Susan picked up rocks and sticks on her walks through the park.
“You have to get your raw materials somewhere,” she explained to herself, since no one was listening.
Sometimes the rocks were plain and dull and shapeless, like the ones she’d found in the gravel as a little girl. In those days she’d take the pebbles and use them to make marks in the sidewalk, like with chalk. She called them her chalk rocks and drew pictures with them. Pictures of a mommy elephant cleaning her babies with water from her trunk. Pictures of a mommy tiger and a daddy tiger watching The Price is Right while their lonely daughter built a fire in the hearth. Pictures of a little boy she called Silent Steve, fishing in the pond using sticks, rocks, and worn-out drill bits as bait.
“You know those rocks aren’t really chalk,” her mother had said.
“They’re my chalk rocks,” Susan had answered without looking up.
The rocks weren’t always dull though, not even in the park where the laughing people used to walk together. Sometimes they glittered in green or lavender, with little grains that reflected the light like a little swirling galaxy she could hold in her palm. Sometimes they opened here and there translucent, and when she held them up to the sky she could pretend they glowed with their own inner light.
(“Why are the mommy tiger and the daddy tiger ignoring the baby tiger by the fireplace?” Susan’s mother had never asked.)
Susan liked pretending more than she liked the real world.
“But you’re a grown up woman now and that means you have to pretend you’re not pretending anymore,” she reminded herself on the way to work most mornings.
Not that Susan didn’t have ample opportunity to pretend while she went about her daily business. She could pretend to take an interest in the daily waves of gossip from Lacey, who worked in accounting and appeared to genuinely care about The Company’s fiscal situation. She could pretend to believe Marvin, the Director of Marketing, would do more than pretend to read the consumer reports Susan pretended to work hard on for forty hours a week. She could pretend not to know why Tiffany from Operations with her truly obnoxious stilettos had really gotten two promotions in the last six months.
Sometimes Susan would pretend to get angry about these things. Sometimes she would pretend so well that even she would believe she was actually angry. Sometimes she would even pretend so well that she would pretend to herself that she would take real action about the things she pretended to care so much about.
But even in the midst of her pretend anger, she knew she didn’t have a real interest in the real world. It was never as real to her as the marks she’d made on the sidewalk as a child. Never as bright as the light shining through the translucent stones.
Lacey the accountant never asked about what Susan made with the rocks and sticks she gathered on her walks in the park. But that was all right, really, Susan preferred it that way. Not that she never daydreamed about it, of course. She liked to imagine Lacey, fascinated and wide-eyed, plying her with questions about all the little things she made. Or Marvin with his hooked nose, or even Tiffany with her rolling hips.
“I just make pictures,” she’d imagine herself saying with a little shrug, pretending to be reluctant to talk but really swelling with a joy she could hardly contain. “If you find the right rocks you can use them to draw on construction paper. Just little pictures, just for me, nothing special. And statues, I guess you could call them, with the sticks and the rocks.”
“Oh my God, you’re so creative,” she imagined Lacey saying, and even though she was just imagining it Susan felt herself redden with pleasure and embarrassment.
“It’s really nothing,” Susan imagined herself replying. “Just something to keep myself busy, make a little something that matters to me out of my time on Earth.”
“That’s more than most people do. I mean look at me, I just whine about everybody in the office and complain about my problems. Watch the kids get older and wish I could spend more time with them.”
“Kids?” Susan would grimace in real life even as she imagined saying the word. “Yeah… people have kids sometimes. If they’re happy enough with their lives and themselves to think life is a gift worth passing on.”
(Which wasn’t a thing Susan would ever say in her real life where she pretended to be a normal person. But she thought about it a lot. Wondered about it a lot. Suspected she’d ultimately decide life wasn’t a gift worth passing on, a lot.)
“But anyway, what do you make?”
“Depends on what I find. Sometimes I’ll draw pictures of a little boy going fishing. Only the bait he uses is all wrong–just rocks and drill bits and things like that, tied to the end of his line. I call him Silent Steve and love him like my very own, even if he is a little silly.”
“Why’s he use the wrong bait?” pretend Lacey would ask.
“Well, I never really asked him–and anyway he wouldn’t tell me because otherwise he wouldn’t be Silent Steve! But I’ve thought about it a lot. At first I thought it was that he didn’t know any better–that he was just a little touched in the head, you know? And didn’t realize he wouldn’t catch any fish that way. I liked that idea a little bit, because it made me feel all warm and a little embarrassed for him, you know, the way you feel a little love for somebody you don’t think is very smart, as long as they’re good natured about it. And Steve was always good natured, at least with me.”
“But he wasn’t just using the bait because he was stupid?”
“No, it turned out different from what I thought. Steve was actually more complex than I thought, and sadder, in a way. Lonelier maybe, although he’d never admit it.”
“How’s that?” she pretended Lacey asked her.
“Well, I realized he’s just like… or, well, to put it another way, I realized he likes fishing, but he doesn’t really like catching fish. Doesn’t like the taste much, for one thing. Feels bad when he catches a fish and kills it just for his own entertainment. He’s really only pretending to go fishing, you see? He doesn’t know what he’d do if he caught anything, so he makes sure he never does.”
“What a weird little man!”
“Not so weird, not really. I think there are a lot of people like that. Don’t know how they’d deal with getting what they want, so they block themselves. Sometimes in the most subtle ways.”
“Know anybody like that, do you?”
“Oh, maybe one or two. If you’re asking if I know any real life fishermen like Steve, though, the answer’s no. I don’t even know the first thing about fishing, really. But I don’t really know where my ideas come from. I just know I have to draw and some characters come up over and over again. Steve’s a little piece of me, I guess you could say. Something that hangs around in my soul and tries to get my attention now and then.”
Susan imagined conversations like that often, but she hated to impose herself. Wouldn’t dream of actually trying to share the truest part of herself with Lacey, Marvin, Tiffany, and the rest. And maybe that’s why the others seemed so distant to her, never quite real.