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"The Actual," short story excerpt

Wednesday 9/8/21

I didn’t tell my wife that he worked at my work. Our girl was home from college when she shouldn’t have been because something had happened to her. She wouldn’t talk about it with us. Or less so with me, anyway. She had a therapist she saw three times a week, and I knew but I didn’t know. I didn’t know the particulars. I just know my wife said “there were several of them” and “God can you imagine what that is like” as if she was both talking to me and past me.

I wanted to say to my kid that she didn’t ever have to go back. We’d help her find her way, whatever that way was. But I knew that wouldn’t help. Not over the long run. In the meanwhile, we waited. We let life dangle. And I saw this guy in the break room. He didn’t know me, he didn’t know my family, he didn’t know my kid, but every day I wanted to put his head through the wall.

He’d sit there and read. Nothing else. I don’t think I witnessed him eat anything. Then again, I couldn’t eat around him either. But always reading these works of literature. You know the ones. As if he was studying. And though he wouldn’t talk and he wouldn’t joke and he wouldn’t even drink, it wasn’t unusual for me to see him crying as he flipped a page. Nothing obvious, unless you’d noticed it before.

I cleared my throat this one time when I’d first come in, and there he was, affected, I guess you’d call it, and his head came up and our eyes locked for a second.

“Sorry,” he said, rising and leaving the room, head down, to start his shift early.

I poured some coffee that had probably been sitting out all afternoon, and texted my kid, asking if there was anything special she’d like for dinner, or if maybe she wanted to head out to the high school field and kick a soccer ball around like we used to after work.

I don’t know why I said that. Or if there was anything I could bring home. I wanted that anything to mean potentially everything. The moon if need be. Repair kit for a soul, like it was a bike tire you patched. A magical glass of milk that chilled all trauma so that it could be safely chiseled out of a person and carried away. An ironclad promise on paper notarized by God that the future would not let her down. The kind of string cheese she had always liked.

I left the text chain open so I could see if she was starting to type. Read her words before she made them. Because you are always guessing when your child is hurt. You can never know enough about their pain. You will look in language and you will look to the words that aren’t words that precede language, and surround it.

“Just you dad,” she said, which is also how she’d joke. Laconic.

“Tongue inside of chubby cheek,” is how my wife put it when she was six, seven, and hadn’t thinned out yet. Hadn’t become this six-foot-tall willow.


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