This was the third story I wrote, couldn't make anything else work. Hell, I'm not sure this works. But it's better than the others. Anyway, thought I would share. Feel free to CM me with revision ideas or post publicly. I still have tomorrow night to work on it and get it submitted, with even some backup time if needed on Friday evening. Enjoy!
THE 85% MAN
Brad lugged his duffel bag into the laundromat and hoisted it onto one of the orange plastic chairs near the front. It had been a while since he'd washed his clothes, so his duffel had that heavy-bag appearance from a boxing gym. Brad imagined punching the grime out of it, like beating garments on rocks near the river. Maybe that would work better. Or maybe the real dirt would stay behind anyway. It didn't really matter. Brad was going to do his laundry, run some errands, and then go home to kill himself.
Brad wasn't sure why he wanted to end with clean clothes, except there were items he wanted to donate to charity before he went. Better to leave matters clean and neat. He wasn't worried about tidying up for anyone in particular, just that whole generic "other" that he still felt the need to be square with. After he took the pills, he hoped all anyone would have to do would be to remove his body from his furnished apartment and stick the "FOR RENT" sign back in the lawn. Orderly.
Brad looked around the laundromat. He disliked the place, but it was walking-close and usually empty. Four pairs of back-to-back washing machines lined the center of the area. Three or four units were in various states of eternal disrepair, adorned with paper signs stating "BROKEN", "EATS QUARTERS", or "NO RINSE". The back wall was made of six dryers, two stacked rows of three, all currently empty. The rest of the room was made up of a quarter-changer and detergent vending machine to the right, a static-y TV mounted above the dryers showing the Saturday morning real estate program, and the dozen or so plastic chairs lining the front and left side. It was quiet.
Inverting his bag, Brad watched the dirty clothes stream out and expand into a wrinkled mountain on the chair. He then started sorting out lights and darks, depositing like colors on either side of the original mound. It didn't take long before the initial hill had become two, and Brad scooped up the lights. He waddled his way to one of the working machines and wrestled the clothes inside. He then walked to the vending machine for detergent, back to his machine, and soon had it filling. Half of his final laundry had begun.
Brad went back to the other half, the pile of darks, and took a seat. He wasn't sure how he was feeling this last day, but then dealing with introspection was never his strong suit. Part of the problem, Brad supposed. Brad's younger brother Greg had committed suicide four years earlier, and Brad had read that these sorts of things can run in the family. Since he was the only one left, Brad figured it made sense. With that tiny amount of reflection, he felt fine.
It's not like Brad's life was all depression and hardship, after all. It didn't work like that. Yes, losing Greg had been like losing a body part, a gift, a talent, a home. All at once. Brad imagined he had a bit of an inkling as to what a parent burying a child must go through. An older brother shouldn't have to bury a younger.
But that was years ago. Life was OK. Jobs came and went, relationships came and went, seasons changed, and blah blah blah. Brad did struggle with depression, but drugs and therapists kept things bearable. None of that had anything to do with the reality of Brad's situation. No one could really get it, because nothing was really wrong.
Brad checked his watch, and then reached around to hug his pile of darks. He stood up and walked to another washing machine, got detergent, and got that load going too. Light and dark, it was all getting clean now. One hundred percent. Brad walked back to his chair, checked his watch again, and sat down. He let out a long breath and clasped his hands in his lap.
Brad thought of himself as a pleasant guy, quiet, with a sense of humor deeper than some might suspect at first. He was into a lot of activities, and did OK at most of them. He could sing fairly well, plinked around on guitar and piano, enjoyed basketball, and knew a fair amount of movie trivia. People liked talking to Brad since he was an above-average listener and wasn't just waiting for his turn to speak. Many considered Brad "well-rounded" and a "man of varied interests". He could equally be described as "harmless" and, "Who's Brad, again?"
Brad sighed. Eighty-five percent.
Brad figured he could do about 85% of everything, at about 85% effectiveness, whatever that meant. Actually, Brad knew EXACTLY what it meant. He had a lot of interests and could do a lot of things moderately well. He knew he could probably tell a joke better than most people in the room, but there was always someone else there who could do it better. Brad knew he would always get a nice raise at his programming job, but the promotions would go to others on his team. Brad knew he could start almost any new endeavor and get it done. Mostly done. Usually about 15% away from completion, perfection, or being fully-realized. Brad was The 85% Man. If you wanted something done just good enough, give Brad a call.
The problem with the 85% thinking was the mental toll. It took Brad 47 years to realize that 85% wasn't the same as 100%. Just because you CAN do a lot of things doesn't mean you will be REALLY good at them. He fondly remembered his youth, when the 85% seemed like he was better than everyone else. Brad could almost muster a weary smirk at the nostalgia. In those days, Brad would try EVERYTHING, mainly just to feel-out how good everyone else was at that particular effort. As soon as the upper 15% would manifest itself, usually in the form of someone better, stronger, faster -- that was enough of that. Almost instantly, Brad's powerful skills of rationalization and humor would glide him out any socially acceptable exit:
"Oh, that new consulting job?" Brad would say, "I tried it a while but it just wasn't my thing. I mean, who wants all that stress and those meetings all day!" In truth, Brad had completed a few projects well, but then ran into some harder tasks that he either couldn't handle or just didn't want to.
"Yeah, I'm totally going to keep customizing my car," Brad told a friend after replacing his coupe's hail-damaged hood with a sweet, carbon-fiber unit. "I'm even thinking about joining that custom auto club that meets out in St. Charles..." Brad loved his new hood, but was too lazy to add any other mods. He never went out to St. Charles.
"Those magic tricks I used to do?" Brad told his brother back when Greg was still alive, "I still remember a few...I might even put together a whole routine someday..." Brad's sleight-of-hand prowess and showmanship skills never got beyond the parlor-trick phase.
"I just don't see why we HAVE to get married..." Brad told a girlfriend two weeks before they broke up. "Marriage is just such a social...religious...forced construct. Why can't we just keep on going at the level we're at?" Brad was simply terrified of commitment and too selfish to fully share his life. He figured the level they were at had been about 85%.
The cop-outs, however, were not nearly as cruel as the things Brad couldn't let go of so easily. The goals he couldn't just rationalize away. Dreams were harder because Brad kept wanting them.
Take, for example, writing. Writing wasn't something a person could do halfway. As Brad eventually discovered, it wasn't even something he could do beyond 85%. But he kept trying. That 85% had so much praise and glory in it! College professors had told Brad he was "an exceptionally good writer" even for papers he had ripped through in just a few pre-dawn hours. Stories he would tell about his life were often met with, "You should really write that down! I'd buy a book about that!" As virtual worlds and communities began dotting the Internet landscape, Brad's 85% blossomed onto forums, posting boards, and witty group emails. "Oh, Brad, that newsletter you send out every week after kickball is so funny! How do you do it?"
That mix of compliments, being noticed, and other people asking "how do you do it?" was a heady, delicious cocktail to An 85% Man. That sense that Brad was doing something others couldn't was especially addictive. And the craving was based on truth... Brad could do writing -- better than about 85 people out of a 100.
Half-finished stories littered Brad's computer desktop. Rejection letters littered Brad's real desktop. Brad attended a couple writing workshops where the 15% of writers better than him ate him up inside, ruining his joy. But they couldn't ruin it enough for him. Brad swallowed his jealousy and kept trying. Thinking of great starts, opening lines, plot twists, and character quirks. Shock dialogue, stylistic nuances, and endless-yet-never-complete revisions. All disjointed, all going after an instant 100%. The worst part was having someone read a story he had written and have them give that little smile, that smile just shy of "great."
Finally, the dream was crushed. Brad didn't have writer's block, he had percentage block. He couldn't finish anything and lost the will to try. The old reflex of rationalizing kicked in with a vengeance after being subdued so long: writing is stupid, no one cares anyway, no one gets it. No one gets me.
And Brad was OK with no one getting him. He was resigned because he completely accepted it as truth, even logical. People are unique and different and difficult, so why shouldn't it be OK that they go their separate ways? That entire ways of being and living become sequestered and alone? This all made sense to Brad and was OK. He had spent a great deal of his life being alone in one way or another. He had zero problem envisioning a path he would walk himself, feeling at ease with unfinished stories and incomplete goals. Maybe he could even go down surrendering path all the way. One hundred percent.
Brad felt great relief, then, when he was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer.
Brad remembered the feeling when his doctor had given him the news about two months prior. It was as if he had been granted license to fail. Never reaching goals was just a pre-cursor to this final, unavoidable loss. While others in such a situation might desperately seek some sort of legacy or redemption, Brad had no illusions about how he was going to handle it. The 85% Man was going to embrace his identity and glide to the exit like always. That last 15% would be nothing but pain and helplessness anyway, and there was no reason to endure that...
Brad jumped as he heard the laundromat door open. He checked his watch again and realized had been lost in his thoughts for more than twenty minutes. He got up to check his laundry.
As he finished moving his wet clothes to the dryers, he glanced over at the new arrivals. A woman had come in with her young son, a curly-haired redhead clinging to his mother's leg tightly as she sat her laundry basket on one of the machines. The boy was looking at Brad.
"Do you have any quarters?" the woman asked, giving Brad a start. "The stupid change machine is still broken, I just need a couple bucks worth..." She reached out two wrinkled bills.
"Sure, sure," said Brad, taking her cash. He fished in his pockets for some quarters and cupped them into the woman's hand. Her son gazed up at the exchange, mesmerized by the silvery coins.
Brad suddenly recalled one of the old magic tricks he used to do and pulled back two quarters from the woman's hand. He pinned the quarters in each hand with his thumbs and held his seemingly empty hands out in front of the boy, palms down. Still holding the boy's gaze, Brad quickly darted his right hand behind the boys left ear while simultaneously dropping the left quarter into the boy's right coat pocket. The boy's head jerked to the left to watch Brad's right hand as Brad pulled back to reveal a quarter from behind the boy's ear.
"What do you think of that?" Brad asked the boy. The boy's mom smiled silently, knowing there was more to come.
"Mommy, can I help now? I got a quarter!" the boy said.
"Sure, honey, but mommy needs two quarters..." the woman said, turning out to be a capable assistant.
"Maybe you should check in there," Brad said, pointing to the boy's right coat pocket.
The boy reached into his pocket and began to giggle. His eyes grew wide as he pulled out the other quarter and placed it in his left hand with the first one. His eyes stayed wide as he looked at the magical fifty cents, and his laughter quieted into a huge silent smile.
"Thanks!" the boy shouted. Before Brad knew it, the boy was hugging his leg, tiny fingers gripping his left pocket and seam. "I get to help mommy now!"
Brad smiled a little as the boy let go to join his mother at the washing machine. She lifted him up so he could put his two quarters into the slots. She inserted another two and the boy clapped as the lights on the machine started blinking and the load started filling with water.
Brad shuffled back to his chair, crossed his legs, and placed his hands back in his lap. After a short time, he realized he was crying. He was smiling, too, and kept his tears modest so that he didn't upset the boy and his mother. He kept thinking of the boy's smile, happiness without limit. It was 100% and couldn't be diminished right now. As he wiped his eyes with subtle finger strokes, Brad hoped the boy held on to his 100% as long as could.
Then, eyes clear, Brad checked his watch one more time and anxiously waited for his laundry to dry.