November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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John Palen/Fiction


End of the Day

By John Palen


"The refrigerator kicked on ..."

After cleaning up the kitchen for the third time that day, Dave sat at the table with a cup of coffee and his list. The table was covered with a fresh cloth, green and yellow. The house was quiet and, except for the kitchen, dark. On a sheet of scratch paper Dave started a new list, beginning with uncompleted items: Iron clothes, vacuum bedrooms. Then he added new tasks he’d thought of during the day. An overhead light fixture in the basement hung loose on one side and needed to be reattached. The furnace needed to be drained. Before he was laid off he had neglected the furnace. One fall he had to pay $600 for new valves and sensors. Couldn’t let that happen now.

He heard a door closing upstairs, a flush, slippered feet on the floor. It was Diane going to the bathroom, going back to bed. Today was Tuesday. He added Wednesday’s tasks to the new list. Then  he added tasks done daily. Wednesday was the day to clean bathrooms and mow. The main daily task was supposed to be looking for a job. “Looking for a job is a full-time job,” the human resources guy told him in a scripted 20-minute session the day he was laid off. For a while he believed it. Now he knew it to be untrue. He wrote “look for work” on the list every day, but there were few jobs, and he spent more time simply dealing with money — juggling credit cards, haggling with collection agencies, prioritizing bills. He and Diane were two months behind on the mortgage, heading toward three.

The refrigerator kicked on, triggering a 30-year-old memory. It was a memory that almost anything could trigger, especially at night. When he was 18, Dave had killed someone, a middle-aged woman. She ran a red light and he broadsided her on the driver’s side. The accident undermined him. His depression faded away after three years of therapy, but the fact that he wasn’t at fault didn’t eliminate his visceral guilt, or his memory of watching the woman die. Something dimmed in her eyes, slow but steady, like water draining in a sluggish sink until it’s gone. After that he knew two certainties: Terrible things can happen without warning; and there are points of no return, points from which no recovery is possible.

When he finished the new list, he put today’s list with its checkmarks and marginal notes into a drawer. It joined a stack next to the flatware tray. At first he’d thrown his lists away. Eventually he realized they weren’t reminders of things he needed to do. They were reminders of things he had done, disconnected pieces of the day, like floating debris he could cling to. About a year ago he began to keep them, dated and stapled, month by month.

Dave was tired, but he looked around the kitchen with something almost like happiness. It was neat and spotless. He liked to keep it that way, using a more-expensive, name-brand cleaner on counters, mopping the floor, scrubbing crevices with a toothbrush,  In six hours, he’d be up  for breakfast with Diane, a supermarket cashier on the morning shift. Tonight he wouldn’t risk waking her. He sat a few more minutes, then poured another cup of coffee. Suddenly tired of paying attention, of watchfulness, he carried the coffee to the family room, turned the TV on low and stretched his legs in front of the couch. After a while he slept. Brightly colored images played across his face.

About the author:

John Palen’s Open Communion: New and Selected Poems was published by Mayapple Press. Since then he has published chapbooks with March Street Press and Pudding House, and has recent work appearing or forthcoming in Clapboard House, Bare Root Review and Off the Coast. He lives in Illinois.


1 Jeanne Lesinski { 05.06.11 at 4:29 pm }

Well done. You’ve captured so much in your understated fashion. Because I’ve heard you read your work, I hear your calm and measured voice as I read this.

2 Joe Palen { 05.15.11 at 2:28 am }

I finished seeing these pictures with a feeling in my stomach – not quite sadness, but close. I guess it is empathy. Never having been laid off, I could still feel the hopelessness creeping up on the guy. I think your stories pull the reader into them – a good talent.