Sunday, January 12, 2014

Stop the clock (short fiction)

“Marcie! Hey it’s good to see you!”

“Hi, Julie.”

Julie looked her up and down. Up and down, then smiled brightly, her eyes glistening like wet caramels. Then came the single syllable.


It wasn’t a “wow” like “wow, is that your new car?”. It was a “wow” like, “What happened to your new car?” It had a tiny backlilt, an inflection that was just a little bit “off”.

Marcie knew it wasn’t a good “wow”. It was almost a disappointed “wow”, but strained through a sort of Facebook screen so she could never be pinned down or held responsible.

“Wow yourself.”

“Yeah.!” The “yeah” started off as a high squeal, then sailed down to a whisper.

Julie looked away for just a second with a sort of reflexive hair-flip, like something you’d do in junior high. Marcie half-expected her to start chewing on the end of her braid. Then she brighted herself again.

“So what are you, y’knowwww – “

“Oh, same old thing.”

“Did you ever get – “


“So are you self-publishing now? Whatever happened to that novel? You know, the one about the cruise ship and the - ”

“That was quite a while ago.”

“I can see that.” (See what? “That”.)

She hair-flipped again. “So what do you do now exactly, you know? I mean.”

“The same thing you do, Julie.”

“Oh, of course!” She kept looking Marcie up and down, her eyes flipping from head to mid-thigh, though pretending she wasn’t doing it.

“You know, it’s been an awfully long time since we’ve seen each other, Julie.”

“Tell me about it!”, with a well-practiced “oh, yeah!” eye-roll.

It was then that she noticed something funny about Julie. Or at least, she thought it was funny. She had a sort of glaze over her, like something you’d pour over cinnamon buns, or maybe a shell of amber. Glossy. Her smile was glossy too.

Had she done something to herself?

Marcie believed that, as you aged, your face decided to go one way or the other. It either went Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy looked almost the same in the ‘60s, well, at least both of them had normal faces, and now Shatner was round as a pumpkin and Nimoy looked like a burnt-out old matchstick.

Skinny faces got fat, fat faces got skinny. Gaunt-looking people rounded out and softened, as if their inner selves were working their way out. The healthy-looking ones housing gaunt souls ultimately lost the battle of looking like someone else.

But there was a third possibility, and that was to stop. Stop time, stop the clock ticking. Marcie always thought there was another word for that: “death”, but apparently not, because everywhere she looked these days, she saw people who had decided to stop the clock

Except that there was a cost.

As Julie pretended not to look at Marcie’s burgeoning weight, the little dewlappy thing that hung below her rounded chin, the lizard skin on her arms, Marcie pretended not to look at Julie’s House of Wax immobility, the shellacked quality which was now considered highly desirable, even as she heard the creepy murmur of Vincent Price in the background.

Some even turned the clock back. Ageing backwards, which was really some trick. If they kept on going, they’d be fetal in a few years, or disappearing altogether, their molecules just coming apart: poof!

“So, I guess you have a pretty big one coming up pretty soon.”

“A pretty big one?” For some insane reason Marcie thought “bowel movement”.

Birthday!” She almost sang it, lilting high on the first syllable.

“Oh, Julie, how did you ever remember that?”

“I did your horoscope, silly, don’t you remember? Look at that.” She plucked a hair off the shoulder of Marcie’s blouse and looked at it.

“It’s a hair.”

“Yes, I know, but it’s - “

“Didn’t your hair used to be -  wait, now what color was it, I mean before?”

“Before what?” Julie was starting to sound defensive. She could dish it out, but she definitely couldn’t take it.

“Before the Jurassic Period,” Marcie wanted to say, but she didn’t. All the nasty things she left unsaid were going to kill her, one of these days, like a great landslide falling down on her.

“You’re still slim,” she said instead. “How do you do it?”

“Oh! I cleanse. Every month. High colonics, they’re awesome! You just purge away all that gunk in your system. All those toxins.”

“I thought you were vegan.”

“Oh, but vegetables have chemicals on them no matter what, because of the water supply.”

“I still eat cows.” She was becoming extremely depressed. How to get rid of her?

“You’re going to kill yourself, Marcie,” Julie murmured, pulling out and using the appropriate facial expression before tucking it away again.

(“Yes, if this conversation goes on any longer.” Another rock in the landslide.)

“My grandmother ate cows.”

“But they were different cows.”

Marcie burst out laughing.  She couldn’t keep the laugh to herself.

“I should say they were.”

“No, you don’t understand, they weren’t GMO cows.” Marcie thought this was something about General Motors or something. Her lack of interest finally must have registered on Julie.

“Listen, sweetie, I have to go now, but I want to give you something" (rummaging in her voluminous shoulder-bag) “- or actually, a few things, they’re freebies from the gym, you know? And the salon and stuff. Take them.” She thrust a wad of things in Marcie’s hands with a tight smile, turned around abruptly and gave a little Liza Minnelli backwards wave over her shoulder before flouncing away.

Marcie stood in the street shuffling through her treasures. A coupon for Turbo-Charge Fat Blaster Weight Loss Supplement, $2.00 off the first 60 capsules. An ad for a 60-ounce mega-capacity twenty-speed macerating Power-Juicer, 90-day trial free of charge! “Look 20 years younger in 20 minutes with Botuline, available NOW from your dentist!” A little packet of shampoo from a trendy salon, something called Blow your Head Off!, to mask “the grey” (grey sounding as ominous as some creepy space alien, and as undesirable). An ad for dental veneers with a woman smiling like a piano, showing every blinding-white tooth in her head.

God, she must think I’m a disgusting mess.

Just plaster things on the outside, and run-run-run. It’ll catch up with you one day. Sooner or later all your molecules will come apart, never to be replaced. When your molecules do come apart, there will literally be nothing left. Is that why you draw back so hard, by trying to minus-out the years you’ve slogged on this earth? Keep hitting the reset button. But what about your mind? Can you erase that too? I suppose you can. It’s done in a slightly different way.

They were friends then, quite good friends, had many excited conversations about this and that, though they often had a barbed quality to them, a putting-down-with-eyeroll. It was necessarily for them to have a mutual enemy or threat in order to really get along. Julie seemed like a super-coper, always on top of every situation, so Marcie was stunned when she suddenly, floridly fell apart. She had always been a little frantic, but this was something else, as if the tiny dancing ballerina on top of the music box had gradually accelerated until it was spinning a million miles an hour. This wasn’t any penny-ante breakdown, it was wholesale craziness, hallucinations, delusions, the works.

That sounds awful, Marcie thought, just heartless! It was pain and suffering, for sure, but it was funny how everyone around Julie seemed to suffer more than she did. And it was her family who decided she needed “shock”, something her sardonic old great-uncle called “Edison’s medicine”.

The shock re-set her for sure, but things weren’t the same after that. It was as if some mute but powerful presence deep in her psyche said: not this way; THAT way, and gave her a huge shove in the direction of artificiality. This was the way to make it. This was survival, solace, and something she could be really good at. As the years passed, her new strategy dovetailed beautifully with what the culture expected of her: the new Julie was popular at last, and because of that, Marcie just faded into the background. Not that Marcie went backwards: Julie just turned and walked away.

Now, it was: Wow. Look at you. All right. I’ve made decisions, more compromises than I ever thought I would have to. I am no prize. For this reason, I have one less friend in the world, though I suspect I lost her a long time ago. Life is inherently lonely, isn’t it? Aren’t the sweet fleeting times the very worst, because of how they always go away?

And why is it that when things are good, I mean, really good – as sweet as they can possibly be - we are always the last ones to know? Better not to recognize such beauty, even in ourselves, lest we cry out to a heedless universe in last-ditch desperation and despair: "Freeze!"


  1. Life of Eddie Vitch who did caricatures of many stars including Harold Lloyd is now on the big screen. Vitch -

  2. Thanks for the heads-up. A worthy subject. I wrote about Eddie Vitch a couple of times. Where can I see this?