Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Short Story: “The Art in Living”



This was a short story I wrote back in the spring of 2004; I based it on a girl I had been seeing at the time (who had recently moved in next door to my apartment building, and had so much stuff she kept it in boxes piled against the walls.)  Oh and she loved lighthouses!



The Art in Living  by Doug Morris

It had been a long day. Well, it had seemed that way for Tina as she let herself into her apartment, anxious to kick off her shoes and put the outside world behind her. Normally she didn’t feel this way; she had a restless spirit and treated her place like a rest stop, like the ones you saw on the highway. Use the bathroom--freshen up--run your fingers thru your hair and be on your way. But today was different: the bus home from work had been without air conditioning, too many passengers and the humidity hung like a damp towel over her head. On top of that, one of her migraines had started around late afternoon, and showed no signs of stopping. She set her workbag onto a dining table chair and carried her mail with her to the couch. Tina felt a small degree of satisfaction as she saw the thick and colorful travel brochure, nestled within the assorted envelopes. She had promised herself that this year she would have a real vacation. Someplace to revive and rejuvenate her, help her find her bearings. It had been a difficult year and dammit, she deserved it.

Tina Venetti had been living as a single woman for almost eight months now. It hardly seemed that long; her divorce had only been final a couple weeks ago (as the newspaper would attest to this in the Divorces section and who decided this was anyone else’s business anyway?) But she had been separated long before that and for the time being, this apartment was hers and hers alone. Glancing about the main living area, she silently reminded herself that she needed to find additional space for some of her things. Stacked against one wall was an assortment of bags and boxes, moving materials and unnecessary items far too valuable to just toss into her mother’s basement. Her dining table was covered with an array of magazines to be read, previous mail to be opened or examined further, candles and gift boxes and drugstore items, odds and ends and all of it waiting for a future home. But for now they were just fine where they sat, thank you. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d eaten at the table. All her meals were usually enjoyed on her comfortable couch, where she could watch television or listen to her stereo, surrounded by newspapers to be read, coupons to be clipped, magazine articles to be studied.

Tina supposed that to the “untrained eye”, her place might seem somewhat cluttered, disorganized perhaps. But she pretty much knew where everything was and owed no one any explanations. In fact, that had been one of the problems in her marriage. Her husband fussed and pouted too much about the order of things, and often scolded her like a parent does his child--hang up your coat, wipe up your mess, pick up your clothes. What was annoying at times had become unbearable to live with. Well, maybe not unbearable, but did she really want a lifetime of that? And the man she had begun seeing after the fall of her marriage was really no better. His apartment was neat and tidy, like the top of his head, not a hair out of place. She couldn’t get comfortable without making him uncomfortable; God forbid you sit on his couch in the wrong position, and crumple the cushions. She often wondered why someone so neat would even want a sofa that needed “fixing” so often, but knew better than to ask. She had casually mentioned one evening that his place felt like a museum, and no siree bob, that wasn’t appreciated one bit. It was just added to the list of “Wrong Things Said and Done”. She didn’t know what was worse, the anal attitude of her ex-husband, or the over-sensitive nature of her ex-lover. Whatever. She arose from the couch and headed into the kitchen, quickly going over in her head what she could make for dinner that wouldn’t take a lot of effort. She absently glanced at the stack of dishes in the sink, and reminded herself that they were only there until she had enough to do a full sink’s worth of washing. A few dirty plates and glasses weren’t hurting anybody.

When she first heard the crash, she almost didn’t recognize the sound. Had it come from the apartment upstairs? She had been eating her dinner, watching a tape of her favorite daytime soap, when the noise had caused her whole body to jump, her head jerking towards the sound. And now she saw it, shards of glass strewn across the kitchen floor, Mickey’s face still intact. “Shit!” she exclaimed, realizing it was one of her favorite Disney glasses. How had that happened? She gingerly picked up the pieces and dropped them into the already full wastebasket when the realization occurred to her. Hadn’t that been one of the glasses in the sink? It’s not like it had been sitting on the edge of the counter, precariously balanced against something else. No, that glass had been IN THE SINK. This didn’t even make sense. Had she removed it earlier and forgotten? This wasn’t helping the dull throbbing in her temples any. She felt truly sad, knowing one of her favorite items was wrecked beyond repair. No matter how it happened, it was gone. “Great way to end a lousy day” she muttered silently. “Just great.” She might as well take her bath and go to bed.

She lay there in the darkness of her soft but jumbled bedding, drowsy from the hot bathwater and smell of lavender soap still lingering on her skin. The sounds outside grew muted as she drifted towards unconsciousness, and her stomach softly grumbled; a distant reminder of her half-eaten dinner, still on a tray beside her couch in the other room. She promised herself to wash the dishes (and take out the trash--those noisy trash collectors came tomorrow) before she left for work the next morning. Feeling proud that she remembered on her own and without anyone to remind her, her gaze drifted lazily downward until her half-closed eyes rested on the picture leaning against the wall. It was her favorite piece of artwork, a solitary lighthouse in a twilight setting, a quiet sea in its background, a stone path in its front. Tina watched the glow from the streetlights outside as it played across the canvas, and it almost seemed to light the painted windows. She would remember this and hang it somewhere to catch the light like that again…add it to her list. She fell peacefully asleep.

The next day had not begun as well as she expected. Tina had awoken that morning with a start--the light streaming through her curtains had seemed brighter than usual. She realized immediately she’d forgotten to set her alarm and looked at the digital numbers on her bedside clock, its dusty face proudly displaying 07:40. “Shit, no!” she exclaimed and twisted out of her bed. Her feet landed painfully on a pile of plastic & metal hangers and she angrily kicked them out of her way. She skipped into the bathroom, while pulling off her pajamas and tossing them behind her. It wouldn’t take her long to pee, wash her face and brush her hair; thankfully she’d taken her bath last night. After she finished she headed back into her bedroom, yanked open several drawers, found the socks and underwear she’d planned to wear, no wait, toss this pair aside, yes this is the underwear she wanted. She finished dressing, kicked at several pairs of shoes strewn across the floor, reminded herself to pick those up later, found her favorites and hurriedly slipped them on. After a quick application of makeup, she grabbed her workbag and keys on the table and made a dash for the front door. Once outside, the warm and damp air hugged her immediately, and she suddenly felt tired. Her day hadn’t even started and she was already behind on so many things, it seemed. She made a mental note to not allow this to happen again and headed to work.

Her day had been almost a repeat of the previous one, and as she sat on the bus coming home, she tilted her head left & right, flexing the sore muscles in her neck. At least this bus was air-conditioned. Her temples still ached softly with the normal frustrations she felt throughout the day, but this was not the beginning of one of her migraines. Once home, mail in one hand, keys in the other, she let herself into her apartment. She looked down at the jumble of junk-mail in her hand and decided to just throw the whole lot away. The garbage…she’d forgotten to take that out this morning. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. She hadn’t the time. If her alarm clock hadn’t betrayed her, of course she would’ve remembered. She opened the trash lid and tossed in the assortment. It made a loud thunk as it hit the bottom of the container. “What…?” She re-opened the lid and looked inside. That day’s mail lay at the bottom, it…what happened to the trash? She delicately reached inside and pulled aside the few mail-items. The glass--the broken glass from last night, where was it? When did she take out her garbage? Her temples throbbed a little harder in response and she suddenly felt thirsty. She reached for a cup from the dish drainer on the counter and…wait. All these clean dishes. The rows of plates and bowls sat proud and bright in their plastic rungs, the silverware twinkled softly at her. Tina looked into the livingroom. No dinner tray. No dishes from the night before. Her heartbeat quickened as she tried to soften the confusion with logic of what must’ve happened.

She wasted no time dialing her mother’s house. Her sister Nancy, who still lived at home, answered on the second ring. “Hi Nan, it’s me--listen, do you know if Mom was in my apartment today?”

“I don’t know…” Nancy responded. “Why? Hey, are you doing anything for dinner? Carl and I were planning on--“

Tina cut her off. “I can’t talk right now, I need to call Mom. I think someone was in my apartment.”

“Whoa!” Nancy responded. “Was anything stolen?”

“No, no…well, I don’t think so, I just got home” Tina replied, rubbing her temple with her free hand. “I came home, someone took out the trash, my dishes are all washed…” “Well if it wasn’t Mom, who else could it be?” Nancy asked.

Tina paused. “I don’t know. I have to call her at work. Um, say hi to Carl for me…” “Okay Tina…hey, you sure you don’t want us to come over and pick you up?”

Tina thought for a moment. “No--no, really; I’m alright. If I find out anything I’ll let you know” she assured her sister.

Am I losing it?

Tina went into the bathroom, rinsed & patted her face dry before calling her mother. She could tell by her mom’s tone that Nan must’ve already filled her in on what happened. “Tina, what’s going on?” her mother asked worriedly. “Who was in your apartment?” “I don’t know Mom, that’s what I was going to ask you. I’m not even sure if someone was here… the dishes and the trash… it just got me upset.”

“Are you sure you didn’t do these things and just forget?” her mother asked. “I mean, how you live is your business. It’s not my place to get into your things or try to tell you how to run your life.”

“Mom, no, that has nothing to do with--listen, just forget it.” The throbbing in Tina’s forehead was fast approaching its too-familiar migraine territory.

“You’d better call that landlady of yours” her mother said. “For all you know, it could be some crackpot neighbor who snuck in and felt sorry for you. What about that maintenance man? Maybe this is his way of making some sort of move on you.”

Tina rolled her eyes. Her mom continued. “I think you did these things yourself and you’re too tired to remember; but you’d better still ask around to be safe.”

“Yes Mom, I’m sure that’s it” Tina lied, anxious to hang up. “I’ve just been a little tense lately.”

“I thought so…” her mother replied. “I know you better than you know yourself.”

After Tina said goodbye, she looked about the room. It didn’t seem any different. Her television and stereo were still there (and dusty too); her curio cabinet of Disney collectibles looked untouched. She quietly walked into the bedroom and surveyed the surroundings. Pretty much as she had left it--a mess. Didn’t she kick at that pile of hangers on the floor this morning? They looked re-stacked. And her bed remained unmade, but those pillows looked as if they’d just been fluffed. She--stop it, she scolded herself. I’m just making myself crazy. She went in to use the bathroom and was sitting on the toilet when it suddenly occurred to her: her on again, off again boyfriend Ed, who lived across the alleyway. They weren’t doing much talking these days, but she specifically remembered him not being on the bus to work this morning. Or on the one home either, for that matter. Could this have been his handiwork? Some way of showing he cared? Maybe he came over to return something, waited until she was out of the apartment, saw her overflowing trash and the dirty dishes…God knows how he felt about things being spic n’ span. She still had the cordless phone with her and dialed his number. He surprised her by answering on the first ring; (usually he screened all his calls with his answering machine.)

“Hi…it’s me.” she said.

“Um…hi.” Ed answered.

She bit down on her lip and quickly thought about what her next words should be. He had a tendency to overreact to most of the things she said. “Hey, have you been over to my place lately?” Tina asked. She heard him draw a breath and she continued. “I was just wondering if you ever used that spare key I gave you. I came home from work today and some things in here looked…um, moved around.”

“No Tina, it wasn’t me.” Ed answered. He sounded tired. “And I don’t have that spare key anymore, remember? I returned it.”

She paused for a moment, then spoke. “Well, do you know if Mick the maintenance guy comes in to our apartments when we’re not home? Were you home today? How come you weren’t on the bus? Did you take the day off?”

Ed sighed louder this time. “Tina--if you’re trying to figure out where I was today, yes I was at work. Just because I wasn’t on the same bus as you doesn’t mean I had the day off. I have to tell ya, I resent these questions.”

“Never mind, then!” Tina responded sharply. “I knew that’s how you’d answer me. I didn’t even want to ask you! But someone was in here today and I feel like I’m the only one that’s really bothered about it!” She waited a moment for Ed to answer, and was ready to hang up when he spoke. “I’m sure you’re getting upset over nothing, Tina. You’re still not used to living on your own.” She quickly said goodbye and hung up. Oh, he made her angry sometimes. She made a mental note not to call him again anytime soon. Just another thing to be added to her list.

Later that evening, after a few busy hours of dinner out by herself, a trip to the mall and grocery shopping, she took an early bath, changed into her favorite sleeping top (a soft red shirt, oversized and with good ol’ Mickey on the front) and plopped herself on the couch. She still didn’t have the answers to what had happened, but with a funny sitcom on TV and a glass of her favorite juice in front of her, it didn’t seem so important at the moment. She thought of putting a note on her front door that read “Do the laundry too!” and smiled at herself. Here she was, a young single woman with no one else to rely on for things and was doing just fine, thank you. She was still in good spirits when she went to bed an hour later and noticed the hangers weren’t on the floor anymore, stacked or otherwise. She opened the closet door but already knew what she’d see. They were all hanging inside. Organized by type and size, of course.

“Get out of here!” Rhonda exclaimed, and Tina felt a small rush of relief. They worked together in the accounting department at the bank, and while Tina didn’t exactly see her co-worker as a close friend, she sometimes felt comfortable sharing personal details with her. The moment Tina had arrived at the office this morning she knew today would be one of those times. “That’s not even all of it…” she said in an anxious half-whisper. She looked around her to see if anyone was nearby and continued. “When I got up this morning, the laundry basket at the foot of my bed was empty; and I KNOW the night before I had a stack of clothes in there. But everything was put away. I’m positive I didn’t do it. “Absolutely sure?” Rhonda asked her, which made Tina think. “I don’t know, I can get a little foggy when I’m tired…” she admitted. Rhonda nodded comfortingly. “But I just think that I’d remember doing some of these things. Like this morning, I was brushing my teeth, and I swear to God it looked like someone just cleaned that sink. I was planning to, but…I don’t remember doing it!” Rhonda’s face suddenly looked serious to her, and Tina felt her anxiety level rising again. Perhaps she was sharing too much…what would she think if she was hearing this herself? “You’re going to find this hard to swallow...” Rhonda said, and Tina anxiously shook her head no. “Just from what you’ve been telling me…do you think you could be doing this stuff in your sleep? What I mean is, I’ve read all sorts of stories about people doing sleepwalking things when they’re under stress. My husband once told me about this time he was so worried about this test he had to take--when he was in graduate school, going for his engineering degree. He reminds me of you, the way you try to hold everything in. Anyways, he claims he went to bed one night, and when he woke up the next morning he found all his schoolwork in bed with him! Some time during the night, he’d gotten up and brought everything in his backpack to bed with him.”

“Are you sure he was sleepwalking?” Tina asked. “Maybe he was studying in bed, and fell asleep before putting it away.”

“Nope” Rhonda said. “His bedroom was like a closet; it didn’t even have a lamp.” Rhonda paused for a moment, looked deep in thought, and continued. “I’ve never seen Joe do anything weird in his sleep. I think it was just a stressful time in his life. I kinda think the same could be said for you.” Tina knew in her heart this couldn’t be the case; surely she couldn’t be walking around in her sleep and doing chores in the dead of night. “That story about your husband is good to know…” Tina said truthfully. “But I can’t see me doing anything like that. Besides, everyone knows how I hate to clean anyway!” Rhonda smiled at her, and replied. “Maybe it was just one big thing you forgot you’d done, like those dishes, and everything else just…you know, snowballed in your mind.” Tina smiled back, and tried hard to convince herself of that possibility. But she already knew this wasn’t the case.

Later, when Tina arrived home from work, she turned the key slowly in its lock and opened the door carefully. She had almost been expecting to find an all new apartment, with different furnishings and nothing out of place--but it was just as she’d left it. Well, as she remembered leaving it. The living room was strewn with an assortment of newspapers and shopping bags, and a pile of catalogs and videotapes laid spread out in front of the TV. Normally she didn’t really care what was “out n’ about”. But tonight, seeing the clutter only made her feel more comfortable. If someone had come home with her, she might’ve said “Looks like the maid has the day off!” or something else funny, but it would have to be saved for another time. She sat down wearily on her couch and looked at the pile of assorted papers beside her. She swept them off the cushion with her hand and they scattered across the floor. “Somebody else can pick those up” she muttered. None of this felt funny. In fact, she felt downright irritated. Maybe she had made too big a deal over a couple minor things; maybe she was just convincing herself that something was going on. All she knew for certain was, no one else seemed to really give a damn. So why should she?

As the evening wore on, she felt at a standstill; she had no desire to fix anything for dinner, and instead poured herself a large glass of wine. Her mom had called an hour or so later, asking how she felt and would she like to come home and stay for a few days. Tina thought about her mother’s hot and tiny house, and felt a sudden flash of anger at her surroundings. This was HER place. She paid her own bills and wasn’t going to let a couple of unexplained occurrences kick her out into the street, for God’s sakes. She lied to her mother and said she was just fine, thank you (well, not exactly a lie; she was feeling less anxious, but looking at the wineglass in her hand, knew why). And on the last evening Tina would ever spend in this apartment, she prepared for bed.

She was awakened in the middle of the night and looked in wonder around her; the bedroom was cast in a bluish pallor and she wondered for a moment if this unnatural light had somehow interrupted her sleep. Tina looked quickly from left to right and left again, and the scratching stopped. Her eyes widened; it was the silence that suddenly took her by surprise. Where had that sound been coming from? Was that what a mouse sounded like? It reminded her more of sandpaper. “Son of a bitch, I hate this!” she said aloud and pulled the knot of blankets off of her. Her left foot was trapped under a twist of bedsheets, and she felt her temper flare as she kicked at it with her other one. “Get off of me!” she shouted and hopped out of the bed. She stomped into the hallway that separated her bedroom from the kitchen and bath and paused for a moment, waiting to see if the sound would return. She glanced towards the microwave for a moment, then looked again. It’s digital clock had always displayed 12:00; so why was it now blinking :60 ? The scratching sounded again briefly and Tina jerked her head towards the bathroom. She waited a moment, unsure of what to do, then tiptoed gently to the doorway and cautiously looked in. She could see nothing. She slowly reached her arm into its darkness and found the light switch. The light was immediate and so was her answer. The rug that normally lay on the ceramic tile floor was draped across the edge of the tub, and there in the center of the floor sat a scrub brush. A bottle of cleanser stood beside it. The smell in here was very clean.

Tina stood there for several seconds and stared at the items on the floor, unsure of what to do next or even what to feel. She wondered for just a moment if she could indeed be sleepwalking, and left this latest handiwork for her conscious self to discover. It seemed impossible, but what other option did she have? Would the scrub brush begin moving on its own once the light was off and her back was turned? Her neck and ears grew hot with fear and anger; I hate this place, I’m getting out of here. I’m SICK of being screwed with! She felt a sudden burst of angry confidence, and decided to march right back into her bedroom, pull on her jeans and shoes and get the hell out of there. She started to turn around and then suddenly turned again, and walked up to the items on the floor. She reached down and grabbed the brush and flung it angrily at the shower curtain. It made a loud thud as it hit the vinyl and landed in the tub. “SCREW YOU!” Tina yelled and stomped out of the bathroom. With a determination that she was done here, no one was going to play her for a fool, she entered the short hallway, caught a glance at the digital readout on the microwave oven again, and felt a jolt of fear stab thru her.

The number 6 looked more like a G now, and the word :GO flashed in her wide and frightened eyes.

“I hate you…” she whispered softly, her anger now evaporated as she turned into the bedroom. The room was still in shadow from the night, but there was just enough light to see the floor was completely bare of tossed aside clothing and shoes. The bed was made, not a wrinkle in its coverlet; the once-cluttered dresser was free of any debris. Tina’s heart was beating so hard she could feel it in her wrists and temples as well as in her chest. Gasping for air like a runner nearing the end of a long race, she blundered out of the doorway and into the living room. Here too, the floor and furniture were clean of articles of clothing, books or bags or newspapers. The various packing boxes which formerly sat everywhere were now stacked ceiling-high in two sturdy columns against the front door, surrounded with an assortment of smaller boxes and bulging trash bags.

Tina walked in slow-motion thru the dim room (it felt like wading, thru deep water) to the collection of stuff, blocking her only exit out of this nightmare, this madness. “Help me…” she whispered to herself and began pushing aside the various bags and smaller items. She felt resistance against her attempts to clear the door, and now she panicked and pulled with all her strength at one of the boxes in the stack. “HELP ME!! HELP ME!!!” she screamed and the top one tipped over, spilling an assortment of shoes downward.

. . . . .

Sharon Porter looked approvingly at the empty space around her. It was larger than she expected, and she felt her pulse quicken at the thought that it could be hers soon. She was 23 and had just landed her first real position with a small law firm downtown. This would be her first apartment. Sharon tried to suppress her excitement as her Dad suggested, “cuz’ they’ll jack up the price if they can smell how bad you want it”. “How much is it?” she asked, trying to sound casual and walked over to the window. She wondered if it would help to point out it didn’t have much of a view. “It’s 475.00, including all utilities but electric” the manager said, and Sharon breathed a tiny sigh of relief. It was affordable. “It’s got gas heat and has central air-conditioning too” the manager continued and walked over to Sharon. “I’m Mrs.Lincoln.” She extended her hand to Sharon and smiled warmly. Sharon smiled back. “I love it, can I have it!?” she confessed, and both women chuckled softly at one another. “I knew you would!” Mrs. Lincoln replied. “I just need to go to my car and get the necessary paperwork. Do you want to look around some more? Do you have any questions?” Sharon padded around the large room, and looked into the kitchen. “It sure is clean in here…” she noted, admiring the shiny countertop and appliances. “I thought I’d have to spend a couple days cleaning whatever place I got.” “Oh, that won’t be necessary…” Mrs. Lincoln replied and joined Sharon in the kitchen doorway. “I haven’t even had the painter or professional cleaners in here yet. The last tenant…she was very neat.”

Mrs. Lincoln suddenly looked troubled, and Sharon felt genuine concern for her new apartment manager. “Did something happen to her? Your other tenant?”

“Oh, nothing to worry about there...” the woman replied, and patted Sharon’s hand. “She was a friendly young woman like yourself. I…I just don’t know what ever became of her. A couple months ago, she up and left in the middle of the night. One of the neighbors heard her packing up boxes and yelling about something. I didn’t even know about it until a week or so later.” Sharon stared at her, and Mrs. Lincoln shook her head. “I’m sorry dear, I have a habit of sharing too much of this sort of thing! Nothing bad happened to her, I’m sure. Apparently she took the time to cancel her mail delivery, because she hasn’t received anything here since. And when I called the electric company, they told me her account had been closed a week in advance; I’ve just always wondered why she never gave me any advance notice…” Sharon had no idea what to say, and they both stood there in silence for a moment. “Okay, enough of that nonsense!” Mrs. Lincoln said. “Go ahead and look around the place some more, I’ll be right back.”

Sharon walked around the apartment again, glanced into the bathroom once more, liked what she saw, and stepped into the large bedroom. Well, rooms always looked larger when they were empty, she supposed. She suddenly caught sight of something with the corner of her eye, and walked over to the far side of the room. A large square of unfinished canvas with a simple wooden frame sat on the floor, and Sharon wondered if anyone one else had noticed it. Probably because of the way its blankness blended into the empty surroundings. She picked it up and turned it over. The picture took her by surprise for a moment, a simple painting of a lighthouse with a twilight sky and a calm sea in its background. She studied the image further, and noticed a tiny figure painted on the stone path leading to the door. It was of a young woman in a red shirt, barefoot. An assortment of rocks surrounded her feet, and her face wore a shocked but vacant expression. Sharon looked at the picture even closer. Those weren’t rocks around her; they were an assortment of shoes. “It looks like this chick got booted out of her lighthouse” she thought, and wondered why someone would paint such a thing. The eyes in the painting seemed to stare back at her, tiny but hard, and Sharon suddenly felt uncomfortable. She began to set the painting back down, but thought better of it and carried it outside. If the manager didn’t want it, she’d toss it in the dumpster. She certainly didn’t need the extra clutter.