Walter understood about lonely.
Walter understood about lonely. It was a constant, more reliable than anything else in his life, and as a matter of precaution, he managed elaborate risk assessments in his head, which allowed him to head off potentially dangerous social interactions before they became problematic.
He knew for example, that the attractive cashier ("Chrissy M.," as her name tag suggested) who had once laughed at something he said--some unintentional joke--asked his name, and then wanted to know what he did for a living, was on duty at the nearby Safeway fairly reliably every Thursday at 4 pm. The prospect of further entanglement with Chrissy M. made him so nervous that he began taking deep calming breaths before entering the store and then he made a point of always standing in a different lane with his 9-12 items.
This helped to avoid Express Lane 3 most days, but there was little he could do to predict the days that Chrissy M. might catch him standing in the longer line and direct him to her lane instead. He even took great pains to add 5-8 items, putting him well above the margin of allowance for express service, but on at least one occasion, Chrissy M. had instead ushered him through her lane with a wink and a nod, despite his protestations.
Her personal attention to him... her sweet, endearing ways, this was not something Walter would ever get used to--would ever 'allow' himself to get used to. And it was a private thing never shared with anyone, a shame so deep, he could barely think on it much himself, but he knew that the reason had to do with self-preservation. No woman who had ever sought out his affection had stuck around for more than a month or two. She would find some reason to put him in the friend zone or quietly drift from his life in order to avoid hurt feelings.
Walter preferred binary rejection. Something concrete that he could measure. Because in his mind, a woman was either there or she wasn't, after all, and the varying and unpredictable styles of retreat left him puzzled. It was as if women were in sync with the technological age, becoming more and more efficient with the art of the exit.
Their maneuvers were stealth, leaving him always in a fog of bewilderment, like the feeling one gets when losing five dollars. Which is a very specific feeling. It's enough of a loss to notice, but not enough of one to cause alarm.
And of course, no matter how deftly these women drifted out of his life, it did not go unnoticed. And there was nothing--nothing--that Walter did not notice.
In recent years, he began taking what he knew were elaborate precautions to safeguard his own heart. He chose instead, as an example, to enjoy from a safe distance, the ineffable sound of Chrissy M's. laughter. A sensation that he had decided felt like champagne, or like delicate finger taps on a leather drum. It filled the air with sparkly things, causing him to close his eyes and smile as if bathing in the new sunlight of spring.
It was positively heartbreaking the way he avoided her, busily distracting himself with his receipt while passing by Express Lane 3, so as not to appear rude, but simply preoccupied with his financial affairs.
He could feel her eyes upon him. And sometimes she would call his name and this would send his heart racing. He exhaled sharply and left the syllables behind him as he pushed his cart through the sliding glass door.
Nothing to be done, Walter thought. Nothing to be done.
A new creation by playwright Audrey Cefaly. Follow the story of Walter and his young daughter Anna. A digital novel, told in installments, read by the author.
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Read transcripts from past episodes will be added soon.
001 The Crying
002 The Wave
003 The Room
005 Down the Hall
006 Chrissy M.
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about the author
Cefaly is published by Samuel French (The Gulf, Maytag Virgin, Love is a Blue Tick Hound, Fin and Euba), Smith & Kraus (two volumes of Best American Short Plays), and Applause Books. She is an outspoken proponent of silence in story-telling and has authored numerous articles on the topic of playwriting for HowlRound and Samuel French’s Breaking Character Magazine. www.audreycefaly.com
Anna's pet hedgehog is sick.
"Bumpkin is sick. What can we do?"
Walter stood in the doorway of the hall bathroom staring down at the little hedgehog and his daughter's panic-stricken face. Anna had carefully swaddled little Bumpkin in a pink hand towel and was checking his temperature every 90 seconds.
"How do you know he's sick?"
"He won't wake up. He's very lethargic."
Walter wondered how his little girl knew the word lethargic.
"You mean sleepy?"
"But he's not dead."
Walter sat next to Anna on the bathroom floor. He touched Bumpkin's little ears and felt the unmistakeable coldness.
"You love Bumpkin, don't you?"
Anna pulled Bumpkin closer. They sat there for hours and held on to each other.
In the late afternoon, Anna prepared a little gravesite. Walter helped collect colorful leaves and pebbles and a feather. Anna read her prepared remarks from a piece of notebook paper.
"Oh, Bumpkin. You made the world a brighter place to be. You kept us warm and happy and smiling. I know I can never be a hedgehog. But I will miss you every day and I will miss giving you baths and brushing your fur and reading you bedtime stories. I regret not buying you a hedgehog companion."
Anna lowered the shoebox coffin into its shallow hole near the sycamore tree and covered him with dark earth. Walter helped her place the stones and the little grave marker made of popsicle sticks...
"Here lies Bumpkin, friend to all."
Later that night, Walter tucked Anna into bed. She asked him why Bumpkin had to die.
Walter thought about the vastness of time and all the years he'd lived shuttered and alone. Dull plates of eggs and toast. Solo walks around the pond. TV trays and early nights. His chest grew heavy. He knew the answer as sure as he knew anything. He looked into Anna's swollen, tear-filled eyes.
"Is it... is it to remind us how to love?"
"Maybe that's it."
The light from the hallway cut a swath across Anna's moonlit room. Walter looked up at the solar system mobile floating in the light. He knew that the Saturn sphere was unrealistically stylized as was the one for Earth -- its colors far too photorealistic for his tastes -- but he was nevertheless able to forgive the design flaw given that the sculpture was otherwise anatomically precise.
Anna and her father watched the world go round and round and welcomed the chance to breathe as the ticking from a nearby fan lulled them off to sleep.
In Walter's dreams, there was no pain. No sickness or death. Only the good kind of ache, sending signals into the void. And an answering light to warm a hopeful heart.