This year I took place in #TheBet with authors Brian Farrey, Catherine Ryan Hyde, and Kimberly Pauley. I lost and was given the title “The Opposite of Opposite Day” by Catherine Ryan Hyde. It was a trippy, fun title to work with and the story took an unexpected turn or two for me. It’s based on an ill-fated lawn maintenance company my best friend and I started one summer called Lords of the Lawn.
The Opposite of Opposite Day
Doug and Gormley worked beneath the hot July sun, pulling weeds from a large garden and dumping out bags of fresh mulch. Second-year college students, they were working for an eccentric old widow named Mrs. Ulah. They wanted to make enough money to buy a decent bag of weed and some mushrooms for a bluegrass camping festival that weekend. They weren’t friends, exactly, but they lived in the same shitty, ant-infested off-campus house they rented with four other college students, which at least made them housing acquaintances.
“This is so much bark,” Gormley said, wiping his nose with the back of his work glove. “This must be about three trees worth.”
“It’s mulch,” Doug said. “Not bark.”
Gormley stretched his arms, pointing a bony elbow toward the sky.
“What’s the difference?”
“Mulch is a lot of stuff,” Doug said, suddenly unsure of himself. “All chopped up.”
“Looks like bark to me.”
“No, mulch is a collection of organic matter,” Doug said, searching his heat-addled brain for something intelligent sounding. “It’s organic pulpy wood matter chopped up and churned together to provide a pleasing edging for your yard. Saying mulch is just tree bark is like saying spaghetti sauce is just a couple of smashed up tomatoes.”
Gormley picked up a chunk of mulch and examined it. The chunk was reddish in color and fibrous around the edges. It looked, Doug had to admit, a lot like bark. Gormley sniffed the chunk, his nostrils flaring.
“It smells good.”
Doug nodded, slapping a mosquito on his neck.
“It smells like a forest. Like out west, maybe.”
Doug didn’t respond to this observation. Gormley was starting to piss him off. He was one of those weird, gaseous hippy vegans. He had a wispy blond beard that he liked to stroke when he was thinking, as if he were some kind of yogi sage, pondering an ancient truth. Worst of all, Gormley sometimes left his bedroom door open when he was fucking his girlfriend, Skye. Once Doug, startled by a loud groan while passing by in the hallway, had inadvertently peered into Gormley’s bedroom and seen things that could not be unseen. Terrible, hairy things.
Gormley bit into the chunk of mulch. His pale blue eyes went far away as he communed with the mulch. “I don’t think we’re supposed to chew on the landscaping product,” Doug said. “We’re here to spread it around, remember?”
Gormley’s eyes came back into focus. “I know what’s going on,” he said, grinning. “Today is the opposite of Opposite Day.”
Gormley nodded and clucked his tongue.
“Yep. Uh huh.”
Doug looked around the yard, wondering where he’d left the shovel. He wasn’t really going to physically assault Gormley, but it might feel good to hold the shovel again.
“Today is the opposite of Opposite Day,” Gormley said, repeating himself. “Everything we see around us is exactly what it appears to be. This piece of mulch looks like tree bark, so it is tree bark. This garden looks like a garden, so it is a garden. Everything is totally, absolutely certain today. Today is a day of reckoning and truth.”
Doug tore open a bag of mulch, tipping the bag into the depleted garden and pouring out its contents. As the mulchy cedar smell overwhelmed him, Doug envisioned himself hiking on a secluded mountain trail with a cute pixie girl in denim cutoff shorts. He was wearing a backpack loaded with picnic supplies, including cheese and wine and a make out blanket, as well as comfortable hiking boots with the laces tied just right. He and the pixie girl went through patches of sunlight and shadow as they hiked, holding hands in a firm but not too sweaty kind of way. Cicadas droned pleasantly in the background while chipper mountain squirrels chased each other from tree to tree, getting their frolic on. Everything was so peaceful—
A door slammed. Mrs. Ulah shuffled into the yard, studying Doug and Gormley through her oversized, gradient-tinted glasses as she leaned on her cane. She was wearing a bright yellow and orange muumuu that made her look like she was on the verge of spontaneous combustion.
“Would you boys like some iced tea?”
Doug sighed and took off his work gloves. There was no secluded mountain trail. There was no cute pixie girlfriend. There was only dumbfuck Gormley, this mosquito infested backyard, and a nice old lady in a muumuu, offering them a beverage made out of dried foliage. This was real life, in all its unyielding lameness.
They followed Mrs. Ulah into her house. The central air conditioning, cranked to the max, caused Doug to stagger for a moment and say a brief internal prayer of thanks to science and electricity. “You boys can sit on that davenport,” Mrs. Ulah said as they entered her living room, pointing at a white couch covered in clear plastic, one of four that had been arranged around a coffee table.
“Cool,” Gormley said. “A space couch.”
Doug rubbed his eye with the heel of his hand, fighting off a stabbing pain. The couch crinkled as they sat down and Doug edged over to the far side of his end. Gormley used an organic deodorant that didn’t get the job done on a normal day, much less a hot summer day, and it made him smell like a mix of brined fish and raw onion. Doug had no idea how Skye endured the Gormley stank—perhaps she’d lost her sense of smell after undergoing some kind of head trauma. Maybe that explained their entire relationship.
Mrs. Ulah poured iced tea from a pitcher into three tall glasses and sat down across from them, her muumuu billowing around her in a way that reminded Doug of a jellyfish bobbing along in the ocean. The coffee table in the center of the room was covered in pewter figurines of dragons, wizards, trolls, and sword brandishing warriors. There must have been two dozen of the little fuckers. An entire magical army.
Mrs. Ulah smiled and folded her hands in her lap. Doug took a drink of his iced tea and tried not to think of anything. He just wanted to enjoy the air conditioning and his cold beverage, which had a wedge of lemon in it and was actually pretty refreshing.
Gormley leaned forward and scrutinized a pewter wizard.
“You like fantasy stuff?”
“I do!” Mrs. Ulah said, leaning forward. “Especially dragons.”
“So do you like George R.R. Martin?”
Mrs. Ulah, already beaming, somehow upped the wattage of her smile even further. Doug silently cursed Gormley as the pair broke into a long, boring conversation about the A Song of Ice and Fire series and how it differed from the HBO show. As they blabbed on and on, Doug studied Gormley’s narrow, rat-like facial features, his beady dark eyes, his greasy, pustular complexion, and, of course, his wispy little monkey man beard, wishing he could blink his housemate out of existence. Finally, unable to stand any more fantasy nerd talk, Doug chugged the rest of his iced tea and set the glass down on the cluttered coffee table.
“Well, we better get back to work.”
“Wait, wait,” Mrs. Ulah said, holding up her hands. “Let me bring out a piece from the other room. It’s the loveliest drake. I just got it yesterday.”
“Righteous,” Gormley said. “I’d love to see it.”
Mrs. Ulah reached for her cane, planted its tip in the carpet, and rose quickly to her feet, looking pretty excited.
“I’ll be right—”
Mrs. Ulah blinked. Her eyes, already magnified by her glasses, appeared to swell even further.
“Mrs. Ulah?” Doug said.
Mrs. Ulah sat back down. She looked surprised.
Mrs. Ulah dropped her cane and sank sideways onto the couch, paused for a moment, then rolled off the couch and onto the floor. She lay face down on the carpet, as if she’d suddenly decided to take a nap.
“Holy shit,” Doug said, stunned. Gormley stood up without hesitation, as if he’d been waiting for something like this to happen to him his entire life. He moved the couch back, giving Mrs. Ulah more room on the floor. He reached into the folds of her muumuu, grabbed a shoulder and a flank, and rolled her onto her back. He placed his ear against Mrs. Ulah’s chest and Doug, in a moment of lustful insanity, wondered how soft and comforting the old woman’s breast felt against Gormley’s cheek.
“Her heart’s stopped,” Gormley said. “She needs to be rebooted.”
“What?” Doug said, still trying to catch up to the situation. He watched in increasing amazement as Gormley tilted the old woman’s head back, swiped a hooked finger into her mouth, and locked his lips with her lips, blowing air into her mouth. Gormley did this a few times and then began thumping her chest with the palms of his hands.
Those were called chest compressions.
“You’re not dead!” Gormley shouted as he compressed, again and again and again. “You’re alive, Mrs. Ulah. You’re alive!”
Doug discovered he was standing on his feet. Time had slowed down. The afternoon light was shining in an uncanny way through the living room windows and all the crystalline stones in the coffee table figurines were sparkling, as if they’d been activated by an otherworldly command. Gormley, growing desperate, pounded on the old woman’s chest with a closed fist. Something cracked and Mrs. Ulah coughed, sputtering back to life.
“You’re alive, Mrs. Ulah,” Gormley said, panting as he rested his hands upon his knees. “You’re not dead.”
Mrs. Ulah’s eyes fluttered open and she touched her chest, as if verifying her own continued existence. Gormley looked up at Doug and smiled, golden, dust-moted sunlight surrounding him like a halo.
He was, Doug had to admit, kind of beautiful for such a dumbfuck.