So Much Left To Do
A Short Story by Doug Dean
Written using the suggestion "Mind"
Originally featured on 03-15-2010
As part of our series "The Things We Change When We Want To Make That Big Change"

At his mother’s dining room table a fifteen-year-old boy sits and begins writing a list. It is things ‘to do’ and he is writing it, not because he does not accomplish enough — for how much can he really be accomplishing — he goes to school and does his homework — he is writing it because for the first time in awhile he has no friends. His weekends stretch on endlessly, him occupying himself with anything he can find ‘to do’ that will distract from the loneliness, and the shame that goes with it at fifteen.

On the list goes “bike to music store — Ride the Lightning.” He’s working his way through Metallica, having crossed off “bike to CD store — And Justice For All” last week. His new interest in Metallica grows from the same seed as all his interests. It is rooted in the belief that it might somehow bring him new friends, a new way to relate to somebody, perhaps somebody that likes Metallica. Perhaps somebody that does not, it doesn’t matter. Metallica is just a seed of common ground between him and his imagined friend. And this is a good one because it kills a bit of time. The ride to the music store and back, including the time fumbling through a forced conversation with the clerk, will take almost an hour. More if he chooses to wander around town a bit. And this is good one because it is an activity that he knows will sound okay if somebody at school happens to ask what he did over the weekend.

On the list goes, “iron shirts.” His new school has a dress code, which includes shirt and tie. He doesn’t have a history of attending schools with dress codes, though during his time in middle school, a different time during which he also found himself friendless, he ironed his shirts and spent exorbitant time planning which combination of baggy Levi’s and button down shirts he’d show up in, and how that might go. He would do this sometimes in the morning. Sometimes changing his mind and ironing more than one shirt. Sometimes taking so long that he made himself tremendously late for school, his mother yelling up the stairs at him to hurry up. Part of his anxiety regarding his appearance came from his perception that the bullies waiting for him might leave him alone if he looked the part. The part of a kid that doesn’t get bullied. A cool kid. Part of his anxiety regarding his appearance came from a consciousness that there were bullies waiting hungrily for him at school, the minute he finished getting ready, and that they wouldn’t care what he was wearing.

Now, he puts “iron the shirts” on the list because it is necessary, to avoid disciplinary action, and also because it is time-consuming, though not something he will talk about if somebody at school happens to ask what he did over the weekend. However, he would readily discuss it if anybody else brought up the subject of ironing, providing him with an opening.

On the list goes, “make calls — old friends.” Then there are bullets listing the names of his friends from his former school, now attending the public high school, and recently estranged. These are friends he made after he had finally started standing up to the bullies, had gained acceptance first and then eventually popularity. One of these old friends recently celebrated a birthday with a sleepover party. He had accidentally called that old friend the night of the sleepover, and upon hearing that old friend was out, he tried another, and found out that there no point in calling old friends that night, since they were all at the birthday sleepover party. This birthday sleepover party was a highlight of his year, last year, when still at the old school, and still popular, and best of all he’d been invited.

They’d stayed up all night, that night, a year before. Watching hockey and playing NHL Live ’93, the one where you could still fight, and then after that, they’d made their way downstairs to the basement, taking turns suiting up in goalie pads and taking breakaways. He, the one we’ve been talking about, he’d picked up street hockey that year, gotten good in goal and could do splits to stop shots, thanks to a couple of years of practicing. One of the former bullies was at the party too, that year, and tried to start in with his usual aggro-bullshit at one point, but he knew how to handle that, now trained to give as good as he got, to punch back first and ask questions later. Back upstairs, they watched a horror movie and made fun of the girl hanging on the hook in the barn and laughed at the maniac running around with whatever it was he was using for a mask.

But this year was different, he wasn’t invited, his friends weren’t his friends anymore. He imagined the burst of laughter when his friend’s sister relayed to his old friends that he had called and she’d lied and that they were covered. There wasn’t any chance of him showing up now, so no more awkwardness to worry about. That was until he called back and asked if she was sure that his friend was out, letting the pause hang in the air, his way of saying, “I know you’re lying and as pathetic as it may be, the idea of me calling your little brother, my old friend, on the night of his birthday sleepover, the one I’m not invited to, at least be honest about it.” And she was older enough to not care about that and simply to repeat with a scornful tone in her voice that, yeah she was pretty sure that he was out, so stop calling, loser. The loser part was implied, not spoken. And he knew she was right, that he was the uninvited loser unwittingly calling the night of the great, big, fun party. That he was the loser that figured it out after calling other friends and had nothing better to do than to call back.

On the list goes, “make calls — new friends?” Then there are bullets listing the names of people he had talked to at school, people he thought might be new friends, though he was sure that they weren’t thinking the same thing. At this point, given the nature of the new school, numerous towns providing its students, most people seemed to still be friends with their old friends from middle school. However, he did hear of social cross-pollination, of people going and hanging out with other people from other towns, so he knew it was possible. Though it felt to him just as desperate as it was, his reaching out, and if any of these “new friends?” were to pick up, he had no idea how he’d make them his friends or engage them in a social activity. He couldn’t invite them to his town, to join him in hanging out with his old friends, and he was keenly aware of how obvious this must seem, and how nobody wanted a friend that had no friends.

On the list goes, “make dinner — macaroni and cheese?” And this is a good one because some macaroni and cheese and a completed to do list can be enough to make a day seem full when a life feels empty, to a fifteen-year-old sitting at his mother’s dining room table.

 

A thirty-year-old man sits at his desk and begins writing a list. It is things ‘to get done’ and he is writing it, not because he does not accomplish enough — for how much can he really be accomplishing — he goes to work and pays his bills — he is writing it because for the first time in awhile he is without love in his life, or so it feels. His days stretch on endlessly, him occupying himself with anything he can find ‘to get done’ that will distract from the loneliness, and the shame that goes with it at thirty.

On the list goes “make CDs — Car Mixes.” He’s working his way out, mix-wise, from the bedroom to the beyond, having crossed off “make CDs — Cleaning Mixes” yesterday. Eventually he hopes that he will direct his life in a way that will necessitate Party Mixes, both for home and away. But today, he’s branching out to the car. His need for new music grows from the same seed as all his interests. It is rooted in the hopes of distracting from the pain of loss he feels, almost constantly, and that the distractions may lead to new discoveries, that possibly changing the context of his day-to-day might somehow bring him new friends, a new way to relate to the world, or perhaps somebody new to love. Perhaps someone who likes his music, perhaps not. It doesn’t matter. Music is just a seed of common ground between him and his imagined love. And this is a good one because it kills a bit of time. The length of time it takes to make a well-balanced and expressive mix, including the time to burn the CD, can be substantial. Moreso if he chooses to drive around town a bit, testing the mix’s drivability. And this is good one because it is an activity that he knows will sound cute and endearing if some girl at the coffeeshop happens to ask what he did over the weekend.

On the list goes, “iron shirts.” His job requires pressed white shirts. It seems that almost every job he has had has required a uniform of some kind, though during his time living on his savings, a different time during which he also found himself loveless, he ironed some of his shirts anyway and spent exorbitant time planning which combination of form-fitting Levi’s and vintage shirts he’d wear, and how that might go. He would do this sometimes the night before. Sometimes changing his mind and ironing more than one shirt. Sometimes taking so long that he’d drink a beer and smoke a Parliament midway through. And sometimes he’d forget about the ironing after that, smoking and drinking and staying up so long that he’d be tremendously late for whatever it was, the next day. Part of his anxiety regarding his appearance came from his perception that someone was waiting for him, and might find him, if he looked the part. The part of a man that finds love. A cool guy. Part of his anxiety regarding his appearance came from a consciousness that there were women out there waiting hungrily for anyone, the minute he finished getting ready, and that they wouldn’t care what he was wearing, so he would have to, so he could tell the difference.

Now, he puts “iron the shirts” on the list because it is necessary, partially to avoid disciplinary action, and also because he has discovered the momentary Zen-like peace that comes with doing the small things right during times like this, though it is not something he will talk about if some girl at the coffeeshop happens to ask what he did that day. However, he would readily discuss it if a cute girl brings up the subject of tedious tasks, providing him with an opening.

On the list goes, “letters — family.” Then there are bullets listing the names of family members to which he has not spoken to in some time and have thus become gradually estranged. These are family members that were major parts of his world when he was fifteen. And he remembers how the love of family and old friends can be a healthy fix at a time like this. So he will write letters or emails to them, in the hopes that they will write back, and on days where things seem bleak, a letter may arrive to his surprise and may be carrying an ending salutation such as Love.

On the list goes, “make dinner — steak/mac & cheese?” And this is a good one still. Because macaroni and cheese and a well-cooked steak next to a completed ‘to get done’ list can be enough to make a life seem full when a heart feels empty, to a thirty-year-old man sitting at his desk with so much left to do.

Read More By Doug Dean

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