Paul Lisicky

Four More Stories

 
MRS. TONNAGE

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. 

HAIRCUT

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.

BEARDY

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.

THE WOODS

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 LawnboyFamous BuilderThe 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.