Steve Denniston, 10/13/2014

Current Occupation: Classroom assistant at an elementary school
Former Occupation: Wildland firefighter
Contact Information: If Steve had a tattoo it would say, ‘Born to Write. Forced to Work.’ He lives and works in Portland, Oregon, and can be found in coffee shops, brew pubs, and on Twitter @SteveDenniston.


Even With Sharon Being the Way She Is


    I make keys at the hardware store.  All kinds of keys.  House keys scream the loudest when I make them.  There is the screech of metal grinding off that everyone hears and I feel another sound underneath that one.  I know keys don’t really scream, it’s just what I hear.

    When there aren’t any keys to be made I go to the back and Sharon tells me what to do and I do it.  Sometimes I unpack boxes.  Sometimes I tear down boxes.  Sometimes I count things.  Counting is good.  Knowing how much there is of something, coming up with a real number, that means something.  I can touch that number when I’m done and I know I’ve done a good job.  I don’t mind the other work, but counting is my favorite.  I’m good at that.

    That’s what I’m doing when Rodger comes into the back.  “Hey lobotomy bro,” he says, “customer needs a key.”  He throws a key on the table in front of me.

    “Shut up Rodger.”  Sharon walks in behind him.  He needs to tell me when a customer needs a key made so she shouldn’t tell him to shut up.  She’s always angry when she talks to Rodger.  When they argue I want to be somewhere else.  I pick up the key.  It’s a car key.  A Toyota.  I go to where the machine is and make the key.

    Sharon tells me Rodger is not my friend.  Rodger laughs a lot when he talks to me.  I don’t say much.  Laughing means someone is happy.

    My case worker’s name is Ted.  He’s not my friend.  We have a professional relationship.  It’s his job to help me.  He’s nice and says he understands when it’s tough for me, but that we know each other professionally.  That’s different from friendship.

    I go to Subway for lunch after I make the Toyota key.  Usually I make a lunch at home but on Thursdays I don’t.  There is a line at Subway.  Five people in front of me and another three behind me.  Sometimes you have to wait in line.  The line will move and you’ll get your turn, but you have to wait.

    There is a baby too.  Maybe I should have counted the baby so it’s six people in front of me.  The baby is crying.  Louder and louder.  This is a real scream.  Everyone can hear it but no one is doing anything.  When someone cries it means they’re hurt.  When someone is hurt you should help them.  “The baby is crying,” I say to the people around me.  No one does anything.  I say louder, “The baby is crying.”

    “Hey Dustin,” Meagan says to me.  Meagan is at the cash register today.  Her hair is very short but she’s a girl.  “Are you waiting in line?”

    “I am,” I say and point to the baby, “it’s crying.”

    “It’s okay,” Meagan says.

    The woman with the baby turns to me.  “His teeth hurt.  That’s all.  He’s getting new teeth.”  She turns around again.

    “Sometimes it’s okay to cry,” Meagan says.

    I nod my head.  “It’s okay to cry,” I say to the baby.

    I know Meagan.  Before you can be someone’s friend you need to know them.  To get to know them you have to be friendly.  Being friendly is different from being friends.  It’s possible to be too friendly.  This makes people nervous.

    To be nervous is a kind of uncomfortableness.  Ted talks to me a lot about understanding what makes people nervous.  He wants to know what makes me nervous too.  We read stories about it together.  He calls them social stories.  They’re about how people feel.  Sometimes the stories make me nervous.  I don’t tell Ted that because he smiles when we read them together.

    Back at work Rodger asks if I want to do some videos with him again.  He videos me on his phone.  I turn my head from side to side, then I turn all the way around.  When I watch the video I can see the sides of my head and the back of myself.  Sometimes Rodger tells me things to say when we’re doing video.  The words don’t make any sense but I say them anyway and Rodger laughs.  It’s funny seeing myself on his phone.  Both of us laugh a lot.

    Sharon asks what I was doing with Rodger.  She’s angry and keeps asking what he tells me to say but she’ll only shout louder no matter what I tell her so I don’t say anything.  Finally she leaves and I go back to counting.  It’s a shipment day so there is a lot more to count.

    There are twenty-five EcoSmart Soft White Lightbulbs 14-Watt.  It matches the inventory sheet and I write my number down next to the twenty-five printed on the invoice.  I touch both numbers.  I really want today to be a good day, even with Sharon being the way she is.

    Rodger brings me another key at the end of the day.  “Think you’re up to it, bro?”    Sharon is watching.  I nod my head.  “I can do it.”  It’s a house key.

    Rodger says “What?” to Sharon and she says to him, “Michael wants to talk to you.  In his office.”  Rodger says, “This is bullshit.”  That’s a red word, not a green word.  You shouldn’t say red words.  He goes back to the office and I go to the machine.

    I select the right key for the copy, put both of them into the machine and turn it on.  I have to keep my hand on the machine, pushing the button so it runs.  Sharon comes over and says, “Rodger won’t bother you any more.  I thought you’d want to know.”  She puts her hand on my arm when she says this and leans close to my ear.

    “All right,” I say because I want her to move away and not touch me.  Later I can ask Rodger what she means.  She gives me a little hug and leaves.  The machine is loud and the key is only halfway done.  The sound travels through the machine, up my arm, and into me.  “It’s okay,” I say, “sometimes it’s okay to cry.”


26 Comments on “Steve Denniston, 10/13/2014

  1. Oh Steve, Thank you for writing and sharing the experience of so many. I just love the part about “she puts her hand on my arm” … and he is thinking I want her to move away. You so captured a feeling. Thank you and I hope you keep up the writing. I want to read MORE!

    • Millie,
      you picked out a favorite moment of mine in the story. When kindness is meant to give comfort, but it has the opposite effect of raising anxiety. Thanks!

  2. What is so striking about this story is the way you get at the complexities of Dustin’s world. His inside is so different from the inside that Sharon imagines for him. She wants to help, but she’s imposing her own sense of morality on Dustin, and that doesn’t quite work for him. The irony, of course, is that Roger feels more like a friend to Dustin than Sharon does.

    I am reminded of a quote by Milan Kundera–every novel (read ‘story’) says to the reader, things are not as simple as you think.

    • Stevan,
      Yes! That complexity, never understood by anyone in the story, is what kept pulling at me to write about Dustin and the other characters interacting with him.

  3. Steve,
    I thought of Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and of Daniel Tammet’s memoir Born on a Blue Day. You distill the endless complexities of the human heart and how easy it is, with the best of intentions, to misunderstand. Thank you for this gem.

    • Helen,
      it can be so very easy to misunderstand, to assume a gentle touch of comfort is always received as comfort. Sometimes that’s what fiction can do, allow us to experience another point of view and consider the world from that perspective.

  4. Thanks Steve for your writing. Enjoyed what appears to be simple but turns out to be something quite complex.

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