The winter had draped it’s heavy, damp, arm over springtime’s frail shoulders, and led it back to bed, under a white blanket of winter’s own knitting. It had snowed eight inches and springtime had lain solemnly to rest with no tombstone to mark it’s giving up. Too soon, it agreed, and set it’s alarm clock to ‘later,’ when the seeds would tingle and the birds would ring a wake-up call. Winter sat watch, the evening of the seasons, until his time came to sleep, too.
The tart, livening smell of it, clean as fresh sheets, smelled as the beginning of a spring day might smell. If fit nicely in the palm of my hand, nestling dappled spots into my lifeline. Pimpled with darker spots, a small veined scar ran it’s winding course over the rind, flowing over the tiny hills rolling over the surface. It was shaped like the sun, if the sun had fallen from the sky with a ‘splat’ to the ground. A tiny belly button lay on either side; top and bottom: one a naked imprint and the other a dull pricking stem. My thumbprint smeared across the surface, friction pulling the color from my thumb, before I made the puncturing plunge. With a sparkling pop and spray of juices, the peel fell away under my eager scrabbling fingernails. Sticky, tart as an insult, the puckering sourness tasted like bright sunshine at it’s most impertinent.
She lay on her bed in the dark, her head nestled deep into her pillow. There was a soft rap on the door, tentative, apologetic. Lifting her head, peering at the door in the dark, she whispered, ‘what?’ A sliver of butter-yellow light sluiced into the room as he carefully opened the door, slid inside the room, and sat on his side of the bed. ‘Sleep well,’ came the reply. It wasn’t an ‘I’m sorry,’ not in words: but it was enough. The girl, laying on her bed in the dark, took it for what it was meant to be. She smiled and said, ‘Goodnight.’ And it was enough, for both of them.
Before that, she had run into their room and slammed the door. She had thrown herself on the bed and been angry at the injustice of it all. After a while she had cooled, steaming anger condensing into rivulets of remorse. He, still in the kitchen, held carefully his bruised hand and realized that it didn’t matter, not really.
Before that, she had stormed out of the kitchen, shouting ‘I don’t care! I don’t care!’ and he had been yelling, ‘Get back here! This is your fault!’ And she had been crying and he had been red in the face, slamming his fist on the countertop to punctuate each accusation.
Before that, his face had ballooned unattractively at the jawline and up into his cheeks as the spittle flew. While she argued that he could make more of an effort, he yelled about she wasn’t who he thought she was, and if that’s the way she was going to be, he might as well leave. She had shouted, ‘fine! My Mom was right about you!’ The two of them slinging mud and vitriol like they had never loved each other, not even for a minute.
Before that, he had come home late, his tie askew and his briefcase hanging open, and she had said, acerbically, ‘how was work?’ Though they both knew she didn’t want to know. He had dropped his briefcase, right in the middle of the entryway, in front of the door like he knew she hated, and said: ‘it was better than being here,’ and they both knew it for a gauntlet being thrown.
Before that, they had been having some trouble. Their conversations had lost their sparkle, their previously harmless teasing gaining a sharper edge and a keener point. They still loved each other, sure, but they had their doubts.
Before that, she had been thrilled at his promotion and he wildly excited about her book being such a success. They had danced in the kitchen, conjecturing wildly about the great things they would make of themselves and their lives, and, around grins and spoonfuls of celebratory ice cream, they had a quick discussion about how much time his new work duties would take, and how her second book would need to be written quickly to keep up momentum. But between sloppy kisses flavored like ice cream, neither had really listened, nor cared.
Before that, every word had been the height of wit, every tiny inconvenience the sweetest quirk of the most loveable sort, and every look a sultry come-hither. Time apart was like a desert, joining again at the end of their work days an oasis.
Before that, they had spoken at length about the time commitments work demanded of both of them, and how they were going to make time for their small ‘us’ and ‘we.’ They had known that no matter what happened, they could weather any storm, and loved each other more than life.
Before that, they had married on a beautiful spring day.
“Only a few more formalities,” assured the man sitting across from John. John held his breath when the man slid an unassuming manilla folder towards him, having a vague notion that if he breathed in the fetid air surrounding this man, his lungs would curl and shrivel into lumps of wet gum in his chest. Carefully, with the tip of one finger, he dragged the folder to his side of the table. With that same finger, he caught the lip of it under his fingernail and flipped it open. He sucked in breath, momentarily forgetting his fears of wet-gum lungs.
“He’s amazing,” he breathed.
“He could be you,” wheedled the man across the table. “Just say the word, and sign the forms, and he will be you.”
There was a sticky oiliness to his words that clung uncomfortably to John’s ears, slithering in a miserable drip that made John want to curl his shoulder up to his temple and wince. Instead, he sat very very still, and carefully made certain that the limp hand in his lap was not clenched with anxiety. It seemed to John that this was not the sort of man to show any weakness to; else risk some sort of sudden attack, too swift to see– like a rattlesnake.
“I want this,” said John, almost to himself, with a ferocity unwarranted by the folder. But to see the possibilities on paper, right in front of him! It was almost too much for John. He was very frightened. John, who had never done an exciting thing in his entire life, thought wildly of new things he had never imagined before. With this new name in that unassuming folder, a new identity would follow, and with that– anything could happen. His own dulled imagination struggled and petered out while trying to imagine just what would happen, but John was sure that whatever followed, it must be better than being himself.
His name was John Smith, which was a kick to the groin the minute he popped out of the womb, as far as he was concerned. He was white, of average height and weight, had not an unattractive face but not a handsome one either. John Smith could be any of forty-four thousand other men, and almost in retaliation John was nobody. John wanted desperately to be something incredible, someone fascinating and special– but he wasn’t. Any effort to pick up an interesting hobby fell flat, his attempts at changing his style made him so uncomfortable that he could barely leave the house; all in all, John was completely and totally nondescript. His whole life had followed much the same vein as his name did, utterly unremarkable: growing up in a town that was not large or small; and had a tame downtown and where absolutely nothing exciting happened.
Two years earlier, John had graduated from a small, nondescript brick building with his town’s name in large metal letters on the side, preceding ‘high school.’ Just a few months ago, John had graduated from the local community college with a vague degree that could go anywhere, but really meant nothing. Just a few hours ago, he had carefully combed his hair and fastidiously chose a casual outfit, trembling with nerves and clumsy with anticipation. Then, a few minutes ago, the man who John had agreed to meet with had walked into the cafe. Simultaneously, the previously balmy day seemed unbelievably oppressive, the buttery sunlight suddenly sharpening into jaundiced daggers slashed through the slatted blinds.
Right now, John wanted to leave. John wanted to leave very badly. John wanted to get up and flee like a deer, in taut leaps and sinewy coils of energy. John wanted to run out into that miserably hot day even if the suddenly sharpened sunlight cut him into ribbons, if only to avoid this monumental decision and mental strain. What he had always wanted so badly was here in front of him, for an (admittedly large) fee and a few surgical procedures. A sudden burst of fear clenched in his gut with a cruel icy fist. For what, John could not say. Fear of saying yes? Of agreeing to his and letting his old, dull life fall away? Or fear of saying no, losing this opportunity and staying anonymous forever? Crawling up John’s throat now, the fear kinked his esophagus until he could hardly breathe. Clarity assaulted John– it was now or never. And he had always wanted this. With a shaking hand, he lifted the pen the other man slid to him, and signed the papers.
The cafe’s clock ticked on, the waitress struggling to balance coffee cups on her arm for a table across the room. And John’s life was irrevocably changed, without a flash of lightning nor crash of thunder to mark it. His companion perfunctorily pulled the folder with its many papers back to his side, and began marking them with a pen. John sat very still, very quiet, trying to feel the earth shift around him, readjusting to this monumental change. Nothing happened, the moment as mundane as the rest of his life up to this point. While they sat, languishing in the summer heat, John wondered what he was doing there. With a sort of detached curiosity, he wondered if he was making a mistake.
Inside the that nondescript folder was a program that guaranteed you would be wholly unrecognizable by the time you left it. A new name with the accompanying documents, a new face (a handsome one, and John looked forward to it), and new skills were all part of the premium package John had purchased in order to be as far from his old self as possible. Now, with the paperwork completed, the man across the table had given a few curt instructions and left, thankfully without extending a hand for a handshake. John had been dreading touching the dour man.
John followed carefully the instructions. It was not in him to disobey. The surgeries he underwent without a word of protest, though he did cry a little under the pressure of the ice on his new bandaged stitches. He took easily to the new clothes that came with his exciting new identity, because he had not had to choose them. Among these were swirling trench coats and mirrored sunglasses, things he never would have dreamed of wearing as his old self. He attended numerous classes put on by the program to acquire new and exciting skills; studied the correct posture to have, how to engage conversation, how to seduce women. It was nearly perfect. The only thing that bothered him was his new name… though, as required by the contract of the program, he’d had the new moniker tattooed on his left shoulder blade.
The name itched uncomfortably, chafing under his skin and roiling through his blood. John wished for nothing more than to peel it from his new identity and stomp on it like a rattlesnake. It felt as though the inky name scrawled across his shoulder had been pricked into and under his flesh with a snake’s poisonous fangs rather than the sterile needle so carefully inserted into the cartridge of black ink. John mildly resented his own attitude towards the whole thing, in a sort of dissociative disapproval. He had a vague feeling that if he could meet this name on the street in the shape of a man, he would not like him.
John Smith, now a totally new man, liked himself for the first time. John Smith did not exist anymore. In his place, in his same shoe size and redecorated apartment, lived someone passionate, intriguing.
The small inconveniences, such as going out to wild parties when really he would have rather stayed home, were bearable. After all, it was his old personality who would have stayed home. And this new person, who used to be John Smith, was exciting and extroverted, never needing rest for a minute. The upset stomachs from rich and heady food, that had never before touched his lips were unpleasant; but tolerated. After all, John Smith, who like waffles and spaghetti, was gone. In his place, the new identity molded and perfected by the program, did not touch anything that was not the most exotic fare. The sleepless nights filled with wild passion, ended by the dawn, were much more than the old John Smith could have ever dreamed; and who needed commitment or compassion when so much time could be spent being mysterious and suave?
The person who was once John Smith was now totally different. This is exactly what he had wanted. This is exactly what he had paid for. Yet, somehow, all this was not enough. Longer and wilder nights followed days of greater extravagance, but he was vaguely aware that none of these delights penetrated the strange buffer he found erected around himself. With the change of his whole identity came a drifting of personality that made him feel like a boat, wandering from shore to shore with no pier to dock. He became capricious and callous, drawing closer the flamboyant friends he had newly made one day, then just as abruptly pushing them away the next. This seemed only to inflame this new crowd more, as he grew more fascinating with each change of mood; gorgeous women that had spent a night in his bed suddenly seemed to be following him, the men who he gambled, ate, and talked with appeared at every turn.
He was too exciting, too incredible, too fascinating. He couldn’t get away, could not catch a break, could not catch his breath. A whirlwind of intrigue, sex, and power followed him wherever he went. He took to drinking heavily to dull the incessant chatter and demands for his company at all hours. Still, his name was the most touted, his phone the most called, his presence the most requested, and he realized he hated all of it with an intensity that he had never known as John Smith.
The greatest tragedy, they all said, after it had all finished: was that he had been gone too soon. It seemed as if he had appeared by magic, then just as quickly was gone, in a screech of metal and the crash of glass. The expensive wine that he had so glutted himself on, that everyone trying to get on the kind end of his capricious temper plyed him; had been the cause of the accident. Driving as fast and astutely as he always did in his luxury car, he had failed to see the small, nondescript beige sedan that had pulled into an intersection. It was over instantaneously, he had felt no pain.
He had left no will. Who would have thought he could ever die? He was too vivacious, too much the life of the party to ever die. Nowhere could be found any kin, nor even any sign that he had ever existed before crashing into their lives. So, together, the crowd of his admirers came up with a simple but elegant gravestone, just his first initial and last name. They cried at his funeral, dabbing away tears with perfumed silk handkerchiefs; then went to an afterparty and promptly forgot all about him.
Meanwhile, the man who was once John Smith lay under a headstone that read:
HERE LIES A. QUITTER
She was late, and with only one earring in, hopping in stocking feet to jam her heel into her left shoe, it didn’t look like she would be quick getting out the door. Hastily cramming into her purse a mess of tangled keys, headphone wires, and crumpled receipts, she stumbled to clutch the door frame for support. Cursing, she stomped hard to wedge her foot into the shoe. With a sly little zipping sound, her nylons tore into a ladder. Cussing louder, she gave it up as a lost cause and snatched up the heel as she strode out the door, swinging it shut with a bang behind her. She was late, and she was only wearing one shoe; Certainly, she thought, today can’t get any worse.
The day got worse.
On the way to her interview, her very important, crucial-to-paying-the-rent interview, she got lost. Very lost. Pressing the breaks in her only shoe, her face tracked with frustrated tears, she pulled off to the shoulder of a road and began to cry. Her toes hurt and her heel was pinched, she was lost and alone, and she certainly was not going to get that new job. In impotent rage, she slammed her palms on the horn a few times, the blaring sound only an echo of the despair in her voice.
“Oh, I wish I had a job!!” she cried to the sky. “Or at least, shoes that fit!” She collapsed back into her seat, glaring at the green foliage around her and sniffling, trying to regain some emotional control. After a while, when her breathing had evened and she had decided that she would be morose until she died, she heard a polite little cough outside of her open car window. She looked over to see a raven, so black it was nearly purple, perched on her side mirror. They stared at one another for a moment, in silence. Then, the raven coughed again.
“Hem-hem,” he said. “I couldn’t help but notice that you are in a spot of trouble. And though it’s very unusual, yes, very unusual indeed for you to honk three times rather than to call the proper words; I heard just the same and thought I’d come see if I could do anything to help.”
Gulping, she smeared the mascara underneath her eyes more in an effort to look presentable. Though she looked terrible, the raven was kind enough not to say anything.
“Words?” she repeated, dumbly.
“Yes, words,” said the raven, now a little frustrated. “You know the ones. “O, gentle doves, O turtle doves, all the birds that be–” here he preened a bit. “That’s me,” he said. “‘All the birds that be.’ Or one of them, anyway.” A little disapprovingly, his bright eye looked her up and down. “I don’t suppose you even have any lentils to trade for my service?”
“No,” said the woman, now totally incapable of any coherent thought but marveling at this incredible bird. “I’m afraid not.” Then, remembering her credit card somewhere among the wreckage inside her purse, “I don’t suppose you take card?”
“No,” replied the bird. “But I will take that.” A knobby dextrous claw pointed at her ear.
“I’ll take your earring,” he croaked, the words rattling in his chest like marbles in a washing machine. Surprised, she lifted a hand to her ear– she had forgotten she was wearing earrings. Well, an earring. Carefully prying the little plastic backing from the stem through her ear, she dropped it in her palm and offered it to the raven, saying apologetically: “I’m sorry, they’re not real diamonds. Only fake.”
The raven’s eyes gleamed as he took with one gnarled claw the proffered jewelry. “I don’t mind that a bit,” he said. “Just so long as it’s shiny.” With a clever little movement that was half-hop and half-flutter, he tucked the little bauble away under his feathers. “Now,” he said. “What seems to be the trouble? The nature of the problem affects the solution, you know.”
“Oh,” replied the woman, “No, I didn’t.” She sniffled, reminded of her original trouble. “I’m lost, and late for a very important interview. Perhaps you could–”
“Not much I can do about that,” interrupted the raven. “Never been much good at time travel. But I do recall something about your shoes, my dear?”
“Oh– yes,” remembered the woman. “My shoes don’t fit right, they’re too tight. But really my trouble is–”
“Ah!” cawed he. “I can help with that. Shoes are my specialty, you know.”
“No, I didn’t,” she said, flustered. “But really what I need is–”
“Hush!” crowed the raven, beating its wings in the air authoritatively. “I will fix your shoes. That is my specialty, that is what I came for. Not often that you hear a wish about shoes. Hem-hem,” he cleared his throat again with a little rumbling cough. “I’ll fix your shoes, and that’ll help you get on to a better day. Mmm?” He fixed her with one beady eye, bright with reproach. She didn’t dare argue, so instead nodded meekly.
“Let me see your shoes, my dear. Hook them over your car window so I can get a good look at them.” She complied, and he hopped from foot to foot as he peered intently at them, mumbling all the while.
This done, he ruffled and shook his feathers until he looked three times his original size, and said: “Fiddle, faddle, feedle, fum. What I command must now be done: these shoes that pinch and squeeze and hurt, I will change the substance that makes them inert! No more stiff leather, plastic, and such: instead these shoes shall be comfy, much!! Of softest moonlight they shall be made, to make feet feel as though on grassy glade. Fiddle, faddle, feedle, fum! What I commanded must now be done!” With a great pulse of those mighty wings, now fully expanded, the shoes shivered and shimmered, then settled.
With wide eyes, the woman gingerly picked up one shoe from the window and turned it over in her hands with awe.
“Try them on now, my dear,” urged the raven. “I’ll think you’ll find them quite comfortable.”
Obediently, she slid first one shoe on, then the other. Her face lit up in a smile as she sighed in relief. “These feel great!” she enthused. “Really, the best pair I’ve ever worn! Oh thank you!”
“Of course,” said the raven, preening. “Happy to help.”
“But what shall I do about my job interview?” she lamented. “These shoes are great, but can’t you do anything about my being late?”
“Sorry. Nothing much I can do about that,” he said, with a strange ruffled shrug of his feathers. “Get up earlier in the morning. Or buy yourself an alarm clock. This isn’t the last interview you’ll ever go to, you know.”
“I suppose you’re right,” said the woman, only a little mollified. “Thanks again for the shoes. They feel great.” She wiggled her toes in contentment. With a debonair bow, the raven winked and took wing, buffeting the air until it reached enough height to wheel away. She watched him go, cheerfully. Her mood had much improved once her feet had stopped hurting. Pulling out from the shoulder of the road, she turned around to go back from where she had come.
After all, she thought, The day will always get better from here.