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On This Date in 1894, Nothing Happened
It was one of those strange days, where things seemed to happen in slow motion and there was pressure behind my eyes and I felt I’d been squinting at the world for weeks. I wasn’t hung-over or sleep-deprived. I had slept eight hours. The only odd thing was that when I woke up I could tell through the blinds that it was overcast. It was the quality of light that tipped me off, the kind that sneaks in and makes an unlit room seem even darker. Strange, though, Steve didn’t believe me about the clouds, and when he peaked through the blinds he was surprised. It was a Wednesday.
My boss called and told me I could come to work later, and would that help me? I told her, Oh yes, because, you see, I’m shoe shopping right now. And she called me back three more times, accidentally, and whenever I picked up I heard her talking to someone who wasn’t me, someone who was there with her wherever she was, and I listened in for a few seconds; her tone was jolly and she seemed to be meeting a new person, someone who worked at her company. And what do you do at XWare? she asked. And another time it was, I’m just a regular person. She is the CEO and founder of a big software company. I’m her kids’ nanny.
The sky had cleared but it didn’t feel right. It should’ve rained this morning, but it didn’t, and so the whole day was thrown off. Like when you say you’re going to sneeze but you don’t—that’s how the sky felt.
I drove around and tried to figure out where to go, and then I caught sight of a park and turned around and went to it and brought my book and blanket and notebook and a granola bar from my glove compartment, and I settled on a grassy knoll on the opposite side of the park from the playground. I opened my notebook and stared at it. A little kid with an Afro ran over—all the way across the park—and stood in front of me. I said hello. He sat down. His diaper poked out of his khakis. I said, What’s your name? He reached for my pen and said, Pen! Then he looked at my face and his eyes went wide and he ran away.
Leaves fell. Three little girls approached my blanket.
What are you doing? one asked, and I actually felt embarrassed, as if lying in the grass spacing out in front of a blank notebook wasn’t a good enough answer. So I said, I’m writing a letter to my friend, and just to show them that I really was, I wrote “Dear Somebody” on the first line. I reminded myself that they weren’t old enough to read. The talky girl said, We’re playing and we don’t want to go but she says we have to go home and we’re sad. Then a lady called and the girls ran off. They didn’t leave the park; they stayed fifteen minutes more, and when they did go they called goodbye to me, and the two women with them looked at me without expression, like I was a bench or a stone.
The sun moved and the grass cooled and I walked back to my car and on the way I felt a brief flicker, like a flash of color in a black and white film, and then it faded and I got in my car and it was warm. The house where I’d parked had a fluffy cat stationed outside the front door. It had a gregarious face, for a cat. I thought about luring the cat into my car and petting it, maybe stealing it.
I sat in my warm car and the only person who came down the street was an old man in a fedora walking his old dog. The man let his dog sniff whatever he wanted for however long he wanted. When he did that the man just stared on in whatever direction he’d been staring when the sniffing began. I thought that was nice. I bet that was a happy dog.
At home Neil and Beth and I sat there reading while the sun went down, and after it got dark we kept on reading and no one got up to turn on the light.
I took Beth to her school’s ice skating party. When I got back it was dinnertime. The cook, James, had made burgers and fries and root beer like he does when their parents go out, but without Beth there was too much food so James ate with us and told us about how he thought eating hamburgers should be messy and how he’d dated a woman and it was going great until they had a hamburger date and he got real messy, like eight condiments in his beard, and she lost interest; we said she was shallow, and he said, People come to relationships with a movie in their mind and with some, when you go off script, they just shut down.
The CD playing in the kitchen started skipping. Neil threatened to turn it off if it kept skipping because it made him feel wrong all over, and I said, Yeah, it’s like a hiccup in the universe, and I was secretly proud. I thought it was a smart thing to say. But no one reacted, and just to push it, every time the CD skipped I fake hiccupped. Later, when the CD skipped again, Neil got up and said, I’m tired of having these hiccups in the atmosphere.
I picked up Beth from the rink and she was happy to see me, grinning and waving from the ice; she saw me before I saw her, as if she’d been looking for me. And though I wasn’t her mom or dad, she wasn’t disappointed, and I grabbed her shoulders hello. At home she asked me to sit with her while she ate dinner so she wouldn’t be alone. I was touched by the vulnerability in her voice. She is nine and will soon stop saying such things. Mostly she is onto the fact that you can’t show too much weakness, which is sad, and part of the reason I like to work with toddlers. They don’t mind needing you.
A few days earlier, Beth had asked her dad if they got pregnant with Neil on purpose or if it was an accident. Her dad sort of guffawed and smiled and said, Well, we always wanted to have kids. And Beth was like, So...it was an accident?
On the drive along the ridge tonight I notice it is clearer than usual, conspicuously clear, as if the sky is making a point, and I think, I could drive all the way to the ocean, keep thinking it even after I have turned down the driveway: All the way to the ocean. So this is how it happens, how nothing turns. Beth waves from the ice, children in a park notice a stranger; an old man walks a dog while the three of us, the leftover people, eat together at the dinner table. I remember the stone outside the English department at college, the one that says, On this date in 1894, nothing happened, and I think about all the nothing that happens every day, how life is a series of moments in color; I see how abundant the stars are tonight, all these points of light, and I come up with a line, the freckled face of night, because a star is only visible when you focus on the empty space beside it.
Kelly Luce is the winner of the 2008 Danahy Prize from Tampa Review, and has recently published fiction in The Gettysburg Review, Massachusetts Review, North American Review and The southern Review. Her collection of stories set in Japan won the 2008 Jackson Award from the San Francisco Foundation and she has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Jentel Arts. Find her online at Crazy Pete’s Blotter: www.thecrazypetesblotter.blogspot.com.
“I remember my first real front porch in terms of the things left on it. During high school, my friends and I had a game of sneaking 'found' objects onto one another’s property at night—an army of sporks in the grass, a toilet on the steps. One morning my mom woke up to fifty bagels on the lawn and a vacuum cleaner and one of those old fat jiggler machines on the porch. A guy where she worked adopted the vacuum cleaner (it worked) but the jiggler and bagels weren’t so lucky…”