One Page Stories – Third Web

Full Circle

Laney sat down at the little table by the window and looked out over the sunny courtyard. She felt safe for a change; she felt … happy.

The old man who always sat on the bench in the courtyard finally arrived, and took up his customary seat at the north end of the wooden bench. He carried a bag of bread crumbs that he would spend the morning feeding to the pigeons. He always fed them, all morning, and read the newspaper, and talked with some of the others who always came to the courtyard. Sometimes he had a thermos of coffee, but today he had a paper cup with a little tag hanging out of it – tea.

Today I’ll go talk to him, Laney decided. She got up from the table and called out to the nice girl who always brought her coffee and biscuits. “Janetta, would it be okay if you brought it out there?”

The nice girl smiled at her the way she always did. “Sure, Laney,” she said. “Are you finally going to talk to Mr. Steinman?” Her eyes twinkled, and Laney blushed.

“I am,” she announced, her voice wavering between bravery and nervousness. She had been wanting to talk to Mr. Steinman for a long time, because he seemed so friendly and smiley and yet just a little sad. He seemed like he had a story to tell.

He seemed like the sort of man who might understand that she had a story to tell.

She made her way tentatively to the bench, and leaned down toward the old man. “Mr. Steinman?” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

He looked up at her with kind eyes and a gentle, inquisitive smile. “Yes?” he said.

Laney glanced at the empty end of the bench. “Could – could I sit here with you?”

“Of course!” he said, smiling broadly. He gestured to the seat right beside him. “Please; please!”

Laney sat down, smiling too. “I – I hope it’s not too forward,” she said shyly. “But Janetta said you were someone who might be able to help me.”

Mr. Steinman looked at her in surprise. “Why, of course!” he said. “But what is it I can do for you?”

“I …” She paused, and looked down for a moment at her hands folded in her lap. “I came in on one of the transports from Ritika. And … and I’m trying to settle in.” She looked around at the bright courtyard, with its fountain and flowers and statuary. “It’s very beautiful here,” she said. “But sometimes I worry.”

At the mention of the Ritika transports, Mr. Steinman’s pleasant expression had suffused with absolute compassion. “I see,” he said softly. He reached out one wrinkled hand and patted Laney’s. “You should call me Victor,” he said. “What is it,” he asked her, “that you worry about?”

“A lot of things,” Laney said. His hand on hers was very comforting, even though she had never spoken to him before today. “I worry that Cal is still alive and will find me. I worry that I shouldn’t have escaped from Ritika, even though it’s so much more beautiful here, and so quiet and good. I – I worry that I don’t deserve all this kindness.” She stopped, tears in her eyes that she hoped he didn’t see. Why on earth was she telling him this? What on earth was he supposed to do about any of it? Why did Janetta think he could help me with any of this?

But Mr. Steinman – Victor – didn’t seem bothered by her words, or by the notion that he was supposed to offer her something helpful. He seemed instead to know exactly what she was talking about, and to feel entirely sympathetic toward her. He patted her hands again, and then reached into the bag of bread crumbs and tossed a handful at the collection of pigeons in front of the bench.

“When I was a little boy,” he said, tossing a second handful. “My father and brother disappeared – I learned much later that they were arrested by the Nazis, and killed. My mother and I decided to leave our village, but the Nazis intercepted us, and my mother forced me to run away without her.” He gazed at Laney, who was staring back at him with wide eyes – she had heard of the Nazis, even in Ritika. “I never saw her again,” he went on. “I did as she said, and ran to the west, and I didn’t stop until I got to a city where the Allies were in charge.” He tossed a third handful of crumbs. “It was a long time – looking back, I think it must have been nearly a month. I ate what I could find in the woods, and got sick on that more than a few times; I was always so cold, even when the sun was shining. By the time I found the Allies, I didn’t know who to trust or what to do. I missed my mother, and I didn’t know she had been killed until twelve years later. I just kept hoping and hoping, and relying on the kindness of strangers, and wishing I could go back in time and bring my mother with me out of our village.” He sighed. “It was years before I really landed anywhere, and years more before I had made peace with the fact that I was the last member of our little family.”

Laney was weeping now, unabashedly. “I’ve been so selfish!” she cried. “I – I had no idea!”

Victor laughed, an incongruous sound in the wake of such an emotional story. “It was many long years ago,” he told her. “I lived my life, and made a new family. I have children now, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.” He put his hand on hers again. “My Sonya’s heart gave out seven months ago, and so I’ve been a little sad, but I know I’ll see her again, and my mother and father, and my brother.” He put his arm around Laney’s shoulders. “And I know – because it is what I would have wanted if our places were reversed – that they want me to be happy. My mother sent me into the woods that day so that I could grow up and be happy; it was all she had left.” He leaned close to Laney, and gazed into her eyes. “I have to be happy, for my mother,” he explained. “And you have to be happy, for all the people who wanted that for you.”

Laney blinked tears away. “I left Cal to die,” she said, so quietly that Victor could hardly hear her. “But he wasn’t going to let me go. He was going to pretend to let me go, but then he was going to make me go back to another place like Ritika. I had to leave him. I had to escape.”

Victor understood all too well the feelings she had not put into words. “Yes, you did,” he said. “You did.” He hugged her closer. “And now you have a good life.” He handed her the bag of crumbs. “Cal didn’t have to choose what he chose.”

“Neither did I,” Laney protested. “I could have gone with him, and escaped from him later, somehow.” She sobbed. “But I think – I think – Cal wasn’t a very good person. He wanted to keep everything the way it was, and … I didn’t like the way it was. I don’t think it was very good at all, and people died all the time.” She shook her head forlornly. “But maybe that wasn’t for me to decide.”

“It was yours as much as anyone’s,” Victor told her. “You chose what you chose because you thought it was good. And that’s …” He chuckled, and hugged her tighter. “That’s all we get sometimes. That’s the best we can do.”

She wanted to argue the point – to convince him that she should be sad – but deep down she wanted to believe him. She wanted to be happy, and to have the life that she had found outside of Ritika.

Deep down she knew that Cal would have killed a lot of people if he had been given the chance.

“I am a person?” she asked Victor, terrified of his answer, but needing it all the same.

Victor raised his eyebrows. “Of course you are, my dear,” he assured her. “Of course you are.”

Laney took the bag of breadcrumbs and pulled out a handful. “I want to be okay,” she said, and tossed the crumbs to the eager birds. Even though she didn’t really know Mr. Steinman – Victor – very well, and even though she felt that she had brought up unhappy memories for him, she felt closer to him than to anyone else she had met since she left Ritika. She laid her head down on his shoulder and threw another clump of crumbs.

“I know,” Victor said, patting her shoulder. “You will be.”

They sat for a long time on the bench, feeding the birds, drinking tea and the coffee Janetta eventually brought out to her, and soaking up the sunshine.

The sunshine felt good.

The Thing I Like About …

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: the part where he introduces Rocky to the group.

Dr. Frank-N-Furter has been working very hard on his creation – the beautiful Rocky. He has re-animated the fellow with some sort of wizard-science, and he is proudly parading him around the room full of fawning party-guests. Everyone is praising the doctor’s achievement … except Janet.

Janet looks shyly at Brad and then tells Dr. Frank-N-Furter that she doesn’t like men with too many muscles. (Poor Brad.)

Dr. Frank-N-Furter stares at her in absolute indignation and tells her, “I didn’t make him for YOU!”

Why is this important? Because we forget this for ourselves all the time, and it pretty much ruins our lives.

We arrange our lives around what other people expect/request/want/prefer, not just when we’re little kids and our parents are trying to teach us things, but forever – we get the job we think we “should” have and the education we think we “should” have and date the people that seem “proper”. Then we have children that we raise with all the other parents in mind instead of the children themselves; we compare and evaluate our parenting based on what the Joneses are able to give/afford/do and on what the Joneses think is good/wholesome/productive. And these are just the big-ticket items. We do it with little things too.

We cut our hair the way others are doing it. We wear the clothes that others are wearing, in the sizes that others are – or seem to be. We say the things that others are saying. We watch the things that others are watching. We don’t admit that we like Star Trek unless we’re with other Star Trek fans. We don’t like to share our political/religious/whatever views unless we know we’re in a group where those views are already accepted. We don’t care for conflict or confrontation, but we particularly don’t like the feeling of being excluded. Excluded could mean that you’re not part of the tribe, and not being part of the tribe could mean that you’ll be ejected from the village and left to die under a bridge.

But the fact is that there is a way-to-do-things for each of the seven-odd billion people on the planet. Most of the time, those ways to do things are correct and good. The differences between us make life more interesting, and the unique perspectives we each bring to the table are important and valuable. Unless we’re actually hurting someone, the only “should” in our lives should be to live exactly as we please without regard to anyone else’s opinions. We should build Rockys for ourselves without worrying whether others will like our creation or not. We should honour others’ building rather than the outcomes; outcome-judgment is for math tests and engineering and surgery, not for the stories we write or the paintings we like or the shirts that we pick (or, you know, the partners that we create out of spare parts).

Look around at your naysayers – the real ones, the ones you imagine, the ones you expect – and tell them, with a condescending look of indignation: “I didn’t build my life for YOU!”

The Thing I Like About …

Moonstruck: the parts where her mother asks her if she’s in love.

Loretta has had “bad luck,” as she puts it – she’s a widow, and now, in her late 30’s, she’s decided to marry Johnny so that she can have that feeling of stability and purpose and partnership. Her mother asks her if she loves Johnny, and Loretta says, “No, but he’s a good man, and I like him.” Her mother says, “Good. When you love ‘em, they drive you crazy, because they can.”

Later, Loretta has fallen for Ronnie, and all of her plans and presuppositions have changed. Her mother asks her if she loves Ronnie, and Loretta says yes. Her mother says, “Well, that’s too bad.”

When we love someone, life can become complicated, as we try to intertwine ourselves with this other person; our happiness becomes connected to this person’s happiness, even though we can’t really make that person happy any more than we could anybody else. When we love someone, we give over something of ourselves, and it’s always scary, from the beginning to the end.

To settle for someone we “like” and who is a “good person” … well, it’s just easier, and simpler, and there really isn’t anything wrong with it. To settle is very peaceful and straightforward and fine.

But Loretta and Ronnie felt – or so they said – like they had been dead. And now they feel alive.

Does this mean being in love with someone will always be complicated and scary and crazy-making? Yes. Yes it does.

But you’ll be alive.

The Thing I Like About …

… that private-pool-party Pepsi commercial: the part where the pool-partygoers leave their own party.

At the beginning of the commercial, the guys with the coolers full of Pepsi are rebuffed by the pool-party guard – “It’s a private party” – so they camp themselves on the public lawn next to the pool … and all these passersby come to their impromptu picnic, chugging Pepsi with almost maniacal grins of joy (because it’s a Pepsi commercial). More and more people show up, and they’re drinking the Pepsi, and they’re laughing and playing games and enjoying the sunshine and having fun.

And then the people at the “private” party decide it looks like more fun out on the lawn. So they get up and leave their own pool and come drink Pepsi with everyone else.

I like Pepsi as much as anyone, but it’s not about the Pepsi. It’s about the fence around the pool-party. It turned out to be a fence that kept the pool-party people in as much as it kept the guys with the coolers out. It turned out that separation is separation, and that the people on each side of the fence felt as excluded and restricted as the other. It turned out that neither group liked being told they couldn’t go where they wanted to go, or do what they wanted to do.

And then it turned out that everybody had a lot more fun when there weren’t any fences … and when they all had Pepsi. Well, I guess it was Pepsi’s commercial, after all. But mostly it was about the fences.

And not having them anymore.

A Countdown for the Holidays

The Wisdom of Pinhead: Part Six

Last year for Christmas, I blogged about my favourite part of Hellraiser V: Inferno.  I talked about how Pinhead’s dark, scary message was really a cautionary Christmas tale – avoid superficiality and selfishness and embrace what really matters, or, you know, pay horribly forever.  I realized afterward that Pinhead has always had some very Christmas-y things to say … when seen in the right light.  So this year, I will be presenting a Pinhead-Christmas-personal empowerment-happy-joy-countdown.  At the end of it, I hope readers – Christian and non-Christian alike – are more disposed to find the love and joy the Christmas holiday represents.

And maybe they’ll want to watch the movies too.

 “[to Paul while looking down at the Earth] Glorious, is it not? The creatures who walk its surface, always looking to the light, never seeing the untold oceans of darkness beyond. There are more humans alive today than in all of its pitiful history. The Garden of Eden. A garden of flesh.”

Humans are always looking for something better.  Something prettier.  Something more awesome.  We fixate on superficiality and appearances, striving for some misguided “perfection” that is meaningless in a world – and in bodies – that are ever changing.  We live in constant dissatisfaction with our current lives/weights/jobs/partners because we’re sure that something better will come along.  We focus on failure and flaws, and search for some all-encompassing “success” that remains undefined and unattainable.  Even our religions are steeped in the notion that in some future time or place, everything will be “perfect”, “better”, “happy”, “complete”.

We don’t notice how delightful things already are, how wonderful are the people around us, how perfect we are on the inside where it counts.  We don’t see that happiness and perfection aren’t goals, but rather the way we feel when we like who we are and live with our hearts.  We deny ourselves joy in hopes of future joy; we deny ourselves love in hopes of future love.

Pinhead’s just paraphrasing the birthday boy, who spent his entire brief life on this planet trying to explain to people that this life – this world, this moment – is all we can know about … and that’s fantastic!  It’s full of wonders, and goodness, and love and light – if we choose to experience it that way.  He explained that this world is a gift, and that we should enjoy it.  He explained that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Right here, right now.  In our hands.  Right now.

Don’t let Pinhead be the only one who gets that. Okay?

Happy Holidays.



The Thing I Like About …

French Kiss:  when she’s telling Charlie the truth but doesn’t realize it.

In French Kiss, Kate is engaged to Charlie, a doctor who has a conference in France to which she is unable to go.  While in France, Charlie falls for the lovely Juliet, and dumps Kate over the phone.  Kate decides to follow Charlie to France, to win him back from Juliet and get back the life she had carefully, meticulously planned.  She’s a planner.

Of course, things go horribly wrong – stolen luggage, stolen passport, random smoking French criminal (but a nice criminal) tagging along, a horrible bout of lactose intolerance – but despite great adversity, Kate finds Charlie, and she and Luc (the criminal) devise a plan to win Charlie back.  A plan that involves making Charlie think Kate doesn’t need him anymore – because we always want what we can’t have, right?  So as soon as she presents herself as someone who has moved beyond him, Charlie will forget all about Juliet and go back to Canada with Kate.  And Kate needs that, because, of course, she hasn’t moved beyond Charlie at all.

So she finds Charlie and Juliet on the beach, and she sits down and starts talking to them jovially about her adventure.  “I got on a plane, and flew over the big blue ocean” – she is terribly afraid of flying – “and then everything went wrong.  So I was wandering the streets of Paris, penniless, without a hope in the world … you can do a lot of soul-searching in a time like that.  I realized that I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to protect myself from exactly this situation” – she’s a planner – “and you cannot do it.  There’s no home safe enough, no relationship secure enough.  You’re just setting yourself up for an even bigger fall and having an incredibly boring time in the process.  Sorry, Charlie.”  She sits back to admire her handiwork:  Charlie is suitably intrigued by her detached manner and her brutal honesty, completely unaware that it is a ruse to entice him back “home”.  The ruse works so well, in fact, that Charlie does want Kate back (or perhaps Kate also – I’ve never been sure).

The problem is that Kate wasn’t lying.  She doesn’t know she wasn’t lying until later, when she realizes that everything she said was spot-on:  she had confronted her fears, done something daring, faced sincere hardship … this meticulous planner plunged into complete unpredictability, with a man who is, well, a criminal (but a nice criminal); she did do a lot of soul-searching, she did begin to see a life without Charlie in it, and she did see the fruitlessness of trying to prevent heartache by living in a cushioned bubble.

People go through life in a very complicated manner.  We have things or people or situations that we don’t want to lose, and we hang onto those things or people or situations with all ten fingernails dug in, ignoring pretty much everything else – the messages our bodies are sending, the messages we’re trying to send ourselves about where our hearts really lie, about what we really want, about what’s actually best for us.  We ignore the voices inside us that scream for a better happiness because we’re terrified of losing what we already have … even if we don’t really want it anymore.  Kate makes it almost to the end of the film before listening to the stuff she already said – her “lie” to Charlie, her plan to win him back – but she finally does listen, and accept, and change and grow and become happier.

So now it’s our turn.



The Thing I Like About …

… Wally from Dilbert:  He doesn’t care.

Anyone who’s read Dilbert – or worked in an office – is familiar with Wally (and/or his ilk).  He’s the one who’s completely jaded, who’s been there long enough and who’s smart enough that he knows how to do everything … and has found a way to do absolutely none of it.  He’s the one who gets paid to do nothing at all, and his work gets fobbed off on others whose work ethic is actually existent.  In real life, no one likes the Wally of the office (or restaurant, or outfit, or operation, or what-have-you), but in Dilbert he’s one of the funniest characters – and, in a certain context, the most inspirational.

Is that because I wish I could get paid without working?  Maybe sometimes (don’t we all?), but I wouldn’t like the part where someone else was burdened with my responsibilities – it would definitely suck the joy out of my laziness.  No, I find Wally inspirational in his attitude about “ego”.

Wally doesn’t care if he gets accolades.  He doesn’t care if people think he’s the best or the worst.  He doesn’t care if he accomplishes a certain amount of stuff by a certain time.  He doesn’t care if people think he’s lazy, or stupid, or wrong.  He just lives his life the way he wants to, and he’s content.

This can be a bad thing when the way he wants to live his life is by sponging off the hard work and success of his colleagues, but in the real world, it can be a very good thing – people spend so much of their precious time dwelling on the all the things they “have” to do, on getting something done quickly to make some sort of point to some unknown scheduling deity, on filling arbitrary quotas, on “getting ahead” in a game that has no clear finish line or prize.  People make themselves crazy competing with arbitrary standards of success, of appearance, of wealth, and in the end it won’t matter who or what they’re “better” than, because the ones they’re competing against are far too busy making themselves crazy to notice the others who are doing it too. People spend years working themselves to the bone – sometimes literally to death – to achieve … what, exactly?  Do people even bother to decide anymore what they want for themselves? – because it seems more and more like people are just doing what they think is expected of them, what they think will make them better than someone else, what they think they’re supposed to do…rushing here and rushing there in pursuit of things they can’t quantify and feeling vaguely dissatisfied at best.

In the real world, Wally is non-viable (or at least undesirable); a real-world Wally’s actions are often not just burdensome but actually hurtful to the people who pick up the slack for him.  But Dilbert’s Wally is an important counterpoint to the need to see ourselves through others’ eyes, and to the need to forego our own happiness in search of what makes other people happy.

At least in that regard – in the place where we are true to ourselves and do what’s best for us – maybe we should all be a little more like Wally.