Indecision: A Short Story: (Part One)
"Do me a favor, Tom, and read this," Dave said, handing yet another bulge of papers to his not-quite friend but friendly acquaintance at work.
"Sure," Tom said. He was looking at yet another screenplay. He read the title: 'The Revenge of Akhenaton.' He was an Egyptian pharaoh, wasn't he?"
"Yeah, of the mid fourteenth century B.C."
"Can you give me a quick rundown of what it's all about?"
Dave arched an eyebrow and paused a bit before answering. He was amused. Tom was sounding like some kind of Hollywood movie producer. Then he shrugged. If he was, then it was Dave's own fault, his influence rubbing off on Tom.
Dave and Tom, Tom and Dave, along with about two hundred others, were employees at the nuts and bolts making factory. The money wasn't great but it was a hell of a lot better than the pittance they'd paid him as a security guard - Tom that is.
Tom had eaten his lunch one day, and as usual, barely remembering what it was, so eager was he to open his book and get in some reading. Their supervisor at the plant was a guy named Chuckie... something or other. Tom had never learned his last name. Even after three and a half years the motivation just hadn't been strong enough.
Dave had come to interview for a job, dressed in a nice looking three-piece suit. So when Tom had seen him from the corner of his eye, as the young man had passed through the hall by the break room, where Tom had been reading a mystery novel, the aforementioned Tom had absently assumed the visitor was somebody important.
Tom had still been reading alone, using up the last twenty minutes of his break, when Dave had passed by again, his interview finished. Dave flashed a smile and introduced himself. The two of them got to talking. Tom had been rather surprised and mildly amused when he learned that Dave was only trying to get a job similar to his own on the line.
Tom knew the conventional wisdom dictated that one dressed for success on any and every job interview. But he thought there was also such a thing as overdoing it. He had been tempted to say, 'A bit of overkill with the suit, don't you think?' But he didn't.
Dave learned across the Formica table. At least the surface was something that Tom had always thought of as Formica. What is Formica? Does anybody know?
"I wouldn't know Formica if it came up and bit me on the ass," Tom said.
"Oh nothing," Tom said. "Cobwebs of the mind."
Dave grinned and shook it off. "I watch the Travel Channel and any show dealing with travel information. I go to the library and read books about different places, all kinds of places. I read every word of those manuals. I worked my way through all fifty states years ago. I've been around the world, in my mind, many times."
"You won't be too jaded when you see the world in person, will you?"
"Somehow, I doubt it," Dave said.
"Well let me get back. I think my break is over," Tom said, rising.
They shook hands and before Tom left, Dave had politely asked him what he was reading and if it was any good. Tom had politely given him a perfunctory reply, told him the name of the book, and said yes, it was quite good. Thrilling. Amazing. Nerve-jangling suspense. And so forth.
"It's good to know you," Dave said, holding the grip just a little too long. "I think you're a man I can talk to, you know what I mean?"
"I do," Tom had said. And he did.
A week later Tom and Dave were working together along with about thirty others - their night shift at the plant had the fewest number of personnel at the twenty four hour operation - manufacturing nuts and bolts, bolts and nuts at the plant, with their shift supervisor Chuckie... something. As the acquaintanceship of Tom and Dave, Dave and Tom progressed, it became clear to both of them that the mind of the other was far away from the routine of making nuts and bolts, bolts and nuts. Neither man, both in their thirties, seemed able, however, to direct the trajectory of their actual lives down the path of those far away places. Tom was an incessant ruminator.
Tom was a quiet, introverted type, always seen with a book in his face, usually a novel. When he wasn't reading, he could usually be observed at the job, sitting off in a corner, during down times (certain unavoidable equipment break downs and so forth), by himself, head in palm, propped up on a knee like the Thinker... thinking apparently, you know, staring off into the distance with immense concentration like he was reading but he wasn't reading because he didn't have a book or anything with letters in front of him at the time.
Tom had no idea that his habit of lonely reflection put people off,or was even somehow viewed as ostentatious. His introverted nature actually seemed to give offense. One fellow employee had asked him quite earnestly, one day, "Do you think you're better than the rest of us?"
"The rest of whom?" Tom said, lifting his head out of a book and studying the woman who'd sat down across from him in the break room.
"Us, all of us here at the plant," she said, making the common gesture of the surrounding all-encompassing everything.
Tom had worked there for two years at the time. He was shocked, naturally, mortified, flabbergasted. Was he not the ultimate there-is-no-I-in-team player? Covering for other employees who called out sick, working extra shifts at the request of coworkers who didn't feel like showing up for one reason or another? Staying overtime? Digging in?
Though truth be told, this was the first decent paying job he'd had in a long time. The extra hourse were highly renumerative, from his point of view, allowing him to both save a little and indulge, to a modest extent, his hobby of collecting rare books. He finally remembered the woman's name sitting across from him. Eunice. Her name was Eunice Jackson.
Eunice? What kind of name was Eunice? Who named their child Eunice in this day and age? Eunice sounded to Tom like a relic of the past. Eunice was uncomfortably close to eunuch and was, therefore, suggestive of a shrewish nature of a woman who lives alone save for an army of cats. But this Eunice was not one lacking for male company or female company, if it comes to that. You know very well what we mean by 'that,' dear reader.
"Are you listening to me?" she asked.
"Of course," Tom said.
"It didn't seem like it."
"I was analyzing the full implications of what you said, hurtful as it was."
"I doubt that but even if you were, it proves my point."
"What point is that?"
"You'd rather be with your own thoughts than with other people," she said.
"Eunice," he said (it hurt his teeth to say that) "what is that?"
Tom would gladly inundate himself with the company of other people, if he could find enough people he had something in common with. Truth be told, he had always found himself pressed for suitable subject matter when dealing with his fellow homo sapiens (Lord, how many people at the nuts and bolts factory even knew what the term 'homo sapiens' means?). He knew diddly squat about cars, sports, hunting, trucks, beer, and whatever most men and women talk about. He had no interest in these things. But perhaps he should try to fake it to make himself more agreeable.....
By the way, Tom thought, why was this woman taking such an interest? They had never spoken more than a dozen words a month to each other. He knew that if he said that, she would say something like: 'And whose fault is that?' Whatever it was she wanted, Tom hoped she would get on with it so he could get about the business of finding out what happened to the boy with no arms and legs but with telekinetic powers.
Eunice's head started to move from side to side, in that way black women have of signalling that she's about to "tell [somebody] about himself."
Tom recoiled slightly as though he had been given a mild electrical shock.
"I will have you know that Janet quit because of you," she said. "Remember Janet? Tall, light-brown skinned, nice ass, fair tits?"
"Eunice!" Tom said reproachfully. His teeth didn't hurt that time.
"Oh shut up," she said.
Tom remembered Janet. Very well indeed. "What am I supposed to have done to Janet?"
"It's what you didn't do," Eunice said. "Why didn't you ever ask her out or at least tell her something if you weren't interested in her that way?"
Tom looked at his wristwatch. Unfortunately, he seemed to have thirty minutes left on his break. (Ah, the glorious return of the one hour lunch break! Well, they should have an hour of respite for twelve hours of toil. Come to think of it they really should have two hours...) and this woman seemed to have Tom trapped here. He could always get up and leave in affronted dignity.
He thought about asking what business of hers, Eunice, it was what he did or did not do with Janet. But Tom was not in the habit of being that direct. It was not his nature.
He had lusted after Janet. But she was in the accounting department. She had probably finished her college degree. Tom was a lowly grunt on the line at the factory that makes nuts and bolts, bolts and nuts. He wasn't in her league. He honestly hadn't even been aware that she noticed him at first. Later he had thought he imagined her interest. Imagined what women call their 'signals.'
What if he got her pregnant? What if she wanted an abortion? He wasn't sure he was financially fixed enough to be able to help with that. He didn't know much about how much an abortion costs but he felt certain it was an expensive procedure.
What if she wanted to keep the baby? He would be liable for child support. Perhaps he should have saved a greater share of his income for such contingencies. At the moment Tom had silently reproached himself for having bought so many rare books. Who did he think he was, an aristocrat?
"I'm not sure what you mean. You almost sound as if I had a responsibility to ask the girl out."
Eunice stopped swiveling her head. Lacing her fingers she said, "I just can't understand why you resisted your own interest, especially when it coincided with hers. She wanted you to ask her out and you wanted to. What was the problem? Why couldn't you pull your head out of your ass long enough to give the time of day to a cute girl."
"Eunice!" Tom reproached again. When she didn't reply he said, "Anyway, how could you know anything about what I wanted? From what you've been saying, I thought I came across like the great sphinx."
"You're a man," she said, as if that explained everything. And perhaps it did.
"I can't fathom what..." Tom began uncomfortably. He gestured helplessly. "What is all this? A girl like Janet has many opportunities..."
"What are you trying to say?" The return of the head swiveling.
Tom refused to be put on the defensive. "I wish you'd stop doing that with your head. You know what I mean. Janet is an attractive, educated, well-spoken woman with a professional career. She could have her pick of men of substance, with money, established in their careers, owners of property, with high reputations. I'm just a dreamer with no money and no standing in the community. Why would Janet be interested in me?"
Eunice's eyes narrowed searchingly at Tom. "I'd feel some compassion for you - some but not much - but I'd fee some compassion for you if I thought you meant you said, the way it sounded. If you said it with any humility. BUt there is none.
"You don't think she's too good for you. You who keeps to himself, thinking whatever thoughts one of your unknowable brilliance... You contemplate the universe and the universe contemplates you."
"Did she ask you to talk to me," Tom asked.
"No," Eunice said through a clenched jaw. She probably didn't know she was clenching her jaw. "She told me not to."
Revealing in itself, Tom thought, like saying: 'Don't think of a white elephant.' He could have asked Eunice why she was taking this upon herself. But he didn't need to. The women were clearly very close. It was the closeness of this relationship that caused Eunice to feel extraordinarily protective of Janet. That was all Tom needed to know.
"We don't have anything in common," Tom said. "We didn't then and that probably hasn't changed much by now. We're just not compatible."
"How do you know?"
"I sensed it."
"Ha!" she said.
For a millisecond Tom considered explaining to Eunice that introverts interact with the world in a fundamentally different way than extroverts. Extroverts pile up experiences thereby gaining perspective. Introverts seek perspective prior to tentatively dipping an exploratory big toe into the waters of experience. Conceptualize first, actualize second. Tom was simply being true to his nature. He could no more be anything other than what he was than.... whatever impossible simile one cares to state.
Eunice said, "You ever hear 'the journey is the destination'?"
Classic extrovert perspective, Tom thought.
We rejoin Eunice's soliloquy in progress, ".... did you ever consider talking to her? Really talking to her, seeing what's up? You go on a few dates, talk to her on the phone, go to bed together... Maybe the relationship gets serious, maybe it doesn't. Maybe you two windup just friends. Maybe not. It's all pretty standard, Tom. It's what people do. A woman cannot be ignored. A woman being a woman cannot be ignored. Especially when she's being a woman because of a man. You don't have the right to ignore her.
"You can decline the invitation if you want to, but you can't ignore her. Janet told me she'd all but came right out with it, said so in so many words, made it practically obvious to any fool. But you deliberately misunderstood. You turned the invitation into something chummy and casual, robbed it of its intimacy, its true intent. You didn't even acknowledge it.
"Do you get it? You insulted her very femininity by not even acknowledging it. Men are not men without women, just as women are not women without men, Tom. That's the way it is."
Finally she said, "It's not so bad,"rising from the table. "You should try it. You really should stop thinking so much and do something."
His break over, Tom went back to work roiling beneath his customarily impassive surface. It had been sad about Janet. Tom, of course, was not expert in the nuances of the amorous cuing crytography of the female of the species. But he had picked up the signals Janet had been sending, though he had not acted on them.
He had not answered Janet's flirtation. It had started casually enough. The offhand introduction. Breezy acquaintanceship. Chit chat. Briskly exchanged commentary about the weather. Deeper but still superficial conversation.
She had touched his arm and chest when she spoke to him, lightly caressed his bicep. She had laughed with, frankly, unjustifiable vigor at his deadpan delivered witticisms. Once, Janet had presented him with a paper bag full of oatmeal raisin cookies. She had gone to the trouble of making oatmeal raisin cookies for him.
She had not admitted this. She had some story about her nephew in fourth grade. His whole class had been having a party in celebration of one of the tot's birthday. When Tom thought of the trouble she had gone to -- not just in the baking of the cookies -- he almost felt like crying.
The denouement came one day when he and Janet were coincidentally alone together in the break room. They were both at the vending machine. She was in front of him. She put her money in, selected her Twix bar.
She had bent her tall,bow-legged figure straight down without bending at the knees. It was pointed directly at his face. Tom, a lifelong atheist, asked God to give him strength and walked out of the break room without getting a candy bar - and he had been hungry too.
After that Janet had been decidedly cooler toward him, though polite. Tom sighed in resignation. Just as well. What did she have to offer him? Sure, Janet was an attractive, intelligent, sweet girl with a body that didn't quit, as they say. Generous hips and thighs. The kind of woman that could bear a man many strong sons but....
Was she an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy, and did she think Phillip K. Dick was the best sci-fi writer of all time, the best of any genre, including the mainstream la di da literary field?
Tom thought not.
And now here's part two.