A Way to the End of Suffering
The wispy haired old man sat alone at a table set for three, smoking a cigarette. He held a portable phone to his ear while it rang. It went to voicemail. The chipper voice of his daughter told him she’d get back to him as soon as possible. He waited a moment then ended the call, leaving a humming silence as a message. Then he hit redial for the fourth time. While he waited for the six rings to come and go, he served himself some dinner, starting with the cold mashed potatoes.
He dropped his cigarette into the pitcher of water sitting in the middle of the three settings. It floated among the fading ice cubes. He watched the tobacco flakes sink with dizzying paths to the bottom. He picked up his fork and skewered a tree of broccoli. He popped it in his mouth, felt annoyed, then quickly stood up to find a book to read while he ate.
Tucked between The Fountainhead and The 50 Best Golf Tips was The Noble Eightfold Path. He had bought it almost a year ago now. It wasn’t his usual selection. He wasn’t a spiritual man. But he was drunk when he bought it and people get spiritual when they’re drunk.
He had just moved to town with his wife and had decided to take a walk. It took him five minutes to get out of the retirement community’s gates, but it felt much longer. The roads were like two mirrors propped against each other, row after row of white colonial homes. Even the flowers in the gardens were the same nauseating pink and blue.
The portly woman running the booth nodded at him.
“Beautiful day,” she said.
“Beautiful day,” he said.
The woman expected more niceties but he didn’t feel like it. He wanted nothing to do with Sunny Haven but his wife made it clear she’d move without him. To be honest he considered letting her, but found being alone too unbearable.
The road leading to town was downhill. At one point the hill got so steep he had to watch his feet. The sidewalk was in disrepair, slabs jutting every which way from the roots of the bordering trees. The last thing he wanted was to be tossed by a careless trip into the road and be obliterated by some hulking truck. The obliterating didn’t seem so bad, it was the cocktail party conversation he imagined that kept him careful.
Did you hear about Jonathon?
Oh, yes. Horrible.
Yes, Yes. But I heard he was quite drunk.
Is that so? Poor man couldn’t get it together.
At the bottom of the hill he stood and caught his breath. He studied the storefronts, all of them with green striped awnings. He spotted a bookstore among the dozen or so knickknack stores.
An electronic bell announced his arrival as he entered Martha’s Books. The store owner welcomed him with the typical let me know if you need anything, then continued shelving the books stacked in the crook of her arm. There were three other people in the store. The first was a bent over old man moving around with the help of a funky blue cane. He was perusing the autobiographies wiping at his nose with an overused tissue. The other two were a mother and son. The mother was beautiful, hair pulled back in a loose ponytail and wearing a gray Oriole’s shirt semi-tucked into her blue jeans. Her son, maybe six, was as cute as she was beautiful. He wore an oversized shirt with the silhouette of a snowboarder hanging midair.
The boy was tugging at his mother’s back pocket.
“Watch! Watch!” he chirped, “Look at me spin.”
And sure enough he started to spin. The little boy spun with whimsical abandon, arms out and feet dancing him around as fast as they could. Jonathon watched him with a smile, pretending to be interested in a random book he pulled from the shelf.
The boy spun and spun, laughing a little. Jonathon laughed too. The rollick of it came with an ease he hadn’t felt in years. The boy kept spinning. The mother was trying to get his attention but he was somewhere else, in a wonderfully blurry world. He kept spinning until he finally tripped over his shoelaces and fell to the ground. The little boy lay on his back and laughed.
The mother crouched next to him and said, “Stop your spinning, please. You worry me with your spinning.”
Jonathon had turned to them and was now openly watching them. The mother felt this and looked up at him. He wobbled a little, drunk. The mother grabbed her son by the arm and took the boy away around the corner.
Jonathon frowned and looked down at the book he selected, The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering.
“Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Jonathon had bought the book but never opened it. Now, he held it open with one hand and ate his dinner with the other. He turned the pages quickly. He gave up eating his cold dinner and moved to the recliner where he finished the book.
He plopped it down on the coffee table and spoke to the empty house, “What a bunch of please comfort me bullshit. Even you, honey, would have thought this was bullshit, gullible as you were.” He stood up slowly, bones cracking and creaking and went back to find the portable phone sitting upright on the table.
He hit redial and it rang six times.
This time, instead of silence, he said, “Maybe we can reschedule? Your place? I know little Ben likes your cooking better.” He hung up and wiped at the sweat beading on his nose. He didn’t feel like himself, but that was okay. He wasn’t a religious man and never would be, but he liked the idea of living again.
About the Author: Connor Walsh lives in Maryland and studies Special Education at Towson University. His flash fiction can be found here.