February 24, 2019

Fiction by Gary Roberts: "Embracing Life"

Gary Roberts is originally from Michigan but is now living in Buellton California. He has been writing off and on since he was seventeen. He has had short stories published in The Lutheren Journal, and Indiana Voice Journal.


     It was on a Tuesday, August of 73’, more than a year after graduating from high school, when the inevitable finally took place. It was a mid-afternoon not unlike any other, which did not work in my favor. I was sprawled kitty-corner on my bed. I was observing Gilligan foul up another rescue on my portable black-and-white Sony. I could hear my mom coming up the hall and there was a certain cadence to her steps, a certain force with which they came into contact with the tile floor. It was the recognizable sound of an angry woman with marching orders.   
    She appeared in my doorway with hands on hips. My eyes followed hers as she began to scrutinize.
    There was the pile of dirty clothes on the floor and another hanging over the back of the desk chair. There was the bowl of half-eaten Fruit Loops which had been on the bedside table for about four days. A black banana peel straddled the edge of it, and it floated on the fermenting milk in the remaining soggy cereal. There were the uneven stacks of MAD magazine in various locations.  There was the torn window shade which I had promised to repair months earlier and which let in a sliver of brightness from the outside world, giving the premises a stark, medieval atmosphere.
    “I won’t even bother with the white glove test,” she murmured as she turned her attention to me in my ragged boxers, then briefly to Gilligan, then back to me.  
     Her lips tightened as she inquired if I had given Community College any more thought. Or trade school.
    I hadn’t.
    Had I checked into any of the job opportunities she had recently informed me of that were lurking in the local want ads?
    I hadn’t.
    Had I done anything at all since graduating that showed even a trace of maturity or responsibility?
    I thought hard. I hadn’t.
    There were five or six seconds of painful silence before she threw up her arms with a quick, seemingly involuntary jerk and the eruption commenced. The overriding theme was how enough was enough and how I should start to take more pride in myself. She was tired of the sight of me eating Cheetos and watching reruns on the used TV that she and my father never should have bought me. I was a young man now and it was time to take stock. “Do you even know what you want out of life?” she implored, making a dramatic, sweeping gesture with her hand.
     I considered for a few seconds, then against my better judgment answered honestly, “Cheetos and reruns.” She nearly slapped me.
    The exchange was curt and short-lived after that. My mom went back to her household chores and I, endeavoring to make a statement, kicked my feet up over the footboard of my bed and took a four-hour nap. It was a restless sleep because I knew in my gut that she had retreated from battle too quickly, too easily. She must have been waiting for reinforcements. My dad would arrive from work soon and the two would join forces and the ugliness would resume.     
        I tiptoed out the front door for a mind-clearing walk. Though Fremont Hills was a fair sized town within an hour I had covered many of its tree-lined neighborhoods, obscure side streets and even a  couple of pungent back alleys. As I wandered aimlessly I tossed around my mom’s caustic rant in my head and pondered how much worse my dad would give me when I returned home. I could hear him now. “Are you going to spend the rest of your life lying on your bed in the fetal position!?”
    The sun was dipping towards the horizon and it occurred to me that I was doing nothing more than stalling for time. “Go back and face the music,” I admonished myself. I then realized how far I had hiked, to the southern outskirts of town, when a familiar brick structure came into view as did its’ faded, blue block letters… A-L-L-I-S-O-N   E-L-E-M-E-N-T-A-R-Y S-C-H-O-O-L
    I hadn’t been back since I graduated and I couldn’t resist taking a sentimental tour around the old playground. It expanded out about fifty yards from the rear of the building. I reminisced about all those after lunch recesses.  It was always a half hour of high-spirited mayhem.
    Perhaps because of the twilight hour, I didn’t notice until I was 5 yards from the swing set that there was a body on the middle swing. It was a female body and she seemed to be crying.  I was about to begin an awkward 180 degree turn when she said, “Pay no attention to the neurotic girl behind the curtain.” Then she dabbed her eyes and let out kind of a half laugh half sob.
    Tentatively, I sat in the swing to her left. There was something vaguely familiar about her. She had one of those peaches and cream faces with dark bangs and a bit of a cleft chin. Her conservative green dress seemed incongruent under the circumstances but complemented her pretty figure.
    “Matt Colburn” I said, holding out my hand.
    “Betsy Rogers,” she responded, shaking it.
     I asked if we had been fellow inmates as I pointed toward the school.
    “I think you were a grade below me,” she said, wiping her still moist cheeks. “I remember seeing you in the hallway. You had an overbite back then and wore turtlenecks a lot.”
  I was slightly mortified by her recollection. There was an immediate lull in the conversation as we both swung lazily, somewhat in unison, our shoes scraping the dirt below us. Eventually, we engaged in some forced small talk about ‘the old days’ but it was clear our hearts weren’t in it. When she passively asked what I was up to now, I cringed.  I hemmed and hawed then acknowledged my motivational issues and said something ridiculous about my wheels being stuck in the mud. I told her my parents were waiting to broach this very subject with me when I returned home.
     When I threw the same question back at her she hesitated and smiled weakly. Then she spoke of things like Bible studies and seminars and fundraising and being mentored and learning the Swahili language. As it turned out, for the last year she had been preparing to become, of all things, a missionary. In exactly fourteen days she was scheduled to board an airplane to Africa.
     She held it together when she talked about the spiritual and humanitarian good she hoped to do, especially teaching the gospel and sharing the good news about Jesus. But her voice wavered when she brought up her parents who feared for her but who had given her their blessing.  She was going to miss them terribly, as she would miss her friends, as she would miss Fremont Hills. She confessed to struggling with severe second thoughts as she started shedding tears uncontrollably.
      It was truly uncomfortable when she became too emotional to speak. I guessed the ball was in my court but I could only sit helplessly trying to think of something to say.                                                                                                                                                  
   It wasn’t until it became excruciating that unanticipated, almost involuntary dialogue somehow spilled from my mouth.  “If I’m hearing you correctly,” I observed, “you’re considering passing up the opportunity to do something you very much want to do, something you were probably meant to do, something you’ve worked very hard for in which you will be serving God and serving mankind.  If I were you I‘d be having second thoughts about having second thoughts.”
    I didn’t know where that came from. I didn’t talk like that. I didn’t think like that. But to my unrefined ears, it actually sounded reasonable, even profound.
    She choked back her breakdown but when she didn’t respond to my words of wisdom I figured it was all for naught. There was nothing but dead air until she slowly turned her head in my direction. She was composed and she uttered two seemingly heartfelt words. “Thank you.”
     I wasn’t sure what this meant as far as her getting on that plane in two weeks but I decided to take credit for at least giving her something to contemplate. I was taken aback when she suddenly got up from her swing and hugged me very tight. She whispered in my ear, “I have a feeling God is going to get your wheels turning …and when he does there’ll be no stopping you.”
   We ended up talking for hours and I didn’t start back home until about 10:30. I knew my parents would be furious, but it also struck me that I strangely no longer dreaded facing them and the inevitable discussion about my potential for embracing life.

~Gary Roberts

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