Frank Manning settled into a chair while his wife, Cynthia, roamed the furniture store’s showroom. Her piano-player fingers wiggled as she talked to the sales clerk and her shiny dark hair bounced at her shoulders.
He scanned the spines of the hardbacks in the sandal wood shelving next to his chair. A cookbook with dense narration and lists of ingredients didn’t interest him. A boy’s adventure novel with big type and pen-and-ink illustrations looked juvenile. The third book Frank picked up bore the title, “A Life.” No frontispiece, no copyright notice, no author’s name. Just Page One, Chapter One.
Frank skimmed the opening line. “I was born into a happy family that saddened as I grew older.” That’s how he felt about his own family. Skipping ahead a few pages, he read about the narrator’s college days. Like Frank, the author had attended a school noted for its business curriculum and small campus.
Frank read on. Cynthia was the narrator’s wife. Tall and thin and beautiful. The author had a good job as an account manager at an advertising agency, wasn’t very creative, but adept at getting clients to like him. The narrator’s wife had decadent spending habits. Frank read the page about her twice, then went to the sales desk, took a pencil and made a notation in the margin.
“That’ll fix her,” he whispered.
Cynthia stood over him and said, “Fix what?”
Frank glanced up.
“I’m tired of shopping,” Cynthia squeaked. When the sales manager approached, she held up one hand and said, “Not today. You’ve nothing I want today.”
Frank looked at what he’d written in the book: She can’t shop forever!
He shoved the book under one arm as he followed Cynthia out of the store.
Alone that night, Frank continued to read the book. The author rose from intern with a small magazine to mailroom manager at an ad agency, and from there, by befriending one of the agency’s account executives, he learned the advertising business and reached age 30 with a six-figure income and a beautiful wife whom his friends and co-workers adored.
He and his wife did everything together. Dinner and office parties, shopping and vacations, theatre and museums, and lectures at the library. The wife devoured culture, while the narrator choked on everything.
Me, too, Frank said to himself, amazed by the book’s parallels. Amazed, too, that his notation early in the story had been followed by Cynthia’s surprise announcement: tired for the day. That had never happened before.
But, it didn’t last. The next day they visited another mall and another furniture store. Cynthia wanted a new sofa. Bringing along his book so he could read, Frank noticed that his notation about her shopping had smeared. The weight of the pages had obliterated his penciled note.
He borrowed a pen from the girl at the register and wrote in ink. Cynthia never wanted to shop again. A few minutes later, Cynthia marched up to him and said, “I’m done for the day!”
They left the store, with Cynthia muttering, “I don’t think I ever want to shop again.”
A few days later, Frank amended his notation with an addendum concerning food shopping and making meals at home. Soon, he had Cynthia spending frugally and frequenting the large grocery chains instead of the expensive specialty shops. She even became a good cook.
Frank wrote of how she liked the things he liked: adventure movies, watching television, and going out for pizza. A few adjustments to the author’s description of his job gave Frank a corner office and windows that looked out on the city. He gained a compliant secretary who laughed at his jokes.
Soon, the book’s notations and crossed-out words overwhelmed the print and, as the days went by and weeks became months, Frank watched the book grow in size, adding a page or two every day.
Frank didn’t want to read the later pages that the book added to itself. He preferred living them. But he re-read the early chapters of his life with an eye towards making changes. He’d hated his parents, his brothers and sisters. Feared his father, who berated him for every misstep. It was clear, if he’d had a better childhood, he’d be more successful as an adult.
He’d have a better house. Cynthia might be beautiful, but he could do better. His job gave him only a modicum of power and prestige. If he changed the book in just the right places, he’d own the agency.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Frank sipped his morning orange juice and stared at the opening line on the very first page.
“I was born into a happy family that saddened as I grew older.”
He crossed out a few words. He wondered what he’d find when he went to work. Would he be president of the firm? Would a driver come to pick him up?
“Frank?” Cynthia stumbled out of the bedroom, her tattered robe falling open, her frizzy brown hair brushing rough shoulders. Blue veins marred her thick legs. She took a sip from Frank’s glass. “God, but a little drink in the morning does feel good.”
Frank tasted his orange juice. Spiked! A bottle of vodka glared at him from the counter next to the sink. He looked at his clothes. A polyester suit?
“Don’t you have to open the store?” Cynthia asked. “You said Mr. Walsh wanted you in early to open the store.”
Frank stared at his book. It was thinner than before. He flipped through its pages: college years at a party school, no direction and no drive, and marriage to a co-worker, followed by his present job as a sales clerk.
He turned to the first page. “I was born into a happy family,” read the first line. The book generated the next sentence: “I never wanted anything more.”
Now a retired programmer, David Castlewitz spends days and nights writing and dreaming. With so much time, he can now put a lot of it into writing really short stories. But he’s also at work on all those book ideas that floated around his life when most of his time went into writing the backend guts of web apps.
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