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Contemporary

The professorial pulpit that I preach grammar from is more of an hourglass. I sit inside, lecturing my students, subtly pleading with them to forget what I’ve become famous for. The glass that surrounds me on all sides, though, is impenetrable. No matter how loud I lecture, no matter how much I prove that I am normal, I am the spectacle in my classes, not anything I say. The shock of seeing me in person is, apparently, too great not to snicker and mutter and whisper about. 

I thought I would find camaraderie in the other professors too, but I’ve become a misfit, walking around in my clunky glass armor. I stare out at my colleagues, my breath fogging up the curved glass. Their eyes—stale, cold, gray—respond. We don’t want you out here, Eliot. (Dry laughter.) Tell me, why did you come to Hartwick? 

I’ve never been much of a social person, anyways. Especially not when I am, at best, a practical joke. I would rather live in unemotional, boring solitude than be a companion to anyone who thinks I’m an internet meme. So I sit, quarantined in my own hourglass, and wonder how long it will be until it’s full of sand and my time is up. It isn’t the worst state of existence.

***

Once the students have left and I’m finished with my tedious things, I eat at a rotating variety of local restaurants. Today is a Tuesday, which means I eat at Cathy’s Diner. The lemonade sun is just beginning to dip behind the hills, and, as my car door releases a satisfying clump, I set off. My favorite music—Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake—dances out of the speakers. My hands tap the steering wheel without my bidding. I wouldn’t say I’m happy, but this ambivalence has become the happiest I can be. I’m certainly not unhappy, at least.

The sun glints off the diner windows. Tchaikovsky is stuck in my mind, and my heels click to Valse in A-Flat Major as I walk in. 

“Mornin’, hon,” Cathy says. “Afternoon, I mean. Whoops.” 

“Evening.”

Cathy laughs and leads me to my usual booth, the red, plasticky leather seats just beginning to crack. “Right,” she says in her indistinct drawl. “Evenin’. You need a menu, hon? No? Alright, I’ll bring the usual on out.”

Cathy, I’ve always thought, looks like Sigourney Weaver if Sigourney Weaver never received any plastic surgery and was blonde. Sigourney Weaver’s older, Southern sister.

I stare at the sun that covers the parking lot, the gas station across the street, the passing cars in an orange whisper. Then pull out my copy of a Shakespeare analysis that the sun cuts in two. 

Cathy’s yellow-blonde hair bobs over after I’ve ingested a third of an argument about race and Shakespeare. “Here you go, hon.” The slop of spaghetti and steamed carrots glares at me as she sets it down. “Enjoy.”

I begin slurping up the slimy pasta. But Cathy doesn’t leave, she just stands right next to my table. I look up and meet her wide eyes. They’re trembling, and a tear threatens to trickle down her face. My furrowed brow relaxes. How should I respond? “Have a… sit down, if you want,” I say, my eyes darting around the room. “What’s the matter?”

“Oh, I dunno…” she sobs, “I was jus’… it’s… my granddaughter. The young’un. She… she’s done, she graduated… last week. From… from high school.”

“Oh, my.” My heels rapidly tap the back of the booth, still stuck on Tchaikovsky. “I—what—can I—why do you think that’s making you so—so sad?”

“I don’t reckon I know.” Cathy sniffs, loudly, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. “Sorry. I’d told myself I wouldn’t be… wouldn’t be goin’ around havin’ these breakdowns all over the place.”

“It’s fine. It’s okay.” I shut my book. “I don’t mind.”

“You’re so sweet… sorry to dump this all on you… I’m outta my mind.” Cathy wipes her eyes with her wrists. “I don’t even know you. I just see you, over here, sittin’ in this booth, every Tuesday. I’m jus’ familiar with you, y’know? But I don’t know you. I should stop, I’m sorry, I needa get back.” She pushes herself up, starts sliding out. Then, her legs give way, she begins bawling again. Her head is on the table this time.

She reminds me of myself. I was new, young, impressionable. Just out of graduate school. Purposed. I was going to make a difference here at Hartwick. I was going to find people like me here. I got asked to speak at a freshman orientation, for whatever reason. 

Nothing special, Eliot, they told me. Just give a few remarks. Introduce yourself. You’re new, they’re new. 

So I went up and talked. I wanted to connect with them in an pseudo-academic way. I don’t remember what the talk was about. What I remember is how it ended.

And, finally, as Benjamin Franklin said, speak softly and carry a big stick.

A couple snickers went up from the audience. One of the freshmen raised his hand. 

Theodore Roosevelt said that, you idiot.

His jock freshmen friends cheered and patted him on the back. I realized my mistake and froze. I stared out at the audience, eyes wide, rubbing my hands together. I’d messed up. 

It wouldn’t have been a big deal, because it wasn’t a big deal, but one of the freshmen—somehow—ran one of the most followed meme accounts on Instagram. And a photo of myself, looking terrified onstage, just happened to find its way onto the platform.

Not all memes are hits, but I was. That photo is the fifth-most-liked on the platform. And I was mortified. Worse than Cathy is now.

My arm awkwardly reaches out to pat her shoulder. “You—you okay, Cathy?”

“I… I jus’… I thought…” she says, then pulls herself up, head in hands. “I was watchin’ her… my granddaughter… walk across the stage. And I thought, this’s it. That’s all there is. She’s lived here, y’know. For all her life. And now she’s up and gone. I’ll see her, what, three times a year?” She puts her elbows on the table, still sniffling. “I’ll jus’… I’ll miss her loads.” 

“Yes,” I say, “I—I understand. That makes sense. But aren’t you grateful for—” for what? How can I get this woman to stop crying? “Aren’t you grateful for the time you’ve spent with her?”

Her eyes crease in a nostalgic smile. “Wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she says. “Yeah. I’m so thankful for all that. She’s spunky, that’un. Can’t imagine what I’d do without her. You have any kids?”

“Oh, no.” I say, laughing. “I—I just—I’m not the type.”

“Well. Mine’ve given me so… so much. Made me so happy. I wouldn’t trade ‘em for the world. I… I live for ‘em. That’s why I started this diner.”

I nod. “That’s sweet.”

“Anyways, I needa stop botherin’ you. Get to eatin’.” Cathy slides out of the booth. “Oh, and don’t worry ‘bout the bill. You’ve put up with enough of me tonight.” She smiles, awkwardly. “Enjoy.”

I watch her hair swing away across the checkerboard floor. The sun faded into a precarious, firetruck red Monet while we talked. I’d been waiting for her to leave. But I don’t get back to reading or eating. I just watch her. 

She has a purpose. She lives for something.

I get up from my seat, on the precipice of epiphany. I go outside. And I look up. 

The sun, now, is gone, as are all of its colors. The sky is an indie-film dark blue. Grass pricks me as I sit, staring upward in a trance. The dark outlines of the pillow clouds, the neon red glow from the sign above, the opal and infinite sky. It’s a harmony I didn’t know, a visual Tchaikovsky I’d seen but not seen. And I feel it. I feel the sky. I lose my composure; my body convulses in powerful, long-neglected sobs. 

There’s just so much beauty I was protecting myself from. There’s so much time I’ve wasted because I was afraid of being called stupid. 

***

The sky fades to a dark, deep green. The moon comes out, full and bright and incredible. Every part of the expanse above me is something I hadn’t seen before, something I hadn’t known existed. Then, I sit up. I look around. What else have I been missing?

The gravel lot next to the diner, the yellow streetlight, the row of flowers. The asphalt, the sidewalk, the dirt. The parked cars. The stoplight. All have an understated beauty, a sort of underlying emotion I hadn’t appreciated. 

I get up, still in a daze. The moon reflects on the windows of my car. I get in, and Tchaikovsky comes on again. It’s so much better than I’ve given it credit for. It’s incredible. It’s perfect. 

As I drive home, I see so much. Everything is new. My tears are new; I haven’t cried, almost at all, since I came here. I’d resolved I wouldn’t. I’d resolved to isolate myself, to put myself in an hourglass.

And now, I realize that, when I shut myself in my hourglass, when I barricaded myself from embarrassment, I shut out everyone in my life. In the curved glass that I viewed people through, I distorted who they were. 

Now, I can see what time really is. Time is not isolation; time is beauty, and perfection, and love, and purpose.

Time is an emotion. And I feel it now.

May 24, 2023 02:57

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4 comments

Zack Powell
04:05 May 24, 2023

What a pleasant surprise, seeing another story from you, Nathaniel. I was just wondering the other day where you went, if you were still writing. I've got my answer now. I really enjoyed this. Contemporary/literary is my favorite genre of fiction, so this was something I would've loved to write myself. A story about self-discovery, self-acceptance, overcoming one's past, set in, of all places, a quaint vintage-style diner. This ticks damn near all my boxes. Among the things I most liked are the following: The inclusion of meme culture, the ...

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Nathaniel Miller
13:22 May 29, 2023

Hi Zack! Thanks, as always, for such a thoughtful comment :) This, I think, will be my last story in a while... I, like Cathy's granddaughter, have just graduated and am looking forward to an insanely packed college schedule. But I wanted to submit one last story before my long break, and will be back whenever time allows. Thanks for the critiques, too. Will look into them in future drafts. And as for the lines preceding the epiphany, I think I may disagree. More of a thought process could add depth, yes, but the epiphany Eliot encounters...

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Michał Przywara
20:51 May 30, 2023

The whole tie-in to time, first by being trapped in an hour glass and then gradually leading to that lovely final line, was a neat idea. There's a theme here of being trapped, of being a prisoner. Time is one prison, fear is another one, though it hits multiple times, in fear-of-looking-stupid and fear-of-embarrassment, and maybe an implied fear-of-risks and fear-of-what-others-think. By the end he realizes these are self imposed prisons, though what's curious is, they don't vanish. His views on them change, his reactions to them change, b...

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J. D. Lair
02:20 May 30, 2023

I loved the varying descriptions of the sun/sky as the day grew darker! The whole piece was very poetic and beautiful. Sorry to see you are going dark for a while as I was looking forward to reading more from you. Best of luck in your college endeavors though!

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