cambridge book review

Men without Meaning

Gerald Fosdal and Jack Lehman

~

Samuel Fuller was a good looking young guy who wanted to kill himself. That’s why, when he was released from the psych ward, Sarah’s husband gave him a free room above their bakery in town.

And mornings when she made her way into work about 10 a.m., Samuel would be sitting on the stairs just inside the back door.

The day before yesterday (one of those dreary March mornings) he said, “Remember that Woody Allen joke? ‘Not only is God dead but you can’t get an appointment with a dentist on a Saturday.’”

Sarah shrugged.

“Well if God is dead, I want to be dead too.”

“Now, Sam, you can’t mean that.”

“There’s a plant in a pot up in the window. Scraggly, like me. If that dies, it is a sign there is no God. That day will mark the end of me.”

The following night, while Sarah’s husband was away at work, there was a call from Samuel Fuller. He was drunk on gin lying in a bathtub full of weed killer. Intoxicated, but not dead. It didn’t seem to be doing anything to him except he was sick from the gin. That’s when Sarah decided, the next day at the bakery when she heard his footsteps going out, she would sneak upstairs and water the little plant.

You might wonder why Aaron, her husband, would put up with this. Sarah did at first. But as it turned out Samuel was the disenfranchised son of Aaron’s sister, Rose. Now Aaron’s relationship with that sister, while they were all part of a family living under one roof was complicated. Sarah knew because she listened to her husband recap the session he and Rose went through in family counseling a few years later.

“It is in one of those office-like buildings on a frontage road along the Beltline. The Christian Counseling Center. Not well marked. You had to know where you were going and Rose and I did.”

Aaron had heard about group rehabilitation meetings for children of alcoholics from a psychologist friend of his at church. Aaron hadn’t thought too much about it until he got a letter from Rose saying she wondered about herself after reading a book on the subject. “And about you too,” she had slyly added.

She had described how she felt tense, was always the one trying to make peace between her late husband and their teenage son.

“Aaron, like our father, don’t you bury yourself in work?” And, “Don’t you feel guilty, as I do?”

Ironically they, Aaron and Rose, were the ones who felt guilty. Had their demanding, controlling, god-like father transferred any blame onto them?

Sitting on the floor in the windowless room, the nine of them each hugging a pillow, Aaron had told how he had been sent to bring his dad home from the bar at night. How angry his mother had been if he succeeded, or if he did not succeed.

The facilitator looked at Rose, and asked, “How did you feel?”

“I don’t know. I looked up to my brother, Aaron. He was the oldest.”

“Show me. Show us,” the counselor said, grabbing a chair from the side of the room.

He motioned for Aaron to come, stand up on it, and Rose …

Rose got up and walked over to the chair, looking at Aaron perched on it.

Suddenly she fell to her knees and wrapped her arms around his ankles. She was crying.

“And you, Aaron,” the man demanded, “show us how you felt.

Slowly Aaron placed his hands over his ears and shut his eyes.

Now, so many years later, that is what he seemed to be doing to Sarah.

“I remember one night,” he said to her late in bed, “I was inside waiting for you to come back from something and I put my face against the cold window pane, and I was reminded of once when I was a child, maybe seven or eight, putting my cheek against the glass of our front window watching for my parents to come home.”

“I’m sorry,” Sarah replied. But she was thinking of Samuel Fuller, in his room, looking out his window. Being alone. Thinking of killing himself.

Here were two men. Men, who were the solution to each other’s problem. Sarah didn’t know the answer, but she knew if …, no when … they got together, the answer would emerge, just as the plant she had been watering now flourished.

“Hi,” Samuel said. “I don’t mean to disturb you. I just couldn’t sleep and the smell of oatmeal cookies baking at two in the morning pulled me down here.”

The windows were open though it seemed cold out. In fact the door was propped ajar by a square floor fan that was humming away. But the back room of the bakery seemed, well, cozy, and Aaron rolling dough on a wood counter so happy to be lost in his work. He nodded to the young man, but didn’t say anything.

“Isn’t it lonely here by yourself, I mean why do you work at night?” he asked the baker.

Aaron stopped and thought.

The walls were covered with grease from doughnuts and Samuel noticed they smelled slightly of mold. There was flour between the wide boards of the floor. Above, the plastic that covered the fluorescent tubes was a crusted yellow. But it was somehow welcoming. Outside the dark night smelled of blooming things which in some strange way complemented the aroma of baking bread.

“Want a cup of coffee?” Aaron asked. “It may be a bit stale.”

“Sure.”

The nephew pulled a metal folding chair from the corner and sat down.

“How do you do this day after day?” he asked his uncle who handed him a white mug of coffee. The older man, himself, was sweaty and wore a dirty apron.

“I don’t know. There is sugar in the bin and then I mix it with eggs and flour and oatmeal, put them on pans and then into the oven. And when it’s over, when they are done, I take out the cookies and place them in a pyramid-like pile to cool.”

He continued, taking one of the cookies and offering it to the young man who stared at him. “When I was your age I couldn’t find anything I liked to do, then I discovered it was learning to like what you have to do that counts. When that happened, it was no longer my father telling me, it was doing something I liked because I liked it.”

And Samuel thought, that’s it. Eating an oatmeal cookie and appreciating it. Maybe that’s all the meaning I need; all the meaning I will ever get.

He ate the cookie. Drank from the coffee mug. Breathed in the air of a new spring.

In their bed, alone and asleep, Sarah smiled.

__________

Gerald Fosdal was a baker for 50 years. Now retired, he lives in Rockdale, Wisconsin (on The Left Bank). This is his first published story.

Jack Lehman lives across the street from Gerry. He is the founder of Rosebud, literary editor of Wisconsin People & Ideas and editor of the first pulp fiction digital magazine, Lit Noir.

June 1, 2012 - Posted by | fiction | , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] Men without Meaning A short story Gerald Fosdal & Jack Lehman […]

    Pingback by cbr 19 / summer 2012 « cambridge book review | June 20, 2013 | Reply


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