I’m going to a funeral, and for the occasion, I’ve chosen a knee-length black Donna Karan dress (Flashy Trash, $15), black lace bra and panties, garter belt, sheer black stockings and brown snow boots with my “For Funerals Only” black pumps stuffed in a Hello Kitty backpack. If I didn’t care at all what people think, I would have added purple elbow-length gloves and a hat with a dotted veil. I would’ve used brown eyeliner to paint a mole on one cheekbone like Marie Antoinette. I wear the garter belt in memoriam of the guy who died. He would have appreciated the effort. I also like the shiver that comes when the wind whips under my dress and tickles my bare thighs. It makes me want to squeal and bend my leg at the knee.
It’s not often I can dress this way. The people at Mitch, Saunders, Mitch and Saunders are Republican lawyers whose idea of a fashion risk is a Wile E. Coyote tie.
At the first bus stop, raincoat-wearing passengers line up at the door. I sit in the front row of seats thinking, don’t you dare sit next to me. No, not you either—when this guy steps on who looks just like the man in the Levi’s commercial. I beam thought rays at him. Fuck me. Fuck me now. The fat guy in front of him heaves into the seat next to mine. My man passes by, leaving a whiff of lemony cologne.
For the rest of the ride, I try out scenarios for how it could happen. The bus stalls, no—the bus driver has a diabetic fit and my Levi man takes control, yelling, I’ll drive! Everyone (except me) shrieks. His manly hands grip the steering wheel. I must finish this route! I run to the front of the bus, pushing people out of my way, Excuse me, excuse me, the skirt of my dress riding up my thighs. I must help him because he’s injured his left hand (it’s been sprained somehow by the fat guy), and I have to steer for him, and the only way to do that is to sit on his lap.
It’s too close to the premise of Speed, and anyway, I’d no doubt block his view and we’d crash and my mom would have to identify the body and she would be mortified to see me wearing a black lace thong.
I exit the bus at Michigan Avenue, casting one last meaningful glance at my almost-lover. He doesn’t even turn his head to look at me while I stand at the crosswalk, wishing a breeze would come along and blow my hair across my cheek.
I have a minor panic attack as I enter the church foyer, because I have forgotten how to genuflect.
Then I see the guy from Divorce Law in the last pew. I usually don’t find him attractive because his face is dented with pockmarks and he walks on the balls of his feet with his hands in his pockets, but when he turns, his gaze skimming over me, I notice he has the bluest, bluest eyes and you can’t help but wonder what he looks like naked. Maybe underneath his starched button-up oxford he’s hiding a chest rippled with muscles. Maybe he has excellent technique, very adept fingers that would make me arch my back and lose complete control, and, at our wedding, our guests would line up to congratulate us, dying to ask me what I saw in him. I would look over at his long thin, talented fingers, one now circled with a gold band, smile and say, Oh, yes, thank you for coming.
The service begins with the horn-like opening bars of “Morning Has Broken.” I squeeze in next to my friend, Jennifer Sanantini, who works as a receptionist for Fred Cornell who smokes cigars and chews gum at the same time. The casket sits in the front of the church, and all you can see of the body is the tip of the nose, sticking into the air like it’s testing the smell of the white orchids in large baskets on the floor.
The organ music falls silent when the priest approaches the pulpit. He is not your typical, sixty-eight-year-old holy man with a shaky voice and bald head. He’s about Jesus’ age when he died and he appears heterosexual. His hair springs around his head in neat whorls and he has the chiseled features like a religious figure from a stained glass window. Strong jaw, defined cheekbones, sensuous wide mouth, and sweet hands now making the sign of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Holy Mary, mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. I want to crawl under the podium and slip between his legs while he says, Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. While everyone prays, he would look down at me, there, prone on my knees. He’d push my head away, his face white. For the love of God, what are you doing? I would bow my head and say, Forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin and then I would take him in my mouth and his hands would tighten on the podium and he’d whisper, No, no, you must cease and desist, but I wouldn’t, and he would respond against his will.
Jennifer Sanantini is frowning at me and I realize I’m wiggling and I stop.
Sometimes, I worry that God listens to my thoughts and will answer stray fragments of them one day, causing me to be gang-raped in an alleyway by a pack of eighteen-year-old construction workers with Irish accents who resemble J. Crew models. I try to keep my prayers very explicit. Please let Jonathan Pervival Simmons from Accounting whom I know only to say hi to through Brenda Lesley in P.R. show up at my apartment one night, banging his fists on the door and shouting, Katie! Open up! I can’t go another minute without touching you! This, God, must happen on a night I’m wearing my red short nightgown instead of a yellow-pitted white T-shirt and my kitty-cat flannel pajama bottom and glasses. And I have definitely not picked my face and my eyes are not puffy from crying over long distance phone commercials and my bed is actually made, and he’s wearing—but, you know, sometimes I never make it beyond the door-knocking. The details are exhausting and the struggle to make it real is too tedious and so the rest of the story doesn’t seem worth the effort.
After the ceremony ends, we must file past the body and pay our last respects. I follow Jennifer Sanantini whose slip peeks under the hem of her dress. This is my first dead person in a while. I can’t stop chewing my fingernails. When I finally see him, it’s not that bad. He’s wearing a suit I don’t recognize from work. He looks the same, more or less, except it’s as though his face is made of wax, like if you took a wet washcloth and rubbed a little circle on his cheek, it’d turn shiny.
A bunch of us meet up at a semi-professional bar in Lincoln Park to drink a beer in his memory.
We’re there for about fifteen minutes when I spot this man at the end of the bar who reminds me of a boy I was in love with in college. Jon Preston. You had to say his full name, in whispered tones. He sewed patches on his jeans before it was even cool and I thought, Damnit! Why didn’t I think of that? Now I can’t wear patches because it’ll seem like I’m copying him.
I stood in awe, every moment with him was unreal, like this gift from heaven. I’d think he didn’t even know my name and then catch him staring hard at me while I was doing something stupid like trying to open the door without using my hands.
The most lucid memory I have of that time is lying on his mattress covered with dinosaur sheets. I was wearing a heavy metal square my friend gave me from Afghanistan. It hung on a leather strap around my neck. I said, Do you want me to take it off? He said, No, leave it on, and the cool gray metal thumped between us while I rocked on top of him. He looked at me with clear blue eyes, his pupils large and black with a dot of gold in the center. I wish I could draw them to show you how perfect they were and how much I wanted inside those eyes to switch places with him and know what he was seeing in me.
Three Heinekens later, this look-alike Jon Preston stands next to me. His eyes are closer together than I first thought. He says, It’s loud in here. It’s hard to talk.
I yell, What? As a joke. He repeats, It’s loud in here. That’s ten points off for not knowing how funny I am.
Then I discover he loves Annie Hall and he quotes the line about the raccoons and I believe we could fall in love and raise adorable children without pretentious names and move to the country and buy a golden retriever and name it Janet and in the winter he’d wear soft flannel shirts and heavy boots and he’d chop wood and also cook oatmeal and when he’d come in from the snow carrying an armload of wood, his cheeks would be so rosy I’d want to bite them. I ask him who his favorite artist is. Norman Rockwell. What music does he listen to? Phish. What toy did he like best when he was growing up? Huh?
I say I have to go find my friend now.
Jennifer Sanantini is listening to one of the junior lawyers tell about a messy divorce case involving a box of Penthouse Forum letters that the wife found to be harmful to their children. Jennifer laughs and nods and shakes her head and, when she sees I’m watching her and the guy is not, she wrinkles her nose and sticks out her tongue a little.
Our group has suddenly grown alcohol-maudlin, in part because someone put “Seasons in the Sun” on the jukebox and also because, after all, we did just come from a funeral. The junior lawyer starts telling another story, this one about the deceased and how he used to crack everyone up because he’d always forget to zip up his pants and once he walked around at a convention with his shirt tail hanging out of his crotch. Gary, the guy who’s always loitering by the water cooler, throws his head back and laughs and tries to put his arms around me but I see it coming and duck to inspect a non-existent run in my stocking.
I wonder what the dead man’s family remembers about him, or maybe he lived alone in an apartment overlooking Lake Michigan. Maybe he played old Frank Sinatra records over and over and only ate Swanson pot pies. Maybe he wore checkered grandpa-pajamas and thick mule slippers and maybe he looked out the window and thought, Is this everything?
I count six baseball hats and three men in Cubs T-shirts. I search for one guy I would take home with me, just one; I have to pick one or else God will kill my entire family. There is no one. This makes me want to go home, turn off the lights, lie on the floor and listen to Counting Crows’ “Omaha,” even though it makes me sad because it reminds me of my grandma, whom I miss but never call.
Jennifer acts overly concerned when I tell her I’m leaving. Are you sure you’ll be okay? Are you sure? Out of the corner of her eye, she’s looking to see if Brad, the married guy in Damage Control, notices how good of a friend she is. Brad is not; he is guzzling a beer and involved in a serious conversation about the Bulls. I admire his leather suspenders, but only because I really, really hate them.
While hailing a taxi, I pretend I’m “That Girl.” A cab zips to the curb and stops without a screech. I give the driver my address, squirming in the seat to see his dashboard ID photograph and name without him becoming suspicious.
The cabby’s neck is smooth, vulnerable, and his ears stick out. Please don’t talk to me, I pray. He says, It’s starting to snow, huh? The wiper blades squeak across the windshield.
Yes, it is.
He says, You are coming from a party?
I press my legs together. The skin sticks. I feel like he can tell what kind of underwear I’m wearing. Maybe he can even smell me. Yeah, I say. Somebody died.
We drive the rest of the way in silence. When he pulls up to my apartment, I tip him extra for not being better company.
The snow is falling in huge white flakes, God sifting great puffs of flour from the sky. The cabbie waits to see if I make it inside okay. I want to run over to his window and say, Would you like to come up for a cup of hot chocolate? Instead, I hold out my hand and catch a snowflake on my mitten, turn, and spin for him so that my skirt flares out a little.
I look back, and he is still watching me, almost smiling. He waves and starts to drive off. I say, Thank you, and run down the sidewalk to the warmth of my building.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Aimee LaBrie from Wonderful Girl
Yoshi Takamata moved from Kyoto to Connecticut at the age of fifteen, and his three years of American high school, followed by four years at local college and two decades in New York City, had done little to soften the severe Japanese accent he greeted me with after I had climbed a flight of stairs on Chambers Street to find my new master.
It was Yoshi’s accent that assured me I was in the right place. The dojo itself was dishearteningly rundown, a converted dance studio with water- damaged ceilings, a warped wooden floor, and a wall of tall, dirty windows, only half of which opened. There was no visible training gear other than a blue multipaneled gymnastics mat and a curved wooden sword propped in the corner. A flimsy cloth curtain separated the two locker rooms, each looking to fit no more than a half dozen people at a time.
“Come in to my office,” Yoshi growled, bowing. I bowed in return, slipped off my shoes, and padded behind him in my dark socks.
Yoshi’s office was as sparsely furnished as the rest of the dojo. On the walls hung framed photographs of Yoshi at different ages, flinging opponents through the air by their wrists and shoulders, and kicking apples off of swords while blindfolded.
Yoshi gestured for me to sit in the visitor’s chair. I faced him across the slim wooden desk. He folded his hands, interlacing his fingers. Where his starchy white uniform had been rolled up at the cuffs, I could see his smooth forearms, like the skin of a mannequin.
“I’m looking for a new master,” I said.
“It’s been almost ten years since I last trained. I don’t know how it happened. I stopped just after college. I had a red belt but I moved for work and then somehow the years went by.”
“Are you married?” he said.
“That’s usually how it happens.”
“I’m engaged,” I said.
“Congratulations. I was engaged once. Very nice girl. She plays violin for an orchestra.”
“But you didn’t marry her.”
“My family was disappointed.” Yoshi shrugged. “What can you do?”
He plucked two hard candies from a ceramic bowl on his desk and offered me one. A student of his, I later learned, worked for a candy distributor and kept Yoshi’s office supplied with treats. Most of the students provided free services to the dojo at one time or another. A red-belt lawyer had drafted the insurance release form. A blue-belt carpenter had built the shelves in the women’s locker room. Another blue belt, a computer engineer, had designed the website.
Yoshi rolled the candy around in his mouth and asked me what it was, exactly, that I wanted to learn. Why had I come back? To get in shape? For self-defense? Was I bored of the gym?
“I’d like to be able to put someone in excruciating pain,” I said.
“You want to fight.”
I shook my head. “That’s just kicking and punching. I want to learn how to incapacitate someone. So painful they can’t even think.”
“That is a . . . unusual desire.”
He stood and walked out of the office. A moment later, when it was clear that Yoshi wasn’t returning, I followed him out. I regretted offending him. I should have said that I sought spiritual enrichment. Standing by the door, I slipped my shoes back on and tied the laces. “Sorry if I’ve wasted your time,” I said.
Yoshi smiled. He seemed acutely relaxed, his round, wide face displaying the expressionless gaze of serenity etched into the sculptures of gods. We shook hands.
Then my thumb exploded.
It’s a bad habit to shut your eyes when you’re attacked. Maybe it comes from the childhood belief that if you don’t see it, it will hurt less, as if viewing pain were necessary to its transmission. Or maybe it’s just the opposite, and shutting your eyes is a kind of dedication, a devotion to the momentary annihilation that agony brings. Either way, I suffered in astonished blindness. When I finally reopened my eyes, I found myself kneeling on the hardwood floor, freshly released from Yoshi’s vicious grip. I could feel a circle of heat throbbing around the distressed bones of my limp hand.
“Welcome,” Yoshi said.
I began studying under Yoshi that autumn. Although my previous master had been a triathlete who demanded a brutal level of conditioning from his students, Yoshi possessed something beyond a physical excellence that, with enough diligence and training, I hoped I would one day achieve. There was a fluidity and ruthlessness to his movements that made him seem impossible to stop. His speed was careless, his strength inscrutable, his touch adhesive and pitiless. He was shadowy, emotionless, disinterestedly cruel. At times, when facing him, I felt like I was facing death. Only unlike the invisible figure that had recently claimed my father, for all my new master’s terrifying skill, Yoshi was tangible, reachable, even interrogable.
But he did not always answer the questions asked of him. Many times he would ignore them, or else answer an entirely different question. One evening, I was struggling to understand how to move an opponent who was resisting me. I had failed to predict the difficulty of inflicting great suffering, that what life had meted out casually to my family I had to labor to reproduce and, consequently, control. Yoshi told me to create a space for the person to fall into. “But how do I get them into that space?” I asked.
We were standing alone on the thin blue mats. Class had just ended, and a few students were waiting outside the overcrowded locker rooms for their turn to change, checking their phones for missed calls and messages.
“Look at Oriana’s feet,” Yoshi said.
I craned my neck to see them. “You mean the way she positions her toes?”
“They are sexy little feet,” he said.
“I guess,” I said, confused.
“Haven’t you ever noticed them?”
“You must learn to look down. Where the eye goes, the mind follows.”
Yoshi raised an eyebrow. “Tonight I think it is time we celebrate your promotion. Too much seriousness is not good for a man, Mr. Wallace!”
Only a year had passed since I had joined Yoshi’s dojo, but my devotion, along with my previous training, had sped my advancement, and Yoshi had recently made me an assistant instructor. After changing out of our uniforms, we went to the Irish pub across the street. The bartender was one of Yoshi’s students, a handsome young yellow belt with a shaved head. He brought us a round of free drinks.
“Thank you, Billy,” Yoshi said and scooped a handful of peanuts from a dish. He turned to me. “What do you think of the new Italian student?”
“Gabriella or Oriana?”
“Both of them,” Yoshi said.
I shrugged. “Gabriella has that dancer background, so she’s disciplined, flexible, good core strength. But then she’s slow, the way dancers are. Everything’s a performance and—”
“Oriana has very good spirit,” Yoshi interrupted.
“Did you see last week when she saw a nail sticking up from the floor? She went straight to the office for a hammer and flattened it. Because she is raised European. American but European. They have family values.” He motioned for Billy to bring a round of shots. “Really, you never noticed her feet?”
“I try not to get distracted by the students.”
“The pinky toe has a very small nail. It is very sexy.”
Billy came over with our shots. He placed them on the bar and asked Yoshi to correct his finger lock. “I was trying it on my mom last night and it wasn’t working,” he said.
“Which finger did you use?” I asked.
Yoshi shook his head. “Finger selection is unimportant. Of course, it is easier to pick one of the weaker fingers, but with proper technique all will work. Give me your hand.”
Billy stretched out his palm. A moment later, his face was flat against the bar and he was breathing loudly out of his mouth.
“Always, you must strike a kyusho, a vital point, to attack a joint,” Yoshi said. “Our ki, our energy, flows through these kyusho. They connect the body’s energy system. Every joint is controlled by at least four—many to choose from.”
After Billy staggered away, Yoshi raised his shot glass.
“To your tremendous achievement, Mr. Wallace.”
“Thank you,” I said, though I felt undeserving of the praise. Whatever skills I had developed were insignificant compared to Yoshi’s. I was capable, even proficient, in certain situations, but I lacked the holistic devastation Yoshi routinely demonstrated. Wrists slipped out of my grip. Partners reversed my locks. I muscled through technique that should have been effortless.
“What is very important for you next . . .” Yoshi said, and I nodded eagerly. It was the first time that I had ever been out alone with Yoshi. He had often invited me for a drink after class, but always in a group of students, and we would sit around him while he entertained us with anecdotes about his boyhood training in Japan, rigorous drills in which he was forced to run barefoot in winter around the icy fields until the skin on the soles of his feet tore free. To sit together on our own, side by side, seemed an almost daunting privilege.
“Yes, Sensei?” I prompted.
“Another shot!” He laughed and motioned for Billy to bring us a round.
“But Sensei, doesn’t drinking weaken your kyusho?”
“Well . . . yes.” He picked up the shot glass between his thumb and forefinger and sniffed the contents. “But pleasure is a discipline too.”
The following Saturday morning, Yoshi called. My wife handed me the telephone with her eyes still closed. She rolled over and fell back asleep.
“Sensei?” I whispered, climbing out of bed as quietly as possible.
“Come meet me at the dojo!” Yoshi cried.
“It is part of your training!”
“But Sensei, it’s seven a.m.”
“I am a night bird. I never went to sleep. Bring your car.”
He hung up. I changed into sweatpants and a tee shirt, left my wife a note on the bathroom sink, and swiped the car keys from the self-adhesive hook by the front door. It was a long walk to the outdoor parking garage on Eleventh Avenue, and I had underestimated the cold. A dog walker in a knee-length coat blew onto alternating hands, her breath white in the September morning. Outside an apartment building, I passed a series of soil beds full of purple and black-striped flowers. The blooms looked startled and hunched over, as if interrupted while stepping out of the shower.
When I arrived at the dojo, I found Yoshi asleep on the mats. He wore a baggy, charcoal suit, the sleeves wrinkled from having been rolled up. One of his socks had a hole by the big toe, which I could see because Yoshi had taken off his shoes to use as pillows.
“Sensei, I’m here,” I said and bowed.
“I’m here,” I repeated, louder this time.
“Excellent, excellent.” Yoshi sat up. His eyes were red and irritated. The radiator in the corner of the dojo spit out wet, petulant heat.
“Should I change into my uniform?” I asked.
“No, no,” Yoshi said, rising off the mats. “Do you know New Jersey?”
“I guess so.”
“I am unfamiliar with New Jersey. It is better if you drive.” He stumbled toward the door, carrying his shoes in one hand like a sleepy child dragging her doll.
I had parked the car halfway down the block from the dojo. The lock on the passenger-side door was broken, and while waiting for me to climb in and open his door from the inside, Yoshi leaned his forearm against the roof and rested his head on it. Flecks of gray had begun to sprout in his black hair. Behind him, in the second-story window of an apartment building, pigeons were cooing. I put my shoulder into the door and popped it free.
“Where are we going in New Jersey, Sensei? Is there a kyusho seminar?” I asked hopefully, while we idled at a stoplight.
“We go to the mall,” Yoshi said.
“The mall? Why?”
“The heart wants what it wants,” he said and passed out.
I took a roundabout route to the Lincoln Tunnel, wandering through the red and yellow awning-filled labyrinth of Chinatown, up through Little Italy, and all the way over to the Meatpacking District, passing the French brasserie where I had taken my parents out to dinner on their first and only visit to the city. My father instantly disliked New York; he found it noisy and congested, and insisted it smelled of sewage. My mother, out of loyalty to my father or perhaps out of agreement, remained silent. I got angry at my father for his criticism and his reluctance; I felt that his disapproval of the city that I had fallen in love with was, through a commutative property to which sons are particularly receptive, a disapproval of me. I even snapped at him for picking at his meal, calling his conservative tastes childish. Had I known then that my father was already dying, that his mild appetite and the dull intermittent ache in his stomach and lower back were the result of metastasizing pancreatic cells, I might have kept quiet. None of us knew, however, what was coming. We couldn’t anticipate the next five years with their radiant pain.
Yoshi slept fitfully while I sped southward along the New Jersey Turnpike. I don’t suppose it’s fair to expect grace from someone asleep, but it bothered me to watch him fidget, and after a while I turned on the radio to distract myself.
“Blondie. I love her voice,” Yoshi said, stirring in the passenger seat.
“Sensei, how much farther until we get there?”
“This song reminds me of high school. The good old days. Smoking pot.” He chuckled and slapped my shoulder, the impact of the blade of his hand against my body sending us halfway into the passing lane. I jerked the wheel and we swerved back. “Let’s see,” Yoshi said and pulled a cocktail napkin out of his pocket. He unfolded it, squinted, and then flipped the napkin upside down. “Can you read this?”
I took it from him. “We passed this exit five miles ago.”
“Good, then we’re almost there.” He flipped down the sun visor to check himself out in the compact mirror. “It is a good thing Oriana likes long hair. I need a haircut very much.”
“Is that who you went out with last night?”
“Of course not.” He snapped the mirror shut. “I went out with Gabriella. Aerosmith!” he said, and spun the volume dial. “Even their later material is catchy. Aerosmith has a tremendous longevity. As a band, they are very reinventive.”
“I don’t understand. You went out with Gabriella? I thought you were interested in Oriana.”
“It is always wise to befriend a woman’s friend. A woman’s heart, and not just her body, has kyusho.” He slid his crumpled tie free of his collar and began to retie it.
A few minutes later, we pulled into the parking lot and entered the mall. It didn’t take us long to find Oriana. She was easy to spot. Oriana’s job was to stand just inside the entrance of the NordicTrack store and demonstrate how to use their exercise machine. She wore a black leotard, a black tank top emblazoned with the store’s logo, and sneakers so big and white and clean that it looked as if she had just stepped out of a snowbank in Aspen. She moved precisely but happily on the machine, her blond ponytail bouncing above her shoulders. A queasy cross between jazz and flamenco music accompanied her efforts.
Yoshi asked me to keep an eye on Oriana while he visited the bookstore on the second floor. “Do not let her see you,” he instructed.
I leaned against the mall’s information board and watched Oriana from a distance. Many of my friends were getting engaged, my wife and I had just had our wedding in June, so I was becoming increasingly familiar with the difficulty of understanding another person’s romantic enthrallment. And while Oriana was hardly an inscrutable object of desire—she was attractive in the way that any blonde in her early twenties with healthy skin and an athletic body can be—I’ll admit I expected something more from Yoshi, a hunger for exoticism and sophistication. The most exotic thing about Oriana was her slightly upturned nose of questionable authenticity.
Yoshi returned with a slim brown bag and motioned for me to follow him into the store.
“Miss Odenna,” he said, nudging past a woman pushing a twin stroller.
“What a coincidence,” Yoshi said. “I am just doing some weekend shopping with Mr. Wallace. You remember Mr. Wallace from the dojo? He is an assistant instructor now.”
I glanced in the mirror that should have been projecting Oriana’s taut figure across the store but instead reflected Yoshi in his rumpled baggy suit and me beside him, swaddled in sweatpants and a workout shirt.
“Wow,” Oriana said. “You guys look different out of, you know, class.”
“You too,” I said.
“They make me wear this. It’s like a uniform.”
“Black is very sophisticated,” Yoshi said. “Is this a difficult job?”
“Not really. The commute’s the hardest part. My roommate moved out and she was the one with a car, so now I take a bus from Port Authority and it’s about an hour and a half each way. What are you guys shopping for?”
“I am buying Mr. Wallace a book,” Yoshi said. “To provide him spiritual guidance. It is easy to improve the body, but the spirit is much more difficult.”
“Cool,” Oriana said.
Yoshi opened the brown bag and extracted a thin black paperback entitled Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. “There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment,” Yoshi read aloud. “A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.” Yoshi closed the book. “These are very inspiring words. When do you eat lunch?”
“I usually just get a salad. I don’t know. Around one?”
“You must have lunch with us.”
“Oh wow. Really?”
“I insist. Live true to the single purpose of the moment.”
“I don’t know if I can take a half hour. They’re super strict. I’m not even supposed to talk to people.”
“I will take care of it,” Yoshi said.
“Wow. Thanks, um, Sensei.” Oriana’s smile was toothy and girlish, rapturous and a bit clumsy, the kind you see young women direct at their undeserving boyfriends.
“Do you like gyros?” Yoshi asked Oriana and handed off the book to me. I took it without thinking, distracted by the sense that something was wrong—something besides my having ended up in a mall in New Jersey, or Yoshi’s successful wooing of Oriana with nothing more than a Japanese paraphrase of carpe diem. Then I realized: Oriana had stopped moving. She was standing still, one foot a half stride ahead of the other, her hands folded atop the plastic and metal control panel.
I wasn’t the only one to notice.
“Everything okay over here?” asked a man in khaki pants and a black polo shirt, marching over to us. He was broad shouldered and thick, with a fat, ex-college football player’s build. Monogrammed on the pocket of his shirt was the store’s insignia and, above it, the word manager.
“Sorry. We were just talking for a second,” Oriana said quickly.
“Do you have questions about the machine?” His face was soft and a little sweaty. It looked like if you stuck your finger in his cheek, the indentation would stay.
“Miss Odenna is a marvelous representative,” Yoshi said. “She deserves a half-hour break with us as a reward.”
I had once heard that only seven percent of communication was verbal, and that the remainder consisted of body language and facial expressions. Confronted by Oriana’s glowering manager, for the first time I was obliged to consider this statement as more than an inflated statistic.
“Get back to riding the machine,” he said.
With an anxious glance over her shoulder at us, Oriana resumed her pacing.
“Excuse me,” Yoshi said, “you may not talk to Miss Odenna in this way.”
The manager ran his tongue over his front teeth. He might have been irritated or he might have been bored. He certainly wasn’t intimidated. “Why don’t you two go somewhere else to pick up girls? Try Abercrombie and Fitch. There’s a cute Chinese girl that works one of the registers.” Finished with us, he turned to Oriana. “A little slower, honey. You can’t sell this thing if you look like a hamster.”
“I have not completed speaking with Miss Odenna,” Yoshi said.
“Yeah, you have,” the manager said.
“Excuse me, there is a misunderstanding. We have not been introduced: I am Yoshi Takamata. I am Miss Odenna’s master.” Yoshi extended his hand to shake. His disquieting, serene half smile had returned. The manager stared down at him with apparent bewilderment. Then, reflexively, he took Yoshi’s outstretched hand. He would have been safer lowering his hand into a pot of boiling water.
After security released Yoshi, the three of us drove back to the city. Yoshi sat in the back seat to comfort Oriana, reading aloud from The Book of the Samurai to her. Oriana listened without reply, like a child being sung a lullaby. “For a samurai,” Yoshi recited, “a single word is important no matter where he may be. By just one single word martial valor can be made apparent. In peaceful times words show one’s bravery. In troubled times, too, one knows that by a single word his strength or cowardice can be seen. This single word is the flower of one’s heart. It is not something said simply with one’s mouth.”
The changes at the dojo began soon afterward. A potted ficus plant appeared on the windowsill of Yoshi’s office. Pine-tree-scented air fresheners hung in the locker room. The floors were swept, the mouse holes plastered over, and the mats mopped. Along with the addition of a miniature refrigerator and a cube-shaped portable speaker, these renovations were discreet and welcome, and at first I took them as indicators of a blossoming in Yoshi’s life, as he courted Oriana in every venue that he could.
A few weeks after they had become a couple, Yoshi confessed the news to me in his office, though he needn’t have bothered. He was in his early forties, and the pace of dating a girl in her early twenties was taking an obvious toll on him. His eyes were puffy with sleeplessness. His skin looked waxy. An aged slackness had overtaken his handsome, once-boyish face.
Gradually, he stopped teaching many of the classes. Oriana was now working as a cocktail waitress, a job Yoshi had secured for her through a former student who managed a Midtown nightclub, but he liked to be there at the start of her shifts, and since her hours were unpredictable and her schedule likely to change without warning, he often abandoned his teaching duties at the last minute. Naturally, this wasn’t how Yoshi described it when he called in a panic half an hour before class, begging me to take over for him. Instead he invented emergencies, repetitive lies about late-running meetings and sudden dinners with clients—besides owning the dojo, Yoshi claimed to help at his father’s insurance business—lies that would be forgotten hours later when my phone lit up with a midnight call from Yoshi, who was now at home, waiting for Oriana to get off work. I could hear the television babbling and the metallic click of a bottle opener. “She is so shy. She is an angel,” Yoshi would tell me.
From the contact I’d had with Oriana, I didn’t think she was an angel. She was shy, that was true, but she was also vain, and when people paid attention to her, the shyness vanished, and in its place came a brassiness that could easily be misinterpreted as something more inviting. While Yoshi was aware of the agitating effect Oriana could have on men, it didn’t mean that he endured it with any grace. When they went out at night, he glared at men who eyed Oriana and threatened the intrepid ones who dared speak to her. Luckily, most of the bartenders knew Yoshi and prevented any real confrontations—except for one instance when Yoshi squeezed an overly solicitous man’s jaw and brought him to the ground in flustered, agonized tears.
Oriana had asked him to keep their relationship secret from the other students. Consequently, Yoshi was careful not to favor Oriana in class and avoided eye contact with her if she asked a question. Yet his fascination was impossible to wholly conceal. He grinned whenever he spoke her name. He answered her too quickly, repeating himself and gesturing wildly. There were moments when I felt that everyone could sense his enchantment, that it was noisy, incandescent, flagrant—as love, perhaps, should be. One night I caught him staring through the rear window of his office, a diamond shaped sliver of glass that looked out onto a corner of the dojo. When I reminded him that we had been waiting ten minutes for him to begin class, he whispered, “Mr. Wallace, you must come see this.”
I closed the office door and came up beside him. He gestured to where Oriana stood with her back to us. Her long blond hair was piled on top of her head and speared through with a chopstick. Inside her bulky white cotton uniform, she was winsomely petite, her neck as thin as a dandelion stalk. She reached high with her right arm and let her left arm slacken at her side. Slowly, tantalizingly, she stretched the tiny intercostal muscles running between each rib and the lean latissimus muscles of her lower back. She had been in the office plenty of times and knew precisely where the window was positioned.
Yoshi shifted in place, continuing to observe her. I could see the reflection of his eyes in the glass, and for a moment, I had the disconcerting sensation that I was once again in my parents’ boxy old Volvo, looking up at the slashed reflection of my father’s face. As the youngest of three, I sat in the small middle seat while my brothers sandwiched me, my arms pinned, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but stare ahead, either at the unspooling road or up into the rearview mirror. The angle of the mirror created a spooky superimposition, projecting my father’s mouth onto his forehead, so that he looked like a Greek titan, ready to consume us.
It was strange to think of him like that now—my most recent and final memories of him were of a shrinking old man in a hospital bed, weak and pale, as bitter as an almond. That there had been a time when he was all powerful was almost unimaginable to me.
After class that night, when Yoshi announced that we were having a holiday party, I should have realized how far gone he was. Food, drink, even excessive conversation was forbidden in the sacred space of the dojo, where one forges one’s soul through strict discipline. Yoshi kicked open the miniature refrigerator and pulled out two six packs, then told the candy distributor to run to the corner deli for beer. The windows that could open were opened. The radio was switched on to a classic rock station. Oriana came out of the dressing room, carrying a bag of votive candles under her arm and, without any warning, flipped off the overhead lights. Darkness stretched across the room. Then she lit a candle and placed it on the wooden floor, and lit another and another, each white circle spreading its new, urgent luminescence.
It was the time of year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when a night in the city often becomes a matter of celebration, despite the unpleasant personal and professional facts of one’s life. In those busy weeks, dozens of parties are attended, most of them happily—evidence of what might just be the enduring resoluteness of life, which doesn’t care much for facts. And the forty students who milled around the dojo that night did seem genuinely cheerful as they drank beer and talked about their lovers, spouses and children—those essentials we ignore every night while we strive to inflict agonizing pain with ever greater ease—but I was gloomy and worried. I felt edgy, tethered to something I could neither recognize nor, accordingly, protect myself from.
After a while, I snuck into Yoshi’s office. It was quieter in there, the radio muffled by the heavy wooden door, and much darker. The only light came through the small diamond-shaped window, and this light was a diminishment, the faint glimmer of distant candles. Holding my hands out in front of me, I navigated around the sharp edges of the desk and sat down behind it. It was uncomfortable on the floor, but it would have been disrespectful to sit in Yoshi’s seat. I crossed my legs and shut my eyes, assuring myself that I was meditating, though really I was drunk and sleepy.
The creak of the door jarred me awake. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed. I blinked in anticipation of brightness, but the light stayed off. Then the door clicked shut and two black shapes tiptoed across the office. The smaller shape approached the file cabinet and removed a bottle from the top drawer. It was the scotch that, I thought, Yoshi had told no one else about except for me. The bigger shape sat on the edge of the desk. He had his back to me, but I recognized Billy’s shaved head.
“Did you bring cups?” whispered the smaller shape as she handed over the bottle. It was Oriana’s voice.
“You don’t drink Glenlivet from a cup,” Billy replied. Oriana giggled and rubbed Billy’s shoulder. She ran a hand along his developed triceps and cupped his elbow, pulling him close to her.
I stood and turned on the green banker’s desk lamp.
“Mr. Wallace!” Oriana said, jerking away from Billy. “Jesus, you scared me!”
“We were just getting something for Master Takamata,” Billy said.
“But we couldn’t find—” Oriana said.
“We need real glasses,” Billy explained. “Then we were going to bring it out to him.”
“I’ll bring it,” I told Billy. “Why don’t you go? Oriana, stay for a minute.”
Billy hurried out of the office. Oriana sat down in Yoshi’s chair and crossed her legs. She pursed her lips into a small pout. There was something charming even in her sullenness, and I suspected she knew it. “What?” she said. It was an old story, maybe the oldest, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
“Don’t hurt him,” I said.
Yoshi pushed open the door with a grin. He had decided to grow his hair long, but instead of a masculine wave, it puffed out like a hedgehog’s back. When he saw the bottle in my hand, he swatted my shoulder with affection. A nerve near my scapula went numb.
“Mr. Wallace, you have been hiding very unseasonally. But you are forgiven because you found my special treat.”
Yoshi took the bottle from me. He filled three cups and gestured for us to raise them in a toast.
“To the flower of my heart,” he said.
On Christmas Eve, my wife told me that she was pregnant, and a week after the new year, I stopped training with Yoshi. I explained that with a baby coming, I couldn’t risk an injury that might put me out of work. He accepted my excuse with regret but didn’t try to change my mind. Perhaps he worried that there was something else to my sudden resignation, some behavior for which he was responsible and that he didn’t want to confront.
I was surprised by how little I missed the dojo. My wife encouraged me to continue my training, concerned that I was abandoning my only outside interest. Like my father, I had no hobbies, and when the illness overtook him, he’d had nowhere to go for diversion.
“I’m not like my father,” I told her.
“I didn’t say you were. Just that . . . people need something else.”
“I don’t need it anymore,” I told her.
“But you like it.”
I wondered if I did. When I was nine years old, desperate to impress my older brothers, and exchanging the first and most valuable currency of boys, which is bravery, I had jumped off our roof. When our father heard me crying, he came outside to the backyard and, shaking his head, told me to get into the car so he could take me to the hospital. “I can’t walk,” I’d cried, crumpled on the grass. My brothers came over to help me up, but our father waved them away. “He does it himself or he doesn’t go.” It took ten minutes for me to drag myself across the yard and to the car, and another five to settle into the back seat, wincing as I struggled to position my leg in a way that didn’t make me want to scream. When I was done, my father climbed behind the steering wheel and lit a cigarette. He looked over his shoulder at me, exhaling smoke as he spoke. “If you’re going to be stupid, you’d better learn to be tough.”
But training with Yoshi hadn’t taught me anything about being tough. And perfecting the painful manipulation of a stranger’s kyusho now seemed equally senseless. Whatever minor skill I had gained only rendered me more aware of how vulnerable we are. It was an impossible task. There was no training, no expertise, no level of mastery that could ever truly protect us.
I saw Yoshi one more time, at the end of February. He had been locked out of his apartment and called to ask if I would come downtown and give him my keys to the dojo, which I had forgotten to return.
“It’s almost four in the morning. Why don’t you just take a cab up here and sleep on our couch?” I offered.
“I must get into the dojo.”
“I’ll pay for the cab.”
“My keys,” he repeated. “Please.”
I put on a sweater and a pair of jeans and thick black boots. Softly I kissed my wife’s warm cheek. Her forehead was damp with sweat and her lips chapped. She often woke in the middle of the night and had trouble falling back asleep, but that night her breathing was heavy and deep. She was growing, changing, becoming. It was a strange new process, tasked with its own variety of pain, and I kissed her again, full of gratitude. Then I found the keys and hailed a cab to help my old master.
Yoshi was waiting for me in the Irish pub. It closed at four, but the bartender, a heavyset man in his fifties, had let him stay inside until I arrived. Yoshi sat slumped in a booth in the corner. His eyes were gray and unfocused. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, maybe a week, and a wispy mustache was sprouting above his lip, giving him the appearance of a catfish.
“Master Takamata,” I said.
“Excellent, excellent.” He waved to the bartender. “A great student!”
The bartender handed me Yoshi’s tab. I paid it and we left.
Outside, Yoshi paused at the curb of the sidewalk. The cold night air seemed to have roused him, and he began to bob his head slightly, as if he were a boxer weaving in a fight. “The night is still young, Mr. Wallace. I know a Japanese bar . . . very high profile. I introduce you to a Japanese girl.” He took an accidental step off the sidewalk, flinging his arms wide to reassert his balance. “Japanese girls—very loose. They pretend the opposite, but they are island girls. A history of many sailors.”
“I brought your keys,” I said and led him across the street.
He labored up the two flights of stairs to the dojo, and then I unlocked the door for him. The air smelled dusty. Plaster littered the edges of the floor where the mouse holes had been chewed back open. I switched on the light but Yoshi switched it off.
As I kneeled in the doorway to untie the laces of my boots, Yoshi pushed past me and lay down on the mats. He stared at the ceiling, stained with years of water damage.
“Oriana is gone,” he said.
“She leaves me for her yoga teacher.” He kicked off one shoe and tried to pry free the other but couldn’t do it. I walked over and unlaced it for him. Then I placed both his shoes alongside the edge of the mat.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Are you going to sleep here?”
“I don’t need to sleep. I am a night bird.”
“Do you think she loved me?”
“Why don’t you try and get some rest?” I said.
“Did she?” Yoshi sat up, leaning on his elbow to face me. “Tell me the truth.”
I hesitated. I thought about the icy fields of Yoshi’s youth, the skin tearing from his feet as he chased after bravery and strength.
“No,” I said.
He smiled. It was the smile that I had so often confused with serenity, but which was only familiarity, a muted recognition of the transference of pain. Yoshi closed his eyes. I placed his jacket over his shoulders, left the keys beside the door, and went home to my beautiful wife.
Panio Gianopoulos, “The Flower of one’s Heart” from How to Get into Our House and Where We Keep the Money. Copyright ©2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books.
For three years, lifetimes ago, I was an office manager at a credit agency. During those years, with one exception, I never fired anyone. Probably this was because everyone quit first. The pay was miserable, there was too much work for any person to do in any given position, and my superior was an aimless man who was slowly ruining us all. His office window looked out onto the street, and it was on the sill of this window, visible to every passerby, that he kept his balled-up hamburger wrapapers. It was from this man that I received orders to fire Paula.
I wasn’t supposed to fire Paula because she was lazy or in-competent. We kept on a lot of people who were lazy and in-competent. In fact, they tended to be the ones who got the most respect from the majority of us. I was to fire this young person, this twenty-one-year-old typist, because when she took her first vacation her replacement from the temp agency did an astonishingly better job and was willing to take over Paula’s job. The girl from the temp agency, Linda, typed at what was a phenomenal rate, according to my superior, although I had never been a witness to her fast finger work. Purportedly, she didn’t make mistakes either. She was prompt. To top it off, she brought my superior his hamburgers twice during the week that she served as Paula’s replacement.
Why I eventually agreed to fire Paula was not a mystery to me. My superior made it sound like a solid business practice to fire Paula. Besides, he so seldom made a demand that it seemed unthinkable to argue for too long with him—although I did express my opinion that we should keep Paula.
Paula had been with us for just over a year. She was quiet and did her work. She wasn’t late—except for a couple of times and then with good reasons. She sometimes got lost in details, that’s true, and once she handed in a document that was part gibberish. But when she was told about the problem she worked straight through her lunch hour to get the report straightened out. She was, I think, entirely unremarkable.
Except for her brother.
For years, even long after I fired Paula, I would think of her brother and feel a surge of longing and confusion—and even some envy of Paula. In fact, on a certain level those of us women who saw him (he stopped by at least once a week to take Paula out to lunch) felt almost proprietary toward him. He and Paula had the same dark coloring and slim, graceful build, although he was considerably taller. But more than his good looks, it was his manner that was touching. He remembered everyone’s name after the first visit. Without fail, he helped his sister put on her coat. He had a way of making his whole face smile, and then he’d turned to Paula with a wink, and for a moment you could see what they’d been like as a couple of little kids. It was obvious that he was the kind of brother who could manage a secret. It seemed certain that they had had secrets as children—silly little secrets that they kept and that drew them closer together. You just knew that he was the big brother who protected her. I imagined that he would protect her after she was fired too.
I suppose that seeing Paula’s brother was so refreshing because of some of the things I had to do and say. For instance: I had to tell a pretty young woman that she smelled funny—so funny that people couldn’t get their work done around her. Frequently, I listened to employees tell me about their gynecological problems because they knew that although I was also a woman I would never in a million years ask them follow-up questions, and so they could get the day off with only a small amount of self-humiliation. Along with that sort of thing I counseled someone with an ulcer who worked with a can of warm cola at her elbow on doctor’s orders. I think she got an ulcer because she was such a good listener—everyone confided in her. For a while two pregnant women kept falling asleep while talking to clients on the telephone. There were harrowing things too: I had to barricade the door three times when deranged husbands or boyfriends came for the women who worked in the agency, and one of the husbands was our security guard. Worst of all, I had to pretend that I didn’t notice when a woman from accounting came in with her newborn baby and the baby was missing a hand.
No one had warned me. It was a beautiful baby, and I said it was a beautiful baby. And there was the mother making hardly more than minimum wage, and there was her baby without a hand.
Presumably there is a way to fire people, but I didn’t know how to do it.
It shouldn’t be done right before Christmas or New Year’s, I reasoned. I decided that the right time to fire Paula was three weeks after New Year’s. If I had to do it over again I wouldn’t have done it at that time because that’s the time, at least in Ohio, when few people have anything to live for. The snow has been around for a long time and has a used, particularly defeated look. It begins to look unnatural, even though nothing could be more natural. And then you have Valentine’s Day looming around the corner, like some sort of mean mockery of everybody. But, as I said, the snow is the worst part. It isn’t even a color anymore—but an unreflective, dead, noncolor. When I had to confront my superior again to see if he still meant that I ought to fire Paula, I stared out the plate-glass window behind him, past the hamburger wrappers wadded on the windowsill. The snowbanks looked as if an occasional canon shot landed in them. That sort of bleak snow makes you think that nothing will change. Things will just break down and wear away at best.
“Are you all right?” That was Paula’s question to me. She put her hand on my forearm. Her touch was gentle and hesitant, and I noticed for the first time how broad her face was, like a child’s.
She had touched my arm after I asked her to come into the restroom with me. When I realized that she thought I must be ill and was asking for her help, blood shot into my head.
Of course I thought it would be best to fire Paula first thing in the morning, so that she would have the whole day to herself and so that her brother couldn’t accuse us of getting the most possible work out of her before letting her go. I also thought it would be best to fire her in the restroom so that we would have some privacy. My own desk was at the head of an office of eight desks. Certainly there was no privacy there. In particular, I didn’t want any men to see her being fired. It would be too humiliating to be fired in front of a man—even some of the kinder men. And of course there were men in the credit agency who had hardened their hearts long ago to women in trouble.
I thought that my firing of Paula should be swift too.
But this is the truth: although I had rehearsed ways to break the news to Paula, I can’t remember a word I said to her. I was trying to keep my balance so that I wouldn’t plunge my head into the sink.
I must have said something to the effect that she was being replaced because of the accelerating demands of the position she was filling (i.e., typist).
I braced myself for angry words—because even a quiet, passive sort of person like Paula can let you have it.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the way Paula cried. Never before and never since have I seen anything like it.
There was no prologue. Seemingly no beginning. No snuffle or slow moistening of the eyes or blushing of the cheek.
Her crying was instantaneous and silent. It was as if water were spurting soundlessly out of her head.
If I hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have believed it: it was as if she had to be made of tears. Her blouse—a violet-colored flimsy blouse that showed the outlines of her bra—was wet with tears. As if she had to cry not only out of her eyes but out of her cheeks and out of her eyebrows and out of her chest.
I count it as a miracle that no one came into the restroom during all this.
I myself was ready to run from the restroom. I couldn’t even see her eyes for her tears; her eyes were that puffy and her tears were that profuse.
And then I started.
I was crying—and I wasn’t even feeling sympathetic toward poor Paula during those moments. I was only feeling physically sympathetic, I suppose. I was lurching and crying. I was in my tears, inside them, swimming in them, and all my sadnesses came up—things I can’t mention here and would rather not dwell on. They came up not as discrete names or memories but as substances of some sort without features, as if my sadnesses had turned to liquid inside me.
When I finally gathered myself, when I could see again, Paula had left the restroom.
I walked through the back door to her desk. She wasn’t there. Her coat was not in the cloak room. I ventured back to her desk, in case somehow I had missed her, and the big beige typewriter—we used electric typewriters in those days—seemed to be resting by itself, just waiting for Linda, the remarkable replacement for Paula.
Now I am going to move swiftly to another part of the story, the part where I come to see that I have been party to something like a murder. But of course it took me a good long time to figure it out, and once more something strange happened in the agency’s restroom.
The next week when I saw Linda seated at Paula’s typewriter I felt guilty. I hadn’t paid much attention to Linda during the week she was temping, but now I looked at her closely. She had Paula’s coloring, that was true, but not Paula’s smile. Paula had a shy, embarrassed smile—as if she were apologetic just for being Paula. Linda’s smile was a challenge. It was a smile that practically spoke. Her smile said: You are so stupid. When she smiled one of her teeth stuck to her lower lip.
On the very first day she only typed in the necessary information on three of the forms that we use for garnishing wages.
On the second day it occurred to me that there was something vicious about the way she looked at me. And then I realized the obvious: she felt pity for Paula—and anxiety. She was afraid that she would suffer Paula’s fate. She thought of me as the sort of office manager who fired people easily and often and thoughtlessly.
As I recall it now, I made a point on the third and fourth days of her first week to stop by her desk. I even brought her coffee twice to show her that there was nothing to worry about.
Once, I watched her when she couldn’t see me. She was looking into a compact of facial powder with such concentration that I wondered what she could be seeing. She squinted at her reflection. She actually licked her lips. And then she smiled at herself—a beautiful, dazzling, full-toothed smile that lit up her eyes, a smile I had never seen her use for any of us.
At the end of the week I actually found myself staring into the restroom mirror and wondering why I appeared to be a person who is easy to disdain. I washed my hands, pulled off one of the manila papers to dry my fingers, and when I was about to toss the paper into the wastebasket I saw something that made my heart skip: mailing addresses. Lists and lists and lists of mailing addresses. Linda’s mailing addresses. They had cost us a fortune to obtain, and she was supposed to affix those addresses to envelopes for our new advertising brochures. She had dumped them here. There could be no mistake.
It had been a long day, and suddenly I was close to tears. Linda had left early, and so I retrieved the mailing labels from the waste basket and put them on the top of her typewriter. I knew that I wouldn’t even have to talk to her about them on Monday. She would see the mailing labels and know that I knew what she was up to. That ugly smirk would dissolve back into her face, and she would have to contend with the labels and my knowledge of her perfidy—and her knowledge that I couldn’t be viewed as an imbecile quite so easily anymore.
As it turns out, Linda had picked up her check earlier that afternoon (it had been processed because we were at the end of the month). We never saw her at the agency again.
One of the women in our office, the one nursing an ulcer, informed me that Linda told her just before she left us that Paula had contracted gonorrhea. Furthermore, this was due to the fact that Linda had seduced Paula’s boyfriend after she her¬self contracted gonorrhea from her dentist during a checkup that turned passionate following a routine cleaning.
“But why,” I asked, “why did Linda want to hurt Paula?”
About two weeks later I was able to figure something out again thanks to the woman with the ulcer.
“Did you know that Linda used to live with Paula’s brother?” the woman asked.
I felt my breath knocked right out of me. With that information I could see that I understood everything. How better to harm Paula’s brother than to harm Paula?
“He must have dumped Linda in some spectacular way, and poor Paula was the sacrificial lamb,” I told the woman with the ulcer. “I bet he was polite about dumping Linda. He used his politeness like a weapon. That would make Linda want to kill him, at the least.”
And then my friend with the ulcer said: “Guess who else is walking funny these days?”
Of course I found out that she meant my superior.
It was all miserable—and more trouble for Linda than it should have been worth.
This all happened so long ago, but parts of it are very fresh to me. Especially the firing and the way Paula cried. And her brother. Sometimes I felt guilty about Paula and her brother although I never tried to contact either of them to apologize.
Just this past year, believe it or not, I saw Linda again, and I still recognized her after all this time. I was visiting with my cousin who asked me to stop with her at a yarn shop. This was about ten miles outside of Cincinnati at one of those little malls. I recognized Linda immediately. She was standing under rows and rows of knitting needles of all sizes, most in bright metallic colors—blues and greens and magenta. A line of hand-knitted sweaters dangled from the wall behind her. She had a kind of washed-out look. Instantly it occurred to me that if she were a sweater she would look nice until you turned her inside out and saw all the loose knots and clumped spots.
She tried to sell me some angora yarn but backed off immediately when she sensed my lack of interest. She had a superior air, and so it was likely that she owned the shop. It occurred to me too that she must have been a fabulous knitter and had successfully changed her avocation into a vocation. I tried to imagine her reputedly fast fingers clicking the needles, but of course she didn’t give me a demonstration. Her smile was much the same; one little tooth kept getting caught on her lip. At one point her hand fluttered up to hide it—even from me, an old nobody.
And then a month later—this is the way life is, some version of reality will always come to get you, let no one tell you otherwise—I was at a wedding reception when I met a woman who appeared vaguely familiar. When I told her my name she laughed and said she knew something she bet I didn’t know: “You fired my niece twenty years ago.”
This particular woman was about my age, heavy-set, sloppily drunk, and extremely talkative. She was laughing as she spoke. She looked, I could see now, a lot like Paula and her brother. And apparently she knew my name because I was a family legend of some sort.
I found out from that woman what I could about Paula’s life.
Paula—get ready for this—is a chief executive officer of a major marketing company. I felt disoriented for a moment. Who could have predicted it? Paula must fire people all the time. You can’t be in a position like that without ruining people’s lives. Paula, I learned, was also married and the mother of a teenage daughter. A powerful person. Our Paula.
But I didn’t think I would drop Paula a line of congratulations for her good fortune and hard work even if her family laughed about her first job now. I knew what it had cost her.
“Don’t feel bad about firing her,” Paula’s aunt said, looking right into my eyes. “It was nothing to her. It was amusing. Given everything she had to deal with it was nothing.”
I was sure then that Paula must have made the firing incident into a family joke. She was fired from her first job, but look at her now.
“What about your nephew—Paula’s brother?” I asked the woman. Truth be told, I had wanted to ask her about him as soon as I knew she was his aunt. I had thought of him for years really. I had even tried to imagine having someone like Paula’s brother to comfort me on the two occasions when I got fired.
The wedding reception was virtually over. People were getting their coats. The roads were likely to be icy, and there was a sense of urgency in the air amid all the white and silver wedding decorations.
“What about your nephew—Paula’s brother?” I asked again.
“Oh dear,” the woman said. “You didn’t know? Paula doesn’t have a brother. You must mean Michael.” She paused and then I felt her determination—she would be swift, and she would lower her voice so we would have our privacy.
“I don’t like to speak ill of Michael, but he enjoyed fooling people. Paula didn’t like to do that, but he liked to go around pretending they were brother and sister.”
She must have registered the look on my face because she went on speaking even more quickly. “I know. I know,” she said. “It was strange. He liked to call Paula his sister. It was his strange joke—a kind of compulsion. He did it even in front of me. But I shouldn’t talk ill of the dead.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t know. Hodgkin’s disease. He must have been fighting it when Paula worked for you. I thought everybody knew. I thought you knew. You hired his sister.”
“Lynn was his sister’s name, I think. No, Linda. Linda was his actual sister.”
I was swimming in confusion. “The only person I ever fired in my entire life was Paula,” I said, “and I shouldn’t have.”
In my mind’s eye I saw Linda with all those knitting needles hanging over her head, and I felt what people used to call Holy Fear, the fear of a jealous God’s revenge.
Already I have had a long life, filled to the hilt with mistakes, but I’ll say this: it is a terrible perversion to harm the living just because you want to injure the dying.
It’s not that I’m bragging about, at last, knowing what I know. Or pretending in some mealy-mouthed way that I should have known more than I knew years ago. He took my breath away, I used to think of the beautiful young man who said he was Paula’s brother.
Why wouldn’t I have believed whatever he said: the man I thought was Paula’s brother? If I had known the truth I wouldn’t have said anything anyway. That’s what beauty and politeness do. When you see those two possibilities together in one person that person can lie to your face. You don’t say: Your real sister believes she’s the love of your life, not Paula. And you play your little game with Paula because your sister is right. You let Paula go, I didn’t. Would I have said that? It’s only family members who can correct one another that thoroughly and ruin each other in the process. Like anyone, even the bravest of the lot, it’s cowardice I understand.
*Lee Upton, “Let Go” from The Tao of Humilation. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
“This isn’t the one,” she said, laying her hand on my arm. As if she was really sorry.
“Stick a fork in me. I’m done,” I said.
“No. You’re just upset. You thought this was the one.”
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“It’s only one house. Maybe the next one.”
“It’s seventy-three houses,” I said.
“But we’ve come so far. You can’t stop now. Absolutely not.”
I thought if I banged her head against the concrete steps, her skull would not break. That’s how hard she was. No one could win against her. Certainly not me. Certainly not her partner, who stood quietly in the corner, eyes cast upward.
The houses they did not buy: the contemporary with too much sunlight, the Dutch Colonial with a garage that was too small, the totally renovated rancher with an ugly view, the three-story Victorian with too much carpeting, the lakeside condo with not enough kitchen, the octagon house with too much personality, and the corner property with too many trees were some of the houses they did not buy.
Seventy-three houses they did not buy. Seventy-three houses I showed them and I knew this game. I knew how to play this game. But she was winning.
“I quit,” I said.
She laughed. “We’ll take a few days off.”
I just won’t return her calls, I thought. “Great idea,” I said. To her partner, I whispered, “I’m so sorry for you.”
I could see that made the partner mad. But she was the long-suffering type, even with me.
“Not at all,” her partner said. She held her head up high.
They were so beautiful, these two. Concrete Skull was a tall and crispy blond, with a gorgeous, wide smile and sharp, blue miss-nothing eyes. Long Suffering was short and olive-skinned, with a full bottom lip and a way of standing that showed off her large breasts. Her eyes were as patient as an animal watching for its turn at the watering hole.
I liked lesbians, made a specialty of selling houses to lesbian couples. There were tons of resales on those couples. A lot of them broke up after four or five years and then they put their houses back on the market and bought new ones with other women. I especially liked couples like this one, with their matching black Mercedes, big bank accounts, and high-salaried corporate jobs.
I liked lesbians, but I hated these two. They were realtor cock-teasers. Okay, I am a woman too and do not have a cock to tease, but you take my point. They showed you what they had, stroked you until you were so ready you could scream, then pulled back with a perfectly good reason that was totally bogus because the real reason they did not buy any of the seventy-three houses I showed them was because they were sizing each other up.
It had nothing to do with me. They were watching each other, waiting for the house that made one of them pant and scream. Then one of them would have the upper hand. The one who wanted it the most was the one who would have to grovel for as long as they lived in that house.
I know power struggles. I can smell them in the air after twenty-three years in the business and four marriages of my own. The smell is unmistakable, like a rotting carcass by the side of a road.
“The truth is I don’t think there’s anything special enough for you two on the market these days,” I said. “I know you are busy women with highly responsible jobs and I feel just terrible wasting your time like this. We’ll have to wait it out. Maybe in a few months, the market will improve. You two deserve something spectacular.”
Concrete Skull didn’t even show the flicker of interest that a cat has watching a chipmunk run by. Her blue eyes were steady beams.
“Next week,” she said. “Set it up.”
Long Suffering walked out to the Mercedes and leaned against it, staring intently into her mobile phone. She licked her lips slowly.
Concrete Skull whispered, “The truth is, I don’t know if I should be buying a house with her. Look at her. She looks incredibly sexy, doesn’t she? But she isn’t.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I feel so close to you. You feel like a friend after spending all this time with me.” She beamed her big smile my way and it was like the sun coming out on my face. Okay, I am straight but I was not immune to her.
“If you’re that unsure, you should wait before you look at houses.” “I operate on instinct. My gut tells me to keep looking. The right house will grab me. The house will say, come on in, you two. She’ll relax in this bedroom. She’ll attack me in this living room.”
“That’s crazy,” I said.
“A house doesn’t fix anything. Definitely not a sex problem.” “Who says? Maybe a house could fix something. Maybe no one lets it.” She reached out and put both her hands over my hand. Her hands were warm. “Help me.”
“For a smart woman, you’re stupid,” I said.
I thought if I insulted her, she’d go away and leave me alone. But she laughed.
“You’re a cockteaser,” I said.
“So I’ve been told. By better women than you.” Her smile stayed fixed on her face, but she let go of me.
Good, I thought. I’m finally getting to her.
“So next week, then. Set it up for Saturday,” she said.
Instead, I volunteered to work at an open house on Saturday. I was top agent in my office. I didn’t have to work things like this. It was a sad, tiny little house with a persistent moldy smell. The owners were old. They didn’t want to spend any money fixing up something that they were selling. So the window shades were stained and yellow, the kitchen faucets dripped, the closets were dark and crammed full of crap, and the one and only bathroom had cracked vinyl flooring and a hole in the wall. The neighborhood was going seriously downhill. There was a meth lab one block over. No one cut their grass regularly. Next door, someone had propped two stained mattresses against their house.
The best I could do was burn vanilla candles for the smell and insist that the owners leave so they wouldn’t hover anxiously over people trooping through. I didn’t care. I was happy to be there. Anywhere but trapped with Concrete Skull and her little gal pal.
Only one couple ventured in during the first hour. I put on my honest, earnest face.
“It needs work, I won’t lie to you. A little paint, new rugs. You can see for yourself. But this neighborhood is going through the roof in the next year. All signs point straight up for appreciation in value. If you bought this now and fixed it up a little, you’d have a hell of an investment.”
The man had the hungry look. He didn’t want to be poor all his life. His wife looked afraid. She didn’t want to make a mistake.
I don’t count what I said as lying because you never know. No one knows. The neighborhood could take an upturn. And a husband who wanders could stop, just like that. Sure. It could happen.
After they left, it was quiet for a long time. I turned up the volume on the smooth jazz CD, my music for selling shitty houses, and leaned back in my chair. I wondered who the lesbian couple was torturing this weekend, instead of me.
The door opened. They walked in. Long Suffering wouldn’t look at me. Her eyes scanned the room like one of those searchlights that stores set up in their parking lots during closeout sales. Concrete Skull leaned in.
“We found you,” she said.
“I thought we were taking a break.”
“Break’s over.” Her voice was flinty, like the game we used to play when we were kids, hitting rocks with rocks to see what colors were inside.
“Don’t you ever give up?”
“Never,” she said. Her partner snorted.
Now, we’ll get into it, I thought. Come on, Long Suffering, make your move. Get in there. Speak up. But she just turned, walked back to the car and got in, holding her elegant, round rump out on display for an extra second before it vanished into the Mercedes.
“Why me?” I asked. “Why don’t you get a nice lesbian realtor? Maybe she’ll do better for you. And she can come to your house-warming party, too.”
“You know why I want you? Lesbian realtors think they don’t have to work hard for me. Like just because I’m gay, I’ll roll over and buy whatever they show me. Like it’s about loyalty to the team instead of being about me and my money. Wrong. You’re smarter than that. It’s all about the deal.”
I liked beating out lesbian realtors. I pictured them trotting out secret weapons with her little lesbian in-jokes, little lesbian friends in common. And still I won. I admit I melted a little, flattered.
So we went on to the seventy-fourth house. It was a spectacularly ugly McMansion, huge, poorly designed and shoddily built, overpriced, on a barren lot on a busy street of a brand new development built over a landfill. But it was new, full of glitzy features like a master bathroom big enough to hold a party in and a temperature-controlled wine cellar in the basement, features that distract your eyes from the particle board walls and the cheap thin paint.
“Honey, this is it. This is the one,” said Concrete Skull. She smiled her gorgeous beaming smile, charming as a kitten. It didn’t sound convincing even to me. This is a test. This is only a test. In the event of a real urge to buy a house, the voice is eager, excited, scared. So disregard this test. It is only a test.
“No way,” Long Suffering said. “I loathe the smell of this house. You’ve got to be kidding me. No freaking way.”
“I was kidding. I hate it too,” Concrete Skull said. “See, honey, we really are getting close. We both hate this one. So that’s a good sign.”
They both turned to me, waiting for my applause. “Seventy-five,” I said. “That’s my limit. I warn you.” They both chuckled, like I was making a small, dumb joke.
I hate you both, I thought. You are the bad smell.
It was the seventy-ninth house where something changed. When we walked into the house, an elegant Colonial in the best neighborhood, fully updated and gorgeously decorated, I felt it. Somebody wanted this one, but I couldn’t tell who. I felt like a squirrel on the curb, twitching at oncoming cars and deciding when to run. I studied one and then the other. Who was it?
I tried all my realtor tricks. I vanished into other rooms so they could talk privately. I acted nonchalant so they wouldn’t feel pressure from me. I studied the seller’s information sheet with just the right amount of scrutiny and indifference.
“It’s quite old,” Concrete Skull said finally. “It’s an old house. They are asking a lot for such an old house.”
Aha, I thought. She wants it.
“Honey, what do you think?” she asked. Her voice was a cat slinking along a high ledge. I didn’t remember her asking that question in any of the seventy-eight previous houses.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Long Suffering said. She sounded bored but she was paying close attention, her brown eyes flickering madly. “Let’s go on to the next.”
I wanted to hit them with an ax and leave them bleeding to death on the Persian rug.
“I feel a very sexy vibe here,” I said. “Classy, subtle, but very sexy. This is a house where you will have swank parties. I see gorgeous women in slinky dresses holding martini glasses.”
“We met at a cocktail party just like that,” said Concrete Skull. “You pinned me to the wall,” smirked her gal pal.
“After you practically pushed them in my mouth.” “You wanted me to.”
“You wanted it worse.”
I watched them like they were a nature channel show where all the animals are frolicking happily in the wilderness and you know there’s trouble in the air, you are just waiting for the predator to pounce, for blood to be spilled. You know it will end badly and you can’t tear yourself away.
“Let’s write it up, girls. You can sign the agreement right now,” I said. And they did.
When the radon test came back, Concrete Skull came to my office and cried. Her partner was on her way. We were supposed to wait for her, but Concrete Skull insisted on reading the report before she got there.
“We are the perfect couple,” she cried, circling around the office, bumping into chairs and walls and cabinets, knocking over the waste basket.
“Everyone, everyone, everyone says so. But we can’t do this one simple thing. I’ve done it with other women. It’s no big deal. Go look at a few houses and buy one. What is happening? Why is this happening to me? I can’t stand it. I’m being punished.”
“It’s only radon. Easily remediated,” I said. “Punished for what?” “I stole her from another woman. They have a baby. I’m mean to my mother. I hate my father. I’ve cheated on every woman I’ve ever been with. Is that enough?” She was really wailing now, working herself up.
“It’s only radon,” I said. I was enjoying myself immensely. “I’m forty-one years old. I can’t make any more mistakes.” “Everyone has some radon around here. This house is just a tad over the limit,” I said. “You don’t understand. I am not everyone. I can’t have it.” “Put a vent in the basement and we’re good to go,” I said. “It’s poison gas in the basement of our house. We’ll be poisoned from below. What chance do we have to make it? Do you have any idea how many failed relationships I’ve had? This is my last chance. I’m not wasting it on her.”
“It’s not that bad. You’re getting all carried away.” I thought of Husband Number Three. I thought he was my last chance too, but along came Four. There were an infinite number of husbands out there, I found. I could have kept it up my whole life. Hello Five. Hello Six. Hello Seven.
Long Suffering showed up. “Do you still want it?” “No,” Concrete Skull sobbed. “It’s a poison house.” “We’ll keep looking then,” her partner said, shrugging.
“It’s our last chance. We’ll never find another house as good as this one. This was the one. And it’s ruined.”
“So we’ll buy it and fix it.”
You fool, I thought. You don’t see that there is no way to win with her. The house is nothing. The house is a quicksand bog full of small dead things.
“I’m sick of this,” Concrete Skull cried. “I’m done.”
“You’re done. With looking?” Long Suffering stood in the door-way, legs planted wide. Slowly her face began to change. “With me? In front of her?”
“Just ignore me,” I said. “Do what you have to do.” You couldn’t have pried me out of there with a crowbar.
I waited for Long Suffering to scream, curse, throw things. But she stood there silently for the longest time. And then she crumpled to the floor, making this odd squeezy sound, like a sharp beak was tearing at her lungs. She lay flat out, on her stomach, her arms around the base of my filing cabinet, and she kept making the squeezy sound. It was the most terrible sight I’d ever seen in my life. It was like watching somebody die.
I got down on the floor beside her, first sitting, then lying flat on my belly next to her. I felt my tenderest organs protected by the plush rug under me, then deeper to the wood floor and the concrete underpinnings. I was safe there. I rubbed her back. I patted her hair. I whispered in her ear, “You’re okay. You will be. You’re not going to die.” It didn’t help at all. Nothing does. Her back stayed stiff and the wrenching unbearable noise continued as Concrete Skull stepped over us both and left.
We waited, breathing in little tiny puffs, to see if she would circle back. We waited a long time until we felt the currents in the air settle down to normal rhythms and heard the birds outside in the trees begin to sing.
*Kathy Anderson, “You Are the Bad Smell” from Bull and other stories. Copyright @ 2018 by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Autumn House Books, www.autumnhouse.org.
Ben was my summer boyfriend, my “older man,” Mom called him. He was twelve, and I was eleven, a skinny eleven, though I believed my breasts appeared acceptable to those who mattered. He lived usually with his mother in Florida. He had a beautiful red face with a scar outlining his jaw from once playing basketball and diving into the pavement. He was known as a diver, though he didn’t swim. He even refused to stick his ankles in the baby pool my parents packed with beer and Coke for their parties.
The first Monday of summer, Mom stayed home from work. She had me on trial. Would she have to take a leave or could she trust me alone? No money for a sitter. In our neighborhood, kids ran around like abandoned animals, but we knew to be civilized when we had to.
I made lunch in the microwave, not the stove, which Dad said had the potential to explode when used by small hands. Cheese warmed between two slices of bread. I ate in the living room, reading about different breeds of cats and humming. Multi-tasking. Mom had the television on in the basement. She already pounded up the stairs once to check on me. She was having fun, pretending to care.
After lunch, Ben turned up outside the picture window carrying some pillowcases. With my hand on the doorframe, I swung toward him and we kissed for the first time in nine months.
“You smell like cheese.” He gave me a pillowcase, which was smooth and fancy. “I need to borrow your backyard.”
At the top of the staircase, I yelled to my mother, “I’m heading to be responsible out back.”
“I’ll be watching,” she called.
Ben went toward the pine trees, where so many years’ worth of needles covered the ground. He dropped to his knees and shoveled piles of them into his pillowcase. He said his dad had a new girlfriend who carried a tape measure in her purse. “At breakfast she measured my height.”
“How tall are you?” I asked. Some kids in the neighborhood called him a shorty. Whenever I brought him up they said, “That shorty?” though never to his face.
“The girlfriend asked if I knew you. She called you ‘That silly girl who ties something around her chest.’ She said that’s not what breasts are supposed to look like.”
“As if she knows.” I sat cross-legged in the needles and sorted out the sharpest. They were increasingly snappy the further down the pile. “Breasts don’t all look the same.”
“They had a conversation about it.” Ben filled another pillowcase. “Dad called your breasts ‘hypothetical.’ Or, I don’t know, ‘parenthetical.’ ”
“Your house is a house of hysterics.”
Mom came outside with a watering can. She watered the yellowed weeds near the back porch, watching us. Ben waved and smiled at her, and she took it as an invitation.
“I wondered when someone would have the initiative.” She nodded at the stuffed pillowcases. “Garbage bags would hold more.”
“Yes ma’am,” Ben said. “It so happens I have a need for needles just as you have a need to be rid o’ them.”
She gave me a look like we were weird. I groaned as she went for the bags. “I’m officially on the chain gang.”
“What’s wrong with her wrist?” he asked.
“Don’t look at my mother.”
“It’s the color my chin turned a few days after I messed it up.”
I took a handful of pine needles. “You’re a crappy boyfriend.”
He took my hand and brushed away the needles. He had a crazy eye that twitched occasionally. “You’re a good kid.” He kissed me quick on the cheek, watching the backdoor.
With trash bags of pine needles, I followed Ben across the street. The needles pricked through my shirt, but I didn’t complain. Up a narrow stairwell and down a short stuffy hall, I wondered which room was his and what it would be like to follow him in and close the door behind us.
Instead, I watched him empty four bags of needles onto his father’s sheets. We smoothed the comforter over top so no one could tell what was beneath, and he showed me three small holes in the comforter.
“You notice things better left unnoticed,” I said.
We heard the front door open, and my mother, “Mary, you shouldn’t be here!”
“Come to the park,” I told Ben. “Everyone’s there.”
“That doesn’t excite me.” He fluffed one of the pine-needled pillows. The bed was prickly and splotched. “Have fun with your ugly friends.”
Instead, I went home with Mom, my wrists crossed behind my back like they’d been handcuffed. “You know how to be nice, young lady,” she said. Boys’ homes were enemy territory.
I sprawled on the living room carpet until almost dinner. Dad’s car pulled into the drive. “There’s a gorgeous girl on my floor!” The screen door snapped behind him. He took off his shoes. “How’s my doll?”
“Tired and dirty.” I turned away from him, toward the kitchen. Mom was making sloppy joes.
“Your mother still mad at me?
I didn’t answer. He tiptoed over me, though there was room to go around.
“Let me see it,” I heard him say. I closed my eyes. All afternoon, Ben hadn’t kissed me. There was a bed. There was his anger. I imagined how it would feel, climbing into a soft space and getting pricked with a thousand needles. It was almost my turn.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Jessica Hollander from In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place.
Way over there, the boy could see them, in the deep end, his mother and the man his mother said he’d better stop calling Dan Dog. They were all the way over there, doing what his mother told him was the dead man’s float. He could do it too, she said, no reason in the world, she said, no reason not to just swim over to the deep end and float.
“Try that I can’t swim,” he’d said to his mother as she bobbed
“Well, palley-walley, it’s you who’s making the big mistake,” she said before she rolled over and spread out her arms.
He could see them in their sprawl, Dan Dog’s legs sunk down
in the water, the straps of his mother’s swimsuit in a drifty signature around her.
When he saw the man lift his face up, he shouted, “Hey Dan Dog, fetch this.” The man took a closed-eyed breath and lay his billowed face back down in the water.
The boy stood on the pool steps and opened his arms. He wore wings, blown-up, electric-orange wings, bunched on his arms.
“Here I go,” he shouted.
He leaped. He bounced on his tiptoes till he came to the place where the bottom sloped steeply. It had a pull, he could feel it, the deep end, a suck that the boy knew wanted to get him. He doggie-paddled back to the stairs. Tucking his legs up, he kept himself down in his tuck and squatted his way up to the top step.
The man rolled on his back, his feet pointing straight up, the way the boy had seen a man float on a morning cartoon.
“Dan Dog,” he shouted, singsong. “Roll over, Dan Dog.”
His mother lifted her face for air, squinching open her eyes, then she dove under in a clean pike. The boy could see her below water arranging her swimsuit and he guessed she would break surface just where she broke the surface, squeezing herself up in a rush through the man’s legs.
“Hey!” said the man. “What the fuck?”
His mother downed the man in a swift dunk.
“You didn’t hear that, did you?” she called over to the boy. “Come on,” she said. “Am I ever going to see you swim or what?”
The boy saw a pawed hand come out of the water and pull his mother under in a quick yank. She popped up, blowing water in a snorty laugh. The man popped up beside his mother, whipping her swimsuit top in a skim on the water, and the boy heard him bark into her hair, “I’m going to get you bad.”
“Look at me, Dan Dog!” the boy shouted from the top step, where he stood making half flaps with his winged arms.
“Look, pal,” said his mother, flattening out on her back, “what did we say about that?” She sculled in place and then did a little watery arabesque, her body folding and sinking slightly. “I haven’t done all this in I don’t know how many years,” she said, coming back up, her shut face, the boy could see, cresting just on top of the water.
“If you throw a brand-new baby in water, it will swim,” said the man. “You’re making a big deal out of nothing. I mean, we’re practically fish for Christ’s sake,” he said and tossed the strappy swim top out onto the pool deck.
“I’m not a fish, Dan Dog. Do I look like a fish?” said the boy.
The mother said, “I’ve got you, really,” and pushed off against the side of the pool. “Trust me,” she said, stretching her arms out above her head. “See, the water holds you up.”
“I’m not a fish,” insisted the boy.
He pulled and the nylon squeaked, stuck and sticking against the boy’s wet skin before the wings came off.
They could just forget about his going in, but the boy knew they were not forgetting—the way they kept lifting their faces, calling to him to join them in the dead man’s float. He would—no matter what they said to him—just not go in.
“Fine,” said his mother, “be that way.”
The boy was out again, doing his tiptoed best.
Whatever they said, his mother and the man, Dan Dog, the boy could feel the drain’s pull. Even back here, on the shallow steps where he’d crab walked himself over to, there was the drain’s suck, sucking him over to the deep end, where his mother hung on Dan Dog’s back while Dan Dog did pull-ups on the diving board.
Really, it was proof, wasn’t it? His furred neck, and the way he shook himself off, water spraying out just like water shook from a dog, wasn’t that proof, really?
“I used to do a hundred,” the man said, yanking himself up in what looked to the boy to be a motion from the same cartoon where the big bad guy had the little woman and she was holding on for her dear, good life.
His mother squealed.
“Twenty-five, twenty-six,” the man yanked, “twenty-seven, twenty-fuck, twenty-shit, oh shit!” he said, letting go, and the boy watched the joined splash of his mother and the man and the sink and sunk shape of them still joined, over in the deep end.
“Oh, Dan Dog,” he called. “Ruff, ruff, Dan Dog.” The man was facedown in his dead man’s float. His mother was floating on her back, her hands cupped and sculling close to her side. If they were dead men and dogs in the deep end, the boy wondered what that made him over in the shallow end.
“Check this out,” he called, flapping his wingless arms. Then he dropped his arms and called out, “You know, I’m a human, too.”
“Make me do things,” said his mother.
The boy sat on the steps.
“Say anything and I’ll do it—it’ll be fun,” the mother said. She was treading water.
The boy said, “Okay, be Mom.”
The mother splashed over. “You know, you’re a real pill. Come on, can we have a little fun or what? Please, just give me a thrill, just say, ‘do a crab’ or say, ‘do the bunny breaststroke.’ It will be fun, really. Okay? Please.” His mother stretched out flat on her back and did a flutter kick over to where the man floated.
The boy said, “Okay, fine, be the ocean,” but his mother had already rolled over into her dead man’s float.
It seemed to the boy that they were hardly coming up for air—Dan Dog’s back looked swollen and pink, his mother strapless and drifting slightly under—neither raising for full enough breaths and neither lift¬ing, now, very much at all.
The boy called, “I say be an octopus,” and when his mother did not stir, he said, “I’m playing. Okay, Mom, I’m playing now.”
The boy walked around the edge of the pool, his bare feet pumiced by the cement. It felt good to the boy to be over here by the deep end of the pool and safe too, looking out there back to the shallow end. He saw one wing floating, orange and puffed, by the steps. The other he could not find, till he found it shored, electric, under the man’s arm, black hair seaweeded thickly over it.
His mother floated right in front of him. He thought that if he just leaned over he could touch her; for good luck he might just give her a little touch; he might touch the clean, white stripe of skin on her back for extra good luck. He did it and she startled, roiled, rolling over with her legs kicking and her arms grabbing up, raising herself as his mother would in alarm. The boy was holding on to something hard of her.
“Oh, it’s you,” he heard her say. Then he felt the seizing under-tow and knew that about his position in the animal kingdom he had been right.
*Victoria Redel, “Make Me Do Things” from Make Me Do Things. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.org.
He comes into the café, eyes peering over his glasses, obviously in search of someone. And then because I am sitting with only time in front of me—
I nod. He hasn’t said a name, so no lie has been spoken.
He looks relieved. He slides into the seat in front of me, the other half of my booth. It’s my favorite seat in the café, one I often have to wait for, settling for a loose table somewhere in the meantime.
Ah . . . he says. Well, shall we . . .?
Mmmm, I nod.
He isn’t good-looking. He’s overweight and aging—I wonder why I’ve allowed myself to be taken in by him (but isn’t it the other way around, he is my own victim?)
I think I’ll start with coffee, he says.
Yes, by all means, I tell him.
Would you like anything—?
I smile at him. I’ll have another coffee.
I watch him wait in line. He’s very impatient.
He keeps rocking back on his heels and trying for the waitress’ attention, though there are at least four people ahead of him. I realize suddenly there’s a woman probably in search of him. What did they do? Respond to each other’s personals? I look around for her—a woman on the hunt for him—but I don’t find her. For a moment I feel sorry for him, waiting impatiently to buy himself and me coffee. Ten years ago, he could have been my father, but I’m too old for that now. It’s a shame how age spares no one. On the other hand, I’ve stopped celebrating birthdays. They used to be so important to me—a day for wonderful things—but I’ve realized it’s better to ignore them. My actual number is vague to me . . . I’m in a fluid state, not counting.
He arrives with my coffee.
That was very kind of you, I offer. He can’t know how much I mean that.
Well, he says. These things are awkward.
Yes, aren’t they? Let’s just enjoy our coffee.
He looks relieved. I wonder what my role is. I look around for the other woman, cannot place her.
It’s a nice café, he offers. Do you come here often?
I don’t want to reveal myself. No, it’s my first time here.
Ah, me too. He smiles at me.
I begin to feel bored, impatient. I don’t want to feel trapped by him. Well, I might as well let you know, I tell him, I’ve decided not to go through with it.
You can’t mean that.
But I do.
But on the phone you said—
Yes, but I’ve changed my mind.
I see. But—
He wants to ask me something else, I can tell. The question is hard for him. I’m not sure what I am denying him, but I can see I’ve made it difficult. I do feel sorry for him, I won’t pretend I don’t. His hand is on the table, fingering a napkin. I place my own over his, grip his fingers. They feel soft and pudgy, younger than the rest of him. Don’t feel bad, I tell him. It isn’t because of you, exactly.
His eyes hold mine. I think I see water filling around the edges, but I’m not sure about that. With his glasses on, it’s hard to tell. You’ve gone back on your promise, he says. I can’t let you do that.
Even promises can be broken.
I can hear the heartlessness of my own reply. My eyes rest on the specks of dandruff on the shoulders of his suit jacket. His shirt is open at the collar; curls of greyish-white hair poke through. I sense he’s recently divorced, teetering on the brink of something. Are there children in the picture?
You’ve disappointed me tremendously.
His voice trembles with the word tremendously, a tremor, a crack in the human landscape.
I gave you nothing to go on. You shouldn’t have counted on me.
I don’t see how you can say that.
It isn’t hard.
He stares at me. The pools in his eyes seem to have steadied; if they’re a well, it’s full by now.
You lack humanity.
I don’t see how you can say that, you barely know me.
It isn’t hard, he says.
He’s quoting me. That makes me want to smile, but I stop myself. Smile, and we’ll be starting all over again. I want my booth back to myself. I’ve missed the afternoon sun, the way it comes in through the window to warm me. I wonder if I’ll have to leave first to get rid of him. I don’t want to have to do that.
I scoot myself out from behind the table to stand before him. I’m going to the Ladies Room. I’ll say good-bye to you now, since you may decide to leave before I come out. I take his hand in a handshake, press his fingers against mine to make it heartfelt. I’m sorry it didn’t work out. I did enjoy meeting you, even so.
He stares at me. He hasn’t figured out what to say yet.
Now, if you’ll excuse me. I try a smile on him, one that’s both winning and that asks for forgiveness.
I take a long time in the Ladies Room, brushing my hair, re-applying makeup. I wash my hands and let the electric dryer dry them, down to the last bit of moisture. I like the bathroom; it’s clean and spacious. There’s even a changing table for mothers with babies; it’s very thoughtful. And the dried flowers look new, as if the management just replaced the arrangement. It’s an unusual café that has such a pleasant bathroom.
He isn’t there when I come out, just as I predicted. I slide in my booth, close my eyes to the afternoon sun. It’s waning. I hear the buzz of voices, people talking, too loud to make me very happy. Perhaps it’s time to leave after all. The day seems to have gone by without me. I open my eyes to take in my surroundings. He hasn’t left me anything. Only his napkin, twisted into a tight strand, shredded at the end.
*Jessica Treat, “Waiting” from Meat Eaters & Plant Eaters. Copyright ©2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
The day after his wife left him, taking their three-year-old son with her, Larry Watkins took out his circular saw, attached the metal-cutting blade, and carefully sawed his 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood in half. It was not an impulsive or crazy act, as his neighbors might have supposed. He had spent almost four hours the day before making the proper measurements, drawing the cutting line with a magic marker, and chaining one bumper to the garage wall and the other to the Chevy so the two halves wouldn’t spring together when he cut the frame. And in a way, he had been planning this moment ever since 1985, when he came back to the U.S. after two years of guard duty and beer drinking for Uncle Sam in Germany. To celebrate their release from the service, he and his buddy Spence had rented a limousine for an hour and cruised around Virginia Beach, drinking Scotch from the limo’s bar and looking at girls through the tinted glass. Spence was talking away about his plans: he was going to catch the next bus to Albany, marry his girl, and go to work in her father’s office supply store. Larry hadn’t given much thought to his future, so when Spence asked him what he was going to do when he got back to Minnesota, he said the first thing that came to his mind: “I’m gonna get me one of these limousines.”
They had both laughed when he said that, but the more Larry thought about it, the more he liked the idea of owning a limousine.
He remembered Arlen Behrens, an acne-faced kid he’d known in high school. Arlen hadn’t had a date in his life, but after he got a red Trans Am for his birthday, he started going steady with Karla Thein, one of the homecoming princesses. Larry could only imagine what the girls in Monticello would think of a limousine. He pictured himself sipping champagne in the back seat with a pretty redhead while his chauffeur drove them down Main Street. Everybody would gawk at them, even the rich kids passing in their Corvettes and Austin-Healeys, but he’d wave or smile only at those he considered his friends. If he had a limo, everyone would see that he wasn’t who they’d always thought he was; they would see that he was someone else entirely, someone mysterious and admirable.
Larry knew he could never afford a limousine, of course, but he thought he might be able to build one. So after he returned to Monticello, he started collecting articles about limos and writing to Limousine and Chauffeur magazine for information about how they were made. He had six manila envelopes full of blueprints and suggestions by the time he met Karen at Shopko, where she worked in ladies’ apparel and he worked in electronics. She was a tall, slim blonde with green eyes and a crooked smile, and he was amazed that such a beautiful woman would go out with him. He told her about his plans to build a limousine, but she only laughed and called him a dreamer. When he picked her up for a date in his Impala, she’d say, “Oh good, we’re going in the limo again tonight.” And on his twenty-third birthday, she gave him a blue chauffeur’s cap, climbed into the back seat, and said, “Once around the park, then home, James!” She teased him, but Larry knew she was looking forward to the day when he’d build his limousine and drive her around town like a queen.
Then, a few months after he and Karen were married, he bought the Caddy from Hawker’s Salvage and had it towed to his garage. He thought Karen would be pleased, but when she came home from work and saw the rusty, battered car, she demanded he take it back.
He was so surprised he couldn’t say anything for a moment. Then he said, “You can’t take it back. It’s not like a pair of pants that don’t fit or something.”
“Well, you’ve got to sell it to somebody else then. We can’t afford a second car, especially one that won’t run. What did you pay for it anyway?”
“Just five hundred dollars,” he said.
“Five hundred dollars! How could you do such a thing?”
“But I told you I was going to build a limo.”
She fixed him with a look he had never seen before. “Well, I didn’t believe it. I thought that was just you talking.”
He stared at her a moment, then went over and stood beside the crumpled hood. “I know it doesn’t look like much now,” he said, his voice trembling a little, “but wait till I fix it up. You’ll have the nicest car in town. And we’ll go places. We’ll go all over. It’ll be as comfortable as sitting in your living room, only you’ll be going somewhere.”
“Fix it up?” she said. “You think you can fix that up?”
In the weeks that followed they continued to fight about the car, but Larry would never agree to sell it. Once Karen went behind his back and put an ad in the paper, but Larry found out about it and told everyone who called that the car had already been sold. After that, Karen didn’t say anything to him about the Caddy, at least not in words. If he mentioned it, she’d just shake her head and look away. Even then, he didn’t give in. He wanted to prove to her that he was the kind of man who made his dreams come true, the kind of man who deserved a limo. But he didn’t have enough money to start working on the car yet, so he just kept on collecting articles and blueprints. At least once a week he’d take out his envelopes, spread them across the kitchen table, and spend a couple of hours going through all the information.
The summer their son turned two, Larry talked Karen into taking a trip to Disney World. “Randy would love it,” he said, and though Karen worried he was too young to appreciate Disney World, she finally agreed. They packed up the Chevy and left Monticello just after dawn that Saturday. It took them two long days to drive to Florida, but they managed to make the trip fun, playing License Plate Poker and I Spy and singing songs from Disney movies. But when they finally reached Orlando and Larry mentioned there was a limousine factory nearby that he wouldn’t mind touring, the fun stopped. No matter how hard he tried to convince Karen that he hadn’t planned the trip just to see the factory, she wouldn’t believe him. While they were eating dinner at McDonald’s, he asked her to listen to reason, and that made her so angry she went into the restroom and stayed there for almost half an hour. When she finally came out, her eyes were red and puffy, but there were no tears in her voice: “Take us to the airport,” she said. “Now.” Two hours later, she and Randy were on a flight to Minneapolis, where her parents lived. She was planning to get a lawyer and file for divorce as soon as she got there.
Larry checked into a Motel 6 near the airport and stayed up late drinking Jim Beam from a pint bottle. The more he drank, the crazier it all seemed to him: he’d actually let a car, a junk heap, come between him and his family. What was wrong with him? There was only one thing to do: sell the damned car and toss out his box full of blueprints and articles. And that’s exactly what he’d do, the minute he got home. As soon as he made that decision, he felt as if a terrible burden had been lifted from him, and he lay back on the bed and closed his eyes.
The next morning, Larry started back to Minnesota. He hadn’t intended to stop at the limousine factory, but his route took him near it and since he’d already decided to sell the Caddy, he figured it wouldn’t hurt anything to take a look. Once he was there, he had such a good time watching the workmen convert ordinary Cadillacs into customized stretch limos that he decided to go through the tour again, this time taking notes. He hadn’t changed his mind about selling the car; he just wanted to compare the factory’s methods with those recommended by Limousine and Chauffeur magazine. After he did that, he’d throw the notes out along with everything else. So he took the tour again, and when he came back out to the parking lot, he stood there for a long moment, looking at the Chevy’s rusted fenders and torn vinyl seats, before he unlocked the door and got in.
Two nights later, back in Monticello, he sat down at his kitchen table and dialed the number of Karen’s parents. By then, he had decided not to say anything about the Caddy unless he had to. He’d just ask Karen to come home, and if she said yes, he wouldn’t even bring the car up. But if she said no, he’d promise to sell it and never mention a limo again. It was all up to her. He listened to the phone ring, then she answered, her hello cool, preoccupied. But when she heard his voice, she started to cry, and he knew he wouldn’t have to sell the car. “I’ll drive up to get you and Randy in the morning,” he said, after she finally stopped crying.
That was over a year ago. They’d had many fights after that, and every one ended with her crying and forgiving him. But after a while—he didn’t know exactly when or why—they stopped fighting. They spoke politely to each other and never even mentioned the limo, yet somehow Larry felt worse, as if they were arguing in a deeper, more dangerous way than before. And then, yesterday morning, Karen looked at him across the breakfast table and said she was leaving, and he knew this time she would not come back.
Now Larry stood in his garage, sweating in the intense July heat, the saw whining in his hand, and looked at the two halves of his Cadillac. He had been preparing for this moment for six years, and for the life of him he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to do next.
The next day, when Larry didn’t report for work, his boss called him and asked if he was sick. Larry told him about Karen, and he said Larry should feel free to take the day off. Mondays were always slow, and they could get by short-handed for a day. But they’d need him back tomorrow. Larry said no problem, he’d be there. But he didn’t report to work the rest of the week, and though the phone rang every morning shortly after the store opened, he did not answer it. The next Monday, he received a registered letter notifying him that he’d been terminated. He sat at the kitchen table strewn with breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes and looked at that word: terminated. It had a finality that he liked. He said it aloud and listened to it in the quiet house.
Although he had only a few hundred dollars in savings, Larry was glad he’d been fired. Now he would finally have the time he needed to work on the limousine. But it was too hot to work outside just then, so he spent the next few days sitting in front of a fan, watching TV. He watched everything, but he liked the nature shows on the Discovery Channel best, especially the ones about survival in the wild. Though these shows were full of conflict and danger, there was something comforting about the simplicity of the animals’ concerns—food, shelter, a quiet moment in which to lick their wounds. Sometimes he’d tape a show and watch it several times.
Larry didn’t do any work on the Cadillac, but almost every day he went out to the garage to look at it and plan his course of action. One morning, about two weeks after Karen and Randy had left him, he was surprised to find someone sitting in the back of the severed car. It was Elizabeth, the retarded woman who lived across the street with her elderly mother. She was a big, heavy-breasted woman with red bristly hair and splayed feet, and she was always talking to herself. The words didn’t make any sense. They sounded foreign, even alien, and Larry always wondered if her mother could understand her. He remembered how Karen had been able to understand Randy’s babble when he was a baby. He had been jealous of that ability; it had made him feel like an outsider in his own family.
Larry leaned over and looked in at Elizabeth. She was wearing a loose-fitting flowered dress—the kind Karen called a muumuu— and holding a red purse the size of a small suitcase on her lap. Her mouth was moving continuously, chewing words as if they were gum.
He cleared his throat and said, “Can I help you?” It was what he’d said to his customers at Shopko, and he felt strange for having said it now.
Elizabeth turned her moon face to him and abruptly, for the first time in his presence, went silent. But then she immediately started talking again. She was looking at him, but somehow he could tell she was still talking to herself.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. But that, too, was a stupid question: she was smiling and every now and then a giggle broke into her babble. He stood watching her for a moment, not knowing what to do. Then he opened the door and said, “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave.” But she didn’t move. She just opened her purse a crack, put her eye right down to the opening, and half giggled, half jabbered some strange phrase over and over. Then she suddenly snapped the purse shut and looked at him as if she thought he were trying to peek.
Larry didn’t know what to say. “If you want to go somewhere,” he finally said, “you picked the wrong car. This one doesn’t even run.”
Just then, Elizabeth’s mother came huffing up the driveway in her housecoat. “Oh Mr. Watkins, you found her!” she said, trying to catch her breath. “I was so worried. I was just about to call the police.” She came up beside Larry and looked in at Elizabeth. “You naughty girl!” she said. “You know you aren’t supposed to go outside by yourself.” Her scolding didn’t seem to bother Elizabeth; she just sat there, chattering away happily and peeking every now and then in her purse.
The old woman turned back to Larry and, wiping her sweaty face with a handkerchief, said, “I don’t know what’s gotten into her, Mr. Watkins. I’ve been up and down the block looking for her, but I never thought to look in your”—she paused, as if she wasn’t sure what to call it—“your car.”
She went on talking, but Larry was only half listening to her. He was watching Elizabeth bounce up and down on the back seat like an excited child. “You know something,” he interrupted the old woman. “I think she thinks she’s going somewhere.”
That night, Larry called Karen for the first time since she left. “Oh, it’s you,” she said.
“What’s the matter?” he said. “Can’t I call?”
“Yes, you can call. Just don’t think you’ll change my mind.”
“I’m not calling about that,” he said.
“Then what are you calling about?”
For a moment, he didn’t answer. He was listening to Karen’s mother, in the background, talking to Randy. She was using the high, sing-song voice grown-ups put on to talk to children. Larry strained to hear what she was saying, but all he could make out was “grow up big and strong.” Then he realized Karen was on the phone in her parents’ kitchen, and for a second he was standing where Karen was, looking across the room at the kitchen table, where her mother was sitting beside Randy’s highchair, poking a spoonful of something at him. He felt a sudden ache, like hunger, in his stomach, and he gripped the telephone.
“You remember that retarded woman across the street?” he finally said.
“Of course I do. How long do you think I’ve been gone? Forty years?”
He gritted his teeth a moment, then went on. “Well, this morning she was sitting out in the Caddy,” he said. “Her mother was looking everywhere for her. She was about to file a missing person report. And here she was, just sitting there in the back seat, smiling and jabbering like nothing in the world was wrong.”
“If this is about that stupid car . . .”
“No. Really, I just wanted to call. I thought you’d want to hear what happened.”
“Now why would I want to hear about that woman sitting in your worthless car?”
“I don’t know,” Larry said. And now that he thought about it, he didn’t know why he’d wanted to call and tell her. It all seemed so stupid now. Of course she wouldn’t care. And why should he care?
In the background he heard his son say “Grandma” and suddenly he had to sit down. The last words Randy had said to him before he and Karen got on the bus were, “Grandma’s gonna take me to the zoo.”
Larry sat there, staring across the kitchen table at the sink where Karen used to give Randy a bath when he was a baby. He felt very tired all of a sudden. He wanted to put his head down on the table and go to sleep.
Then Karen said, “Are you still there?”
“Yes,” he answered. “How’s Randy?”
“He’s fine. He’s made friends with the neighbor’s little four- year-old, and he’s been playing with him all day in his sandbox.”
“Tell him I’ll build him a sandbox in the backyard if he wants.”
“I told you, Larry. I’m not changing my mind.”
“I know,” he said. “I was just thinking about when he comes to visit. You know, on weekends or whatever.”
“All right,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what you meant. Listen, do you want to talk with him for a minute?”
Larry was quiet. Then he said, “No, I guess not.”
“Are you all right?” Karen asked.
Larry stood and looked out the window at the garage. Then he said, “I’ve been working on the car. You should see it. It’s looking pretty good. I hung the new drive shaft and split the door posts the weekend you left, then last week I finished bending the new side panels and installed the window frames.”
“Larry,” she said.
“It took me forever to run the wires from front to back,” he went on. “Over fifty wires in all. But everything’s electric now: the locks, the windows, you name it. And I just finished installing the extensions on the gas lines, brake lines, and exhaust. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been worth it. I’m just about ready for the paint job. I’ve decided on a royal blue Corvette finish. I tell you, it’s gonna be beautiful, Karen, really beautiful.”
“Larry, I’m not going to listen to this.”
“I’ll take you for a ride in it when it’s finished,” he went on. “You’ll be the first one in it, you and Randy.”
“Larry, I mean it.”
“Okay,” he said. “Okay. I’m sorry.” Then they were silent for a long moment.
Finally, Karen said, “When will you understand? Even if you had done all of that, it wouldn’t mean anything to me. I don’t know why it’s so important to you. Why can’t you just let it go?”
“What do you mean, if I had done it?”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t,” he said, his voice rising. “Why don’t you tell me.”
Karen sighed. “I don’t want to sit here and fight with you, Larry. Randy’s right here, and so’s my mom.”
“If you don’t think I’ve been working on that car, you’re wrong,” he said. “Dead wrong.”
“Okay. Okay. You’ve been working on it.”
“Not just working on it, I’m damn near finished with it.”
“I said okay. Don’t get mad.”
“I’m not mad. Who said I was mad?”
“Okay, you’re not mad. You’re not mad, and the limo’s almost done. And I’ve changed my silly little mind and I’m not going to file for divorce after all.”
“Don’t talk to me that way.”
“Why not? That’s how you talk to me.”
“You know what?” he said, pacing beside the table now. “You think you know everything. You think you’re so smart. Well, you don’t know shit. You understand? Not even shit.”
“Larry, listen to yourself. You sound like—”
“You listen to yourself!” he shouted, then hung up the phone so hard it rang.
He stood there a moment, trembling, then went to the refrigerator and opened it. He stared inside for several minutes, not seeing anything, before he finally closed the door and went out to the garage. It was dark outside, and it’d be hard to work, even with utility lights, but he had to get busy. He had wasted too much time already. It was still terribly hot, and the weathermen were saying the heat might not break for another week, but he couldn’t wait any longer. He took off his shirt, gripped the rear bumper, and pulled the back half of the Cadillac about six feet away from the front half. Then he began to align the frame, pausing every now and then to towel the sweat from his face and arms.
When he finished aligning the frame, he took an imprint of the end of the frame section, then stood and stretched his aching back. There was nothing else he could do now. He’d take the imprint to Hawker’s the first thing in the morning, so they could begin building the frame extensions he needed. On his way back from Hawker’s, he’d stop at Eriksen’s Welding Supply and buy welding rods—about twenty pounds should do it—then swing by Vern’s Sheet Metal to see about renting their break to bend the side panels. Hawker should have the extensions for him by the end of the week, so if he worked steadily he could be done welding the frame by the weekend. Then the next step would be installing the drive shaft. That was the trickiest part, according to the tour guide at the limousine factory, because the longer the drive shaft was, the greater the amount of torque it had to bear. Larry was planning to add at least one more hanger bearing, but still he was worried that the shaft would vibrate or even twist out of its supports. Several times he had imagined driving down the highway with Karen and Randy, the three of them talking and laughing as if nothing had ever been wrong between them, when all of a sudden the shaft would lurch out of the hanger bearings with a sound like the end of the world. Whenever this thought had come to him, he had forced himself to think of something else. But now he stood there between the two halves of the Cadillac and watched the shaft drag beneath the swerving car, spewing sparks. The next morning, Larry was too exhausted to take the imprint down to Hawker’s. He didn’t even have the energy to watch TV, so he just lay on the couch and stared out the window. Birds flew by, lighting on the branches of the sycamore, and squirrels chattered and chased each other in the yard. He watched all this for a while, but he wasn’t really seeing it. He was wondering what would have happened if he hadn’t been born. Who would be living in this house, looking out the window? Who would Karen have married? And what would her son be like? The more he thought, the more he felt insubstantial, as if he had only been dreaming all these years that he existed. He looked around the room, and everything seemed simultaneously familiar and strange. He remembered how once, when he was a child, he had lain on the floor of his bedroom and imagined that the ceiling was the floor of an upside-down house and he was somehow stuck on the ceiling. Nothing was different—there was the same light fixture, the same posters on the walls, the same bed and carpet— but everything had changed.
Now he lay on the couch, watching the dust swirling in the light slanting through the window. It looked like snow. He watched it fall for a long time, wondering if it would ever stop. It didn’t. It kept falling, but as it fell out of the light, it disappeared.
Then he held his hand up to the light and turned it back and forth. I’m here, he thought. I’m alive and I’m here.
Later that morning, the doorbell rang. It was Elizabeth’s mother, her face a knot of worry. “I’m afraid she’s in your car again, Mr. Watkins, and I can’t get her out.”
Larry was dizzy from standing suddenly after lying down so long, and he hung onto the doorjamb. In the bright sunlight, the old lady’s wrinkled face looked as if it had been burned, and it occurred to him that that’s what aging was: a gradual kind of fire that ate your flesh. He shivered, even though the air coming through the screen door was oppressively hot.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, and took a step back down the stairs. “If this isn’t a good time . . .”
Then Larry realized he had been staring at her for some time without speaking. “Excuse me,” he apologized. “I just woke up, and I’m a little groggy. I’ll be happy to help you.”
He slipped on his tennis shoes and followed the old woman out to the garage where, as before, Elizabeth was sitting in the back seat with her purse on her lap. But this time she wasn’t just jabbering; she was singing. Larry couldn’t recognize the song, if it was a song. He remembered how Randy would make up nonsense songs, and it occurred to him that children—and maybe retarded people, too— didn’t know that words existed. Maybe they thought words were only sounds, meaningless noises people made back and forth, to pass the day. Or maybe it was the other way around and they thought every sound was a word. And maybe they were right, maybe every sound was a word, and they weren’t speaking nonsense after all.
Elizabeth’s mother said, “I’ve tried everything, but I can’t get her to budge. She can be very stubborn, you know.”
Larry opened the door and said, “Elizabeth. It’s time for you to go home.” She stopped singing for a second and looked at him, then opened her purse a crack and peeked in. Then she smiled and started singing again.
Her mother shook her head. “Who knows what all she’s got in that purse this time. Yesterday I found my missing bottle of perfume in there, and her toothbrush, and a pair of socks. I’d been looking for that perfume for a week.”
Larry turned to her. “When was the last time you took her somewhere? You know, on a trip.”
“Oh, once in a while I take her with me to the grocery store. And every other Sunday we go to church. But otherwise—well, you can see how much trouble she can be, and I’m not strong enough to make her behave.”
“Yes,” Larry said, “I can see that.” Then he looked in at Elizabeth and said, “Where’re you headed today?” Elizabeth babbled excitedly and clapped her hands. “No kidding?” Larry said. “Me, too.” Then he climbed into the front seat and took the wheel in his hands.
“Mr. Watkins?” the old lady said, clasping the collar of her dress with a bony hand.
“Don’t worry,” he answered. “I’ll have her back before lunchtime.”
Every morning after that, Elizabeth spent a few hours in the car, and each day her purse got a little fuller until finally she couldn’t close it anymore. Eventually, Larry began to get up before she did, and he’d be waiting in the limo when she crossed the street, chattering and waggling her arms. She’d sit in the back and he’d sit behind the wheel, watching her in the rearview mirror as she bounced up and down on the seat and pointed out the window at the world passing by. For hours at a time, he didn’t think about Karen or Randy or the threatening letters from the bank and the electric company. He was not happy, but he was not unhappy either. He was Elizabeth’s chauffeur, nothing more, and he just sat there, his mind empty. And it wasn’t until after they’d finished their drive and he’d helped her across the street to her house that he would come back to who and where he was. When that happened, he’d stand there a minute, in her yard or in the street or on his steps, before he could bear to enter his empty house.
Toward the middle of August, a man came to serve divorce papers on Larry. He started up the walk, then heard strange noises coming from the garage. Crossing the yard to the driveway, he saw the rear end of a car sticking out of the garage. As he reached the door, he saw that the car had been sawn in half and there were two people sitting in it. “What the hell?” he said. Then he called out Larry’s name, but Larry didn’t seem to notice; he just kept looking out the windshield at the garage wall. He was silent, but the woman in the back seat was jabbering in some strange language the process server couldn’t understand. But Larry seemed to understand. He nodded as she spoke, said something back to her, then turned the wheel carefully to the left, as if rounding a dangerous curve.
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Glossolalia by David Jauss
I was on my way to the bus stop when I saw the headless man. At first I thought it was a trick of the eye: I was wearing big dark glasses, possibly the head had been camouflaged by the dark trees behind the man. Surely, he couldn’t be headless. As I approached, however, I saw that he was indeed headless. There was scar tissue on his stump of neck and a little tube sticking out—for eating or breathing or both, I figured. He was wearing an orange tee shirt and he was tending the university grounds with a weed whacker. Geez, I thought. A headless man.
It was very hot that day. I was walking along without a water bottle and it’s likely that I missed the bus—I had no schedule—and would have to wait. I distracted myself from these concerns by wondering about the headless man. How had it happened? He was either born that way (poor mother) or it was an accident. I shuddered to think of the accident that might have befallen the headless man. How was it that he was able to live without a head, without a brain, eyes, ears, nose, mouth? How did he communicate? Possibly the headless man talks out of his ass—I chuckled to myself at the idea of a deep, articulate rumble coming from the headless man’s ass. At any rate, he was gainfully employed. Without a head, he was managing to do a nice job on the flower borders. His body was well-toned, muscular, youngish; the orange tee shirt was well worn but clean, likewise the sport shoes. I’d had a good look.
I waited for a long while at the bus stop, as predicted. I was really parched. I imagined asking someone for a drink of water, but no one was there. How would it be to ask a stranger for a drink of water? I decided that if someone came with a water bottle I’d ask them to dribble a little on my tongue. I’d really do that, I was that thirsty. I thought I would faint.
Then two people did come, one was a young woman without a visible water bottle and the other was the headless man, who sat next to me, and who had a water bottle. What a dilemma! He squirted water on each of his arms, first one, then the other, and he rubbed the water into his tanned skin. I wanted to lick his arm. He also smacked some water on his neck stump. This headless man had water to burn.
Finally the 3 came and all of us got on. I took a seat beside the young woman who was a grad student in biology. All day she worked in the lab. No summers off for us, she said. Then she opened a book and our conversation stopped. The headless man settled himself near the driver in the space reserved for disabled people. Well, he was disabled, after all. He had no head and who knows how he did anything useful in life.
During this time I had a boyfriend called Mitchell. He was a nice enough guy but I couldn’t seem to muster up any real passion for him. God knows I tried. We had been dating for ten years and we did the things couples do—dinners, movies, sex—but deep inside I was unmoved. It was as if my heart were a block of ice or a hill covered with thorns. From time to time I fretted about this situation with Mitchell, but mostly I ignored it. Who has the right to be blissfully happy? Certainly not me.
Now the headless man and I happened to exit at the same stop. Amazingly, he pulled the cord before I did. I followed him out. He walked across the street, which happened to be the way I was going, so I kept following. He was very resolute in his walk which I like in a man. I had forgotten all about my thirst. I tried to keep up with the headless man, but he took two steps for every one of mine, he was walking that fast. He raced to the curb to avoid a car whereas the same car almost hit me. I felt like a fool.
That night Mitchell and I had plans to see a movie but as usual we couldn’t decide which one. In this, as in everything, we were on different pages. He enjoyed a rollicking comedy whereas I was partial to the art film. He liked sci fi stories about silly-looking creatures invading a human person’s bathroom mid-shave, whereas I liked movies about confused people trying to find their ways out of the morose hands that had been dealt to them, the kind of movie in which everyone is doomed. Mitchell and I were built differently, on different premises. The premise Mitchell was built on involved a double-wide barge plowing through a roiling ocean, whereas my premise involved the shadows of trees that were about to be felled.
We went to a comedy because, as usual, Mitchell gets his way. If he doesn’t he pouts. He has a very beautiful mouth and so the pout is not as annoying as you might think. Still, it’s a bore to be with someone who pouts, beautiful mouth or no, so I gave in to the comedy which would surely irritate me. I am that way with comedies. Something about someone trying to make me laugh: I resist. Mid-movie, I go to the concessions and buy more Junior Mints. There I see the headless man. It was too much; he was walking away from the concession stand with his popcorn and I would have given anything to have been behind him on line.
The funny thing is that no one seemed to pay much attention to the headless man. You’d think they would. Headless! It was as if this movie-going crowd had seen headless men every day of their lives. It was as if the headless man was no more unusual than, say, a woman with long blond hair. He was making his way to Theater 8 and on impulse I decided to go into that theater too. I was bored with the comedy. Mitchell laughed very loudly and occasionally slapped my leg, god knows what was so funny. The movie had been about two men who were friends and who got into trouble. The trouble was supposed to make you laugh. One man kept hurting himself. When I left the theater for the Junior Mints, that man was all bandaged up which was also supposed to be funny. But here was the headless man headed into Theater 8 which featured just my kind of movie, one in which two women sit on a bed and talk for hours and in between talking they try on clothes.
I sat directly behind the headless man and so of course I had a good view of the film. I noticed the little tube that protruded from his scar-knotted neck had been replaced with a larger transparent funnel and into this funnel the man fed kernels of popcorn. Very strange. The film was not sad so much as enigmatic. Who were these women and why did they pass their time so fruitlessly? was the question the film posed.
I had quite a time locating Mitchell in the parking lot after the movie. He was angry I had left the comedy and told me that, as usual, I had been rude. I told him all about the headless man because I thought he would be interested. I told him about the jagged neck stump and the funnel and the weed whacking job. Once I began talking I couldn’t stop. All my theories about the headless man poured forth. He must have a brain located somewhere since he is obviously functioning like a human. Perhaps he uses sign language. Maybe his brain was taken out of his body and frozen until they could transplant it some other place, like his thigh. He was really quite handsome otherwise, I said.
Stop, said Mitchell. You are talking nonstop so I will forget your bad manners. I don’t care about this so-called headless man. You don’t find it intriguing? I said. Mitchell opened the car door. Why would I? There are all kinds of freaks in this world, what’s one more? Unbelievable, I thought as Mitchell started the car by doing this annoying thing he does which is to rev the engine very loudly three times. Then he backed out and hit a car that was driving by. Son of a bitch, yelled Mitchell, leaping out of the drivers door and shaking his fist. Honestly, Mitchell was such a stereotype.
I decided to remain in the car so as not to be humiliated by Mitchell’s behavior. I turned on the radio and listened to the jazz station. Coltrane in the middle of playing My Favorite Things, which is very long, if you know the cut. Then Mitchell stopped yelling and Coltrane stopped playing. I decided to get out of the car and there, believe it or not, was the headless man. He was writing something on a pad of white paper and he jerked his neck toward me in a kind of friendly acknowledgment.
I swear to god, I think he remembered me from the afternoon bus stop. I smiled at his neck. Mitchell was still fuming, but he was fuming silently. The car was not so damaged—a broken taillight was all. The headless man resumed his writing, then put his hands together in a prayer-like gesture and bowed very respectfully to Mitchell. Mitchell scowled. There’s not much you can do when a headless man bows respectfully to you.
The headless man had written his name, phone number, license number and the name and number of his insurance company. After all the writing he’d drawn a happy face. It was very neatly executed. He’s obviously a gentleman, I said. What would you know about it? Said Mitchell. I must say these comedies do nothing to put you in a good mood, I remarked, which was a mistake, because Mitchell drove very fast which he knows makes me nervous. I was clutching the piece of paper the headless man had written on and by the time we got home it was all crumpled and damp from my nerves.
At home, I got to thinking: the headless man had left a phone number, but what does he do if someone actually calls? I asked Mitchell who rolled his eyes, which I could have predicted, and cracked open a beer. Then he surfed the channels in order to find another rollicking comedy. What’s the use? I said out loud, which was a mistake because Mitchell then said, What have I done now, what’s my latest infraction? I went into the bedroom and tried to read a magazine. But in the back of my mind, I was still wondering what would happen if a person telephoned the headless man. In the middle of an article about why men stray, I wondered what would happen if I telephoned the headless man.
I took the piece of paper from the dresser top and smoothed it out. The man’s name was Russ McCormack. Hello Russ, I imagined saying.
That night I dreamt about the headless man. In the dream he had a well-shaped, perfect head only it was made of stone, like the head of a famous statue by Michelangelo. Thus, he still couldn’t talk or make eye contact. He was weed whacking and I sat in the grass nearby looking at the sky which was filled with more heads, all sizes and shapes, a great variety of expressions on the faces—sad, angry, bored, sly, frightened, you name it. Then I woke up. Mitchell had already showered and was fixing his shirt collar in our mirror.
I spent most of the morning at my desk picking up the phone, dialing, then hanging up. In between I tried to write a poem which began the headless man’s head is in the clouds, but my heart wasn’t in it. It was so quiet. We’d turned the AC off and there were no dogs barking outside, no cars driving by, no mourning doves going cu-roo, cu-roo, nothing. I dialed the headless man’s number again, just to liven things up. The phone rang twice, then there was a soft click. I said, Russ? Russ are you there? I could hear the silence of his room at the other end of the phone, hear it turning over and beginning again. I listened for a long time. That silence went right to my soul. When I hung up, I could still hear it.
That night I ended it with Mitchell. I said what they tell you to say which is: This isn’t working for me. Mitchell looked stunned. He cracked open a beer and shook his head. Women are such fickle cunts, he said. He doesn’t usually talk like this, but he was mad, I understood that. The next day I left.
Funnily, I never encountered the headless man again. Once I thought I saw him in the grocery store, perusing the veggies, but this man’s head really was camouflaged against the red cabbages he was leaning over. I looked for him on the U grounds for a while, but then I thought, wait a minute, am I really thinking of having a relationship with a headless man? I don’t think so. So I stopped looking and that was that.
*Karen Brennan, “Headless” from Monsters. Copyright © date by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.org.
We were all surprised when Brian hired the Cyclops. His references only spoke Greek. His sole job experience was shepherding. It was uncertain if he could commit to two years. No matter. Brian saw something formidable in him. He had followed a similar hunch when he hired me. Despite my lack of PR experience, and despite my nervous stutter during the interview, I had become one of our company’s top performers.
I was speaking on my headset to a client when I saw the Cyclops for the first time. From my cramped cubicle I admired his backside as he exited Brian’s office. I’ve always been attracted to tall men with broad shoulders, and given my collegiate foray into the punk scene, I didn’t even blink at the tiny green sprig of hair that sat like a piece of unmown lawn atop his head. No, it wasn’t until he turned that I saw why others described him as revolting: the large eye, settled like a rough diamond above his eyebrows (not under them, as many would think) was, to put it mildly, intimidating. But what an eye it was! The color of warm sand, bright and penetrating. So penetrating that when he caught my gaze I swore he could see the color of my bones beneath my expensive tweed suit and inexpensive (and somewhat gritty) bra and underwear. And that voice! I heard him now, as he spoke to Brian, and I stopped talking in midsentence to Mrs. Lipman so that I could eavesdrop more effectively.
I had barely begun to enjoy the Cyclops’ melodic enthusiasm about working with our company when my client, Mrs. Lipman, began chirping in my right ear. After her tedious public involvement with crank and the home shopping network, she hungered for as much counsel as she could get. “Hello, Carol?” Mrs. Lipman said. “Can you hear me? You’re speaking on your headset again, aren’t you, Carol. I’ve asked you repeatedly not to use your headset. It makes you sound like some robot from distant space. Can you hear me, Carol? You were saying something about my choice of torti-llas, correct? About choosing the tortillas with the pink ribbon? The breast cancer tortillas? Instead of the white cheapies?”
“An analogy, Mrs. Lipman,” I said. “My point is that for someone so famous, the smallest choices you make will influence the media’s opinion of you.” She marveled over this statement, saying “Yes, I see,” pleased as she always was with any grandiose platitude. Around me, chairs scraped back and polite laughter ballooned. Brian was introducing the Cyclops around the office. I told Mrs. Lipman I would call her back and hung up.
Brian and the Cyclops approached my desk, smiling broadly. I stood and extended my hand. Like prairie dogs risen from their earthen holes, the heads of my colleagues bobbed above the cubicle walls, their expressions less curious than bored.
With a sense of wonderment I allowed the Cyclops’ hand to swallow up my own. “It’s a delight to meet you, Ms. Horne,” he said. “Brian was raving about your work here.”
So soft, his voice, as though it could lull you to sleep. He was very well-spoken for a Cyclops.
I told this to my colleague Kent later that day. Kent grunted and rolled his eyes.
“More proof of Brian’s incompetence,” Kent said. His gelled hair sat stiffly on his head like the shining blade of a guillotine. “He’s obviously a monster. Did you smell him?”
“Like cooked garbage,” an intern agreed.
“I thought he was nice,” I said. We were standing around the fax machine, five or six of us, waiting for our faxes to crawl out of the machine’s unsmiling mouth.
“‘Nice’ is the adjective people use when they don’t have something better to say,” Kent intoned. Then he sang loudly, “Carol’s found a new boy-friend.”
My coworkers laughed. “Yeah, right,” I said with feigned playfulness. “I mean, come on, he’s totally gross. Really, he’s disgusting.”
But truthfully, I didn’t find the Cyclops gross or disgusting. Aside from the large club he always carried (“For wolves or worse,” he told me), and despite the smell of livestock that trailed him everywhere, he was far more refined and thoughtful than the other men in the office. His pants – while faintly stained – were always neatly pressed. He could quote entire poems of Yeats and Sappho. Even more impressive was that he always asked everyone, no matter how busy he was, how his or her day was going. Clients perceived his incongruity as a sign of superiority and began requesting his services. To my delight, we were teamed up on a new project together, and after a few engaging weeks I complimented him on his impressive vocabulary and grammar.
“I read a lot of books in the field,” the Cyclops explained. He meant field literally, as in the field where he shepherded goats. I pictured him lolling on a vast green hillside, his feet and chest bare, holding a hardcover book above his face at just the right angle to block the hot Mediterranean sun.
“Any favorites?” I asked. I had been a literature major in college and in my rare haughty moments fancied myself a scholar.
“Of our contemporaries I enjoy Cormac McCarthy. I like tales of war and death. But the authors I forever return to are long perished: Tolstoy, Homer, Proust. Have you ever read Proust?”
Proust was one of those authors I wanted desperately to read but knew I never would. I had been assigned a few chapters in college that I completely blew off for a week of reality television. For much of my life I wore my unfamiliarity with Proust like a red cloak of literary shame. The fact that even this spelunking Cyclops had read Proust was a bit humiliating.
“Proust,” I said. “Yes, of course.”
The Cyclops smiled at me, displaying the crooked gray kernels of his teeth. “I like you, Carol,” he said. “You don’t seem like the type that would work in a PR firm.”
“Neither do you,” I told him. This time I wasn’t lying.
Why lie about Proust? Even as I was telling the lie some part of my brain was screaming at me, Don’t lie you idiot, you won’t be judged for it! But I had a severe problem with wanting to please people. Especially people I liked. Like Brian, my boss. Or the Cyclops. Or Amanda Davenport in grade school, whose hair was always smooth and shining and who could always color perfectly within the lines. I told her that I, too, used to be a coloring expert, but after a debilitating car wreck that shattered my wrists (and scorched my hair, making it frizzy), it was all I could do to stay on the page. Amanda informed the teacher and the teacher called my mom and that night I had to lean against the cold bathroom sink for five minutes with a bar of soap in my mouth. This did not keep me from lying again, although it did make me more careful about the magnitude of lie. I shied away from the larger deceits and began living in a white smoke of smaller half-truths. So it was when I lied to the Cyclops about Proust. And it was admittedly gratifying when he beamed back at me. I could see my watery reflection projected affectionately in his enormous brown-flecked eye. But as ever when I lied, the gnawing disappointment in myself, and the gnawing feeling that I was about to get caught, diminished the magnitude of my triumph. I smiled back at him half-heartedly.
A few days later the McGugle Account was created. The Cyclops and I were assigned to the same team. I was typically the Go-To Girl in such situations, but the McGugle Corporation had fallen into near disrepair. The youngest McGugle son was in court, defending himself from three sexual harassment accusations. The McGugle trophy wife was an admitted cokehead and alcoholic. While on a wine-tasting tour of the Yakima Valley, she drove her car through the brick wall of a winery’s tasting room. Mr. McGugle, himself, was rumored to be the most avid patron of a high-class escort ring. It was a big company and a bigger mess.
“You mortals,” the Cyclops muttered with a woeful shake of his head. We were eating pizza slices in the office near midnight. We were trying to find a positive light in all of this. “No matter what you have, it’s never enough.”
Kent found this remark offensive. “What about you? You were a shepherd. Wasn’t that a blissful enough existence? It’s not like you were recruited here, you know.”
Some of my colleagues snorted. Earlier, the Cyclops had shoveled down an entire goat cheese pizza while the hungry interns glowered at him. They had shuffled in their chairs and muttered angrily to one another but avoided any direct invective. The Cyclops’ large spiked club lay casually on the table near his Blackberry and the interns eyed it uneasily.
“For your information,” the Cyclops said tersely, “my goats died.” He had pizza sauce on his earlobe. He started to say something else but then stopped.
“What,” the boldest of the interns responded, “did you eat them?” The Cyclops’ face reddened.
“We’re getting off task,” I said loudly. “Let’s please turn our attention back to the press release. I personally enjoy the idea of a McGugle Bazaar. Anyone else?”
As the team began their vociferous opining, I caught the Cyclops’ eye and touched my earlobe carefully. His eye widened. He reached up with his giant hairy hand to remove the sauce from his ear. It smeared onto his fingers like blood. He gazed back at me gratefully. I considered winking but abstained, as I assumed such an innocuous gesture could be offensive to any creature possessing only one eye.
An hour later the Cyclops escorted me to my car. He held his club menacingly and commented that a young beautiful woman should not be walking alone so late at night. I blushed. “Thirty-five is not so young,” I told him.
“You’re a mere girl in Cyclops years.”
We reached my car. I jangled my keys. “Well,” I said. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you.” His eye was staring down at me mushily. I was nervous that he would try to kiss me right then and there in the parking lot, where one of my colleagues might find us.
Instead he leaned against his club and looked up at the stars.
“’Desire makes everything bloom,’” he said wistfully.
The Cyclops looked down at me again. “Don’t you remember? Proust?”
For lack of an answer, I dropped my keys. I stooped to pick them up, and so did the Cyclops, and his forehead hit the back of my head so hard that I dropped to the ground. Yellow blotches swarmed like bees in my vision.
“Oh dear,” he said. “That smarts, I’ll bet.” He helped me to my feet. In the lamplight, his face was wretched and scarred and now twisted with worry.
“I’m alright,” I said, brushing his hands away. My ears rang and my head ached. “I’m alright.”
I got in my car. He rapped on the window with his acorn-sized knuckles. I rolled the window down and looked up at him, smiling nervously.
“I’m sorry about your head,” he said softly.
“I know. It’s okay. It was an accident.”
“I really meant it when I said thank you.”
I smoothed my skirt under my thighs and then poked the key into the ignition.
“You haven’t read Proust,” he said suddenly, folding his wide hairy fingers over the door. It was not a question. I sat back in surprise, my hands dropping into my lap. “I knew it.”
His voice was gentle, forgiving. Something like a large flower opened sadly within me. “I didn’t mean to lie,” I said, even though that was a lie, too. I wanted to recline in the front seat and go to sleep.
The Cyclops cleared his throat. “’Lies are essential to humanity. They are perhaps as important as the pursuit of pleasure and moreover are dictated by that pursuit.’” He crouched down next to me as he spoke, his big head hanging like a rough pale planet in the window.
“Proust again?” I said. He nodded and reached for me. He pressed his big lips onto mine. I was surprised at how gentle and sweet he was, quite the opposite of what you would expect from one so big and rough. I opened my eyes to find his wide high eye staring absently over my hairline. He released me and invited me to his cave.
Despite my rattling heart I managed to say, “Should I drive?”
The Cyclops squeezed into my car by reclining the passenger seat down flat and lying prone, giving directions to his cave via the stars he read through the open sunroof. I was too nervous to speak now. I glanced at his enormous Grecian thighs in his khakis (where did he buy those, I wondered) and worried if making love to a Cyclops was even technically possible. These were frightening thoughts, but then he reached over and with his large hand stroked my hair, and the sweetness of this gesture soothed me. I was under a spell. When instructed I turned the steering wheel obediently, forgetting the blinker. When he spoke I listened with all of my heart. When we reached his cave half the night had passed and the spindly moon had already set, but to me, content in my lustful suffering, the drive had been a mere pinprick in the vast open wound of time.
We were somewhere far from Seattle. Eastern Washington, I assumed, in a land of rolling hills and no trees. Machines had carved enormous circles into the farmland so that they resembled landing platforms for visiting spaceships. We were on top of the highest butte in sight, looking out over the smaller hills that undulated like a frozen ocean into the dark horizon. The night was clear; the wind was fierce. My hair was whipped into my eyes as I stepped from the car, and the stinging strands were momentarily blinding. One of my high heels broke. I did not complain. I merely slipped off my shoes and trod on the cool dirt toward the rocky outcrop-ping where the Cyclops stood waiting for me. He motioned for me to go ahead of him. I walked with feigned bravery between two large boulders and into the hillside. The smell was very strong, farm animals and grain. I couldn’t see anything in the inky blackness.
“Here we go,” the Cyclops said, striking a match. A fire exploded into light and the room flickered into view. The high ceilings were domed nicely overhead and the rock walls were lined with large attractively painted jugs. “Wine,” he grunted, uncorking a jug and pressing it to his mouth.
The wine dribbled down his chin and onto his Ralph Lauren polo.
He passed the wine jug to me. I wasn’t strong enough to grip it, so he gingerly brought it to my lips. It was delicious. The taste helped to lessen the fecund animal smell emanating from the corner, where a pen of three goats bleated incessantly for their dinner.
“These are my children,” the Cyclops boasted cheerfully. “Well, not really of course, but I care for them like they are.” He told me their names in Greek, but I only caught the name of Hector, a small gray goat with dull yellow horns. “I’m building up my flock again. Three is an okay start, but I’d like to have nineteen or more. Nearby there is a ranch with a dozen or so good goats. I’ll hopefully have them by Friday of next week.”
“How much do they cost?” I asked, genuinely curious.
The Cyclops waved his club through the air and laughed. “Gratis,” he said. He set the club down next to a pile of straw that must have been his bed. After one last chuckle he grew solemn. We watched one another seri-ously for several moments and for once I was strong enough to look him squarely in the eye without turning away. “Come here,” he said, unbuckling his belt, and I came.
Later, lying in the dark on the straw that was stabbing me relentlessly wherever I turned, feeling pleasantly bruised and pawed from the night before, I began wondering if I should escape. Blind him with a hot poker, maybe, and then flee clinging to the belly of one of his goats. The thought made me smile in the dark, because the goats were so small and smelly that I couldn’t imagine their being an effective hiding place. More realistically, I could leave a note. Tiptoe to my car and drive the five hours back to Seattle with my broken shoe in the passenger seat. This was my modus operandi in those days – initial excitement about becoming involved with someone, followed by an adrenaline-packed flight response that I assumed would protect me from future awkwardness and pain, whether my awkwardness and pain or the other person’s, I was never sure. Somehow I understood that the Cyclops deserved better, but I questioned my motives. Despite his being smarter, kinder and sweeter than most, and despite his being well-endowed (though not, fortunately, to the point where our coupling had been a disaster), I began wondering if I was confusing lust and pity. Maybe I was feeling sorry for him, for having to go through life as the freak, as the weirdo. I pictured us walking down the street together, him looming over me, the crowds parting before us, their faces twisted with curiosity and fear. I pictured the interns at our wedding ceremony, making farting sounds in the back rows and doubling over with laughter. The Cyclops gave a loud snore then, an earth-splitting snore, and even one of the goats bleated in fear.
I lingered. Faint light began filtering into the cave. The Cyclops snored on. I turned to gaze at him and was shocked by his ugliness. The deep craters on his face (scars from Cycloptic acne?) and the bulbous eye wiggling beneath the fabric of his eyelid were newly hideous to me, and I chided myself for being so cruel. What fairy tale had I presumed would happen? That I would sleep with him and then find upon awakening that he had transformed? That he was a two-eyed handsome prince? That his dungy cave was an alabaster castle? That I was an honest person finding love and beauty in the monstrous?
This last part might have become true. But when the Cyclops awoke I was already buttoning my dress and shaking out my hair.
“Wait,” the Cyclops protested, rising to his feet and brushing the straw away from his powerful figure. “I can make breakfast.” He wrapped a loincloth around his waist and I realized that this was his version of hanging around the house in boxers. It was almost charming if I wasn’t already feeling so pale and sick.
“I’ll call you,” I said. It came out coldly.
The Cyclops’ eye flickered. In it there floated a flotsam of hurt. “Yeah right,” he said, and it was the only time I heard him be sarcastic. “I’ll bet.”
He walked me to the cave entrance. In the morning light, he was terrifying. I let him kiss me on the forehead. Once settled in my car, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief.
The following Monday we were all surprised to hear that the Cyclops had been fired. Brian called me into his office, distressed. Only the day before the Cyclops had slaughtered the entire McGugle clan during an unscheduled meeting at their hotel. He had taken their carcasses back to his cave near Pullman and had cooked them over a spit. He ate most of them and then deposited their remains in a cornfield. He had called Brian that very morning to confess and apologize.
“I liked the old guy,” Brian said, wiping his nose. “True, he smelled horribly. Like a morgue. And his face was hideous. But what confidence! Really, a creative genius. Nonetheless, it’s impossible to keep him on staff after what he did. Reprehensible, really. I doubt I’ll even give him a letter of reference. As for you, Carol, we’ll need you to write copy for a new hire. I’d like to post it online today.”
“Where – where is he now?” My stomach had pierced the soles of my feet, and I stood there stupidly in its mucky glue.
“Gone, I guess,” Brian shrugged. “The authorities wanted to speak with him but he was long gone – his goats, too. My guess is he returned to his homeland, where this sort of behavior is more acceptable.”
I moved into the hallway numbly. It was not that I was in love. I wasn’t. Love wasn’t realistic. Love raised too many worrisome questions. For example: Would our children have three eyes? Would my hips be wide enough for their delivery? Would they have pale shocks of green ear hair? What would my mother say? But I kept thinking of his lips and the softness of his voice, and I wondered when it was, exactly, that my lying had become so deeply entrenched that I was now lying exclusively to myself.
My colleagues threw a work party in honor of the Cyclops’ departure. One of the interns baked cupcakes. “So long to the armpits of death,” Kent said, tearing into a bag of chips. The interns guffawed over their cokes. I was silent. I sat in my cubicle, perusing the new resumes that were pouring in by the dozens. While a few prospects seemed promising, especially a Ms. Scylla, a successful head-hunter with specific maritime experience, none of them seemed lovable.
A year later I received a red crate from some remote Mediterranean island. It arrived at work. I asked Kent to help me lift it into my car. “Can’t,” he said, pointing to his shoulder. “Racquetball.” The interns helped me instead. After dragging it into my house, I left it unopened for several weeks. Finally, during a gray rain that left me bored and depressed, I uncorked a jug of ouzo and sat on the straw pile in the corner of my bedroom. With a loud sigh I braced myself before attacking the crate with my hammer. I clawed through a cheerful cloud of cotton balls until my fingertips collided with the hard covers of several books. I pulled them out one by one. Marcel Proust. His collected works. They were frustratingly all in French. A small card – no name attached – fluttered from the guts of the largest volume. A Proust quote, in English:
“’There is no man, however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory.’”
Gladness returned to me then. Someone somewhere understood me and suffered as I did.
Whenever I begin to doubt myself, as I invariably do, and wish in terror that I had not turned out the way that I have, I open up these strange, dusty, illegible books and I reread this note. Then all seems benign again, at least temporarily, like there is a great eye penetrating my lies and observing the goodness within me.
*Shama Shields, “The McGugle Account” from Favorite Monsters. Copyright @ 2018 by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Autumn House Books, www.autumnhouse.org.