Saturday, November 22, 2008

Story: "The Disinventor"

It's been a slow week for me, as I've taken a much needed vacation (a little early), and spent some time working on my own writing for a fiction class I've been taken [sic]. But as I feel guilty about not posting something in quite some time, here's a first draft of a story I've been toying with; enjoy.


A metal shaft: one foot long, three inches in diameter. Two spider-like legs: thin silver, fleshed onto opposite sides of the shaft’s tip. A black arc of canvas: ripped jagged like a dead parachute. Still visible: half the familiar off-white of a corporate logo. This is what Alex brings to school for show and tell, a sharp, broken umbrella; this is why you’re stuck in the sweaty traffic of a frustrated Tuesday, honking toward Briar Peaks Elementary. Principal Thorpe calls it a weapon—right to your face—, shows you the pointy edges, like metal thorns, and says it’s “scabrous and scandalous,” as if the gold-framed doctorate above his desk were in dispute, not Alex’s latest disinvention. “Stop it,” you say, looking Alex full in his nut-brown eyes, grabbing his feet as they arc out, before he can thud them restlessly into the padded legs of that foamy chair. “I’m sorry,” you lie, expertly, turning back to Thorpe, but as you let go of your son’s harmless feet, you feel a clutch down by your seven-months-dry liver.

[Read On]

“It’s nothing to worry about,” says the principal, reading your mind. “Not really.” His sternly crossed arms turn into a weird self-hug as he continues. “Given the circumstances, that is, the lack of intent, not to mention Alex’s performance—“ Science fair, computer lab, math team, you think, muting him as you scan the trophies in the office. “—most concerned with, Mrs. Calvito.”

“Ms.,” you say, and when Thorpe shuffles some papers and raises an eyebrow, “Mary,” you add, “just Mary.” Ms., like mother like daughter, even though you make breakfast every day, cut the crusts off, twist the bag tightly, throw in grapes or apple sauce instead of chocolate. “I’m sorry,” you say, unclenching your fist and smoothing it against your pantsuit—yes, the black one, the one that doesn’t stain so easily. “You were saying?”

“When creativity manifests in this fashion…” he starts, patting Alex on the shoulder—you feel that internal tug again—, “Well, Alex, why don’t you explain it?”

“S’not a weapon,” he says. “It is not scabrous. It’s an unbrella. I made it.”

“Billy’s probably getting stitches right now.”

“Billy’s an idiot,” Alex says. “You can hurt yourself with just about anything. Poke yourself with a pencil. Bludgeon someone with a ruler. Gouge with a compass. You could choke on an eraser.”

“What you want to call it,” says the principal, “isn’t really the point.”

It’s one-thirty, and your boss can’t stand the Zurich team. “What exactly is the point?”

“I’m not accusing you of anything,” he says, “and I’m certainly not blaming your son for anything. But Alex,” he says, looking at you with at least one eye, “I think you need to ask yourself why you want to be so different.”

“You like it when I build things.”

“Of course, you’re very creative.”

“I built this, too.”

“No,” he says, brandishing the umbrella, demonstrating the snapped hinges, passing a hand through the empty spaces. “You broke this.”

“It was one thing, and now it’s another. That’s what it means to make something. Everything is part of something else.”

“But it doesn’t do anything.”

“Sure it does. If everything did what it was supposed to do already, then we wouldn’t have to make anything. Disinventing stuff is what gives us something to do.”

Your boss understands the situation, of course; as he sips the coffee you bring him at three, he pretends that it explains the unanswered messages on your phone, including the one about the Hoffmann account. “No,” you say, making a new quilt out of the square boxes on his digital calendar, then “No,” again, this time into the phone, pressing the hold button, and then looking back up. “This is where I need to be right now.”

In the next cubicle over, Alex catches up on Minesweeper, and you watch him shift-click through a blank slate of tiles. Streams of numbers drip across the screen, and then he hits a bright red X. There’s a smiley face at the top, and when he clicks it, the tiles are fresh and empty again. Again and again, he finds his way through the booby-traps; each move, even the good ones, mar the face of that perfect surface. Click, click, boom, and again.

The phone beeps—the client on hold—and you break from that dream back into the distracting world.

“Yes,” you say. “Calvito, that’s right. Mrs. His wife.” You push the pad back underneath the glass, and the buzzer swings the first set of doors open. Charles is in the next room, a familiar face, and you spread your arms wide as he walks over. The wand whispers along your bare arms, then zips down your right side and ends at your feet: like magic, it announces that you are harmless, even though nothing’s changed. “You’re getting better at this, Mrs. Calvito,” Charles says, sliding keys along his chain until he reaches the one that opens the lock. Yes, by now you can leave the Kleenex in the car with all the loose change; next time, maybe you’ll pull off the wedding ring, too.

“So we’re still married,” says Paul, waiting at the end of the hallway. There must be a dozen doors between the two of you, but they’re all open, so what’s the point? It brings that old joke to mind: When is a door not a door?

“Paperwork,” you laugh.

“Right,” he says, limping a little, either from the meds or the shrapnel. “I still can’t believe they pay you to file things.”

“It’s all gone electronic, anyway.”

“Not in my job.”

“Not yet.”

Why does that awkward silence always feel like the moment when you first fell in love? The rest of the world fades away, and you dry swallow and regurgitate something to say: “And how are things?”

“Fine.” He shrugs. “I mean, they call the people around here orderlies. That’s their whole job.”

“I meant—“

“We made small talk on the march, you know? Otherwise it would just be them shooting us and us shooting them. So what’s Alex done?”

This is how it was when you first met, at a costume ball, of all things. You knew he was the handsomest man there because his mask was so ugly, a Cyrano-looking thing, with whorls of mismatched colors. And he just marched right over, lifted you up, mauve frills and all, and set you down on the dance floor. You’d taken off your shoes because they pinched, but he never stepped on your feet, and later, when you slow-danced, you stood on his feet and let him move for the both of you.

“No, no,” you say, louder than the clutch in your gut. “He’s fine. He’s ten. He’s fine.” An orderly bumps into you, apologetically, pushing a cart of small paper cups and smaller pills. You watch him recede down the hall, as if that will keep Paul’s eyes from piercing you, and note how much is actually going on around you. In that single moment, how many houses of cards collapse and get rebuilt?

“I don’t understand why you’re in here,” you say.

“Because you can remember the good days,” he says, doing a sort of broken slow dance beside you. “And I can’t forget the bad ones.”

Alex hasn’t disinvented the house in your absence, so there’s one small miracle of television’s dimming glow. A few of the G.I. Joes are out of the packing crate, their plastic bodies splayed bloodlessly, heads buried, ostrich-like, in the beige carpet. Like their father. You pick them up and slam the desk drawer shut behind them; funny, but also a little sad: you can’t even remember their names.


“Yes, honey?”

“What did you think of my unbrella?”

“Well, I don’t think it was a weapon,” you say, slicking the hair back out of his sleepy eyes.

“You wouldn’t think a gun was a weapon either, if you were just seeing it for the first time.”

“Look,” you say, “I’m sorry that you’ve seen those things.”

“Why? They’d still be there.”

That was when you knew he’d be smart: four months old and you couldn’t fool him with a game of up-close hide-and-seek. Cover your eyes and he still knew you were there. Later, you had a name for it, “object permanence,” but that didn’t change things for Alex. And he was so trusting: when he was older, Paul would set him up on the bathroom sink and stand behind him, then tell him to fall back—Paul’d pretend that he suddenly had to leave to get the phone, but Alex knew that nothing would stop his father from catching him. It had taken nine years to fool him, and shame on you for doing so.

“So,” he says, “you didn’t like it.”

“No,” you say. “But I think I just didn’t understand it.”

“When you’ve got an umbrella, you can just pretend it’s not raining. But an unbrella’s realer, because you know that it is. And you know that it’s only water.”

Solo agua, as Paul’s buddies would say, clustered around the grill with their beers so that they could keep the fire going, even in the rain. “You can get through anything,” Alex says, echoing long-gone Paul, “as long as you don’t let anything get through you.”

“I love you,” you say, tucking him into bed. “Nothing’s realer than that.”

“I know,” he says. “You can’t disinvent love.”

Couldn’t you? You drank every day, waiting for him to come home, watching and hating the television for telling you things you didn’t want to know. Words like IED, or jihad, and yes, they were there whether you knew about them or not, but your husband didn’t have to be there: this nation’s guard, not that one’s. And the TV—as if they had invented HD for this—didn’t need to show it, didn’t need to tease out clips to make a 24 hour news cycle.

No, the love was still there, but the man, the man was not. Just when you’d stopped drinking—him home, home for good—you woke to the muzzle of your husband’s gun: cold, not wet. His trembling eyes behind it, not unlike the ones you’d find on a dog. You’d felt that pistol lick your skin, heard him bark out orders, but it wasn’t until you’d seen Alex in the doorframe, lit up like an angel by the nightlight in the hall, that you’d reacted. That you’d realized you—this country, this world—were an inventor, too.

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