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Finch Holes: Flash Fiction

Carl, Inc.

Carl rummaged at random through the towers of packed boxes, the early afternoon sunlight illuminating dust motes stirred by the opening and closing of boxes. Sunlight gleamed off the empty oak shelves and burnished a zigzag of hardwood floor peaking out from under its load, scarred over the years by Carl’s continual pacing. The last sheet of his personalized letterhead fluttered atop his barren rolltop desk and he reached to calm it, the light green-specked paper (the printer had called the color Bamboo Shoot) embossed with his name and soon-to-be former address pleasing to the touch. He was certain of the spelling—p-r-o-f-l-i-g-a-t-e—but couldn’t chance relying on his frazzled memory for what he was certain would be his finest letter. While he welcomed the move to Florida and considered it a fresh start for him and Gloria, he regretted that he wouldn’t be present for what was sure to be the biggest imbroglio the towns of Porter and Conrad had seen since the days when those eponymous brothers floated down the river with a Native American guide and began settling the area, their mutual love for the guide’s daughter the cause of their eventual split and lifelong warring. Where you came out on absorbing the smaller, poorer town of Porter was largely a matter of geography and Carl doubly regretted their move as he appeared to be the lone dissenter in Conrad.

He resisted the urge to call the city council members out on the controversial grounds of eminent domain, though he could effortlessly summon the passion for a jeremiad in favor of inalienable rights and the American Dream on par with any Shakespearean soliloquy. His students always rallied around that cry, as much as the rest of the semester’s reading bored them. He wouldn’t miss their open hostility as he labored to limn the finer points of Don Quixote, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and his personal favorite, Moby-Dick, among others.

The city council would be as unmoved as his juniors, he knew, and so he took the practical tact: he’d argue against absorption based on the enormous slice of the treasury that would have to be devoted to making two towns into one. Profligate spending of taxpayers’ hard won coin must cease and desist would be his parting shot. If only he could locate his favorite dictionary, the pages gray from years of thumbing through for just the perfect word that would slay whomever he happened to be addressing about whatever issue needed the alert attention of a vigilant citizen. He knew Gloria would forgive him in time.

Outside, the first rumblings of the annual block party that had threatened to become semi-annual until Carl told Mrs. Jensen flatly that two block parties a year would simply be too much local traffic siphoned down Montague Street, which was treeless and riddled with unpaved swatches in the shape of several recognizable Midwestern states. Mrs. Jensen had mumbled something about polling the rest of the block, but she was acutely aware that she lived on the corner of Montague and Orchard Avenue and Carl intuited that this technicality would rein in lonely Mrs. Jensen’s desire to double the amount of forced friendliness Carl could hardly endure. The annual Orchard Avenue block party came on slowly, stirring as an uneasy feeling in his stomach, a raw sensation at the back of his throat. As the day grew closer, the malady internalized and he was subjected to jabbing, shooting pains that ran the length of his arms, ricocheting down his spine, numbing his feet. His wife Gloria dutifully encircled the date on the Christmas calendar featuring colorful prints of vintage produce crate labels their son Floyd had sent. Floyd had noted significant dates in the Richter family history—birthdays, anniversaries, and deaths—and Carl noted with chagrin that the block party fell on the same date some forty years previous that he’d asked Gloria to marry him, forcing a postponement of the anniversary celebration he’d planned, renting out the Bijou theater in Porter for a showing of Bringing Up Baby, Gloria’s favorite movie. A warm spell had descended on their engagement at Central Park that day, he remembered. The weather for the block party was unseasonably warm, too, a similarity that irked him to no end.

The dictionary was not to be found. Carl eyed the stacked boxes with annoyance and reluctantly substituted “extravagant” for “profligate.” But he’d lost momentum and the issue of city hall’s profligate spending on inappropriate expenditures like free snacks for those children enrolled in the after school programs at Davis Elementary—programs that taxpayers like him were already funding lock, stock, and barrel—would be left undrafted before the block party, which more than increased the probability that he wouldn’t finish it before their scheduled plane ride to Florida. He wasn’t above mailing the letter with a Florida postmark, but it wouldn’t be the same, he knew, resigning himself to the inevitability.

He’d have to stand on his record. His successful rebuff of the chain retail store that wanted to invade downtown Conrad would be his lasting achievement, he guessed, but he was equally proud of his triumph on behalf of his fellow citizens who decried a slice of the town park being designated a leash free zone, the outcry owing to people letting their dogs run leash free all over the park, not just the roped off area, as well as his prevailing over the city council’s edict that old parking permits for Lake Mary had to be scraped from car windshields rather than plastered over with new permits, a bold anti-Americanism he dealt a death blow immediately, caring nothing for the residents’ pride in the decoration of their permits—the number of which somehow registering some kind of boast among lakegoers. The other side of the balance sheet nagged at Carl like an ache, the unpainted crosswalks, the speed bump he practically begged to be added to one of the busiest streets in Conrad, the campaign for a curfew for those under sixteen that fell on deaf ears.

Carl had,until now, steered conspicuously clear of the annexation debate. As Conrad’s leading reflexive contrarian, his voice in the rigorous debate about whether or not the nearby town of Porter should be absorbed for the purposes of streamlining municipalities and thereby bringing all services under a single, smaller budget—and thereby quelling the threat of higher property taxes for both Conrad and Porter—was strangely silent. The citizenry, often wearied by Carl’s tirades against this and that, ascribed his reticence to Gloria’s having been born in Porter. In truth, Gloria was as vocal about the proposed annexation as she’d been about anything in their long marriage, as far back as he could remember. “Porter can’t survive on its own,” she’d say to anyone who would ask. Carl’s viewpoint was more Darwinian, but the stringency with which Gloria spoke of annexation silenced the easy oratory he would otherwise deliver.

The sun rose high above Orchard Avenue, casting the shimmering ash trees and crimson maples in relief. Across the street, Irma Coolidge and her husband wrestled a folding table to life in their cobblestone driveway. Everyone else on Orchard Avenue had a paved driveway except the Coolidges.  Who ever heard of a cobblestone driveway? Carl couldn’t think of anything but that cobblestone driveway whenever he saw the Coolidges. It was their defining characteristic, infinitely more interesting than the fact that they’d both taken an early buyout from the software company in Silicon Valley where they’d met. Irma and her husband were a drag on the Orchard Avenue age curve and consequently no one knew them very well. Gloria made an exaggerated effort to show kindness to Irma, especially when talking about the Coolidges to other neighbors, but it was always strikingly transparent that neither she nor Carl knew their neighbors at all. Carl believed a neighborly wave sufficiently held up his end of the relationship, even in close quarters like the Main Street Market earlier that morning when Gloria had sent him out for a can of crushed pineapple. Carl liked cruising the quiet streets, conscious his trips around the neighborhood were numbered, and he was surprised to find Irma Coolidge in the spices aisle at such an early hour. And while they were the only two patrons, Carl gave a quick wave and disappeared down the canned fruit aisle, dawdling until he heard the cash register beeping and the murmur of pleasant conversation.

He turned down the adjoining aisle and was reminded of his defeat in his war with Main Street Market to change the sign that read “Oriental” to something less racist. He’d suggested “International Foods” or “World Market” as plausible substitutes when his argument that the sign should read Asian, not Oriental, failed, but Mrs. Martins smiled politely whenever he brought it up. Her husband Ed was as unreceptive.

“It makes you look small town,” Carl had reasoned.

“We live in a small town,” the Martinses would invariably reply.

“At least move the red and white kidney beans into the canned vegetable aisle,” Carl had pleaded. “Kidney beans are not Oriental.  I mean Asian.”

He suspected the Martinses were still angry with him about his leading a petition drive against their being granted a license to carry alcohol. He wouldn’t miss the Martinses when he was soaking up the Florida sun. Nor would he pine for the Coolidges, who would forever remain a mystery.

Carl longed for neighbors like those who populated some of his favorite novels. He’d dedicated the better part of the last twenty years of his life to the unremarkable juniors at Conrad High, none of whom could fully grasp the piousness of Charles Bovary from Madame Bovary, or the generous philanthropy of Mr. Norton from Invisible Man, or the moral certitude of Basil Hallward in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was matched by that of Cranly from Portrait of an Artist. He longed for neighbors as loyal as Stevens from The Remains of the Day, or with the fortitude of Captain Ahab. Instead, Carl was reduced to identifying with the ruined Dick Diver from Tender is the Night, who was forever banished to upstate New York for his troubles.

Carl’s next-door neighbors, Jim and Marion Shaw, sauntered across the championship grass they’d laid the season before. The Shaws’ sending away for the same grass seed used in the previous twenty-six Masters Tournaments at Augusta National was the talk of the neighborhood all last fall. Once a fortnight, a team of landscapers descended upon the Shaws’ lawn to surgically repair tiny divots created by careless mailmen and newspaper delivery boys. Carl watched with disdain as the landscapers once spent an entire afternoon brushing the lawn as you would a dog or a cat, combing through for fleas.

Jim and Marion balanced shiny tumblers of vodka tonics in their hands as they trod the slope between their house and Carl’s. Marion caught sight of Carl in his study and waved through the window. Carl nodded and then pretended to be distracted by something deep in the recesses of his cluttered study, drifting away from the window nonchalantly, not wanting to give Jim the satisfaction. He sometimes wished the Shaws’ weren’t the only childless couple on Orchard Avenue—he would’ve loved to have had their kid at school, if only to have some kind of real leverage over that smiling son-of-a-bitch and his docile little wife.

Well, he did have leverage, a strike that could level Jim without warning. But his wife made him promise that they’d leave Conrad without any further scrapes or disturbances and Carl had reluctantly agreed, his dreams of stunning Jim and Marion with news of Jim’s extramarital affairs rendered impotent. He’d happened upon the bit of gossip accidentally, though in retrospect spying Jim tucked into a corner booth of Vidalia’s Bar & Grille on the outskirts of Porter with a brunette Carl recognized but couldn’t place lacked the requisite layer of subterfuge extramarital affairs usually required. But the kiss Carl had witnessed as he waited for a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich—a childhood favorite of Gloria’s that he liked to spring on her now and again, this time as a salve for a dust-up with the local P.O. over whether or not mail carriers should be allowed to talk on their cell phones while delivering mail—left little doubt that Jim was stepping out on Marion. Carl had tailed Jim and the woman, whom he was pretty sure was the new secretary at Davis Elementary, or maybe a substitute teacher, to a matinee showing of a Hitchcock movie at the Bijou. The fried peanut butter and banana sandwich was cold by the time he got home and he buried it deep in the garbage can in the garage in order to avoid saying why.

He savored his newly acquired knowledge, though the taste turned bitter when the Conrad Chronicle published his letter to the editor decrying the faded crosswalks in and around Conrad—especially those that bridged the busy streets in front of the high school—and Gloria had extracted the promise to shut down what she derisively referred to as Carl, Inc. The bitterness blackened and multiplied once Jim starting shouting to the rooftops about annexation. His rise in the local media as a proponent reached the heights of spokesman and those who were like-minded began to regard him with an air of authority, which stoked Carl’s outrage and tempted him to break his solemn promise to Gloria.

A small breech had occurred the day before, when Gloria had sent him down the street, to the Duncans’, to borrow a chafing dish to keep her scalloped potatoes warm. Gloria’s scalloped potatoes had become legendary over the years and the chafing dish they’d purchased specifically for the block parties had been mistakenly packed irretrievably away. The Duncans were replete with chafing dishes owing to their daughter’s backyard wedding two summers previous. Carl had taught the Duncan girl and while she was one of the smarter kids to pass through, he was surprised that she’d been able to attract a husband from a pedigreed family in St. Louis. The gleaming chafing dishes were talismans of a long, hot, humid afternoon. In his position as high school English teacher, Carl received many such invitations and he had successfully begged his way out of most—he began to suspect former students invited him for sport, to see if he’d actually R.S.V.P.—but Gloria was adamant that they attend the Duncan wedding. He liked to think his presence merited some conversation among his former pupils, though in actuality they probably hardly noticed.

Looking back, Carl couldn’t discount the fact that he’d brought up Jim and the annexation in order to introduce the topic. But Bob Duncan’s response was the curative for what had been ailing Carl.

“He’s a douchebag,” Bob had said.

Carl had agreed wholeheartedly and indulged in a little gossip about Jim and Marion. He hinted to Bob that Jim was cheating on his wife, but the innuendo made Bob recoil and Carl let it drop, thanking Bob for the chafing dish with promises not to have to mail it back from Florida.

The phone interrupted Gloria’s measuring and stirring. Her voice echoed into the study when she said hello, but died like a summer wind as she began to speak into the receiver. The frequency with which their son Floyd called to speak to his mother would’ve alarmed the average parent, but Carl couldn’t have cared less. He hadn’t spoken to Floyd in more than a year, since Floyd’s infidelity caused the break-up of his marriage to Andrea, the aerobics instructor he’d met over the Internet the summer after he’d graduated from the state university. The memory of Floyd’s bringing Andrea home to meet him and Gloria was a painful one—Andrea was sullen and given to exclaim everything as “remarkable” even in the instances when something was, in fact, unremarkable, a social tick Carl gently ribbed Andrea about, donning the guise of the high school English teacher, replete with the bombastic voice he sometimes used to bring home a particular literary theme or trope, telegraphing to his students that yes, it would be on the test. But the kidding smarted Andrea and she began avoiding being alone with Carl, a counterfeit smile holding his face hostage any time she walked into the room. Thank Jesus they’d eloped, Carl thought when his son called with the news, though it broke Gloria’s heart.

Carl’s heart was similarly rent when Gloria relayed that Floyd had moved into a small apartment near the house he had shared with Andrea, a house Carl had had to co-sign for. Floyd’s persistent infidelity took the curious form of an addiction to online pornography, a habit he professed to his own mother that he couldn’t break. He’d taken such drastic measures as to put a parental block on his web browser, as well as shredding his credit cards and logins and passwords, but inevitably he’d use a search engine to find snippets of free pornography, which would lead him back down the rabbit hole. Andrea’s reaction was the same as Carl’s—abject disgust—though he had no way of communicating his sympathy to her. He couldn’t bring himself to speak to Floyd directly, mostly for fear of what he might say. A spirited lecture on the adult responsibility toward self-control and morality sprung fully formed into his mind, but he knew Floyd wouldn’t want to hear it. And Carl didn’t want to have to say it. He and Gloria had done their part to raise their child and Floyd’s predilections were a harsh referendum on their parenting. Carl had parented in the same manner he taught: he led by example. If Floyd couldn’t intuit the righteousness that permeated the rooms of his own home, well, he’d never know it.

A rapping at the study window broke the internal monologue inspired by the murmuring emanating from the kitchen. Mrs. Lumly flashed a toothy smile and gave a wide wave. He maneuvered around a stack of boxes and hoisted open the window.

“Hello there,” Mrs. Lumly said. She stuck her head through the window. “Looks like you’re all packed up.”

“Almost,” Carl answered. The stifling scent of Mrs. Lumly’s citric perfume filled the study.

“I guess it’s really happening,” she said, sighing dramatically.

Mrs. Lumly was the only Orchard Avenue neighbor to express remorse about their moving to Florida. Carl ascribed this to her being a born again Christian and had, for the entirety of their neighborness, discounted any nicety exhibited by Mrs. Lumly for the same reason. The Lumlys were the most charitable citizens on Orchard Avenue or anywhere else, and for their niceness they were granted invisibility. None of the others on either side of the street counted the Lumlys among their friends, a truth that was never more evident than when the Lumlys trucked in church friends for an evening of cards or prayer service or whatever it was the Lumlys did with friends.

To their eternal credit, the Lumlys kept their religion to themselves. Carl had accidentally waded into the deep waters of Christianity at last year’s block party, when he’d ventured out against his better counsel. The Lumlys were regaling Jim and Marion with a secular tale about someone who had flatly rejected the idea of God. “Wouldn’t even consider it,” Mrs. Lumly said, baffled. “You believe, right?” she’d asked Carl as he began to drift away from the conversation. Jim and Marion appraised him as he rocked back on his feet, leaving deep impressions in the championship grass.

“Flying is as close as I come to believing in God,” Carl had joked, pointing at a silver 737 as it graced the sky.

Mrs. Lumly’s appearance at his window retrieved that particular memory from the carefully ordered storehouse of memories Carl kept. In truth, his retort had revisited him in the days since he and Gloria had designed their move, the flight to Florida ahead of the moving van the most economical and logical way to facilitate their cross country sojourn. Carl booked the one-way trip with the same travel agent they’d always used, against Gloria’s advice to use the Internet, advice Carl guessed was recycled from Floyd, whose downfall had been aided by the cursed Internet. Carl may have engaged their trusted travel agent for precisely this reason—spite and shame were life’s two greatest motivators, he knew—but regardless, he’d been plagued by sudden heart palpitations, night sweats, and a relentless insomnia ever since. The thought of sealing himself inside a giant metal tube and hurtling through space and time at speeds ten times those he liked to drive was debilitating. He and Gloria hadn’t flown for a decade or more and while the rational mind would be quick to illuminate the advance in avionics, Carl could only shudder at the idea of trusting his life with two pilots he neither knew nor could see. Hiding his anxiety from Gloria had only heightened his dread of the day in the not too distant future when he’d be forced to either honor the airfare, or run screaming down the jetway, Gloria at his heels, sobbing and hyperventilating about a train or a bus.

Mrs. Lumly excused herself with exquisite Christian grace and Carl wanted to call out to her that he’d been a brave, intrepid soul once, a long, long time ago. Gloria knew the tale by heart, how he’d moved to New York City right out of college to take an internship at Harper & Row Publishers. Carl had fancied a life lived in tweed jackets with patched elbows, peering out under a fedora while typing, pipe smoke burning his eyes. He’d been touched by the Great Books in college and dreamed of writing one or two, though he knew instinctively that he didn’t have the talent. So to midwife them from the confines of a cramped office in midtown Manhattan, taking authors to lunch on the expense account to live vicariously through their stories of roaming the ends of the earth seemed the next best thing.

He’d managed a cold water flat in Spanish Harlem—the internship was unpaid and so he was reduced to borrowing from his father, whose Depression-era childhood had eviscerated his own dreams long ago—and enjoyed the short subway ride to the Harper & Row offices. Life in New York suited him. The electric lights and the music the city made at its peak rush hour never failed to entrance him and he cherished the strange faces he passed on his nightly strolls, partly to avoid his tiny apartment but also to imbibe the city, to introduce it to his bloodstream. He’d ride the local downtown just to stroll around the Village for an hour, or take the crosstown bus to Chelsea to do likewise. He became an expert on the various neighborhoods, never lost or lacking for something to see and do.

His dreams of settling permanently in Manhattan were dashed one particular evening on the uptown Lexington Avenue line. The subway car was full of harried men trying to make trains at Grand Central for suburban points north and east. Carl took his usual position at the door—he disliked sitting on the subway, mostly because he sat at a wooden desk for most of the day but also because he had an irrational fear of being poked in the eye—across from a comely woman in a business suit dutifully reading her New York Times, which she’d folded in columns in the style proscribed by its printing. The car lurched into the next station and a vagrant shuffled down the aisle, glaring at the passengers, who pretended not to notice him. Carl averted his eyes and to his relief the train rolled on, propelling him to the tiny bit of real estate he called home.

The woman tucked her Times into her bag and pulled out a fashion magazine—in the retelling he could never recall which—and began carelessly flipping pages. Whether the magazine caught the vagrant’s attention or the simple fact that she was one of only a couple of women on the train, Carl couldn’t guess. He could feel his muscles tense as he swayed with the bouncing car, riding the underground rails, his nose filled with the putrid incense of oil and dust.

He heard the commotion before he witnessed it. The vagrant slapped the magazine out of the woman’s hands, wearing a salacious grin. She calmly retrieved the magazine, which had slid down between her and the straphanger sitting next to her, who pretended not to see. She began reading the magazine anew, only to have it slapped away again. The women refused to acknowledge the vagrant and simply picked up the magazine and opened it to the page she was reading. Carl felt his blood convulsing. He scanned the car, but no one else seemed to notice the confrontation, or was ignoring it. In the retelling of this episode, Carl timed the approach to the next station such that when the doors groaned opened, he grabbed the vagrant and tossed him out onto the platform, menacing him with chivalric words and icy glares. Sometimes, depending on the listener, the woman was so grateful that she bought Carl a cup of coffee. In his younger days, when the unpleasant encounter was at its freshest, he intimated at an ensuing sexual relationship, though he hadn’t exaggerated like that since his youth. He’d retold the story so frequently that it was hard to parse the fibers of truth from fiction, though he knew well that he hadn’t reacted quite so valiantly that day and had excused himself three stops early, opting to hoof it the rest of the way to his place rather than be caught in limbo between his desire for action and his inability to act. He shunned the subway from then on, choosing to walk home from work rather than risk the humiliation of facing the woman should the uptown local be her regular train.

Maybe he’d always been a coward. He’d always imagined he possessed the ordinary measure of courage, the same as everyone else, but he’d never been tested. Unbelievably, the flight to Florida loomed as the first real challenge in what had previously seemed to him a long and heroic life. He was constantly reminding himself to stay vigilant against a softening disposition, to never allow age to invalidate his lifelong passion for righting wrongs and, more importantly, his well-honed morality.

Dusk gathered around Orchard Avenue, the coming darkness drawing his neighbors, who had previously wandered a discernable path through the lawns on both sides of the street, nearer. Carl hoisted open the window to his study to admit the cooling breeze, the distant chatter of the block party wafting in along with the fragrance of the evergreens in the valley beyond. He marked the annoyingly high pitch of his neighbor’s voice, inadvertently glancing up to see Jim holding forth in the McIntoshes’ driveway, more than likely singing the same song he’d been singing for months, about how important it was to annex Porter. Carl had actually heard Jim use the phrase “to save its life” on more than one occasion.

“You looking to get a Nobel Prize out of this?” Steve McIntosh asked, throwing the group into laughter. That a boy, Steve, Carl thought. Steve was one who let his dog run without a leash, but upon hearing his dig at Jim, Steve jumped in Carl’s estimation.

Jim answered with a punchline of his own, but Carl couldn’t hear it over the tittering.

The sun dropped precipitously and Orchard Avenue began to glow. Carl began clearing his desk—the moving van would arrive in the morning—when Gloria rotated into his line of vision. He watched as his wife held a small paper plate in her delicate fingers, forking at a piece of chocolate cake. Mrs. Lumly sauntered over and Gloria engaged her in some small talk, the substance of which was no doubt irrelevant. Gloria’s hair was tied back to hide the haircut she’d rushed out to get earlier, one last trim at the hairdresser who always seemed to cut off an inch too much, a last lecture Gloria had relished giving. Carl enjoyed ribbing Gloria about her friendship with Mrs. Lumly, whose conversion didn’t seem to be of concern to Gloria. Carl had made a few offhand comments about how the need to believe was always more interesting than the belief itself and while at first Gloria chuckled at his asides, like she always had, she began making her own, telling Carl she was “off to hear the gospel” when visiting the Lumlys, or characterizing Mrs. Lumly’s cordial, neighborly conversation as “preaching.” Carl appreciated the digs at Mrs. Lumly—when he’d first met Gloria she was too timid to criticize anyone, always saying “I’m sorry” even when it wasn’t her fault, apologizing to those who should be the ones to apologize—but Gloria’s acid tongue had developed over the years and Carl couldn’t help but feel guilty.

The episode with the Garner boy would replay in Carl’s mind, persecuting him to the end of days, he knew. The Garners were an especially loathsome brand of Conradian. The pere had inherited untold wealth from his family, whose lineage included inventors and patent holders dating back to before the Civil War—it was rumored that the Garners held the design patent on more than a dozen household appliances—while the mere was also from money, heir to a sewing machine fortune. And the fils of these two specimen was a genius, as the Garners were quick to insinuate or flat out proclaim. Carl had written the Garner boy off upon the Garners’ return from Paris.

“We were only there a week and he just picked up the language,” Mrs. Garner said in answer to Gloria’s question about French cuisine. She nodded at her son and the Garner boy answered, “Oui.”

Carl could barely stifle his annoyance when the Garner boy came around, which he did with surprising frequency. In the beginning Carl couldn’t discern whether or not Gloria was encouraging these visits, but it quickly became clear that the Garner boy sought out Gloria’s company and if Gloria was being honest, she would’ve probably admitted that Floyd’s absence was a contributing factor to her indulgence. Carl would come home from school and find the two sharing a cup of tea in the kitchen, or pulling weeds from the flower beds that shrouded the house.

“He is a smart kid,” Gloria said one after the Garner boy had left.

An epithet he overheard Gerald McHenry use against one of his most hated students in the teachers’ lounge sprang from his lips. A tremor of shock registered on Gloria’s face and Carl had turned away in embarrassment at his overreaction. The embarrassment was multiplied when he overheard Gloria repeat the hateful epithet to the Garner boy’s face as if it were her own. The Garner boy had suffered the rest of the afternoon in near silence and his visits ceased entirely, as did the Garners’ neighborly banter.

“At least we won’t have to hear about what a genius their kid is, eh?” Gloria said the first time the Garners snubbed them in public. Carl had nodded, his eyes burning with tears. He didn’t realize the degree to which Gloria acted as a counterbalance to his own curmudgeonly behavior. The seeds of his cynicism had been planted that day on the subway in New York, hardened and tended through his years of teaching high school English, so there was little hope for further evolution. But Gloria had been untouched by bitterness and antipathy when he’d first met her, the slightest criticism, warranted or unwarranted, gliding off her with ease. And her patience had been legendary, always smoothing over waiters and store clerks in the wake of Carl’s rage about this or that.

Carl had begun to think about their move to Florida as a rebirth; he made a silent promise to check the nasty comments and politically incorrect soliloquies. In Florida, he’d be a model citizen, slow his overreaction time, learn to breathe when the first signal of distress loomed. He’d be the last one out of the boat, the first to lend a hand, a guard against festering frustrations, unequivocal in his equanimity. He’d have to face Floyd, too, he knew.

Gloria broke away from Mrs. Lumly, who pulled her back for one last hug. Carl was sure certain promises to keep in touch were being proffered and he winced knowing how shallow Gloria’s were. She’d send a postcard the first week or so after they’d landed in Florida and then Orchard Avenue would recede into the twilight of the past. Carl marveled at Gloria’s graceful exit, knowing the ridicule it cloaked. He hardly recognized the woman who strode across their lawn, except for the quick smile she flashed him as he lowered the window. A longing overcame him and he murmured a benediction for the soon-to-be abandoned house where so many little murders had been committed.

 

 

 

 

Photo Source: Philologophile

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  1. Outsiders - December 13, 2011

    […] “Carl, Inc.” is a masterfully written story with some of the best-placed dialogue I’ve seen. Jaime Clarke has a knack for bringing out subtle aspects of outsider-dom: how inalienable rights can be alienating, how bearing knowledge can create a schism, how familiarity doesn’t count for much when you’re on the outside of it, how annexation begets annexation. […]

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