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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

All We Can Do

             While the porch appeared structurally sound, it creaked and moaned with Floyd’s every footfall as he mounted the steps and eschewed the huge, desperate doorbell in favor of a knock. The boy who answered was 15 years old, Floyd could tell. He’d never seen a human being who was more clearly 15 years old. “You’re here to talk to my mom?” asked the boy. His accent was a little strange, not what one would expect from a typical Multioak youth. The boy looked Floyd up and down, taking in his thin, faded hair, his shirt and tie, his businesslike sneakers, the leather bag slung over his shoulder.

               “Yes, I believe so,” said Floyd. “Your mother is Hyacinth Tisk?”

               Behind the boy, two younger girls appeared in the entryway. Both wore coats tied around their waists by the sleeves.

               “This is about the fridge thing?” asked the boy.

               “I don’t know,” said Floyd. “We haven’t discussed details yet. I never do until I have a chance to meet a client in person.” He shifted the strap of his bag on his shoulder.

               “Mom!” shouted the slightly taller of the two girls. “Colby’s trying to talk to someone at the door!”

               “I’m sorry!” The apology preceded the woman issuing the apology into the entryway by two seconds. She arrived in the apology’s wake also wearing a coat tied around her waist and pulled Colby away from the door with exasperated force. “I’m sorry,” she said, starting the apology over from the beginning. “Did you understand anything he said? Most people can’t.”

               “I believe so,” said Floyd.

               “Sometimes people think they can, but they can’t,” said Hyacinth. “I never have any idea what he’s saying, neither do his siblings, but I guess some people really do, or they think they do. But some people probably do. It’s my own fault. Partially my fault. When he was learning to talk, I thought it would be cute if he spoke in an English accent, so I only spoke to him in my best attempt at an English accent – probably not very good – but my husband thought it would be cute if Colby spoke with a southern accent, sort of like a hillbilly, so he only spoke to Colby in a silly southern accent, and we thought Colby would just pick one, it was like a competition, but what happened is that when Colby started to talk, it was in a combination of both of them, English accent and southern accent, and he was just completely unintelligible, and he still is. We shouldn’t have experimented like that. We shouldn’t have turned control of his speaking voice into a game. I won’t pretend our egos weren’t involved.”

               Throughout this explanation, Colby stood midway between his mother and sisters watching Floyd’s reaction. When Hyacinth finished speaking, Colby said, “She’s the Duchess of Liars. That’s what I call her.” The accent sounded neither English nor southern nor a hybrid of the two. He turned and walked out of view.

               “What did he say?” asked Hyacinth. “Did you understand it?”

               Floyd wasn’t sure how to answer. “Some of it,” he said. “Is this the unconventional problem you wanted to consult with me about?”

               “What?” asked Hyacinth. “Colby’s unintelligible accent? No, no, we can live with that. Our unconventional problem is much more unconventional than that. And actually, Colby is the only member of the family this unconventional problem doesn’t concern. And that’s not even in the top ten of the most perplexing things about it.”

               “Why don’t I come in?” said Floyd. “And then you can explain it to me in detail.”

               “Of course,” said Hyacinth. “We’ll talk in my ex-husband’s study. Well, there’s no divorce yet, but he’s gone for good. The study isn’t far. It’s here in the house.”

               In the short trip to the back corner of the ground floor, Floyd saw two more children wearing coats tied around their waists: one boy, one girl. They were certainly younger than Colby, but he couldn’t quite place their ages in relation to the first two girls he’d seen. He’d have to see all four of them together to estimate a birth order. As Hyacinth ushered Floyd into the study, he said, “Colby is 15, isn’t he?”

               “Yes,” said Hyacinth. She closed the study door and wheeled an office chair out from behind a substantial desk, arranging it so it faced an easy chair next to a half-full bookshelf. Behind the desk, two narrow windows positioned like twin pillars admitted warm, gray light that testified to the day’s humidity; much different than the dry, cold atmosphere inside the house. The air conditioner puffed through vents set into the study’s light-colored hardwood floors. “Did Colby tell you his age?” asked Hyacinth. “And you understood him?”

               “No, I guessed,” said Floyd.

               “You are clever, then,” said Hyacinth. “Maybe you will be able to solve our problem.”

               “Now hold on,” said Floyd, raising a cautionary finger. “Remember, I’m here to consult with you about your problem, not solve it. If my consultation helps you solve it, that’s great, but I never promise that will be possible. Many unconventional problems make promises like that very foolish. Many unconventional problems defy the solved/unsolved dichotomy entirely. The contract you signed stipulates all of this very clearly.”

               “Right, right, the contract, right,” said Hyacinth. “Do you want the office chair or the easy chair?” She sat down in the easy chair before Floyd could answer.

               “I’ll take the office chair,” said Floyd.

               “Are you sure?” asked Hyacinth, looking up with eyes begging him to be sure. “Because I can stand up and let you have this chair and then I can sit down again in the office chair.”

               “The office chair is fine,” said Floyd. “I prefer it.” He sat down to confirm his choice, setting his bag on the floor next to him.

               Hyacinth relaxed.

               Floyd took a good look at her for the first time. Her hair was lighter than any of her children’s. Her eyeglasses were no more than one year out of fashion. In addition to the coat around her waist, she was not dressed for the late spring weather. She wore jeans, a sweater, and boots.

               As Floyd took his pen and notepad from his bag, he couldn’t help but speculate about the nature of the unconventional problem in Hyacinth’s family based on what he had already observed. The cool temperature in the home, the warm clothing and always-at-hand coats, the separation between Colby and the rest of the family: these, Floyd suspected, were all related to the abrupt absence of the father, Hyacinth’s husband. Floyd was not a psychologist, and it always disappointed him when the unconventional problems on which he was brought in to consult turned out to be pretty clearly psychological in origin, but he still felt like his consultations were useful, or that they could be if people would just try to understand the simple profundity of what he had to offer, its potential to improve their lives in dramatic ways.

               “Tell me when you’re ready for me to begin explaining the problem,” said Hyacinth.

               “I’m ready,” said Floyd. He crossed his legs, balanced the notepad on his thigh, and poised the pen along the margin one third of the way down the paper. He preferred to only take notes in the middle third of each page.

               “It’s good you’re taking notes,” said Hyacinth. “Make sure they’re detailed. Because one thing about the problem is that it might disrupt my explanation. You might need to tell me where I left off.”

               “Got it,” said Floyd. “Begin whenever you like.”

               “Hold on,” said Hyacinth. She stood, untied the coat from around her waist, and put it on. As her hands appeared at the ends of the sleeves, one held a white stocking cap and the other a pair of lined leather gloves. She tucked the gloves into her armpit, pulled the stocking cap down over her ears, and then put the gloves on her hands, left then right. Then she gave Floyd a searching look and said, “Oh, right.” She took the stocking cap off, took the gloves off, and took the coat off, stuffing the gloves in one sleeve and the hat in the other sleeve. She retied the coat around her waist and sat down with a long sigh. “Had I started yet?”

               “Started what?” asked Floyd.

               “Explaining our unconventional problem,” said Hyacinth. She leaned forward to look at Floyd’s notepad, which he pulled back by reflex, but too late. “Still blank,” she said. “So I guess not. But it’s probably best to get the interruption out of the way early. Once it happens it usually doesn’t happen again for a while.” She slouched back in the easy chair and rubbed her eyes. “I am tired now, though. I wish I could just nap through it once I’m there, but I never can.”

               Floyd held his pen motionless. This was typical of people with unconventional problems. They liked to reveal the problems as cryptically as possible in order to make them seem even more unconventional. This thing with the coat and gloves and hat wasn’t even the most theatrical element of an unconventional problem explanation Floyd had seen, not even top five. Better to wait until Hyacinth had gotten all of this out of her system and was ready to proceed in an orderly manner.

               “We go to a fridge,” said Hyacinth. She waited for Floyd to react.

               He lowered the tip of the pen to the page but did not write. He waited.

               “A refrigerator,” said Hyacinth. “Me and my children except for Colby. We were just there, actually. It felt like at least five or six hours for us, but to you it was no time at all. Not even a second, right? To you, it looked like I put on my coat, then I took my coat off. But for me and my kids, between the time when I put my coat on and when I took it off, we were in the fridge, wherever it is. And I should say, if you’re wondering how we all fit in one fridge, that when we go to the fridge, we’re miniature. I don’t know if we shrink or if the fridge is huge, but it feels like I’m about an inch tall, and then the kids are shorter than that, you know, proportionally. I think being small is how we don’t run out of air, because for a normal-sized person to get stuck in a normal-sized fridge, that’s a suffocation risk pretty quick, but with how small we are in the fridge, it would take a long time for us to use all the oxygen. Which is good, because I think we’ve been in there for as long as a few days before. Clocks of any kind don’t work in the fridge, of course, since there’s some kind of time thing going on, but I usually guess how long we’ve been there based on how many times I get hungry. But when you get hungry, a fridge isn’t the worst place to be! I should also mention that the food in the fridge is huge, too, it’s on the same scale as the fridge. And the packaging can be difficult to get into because we’re so small, but I’ve started carrying a pocket knife all the time so that helps. But we always manage to find our way into something to eat, although our options are limited to the shelf we arrive on because we’re too small to climb up or down to another shelf. It might be possible, but it’s too dangerous. We’re lucky about water. Whoever owns the fridge has a pitcher with a filter that they probably fill up in the sink; I have one almost like it and that’s what I do. But fortunately for us, their pitcher leaks a little so it’s always sitting in a puddle of fresh water, and we’re so small in there that the puddle is plenty for all of us, and the leak is small but it’s steady, so the puddle renews itself for us. So, yes, it’s a little undignified having to drink it off the shelf, but the whole thing is undignified, isn’t it? Getting shrunk down and transported to the inside of a fridge against your will? Not a lot of room for dignity in that. Maybe you’re wondering why we don’t bring food along with us. We learned to be ready to get whisked away to the fridge by always having our winter clothes on us, the coats and gloves and so on, so why not wear a backpack full of sandwiches, or at least carry some bags of chips in our coat pockets? Well, we tried and the food doesn’t make the trip. I don’t know why. Maybe if you can’t help us figure out how to not get taken to the fridge, you can at least help us figure out how to take food along with us? Because I have a big fear. I worry that whoever owns the fridge, eventually they’ll replace it. And if they do, will we show up in their new fridge? I kind of doubt it. I worry we’ll keep going to the same fridge, but it won’t have any food in it, it won’t be plugged in. It’ll be dark and tipped on its side in some dump. They don’t compact old fridges, do they? Sometimes with an older fridge, people convert it to their basement fridge or their garage fridge. That would be OK, I suppose, but there still probably wouldn’t be much food in it at that point. Just canned beverages, pop and beer. Or bottles, I suppose, but that’s not food, that’s not nourishing, and I don’t think we’d be able to get into those while we’re miniature anyway. Oh! You’re probably wondering how I knew to put my coat on right when I went this time. Well, before we get transported to the fridge, we get a sense that it’s about to happen. Like when you feel a sneeze coming on. So when we feel that feeling, we put our coats and hats and gloves on, but it wouldn’t be that big a deal if we didn’t. I think the fridge is kept around 38 degrees, so it’s not like we instantly freeze solid if we show up there and we don’t have our coats on yet. My kids are kind of pokey about bundling up, especially if they’re in the middle of something. So first thing when we get there, I go around and make sure everyone’s properly dressed. The first few times it happened, we weren’t prepared, we were in our pajamas, actually, so we spent the whole time huddled together, plus my kids were terrified, and I was pretty terrified too, but now they’re used to it. I’m glad they’ve adapted, or it seems like they have. I bet if we figure out a way to make the trips to the fridge stop, or if they just stop on their own, then by the time the kids are adults, they won’t believe it ever happened, they’ll rationalize it away. But it’s also not all bad. No matter how scattered we are out here, being transported to the fridge brings us all together, so the older kids might be at school, maybe they’re in the middle of a spelling test, and then all of a sudden we’re all together in the fridge for an hour or six hours or 12 hours or whatever. One time my daughter was in the middle of a spelling test and she was stuck on the word ‘guess’ and then we all got transported to the fridge and she asked me how to spell it and I told her and helped her memorize it, so when she was transported back to school after a few hours, she returned to the exact second she’d left, and she spelled the word correctly and got her first hundred percent on a spelling test. Was that cheating? Maybe, but I feel like she’s dealing with something other kids don’t have to deal with, and ‘guess’ is spelled weird, you have to admit, it’s not really fair to expect kids to, like, sound it out or something. You either know how to spell it or you don't. But all that said, we don’t want to go to the fridge anymore. I want the trips to stop, but I don’t know how to stop them. No one has ever opened the fridge while we’re inside. We don’t hear anything outside of the fridge, no footsteps or voices, which is good because who knows what would happen if the people who own the fridge opened it and found us in there? They might scream and try to smash us like roaches. Or they might take us out and then maybe we’d be stuck there instead of getting transported back here. But I think whoever owns the fridge, time stops for them too while we’re in there, just like it does for you and Colby and everyone else not in the fridge. And no, I don’t recognize the inside of the fridge. But to be honest, there are probably only a few fridges I would recognize from the inside. Our own fridge here at the house, obviously, and a couple fridges my family had when I was growing up, maybe. My college dorm room mini fridge. That’s probably it, that’s probably the whole list. And we don’t always get transported to the same shelf in the fridge. Sometimes we’re on the top shelf, sometimes we’re in the crisper with the vegetables, but we’re never in the freezer, thank goodness, and we’re never in the door with the condiments and stuff. And the fridge is clean! It would be so much worse if it wasn’t clean. Or if there were leftovers going bad, spoiling and stinking, that would be awful. That’s one other good thing about this problem – I told you it was unconventional – but the other good thing is that it’s made me more conscientious about cleaning out my own fridge.” Hyacinth stopped talking and again leaned forward to peek at Floyd’s notes. “You didn’t write down very much.” She sounded disappointed.

               “I have a good memory,” said Floyd. “The purpose of my notes isn’t to transcribe everything you say, just to stimulate my memory.”

               “Oh,” said Hyacinth. “So now what? Do you have enough to start consulting?”

               “I do have one question,” said Floyd.

               Hyacinth brightened. “Yes?”

               “Colby doesn’t go with the rest of you to the fridge?” asked Floyd. “He’s the only one who doesn’t go? He’s never gone to the fridge with you? It’s you, the four younger kids, and that’s it? Every time?”

               “That’s right,” said Hyacinth. She un-brightened slightly, not impressed with the question. “Anything else you’d like to know?”

               Floyd closed his notepad. “I have enough to work with for now. Let me go home and spend some time with what you’ve told me so far. It’s a lot to process. Then, if I need more, I’ll come back. But I may not need more.”

               “So you won’t have an answer for me today?” asked Hyacinth.

               “That isn’t what I do,” said Floyd as he put his notepad and pen back into his bag. “I don’t provide ‘answers.’ Remember the contract?”

               “Right, right,” said Hyacinth. “I misspoke. But you can’t provide, uh, consultation today?”

               “This was consultation,” said Floyd. “Consultation is a dialogue. You tell me your unconventional problem, I take notes, I go home and ruminate on the unconventional problem, and then I come back with a recommendation or series of recommendations.”

               “And that won’t be today?” asked Hyacinth.

               “No,” said Floyd. “But soon.” The truth was that he could give Hyacinth his recommendations right now because his recommendations to all of his clients – those who suffered from unconventional problems – were always the same. But he had learned that his clients were more likely to accept his recommendations if he made it seem like they were the result of focused rumination on their specific unconventional problems and not just an all-purpose response that he applied to every unconventional problem he encountered. Not that he didn’t believe in his all-purpose response, not that his recommendations were not sincere. He did believe and his recommendations were sincere. But he’d had some bad experiences. He’d been called “trite,” he’d been called a “fraud,” and he’d been called cruder synonyms of both. Clients had refused to pay or demanded refunds. They had badmouthed him to friends and acquaintances. So he had tinkered with his approach. He’d started sending out the contract before the first consultation, of course, but he’d also discovered it was better to string the clients along a little, better to build some anticipation, better to give the impression of sustained mental labor. It was for their own good. Anything that made them more likely to enact Floyd’s recommendations was for their own good and for the good of their families, friends, neighbors, the whole world. And it wasn’t like Floyd had arrived at his standard recommendations without hours of thoughtful consideration. He’d just done all the thoughtful considering years ago in response to his own unconventional problem. And, after arriving at a life-altering epiphany, he realized the epiphany could be adapted into a set of recommendations that could benefit everyone, but especially those tangled in unconventional problems, those suffering from problems that defied straightforward, practical solutions.

               As Floyd tossed his bag onto the front passenger’s seat of the car and slid in behind the steering wheel, Colby came out of the house and trotted down the front walk holding up two fingers to indicate, Floyd presumed, that he wanted to talk. Floyd paused with the appearance of patience.

               “She told you about the fridge?” asked Colby.

               “Yes,” said Floyd.

               “So now you know,” said Colby.

               “Know what?” asked Floyd.

               “Why I call her ‘The Duchess of Liars,’” said Colby.

               “You don’t believe it’s true?” asked Floyd.

               Colby’s eyes widened. “You do think it’s true?”

               “That’s not for me to say,” said Floyd. “That has no bearing on what I do.”

               “Dude, come on,” said Colby. “It’s just another way for her to exclude me. Like pretending she can’t understand me because of my accent. It’s just another way for her to try to make me feel like I’m not as much a part of the family as her and my little sisters and my little brother.”

               “Why would she do that?” asked Floyd. “Something with your father? Something related to him leaving?”

               Colby looked confused. “Why would you think that?”

               “So what is it then?” asked Floyd.

               “She resents that she still has to finish raising me even though I’m her practice child,” said Colby. “She had me first so she could practice having a child and then do better when it counted, but she can’t get rid of me because I know too much. If she puts me up for adoption, I’ll go straight to the media with her most embarrassing secrets.”

               Floyd processed this information. “So if being transported to the fridge is all a fake to make you feel left out, why is she saying she wants it to stop now?”

               “Because I think the other kids are getting tired of pretending it’s real,” said Colby. “It isn’t too hard for them to keep their stories straight because they all pretend they can’t understand me so I can’t really ask questions, but they’re sick of having their coats with them all the time, plus I think the electric bill is expensive with my mom always running the AC in the house so they don’t get too hot in their warm clothes.”

               “So why not pretend it just stopped happening on its own?” asked Floyd. “Since it supposedly started on its own, why couldn’t your mom pretend it stopped on its own?”

               “Too easy for me to dismiss,” said Colby. “My mom thinks it’ll be more convincing if you tell her to do something to make the fridge trips stop and then she does it and then she and the kids all say it’s not happening anymore. She’ll say, like, ‘Why would I pay an expert to help me with a problem that’s actually a fake problem?’ She’s that deceptive. That’s why I call her The Duchess of Liars, and now you understand. Now you’ll probably want to call her that too.”

               “I doubt it,” said Floyd. “Why ‘Duchess?’ Why not ‘Queen?’”

               “Because,” said Colby, his voice modulated for maximum tolerance. “A duchess is above a queen.”

               “That’s not correct,” said Floyd. “Queens are above duchesses.”

               Colby sneered. “You claim you can help people with unconventional problems and you don’t even know a duchess is above a queen?”

               Floyd was very tempted to pretend not to understand Colby’s accent, but he reminded himself of Colby’s extreme fifteen-ness, not to mention the environment in which he was being raised. Floyd closed the door of his car without reply and drove home.


               Two days later, Floyd returned to Hyacinth’s house as an afternoon thunderstorm cleared out of the area, grumbling off to the north. Was that north? Floyd wasn’t good with directions.

Hyacinth answered the door wearing her coat. She looked gaunt. “I saw you pulling up,” she said. “And then I felt us going to the fridge. We were there for…it felt like days this time. And I’m so sick of cake. Leftover cake was the only thing in the fridge stored in something flimsy enough for us to get into. I’m serving my kids nothing but vegetables for dinner tonight.”

               “Colby too?” asked Floyd.

               “I’m not making a special meal for Colby just because he’s lucky enough to not go with us to the fridge,” said Hyacinth. “He can eat vegetables with the rest of us.”

               “Hmm,” said Floyd.

               “I’m sorry,” said Hyacinth. “I vaguely remember being excited when I saw you pulling up, but that feels so long ago now, and the kids were getting on each other’s nerves in the fridge, constant bickering, no one slept well. I really hope you have some good recommendations for me.” She attempted a feeble smile and succeeded, but just barely. It was probably for the best that she had aimed no higher than “feeble.”

               “I do have some good recommendations for you,” said Floyd. “I’m excited to share them.”

               “Then come in, come in,” said Hyacinth. “I’m so relieved to hear that. I told myself not to get my hopes up, but the whole time we were in the fridge this time, the one thing that kept me going was that I knew you’d be here right when I got back, and that there was a chance you’d have…have…recommendations for me. Something to try!” She ushered Floyd into the house.

The thunderstorm had not done much to cool the day, and now that the sun was again breaking through, the atmosphere outside was clingy, syrupy. Floyd had regretted choosing to wear a long-sleeved shirt up until the moment he again entered Hyacinth’s house, but as she led him through the halls and rooms that constituted the route to her departed husband’s study, the brittle, artificial chill of the indoor air validated Floyd’s wardrobe choices.

Hyacinth arranged the seating as she had during Floyd’s first consultation and took the easy chair without this time feigning indifference as to who sat where. Floyd sat down in the office chair. He pulled his notepad and pen from his bag though he did not need them. He knew his recommendations by heart, but it was best if the client thought he was reading recent revelations resulting from recent ruminations. He flipped to a page – any page – and cleared his throat.

Hyacinth sat forward, tiny specks of optimism glimmering deep within her exhausted eyes.

“I don’t know why you’re being transported to the fridge,” said Floyd. “But I don’t know why anything happens to anyone. No one does. Some people say they do, but they don’t, not really. We’re all lost, we’re all confused, none of us know what any of it – any of this, all of this – means. Even if there really is meaning, how would we ever know? How would we ever find it? How would we ever know we found it even if we did find it?”

Floyd paused. Hyacinth nodded with appropriate uncertainty.

Floyd continued. “So what can we do? Well, I’ve found there’s only one thing to do in the face of so much chaos, so much random disorder. We just have to look out for each other. Be kind to each other. Help each other. Does any of that truly matter in the grand scheme of things? I have no idea. Maybe it doesn’t. It probably doesn’t. But so what? We shouldn’t let that us stop us from loving our families, loving our friends, loving our pets, appreciating a beautiful day, laughing at a funny joke, creating beauty, extending a helping hand to people who are suffering, trying to understand them. And then, when we die – ‘cause we’re all going to die – then whatever happens after that, at least we didn’t spend the little time we had being petty, being spiteful, making people feel even worse than-”

“Stop,” said Hyacinth. “Hold on. When are you getting to the recommendations? Not that I don’t like what you’re saying, it’s nice enough, but I’m just anxious to get to the recommendations. So can you skip to that part, and then you can go back and finish up the philosophizing if you really want to?”

“These are the recommendations,” said Floyd.

This is the recommendation part?” asked Hyacinth, her eyes widening in disbelief. “All this you’ve been saying just now? ‘Be nice to people’ and ‘love your pets’ and all that?”

“Yes,” said Floyd. Not all of his clients got mad at him. Many of them did not! But when they did get mad at him, this was usually the point when it happened.

“But how is that going stop me and my kids getting transported to the fridge?” asked Hyacinth. “Are you saying it’s happening because we aren’t nice enough? Like, we’re being punished? It’s some kind of karma thing, or…?”

“No,” said Floyd. “I don’t know why it’s happening. No one does, and no one ever will. It’s inexplicable. But so is everything else. Who knows why anything happens the way it does? All we can do is just do our best to support each other, to be there for-”

“Am I curious as to why my kids and I are being transported to that fridge?” asked Hyacinth. “Yes. But if given the choice between either finding out why it’s happening or making it stop, I would choose making it stop every time. And you’re telling me you have no idea how to make it stop?”

“I’ve been in your position,” said Floyd. “I had an unconventional problem of my own. And you know what I found? That trying to understand it got me nowhere, trying to wrap my head around it only made me-”

“I don’t care about understanding my problem!” said Hyacinth, nearly shouting now. “You’ve talked me out of it, trust me. I just want it to go away and then I want to forget about it. And if you can’t help me do that, then I’m not going to pay you.”

“You signed that contract that I initially emailed to you,” said Floyd. “And it specifically says that I do not promise answers or guaranteed solutions to your problem, I offer a consultation session and a recommendation session, and that’s what you’ve gotten.”

“Great,” said Hyacinth. “Then I’ll see you in small claims court. Because you’re not getting a dime from me. You’re a con man.”

Floyd was dumbstruck. Invoking the contract usually cowed troublesome clients. He’d never before had a client treat the contract so flippantly. “Look,” he said, bumbling his way off-script. “Look, I wasn’t kidding when I said this worked for me. It still works for me. My problem had me in a tailspin, I was a shadow of myself, I was-”

“What was your problem?” asked Hyacinth. “Was it anywhere near as bad as mine? I doubt it. I’m sure it wasn’t. And I’m guessing none of your satisfied clients – if there are any – have had problems as bad as mine either. Have they? What was yours? What was so unconventional about your problem?”

Floyd hesitated. But no, why should he hesitate? His recommendations worked, didn’t they? Hadn’t their application to his own life given him a measure of comfort? This was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that to Hyacinth, to help her understand the utility of what he was offering. “I had a regular job once,” said Floyd. “Back before I started doing this. I was extremely good at my job. It was like the job was tailor-made to suit me, or I was tailor-made to suit the job. It highlighted all of my strengths, and even some of my weaknesses were almost like strengths for this job. I was a great employee, a great coworker, my performance reviews were glowing. And yet – and yet – when I tried to advance, when I applied for an open position higher up – better pay, better benefits, more responsibility – I was passed over in favor of a clearly inferior candidate from outside the company. It made no sense. No sense. No one could explain it to me. There was no logical explanation, and there never could be. And that’s when I realized: I’d never understand it, so what could I do? All I could do was be good to the people I cared about, try to-”

“You didn’t get a promotion?” Hyacinth rose from the easy chair and loomed over Floyd, causing him to propel the rolling office chair backward with a few hasty kicks. When it struck the wall, he jumped up but kept his distance from Hyacinth, trying to judge the best way to retrieve his bag from the floor without getting close enough for his angry client to hit, kick, or scratch him.

“I can tell you why you didn’t get that promotion,” said Hyacinth. “I can clear that up for you right now. I can do more for you than you can do for me, maybe you should pay me.”

“This is getting out of control,” said Floyd. “It’s against my policy to question my clients’ problems, but since you don’t care about the contract, well, I don’t see why I should have to adhere to my own policies. You’re not being transported to a fridge with your four youngest children and we both know it. This is an elaborate lie you made up to make Colby feel excluded. I don’t know why you’re so invested in going to these lengths to keep the lie going – maybe you really are The Duchess of Liars – but maybe my recommendations are more practical than you want to admit, maybe if you did treat your oldest son better, then this problem would just go away.”

Hyacinth seethed. “He was practice. What kind of society refuses to allow parents to practice at least once before they start having kids that actually count?”

“I can’t help you,” said Floyd.

“No,” said Hyacinth. “You can’t.”

“You’re too far gone to listen,” said Floyd.

Before Hyacinth could speak, her face fell. She pulled her stocking cap out of one coat pocket and put it on. She pulled gloves out of another coat pocket and put them on. “I wish I could at least count on your not being here when I get back,” she said. “But even if you hurry-”

She blinked. “Oh yeah,” she said. “You’re here.”


One week later, Floyd knocked thrice on the front door of a one-story box-shaped house resting in the criss-crossing shadows of the lot’s two trees. The clients were referrals; they had inquired about Floyd’s services on the strength of a friend’s recommendation. They had signed and returned Floyd’s contract faster than any other client ever. It sure seemed like they knew what Floyd was offering and were eager to receive it and were willing to pay for it. So Floyd’s mood was good.

An old man answered the door. He had narrow, sloping shoulders and he looked to be wearing his shorts wrong, though it was hard to say exactly how. “Come in, come in,” he said, plucking at Floyd’s shirt sleeve. An old woman poked her head around the doorway leading into the kitchen at the end of the short hall. “Hello!” she called.

“That’s my wife,” said the old man. “She’s Tilly, I’m Everett.”

“I’m pleased to meet both of you,” said Floyd.

“Come on into the kitchen,” said Everett. “Is it OK if we tell you about our unconventional problem in there? ‘Cause that’s where we found it, but it would be easy to carry it into the living room if you’d be more comfortable there.”

“The kitchen is fine,” said Floyd.

The kitchen was fine. Old-fashioned, a little dinged up, but clean and bright, no dishes in the sink, the round table-top gleaming from a fresh wipe. A single napkin rested in the middle of the table. Tilly, in a diagonally striped dress and orthopedic shoes, handed Floyd a glass of water, only a little cloudy and only a little cold.

“Our friend Pat told us what you did for him,” said Everett. “What you recommended to him when he told you about how he doesn’t like the same TV shows anymore and doesn’t know why. And he said it helped him so much, really changed how he thought about a lot of things, made him think about how he spends the time he has left. He told us what you said, more or less, I think, but I’m sure didn’t say it as good as you did. He said you said it better. But even what he told us sounded nice, but I guess we just didn’t have an unconventional problem to put us in the place to really need to hear it, but as soon as this unconventional problem popped up, well, Tilly and I both knew we wanted to talk to you as soon as possible, we wanted to hear it all straight from you, all about how we don’t know anything and we can’t know anything but all we can do is just try to be good, whatever that means, and try to love the people we’re close to, maybe do what we can to ease the pain of our neighbors and so on, because we know that hearing that from you – and I’m not telling you how to do your job – but we just really think hearing about all that from you in your own words will go a long way to putting this little problem of ours in perspective even though it is pretty unconventional, although I’m sure you’ve seen many problems more unconventional than this, and I’m sure you’ve helped people in much worse situations!”

Floyd smiled, nodded. These were his dream clients, he wasn’t even going to need to split this consultation into two sessions. And Everett and Tilly seemed very likely to send more referrals his way. Maybe things were turning a corner, maybe he’d finally tapped into the client base he’d long thought must be somewhere out there just waiting for him. He sat down at the kitchen table with his drink, leaving his notepad and pen in his bag. Notes would not be necessary. Everett sat across the table and Tilly sat to Floyd’s right. “So,” said Floyd. “What’s your unconventional problem?”

Tilly slid the napkin in the middle of the table over to Floyd. “Careful,” she said. “Don’t sneeze.”

Floyd looked at the napkin, then from Floyd to Tilly and back to the napkin. “Your problem is this napkin? What’s wrong with the napkin?”

               “Look closer,” said Everett. “See that blue speck? Look closer.”

               There was a blue speck on the napkin. Floyd leaned forward so that his nose nearly touched it.

               “Most old people wouldn’t have seen it,” said Everett. “But our vision’s as good as it ever was, we’ve never owned even one pair of glasses between us.”

               “What is it?” asked Floyd, still trying to make sense of what he was seeing. His vision was not as good as it ever was. Up close, the blue speck looked like a blue blob.

               “I found it in the fridge,” said Tilly. “It’s a mitten. A perfect little mitten! Like children would wear in the snow.” She paused. “So their fingers don’t get cold.”

               “I know what a mitten is,” said Floyd. He hadn’t meant to snap at her, but he was reeling, he was rattling, he was clanging.

               “We thought we had bugs or mice or something,” said Everett. “We’d find little bits of our food eaten away at, so we thought it was some kind of pest, but then just a few days ago, I mean, I don’t know why Tilly thought to look at it so closely other than she thought it might be a clue as to what kind of pest has been getting into our food, and maybe it is, but we can’t figure out what it means, but then that’s why we thought of you, because we knew you’d tell us what we need to hear, which is that we don’t need to know what it means, we can just accept that we’ll never know, and we knew you’d tell us to just focus on caring for each other, spending time with our grandkids, paying attention to-”

               “No,” said Floyd.

               “No?” asked Everett. He and Tilly exchanged a look of concern. “No, what?”

               “No, that is not my recommendation for you,” said Floyd. “My recommendation for you is entirely practical.”

               “We were hoping for something less practical and more inspirational,” said Everett. “Something that acknowledges the terrifying mystery of the universe, but also encourages us to discover our own meaning in the day-to-day moments of-”

               “No,” said Floyd. “Dig a hole. A deep hole. And bury your fridge in the ground.”

Discussion Questions

  • Which combination of accents would make a teenage boy’s speech the least intelligible?

  • In a perfect society, how many practice children would you be allotted?

  • Do you have any hope for a practical solution to your most unconventional problem?

  • Have you ever been flippant or even dismissive about a contract that YOU voluntarily signed?

  • If you had to be occasionally transported in miniature to the interior of a stranger’s kitchen appliance for hours or even days at a time, which appliance would you choose?