The first day of the year shorter than the day before

The days are long this time of year, and I like it that way. This far north it is common for people to go out before sunset and get home after sunrise. (Not for me, mind — I’ll leave that to the kids.)

I was in a chat with some piker pals yesterday morning, and one of them said “It’s all downhill from here,” which summed up my feelings as well. I may have mentioned it here, or perhaps in other writings in other places, but man is the only creature cursed with the imagination to ruin any good time. Three-legged dogs don’t think to themselves, “if I had another leg I could get to that ball faster.” No, they think “Ball! Ball! Ball! Whooeee!” When a cat is curled up in a sunbeam, it’s not thinking to itself, “too bad sunset’s coming,” the cat is just thinking, “waaaaaaaaaaarm.” Creativity and imagination are the bitter pill, as well as the source of hope.

Piker pal’s comment also reminded me of a story I wrote this spring. It’s not one of my better efforts (a bit too sticky-sweet for my taste), but it does describe how I feel about days like today. It’s been sitting on my hard drive in the junk pile, but here it is, for what it’s worth. The paragraphs about dark and light I wouldn’t mind working into a better story someday. The opening line is nice, too, but doesn’t fit.

The First Day of Spring

It started small, the way grand things do.

I was sitting on a park bench sipping my first beer of the afternoon, watching the people around me take advantage of the first truly beautiful day of the year. It was a false promise, I knew, a deception; more snowflakes would fall before winter was truly over.

Summer. It is not simply a segment of the year, not here. It is a gasp of air for the soul, before it is plunged back into the cold and the dark. Each summer seems shorter, the lift it gives diminished, and I know there will be a summer that is not a summer at all, and it will be my last.

A parade of cheery folks streamed past the bench where I sat. Some moved slowly — couples taking the same walk they had for fifty years — while others flashed past, here and gone in an instant — girls pushing themselves along on rollerblades, toned legs moving rhythmically, dodging dogs and children and grandparents.

“Need a refill?”

I looked up to see someone I vaguely recognized and I hoped she wouldn’t be insulted when I couldn’t remember her name. “Sure.” I reached into my pocket for some change.

She took my glass. “It’s on me,” she said. “I’m celebrating.” She turned and headed over to the beer window. I watched her walk and she seemed more familiar from that angle, as if she had walked away from me many times before. When she reached the line at the beer window she glanced back and caught me watching at her.

I wanted to inspect her as she returned, to see if that rang any bells, but that would have been difficult. Instead I looked out over the city spread below.

“Here you go,” she said, handing me my beer. “They raised the price this year.”

“I’ll get the next round.”

“Don’t worry about it.” She stood holding her beer, this woman who had been here before, who knew me, waiting for me to say something more. Finally she gave up. She took a sip and said with a beer-foam mustache, “Mind if I join you?”

I joked to cover my impoliteness. “It’ll cost you.”

“I’m sure it will.” She sat, not too close, not too far. “Na zdravi.”

Na zdravi” I raised my glass to hers, careful to make eye contact. Around here, toasting without looking the other in the eye is like a limp handshake. She met my gaze. Her eyes were green with golden flecks, and the corners were crunched just a little bit, like there was a smile just beneath the surface — the punch line to a joke she was enjoying telling.

“Aren’t you going to ask me?”

I hesitated, then remembered. “Celebrating what?”

The smile came a little closer to the surface. “It’s my first anniversary.”

“Ah.” I raised my glass again. “Happy anniversary.” It seemed a strange way to celebrate it, buying beers for guys in the park.

She sipped her beer and looked out on the city of a hundred spires. “This is the second-best bench in the park,” she said.

Whoever she was, she knew her benches, as well. “The lady with the plastic hat had already taken the best one when I got here.”

My benchmate smiled. “She’s back? Good.”

“She’s got a new hat.”

“I hope it’s ugly.”

“She’s outdone herself this year.”

She laughed, took a sip of her beer. “Aren’t you going to ask me?”

I thought for a minute. “Anniversary of what?”

“Of the first time I came up here. It was the first warm day last year. I started down by the river and hiked all over until I found myself up here.”

The first warm day. A sacred day, a day that doesn’t go on the calendar but is universally recognized. Not a national holiday, but a human one. “It’s my favorite day,” I said.

“Mine too. There’s so much promise; the air itself is telling us how wonderful the summer is going to be.”

I sipped. She was right, but it was also the first day I started to feel the summer slip away, sand though my fingers, lost and gone forever.

“You were on the other bench that day.”

“Was I?”

“Yeah. The sun was bright, but you were dark and brooding. You scared me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Then I caught you checking out my butt.”

“Uh…”

“I love it up here. I came back every chance I got, and you were always here, on one of these benches, adding a little darkness to the day.”

My beer was empty. I wanted to go get another, or find any reason to walk away from this conversation, if only for a moment.

“You think too much,” she said.

“Pardon?”

“You think too much. Nothing is simple for you. When you watch the sun rise you think of night, but when the sun goes down, you know the day will follow. You prefer the dark, because only then can you contemplate light without sadness. But still you take pleasure in the simple things, like sitting on a bench on a sunny day. That’s what I like about you, that you can be both happy and sad at the same time.” She took my glass and stood. “Aren’t you going to ask me?”

I looked up at her standing over me, waiting, expectant. “What’s your name?”

The punch line. The smile that used her whole face. “Allison,” she said. “I’ll get another round. It’s our anniversary, after all.”

I followed her with my eyes and I thought of the bright days ahead, and the winter that must surely follow.

17 thoughts on “The first day of the year shorter than the day before

  1. you’re right. The first line has to go.

    Other than that…very nice. This is a good story. I hope you hang on to it.

  2. sticky-sweet? Aye, but I like it too.

    Probably because I always enjoy looking for the analogy in your work, and this one was easy enough to pick up immediately. (In fact, before I even got to the excellent last line, so I feel extra clever.)

  3. I must admit that I like that last line quite a lot. If the story was barbecue sauce, the last line would be the vinegar. Otherwise, he whole thing would just be syrup.

  4. Not syrup, molasses. Sourghum molasses, with that slight bitter edge that’s hardly discernible but that makes all the difference in the world when it’s part of the barbecue sauce.

  5. Of course I could have just deleted the first line more easily than commenting on it, but the second paragraph isn’t composed to be a strong opener, so I would have had to edit it (although the paragraph after that might work as the start…) and so on until I just punted and left bad enough alone.

    Now, of course, being a classically neurotic writer, I’m worried about what a potential agent or publisher will think when she reads the story with it’s non-sequitur opening line.

    I am trying very hard not to think about stuff like that as I compose episodes (hence, “This story isn’t my best but it’s good enough for you guys”), but more and more I think about the cover letters I send out with the Muddled URL in them. I don’t think it’s affected my style too much, but I must confess to the influence.

  6. Well. You’ve brought up a very interesting question about editing. It’s all about the pruning shears. Helping the writer remove the mud to uncover the roman tile underneath.

    But what about when the writer starts talking about removing the tile. To expose…more mud underneath? After your last comment I went back and read, starting at the 2nd paragraph…and it didn’t bother me at all.

  7. Jesse, thanks for your input.

    True enough, the second paragraph is just fine, it’s just the first sentence is a bit weak for an opening sentence of such a short story. Also fixable, but then that leads to wanting to fix more bits, and in the end I just don’t see this story as being worth the effort until I can come up with answers to deeper issues. (Issues that if I could put my finger on, might yield solutions — maybe it’s the passivity of the narrator, maybe parts just come across as too contrived. Not sure.)

    Maybe if you guys could help me identify the weakness, I would be tempted to go for another edit pass.

  8. I kind of thought that the last line was more like a shot of good Scotch that sobers you up after a treacle-drenched dinner.

    I think that the passivity of the narrator is what makes it a Jer tale.

  9. Passivity of narrator…Brian, you’ve hit the nail on the head: that is what makes a Jer tale.

    Interestingly enough, when Jerry writes in the kick-butt, take-no-prisoners first person, he often makes the character female.

    I must admit that when reading any Jerry Seeger first person male tale, whether it be “The First Day of Spring,” “Memory of a Thing…,” or “The God of Numbers,” Jerry becomes the lead character in my mind’s eye.

    However, when reading something like “The Dark War” I conjur up an entirely different vision of the narrator, not just Jerry with breasts (not even small ones).

  10. What else is intersting is that Jer throws a few stories our way – sometimes (not always), with lots of promo – and often gets very few comments/reaction. This one, he threw at us like it was crowdin up the fryin pan of his hard drive and he needed the space for a fresh, kick-ass, over-easy story…and we’re commentin and showin love and tradin BBQ sauce.
    What does this mean??

  11. Either that
    1) Jerry should learn what Joan Collins and Nora Roberts prove, that syrup sells, or
    2) this blog’s readership is as mercurial as our fearless leader.

    I vote for the second.

  12. While in my first-person male short stories there isn’t usually a lot of action (with the exception of things like “Hell-Cricket” and “Storm of the Century”) at least the narrator usually does something. At the very least he’ll make a decision, which for someone that introspective can be a real action.

    I think my main problem with the story though, is how it goes click-click-click from point to point to point, with Allison orchestrating the encounter with surgical precision. I want to see a little uncertainty betrayed in her actions sometimes. She’s taking a big risk, after all. Making her more human would add a lot to the story, and it would reflect better on the narrator if he recognized her unease before he knows what’s going on.

    I was surprised when Soup Boy read “Memory of a Thing that Never Was”. His first comment was “When I read your other stuff, I hear your voice in my head. This time it was like someone completely different.”

    Which just shows what he knows, because that one was non-fiction. That road trip of mine? Fighting aliens the whole time. All the rest of this is just a front.

    Maybe I tend to make my ass-kickers female so it’s easier for me to separate their voices from mine in my own head.

    I’ve got a couple of stories that have characters that are more of a balance between quiet, introspective guys and people who reach out and touch things. It’s easier to add those elements in a longer story. One story I had decided I didn’t like so much because it was too sappy was, when I went back to read it after a few weeks, not sappy at all, or only enough to make the characters more interesting. It includes and introspective male who is most certainly a Man of Action(tm). I’m hoping the obscure publication I submitted it to rejects it, so I can throw it at more prestigious markets. Cross fingers!

  13. I have (mostly) given up trying to predict which episodes will get a lot of comments. (There are occasions when I hit the publish button and think, “This one will get people talking!” I’m almost always wrong.)

    Usually what sets things off is a seed comment, where someone says something opinionated or insightful that other people want to add to or modify. Comment threads grow because of the comments, not because of the original episode.

  14. “I think my main problem with the story though, is how it goes click-click-click from point to p…”

    Well, phffff. With self analysis like that who needs friend editors? Your points are well taken, and sheesh looks like I’ll have to find someone else to edit.

    Now Keith, let’s take a look at that shoddy comment above. In the first sentence….

  15. I grant you your physically passive narrator usually does make a decision. He also is often only passive in the present, with described past action or future implied action (e.g. “Memory of a thing”).

    I’m just glad you didn’t word your comment, “..which for a reader with introspection, Keith and Brian, would be considered action.”

    The problem with putting Jerry’s face on the first person narrative is entirely the reader’s problem, not the author’s. Sort of like seeing the movie before you read the book, and being stuck with the director’s interpretation instead of your own while reading.

    In the future I will attempt to “see” Bob or John as the first person narrator. I will continue casting Angelina Jolie as your kick-ass female lead.

  16. I just noticed something — the spelling of that which, up until now, I had known the pronunciation but not the spelling: Na zdravi. The linguist in me is curious about the literal meaning of the phrase.

    There’s a person I used to know, when I briefly did some stuff with KUNM, who went by the on-air name of “Charlie Z” because nobody in America can pronounce his name correctly. I’m wondering if there’s some relationship between his name, Zdraveski, and the word zdravi.

  17. Na zdravi means “To health”, but (I’m not sure of this, mind) may have a fairly broad definition of health to be more like well-being.

    Zdraveski doesn’t strike me as Czech, but could easily be based on a cognate in one of the other slavic languages.

    Jesse, I know you were just joking above, but I do appreciate all the feedback you folks have given me for this and many other writings. So, thanks. I think I will go back and tweak the story; it just occurred to me as I was typing this comment what I can do to make it better.

    And to address your very first comment, I hang on to everything I write — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sometimes I go back and visit some of my sketches and find a bit of use there. My hard drive is becoming like Frank Zappa’s attic, filled with interesting riffs among hours and hours of noodling around.

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