Come to Life (a fiction piece)

I’m a writer. I make the stories inside my head come to life.

Not to say I’m a great or successful writer. Oh, I’d like to think so. Maybe someday.

My girlfriends like my writing, but of course they would. They’re my girlfriends. And a number of people like my stories, enough to keep me in decent furniture and travel money to supplant my job as a legal assistant. And enough to earn me some respect in my little writing group, where I’m viewed as the sage of the members who would like to be published and popular someday. We call ourselves the Chiclets, an inside joke, because we’re all girls and mostly focused on women’s-oriented stories, or “chick lit.” Funny, right?

I’m waiting at the bus stop now, watching the traffic zoom by. I imagine the male drivers in the speeding cars checking me out a little as they pass, so I stand straight and arrange myself for best effect, at least as I imagine it.

In the frenzied traffic, I see one bright red car approaching that stands out, not just because of its color, but because it so obviously has an aggressive and thoughtless driver, cutting in and out, coming very close to the other cars, apparently seeking triumph in each tenth of a second that can be gained. The car is coming up to the stoplight just before my bus stop, the light turns red, and rather than stopping for the red, the car accelerates through, causing another car that had started out in the intersection to come to a screeching stop.

I look at the red car as it goes past, trying to get a glimpse of the license plate just in case there’s a need to identify the later on, with the way it’s going. FZO is all I make out in the time that I have and without my glasses, having taken them off to look better to the passing drivers whom I’ll never meet. The car rockets on down the road and out of sight.

I’ve learned not to get mad at things I can’t control. Rather, I make up stories about them. As I stand there, I think up a story about a man driving to catch an appointment in time, being a jerk, cutting people off, and then instant karma catches up to him as he loses control of the car and wraps it around a light pole. He’s not going to make his appointment, and it serves him right.

In my story, I make it a single-car accident because I don’t want anyone else getting hurt by him. And what’s he trying to hurry to, anyway? Make it ironic. How about a safety meeting that he’s required to attend? That’s good. There’s the story.

In another ten minutes, the bus pulls up, and I get on. The bus driver is one I’ve seen before. We’ve exchanged friendly words now and then, and I’ve gotten the feeling that he finds me attractive, but he’s not so much to me, and maybe something could happen there someday, but no, it never will.

I make my way back to an empty row. I’m sitting behind one man, kind of a slender pretty boy, which probably isn’t complimentary to him, but it’s how I categorize him. He’s in his mid-twenties, too young for me.

Across the row from him sits a huskier man, probably in his thirties. That might be of more interest to me, but still too young.

The story in my mind unfolds. These are two lovers. They want to be together, but still in this day and age and particularly in this town, there are societal taboos, so they sit close, but pretending not to know one another, yearning for the moment when they return to their place from work and can be together again on their own terms. The Chiclets would love it.

The bus driver calls back, “Sorry, folks. There’s going to be a slow-down. Looks like there was an accident up here.”

I take out my tablet and look at notes for my next story. It won’t involve any of the things I’ve thought about today. Stories occur to me in everyday life, all the time. I couldn’t possibly write them all down, and they’re mostly just snippets anyway, with not enough meat on those bones to make a decent meal.

The bus slows down in a lane of crowding, twitchy, and impatient drivers. Our driver is far more patient. You can’t be nimble in a bus, and besides, he’s being paid to be on the road, whether he’s going fast or slow. Bus passengers start craning their necks, looking out of the windows for the accident, a completely human reaction, and I’m right there with them.

We come up to the scene. It’s at an intersection, and a cop has blocked the right-hand lane and is directing traffic around the accident, to a single lane. That and curious on-lookers are causing the slowdown. As we drive around, an ambulance approaches from another direction.

We finally see the car that’s the focus of the emergency people. It’s crunched up pretty severely against the concrete base of a pole. I idly wonder if the driver is okay. No way of telling. I don’t want to make up a story about it. The tragedy is too immediate. It looks to have been a nice car, too, with its fast-back style and bright red paint.

Bright red?

The car had apparently skidded when it crashed, with the rear end facing at an oblique angle, somewhat away from the direction of travel. I can’t tell if it’s the same model I saw earlier. I’ve never been much of a car buff. But I turn to look at the rear end as we go slowly by to get a glance at the license plate.

Three letters jump out at me: FZO. I can’t believe it and immediately feel terrible. I didn’t really wish that the driver would be in a wreck, and now I wonder if there was an injury or fatality coming out of it. I’ll have to check the paper later to see if there’s a story on it.

I decide it’s best if I just pay attention to my tablet. After a while, the bus comes to a stop, and the slender man in front of me scoots over to the aisle. This must be his stop. I look up, unconcernedly, and he leans over and whispers to the huskier man across the aisle, who whispers back.

They’re trying not to be heard, but my senses are sharp on this morning, and I hear them clearly. The slender man is saying, “See you later tonight.” The huskier man whispers back, “Looking forward to it.” The voices are tinged with affection. The slender man moves on down to the front of the bus and leaves.

This is disconcerting now. I think of asking the remaining man something to confirm whether the relationship matches up to my little story, but there’s no way that can be done gracefully.

The bus comes up to my stop, and I stand and walk to the front and say good-bye to the driver. I can’t remember his name. As I get to the door, he says, “Hey, would you like to go for dinner some night?”

My disbelief is complete. I’d already thought of him liking me more than I like him, and to break this curious spell of my thoughts turning into reality, all I probably need to do is turn around and say yes. But I can’t, just can’t. I give him my best smile and say, “No, thanks, but I’ll see you later,” and leave the bus as the doors open. I step to the sidewalk to go to work.

I’m starting to think about work and the legal papers that will have to be done today, and suddenly realize that I have no idea how to fill out legal papers or do whatever it is that legal assistants do. I look up at the building in front of me. It’s entirely unfamiliar. But I know I need to go to — where? Where is the office where I work? In fact, what’s the name of it? What’s my boss’s name?

I’m starting to panic. How am I going to keep this job if I can’t remember a damn thing about it?

I wake up, confused at first, the images and feelings still in my mind. A dream. I can tell this is real now, because now I’m wondering why I was experiencing a ride on the bus, when I don’t even ride the bus. I have my own car, thank you.

First thing this morning, I have to go to the store, the supermarket down the road. As I arrive at the parking lot, I see one of the store attendants out gathering the shopping carts that have been left by shoppers who can’t be bothered with putting things back where they got them. He’s started at the far end of the parking lot, and he’s built up quite a treasure of a gathering of carts. The line that he pushes is long, sinuous. I imagine it as a snake, becoming its own creature, writhing and moving around the parking lot on its own.

I walk into the store, pondering. I always return the cart back to the store, no matter how busy or pressed for time. It’s just one of those things that people should do. But I know I’m one of the very few who actually do so, as the attendant outside would grasp quite well. But nobody ever acknowledges or thanks me for doing it. I pull a cart out of the assembly in the store and imagine a store manager coming up to me to thank me, ribbons coming down, some celebration for this selfless shopper who cleans up after herself by bringing the cart back every time.

I walk into the store now. They’ve changed the store layout since I’ve been here last, and it’s hard to find the meats and vegetables that I’m looking to buy for dinner tonight. At the end of one of the aisles, an angry-looking man darts right across my way, forcing me to stop suddenly.

“Whoops,” I say to him, even though he was in the wrong, and he just glares at me. I’ve learned not to get angry at things beyond my control. Instead, I just write stories about them, usually inside my head, but sometimes I actually do write something down. Maybe I’ll be published someday.

As I turn down the next aisle, the same man is there, his cart on one side of the aisle, him standing on the other, blocking my way. I need to get a can of tomatoes on the shelves just past him. I walk up, stop, and he ignores me. This is one of the most annoying things about grocery shopping.

“Excuse me,” I say. “May I get by?” He continues to ignore me. I stare at him, uncomprehending how he can be so oblivious, and he finally gives up his search, goes back to his cart, and pushes it in front of him in a run down the far end of the aisle.

I’m calming myself now and make up a little story about how he goes to the checkout line, it’s backed up, he tries to go to another one, and that ends up backed up even more, and then another line, all with the same result. He’s still standing in line and loudly complaining by the time my groceries are bagged up and I’m ready to leave. The little imaginary tale cheers me up.

I get my tomatoes and the last of my items and go to the front of the store. With just a few items, I go to the express line and pass by Mr. Grouchy, at the end of a long line. He’s muttering and saying to the woman standing in front of him, “I’ve got my son’s birthday to go to. Why does every damn line I pick get backed up?” I figure he’s trying to get sympathy to be allowed ahead, but she just ignores him.

It’s a little odd, because I’m not sure who has a son’s birthday party early on a weekday, but maybe there’s one going on at the kid’s school.

I get through the express line quickly and walk off with my cart and a bag of groceries. I look back. The man hasn’t moved. In fact, there’s no one behind him, and it looks like he may be the last shopper in the store. He’s angry, fidgeting, and raising his voice about the unfairness of having to stand in line so long.

I take my cart to front of the store, slide it back with the others, and a siren goes off. I look around, wondering if someone tripped a fire alarm, and a man and two women, all in identical vests, come up to me. The man has on a nameplate that says “Store Manager.”

“We’ve seen you come in here, and you always bring your cart back, and we appreciate it,” he shouts happily, and the two women with him start clapping. He takes out a notepad and scribbles on it and hands me the paper. It says, “Good for $100 of store purchases.”

I’m so astonished I can barely speak, but I stammer out a thanks. They gush over my kindness for a moment before I excuse myself, and they are clapping as I exit the store.

I come out to the parking lot, and the sight there freezes me in my tracks in shock and fright. A long, long line of shopping carts is rolling through the parking lot as though it has a mind of its own, the sides snaking out and bashing into cars. People are screaming and running. All I can think is, where is the attendant? And then as the line flashes by me, I see a bloody, severed arm trapped in one of the carts.

I wake up, breathing heavily. I’ve had gory dreams before, and they just terrify and upset me to no end. I realize now that this time, I’m awake for real.

I’m also unnerved because I realize I’ve dreamed that I woke up out of the previous dream. But this is real in a way the others weren’t. My husband is lying next to me, softly snoring. This is a Saturday, or he’d be up. It’s not a workday. I don’t ride the bus. I can hear birds outside. I feel the sheets around me. There is no severed human arm, no blood, and I’m entirely happy about that.

I get up from the bed and go to the kitchen counter, where I left my tablet. I have written short stories and am trying to do a novel, but it’s just so much work. I’m in a writing group whose members produce women’s literature, some of it amateurish but a lot of it pretty good, and they’re trying to come up with a clever nickname for our little assembly. There’s one just outside of my reach. I’ve almost got my mental finger on it. I know I’ve thought of it before.

I check the email on my tablet, thinking, If only I had an end to the story I’m writing now. It’s a little dramatic saga of a teenage girl in a bad relationship who develops a separate love interest, is conflicted by her still-existing devotion to her soon-to-be ex, can’t proceed with the other relationship without feeling guilt, can’t break off the first relationship also without feeling guilt, because she knows it’ll look like she left him for another man when, in fact, she was leaving because it was a bad relationship, but maybe there is more to this “other man” thing after all.

It’s more fun to write than it is to think about how it resolves. But I have to finish it up. I imagine coming to the conclusion and typing out those two little glorious words.

There’s no email worth looking at. I pad out to the front door in my pajamas, open the door, and peer out the storm door window. The newspaper will be at the bottom of the driveway, and I imagine now, like I do every morning, of having a newspaper carrier who pitches the paper up to the front porch so we don’t have to walk down the driveway. But I’m in surveillance mode now, because I want to get the newspaper but don’t really care to have people in the neighborhood see me traipsing around in my sleepwear. Well, there is Brad the fireman two doors down. I wouldn’t mind him seeing me in whatever I had on, and vice versa.

No one is up. I pad out of the door barefoot, and seeing my toes, I’m a little confused, because I don’t remember putting on nail polish, and yet there my toes are, resplendent in bright red paint, perfectly applied. I’m trying to think back to when I did that, and I’m at the edge of the porch now, and there the paper is, right at the edge of the porch. How nice. We must have had a substitute carrier today.

I stoop and pick up the newspaper in one hand, raising my tablet to look at the newspaper delivery schedule app to check out the substitute. I straighten and idly wonder why I brought the tablet out with me, and why I never noticed a newspaper delivery schedule app on it before. My latest story is displayed on the screen, and I have to swipe it away, but I stop and stare in wonder at the words on the page.

“Joanie carried the secret to her grave,” is the last full sentence that I read, followed by THE END. When did I write the ending? I’m paused in confusion and then hear softly behind me, “Good morning.”

I turn, embarrassed to be seen in my pajamas, except they’re not pajamas, it’s my teddy, my husband’s favorite piece of sleepwear that I own, especially since he bought it himself for me, in the cute-and-annoying style that husbands have. But my embarrassment fades as I see Brad there. He’s in his jeans, bare-chested, a state in which I’ve never seen him before, just only imagined, and my imagination was correct, because he’s solidly built, looking like a model for an underwear ad, and on his chest he’s got a tattoo.

A tattoo of my name.

Wait, wait.

I wake up in a momentary but clear panic, because it’s obvious that I can’t tell what is a dream, what is not, and when I’m waking up, and when I’m not. My alarm is going off. I have to get to work. I’d say much rather be able to sell my stories, not have to work, and just sleep in, but my husband and I have kids and a mortgage and bills, and I need to get bring in my share of money.

The panic fades along with the dream, or dreams, and I’m fully awake now. Selling my stories. That would be the ticket. Like every other wishful writer, I’ve sent samples off to agents, strategized query letters, and in my case, to no avail.

My imagination wanders as I go to the coffeepot, the coffee automatically made and ready for me. In my mind, an agent is enthralled by and accepts my work. In a revelatory moment, I receive word that I’ve made it, I’ll be a success, and here comes the big money, with the end of financial stresses for us.

I take my coffee over to the computer, call up my email, and do my little triage of the display, what’s important, what’s not, what’s trash, what’s not. One subject line catches my eye: “Your submission.”

This one, I have to see. I open it, and it’s from one of the many agents to whom I sent a query letter. It says:

“Congratulations! Your novel, ‘The Constancy of a Dream,’ looks to be fantastic! I would be proud to represent you. I assure you, publishers will be knocking on our door to get this to print,” and it goes on.

I slide back in my chair. “The Constancy of a Dream”? It was a title I’ve played with, but I felt it was far too kitschy. When did I finish the story? For that matter, what is the story even about?

How am I supposed to promote my novel when I don’t know its plot?

No, this can’t be.

I wake up, feeling better now, calm and composed. The nurse is standing over me, looking down, and our eyes meet.

“How are you doing?” she asks.

“Better now,” I say, and I remember coming to the hospital, the pain consuming my chest, fear in my husband’s voice as he drove me here, the blue-smocked crowd in the ER undressing and working over me, giving me meds, sticking me with needles, the gurney ride to the procedure room.

“Good,” she says. “You gave us a scare. You went into fibrillation, and we had to shock you. But still, you’re lucky. The procedure went perfectly, and your heart is back to normal rhythm.”

I lie there, thinking, that sounds right. I don’t have the pain in my chest anymore. But someone needs to get word to my husband. He’s out there in the reception area, waiting for to hear about me, worried about me. But something, some fleeting thought, nags me.

“Excuse me,” I say to the nurse. “How long was I out? I think I was dreaming.”

“Oh, you were out for just a moment or two when your heart started fluttering,” she replies. “But if you were dreaming, you probably won’t remember it, or the shock we gave you, or much of anything for the past few minutes, maybe longer. We gave you a couple sedatives, including Verced, which pretty much wipes out short-term memory.” She smiles. “Trust me, what you just had to go through, you don’t want to remember.”

“Thanks,” I say, and relax. I imagine that I’m going to be in the hospital now for at least a couple of days. Maybe my husband can bring my tablet in for me and I can get some writing done.

The treatment team is bundling me up now, and a couple of them wheel me out of the room, down the hall. We pass by my husband, who catches up and matches his pace to ours.

“I heard it went well. But how are you?” he asks, his hand on my arm as we roll down through the hall, and the concern is clear in his eyes and tone of his voice.

“Better,” I say. “They said the procedure went perfectly. I feel fine, just tired.”

“Wonderful!” he says. “How long do you think you’ll be here?”

“She’ll be here at least two days,” one of the orderlies pushing the gurney volunteers. “It’s not a big deal. She’s doing fine. We just want some observation time.”

“Thanks,” my husband replies, and says to me, “I’ll let your boss know.” He holds up my tablet. “I grabbed this and brought it along. I figured if you’d have to stay here, you’d want it to help pass the time.”

“Thank you, honey,” I say.

The heart attack, the rush to the hospital, the team working on me, the stark environment of the hospital. The memories are so fresh, yet it all seems surreal.

I have to wonder if I’m going to just wake up.

— Grandpa

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