First published in 2004 at Pindeldyboz, “The Short, Unknowable Life of Frances Beachcomber” also began as an exercise. It’s one of my favorites, because once I left off from the prompt, I let my imagination roam, connecting images from real life (the beheaded snake) to the characters shaping in my head as I wrote.
The Short, Unknowable Life of Frances Beachcomber
Simon Beachcomber’s life had been most simple and most ordinary, and therefore, most terrible. Simple because he did not work at a stressful job that required much thinking. Simple because he and his wife, Frances Beachcomber, never quarreled, nor did they put forth undo emotions of any kind. Ordinary because he worked an eight-to-five job in an office, behind a desk, underneath a bright fluorescent light. Ordinary because each morning he drank coffee and read the business section of the paper while Mrs. Beachcomber also drank a cup of coffee and worked the crossword puzzle.
Both liked solving crossword puzzles and each evening Mr. Beachcomber would buy a second newspaper at the convenience store on the corner and solve the crossword while Mrs. Beachcomber cooked dinner. After dinner they compared answers. Most of the time they had answered the puzzle correctly.
Then Mr. Beachcomber would read at night before going to sleep. Mrs. Beachcomber, on the other hand, turned in and went to sleep right away.
Every week, every month, every year was the same.
Years, indeed, did pass and Mr. and Mrs. Beachcomber realized they were growing old together. And, Mr. Beachcomber, when he retired, had saved enough money over the years that he and Mrs. Beachcomber could live comfortably, spending their days working crossword puzzles, attending to ordinary life.
A few months after retirement, Mr. Beachcomber began to notice something missing, out of the ordinary, and it worried him greatly. He woke up one morning and realized Mrs. Beachcomber had been misplaced.
She hadn’t left. He just didn’t know where she was. He hadn’t noticed that for the past fifty years Mrs. Beachcomber had been shrinking steadily, until now she was the size of a quarter.
Mr. Beachcomber dressed, put on his favorite, though now unfashionable fedora—he had worn it every day since V-J Day—he buckled his belt, which just the day before he had to punch new holes in because it seemed he was losing weight daily, and fingered some lint in his left trouser pocket (Mrs. Beachcomber clung to his car keys as the cracked nail of his left forefinger scratched the surface of the pocket’s cloth), and he set out to search for his wife. On that first day, there was no luck. He hadn’t driven anywhere, only lumbered around the house.
There had been some excitement, though, when he hacked the head off a chicken snake that had crawled into the garden to digest a mouse. He mistook the chicken snake for a rattler and leveled the garden hoe against its neck, taking the head off in one chop. (And Mrs. Beachcomber always said the hoe wasn’t sharp enough to defend against a snake. He wished she were around to see it.)
After disposing of the snake, he went inside, laid his car keys on the dresser and took a nap. (Mrs. Beachcomber clung to the ring, her legs kicking through the vast gulf between the pocket and dresser, hollering frantically. Oh, if he’d only turn up that damn hearing aid!)
On the second day of his search he looked on his dresser where his keys lay. How odd, he thought, normally those are in my pants’ pocket. Why are they here?
Mr. Beachcomber sat on the edge of the bed, thoughtfully recollecting the actions that led to putting his keys on the dresser rather than leaving them in his pocket. He killed the snake; it could’ve been a rattler. Its head was like a rattler’s. If only Mrs. Beachcomber had been there. Now she might never know. She would have thought him brave.
What else had Mr. Beachcomber done? After killing the snake he saw fresh tomatoes on the vine and thought he’d pick them. Fresh tomatoes would please Mrs. Beachcomber, too. As Mr. Beachcomber stooped to pick each tomato his keys would slide out of his trouser pockets. So, he had them in his pocket then.
He then rubbed his left hip which was sore for some reason. Underneath his fingers he felt a small lump, what he figured was a bug bite (Mrs. Beachcomber had bitten and scratched him) and then remembered that while in the garden he had thought it was his keys that were scratching him, so he came in for a drink of water and retired to the bedroom where he decided to take the keys out of his pocket and lay them on the dresser while he napped.
The heavy key rings fell across Mrs. Beachcomber’s chest. She screamed. The rings had pinned her against the wooden dresser. Before long, her breath was crushed out.
Mr. Beachcomber stepped up from the bed. A scrim of blood and cloth seemed tangled in the key ring. He bent to investigate. There was his wife, the size of a quarter. Her limp, lifeless body.
Dead. Mrs. Beachcomber was dead. Though married to her fifty years, at that moment, looking at that tiny crushed body, Mr. Beachcomber thought he knew nothing about his wife. She was only Mrs. Beachcomber, a woman good at crossword puzzles, a simple and most ordinary thing.