardly saw any of them. He’d say how his job was like a free gym membership, what with all the lifting of heavy packages he had to do, when in fact he sat behind the wheel driving more than anything else, something he figured was a cause of the lower back pain he sometimes felt. He’d also tell Cheryl how much he liked being able to listen to music while he worked, which was true to a certain extent. The benefits, he’d say, when in fact the benefits were average at best. He hated lying to Cheryl, but he didn’t see a way around it.
Cheryl would say “Good,” and then she might pat his knee before saying, “I’m so happy we’re both happy! We’re doing it! We really are! Can you believe it?”
Max couldn’t face up to telling her that in fact, they weren’t doing it. If he were to, he knew Cheryl would tell him he should look for another job, that he should find something that fit him better, that made him happier. But Max knew no job would fit him better, not the kind he might be able to get anyway. He would have to go back to school in order to get a good job, the kind he might like. Max realized this. But he didn’t know what it was he might like to do. It was why he’d dropped out of college in the first place.
Though they weren’t married, they had bought a house together in a low-income neighborhood on the edge of town. They’d been dating for four years, the longest relationship either of them had ever been in, and they were both excited and nervous about the future in equal measure.
They had never owned a house before. They were in their early thirties. They each felt that the most monumental moments in their lives had yet to begin.
Then it was Max’s birthday, his thirty-third. He had to work. After he left the house, Cheryl thought she’d surprise him. She didn’t have to go into the library for a few hours.
She had never been to Max’s place of work before. It was outside town, by the airport. As Cheryl drove closer, she saw a lot of chain-link fence, then airplane hangars with a few visible airplanes beside them. Driving, she saw someone wiping at the nose of an airplane with a rag and she thought, briefly, how limited her range of knowledge was.
She parked in the parking lot the road ended at and got out. She’d written a little note for Max, wishing him a happy birthday. She’d also borrowed a CD that’d just come in at the library that she knew Max would like, the new Radiohead.
She walked toward the nondescript gray building that had the look of a warehouse, found the front doors, and stepped inside. Two women with gray hair looked up at her as she entered, and then one of them stood and approached her.
“Can I help you?” the woman asked, and Cheryl explained to this woman how her boyfriend worked here and that she’d like to surprise him. When the woman kept right on staring at Cheryl, she added, “It’s his birthday.”
The woman’s eyes widened almost grotesquely before she let out an “Oh!” while the other woman, still sitting in an office chair, looked up at them.
The woman standing held up her hand and said “One minute” to Cheryl, then walked away only to come back a minute later. “Okay,” she said. “They’re just finishing with the sort. Good timing. Have you been here before? Do you know the way? No? You’ll want me to show you around, then. Follow me. I’ll help you find him.” The woman giggled after saying this last bit.
Cheryl was led past the counter, then through a swinging door. Now she saw a conveyor belt, with people, eight or so, the drivers, standing on the other side of it. Packages of all shapes and sizes were stacked and scattered about. More packages, the last dozen or so, were being pushed down the belt that very moment, fed off a freight van. Cheryl looked for Max’s face, and when she found it she froze. The woman who’d been leading the way stopped walking and looked behind her, but Cheryl paid her no attention. She studied her boyfriend’s face, and as she did she felt her heart sink. He looked so unhappy, standing there, pushing packages down the belt. It was written all over his face.
Before The Funeral
Alex was startled awake by his phone’s alarm and instantly he knew he hadn’t slept well. Frustrated, angry even, he reached in the dark for his phone on the nightstand and disengaged the alarm. In the early morning silence, he remained in bed a while longer with his eyes closed, wishing it wasn’t time to get up, yet fretting the day ahead. Especially the crush of people at the airport and the flight that would ultimately take him across the country.
The minutes began to pass. Alex felt himself drifting back to sleep and then he remembered it was morning and willed his eyes open. He checked the time on his phone. Only a small handful of minutes had passed.
With a sigh followed by a grunt, Alex rolled off the motel bed and headed for the bathroom. After urinating he washed his hands, then splashed cold water on his face. With his fingers he pressed and rubbed at his eyes, which felt puffy and stung some from lack of sleep. He pressed down with his fingers until his vision went white and he saw silver and rainbow-colored sparks, like fireworks. Then Alex looked at himself in the bathroom mirror. He opened his eyes as wide as they would go, closed them and reopened them again. He felt like hell.
He left the motel room and started walking towards the airport. With the sun not yet up, the air felt cool, borderline cold. To the East the sky was the color of plums with a golden orange nucleus. To the West were low clouds shaped like flying saucers. In a nearby stand of trees birds were already chirping away. Their song sounded loud to Alex’s ears, obnoxious even.
After entering the airport he printed out his boarding pass. Then he moved through security. After security he followed signs to his assigned gate, and once there he sat down facing the windows. Outside he saw a few jets and a gray sky. Inside, at his gate, only a small handful of people were present. Alex checked the time on his phone and saw that he was still early. He hadn’t planned on moving as swiftly as he had through the airport. He had at least an hour to kill before his flight was scheduled to board.
Alex slumped down in his seat, stretched out his legs, and closed his eyes. His eyes still stung the same as when he’d woken up, and it felt nice to close them and relax. There in the airport with his eyes closed, Alex thought of his father and the very real fact that he was no longer alive, and of the funeral and having to see his father in a casket. He realized, suddenly, that he didn’t want to remember seeing his father in a casket and that he didn’t want the memory of his father being dead at all. It wasn’t that he feared succumbing to emotions if he were to see his old man dead in some casket. If Alex cried at the funeral, he cried at the funeral. If not, he didn’t. It didn’t matter to him one way or the other. No, the reason Alex didn’t want to see his deceased father was that it seemed, well, belated, not to mention strange. Why would he want to see his father now, dead, when he hadn’t cared to see the man when he’d been alive? They’d always had their differences, right from the start. Still, Alex supposed he loved his father simply because he’d been his dad, but that didn’t mean he had to like the man. He hadn’t.
For the second time that morning Alex was startled awake, this time by a hand. He blinked his eyes, gathered himself, and looked into a woman’s face. He saw she had distinct forehead crease lines. Then he realized an airline employee was standing over him. He sat up straighter.
“Are you going to Seattle?” the woman asked him. “Because if you are, we need you to board the plane now.”
Alex gave the question some thought. He tried to picture his family members, the looks on their faces after they learned he wasn’t coming. Surely most of them would be disappointed, but would any of them be upset? He imagined his mom might be, as she got upset over just about anything. He doubted his brothers would care if he showed up or not. But if they did care, they wouldn’t let him know they did. Alex felt sure about that. They might even be jealous that he’d ditched out. And as for the rest of them, the rest of the family and Alex’s father’s closest friends, he wasn’t concerned about what they thought, as they were all people Alex hardly knew and only on the rarest of occasions, ever saw.
The woman was still looking at Alex. The expression she fixed him with was pleasant. She was a helper, it seemed, a general do-gooder.
Alex opened his mouth, watched the woman react to his words, then start walking away from him. He thought about leaving the airport, but instead opted to stay where he was for the time being. He thought he might be able to sleep a while longer where he was.