Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Assignment: Renewal

Molly Baumgarten looked down at her hands, the hands of an eighty year old woman. They were red thanks to the hot water in the sink, with blue veins showing through the thin skin stretched over knuckles exaggerated by rheumatoid arthritis. These weren't her hands. This wasn't her face. This wasn't the way she sat, nor the way she walked.

She turned to a chair at the kitchen table, needing to rest a few minutes before changing into the summer dress she would wear to do errands today.

A key worked at the front door lock. Her eyes shifted to the clock and a worried frown crossed her face. Why would Michael be home so early, she thought? She felt a stab of panic, then a sense of annoyance that her husband would be back to violate her privacy. Wednesdays he went to the Krupp Center, there to meet with old friends and cheat at cards while talking nonsense.

He entered, stepping through as though dancing. She lifted her face, gasping at the sight of him. His eyes, rich blue, blinked back at her. The eyes of a twenty year old man.

"Mikey?" she asked. "Mikey?"

He laughed, rushing into the kitchen to stand over her, his forehead clear of wrinkles, his chin firm. Strong. He put a hand on her's, but she pulled away.


"It's me, Molly. It's me," he said. His laughter was light. The sound of it made her ache inside.

Tears flooded her eyes. She buried her face in her hands, shoulders trembling.

"How could you?"

Michael winced at her question.

"You could have come with me," he said.

"I didn't think you were serious. Who would have thought that?"

Molly used a table napkin to daub the corners of her eyes. She heard Michael's voice, but it was all wrong. She saw his face, but it wasn't the face she loved, not the face beat up by time, scored by experience. This face belonged to a young man who had too much to learn, who didn't understand what was important in life.

"I begged you to come take the treatment with me," he said.

"So I could be young for one day? One day? Tomorrow the treatment will be over and you'll be dead. I'll be alone. One day. Is it worth it? Is it fair to me?"

"I needed to do this," he said. Michael danced across the room, showing her his reclaimed youth. He spun on a heel, bending over to pull her to her feet. His arm encircled her waist, and as he stepped with her, humming into her ear. She couldn't help smiling, she always smiled when he hummed this tune, and it had been many years since he had done that.

When they stopped moving, Molly had to rest against the kitchen counter. Her heart beat too quickly and she felt lightheaded. Michael stood watching her, his eyes at once filled with pain and impatience.
"I have to go," he said.
"Go where?"
"I have less than twenty four hours now. I have less than that to run down the block, to drive a car once more, to eat things I haven't been able to eat in years, to feel things I haven't been able to feel."
Molly nodded, feeling resentment. He had always been a selfish man. She loved him, but she knew his flaws. She should have known when she refused his pleas to take the treatement, to abandon whatever time they had left so that they could enjoy one last day of youth, that he would go without her. Selfish. Foolish. She hadn't thought it worth it, but looking at him now.
"Go, " she said. "But in a few hours you'll start glancing at the clock. You'll start resenting that you only have a little time left."
"I won't resent it," he said. His voice had an edge to it.
Yes, you will, she thought. As the time grinds quickly by you'll start feeling the shallowness of forced experience. You'll start working harder to recapture something that can't be recaptured. Not really.
"Okay," she said. "Go, go run. But, Michael, promise me something."
"When your time is almost passed, come back to me. Here. I'll be waiting."
For a horrible moment it almost seemed as if he wouldn't make that small committment. At last he nodded and dashed into the late morning. Running.


Susan Miller said...

How you make us ponder, Stu. Your writing has such a steady flow that it never seems to distract from the story. You make it look so easy.

The conflict intrigued me, and I sympathized with the woman. There was the hint of the quality vs. quantity debate but because of the POV I came out of the story opting for the longer life. This is a great example of how good writing can mold our view or shape our opinions, or, in the very least, force us to realize there are no absolute truths.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Thanks Sue, I appreciate the comment. As I finished throwing this together it occured to me it would have been a good story to lengthen, flesh out, and sell to a magazine. Still, it was a good writing exercise.

gugon said...

Your story gave me chills. It forces the reader to make a choice - or at least to seriously ponder the choice.

It also illustrates what I think is an even more fundamental conflict: how one person's renewal / salvation is often realized at another person's expense. There is always a degree of selfishness embedded in there.

I thought your story brilliantly portrayed - in a short space - both perpectives. The wife's bitter and painful understanding and the husband’s selfish but joyous excitement. The thing that made it work so well is that I could understand and sympathize with both of them - the story doesn’t take sides.

Very well done!

gugon said...

Oh, and by the way - is that William S. Burroughs sitting on the bench in that photo?

Now there's a guy who would've gone for that one day of youth.

SQT said...

What I love about this is the way two different people react to the same choice. Even when Molly knows that Mickey was telling the truth, she still doesn't want to take the same path. The conflicted emotions she feels are brilliantly done.

Matt said...

Loved it. Very cosmic.

Travis said...

I really like this piece.

I'm always able to slip into your settings so easily. You write characters that stand up and move across the page.

I agree with Gugon - the story doesn't take sides. It presents the either/or, and lets the reader choose...or not.

Lucas Pederson said...

As has been said before me your flow and useage of words moves me ever into the story being told. I really liked this. Great pacing and wonderful prose. I can never get enough of your stories.

Oh, and did you get my email yesterday? I see I was excluded from this assignments list...hmmmm...anyway, incase you didn't get the email, I posted my version of your assignment on my blog. Later.

DonkeyBlog said...

Nice, and like Gugon's, it's the bitter sweet irony of having renewal at the expense of other wonderful things.

This felt a lot like those episodes of the Twighlight Zone etc, people getting what they want, only to be locked into a tragedy.

An interesting theme here is something we discuss at length in the Donkey household, is how people grow in love - after 20, 30, 60 years of relationship, would you still love the person you originally fell in love with way back then if they walked into your life now?

Makes for some interesting relationship scenarios.

Nice interpretation of renewal.

etain_lavena said...

aahh Stewart: I wanted to cry when I read this, My gran is over 80 now, her hands skew and when I look at her body I wonder how long she has left, I love her dearly and I cannot even imagine what I will do. Her husband my granfather was a selfish man, she worked so hard to keep the kids and house in one piece....this was really good, but it made me really really sad.

DesLily said...

wow.. great post Stewart.

it does all boil down to one's breaking point, and no two would be the same.

it also has to have some greed in it. knowing the end is near.. then do you get greedy and say "this I want to do for myself".. everyone should really have a choice like that but most don't get it.

we all think it.. "i would love to do it.. for ME"..then rethink it as to who might object, who might be hurt by the decision etc. Few reach out and "do something for theirself" that would cause a dramatic conculsion.

Bond said...

I come to visit from TravsThoughts. He has suggested I come by before, but time is always so precious.

Each Monday I post a Monday Matinee, a shorty story from my mind. Sometimes is is a one part quick hit, other times it stretches two weeks and very rarely three.

I am going to commit to come here more often and I hope you will stop by and visit at THE COUCH

Stewart Sternberg said...

Gugon, thanks. I'm hoping that with spring coming the writers' group gets back into a groove. Just heard from one member Phyllis..hey Phyllis..and hopefully Jon will be recovered from radiation and chemo enough to join us.

Thanks SQT...I am about to dive into a deep writing mode in the next week or so. This is a good warm up..maybe it will rub off on you and you'll continue with some of your fiction writing.'s more kozmik than cosmic.

Etain that was a wonderful response. I am sorry for your grandmother and to have made you sad, but as a writer, it is good to know I can evoke feelings.

Deslily, welcome back from California. Just got back from your blog and from the pictures you took and from your postings it sounds as though you had a wonderful time.

Thanks Trav..and by the way, I've decided I am your number one fan. You're a hell of a writer. I'm thinking of getting a TRAV T Shirt...maybe wear it while I'm writing to try and get inspiration.

Lucas, thanks for the feedback. I am sorry I missed your link at first, but I just got back from your blog and it seems like several other people made their way to you.
Good story.

Thanks Bond...I just visited your blog. Wow...big American Idol fan, eh? Thanks for visiting.

SQT said...

Thanks SQT...I am about to dive into a deep writing mode in the next week or so. This is a good warm up..maybe it will rub off on you and you'll continue with some of your fiction writing.

I think I will. I've been going through the wringer with family stuff and writing the renewal piece was very therapeutic. I plan on spending a lot more time with my laptop.

Bond said...

not a huge fan to be honest.. just review the show.. hope you slide back over and read the Monday Matinee

Claudia said...

Wow...that was amazing Stewart!!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I just got to this, and loved it. It reminded me, also, of a Twilight Zone episode, and like the best writing always does, it made me think about my own values.

I think that at one point, I might have taken Mickey's road, but now, definitely not. I wouldn't miss a day of the time I am given, no matter what life does to my appearance and strength.

Your point, "the shallowness of forced experience," is so well-taken, and you just know that in the end, Mickey will regret his choice.

HopScotch said...

Lovely bittersweet story. I wonder what we would all do given the chance for only one perfect day. I'm not quite ready to make that choice yet!