I write short fiction

Mannequin Monday – Sit Quietly in a Room Alone

Mannequin Monday – Sit Quietly in a Room Alone

Monday rolls around again. I dress the bare mannequin with words I found from novelist Louise Penny. I’m re-reading How the Light Gets In. Also, I again take inspiration from Austin Kleon, who quotes Blasé Pascal: All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

And for my own current writing, I add my short story, The Marsh. Jack and Dyann sit in a boat talking about death…and life.

This Week’s Story

This week, in lieu of centering on one story, I’m finding story in various sources, some fiction, some not. I am re-reading Louise Penny’s 2013 novel How the Light Gets In, and the following quote jumped off the page. Penny’s famed character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, advises one of his fellow officers, who is deeply distraught by the uncooperative, negligent staff within her homicide department. Gamache says: “Don’t be pushed from your center. And always, always trust your instinct.” I like that: don’t be pushed from your center.

Elsewhere in How the Light Gets In, the narrator says of the Chief Inspector: “Armand Gamache had always held unfashionable beliefs. He believed the light would banish the shadows. That kindness was more powerful than cruelty, and that goodness existed, even in the most desperate places. He believed that evil had its limits.” 

Another author, artist/writer Austin Kleon, a favorite of mine, offered this insight in his recent newsletter. “’All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ Blaise Pascal said that almost 400 years ago.”

Kleon quotes Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation. “There should be at least a room, or some corner where no one will find you and disturb you or notice you. You should be able to untether yourself from the world and set yourself free, loosing all the fine strings and strands of tension that bind you, by sight, by sound, by thought, to the presence of other men.”

And in my wandering mind, that insight reminded me of a similar quote from another Louise Penny novel, this one The Brutal Telling. Armand Gamache says: “Most unhappiness comes from not being able to sit quietly in a room.” 

All of which reminds me of the song from Hamilton, “The Room Where It Happened.”

Back to Kleon’s reference to Merton. Another quote from the mystic: “Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.”

Let’s see if I can pull these insights together. We’re all in varying degrees of a pandemic lockdown. From local to global, it weighs on all of us. Forces us to uncharacteristically sit at home. And when we come out of this isolation, will we be able to say, I was in the room where it happened? Can we say, I sat quietly in a room alone? I was not pushed from my center? The winged seeds Merton talks about are carried to us. A seed that blooms into kindness, not cruelty. A seed that casts light in the shadows. A seed that shouts, goodness exists even in the most desperate places. Merton says, most of these seeds are lost because men are not prepared to receive them.

Merton’s final thought: “Such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.” And maybe that’s where this week’s random nuggets of story take us. The room each of us sits in, where freedom, spontaneity and love happen. Where it will continue to happen, because sitting quietly alone allows the seed to grow.

My Current Writing

A few years ago I wrote this story about a teen who comes upon an old man in the middle of a marsh in a large bay near New York City. Jack and Dyann find themselves talking about death… and life. Enjoy.

The Marsh

On an early October morning Dyann ditched school. Two months into sophomore year. Not one class or teacher worth a damn. Classmates more boring than the classes. 

A two-mile bike ride took her to the tiny boatyard where she kept her 16-foot skiff. A well-kept boat, white, with turquoise trim.

Dyann chained her bike to a fence, got her 18 hp outboard motor and gear out of her rented locker, and hauled it all down to the dock. After bailing some rainwater out of the boat, she attached the motor, loaded in the gas tank, oars, a life preserver, and her school lunch.

The motor started right away. She untied and edged out into the creek, pointing the boat toward the open bay. Dyann grinned. The smell of wood smoke from nearby chimneys. A clear blue sky only seen in Fall. A few clouds drifting high above. Sunlight dancing off the small waves.

Dyann steered east, passed under the railroad trestle that intersected the bay, and then swung south. 

She turned the motor off near a shallow beach, tilted the motor up, and began drifting towards the marshes. She used an oar to pole her way along the edge of the beach.

Dyann looked for the narrow channel she knew snaked through the marshes till it came out on the other side of the bay.

The tide was high. She had a few hours till she needed to worry about getting stranded in the shallow marshes.

A few flies lingering from summer flitted frantically around her boat. Horseshoe crabs crawled along the sandy bottom. An eel dashed away as she drifted over it. The marsh grasses were tall enough to obscure her and her boat. 

Deeper into the marsh, she spotted a boat up ahead, to the side of the narrow channel. Bigger than hers, maybe 21 feet or more. A tiny cabin, looking like an afterthought, sat near the bow. At the stern sat an old man, his back to Dyann.

collage of photos of saltwater marshes

“Hello,” she called. The man jumped in his chair. His boat shook, and ripples played out into the channel. He turned to look at Dyann.

“Beat it,” he said. “Keep moving.”

Dyann said, “Sorry to startle you. I’m just moving through the channel.”

“Well, move on by.”

As she poled closer to the old man, she got a better look at his boat. The white paint was worn, faded, peeling in places. She could see barnacles and sea grass adhering to the boat under the waterline. The registration numbers were rubbed off at the bow. An old outboard motor was tilted up out of the water.

“Did you run out of gas?” Dyann asked.

“I said, keep moving.”

“I can spare some gas, or tow you out of here.”

“How many times do I have to say, get lost?”

The old man turned his back on her.

Dyann poled her skiff closer to the old man.

“Are you hungry? I’ve got a couple of sandwiches I can share.”

Silence. The old man waved her off.

Dyann noticed that the propeller on the old man’s motor was missing.

photo of a channel cutting through a saltwater marsh
The Marsh

“Where’s your propeller?”

The old man shrugged.

“It fell off? I can help you find it.”

“I don’t want to find it.” He pointed to the reeds. “I threw it in there.”

Dyann let her boat nudge up against the old man’s boat. She gripped it to hold the two together.

“Don’t touch my boat.”

Dyann saw a week’s worth of gray stubble on the old man’s face. His jeans and sweatshirt hung loosely on him. 

“You look hungry.” She dug a sandwich out of her lunchbox and offered half to the old man. “It’s peanut butter and jelly.”

The old man looked at the sandwich. Pushed her arm away.

“What are you going to do?” she asked. “The tide will be going out soon. You’ll be stuck in here.”

The old man shrugged again.

She took a bite of her sandwich. “You’re weird. You act like you want to sit here till you die.”

The old man looked hard at her. A slight nod. “Nothing wrong with that.”

That silenced her. He wants to die out here?

She continued to hold the two boats together as they bobbed gently.

“How long have you been sitting here?”

“Two nights now.”

“I never gave any thought to dying. It must be hard. But I don’t think I would want to die hungry.”

“Come back in a few days. I’ll let you know… if I’m still breathing. Otherwise, you’ll have to figure it out for yourself.”

“This is an awful place to die.”

“Not so bad. Water, open sky, quiet.”

photo of an old boat
Old Boat

“Won’t people look for you?”

“No one cares.”

“Where do you live?”

“The south end of the bay.”

“Do you have family?”

“One son… lives three states away. Haven’t seen him in years.”

“No one else?”

“No one.”

Dyann was silent.

“What about you?” The old man pointed a bony finger at her. “Isn’t today a school day?”

“Yeah. I ditched.”

“Won’t they look for you?”

“They’ll call my mother. Get her voicemail.”

“What will she do?”

“Not much. Cry about how hard life is, how much she sacrifices for me.”

“My mother was like that too.”

“School sucks.”

“No argument there… is this your alternative?”

“For today. My last day out on the water before I have to haul my boat out for the winter.”

“So what brings you to the marsh?”

Dyann shrugged. “It’s quiet. Away from everything.”

“Maybe not a bad place to die, huh?”

“I guess…” She looked hard at him. “How are you going to do this?”

“Just sit here. Death will find me.”

She once again offered the sandwich. “Do you want half?”

The old man lifted his arm slowly, reached across. “Sure. Why not?”

“Why not die at home?”

The old man waved his arm at the marsh. “Why not here?”

The two ate in silence for a few moments. “Am I supposed to talk you out of it? We have a suicide hotline at school. They try to talk you down.”

“You called the hotline?” the old man asked.

“Once. Mostly to see what it was like.”

“You wanted to die?”

“Not really. Just got sick of everything. Wanted to see if someone had a better idea.”

“And?”

“Nothing better. Just stuff about my future… about hurting my mom.”

“Was that enough?”

“Sort of. I mean, I’m not depressed or anything.”

“I didn’t know kids felt like that.”

“I get tired of trying to figure things out.”

“What do you have to figure out at your age?”

“Will this planet still be livable when I get older?”

“I get that.”

The old man finished his sandwich and wiped his hands on his pants. “So… are you going to beat it and leave me to die?”

Dyann shook her head.

“This is really what I want, kid.”

“Really?”

“What, you are going to talk me down?”

She stared at the old man. “I wouldn’t know how to do that.”

“Yeah, if I were in your place, I wouldn’t know how either.”

Dyann felt her boat pulling away from the old man’s boat. She had to grip more tightly to keep the two together. 

“Tide’s shifting, isn’t it?” the old man said.

“Feels like it.”

“You don’t want to get stuck in here.”

She nodded. “I’ve got some time yet.”

“Don’t waste your time on me, girl.”

Dyann looked out across the marsh. The grass rustled in the afternoon breeze.

“Should I go get someone to come in here for you?”

“No.”

“Then let me take you home. Leave your boat here. It’s a piece of junk anyway.”

The old man grimaced. “You takin’ a shot at my boat?”

“No offense, but it looks older than you… and more messed up.”

The old man grinned. “You think I’m in better shape than this boat? Thanks for the compliment.”

She laughed.

The man smiled.

“I could help you fix it up.”

“She looks like hell, but she’s tight and dry.”

“The bottom is covered with barnacles and sea grass. It would have to be hauled and scraped. And it needs a good paint job.”

“That will take a lot of elbow grease.”

“I could come weekends. Once my boat is out of the water, I won’t work on it till spring. I’ll have time.”

“Why would you do that?”

“I don’t know… I love working on boats.

Dyann felt a stronger pull on her boat.

“Look, I gotta get out of here or I’ll be stuck till the middle of the night.”

The old man nodded.

“Come with me. Get in and we’ll tie your boat to mine.”

 “You got any more sandwiches?”

“You won’t know till you get in my boat.”

The old man cracked a smile. “A tough negotiator.”

He grabbed the side of his boat. Swung a leg limply over to the skiff. Dyann helped him to sit. She took a length of rope from the floor of her boat, tied one end to a cleat on her stern, and tied the other end onto his bow cleat.

Then she let go of the old man’s boat, felt the towline get taut, and began poling her boat out through the narrow channel, south toward the open water on the old man’s side of the bay.

The old man said, “Can I have that sandwich now?”

“If you tell me your name.”

“Jack.”

“I’m Dyann. Let’s get you home.”

2 Comments

  1. Tom

    Hey, that was darn good. I guess it helped that I lived in those marshes too just like you. It brought back a lot of memories. Good ones. Nice writing, Rob.

    • Bob Gillen

      Yeah that was a special place.

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