| FICTION |
By Neal DeYoung
The Montréal Review, February 2024
I should have picked the bench. I mean, the fellow in the maroon uniform gave me the option once I was unceremoniously pulled inside the vehicle. “Bench or Bar,” he offered matter of factly and I, having no idea what he was talking about, chose “Bar”.
Now, I find myself handcuffed with four other forlorn gents to an overhead handlebar in a van clearly once used to shuttle airline passengers between the rental car parking lot and their flight terminal. In fact, if one looked closely, you could still see the faint outline of the red Avis name under the van’s now painted over greyness.
I had always found the seats in these shuttles surprisingly comfortable, but that was a different time. This van had been modified; the seats being replaced by two long, narrow wooden benches. They stretched from the alcove behind the driver’s seat where boarding passengers once stored their luggage to where the rear seats used to face the front of the van. The windows have now also been painted over with that same grey paint. No one can see in, no one can see out.
I need to sit as my hamstrings are crying for relief, but there is no one to complain to. The driver is now blocked off by a steel cage and appears unapproachable even if the five of us were not shackled. Besides, the van is roughly jerking us around and we all need to hold onto the overhead bar with both hands. The van is now wildly swerving around a bend, presumably the entrance ramp on to some highway. As I had always surmised, these vehicles were not designed for traveling at normal highway speed. One of my fellow travelers, an older fellow in brown corduroy pants and a bloodied yellow turtleneck, keeps losing his balance and repeatedly bangs his leg into one of the benches. I can’t tell whether he is re-injuring his leg, whether his jaw had been broken or the cuffs are hurting his wrists, but he grimaces without relent.
At fifty-seven, I’m in pretty good shape. Three years of cycling around town, the consequence of selling my two cars, has kept me in good form. Some say, I look like the actor Nick Nolte before he turned. Three years. A lot has changed.
My wife died three years ago. Never one to hold a profession, let alone a job, for too long, Susan remained one of the few constants in my life. ‘Our friends’ were really her friends. We traveled quite a bit, at least domestically. Childless, we could easily pick up and take a trip, but they were always “her” trips. As a freelance marketing consultant, she traveled anyway. So, a stopover in Chicago or Florida to visit her friends or family became one of our routines. I usually went along for the ride, but I don’t miss them.
I am an outsider, be it with friends or colleagues. For approximately the past two years, I taught Literature at a local community college which only further cemented this role. Although I enjoyed teaching, I didn’t really have any interest in connecting with my students and, as I had been teaching night classes, the student body was too exhausted from their daytime jobs to take any interest in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work, let alone a somewhat rambled adjunct professor.
One becomes tired of being the outsider, looking in. But, after a few decades, the role-playing is now my persona. I’m inevitably the outlier in any discussion, political or otherwise. With Susan’s friends, sooner or later, they adjust and shy away, just assuming I’m trying to be clever.
Why not remain outside? Like Kafka’s Hunger Artist, I simply had become bored with society and found my interaction with the world distasteful. But, those were simpler times and I was kidding myself. I thought myself singular and apart from the masses. An individual who refused to join either flawed side in a conversation or debate. Now literally a prisoner, I realize I was simply wallowing in my own impotence and lethargy.
Three years ago, when Susan passed, I took that next step and withdrew completely. We already had placed blackout curtains in our bedroom, a failed effort to help me sleep more than four hours a night. It worked well for Susan, she slept soundly through the night while I had to navigate the bedroom’s pitch darkness to find my clothes. To close out my world, I took the spare black curtains and hung them in the windows of our kitchen and living room. Of course, our house plants didn’t last long and had to be heartlessly thrown out, but otherwise these now dimmed living spaces remained unchanged. Any other rooms that looked outside, I simply closed the doors and left them alone, as is. There was not much to use or see there in any event.
We lived on a middle aisle road in the 40-unit Great Farm condominium development in northwest Connecticut. This community was a collection of two-family townhouses built in the early 2000’s on the back lot of a farm. It’s one of those isolated developments where the driveways and roads are filled with cars, but you rarely see anyone moving about. We all have the same small, raised porches which are just large enough for a rollaway grill, a small bar table with 2 counter stools or, alternatively, one lounge chair. Some units have small plots of land with just enough space to half-heartedly grow a few small shrubs, maybe a couple of thin rose bushes or a frail rhododendron. I rarely see anyone use their grills or their backyards for that matter, except for a couple of early morning risers watering their patches of grass or struggling bushes. Plant life, like wildlife, seems to need more space than that allotted to them by the developers.
As a widower with true alone time on my hands, I decided to leave teaching (the administration called it an unpaid sabbatical) and rededicate my rather limited ambition to reading literature, preferably eastern European authors who relish the lone protagonist stuck in an unforgiving society. I also chose to avoid most of the internet and newspapers, averting my eyes from the headlines which seem, upon my quick glances at the local market, to grow more militaristic by the month. I inevitably catch glimpses of headlines, noticing terms not previously used in political discussion: “Skirmish,” “Bunker” and “Front Lines Grow Closer.” I calm myself by recalling the media’s use of sports analogies for political theatre, “Full Court Press,” “Quarterbacking,” and the “Hail Mary” which, of course, wraps in a religious overtone. If I do read a front page at our local market’s newsstand, I focus more on the local news. Our Daily Bee had a recent splash on the murder of a local real estate agent. The deceased was described in the article only by name, age and real estate agency. The house where she was found bludgeoned, however, was described in great detail, a $656,000 5-bedroom, 3-and-half bath colonial, with a slate patio circumventing an outdoor grill station and pool. I contemplated whether they took the description from the deceased’s own listing. I have time to ponder such things.
My wife and I use to complain to each other about the routineness of our lives. We didn’t get involved much with either charity or politics. Weeks went by quickly, with her working, my grading, and our planning of trips, deliberating over which hotels were best based on everchanging Expedia prices, with or without points. Along with dinner and the readjusting or repainting of something in our living room, weeks turned to months, season after season.
All those efforts are now gone and, yet, my days alone turn to weeks just as quickly. My new routine consists of reading and attempts at fiction writing in the early hours, a daily 45-minute bike trip to our local market slash deli, reading on the back porch, weather permitting, napping, cooking, and then selecting the nighttime movie, preferably from our public library’s Criterion selection of eastern European new wave cinema of the 1960’s. Repeat.
No one tries to interrupt me. My conservative neighbors have long since steered clear of my unending sarcasm. Susan’s liberal friends initially gave me my space to grieve and then, some sooner and some later, over, I say, a period of two years, have forgotten me, moving on with their own lives. Recently, I noticed they have stopped using chat platforms even with each other. Once used to air their concerns about the upcoming election and the increasing reactionaryism lashing throughout the country, there is now silence. As I have forgotten both mine and my wife’s online passwords, I too have fallen out of any online discourse.
On the way to the market, when I do stop my bike to chat, it’s not hard to avoid discussing the stormy political climate. Most people now strain to impose a sense of normalcy in their conversation, topics remain ones in which the speaker has no apparent role, such as global warming, the travails of a neighbor’s lawn reseeding, or the inexplicable closing of a popular restaurant.
Lately, it’s become even easier to avoid acquaintances, as everyday encounters seem to be discouraged. People are more reluctant to engage with each other. In our local market, the cashiers are edgy when previously they spoke too freely about their lives and whims of the moment. As I look down the three rows of check-out stations, their heads are now bowed as they drag across their scanners the customers’ produce and other groceries. The customers also seem uncomfortable. I notice there is a longer line at the self- checkout station which once was the province of only the savvy.
Earlier this week had been particularly unusual. I tried to email a cousin who had been in financial straits ever since his two restaurants never recovered from the Covid era. The email bounced back with the subject matter line unsettlingly entitled “restricted.” No other reference. I had to defeat the urge to Google “restrictions on emails,” but knew that search would open a pandora’s box of news, none of it good. I began to worry that things wouldn’t just blow over with a new election cycle.
Another odd event. There was a not atypical small-town protest outside the local Republican party office. I’ve seen them there before over the years. Two people holding up a protest banner, a small card table containing hand-out pamphlets, and one mid-20’s, home-from-college looking person with a microphone and small portable speaker. At most, there were ten onlookers in attendance. Not a bad turnout for a protest in this town. They appeared to be the same crowd that protested the local school board’s banning two years back of a graphic novel detailing the lives of LGBTQ youth. As I leaned on my bike, one foot on the road’s curb outside the parking lot where the assembly had congregated, three vans pulled up in tandem. Twelve maroon uniformed police, or were they members of some auxiliary force, emerged and proceeded to disperse the gathering while detaining and then removing the speaker as well as the two adults holding the banner. What was strikingly unusual, besides the odd color of their unforms, was that, one, to my knowledge, our local police department doesn’t use vans, two, the age of the enforcers ranged from early 20’s to the much older and less fit, and, three, some of these men were armed with those tractible metal truncheons.
All three of the detainees put up no resistance as they were led into the last van. Just dejected souls suffering for their limited cause. More confused than troubled, I pushed off on my bike and continued on my way.
Today, like every other Wednesday, was Stop & Shop Day for me. This Wednesday, I arrived to long lines at both entrances to our town’s only supermarket. Noticeably, all the shopping carts were gone when they use to litter every section of the parking lot. Those red-riding-hood looking baskets which used to be offered inside the store were now stacked high outside the entrances. The lines into the store were moving ever so slowly, with one or two patrons being let in at a time.
I parked my bike and dutifully got behind the last person in the line to the closest entrance door. I stood behind a heavy-set woman wearing cut-off shorts and a t-shirt that read “Time for My Morning After.” “Did you exchange your cash for enough coupons,” the lady asked, after she looked me over a few times. “I could only get $50.00 worth. Not enough to feed anyone. It just ain’t right.” “Coupons?” I inquired, feeling my eyebrows rise. “Yeah, the coupons!” she exclaimed with frustration. It was her turn to enter the store so I was left with not only the open question but a sick sense that events of consequence were passing me by and could no longer be ignored.
It turns out my fears were not completely founded. You could still buy crackers, cheese and fruit with cash, just not meats, canned goods or any of the old-fashion staples like bread, flour and sugar. Why the distinction? I couldn’t tell you, but people were buying out any of these remaining staples at a rapid pace. The hand baskets were not meant for carrying the heavier bags of flour and sugar and invariably patrons looked as if they were laboring with unwieldy buckets of water or sand. Some aisles were eerily empty, reminiscent of the bare shelves of paper goods during the now quaint days of Covid-19.
Families walked up and down the aisles in clusters, each member lugging baskets on both arms. One large fellow was working with two baskets on each arm. Feeling the panic, I grabbed some of the last cans of soup, only Campbell’s tomato bisque and mushroom remained.
At checkout, I no longer had to worry about accidentally spotting a revealing headline from the newspaper stand. There were now only two papers for sale, our local Daily Bee (which now came out weekly) and USA Today. The USA Today’s headline focused upon a celebrity couple divorcing and the emerging rivalry between two MLB teams. I left the store and quickly hustled pass the incoming line of people. I didn’t recognize a soul.
What to do. What should I do? Honestly, I was feeling scared. Had I waited too long? Should I knock on a neighbor’s door and admit my failure to keep abreast of the situation, beg for insight. I could call one of Susan’s old friends out of the blue, but that seemed even more awkward.
I slowly trudged back to my home, walking my bike. I was too weighed down by my feeling of fear and impotence to ride. I felt fatigued by it all. Where was my courage and the rush of adrenalin that, at least in the black and white movies I favored, always accompanied the crowd’s rallying cry to arms.
As I unloaded the groceries in front of my condo, I found a piece of red paper stuck under my left shoe, a party invitation for someone perhaps. I picked it up and read the bold print rising under the dirt imprint of my sneaker: “How To Join the Resistance 2.0.” A rallying cry, which now seemed silly to me in its anachronism. Nevertheless, maybe this is what I needed to finally leave my cocoon. I could join “the Resistance,” whatever that might be. Frankly, I was already thinking of limiting my involvement to more of a clerical capacity. As I started to read the flyer’s content, I neglected to notice the grey shuttle pulling up alongside of me.