The Goldfinch (A Short Story)

5:42 A.M. – July 2nd, 1999 

Moses Rochester wakes up with sleep crusted cross his eyes. It takes three tries for him to heave himself out of bed, releasing an audible “oomph!”. Once vertical, he lays his hands clumsily on his knees, resembling some antique ape. Sighing, he stares at the chipped paint on his closet door—a task left undone that relentlessly vexes him. He regrets that he doesn’t have the tools to do it (discharging a similar “oomph!” in his mind). As this transpires, he senses his father-in-law’s moist breath down creeping down his neck, admonishing him for his lethargy. Eventually he extends his wrinkled arms and turns off his alarm clock—a ritual that happens each morning though he wakes up 20+ mins before his alarm, always. He’s never actually heard the radio station play that he selected years ago—it’s just static now. At least he wakes up at a “reasonable hour”—something that would satiate his father-in-law—the former traveling salesman who was reticent until it came to issues of “hard work”. He (his father-in-law) managed to sustain his stoic presence up until his death, even despite the obscene losses that matriculated during his final years as members of the family began dying in group of two or three. 

This ideal was constantly present to our protagonist, incessantly eroding at his sense of self as he lumbered toward the door not noticing the layers of dust settled upon his dresser, so much dust that if a splash of water happened to fall on it, a mudslide of knickknacks would deluge onto the floor. As he crosses the threshold of each door, he clamps the molding, releasing another silent “oomph!” in his mind. The air is stale, which he strangely aware of on this morning. Passing through the hallway, he doesn’t look at the pictures hanging of his family members, most of whom are deceased except for his daughter, Phoebe Dandelion Rochester. Though he believes nothing interesting has transpired in his life for the past decade, he still grins at the thought of his daughter’s middle name—“Dandelion”—a name he felt expressed his originality. If someone ever asked, he instantly became loquacious as he would reenact the narrative he told so often. His chest would begin to bow outward, signaling his deep pride.

The “den”, as he called it, was littered with sour pastel furniture. A mustard yellow couch, flaxen blinds, walnut coffee table, and penny-colored framed mirror, which gave the room a feeling of ordered decay. Leaning onto the bar, he decides to forgo breakfast for coffee. Though many would not consider this much of a decision, he has spent many hours belaboring such decisions. You see, if he doesn’t eat, then the coffee will make him nervous. This is exacerbated by the many medications he is “supposed” to take. Many mornings he has gripped the bar as his mind spins over this menial decision. On this morning, he does not linger. Passing the cream-colored fridge, barren with only eggs, milk, butter, and mustard, he mechanically begins filling up the coffee pot. On this particular morning, he doesn’t even wash the pot, leaving brown streaks on the opaque glass. A few swift moves and the task is complete. As he waits, he considers completing a few small administrative tasks: organize the receipts, do some dishes, check the mail, etc. He chooses to not. But his mind keeps circling back to checking the mail. “Ah, it isn’t worth it,” he mumbles in his mind. “That damn neighbor of mine will probably be out cleaning his car, waiting to say ‘Hello, there!’ as he always does.” Instead of moving towards the door, he looks down. 

As his eyes glaze over, his mind becomes placid. He’s zooming into the linoleum floor in a manner that makes him simultaneously zoom out, recreating the sensation of being intoxicated. He does this for some time, not noticing the coffee pot has begun sputtering like an outboard engine. Finally, the aroma snaps him out of the slumber as he relevels his wrinkled body and un-slumps his back. 

In the cupboard, he has three mugs. All of them white with various corporate logos or slogans. He pauses for a second, noticing that one of the mugs has been placed with the bottom up while the other two are sitting face upward. He never knows which way to place them. Though he likes them facing downward, he worries that the water running down the sides would cause the wood to rot in the cabinet. But if he places them face upward, he risks dust accumulating in them. Because he is never able to make a decision, he randomly places them up and down. This doesn’t satisfy him, but it holds the flood waters of indecision temporarily back. 

Walking over to the “den”, he sits on the Dijon couch, unaware that there is deep slump in the middle due to his frequent reclining in the same part of the couch. He doesn’t even feel the springs impinging upon his rear—something that his daughter frequently comments on when she cheerfully collapses onto the couch.  

As he sits down, he begins to wriggle, stretching his aching muscles, attempting to chase the nervousness away. It looks as if he has ants crawling over him, and he immediately recognizes the oddity of his movements and begins to be still. As he settles, straining to remain tranquil, he sinks back into his linoleum gaze, staring at the steam rising from his coffee mug. For some time, unaware, he does this. On this morning, it happens three consecutive times, each with the same snapping awake before sinking back into the seductive stare. He can’t seem to have any thoughts except this sordid gaze. He feels the saliva beginning to accumulate in his mouth due to this unconscious exercise, when finally, a crow who had silently landed on his open kitchen window released an awful “Cawrrr!”, shocking poor Moses like an icy shower. He barked, “Get aahata of here!”, making a shooing motion with his left hand (only bending it at the wrist) without getting up from the couch. As soon as he released the cry, he immediately became mindful that his God-awful neighbor probably heard it, reinforcing the distorted image Moses has of himself in his jolly neighbor’s mind. 

Jittering his head and blinking incessantly, he tries to settle down as he begins to slowly sip his coffee. He releases a gentle “ah…” as the tension in his upper back begins to reside and thoughts begin to swirl again in his mind. He remembers that he needs to check the mail, though he quickly ignores the task and instead attempts to recreate the “ah…” he earlier experienced. This doesn’t work, but he tries to ignore it, avoiding the gloomy recurring thoughts that plague his needlessly anxious conscience. 

He finds the coffee stale. He hears his stomach growl and notices that his head is aching, probably because he skipped breakfast and evaded taking his medicine. Instead of getting something eat, he heaves himself up and begins walking toward the bathroom. He steps in and locks the door. Standing in front of the cabinet, he takes a deep breath and reaches behind it as he grabs the pack of Marlboro’s nestled there hidden from his daughter. The wrapper is ruffled and a few of the cigarettes have been bent due to them being squished between the wall and the cabinet. Strangely enough, he always smokes in the bathroom, cracking the window open, although he only receives visitors a few times a year. The secretiveness of the ritual gives it meaning and a certain level of nostalgia as a leftover custom of his youth. He gently places the cigarette in his mouth and begins to make the motion to light it when he realizes he doesn’t have his lighter. He carefully lays the cigarette down, as if it is some valuable possession, unlocks the door, and proceeds to find his lighter. His steps are light and hushed, as if he is sneaking around the lonely house. He opens the miscellaneous drawer in the kitchen and rustles around looking for his prize. Seeing the Bic lighter, he reaches to snatch it out of the plethora of paperclips, clothes pens, and Snickers bars. But before extracting it from the mess, he sees a grill lighter at the very back of the drawer—a long butane one with the flexible end. Releasing the Bic, he grabs the sword-like lighter and silently sneaks back into the bathroom, locking the door inaudibly. Moses lights the cigarette in a practiced manner and releases another satisfactory “ahh…”. He glances outside, ensuring the rude crow is not near. 

Sensing the nicotine calming his nerves, he remembers that it is his birthday—July 2nd. This thought lingers for only an instant before he hears his neighbor rustling in the suburb alley between their townhomes. He quickly slams the window shut and throws the cigarette into the porcelain toilet. Bending over, he sits on the side of the bathtub, staring at the singed cigarette slowly sink into the water. The linoleum stare returns, and once again, he loses all sense of time. 

He remembers that he needs to check the mail again but chooses to return to the blank stare. His back is bowed as he hands rest heavily on his knees. With his elbows bent out and slowly bending more, he seems pensive, but he’s not. Realizing that he was gradually beginning to fall forward, he pulls himself backward, attempting to adjust his posture. A cool breeze gusted through the bathroom and helped to clear his mind. He remembered that it was his birthday again—July 2nd. Dandelion would often remind him that its “National UFO Day”, revealing her slight but gentle eccentricity. This thought almost made him grin. Last time she said this to him was three years ago. She was spinning in his unoiled charcoal office chair, laughing as the chair squeaked at every spin. She thought it sounded like goose. Her golden blonde hair was luminated in gradient rays by the sun through the blinded windows. It was late afternoon in autumn when the sun makes one drowsy. She just spun and spun, refusing to stop after Moses scolded her. Finally, she abruptly stopped and gawked at him, grinning beneath her butterscotch bangs. She was an adult, but she still acted like a child. This made him grin (but only in his mind). He quickly awoke from the sentimental memory to see the cigarette finally hit the bottom of the bowl (a deep bowl designed for the handicapped). 

These memories warmed Moses’s heart. So much so, that his skin began to feel warm. He rubbed his rusty arms and popped his knotty knuckles as he sat on the ledge of the bathtub. There was spot of chipped paint on the cabinet, but he refused to notice. 

He slowly stood up and began to make his way back into the den. The coffee pot had turned off, and the crow was out of sight. As he entered the den, he started to bend his knees to sit down on the mustard couch, but for some reason, he chose to remain standing. As soon as his knees locked, the air began to feel different. He felt his heart begin to race. His whole body began to feel hot, hot like bubbling potato soup. He felt the breath evacuate from his lungs in an instant as he started shaking like a cold dog. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. He just shook. And shook. And shook. Terrified, he wouldn’t allow a single thought to reach his stream of consciousness. Whatever it would be, it would end him. He held it in so tight that he could feel the pressure behind his eyes. As his face reddened, tears began to stream down and land on the beige carpet. His jaw clenched tighter and tighter as he held back the repressed thoughts of mortality. Although the house was quiet as a graveyard, he could hear nothing but the rushing of his boiling blood and the screaming of his ringing ears. His world began to roll, to spin like a top, not evenly, but oddly, spinning in wider concentric circles each rotation. And just when he felt that it was the end, his vision cleared as he glimpsed a yellow blur amidst the whirling room. Turning his head slightly, he peered through the den and the hallway, and there sat a yellow goldfinch. It had at some point during Moses’s “event” landed on the window seal, which he believed he had slammed shut. 

As the breath slowly returned to his lungs, he carefully observed the creature. It was the tiniest of birds, and it happened to be the most cherished of Moses’ late wife—an infrequent birdwatcher. It was singing a song so beautiful that Moses held his breath to hear it more clearly, forgetting the “event” that just occurred. It sang a warm, bright, and rhapsodic song, resounding recurring notes with melodic chatters between. It was such bright yellow that it brightened the narrow wall of the bathroom, reflecting its yellow flume on the propped window and the faded parchment walls. 

Moses took a deep breath as memories rushed through his anxious mind, cooling the boiling thoughts, returning them to a simmer. In a peculiar way, just as he was afraid to entertain any thought or utter any word during his “event”, he refused to do the same now. He believed it would unravel the transcendent moment. He took a deep breath and just before it was released, the Goldfinch fluttered away. He stood motionless. He needed to check the mail.

In an instant, he scurried through the hallway and across the den and snatched his jacket, pausing just before he turned the knob of the door. A repressed grin spread across his face as he opened the door and reached for the screen handle. Not waiting an instant, he stepped into the cool autumn air. No thought of his neighbor entered his mind. Instead, he thought of Dandelion, of her butterscotch hair and cryptic smile. She was without sin in his mind, as she had always been. She was peculiar yet flawless with the exception of her tiny dimples that made her even more irresistibly cute. Though she had aged and was now a woman, the signs of youth remained. He pondered how something so angelic and pure could come from someone as flawed as himself. But instead of looking downward, to entertain that linoleum stare, he braced his shoulders, looked up, and smiled as he checked the mail to find a letter from Dandelion with a pineapple stamp sloppily placed on the right-hand corner of the envelope. Leaving all the bills behind, he grabbed the letter and nestled it in his jacket as he stepped off the porch. It was July 2nd—“National UFO Day”, and Moses Rochester left his house with no idea where he was headed. His shabby coat kept the letter secure, and he pressed his arms against his ribs tightly to ensure it did not leave him. And for a moment, he believed that it never would. 

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