“Hey, beautiful. Still looking at those retirement plans?”
Patty looked up from her computer screen. There was no one else in her office. Probably just an ad, one of those viral things that pop up on your screen when you work. Still, she had been working on finalizing her retirement agreement for a little over a half hour. She was probably just imagining things.
“Hey, I’m talking to you. What, you’re too big for me?”
Patty stopped breathing for three seconds. She looked around. There was definitely no one in her office.
Maybe it was Katz. Katz was always pulling shit like this, installing baby monitors in people’s cubicles, ordering Burger King for all the executive board members. Patty rolled her eyes. She hated Katz. The office is no place for pranks. Running McDonalds was serious business.
“You could use a laugh or two. It’d do you good,” said the voice.
“Who are you?” Patty managed to mutter. Katz had gone far before, but there was no way that he would be able to know what she was thinking.
“Not who. What.”
Patty looked down and shrieked.
Ethan took another swig off beer. This story was going nowhere. Senior year of college and he was writing a story about a talking apple? He got up from the table and helped himself to a bit more of the Chicken Gorgonzola he had ordered from Campusfood. Why hadn’t he started this story earlier? It was already an hour late, and he was only at the half-page mark. He reread the previous paragraph he wrote.
“Swig off beer?” Ethan thought to himself. “I should change that. At the same time, it might be clever writing. After all, if he’s drinking beer, he’s probably getting drunk. And if he’s getting drunk, he might make typos.” Ethan decided to keep the misspelling in the story.
He took another bite of chicken. This was the dumbest idea for a story ever. This is what he would get for trying to be profound. A story about the CEO of McDonalds receiving a cathartic life lesson from an apple sitting on her desk? No one would get it. He thought about his class on Monday, and what his classmates would say. They’d certainly criticize it. Ethan burped. He didn’t blame them. It simply wasn’t a good idea for a story. He imagined people’s responses and agreed with most of them. The metaphor was overdone, the allegory was forced. Ethan always got so nervous when his stories were critiqued. Of course, he could probably count on his friend Mark to offer a supportive word, but that was just Mark, and Mark was a nice guy. Even Mark would probably hate it, secretly.
Ethan scrapped a little bit of gorgonzola from the bottom of the bowl. He sighed. He saw two options at this point: completely abandoning the idea, or pursuing it at full, relentless force. Perhaps there was still time. Time to turn this story around.
“Patty, you look like you’ve never seen a talking apple before.”
Patty swallowed the spittle that had accumulated in the back of her throat.
“I’m tired and stressed and you’re not real,” Patty said. “You’re — you’re my imagination.”
The apple hadn’t moved since she had taken it out of her brown paper lunch bag. There was nothing ostensibly different about it. The hole on its side was small and could very well have been a bruise, or a small worm tunnel. But it spoke. And it had little teeth.
“Honey, I’m real. You better believe it. Now, you can continue acting like a lil’ old vegetable, or you can listen to what I need to say.”
She wheeled her swivel chair back a foot and turned around. The view was enormous. You could see all of Madison Avenue from her 59th story W’s Office. She had worked hard for this view. It hadn’t been easy working her way up from head fry cook at her local McDonalds in Shelby County, Tennessee to becoming the head CEO of McDonalds. It had taken years. 32 years, in fact. And she wasn’t about to let it slip away because of some damn apple.
“Fine, you’re real. What do you want from me? And make it quick, I have important things to do regarding my retirement plans.”
The apple laughed a little. At least, it seemed like a laugh to Patty.
“Patricia, you have things to do, and they’re even important, but they don’t have a diggle-damn thing to do with your retirement plans.”
The apple paused.
“They have to do with yourself.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “I’m very happy.”
“Sure you are,” the apple said. “Sure you are. I guess you can just go ahead and eat me, then.”
“Maybe I will,” Patty said. It was an empty threat. She was planning to throw it away.
“Go ahead and throw me away. Push me off this desk. Right into the garbage,” the apple paused dramatically. “It’d be just like La Guardia Airport all over again.”
Patty felt like she had been punched in the stomach. Hard. La Guardia Airport? She had spent the last 32 years of her life trying to block that memory out. Trying to run away from it.
“You can’t run away from it,” the apple said.
Ethan finished his second can of beer. He grabbed a glass from the kitchen area of his apartment and filled it with water. “Gotta sober up,” he thought. Ethan was a lightweight.
Will, Ethan’s roommate, walked into the living room.
“Hey, man,” Will said. “How’s the story?”
Ethan finished his water.
“It’s not going well,” he said. “I wrote myself into the story.”
Will read what Ethan had so far. He laughed several times.
“I mean, it’s not good,” Will said. “But it is funny.”
“Thanks,” Ethan said. “But still. You know, I thought by the time I was a senior in college, I’d be writing real stuff. Worthwhile stuff.”
“We’re graduating in four months,” Will said. “Who cares?”
“Four months,” Ethan repeated to himself.
Ethan had been pushing graduation out of his mind all year. He didn’t want to accept it, he refused to accept it. After all, graduation meant growing up.
Will walked back into his room, presumably to order something from Est Est Est on his laptop.
Ethan was alone again. He walked over to his fridge. He was feeling a little nauseous from eating such a heavy pasta dish so late at night. He opened the refrigerator door. He was kneeling over, taking some lettuce out from the bottom shelf to make a little salad, when he looked up. And he saw it.
A bright red, shiny apple was sitting on the top shelf.
Ethan stared at the apple.
The apple sat on the shelf.
Ethan slowly stood up.
The apple stayed sitting.
Ethan took a step backward.
“You’ve been drinking,” the apple said.
Patty was pacing.
Back and forth.
Back and forth. “La Guardia Airport?” she said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The apple sighed.
“It’s okay to be afraid, Patty. You’re at a big turning point in your life.”
Patty turned to her desk and laughed her trademark, high-pitched laugh.
“I’m not afraid! Do I look afraid? I make eight figures a year. I run McDonalds, god damn it.”
She stared the apple down.
“Okay, Patty,” it said. “I just want you to know that it’s not going to be like the airport. Your father didn’t forget you.”
Patty stopped pacing.
“What?” she said.
“Your father didn’t forget you,” the apple said. “Your father loves you, and it was a mistake.”
Patty didn’t realize she was crying until she felt the tears dripping from her cheek onto her silk blouse.]
“This is a joke,” Ethan said. “Will! Get out here! I know it’s you.”
“It’s no joke,” said the apple. “No joke at all. You created me.”
Ethan sat down on the floor of the kitchen. He rubbed the inner crevices of his eyes with the index finger and thumb of his right hand.
“You think your story will be good if you use extreme detail?” the apple sputtered. “You think your story will be good if it’s metafictional? You’re a gimmicky hack. You can’t write anything well. You’re never going to be a writer.”
“I’m tired and stressed and you’re not real,” Ethan said.
“Sounds familiar,” laughed the apple. “Was I real to Patty?”
“That’s just a story,” Ethan said. “That’s a story.”
“Answer the fucking question, Kuperberg. Was. I. Real. To. Patty?”
Ethan quickly shifted his eyes over to Will’s door. Maybe Will would come out of his room soon. Or Matthew. Matthew, Ethan’s other roommate, was probably fast asleep, but still. If Matthew saw this situation, Matthew would know what to do. Matthew was a smart guy.
“No one’s coming,” cackled the apple. “You put too much faith in your friends. It’s just you and me, big boy.”
“Fuck you,” Ethan gasped.
“Just make this easy for both of us and answer the question,” said the apple. “Was I real to Patty?”
Ethan hesitated. He knew the answer was ‘yes.’ At least, he thought he did. But he hadn’t finished the story yet.
“Then finish it,” the apple said.
Ethan took a deep breath.
“If I finish it — will you go away?”
A few seconds passed.
The apple smiled.
“If you finish it, I’ll tell you the answer.”
Patty was lying in the fetal position on the floor of her office. There was a small puddle on her expensive Malaysian rug — from her tears.
“Talk to me,” said the apple.
“I never forgave him,” said Patty. “We were only visiting family for the summer, the summer after my senior year of high school. I didn’t want to go. I had to miss our graduation party. And then he left me at the airport. I was so afraid, Apple. I was so afraid.”
“I know,” the apple said quietly.
Patty breathed deeply, trying not to cry again, not succeeding.
“Be brave, Patty. Be brave.”
“There were so many people,” Patty whispered. “So many people, and no one stopped to ask. No one knew who I was, no one cared. I felt so, so small. Here I was, beginning this new point in my life, and it was so meaningless. I was just another person at the airport. I could have died there, and it didn’t even matter.”
The apple hopped up and down on the desk.
“Patty, were you listening to me? It’s okay to be afraid! Retirement is a big step.”
“I was talking about feeling scared at the airport,” Patty said quietly.
“Patty,” the apple said. “Retirement IS the airport.”
Patty looked up. She thought about the last 32 years of her life. She thought about the money she had made, the men she had slept with, the people she had stepped on to get where she was.
But mostly, she thought about leaving work in four months, and not knowing where she would be next.
She dried her tears on the side of her sleeve and stood up. For a moment, she felt weightless. She felt like the simplest autumn breeze could pick her up and whisk her away. She was a feather, a piece of fluff, a fake spiderweb Halloween decoration. She was memory.
“I just have one more question, apple,” said Patty. “Are you real?”
The apple smiled.
“I’m as real as you are, Patty.”
Patty hiccupped. Then she nodded.
“Now you just gotta eat me,” said the apple.
They both laughed and laughed.
“How’s that?” Ethan asked.
“Not bad,” said the apple. “‘She was memory,’ though? Really?”
Ethan looked at the digital clock on the top right of his computer screen. It was 5:24:43 a.m. He had started the story at about 10. He felt faint and a bit delerious.
“Delirious,” corrected the apple.
“Too late now,” Ethan said.
He picked up the apple and walked over to his bed, sitting down. He looked at it, hard. He was afraid to ask his next question, but he thought that he might not get another chance.
“Did you mean what you said?” Ethan asked.
“Huh?” The apple had been thinking about other things. Appler things.
“What you said,” Ethan continued hesitantly. “About how I was never gonna be a writer.”
The apple paused. It knew that what it would say next was crucial.
“Ethan — you’re not just gonna be a writer. You’re gonna be a great writer. But you can’t trust what I say about this.”
“Who am I supposed to trust?”
The apple paused dramatically.
“You gotta trust yourself.”
Ethan sat silently for two full minutes. For some reason, he knew the apple was right. He couldn’t quite articulate why, but the apple seemed wise beyond measure.
He put the piece of fruit on his nightstand and set his alarm clock for 10:30 a.m. He’d spend another hour or two looking over his story tomorrow. Or today, he corrected himself. Ethan took off both of his socks and crawled into bed. It had been a pretty weird night, all things considered.
When he woke up the apple was gone. Ethan stared at the empty space on his nightstand for a little over a minute before he turned and looked out his window. Graduating wouldn’t be so bad. He didn’t have many job prospects, but he had friends. And even if he never made it as a writer, he trusted himself to try. He turned on his laptop and thought about edits he should make to his story.
“I should name the type of apple,” he thought hesitantly.