VOICES — 'Bernie the Weird'

Updated: May 23

(Editor's Note — 1120 Press is proud to present 'Bernie the Weird,' a wonderfully creative piece of flash fiction by Dr. Thomas Reed Willemain. A native of western Massachusetts whose flash fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Willemain is a former academic, software entrepreneur and intelligence officer with degrees from Princeton and MIT. He now resides near the Mohawk River in upstate New York. We hope you enjoy this entertaining work.)

Bernie had a weirdness about him. It might have been an innocent weirdness, but other people seemed intent on ironing it out of him, as if it were a wrinkle in a dress shirt. Bernie, though, thought he was fine.

Bernie was single. He was old enough to be single for “acceptable reasons”: widowed, divorced, wife flipped to gay, gay himself. But he was none of those. He was single because it suited him, thank you, and let’s move on.

No, he didn’t drink coffee. But you should, people would tell him. No, I shouldn’t, he’d insist. But why not? they would persist, inevitably provoking him. Because it’s too much trouble, you coffee people are always complaining it’s not made right, and it costs too much.

No, he didn’t like animals. But you should, people would tell him. No, I shouldn’t, he’d insist. Animals are cute, they’d say, and they’d generously permit him to be either a dog or cat person. They’d even tolerate the odd needs of bird people. However, they couldn’t leave it alone if they found a person who was categorically not any kind of animal person. Didn’t God make the animals, they would challenge? Didn’t God make Satan? Bernie would reply. They couldn’t understand Bernie’s instant flight-or-fight response to dogs, his instant allergic reaction to cats, even the ghostly allergic aura of cats-no-longer-present. They didn’t understand the way animals disturbed his inner world.

Sometimes the opprobrium related to Bernie as a man, not just a person. No, he didn’t get excited about cars. No, he was not drawn to woodworking. No, he wasn’t embarrassed by not owning a toolbox. No, he wasn’t into whiskey. He’d not fished since he was a kid with his dad. He’d pulled a trigger on a sidearm or a long gun fewer than two dozen times. His trigger finger was not itchy.

Bernie would admit he lived in a different world, a world usually invisible. He could head to the post office multiple times, each time sailing by the post office while musing about something abstract.

To others, this was ditzy. To Bernie, it was the best use of this few remaining years. He would not waste on beverages with no appeal or hobbies of no interest. Of course, life forced Bernie into pedestrian moments: buying milk, taking out the trash on Thursday nights. But he didn’t like it and did it grudgingly. That, together with his contrarian temperament, earned him a reputation as a “grouchy old man.” Bernie could live with that. It tended to keep away the reformers, the improvers, the coffee people, the animal people, the NRA and meddling neighbors.

Still, Bernie sensed something missing in his hermetically sealed life. He didn’t need a fly rod, a dog, Johnny Black, or a latte, but he couldn’t ignore repeated suggestions that he might need a wife. Well, no, baby steps; maybe a girlfriend. He’d had a few over the years, and those experiences hadn’t been all that bad. Bernie accepted that one suggestion: He didn’t own guns, but he would hunt for a woman.

Ever methodical, Bernie contemplated how to find a girlfriend. Ever contrarian, he would never do that swipe left/swipe right thing on “A Time for Us.” Ha, he thought, more accurate to call it “Not Much Time Left for Us.” Besides, Bernie eschewed smart phones. When the improvers and correctors accosted him, he called iPhones “attack surfaces.” When asked to explain “attack surface,” he would change the subject. Unbeknown to most, he had been a cyber-warrior and had good reasons for that particular opinion.

After some thought, Bernie decided the way to find a girlfriend was to troll for one in a library. At least women there would be readers, which might imply a proper ratio of talk-to-listen and a general disposition toward quiet.

In retrospect, Bernie might have run a more efficient search if he had stopped to consider which library to troll. Instead, he went to the nearest one, a branch in the quiet suburb where he lived. After spending two hours at a table holding a copy of Smithsonian, Bernie realized his mistake. Almost every woman he’d seen had come in burdened with little children – not girlfriend material.

The next day, he drove to the main library but had no better luck. There were a few homeless women who frightened him. There were young women without children but festooned with tattoos, and he could not imagine a fruitful conversation while staring at a female neck marked with spider webs or snakes. There were older women who wore T-shirts loudly arguing for some lefty cause or another and, he imagined, had an uncomfortable openness to casual sex. After a few more forays, Bernie felt he had made a sufficient effort to find a girlfriend. Rationalizing, he began to feel that he needed a girlfriend no more than he needed a pet.

For a few years, Bernie proceeded along his solitary path, vaguely aware of an unspoken, nagging regret. Three years later, that regret surfaced. Lying mute in the stroke unit of a hospital contemplating a grim future, Bernie wished for the first time in his life that he were not so very alone. In retrospect, perhaps a few concessions to civility would have been in order.

— END —