Editor’s note: this is one of the first short stories I wrote after more than a decade away from writing fiction and was originally carried on my blog sportsballchic.com in the summer of 2015. My intention, was to portray a man struggling to overcome his own depression and anxiety problems after a long period of disconnection/isolation in the most humane, realistic way possible. All too often, stories about mental health begin and end with tired, melodramatic tropes that fail to recognize that an alienating sense of “otherness” may in fact be a completely rational response to an unfeeling, unloving and at times completely absurd world around us. But for time and pressure, we are all Walter Emanuel and it is my sincerest hope that I’ve told his story with the dignity, compassion and hopefulness it deserves. – NI
In the dim, amber light of a downtown basement bar; Walter Emanuel came to find salvation. Of course, a near-empty dive like this seemed an unlikely place to do so, but a series of seemingly random occurrences all conspired to bring Walter to just such a location. Now he found himself perched uncomfortably on top of a polished wooden barstool, staring at the vacant expression of the world’s least interesting bartender through a half-full pint glass. Perhaps he’d been mistaken; maybe a shitty little bar with a forty year old jukebox was no place to find out if you still had a soul? Walter took another drink from his glass in complete silence, and tried to figure out what exactly he was doing in a place like the Rexington Tavern.
His morning had begun like any other in his adult life and frankly, that was part of the problem. Walter lived alone in a modest apartment chosen primarily for its proximity to his workplace and certainly not its comfort or charm. Every morning he was awakened at the crack of dawn by the gleaming rays of a spiteful, belligerent sun, beaming brightly through his uncovered window. Every night he struggled to sleep as the paper-thin walls around him echoed with the noises of neighboring tenants, living far more interesting lives than his. He hadn’t always lived alone, until a year ago he’d shared the apartment with a shorthaired albino cat named Slick. There had also been a girl once, long ago, but Walter’s anxiety issues, lack of ambition and inability to trust other people drove her away eventually. She took the furniture and found a new lover; Walter kept the apartment and the stone-deaf cat. Sadly, age and kidney failure had taken Slick from him the spring before. Afterwards, he simply didn’t have the heart to bring another pet into such a sad little home.
On this particular morning however, Walter’s mind wasn’t on his ex-girlfriend or his beloved cat, but rather his landlady. She was an aging widow named Doris and had inherited the entire building from her late husband Harold; to whom her first floor apartment stood as a lasting shrine. At first, Walter found her constant prying into his affairs distasteful and unnerving. After Melissa had left him however, he grew to appreciate having someone besides Slick to chat with from time to time. The night before, Doris had cornered him in his own apartment for one of these impromptu talks under the guise of bringing Walter a home-cooked meal. In all honesty, he’d been happy for the company and even happier to sample Doris’s cabbage rolls yet again. Alas, every pleasure has its price and no sooner had Walter begun to clear the table, than his landlady began to badger him about his spartan living quarters and lack of a social life. Naturally, he’d heard all of this before, but something Doris had said right before departing, incessantly haunted him throughout the night and into the morning.
“A life can only have meaning if you share it with other people Walter. You and I are both clinging onto ghosts, but at least my ghost is actually dead! Don’t let me die knowing that your only friend was a sad old lady marking time in a mausoleum.”
The words had careened off Walter’s mind like the flat end of a shovel and before he could confirm precisely what she’d meant, Doris quickly departed with tears welling in her eyes. He knew from experience that she didn’t like to cry in front of other people, which only leant more gravity to her prior entreaty. Faced with the prospect that his only real friend in the world might be dying, Walter sobbed like a baby until deep into the night.
As dawn rose, an exhausted Walter had found himself suddenly possessed of the peculiar confidence that can only be bestowed by emotional turmoil and a lack of sleep. In the early morning haze, he vowed that today was not going to be like all of the other days. Today, would be the day that Walter Emanuel started living a life, instead of merely watching his own existence pass by from the shadows. Of course, he’d made such promises before, only to curse his own awkward cowardice when he’d trembled with fear at the thought of initiating social interaction. This time however, things would be different he swore, because he carried with him the hopes and dreams of a dying friend. Lying in bed, Walter had plotted out a daring plan to finally re-emerge into a world he’d left behind nearly a decade before.
Unfortunately, the day got off on the wrong foot almost immediately when he accidentally dozed off and slept through his alarm. Rushing to work, Walter was forced to delay his adventure for the time being; in particular his plan to visit the local poster store and purchase something interesting to hang on his bare, shabby-looking walls. Things didn’t improve with his late arrival at the office and subsequent, extremely public dressing-down at the hands of a manager twenty years his junior. Walter simply stood silently and nodded while the little prick tore into him in front of his tittering co-workers. On many days in the past, this sort of humiliation would have been enough to send Walter home in a silent fit of despair. Today however, he had not run home. Today, wearing Doris’s admonition like a suit of armor, he beat back his shame and fear; he would complete his mission at all costs. Sweating and hyperventilating slightly, Walter returned to his desk quietly, his face a stone mask designed to hide an almost desperate panic. If anyone had walked by his desk at that point, his plan would likely have come undone before it really even started.
No one had come by the desk however and for once, Walter had found himself momentarily thanking the heavens for his lack of genuine friends at work. As the world around him began to relinquish its grasp on his muscles, he focused on restoring a natural rhythm to his breathing. Even in the throes of panic however, Walter’s mind was moving far too quickly for him to keep up with it. Doubt and recrimination swept over him like a tropical storm hits a cheap houseboat, as his own subconscious found its voice and drove in to attack.
Of course he didn’t have any friends at work; he was after all decades older than his co-workers and supervisors. Everyone he’d started working with had abandoned this shitty little ad company years ago, only to be replaced by smarter, younger people who worked for half as much money. The only reason Walter had survived was his interest in computers and his willingness to take less pay just to keep his miserable job. He reeked of loser and everyone in this damn office knew it.
Grinding his teeth until his gums hurt, Walter had finally silenced the negative voice inside his skull; his own voice. As the doubt and shame passed, his breathing began to return to normal and the sharp chest pain he felt during each inhalation faded. Only once the walls of his cubicle were no longer closing in on him and he could breath naturally, did he turn his mind towards the second part of his plan: the dreaded water cooler conversation.