Soon I am going to publish a collection of short stories, so I want to give readers of this website the opportunity to have a sneak peek at that content. I’ll rotate the story on this page about once a month, and make a short post and tweet about it each time I do.
My short fiction is extremely diverse and sometimes bouncing off the walls. Whatever you may expect as a reader, you’ll probably always be in for a surprise. Please enjoy the unique and previously unpublished short story of mine below. I hope you enjoy it, and if you do please feel encouraged to send me a note to tell me what you liked about it and why. And if you don’t — I’m sorry! But you still might enjoy the next one. Cheers!
Richard Gregory sat on a pile of grey landscaping stones and felt pricks of rain against his skin. The bastard loomed over him, huge and shadowy. Wet. A tarp, too small, flapped noisily in the wind. It was an act, feeling the wind, the rain. He didn’t wear a shirt anymore, he didn’t care. He felt everything against his skin. The grey hairs of his chest. He didn’t care. He could feel its shadow where it touched his hand.
“So what?” he said bitterly. “I can clean up mold. That plywood will still be good. Screws will straighten it out.”
Two of his neighbors walked by on the street and stared up at it as they passed. Richard watched them defiantly, until they looked away and walked faster. The rain grew steady and goosebumps spread across his chest and arms. He looked at the muddy sidewalk, at the portable storage unit beside it in the street, and at his truck parked on the other side. They could have walked on the sidewalk.
“So what?” he said to the bastard, and the tarp flapped louder.
His cell phone rang, a series of irritating beeps and the word ‘Droid’. He pulled it out of his shorts pocket and squinted through glowing bubbles where water beaded on the plastic screen.
“Hello? No. No you have to come tomorrow. Teddy! I don’t care what she said, we’re putting up the next wall tomorrow. I was counting on your help this weekend. I have to get the house dried in. No. No. Fuck! I’ll do it myself somehow. Thanks a lot, Teddy. Well don’t start with me. Did you talk to your Mom? Yes. Next weekend, fine. Can you bring Matt or any of those guys? If I have to do it all myself, I’ll do it all myself. Yeah. Next weekend. The wall’s going up tomorrow even if I have to use pulleys. Ok. Next weekend. Bye.”
Richard was shivering and the day was wearing thin. He didn’t care. Sun cracked through cloudy sky at the edge of the horizon, a handful of streaky spotlights, golden yellow and orange. He’d get more done today, anything. He didn’t care about the rain. He wanted to drive back to the little apartment with his shirt off, the truck’s windows down, feeling cold air against his skin and rough synthetic fabric on his back. Cutting up two by fours, nailers for hanging sheetrock, cutting up anything. Even just moving a pile of boards to a more convenient spot. He’d make progress before the day ended.
The rain grew to a downpour and Richard blinked water out of his eyes. He leaned back and rested his hands on the wet landscaping stones, and stared straight up at the sky.
Beth was old, wasn’t she? And other women were so young. It wasn’t that she was unattractive, it was that they were so attractive. So young and beautiful. She couldn’t compete with them. If he was on a desert island she would have been ok, but he wasn’t on a desert island. It wasn’t that she was horrible, he didn’t want to hurt her. She was ok, but they were a lot more. He couldn’t help noticing it and wanting to have them instead of her. That was all. Even if you had a nice used car you wouldn’t want to use it in a world full of new cars. He didn’t like to think of it that way, but he couldn’t help noticing that was the way it was.
Beth didn’t like him that much anymore, either. He could tell. He didn’t know how he could tell, or when he started to tell, but he could. They fought all the time now, or didn’t speak to each other, because they fought all the time when they did. Mostly, they existed together without touching each other’s lives. When they both got too lonely and touched, they fought, and separated themselves again. They were like two bubbles of soap trapped within a larger bubble, pressed against each other’s edges. Not encroaching. Not able to encroach. If soap could be so miserable and unhappy. Life wasn’t that bad, was it? He started to realize it was worse for her than for him. She would be happier if he left her.
Teddy was in college now. Twenty years. Twenty-two years together. They’d been pretty good years, he didn’t regret them at all. Just not anymore. The good had stopped. Beth was getting so old. He wasn’t old like she was yet. He wasn’t ready to be old like she was. His son was in college now, he could be young again. He could stop being the dad and be the boy again. Beth didn’t want that, she didn’t want him like that. Like two bubbles, trapped inside a larger bubble, and if the larger bubble only burst they could float away free. That’s what it was like, because Beth was ok, but she wasn’t young and you wouldn’t drive a used car in a world — but not that. But she would be happier if he left her, he could see that now.
He knew that refinancing his mortgage would be easy, but he had at least expected more paperwork. Even the paper work wasn’t much. The bank had been overjoyed to sell the new mortgage to him, or the man had been, the salesman. They used salesmen to sell mortgages now, pushing product. It was a volume business now, pushing volume, fifty mortgages a day, one hundred. It was like that. That’s what they said on tv, that’s how the salesman acted. Was he really a salesman? Was he a bank’s assistant manager? A salesman.
Richard had gotten his mortgage just in time. The bubble had burst. Not his and Beth’s bubble. They called it a bubble on tv. You couldn’t get a mortgage. You couldn’t refinance one. That’s what they said on tv, and what his friends said. He had been just in time. Business was bad. Richard worked in human resources for a large contracting company. He’d gotten his money in time, he took satisfaction from that. Business was terrible. No one was building, no one was buying, everyone tightening their belt.
Beth had never liked the house. She didn’t want it when they bought it, but it was the best house they could find. He thought it was the best. She hated it. There were too many steps up to the front porch, the driveway was too steep, the street wasn’t private enough, paint the wrong color, rooms that stank. The laundry room was too far from the kitchen, that was what stuck. The laundry room was too far from the kitchen — he could never understand what difference it made. There were other things she didn’t like, he couldn’t remember them all.
She had been angry when he told her about the bastard. She’d said no, like it was something horrible. ‘No’, with revulsion in her voice. He’d even drawn up plans to surprise her. Just rough plans. A whole new story, huge windows, lofted ceilings — the house would double in size. He had it all thought out, the laundry room would be by the kitchen. The plans had pissed her off. After 15 years of complaining, the plans had pissed her off.
Richard started tanning because it helped his psoriasis. A pretty girl named Tabitha worked at the tanning salon. He didn’t have bad psoriasis, just a couple of patches of it on his ass, but it was embarassing and he had read that tanning could help it. Even though no one but Beth ever saw his ass, and Beth didn’t care. It was embarassing. Tabitha thought it was hilarious when she eventually saw, and called him ‘red ass man’. Richard could never think of what to say in response. He went to the tanning salon more when she said it, and saw her there more. Sometimes tanning didn’t help.
Tabitha was only 26. She was dark tanned, and wore low cut shirts and tight pants to work. He thought she was so sexy, and would try to smile and think of something funny to say to her when he came in. Not too much. He didn’t want to be a weird old man. He wasn’t that old, not really. He wasn’t old enough to be her father or anything. Biologically, maybe. There were fourteen and fifteen year olds who had kids, but that wasn’t normal. Most people didn’t have kids until they were at least 25, and he wasn’t that much older than her.
She was a cute girl. He wasn’t planning to pursue her or anything like that. She always smiled naughtily at him when he came in. He thought it seemed like a naughty smile. Definitely a flirty smile, at least. She was a flirtatious girl, she was young. She didn’t see him as a threat, that was all. Her father was probably older than him, though. He was still on the younger side of life. He ran a hand through his grey hair.
When Richard ran into Tabitha at the blues festival in town he remembered how she smiled at him. Beth wasn’t there. Beth said she had a headache and told him to go alone. He’d shouted at her about it, and she had shouted at him, but neither of them was angry, she just wasn’t going to go and she didn’t really want him to go alone, but if he was going to go then it would have to be alone, and she didn’t really mind if he went alone she just would prefer that he didn’t go and stayed home with her, even though he had been looking forward to the blues festival for a long time and she understood that and didn’t mind if he did go alone, she just would rather that he stayed home, and she couldn’t go because she really did have a bad headache, although he wished she would just say that she didn’t want to go out if she just didn’t want to go out, but she really did have a headache and he was sorry about that and they stopped shouting at each other and he went to the concert alone. He loved the blues. B.B. King was going to be there.
It was raining at the festival, and he was drenched, and Tabitha was there and said, “Don’t I know you?” and she loved the blues too. They had several beers and watched B.B. King perform while standing together in the rain in front of the stage. Her friends who were supposed to be there had flaked out on her. Tabitha caught one of B.B.’s guitar picks when he threw it to the crowd. She knew a lot of things about B.B. King, like that he called his guitar, ‘Lucille’. It was surprising how much they had in common. By the time the festival ended, Richard was kissing Tabitha a lot and they walked back to her apartment, which was just down the street from the festival, and had sex.
When Richard got home Beth had already gone to sleep, and he slept on the couch. She didn’t ask him the next morning how the concert had been. He was afraid she would ask about it, but she just said ‘good morning’ and talked about the tv she had watched.
Tabitha loved to talk about plans for the bastard and work out little quirks and details, and think up ideas to make it more attractive and civilized. She said it needed the taming of a woman’s touch. That was the way Beth should have been, with energy and excitement, encouraging. Richard started seeing Tabitha all the time. Beth left him. He didn’t care. It was better for her to move on with her life. He felt like he had been carrying her around his neck for years, and finally the weight was gone. Even though she wasn’t fat. She took pretty good care of herself. But she wasn’t as petite and firm as she used to be. He’d gotten sick of the weight. Her legs were all treacly. She was better off without him, anyway. She didn’t even care that the laundry room was going to be by the kitchen now. Tabitha cared about it. She pointed out how a laundry chute from the master bedroom could go right into the laundry room, she had lots of ideas like that. She was always ready for sex. He didn’t care if she talked about his red ass, it was red.
Beth told him to leave the house alone. She even cried when she said it. And, “You haven’t finished any of the other projects you started on the house.” That wasn’t true, they were all pretty much done. He could have finished them at any time. “You’re just going to ruin the house, and you can’t afford to do that now.” She was old, she didn’t have a vision. She didn’t have the energy anymore. Even though she was a year younger than he was, but she’d let herself get old. She let herself be old. Even Teddy said it was a bad idea. But what did the kid know, he took his Mom’s side.
Nobody believed in him anymore, that was all. Only Tabitha did. She would say, “That’s great!” and smile. He loved to see her smile. She had little dimples in her cheeks when she smiled. Not wrinkles. Her skin was still tight on her face, it was soft to touch and sweet to kiss. He didn’t mind kissing Beth, but it had stopped being sweet sometime. There was a difference between dimples in your smile and wrinkles in it. Even if the wrinkles sort of looked like dimples or the dimples like wrinkles, they weren’t the same. Tabitha’s ass was firm and round, and he liked to slap it with little slaps of his hand and move it around like it was a telescope stuck up on a tripod, or like a camera. Beth used to have dimples at the top of her ass, but she didn’t have those anymore. He couldn’t remember when she had stopped having them. Tabitha didn’t have dimples like that. Sometimes he would massage circles at the bottom of her back where they should have been.
When he ran his hands over Tabitha’s body he believed in himself and knew that he would finish the bastard. Making love to her was proof, the proof of him and what he could do. Through her body he felt the strength that was still in his hands. He wasn’t old.
Teddy’s car squeaked nervously to a stop in front of the bastard. Richard frowned at the unnecessary space between the car and the curb and watched Teddy get out. The car was a tiny, orange, Volkswagen Rabbit. Teddy wore sweatpants and a long sleeved, plaid shirt. His face had three days’ worth of stubble on it. Richard was already sweating in shorts and an ancient t-shirt, his pupils narrow.
“I thought we talked about 8:00 a.m., Teddy.”
“Hi Dad. Yeah, I’m sorry about that, I got here as soon as I could. I was up late last night and had to sleep a little longer.”
“I’ve been working hard since six.”
“Alright. So what are we doing today?”
“I have to get these walls up, is Matt going to be here or – ?”
“Yeah, sorry, I thought he was going to come. He said maybe he can come this afternoon. He might be able to bring this guy, Kyle, who is a contractor.”
“Yeah, ’cause we really need three people to lift these walls.”
After a few minutes of silence, Richard clenched his teeth into a smile at the sky. At least the sun was shining.
Every aspect of the project cost more than Richard expected. He had expected that he and Teddy and Beth, and some of Teddy’s friends, could do most of the labor. There were things you had to hire a professional for — a structural engineer to check the plans, an electrician, a plumber. You had inspections, fees. In the old days, you would have been on a farm or a ranch, out on your own land, and would have built your house your own way at your own pace. You wouldn’t have had to ask “experts” for permission. Your neighbors would come to help if you had to put the walls up or things like that, the way it was supposed to be. He didn’t know what went wrong with the world. He thought that it must have been getting worse and worse for a long time.
Richard took a hammer and beat an awkward nail flat into the timber block at the top of a door frame where it had been sticking out. The contractors were worthless. Everything uneven and jagged — they probably blamed him for that. Then his neighbors always walked by and stared at him, or at the bastard. Like they couldn’t believe it. He didn’t know what they couldn’t believe, it was going to be nicer than their houses when it was done. They would stop and stare when they thought he wasn’t looking, or when they thought he wasn’t there. Or they would stop and try to talk to him about it. He didn’t want to talk. They didn’t have anything useful to contribute. He didn’t have time to chit chat when there was so much work to do. His neighbors were idiots. He didn’t even know most of them.
An old, white sedan drove up and parked neatly against the curb. Beth got out. It was the curb in front of where the house had been, where the bastard was now. Where the bastard loomed over where the house had been. Raw timbers without a roof, without enough walls. You could still see a little bit of the house underneath, of what had been the house, there was still siding on it. Richard was surprised to see Beth. She looked good. She was nervous. He wondered what she wanted.
She walked across the mud and stood in front of him, a few feet away. Richard was cutting a long plank with his chop saw. He wished he had at least gotten the roof up before she came back around. It had rained hard all week. Beth was wearing an old sweatshirt and jeans.
“How’s it going?”
“Oh, it’s going. The rain finally let up. That helps.”
“It looks… good.”
“Yeah, I really wanted to have more done by now. But we’ll get there. Everything takes longer than you think.”
“So what brings you out here? I hope you’re doing well and everything like that.”
“You look good.”
“I’m doing good. Real good. I just came out to see what you were doing to the house.”
“Yeah, I can show you, if you want to see some of the things, I can show you around the project. It looks a lot different, doesn’t it.”
“It looks wet.”
“Yeah, it’s, it’s a process, you know. We’ll get there.”
“The house isn’t worth anything anymore.”
“Yeah, you know, you don’t understand how construction works. It’s going to be the nicest house on the block.”
“Yeah. Well, you don’t need to show me around, I just wanted to see it, just kind of get a glimpse of it.”
“No, let me show you.”
“No. I just wanted to come and see how it looked. I have to go, Richard. I’m meeting someone.”
“Oh. Yeah, this is how it looks.”
Tabitha never came to see the bastard. It wasn’t far away, she could have walked there from her work. She had liked to talk about the plans, she had liked to talk to Richard about them, she didn’t like the real thing. She was always sour with him now. Richard cut his job back to six hours a day. He could only hire contractors a few days a week. Less. He had to do all the work. He didn’t even know how, he had to look it up online. Tabitha was good at looking things up online, but she stopped helping him. She could find the things he needed to know easily, but she was always too tired or too busy.
One day, he never saw her again. Tabitha said, “It’s been fun, honey,” and walked out the front door of the little apartment, and didn’t come back. Richard didn’t even know what she meant, that she was leaving. Her cell phone number stopped working, and after a while she sent him an e-mail that said, “I’m sorry, but you need to leave me alone.” His hair was grey, even down there. She never said anything about it, but that was that.
Snow came early that year. Richard sat in his truck on the street in front of the bastard and cursed, foggy breath rising, without a jacket, with the heat off, watching tiny wings of ice drift to the ground through a cracked window. The cold felt good to him. He’d lost his job, there wasn’t any work. He used what was left of the building money to pay rent on his little apartment. He lived on cold hot dogs and bread. Whatever bread was cheapest. Beth was gone. Tabitha was gone, Tabitha had never been there. Teddy didn’t care about him, he wouldn’t help anymore. Maybe in the spring. It would be ruined by then. Richard watched the puffs of white floating down. The snow was ruining it, and the rain was. It wasn’t dried in. A small tarp he had tied over plumbing in a bathroom section blew off and Richard raced out of his truck to get it. The wind outside bit him. He slipped and fell.
He slipped again, covered in frosty mud. The tarp was muddy, too, when he finally got it tied down again. It flapped rebelliously as he tied it, snarling and snapping. Richard got back into his truck. He pulled his shirt off with shaking arms and turned on the heater. He drove back to the little apartment with rough, synthetic fibers from the upholstry irritating his skin.
Richard tried to barter with a roofing company to put a roof on the bastard. He brought them out to make an estimate. He offered them his truck. They laughed about the bastard. They laughed. He didn’t want them to do the job after that, anyway.
He tried to think of a way to cover it up, to build a temporary roof, but the bastard was too big. It was too high. Many of the beams stuck straight up in the air still, without real support. Richard climbed up onto the beams and tried to hammer two by fours between them to make a framework for a temporary roof. He smashed his hand with the hammer and slipped, and slid awkwardly down the wet wood, cutting his shin. He pulled his ladder up to what was supposed to be the top floor and tried again, but fell off of the ladder and knocked himself out for a few minutes and hurt his back. Several tarps of different colors, all inadequate, snapped in the wind around him as he lay there. He spent his rent money on huge new tarps from a special warehouse, and wrapped up the bastard as best he could. The tops of the new tarps filled with pools of rainwater that crashed through in floods no matter how hard Richard tied them, then trapped the water in and kept it from evaporating whenever the rain did stop.
Beth and Richard got a divorce. Legally. Beth’s lawyer filed an injunction against Richard to stop him from coming to work on the bastard.
On a sunny, summer day, a fat man in a bulldozer demolished a hulk of misbegotten wood and screws, pipes and concrete and nails, and glass, that must have been supposed to become a house. It looked like a shipwreck, rotten timbers akimbo in the air. The framing of the walls on the top story had never been finished and he knocked them down easily with a sledge hammer. He only needed the bulldozer for the bottom story and the foundation. Some of the walls on the bottom story still had siding on them, peeling and yellow. There was an old foundation that was good, but a newer, larger one had been a botched job.
“What kind of bastard made a mess like this?” the fat man said loudly to himself, and enjoyed feeling the sun against his bare arms as he worked. He made it an act, feeling the sun.
Underneath a white tank undershirt his skin had the outline of a worker’s tan. He broke up the foundations of the house with his big machine and pressed all the rubble together into a large, neat pile. In the afternoon, before the sun had set, he smiled and congratulated himself on a day’s work done. Someone could build a nice house here now, once the rubble was trucked up and hauled away.