In the flash fiction piece “Off Days” (The Adroit Journal), Shane Jones captures the comedy in the small moments characteriing his day-by-day struggles with memory loss before a full shift in his reality becomes manifest.
We meet Ted and his wife Gina at the supermarket. Ted mistakes a younger woman in the soup aisle as his wife, and blames it on having an off day.
Gina stops, turns to Ted, and says, “You think I’m ugly.”
“No,” Ted says. “You’re baby soufflé. You’re beautiful.”
“But that woman was ugly,” says Gina. “And you thought I was her. So you do. You do think I’m ugly.”
“I don’t know what to say,” says Ted. “Besides that it’s my off day.”
It’s clear Jones isn’t immediately as interested in the tragedy so much as the comedy of Ted’s condition, and that’s his point. He risks being flippant towards a disease that has affected so many, but the payoff is showing the truly strange and comedic moments that those with long-term medical conditions experience.
Nor does the daily marital strife stop—Jones uses Ted and Gina’s loving jabs at each other as a sort of buoy. It covers the gaffe with a blanket of normalcy and continuity. It’s a good—perhaps necessary—way for the couple to cope. But that changes two weekends later when he goes to the grocery store, and we begin to see reality slipping away from Ted, at first in just a short blip.
On the following weekend, the next trip to the grocery store, it happens again. Gina ages ten years and so does Ted. This time, Ted is less confused. He wants to live a comfortable life with Gina. Gina has a temper. Once during an argument over pasta shapes Gina bit his face.
Ted does nothing to change the structure of his existence so in five trips to the grocery store, five consecutive Sundays, he ages fifty years.
“Pumpkin patch,” says Ted. “Would you mind, just this once, if I get Chocolate Disaster instead of Organic Morning?”
My first time reading through this, I had to go back again to make sure I didn’t miss something. Wait, Gina bit his face? They aged fifty years in five weeks? Jones makes certain that neither of those occurrences are elaborated on; both are presented as matter-of-fact, even mundane, and by doing this, he ensures that we know the protagonist is beginning to lose grasp of established narrative reality, not the story.
What was once an off day has now become a normal day. What’s surreal happens and he doesn’t blink; he simply goes about his business and asks for a different kind of breakfast cereal. Finally, notice how Jones flips the script as we near the end:
At the checkout Ted knows he will see the woman who is both Gina and not Gina. Ted doesn’t want to age ten years anymore. He doesn’t want to lose his life in weeks. But this time there’s no one. The supermarket is empty and everything is light pink and translucent, including hundreds of birds flying around the soup aisle. Some of the birds sit perched on cans of Italian Wedding soup.
“I guess that’s it,” says Ted. “I guess that’s my entire life.”
Ted’s perspective now shifts back into the previous reality, and what comes is insight of what he has lost. Ignorance of his condition was its own sort of bliss, until he wakes up to reality. The implicit question is whether, now that his condition has progressed, what constitutes as an “off day” has reversed.
But Jones doesn’t end there. Before Ted leaves the supermarket behind, and the world as he has known it, this happens.
In the produce aisle Ted smashes open a dragon fruit with his cane. It takes a little while with the cane. Ted realizes he’s lived his entire life having never seen the inside of a dragon fruit. It’s amazing. He looks at the dragon fruit and cries for several minutes curled up in his scooter.
I can’t call this final complication anything less than joy. Amidst all the chaos of our lives, and the tragedy, and the sadness, may joy be there to complicate our endings.