Ben Hsu

Blog · Essay · Flash Fiction · Heavy Handed Parable

The Apartment Complex (Or a Heavy Handed Metaphor)

I feel like writing a heavy handed metaphor, an analogy if you will. If you don’t like that sort of thing go ahead and just skip this whole piece. But I promise it will at least be darkly entertaining. Ready for it? Okay, here goes:

In the middle of nowhere, far from anything of convenience, was an apartment complex. The building itself was quite nice, full of two bedrooms, one bathroom units at a reasonable price. Like many high end complexes a whole battery of amenities were offered (things like: a pool, fitness center, lounge, laundry room, etc.), and despite being in the middle of nowhere the building was always full.

Now, as is the case when there’s a large group of people, some of the tenants of The Apartment Complex were smokers, and some were not. While there were occasional disagreements between the two groups, for the most part they got along. The non-smokers agreed not to lecture about the hazards of smoking or comment about the smell, and the smokers agreed to limit their smoking to the outdoors, designated-well-ventilated smoking areas, or the privacy of their apartments. And for a time at least, life in The Apartment Complex was peaceful.

This all changed when Little Timmy arrived. Who was Little Timmy? Well, the funny thing is, no one was really sure. He didn’t seem to belong to any family in The Apartment Complex. He was always running in and out of the common areas playing games or listening in on conversations, but no one could remember how he got there, or notice when he left. The one thing everyone did agree on was that Timmy belonged in The Apartment Complex (for whatever reason), the same as the pool, the rec center, and any of the families renting any of the numerous units. Besides, it would be cruel to kick Little Timmy out, given The Apartment Complex was in the middle of nowhere, far from anything of convenience. No, the REAL problem with Little Timmy was that he was a pyromaniac, a young pyromanic with poor impulse control.

Smokers, as I’m sure you know, require fire to light their cigarettes (or cigars if they enjoy that sort of thing), and the smokers of The Apartment Complex had taken to carrying around lighters or books of matches. The thing is, it’s very easy to misplace or forget about a lighter or a book of matches. So The Apartment Complex tended to have a variety of fire creating implements scattered around the common areas. Before Little Timmy this wasn’t a problem, matches and lighters are useful tools, smokers could usually count on having a source of fire if they’d forgotten theirs and even the non-smokers would occasionally make use of the odd lighter in the rec room or lounge. But when you have a young, poor impulse controlled, pyromanic in the area, matches and lighters become very dangerous.

The fires started slowly, to be sure. No one was even sure it was Little Timmy that started the fires. But as fires in the common areas became more common, it was obvious what was happening. “This was much more fire than we were expecting,” cried one group of Apartment Dwellers, “we need to do something!”

“Maybe it’s just an isolated incident,” said another group, ignoring all evidence to the contrary, “Besides, we have bills, and jobs, and my kids are about to start school, and Game Of Thrones just start its new season. Let it be and maybe Little Timmy will stop on his own.” And the first group nodded in agreement because they too had bills, and jobs, and kids about to start school, and they too enjoyed Game Of Thrones.

But the fires didn’t stop. In fact because they’d done nothing, including punish or send Little Timmy to therapy, Little Timmy felt he could light as many fires as he wanted with impunity. “This hasn’t stopped,” said the first group as they put out yet another fire, “yesterday the laundry room was on fire and now none of us have clean clothes. Really, something must be done.”

“Maybe,” said a non-smoker, “we can all agree to stop leaving matches and lighters in the common areas.” And as that seemed a sensible idea, almost everyone nodded in agreement.

But as the Apartment Dwellers attempted to work out the logistics of not leaving lighters and matches around when there was a pyromanic in the immediate area a single voice cried out, “Wait a minute!” The voice belonged to the most avid smoker in the building. They were know to smoke up to ten packs of cigarettes a day, in addition to smoking cigars when waking up and before going to bed. “I need those matches and lighters to smoke! Are you saying I’m not allowed to smoke anymore?”

“Well, it’s true, you shouldn’t smoke,” said the non-smoker, “but if you have to smoke why don’t you just carry your own lighter around and make sure you put it away?”

“Aha!” cried the Avid Smoker, “Aha!” they cried again, clearly having only bothered to listen to the first part of the non-smoker’s sentence. “You’re using Little Timmy as an excuse to take away our right to smoke! Well, we’re not going to stand for this! Come on smokers, let’s go and buy as many lighters, matches, and cigarettes as we can and smoke them all over The Apartment Complex!” And the Avid Smoker turned to leave, rallying the other smokers with them. To this day, no one knows why so many smokers followed the Avid Smoker. Perhaps they too had only listened to the first part of the non-smoker’s sentence. Perhaps they were afraid that not being allowed to leave matches and lighters in the common area would indeed lead to a blanket ban on smoking. Perhaps they were afraid of being identified as a non-smoker despite enjoying smoking. Or perhaps they had simply seen enough of their peers leave with the Avid Smoker that they felt it was the right thing to do. Whatever the reason, from then on The Apartment Complex was officially divided between Smokers and Non-Smokers.

Since then things have gotten considerably worse for The Apartment Complex. Unwanted fires are lit daily now and have been increasing in intensity. It’s not uncommon for a family to be driven out of their home due to fire damage, or for a life to be lost, but any talk of making matches and lighters less accessible are either met with “not now, we’re dealing with a tragedy” or “you’ll use any excuse to take away our right to smoke” For their part, the Non-Smokers have been trying to find ways to limit the number of fire creating tools allowed in the common areas, but are always met with cries of “TAKING AWAY OUR RIGHT TO SMOKE!” The Smokers, feeling their right to smoke is under constant assault from the Non-Smokers, have taken to leaving matches, lighters, cigarettes, blow torches, and piles of kindling around The Apartment Complex as a constant (and heavy handed) reminder to the Non-Smokers that they are allowed to smoke. And Little Timmy, the one who started the whole mess, is all but forgotten. Occasionally an Apartment Dweller catches him actively lighting a fire, but he’s always ignored over the ensuing argument between Smokers and Non-Smokers. As far as anyone knows, The Apartment Complex is still there, in the middle of nowhere, far from anything of convenience; the Smokers and Non-Smokers arguing about allowing fire creating implements and smoking as the building slowly burns down around them.

And finished! See, I told you it would be darkly humorous. Now, as all literary majors are aware of, any good extended metaphor is followed by a series of discussion questions! Here’s a few to get the ball rolling.

The use of proper nouns seems wildly inconsistent in the piece (for example: non-smokers turns to The Non-Smokers within one paragraph). Why do you think that is?

Given that this was written by a United States citizen during the May of 2018, and that you’ve been told that this is a heavy handed metaphor, what do you think Little Timmy represents? How about fire, matches and lighters? What about The Apartment Complex? Is there any way they could have made it more blatantly obvious?

Why do you think the Smokers are so avid about maintaining their right to smoke, even though no one wanted to take it away in the first place, and in light of repeated fires causing multiple deaths? No, seriously, why are “Smokers” so vehement to allow any type of restrictions on matches and lighters even in the light of constant mass shoot-! I mean fires lit by Little Timmy?

Do you think anyone who actually needs to hear this message to have their mind change will read this and actually change their mind (probably not)?

Is the author just ranting to make themselves feel better at this point?

Blog · Essay · Flash Fiction · Heavy Handed Parable

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