Fine Point

Eamon Doyle was recently awarded the 826 Young Author’s Scholarship. This fall, Eamon will be attending the University of California at Berkeley. The following is one of his many short stories.

“God, that’s disgusting.”

Vincent looked up to see Maggie standing in her pajamas in the entrance to the kitchen.


“I can’t believe you salt your watermelon. That’s unspeakably gross.”

He put down the salt shaker and regarded her kindly. “Lots of people salt their watermelon,” he said. “It’s a very normal thing to do. In fact, I dare say we’re in the majority. Which means that if you’re not fond of salt on your watermelon, the least you can do is keep quiet about it when one of us normal people is trying to enjoy a nice big hunk of salted watermelon.”

She did not skulk off. Among the things Vincent had learned about Maggie was that she was neither a sulker nor a skulker. One day he had jotted that down in the third subject.

What she did instead of skulking off was smile, sit down, and wait for him to offer her some. After a moment, he pushed across a knife and the remainder of the melon. “Thank you kindly,” she said, and with one hand rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. It was four in the afternoon.

“I bet you like celery and peanut butter together too.” She shook her head one more time and dug in. Vincent was going to say yes, of course he did, and just what kind of freak was she anyway, but his mouth was full.

* * *

When he told Maggie that he had been a garbageman for six years, she said she would be sticking around for a while. She admired anyone, she said, who could get up day after day and trudge off to a symbolic job.

“Once I knew this guy who was a listmaker,” she said. “A professional listmaker. He told me that he did it compulsively, and one day he was lucky enough to land a secretarial position that let him make as many lists as he wanted. What it was, exactly, he wouldn’t say. Anyway, while he was telling me this, he had a pen and a paper and he was scrawling out a list. Looking me in the eyes and talking to me and trying to be charming — and still making this list! I don’t think he was even conscious of it.

“And he must have been a compulsive talker too, because he was just going on and on. I had to do something. So the first time he stopped to take a breath, I looked down at his pen and told him, ‘That’s a fine point you’ve got there.’ But he didn’t get it. He took it as a compliment. And he kept making the list.”

Vincent asked her what it was a list of, partly because he was curious but mostly because he didn’t get it either and didn’t want her to notice. It didn’t come to him until shortly after six the following morning, when he’d been on the truck for an hour and she’d been back in bed for nearly twice as long.

* * *

The pay was not spectacular, and the work was certainly not exciting, but if he were ever to ask himself precisely why he had been a garbageman for six years, Vincent would have to conclude that, all things considered, the routine suited him. Drive up block, stop, get out. Grab cans, dump, back in the truck. Drive five more feet. Repeat. The process was so mechanical that he could go through the entire work day without saying a word, content to spend those seven hours mulling over whatever passed through his head.

But somewhere along the way in his sanitation career, Vincent had decided that his simple life needed a new dimension, however small. And so he had created one.

Every day, after the last pickup and the trip to the dump, he drove back to the barn and sat behind the wheel, waiting for the men who worked on his truck to go home. When he was alone, he reached behind his seat and pulled out the notebook. He wrote in it for an hour, then put it back behind the seat, headed out to his car, and drove home.

As new dimensions go, Vincent’s worked quite well. It was no problem to arrive home an hour later in the afternoon, and for the rest of the day he carried in the back of his mind an odd sense of satisfaction over having gotten down whatever he had gotten down.

It was a big, inviting notebook, five subjects and 240 sheets, and Vincent understood by the time he had filled up the first subject that anyone who might find the thing could very easily conclude that it was the work of a madman. This realization did not discourage him, not in the least. He felt positively joyful as he tore into the second subject. He wrote notes to himself, observations, limericks with sloppy meter, all manner of meaningless doggerel.

And he wrote lists. Many, many lists.

* * *

Excerpts from the fourth subject:

If depression runs in your family, do you have blue genes?

There once was a man named Jorge
Who — (Norway/doorway/foreplay… shit)


  1. Does she like checkers?
  2. Did she take karate in school? Judo? Tae kwon do?
  3. Nervous tics — does she have any?
  4. Does she believe in God? What about socialism?
  5. If she were in a band, what would it be called?
  6. Is she in a band?
  7. Does she prefer ballpoint or fountain? 7-Up or Sprite? John or Paul (or, better yet, George)?
  8. “Symbolic”?
  9. And “admire”? What does she mean, “admire”? I smell bad!!

Had the same dream again last night, the one where I’m retrieving my change from the soda machine and all of a sudden I’m riding the horse on the Kentucky state quarter. All around is the smell of metal and pocket-sweat. I feel tiny.

Big Toe Blues
The blister is almost gone
The blister is almost gone
The blister is almost gone
So baby come on
And touch that big toe of mine

WHAT ON EARTH could she possibly have against peanut butter on celery???

One evening Vincent sits on the couch in his living room, drinking a can of Coke and waiting for her. When she comes in she brings up her theory of how there are two kinds of Coke, the kind that tastes nice and cold and refreshing and the kind that tastes like a mixture of battery acid and death, and you never know which kind it’s going to be until you drink it. They discuss this, and subsequent matters, for an hour and a half.

These days the men who work on Vincent’s truck sense that there is something different about him. He has not suddenly become talkative, nor have there been any radical changes in his driving or dumping, but he goes through the mechanics now with a small smile, as though he’s keeping a secret.

And he is. These days, in the barn, Vincent has been working on something different, something he likes to think of as his masterpiece.

Right now it looks like this:

I know what I like and I know what is good for me. I like salt on my watermelon and peanut butter on my celery. I like order, simplicity, everything in its right place, and I am lucky to have a job that I could do in my sleep.

One day I came home and you were standing in front of my door. You extended your hand and told me your name and said you were looking for a place to stay. And I said yes. Crazy, no doubt about that, but I did it all the same. I know what is good for me, even when what is good for me shows up on my doorstep at three in the afternoon with threadbare slippers and a suitcase that has seen better days.

Now you have lived in my apartment for close to eight months, we have sat down in my living room and talked every night since your arrival, and I have not come even close to figuring you out. This is not a complaint. Our hours are odd — sometimes I show up at three and you do not arrive until eleven; sometimes you sit down across from me at six and are in bed by nine — but it doesn’t matter. You are a mystery that I may never fully solve, but I will remain wholeheartedly symbolic if it means you will be sticking around.

With you I speak. Without you I did not. With you I use my living room for its intended purpose. Without you I had no use for it. You have given me the miracle of conversation, and something even better.

Once I realized that I needed to add another dimension to my life, so I did. Some time later, you came into my life. And now I have three things. One is myself. The second, you are holding in your hands. It came to me courtesy of the Mead Corporation.

Lastly, there is you. Whether or not you know it, Maggie, you have made me three-dimensional.

Thank you.

* * *

There is some work left to do. He must remove all the lists from the notebook, including Things I Have Learned About Maggie (last updated 4.24.03) and Ideas for What Maggie’s Band Could Be Called (last updated 4.19.03). And then there is the matter of how to sign it. He is not sure whether he will sign it Love. He does not know for certain if it is a love letter.

But very soon — tomorrow, or the day after that at the latest — he will have made up his mind, and written the final draft. When he is done he will replace the cap on his pen (medium point, not fine), carry the notebook out to his car, and drive home. He will place the notebook, open to the letter, on the coffee table that sits between them nightly. It’s time, he figures. Now that there are only a few pages left in the fifth subject, it is time for dimensions two and three to meet.

He cannot count on the hour, but he knows that by the end of the day she will sit down across from him and read what he has written. And she will understand. He is surer of this than he has been of anything in his life.

Best of all, it is not a list.

Written by Eamon Doyle, age 17, Leadership High School

This entry was posted in Student Writing Gallery.

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