Flash Fiction: May Day
A few years ago, Hogarth Press started the Shakespeare Project, contracting with famous authors to write novels in a modern interpretation of the plays. I haven’t worked my way to famous yet, but I liked the idea. The one I would have latched onto was The Comedy of Errors…setting it in the McCarthy era, with the Antipholus of Ephesus character confounded by reports of a lookalike, a Communist agitator. Of course, this would add an element of real danger, but there’s nothing wrong with that, in comedy. Anyway, those thoughts boiled down to this little piece, about a straight-laced man with a socially aware wife, who suffers a minor bout of mistaken identity…
Gougher, the man Dria had thought he ought to sponsor, the man who’d undertaken digging a pond with a shovel, the man who suffered, in some way Dria’s church friends were too delicate to ask…
Anthony Vrenick had the thing in mind. If Gougher felt bad about being an alcoholic, or a wife beater, he’d have to lump it… He was getting asked, because with luck he might leave—in a hough, his employer joked inwardly, angrily. He disliked the man’s idiot name.
“Your wife said, if you just sign this, I’d go on down to the lumber store before they close…”
Gougher was extending a piece of paper, mumbling with his characteristic diffidence and grammar, that lulled and disoriented. Anthony had agreed to hire him on this mistaken premise, imagining he’d offered only vague sympathy to a guest of his wife.
“Gougher, you think you can load bricks on a truck?”
“I didn’t figure on it, Mr. Vernick. Can’t set up a brick wall without mortar. That’ll be another thing.” He paused. “Besides I ain’t got a truck.”
Anthony, blowing out breath between his teeth at Gougher’s persistent difficulty over his own name, warned himself in the nick of time. These bricks were figurative. They were his own damn bricks. His next remark would have been, “An able-bodied man ought to be able to put himself in line for a job, if he can show a little initiative.”
He was hoping Gougher might go to the lumber store, and not come back.
But experience had taught him to suspect it, that Dria’s man could take non-existent bricks and make a wall of them. Maybe a patio. The paper Anthony now snatched, with a rudeness none of his clients at the Sūr-Trust Savings and Loan would have seen in April of 1951’s Employee of the Month—no matter how finnicking their reading of legal language, how many times they feinted and withdrew the pen before signing—read only, in his wife’s hand:
I give the bearer of this note permission to charge to my account, all such articles as he deems necessary for the completion of his assigned job of work.
What, Anthony said to himself, and again out loud: “What!”
What busybody’s template had she copied that from? She had put his name and their address at the bottom, and drawn a line for his signature…he felt smote in the breast by this line, as though she belittled his common sense.
“Gougher, you wait here.”
About the time he’d strode up the flagstones and begun tangling through the branches of the mock orange, Gougher’s voice, from close range, as though in silence he ambled along behind (of course he did), came to Anthony’s ears.
“If she was home, she might take me over in the car. But she ain’t been home. That’s how come the note. Guess you won’t use it.”
Anthony shoved open the white picket gate. He had seen against the greening grass of his back lawn, a wheelbarrow, a shiny red one, and yes, paving stone…a modest pyramid of this, that might have populated a single load. Next to these things, a hole, about four feet in diameter, about a foot deep, and ragged at the edges.
“Oh, please! If he’s doing something wrong, tell him what you’d like done differently. How do you think anyone gets anyplace in the world, if all they get is the sack? We’re trying to teach poor Mr. Gougher.”
Gougher, while Anthony had been counting to ten, and trying, inside himself (and in theory) to get past Dria’s logic, had picked up one of the stones. He had since wandered away. Anthony had glimpsed this through the corner of an eye, and missed the significance.
Cripes! What had Gougher been mumbling this time?
He spun, shoving the note in a pocket, and saw that Gougher, a stone tucked in the crook of each elbow, was already making off up the drive. He hadn’t been speaking at all—he’d been rehearsing, rather, what he would tell the salesclerk, returning these.
“Mr. Vernick says he wants brick.”
Anthony heard a car’s motor fall to idling, and thought Dria had come back. “No wall!” he wanted to bang on the driver’s side window and shout at her. But it wasn’t Dria…it was a sort of parade. Chanting walkers with signs had filtered in like a nest of termites, and were blocking the street. He ducked into the garage, composing in his head a letter to the Times, about blameless suburbanites, solid party-line voters…and why the city couldn’t pass a law…
He grabbed the hedge clippers. When he caught Gougher, he would make himself plain.
He wove, hell bent for his quarry (for, specifically, the money Gougher was about to waste), squinting beyond the stalled sedan, the motorcycle cop, the picketers…not paying much attention to them. He ignored a sproing and pop, close to his ear…then a second sproing and pop made him blink, and he found himself halted by a hand pinching the sleeve of his jacket. His picture had been taken.
“I’m curious,” the reporter said. He gestured. The sign he pointed to demanded, black paint over orange, atomic catastrophe wrought in hand lettering: NO MORE WORLD WAR.
“You’re gonna trim back the big spenders, that it? No more millions for the military.” He chuckled. “Can I get a quote, sir?”
(2017, Stephanie Foster)