Friday, April 8, 2016

Pen Name by Alec Lavictoire

A lonely man tries to connect with a work colleague in Alex Lavictoire's bleakly comic short.

The bathtub creaked and groaned as Gerald's hefty frame stepped into the water. He took in a deep breath and exhaled down into the four-slice toaster he held in his hands. He smiled through the tears as he plugged the toaster into the wall socket.

As he stood there in the tub, he imagined that his death would come as no surprise to his co-workers. He was aware that his size had always gotten him noticed while his personality assured he was soon forgotten. He imagined the organizational announcement that would be emailed to staff members following the news of his untimely death. In it, someone like the assistant to the vice-president of inside sales would note that Gerald's death was a great loss to the organization. Period. It would resonate with an appropriately hollow ding.

In all of this, the only person Gerald imagined would be upset by his sudden demise would be Henrietta from the mailroom. She would hear her co-workers ask each other "who's Gerald?" He would be an embarrassment to her - even in death.

Henrietta did not have many friends and had come to rely on Gerald as one of her few sources of conversation while at work. She was over six feet tall, excrutiatingly thin, and had an unfortunately pronounced aquiline profile. She had two hollows where her cheeks should be and her skin had an olive green hue. She, like Gerald, smoked an average of two packs a day. Unlike Gerald, however, her teeth were stained a dark ochre, thanks to the cigarettes and her compulsive consumption of coffee. While at work in the mailroom, she had a cup of coffee within easy reach of her left hand while the index and middle fingers of her right hand stood stiffly in the shape of a V awaiting the eventual insertion of a cigarette.

Gerald and Henrietta's acquaintance had been forged over smoke breaks in inclement weather that had prompted easy conversation regarding the inclement weather.

"Cold enough for you?"

"Tell me about it."

Over time, and with the occasional nod while passing each other in the halls, Henrietta and Gerald began to time their numerous smoke breaks to coincide. They began to learn a bit about each other between comments on the weather and the regurgitation of headlines from the morning paper.

Henrietta discovered that Gerald had a passion for video games. Not the silly kind with guns and spaceships, but the kind where an artificial model of the world could be designed to the player's tastes and specifications. Gerald told her all about the world he tended to every night after work. His "friends" were intelligent, kind, and just plain lovely people to be around. They ate, worked, and slept their way through days overflowing with the simple details and glitches that made their lives unique. He enjoyed their company and was certain they appreciated his divine intervention in their day-to-day. Gerald confessed to her that the video game was a truly fulfilling intellectual pursuit and Henrietta agreed that it sure sounded like it was.

For his part, Gerald discovered that Henrietta had quite an appetite for the salacious romances that lined the drugstore checkout aisles. Curious, Gerald actually purchased a few of these titles. He spent a few weeks reading about heaving pecs being clawed by long red fingernails as flowing manes of hair danced on the winds of passion. Although he told himself these books were not to his liking, Gerald nevertheless picked up all twelve sequels to Lana's Lust.

Gerald's idea of love had always been of a simple nature. The woman of his dreams had long blond hair, long slim legs, clean, fruity breath, and rose petal lips that would lock softly onto his. She could make him smile just by looking in his direction and set his pulse racing with an easy touch of her graceful fingers. Henrietta was not Gerald's idea of his ideal. Even so, he believed the potential might be there, smouldering somewhere behind the shroud of second hand smoke.

One day, during one of their smoke breaks, Henrietta happened to glance at her cigarette pack and giggled when she read the health warning.

"This is so funny. Look, it's like a poem. Smoking cigarettes... leads to birth defects."

"And have no regrets... if it's cancer you gets," added Gerald, with a wry grin.

Henrietta smiled at his quick wit.

"I dabble in poetry from time to time," he added, blushing as he lied.

"Really?" asked Henrietta, positively tickled.

"Yes," said Gerald, unable to stop himself. "It passes the time."

"That's amazing," she giggled, moving her hand to cover her smile. "Have you published many poems? I guess you'd call them oeuvres being an artist and all, right?"

He gave her a blank stare. By oeuvres, Gerald assumed she meant poems.

"Yes, but I only write for me. I'm not in it for the money or anything," he informed her.

"Wow, I'd love to read some of your poems."

"They're not really good, honest," he said.

The awkwardness of the lie made his lips quiver.

"It doesn't matter. I'd love to see them anyway."

"Oh, I don't know."

"Please. I'm really curious."

"I'm not used to people reading my stuff."

"I promise I won't laugh."

"Oh, you won't laugh. They're not funny," he replied.

Gerald went on to embellish that he had been writing for years and had never shown any of his poems to another living soul. However, in her case, he was willing to make an exception and promised to look through his files to see what he could dig up for her enjoyment.

Gerald reached his desk and promptly googled poetry sites. He soon came across Daily Poetry and found a short snappy poem about St Bernard dogs. He copied and pasted the poem into a Word document, substituted the author's name for his own, and clicked on print. He was now a poet as far as Henrietta knew. He considered that it was the first time she had appeared impressed by anything he had told her about himself. The fact that it was a bald-faced lie was of no concern - she liked him!

When he presented her with the poem the following day, Henrietta read the verses carefully and took in the magic of every word.

"Oh, my God! It's wonderful," she gushed. "I'm a dog lover too, you know."

The pained expression that crept across Gerald's face was a smile.

The days went by and Gerald presented Henrietta with one poem after another. She was in awe of his talent. His poems ran the gamut from the quirky to the clever to the profound. Every new day's poem revealed to her some fresh dimension of Gerald's personality. She began to think that perhaps she could love the man behind such words of beauty. As for Gerald, he had been desperately in love with Henrietta for some time. He looked forward to every smoke break as though she were the nicotine coursing through his veins, soothing his mind. He loved to watch her read "his" poems. The sight of that wrinkly smile creeping across her lips never failed to warm his heart.

Even though he could not string more than two words together, Gerald began to feel a certain pride in his poetry, or more precisely, in his discriminating taste in poetry. He had begun to feed Henrietta a series of romantic poems. Gone were the musings on St Bernards and cockatoos. His selections were now strictly confined to romance and its influence on the human condition. He would spend his days at work surfing the web for just the right verses. At night, he would test his poems out on the young lovers inhabiting his desktop game. He would read the poems aloud, strike a few keys on the keyboard, and the lovers would embrace.

One such evening, after a few beers and a few poems, Gerald watched the pixels on the screen embrace and determined that he would ask Henrietta to go out on a date with him. He would need to plan his proposal carefully so as not to trip over his words and cause himself undue embarrassment. He pictured a quiet dinner at Sonny's Steak House. Henrietta would have an appetizer for dinner while he would opt for the steak and shrimp with mashed potatoes. Perhaps a side order of onion rings and a dessert of fudge brownie ice cream would be nice as well. After dinner, they would go back to his place, watch a romantic comedy, have a few beers, a few smokes, and late in the evening, a first kiss just might materialize. On the strength of his poetry alone, Gerald felt confident that Henrietta would consent to an evening in his company.

The following day, Gerald waited anxiously for their first smoke break. He had trouble lighting his cigarette and was straining to catch his breath as he waited for Henrietta to arrive at the designated smoking area. When she finally did step outside, Gerald could tell right away that something was wrong. She was aloof to his warm greeting and did not seem to want to talk to him at all. When he asked her what was troubling her, Henrietta turned her disappointed gaze on him.

"You're a poet and you didn't know it," she began sarcastically.

"Huh?"

"Oh, don't play dumb with me, Mister B.S. Eliot."

The sharpness of her tone stung him. He took a step back, puzzled.

"What are you talking about, Henrietta?"

"Forget it. You're just a big fat liar!"

"I don't understand. Tell me," he pleaded softly.

She told him that, as she rode the subway to work that morning, she happened to glance up at one of the placards above her head. On the placard was a poem, a kind of poetry for the transit masses. The featured poem was identical to the one Gerald had presented her with earlier in the week. At first, Henrietta was confused. She recalled Gerald telling her that he had never published any of his poems for fear of "selling out." But there it was staring her in the face. That's when she had noticed the true author's name - a poet by the name of T.S. Eliot. Henrietta was no scholar, and she could not tell the difference between T.S. Eliot and T.S. Garp's writings, but she had heard of that name before. It was a brand name in literature like Dickens or Shakespeare. She also knew that no matter what this T.S. had written, he was a real writer.

"I'm not upset that you're not a real poet."

"But... It's just that..."

"I'm just disappointed that you lied to me. You played me for a fool. I hope you had fun doing it."

"Henrietta. I didn't lie... I just... I..."

"It made me feel sick, Gerald. I was sick at the sight of it. Now I feel the same way just looking at you."

She took one last drag of her cigarette, threw it to the ground, and crushed the life out of it.

"T.S. Eliot," she spat.

Stunned at the turn of events, Gerald watched her go back inside. When the door had closed behind her, he was finally able to speak.

"It's my nom de plume," he whispered, one last lie. He was left standing alone staring at his reflection in the glass door.

Gerald spent the rest of the day in a daze. His mind could not focus on any one thought. It was all just a cloudy haze in his head. He kept seeing her disappointed gaze, hearing her disillusioned words while the lines of poetry swirled all about.

That night, he sat at his computer. The beer tasted flat and the cigarettes were not tickling his lungs the way they should. He tried eating a cheesecake but his taste buds were not responding. All the pleasures in his life were ebbing away. He watched the two lovers in his simulated fantasy world. They stood apart waiting for his directions. He could not bring himself to manipulate their fates. He punched a quick command on the keyboard and a tall fence appeared in the expanse between his lovers. On her side of the fence, the woman stood amid flowers and pink clouds. On his side, the man was trapped in a steel and concrete canyon. They both seemed so alone.

Gerald switched off the monitor, crushed out his cigarette, and went to the bathroom to draw a bath. He sat down on the edge of the tub. He could feel the weight in his bones. He was tired. He felt weak. He had no desire to rise again but forced himself to go to the kitchen.

He took in a deep breath and exhaled down into the four-slice toaster. He smiled through the tears as he plugged it into the wall socket. Gerald stood frozen in place searching for his courage as the beads of sweat rolled down from his forehead. He let the toaster drop from his grip, but the cord was too short. He watched as the appliance swung down and smashed to pieces against the wall. He surveyed the scene. Something within made him resist the urge to surrender. He opened his eyes as the idea came to mind. I can always make it up to her, he told himself with a fading grin.

5 comments:

  1. I also enjoyed reading this piece and felt for both characters, perhaps Henrietta had been harbouring similar thoughts to Gerald? both original characters. I also think and hope there is more about them to come.

    Mike McC

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  2. People on the fringe, people we know little about. But there is someone for everyone and complications too. Great story!

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  3. I loved this story, credible and poignant. I'd like to hear more of Gerald and Henrietta: love isn't the sole preserve of the beautiful people! Gerald did some image management -but isn't that normal in the early stages of a romance? He went too into the land of make-believe partly due to his inexperience and partly his lack of self-esteem.Maybe he can be forgiven? Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  4. The majority of us are happy at the thought of imperfect people forging a relationship, even one with problems.

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  5. Gerald is a likable character and one can't help but hope that he's accurate, that he can make good. Believing so, it seems, might make it so. His failure at self-electrocution was a relief as well as darkly humorous.

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