"The Task at Hand" by Timothy Reilly

Timothy Reilly

Timothy Reilly

Timothy Reilly was a professional tuba player in both the United States and Europe during the 1970s (in 1978, he was a member of the orchestra of the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy). He is currently a retired substitute teacher, living in Southern California with his wife, Jo-Anne Cappeluti: a published poet and scholar. He has published widely, most recently in Grey Sparrow, Florida English, and Relief. His stories have also appeared in Flash Fiction (UK), Slow Trains Literary JournalAmarillo Bay, and Seattle Review, as well as other print and online journals.

The Task at Hand

                             “Whom does the Grail serve?”

                         --Chrétien de Troyes        

for Jo-Anne

Morris was going to the mall to buy a shovel from a dying Sears. He could have gone to a Home Depot, but he felt a kind of loyalty to the disappearing stores of old. Montgomery Wards, TG&Y, and Woolworths had all vanished. Sears used to have a candy counter and popcorn machine. No more.  

He had broken his old shovel in combat with a cornered possum. He startled the animal while attempting to scoop a portion of compost from a bin. The possum hissed, reared, and opened its long, rat-like mouth: revealing rows of nightmare teeth. Morris—equally startled—thrust the shovel, like Saint George’s lance, into the midsection of the monster. He pushed as hard as he could, until the shovelhead snapped off. The un-killed dragon waddled to a thicket in a far corner of the yard. 

Morris entered the kitchen and sat down at the table where Gail, his wife, was reading a book. “Take a look at this,” he said, holding up the headless shaft.

“Are you alright?” asked Gail. 

“You should see the other guy.”

“My hero.”

“Where are my car keys?” 

“Right where you left them.” 

“Which is . . .”

“On top of the microwave.”

“I’ll be back soon.  I’m off to buy a new shovel.”

Morris sometimes forgot things. But he found that if he took his mind off trying to remember, he would eventually retrieve what he had forgotten. He wanted to consider his forgetfulness a part of the natural aging process. After all, not all memory lapses were harbingers of senility. So what if he sometimes forgot his wallet, the title of a great novel or movie, the order of planets, a person’s name, or where he had left his keys? He did such things when he was in his twenties and thirties. In fact, he had even been a little spacey when he was in elementary school.  

He never forgot his hat. Skin cancer was a great reminder.

Morris plopped on his wide-brimmed “geezer” hat and tapped his back pocket to check for his wallet. “Got it,” he said, walking out the door. 

The mall had changed radically in the last several years. There were no longer any bookstores.  It was now mostly clothes, food, and eyebrow threaders. A puppy-mill, crammed near the mall’s main entrance, sold sickly lapdogs and cutesy doggy accessories. Down the row from the puppy-mill was a spacious, well-lighted computer-gadget store that almost always had a long line of suckers, anxiously waiting to go deeper into debt for something they had been fooled into believing they could not live without.   

The Sears store occupied two floors at the west end of the mall. The top floor was clothing. Morris rode the escalator down to appliances, furniture, and tools. He strolled down the center aisle and paused at a tool display. Craftsman. The tools his father had praised. “If you break one of their hand tools,” he’d intone, “you simply bring it back and they’ll replace it—free-of-charge—no questions asked.” 

Morris’s father never broke a tool in his life. Morris had broken, borrowed and lost many of his father’s tools, but he still owned the small crescent wrench his father had loaned him to tighten bolts on his Stingray bike. 

“Shovel,” Morris said aloud, bringing himself back to the task at hand. He looked up from the altar of crescent wrenches then quickly moved aside, allowing an odd procession to pass: a mother pushing a bulky stroller, in which sat a post-toddler male—mesmerized by some kind of battle raging in his handheld computer game. The mother, fixating on a similar handheld gadget, seemed oblivious to both her child and her surroundings.  

Pod People, thought Morris. He walked on to the garden tool department.    

The lawnmowers were displayed according to price tag: beginning with the muscle-bound lawn tractor and ending with a wimpy unmotorized push mower. In the middle sat the gas-driven propeller variety—the kind Morris used, in 1962, when he was twelve. The memory of fresh cut grass and motor exhaust entered his mind’s nose, and his shins recalled the sharp pain of small rocks, from the times he mowed without using the grass-catcher. 

What was the name of the movie with the Pod People? he thought.

The shovels were flanked on the right by hoes and on the left by pickaxes. Morris didn’t need a hoe. But he could sure use a good pickaxe. This one actually had an axe head on its short end.  He lifted the pickaxe from the rack and tested its weight. “Wow,” he said aloud. I could make short work of that palm stump, he thought. Or a possum. He looked at the price tag. Thirty bucks. “Sold.” 

He spotted a checkout stand near the power tools and headed in that direction, carrying the pickaxe over his shoulder like a prospector. Once in line, however, he again remembered the purpose of his coming to this store. 

Shovel. Not pickaxe.  

He left the line and returned to garden tools and replaced the pickaxe. A young woman was now standing in front of the shovels, holding one up as if offering a toast.  

“This is too heavy for me,” she said. “You want this thing?”

“Thanks,” Morris said, accepting the shovel from the woman. She reminded him of his second grade teacher, Miss Woods. She had the same unblinking brown eyes—except her voice was different. Miss Woods didn’t have a squeaky voice; she had the voice of a mezzo soprano.    

Morris recalled a story Miss Woods had read to her class. In the story, an old woman’s living room had been designed to look as if the house was upside-down. The best detail was a ceiling-light-fixture: popping out the center of the floor like a campfire ring. Morris was intrigued by this dreamlike vertigo, and for the rest of the day, he could barely think of anything else. He stared out the classroom’s tall windows, picturing tetherball poles hanging from an asphalt ceiling, and birds flying upside-down. His mind was nowhere near arithmetic when Miss Woods asked him the sum of seven plus eight.  He looked up at her: stunned and lost.

“What ails you, Morris?” she asked. 

Last week, Morris stumbled with numbers when he was asked by a bank clerk to verify his birth date. He remembered the year but confused the month and day.  “It’s either 11-10-50 or 10-11-50,” he said. He took out his wallet to confirm the date.  He cringed when he saw his DMV photo. “Great Caesar’s ghost. I look just like my great grandfather.” 

Morris was only five when he saw his great grandfather for the first and last time.  The old man was kept in a room in a convalescent hospital: propped up in a wheelchair, staring out a window into a world no longer there. Even at age five, Morris could tell that his great grandfather was not responding to his visitors. His deep-set eyes expressed fear, anger, sadness, peace. For a while he spoke to the air in a language unknown to anyone else in the room. After a moment of silence, he looked up at his grandson (Morris’s father) and asked him who he was and what on Earth did he want.         

As Morris now wandered through the garden tool department, he suddenly found himself surrounded by giant flat-screen televisions: all of them showing The Wizard of Oz.  Dorothy had just met the Scarecrow, who had been nailed to a post for the longest time . . ..

“Can I help you, sir?” asked a salesman.  

“No, thank you,” said Morris. “I was just watching the movie.”

“You like the picture?”  

“Oh, sure. Who doesn’t? Dorothy Garland—Judy . . .”

“I mean the quality of the HD picture. Have you ever seen details and colors so awesome?”

“Good old Technicolor. But I was just watching the movie; I’m not interested in buying a new TV. I’m buying this shovel.” 

“What kind of set do you own now, sir?”  

Dorothy bent back a nail and the Scarecrow fell to the ground.  

Judy Garland, thought Morris. Bert Lahr, Jack Hailey, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan . . . 

“What kind of set do you own now, sir?” The salesman repeated.

“Do you remember who played the part of the Scarecrow?” 

“Um. No.”

“I know that Jack Haley played the Tin Man. Buddy Ebsen was originally hired for that role, but the makeup made him sick.”

“Let me know if you need any help, sir.”

 “Who played the Scarecrow?” Morris whispered. 

“What would you do with a brain if you had one?” Dorothy asked the Scarecrow.

Morris purchased the shovel then rode the escalator back up to the main floor. While walking through the mall, he recalled the title of the movie with the Pod People. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” he said. “That’s it.” He felt a little embarrassed having announced out loud, but then he noticed that no one seemed to be paying any attention to the “senior citizen” toting a shovel and talking to himself. Twenty or thirty years ago, he thought, someone might have called the cops. Now, they probably think that I’m one of their own kind: a Pod Person blabbing away on a cellphone. He enjoyed the absurdity of the situation and continued with an audible soliloquy of movie facts: “Invasion of the Body Snatchers. 1956. Directed by Don Siegel, staring Kevin McCarthy (writer Mary McCarthy’s younger brother). Music by Carmen Dragon—father of Daryl Dragon (the Captain in the Captain and Tennille). I believe Caroline Jones, aka Morticia Addams, had a small role as well.”     

He exited the mall and stood for moment looking out at the parking lot, trying to catch his bearings. The lot looked different from when he had first arrived—more cars, perhaps. He seemed to remember having parked in a row in line with the mall’s entrance.  He went down that row, but after traveling about a hundred yards, he decided he’d made the wrong choice, and began to weave up and down each row, with increasing urgency, until he became completely disoriented, and what had been a mere cinder of anxiety, now burned as a wild fire.

He returned to the mall’s entrance and stood at the curb, holding his shovel like a shepherd’s crook. He thought about his great grandfather, and feared he might be headed in the same direction. Some spring-loaded DNA may have already begun its assault on his very Soul: dooming him to a wasteland of brittle bones, sea-green linoleum and stinky disinfectant; stripped of all but a few disparate memories—an old song, a childhood pet, a favorite pair of shoes—unable to recognize his beloved wife, his children and grandchildren, his current surroundings, his own face in the mirror. He felt a terrifying sense of vertigo, as if he might fall off the face of the Earth.

“God help me,” he cried out. “Please help me.”  

At that moment, a carload of young men cruised by. “Old dude looks like Smokey the Bear,” the driver blurted out the window. His passengers laughed like demons. 

Morris had an impulse to flip them off, but he kept his hand on the shaft. The translation of the finger gesture sounded in his head, but he didn’t say it aloud. He boiled for a moment and then a mysterious calm took over, as his stifled indignation broke the panic that had clouded his reason. He suddenly remembered that there had been foothills visible from where he had parked the car. The foothills are in the north. There are no foothills here. He had lost neither his mind nor his car; he had simply exited from the southern entrance.  

 When he returned home, he left the new shovel outside the kitchen door. 

“What took you so long?” asked Gail. “I was beginning to worry.”

“Sorry I’m late. I’d forgotten where I’d parked the car.”

“Birds eat the breadcrumbs?”

“They’re entitled.”

“Well, I’m just glad you’re home and safe, my love. ‘Home is the sailor, home from sea, and the hunter home from the hill.’” 

 “Robert Louis Stevenson,” said Morris. “It’s written on his tombstone. Which reminds me: I have to mow the front lawn, tomorrow. Please don’t let me forget.” 

“You won’t forget.”  

Sometime around midnight, Morris woke from a strange dream. He rose carefully, so as not to wake Gail, and went to the kitchen to splash cool water on his face. A full moon shone through the window above the sink. Morris opened the kitchen door and stepped out onto the patio to get a better look at the heavens.    

Most of the stars were washed out by moonlight, but planet Mars was visible in the south-east and Jupiter in the west: three or four degrees above the moon. Morris surveyed the moon-glow dreamscape of his yard. A jagged stand of honeysuckle looked like the ruins of a castle. Garden stepping stones, repeating down a curved path, disappeared between Saint Francis and the roses, like casts of ancient footprints. The concrete birdbath became a giant chalice: suspended above a disk of crushed gravel.   

“Ray Bolger,” he said aloud. “Ray Bolger was the Scarecrow.”