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Fiction Contest Runner Up - & amp;quot;At the Gates of Happy & amp;quot; 

by Robert Salsbury & r & Roper ran the comb through his thinning, well it was pretty much gone on top, blonde hair and slapped a little cologne on and straightened up his 45 year old reflection in the bathroom mirror and declared himself ready for his date. He was excited and more nervous than usual about the woman he was meeting for dinner at Applebee's on Pines in the Spokane Valley. This would be the first date but he'd had great emails and phone conversations with Janet and wondered if maybe this one was the one, maybe this one would understand him and they'd have more dates and one magic day they'd have their own romantic singularity and it would become a relationship.





Needless to say,





Roper: Why do people say "needless to say?" if it was needless to say they shouldn't say it. Isn't needless to say somewhat axiomatic or in this usage possibly oxymoronic? I'm guessing an adept narrator wouldn't bother with such fat.





Narrator: Roper, lighten up. I know you were anxious about this woman but let's see how it played out. Anyway it's idiomatic, or one might say, an elliptical adverbial clause.





Needless to say, Roper didn't want to be late for his first date with Janet so he hurried out the door and into his car and down the road to Applebee's. Once there, he spotted her in the lounge, she looked just like the picture she'd emailed him (many of his dates had not so closely resembled their photos) and joined her at her table. After the introductions and awkward small talk that gradually improved following drinks - two gin and tonics by Janet and two bahama mamas by Roper, they ordered dinner. Roper was about halfway through his riblets when he decided to spring one of his pop quizzes on Janet.





"Can I ask you something?" Roper said.





"Sure" Janet said while forking a piece of salmon.





"Let's say you're seated on an airplane, could be first class or exit row or whatever, and there's this guy next to you and let's say he's wearing light khaki pants or very faded levis. They're pretty tight too, they have to be tight for this to make sense."





Janet set her fork down and stared at Roper.





"Ok, so you're sitting by this guy and you glance over and notice he's peeing his pants. He's not an old guy either, let's say he's 30. But you see this dark wet stain spreading on his pants and you can tell he's really urinating hard. What do you do?"





"Are you serious?"





"Well, yes, I mean there are only two answers to this. You either ignore the guy and pretend nothing out of the ordinary is going on or you call a flight attendant over and raise your objections, so which one would you do?"





"Why are you asking me this? Is this a joke?"





"No, it's serious. I'm convinced all people can be disaggregated by these two variables. You're either an ignorer or a flight attendant caller, it's that simple."





"Well you're wrong, in a lot of ways. First of all, it's one thing - a guy pissing himself. Second of all, you could scream or you could tell the guy he's pissing himself if you could even stand talking to him or you could smack him. You could do that. Plus, you're really wrong to even ask me such a weird question."





"Technically, if the variables were dependent variables then I'm correct. There are two in my original choice, but maybe the additional ones you propose could be subsumed under my original choices, although none of them really fit the key condition of ignorance."


Janet waved the waitress over to order another gin and tonic. Roper went back to his riblets.





They finished their dinner quietly. Forks scraping and knives cutting and furtive glances by Roper. Janet kept to herself. Roper never did get Janet's answer to the question and knew he'd just have to live with that.





He called her the next day and left a message telling her he'd had a nice time and hoped they could do it again sometime. The following day he sent two emails. The third day he left another message. The fourth day he gave up on Janet. The singularity would have to wait.





Roper: How many of your readers will actually know what the singularity is? I mean, sometimes I think your literary license should be revoked. The singularity is about machine intelligence one day surpassing human intelligence and ending the human era. It's not about dating.





Narrator: I know you're hurting over the Janet thing. You had some high hopes for her. Hang in there Roper. More to come.





When Roper was eight years old, he went ten months without speaking a word. Not one. His parents, both very verbal college professors, were dreadfully concerned and shopped Roper to a variety of specialists - neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, speech pathologists. Except for one psychiatrist with a unique theory of excessive magnesium levels, all of them agreed he had elective mutism - a behavioral disorder of voluntary, completely self controlled shutting up.





Roper: Please don't. Please.





Narrator: It's important. It's background, it's your life, buddy.





A host of treatments for his elective mutism were attempted, ranging from behavioral incentive programs to prescription stimulants to perhaps, the oddest one, a suggestion by a family therapist that Roper's parents dress like circus clowns for an entire weekend and only communicate by honking horns. All failed. Roper's school teacher was beside herself trying to teach this very bright boy who refused to utter a word. Adjustments were made and Roper's grades were actually pretty amazing. Straight A's despite his complete silence.





Then one bitter February day, Roper's mother told him that she and his father were going to Sun Valley for a three day skiing weekend.





"We just need a little getaway and your dad has been wanting to go skiing all winter. We'll have you stay with Uncle Joe and Aunt Karen and you can have fun with your cousins, it'll be good for you."





"No. No. No." Roper blurted.





"Oh Roper! What? Why?"





"It hurts there."





That was the end of Roper's elective mutism. His parents skipped the Sun Valley trip and had more than a few angry phone calls with Uncle Joe and Aunt Karen trying to get to the bottom of why the very suggestion to Roper of spending a long weekend with them would suddenly start him talking again. They never found out the truth about what hurt at Joe and Karen's house.





Roper had just walked in his apartment after a quick run to the store for his favorite rocky road ice cream when the phone rang. "Hello?, yes this is Roper. Oh hello Kristin, how are you? Great, are we still on this Friday for a movie? Great. Really great"





This would be Roper's second date with Kristin. The first was over mochas and lattes at the Starbucks on Sullivan road. As Starbucks go, it was like all the rest. But the date was much less awkward than what Roper usually experienced. He and Kristin hit it off almost from the word "hi". She was a newly divorced mother of two grown children, worked as an assistant bank manager and was more than a little intrigued with this middle aged guy who had never been married. Even though her coworkers had warned her of single guys over the age of 40. "There are reasons they are single, you know Kristin." But she found him sweetly eccentric, very intelligent and baggage free.





He met her at the Spokane Valley Mall cinemas, a sprawling mall that while not very old showed the rapid half life of malls, already displaying the look of a place soon to be inhabited by fly by night retailers and social service agencies. She looked great in tight levis, a brown jean jacket, yellow top and a big smile. Roper hoped the movie would keep his attention but even if it didn't, Kristin probably would.





"Did you like the movie, Roper?" Kristin asked as they walked out of the theater.





Roper considered the question. The date had been perfect so far. They held hands during the movie and she even put her head on his shoulder. She didn't crunch the popcorn too loudly and those teenagers down a row actually kept quiet. But the movie was inadequate, it failed to live up to its trailer promise. The plot was so meandering and the denouement was predictable and a let down.





"Yes, I liked it. I really did. How about you?"





"It was wonderful, I wasn't sure if you were into it but I'm glad you liked it too."





"Kristin, are you interested in going for a walk? We're very close to the Centennial trail and I always find the river to be kind of calmative." Roper asked as they walked out to the parking lot.





Roper: What is this? Why pick this one thing? So the reader wonders if I'm a second date homicidal maniac, just itching to brain her with a big chunk of fractured granite and roll her body into the Spokane river?





Narrator: Yes. Of course that is it. It would have nothing to do with an opportunity for the reader to learn a little more about you, let alone to maintain a modicum of plot and theme consistency. You so got me Roper.





"I'd love to go for a walk." Kristin said.





They strolled along the asphalt ribboned Centennial trail, among the ponderosa pines and serviceberry shrubs. The river below looked deceptively calm but claimed a swimmer or two each summer with its undertow. Kristin maintained Roper's long fast stride. After awhile they came to a bench overlooking the river and sat down. A couple of young rollerbladers shot by and Roper found himself transfixed by their gliding pace.





"Can I ask you something?" Kristin said.





"Sure"





"You know when we first started emailing, I told you I thought Roper was an interesting name and asked you how you got it. But you never told me."





"So, you still want to know?"





"I do."





"I've never liked the name, you know. It makes me sound like some cowboy."





"It does kind of sound like a cowboy's name or maybe a sailor"





"A sailor?" Roper asked.





"Sure, they probably use ropes more than anyone else."





"I never thought of it that way. A sailor. See, that's not so difficult to bear."





"You really don't like the name" Kristin said.





"Not really. Anyway, my parents are both college professors. Very elite, very intelligent, very mischievous I guess. Everyone expected them to name me Archibald or Malcolm or something like that, but they picked Roper."





"Why? Just to fool people, surprise them?" Kristin asked.





"Probably. It would be like them to do that. I've never lassoed a thing. Not even when I was a kid. In fact, when other kids would play cowboys and Indians, I always insisted on being an Indian. Even though my name was Roper. Or because, I guess."





Roper: Don't. Just skip ahead please. Tell them about the promotion I received when I developed that new algorithm for survival tables . Tell them about that.





Narrator: You're an ironic bastard, Roper. You know that?





"Well this sounds so dorky Roper, but you've kind of lassoed me" Kristin said and looked up smiling at Roper.





Roper just stared at Kristin. He knew his next move, like an algorithm of love - he needed to slide his hand over, not too quickly, hold hers, then confidently but at an even pace move his face to hers and kiss her. On the lips. Linger just a bit to see how she returns the kiss. Where her hands go. Where his go. Addition to infinity. The sets intersect.





"I once considered legally changing my name. I thought of Robert because it's kind of close. I didn't like Roland at all. Then I thought I've been Roper this long and maybe I just have to be Roper."





Kristin still smiled but faintly now. Roper started wringing his hands. They soon walked back to their cars and said goodbye. Roper gave her a light kiss on her cheek. She kind of patted his back.





After Kristin, Roper decided to stop worrying so much about dating. He never believed the it will happen when you least expect it adage about relationships and love. He was 45 and hadn't really expected it for years. So he took a six month moratorium from dating, ending his subscription to three internet dating services, stopped hanging around Barnes and Noble hoping to meet a lonely but well-read woman, and gave up trying to make eye contact with attractive women in checkout lines at Safeway. His only relapses were reading the "I Saw You" ads in the free Inlander newspaper, ads he once dismissively referred to as stalker ads but now seemed to be some sort of win the lotto, find a needle in a haystack hopeful validations of smiling at a stop light or winking at an espresso stand.





As a result of stepping off the dating escalator, he felt a strange sense of liberation mixed with loneliness. He was free to be lonely. Well he always had been but this was different. He let his hair grow quite long, only shaved intermittently and since he worked primarily from home, he would often stay in pajamas or a bathrobe all day while clocking work hours on the computer and telephone. He even let his apartment grow a bit messy, sometimes letting the hampers overflow with laundry, dishes pile up on the kitchen counter, and he even quit putting his books back on the shelves in alphabetical order.





Roper: I never stopped doing that with my books and you know it. This sounds like I'm clinically depressed by the way. Was I?





Narrator: Sometimes depression brings a sort of freedom with it. A liberation from engagement, especially when engagement is, on a good day, a struggle. And yes, I cheated on the books thing but I thought it was the exclamation point on the sentence.





Roper ended his exile from the lands of love one day while shopping for a new hamper at Wal-Mart and noticing the Christmas decorations. He let out a big sigh to a plastic happy Santa and decided to hang his dating profile back up on the internet like a dusty but favorite Christmas ornament on a brightly lit Douglas Fir.





FROM: [email protected]


SENT: Thursday, November 17, 2004


TO: [email protected]


SUBJECT: Like your name!





Hi Roper! I love your name. You have a great profile 2. I always like to get to know somebdy before I date them. Like emails and phones. Do u like to line dance? Me and my sis started lessens at Kelly's at the statline. Ever been?





Hope you write back,





Mandy.


509 972-4783 (cell)





Roper took a pass on MandyCandy. He also ignored contacts from KittnVixn11 and CherokeeMama42 and dozens more. It wasn't until he received a reply from FlanOConr that he became interested again. She lived in a restored farmhouse near Rose Lake, Idaho, no children, and worked as a schoolteacher. English, of course. She had also never been married according to her ad, denying both of them the predictable first date conversational martyrdom on the burning stake of ex spouses.





They met for lunch at Denny's. It was their first date. It would be their only date.





"So, can I ask you a question?" Roper asked.





"Sure, Roper, ask away." FlanOConr replied.





Roper: Oh stop. You're always with these questions and answers. How about if you use some imagery, you know describe the settings, the bare white birch trees naked in the November cold, that sort of thing. You could use her actual name too.





Narrator: I'd probably not use bare and naked to modify the same word unless it was to describe what you looked like that one time when - oh never mind. We're not going there. I'd rather not use her real name.





"You're like me in that you've never been married. Sometimes dates ask me why. I'm not sure I ever have a very good reason. But, you're the first person I've dated that's always been single too. Can I ask you why you've never married?" Roper asked.





"Do you want the true answer or the acceptable kind of ok that makes sense answer?" FlanOConr answered while picking at her grilled cheese sandwich.





"Well, the true answer I suppose" Roper said.





She unfolded her napkin and refolded it, she gestured for the waitress at Denny's to bring her some more coffee. Then she spoke.





"Roper, I've never been legally married. That part is true. I did live with a man for 14 years. It wasn't even a common law marriage because we lived in Washington state. Roper, this man beat me at least weekly those entire 14 years. I had a child with him, my son. When I finally left him, knowing if I didn't I'd die, I had to run by myself. He took my son. I don't know where either of them are. I haven't seen my son in over 7 years."





She began to cry from red rimmed eyes. She softly dabbed at the tears with her napkin. Roper didn't know what to say. Well, he had another algorithm for consolation and empathy. But he couldn't deploy it. He never could.





She called him the next day and the day after and for a week she'd leave daily messages. Sometimes tearful ones, sometimes jocular ones, always desperate ones. He began deleting her emails as soon as he saw them, and he saw them quite a bit for a couple of weeks, then monthly, and he even received one an exact year after their first and only date. An anniversary of pain.





After FlanOConr, Roper again cancelled his dating service account and engaged a solitary holiday season the best he could, the best he always did. He had long been a holiday minimalist -only buying gifts for his parents or for gift exchanges at work.





He was a little disappointed when he transferred to a department that didn't do any of the typical gift exchanges. Roper had preferred the ones where you drew a name and bought the person a gift, as opposed to the white elephant group gift exchanges, which he found distasteful and too competitive. But the white elephant ones were still better than none.





On Christmas Eve, Roper showed up at his parents brick home in their upper South Hill neighborhood of Spokane and spent the night sleeping in his old room. As he lay in his old bed, still his favorite place to sleep, he stared at the bookshelf with all of his fantasy novels and mythology books and remembered the one time a kid from grade school spent the night, it was Tim O'Connell, and Tim told him the only reason he was spending the night was because he was new to the school and didn't know anybody yet. Fifth grade. Roper sensed his algorithm for tears was about to begin so he pushed down a little harder onto his pillow and felt the old comfort of numbness return.





Roper: Tim wasn't the only kid to spend the night here. There were other kids too.





Narrator: Sorry if I got that one wrong. Truly.





Roper gave his folks their presents on Christmas morning, they always liked the books he picked out. He also gave them a big Hickory Farms basket of summer sausages and cheddar cheeses. Same gifts he gave them every year since college. He received sweaters and a book and some movie DVDs. It was the usual fine Christmas with his parents still in good health and there was not one thing to complain about.





He complimented his mother for the wonderful Christmas dinner with ham and all his favorite side dishes. After dinner, they had coffee and played gin rummy and talked just a little about politics and other current events.





Roper left around 10 and drove home. The roads were lightly dusted with snow and he made sure to take it a little slow going down the South Hill.





. After parking his car under the carport, he unlocked his apartment and carried his armload of presents in. Sometimes he wished he had a cat to greet him. To meow with that insistent somewhat annoyed feline attitude. But he always rented apartments in complexes without cats, or even kids, for that matter.





As he walked in, he instantly noticed, as we often do when something in our surroundings is out of the ordinary, the blinking message light on his answering machine. Roper had a message. He quickly and unceremoniously tossed his gifts onto his brown suede sofa and hit the play button.





"Hi Roper, this is, this is Kristin. I don't know if you remember me, but we went out a couple of times last fall and anyway, heck it's Christmas and I wanted to say Hi, and Merry Christmas, Roper. I hope you had a nice one. Mine was ok, just stayed home, talked to the kids on the phone. Anyway, Merry Christmas and if you ever want to call, please do. Bye."





Roper: Why?





Narrator: Why? Because I can, because I want to, because sometimes singularities are just too goddamn lonely.





Roper: Thank you. Thank you for doing that.





Narrator: You're welcome Roper. Of course you are. You're very welcome.

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