I’m hoping for feedback on this one. I plan to enter it in a story contest next month, and I want to get a head start on tweaking before I submit it. Comments, please! (Note: I’m working with a 750 word limit, so don’t bother telling me it needs to be longer. 😉
Splintered nylon bristles, sputtering across aged brick – the sound reminds Kevin of his father’s backyard wood shop, where Dad used to wile away afternoons and weekends, carving and sanding and making things out of things that never became anything. The hours became days, became a lifetime in that wood shop, and Kevin recalls those sounds at unpredictable times – those of scraping and carving, the fashioning of wood into thoughtless relics, the squawk of static-laced sports talk radio, and the piercing explosion of spent liquor bottles, pitched atop the overflowing glass bin behind the shop. Were it not for the far-off echoes of these sounds, white from memory’s repetition, there’d be little evidence his father ever lived.
He dunks brush and hand into a five gallon bucket of milky solution, rinsing and loading, then returns the brush to the duty of scrubbing the side of a victimized brick building. It will take all afternoon for Kevin to remove the mess of overlapping graffiti, then he’ll be back the next day to scrub the other side. There’s an easier way; his buddy, Carlos, mentioned there are chemical solvents out there you can just spray on the wall, and the paint will melt off, but they won’t give that stuff out because too many guys would huff the aerosol cans to get high or try to sell to other guys who want to dissolve a few brain cells. “Either that, or they just like making us bust our asses with all this scrubbin’,” Carlos would say.
Kevin prefers it this way. If the work were easy, it wouldn’t be fair – not after the things he’s done to people. But it’s not like he is living out a misguided notion that he can pay for his past sins by accumulating blisters – the prison chaplain had set him straight on that front.
“You can’t earn grace; that part’s free,” Chaplain Lewis said to him once. “but the consequences of your actions, as you know, they ain’t so easy or cheap. Your debt to God is paid, but as for society…forget society; it’s too big to think about. Think about your friends and neighbors, folks in your town you pass by each and every day without thinking. Start thinking, son. Think ’bout them for a change. Be the best thing you ever coulda done.”
Chaplain was right. Each time Kevin sweats his way through the rehab of a building, just like the single story brick deli before him, he experiences a sensation unfamiliar for most of his life: Absence. As he toils, he forgets himself. Even as now, his attention toward the Asian couple who own the little graffiti-stricken deli he scrubs, he thinks not about himself or how difficult his future is certain to be; he ceases floundering through the tidal wave of regret he knows if ever he dwells on the “what if I’d made better choices?” sort of monologue that is common with guys in his place, and the “what ifs” – Chaplain would say – often turn into “why nots?”.
I’ve already screwed up my life so, “why not” keep doing what makes me feel good?
Everyone thinks I’m a loser; nobody will give me a chance, so “why not” just screw it, and do my own thing?
There’s no escaping pain – that inside, aching pain – so “why not” take something, swallow something, smoke something, shoot something…
Kevin manages, through the Absence he finds in seeing others, to avoid all the “what ifs” and “why nots”. Even were it not a requirement of his sentence, he’d still be here, scrubbing this deli, erasing scars from brick, just as Absence does to worry. Thirty-eight days ’till his legal debt is fulfilled. Then it is up to him. Freedom’s enormous weight will be handed to him, and he’ll need to find ways to get out from beside himself, to remind himself to push beyond the personal and find that sweet, spacious Absence, to place his heart’s eternal finger upon a human pulse, to each day walk the streets without thinking so much what others think of him, to channel a Love he won’t pretend to understand, to kiss the face of strangers.