Way back in my story-writing days, which might not yet have ended, it didn’t take much to get me going. For instance, a beginning could be as simple as this: She cooked her porridge without mercy. His dreams were potatoes and onions. And with that, the mean lives of two characters bound by fate were readily suggested. But they wouldn’t be all bad, as none of us are. In all likelihood, a measure of pity, humor, or a combination thereof, would arise to soften the blow: Together for better or worse, you see — I could say the same about bunions. Of course, this would be but a trial sentence that I’d quickly strike from the piece, so as not to be accused later of gratuitous doggerel.
I could say it’s been ages since I’ve written a story, and it would be true in a strict and narrow sense. But I know better, because in a wider sense, writing a story is all I am doing, all I have ever done, and all I ever will do. I just go about it differently now. This is not to say that there is no traditional story or novel to come. On any given day, the urge or need may suddenly take me firmly in hand, and leave me weeks or months later a tired wet dish rag.
On Any Given Day
Whenever a new baby was born, the proud family put out a wooden stork holding a bundle in its beak, with a little sign that announced whether the baby was a boy or a girl. Standing at the corner of the sidewalk leading to the house, the weathered old bird caught everyone’s attention, producing many a smile.
The only person who didn’t approve was the man who delivered the mail. Every time he saw the stork, he shook his head. Not another one, he said to himself. Good God. How many does that make, now? Eleven? Twelve? What’s wrong with these people, anyway? Haven’t they heard of population control? No wonder my taxes are so high, etc., etc. After that, he would angrily shove the family’s mail through the slot in their front door and then stomp off grumbling to the next house.
If any of the neighbors happened to be out, they were treated to a discourse on the selfishness of people who insisted on having large families and burdening an already over-burdened society. The nerve of them, he would say. It’s bad enough that we pay for their education, but nine out of ten, they wind up on the streets committing crime. . . . When someone was bold enough to point out how hard-working the family was, and how dedicated the parents were to teaching their children the difference between right and wrong, the mailman would say, Huh — we’ll see how long that lasts.
The family continued to grow. As it did, the yard was transformed into a full-fledged playground, with a big slide and swings, a merry-go-round, and two wading pools. Both trees shading the sidewalk had ladders leading up to sturdy tree houses, and the driveway was a parking lot for tricycles, bicycles, and scooters. Balls were everywhere, not to mention an assortment of baseball bats and gloves and three or four pogo sticks.
Even more noticeable, though, was the happy chattering of the children themselves, who sounded like a flock of sparrows. During the summer, especially, their din could be heard well up the street. No one minded, though, because the parents always kept an eye on them, as did the older sisters and brothers.
No one, that is, but the mailman, who had to pick his way through the swarm of activity every afternoon in order to deliver the family’s mail. Usually, by the time he made it to the door, his hat was crooked and his face was twisted into an angry grimace. This was something the children couldn’t understand. They were happy, why wasn’t he? Every day, he had to fight off their offers to help him deliver the mail. Every day, he had to ignore their incessant, foolish questions about anything and everything under the sun. In short, they were normal, and he was miserable — so miserable, in fact, that there were times he was completely rude. Without addressing any of the children directly, he let it be known that they were taking their chances by getting in his way. But even that backfired. Instead of being frightened, they only felt sorry for him. Once, without even knowing his birthday, they made him a big birthday card and covered it with drawings. When they gave it to him, they thought for a moment that his face might break. He uttered the words thank you without moving his lips, then folded the card, stuffed it into his shirt pocket, and walked away.
Finally, it was no surprise that the mailman began looking forward to winter and its cold, rainy days. He had never liked rain before, but now he did. Sleet and hail were even better. When the weather was bad, all he had to do was follow the blissfully empty sidewalk to the family’s front door and shove their mail through the slot while a mob of demented children watched him and waved at the window. Yes, winter was wonderful. Winter was peace — until, without warning, the stork appeared, announcing the birth of a new baby. That ruined everything. He never knew when the mother was expecting. As far as he was concerned, neither did she. He figured all she had to do was get up in the morning and, depending on her mood, decide whether she wanted a boy or a girl or both that day, and by the time afternoon rolled around, the new offspring had arrived. In his mind, love didn’t enter into it. He loved his own wife, for instance, and she loved him, but neither found it necessary to breed like rabbits. If anything, love required a bit of restraint. The thought of fathering a dozen or more children embarrassed him. What would people think? That he was some kind of animal? The two children they had were quite enough, thank you. And the fact that they were almost finished with college had to mean something.
While he went on thinking these thoughts, the seasons came and went, and two more family members arrived. It was only a rough guess, but he thought there were at least fourteen children living under that one roof. Four or five of them were in diapers, and several more were covered with cuts and scrapes from various falls. The oldest looked like they were of high school age, or maybe a little older. On most days, he couldn’t tell the difference between the oldest girls and their mother, because they all seemed to look alike. Finally, he gave up trying. What did it matter, anyway? Young, old, big, little, diapers, cutoffs — they themselves probably couldn’t tell the difference.
But, as it turned out, it did matter. He found out how much it mattered on a warm, sunny Saturday when he came to deliver the mail and found not a yard full of boisterous children, but a long black hearse parked in front of the house. From the sidewalk along the street, he could see a large group of people through the house’s big window. Everyone was dressed in somber clothing. Obviously, someone had died. Some relative, maybe, a grandmother or grandfather, an aunt or an uncle. Hesitating, he fingered the day’s delivery. Under the circumstances, it didn’t seem right to go to the door and shove a pile of bills through the slot, as he usually did. But before he could decide one way or the other, the door opened. Much to his surprise, he saw two grown men carrying a tiny little casket that seemed no bigger than a shoe box. He stood by as no less than fifty people came outside, crying, and the back door of the hearse was opened. His owns lips trembling, he watched the dead child’s parents holding each other up, unable to console one another.
No Time to Cut My Hair, Author’s Press Series, 2009
Story 60 of 70 written in 90 days, 1,135 words, October 17, 2002