• Play dough (fiction)

    This is a work of fiction. I wrote it close to a year ago and have been too bashful to post it. If you hate it, don’t tell me. If you like it and want to see more fiction by me, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I haven’t written any other piece of fiction before or since writing this one, and I’m not likely to write any more. This really was a fluke.

    They say there is money in the walls. The home’s first owner made a fortune in the railroad and real estate and then died suddenly of the Spanish flu. Overconfident in his riches and his health he left nothing but the house to his wife. She spent years writing to financial institutions in search of his estate, never finding a cent. An estimated $2 million dollars disappeared, but the rumors remain.

    Some nights when sleep eludes me I pace the house, stopping to place my palms to the cold plaster. It’s a fantasy that I could sense where the money is hidden, kick a hole, spend the early morning hours rolling in cash, and the rest of my life in the black.

    What wakes me is not the thought of fortune but of debt. A dog barks, the baby cries, Meredith coughs, and I’m startled from sleep. My mind reflexively turns to the stack of bills by the computer, some as much as six months overdue. Across the room the answering machine indicator flashes, reminding me that a dozen messages from creditors are digitally preserved. I know by now that sleep and such thoughts are incompatible, like oil and water, or money and humor.

    Inevitably, around 5AM exhaustion overtakes me. I dream of confusion and fear until awakened to duty. “Honey! Baby’s up!” Meredith, wrapped in a towel, face half made up, hollers from the bathroom.

    I stumble into the nursery and pull up the shades. “Morning Pea. Did you sleep?” Out the window steam rises from neighbors’ chimneys as golden maple leaves fall to the ground.

    “I sleeped daddy. Want some milk. Milk, milk, milk, milk,” the nearly two-year-old sings. I smile and inhale deeply as I pluck her from the crib. Her warm cheeks smell sweet, her shockingly blond hair in tangles of curls.

    ***

    “You have that interview at the bank at 10 today, right?” Meredith asks, more to remind me than to refresh her own memory.

    “Yes,” I nod my head trying to fix the appointment in my mind. My eyes remain focused on Penelope as she fiddles with the latch on a Blue’s Clues lunchbox. “Paul says they’re not hiring though. I might try the dealership instead. A lot of the salesmen are vets.”

    “What does Paul know? He cuts hair. He’s not a banker. If they’re not hiring why they are advertising?”

    I think hard for an answer consistent with the evidence Meredith presented. “To keep up appearances I guess.”

    “Maybe you should take the interview to keep up appearances too. Drop Pea with Jane at 9 so you can shower and get ready. I’ve got teacher-parent meetings until 6 tonight. What about dinner? What do you want to do?” Meredith asks as she pulls on her fleece.

    “I got it covered. Meatballs.” Meredith kisses my cheek and grabs her bag. On her third try the car starts.

    ***

    I load Pea into the pack and hoist her on my back. “Where we going?” she asks.

    “Shopping. I’m making meatballs for dinner.” The air is colder than I expected and I rub my nose to keep from sneezing.

    “I like meatballs. I want a purple one,” Pea requests.

    “They’re all brown Pea. I’ll make them for you.”

    “Oh. Brown OK. I eat brown. You have play dough?”

    “Yes. I brought some play dough for you. It’s in my pocket.”

    “Last day I have red play dough. You have some red for me?”

    “Yesterday I had red play dough. You threw it on the ground on the way to town. Today I have green play dough for you.” I hand a plastic bag with a green lump of play dough over my head.

    “Oh. Green OK. I like green.”

    At 9:55 my cell phone rings. “It’s mommy, Pea.”

    “Hi hun. You at the bank?” Meredith asks hopefully.

    “I’m headed to town now,” I say.

    “You’d better hurry. I just wanted to say ‘good luck.’”

    “Thanks. I’ll hurry up. Gotta run.” I flip the phone closed and return it to my pocket. “Here we go Pea,” I say breaking into a run.

    “Wheee,” Pea giggles from behind. Steam from my breath fogs my glasses. Dry leaves crunch beneath my feet as does an occasional lump of dehydrated red play dough.

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