Prudence and the Malnourished Soul

On that day - and indeed, all the days leading up to that day, the eve of his forty-second birthday - Jonathan Quay had lived a thoroughly inauspicious life, the detailing of which would exhaust the patience of even the most duty-bound reader. Suffice it to say that like the vast majority of God's children, his was a life built chiefly of routine, interspersed with the brief, superfluous moments of pleasure that in old age take the place of new experiences and ease us into our graves. Why this day, of all days, it suddenly became clear to Jonathan Quay that his soul had been lacking something of fundamental importance all these years is one of those universal mysteries the mortal mind would do better not to ponder too deeply, chiefly, for want of any suitable answer. Why was Jesus Christ born on a Thursday, after all? He simply was.

Jonathan Quay was an exemplary model of all the things modern society cherishes. Not once in his forty-two years can he be said to have taken an incautious step, for Prudence was his creed and Recklessness the Devil's gilded deception. It had impressed itself upon him at an early age that money can be lost as well as won, and an open heart was but a target for Fate's fiery arrows. From the beginning he had charted a course far from the rocky shores; his eulogy - "He lived a long, practical life" - had been penned with one foot still in the cradle, and was the perfect distillation of all that he had done and been. A curious religion, Jonathan Quay's, whose foundation was the very absence of Faith.

With such a philosophy as his guide, the circumstances in which Jonathan Quay found himself as he entered middle-age were not to be wondered at. His wife, two years his junior, was named Sandy, and to label her "plain" would be to confer on her a personality, something she decidedly did not possess. Jonathan did not love Sandy, for love was an emotion he was incapable of feeling and she incapable of inspiring. He did, however, care for her deeply and respected her as much as any woman he had ever known. She, for her part, shared his daily toil without whine or whimper, and if she had ever aspired to anything beyond quiet dinners at six o'clock and a crossword puzzle before bed, it had died out by the time she met Jonathan.

Jonathan and Sandy had one child together, a boy of eight named Herbert. Two memories stood out above all others whenever Jonathan thought about his son. The first was the day of his birth. Jonathan remembered the first time - after the umbilical cord had been cut and the baby cleaned off - taking his son in his arms, a tiny bundle wrapped in blue, and feeling a flutter pass through his stomach and the warm contentment which enveloped him like a shroud and conferred upon him for the rest of the day a grace one would have thought far above his attainability. He remembered wondering at the time whether this wasn't the boundless love a father was supposed to feel for his child, but years of reflection had shown it to be nothing so noble, only a heightened form of relief at having obtained the last of his middle-class aspirations.

The second memory had not yet had time to gather dust, the incident from which it stemmed taking place less than a year earlier. Walking Herbert to school in the morning, Jonathan had let his attention wander for a moment (he was often accustomed to daydream) when Herbert had taken it upon himself to cross a busy intersection, stepping right into the path of a speeding car. Without thinking, Jonathan had rushed out into the street and pulled his son to safety a mere instant before the boy was struck. As he sat down on the curb, panting with the aftereffects of adrenaline, his mind played out the gruesome alternative, the "what might have been" had he acted but a second later, and in his stomach a raw nothingness took hold and held him dumb and mute for several minutes, so that in the end it was Herbert who was forced to don the mantle of maturity and comfort his stricken father. Looking back on this moment, Jonathan could not help but feel that he had been on the right track somehow, that this curious emptiness which had now come upon him like a thief in the night was due to a lack of something that had existed there on that street corner in those fateful moments when the world had ceased to be the orderly, predictable system he had once thought it to be. But a more concrete connection he could not uncover, his mind better suited to problems financial than those emotional and spiritual.

Jonathan Quay worked as a funds manager at a medium-sized investment firm in the city. His office, tucked away in the corner of his firm's ten-story corporate headquarters, which was itself tucked away into the corner of a recently built industrial park, commanded a view of the neighboring office building (a manufacturer of semi-conductors, he believed it housed); a small slab of parking lot, which seemed to be perpetually two-thirds full; and beyond that, an expanse of poorly manicured grass, stretching in softly undulating, greenish-brown waves to a point beyond his field of vision. This view had been his constant companion for the past five years, when his last promotion has raised him up from the ground floor into the rarified air of middle-management. His position in the company, it was generally thought, was exactly where it ought to be for a man of his years and contributions, and if all went according to plan it was supposed he would join the lower executive ranks sometime before his fiftieth birthday. Jonathan understood his job well, invested for the long-term, and never failed to make for his clients a modest gain. "Now that the Fed has a handle on inflation, a safe bet's a safe bet." This phrase he had first said at a party over four years ago, and had liked the sound of it so much that he continued to repeat it whenever he found himself in the presence of unfamiliar company, imbuing his voice with greater and greater meaning each time he uttered it, as if he had hit upon some grand and noble truth. And if it failed to make any kind of a first impression, it was never met with anything but respectful nods and polite smiles. This was a compromise Jonathan Quay could accept.

Jonathan's birthday celebration was to be a modest affair, dining out at a local restaurant early in the evening and returning home later for ice cream and presents. Only Sandy, Herbert and he would be in attendance, this not being one of the eight yearly occasions that necessitated the presence of extended family; though he dare not speak the feeling aloud, Jonathan was grateful for the impending intimacy, his more distant relations filling him with a sense of discomfort that bordered on consternation. How unlike him they were! Cousin Eddie, downing tumbler after tumbler of hard liqueurs, well before sundown, and having the bad taste - at Grandmother Hazel's ninetieth birthday party, no less - to stroke a champagne flute in such a manner as to suggest the aroused male member. His oldest niece, Dawn, who at thirty years of age had visited more than forty countries, but had yet to hold down a single, real job. ("What's a real job, anyway?" she had asked him on one occasion. "One with a comprehensive benefits package," he had retorted, wittily.) How it was these people stumbled and floated from day to day doing exactly whatever they pleased, with no concern for the consequences of their actions, was one of life's great mysteries to Jonathan. It seemed to him that consequences were a necessary (and welcomed) constraint, the boundaries that gave form to one's existence. Without them to focus and guide one's energy, a person might find themselves drawn in a thousand directions at once, spread so thin their very essence would dissolve, like a vaporous mass dispersing across the enormity of the universe.

Jonathan Quay awoke the following morning and was forty-two. This affected him in no discernable way; he felt much the same as he had the day before, had expected to feel thus, and the exactness with which Life had endeavored to meet his expectations depressed him to no end. Had his waking played out as a scene in a film, overlaid with mournful chamber music and with the camera slowly panning in on the frozen blankness of his face, one would be forgiven for thinking that some profound realizations were taking place deep within his mind. But Jonathan, being on the most intimate terms with his own thoughts and feelings, had no such cinematic veil with which to delude himself. For this was the real world, inelegant in every aspect, and blankness was blankness, and the shrill cawing of a crow outside a vulgar substitute for Beethoven's 'Sonata No. 14'.

Jonathan was alone in his bed. Sandy, he knew, was already downstairs, preparing for him a special birthday breakfast of two eggs (over easy), two slices of Canadian bacon and an English muffin, the same meal she had made for him on each of his birthdays for the past eleven years. At the foot of the bed lay a folded sheet of paper; Jonathan leaned forward to retrieve it and found it was a handmade birthday card from Herbert. "Happy Birthday Dad!" it said on the cover, a sentiment Jonathan found repeated, word for word, when he opened the card to look inside. He read these words again and again and - finding little more in them the tenth time than he had the first - set the card aside and dragged himself to his feet. Wearily, he shuffled over to the window and drew open the blinds on a gray, rain-swept morning. For a moment, he allowed himself the vain pleasure of imagining this scene as a metaphor for his troubled soul. But vanity did not come easily to him, and there was little about him that could truly be described as "troubled".

In a wrapped box, hidden away in the back of the downstairs hall closet, was a mulberry-colored bathrobe that was to be Jonathan Quay's forty-second birthday present. He had spied it accidentally a week earlier, stashed away beneath the bed, before Sandy had had a chance to wrap it. It was, he considered, a suitable gift, he having expressed a fondness for the garment approximately a month earlier during the course of a visit to a local shopping center. Opening the bedroom window, Jonathan craned his neck to look out across the yard, then down at the glistening gray of the sidewalk stones below. His bedroom was on the third story; it looked, he thought, to be a long ways down. The rain fell in a steady drizzle on the back of Jonathan's neck. He stood that way for some time, until a chill, like a ghost's icy finger, traveled down his spine and roused him from his thoughts. He leaned back into the room, closed the window and examined his pale reflection in the glass. With a rocky grimace and the piercing shriek of the tea kettle calling him from the kitchen, Jonathan Quay chose the more subtle form of suicide, and headed downstairs to take his meal.

About the author:

Randall DeVallance is a 2002 graduate of Edinboro University. Over twenty of his short stories have appeared in publications such as McSweeney's Online, Eyeshot and Vestal Review and have been nominated two times for a Pushcart Award. He is also the author of a short novel, Dive, published in 2004 by Exquisite Cadaver Press. Currently he is serving with the Peace Corps in Bulgaria.