“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”
― Neil Gaiman, The Kindly Ones
I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.
I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.
Here’s another one for today (#97) Almost There! What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.
Thanks for reading.
The First and Last Day
Howard ran his hands over the pebbled gray plastic case and popped the latch. He lifted the Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter out and placed it on the plain sturdy desk next to his cheap shirt-cardboard circular slide-rule, then reached under the desk to plug it in. The typewriter began its familiar low whir.
So far, so good, Howard thought to himself. He had ridden a bus for two days and three nights across a thousand miles of midwest, stopping at every little no-name hamlet to get to this dorm room. His typewriter and his slide rule were his only important possessions. He felt that these were his tools – his weapons – his only friends in his desire to conquer the future. His heart had jumped when he saw a driver throw his precious case roughly under the bus when he changed routes in Omaha. Why hadn’t he held his typewriter with him up in his seat? He had never thought about it.
He had a few pages of slightly rumpled paper concealed inside the typewriter case and he pulled one out and rolled it into the carriage. Howard made a mental note of asking around to find where he can buy some more paper on campus – he had no idea. He reached out and tapped the “x” key and the hammer responded with a firm whack- leaving a nice dark letter on the paper.
Once the echoes of the letter-strike died down he could hear the continuing hubub out in the hallway. Hundreds of kids were moving in all around him, families hauling boxes and piles of furniture in from pickups or rented trailers – proud and sad parents – fathers sweating under the burden, mothers clucking about food plans and wardrobes, siblings running and tumbling around, excited and dreaming of their turns to come. Howard turned in his desk chair to look at his single yellow Samsonite suitcase sitting in the center of the room. He had packed carefully, knowing his whole life had to be crammed into that one small space.
He had tried to blend in, but after a while it became too much for him. The kids were nice enough. One, Paul had given him a ride to a Gibson’s Discount so he could buy a spread for his dorm bed. The dorm provided sheets and a pillow, but Howard had not thought to bring a blanket or a spread. The selection at Gibson’s had overwhelmed him and he bought the cheapest twin spread he could find. It was bright blue and satiny and had a ruffle on it. He felt stupid – it looked ridiculous in the bare beige concrete block room. Paul must think he’s an idiot.
After they came back from Gibson’s Paul suggested they walk over to the girls’ dorm and volunteer to help carry stuff up.
“That’s the best way to meet some freshmen girls,” he said.
And he was right. The girls seemed so excited and actually glad to meet some of the boys from the school. But Howard was embarrassed by the way their rooms were set up. The first girl they met, a small blonde girl named Stacy had showed them her room. Her parents had come in two days early.
“They know the dean and got special permission,” she said proudly.
The concrete block walls of Stacy’s room were completely covered with paper, cloth, or stick-on mirror tiles. The floor was carpeted. The book shelves were lined with sports trophies. Stacy and her roommate shared a custom bunk bed which freed up enough room for two custom wardrobes which were needed because their clothing collections were too large for the standard dorm closets.
When they left Paul said, “Have you ever seen anything as tacky in your whole life?”
Howard agreed, but still… he couldn’t imagine the effort and expense that went in to making something like that.
“Sure, it’s a bit much,” he said to Paul, “But it would feel like a home away from home.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure…” was all he could reply.
Howard picked up his circular slide rule and began to do a quick imaginary series of calculations.
Paul’s roommate was in the Engineering School and had a slide rule out on his desk too. It was a big leather-cased Keuffel & Esser rule. It cost almost half a semester’s tuition. Howard asked if he could take it out and look at it.
“You think that’s something, get a lot of this,” Paul’s roommate said. He unlocked the valuables drawer and pulled out a portable electric calculator. It was a programmable Hewlett Packard model. The kid showed Howard a program he had written that would simulate a moon landing – where you had to input how much fuel to burn and see if you would crash or run out of fuel. Howard tried and and crashed a couple times but was beginning to get the hang of it when Paul shouted from the hall.
There was a kid out their showing off his graduation present. It was a big Pulsar gold digital watch. The kid said it cost over two thousand dollars. The kid had something on his wrist that cost four years of tuition. Everyone stared at the fire red digits and watched them move.
“Hey,” Paul said. “I heard of another guy that’s got one of those, over in the Adam’s Quad. We need to find him and synchronize your watches, then see if they match a month later.”
“They’ll match up a year from now, no problem,” the kid with the watch said proudly. Everyone made noises at that.
All this was too much for Howard, so he slipped away, back to his room to make up his tacky bedspread and check out his typewriter.
Howard thought of his El Camino pickup back home. He thought of the working nights at the gas station, watching the other kids go by honking while he put in the extra hours he needed to buy the truck. Once he bought the used truck his boss at the station would let him use the bays after closing until Howard had it running like a top and looking almost brand new.
He had sold the truck to his cousin to make enough for this year’s room and board. His cousin had driven him down to the bus station. It had felt so strange to be in the passenger seat of the El Camino. Howard had never ridden there before. The whole world looked different from the passenger side.
He reached out and began to type. A few letters and then the space bar for another word. Nothing happened. Again and again Howard tapped the keys and then the space bar and no spaces appeared. The driver had broken the typewriter when he had thrown it under the bus.
Howard felt a wave of sadness and panic well up. He experimented with substituting a “_” for a space between words. It looked stupid.
Where was he going to get the typewriter fixed? Could it be fixed? How could he pay for repairs? How could he get by without a typewriter?
It was horrible. Howard threw himself on the narrow dorm bed. The squeal of the satin on the cheap bedspread was a painful cry to his ears.
This was not going to work out. He did not belong there. He didn’t even know enough to hold his typewriter by his seat.
Howard stared at the phone. He could call his cousin and ask him to sell him his truck back. He had enough money for a bus ticket home. He was sure he could get a refund from the university… he remembered signing the papers, there was a period of time he could walk away. Nobody would blame him. He had tried. He began to relax.
For some reason an image came into Howard’s brain. He thought of a stop his bus had made in Western Nebraska, about halfway between Denver and Omaha. The bus would pull into every little forgotten nameless little town out there. Some were no more than a gas station and a grain elevator. They didn’t even have bus stations – only a little sign along the road. There was never anybody waiting.
Except at one town – Howard had no idea what it was. The bus was running almost three hours behind schedule and the day had been overcast, cold, and raining since dawn. When they pulled off the highway they stopped at a long abandoned service station and there was an old woman waiting there. She was as thin as a wisp, wearing a proud but old dress and an archaic hat perched on her cloud of white hair. She had a cheap folding umbrella and a cloth suitcase. The bus pulled up and she slowly climbed the stairs, thanked the driver, and found an empty seat.
How long had she been waiting out there? Howard saw no car… no evidence of anybody else from horizon to horizon. Someone must have dropped her off there to wait for the bus. She must have stood there in the rain, holding that little umbrella, for at least three hours. Howard didn’t think he cold do that… and that woman was old enough to be his grandmother and more. How could that ancient frame hold out against that wind and cold? What if the bus had never come? What if the driver had decided to make up lost time by skipping this little hamlet?
Where could she be going? Howard had fallen asleep and the driver had woken him in Omaha. The woman was gone by then. How many others like her were out there, standing in the rain, waiting for something to come and take them away? Where did she get her strength from?
Howard stared at the typewriter for a minute, thinking about the old woman. “I guess I can deal with this,” he said to himself. He pulled himself up and brushed his clothes off a bit.
“Maybe there are some more girls moving in, some must be coming from a long way… they might be getting here late. Maybe I can help them move in,” he said to himself, then went to the door and strode out quickly into the hall.