Writercise: Slight Of Heart

So for a couple of months in late 2001 I joined an online creative writing group in an effort to expand my writing chops. I wasn’t really looking to become a writer per say, but I thought it might be helpful to try my hand at stuff that I wasn’t necessarily invested in. The idea behind the group was that once a week they would present a new exercise, be it a particular scenario, or a set of story points, that the members of the group would then try and craft a story from scratch from. Then we’d (politely) critique each other’s work. Rinse and repeat. I completed three such assignments and then the group folded. My timing, as always, is awesome.

The exercise this time was to write a story which included three specific things: a baby’s pacifier, a rose, and the phrase “D.B. Kipper, Magician”. At least I think those were the three things. Part of me thinks a pocketwatch was involved, but as no reference to a pocketwatch appears in my story, I’m guessing that’s just my feeble brain playing tricks on me 15 years later.

* * * * *

Slight Of Heart

His name was Delroy McCullough and he was a man clutching at straws. After 17 years of marriage and a lifetime of fading memories he could feel his life gasping it’s last suffocating breath despite the fact that his body was poised to go on living.

“From here on out I’m a tomb”, he thought. “A lifeless, hollow tomb, with nothing inside but the echoes of what might have been.”

They were by no means happy thoughts, but they were the kind of relentless beatings his soul had been administering to itself for well close to a year. Everything he did, everyone he talked to seemed to carry a reminder of his own failures. The paths not chosen; the life not lead. He had finally understood why it was they termed it a mid-life “crisis”, for it seemed to him that these feelings which were once merely casual thoughts of wonder had become an unbearable weight of despair. The passions which stoked his youth had burned away and now even their embers were dying, leaving Delroy McCullough a man wanting for a match.

Absent mindedly he began to run his fingers over the badly sunburned flesh of his right shoulder and for a moment his thoughts were freed from their morbid burial ground. His own touch irritated his skin, yet he was almost happy for the pain, as the burn would be all that he would take from his six day sojourn into deepest Africa. Not the spiritual awakening he had come seeking, not the emotional catharsis he desired, not even the feeling of awe in the face of God’s creation which he felt was a gimme. After six days of trekking through the lush jungles of the Congo, all he had to show for his trouble was charred skin, a blanket of bug bites, and a deeper psychological hole from which to try and drag himself. Not that he was especially surprised. Why should the safari have been any different than the myriad of other attempts he had made to shock himself into being? Like the bunjee jumping, the mountainbiking, and the skydiving before it, the African retreat would leave him with nothing but physical scars while his soul continued falling.

“Excuse me, but is that seat taken?”

It took a second for Delroy to realize the voice was talking to him. He looked up to find a round-faced gentlemen in a turn-of-the-century bowler hat staring back at him, a wide grin stitched across his face. The gentleman tipped his cap and raised his eyebrows slightly while nodding toward the empty seat beside Delroy, his eyes silently asking, “may I?”

“Certainly” came a reply. Delroy scooped up his own carry-on bag from the seat and motioned for the man to sit. He plopped the bag in his lap and began to turn his attention back to his own misery when the voice spoke again.

“Enjoy your trip? Sure do look like you got yourself plenty of sun.” It was pleasant enough, the voice of this smiling man in the bowler hat. He talked with an air of stately kindness that seemed genuine and Delroy found himself being drawn into conversation almost without will.

“Yes. It was a lovely, thank you.”

“Not quite the life altering experience you were hoping for though, eh?”

The question was followed with a polite and gentle smile, which caught Delroy off guard nearly as much as the question itself. How did he know?

“Don’t worry, my boy. It hardly ever is. It’s not the big things that change life. It’s the accumulation of the little things.”

With a sudden flip of his wrist, the strange prophet in the bowler hat produced a business card from thin air. He offered it to Delroy, who took it cautiously as if he himself was suddenly in some dream-like state. He turned it over in his hands and read the card’s front.

D.B. Kipper, Magician

That was all. No address, no phone number, no catchy slogan promising “great for seminars or children’s parties!” Just a name and title. Delroy just stared at it.

“I don’t really use them to drum up business. Truth is I hardly ever perform these days. I’m into sales now. But I like the idea of the business card. Makes me feel like somebody important.” The round-faced man leaned in slightly and tapped a fingertip on the card. “Every man needs an identity.”

Delroy continued to just stare at the card.

“So tell me, my boy, what do you do? Don’t suppose you’ve got a card, do ya?”

“Uh, no. Not on me. I’m a… I’m a software engineer.” Delroy spoke softly, his words drifting from his mouth like leaves on a stream; delicate, safe, but under command of something else.

“Is that so? Good work. Bet you make a nice living.”

“Yes. I do quite well.” Delroy’s attention never wavered from the card.

“I bet you do. Have a nice family, do ya? Wife, kids?”

“Two boys and a girl.”

“Well, well, that *is* nice. Kind of a shame though.” The stranger smiled outward. “You’d think that would be enough, wouldn’t ya? That kind of thing. The family and all. That should be enough to make a man complete. But we know different, don’t we?”

Delroy turned silently towards his companion, a quizzical look on his face. The bowler hat man’s smile grew broader.

“Oh, don’t torture yourself, my boy, I’m not that kind of magician. It’s just that I could tell from the moment I saw you. I’ve been there myself. You don’t forget that look.”

There was a silence that followed, as Delroy turned his attention back to the business card while the bowler hat man turned his to the window. Time pressed on, in no hurry at all. Eventually the magician spoke again.

“There is no answer, you know.”

Delroy looked up.

“You won’t find it. It’s not out there. Life wasn’t designed that way, my boy. Happiness is not now, nor will it ever be, a discovery. Take that child there…” He pointed across the airport terminal to a young woman with a baby straddled over her left leg. She was engaged in a conversation with an older gentlemen seated next to her, leaving the child to stare off into space. It’s wide eyes floated aimlessly around the room while it’s mouth worked over a plastic pacifier. “That child is happy, but it’s not even fully aware why. It didn’t come upon that pacifier as a revelation. And it’s not counting on that pacifier to sustain it. It is what it is. One small moment of happiness.”

“That child doesn’t have-”

“Your problems? Your responsibilities? Perhaps. But it also doesn’t have the opportunities you have. Sure, it can find happiness in something basic, like that pacifier, but when that runs out? Can it really look back on the memory of that pacifier as a suitable source for joy?”

Again Delroy was silent.

“It may not be my place to say, and please, do speak up if I’m over stepping my bounds here, my boy, but I look at you and I can see in your eyes that there is someone inside of you that has forgotten how to live. Day-to-day living, I mean. I don’t imagine it was always that way.”

The words were involuntary. Delroy spoke without control. “Once upon a time love meant something. Meant everything.” He paused, staring at the child sucking on it’s pacifier. “Now I’m not so sure.”

“Of course you’re not. You’ve grown accustomed to it and its lost it’s power, just like that pacifier will. But you see, love is not a pacifier. It is not meant to be functional. Love is…” With another effortless flick of the wrist the stranger produced a red rose. He held it out to Delroy. “…A flower. And a flower is still fragrant even if our nose is not right up to it.”

Delroy took the flower, twirling it between his thumb and forefinger. The aroma of the rose caught him off guard. It was sweet and warm, and it carried him away to a thought of his wife. Not of a picturesque remembrance such as their wedding day, but of a simple smile. A smile of warm recognition which he had always deeply appreciated but had come to take for granted.

“One doesn’t need to go to Africa to find the answers, my boy. One must merely stop to smell the flowers.” By now the mysterious man had risen to his feet and he stood before Delroy with his hand on the brim of his cap. “And with that I must bid you good day. Have a pleasant flight.” He tipped his cap.

A smile crept it’s way across Delroy McCullough’s face and he suddenly became acutely aware of the flow of blood through his veins. The sensation sent a tingle to his fingers and a spasm caused him to flinch, dropping the rose. In a flash the bowler hat man swept in and snatched the thorny flower before it hit the ground. He presented it to Delroy once again, who took it with a detached awe.

“Might I add…” The stranger’s smile grew wider, his cheeks threatening to burst. “I’m also great for children’s parties.” And with a graceful pirouette he was gone.

His name was Delroy McCullough and he was a man clutching at straws. Fortunately for him, all he could grab were the roses.

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