Readers Wanted: John Tames. Age 30. Deceased.
Hello beautiful readers, I’ve got a request for you today.
Any other writers out there ever go back to a piece you started a few years ago, cringe upon reading some of it, yet still have a desire to finish the project?
I’ve put a number of stories on hold over the years, telling myself I’d come back to them later. Now I’m thinking it’s time to come back to them, so the characters will stop yelling at me. (Any other writers hear your characters voices in your heads? Just me? Okay, nevermind.) I’ve always loved writing fiction, but have found it more challenging in the past year than it has ever been for me before. I might write a separate post about that in the future. But the dry spell has had me looking through old notes and files, searching for that writing spark.
I went through a phase a few years back where I outlined all of my stories on their own small legal notepad. One of the notepads I picked up recently outlined a novella about a character named John Tames, a thirty year old man telling his life story from the grave. The reader bonds with him as they become familiar with his life through short vignettes, but from the beginning the reader already knows the end. That John Tames is dead and alone. How he got there and why it matters is the story I planned to tell.
If you’ve followed my writing for awhile, you may recall reading excerpts from an old draft. I’ve pulled those together here, as a sort of preview of what may be coming in the near future. That is, if I receive some feedback from you wonderful readers. Is this a story you want to hear? Will John Tames live only in my head, or will you join me at his funeral?
Read the excerpts below and please (PRETTY PLEASE) leave any thoughts in the comments section below.
John Tames. Age 30. Deceased.
This. Is. Torture. I told them explicitly I did not want a funeral. I told them to put me in the ground, pile the dirt high, and be done with it. But no.
All these people here. Most of them I haven’t spoken to in years. By choice. I cannot stand half of them. But of course they all have kind, flowery memories to share. Funny, I remember it all a bit differently.
Ugh, Mrs.Jones? I mowed your lawn for one summer, fifteen years ago! She was old then, she’s got to be ancient now. Our places ought to be reversed.
But I’m being rude. Allow me to introduce myself. John Tames. Age thirty. Deceased.
At least someone was kind enough to pick out a decent coffin. The lining here is dark, maroon velvet. Soft. Well, I think it’s soft. It’s been hard to really feel things since I flatlined.
What surprised me the most was how long it took all the natural senses to shut down. Sight, then taste, smell, touch. Sound has yet to go. Once my heart stopped beating, I began to process things differently. I can’t twitch a finger (I’ve tried), but I still know what is going on. It has all been rather odd to be honest.
Everyone talks about the afterlife. Heaven. Hell. Rebirth. Ceasing to exist altogether. That is not how it has worked out for me thus far. I’m just here.
What’s that? Everything is a bit muffled through the padding. Oh. The violin. It must be Gracie. My goodness, she’s improved since last I heard her play.
We’re lurching now. They must be lowering the casket. And, thud, flat on the ground. Something lands loudly above me. Again. Again. They must be shoveling the dirt on. Finally.
Hmm. I can’t hear anything now.
Well this is a predicament. I hadn’t thought ahead to this point. I suppose I expected something spectacular to happen.
This is going to get old fast.
Maybe you can help me. I’ve never been much of a talker, but someone ought to know the whole story. It will pass the time at least. So here we go.
The story of my life…
The white lines twirl together, floating, hovering.
Who gets this job? To paint the sky everyday. The giant dome that encases us. Always changing, always beautiful.
Perhaps Michelangelo. He could have earned it with that ceiling of his. But there were skies before Michelangelo. Hmm. Well whoever it is must enjoy it.
He must have so many paints. All the different shades needed for the sunrise, sunset, the night, storm, calm. Blues, and purples, and oranges, and yellows, and pinks and grays and blacks. White for the clouds and silver for the stars.
I wonder if it would ever be hard. To have to come up with new ideas all the time. For the masterpiece never to stick, but to change and fade, never stopping, never staying.
Why can’t anything be permanent? Nothing ever stays the same. No one ever stays. People change too easily. They’ll say or believe one thing, but after a time claim things are different now. That they are different now.
Maybe it’s not just one painter. Maybe there is a whole group, and they work together to make sure the sky is painted. That is a lovely thought. And they’d have to get along, they would just have to, to be able to create something so beautiful. I bet they don’t fight.
Or maybe they do. Thunder can be angry, and sometimes someone throws lighting. The rain can be cold, but the sky is always happier after the rain. It’s never broken.
It’s not like that here. The yells can be booming or shrill. Doors fly shut faster than a lighting bolt. Tears fall, and they never dry into a smile. I guess there are good days too, but lately they never seem to last.
I want it to be like the sky. Where there is always something better coming. Or at least something good. Where things don’t just get worse, and worse, and worse.
It didn’t used to be like this. Everyone used to be happy. Everyday was a blue sky. But over the past few months it has turned to gray. And everyday it grows darker and darker. Less sunshine. I can hardly even make out the stars anymore.
There is a loud crash inside the house. Glass shattering. Here comes the thunder. I cover my ears with my hands and focus on the horizon. The sun has slid beneath it now, and from the ground grow streaks of lilac and rose. They melt into a deeper blue, warm and calm.
I hesitate as I lower one of my hands. Quiet. I wipe my nose across my sleeve. The dew on the grass is indistinguishable from my own raindrops. One deep breath. It comes out shaky. I’d rather be painting the sky.
These wooden benches are funny. It’s hard to get comfortable. Not to mention these clothes. I don’t know why my mother insisted on putting this tie around my neck. I tug at it, but she gives me a glare. I put my hands back in my lap.
This guy has been talking forever. He’s standing up at the front of the room with a microphone. I haven’t actually been paying attention, but it seems boring. Oh thank goodness, he’s sitting down now.
What are we doing? Everyone is pulling out books now. A woman starts playing the old piano in the corner. It is a little out of tune.
The melody starts low, a few chords. But then it builds higher, notes nudging in next to each other. Sweet. Everyone around me takes a breath and joins in chorus. I’m not familiar with the words.
But- It’s strange. Like a swelling inside me. Like light. It fills my head, my chest, my toes tingle.
The song ends. The man at the front stands back up. I sit, puzzled at the sensation.
Soon my mother takes my hand and leads me from the building. Dad is carrying Gracie. The whole car ride home I stare out the window wondering.
A number of weeks went by. We didn’t return to the building with the funny seats and the decrepit piano.
I tried to avoid talking to my parents. They always seemed to be in a bad mood. Their faces were hard. Hands always clenched.
Another week passed. One morning I opened the door of my room and walked out into the kitchen. As my ears began to wake up, and I rubbed the fog from my eyes, I was confused by the scene in front of me.
Mom had Gracie on her hip, and a bag over her other arm. Were we going on a trip? Her eyes looked wet.
Dad was across the counter, both fists pressing into its surface. His face was cast down and he wouldn’t meet my mother’s stare.
I watched in silence. One long minute passed. Then she turned, keys in hand. The door shut behind her. She never walked through it again.
I’d go to see her and Gracie sometimes, at a new house. Dad would pull up to the driveway and let me get out of the car, but he would never come in.
I turned to him on one of the rides. “Dad?”
He kept his eyes on the red light. “Yes, John?”
“Are we ever going to go back to that place where the people were singing?”
“That building with the wooden benches. Are we ever going to go back there?”
He took a long breath. “No, John. We are not going back there.”
Creases everywhere. I try to imagine the face without lines, but find the task impossible. At least he’s still got hair. Gray now, but a full head of it. I hope that’s hereditary.
Grandpa Tom starts digging in his pocket. “Come over here, John,” He waves me to his knee.
I stand up straight and look into his eyes. Steely but loving, blue like mine.
From his worn jeans he pulls a single copper penny.
“Do you know what this is?” his thumb and finger pinch the coin an inch in front of my nose.
I nod. “It’s a penny.”
“And what does one do with a penny?”
“Well I don’t know. I mean, one penny isn’t worth very much. You can’t buy anything for just one penny.”
Grandpa Tom’s lip hardens into a thin line. “Sit down John.”
I sit cross legged in front of his brown leather shoes.
“How would you like to have one million dollars?” he asks me.
I grin at the idea.
“Well,” he tells me, leaning in closer “you get there one penny at a time.” He flicks the piece of metal into the air, then stands, arching his back and yawning before shuffling into the kitchen. It falls into my lap.
I stare at it, memorizing the shape of Lincoln’s nose, and the little spot of green smudgy stuff. I pick it off the wood and turn it gingerly over and over.
I will never spend this penny.
I wake up to a soft sizzle. There are still stars outside my window, and I don’t want to break out of my warm cacoon.
I can hear my mom humming Jingle Bell Rock in the kitchen, and the cheddar aroma wafts its way into my room. I take a deep breath in through my nostrils, and prepare to brace the cold.
In one motion I throw off my blanket and speed into the kitchen, propping myself up at the counter.
My mother turns in her fuzzy slippers, smile on her face, and plate in hand. There upon that plate sits the delicacy for which I wait all year.
Orange gooeyness squeezing out from between two perfectly browned slices of sourdough.
I touch it and the sandwich warms my fingertips with its steam.
Dad rolls over on the couch with a snore.
“We’ll just leave him be,” mom whispers, pulling her own sandwich off the griddle. She stands across from me and looks me in the eye. “On three. One, two…”
We bite into our grilled-cheeses simultaneously. Eyes closing in bliss as it oozes over my tongue. Unbelievable the way two ingredients can be manipulated into something so heavenly.
One slow bite at a time, I make sure not to let a single crumb go unsavored.
My belly sits content, warm and full to burst. I sit back in the wood chair and grin. Mother reaches over the counter and wipes the grease from my face with a napkin.
She starts to clean up, and I amble my way over to the living room. Sprawling out on the carpet I stare up at the tree, twinkles of blue and white illuminating the red and green packages underneath the lowest needles. A smiling angel sits at the peak.
The presents draw my curiosity, most certainly, but I won’t do anything to ruin this moment. Happy and peaceful. My eyelids droop. I struggle to keep them open.
Trees are so much better than people. They don’t lie. They don’t pretend to be something they’re not. They look like trees. They act like trees. They are trees.
Trees don’t judge you. And they don’t let anyone tell them what to do. Each tree works for itself. It plants roots deep into the ground and spends its whole life reaching for the sky, growing as high as it possibly can.
And no matter where they’re planted, they don’t give up without a fight. They try desperately to touch the heavens. Of course they’ll never get there, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. It’s like they know there is something up there that will make it all worth it.
I look down at my boots, treading over the fallen leaves and branches. Brown and drenched in mud. Squishing and sucking noises made with every forward step.
A bird chirps overhead, in a musical trill. The answer is almost audible some yards away.
The crisp air burns in my lungs, and I look up at the sky.
Hiking is the best way to clear your head. The mountain doesn’t shun you, but it still holds to its standards. You have to put in the work if you want to conquer it.
I try to come here as much as I can. Let my hand hang out to the side to brush against the lower foliage. Here I can be by myself. I can feel the tension flood out of me.
The world is so harsh. So loud.
Here it is quiet. Only the earth can be heard. Whispers in the trees.
I love math.
The constant rules and definitive answers. I can always count on it.
A math problem is a wonderful puzzle. It can be pulled apart and picked at. Rearranged until a solution emerges. And there’s always a buzz that comes with discovering the right number to make everything fall into place.
No equation is unsolvable. Even if the answer is so minute it is impossible to see or process, it is there. There is always a solution.
I’m left handed. And for as long as I can remember, the side of my hand has always been covered in smudges. Blue or black ink, and pencil lead. I get so involved scribbling down digits that I can’t stop to think about lifting my hand. So by the time I reach the end of my proofs, I look back and can hardly make out how I got there. Not that it really matters once I know the answer. I always check it, and I find I am usually correct.
I think I fell in love with math when I was thirteen. My math teacher, Ms.Gomez, was so supportive. Most of the other kids in my class grumbled about all the assignments she’d hand out, but I looked forward to them.
After we got back a test one day, she asked me to stay after class. The bell rang and everyone else rushed out the door. I stood by her desk, backpack heavy on my shoulders.
“How are you John?” She finished clacking away on her keyboard and turned to smile at me.
“I’m alright. What did you want to talk to me about? Did I do something wrong?”
“Oh, no, not at all. Quite the opposite in fact. John, you have a talent. You are proving to be a promising mathematician. Have you ever considered really pursuing the subject?”
“Um. I don’t know. I really like math, and I enjoy your homework very much. But how would I pursue it?”
Ms.Gomez grinned and reached inside her desk. She pulled out a stapled packet of white papers with a lot of words on it. “How would you like to join the schools Math Club? We meet every Tuesday after school, and once a month we go to competitions. We could really use you.” She held out the papers to me.
I ground my teeth for half a second then exclaimed, “Sure!”
I’d never been needed before. And who knew, maybe I could even make some friends. The similar interest was there. I was told that was how things worked.
It was Monday. So if I got the packet signed as soon as I got home, then I could start the club the next day. I leafed through its contents and my excitement grew.
When I was younger, my parents bought me a violin. Something about the benefits of learning to play a musical instrument. And I tried for awhile, I really did.
Unfortunately, the whole ordeal was a bit disastrous. Many hours scraping against squealing strings.
After a year, I could make it through “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” without too much complaint. It was around that time my father came to me and said it was alright if I took a break from it for awhile.
And so the pretty piece of wood sat in a corner of our house collecting dust, until one day Gracie pulled it out of a box and began to fiddle around with it. It was not pleasing at first, and I laughed thinking she’d have my same experience with the wretched thing.
But before too long she showed a real knack for it. Her fingers could produce sweet notes that mine never could.
Mother enrolled her in lessons as quickly as possible. Gracie attacked the music, flying through different pieces and arrangements.
It was shortly after this I left for college. I didn’t come home often. Come to think of it, I never did ask Gracie how her violin came along. I wonder if she ever played with an orchestra like she had wanted.
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