Carole in the Corner Booth (Not-Saying)

25 01 2010

Hello world, if you have a moment sometime or are bored, here’s a story I wrote fairly recently. [The pictures aren’t part of the story, Sebald-style or anything, just thought text by itself is kinda boring on the interwebs].

Carole in the Corner Booth (Not-Saying)

by Stephen Tully Dierks

Carole kept not saying things, and some inexplicable sensation came afresh with every not-said thing. She had, as they say, nearly bitten her tongue right off. It led to more hand-fidgeting than usual, she found. The young men, nominally her friends, gathered around her in the old wooden corner booth in the Rathskeller’s backroom (near the frosted stained-glass window featuring a depiction of old Rathskeller himself), seemed entirely oblivious to her lack of saying, which was unsurprising but, faintly, and then less faintly, kind of disappointing and sad-making, a little, if she thought about it too much. She wondered (to herself) if there was more or less power in the not-saying. This led her to discuss, in her own private mental discussion group composed of various figurative incarnations of her different selves, what exactly “power” was, exactly. Frustrated, but still silent, Carole tapped her foot horizontally against the leg of her chair, as if pretending it was her leg attacking itself, trying to break it off, or as if her leg was her head and the chair leg was a wall (bump, bump, bump). Sitting there, tapping her leg against the chair, eyes a-glaze, for no apparent reason, she began to think about her name, and found it to be antiquated, and didn’t like it, and felt it was an “ugly” name, but sort of liked the silent “e” at the end, maybe. This led to a brief inventory of names with silent letters at the end, such as Anne, Joanne (well, that’s cheating), Lorrie (well, the “e” is extra, is it silent?), Sarah (was there a kind of breath that the “h” gave to the name, she didn’t know), Diane (there were a lot of silent “e”‘s and a lot of Anne variants, whatever)… She was probably forgetting many other silent-letter names. She liked how those names looked on paper, regardless of whether she liked how they sounded out loud. There was something pretty about the silent letter.

She looked across the table at Daniel, holding court, grandly gesticulating in his black blazer and rumpled dress shirt open to his hairy chest. Daniel was speaking, alternately loud and louder, about his English class. “I don’t know. It was easy enough, but I don’t know, at this point, when everyone in the class is a senior, I just don’t get the point of having pop quizzes, you know? I don’t get the point of having tests even, in the first place. It’s just like, what’s the point of learning, really? Is the point to demonstrate that your brain has retained these inconsequential bits of data and can spit them out in the requested way on command, or is there something more to it? I mean, my favorite classes are definitely the ones where the professor at least assumes that you’re doing your basic work and reading, you know, or doesn’t concern himself with checking up on you like he’s your mother or something, I just mean, what’s the point? I like a class where it’s all essays, just take your time, bang out something that says you get it or you don’t get it or here’s your take on it, you know? Because, that’s all there is, is your take on something, there’s no fucking definitive test result. That can have little or nothing to do with what you actually know. You know?”

The others listened with rapt interest, but Carole couldn’t help thinking that, if she was a professor, she’d hate to grade a paper that Daniel had written, owing to its (she presumed) verbosity, pomposity, and general annoying quality. She tried not to be too judgmental, though, Carole, and so she reprimanded herself a little bit, silently, for having kind of painted him into a corner, as it were, not that he knew about it, and tried valiantly, although somewhat unsuccessfully, to give him another shot, or to really listen to what he had to say next, in case it wasn’t a blur of inconsequential blather.

Or maybe it wasn’t blather, maybe it was just the way he said it, the way he felt the need to dominate the conversation and force-feed his opinions and attitudes to everyone all the time. The corner booth was a stage to him, and she didn’t want to be friends with a dramatic.

Why were these her friends, exactly? The answers were thin and not very nourishing. They seemed like intellectual equals, they were smart, although as soon as the thought left its nest or what-have-you she thought as a follow-up that it would seem bad, if someone were to overhear her thoughts, that she had immediately jumped to their intelligence as a descriptor, and they all “happened” to be guys, and so, you know, was she somehow devaluing the intelligence of her girl friends? Was she underestimating them or were they underestimating or under-representing themselves, that is, their intellectual selves? She felt some shame then, and really wondered why she was still sitting at the corner booth wedged between Wes and Andy, just kind of taking up space and thinking thoughts and giving herself the Nth degree and what-not, when really she didn’t want to be there, she didn’t want to hear Daniel drone on and on about how he should only have to write essays ’cause he’s a senior in college… But she couldn’t do it. Social niceties and all that shit. What a trap. Why was it this way? If you didn’t like something about a person, if you suddenly realized there were tenth-rate ideas emanating loudly and boorishly out of your nearest friend (or enemy’s) mouth, why couldn’t you just cover that mouth, or politely ask them to shut up for once, or, I don’t know, flee the corner booth with an unexpected shriek? It would be more honest, for a start. It wouldn’t be “nice,” it is true. What would be the result? She was kind of itching to know, but she knew she would just sit there and take it, as they say.

Wes and Andy were jumping in, one by one, with their takes on testing vs. essays. Already she was beginning to wonder if the topic really deserved this much serious discussion. She was picturing what she would say if she had the courage to interrupt one of them mid-sentence, what her contribution would be, and she started to feel bad that it had to be a “contribution”; even here, in the old wooden corner booth, it was still like a classroom, filled with great big brains, and she had to “contribute,” she couldn’t just say any old thing, or else she would be “ditzy” or “just thought she was smart but wasn’t” or was wasting the air-time that could have been given over to the guy next to her who undoubtedly had more “important” things to share. There was bitterness creeping in, and all the while she was silent, and she had given her leg a red mark from scraping and banging so gently but insistently against it, and she could feel her teeth threatening to grind. She adjusted her red sweater, and wondered where her mom was right now, and what kind of Christmas it would be. Her mind made color associations all the time, and many other associations besides, just like everybody’s, although she suspected hers were particularly free and wild and fast, her associations, which suggested some kind of vanity, she was aware.

What would Mom say in this situation? It was an open question. Mom certainly contained multitudes; that was the lynchpin of her charms (or was it her seemingly faultless heart (how could a heart be faultless? there were no faultless hearts, it was always an effort loving people) (and yet, her grace, was it earned, was it learned, where did it come from, what was it? she was dying to know how to get there, how to become an eminence of grace in the world, how to transcend all of one’s petty vanities and childish wishes and meaningless aspirations) (but what was meaningless, what did one hold on to and what did one let go of? what was important to never back down on, how did Mom seem to know what was important and what wasn’t?) (OK, I’m giving her too much credit, she’s not a saint, for Christ sake…there are many times she isn’t fair or she says something mean, although I swear she always apologizes and makes it better) (and yet, a certain grace, there’s no other word for it, and the whole concept is banal, the wisdom of maturity, a grace achieved over years of practice, it all sounds so ridiculous) (Christ-like, she’s Christ-like—no she’s not! she’s a graceful sinner, she’s found a way to be graceful in a human body!) (calm down, Carole…your brow is furrowing…your cheeks are red…the boys are staring at you)).

[Image by Maureen Gubia]

She smiled, because that’s what you do when you’re a girl and there are a bunch of boys staring at you, not really wanting you to speak but just kind of vaguely concerned that you look weird and flushed. Relieved of the burden of feeling vaguely that maybe there’s something wrong or “going on with” Carole, the boys returned to the important business of deciding, definitively, whether testing was appropriate at higher levels of education. Chuck, she always didn’t really think about Chuck, but there was Chuck, the other guy at the table, big block of a head and squashed ears and that hair where it’s short and it always looks like it’s got swarms of static electricity in it, even when it’s the summer and it hasn’t seen a stocking cap in months, just staticy-looking as hell. Anyway, Chuck had piped up with his usual patient, once-every-ten-minutes comment, and as always his interjection was thoughtful and advanced the conversation, however ridiculous in kind, toward some slightly better place. In this case, he said, “Don’t you think there are many ways to learn, and the teacher might very well have a good reason he’s doing it the way he is, giving you a test? I mean it’s very possible there’s a damn good reason he gives tests. You guys just suck at tests and are good at writing papers. This way the good test-takers have a chance.”

Daniel’s face betrayed his immediate disagreement with these statements, but all the boys nonetheless seemed to respect Chuck’s point of view.

“Aren’t most of the guys who are good at test-taking but bad at essays kind of lousy people, though?” Daniel said, and you could tell even he realized how ridiculous of an assertion it was.

“What?” Wes’ tone summed up the general consensus.

“Well, I just mean, there are so many assholes in this world who don’t really know the material, or are just naturally good at those lousy subjects that people take more tests in rather than essays, shitty subjects like Organic Chemistry and Calculus 500 or whatever, and they don’t even have to study to get good grades on a humanities test, even if they didn’t read the book or skimmed it or don’t really care about the subject, but still always get an A on the test because they’re just good at succeeding, at swimming well through whatever waters stand between them and their cozy, smug little successful future lives.”


“Hmm?” Daniel hadn’t been expecting Carole to jump in, at least not at this particular juncture.

“You’re pretty bitter,” Carole said.


“Yeah, bitter.”


“Yes, Daniel, bitter.”

“What exactly am I bitter about?”

“You’re bitter that there’s something you suck at that you actually need in life. You’re mad that there are people in the world with different interests and priorities and different skills than you. Something about them pisses you off.”

“Well, you’re right about that. Fucking engineering majors and business school kids do piss me off.” Daniel was tugging at his shirt collar as if suddenly his neck had gotten very fat and didn’t fit anymore.

“Why so much vitriol?”

The boys were leaning in now, it had dawned on them that “Carole is speaking, and in fact she’s taking on Daniel.”

Feet in, Carole didn’t want to get out now; she was going to follow through on whatever this bizarre confrontation promised.

Daniel’s neck was a pink, bulbous mass.

“Thanks for filling me in on how I’m feeling,” Daniel said.

“No problem. I just think you need to be a little more realistic.”


Daniel’s eyes had taken on a maniacal red, and his foot was chattering like mad. Carole adjusted her red sweater again and planted her feet firm into the ground. Suddenly the back room at Rathskeller deserved billows of smoke obscuring all but the beady eyes of those gathered in the old wooden corner booth; the overhanging lamps with their bulbs switched out for red ones, the better to radiate eerie macabre light; there ought to be wind whistling off Lake Mendota and lashing at the windows; melodramatic, of course, but Daniel was seriously pissed, and Carole knew what a hardhead he was and how much this got his goat in a headlock.

“You’re not being realistic, Daniel. You don’t need me to tell you that.”

“What in the… Goddamnit, Carole, I need to be more realistic? Seriously, what in the world do you mean by that? I need to accept that…[here Daniel adopted his here’s-the-daffy-shit-you-would-say voice] that some people are good at tests, and, you know what, some people are good at essays, and even though tests are pulling levers and barfing out little data bits that Good Mr. Professor had the courage to put on a little sheet for me to imprint on my little brain box, and even though you need a soul and some blood and some fucking insight into the goddamn human condition to write a real honest-to-God essay, not just the textbook and some flashcards and the willingness to be a robot, even though essays have thoughts in them and not answers, which as you well know there are no fucking answers in this world, even though that’s the case, I suppose you are right, Carole, I really should be more realistic.”

Carole shuddered. Daniel knew, he knew, in his heart of hearts, that his was the mind of minds, and about him, mere mortals, plus this obnoxious girl, who didn’t seem to want to date anyone, who was never flirty no matter how much he talked to her or tried to be nice to her, and who was just kind of a disgruntled audience member really, someone who should maybe know when to bite her tongue (at this point Daniel suddenly considered the fact that this was the very first thing she’d said since all of them had sat down an hour ago). Daniel despised Carole at that moment, and she knew it, and it hurt.

[Image by Sarah Meadows]

A queer thing, though: a sigh, a whole-body sigh coursed through Daniel like a wind through your hair. Carole saw it in the sudden resetting of his eyes, as if during a single blink’s interim Daniel had hopped galaxies. A lost insight—someone in Daniel’s past had given him the merest incarnation of wisdom and there it was returning now on its humble donkey to visit him when he needed it most. Dad had said… Dad said, that—Dad said that he was often wrong but rarely aware of it.

Daniel’s whole being spasmed at the thought of admitting he was wrong. This wasn’t a time to admit of things, of well-protected weaknesses and uncomfortable truths. But he somehow knew he had to. He somehow knew that there was a missing integrity, there was—God, in the slightest twist of his brain he was entirely sure of it—God, he had so much more, there was so much more. There was Carole, in her red sweater… You know what?! The first time he met her, at, um, what was it, student orientation, at Liz Waters, during lunch break, she was sitting with her mom in that wonderful side porch off the cafeteria with the sun through the windows and there Lake Mendota, the whole peaceful lakeshore out beyond the rock ledges leading down from the dormitory to the edge of this tranquil northern lake. Her mom had long hair—that surprised him—thick brown hair. Carole’s was thinner and a bit lighter, hint of red. Her legs full and wonderful and breasts peeking out of her shirt, smiling and gesticulating excitedly, probably telling Mom what she had seen on campus, what her concerns were, if she wanted to go here, or just random stuff. Daniel had wanted to be their fly on the wall.

His dad had been the one to butt in, from the next table over where he and Daniel were sitting. He coughed first, then just dived in: “I hear there’s a great dorm down a little further along the lakeshore, Bradley Learning Community, they’ve got learning groups and some extra things if you’re interested.” There was Dad pointing with his fork, quizzical little just-thought-you’d-like-to-know expression on his face, jolly gray beard… God! How did he get away with always butting in and telling people random things? Somehow no one ever minded when he did. They had struck up a conversation then, with the parents leading the way with all the usual chitchat and small talk about other colleges they’d visited, and classes their children wanted to take, and what major… Daniel spent the whole conversation feeling shy, removed within himself, gazing out the porthole at his big graybeard dad in his element: leading some new friends into the dining room, putting on some coffee, opening all the windows, taking their coats, making everyone feel like it was a lazy afternoon to be spent talking our way into those forgotten cubbyholes that hide in plain sight. Even mute, Daniel would have gladly wiled away the day in the presence of these, his beautiful father and the new visitors from a fresher planet. God, they were content! They were smart and demanding but content, a miracle somehow. He had Facebooked her, and they became friends. He called her and invited her to a concert at the union. She didn’t realize it was a date. He had been nervous; he didn’t know what to wear. At the concert, she was wearing the same blouse as the first day he met her. He didn’t know what to say. It had been awkward, but they remained friends. Now here they were, and he kind of hated her for telling him the truth.

“I guess I put that a little bluntly,” Carole was saying.

“You what?” Daniel’s mind was slowly returning to the conversation.

“I said I put that harshly. I was admitting I was mean to say it like I did.”

“Oh.” Somehow transfixed for a moment. “I mean, yeah, OK, well, thanks for saying so. I was…I was being a blowhard anyway.”

He’s at least admitted how full of it he is, Carole thought. She wondered, though, where that led, the humility of an admission—it was humble, but not humble enough. To her mind, it would take so much more humility to see that the mountain was composed of rocks, individual rocks, each a different mottled gray or speckled black, each rock never fully responsible for the mountain being there as it is but nonetheless responsible for it, that mountain, big and impenetrable, crowding out the horizon and the surrounding landscape, like a monolith—it would take the grace of her mother to see through something as big as all that. Why did she think of her mother so often? Like a homing pigeon with ADD, flapping about hither-thither down life’s broad roads, or malingering alone in the forest of discontent, where so many prior explorers have cleared dogged paths to nowhere—only to return to that apocryphal nest and its pageant drama. A new nest is what we need, she thought, not a place for babies and mothers and dads, but a place of new life nonetheless.

She looked at Daniel’s big blue squinty eyes. Even his could be tender. After the conversation wound down, and they had said their goodbyes, she walked away from the corner booth, out through the doors and down to the lake’s edge in darkness—all the while humming, under her breath, a private song.




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