Monday, April 17, 2017

#229: "Like Everyone Else" by Tara Laskowski

~This story was previously published in Fiction Weekly (2009).  



It was after the teenage girl died that Samantha Wolewski finally agreed to go out on a date with Harry, the cops reporter who worked night shift. Up until then she’d been dodging him—she was the new obit clerk, her first job out of college, and she wanted to be professional, make a good impression.
But then the girl died. It was a car accident—she had been on her way home from the hairdresser to get ready for her prom that night. Before that, Samantha had only had to write obituaries for old people. There was something about this girl’s picture— a dark-haired young girl looking over her shoulder, smiling brightly, hopefully into the camera. Sam wondered if the girl had hated the picture, if she’d hated the one lock of hair that had separated from the rest and trailed along her red sweater like a snake.
She tried to tell Harry about it on their way to the casino. What happened to the young woman’s date for the prom, her friends? “Would they still even have the prom after that?” she wondered aloud, to which Harry replied with a long, drawn-out story about his senior prom and how wasted they’d gotten afterwards on the second floor of the Red Roof Inn off of I-81.
“How romantic,” Sam murmured, already regretting her moment of weakness that had gotten her here in the car with the only guy in the newsroom who didn’t sing karaoke at happy hour on Friday nights. It bothered her that Harry incessantly cracked his gum. It bothered her he had yet to ask her a question about herself. It bothered her she couldn’t remember the girl’s name.


Samantha had never thought her major in English would land her a job typing up summaries of people’s lives, but there it was. Secretly, she ranked people – deciding who had done more with their life, who she thought had lived successfully, who she decided might have regretted some of their choices. There were so many elderly people who lived and died in the same town. Her own grandmother had never been farther than Allentown before she took the hour and a half trip to Bloomsburg last year to see Sam graduate from college. She knew she had no right to pass judgment on these people but she couldn’t help doing it. It made her feel better in some way, even as she herself was stuck in a small, backwards town when she could be in Boston or New York or somewhere exciting, if only she had the money and the guts.
Harry took her to a tiny, rundown casino a few miles out of town. The place stayed in business because of the senior citizens in the area – the same people who originally opposed the idea of building it because it encouraged gambling and sin. It was tacky and depressing, dotted with plastic palm trees and rows of slot machines and filled with old men who shuffled along the walls like Sam had ice-skated as a child, as if venturing out into the middle of the room was too vast and scary.
She and Harry went to a room where they could watch the horse races on small televisions and bet on them. Harry got really excited, sitting on the edge of his orange plastic chair and cheering on his pick like a small child wishing to win the stuffed animal at a carnival. He asked Sam to pick some horses, but she wasn't that into it and he finally just started marking down names without even asking her. He cursed loudly and slapped his open palms on the table when he lost, which was often.
“There’s a secret to betting on these things,” he told her, chewing on the edge of his pencil. “You have to be smart about it.”
Sam had never been much of a gambler. She sat most of the night on the other side of the table from Harry rolling and unrolling her napkin and feeling sorry for the horses running across their tiny television. They seemed sad.
“Do you think they know when they’ve won?” she asked him, staring at the top of his head. It satisfied her to know he would be bald in a few years. She could see the thinness of his hair right at the top of his head, like a bird’s nest.
“If they don’t win, they’re dog meat,” he said. “Literally.” Sam imagined the horses crossing the finish line, all the losers galloping one by one into a giant machine that turned them into Alpo on the other side.
“Canned, sealed and delivered,” she muttered.
Harry looked up. “What?”
When he lost enough money to be satisfied, they left. “Guess you’re not very good at picking winners,” he’d teased her on the way to the car. They’d parked all the way in the back of the lot. Harry had been afraid someone might hit his Saturn if they parked any closer.
“Obviously not, if I’m hanging out with you,” she retorted. He laughed, but his shoulders were tight. Harry’s car was filled with candy wrappers – Mounds, Snickers, Almond Joy – on the floor, stuck in the seats, overflowing in the litterbag hanging from the radio dial. She wondered why a grown man needed so many sweets. When he dropped her off, he kissed the air on her cheek. “Thanks,” he said, and then he took off before her key was even in the door, his car more than half way down the block by the time she got inside.

The newspaper followed a format for unpaid obituaries that removed any personal touches, so each entry ended up reading pretty dry. But if a family was adamant about adding other details they could submit a paid obituary. This was treated as an ad, and Sam had to place a solid border around it in the layout, blocking out the other regular obituaries from the special paid one. She liked those the best because they seemed more humane than the others and they sometimes gave little details about the person that brought them to life again – Mary was an avid gardener, and her grandchildren always looked forward to the warm chocolate chip cookies she made from scratch.
Sam imagined what her own obituary would say. She tried to picture a funeral, her body laid out, friends and family weeping into crumpled, damp tissue fragments. But that was morbid. Sam was a happy person. She had things going for her, life still to live.

Her best friend Julie hosted a party the weekend after the miserable date with Harry. Julie’s parties had been fun in college, when they consisted of nothing more than a keg, Julie’s stereo and drunk guys playing cards. Now Julie invited mostly friends from her new job—people who lived in the outskirts of Harrisburg and acted like snobby New Yorkers. They always brought wine and argued about politics, asking the same tired questions as they looked people up and down. So what do you do?
And that was the problem. What to say to that? Sure, she could talk about the way her desk was shoved to the right in a dead-end hallway that all the editorial staff referred to as “Death Row.” Or the sick sense of humor of her predecessor, “Obie the Odd,” who had written a “funny words” list on a piece of paper and taped it above the desk – suicide, flatulence, necrophilia. But those were not dinner party stories. They were not amusing tidbits to share over cocktails or beer.
It didn’t make it any better that Samantha’s mother had called while she was getting ready for the party. She had been sifting through her closet to try to find something to wear and trying to make up an excuse not to go, and her mother’s grinding voice was almost enough to tip her over the edge.
“Samantha, I really wish you wouldn’t drink so much,” her mother had said on the phone as Sam tried on various shirts, dismissing each one with a grimace. “You’re going to get fat. It’s not good for your skin. Men don't find that sort of thing attractive.”
In her mother’s eyes, Sam's new job was just brimming with potential husbands for Sam. Each time they would talk, she would ask if Sam had “found anyone,” as if her soul mate was under a cushion or behind a door and Sam just needed to look in the right place.
“Have you gotten that mole checked out yet?” Her mother had switched tactics and was now working on another of Sam’s nerves.
Samantha, walking in front of the mirror with the cordless phone, halted, peering closely at the mole just above her elbow on the inside of her arm. It was brown, hard to the touch. She pushed at it, wondering if it would just pop off. It wasn’t painful, but it seemed like it was getting bigger.
“No, mom, I haven’t. It’s not a big deal.”
“Samantha, you know what I told you about Mrs. Martinson. That woman was a sun-worshipper, and she never thought anything could happen to her. She thought she shit ice cream, showing off all the time, prancing around in those tops for women half her age—"
“Mom, I’m fine! I really have to go. I’ll call you later, okay?” She cut her off in mid-sentence, hanging up the phone in irritation. Taking one last look in the mirror before leaving, Samantha was satisfied with her outfit—a long navy skirt, flip flops and her favorite Dire Straits t-shirt, the band members’ faces faded from too many flips in a hot dryer.

Julie’s apartment was already crowded and hot when she arrived. “A few friends” had turned into several dozen, most of whom were spilling out onto the small back porch she shared with a divorced forty-something year-old man who rented the other half of the two-apartment house. The place didn’t have air conditioning, so Julie had bought a bunch of fans at Walmart that she strategically placed in various rooms. Sam sifted through the crowd, filled a plastic cup with Miller Lite and settled for an abandoned lawn chair next to the chips and dip. She held her beer and bobbed to the music, trying to look interested and fun.
“You look like someone at a high school dance,” the guy standing next to the table said at the same time he popped a handful of peanuts into his mouth. She smiled brightly at him. Jerk. She took a big gulp of her beer, willing it to take effect quickly and tried not to make eye contact. But he was persistent and moved closer.
“Frank,” he said, thrusting out his hand. “I’m an old friend of Julie’s.” For awhile, he stood over her as he talked, making her feel small and uncomfortable so that she had to stand to be more on eye level with him. He spoke loudly, waving his hands around.
“So what do you do?” he asked, his middle finger tracing the lip of his wine glass.
“I work for a newspaper,” she told Frank, tapping her foot.
Frank nodded, raising one eyebrow as if he was impressed.
“Very cool. You go to school for that?” She shook her head. “Well, hey, all you need is that degree. Doesn’t matter what it’s in, just as long as it’s on your resume.”
“Guess so.”
“Yeah…it’s pretty crazy. I had a friend who went to school for philosophy, and now he’s working down in D.C. as a Federal agent. You never know.”
“Guess it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re happy.”
He laughed, chortled actually, popping more peanuts in his mouth. “No, it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you make lots of money doing it.”
She laughed in response, even though it was stupid. They were both scanning the apartment, looking for an escape. A girl was trying to figure out how to work Julie’s stereo to change the CD. Sam hoped she put in something loud. Frank turned back suddenly, his hand grabbing another bunch of peanuts.
“So, you like these sorts of things?”
She shrugged. “Not really. They’re okay.” She wondered where Julie was. The girl put in ABBA and was swaying to “Dancing Queen.” The song reminded Sam of freshman year fraternity parties, of drunken couples grinding on the dance floor, their faces blurred by the lights, their shoes spattered with beer and mud.
He pointed at her t-shirt, masking a burp. “I love Dire Straits.”
“Really?” she asked, ashamed at the sudden interest in her voice. “I’m a bit obsessed.”
“Yeah, I collect records, and I have a copy of their live one, Alchemy, in excellent condition.”
She nodded, impressed. He suddenly seemed much more interesting to her, and the beer she’d been drinking was starting to affect her. Frank lifted his glass and tilted it towards her, his brow crinkled.
“You know, you look like someone….this will sound weird, but the first girl I ever kissed….in second grade… you have her nose or something.”
“Hmmm…second grade…yeah, people tell me that all the time.”
“Oh! No, I didn’t mean….uh.” He went to scratch his neck and dropped one of the peanuts in his hand. She looked at the ground, shadowed in dark, trying to spot it.
“I was kidding.” Sam sighed, wishing she had another beer. “You know that they say everyone has a twin somewhere in the world? That’s kind of depressing I think. What’s that Zen saying? Remember you are unique just like everyone else…” she trailed off.
“I didn’t mean to insult you or anything.” He sounded bored. Sam’s cheeks were hot and she began fanning herself.
It was then that Julie came over to join them, smiling and drunk, and put her arm around Frank. “Sam! I see you’ve met Frank! The funniest guy around!”
But Sam was still caught up in her train of thought, trying to keep Frank’s attention. “No, you didn’t insult me. It’s just that there are so many people in this world, and we’re all trying to figure everyone else out.” She shook her head. “And the funny thing is that we’re really not all that different, that hard to figure out.”
Julie frowned. “What are you talking about, girl?”
“I told her she reminded me of someone from elementary school,” Frank said vacantly.
She’d lost her train of thought. It was there, right out of reach, but it seemed too late to search for it. Frank and Julie had already started talking about something else. She felt them going away from her.
“I’ll be right back, guys, okay?” She made her way to the bathroom, sliding past two people embracing in the narrow hallway. The light above the mirror was too bright. She looked artificial, worn down. Her eyes were red and dry from the smoke. She was angry with herself for seeming so odd and distant.
Lifting her arm to fix her hair, she saw the mole again in her reflection. She had an insane urge to cut it off, flush it down the toilet. The summer before eighth grade she’d stepped on a nail on a pier while on vacation at Ocean City. Terrified of needles, she convinced her mom it was okay not to go to the hospital for a tetanus shot, then spent the entire night convinced her throat was tightening up, that her leg felt numb, that she was dying.
The music had switched from ABBA to something harder, a current dance song with a driving beat that Sam did not recognize. She thought about that teenage girl suddenly, hoped that her funeral had been overflowing with people who loved her.
The heat hit her in the face as she entered the living room, bobbing her head among the people, looking for Julie and Frank. A woman with a low-cut blouse turned quickly, laughing at a joke, and knocked into Sam, spilling her beer on the front of her shirt, gasping, flapping napkins at her to dab it away.
            “It’s okay, it’s okay,” she repeated, sounding foolish to her own ears even as she longed to scream, to slap, to cry. But the woman had gone, perhaps to fetch more napkins or towels, and no one was paying attention to Sam as she searched the room. The faces in the room faded into each other, each as similar as the other as if they could trade off. As Sam stood there awkwardly, unsure where to go, her eyes felt tired, dry, her skin already sticky from the beer. She waved to Frank and Julie at the far side of the room, but although they were scanning the room they looked right past her, still in a conversation although not really paying attention to one another. The voices around her seemed incoherent—a dull hum like working bees in a hive—but yet right then they all pitched in an odd harmony, each one a part of the whole, and sounding as if they were, indeed, having a good time.

*****
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

            “Like Everyone Else” almost made it into my story collection Bystanders. The themes in the story—isolation, relationships, violence and death on the periphery—fit with the themes in Bystanders, which is largely about the way that something terrible happening to someone else can affect you personally. In the beginning of "Like Everyone Else," Samantha—who edits obituaries—reads about a teenage girl who died in a car accident right before her prom. This resonates in weird ways with Sam, who is still trying to figure out herself and her place in the world.
            It's a quiet, subtle story but one I've always been fond of. Perhaps because of my own brief stint as an obituary editor the summer before I moved to Virginia to get my MFA. The strange feeling of writing about someone's life after they've died has never left me. Neither, apparently, has the experience of working at a daily newspaper. I ultimately cut the piece from my collection because I realized that out of 13 stories, three of them were about newspaper reporters. Too many, I thought, and so "Like Everyone Else" came out. But I still feel for Samantha and her fading Dire Straits t-shirt, and I'm still rooting for her.

*****
ABOUT TARA LASKOWSKI

Tara Laskowski's short-story collection, Bystanders, was hailed by Jennifer Egan as “a bold, riveting mash-up of Hitchcockian suspense and campfire-tale chills.” She is also the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette. Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Since 2010, she has been the editor of the online flash fiction journal SmokeLong Quarterly.




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