Peter emerged from his house and stepped out on to his front stoop. He looked to his left. John, his next-door neighbor, was standing on his stoop. He wore a white button-up shirt, black tie, and navy blue pants.
Peter looked to his right. Tom was standing on his stoop, adjusting his black tie, tightening it into the ring of fat that surrounded his neck. He nodded at Peter. Peter returned the acknowledgment.
Peter looked down at this own clothing. Gray Tie, white shirt, and navy blue pants. He was safely dressed this morning.
The three men descended their stairs and went to cars parked sensibly close to the curb and safely out of the road. Each man drove a four-door sedan, that was good on gas and rated well for safety. They drove to their office buildings where they worked in cubicles with others like them. To be unlike them would be unwise because to be different would bring attention and maybe questions and if there are questions, there have to be answers, but the people of Normality, USA had all the answers they needed or were comfortable with.
The shifts at the office ended. People turned off their computers and made their way to their cars that were unique only because their owners had gone to great lengths to be more normal than others. Comments like, “oh that’s a pretty gray, there Charles, the dirt will barely show,” were frequently overheard in the parking lot. The people with the newest version of the same car everyone else had, were the envy of the lot. The gaggle bantered about simple things and avoided the deeper depths where the secrets hid. They talked about the big game coming up that weekend or the latest unreality show, but they never talked about the boss’s unreasonable expectations or the shallow nature of their lives – they just went on treading water, careful to stay above the waves and even more careful to pretend they didn’t exist.
Peter walked through the lot, sending a wave to a couple co-workers as he went, “don’t do anything crazy this weekend.” He turned the key and the four-cylinder purred to life. He backed from his spot and joined the procession exiting the parking lot. Each car crept to the exit and slowly, but decisively moved into traffic. Peter merged into the flow of cars. For a second or maybe it was less than a second, he thought about going a different way home. Wait, what? Why would I think about going another way when this way works just fine, with no surprises or delays? Peter shook his head. He wasn’t sure what that was – that little event, but he didn’t need it. The inefficient little nuisance bothered him. His hands began to sweat, and the wheel felt slimy.
He pulled into his driveway and killed the engine. He wiped his hands on his pants but he couldn’t seem to get them dry. He looked at them and they glistened under the fading light of a late autumn day. He felt a tightness in his chest that made breathing difficult. The more he noticed the tightness the tighter it got. He wiped his palms harder on his pants. He rubbed them back and form, faster and faster. They began to burn, but he rubbed harder. They didn’t feel drier, so he continued. The burn was intense and was all he could think about. He wanted dry hands and a clear mind like he always had. He stopped rubbing and turned his hands over. They were red, with tiny rolls of navy blue material stuck to what sweat remained. As he stared at his hands, he noticed his breath moving in his nose, down his throat, around in his lungs and then out again. There was peace in that. He sat, empty-headed for a few moments and just noticed the simple process of breathing. He felt better. He felt back on track. He got out of the car. He had a routine that demanded adherence. He felt better in the routine. There were no detours or sweaty hands within its confines. There were only predictable outcomes, dependably prepared meals and neatly laundered clothes. Peter felt like he was back in his lane and safely back on track.
The next morning, Peter woke up at six am. He always woke up without an alarm. His early-to-bed and early-to-rise routine had his internal clock operating with a level of precision that would make the Swiss jealous. He went through the morning rituals. Shave the face, brush the teeth and shower the body.
He stood clean and prepped in front of his closet. Perfectly pressed clothes hung evenly spaced from a brightly polished rod. He removed a white shirt and navy blue pants from their hangers. He moved to the tie carousel. He spun it, pondering which gray or black tie he’d wear. He twirled the carousel slowly and watched ties pass by like animals on a merry-go-round. He stopped abruptly. A red tie hung neatly between a charcoal gray and jet black one. A bead of sweat formed on his forehead and rolled down his face. The tie was dull and faded with age. It had been there forever but somehow he had missed it. He must have bought it a long time ago – probably when he was young and immature. The world didn’t have room for red ties or the fools that would wear such things. Life was short and serious. He removed it from the hook and turned it over in his hand. His fingers removed a layer of dust, revealing a vibrant red fabric underneath. He stood, slacked-jawed, “well it’s just the prettiest thing isn’t it?” He gave the tie a couple good shakes and freed it from its dusty covering.
He put on his shirt and pants. He stood in front of the mirror and held the tie up to his neck. A slow burn began in his mind. He positioned the tie to simulate wearing it and found the red against the white fuel the warm, glowing sensation within him. The excitement smoldered and spread down into his throat where it met resistance coming up from the anxious knot forming in his chest.
These two forces struggled in his center. Each pushing the other, gaining and losing ground in the war for Peter’s attention, but the warmth of inspiration spread like a slow-burning wildfire until it consumed the knot and any doubt along with it.
He put the tie around his neck and formed the knot that would cost him his life.
He snugged the tie up under the wings of his collar and shifted it, into the right spot. His breath caught in his throat. The white shirt looked purer because of the red tie and the red tie looked more vibrant because of the white shirt. The two together had formed something that wasn’t possible in a world where only the bland get noticed.
He stood for several moments admiring the sight in the mirror and the feeling it produced in the fabric of his being. He spun around, grabbed his briefcase and car keys and went back to the mirror for one last look. This time he noticed the smile on his face. He had forgotten that his mouth was capable of that. Today a red tie had lifted the corners of his mouth and the center of his soul.
He stepped out into his front stoop. John and Tom were already in their normal spots. They were wearing similar clothes, safely the same and safely normal. Tom noticed Peters tie first. His face went through a range of contortions before it settled in a disgusted arrangement of mouth, eyes, and eyebrows.
Peter looked over towards John but his gaze never made it to John’s stoop. Neighbor John stood in front of Peter. He’d never talked to John – neither had anything unique to bring to a conversation so none was ever needed.
John stared at the tie. “What, um, what is that… what are you doing?” John’s forehead and upper lip glistened with sweat despite the morning‘s crisp temperatures.
“It’s a tie. I liked it and decided to wear it today,” Peter said with a slight smile and a reoccurrence of the sensation that had made him wear the tie in the first place.
Tom joined them on the stoop. Peter backed up into the closed front door. The stoop was built for coming and going, not congregating.
Tom’s gaze was fixed on Peter’s tie. “Why would you do this?” “I mean why would you, um step out like this?”
“I just saw the tie today and decided I liked it, but I really don’t know why so I can’t answer you.”.
John stepped closer, “but people don’t wear red ties or any other color for that matter.”
“You guys can wear whatever you want. Why can’t everyone just wear whatever makes them happy?
John and Tom looked at each other, dumbfounded
“Happy, what does that have to do with anything?” Asked John.
Tom stepped even closer. “what you’ve done is weird and doesn’t make a damn bit of sense.”.
John nodded, “weird, yes that’s what this is, weird. You’ve gone off the deep end here Peter, no telling what you’ll do next.”.
Tom crossed his arms,” that’s a really good point what the hell will he do next. This behavior has thrown everything out of whack”.
“Can’t be trusted,” said John.
“Sure seems that way,” Tom agreed.
“Wait, you guys can wear whatever you want too. Don’t you see, there’s nothing wrong with it? Look I’m fine, nothing, bad happened. Sun’s still shining and the birds are still singing.”
Tom and John looked around as if they had just noticed that a thing called the sun and things called birds, existed for the first time.
Tom shook his head, “I liked things the way they were yesterday. I knew what was going on and I had everything figured out. I didn’t have to waste time thinking about anything. Went to work, did my job and went home and went to bed. Now I don’t know what’s going on. This tie makes me feel something. Like, I feel really bad.”
John nodded again. “You’re right I’m feeling something and I sure don’t like it. Yesterday was much easier, and the day before that and the day before that. They were so easy in fact that I don’t really remember them. I liked things much better before this feeling thing. Now I’m all stirred up like someone let loose a bunch of bugs in my head.
Tom hit Peter first. A punch that landed squarely on the jaw and sent Peter back into the door and onto the ground.
Tom stood over Peter. “Um, you brought this on yourself. I’m messed up. I’m unsure about things. What else don’t I know?
Peter struggled to his side. John kicked him in the face.
“A red tie? You’ve got no right to force us to feel or think.” “We didn’t have this problem yesterday. “He stomped Peter ’s bloody face.
Tom and John stood over Peter as his fixed eyes stared off into forever and his last breaths bubbled through his broken face.
Tom turned to John, “what happened here?”
”I don’t know, I mean why would he upset the apple cart like that?” John replied
Tom shrugged. ”I can’t figure it out.”.
“Starts with a red tie and then who knows what’s next. “
“Nobody knows. Anything then right? Think of the possibilities – actually don’t do that. No good can come from that.” Tom put his hands to his face and shook his head.
John agreed. “You start messing around with thoughts and feelings and there’s no telling what will happen”.
“Well, that’s behind us now. “
“Right. Back to normal. “
“This messed up my whole day. I’m late for work”
“If I explain to my boss, he’ll understand. He certainly wouldn’t tolerate a person crazy enough to wear a red tie. “
“Mine either. My boss likes things by the book. Orderly and productive that’s what we do. It’s better that way. “
“For sure.” He pointed down at Peters’s lifeless body. “He said happy.“
I heard that I thought to myself what the hell does happiness have to do with anything?”
“I know right. Life ain’t about being happy it’s about getting things done and maintaining order – the system depends on it. “
“That’s right. Very true.”
“Well enough talk, it’s off to work. “
“Right same here.”
The two descended the stairs and parted, each going to their car.
Tom stopped before getting into his sedan, “Hey John,” he yelled.
“You feel anything? “
John gripped the door, it was the only thing that kept him on his feet. Tom noticed that John was crying. John yelled, “Tom why would you ask such a stupid question?”
John threw himself into the driver’s seat. Tom watched as the backup lights flashed on and the brake lights dimmed. Johns car whined as he demanded all the four cylinders could give him. He smashed into Peter’s car with a terrible crash.
Tom jumped and ran to the wreck. John was in the front seat. His eyes stared straight ahead, “Tom my head went back and forth hard, I heard my neck crack. I can’t move Tom. I can’t feel anything”. John laughed at his own comment but his laughter transitioned to crying. “I feel something, Tom. It’s in my head and it’s terrible. I feel sad. I feel scared. I didn’t have this problem yesterday.”
Tom didn’t know what to do as he watched John flow between fits of crying and bouts of horrible laughter. Suddenly, John became calm and still, there were no longer any of the terrible signs of thinking or feeling. Tom wanted to go to the car but didn’t. He wanted to run, but couldn’t. He saw Peter on his stoop and John now, still and silent in his car and it was all too much to handle. The world spun in a new direction. He could feel it. He felt like he was about to be thrown off the globe – out into space and out into whatever was out there. He kneeled in the middle of the road. His mind raced with thoughts of a red tie, Peter and John. He cried because he was feeling so much all at once. He wasn’t good at this. He only wanted an end. He wanted to go to work and worry about the numbers again. The numbers always added up, but this morning was a problem he couldn’t solve. The thoughts moved in and out, repeatedly, the same painful ones, the same painful visions. People should be happy and do what they want.
“We can’t do what we want,” he yelled. “We can’t. It doesn’t work like that.” He rocked back and forth and he felt like his head was out of control and not his own.
He looked to the car and the stoop and back again. He couldn’t stop. He stood up and jumped headfirst into the street. His head slammed into the pavement and intense pain killed the thoughts and blinded him to the visions. He felt dull and pain clouded hints of what was. Things will never be normal again. The thoughts popped back into focus and circled his mind, this time accompanied by confusion. He brought himself to a kneeling position, tendrils of blood streamed from his head and onto the road. He arched his back and drove his head into the road one last time, finally quieting his mind.
Tom lay still on the cold asphalt next to John’s idling car and in front of Peter’s, stoop as one last thought entered and exited his mind, I’d like to be happy too.