In November, I participated in National Novel Writing Month. Sadly, I only made it about 2500 words in before getting wrapped up in, whaddyacallit, you know, life. I’m glad I gave it a brief whirl, but I hope to give it a better thrashing in 2007. Here’s the dull introduction to my half-plotted story, Assuming Perfection:
The best way to know Roland was to see his lawn edger: it shined like the day it was made. It sat in his garage, next to the labeled green plastic bins of lime and fetilizer, and just under the three snow shovels. Standing in his garage, in fact, gave the impression that you werenâ€™t in a place that was used so much as stocked. Looking closely, the pattern of slight wear on the handles if the edger was fairly visible. But had the blade ever really touched soil? Itâ€™d be impossible to be sure.
Unless you were there on a Saturday morning. It wasnâ€™t so much ritual as it was habit. The lawn mower was dustedâ€”yes, dustedâ€”and brought to the driveway. The hinges and screws and belts were checked. The gas tank was topped off, and the oil was as well. And only then, the lawn was mowed; not immaculately, but diligently.
Afterwards, the edger came out. The steps were the same. And the blade touched the grass and did what edgers do. And before the edger or the lawn mower went away, they were wiped, occasionally scrubbed, and always oiled (to prevent rusting).
Saturdays were spent cleaning, and Sundays were for shopping. A manâ€™s home is never finished, Roland would say. Nothing was ever quite right: the front door was the wrong shade of blue one week, and the knocker clashed. The sprinkler did the ksh-ksh-ksh a little too fast, and watered in a thoroughly disorganized manner. Shoes got scuffed, socks got worn through. And even the most stylish of men tired of the same style clothes.
This particular Sunday, Roland had come back home with deceptively full bags. They contained a number of pillows of differing thicknesses and materials. He had stood at the store, trying to imagine sleeping. The mattresses and the pillows were, perplexingly, halfway across the store from each other, which had made the task a greater challenge.
â€œHow am I to know whether Iâ€™m a side sleeper or a back sleeper?â€ he had thought. â€œI know how I wake up. And I know how I am most comfortable when I am trying to fall asleep. But they are not the same. How can I be sure whichâ€”if eitherâ€”is the way I spend most of the night?â€
He considered returning home to set up a video camera to watch himself sleep that night. â€œBut,â€ he reasoned quietly, â€œwould being conscious of the video taping make me self-conscious of the way Iâ€™m laying? Will I sleep the way Iâ€™m most comfortable sleeping? Or will I sleep the way Iâ€™m most comfortable being watched? Once the camera is off and the pillow is decided on, I may regret it.â€ And he didnâ€™t like the idea of keeping the camera in his room for the rest of his life, just to be sure of getting a satisfactory nightâ€™s sleep.
Roland had tried to try each pillow in the store, pressing it against his head in a manner which roughly approximated sleeping at home. It wasnâ€™t long before he realized that the uncontrolled factorsâ€”the plastic wrapper around the pillow, the inability to actually lay down, the way he could only support a portion of the bottom of the pillow with his armsâ€”meant that this method of gaining information was a futile effort at best.
In the end, he had decided on a rare course of action: he purchased four entirely different pillows. He felt he had had little choice in the matter. The storeâ€™s poor layout made it impossible to make a firm decision. And even then, he couldnâ€™t unwrap the pillows. He would just have to return next week with the pillows he disliked.
Although Roland normally would have felt defeated by having to resort to a purchase that he was sure he would not keep, in this case he returned home in high spirits.
Rolandâ€™s house sat at a dead end at the very top of a small, bare hill, not far from the center of town. It wasnâ€™t very large, but his continuous upkeep and desire for improvement gave it the appearance of an illustration, not of reality. Like the yard, the trees and gardens were well-maintained. The tall brown fence kept the neighborhood dogsâ€™ trouble out. Roland himself had always feared being a poor pet-owner, and had never got up the courage to even seriously consider the idea.
Roland returned home to a dark home at the tail end of dusk. He closed the garage doors, noting again that the loud motor needed to be re-oiled before too long. From the driveway, he walked the brick walkway to his front door, unlocked, and entered.
When he turned the light on, he saw exactly what he always expected to see: the main stairway leading directly from the front door, straight up to the second floor. To his left was his living room, where he occasionally would spend an evening reading and where he planned to disassemble and rebuild the garage door opener. To the right of the stairs was a door to a coat closet hardly large enough to hold his three coats.
He walked past the living room to the kitchen. He felt a pang of guilt over having spent a small fortune on the dark granite countertop, and he tried to think consciously about how much it increased the resale value of the house. That, the stainless steel fridge and the island with the six-burner stove made this a kitchen he was quite proud of.
Upstairs, in the only bedroom, he placed the two bags of pillows on the floor. He had been thinking since he left the store how he was going to schedule the pillow testing. Seven clearly does not divide easily into four. How sure could he be after a single nightâ€™s sleep that any one pillow was or was not satisfactory enough? Should he set an alarm for halfway through the night so he could switch pillows?
He discarded that last thought with a quiet chuckle.
The plan Roland had settled on was this: he would give each pillow a single nightâ€™s sleep as a preliminary test. He felt there was a good chance that heâ€™d be able to discard at least one of pillows as completely unacceptable after that short period of time, and would give each of the remaining pillows at least one additional night. He wasnâ€™t sure what he would do at the end of the seven nights if he was unable to make a final choice, but Roland was confident he could determine a plan of action at that point if it became necessary.
While preparing for bed, Roland made a mental inventory of the things he had done during the weekend. His father had drilled this into him as a child: â€œFloss your teeth, Roland, what did you have for breakfast yesterday?â€ Eggs, sunny side up; toast with raspberry jam; cottage cheese, small curd. â€œNow brush, where did you go this afternoon?â€ To the barber, then to the laundromat to do a load of whites with bleach, then home to put a second coat of varnish on the front stairwayâ€™s left railing. â€œUse the toilet, how many tomato seedlings did you plant in the front garden?â€ Seven. And four basil seedlings, and a full package of trellis cucumbers in the rear. â€œWash your hands and face, which pillow are you going to sleep on tonight?â€
Roland stood in the bathroom doorway, hands and face unwashed, staring at the four pillows lined up on his blue duvet. As far as he was concerned, they were all the same. He was equally torn between all of them. And now that they were disassociated from the signs at the store, he couldnâ€™t even decide based on their ascribed qualities.
â€œIâ€™ll flip two coins of differing denominations. One will be head-head. One head-tail. One tail-head. And the last tail-tail. Iâ€™ll do this each night, reflipping until I get a pillow I havenâ€™t slept on yet.â€
Having decided, he washed his face and hands, dug a quarter and a nickel out of his coin sorter, and flipped them. Both heads. Lucky.
He got into bed, not with the pillow he wanted, but with the pillow he had. And he turned off the lights and slept terribly.
The highway was packed, as always. The grit and the smoke and the smog and the general filth and stagnant air of the city forced Roland to keep the windows closed today. It was the first beautiful spring day of the year, as far as he could remember, but even if he could bring himself to crack open the windows on his red Honda, heâ€™d regret it. The air was unpleasantly warmed by burning hydrocarbons and the sound was filled with the ruckus of the city. He knew this. It wasnâ€™t new, but today made it sadder than usual.
He only had to drive twenty miles to work, but it usually took him two hours in the morning, and two more in the evening. There were other commuting options, of course. There always are. He could have taken the bus. Forget it, on the bus he couldnâ€™t block out the city, it would be pressing against him and sitting next to him. Or worse yet it would be standing in front of his seat, and his eyes would be staring at its butt for an hour. He tried the bus once. Only once.
He had carpooled for a while with an Accountant who worked just a mile away from his own job. They shared driving responsibilities, but with that came a compromise that Roland found difficult to accept. It felt the same and looked the same, but his environment was not his own. He shared it with Bill. There was no huge serious gaping problem, but there were little things. He never felt entirely comfortable, and for four hours of every day, he was on edge.
He could switch jobs, and find something closer to his house. â€œYes, that is an option, Roland,â€ heâ€™d tell himself. â€œIf it ever gets really bad, you can quit.â€ Four hours was bad, but it wasnâ€™t really bad.
Roland got off at his exit, and slowly made his way down the surface streets to the misshapen brick building where Slingstonâ€™s offices were located. There was a yellow car in the spot where he always parked. A dented yellow sedan. He couldnâ€™t determine the make; the emblems were gone, and there were rust spots where the bolts previously keeping them attached had punctured the body. The yellow was not even a uniform yellow: it was stained as if with cigarette smoke. No, he corrected himself, exhaust. As far as he could tell, it had parked on the side of the highway, bathed in exhaust for the entire fifteen years since it was constructed. Then, someone found it, was unable to get it started, so kicked it all the way here. And left it in Rolandâ€™s spot.
It was only 8:30, so there were still plenty of extra spots in the parking lot. Roland wasnâ€™t sure which were taken, and he briefly debated taking the one just to the left of his. But will that person understand? Will she end up parking next to her? Will it domino and spiral out of control and lead to parking lot chaos?
Tired and reluctantly, Roland parked at the end of the parking lot. It wasnâ€™t the farthest spot from the door, but it was far enough that he felt confident that no one would be disturbed by the change. Or, at least, no one else.
Coffee and briefcase in hand, he paused at the top of the fireproof stairwell. The door that led to Slingston was just feet away from the door in front of him. He listened, surprised. He could hear laughter. Raucous. Roaring. A caliber of laughter that was entirely inappropriate for a Monday morning. It was surprising: the other clients on the fourth floor were fairly button-down. There was a small but influential venture capital firm, a paper-products reseller, and a customer service call-center for Hewlett-Packard. One of the last in the western hemisphere, he was told in the strictest of confidence.
He couldnâ€™t come up with a likely reason for any of them to be laughing so loud so early. It died down before he could identify the direction. Sticking his head out of the stairwell into the hallway didnâ€™t help. It was gone.
Roland turned to his left, and opened the door to suite 403.
â€œRoland!â€ hollered a voice, behind which was a face of a stranger.
â€œOh.. um.. er,â€ Roland looked again at the door to verify that he had opened the right one. He didnâ€™t recognize the face, but he did recognize the voice. It was owned by the same person who had been laughing.
â€œOh, Roland, youâ€™re in the right place.â€ Standing up from where he had been seated behind the strange man was Abraham Slingston, the large, fifty-something scruffy namesake, owner, and operating manager of Slingston. â€œThis is just Drew. Drew, Iâ€™d like you to meet Roland, the finest architect this side of the mighty Pacific.â€
â€œEr..â€ Roland was equally thrown off balance by the unexpected stranger, the unbidden complement, and the gigantic smile strewn across Abeâ€™s face. Somehow, it turned him from a stern old man into a jolly grandfatherly figure. â€œUh..â€ Roland just stared at the hand Drew was offering him.
â€œItâ€™s a great pleasure to finally meet you, Roland. Youâ€™re taller than I was expecting. Abe, why didnâ€™t you tell me how huge this man was? What are you, six-six?â€
As soon as Drew seemed to get used to the idea that he was far too surprised to shake his hand, something got unstuck in Rolandâ€™s mind. He reached forward and took it. His mouth wasnâ€™t yet ready to listen to his brain, but at the very least he could handle being cordial.
â€œI met Drew this weekend in the mountains. I was skiing, he was snowboarding, and, well, pow!â€ Abe punched his two fists together to demonstrate. â€œNeither of us were really hurt, but the ski patrol saw it and they made big deal about bringing us to the lodge and checking us over. We just started chatting, and by the time they were satisfied we were okay, we realized how much we really had in common!â€
â€œOh.. er, hi.â€ Roland took a step forward and let the door swing closed. He realized he was still holding it open, and there was no reason to bother the rest of the floor with this racket. It was, Roland reminded himself, still before nine on a Monday morning.
â€œHey, there, stranger, sorry for scaring you like that the moment you came in the door!â€ Drew patted him on the shoulder and moved towards the door. But instead of leaving, he bent down to pick something up.
â€œHere you go.â€ Rolandâ€™s travel mug was in his hand. The handle was broken.
(I should have posted this much earlier, but I was having some problems with my blogging software. After today’s update, the problem I was having has been fixed.)