Four More Stories
These three AM robins who go quiet by six as if all that singing sends them back to sleep!
And the sounds during daylight: car noise, jet noise, delivery trucks, and the ship horn from the river. Why is it that her yard was quieter once, and she could actually hear an entire episode of her favorite program without simply watching mouths moving on the screen?
Questions like these keep Mrs. Tonnage upright.
Every twenty days you asked me the same question: would you cut my hair? And you said it in a shy voice, uncharacteristic, as if you were afraid I’d say no. What if I said no? I never said no. I got up from the sofa, putting my book aside or closing my laptop. We stood before the bathroom mirror, the two of us looking at our faces, yours ahead of mine, lasering our expressions into the glass: you looking at me looking at you. Where did we begin and end? Your shirt was already off. Your chin dropped forward as the clipper climbed your skull. Hair falling to your shoulders, into the sink, the edge of the sink, hair falling in a dream of hair, sometimes brown, sometimes almost white, always darker on the floor than it was on your head. Your eyes trembled closed as if I were touching the base of your spine. The straight line at the neck: check. The wiry curls above the ears, check, snipped all the way down to the skin. After it was all over you admired the job I did, admired your face, did a funny thing with your mouth in which you pulled in your lips to square your jaw. You turned your head from left to right. For that little while you were just mine, though you probably didn’t know it. I closed up the gap between our bodies, kissed the back of your cool dry neck: I made you a new man.
When Vint’s 92-year-old father complained about the old ladies hanging all over him at the church dance, he admitted to Vint they were all of 55. Vint knew exactly what has father had meant, as he’d always believed that senior citizens were to be found at every age: 72, 62, 32, or even 16. Luckily Vint was able to keep his next-door neighbor, Poppy, away from his father whenever he stopped by for an evening martini. Poppy, two years short of 40, used every chance she got to announce herself as old, too old for that hair style, too old for that music, for that free trip to Mustique, while she took every opportunity to ask Vint if he’d gotten enough sleep last night, or if he’d always had those two white hairs sprouting out of his collar. She said these things with an exaggerated compassion as if they were in on the same sad secret, and late into the night, when Vint’s Lunesta tablets hadn’t kicked in, he entertained fantasies of loosening the lug nuts on her wheels.
Vint took a walk downtown one morning. Every creature, human and animal, was energized by fresh weather. Just last night the rain had fallen on the foothills, and for the first time in weeks, he could practically hear the surge replenishing the Colorado River, a whole state away. He felt incredibly powerful in his walking, grateful he wasn’t dependent on the carbon economy to get to the store or to the gym. He’d been a fragile, pathetic child. Entire weeks in hospitals, or under his bedspread grading the get well cards from classmates who had probably had no idea to whom they were sending messages—how could they, if he was never more than an empty seat at the back of the classroom? A ghost, a child without a face or a name. As a result Vint never took painlessness for granted. He never stopped marveling that he could run six miles from the Desert Museum and back. The doctors had thought he’d never make it past his twenties, and now he was rolling up his sleeves, warming the tops of his ears in the sun. How had he become the kind of person whose sense of time was different from others? To feel his 52-year-old body get stronger while the hands of his peers were speckling, dying out, wrinkling at the joints. Perhaps he’d escaped time—it felt subversive, even a little dangerous, to entertain such a thought. True or not, he sensed he’d been given some gift and he’d better use it lest sickness come to seize his body again. He’d always loved animals. There was a local society run by admirers of Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician, who believed that the human soul transmigrated into the bodies of animals at the time of death. Their work was to remind strangers that animals were to be revered, as you never know whether Chuckles housed the psyche of your mother or your late best friend. That sounded like a better way to volunteer his free time than to hang up flyers for the reading series, which is what Poppy had been hounding him to do. Poppy. Another picture of the lug nut scenario sped through his mind.
When had a street fair taken over Drachman Street? To his left three beardy men, all with black earrings the size of dimes and elaborately extended earlobes, sold plants: ocotillo, saguaro, bittersweet, bellflower, mimosa, soapberry, lizard tail. They grinned at Vint in unison, as if they’d decided he was one of them, or had been at an earlier point. They didn’t instantly categorize him as someone who was softer, less vital, of weaker blood. They shared a code. Not just a rollicking sense of the absurd and a love for the body (they seemed to exude a semeny, fertile scent) but a belief that the notion of adulthood was one extended performance, doomed to false notes, pratfalls. He ended up buying an agave for $29.99 even though he could tell it would be a little unwieldy to carry back home. When he took the change from the young man’s hand, he said, Thanks, dude, and felt pleased that that those two words didn’t sound forced coming out of his mouth. “Awesome,” they replied, in the voice of one lumberjack.
Vint was eager to move on—already the weight of the plant ached into his shoulders, up through the back of his neck—but an older woman at the next table kept looking at him, as if she’d wanted to be drawn into their fold. There was need in her eyes, and as always Vint felt allergic to need. She wanted something. But kindness was also present in her loose and plush mouth, in her open hands, and as he began to say hello, he saw three beagles circling her shoes. How had he missed these beagles, wonderful, comedic beagles, his favorite breed? They looked up at Vint through milk-blue corneas, over salty muzzles and golden teeth, stained with use.
“They always take to seniors,” the woman said merrily.
Vint was already down on his haunches, muzzles warming his lap, delighted by the idea of the dogs visiting some assisted living facility, on the east side of town. His father had spent some time in assisted living after he’d fallen off the roof and broken his hip, and even though he hadn’t been able to get out of bed, he would have given anything to be visited by some wry and curious beagle.
“You could take one, or take all four. I can’t handle them any more. The leash hurts my hand. And I’d feel a lot better if they were going with someone my age.”
The street quieted. The only life in it was human: slow, exaggerated, false, borrowed from other sources. The woman grinned at Vint’s face as if he were no longer full of promise, not someone who would be her peer in ten years, but was there now, was ready, and had been for some time, for years in fact, and hadn’t known it. She had been waiting to do this to someone. The agave fell out of his hands and crashed to the pavement, explosive, glorious. The beardy men had been humoring him. Vint shielded his eyes in the crook of his arm so that the beagles wouldn’t see any of the hatred and shame on his face.
“Who ruined you?” he said to the woman, whom he now saw as old, wickedly, horribly old. But the beagles were wagging their tails, heads bowed, goofing, as if they were already calling on him to join their fold. And the love that was coming at him was feeling like a weight. He had never known mercy as a weight.
Thank you for not calling me this weekend. Thank you for the silence inside my phone. We had that hour. And you know three consecutive sessions of crazed fucking should probably stay tucked inside an afternoon. We were sixteen years with other men, three and a half years on our own. What timing! What sent you to me, some song? Thank you for not making me worry about whether you wouldn’t love Polly or Elizabeth, or get my brothers’ inside jokes, or their habit of taking up too much space in restaurants. Thank you for not making me listen to you berate me for not caring enough about a money market fund. Do I have to go on? I am not hurt, and I know you aren’t either. It was never all on you. You’re thinking of me in your chair, thirty-eight miles out from the city, in that ugly estate that would have sucked the breath out of me every time I turned into the long front drive. We can keep holding on to our furniture. We came so close to losing it all. I remember how your face fell, when you watched me putting on my clothes, my green stocking cap, the knee-length military coat, the boots. Maybe you felt the terror in my kiss. And the woods ahead are bleak and full of possibility again.
Paul Lisicky is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, The Burning House, and Unbuilt Projects. A recipient of awards from the NEA, Yaddo, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, he teaches in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden. A memoir, The Narrow Door, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in January 2016.