TUESDAY: A Toad in the Grass

BY ATTILA ZONN

This is an excerpt from a larger story. Copyright is held by the author.

 

EDDIE NOVA, a resident of the Morningstar trailer park, sits his chubby soul in his cubby kitchen on Sunday morning and picks through a supermarket tabloid.

The centre spread is festooned with voyeur shots of bikini-clad Hollywood starlets caught not in the peak of starlet condition.

He shakes his head and says, “Poor human race. Poor world.”

Eddie knows what’s wrong with the world; there are too many famous people and too many people obsessed with famous people. He flips the page and says, “The masses of men lead lives of self-induced unconsciousness,” and smiles.

Eddie has been aware for some time that he talks to himself. And he is aware of this thing he calls his lonely passage through life, and has accepted it without regrets. There are people who can’t be alone, who panic when they lose sight of another human being, who must be surrounded by breath and heartbeats and words.

Eddie isn’t one of these people.

He knows it’s easy to find people; they’re in all kinds of places outside his door, talking about trivial things like the weather and smiling like all sociable people do, with that air of confidence, whether it’s genuine or affected.

On occasion he has felt bursts of excitement, has flung open the door and teetered on the threshold, eager to be part of the human race but those times are aberrations.

Mostly, his door stays shut.

When he first moved in here Frank told him he didn’t have to deal with anybody. “Just keep your door shut, if you want. No one will bother you.” That’s what Frank told him, but they started coming out of the woodwork the next Saturday when he was building the deck. He actually didn’t do any of the building, Frank did all of it. He did help a little; handing a board or two and getting bottles of water for Frank, who worked very hard for him.

Eddie didn’t want a deck but Frank insisted, saying it was a good place for Eddie to sit in the evenings and enjoy the air, but Eddie knew he was never going to use it.

And on that day people came by as they do when they see a new face. They introduced themselves and Frank introduced himself and shook hands but Eddie stood still, mute, like a monolith, without even a nod or a twitch of acknowledgement towards his visitors.

Frank had to introduce him.

Eddie felt their awkwardness staring at a middle-aged man in late June wearing a jacket, droopy wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses — his armour. His neighbours probably have a name for him now like weirdo or hermit or some other name people come up with when they’re talking behind one’s back.

But that’s all right because Eddie doesn’t want to know anyone. When you connect with another human being a thing called feelings surfaces and then Eddie has to decide whether to like, love, trust, need, be grateful, be thankful. Which brings him to Frank, the anomaly to his view on his fellow human beings.

Frank was an all right young man.

Frank’s always around doing things for him and Eddie’s grateful for that. There’s a cleaning lady too. She does his laundry and dusts his place and does his groceries. She brings her kids with her; two little girls, a year and a half apart but they could pass as twins. They bring their picture books, and sit on either side of him on the couch while he reads them their stories. He enjoys their giggles and laughter when he gives the characters funny voices. It’s the least he could do since she keeps his place tidy.

So apart from them, having no one else he’d like to converse with, he likes the sound of his own voice. As long as you know you’re talking to yourself, he doesn’t see anything wrong with it.

He likes his little TV — his ghost company. From the moment he wakes up to the time he goes to bed, the TV is on. He doesn’t pay much attention to it but it’s better than silence. It’s tuned to a cooking channel and that’s enough for him. This morning, a very attractive young woman is cooking low-fat, organic, low-cholesterol, and high-fibre concoctions that Eddie would never consider eating but he likes the way she wields that knife. He wonders why anyone would go to such bland lengths to eat.

“Where’s the pleasure of good fat and real sugar?” he says to the TV. “The world is crumbling down around our ears and suddenly everybody wants to live forever.”

The sun streams in through windows masked by beige horizontal blinds and casts bars across the floor just short of the tip out. The trailer smells of bacon, fried eggs and burnt bagels. A smoky haze stretches and twirls against the sunlight, below the open smoke detector.

Eddie could eat fried eggs and bacon every morning but the girl who cleans his place only gives him enough for one meal a week. She’s one of those healthy-eating people. She wants him to live forever. So he looks forward to his Sunday morning breakfasts, and the aroma of simple pleasure.

He sets aside the tabloid, sits back and gleans the compartment and the possessions of a life secured inside this shell on wheels.

There’s the guitar, hanging on a hook by the hinge side of the door; a Martin he bought 30 years ago and has been trying to learn to play ever since. He picks it up sometimes when he feels a jolt of musical fervour, plucks a few notes, strums a few chords, rides the musical moment happily, then suddenly he’s struck with melancholy and a feeling that something is missing, and he looks around him, searching for that indescribable thing. A memory at the tip of his memory, it’s almost as if he is on the verge of remembering something important but then it fizzles, and sleeps till the next time he tries to play the guitar. So he hangs it up, sits on the couch and stares at it for a while.

Sometimes he sits on the couch for hours and stares at the door, and thinks. Then his eyes go back to the guitar. One day he’ll play it well. He’s getting there; he almost knows a full song now thanks to Frank’s kid.

Bit by bit, it’ll all come together.

It’s a shame, he thinks, that he has all this time yet fritters it away thinking.

Thinking goes hand in hand with doing. They are like ham and cheese, bread and butter, bacon and eggs. But he has trouble with the doing part. For him, doing can be put off for another day. Thinking is easy. You don’t have to move.

Later on today Frank is coming to fix his air conditioner and he’ll probably bring his kid; the head banger, with his long black hair, jeans ornamented with dangling chains and wearing one of his many black T-shirts displaying skeletons, skulls and upside down crosses or something to do with the dead.

The kid’s Godless.

He told Eddie so.

Back in his day, if anybody questioned God they’d get a slap across the face. But that kid sure can play the guitar. Eddie wishes he could play one fraction as good as Frank’s kid.

The kid rides his bike over at least once a week and Eddie sits at the window waiting for him. There’s an unexplainable emotion Eddie feels in his throat and chest when he sees the kid pull up that causes him to rush to the door and open it.

The first thing the kid does when he comes in, after he says hi to Eddie, he asks, “Can I play your guitar?” Eddie nods, and stands back, sees the kid pull a pick out of his pocket and go for the guitar, and the kid always says, “It’s out of tune.”

But soon enough, after some tightening and loosening of strings, he’s off to the races — spider fingers running all over that fret board, tone as clear as the sound of water over rocks and Eddie gets a lump in his throat and teary eyed at how beautiful his guitar sounds in someone else’s hands. He’s had 30 years to learn to play and this kid’s only been alive for 15.

The kid asked Eddie once, “Why don’t you have any books around here?”

It was true, Eddie didn’t have any books. When you’re with your thoughts all the time you don’t need anything to occupy your mind. Eddie answered he did have a book and it was the only book that mattered.

“Which one’s that?” the kid said.

Eddie went to get the book, inside the drawer beside his bed. A book that has always felt good in his hands; with its straight spine and tassel bookmark, still as pristine as when he bought it 30 years ago. He liked the feel of its black leather cover and embossed words: Holy Bible. He presented it to the kid who kept on strumming, saying, “Oh, that one.”

That one? Why, the little punk.

Eddie was about to straighten the boy out on the greatest book ever written, when the kid asked, “Have you read all of it?”

It was something Eddie was intending to do one day.

Eddie half-heartedly remarked, “No, just the parts that matter for now.” And then wondered why he would say that.

The kid, still strumming said, “It should all matter, if you believe it.”

Yes, it did all matter. It did all matter and one day he was going to read the whole thing.

What did this kid know? He’s barely lived.

“I read it, last summer,” the kid said. “I wanted to know what the big deal was. It was a hard read. It had a lot of bumps in the narrative. My philosophy teacher told us that a good writer doesn’t make the reader stumble, but I bet there’s people tripping all over the place when they read the Bible. It repeats itself a lot, it contradicts itself a lot too and goes on and on about begetting and who was the son of who. How can people live to be 600 years old? Nine hundred years old? And it’s full of terrible things people do to each other, especially to women. Women don’t rate in that book. I asked my philosophy teacher about it. He’s had a book published. He said, if the Bible was a novel being submitted to a publisher, the editor would demand a huge rewrite. And people believe God wrote it. My teacher said the book’s got potential, it just needs a good editor.”

Eddie liked this kid very much. All in all, if one could look beyond the demonic clothing he was really a nice kid, misguided, but a good kid, but this time, confronted with that typical attitude; when the ignorance of youth disregards the past and can’t see beyond the things not relevant to their immediate lives, he lost it, and yelled at the kid, “Who does your teacher think he is to make fun of the Bible? It’s the word of God!” He startled the kid. The kid stopped strumming and the colour drained from his face.

Eddie felt guilty about yelling at the kid. It wasn’t his kid. He had no right yelling at Frank’s kid. Why was he yelling? Did yelling ever solve anything? It bothered him for days afterwards, even though he thinks some people need a good yelling at to set them straight.

He often worries about Frank’s kid and the cleaning lady’s little girls, and how the future might be for them. He was glad he never had any kids.

“I’m sorry Grandpa,” the kid said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I was just talking. I didn’t know that book meant so much to you. Dad says what I choose to believe is my own business and I shouldn’t discuss it with people I don’t know because they might get upset. He says people will do crazy things in the name of God. So I should keep it to myself, but I thought I could talk to you about it.”

“You don’t question God. You can’t go against him,” Eddie said, feeling his body tremble as he eased himself onto the couch beside the kid.

“Why not? Grandpa, if people didn’t question stuff we’d still be living in the dark, riding horses instead of cars.”

“Would that be such a bad thing?”

“It would. It’s like being stuck in the past.”

“The past was better. It was simpler. Things are too complicated now.”

“Was it really that much better?” the kid said. “I’ve read a lot of history. The past was a very brutal time. It was bloody and unforgiving. This world isn’t perfect but its better than the past.”

“Well—”

“We live in the best time people have ever lived. We can speak our minds and be whatever we want if we try.”

“I know but—”

“Human beings are naturally curious, right? And if a god made us then he made us curious, so why should he punish us if we wanted to know about stuff? Think of all those diseases we’ve cured by being curious. If we weren’t curious we’d be dying from simple diseases. Grandpa, in the past you could die from just getting a scratch.”

“We can’t all live forever,” Eddie said. “We can’t be so selfish. Eventually we have to make room for someone else.”

“Have you ever seen God, Grandpa?”

“I haven’t had the pleasure,” Eddie said. “But I feel him. Right here.” He patted his chest.

“People feel all kinds of things,” the kid said. “ It doesn’t mean it’s real. If something is real then everybody should be able to see it and feel it.”

“Well, if there is no God, then who created all this?”

The kid shrugged. “It just happened. Why do we need to know that anyway? Here we are. Let’s just go with it. The meaning of life? Life just is. Why distract ourselves from living with questions like that?”

Eddie smiles and shakes his head when he hears “it just happened”. Random chance. A few chemicals getting together in a puddle of water, the right amount of sun, the right amount of air, and poof! Here we are thinking and reasoning. What garbage.

“There has to be a creator. All we have is this life? And then what? What is there to look forward to? What do we worship?”

The kid looked disappointed. “Why does anything have to be worshipped? That’s like saying we don’t rate.” He slouched back on the couch, thinking, then sat up with a glint in his eye.

“How about worshipping a tree? There’s no doubt a tree exists. And if somebody ever came out of the forest telling people that a tree told him they should follow him, no one would listen to him. There’d be no doubt he was either crazy or putting people on, ’cause everybody knows trees don’t talk.

“Think of what a tree can give you; this guitar came from a tree, as well as a lot of musical instruments, and I think of all the things we know, music is probably the thing that makes people the happiest. Don’t you think so? We get wood to build houses so we can stay safe, wood to burn so we can stay warm and you can climb a tree and see far distances, and it gives you shade where you can sit and, and read your Bible. And a tree’ll never tell you what you have to wear, what you can’t eat or what part of your body to cut off. And no one’s ever heard of somebody losing control of their car on a wet road and hitting a god. But they hit trees. They hit trees all the time, ’cause trees are real.” And with a self-satisfied smile he went back to strumming the guitar.

Eddie asked Frank once where his kid got all his notions. Frank had said, “He reads a lot.”

Then the kid stopped playing, frowned and sat up.

He said, “You know what might happen though? The way people are, some people might think that their tree is better than someone else’s tree. Like some people might like the oak tree and someone might like the birch, or the weeping willow, and think the other guy’s tree is inferior, and they might go around chopping down the other guy’s tree, and that might lead to a tree war, where they’ll kill millions of people till one side wins and then there’ll be too many trees from that side and things will look out of balance, and the losers will resent the winners because they can’t grow their own tree, and they’ll stew on it for years and years till one day they start another war in the name of their tree. People are like that and it probably could happen.”

Eddie had suddenly felt exhausted listening to this kid.

4 comments

  1. Dan Spence

    I found this story to be implausible. I know its fiction but really? The old man doesn’t recognize his grandson as his grandson? Or Frank as his son? Why? I’ve never heard of such a condition. And I found the mocking of the Bible gratuitous and maybe self indulgent. Not funny if that’s what it was meant to do. I didn’t like it.

  2. Wizard

    This is an excellent piece and his condition is very plausible. Any mental condition, now that we know about mental illness (it’s not demons taking over our body anymore) and the various forms of it, is plausible and the reason for Eddie’s mental state is revealed in the continuing story, if anyone cares to know. Bible mocking? Hardly. That’s about a teen having questions and an old man set in his unquestioning ways. I found the interaction between the grandson and the grandpa endearing, maybe because I can relate to such discussions. I liked it.

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