So, I was wandering around the mountains for a few hours the other day with Michael, my little brother (for those of you who don't know), when I got a short story idea. Here it is. It's not funny, or clever or anything. But it is my most sincere hope that it does not suck! :)
Without further ado... here is my story: Appearances
His last shower and shave had been over a week ago. His hair was mangy, his beard unruly. The clothes he wore hadn’t been laundered in twice as long. He didn’t feel like the type of person he knew he appeared to be, but that hardly mattered to most people.
Modest Victorian homes lined the street, shaded by black walnuts, hemlocks, poplars, and a smattering of other trees. Most of the lawns were neatly manicured already, he’d bypassed those. This yard looked like it could use a trim, and a few hours of work with the bushes and planters that surrounded the immaculate white house.
He rang the doorbell.
A woman was talking inside, most likely on the phone, by the sound of it.
The door opened.
A woman in her mid-thirties stood there. She was well dressed, wearing golden earrings, and had her hair done as if she were going somewhere.
“May I help you?” she held a phone by her shoulder and eyed him with a disdain he’d gotten used to lately.
“I wondered if you needed some help with your yard.”
“No, we’re fine, thank you.” She moved to close the door.
“Only a few dollars, please.” He’d never been much of a salesman. “I’ll mow the lawn, trim the bushes, pull weeds; anything you can have me do.”
She hesitated and looked at him again, differently this time. She put the phone to her ear. “Jill, I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”
“My husband usually takes care of the yard.”
Fairly typical in a neighborhood where the homeowners had enough to pay him for a little work, but not enough that they’d have a lawn-service company over every week. “Well, if you can.”
She nodded, still standing just inside the door, still measuring him. Whatever she saw in him must have put her at ease. “I’ll open up the garage for you.”
He smiled. At least that much about him didn’t set people off. “Thank you, Miss.”
“It’s Sandy. You?”
She led him to the garage and opened it. “Mower and weed whacker.” She pointed to each. “And gas, if you need it. I’ll be inside when you’re done.”
He nodded and she wandered back to the house.
Most people didn’t expect someone who dressed, looked, and smelled, like a bum, to do a very good job. He liked ruining people’s expectations.
He spent the next hour mowing the lawn into a perfect checkerboard pattern, then went to work on the hedges. He was meticulous; every blade of grass, every clipping got taken care of.
While he was weeding a flowerbed along the porch he caught Sandy watching him through the window. He smiled and continued to work.
People didn’t expect much from him, but that didn’t stop him from doing his best to make sure their yards looked better than they ever had before. It was late afternoon by the time he finished. He stepped back and looked at his handiwork and then looked to the other houses on the street and smiled to himself.
“Finished,” he said when she opened up the door.
The look on her face this time was very different than when he first rang her doorbell: kind, with a hint of pity. “How much do I owe you?”
He shrugged. “Whatever you think is fair.”
She looked him up and down, and then looked at her yard, then back at him again. “Do you want to come in and get cleaned up? I could get you something to drink. You must be thirsty.”
“I could use a drink, if it’s not too much trouble. But I don’t imagine you’re husband would be pleased to have a random man in his house.”
“Nonsense, it’ll be fine. You worked hard. Come in and get washed up.”
“He’ll be home soon?”
“Will your husband be home soon?”
She checked her watched. “In about thirty minutes. Why?”
He nodded. “I’d love to get washed up. Do you mind if I wait until he gets back? I won’t be any trouble. I’ll just sit on here on the porch.”
Sandy ran her fingers through her glossy brown hair. “Well aren’t you a special breed?”
“I don’t like causing other people problems, that’s all. I realized there are certain lines not to cross that make this easier.”
“That makes sense. Well, let me go grab you something to drink at least and I’ll sit out here with you until he gets back. Or would that be crossing a line?” She winked at him and he loosened up a little.
“That should be fine.”
She returned with a tall glass of ice water, which she gave to him, then took a seat on one of the porch’s rocking chairs. “Have a seat.”
He did and drank from the glass slowly, enjoying the cold running down his throat.
“So, Aaron. Do you mind if I ask a question?”
“You’re what, twenty-five?”
“Twenty-two,” he corrected her.
She raised an eyebrow. “Okay, you’re twenty-two. You’re obviously a hard worker. What happened? How’d you end up… well, like this?”
He took a sip and sat in silence for a minute, not sure how to answer, or if he wanted to. “Life.”
“Not the type to open up much, are you?”
“Well, I’m sorry life has put you here.”
She laughed rubbed the back of her neck. “I don’t know. Seems you deserve more, that’s all.”
“Could be nice,” he admitted. “But I’ll take what I can get. Besides, it’s not bad. I make enough to get by, that’s more than a lot of people these days. You take happiness where you can find it.”
Sandy stared off and said quietly, “Special breed, indeed.” After a minute she snapped back. “How do you do it?”
“I don’t know a single person on this street that isn’t some kind of miserable. Jobs they hate, marriage problems, or just little things. But they’ve all got nice homes, food, clean clothes; they’ve got everything they need. You show up looking like last weeks garbage, no offense, and you’re like… well, you.”
This time he laughed. “I’ve got my worries and problems. Just none of them seem that important when you’re busy trying to stay alive. It’s not like I don’t wish I was in a better spot, or had more, but right now life’s dealt me a different hand.”
“You don’t seem like the homeless type.”
“You know many homeless people?”
Her eyebrows scrunched together. “I guess not.”
“Then how do you know?”
“Well, usually they don’t do anything. They don’t go find jobs and work; they just beg and wait for handouts.”
“Do you think they start that way? Do you think that’s what they want? Some of them maybe, but a lot of them are just people who fell on hard times, or who put themselves in hard time and don’t know how to get out, so they give up. A lot of them try really hard. They go out and do whatever they can. Do you think I went to college for yard care?”
“You went to college?”
He nodded again.
“So what happened?”
“I got a job, things didn’t work out. Some other stuff in my life fell apart when that happened and I ended up doing this.”
“Well that’s a detailed explanation.”
Instead of responding to what she said, he decided to ask a question of his own. “Why are you all dressed up? I thought you were going out at first. Did you just get back from something when I came?”
“What? No. I just like feeling pretty sometimes, that’s all.”
“Maybe I just feel like being grungy sometimes.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Could be why I’m like this.”
They spent the next twenty minutes talking. She asked questions, he answered them without giving any useful information about himself. She pressed; he resorted to dry comedic responses. She gave up on questions and started talking about herself.
A blue Toyota sedan pulled up, cutting off one of her stories. “Just a second, let me talk to him.” She stood up and walked to the car. “Hey, sweetie!”
Aaron watched from the porch as Sandy’s husband got out of the car. He looked confused at first, and then they both turned so he couldn’t see anything but some tense body language. Chirping birds were enough to drown out their muffled voices.
Sandy’s husband was a bald, gruff looking man. He came up and looked Aaron up and down. “You look like you could use a shower.” Probably word for word what Sandy had told him to say.
He nodded. “Probably.”
“Let’s get you inside.”
Sandy came up behind her husband and smiled. “I told you it would be ok. Maybe I could throw your things in the laundry while you shower? Tim has some old clothes you could wear.”
“I don’t want to be any trouble…”
“No trouble,” Tim said.
Aaron showered, leaving his clothes and bag to be cleaned by Sandy in the meantime. He came downstairs in some old basketball shorts and a t-shirt; both were too small for him.
“In here,” Sandy called from the other room.
He followed her voice into the kitchen. The smell of sautéed onions filled the air. “I should have had him give you a razor to use.”
“Oh, that’s okay. It feels nice to be clean. Clothes are a little tight, though.”
In the dinning room adjacent to the kitchen sat a polished, baby grand piano. He stared at it for a minute, trying to decide if he should ask to play it.
“Do you play?”
“Play us something,” Tim said from behind him.
He pulled out the piano bench. Soft, brown velvet, well padded, barely used. He lifted the cover off the keys and let his hands rest on them. They were cool, smooth, perfect. He tested a chord, and then did a slow scale; almost perfectly in tune.
In a moment he’d stepped back from himself, away from himself, and let his fingers touch the keys. They didn’t move fast, what they played wasn’t complex, but they evoked every possible ounce of emotion the piano had to offer. He’d never been much of a pianist. He lacked the technical skill and musical understanding of better pianists. But the feel of the keys, how each note wanted to sound, that was something he’d always understood.
He played a song with his eyes closed, one he’d written six years ago. When he opened them, Tim was standing next to him. “You need to do something with that talent.”
Aaron smiled a weak forlorn smile. “I just did.”
Tim shook his head. “No, I mean it. You need to make a CD or something.”
“It’s not that simple.” He’d wanted to do something with his music since he first started writing it. But while he was good, he wasn’t great. And in a day where thousands of people uploaded songs onto the internet all the time, being a mediocre pianist who had a special touch on the keys just wasn’t a winning equation.
“Actually…” Sandy stepped up beside her husband. “Well, let’s talk about that in a minute. I made some corn chowder. I know you’re both hungry.”
The chowder was incredible. Much better than anything Aaron usually scrapped by on.
“Where’d you learn to play?” Sandy said.
“I took lessons for a couple of years when I was a kid.”
“Only a couple of years?” Tim said.
“I took lessons for five years and I can’t play that well.”
“Good teacher, I guess.”
Tim looked at him, weighing him. “Sandy said you went to college?”
“What was your degree in?”
“And you’re mowing lawns and scrapping by?”
Sandy touched her husband’s arm. “Leave him alone, honey.”
For some reason Aaron felt he could open up now. It wasn’t that he was shy, or nervous, he just didn’t talk about himself usually. He’d put himself in an interesting situation most people didn’t understand. But right now, he didn’t mind doing a little explaining.
“I don’t get it, Aaron,” Tim said. “You’re obviously a hard worker, you’re smart, and you’re talented. Hell, behind all that dirt, you’re even a good looking kid. Why are you going door to door working for scraps?”
“I felt like it.”
“Do you want some help?” Sandy asked.
“You’ve been very nice already.” Aaron smiled. “Thank you.”
She pushed on. “I have a friend who does music stuff. Organizes concerts, that kind of thing. Can I talk to her about you?”
Aaron laughed. “I don’t see how I could stop you.”
“I’m serious. I want to help you with this. Can I?”
He thought about it. It was almost too tantalizing to touch. Failure, disappointment was something he didn’t handle easily. Not again.
She must have seen the hesitation in him. “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to push you. I just… everyone deserves a chance.”
Tim spoke up again. “She’s right. You deserve a shot… I don’t know if you’ve had chances before. You probably have… Actually, I’m sure you have. What brought you here?”
Aaron breathed out heavily. “I had one too many of my dreams fail. I gave up. I gave up on dreaming, on hoping. I gave up my job; I gave up everything I knew. I couldn’t stand to be around it anymore. Everything reminded me that what I wanted most, the things I tried the hardest on, always failed.”
“So you decided to mow lawns?”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Are you happy?” Sandy asked.
He thought about it for a moment. “Happier than I’ve ever been. Not as happy as I’d like to be.”
“Well, it’s time we fixed that.”
Aaron recorded a CD. He played concerts. People cried, people smiled, people said he had a gift. Maybe he did, who knows?
He never told Sandy and Tim that he had a bank account worth more than their mortgage. He also didn’t tell them that he still mowed lawns when he wasn’t playing concerts or recording. Sometimes he still went weeks without showering, still wore dirty clothes. Not because he had to –he’d never had to- but because somewhere along the line, after he’d given up on what the world told him he needed, he’d found that the best things in life, and in people, didn’t appear to be what they were inside.