Final toast to the lake. The three of us laugh at memories of contests: swimming, diving, watermelon seed-spitting. Humorous attempts to ease the sadness of losing the family’s lake house. With frail parents and our money spent on raising our own kids, we can’t afford the property. We had a wonderful run, though. Time for another family to create new memories.
Wine gave the illusion of courage, yet Alex’s heart thudded a rapid drumbeat, beads of sweat on his forehead and lower back from the heat of the imagined bonfire around which several dancers frolicked to the rhythm of that rapid drumbeat.
In reality, Alex maneuvered around the other patrons in the bar. He arrived at the lady’s side, then he murmured, “Hi.”
“Hi there,” she replied, louder than him.
A frown on her lovely face, and she said, “Do you mean the ice cream flavor, or that you’ve gone down a difficult path?”
“The former. No, the ladder. No, I don’t mean a tool you can use to climb to second-floor bedroom windows. That’s creepy. I mean the latter. With t’s, not d’s. The second one.”
Thankfully, the lady’s frown eased away. “Do you mean your life in general has been rocky, or that recent events have been rocky?”
“Recent,” Alex said. “Very recent. The path to get to you. I’m not saying the bar’s floor is strewn with rocks. I’m speaking metaphorically.”
One of her eyebrows raised, a gesture that communicated some of the lady’s opinions and ideas. If only Alex could’ve translated the gesture, he would’ve understood her better. However, that was part of the mystery. Which was maddening and enticing at the same time.
She said, “Now that you’ve achieved your destination, do you expect a reward?”
“I already have it.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“You’re talking to me.”
This time she let out a little laugh, and the sound was sweet to his ears. “And what an unusual conversation it is.”
Encouraged, Alex said, “Do you have a taste for rocky road ice cream right now? Or is it just me?”
“I’m not sure.”
“We could try to find an ice cream shop and see if you’re up for it,” he said. “Or we could put it to the side for later. Down the road.”
The same eyebrow raised, along with the corner of her mouth directly underneath it. “You’re original. How about we have a drink, then we’ll go from there.”
Mr. Poe (Edgar Allan) is deeply suspicious of Ms. Odom’s intentions, with that guarded look on her face and the occasional gleam in her eye that’s quickly covered up to return to dull disinterest, as if the dead fly on the windowsill has actually captured all of her attention.
Ms. Christie (Agatha) is on the case, questioning neighbors to find out whether they’ve seen anything suspicious happening around the Ballard house in the past few weeks (or so). Included in the questioning is the kindly older lady who lives across the street and who has seen many comings and goings at the Ballard household: morning rushes to get into their two cars and drive to day care and office jobs, evening arrivals and rushing to get inside and start dinner preparation, Saturday departures to soccer games and gymnastics classes, and Sunday playing at home, of throwing laughter from the backyard and riding a tricycle and bicycle (with training wheels) on the sidewalk out front.
Sir Doyle (Arthur Conan) is searching high and low for clues, trying to spot something that doesn’t quite fit in this suburban house occupied by two busy parents and two children, which results in a house holding a certain amount of clutter and by this, he wonders if the claimed crime has not really been committed, but instead the blue diamond necklace was simply misplaced: put down and then covered up by stuff, the flotsam and jetsam of a hectic life. But Mrs. Ballard has replied, “No, no. My living room and kitchen may be strewn with toys, but I always put my jewelry away in the same place. And my kids are too short to reach my jewelry box and try to play dress up or pirate.”
Mr. Poe (Edgar Allan) has noticed that her answers at the beginning of his interrogation were short and to the point, but as the questioning commenced past a half hour, her answers are growing, expanding, as if she is weaving a web that entangles threads of truth and lies–and he steels himself behind the curls of steam rising from his mug of chai tea, noting that Ms. Odom is on her second cup of coffee (with sugar), and he attempts to commit her answers to memory, so as to capture any inconsistencies that may escape her lips.
Ms. Christie (Agatha) sits across the kitchen table from the kindly older lady who lives across the street, with both of them wrapping their fingers around warm mugs of Earl Grey tea, and the kindly lady saying that, while weeding her garden, she has seen an old chocolate brown 4-door sedan (something that stands out a bit in this neighborhood chock full of minivans and SUVs) pull up to the house often, and a young lady would exit the car and approach the house, Mrs. Ballard opening the front door with an excited look and an enthusiastic “Come in, come in!” And, now that she thinks about it, an odd thing happened: the kindly lady saw that very same brown sedan a few weeks ago (or so) pull up one night while the Ballard’s silver minivan was gone and their house was dark (save for a light in their living room). The young lady exited the brown sedan, walked through the side gate toward the backyard, and then more lights were switched on in the house, particularly some on the second floor–where the bedrooms are. But the kindly lady didn’t think much of it, since the young lady in the brown sedan was so enthusiastically received before–therefore, she must be a good friend of the Ballards–and she was probably stopping by to check on the house while the family was away for the evening.
Sir Doyle (Arthur Conan) has found no sign of forced entry–no broken windows or broken locks–and if a burglar (or burglars) stole the necklace, then why didn’t they take all the other jewelry or the 40-inch, flat-screen TV or the iPad on the kitchen counter that was next to the stack of letters and catalogs? Perhaps the thief picked the lock, but the question still arose of why a skilled lockpicker would take the time to pick the lock of this suburban house among all the houses on this suburban street and only lift a blue diamond necklace and not more–even though Mrs. Ballard’s other jewelry probably pales in comparison by value to the missing piece. Sir Doyle notices something askew with a flower pot containing a light purple flowering chrysanthemum that sits on the patio’s two-foot high brick wall–but sitting such that one side of it is very slightly raised. By investigating the cause of this one-side-higher oddity, Sir Doyle discovers a key. This key, feeling electrically important to the case in his white-gloved hand, slips easily into the deadbolt lock on the back door and turns easily to the left, thus enabling the detective to turn the door knob (coated in fingerprinting dust) and open the door.
Mr. Poe (Edgar Allan) listens as Ms. Odom keeps going on and on, fueled by caffeine and adrenaline, in her energetic explanations of how she’d never do such a thing to her friend. But he’s grown weary of her repetition–passionate though it is and not riddled with the inconsistencies he had hoped for–and so he is thankful for the sudden arrival of music, of Mozart’s “Requiem Lacrimosa” softly rising from his smartphone previously sleeping on the cheap table that separates Mr. Poe from Ms. Odom, as if they were playing a card game (but no cards are visible). Mr. Poe holds the phone up to his ear, murmuring, “Yes?” then “Still here” then “I see” and “I see” then finally, “Well done.” The phone is returned to the table. Mr. Poe’s expression has not changed as he says, “Your fingerprints were found on the knob of the Ballard’s back door.” Ms. Odom protests, “Of course! I’ve been there tons of times, so I’m sure my fingerprints are all over the place!” Mr. Poe nods, “Naturally, they would be. But why would they be on the spare key that’s hidden under a flower pot in the backyard patio?” Ms. Odom is momentarily struck, then shifts to anger: “I’ve watched their house while they were away! When they, they were at her parent’s for a week, I watched the house! So, sure, I touched the key. That’s how I got in!” Mr. Poe leans forward, his voice lowering, “Were you watching the house a few weeks ago when the neighbor across the street saw your chocolate brown Toyota sedan pull up to the house and saw you slip into the backyard? The Ballards were away only for the evening, not for over night.” Again, Ms. Odom is struck, but this time she shifts into a bitter smirk instead of deep-frowned anger: “Look. Jessica doesn’t exactly live in a dream world, but she’s got it a lot better than me. Great husband, wonderful kids, lovely house. The necklace she got for her anniversary was too much. I mean, how can Greg afford a necklace like that? It’s just not right. And when Francisco asked me to the opera, I thought of the necklace right away. I’d never been to the opera before, so I wanted to make the right impression. And, I’ve go to say, that necklace looked damn good with my dress.”
I went to my buddy Soka’s place, as he and I like playing card games and board games — seems like most other guys our age (twenties) prefer video games. I like them too, but it’s nice to get away from screens.
We were playing The Castles of Burgundy and munching on chips when Soka went to the bathroom. I was chilly, so I checked the thermostat on the wall.
When Soka came back to the kitchen table, I said, “It’s awfully cold in here.”
“That’s the way I like it,” Soka said.
“But it would be better for the environment if you put the thermostat a little higher. The air conditioning wouldn’t have to work as hard.”
Soka shrugged. “Eh. It wouldn’t make much of a difference.”
“But it would make some difference. You have it at 74 degrees, and putting it to 76 degrees wouldn’t be all that different to you. You probably wouldn’t feel the difference.”
“I guess it’s not that much,” Soka said.
“It’s really not. And if you can handle 76 degrees, surely you could handle 77 degrees. And if you can handle 77 degrees, surely you could handle 78 degrees. And if you can handle 78 degrees, surely you could handle 79 degrees. And if you can handle 79 degrees—”
Soka held up a hand as stop symbol. His eyes were aflame with anger. He said, “Get out of my apartment.”
The tree on the hill had a swing hung by a thick branch that was better than any swing in a playground. Out here, away from suburban streets, the expanse of green grass and blue sky opened up. Squeals and giggles of other kids were fun on playgrounds, but sometimes there was a wish for more solitude.
That wish was true for Ellie, likely due to being in a family of four children. Noise seemed constant at home. Except for nights, when she got out of bed to go to the bathroom and the stillness of the house was startling.
The hill wasn’t as still as that. Wind made the grass sway. Birds flew about. Floating clouds decorated the sky. On the tree’s swing, Ellie felt as if she fit into all that. Completely natural to be here. Nobody questioning why she was lost in daydreaming again or didn’t talk much. A powerful and pleasing feeling to be accepted as she was.
“Avoid the crowds,” he said. “Come to the lake in early morning. Really, really early. Slide the canoe into the water. Quietly paddle out, fling out your fishing line. If the fish don’t bite and the sky is cloudless, the stars will stun you. They’re bright like you’ve never seen before.”
I followed his instructions and caught no fish at all. But then, I barely tried. Once the stars caught my attention, I didn’t care about fish.
Quoby the question mark hopped off his bike and locked it to the bike rack. (Please don’t ask me how the question mark rode the bike, as I don’t know.) Then Quoby, with a large towel hanging from his shoulder, walked the short path over a grass-pocked dune to the beach.
The beach opened wide. The ocean stretched to the far horizon. The waves sang their rumbling song. The salt air smelled delicious.
As Quoby walked on the beach, heading toward the ocean, a group of ampersands met him. The ampersands formed a wall blocking Quoby’s way.
“Hey, bud,” an ampersand said, “I don’t know what you’re thinkin’, comin’ here. You got to know this beach is only for us ampersands.”
“Yeah, mac,” another ampersand said. “Ain’t there a beach just for you guys?”
“There is,” Quoby said. “I’ve been there lots of times. But I wanted to try something different today. What’s the harm in me sitting on your beach?”
“What’s the harm? Ha.” An ampersand flexed his downward slope. “We can’t go mixing ampersands and question marks. That ain’t right.”
“What’s not right about it?” Quoby asked.
“Because it ain’t, that’s why,” the ampersand said.
“Yeah, it’s been this way for years, and it’s working just fine,” another ampersand said.
“But what if we mix it up?” Quoby asked. “What if some of you guys come to our beach, and some of us go to your beach? Wouldn’t that be neat to try something different?”
“Ain’t nothing neat about that.” The ampersand flexed his slope again, this time with a sneer on his face.
“I’ve never seen a question mark this close!”
The grownups looked down at the owner of the new voice. A small ampersand with a light-blue floaty encircling her middle. Water dripped from her, making dark spots on the sand.
“Go back to your family,” an adult ampersand said to the little ampersand.
“But I want to see the question mark!” the young ampersand said. “It’s so funny looking! Hey mister, aren’t you uncomfortable with that big curve on top and that little dot at the bottom?”
“Not at all,” Quoby said. “It’s who I am. I can’t control that, and I like it.”
“I like being an ampersand!” she said.
“Good,” Quoby said. “You should be proud of that. And there’s nothing wrong with being a question mark either.”
“That’s not what Mom and Dad say. They say you people are weird. But not as weird as the dollar signs.”
“You might think we’re weird because we’re different than you,” Quoby said. “There’s nothing wrong with looking different and having different purposes than other people.”
“That’s enough out of you,” an adult ampersand said. “Get back where you came from. You’re causin’ trouble, and we don’t need no trouble in front of the children.”
Quoby scanned the faces of the adult ampersands lined up before him. Also, he noticed the many other ampersands were looking from their places on beach towels and chairs. As if he and the nearby ampersands were on a stage, and an audience watched with keen interest. Quoby figured nothing good would’ve come from him pressing his wish to spend the day on this beach. The nearby ampersands probably would’ve beaten him up. He would’ve limped back to his bike. He would’ve struggled home. The bruises would’ve taken a while to heal.
“I don’t want to trouble you on this fine day,” Quoby said. Then he looked at the young ampersand and said, “You had courage to come over here. I hope you have the courage to ask questions. It’s very good to ask questions about the things around you.”
The young ampersand nodded her head.
As Quoby walked back over the grass-pocked dune, he worried that the ampersands would jump him and beat him up. Thankfully, they didn’t. He unlocked his bike, got on, and pedaled toward the beach populated by question marks. Quoby was disappointed, but he was glad for going to Ampersandy Beach today.
Recently I listened to the audio version of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, which was good but I liked The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle better, and in which the Beatles song triggers memories for the main character — Toru Watanabe — of when he was a young man in the 1960s, so the book is a coming-of-age story with cool music references, and triple which it sparked the idea of me possibly writing a book titled Across the Universe, because I’ve been really enjoying that Beatles song recently, and the sci-fi book could be about a team of astronauts on a deep-space mission, and much of the plot could involve the relationships among the diverse crew, since they’re stuck in a spaceship with limited space (the only opportunity of getting a break: space walks, which of course are dangerous yet would increase plot drama), and given that everyone has different attitudes the astronauts don’t always agree or get along (more drama!), but still they must focus on their mission; however, the situation raises the chance of making puns on relationship and companionship, which readers might think is clever in the first mention of the words but would grow tired if they are used too frequently, so no more than one instance per chapter, adding sprinklings of characters saying “I just need my space” to play on another corny pun, but again I would caution my potential self writing this potential book to not overdo the puns, because they would become monotonous — which could symbolize the monotony of flying through space, all that darkness broken by pinpricks of starlight, and readers might think, This book is so gosh-darn boring, there needs to be some aliens swooping in and a majestic battle commencing between the ships and maybe one crew boarding the other ship and the two crews engaging in hand-to-tentacle combat, and I’d rather not risk that potential thought in a potential reader, so maybe the book is not a great idea.
Shipwrecked, we searched the island for other people. Found none. Instead, we saw many colorful plants and birds, and several chattering monkeys (which could’ve been the same monkey following us).
Strangely, we discovered big marbles all over the island. Theories bounces around us survivors about the purpose of the marbles. Some thought they were decorations, along the lines of Easter Island statues. But we found no evidence of settlements. No ruins of houses or pottery or hunting implements or boats.
As for me, I couldn’t shake the feeling we were being watched. I voiced that concern, but the others laughed and said I had a desire to be on a “reality” TV show. That is far from the truth. I prefer privacy. And I didn’t mean producers of a reality show were watching us. I meant aliens.
In the building’s unfamiliar top floor, the gray hallways and countless offices were confusing, and twice he had to stop in an office doorway and ask for directions. Clocks at regular intervals pounded the lost minutes away from his desk. Finally, large doors loomed at a hallway’s end.
Harold checked in with the secretary wearing deep purple lipstick, and she escorted him through the inward set of doors. An enormous office ending at a wall of windows to a world of skyscrapers beyond.
Desked in front of the wall, the company president stood up and said, “Ah, Mr. Hardy. We finally meet. Please, have a seat.”
A firm handshake and sitting in the firm chair before the desk. Harold wondering if this was how it felt to be in a dank basement, roped to a chair, with a single, bare lightbulb showering harsh light down upon your eyes. At least the view was better in this office.
The president cleared his throat. “First, your manager talks to you, and then an increasing hierarchy of directors. Now you’re here. Tell me. Why do you continue wearing polka-dotted and striped socks despite these requests? Are you the mastermind of some devious, rebellious plot?”
Harold settled back in the chair. “Not exactly, sir.”