Brian’s hands shook slightly as he read the prompt.
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” he breathed.
“What is it honey?” said Penny, padding into the kitchen on bare feet.
Brain frowned and shook his head. He did not like to be disturbed when he was working, but,
“It’s this week's Reedsy prompt,” he sighed.
“What's wrong with it, honey?” she said.
Breathing in deeply, Brian lied.
“It’s just that it’s so stupid,” he said. “‘Working Hard, Hardly Working.’ Honestly, what sort of-”
The espresso machine flared to life, grinding out a single shot of bean from its hopper with a sound like a toy plane falling victim to enemy flak. Brian considered speaking over it, but decided to wait. It was early and his allotment of patience, so thin these days, was still… as fresh as it ever was. It was far too early for Penny to be up and about. Which was fine of course, after all, it was her apartment too, but unexpected changes to her routine made him snappish and uneasy.
“What was that, sweetie?”
“I said, it’s stupid,” he repeated. “‘Working Hard, Hardly Working.’ So smug and condescending. As if any of those layabouts; editors- or whatever the hell they call themselves- know a thing about real work. Listen to this, ‘For better or worse, a lot of our identity- or at least, how people perceive us- is tied-’”
The espresso machine clambered back into life. Penny was a double shot girl, but she preferred two single tamps and so, two separate grinds. Brian thought he had known that. Had he forgotten? Or had he deliberately put it out of his mind, making an excuse for himself to become frustrated and angry, an excuse for himself to stop writing?
“What was that, sweetie?” Penny said again, louder, over the noise.
He frowned, but to his surprise Brian found the interval vaguely comforting. As he slouched, slumped listlessly across two kitchen chairs, the story of her morning flowed blindly over the counter, transmitted to ears alone. She had finished her grinding and was frothing her milk today, so, no Americano, and it wasn’t milk either; he had heard the bottle opening. She was mixing heavy cream and water instead. It was the same calories, but tasted much more decadent. At least so Penny claimed, Brain was not sure that he could appreciate the difference. The biscotti jar lid rattled.
Coming around the island into the dining nook she wiggled her wide hips onto a chair and gazed at him, a picture, with her fuzzy pajamas and hot coffee. The room was silent, the only sound, that of the murmuring fish tank, so omnipresent that it did not count.
Brain smiled a stagy smile. He cleared his throat.
“I was just saying that it was a bit silly this time,” he said. “This woman with her, um, let me see… yadda, yadda, yadda... ‘for a living. As well as... daily rhythm of our lives... goals and aspirations... workaholic or living for the weekend...’
“Ahh, here we are,”
‘This week we’re diving into the world of work, writing about dream jobs — and the not-so-dreamy jobs.’”
Brian shook his head, frowning at Penny’s coffee which smelled like all of heaven.
“Why is that silly?” she said.
“Why? Well, because,” Brian blustered, shrugging with shoulders and hands, as if emphasizing and apologizing simultaneously, as if he knew that he was being silly but was not ready to be told so.
“It’s not like any of these people know anything about real work,” he said, gesturing at the computer screen, across which the prompts still glowed. “They waltz in from their townhouses, in their fancy cars, BMW’s and Maserati's, and… whatnot, and they just make up this nonsense, this silly, namby pamby, fluff… How are you supposed to write something important when you have to tie your work into, let's see… ‘Start your story with a character quitting their job, or getting fired.’ How are you supposed to impact on the human condition with… that?”
“Well,” began Penny, after a judicious pause. “Not every story has to be a treatise on human misery, you know. What about, Catbird Seat? What about, The Yellow Wallpaper? Those are two of my absolute favorites and they aren’t all, doom and gloom… well, Wallpaper does have it’s fair share to say about marriage and subjugation… guess that wasn’t a great example.”
“No,” said Brian, obscurely smug. “And then, whenever I do try to say something important, the silly woman doesn't get it.”
“What silly woman?”
“The one who writes the prompts, of course, the one who judges it.”
“How you know it’s a woman?”
Brian looked shocked.
“I… just assumed,” he said. ‘I mean, she just lays around reading stories and writing nonsense all day.” Instantly, he recognized his error.
“Not like me,” he blurted, crowding the words in as if they could retroactively overlap, smothering the ones which had come before. “That’s why I have to write serious stuff, that’s why these sorts of prompts are so irritating. But then, as I say; whenever I do write something really good, a story that follows their silly prompts but still says something, they simply don’t get it. They don’t understand what I’m trying to do.”
“Didn’t you contact them about not accepting your Sphinx story; I thought you were gonna?”
“There’s no point,” said Brian, shrugging again. “The contest’s over- I mean, not ‘contest,’ but those stories have already been… those magazine slots are filled. I was going to call that one, The Road, or something enigmatic like that. But then I thought that calling it what I did, ‘The Sphinx,’ might clue them in to look a little deeper, to see that it actually was a story, about life, about where we are at the different stages and how things seem to move at different speeds. How we begin to appreciate… Sorry.”
Penny smiled encouragingly.
“Well, I’m still so proud of you,” she said. “It’s not easy to write for a living, not these days. Even for someone brilliant, like you. That Reedsy program was such an amazing find. What magazines did you say they publish in? I'd love to buy one for my mom back in the DR, one with something by you in it.”
“I’m not sure,” said Brian.
The lie was so despicably weak that he felt the need to bolster it and added weakly, “They say that it would affect our writing if we knew the markets.”
He glanced at his wife out of the corner of one eye, waiting for her suspicions to crystallize, for the unanswerable accusation to stab out from her intuitive heart.
“Coffee?” said Penny, half turning her mug.
Brian made an inarticulate noise of negation, waving his hand. He no longer felt any desire, and the deep aroma had somehow become vaguely repugnant.
“Leave me alone so I can write now,” he said, brusquely, moving his hand back as if by accident when she reached to stroke it.
“You artist, so temperamental,” tutted Penny, rolling her eyes.
She yawned, continuing the motion into a stretch as she stood up.
“What time you working till today?” he asked.
“Call me if you get out early,” said Brian, miserably.
“Ohh,” said Penny, wrinkling her nose and snatching at him. “Gotta’ get your little chippies outta’ here ‘for I get home?”
“You know it; there’s a regular line headin’ out the back.”
Laughing, she ticked her wide hips saucily at him as she marched out of the room.
“Go on, get ready for work,” he said, using his parental voice, his self-sacrificing voice, promising an evening to come which he knew would not eventuate.
When she emerged 15 minutes later, absently pressing the creases from her uniform, Brian already had his shoes on, computer in a slouch bag under one arm.
“Thought I might try writing in the park,” he said, to the penciled arch of her eyebrow.
“That sounds so nice,” Penny said. She bit her lip and made a false start.
“I’d love to do that, sometimes,” she said, in a little rush. “Sit on a bench with you, while you write. I wouldn’t say a word or nothin’, just drink my coffee and look at the kids, an’ dogs, an’… stuff.”
“Sounds great,” said Brian.
Together they descended from the walkup, their feet moving very slowly, the steps unnecessarily short, as if they were drawing out the end of a dance, each half knowing what they were about.
On the sidewalk, Penny turned to him.
“I love you very much,” she said, pressing her brown lips together.
“Love you, too,” Brian said, his arm encircling her stiff shoulders and pulling her close. He counted to three, then watched her walk away. He wanted her to see that he was watching if she looked back.
In the park, leaves were still falling. Everywhere else in the city they were already down, the Maple tree limbs a naked, arthritic anguish, but in the park there was yet time. One lit upon Brian’s shoulder. He brushed it aside and it continued its descent, settling next to one of its fellows on his computer, unopened on the bench.
A severely dressed woman came up to where he sat, walking out of the shadow of a tree. He had known she was coming. She held a mermaid cup in one hand and sat without being asked, the computer between them.
“Does she know yet?” the woman asked.
She spoke in a very matter-of-fact way and did not turn her head.
Brian tore a leaf in two. He threw the pieces into the air, but disconnected, they no longer flew correctly and fell straight to the ground. He snorted.
“If I really was an author I would use that, Vanessa,” he said. “I’m sure it’s a great metaphor for… something or other.”
The woman looked at him cynically.
“What do you want now?” she said.
Brain shrugged moodily and she glanced at her watch, not bothering to hide the gesture.
“This meeting was your idea, not mine; what’s on your mind?”
Brain shrugged again.
“Did you want to have an affair?” said Vanessa.
Brain half shrugged, then started as her words sank in.
“What? No! God no!” he yelped, then, “Oh, my goodness, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean-”
“It’s okay,” said the lady with a quirky smile, her first. “I don’t want one either. I’ve got too much going on in my life at the moment. But, what then? You don’t want the park, which is beautiful. You don’t want me, which would be crazy if you could have me because I’m even more beautiful. You’ve finished creating that dream existence for yourself, the job you say you’ve wanted your entire life, so; what else, what more do you want?”
Brain groaned and rested his face in his hands.
“I almost want to start throwing shingles again,” he said, rubbing his forehead.
The lady looked dispassionately at his sloping back. She shrugged and half rolled her eyes.
“The arts are hard,” she said blandly, glancing at her nails.
Brian rocked his head from side to side.
“Un uh,” he said.
“Political unrest at home and abroad?”
Brian twisted himself upward.
“No, no, no,” he cried, slapping his hands down onto his legs.
The lady shrugged.
“I don’t really care,” she said. “I’m your lawyer, not your psychoanalyst… though I might as well be; much as I’m charging you for these little chats.”
Brian crossed his arms. Standing, he stared at the carousel.
The woman frowned and rolled her eyes again, but then, rising as well, she said in a somewhat more conciliatory tone,
“Brian, your late grandmother's estate has got you covered, so you don’t have anything to worry about money-wise. You’ve got great investments, a beautiful wife- or whatever. It took us two months to structure, but for all the world to see, you’re a successful author living on his wits. Does it really matter that you aren’t what you pretend to be, that the only writing you do really is for an online story contest? Who cares, who are you trying to impress?”
Brian did not answer. The carousel spun round and round, children climbing and falling, slipping and laughing, on and off without a care, without thinking.
“You’re not going to kill yourself, are you?” said Vanessa. “I’ve got car payments to make.”
Brian ignored her.
“Look at that,” he said, pointing at the apparatus. “What does it make you think of?”
“Are you kidding?” she said, as a little girl was flung shrieking into thin air. “This is a city park. I see,” she pantomime a rainbow, “personal injury…”
When he did not respond she sighed and asked, as in duty bound, what he saw in the chaotic machine.
“Hmm, oh, me?” said Brian, blinking. “It's... like a metaphor, that crazy thing, like the job market. You jump on expecting one thing, but whatever happens, it’s not that. The younger you are, the less you care. Maybe you get thrown right off, maybe you manage to cling on, somebody's elbow in your ribs, but whatever it's not what you expected, and then, when you try to shift, the forces change and… bam!”
“Not… terrible,” she conceded. “Why don’t you put it in a story?”
Brain shook his head. Finally, he turned to look at her.
“Because, I don’t think I want to write anymore,” he said, his chest deflating.
“I used to try,” she said. “A hundred years ago, back when I was in college; the great American novel. You have to get used to rejection. Write because it’s who you are and, blah, blah, blah….”
“No, it’s not that,” said Brian. “Some lady wants to publish one of my stories.”
“But, that’s great… congratulations?” said Vanessa.
“Is it?” said Brian. “It’s… I don’t know. I’ve been writing my whole life, sending in stories and novel ideas, never getting a read, never even a serious response. And now… it’s real. People will read my stuff. They… they might not like it. And if they do… I’ll have to write more, whether I feel like it or not. And then, there are novels. I don’t know how to write a novel, what if they want a novel?”
Brian licked his lips.
“And I can’t even tell my wife about it,” he said. “They had a prompt this morning about quitting, about dream jobs not working out, and I almost choked. I had to lie to Penny.”
“What?” said Brian, turning around.
“Lie to her… again, you mean?” said Vanessa.
“You can’t… say that; can you?”
“I’m a lawyer and a woman; I can say whatever I please. You’re a jerk, Brian.”
“Yes, a jerk. And an ass. And a fool. All you think about, all the time, is yourself. All you talk about... is yourself. You think your wife, Penny, you think she likes making coffee all day? Heating up sandwiches for basic little Ugg girls?”
“Well… I guess not.”
“Oh, you guess? Hmm? You don’t figure? You haven’t been safeguarding your assets this whole time, only pandering to your ego. Well, it seems that now fairytale time is over. Your hand has been called, so it’s done, one way or another, play your cards or get out. It doesn’t matter much to me one way or the other, but it doesn't seem like it’s been a very successful experiment”
Brian flapped his hands.
“But what do I do?” he exclaimed.
“Do?” said Vanessa, making a face. “Do? Why, you run, of course.”
The lawyer punched him in the arm, and not altogether gently.
“To the coffee shop, where your wife- whom you don’t deserve- is slaving away. Where she is right now, probably imagining that you're cheating on her. It’s only three blocks east.”
“And do what?”
“Tell her… what?”
Vanessa punched him again.
“Tell her, that your grandmother just died,” she said, emphasizing the words. “Tell her, that she can quit that garbage job, and that you’re not going to write anymore. Tell her, that you two can do whatever she wants.”
“I guess… I guess, I could just, do that, couldn’t I,” said Brian, smiling.
Vanessa pulled back her fist again.
“Okay, okay,” said Brian, laughing.
He began to run.