Stacy was excited about the parade. She knew it wasn’t much. It wasn’t a huge sacrifice or anything. But she knew every little bit helped. There might just be one girl in the crowd who would see the float, remember the web address, and later, when she could control her emotions, look them up for help: “A2Violence.org.” Alternatives to Violence was a student organization dedicated to assisting the victims of violence on the university campus.
Stacy taped one more ribbon across the back of the float and sighed. Tomorrow was going to be great.
The next morning, downtown, at around 10:15, Adam sneered. He sneered while standing behind the counter of his barista post in a coffee shop on Main Street. He sneered at most things. Especially when looking at Facebook. There was no shortage of sneer targets. Stupid liberals. Stupid conservatives. Stupid libertarians. Stupid politicians. Stupid teenagers. Stupid memes. Stupid selfies. He prided himself in not entering any fray. No social network food fights. No taking sides. No controversial posts, or at least not intentionally. But he couldn’t help but post quotations from obscure philosophers and certain sorts of critical thinkers. They wrote down thoughts that resonated with him. They sneered with their words, and so the words just seemed to fit almost every occasion. And when anyone asked him anything directly about it, he just smiled and shrugged his shoulders pretending he didn’t understand what they were talking about. Of course he didn’t sneer at anyone in particular. That would be unseemly. He just sneered in general. His favorite authors flexed their sneer muscles and Adam kissed their pecs (metaphorically speaking of course).
This time Adam sneered at the stupid Christians. There they were being close-minded, hide-bound, and (for major sneer factor) assertive. If there was one thing Adam hated it was assertiveness. It was fine to prance, fine to mince words, and certainly fine to beat around the bush. It was fine to insinuate, prattle, laugh meaninglessly, and swear obliviousness. But certainty and assertiveness just reeked of a battlefield littered with dead bodies, rotting, with flies buzzing, and the (imagined) stench drove Adam to extreme sneer. Certainty and assertiveness were the sorts of things that started wars, violence, and could get you killed.
Of course Adam himself was a staunch churchgoer. Nothing too outlandish mind you, but a sort of downhome, traditional Baptist church: two hymns, a sermon, an offering, and the perfunctory altar call. Adam had never gone forward, but he did raise his hand during the “every-head-bowed” prayers every year or two just to keep the minister happy. He wasn’t absolutely sure if the minister was happy with him, but he thought that when he shook the minister’s hand and they made eye contact that there was some understanding between them, some acknowledgement that he had raised his hand and that meant there was no need to bother too much and everything was in good order in the spiritual department. He was fairly uncertain about all of this of course, but he cultivated a studiousness of this phenomenon that felt a lot like what humility probably felt like. And so when he shook hands with the minister after the service each week, he did his best to interpret the minister’s smile and small talk along those lines.
But now one of the deacons had gone and posted some quote about writing stories. What a donkey. What a rube. I mean, this guy probably wore overalls in high school. His only redeeming quality was that he would sometimes smoke cigarettes while driving his combine. But he had gone and posted a quote about writing stories! Stan Winslow probably hadn’t ever strung two coherent words together in his life, much less wrote a story or a poem. Probably couldn’t even spell the word “irony.” But the real nub was that the quotation was about “understanding the story that you’re in” and then went on to mock Wendell Berry and John Howard Yoder in the same sentence! Something about sexual confusion. What does that even mean? Jesus didn’t talk that way. What about the Sermon on the Mount?!
A Facebook message popped up on his phone. It was Tom. See the latest from Stan the Man?! Adam sneered, Yeah, made no sense. How’d he get to be a deacon? As he waited for the response, Adam remembered that great quote he’d saved from Yoder about non-violence. He could just happen to post that today. He smirked. Should be fun.
His phone vibrated. Caller ID said it was Pamela Walker. His heart skipped a beat. She was the chair of the city planning committee. He’d run into her at the last farmer’s market in the organic carrot section. She was tall and attractive and the kind of assertive that made him smile more than usual. He had mentioned that he was interested in starting a business downtown. He didn’t remember how coherent he had been, but he made sure to insert as many buzz words as he could think of in the same sentence: local, organic, non-gmo, reclaimed, raising awareness, and then just for good measure slipped a slight sneer in at the end, vaguely dismissing, you know, those other sorts of people with their opinions. Of course Adam had no idea who he meant or what he was talking about, and he immediately second-guessed his gushing. But Pamela seemed to like it and suggested they get coffee sometime soon. Adam had already made business cards even though his business didn’t exist yet and handed her one. They were pristine, sexy, and reeked of New York City sentimentality.
He decided to wait for the third ring. Four seemed lazy and he might not catch the call in time before voicemail kicked in, and two would definitely seem too eager. Should he address her directly? He had already put her contact information in his phone even before they had met in person. Would she appreciate his forwardness? Hey Pam! How’s it going? No, too casual. Had he actually heard anyone ever call her “Pam?” Better to go with oblivious-business-casual, sort of like his clothing choices. Hello? This is Adam. He performed a quick calculation on how surprised he should seem that it was her. He shouldn’t be too surprised or that would make him seem sloppy and unprofessional, but not surprised enough would make him sound apathetic and uninterested. What came out was probably more along the lines of a freshman in high school receiving his first personal phone call from the cutest girl in the class.
Turns out, she was across the street having coffee at that very moment with Bruce Bennington, one of the movers and shakers in town. Rich, sophisticated, and best of all, a wardrobe to die for (two parts class, three parts beach-casual, and a generous pinch of I-don’t-give-a-damn), and best of all, he used hair gel. Could Adam come over and join them right now? This was Adam’s big break. He’d take his lunch hour early.
It was pretty cold for a March morning. It had been foggy, and now it was spitting snow, as the parade meandered through town. Stacy had smiled and waved at the pockets of people gathered here and there along the street. It was a little smaller attendance than she had hoped, and certainly less of the demographic she would have preferred: mostly happy moms and housewives and a few city spirit activists. She was always peering through the crowd hoping to make eye contact with someone who might wink or nod or make some indication that they needed help. She mostly tossed candy for the kids while riding, but occasionally she stepped off the float bed and walked alongside, passing out flyers.
At the top of the Sixth Street hill there seemed to be some congestion and all the floats slowed down to a creep and then came to a stop. After some looking around and light jokes, the parade began moving again. Steve was driving the flatbed truck pulling the trailer that was the A2Violence.Org float, and just as they crested the top of the hill, he yelled. What he said no one is really sure of, but rather than continuing to creep along at the mandated 5 miles per hour, the float lurched ahead, leaving Stacy behind, and then it quickly picked up speed. The truck veered out of the path of the other floats and careened down the icy slope.
Adam hesitated in the cold. Tie or no tie? It could be taken as a little too pretentious, but he had a glimmer of hope that Pamela and Bruce might see it as a sign of his confidence. He had already changed his socks twice. Argyle was a little over the top, but who could argue with argyle? He glanced at his watch, back at the tie in his hand. He just couldn’t decide. And he never did.
Steve was a little shook up, but he walked away unscathed. Though it is uncertain whether Stacy appreciated the full import of the events that transpired, we hope she was not too bothered by them in the end. As it turns out, her float was a success and every little bit does help. More than one woman was saved that day from Adam’s violent sneer. There are alternatives to violence, and occasionally icy roads and bad brakes do their part. And apparently several stray dogs enjoyed an iron rich lunch that afternoon, though the coroner complained about missing several knuckles from one of the murderer’s hands.
And they say the short story is dead.
I enjoyed it immensely.
I am no literary critic nor would I consider myself that well-read. I did take one college course in Literature to fulfill a graduation requirement. It was my favorite college course and it lit in me a desire for Lit.
That said, I will offer a few thoughts. Feel free to ignore them. I don’t know if you are planning to publish this as part of a larger collection or narrative, but if so I think the prose is a little loose at the moment of action. I sort of had to piece together what had happened by your mention of ice and bad brakes. (At first I thought there had been some type of terrorist attack.) That may be the effect you are going for. If so, have at it. I recently read a book – War in Heaven – by Lewis’s friend Charles Williams. I struggled with the prose in it in exactly the same way. It just wasn’t quite clear enough to tell what pivotal event had just happened without a couple of re-reads through sections. Again, maybe that is the point. Maybe he (and you) is trying to draw the reader’s mind in that direction, to question – What did I just read? Or, in the words of Lego Batman, “What the heck, dude?”
Secondly, great work with Adam’s character. I think I know that guy. I think he reflects a lot of younger/millennial American Christians. (I am technically an old millennial, but I am usually looking at millennials and scratching my head.) He reflects me, parts which I am not proud of and trying to work out with fear and trembling. I hope Adam was doing the same and not merely a hypocrite posing as a Christian. His character brings to light the fallenness of our world and a worldly mindset even within the church. I was recently reading the Screwtape Letters and at one point Uncle Screwtape is discussing 4 different types of laughter or humor. The last is a flippant laughter. He says that is the most useful for his (dastardly) purposes. I think Adam’s sneer is quite flippant. You capture that well. I say, “Good show!”
Lastly, I don’t know if you are attempting to be “O’Connor-esque.” She is my favorite author. I was introduced to her by that above-mentioned college Lit class. Her characters are generally either well-intended but flawed or ill-intended but destined to do the right thing. And they often meet unexpected and violent ends – as Adam did. Her stories – the better ones anyway – generally have an element of redemption, sometimes a very strong element. That redemption is missing from Adam’s sneer. And that’s OK. Some people meet bad ends, and worse in Judgment later. That’s part of God’s story of man. And as regards that, this story is fine, even helpful in searching out my own heart, motives, sins. But if this were to become a short story as a part of a collection or a chapter of a novel I would want the other stories to tend more toward redemption.
Those are my “thoughts” which you have so kindly invited me to “post.” I daresay this is better than anything I have written and so I say, bravo, keep up the good work. Please don’t hear negative complaining from my thoughts. That is not what is meant. Overall my impression is quite positive, (though I hope you don’t care too much about my overall impression).