The M.A.A.T.

Fiction
John Riha


Good morning. The Moral Ambiguity Aptitude Test is designed to measure deviation from the national norm established by the landmark research of Dr. Richard Hancock and Dr. Yi Taguchi in 2006. The test will take approximately one hour, although some of you may finish in as little as five minutes. Be sure to read each question or statement thoroughly and complete the test in the allotted time. If possible, check your answers. There are no right or wrong answers, but some answers may be more significant than others. Good luck!

Situation 1

You are working in your cubicle when your stomach begins to feel queasy. No doubt last night’s shredded pork/tofu burritos are acting up. You need to get to the restroom immediately. You grab the latest issue of Lucky/GQ/Out from your briefcase and hurry down the hallway. Your gut feels like a firehose with a kink in it. The pressure is unbearable. Suddenly, a co-worker appears in front of you. This particular colleague has been a reliable workplace friend and confidante, but was let go only three days ago in a brutal restructuring. She has finished cleaning out her cube and carries a pathetic cardboard box that holds an equally pitiful assortment of personal desktop paraphernalia. She is a single mom with few prospects. Her face is tight and unbelievably wretched, as if someone has stuck a spigot in her soul and drained every drop of vitality. She turns to you expectantly. She desperately needs words of comfort and sympathy.

Do you:

  1. Rush past with a cursory nod and artificially sympathetic smile in order to take care of your basic, most urgent needs?
  2. Risk the unmentionable and engage her in a conversation from which there is no easy exit?
  3. Dismiss her by saying, “Excuse me, but I have a job to do.”

Situation 2

You are driving home from work on the freeway. A frantic rush hour is complicated by road construction that constricts what normally are three lanes to two. In an effort to arrive home as calm as a chilled gherkin, you have adopted a Zen-like strategy. You will stick to the right-hand lane, no matter how slow the going. There, immune to the bloodthirsty cut and parry of traffic, you will divorce yourself of competitive urges. You will rise above. However, you soon find yourself behind a Very Cautious Driver who is droning along at an excruciatingly slow pace. Perhaps the driver of the maroon Corolla is a bodhisattva whose ultimate intent is to ensure your path of serenity. Nevertheless, vehicles are streaming past in the left lane at an enviable rate that puts them so much closer to their after-work martini/Vicodin/News Hour with Lou Dobbs than you. You hunker down in your seat as a precaution against being rear-ended, eyes stitched to the back of this VCD, breathing through your nose with large, full inhales and exhales. Orange stanchions and warning cones along the edge of the pavement indicate an impossibly narrow margin of error. Your heart rate is accelerating. You begin to lose focus. You consider an extremely perilous maneuver that will vault you precipitously into the left lane when an exit ramp appears. Impetuously, you decide to take this early exit and work your way along the back roads toward home, thereby keeping your promise to maintain a moderate pace and avoiding any adrenalin-soaked, high-speed interfacing. You are about to congratulate yourself on this spontaneous act of civility when you realize you are being funneled into a fresh labyrinth of road construction, forcing you on a detour route that doubles back to retrace a good portion of your progress so far.

Doesn’t this disprove the notion that God may not hold constant regard for your emotional and spiritual welfare?

  1. Yes
  2. No

Situation 3

Despite heavy traffic, you arrive home from work early to discover your wife/husband/lover in bed with another man/woman/mastiff.

Do you:

  1. Shoot everyone?
  2. Shoot only the interloper?
  3. Shoot only your significant other?
  4. Shoot yourself?

Situation 4

You are taking an early morning stroll along on a country road when you come across a turtle. The turtle is in the exact middle of the road. At the moment, the turtle is facing along the length of the road, not obviously headed toward one side or the other. From experience, you know this road will soon be busy with mountain bikers, joggers with dogs, and mean-spirited children with large sticks. (For the purposes of this Situation, assume this is not a snapping turtle, although it may have some icky stuff on its underside.)

Do you:

  1. Move the turtle to a side of the road, risking that this is not the turtle’s true destination and the animal will, as a result of your action, be forced to traverse the entire width of the road once again, making it even more likely to be injured or killed?
  2. Do nothing besides wonder why a species so stonecold dumb could have survived for millions of years virtually unchanged?
  3. Search for a large stick?

Situation 5

Your mother wants a cigarette. She has emphysema and whacked-out blood pressure and she is pathetic in her blue sweater buttoned to the neck and her anti-edema hose turning her lower legs into shapeless brown posts. She sits in a small parlor chair on a needlepoint seat cushion that was made by her own mother—one of the few familiar, meaningful items in her assisted-living studio apartment. You have put some family pictures on the walls and on her bedside table but she doesn’t really know who is who. She sits because normal-pressure hydrocephalus has made her unsteady and loopy. Her eyes are baleful and watery: her life is closing and no one will give her a damn cigarette. Not one stupid cigarette? At her age? What’s it going to do, kill her?

You:

  1. Struggle to get her into a wheelchair and push her outside to a place by the dumpsters that is mostly hidden from view and give her a fucking cigarette.

Situation 6

Your mother is dying. She lies in a hospice bed beside a large plate glass window. Outside, an early spring has given the surrounding woods a pale green blush. Squirrel tails flicker through the underbrush. A single cardinal, bold as a drop of blood, arrives at a feeder placed near the window. You want to tap on the glass but the impulse is fleeting. Your mother is dying, after all. Small cell carcinoma of the lung complicated by congestive heart failure, renal failure, and a chronic bad attitude but at the moment it is the morphine that is killing her. A substantial dose, administered by the well-meaning if perhaps too-eager staff, has brought her to a macabre precipice. Her eyes skitter back and forth as hallucinations cascade across a mental screen bleached of context. She tries to track the torrent of images—swimming in a cold lake with the raspy ends of seaweed reaching up to caress her knees and curled toes; a rude girl with braids in third grade sticking out her tongue; an unfaithful college sweetheart looking past the steam of his coffee toward a damp recollection; a foreign city street in snow—but the images, made hard and brittle by chemicals, induce panic, not wonder. Her breathing is shallow, like sheets of paper rubbing against each other. Her heart rate approaches 150 although no one is actually monitoring her heart because, after all, she is in a hospice where diagnostic tools and preventative measures are not necessary. The fingers of your right hand are intertwined with hers and with the back of your left hand you stroke the hollow of her cheek. Her skin is as dry and translucent as a locust’s shell. Her fingers are more bone than flesh; the softness is melting away. Behind you, down a hallway, someone drops a metal tray. The cardinal flies away. (For the purposes of this Situation, assume that you love your mother.)

Do you:

  1. Pray for your mother to die mercifully?
  2. Pray for a miracle?
  3. Ask for forgiveness?
  4. Call for more morphine?

Thank you for your time. Your participation in the MAAT has been invaluable. Please place your completed test face down on your desk and exit the door on your right. Some of you may wish to use the exit on your left. We will review your responses and score them accordingly. We encourage you to consider possibly having a great day.

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“My previously published work has appeared in The Somerset Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and Toasted Cheese among others. My non-fiction has appeared in Esquire, GQ, and Men’s Journal. I am currently the Editorial Director of Special Interest Media at Meredith Corp.” E-mail: jriha25[at]gmail.com

The Cleaning

Fiction
John Riha


Parker always wore gloves when he cleaned the gutters. He used large, stiff, chemical-resistant gloves made of advanced-composition neoprene, and if you could see what all was in Parker’s gutters you would use those types of gloves, too. The gutters on Parker’s house had been installed without the proper amount of incline, and by early summer each metal channel had turned into a stagnant pond full of vile muck—gelatinous oak blossoms and decomposing leaves and tangles of pine needles and blobs of bird poop that congealed in the warm, standing water into a vile mush capable of breeding God-knows-what mutant strains of virulent bacteria and flesh-eating paramecia. Maple seeds settled into this rotting stew, helicoptering down from the surrounding trees by the thousands, and eventually a little forest took root in Parker’s gutters. Along about June baby maple trees began poking their nodding green heads out over the eaves to where Parker could see them as he motored up the driveway, the sudden profusion always something of a marvel. Nature was so determined! So opportunistic! And yes, it was time to clean the gutters.

He could have the gutters serviced, of course, but it was a point of personal pride that he complete his own home maintenance tasks, no matter how odious the job. When it came to taking care of things around his house, no one would be as conscientious as Parker. Call him meticulous. Fastidious. Even obsessive. It should be noted that Parker was a high school algebra teacher, and it is easy to speculate that he applied mathematical precision and a love for absolutes to even such a mundane task as cleaning the gutters. It is also true that the one or two times he had engaged people to clean out his gutters they never showed up. Think about it— how reliable could a person be whose chosen profession was to scoop rotting bilge from other people’s lives? About as reliable as cheddar cheese left out in the hot sun, that’s for sure.

Parker removed most of the gunk by hand and deposited it in a 3-mil plastic garbage bag. The 3-mils were the toughest you could buy and Parker settled for nothing less. He scraped out the remainder with a small garden trowel. He was especially careful to scoop up all the little stone granules that had come loose from the shingles and settled to the bottoms of the channels. He finished off each section by spritzing it with disinfectant and wiping it out with a sponge. When he had cleared and swabbed as far as he could safely reach he carefully climbed down, one rung at a time, centering his weight with utmost care, each move methodically composed. Then he repositioned his ladder and climbed back up with the same deliberation. He did not climb unless the ladder felt well-anchored and steady. Rock-solid. Ever since his neighbor, Reynolds, had died in that unfortunate accident, Parker was particularly sensitive to the issue of safety. He had no desire to tempt the gods. In fact, lately he had begun to think of the large, two-story house where he lived as impractical. What was he doing up on tall ladders every spring and fall, cleaning gutters, repairing windows, washing siding and all? He was giving serious consideration to moving. A single-story house would so much more manageable. Besides, the old neighborhood held unpleasant memories. Ghosts. Time to move on.

Parker sighed at the memory of Reynolds lying on the concrete driveway, his head cracked open and cranial matter leaking out. Hard to imagine a man more dead than that. Reynolds had ended up all tangled and askew, like a pile of damp laundry at the bottom of a chute. Dying, Parker surmised, is not graceful. All the stuff that holds us together just lets go. Whoosh! Gone. What’s left? Rubble. Ooze. Imprecision and randomness.

Parker had witnessed the death. More than witnessed, actually. He had been right there, giving his neighbor a hand. What are neighbors for? In Parker’s book, anyway. But Reynolds had been stupid. He had tried to clean the gutters on a blustery fall day, with winds gusting to forty miles an hour! Good grief! Parker had seen this folly and come across the street to anchor the ladder, hold it steady. Try some other day, Parker had advised. But Reynolds—strange, foolish man—had insisted on forging ahead. Got a business trip, he had said. Only day I’ve got to do household chores. Or some baloney. That’s what Reynolds had said.

And that’s what Parker told the police Reynolds had said when the patrol car and the paramedics finally arrived. He explained how it happened in detail. It had been a battle, Parker said. The winds were fierce. He, Parker, had held onto the ladder for all he was worth. Come down, he had called to Reynolds. Just got one more bit to do, Reynolds replied. Almost done. Leaning out, way out, to scoop gunk into a cheap plastic bag with an ungloved hand. Occasionally stuff dripped out between Reynolds fingers but thankfully the wind tore the yuck away before it could fall upon Parker. Reynolds was twenty-five feet up in the air. Like a circus act. A balancing wonder bear on a high-wire unicycle. You’re leaning too far, Parker called up. The ladder’s moving. Almost done, Reynolds shouted back, a hint of irritation in his voice. But then a gust came along and Parker sensed a shift toward something inevitable, irretrievable. Perhaps there is a physics formula, an equation, that describes this point of no return—the moment when fate leans one way or the other and a life hangs in the balance. A point where, if A is a weight at the end of a long ladder, and A gets a certain degree off-center, then the muscular power required to prevent a mishap was beyond what a mortal man might possess. Parker felt the disaster taking shape in his hands. He knew the distance to the driveway; realized that if the ladder should lean too far, then the man at the top would be dashed against solid, unforgiving concrete.

And sure enough, it happened.

Reynolds hadn’t made a sound on the way down. He had looked surprised, of course, and he clung bravely to his little plastic bag full of gutter crap. But he was doomed, and Parker had the remarkable experience of looking into the eyes of a dead man who was yet alive. In that terrible moment, an understanding passed between them. It was difficult to describe, but each knew the other in a new and profound way. Reynolds was gathering speed, plummeting along a lethal arc, headed for the middle of the driveway. Indeed the wet spot that remained after they hauled his carcass away was precisely dead center. If one would forgive that particular term.

If the truth be known, Parker was not terribly saddened by the calamity. Amazed, perhaps, by his proximity to it. Watching a violent death is not an everyday occurrence. But he harbored little remorse. He shed no tears. You see, Reynolds was not a nice man. He was a gloomy, enigmatic fellow, shrouded in some sort of bitterness. Possibly a disturbed childhood was at the root. On those rare occasions when Reynolds appeared affable and buoyant, Parker suspected the temporary effects of mood-altering medications. Reynolds was an orthopedic surgeon, so he had money, and indeed his house was the largest on the block, but Reynolds kept the world at bay. He was not charitable. He turned away Girls Scouts selling cookies, and he deliberately darkened his windows and refused to answer the door at Halloween, although he clearly was home. He borrowed items and returned them broken, if at all. Once Parker had lent the man a fine electric hedge clipper that had come back with three teeth missing, a bent blade, and the grumbled complaint that the clipper was “a worthless tool.” An offer of apology or repair was not forthcoming. So all in all, Parker had to manufacture some dismay when he talked to the police. It was one of those things.

Also, it pained Parker to notice how dismissive Reynolds was of his lovely wife, Maria. He berated her openly for the smallest transgressions, such as parking too close to the edge of the driveway or wearing shoes that he did not approve. Parker heard them on occasion as they got in and out of their car. The Reynoldses could not have known, but the walls of their garage acted like a megaphone, and channeled their quarrels directly towards Parker. He could hear Reynolds’ voice, cut with sarcasm, lash his wife. This pained Parker, who had chatted with Maria Reynolds at various opportunities and thought she was a completely wonderful person. Witty, engaging, and sensible. She was also quite beautiful, with cascades of lovely brown hair and a full figure that Parker, a widower of many years, found difficult to ignore. Parker could not help but feel for Maria Reynolds, and there were times, moments when they met on the street hauling recyclables to the curb, that Parker detected a plea, a desperation in Maria’s eyes that Parker interpreted as a deep and profound desire to be saved from a soulless marriage.

Parker climbed down and moved his ladder. How easy this would be in a single-story house! No more wrestling with a cumbersome extension ladder, or long tubes for washing second-story siding, or clambering up to remove a torn screen. Why, even if a person were to fall from the roof of a single-story house, the worse that would happen would be a broken wrist or somesuch. He congratulated himself on his decision to move and start over. Change was good. Therapeutic. He resisted change for so many years that he had denied himself its charms, no doubt. The truth be known, change was wonderful. Life-affirming. Life was for the living.

The door to his house opened and Maria stepped outside. His new wife. His bride. Mrs. Maria Parker. Who would have thought that a man like himself deserved such a marvelous woman? That he would do anything for her was already proven. He had done everything possible. And it had been worth it.

Maria looked radiant, refreshed, polished to perfection by the late morning light. She, too, displayed the wondrous effects of change. Seeing her, it made even more sense to move away from here, this old neighborhood, and begin their new adventure. Together. He supposed he could thank Reynolds, in a way. The old boy had squirreled away his money, surprisingly sensible investments and all, and the Widow Reynolds had inherited a tidy bundle. Not that he, Parker, needed the money. He had done well for himself, considering. But, you know, the more the merrier.

Maria looked at him, hand over her eyes to shade from the sun, and within the crescent of shadow that cupped her face he could see her smile.

“Hollis,” she called. “How are you doing?”

“I’m good,” he replied. “Almost done.”

“I’m worried about you up there.”

Even those few words made his heart swell. How long since he had heard caring words from a woman? Since long before his first wife had taken that awful tumble down the basement steps. And now he and Maria were bonded together, their tragic histories making them stronger, more complete. “I’m fine.”

She took a step toward him, hand still held over her eyes. “It’s getting windy.”

Funny, he hadn’t noticed. Given his sensitivity to issues affecting his safety, particularly around the house, you’d think he would have picked up on the stiffening breeze. But now he felt it acutely, the wind lifting the cuffs of his trousers so they beat around his ankles. Reflexively, he reached out and gripped one of the gutters with a bulky glove, knowing there would be no salvation in the flimsy metal. And his situation crystallized. He was that precise distance away from his own driveway, the gray concrete made white by the sun.

Maria had reached the foot of his ladder. She stood there with her hands firmly gripping the aluminum legs. Her face was upturned. At this moment, looking directly into the light, she did not look as pretty as he remembered. And when was it that she looked so beautiful? How far ago? Can the distance from the beginning of a single instant to its end be so vast? Could it be measured?

“I’ll hold the ladder for you,” she said, her voice unrecognizable.

“No,” he pleaded. “Don’t.”

But she did.
pencil

“I’ve been published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Missouri Review, and flashquake.com. I’ve written lots of non-fiction articles and have been published in Esquire, GQ, Men’s Journal, and others. Currently, I’m the Executive Editor of Better Homes and Gardens.” E-mail: jriha[at]mchsi.com.