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!” each time. Once vertical, he lays his hands clumsily on his knees, resembling an antique ape. Sighing, he stares at the chipped paint on the closet door—a task left undone. 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.
He extends his wrinkled arms and turns off the alarm clock—a morning rite that occurs daily despite him waking up 20+ minutes before his alarm. He’s never heard the radio station play that he nonchalantly 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, industrial presence up until his death, even despite the obscene losses that matriculated during his final years: cousins, aunts, and uncles dying by the bunch.
This was all constantly present to Moses, incessantly eroding at his sense of self as he lumbered toward the door not noticing the layers of dust settled upon his dresser. The dust, so much, 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 “oomphs” along the way.
The air is stale, which he is uncannily aware of 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. Though he believes nothing interesting has transpired in his life for the past decade, Moses still grins at the thought of his daughter’s middle name—“Dandelion”—a name he felt expressed his originality. If someone asked, he instantly became loquacious, reenacting the story he told so often. His chest would begin to bow outward, signaling some 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 mirrors, 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, Moses spent many minutes 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 grips the bar as his mind spins over this minutia. On this morning, he doesn’t linger. Passing the cream-colored fridge, barren with eggs, milk, butter, and mustard, he mechanically begins filling the coffee pot. On this morning he doesn’t wash it, 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 the dishes, check the mail, etc. He chooses to not. His mind keeps circling back to his decision, the dirty coffee, and (now) the mail, which had just emerged in the tornado of his piecemeal mind. “It isn’t worth it,” he mumbles to himself. “That damn neighbor of mine will probably be there…cleaning his damn car again, lurking just to say ‘Hello, there!’ with that drollish accent of his.” Instead of moving towards the door, Moses looks down. As his eyes glaze over, everything becomes more still. 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 sputtering like an outboard engine. Eventually the aroma snaps him out of the slumber as he re-levels his wrinkled body, un-slumping his bent back.
In the cupboard there are three mugs, each white with various corporate logos or slogans. He pauses for a second, noticing that one of the mugs has been placed bottom-up while two still 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 accumulating dust. Most days he randomly places them up and down.
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. 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 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 neighbor probably heard it.
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 the fact, 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 his medicine. Though 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 though 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. Laying the cigarette down carefully, as if it is some valuable possession, he unlocks the door, and proceeds to find a 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. 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 crow is not nearby.
Sensing the nicotine satiating 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 sense of time.
Moses remembers that he needs to check the mail again but chooses to return to the blank stare. His back is bowed as his hands rest heavily on his knees. With his elbows bent out and slowly bending more, he seems pensive but not. Realizing that he was gradually falling forward, he pulls himself backward, adjusting his posture. A cool breeze gusted through the bathroom, softly clearing his mind. He remembered that it was indeed his birthday—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 a 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. She stopped abruptly and gawked at him, grinning beneath her butterscotch bangs. She was an adult yet still a child. This made him grin inside. Finally, he awoke from the sentimental memory to see the cigarette at last hit the bottom of the bowl.
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, failing to notice the spot of chipped paint on the cabinet. He slowly stood up and began to make his way back into the den. The coffee pot was off, and the crow was out of sight. Entering the den, he started to bend his knees to sit down on the couch but chose to remain standing. As soon as his knees locked, the air began to feel empty, light. He felt his heart begin to race. His whole body began to feel hot, hot like soup. He sensed the breath evacuating from his lungs as he began 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 it back. Although the house was quiet as a graveyard, he could hear nothing but the rushing of his boiling blood, 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 over, his vision cleared as he glimpsed a yellow blur amidst the whirling room. Turning his head, he peered through the den and hallway, and there sat a yellow goldfinch. It had at some point during Moses’s ‘event’ landed on the window seal.
As his breath slowly returned, he observed the creature carefully. 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 graceful that Moses held his breath to hear it more clearly. It sang a warm, bright, and rhapsodic song, resounding recurring notes with tiny, melodic chatters between. It was such bright yellow that it brightened the narrow white walls of the hallway, reflecting its flaxen flume in strange shapes before Moses’ face. He took a deep breath as memories rushed through him, cooling the boiling thoughts, and returning them to a simmer. He needed to check the mail.
In an instant, he scurried through the hallway and across the den to snatch 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 long hair and cryptic smile. She was without sin in his mind, as she had always been. He checked the mail to find a letter from Dandelion, a pineapple stamp sloppily placed on the right-hand corner. 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 home with no idea where he was headed. His shabby coat kept his letter secure as 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.
The Goldfinch (Short Story)