Three jobs, a bad relationship done three times over, along with the ever-continuing drama of his sister’s drug problem might have been the catalyst Fabian needed to strip his life of everything excess and become simpler. More likely though it was the realization that in contrast to the fast and uncertain circumstances of his best friend’s death his was to be a slow, lumbering affair.
His first hard evidence came when his knees began to hurt at work one day. At the grocery store where he worked, Fabian was unloading a keg of beer from a dolly when a co-worker saw him wince ever so slightly. The pain was sharp at first, and then ever so dull.
“You know, they’re only going to get worse,” his coworker said, knowingly, pointing to his own two knee braces.
His second piece of evidence was when he realized that it was four years to the day when his friend had been gunned down in a convenience store robbery in his old neighborhood. That day he had been working with his brother-in-law on a construction site for extra money to go to college. When he returned home there had been all kinds of excitement. Friends saying they were going to seek vengeance, his mother crying endlessly saying she was going to move to a safer neighborhood. And then time passed. Not only had he never had to face a gun, but much to his surprise, ever since high school, he had not been in a fight, had stayed clean of hard drugs, and had never been to jail. He had even been to college for a while.
The pain in his knees suggested that his death might not be an occurrence, quick, random and unforeseeable, but instead a process, punctuated by failing body parts, stunted libido, senility, all ending predictably on a hospital bed, or, God-willing, in a house long occupied.
Watching the old men and women come in at midday, taking their time looking over the labels, a lag in their step, he suddenly realized that there was an alternative to the surprise ending.
This wasn’t such a bad thing, Fabian decided.
Joline calls relentlessly. After several years of breaking up and then making up with her, Fabian finally decides that this would be it. After one particularly bad fight, he stops returning her phone calls. Between her letters, her messages, and her occasional package of make-up gifts, he does the courtesy of writing her a note to remind her that it’s over. A life without Joline is his first big change.
The second, though subtle, is no less important. He changes his reading patterns. Sitting alone in his kitchen, the coffee pot gets less use. He doesn’t drink or smoke weed when he reads. No more stoned reading adventures or sleep-deprived reading binges. Whereas once he used to skip the prefaces and appendixes, he now reads these too. And he always reads the beginnings and endings twice.
Since his three years of college, he had done a great deal of reading. Fast, in a haphazard way, to meet the pace of everything else: the hectic fights with his girlfriend, the phone calls and family drama, dealing with his sister, his arguments with his boss, the change of jobs. He read furiously.
Not too long after his last breakup with Joline, sitting in his kitchen reading the latest Stephen King at a rapid pace, he posed himself a simple question: Had he ever really read anything at all? Sure he could pile the books he had read into his living room and make a sofa, but for the life of him, he couldn’t say what those books had done to change him as a person.
Not too long after he stops returning Joline’s calls, he donates all but three of the books he has collected over the years to the Salvation Army. Of the three he keeps, the copies of the Old Testament and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men were the two books least read. With the mass of book collected over the years, both not read and not worth rereading, out of sight, he felt like he could finally concentrate on the three worth reading. The rest he would pick up from the library.
When the phone calls have stopped, when he no longer reads by the coffee pot, alone in his room he falls in love with Thoreau’s Walden once again. Why he, of all people, would like a book about nature—that was a question even he couldn’t answer.
Slowly, he lets his contacts with family and acquaintances slip away. Not in any mean or bitter way. He just stops returning most of his calls. They, his not-so-close friends and family, go away by themselves. In his quest to make his life more manageable, he throws away his old T.V. and stops driving his beat-up truck. He walks everywhere that’s feasible and takes the public transport everywhere else. On the bus, with his new iPod, he listens to the radio and especially National Public Radio.
In the park, not too far away from his apartment, on a brilliantly sunny day, he writes down the things he wants to do the most in a notebook and crosses out half of them without remorse. In this notebook he sees the word gardening, memories of Thoreau’s bean garden fresh in his mind.
That day at the store where he works he buys some seeds, a pot, and some soil. On the patio of his small apartment he sets the pot, and under the pot he puts Thoreau’s Walden. The book and the pot sit together on the patio. The soil and the seeds are in his bedroom. It’s a long-term project, he tells himself.
He’s doing push-ups when the phone rings.
“This is mom. Hey, I’ve noticed you’ve made yourself scarce recently. Must be busy with your girlfriend. I’ll call back later.”
He leaves the phone unanswered.
That day his knees start to hurt. The pain comes in numb, unsettling waves. Later that night he writes in his notebook two things: finish college, change jobs. He thinks he should cross something out. But he leaves both of them on the paper, both being equally important. It’s not until next morning, after breakfast, that he realizes that there are many messages on his machine.
Trouble, he thinks. Something at home, or his girlfriend wants to get back together, or both. He thinks briefly about his sister and a numb pain runs through his body and ends in his stomach. He feels sick for a moment. He lies down and sleeps it off. He doesn’t answer the phone.
The last month had been quiet, simpler. The changes had been profound. Today, he thinks about reaching for Thoreau’s Walden instead of the answering machine. Instead, he goes to the library and returns some books and checks out a new one: The Life of Pi. Something about a guy and a tiger on a boat. It sounds simple. He’ll read it slow, he tells himself. Still the numbness in his stomach remains.
At work he has the unsettling feeling that things cannot go on as they have. He’ll need to quit his job soon or watch his knees slowly begin to crumble. The longer he stays at this job, the more likely Joline will find him, breakdown in the parking lot, and cause a scene. All these things, including the messages on the answering machine he has left unattended make his workday painfully slow.
His boss tells him midway through his shift that he has a call from his girlfriend. He apologizes to his boss and insists that she is not his girlfriend. He asks his boss to ignore the phone call. Then there is another one from his mom. He tells his boss that he would rather just leave it. His boss says that his mom said it was important. Now he realizes that he has to answer it.
He starts with an apology. He starts off by saying he’s sorry that he’s been so busy lately. His mother says it’s alright and she understands, and he believes him. She starts with small talk: How are you? We’ve missed you? What have you been up to? When he replies that he’s been spending a lot of time at the library, that he’s started to work out more, and that he’s finally broken it off with Joline. She says, “Great!” and her voice cracks and he knows something is seriously wrong.
She hasn’t heard anything he’s said, she’s off on her own planet because something terrible has happened. His mother starts crying, moaning his name repeatedly, “Oh Fabian, Oh Fabian.” When he asks her what’s wrong, his voice is drowned out by the sound of his own name, and who else but Joline comes on the line. “Listen, Fabe. You better come home. I don’t know how to put this all to you but your sister…well…”
His sister is dead. She overdosed, she crashed her car, she was killed by another junkie. It doesn’t really matter, she’s dead. When he goes home later that day, he replays it on his answering machine. His mother cries in fits and then calls back to do it again. She killed herself with the needle, Joline says. And it all comes back to him.
At first things remain as slow as before. He still feels the dull pain in his knees, he still has the realization that he will die slowly, the copy of Walden sits underneath the pot on the small balcony. But without any effort on his part, his thoughts speed up. He remembers what it was like when his friend was shot. The calls from his friends for payback, he remembers how he thought that not only would he not live forever but he might not live till tomorrow. He remembers the funeral, the tears. He remembers Joline, sex, fighting, tears, more sex, and her sharp swears in the middle of the night. All these thoughts send his mind into a different gear.
He thinks about just ripping open the bag of dirt and pouring it into the pot. Then putting the seed into the pot. He’d water the thing until it grew into something beastly, wilted away, and died all in the course of a day. And even after death it would grow all by itself until he could get back to the apartment. He would get to the funeral and figure out if anyone was responsible. He would see how mad he really was. He’d see if he was man enough to kill someone. And for a moment he forgot all about his knees, Walden, quiet walks in the park, or his modest list of goals to accomplish.
He thought he was a sucker for ever believing.
When he leaves his room, he starts to walk to his truck. He doesn’t know whether it will start or how far it will take him. He doesn’t know what he’ll do or whether he’ll ever be back to look after his damn plant. But he wants to. He doesn’t want to just leave it.
In the lightening days of not so long ago, he would have started and been finished with his hobby. The fact that he’s waited means something. When it’s all over he’d be back. To his notebook, his no T.V., no Joline, his damn plant, and Thoreau. But first, someone would have to die.