Image © Timothy Day 2019
|by Timothy Day||April 16, 2019|
When Jane visited her parents on her 26th birthday, she found them stricken with a persistent wetness. The three of them sat on the towel-covered couch and Jane listened as they told her about work and the cats and holiday vacation plans. They asked how she was doing and Jane did her best to inflate the recent small victories. Jason was starting yoga; the car was running fine; that mould that had been on the wall of their apartment when they moved in? Gone.
After a period of silence, Jane casually brought up her parent’s sodden state. “You guys go swimming?”
Her father looked down. Her mother sighed and placed a hand on Jane’s knee. It looked as if her mother was about to say something, but her hand retracted and she rose and announced that it was time for cake. When she returned, hair dripping onto the cake and extinguishing the candles, she asked if Jane had any birthday wishes. Jane shrank into the soggy couch cushion and shook her head no. Her parents wiped their eyes in near synchronicity.
Back at Jane’s apartment, Jason was jumping rope in the living room. “Hey, Grams,” he said.
These greetings had nothing to do with Jane’s birthday. It was an idea that had been implemented some time ago; Jane’s theory was that the greeting would better prepare her to love the old-man version of Jason and vice-versa. Like studying for the SAT’s of affection forty years in advance. They sat on the dry couch. Jane wasn’t sure how to approach the topic of her parents.
“My parents were kind of weird today,” she said.
“Yeah.” Jane couldn’t get herself to expand; the words felt inaccessible, taboo even.
Jason shook his head. “Well, you know what they say about parents.”
“They just don’t understand.”
Jane asked how yoga was going. Jason said it was amazing. Philosophy for the body. He pulled her birthday present out of his pocket: chopsticks with a single J etched into the middle. Like the utensil equivalent of getting their names tattooed on one another, he said. Jane recognized that they couldn’t just use one a piece, but she smiled and kissed him and suggested Chinese.
The restaurant they now sat in had been the setting of their first date. When Jason had asked her out, Jane said okay, but nothing too fancy. The problem with this was that Jason made everything fancy. He was a fancy person, though not in the traditional sense. He wore sweatpants every day and ate fast-food on the regular, but he wore the sweatpants like bespoke and ate the fries like he was the farmer who grew the potato and he was having a special moment with the earth and the soil and the cycle of life. At the end of that first dinner he had opened his fortune cookie and made a big deal out of how it said your future is bright. He admitted that the phrase was half-assed and general, but still, he could have gotten the fortune on a different night. Jane’s fortune had said something about the value of alone time, and she’d decided that importance existed where you put it. When Jason asked her what the fortune said, she had stuffed it in her pocket and made up something about rainbows.
This was their seventh trip to the restaurant. They ordered their usual (family-size chow mein) and talked about the movie they’d watched last night, an indie about a drug dealer and an addict who fall in love. Jason realized that they each had just one chopstick and apologized. They laughed while they attempted to eat, stabbing the food and bringing it to the other’s mouth. Jane was feeling pretty good about the night, but when her fortune cookie came, she opened it to find that the thin white paper inside was blank. Jason read his fortune aloud: Consider that you are already at the end of the rainbow.
When the waiter came back, Jane showed him the blank fortune, forcing a laugh. “I think there’s been a mistake,” she said, keeping her tone light. Her hands were sweating, dampening the paper. The waiter apologized and took the fortune back to the kitchen. Upon his return, he knelt down next to them and rested his elbows on the table, solemn.
“It seems we have run out of fortunes,” he said.
“How?” Jane asked.
The waiter shook his head. “It was bound to happen.”
He left and Jason threw his fortune out, to show solidarity.
When they got home, Jason attempted a striptease and they had sex and watched people buy houses on the Home Design Network. They shared a blanket and put on snobby voices, commenting on the drabness of the colour scheme, the uninspired faucets. As she tried to go to sleep, Jane couldn’t help but feel the presence of her wet parents, the blank fortune, like spiders in the corner of the room.
The next day, Jane watched Ryan stick another piece of gum under the counter and announce “thirty-seven” on the bowling alley microphone. Jane was the only person who knew what he was talking about. After handing out a pair of shoes, she asked if he had ever received a blank fortune.
“Never,” Ryan said. “Did you check both sides?” Jane nodded and Ryan hmphed. “How ominous.”
A crowd was forming at the far left lane. A man was attempting to set the record for the slowest roll in history. Jane left the counter and joined the others and watched as the ball made its way towards the pins. If you only looked for a few seconds, the ball appeared to rest stagnant at the beginning of the lane. But as Jane stared, she could see that it was in fact progressing, rolling away from them centimetre by centimetre. The bowler had brought a pillow and blanket with him and was now lying down across the seats, breathing deep.
After work, Jane went to the university and visited her father. On her way there, she pictured her father as the dry form he had always been, his hand on her shoulder, withered and brittle, but warm. When she got there, he was soaked from head to toe in his brown jacket. It had been bright and sunny all day. Jane sat and listened to the squishing and squashing of his shoes as he paced the foreground of the classroom, stepping back and forth through a series of foot-sized puddles.
“And you checked both sides?”
Her father went to his desk and collected his briefcase.
“I wouldn’t worry about the fortune,” he said. “These things happen.”
“What things?” Jane asked. She thought her father looked oddly at peace, resigned to his unexplainable dankness. She tried to be glad for him, but was mostly unsettled.
“Things we don’t see coming,” he said.
When Jane got home, Jason wasn’t there. This was strange because 1. Jason had no job and 2. Jason’s friends were her friends. She had a bad feeling in her stomach and after ten minutes she called him.
“Hey Gramps,” Jane said. “Where are you?”
There was a peculiar sound, as if the air was stretching into static, then compressing back.
“I’m not sure,” Jason said.
“Have you been abducted?”
“I don’t think so.” There was a vacancy in his voice, as if he was very distracted or high. Jane felt her heart plunge, some unknown material hulking over it.
“What’s going on?”
Jason said something, but it was obscured by another influx of static, and the call cut out. Jane tried him again, but the phone didn’t ring. She waited through most of the night and finally fell asleep early in the morning. Jason never came home.
What could she do but go to work? She felt sure that Jason would call any moment, that whatever glitch had occurred last night would be corrected and her world would reset. Still, a prickling of amorphous doubt remained, difficult to locate in focus. When Jane got to the bowling alley, the crowd surrounding the far left lane had grown. She approached the outskirts of the circle and peeked over shoulders. The ball had reached the middle of the lane. She checked her phone for messages from Jason. Still nothing. Jane felt untethered from her surroundings. She didn’t care about any of this, yet the world expected her to. Next to the seats, she spotted Ryan posing for the local paper, kneeling down alongside the sleeping bowler. When he saw her, he held a finger up to the photographer and waved at Jane to come over. She sifted through the crowd and stopped before entering the shot. The photographer told her to kneel down on the other side of the bowler, next to his feet. Jane looked at the ball, watching its fantastically gradual advancement.
“That’s okay,” she said.
“C’mon!” Ryan said. “Be a part of history!”
Jane shook her head. “I’m good.”
The photographer mounted the camera on a tripod and fiddled with the buttons. “It’s inescapable, you know,” she said.
“Everyone’s reduced to a moment now and then.”
Jane waded back through the crowd. She tried Jason again and the call leapt into space and died like a lasso falling to the ground.
After work, Jane went to the local bar, arriving at the time Jason’s comedy act usually took place. Inside, a scattering of people were sitting quietly in front of an empty stage, looking around in confusion. Where was the world hiding him? On her way home, Jane stopped at the Chinese restaurant and walked past the tables and into the kitchen. A solitary chef was hanging over a pot in the corner and didn’t notice as she crept by and entered the back room. The only piece of furniture inside was a vending machine sitting in the middle of the floor. Jane recognized the waiter from two nights ago, standing in front of it and slapping the sides. She approached, slow and cautious, though she doubted it mattered. The waiter was transfixed. Jane peered inside the empty machine, then shifted her gaze to the buttons on the side. All of them had been taped over, save for one: a kiwi soda option, three up from the bottom. The waiter moved to the side and indicated the button.
“See for yourself,” he said.
The vending machine buzzed with life, plugged into nothing. Jane reached down and pressed the button. The machine made strange noises of internal shifting, not unlike the sound of air stretching into static and then compressing back. After a short period of silence, a heavy thunk came from the bottom slot. Jane reached into the machine. The only thing she felt was a tiny slit of paper. She curled her fingers around it. Blank. Jane pressed the taped-over button above kiwi soda, but all it produced was a can of cherry cola. Jane felt like she was up against something much bigger than herself, some cosmic verdict that she had no say in.
That night, Jane got into bed and put on the Home Design Network, not really watching it. The house felt empty, alien, like the people who lived there were on vacation. Her mother called and asked if she had thought of any birthday wishes yet. She’d recorded them since Jane was little, and she needed to know. Would it ever be okay to have no wishes, no goals for improvement?
“You must have one,” Her mother insisted.
Jane sat up in bed. Rain drummed against the window. “Yes.”
“I would really like you to dry off.”
There was an unnatural quality to the resulting pause, as if her mother’s breath was looking in both directions.
“Well,” she said. “I’ll ask again later, dear.” And her mother said goodnight and hung up the phone.
The next day, it was Jane’s turn to open at the bowling alley. Inside, the crowd took up almost every square inch of the space. It seemed that everyone had fallen asleep, snores filling the silence. Jane stepped through the sea of dormant bodies. She hopped over the counter and took her place before the shoes. Her eyes wandered to the record-setting bowler, now standing at the edge of his lane, eyes locked ahead. Jane watched as the ball rolled its final rolls, moving through the pins with the stealth and gentility of an ice-skating double-oh-seven. The pins leaned this way and that, then fell back in place as the ball nudged past. A little while later, the ball dropped into the abyss of post-lane underworld. The bowler turned and traversed the sleeping crowd to the counter. He smiled and handed Jane his bowling shoes.
“Just returning these,” he said.
People woke throughout the day and walked out in a disoriented fashion, as if they couldn’t remember why they’d been there. Ryan arrived around noon and stuck another piece of gum under the counter. “Thirty-eight,” he announced.
When Jane got home, Jason was jumping rope in the living room.
“Hey, Grams,” he said.
Jane dropped her bag and got under the loop of the rope. They managed to jump it together three times before it got stuck beneath her feet and they brought the rope up and wore it like an oversized belt.
“Click,” Jane said.
“Flash,” Jason said.
Timothy Day‘s fiction has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Barren Magazine, Bad Pony, and elsewhere. When he isn’t watching television or just staring at the wall in existential crisis, he likes writing stories about people having wall-staring type feelings.
“Jane Untitled” was originally published in Petrichor Machine.