THURSDAY: Blue Monday


Copyright is held by the author.

O’BRIAN’S CIGARETTE tasted foul, like rust. Heavy early morning smoking had made him woozy.

O’Brian’s nemesis, Kelly, had once said that he couldn’t understand the link between smoking and cancer. That it “didn’t compute.”

It computed for O’Brian. Times like this, he felt poison in every drag. But he was 22, so he figured he had, oh, about 20 years before he had to quit.

O’Brian loved Jill, who also smoked. He’d first noticed her flair for the habit a few months ago, while he watched her sit with friends in a bar. Jill sat on a stool, leaning forward and speaking; she gestured with her cigarette, waving a long arm and slim, artistic fingers. As she took a drag, her face stayed composed—she didn’t even squint. She blew out full white streams, a sign of self-confidence and strong lungs.

Shy but wanting a better view, O’Brian had edged closer. Jill’s lips looked soft and moist, radiant against her fair skin. When she laughed, her face flushed warmly. Later, as Jill stood to leave, O’Brian noted that she was tall, about his own height, nearly six feet. Her hair, a burnished copper, flowed in ringlets that bounced with her long strides.

O’Brian and Jill were graduate students together. They also worked on the campus radio station, reading news and sports reports that came over the wires. Seeing each other often, they became friendly, and O’Brian was charmed.

But Jill was a genuinely friendly person. When she broke into her smile and fixed it on O’Brian, he luxuriated like an adored man. Then, he’d have second thoughts, because she smiled at everybody like that. O’Brian couldn’t tell if she really liked him, or considered him just another individual to treat with charitable kindness.


Tallahassee State required graduate students to take courses outside of their specialties. So although O’Brian and Jill were in the Journalism program, the school directed them into an Experimental Psychology class.

O’Brian thought that was just great. He, Jill and the others spent much of that spring in a musty basement messing around with laboratory rats. A typical experiment had the students starving the rats, and then dropping the rodents into a maze to see if they could locate a pellet of food.

O’Brian was sympathetic to the rats but they rattled him. Supposedly, you could safely lift them by their tails, but often while dangling, the rodents were angered enough to twist around and try and bite. A few times, while O’Brian hovered over a famished, nasty-looking rat, too nervous to commit to grabbing it, Jill bailed him out. With a teasing grin she’d nudge O’Brian aside, and lift the rat like it was a rubber toy. The animal would turn and chomp, missing Jill’s finger by a hair. She just smiled, unruffled, placing the rat in the crook of her arm and making kissing sounds at the animal that stirred lust in O’Brian, giving him even more reason to hold her in awe.


Thin with bushy hair, wearing a blue t-shirt and black jeans, O’Brian flipped his cigarette away. A knapsack bulged on his shoulder as he entered Rogers Hall, and he walked through tunnel-like corridors toward the rat lab in the cellar.

It was too early on a Monday morning for people to be around, and the building was mostly silent. Fluorescent tubes on the ceiling buzzed softly and blinked pale light. O’Brian passed glazed glass doors and bulletin boards crammed with paper. The air held the ammonia smell of last night’s cleaning.

O’Brian hurried forward. He thought that maybe he’d run into Jill, who was usually in the lab right before O’Brian’s 7:30 a.m. slot. At the staircase, he bounded down three steps at a time.

He hit the ground with both feet, and the smack of his boots echoed. The door to the lab was just ahead. He turned the knob and swaggered inside, as if expecting applause. But the room was empty. It was just O’Brian and 20 rats.

He smelled food pellets and rat crap, a discouraging mix. He also sniffed cigarette smoke, and saw two crushed butts in an ashtray. You weren’t allowed to smoke in the building, but Jill always said: fuck that. He must have just missed her.

Disappointed, O’Brian removed his knapsack and placed it on the large table in the middle of the room. Arms folded tensely, he confronted three shelves with stacked metal cages. Inside each cage was a fired-up rat. The animals skittered around; they thrashed through wood shavings, emitting squeaks. Staring at the pinched, pink eye of one rodent, O’Brian felt a pang, and wondered what would happen to the animals when the school was done with them.

But he had more immediate concerns, and they had to do with completing his assignment without losing a finger. Now he could use Jill for more than stimulating company. He’d even be glad to see that goddamn Kelly, who also wasn’t afraid of rats. One day last month, while Jill had watched and laughed, Kelly held a rat by its tail and chased O’Brian around the room, threatening to drop the creature down O’Brian’s pants.

O’Brian was doing what he could to delay opening that first cage. So, he emptied the ashtray. In the wastebasket he saw two scrunched up sheets of paper. He took the papers out. He smoothed them out on the table, and found that they formed a notebook page that had been torn in half. Aligning the pieces, he saw a rough sketch in blue ink.

Drawn into an upper corner was the sun, with rays like flower petals. Two eyes and a frown filled the sun’s face. Three tears dripped from an eye. Further down was a house. Two trees stood next to the house, and a path led away from the door. Below the house, a caption was written in script: “Blue Monday.”

O’Brian stared at the drawing, and then he put the papers in his knapsack.  


A couple of days later, the weather was hot. O’Brian had joined a group of students for a swim at the nearby lake. At noon, he drank a couple of beers and side stroked out to a wooden raft 100 feet from shore.

The raft was about 40 feet square and O’Brian had it to himself. He rested face-down on the warm surface. A breeze stirred the hairs on his forearms, and refreshed the lake’s sweet, swampy smell. He listened to water lapping steadily against the raft’s edge, closed his eyes and let the intense sunshine soothe his body.

O’Brian was losing himself in a drifting, dreamy feeling. His head was light as a balloon. He imagined himself on an oval track, loping past competitors. Then he was doing dozens of chin-ups on a horizontal bar, feeling weightless and exhilarated. Fans watched in admiration.

But reality intruded. He couldn’t keep it away. He thought about how he had screwed up during his shift at the radio station last night. Laying in the sunshine, alone on the raft, his body stiffened up with recalled embarrassment. 

Kelly’s involvement had made the incident especially galling. O’Brian had a newscast to read, and Kelly happened to be the disc jockey controlling the boards in the studio.

O’Brian was irritated by Kelly’s excellent radio voice and matching good looks. Kelly was blond and muscular. He had a deep silky voice. The microphone loved him—you could be listening to a major-market talent when you heard Kelly.  

O’Brian’s voice was deep too, but sometimes his tongue was slow. Foreign names could throw him. And, he could screw up while reading copy cold—which is what had happened last night. He hadn’t had a chance to read through his stories ahead of time, and he rushed into the studio just seconds before Kelly signaled him that he was on the air.

O’Brian fumbled with his headphones. He looked at the top story, and began reading aloud into the microphone. In the second sentence he encountered the phrase: “The Smith administration issued a communiqué….”

Pronounced “com-mu-ni-KAY.”

Except O’Brian said: “com-mu-NEEK.”

“The Smith administration issued a com-mu-NEEK today. . .”

Immediately, he could hear laughter roaring from the other side of the studio door. As if each of the half-dozen people out there had heard the blunder and found it hilarious. And through the glass partition, O’Brian saw that Kelly was red-faced, sputtering with laughter. The way Kelly was shaking, he looked like he might have a seizure.

Somehow O’Brian got through the rest of his newscast. Afterward he hurried down the hall, head down and face burning. He couldn’t have been more embarrassed if he’d crapped his pants.


O’Brian felt deflated just thinking about it. But the lake was strong medicine. The sound of lapping water, and the sun’s massaging warmth, lifted his mood again.

Floating in a pleasant reverie, O’Brian heard the water lapping a little faster, a little louder. He opened his eyes and peered down between the raft’s wooden slats. In the shadows below, where the water was ghostly green, he saw the back of a head wrapped in streaming copper hair.  

The head was attached to a long, muscled female body in a purple one-piece suit. She was swimming under the raft, about three feet beneath O’Brian. The woman’s strokes looked effortless; her limbs were long and her pace was swift.

The body belonged to Jill. Her skin glistened as she drove through the water. As gravity drew him toward her, O’Brian felt a dizzying thrill. He pressed his face against the wood till it hurt. He got a tantalizing look at Jill’s writhing butt and the contours of her thigh muscles. Her breaths were husky, like hot whispers in his ear.

O’Brian’s own breathing became faster. He smelled and tasted the lake’s odour; it seemed more pungent, like after a rain. Jill cleared the raft and swam into the sunlight. O’Brian watched her shimmering form fade. He was hard, and he ground his crotch into the rough wood.


O’Brian emerged from the lake, invigorated by the cold water pouring from his body. He snatched his towel and rubbed himself, proudly aware of one good thing about being skinny: he wasn’t fat.  

In an area off to the side of where most students had gathered, Jill sat on a large white rock. The rock was shaped like someone’s large, craggy head, and its surface held Jill several feet above the surrounding sand and grass. Leafy oaks and palms gave Jill a tent of shade.

Feeling hearty, O’Brian walked over and clambered up the rock’s slope. Jill sat on a striped beach towel, legs bent in front of her as she leaned forward as if to grab something. “Hey,” O’Brian blurted. “You mind if I sit here?”

Jill looked up abruptly then stared, as if puzzled over who he was. She held her stare. O’Brian felt foolish standing in his baggy swim trunks with nothing to offer except himself. But Jill settled back and recovered with a gracious smile. “Nope,” she said.

She was probably just being polite, but O’Brian dropped his towel and sat. “Didn’t know you were here,” he said. “Looks like the whole crew showed up.”

Jill nodded, eyes brightening. “First really nice day of the year,” she said. “Be lucky to get these scholars to leave.” A pack of Salem Lights, a vinyl beach bag and a pair of sunglasses lay near her thigh. She picked up the Salems and tapped one out. She touched a silver lighter to it and exhaled smoke.

“Is that idiot Kelly around here?” O’Brian said. “He messed me up during my newscast last night.” O’Brian fished out a Marlboro and lighted it with a Bic. “You didn’t happen to hear it, did you?”

O’Brian looked around for Kelly, worried that Kelly would come over and cramp his style. Kelly monopolized conversations. O’Brian would have to listen to Kelly tell clever stories while O’Brian would be unable to get a word in edgewise. Jill would be charmed, and maybe flirtatious: O’Brian suspected that Jill and Kelly had been intimate. He had no evidence other than the fact that they were two of the best-looking people around.

Jill held her cigarette in her right hand, the one closest to O’Brian. She placed that hand on the ground as she grinned and leaned toward him. “Oh, so it was his fault.”

“Sure was. He put me on air before I was ready.”

“I didn’t hear your newscast,” Jill said. “But I was listening later on, and he was poking fun of you.”

“The bastard,” said O’Brian.

Jill’s grin lingered. Her damp, tangled hair hung down the sides of her face and rubbed her shoulders.

Jill sat back, took a drag and watched the lake. O’Brian looked at her profile — a glittering blue eye, smooth nose and expressive mouth. Her skin looked luminous.

But O’Brian felt himself deflating. It was too often like this: he’d hover around Jill, burning energy like a plane awaiting clearance to land. He never fucking landed.

“I’ve had it with that lab,” he said. “If I never have to clean another cage, it’ll be too soon.” He puffed on his Marlboro and was struck by another thought. “You ever wonder what happens to them?”

 “What? The cages?”

 “No,” he said. “The rats. When the semester’s over.”

“The rats,” Jill said. She flicked her Salem away and lit another. She put down the silver lighter. She said, “You know, I saw something once when I was little. My mom and dad were going to take me horseback riding. But when we got to the place, it was just an empty meadow. Nobody seemed to be around. There was a barn at the edge of the field, and we walked to it. Then we heard these noises in the back.”

She put on her sunglasses and turned toward O’Brian. “You wouldn’t believe it. We saw about a dozen horses, goats, and about 30 dogs. All crammed into this pen. They looked like skeletons with their bones protruding through their skin. So weak, all they could do was whine. It smelled horrible. There seemed to be all kinds of breeds of dogs. A border collie, little terriers. German shepherds. Most animals were sitting or lying. They didn’t have the strength to do anything else.

“You never heard such noises,” Jill said. “High pitched, desperate, yet so soft. I was just a kid, but I knew these animals were going to die.”

Jill turned back to the lake. “I started crying. I don’t remember too clearly after that. But the whining — that I remember like it was yesterday.

“And you know something?” Jill said. “I haven’t cried very often since. How’d you like to be there when they drown the rats, or whatever the hell they do?” She arched her back and stretched her arms. “Well I don’t even want to think about it.” She turned over and rested on her stomach.

O’Brian crushed his Marlboro out against the rock, nerves grinding his teeth together. He stared at her back. “Maybe someone takes them to a field and lets em go,” he said.

 Jill yawned. “Well, I doubt it.”  

O’Brian spread out his towel. “Sorry I brought it up,” he said. He inched closer to Jill and lay down.

O’Brian closed his eyes. The shade felt pleasant and the rock’s surface was cool. His nearness to Jill held the illusion of intimacy. He heard Jill sigh, a lovely sound, and he felt a breeze. The branches above them rustled like a soft whisper.


O’Brian was half sleeping, half listening to some guys talking near the lake when he felt something rub against his leg. The object stroked his calf, slid to his foot and reversed itself. He tried to consider what was going on. Well, of course he was dreaming.

The object was warm and smooth. It made O’Brian tingle. The voices by the lake continued, and O’Brian thought this really could be happening. He lifted his head and looked at Jill. Her deep blue eyes were looking back.

O’Brian shifted closer. He reached across Jill’s back and put his hand on her shoulder. Her tender skin clung to him. He placed his nose against her upper arm and inhaled odours of tangy skin, lake and sunscreen. Something opened inside him and tears filled his eyes.

Now, he thought. You hold on to this moment. He was certain that he was on the verge of something.

A minute passed, during which O’Brian felt ecstatically fevered, like a monk to whom all was about to be revealed. A soft kiss brushed his temple. “I’m sorry,” Jill murmured.

He looked at her and smiled. “It’s OK,” he said, tears brimming. “Believe me.”

Her eyes were inches away. “I need to go.”

He moved his mouth without speaking, and finally said, “What?”

“I was about to leave when I saw you, but I’ve really got a lot to take care of.”

O’Brian stared at her. He lifted his arm, giving Jill room to squirm out. “I get it,” he said. “I’m busy too. You wouldn’t believe it.”

Jill was on her knees, gathering sunglasses, cigarettes, lighter and towel. She put the belongings in her bag. “I’m so sorry.”

O’Brian had rolled onto his side, and his head rested in his palm as he watched her stand. “Well it’s OK,” he said. “You know. The radio station. Term papers. Maybe we’ll come back?” His voice was hoarse but he sounded whiny to his own ears, and he was disgusted.

Jill nodded, put on a straw hat and sunglasses. She turned and descended the slope of rock onto the sand.  

O’Brian watched her walk through the sunshine, tall and rangy as she passed groups of students lying prone from booze and heat. She stopped, turned back and offered a subdued wave. Then she moved on, growing smaller till she disappeared behind a line of trees.

O’Brian rolled to his back and watched the tangled branches above. Leaves and fronds quivered, showing flashes of the sky.

“Nice try, O’Brian.”

O’Brian recoiled, recognizing the baritone. He sat up and blinked at the figure of a young man standing a few feet away.

Kelly favoured Camel non-filters. He puffed one, thick lips wrapped around the butt. He wore a dark blue swimsuit, and his damp hair glistened. Kelly’s chest and stomach muscles bulged; his stout legs looked like they could kick over trees.

O’Brian said, “What’re you talking about?”

“I saw Jill hurrying away,” Kelly said. “Must’ve been your winning personality. You offend her or something?”

O’Brian’s anger flared and then quickly sputtered out. He shrugged, trying to think of something to say.

“Heck, no,” O’Brian said. “She has work to do.”

A dapple of sunlight found Kelly’s smirking face. “Yeah, she’ll send you a letter.”

O’Brian picked up a Marlboro and placed it in his teeth. He nodded, conceding defeat. “Hey, Kelly,” he said. “Not to change the subject. But what do you think happens to our lab rats when the semester’s over? You think they let them go?”

“Let me ask you a question,” Kelly said. “What’s that weird shit at lunch that’s supposed to be chicken?”

O’Brian laughed and lighted his Marlboro. The afternoon was still hot, and he felt sweat under his arms. He lowered his head down on the rock and closed his eyes. Soon he’d go for another swim, maybe hop up on the raft again. This time he might see a mermaid.


Jill didn’t go to her next lab session, O’Brian discovered. Nor was she at the radio station the following day, when they were scheduled to work together. At the end of his shift he called her and got no answer.

O’Brian’s next 48 hours were spent cramming for, and taking, a test in Media and Law. Then he finished a term paper. He slept for 15 hours and tried Jill again, getting the same result. That evening he walked over to her place, two apartment complexes down the road from his own.

Jill’s apartment was empty. The manager, an older woman with a German accent, smoked a long unfiltered Pall Mall. The evening was humid, and O’Brian wore shorts, a t-shirt and sandals. The air had a light magnolia scent. Having forgotten his Marlboros, O’Brian bummed a Pall Mall. They stood outside the manager’s apartment, smoking and watching traffic pass by, while she assured O’Brian that Jill had moved out less than a week ago.

Walking home, O’Brian felt hollowed-out, and he peered through tunnel vision whose dark walls swayed, as if ready to collapse and suffocate him. He wasn’t hearing too well, either, but the car creeping alongside, and honking, was obviously trying to get his attention.

Kelly, driving a pearl Saab, powered down a window. “O’Brian,” he called. “Let’s go get a beer.”  


They sat in the back of Joe’s Pub, a college-town place, not too busy on a Tuesday evening during finals week.

“She’s pregnant,” Kelly said. He wore a red and blue t-shirt with a motorcycle logo. “Guess she’d been worried, and found out for sure about a week ago.”

O’Brian took a sip of Heineken and dragged on one of Kelly’s Camels. He was more amazed than stunned. He supposed he’d had a sheltered life; the only pregnant woman he’d ever really known was his mother. He was alert for any trace of smugness on Kelly’s face.

“You OK?” Kelly said.

“Just surprised,” O’Brian said. “Guess it wasn’t you.”

“Me? I wish.” Kelly waved a hand. “No I didn’t mean that. Anyway she wasn’t interested.”

“Know who the guy is?”

 “No. I gotta admit, I kind of thought she liked you.”

O’Brian appreciated that, his pride swelling. But he said, “Well you know how she was. Nice to everybody, right?”

Kelly shrugged. “I suppose she was at that.” He lifted his beer. “Well, here’s to ‘er.”

Their bottles clinked together in a cloud of smoke.  


O’Brian lived in a one-bedroom apartment. He slumped, daydreaming and drinking beer, on his couch. Jill’s face appeared, at first ghostly, but emerging like a developing photograph. It seemed so real that he believed he might reach out, and slip his fingers through her streaming hair. Then he might stroke her cheek, skin so fine it would blush, as if stirred by his touch. Now he saw her speaking and gesturing with a cigarette, blowing smoke, her fingers slim and elegant. The thing of it was, she was speaking to O’Brian; she was speaking to him, with her vivid eyes and smile, and for a moment he felt like a man with alternatives to filling silence with wishes alone.

When it passed, he rose and carried his beer across the room, and he stood close to a sheet of paper taped to the wall. He studied a sketch of a house and trees, with the sun above it. The sun had those sad tears and frown, looking upon a once-happy home. The caption read, “Blue Monday.”

No doubt she had wanted him to have it. They’d discuss it when they met again.


Image of Mitchel Montagna

Mitchel Montagna has worked as a special education teacher, radio journalist, and corporate communicator. He is married and lives in Florida.