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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer
#171

Tell Them



                 “So I go into the store to pick up a few things,” said Audrey. “Just a few things.”

                “What things?” asked Emilia.

                “It doesn’t matter what things. Just toothpaste and ibuprofen.”

                “Did you have a headache?”

                “No.”

                “Did you have bad breath?”

                “I wasn’t buying them to use them right away, I was just buying them because I was almost out of them here. But that’s not the point of what I’m telling you.”

                “OK, I’ll shut up.”

                “So I get the stuff I’m gonna buy and I go to the front of the store and I get in line. There are, like, two people in front of me in line. But they don’t have very much stuff, so I didn’t think it was going to take very long.”

                “What did they have?”

                “I don’t remember. I just remember it wasn’t very much, that’s why I didn’t think I’d have to wait very long.”

                “So probably just like some food, some medicine, some hygiene products?”

                “I mean, yeah, it’s a drug store, so…yeah.”

                “OK, go on.”

                “So the person who’s at the register finishes up real quick, so now there’s just one guy in front of me. So he puts his stuff up on the counter, the cashier rings it up, and she tells him how much it is. It’s like, eight dollars. So it’s not very much.”

                “That’s cheap!”

                “Well, you don’t know what he was buying. But yeah, it’s not a lot of money. So he reaches into his back pocket and realizes he doesn’t have his wallet.”

                “Oh no!”

                “So he tells the cashier that he doesn’t have his wallet. She asks him if maybe it’s in his car and he can run out and get it, but he says no, he probably left his wallet on his desk at home.”

                “That’s so awkward!”

                “Well, kind of, yeah.”

                “So what happened?”

                “He just had to leave without his stuff. The cashier wasn’t going to let him have it for free.”

                Emilia burst out laughing. She staggered against the wall, laughing and laughing.

                “Wow,” said Audrey, smiling at her new friend’s reaction. “I mean, I didn’t think it was that funny.”

                “It’s how you told it,” said Emilia, gasping for breath, clawing at the wall with her fingers. “Tell it to me again.”

                “Again? The same story?”

                “Yes,” said Emilia. “Hold on, let me sit down first.” She crossed the room and sat down on the couch. “OK, I’m ready.”

 

                It was just after 7 p.m. and the restaurant was almost empty. To Audrey, that seemed like a bad sign.

                “This restaurant is the only place my brother will agree to meet my friends,” said Emilia.

                “You promise you aren’t trying to set me up with him?” asked Audrey.

                “I promise,” said Emilia. She sat next to Audrey in the booth. There was no one sitting across from them. That was where Emilia’s brother was to sit, presumably.

                Audrey didn’t understand why Emilia was so intent on introducing her to her brother. Audrey had only met Emilia two days ago when she’d moved into the recently-vacated room in Emilia’s apartment. Before that, all of their contact had been through texting and email, and even that had only started three weeks ago. Over the last two days, Audrey had come to realize that those text and email exchanges had not presented an accurate image of Emilia’s personality. In person, she was less businesslike.

                The restaurant door opened and a teenage boy came in. He looked to be around 16, but he was very well dressed in a gray suit with a pink tie. His longish hair gave the impression of having been meticulously arranged in the recent past and of then having that meticulous arrangement undone by malicious winds. But it wasn’t a windy day. In fact, it was dead calm.

                The boy slid into the booth opposite Audrey and Emilia. “Sorry I’m late,” he said.

                “You’re not late,” said Emilia.

                “If you say so,” said the boy. He grimaced and drummed on the table with his hands. “Where are the menus?”

                “They haven’t brought them yet,” said Emilia.

                “Probably because they’re so busy,” said the boy.

Considering the empty restaurant, Audrey thought this had to be a joke, but the boy showed no sign of it being a joke and Emilia didn’t crack even the slightest of smiles. But it had to be a joke.

                “I’m Neal,” said the boy. “You must be Aubrey.”

                “Yes,” said Audrey. “Audrey, though. With a ‘D.’ As in-”

                “Please don’t finish that sentence,” said Neal. “I know which words begin with ‘D.’” He looked under the table and asked, “Where did you say the menus were?”

                “They haven’t brought them yet,” said Emilia.

                “Well, what’s taking so long?” asked Neal. “We’ve been here dozens of times and I’ve never had trouble finding the menus.”

                “Did you come here straight from work?” asked Audrey.

                “Are you asking because of the suit?” asked Neal.

                “Yeah, I guess so,” said Audrey.

                “Well, the suit came here straight from work,” said Neal. “But I did not.” Again, no laugh or smile from Neal or Emilia. No acknowledgment that a joke had, in all probability, just been made.

                “I know how we can pass the time until the menus get here,” said Emilia. “Audrey, tell Neal about what happened to you at the drug store. Tell him that story.”

                “Oh, that story? With the guy who-”

                “Don’t spoil it!” said Emilia. “Tell it to him exactly how you told it to me.” She turned to Neal. “This story is so funny. I had her tell it to me three times in a row. I laughed harder and harder every time. By the third time, I thought I was going to die from laughing. But I only blacked out.”

                “That was alarming,” said Audrey. “The story of you hearing my drug store story is probably a better story than my drug store story.”

                “No, it isn’t,” said Emilia. “Tell him.”

                “Well, you’ve built it up too much now,” said Audrey. “There’s no way it can be as good as he’s expecting.”

                “What?” asked Emilia. “Are you serious? It’s better than he’s imagining! There’s no way he could imagine a story as good as the one you’re about to tell him.”

                “I really think she’s overstating it,” Audrey said to Neal.

                “All right,” said Neal. “Well, I don’t care if you tell it to me or not then.”

                “No,” said Emilia. “No, no, no. Audrey, you have to tell him. You have to. You have to.” She clutched at Audrey’s arm and squeezed.

                “OK, OK, fine,” said Audrey. She told the story. When she concluded, no one laughed, not even Emilia. “See?” said Audrey. “Not that funny. You must have just been in the perfect mood for it earlier, Emilia.”

                “No,” said Emilia. “No, you told it differently earlier. Why didn’t you tell it like you told it earlier?”

                “I did,” said Audrey. “More or less. I told it to you three times earlier. I’m sure I told it a little differently every time. I’m sure I used slightly different words.”

                “I’m not talking about using different words!” said Emilia. “I’m talking about the way you told it.”

                “Well, I’m gonna leave,” said Neal.

                “What?” asked Emilia. “Why? We haven’t eaten yet. We haven’t even gotten the menus yet! She’ll tell the story again. She’ll tell it right this time!”

                Neal slid out of the booth and stood up. He reached behind himself with both hands to brush the seat of his pants. “I don’t want to hear that story ever again,” said Neal. He turned and strode out of the restaurant.

A few moments later, Audrey heard the sound of a collision, a second collision, the roar of an engine, and she saw a car speed past the restaurant entrance and careen out of the parking lot and into the street. She turned to look at Emilia, who looked back at her mournfully. “I’m sorry,” said Audrey, instantly feeling stupid for apologizing.

“Why didn’t you just tell it right?” asked Emilia.

“I tried,” said Audrey. “I didn’t know there was a wrong way to tell it. Why didn’t you just tell the story to him? You could have told it to him.”

                “I can’t tell it right,” said Emilia. “Only you can. Let’s go.”

                “Where are we going?” asked Audrey. “You don’t want to eat?”

                “I do,” said Emilia. “But not here. This place is terrible. Neal only likes it because after the first time we ate here, I said I’d never eat here again. So now this is the only place he’ll meet up with me. So every time I want to introduce a new friend to my brother, I have to prove myself wrong by coming here to eat again like I said I never would.”

                “Neal doesn’t seem like he’s very nice to you,” said Audrey.

                “He isn’t,” said Emilia.

 

                Back at the apartment, Audrey went to her room. She wanted some alone time. She still had a lot of arranging, organizing, and decorating to do. She decided to arrange her DVDs in order from her favorite to her least favorite even though she never watched DVDs anymore. In her previous apartment, Audrey had arranged her DVDs in the order in which she had purchased them, but she felt as if moving into this new apartment in this new town could be an opportunity to, well, not totally reinvent herself, but to at least change some of her habits, to at least change how her DVDs were organized. And if she decided that the new system made her new apartment feel less like home, she could always revert to the previous system. Switching back wouldn’t be too hard. She only owned 12 DVDs.

                Audrey heard a knock on the front door. She heard Emilia answer it and the sound of low voices, at least two of them. Emilia and someone else? No, Emilia and two others. Who was here?

                “Audrey,” called Emilia from the living room. “Come out here and meet my parents.”

                Audrey wondered if she should change back into the clothes she’d been wearing earlier while she was out. She decided against it. She was in her own home and Emilia’s parents had dropped by unannounced. It was already an inconvenience to have to stop arranging her DVDs right when she was just about to begin. She shouldn’t have to change back into less comfortable clothes too. Audrey went out to the living room in pajama pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt. The shirt had writing on the back of it, but Audrey had never really read what it said. It was an uplifting quote from someone.

                “Hello,” said Audrey in a voice that she hoped would establish a very normal tone for the impending conversation. She didn’t want this interaction to go like the one with Neal had gone.

                “Hello,” said Emilia’s dad. He looked a lot like Audrey’s dad. His hair was thinning in the same pattern, his glasses were almost the same, he had an expression on his face that Audrey’s dad made when he was feeling wary, although she didn’t know if the expression meant the same thing for Emilia’s dad that it did for her own dad. “I’m Corbin. And this is my wife. Emilia’s mom. Well, she’s Neal’s mom too, I guess you’ve also met him.”

                “Hello,” said Emilia’s mom. “I’m Wanda.” It would have been too weird if she had looked like Audrey’s mom – even just a little bit – but she didn’t. Her hair was thick and straight, her eyes were open to differing degrees. Her slacks and her shirt were covered in the same black-and-copper-colored diamond pattern. Her purse was apparently heavy enough to cause her to lean slightly toward the shoulder over which it hung, the left one.

                “It’s nice to meet both of you,” said Audrey.

                “We tried to meet with Neal earlier,” said Emilia, looking back and forth between Audrey and her parents. “But he got upset and left before they even brought us the menus.”

                “We heard,” said Corbin. “Neal came straight home and told us all about it.”

                “What did he say about it?” asked Emilia. She touched her throat.

                “That’s why we’re here,” said Wanda. “We want to hear your side of it.”

                “I told a story,” said Audrey. “Just about something that happened to me at the drug store. Just a nothing little story. But Neal didn’t like it and then he just got up and left. He may have been in a car accident in the parking lot. I heard some kind of crashing sounds shortly after he walked out. Not that it’s my business. I’m not trying to tattle on him.”

                “It’s very easy to upset him,” said Corbin. “And when he gets upset, he becomes less cautious than he should be.”

                “I’m sorry,” said Audrey. “I didn’t know. I didn’t mean to upset him. It didn’t even occur to me that the story could upset him. Or anyone.”

                Wanda smiled. “I can tell that you’re being sincere and we appreciate that, don’t we, Corbin?”

                “Yes, we do,” said Corbin. His smile looked a lot like Audrey’s dad’s smile. She felt confident that their two similar smiles meant roughly the same thing.

                “You seem like a very nice girl,” said Wanda. “We’re happy that you seem nice. We actually own this apartment building, so we like to make sure that the people who live here are not only good roommates and friends for Emilia, but also good tenants. And you seem like all of the above. You don’t seem like someone who would provoke Neal on purpose.”

                “I wouldn’t,” said Audrey. “I wouldn’t provoke anyone on purpose.”

                “Well, we’ll get out of your hair,” said Corbin. “I’m sure you’re still trying to get settled in. But we’re glad you’re Emilia’s new roommate.”

                “Thank you,” said Audrey. “That’s so nice.” Emilia’s parents were a little strange, but they seemed, like she had said, “so nice.” Emilia seemed to have taken after them more than Neal had.

                Corbin and Wanda turned to leave the apartment.

                “Wait,” said Emilia. “Mom, Dad, before you go, you have to hear Audrey’s story.”

                Emilia’s parents turned to look back at her. “The same one she told Neal?” asked Wanda. She sounded nervous, concerned.

                “She’ll tell it right this time,” said Emilia. “It’s so funny. I’ve laughed so hard three out of the four times I’ve heard it. And the last time doesn’t really count because she didn’t tell it right that time.” She turned to Audrey. “Tell them,” she said, her eyes brightening and brightening.

                Audrey wanted to protest, to defer. She wanted to downplay the story, to convince Emilia’s parents to let her off the hook. But that’s what she had done with Neal. That’s what had ruined that telling of the story for Emilia and possibly what had upset Neal. Maybe it would be better to just launch into the story. To tell it without any self-deprecation or hesitation, to just tell it as she had told it to Emilia the first three times. She looked at Corbin and Wanda and began her story. “So I went into the store to pick up a few things…”

               

                Audrey sat in the booth farthest from the door. She was hungry. She had hated the food at the restaurant to which Emilia had ended up taking her. From where Audrey sat, she could see the booth in which she, Emilia, and Neal had sat earlier. This time, there was a menu already on the table when Audrey sat down. There were no other customers in the restaurant, but the fact that it was almost midnight made that more understandable. Audrey looked at her phone. She had 11 missed calls from Emilia and at least one voicemail, probably more. Audrey did not want to hear what Emilia had to say. In a way, she was glad Emilia’s parents had evicted her. Better now than after she was all settled in. She had to be out of the apartment by the following evening. She didn’t know where she would go – maybe back to her parents’ house – but the sooner she could eliminate all connections between herself and Emilia’s family, the better. They were crazy. All of them. It was crazy for Emilia’s parents to react to her drug store story so negatively, but it was also crazy for Emilia to have reacted to her story so positively. It was not a story worth hating or loving. Audrey had never intended for the story to become such a thing. She had just been casually sharing an anecdote about her trip to the store when she got back to her apartment, one roommate to another. She would not have been offended if Emilia had not laughed at all, if she had just ignored it completely. Audrey probably would have forgotten about the story herself within a day or two. It was barely a story! And she had not told it in any special way those first three times she’d told it to Emilia. This insistence that she was ruining the effect of the story by not telling it properly was absurd. It was a fundamentally unimpressive story. There was no way to tell it so that one would be guaranteed to provoke gales of helpless laughter from every person in the world.

                A waiter appeared at Audrey’s table. “Ah, you found a menu,” he said. His black hair had the sheen of gel liberally applied. He wore a bowtie which was certainly not a mandated part of his uniform because it had pictures of guns on it. Well, maybe bowties were mandatory, but his particular bowtie surely was not. He seemed a little surprised that Audrey had a menu, maybe even a little impressed. “Do you know what you’d like to order?”

                “Could I have the grilled cheese sandwich with the cup of chili?” asked Audrey. “And a pink lemonade?”

                “Yes,” said the waiter. “But only if you pay for them.”

                “Do I have to pay now?” asked Audrey.

                “No,” said the waiter. “At the end. After you’ve eaten the food.”

                “OK,” said Audrey. “I mean, that’s what I was expecting.”

                “I just wanted to make sure you understood our policy,” said the waiter. He paused. “Is there a particular reason you’re in such a bad mood?”

                Audrey was taken aback. “Why do you say that?”

                “You’re clearly in a bad mood,” said the waiter. “I was wondering why.” For the first time, Audrey noticed that he was not wearing a nametag.

                “You don’t want to hear about it,” said Audrey. “It’s a long story.”

                “I do want to hear about it,” said the waiter. He sat down in the booth opposite Audrey. “I bet the story isn’t that long. I bet you’re just saying that to try to keep from telling it to me.”

                “Fine,” said Audrey. “I’ll give you the short version.”

                So Audrey told the waiter the story. She did not give him the short version. She started from her decision to move to Multioak and continued all the way up to the present moment. “And here we are,” she concluded.

                The waiter wiped tears out of his eyes. “No wonder you’re in such a bad mood,” he said. “I’m sorry that I’m crying, but your story touched me very deeply.”

                “It’s not that tragic,” said Audrey. “It’s more just, like, weird. It’s weirder than it is sad.”

                “Please don’t minimize my reaction,” said the waiter. “Please don’t discount my experience with your story. I was very moved by it. I was touched.” He slid out of the booth and stood up. “Wait right here,” he said. “Don’t go away.”

                “Why would I go away?” asked Audrey. “I haven’t gotten my food yet.”

                The waiter hurried away and disappeared through the kitchen doors. Audrey began to peruse the menu again out of boredom. On the table, her phone lit up with another incoming call from Emilia. From the kitchen, Audrey heard raised voices, a heated argument. Pans clanged together and clattered to the floor. There was a thud, then outright shouting. Audrey couldn’t understand what the voices were saying. They were shouting in a different language, but it wasn’t Spanish, that much Audrey could tell. The shouting died down. A moment later, the kitchen doors swung open and the waiter came out followed by a large man in a white apron and a white stocking cap. The waiter’s bowtie had come undone, his hair was mussed, and he held an ice pack against his left eye. The waiter walked over to Audrey’s table and said, “This is our chef.” He gestured to the large, aproned man just behind him.

                “OK,” said Audrey. She looked at the chef. He was breathing hard, presumably from the confrontation in the kitchen. “Is there a problem with my order?”

                “He doesn’t understand you,” said the waiter. “I have to translate.”

                “Well, what did he tell you?” asked Audrey. “Is there a problem with my order?”

                “No, no,” said the waiter. “I have to translate your story for him. You tell it and I’ll translate.”

                “What are you talking about?” asked Audrey. “Which story?”

                “The one you just told me,” said the waiter. “About moving to Multioak, your roommate making you tell that story to her family, her parents evicting you.”

                “But why?” asked Audrey. “He doesn’t want to hear my story. I heard you guys fighting in there. Look how upset he is.” The chef’s rage was on the verge of escaping containment. His internal struggle was externally visible.

                “He’ll like it once he hears it,” said the waiter. “He’ll relate to it. Something very similar happened to him. Once he hears your story and realizes he’s not alone, I think he’ll have some measure of peace.”

                “Is that why he’s so upset?” asked Audrey.

                “No, he’s upset because he hates coming out of the kitchen,” said the waiter. “But I couldn’t have you come into the kitchen to tell the story because that’s against restaurant policy.”

                “I really don’t want to tell him the story,” said Audrey. “I don’t think he’ll like it. I got into this mess because I let someone pressure me into telling stories I didn’t want to tell. I think that whoever’s story it is, that person should be allowed to read the audience at any given time and decide whether or not they want to tell the story. That’s what I think.”

                “Yes, exactly,” said the waiter. “That’s the moral of your story. And the chef will agree with you once he hears your story. And I should just add that if you don’t tell your story, he’s going to snap, because then it’s going to be like he came out here for nothing.”

                “So you’re threatening me,” said Audrey. “You’re holding me hostage.”

                “He’s going to love your story,” said the waiter. “He’s going to find it very moving. Remember when I was crying? Well, I was crying because your story made me think of him, it made me think of all that he’s been through. It truly opened my eyes to his plight for the first time.”

                “OK, OK, OK,” said Audrey.

                “Tell it exactly how you told it to me,” said the waiter. “But slower so I can translate.”

                Audrey told her story. It took forever. The waiter kept having to tell her to slow down so he could translate. Also, at some point the waiter started crying again, which slowed the translation down even further. By the end of the story, the chef was crying too. His rage had been replaced with other emotions, apparently. Emotions that made him cry. Audrey, on the other hand, felt nothing. She was relieved when the story was finally over. She was ready for her food.

                The chef spoke for the first time since he’d come out of the kitchen.

                “What did he say?” asked Audrey.

                “He thanked you,” said the waiter. “He thanked you for sharing.”

                The chef said something else. Then he took his white stocking cap off, took his white apron off, dropped them on the floor, and walked out the front door of the restaurant.

                “What’s happening?” asked Audrey.

                “Your story inspired him to quit,” said the waiter.

                “What?” asked Audrey. “How? Does this mean I’m not getting my food?”

                “There’s no chef,” said the waiter.

                “You don’t know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich?” asked Audrey. “Can I just go in there and make it myself?”

                “It’s against restaurant policy to let customers in the kitchen,” said the waiter.

                “Who’s enforcing these policies?” asked Audrey. “There’s no one else here!”

                “Here’s the thing,” said the waiter. “This month, it was my turn to make up the restaurant policies. The policy of not letting customers into the kitchen is kind of my signature policy. So if I’m the one who allows you to break it, what does that say about me?”

                Audrey left in a huff. She realized on the short drive across the street to the drug store that she did not know the name of the restaurant, and as such, would have trouble giving it a bad review online.

 

                Audrey set a big bag of chips and a bottle of expensive juice on the counter. The cashier rang up the items and said, “That’ll be eight dollars exactly.”

                Audrey reached into her back pocket and discovered that it was empty. She did not have her wallet with her. She had no means of paying for the chips or the juice. “I don’t have my wallet with me,” she heard herself say as if from a great distance, as if from another time and place.

                “Maybe it’s in your car and you can just run out and get it,” said the cashier, glancing behind Audrey at the one other person in line.

                “No,” said Audrey as a vision of her wallet sprang to the forefront of her mind. There it was, thin and black, resting on her flimsy, new desk back at the apartment. “No, I think it’s on my desk at home. It probably is.” She said “I think” and “probably” even though she knew for certain that she was right about the location of the wallet.

                “Sorry,” said the cashier. “I can’t let you take this stuff with you without paying for it.”

                “I know,” said Audrey. She felt the eyes of the person behind her in line lingering upon her. She turned around. There she saw a middle-aged man. He had a six-pack of beer in one hand and a stick of deodorant in the other. He looked back at her with a very mild form of interest. “Do not tell anyone about what you just saw happen here,” said Audrey.

                “Uh, OK,” said the man. “Why would I?”

                “Just as an anecdote,” said Audrey. “Maybe when your wife casually asks you how the trip to the store was. I’m telling you this for your own good.”

                “Sure,” said the man. He wanted the conversation to be over.

                “And I’m realizing now,” said Audrey, “that telling you not to tell anyone about this is only making it more likely that you’re going to tell someone. It’s making this into more of a story. But you have to resist the temptation, OK? You don’t want to end up like me, do you?”

                “No,” said the man. He paused, his facial expression and his posture grew defiant. “But miss, I’ll tell any story to anyone I please. Or not. But that’s my decision, not yours and not anyone else’s.”

                “Yes,” said Audrey. “Yes! Even better!”

                “Miss, please step out of line so I can help the next customer,” said the cashier.

                Audrey left the drug store empty-handed.

 

                “My parents won’t actually force you to move out,” said Emilia. “I can talk them out of it before tomorrow night.”

                “I don’t want to live here,” said Audrey. It was almost two in the morning and she was placing her DVDs back into the box from which she’d extracted them just a few hours before.

                “What if I let you have the bigger bedroom?” asked Emilia.

                “No bedroom is big enough to make putting up with unreasonable landlords worth it,” said Audrey.

                “Well, I mean,” said Emilia. “It was kind of your own fault. You didn’t tell the story right.”

                Audrey crossed the room and closed the door in Emilia’s face. After a few moments, she heard a light tap on the door.

                “Audrey?”

                “What?”

                “Where were you earlier? When I was trying to call you. Where did you go? What happened?”

                “I just drove around,” said Audrey. “Nothing happened.”

                “Nothing at all?” asked Emilia.

                “Nothing worth telling,” said Audrey.

                “Oh,” said Emilia. And then Audrey heard her walking away from the door, down the hall to her own room, shutting herself inside.




Discussion Questions

  • What is the “right” way to tell a story? How does that differ from all other ways of telling a story?



  • What’s the best reluctantly told story you’ve ever heard? Was the reluctance of the telling an asset to the story? Or would it have been even better without the reluctance?



  • How much blame must a person who insists on another person telling a story accept if the story goes over poorly? Does the distribution of blame depend on other factors, such as the quality of the telling compared to previous tellings?



  • What, in your opinion, is the best way to arrange 12 DVDs?



  • Speculate as to the location of the missing menus.



  • Where do company policies come from? Please be very, very artistic with your answer.