“Everyone has a story.” Neil La Bute
A GOOD STORY
Melancholy, unlike vintage wine, does not improve with age. Brenda Miller had once depended on melancholy to jumpstart inspiration. She’d don the landlubbing artist’s equivalent of a diver’s suit—usually a melodramatic intake of bourbon—and lower herself into the abyss. She used to drink every day; smoke hashish when it could be had, which was fairly often. What she brought back from a lachrymose sea of self-pity was laid out to dry on the canvas. Then, it often felt as good to feel bad as it did to feel good.
Her canvas now was the screen on her laptop, a different kind of ocean; blue, clear, unruffled. She was reverential yet unblushing as she routed her stories across it in even rows of impartial type. Contemplative writing had replaced the writhing that came with that first acrid blast of the mixture of turpentine and oils. Writing was less dangerous. Painting had torn her to pieces.
Brenda and her husband were meant for something bigger, though their tacit agreement was that the bigger thing, if it had come too soon, would have undone them. Fame would have landed them a stint, or many, with Betty Ford. “We’re late starters,” he’d tell her. “Keep at the writing and I’ll see to the music.” He had a scrupulous smile—actual and undisguised—and when he said that, about being late starters, it was heartfelt and not meant to placate her. If she’d had a million dollars in the bank, he’d say, she’d still find something to be anxious and sad about.
She’d slept badly and woke in the dark under a patchwork of ennui. What was to happen to them? Why bother, she sighed, but threw the covers off and stretched.
Her husband had already left for the day job. Other songwriters wrote about the frayed blue collar and the rawboned paycheck. Neil Howe lived it. Years ago Brenda had been cast out of her long time job in publishing, having committed no infraction other than being too old and expensive at fifty. They made do. She had time to write, lots of it. Neil kept at the music. They got a lot out of being married, but there were times, as they got older, that Brenda quailed at the mountain of ‘what ifs’ she envisaged burying them.
At 8:30 she abandoned the laptop. Until she shed the melancholy any progress on the new story was stalled. Fermentation occurred naturally in wine without additives. Melancholy was augmented only by additional forays into depressive rumination. Her creative juices had to ferment naturally. There was nothing about feeling bad that would make her feel good anymore.
Brenda struggled into an athletic bra that tested her flexibility and only by dint of sheer will did she succeed. The running shoes were well past their prime but barefoot was the next big thing so why bother with new? She gathered her long brown hair into a ponytail only recently shot with laser-thin strands of gray. She pulled her cap down to shadow her eyes. A morning run was just the thing.
After a spell of irritable rain—dank, overcast days that smelled like the inside of an unkempt laundry room—the sun was in full flower again. Her pace quickened as she darted across Fifth Avenue. She had to detour a block out of her way because the East Meadow in Central Park was undergoing long-awaited renovation. Chain link fence derailed an early morning army of dogs and their owners and Brenda wondered where their reconnoitering had landed them. Next year paths, benches, and lampposts would be gloriously renewed. The meadow, restored to a lush lawn, would once again be rolled over, drooled upon, and trampled underfoot by canines of all sizes and temperaments.
Behind the children’s playground, Brenda stretched for a few moments before she lit across the park drive between speeding cyclists who seemed temporarily blind and deaf to anything but chewing up the road before them. Safely on the other side she trotted up to the reservoir across the bridle path, which still smelled of verdant, damp sponge. A couple of times around would do her good, always the antidote to an unquiet mind. She glided around heedless tourists clogging the running track and the man on his way to work, but had long empty stretches ahead of her. Approaching a smartly outfitted walker she heard the neatly coiffed woman talking into her headset. She caught a glimpse of her as she passed and overheard mention of some banking firm. Brenda eyed expensive running shoes beneath tanned, willowy legs. At the railing, one young woman posed for another who dabbed at a palette and delicately stroked her friend’s face with a fine paintbrush, recreating, in a mask, a singular view of the skyline of Manhattan.
It had been a particularly lush summer and boughs, heavily laden, drooped across the track shaping leafy tunnels. But the duck numbers were down. Geese, for the most part, seemed to have disappeared from the reservoir. Cormorants still perched on the roof of the northernmost pump house, like black-clad clerics atop a medieval stone fortress. Though sometimes they reminded her of old men poolside, blackened by the sun, kvetching among them. And why was the water so green? In sharp sunlight it looked like pea soup. Brenda was unaccountably relieved to spot the presence of turtles, their coarse snouts breaking the surface.
The ancient white-haired man they called “The Mayor” used to greet her as he thumped his walker around the track, but he was dead for a few months now. Brenda pumped her arms, maintaining a brisk pace; nothing like the manic drive she’d once had. An image flashed before her of a lean young woman, stinking of turpentine and bourbon, who could sprint multiple turns around the reservoir. Now she’d been ordered by her doctor to lose a few. Up the running distance, just a bit. Ease up on the wine.
Brenda started on her second revolution and again came upon the neat blonde, still walking and talking on her headset. “No, nothing yet…kind of slow now. I have a little money, but….”
Nearing the finish she decided to go a little further, to the bench where she regularly exercised before the detour. Brenda determined quickly that the slight, older woman at the opposite end of the bench would not be disturbed if she did a few stretches, though the woman looked a bit sad. A casual glance reminded Brenda that she had met this woman, a stranger, only a few weeks before. They had crossed paths at the auction of a famous television cowboy. The woman had asked if Brenda would take her picture in front of a $250,000 stuffed horse.
“Miriam?” The woman looked up startled, her mouth agape. “Miriam Stolkowski, right?” Brenda hurried to explain. “We met at the auction; Sotheby’s? I took your picture.” Miriam’s hands flew to an unruly thatch of red hair. “Oh,” she cried laughing, “I must use better hairspray.” She leaned across the bench and patted Brenda’s arm. “You were such a dear for sending me the photo. I tried to reply but something went wrong.” She smiled broadly. “Anyway, here you are.”
An hour flew by as they exchanged pleasantries. Did she live in the neighborhood, Brenda asked? No, she had walked the entire way from the east 50s. Had Brenda noticed the color of the water, how green it was? Wasn’t that strange? Brenda responded to another question that she was a writer. She told Brenda she had been married to a Russian who grew up on the lower east side and Brenda revealed it was where she was born. Miriam and her husband once ran a Jewish bakery on Houston Street famous for its knishes that Brenda had only just been to for the cherry and blueberry ones she would have to forgo now. Brenda described Neil and Miriam replied gaily: “I love Brits.” Their conversation was punctuated with Miriam’s repeated exclamation: “I can’t believe we have met up again.”
“Can I tell you a story?” Brenda listened as Miriam recounted that a friend of hers whose husband had died wanted a memorial for his gravesite and so erected a statue of an angel. One day the angel was gone and she reported it to the police. They found the man who had stolen it. His girlfriend had ended their relationship. She loved angels and to win her back he stole over one hundred angels from graves and planted them on her lawn outside her house.
As they were about to leave the park, Brenda confessed: “You know, I was feeling sad this morning and came here, as I do, and I always find something to cheer me up.”
Miriam grasped Brenda’s arm. “I felt exactly the same way, so I came here. It clears my head to walk around the reservoir and I only just stopped for a rest before I go back home.” This weekend she had gone back to the house in New Jersey where she lived with her husband for 35 years. He died some years ago and the house was too big for her. As she no longer skied or took the boat out she sold the house to an Italian family of beautiful raven-haired children who have her as a guest from time to time. “It was always a nice visit, you know, but this time as I was leaving I saw them all in my old house and I got a bad bout of melancholy.” Brenda smiled and patted her hand, clasped tightly to Brenda’s arm. “So this morning I came to the park. And there you were.”
“And there you were,” Brenda laughed.
At the park entrance Miriam exclaimed: “I will be forever grateful for listening to my body that told me to rest on the bench.” Brenda smiled and turned to leave but Miriam called after her. “It was good, right?” Turning back, Brenda cocked her head. “The story I told you, about the stolen angels? It’s a good story, right?”
A GOOD STORY is an original short story by Linda Danz.
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work.
© August 2010