by Richard Krause
Rusty When at first Rusty the Poodle got hit with a golf ball, everyone ran up wobbly to him. As if to show they too out of sympathy had also been hit, felt in their own ribs the golf ball that struck Rusty and left him on his side, panting by the time the people got to him. They too wanted to collapse on the green grass but knew they could not then oversee him. They knew that he must have seen them wobbling. But now Rusty lay, as if hypnotized by the force of the golf ball. Half the people the next instant collapsed with Rusty, moaned with him, while the other half took turns stomping the pitted white golf ball into the green, one after another until it was completely submerged. The moans of Rusty’s friends grew louder as they held their ribs just where Rusty had been hit. Finally, and to everyone’s surprise, Rusty jumped up on all fours as if he had been struck by lightning, and started licking the faces of the people lying on the green. His pink tongue washed their faces until they had to turn away from him to keep from laughing. To keep from letting Rusty know that his own sympathy was what made him better. When the owner of the golf ball came running up, for a moment he was confused thinking his one golf ball had knocked so many people down. He could barely account for the power of his swing. And curiously he never looked at the poodle who seemed now to have so many masters. The people too had fluffed the grass over where they had stomped his golf ball out of sight to let him know what they thought of golf, or at least the ball that had hit Rusty. Breakfast Every morning the young man returns bringing the old lady breakfast. They exchange small talk and she thanks him with the same unflagging earnestness, never failing to add “very much.” And he unfailingly reciprocates with an equally precise and well-intoned “you’re welcome.” Sometimes because of her loneliness she tries to engage him in longer conversation, knowing that the remainder of the day she must rely on her own resources to dispel that loneliness. He understands, and for a few moments pretends interest, even offering a question sometimes to extend the conversation. Then he returns to his room, and she to hers to eat her breakfast. Why does this harmless relationship so bother me? No, more than bother me, it vexes me, it positively irritates me. I who applaud such gestures normally. He it is clear is not benefiting materially, so far as I can tell. Though he is clearly doing her a good turn. Why am I so vexed, maddeningly so? Perhaps it is the satisfaction that he gets, or that she gets in the arrangement. Although I haven’t noticed it except in the unusual politeness in everything they say. She by turn is understandably grateful. But he, he needn’t be so polite, so accommodating. He is far too helpful, to willing to give. None of his goodness is held in reserve. His good turns have no real twists to them. Nothing contrary that I can see that would make them really valuable. He doesn’t do good and turn away. Be a little abrupt, chilly, remote sometimes, give his gesture some bite. No, he lavishes attention, well not overly, but more than allows his gesture real value. He devalues it. Here, this is what I am driving at: I think he knows the goodness of his gesture too well. He is puffed up by it. It is not something torn away from his self-interest. No, it is his self-interest. It is the essence of his feeling about himself. He doesn’t benefit materially, but he imagines he does spiritually. This is what vexes me. It is a good turn done and daily, as if it is natural to him. But it is not, he is calculating spiritual credit. Good turns should be shown with a kind of contempt and with all the necessity of themselves, with no frills, no extras, nothing accessory. Christianity isolates them, enshrines them, gives them importance. It makes good turns unnatural, there isn’t enough opposition to them, it pays no attention at all to the part of us that doesn’t want to do them. Christianity ignores that part of us as if it didn’t exist. That’s what I have against the three of them, Christianity, the old lady, and most of all the young man. There’s no opposition. The young man is bound to his good turn. Bound for the reward, the self-esteem of it. He is required to feel what he shouldn’t feel so naturally. He doesn’t allow himself to feel any differently. Just once, that’s all I’m asking, he should be irritated at the old lady. Despise her needs, her helplessness. Admit to himself that he hates her, if only for a moment, that he doesn’t like getting her breakfast every morning. And let him show it just one time in his voice, and let her know it. This would make them both acceptable to me, and really calm me. And perhaps mollify the sting of not being asked myself to serve the old lady every morning. Book I don’t see how you can make a choice. And least of all a choice of people. People! How can anyone choose between people, much less two books that are the same. Place me in a bookstore. There are two books. The same. I must buy one. Choose. I examine the cover, the spine, the edges to see if they are bent. I look at the pages on which the book has been standing to determine if they are blackened, or how long it has been in the store, or what neglected dusty bookcase it has been placed on. Then I open the book and check the print. Invariably the book whose cover is more marred has the darker print. But wait, I exchange hands, let me see where is the light, yes, the darker print is further from the light, so maybe it is the angle I am holding the book that makes it lighter. Or maybe it is that my weaker eye—the left one—is taking more of the print in. I change hands. The print still looks darker in the poorly bound book. I turn the books upside down, check the print again. Maybe the better binding does have the less readable, lighter print. But still I should buy the print that is easier on my eyes. I am concerned about my eyesight, about using it up. I read less often lately to save my eyesight. Though I realize there is a degree of blindness we must all accept over reading. Well, caught between the two books, do you know what I do? Caught between the binding I favor but with weaker print, and the somewhat lackluster binding but darker, easier to read print. I look right and left, then up on the walls for any overhead mirrors I can find, or a surveillance camera that the store clerks like to observe you through. I know you won’t believe me—the insignificance of the choice must have struck you already—but I tear, yes tear—only a trifle—the cover of the book with the lighter print trying to equalize their exteriors so my decision will be easier. I tear it ever so slightly, not making it unpurchasable, mind you, but just so I alone can differentiate the two and make a decision. Then what I do, to throw the attention of the clerks or other customers off me, is look the books over again. And I do this with the greatest satisfaction, as if I am doing it for the first time, as if I am examining them afresh just like any discriminating customer would do. I open the book which I’ve equalized with the one whose cover I preferred before and examine with a smile of satisfaction the darker print. Yes, the choice is made. I know this almost before I confirm it, and stride up to cashier with the decisiveness and command of one to whom decisions are easy. Who can decide in a matter of moments, who has such instinctive decisive powers that in fact no conscious decision need be made, but by the impulse of his reach decides things, is able to make those muscular choices that pass for the deepest intelligence, the quick keen-eyed power that can pick something out even before a choice is given, so much is its decision-making ability refined. I am certain that when I slap the book down on the counter as if my purchase is hardly a consequence to me, the salesgirl doesn’t know what to make of me. She is a little brusque when she takes my money, but I know that she senses there is really no alternative behavior for a man of firm, certain decision like myself. Now the problem with my deciding on a person—a woman, for example—is that I can’t make similar tears in their binding. And what they say never has consistent lightness or darkness of tone. It is so mixed. At one moment clear and crisp, but the next shaded that the meaning I want to assign to it in relation to the strength or weakness of my own feelings—no different than my two eyes—their strength and weakness looking at the print--the exact meaning of which almost always eludes me. So that even a person that I think I want to be with one moment, I can’t tell if she is my choice of the next. Not until I can find a way of equalizing my choice of her. If like an open book I can read every word as uniform, so that there is no change, so that my choice is always the same. Then I can decide on people. But until that happens, I’ll stick to my books!
Richard Krause has three published collections of fiction, Studies in Insignificance, The Horror of the Ordinary, and Crawl Space & Other Stories of Limited Maneuverability, published by Unsolicited Press in 2021. He recently has had writing in Club Plum Literary Journal, Mobius, Northwest Indiana Literary Journal, Blue Lake Review, and Digging through the Fat. Krause lives in Kentucky where he is retired from teaching at a community college. His website is: richardkrausewriting.com