Jul/Aug 2022  •   Fiction

Byron Greenblatt's Better Self

by Elizabeth Walztoni

Public Domain image

Byron Greenblatt painted the cinderblock dugouts at the high school baseball diamond for free because the aspirational journal his wife had left in his truck challenged him to do something kind every day in May. The sun was just going down, and a pair of joggers circled the orange sky on the track, but other than their shadows and the sound of their breathing approaching and waning, the world was empty and smelled of soft wet grass. He had finished the home team dugout during lunch periods A and B and begun on the away team's after the debate club left his classroom at five, and now it was just after seven.

The outside of the dugout was covered in fresh light blue, but the inside was still raw concrete. Left unfinished, the walls had grown stained and mossy from many humid summers and looked like something inside an aquarium, so he scraped them of growth before covering them in mold-resistant paint he found in the janitorial closet. The paint was probably left over from the boys' bathrooms, which were the same color.

He completed this act of kindness outside of his working hours because he did not really feel like going home and seeing what else his wife had bought that day. She got him a self-help quiz workbook from a yard sale a few years before, which told him he had an avoidant personality.

Byron Greenblatt also had carpal tunnel, probably, in his right wrist. He was afraid of what he might have to do to fix it, and so when he felt the white-warm twisting in the muscled knot below his calculator watch he stopped and held it still, feeling the feeling until the feeling stopped. This had been going on since he worked picking up tennis balls at a country club in high school, and had came and went over the decades since.

He put his fingers on the still-slick wall of the dugout, paint filling up the pockmarks, the nerve in his arm making itself known, and stood watching the joggers under the sinking day. The smell of warm evenings like this one made him want to stay outside, to stretch the day along with him, but he knelt and hammered the paint can lid back in place with the flat of his hand, which sent shocks up to his elbow until it all went numb. After he did this, the nerve would usually stop bothering him for a few hours.

This, he knew now, was also avoidant. Byron didn't tell his wife he engaged with these self-help materials left laying around for him (Dear Amazing Me: My Journal for a Successful Life, Opening Up Attachments, most recently Dreamer's Pathway: Understanding the Self Through Sleep) because she said she bought them for him as classroom materials. He never wrote inside them and only began to read them in the first place as a psychological tourist. The journals offered him examples to use for Advanced Placement Psychology, along with structured benchmarks to consider himself from, as he liked to do.

They also provided unexpected insights into female psychology so deep it felt almost obscene, which he could only read a few pages of before having to put down. When he flipped through the guided processes women were given to identify their problems, he was also trying to understand how his wife worked, how the pathways of her brain channeled around inside her head, even though, he thought, he should have figured this out years ago or perhaps before they ever knew each other. Mostly, though, none of the books really seemed to show him how to fix these problems once located.

The joggers circled by in matching jackets. They moved slow, heaving their pink faces along, and he was glad to turn his back to them as he crossed the parking lot. Byron Greenblatt's body ran very efficiently on its own, and he could exercise it if he wanted to, but its natural state left nothing wanting. He stepped over two dark circles on the asphalt where someone had recently spit and unlocked his truck, My Best Self's Yearlong Diary rattling in the door pocket.

Byron's wife went clothes shopping that afternoon, because she had a job interview next week at the credit union so they could afford to furnish the house they had bought with their fire insurance money, and when he returned home she would show him what she had bought. His act of kindness the day before, Tuesday, May 5, had been giving her his blessing to do this. While he drove, he took some pleasure in his degree of control over himself, clenching his stomach muscles to contain the emotion until it disappeared.

He understood women needed more clothing than men because of their different activities. He understood this in the sense that he was able to tell it to himself, and he expected to change something in the way he felt by telling it to himself, but there were no specifics to what it was he understood, or how he understood it, when he thought it, and so nothing changed. She always looked nice in the clothes, anyway. They had both aged inwards, growing shorter and thinner.

Byron also understood what a person needed to run a household—different napkins for different seasons and others for each holiday, various china sets for different types of guests, appliances for pulverizing ingredients at different thicknesses (some that went inside the soup and others the soup was poured into), a metal case for poaching fish, wreaths for the front door, a ceramic circle for distributing heat from the stove burners more evenly.

These were things he understood and could not point to any problem with, but whenever he looked at them, or thought about them—not just purchasing them but the very fact of their existence, and how many of them there were—he felt a deep and evil thing turning around inside him. He had always felt this way, and it was part of why he became a teacher, so as not to be involved in the enabling or production or sale of more things. His wife knew how he felt, he thought, probably, but he did not want to say it to her, and she did not want to ask him to.

At one time she did buy too much, far too much, and it filled up their house, and their house burned down. Classic, he thought—he couldn't write it, no one would believe him—although the house burning down was not directly linked to the things inside, of course, none of them had exploded or anything like that. It started in the electrical wiring. He couldn't change his mind from thinking, though, that the density of items within the house might have enabled the spread of flame from one inch to the next until there was not much left but a plastic rake he had forgotten in the yard.

After that—and he thought only the God of the Old Testament could dream up something like this to do to him—the buying process had to begin again. Then she stopped when the insurance money ran out and her card declined, and they lived in a half-furnished house. She would ask him about what she wanted to buy now, and he would give her the exact amount of cash his spreadsheets had calculated she could spend while still allowing him to retire before age 75. This was her first trip out for something other than groceries in almost a month, and it made him feel very close to the backs of his eyeballs when he thought about it.

He almost wrote down in Dear Amazing Me..., the first journal she had bought him post-fire, which sat on the floor in his half-barren home office, I always thought this would make me feel better but it didn't, and ultimately re-capped his pen. In sum the situation was worse—he didn't want to control his wife, for one, to be married to someone who needed controlling, which was why he never told her to stop before in the hope she would reach the conclusion on her own, but more than this, he didn't like that he had become involved in the acquisition of the things. Now they all had his sanctioning, his name, his blood.

Where he was driving now, along a stretching road circling the last dairy farm in their county, he put his numb hand to his Adam's apple and pushed on it. The air smelled of mulch. It wasn't yet firefly season, but the frogs were out.

He habitually ran through the way things were about to happen to him, as a kind of preparation, and arranging in his mind now the way he would need to smile and tell her the things were beautiful, he had to hold his stomach muscles together so tight he could barely see, and all the things he had to think all the time, how he always needed to be looking and analyzing and wondering, and the feeling was coming back into his wrist, and the radio was too loud and his own clothes too close to him, his awful human skin, and he pulled off onto the gravel shoulder of the park outside their neighborhood.

Two boys were playing basketball on the court, but otherwise the park was empty. Byron wanted to put his head down on the steering wheel but did not.

He rested a hand to his stomach and looked out the windshield. The sun was tilting low at its golden angle, making him feel more visible than usual. He and his wife often went to parks together when they were first seeing each other because they could not drive. In this recalling he often thought most about the grass, the trees.

His window was open a few inches, and as he picked up My Best Self's Diary from the glove box, he heard one of the boys start screaming.

I broke my thigh! he yelled, standing up from the court and hopping around.

Are you okay, bro? his friend asked.

Yeah, yeah.

If you broke your leg, you wouldn't be walking.

I'm not walking, asshole, I'm hopping, because my thigh's broke.

They lunged at each other a few times and then continued to play. The sound of the basketball came close to Byron's ears. He felt a kind of pressing feeling he couldn't start to untangle, and he opened the highlighter he used for grading papers and held it over that day's page in the spiral-bound book, which read in pink script, After your act of kindness, write a list of qualities that describe you. The opposing spread asked him to Write a list of qualities describing the person you want to be.

These were the same person, he thought, putting the highlighter back in the glove box. The higher version of himself, the person he wanted to exist as, already lived in his mind and was thus a part of him. Even if they were opposed to each other and only the bad one ever won out, they were both in there.

He could see very clearly the better Byron Greenblatt sharing his body, who did not think too much and felt happy for his kind and beautiful wife and wanted her to have everything she had ever desired and did not worry about anything outside of their lives together. This Byron Greenblatt was driving home and smiling.

I'm going to fucking kill you! one of the boys outside screamed at the other, who threw the basketball back at his midsection, and Byron Greenblatt watched them wrestle each other and laugh in a somewhat desperate and somewhat angry but mostly just unbridled way, behind the blossoms of a magnolia tree, one mile away from his home on the sixth day of May.

Byron Greenblatt parked in his driveway. The living room light of the ranch house was on, but the blinds were closed—she was particular about that, unlike most of their neighbors, some of whom didn't even have curtains. She kept a healthy sense of shame about everything, even the shopping, which he appreciated about her.

He could go inside and watch her hold things up and say, I love that color. Go try it on for me. He could sit outside here instead and never go in there. She wouldn't come out to get him. He remembered then what he had known for a long time: that the things she was buying, she bought for him as an apology for having begun, working towards a perfect point when it would be enough and it could all stop, all of it, when he would understand why this had to be done to them both, look around and say, You knew what you were doing, honey; that she was working to become the perfect version of herself, a version she, too, was probably always in conversation with.

Byron Greenblatt jumped when his wife opened the front door. He didn't expect her to come outside before he went in the house on his own. They had those deferential rituals around each other. His avoidance, her adaptation? He didn't know. He wasn't sure if she read the books herself. Awareness, they had all somehow agreed, was the majority of the battle, the thing holding everybody back—a lack of knowledge of what, exactly, was so wrong. Identifying the better Byron as a Byron who did not exist, but could, if he worked hard, if he thought about him often enough to adopt his behavior.

She stood on the steps and waved at him. He opened his door but did not move his body. His right hand with its blue fingertips felt like a live wire again when he waved back, though he had just hit it numb half an hour ago and it should have been alright until morning. She was wearing familiar clothes but a new pair of sandals.

Isn't it a beautiful day? she said, her voice curving around the car door, gazing beyond the flowering tree in the front yard with a sentimental face, and he looked in the rearview mirror to see the tail of the sunset below the streetlamp behind him.

Yes, it is, he said, putting his feet on the soft grass. Did you have a good one?