HAPLESS MALES (13)

LET IT GO AT THAT

Catherine asked Carlo to pick up her twin brother Arie at the airport who was arriving from Holland for a two-week visit. Arie had come to Carlo and Catherine’s wedding ten years ago but Carlo had not seen him since.

Carlo had a big Italian family he was close to. It perplexed him that Catherine and Arie, who besides being twins were each other’s only sibling, had so little contact over the years. When asked about it, Catherine shrugged and said I don’t feel like I need it. I never feel out of touch with him. That sounded vaguely mystical, something Carlo would never understand so he let it go at that. The few photos that arrived from Holland reinforced Carlo’s memory of Arie as a straw-haired, shy and shambling youth. Someone easy to be around: his smile implied that.

Carlo waited outside of customs. Arie’s sudden appearance on the monitor showing those who had passed through customs was enormously disconcerting. Before Carlo could regain his equilibrium, the doors slid apart to present a life-size, eerie duplication of his wife, same walk, same coloring, same rounded shoulders. Except for the length of hair and a wispy beard, the likeness was uncanny.

In the darkness of the car on the way home Arie soon reverted to his unique identity, the guy Carlo remembered from the wedding, curious, self-deprecating, casually affectionate.

Catherine and Carlo both liked having Arie in the house. He spent the first week wandering the city, coming home for dinner. One evening he called, saying he would be home late, maybe not at all. “Sounds like he met somebody,” Carlo said.

Catherine said, “I’m not sure a long distance relationship is what he’s looking for. He’s exploring. There’s not much gay life in Leiden.”

Carlo wasn’t judgmental, but to him casual sex was an oxymoron.

A taxi brought Arie home in the early morning. He joined them for a breakfast of poached eggs and toast. It was ludicrous; they passed the butter and jam as if this was a morning like yesterday morning and the morning before. Carlo felt that Caroline should be the one to bring up the subject. He wondered if his presence was the inhibiting factor, that without him there, Catherine and Arie would be gossiping away. At last Carlo put his toe in, asking “Did you have a good time last night?”

“Why are you curious?” Arie asked.

It was an oddly aggressive response and it got snagged in Carlo’s head all day, both the words and the sly look Arie gave him, wide open to interpretation.

“I think your brother is flirting with me,” Carlo said to Catherine that evening before Arie got home.

“You think? Does it bother you?” she asked.

“No, does it bother you?”

Catherine gave him a quizzical look. “He likes your new look, all macho pumped up. He says he’d do you in a minute.”

“How does that make you feel?”   He felt completely safe bantering with her.

“Jealous,” she said, “I want to be the one sleeping with my brother.”

She laughed but Carlo didn’t get the humor and he let it go at that. She wasn’t really talking about incest.

As the second week of the visit elapsed, Arie’s flirting became blatant, a joke all three shared. In an odd way it brought them together. If Carlo had sexual feelings toward Arie perhaps there would have been tension. Did he really have none? Or was he repressing them? He checked, and found none.

“Are you going to the gym today?” Arie asked on the last day of his visit. “I want to watch you work out. I want to have your body.”

Carlo hesitated, constructing a reason why it would not be possible.

Catherine said, “Yes, by all means, take Arie him to the gym with you. He should meet Erik-with-a-k. More local color.”

Carlo understood the mischief behind her suggestion. He had told her stories about Erik-with-a-k, the gym’s alpha male.

“Of course not a c,” Caroline had said. “A c would be too faggoty.”

Erik wasn’t a certified trainer though he did private coaching. His body was his calling card, huge thighs and biceps covered with esoteric warrior tattoos. Even his tongue looked pumped poking from his mouth during squats. Half cheerleader, half sergeant, he annoyed the hell out Carlo at first. “It’s gotta BURN. Sweat is the sign of warriors.” But it was achieving results for Carlo. Lately they worked out almost exclusively with each other. They did their sets with a mathematical precision. In exchange for having an appreciative audience, Erik gave Carlo pointers and encouragement. Beneath his bullshit crust Erik was a decent guy.

Bullshit such as, no swimming. “Swimming is for faggots,” he said more than once. He used the f-word a lot and nobody called him on it, not even the gay guys. The gay guys had their own section of the locker room in the back. Their segregation was obvious. They seemed to be comfortable with it. It had one real benefit to them: the pool was never crowded.

Usually Carlo arrived at the gym between 3:30 and 4 PM to coincide with Erik’s arrival.   Arie and Carlo were already finished with the elliptical when the digital clock turned 3:00. Carlo shepherded Arie through the workout, maintaining the pace that he and Erik kept. He was enjoying being the alpha male for a change. Arie’s flushed face glowed with sweat. He was surprisingly adept, much stronger than he looked. The hour passed in a flash.

Carlo was cooling down, lying on the bench when he opened his eyes and saw Erik looming over him. The look on his face said he was in one of his moods. It had been a long time since Erik had one of his moods, and Carlo had almost forgotten he was prone to them.

“Why’d you work out without me?”

Before Carlo could respond, Arie’s head emerged from behind Erik’s massive bulk.

“Where is the pool? I’m going for a swim.”

“Downstairs,“ Carlo said. “Take the elevator.”

“You coming?”

“You go,” Carlo said. He sat up and watched Arie walk toward the elevator.

As expected, the word was spat out. “Faggot.”

Arie turned around, his abashed gaze moving from Erik to Carlo and back again. After another moment’s confusion he continued toward the elevator. Erik started rowing furiously on the rowing machine, grunting like a pig.

Carlo grabbed his towel and went into the showers. He went into the gay section as if to symbolically wash away his cowardice. He should have confronted Erik for his hateful talk. Years ago.

The symbolic act was only that, since during the whole long length of his shower nobody else came into the locker room. At last feeling guilty for using up so much water, he stepped out and toweled dry. He was naked holding the towel when Arie came into the locker room. Carlo’s first reaction was to cover up, but he knew how ridiculous that was, so he stood there displayed, but Arie did not glance his direction, not even to say hello.

Walking home Carlo could feel the tension between them. He had to say something. “Sorry about the guy in the gym,” he said. “He’s really an idiot.”

“What guy?” Arie asked.

Carlo wondered if he had misinterpreted the scene. Maybe Arie hadn’t heard the word, or didn’t know the word in English. He decided it was better to let it go at that.

In bed, Catherine asked Carlo, “What happened at the gym?”

“Nothing,” Carlo said. Catherine’s question implied the opposite. “Did Arie say something?”

“He didn’t have to.”

The next morning the tension was still there, augmented by the pressures of departure. Catherine had picked it up too. She didn’t want Carlo to touch her. She’d left their bed sometime in the early morning, long before she normally got up. She didn’t say why.

As Arie packed, Carlo hoped something would arise to crack open the shell of estrangement, a good laugh, a course correction. Whatever the misunderstanding, it could not be unbridgeable, unforgivable.

Catherine had to go to work. When she said goodbye to Arie there was something in her embrace and the look on her face that indicated depths of unspoken feeling. Perhaps she didn’t feel the need to speak them. Carlo was sorry she wouldn’t be riding to the airport with Arie and him.

In the car on the way, just them, would have been the place and time to speak frankly, to be vulnerable, but the time passed. The goodbyes in the terminal were curt and formal.

During the following week Carlo carried on many imaginary conversations with Arie. Mostly apologizing. Now and then he fantasized the dialogue leading further, to erotic territory he gladly kept in a fog. He really didn’t want to go there.

One day he and Catherine got a short thank-you note from Arie with a few bland words. Reading it Carlo couldn’t help feeling sad, and he looked at Catherine to see what she was feeling. He couldn’t tell. Since Arie’s visit, she had not mentioned him once.

There was something cold in her, Carlo was starting to think. More and more when he looked at her, he saw Arie. It did not make him feel closer to her.

HAPLESS MALES (12)

ROAD KILL

I feel guilty about what happened to Rudy, as if I know what happened to him.

Rudy and I were night shift orderlies in the west wing of the med center. On the night shift you sit around doing nothing, and then all of sudden it’s like a house on fire.

To get through the slow hours Rudy and I made up a game he named feathering. The med center became a big aviary. The doctors and sometimes the nurses were geese, bunching up, skittering around. Patients were usually specified, if that’s the right word.   One portly fellow was the pigeon. The midnight OD’s were juncos for the sake of the pun; the skinny grandma a snowy plover. Neither of us knew all that many birds so the game was sporadic.

“What bird am I?” I asked Rudy one post-midnight hour as we sat in the empty cafeteria sucking Pepsi.

“Red-legged partridge,” he said without a moment’s hesitation as if he couldn’t wait to say it; it had been sitting on his tongue so long. Red-legged. That let me know he had been thinking about it, and this wasn’t spontaneous. There really is such a bird. I wikipedia-ed it. “A rotund bird…When disturbed, it prefers to run rather than fly…”

I waited for him to ask me what bird he was, but he didn’t so I went ahead and said, “You’re an ostrich.” He flicked his hair with his fingers “It’s not your feathers,” I said, “it’s the way you walk around with your butt in the air.” Pepsi sprayed out of his nostrils. Partridge insult nothwithstanding, I loved this man who could laugh full throttle.

He could get me going too. One night in the cafeteria he told a story about when he was in the Peace Corps in Kenya. He had hired a taxi to take him out into bush, and on the trip they ran over a guinea fowl. The taxi was soon surrounded by irate villagers demanding restitution from the white man in the back seat. There didn’t seem to be other options so he handed over a wad of shillings for the roadkill in the ditch. He would have left it there but the driver wrapped it in a plastic bag and put it in the trunk. For poor people like the driver, Rudy figured, any meat, even stringy old guinea roadkill, was better than no meat.

Back in Nairobi, at the hostel where he was staying, he was befuddled when the taxi driver opened the trunk and put the dead bird on the doorstep. No, no, you take it, Rudy insisted, but the driver ignored him and drove off.

Rudy couldn’t leave it lying around to attract the vicious dogs in the neighborhood. He asked Ibrahim, the night watchman, for help. Ibrahim, a grizzled old man new in town from his village, spoke little English but understood what Rudy wanted, and took the bird away.

At dinner in the hostel the next evening the cook came out of the galley carrying a platter bearing a sliver of meat smothered in a tomato sauce. “Guinea fowl,” the cook announced. “Local product.” When the platter got to Rudy he said, “No thanks, I decided this morning to be vegetarian.”

He had me howling. Every time I got myself back in control he’d add another brilliant detail or intonation and I’d be convulsed again. People walking by the cafeteria gave us stern looks.

“Grackles,” Rudy called them.

Gradually the feathering game changed tone; the correspondences acquired am element of hostility.   More vultures, titmice, and grouses. Rudy was unhappy. He hated the job.   I didn’t. I’m someone who likes to be helpful. It makes me feel good. Also, I was happy to have any job, since I hadn’t finished my degree.

“You should go on stage,” I told Rudy in a flash of inspiration. “You’re a comic genius.”

Genus comediensis,” he said. “Distinguishing feature is lots of guts.”

I kept offering little encouragements and after a while Rudy actually began to consider giving it a try. “I’m massaging some material,” he said to me one day, flexing his fingers. “I’ve got a stage name, Oz Stritch. What do you think? The bastard spawn of the Wizard of Oz and Elaine Stritch.”

I presumed and hoped he was joking, but one day he showed up with a flyer announcing a performance by the “nationally acclaimed comedian, Oz Stritch.” He gave out flyers to doctors, nurses, lab technicians, everyone he knew even remotely. “They all said they’d try to make it,” he told me. “I’m going to be a starling.”

Shortly after five the evening of the performance I got a phone call from Rudy. “You’re not going to believe this. They moved my slot from ten thirty up to six thirty, before the band. Nobody’s going to be there. Will you come down? I’ll feel better if there’s somebody in the audience.”

When I arrived all the tables on the main floor were empty. I didn’t want to be conspicuous so I took a seat at the dark end of the bar where there was a small crowd. When Rudy came on stage he stumbled around in the excessive brightness of the spotlight like a drunk. I couldn’t tell if it was part of his performance. He was getting the type of laughs you don’t want.

The show went on. Laughter was as scarce as ice in a desert. He wasn’t connecting but he had no audience to connect to. I postponed moving to the main floor and the longer I did, the less I wanted to be a bystander at the wreck. By the time Rudy got to the anecdote about the guinea hen in Kenya, the bartender had turned on the TVs at either end of the bar and what little audience Rudy had shrank even further. “This is a great story,” I said to the bartender. “You should hear it.” The bartender continued to line up martini glasses.

“Stop talking,” Rudy shouted from the stage, sounding desperate.

After he left the stage, I located him in the curb strip next to the parking lot, leaning against a sycamore tree. I didn’t know how to comfort him.

“Were you there?” he asked.

“Just the tail end,” I said. “Bad bus connections.”

“I was roadkill.” The turn of phrase was a good sign that this would turn into a joke. “I suppose I have to go back in there.”

I stayed with him at the club until 10:30. He was afraid that people from the hospital would show up and he wanted to explain what happened. It was thoughtful of him, but no one from the hospital showed up, and by eleven we were both soggy with martinis. As we parted, Rudy said, mostly to himself, “I am due for migration.”

The following night he was not at work. Nor the next. I knew he would not be coming back. I kept half-expecting to find out something horrible had happened to him, that he got hit by a bus or something. I imagined him as a bloody arrival in the emergency room.

That was some years ago. I still think about him periodically. I could have helped him, if I had tried, but I didn’t. Or maybe I tried too much.

I’ve kept my interest in ornithology. Ornithology is too fancy a word. I’m a birdwatcher. I have a life list.   Last winter I flew to Australia to see the kookaburra in its native habitat. It’s called the laughing bird.

HAPLESS MALES (11)

TOO DAMN NICE

One day Mr. Pocher discovered that his wife, Mrs. Pocher, was reading a book called Moody Bitches. He was more than a little surprised since his wife was anything but moody. If he had a complaint about Mrs. Pocher it was that she was entirely too cheerful, too damn nice all the time. With the grandkids (they had two now, ages two and four, with another on the way) Mrs. Pocher was so generous and accommodating that Mr. Pocher sometimes was afraid they would refuse to go back home.  It was a bone of contention.  Mr. Pocher did not believe in spoiling kids.

It settled his mind a little when upon investigation he learned the book was about menopause. He figured Mrs. Pocher was either going through menopause or about to. That she never mentioned it confirmed his belief that it was an event that took place entirely in the female sphere, and female geography was never one of Mr. Pocher’s strong subjects. Still, Mr. Pocher was a prudent man and began to hide the butcher knives.

HAPLESS MALES (10)

ROSSOBLU

I was in the tenth grade when the new priest arrived at St. Vincent’s. Father Pepe, from Padua. When asked what he was doing at St. Vincent’s, he would reply, “Missionary work,” and get a laugh. Everyone loved Father Pepe. He had black curly hair, a ready smile, and deep eyes that I was afraid to look into.

He taught Spanish and art and coached the junior varsity basketball team. I wanted to be one of the boys shepherded around the court. My fantasies weren’t so much about playing (I was terrible) but about the showers, beautiful Father Pepe in the steam. To this day that fantasy has a charge.

One day he noticed me in the bleachers watching. He came over to me and put his arm over my shoulders.   He touched everyone, he was Italian, but for me his touch was personal and laden with meaning. He said I should try out for the team. I’m not a good shooter, I said. Shooting is not the only important thing, he said. There’s passing and dribbling. You can learn. It just takes practice.

I might have gone out for the team and proved him wrong if not for art class. He taught that too. And I was good at it.

You are a painter, you have a gift, he said to me. His words were like inscriptions carved on the lintels of temples. He opened up a different life for me.

He was thirty-two, exactly twice my age.

Here’s the typical narrative: the powerful, unscrupulous older man preys upon the youngster but that’s not what happened, certainly not the core of what happened.

One night he gave me a ride home and we were parked in front of my house, the engine off. It was winter, maybe January, very cold outside. A light flickered on the drapes of the living room. My parents were inside, engrossed by television. He was so close. (“The near occasion of sin,” I believe is a catechism phrase.) In the warm interior of the car the pressure grew to a degree it was either do something or explode. I put my cheek against his shoulder. He put a hand on my neck. Each incremental movement became a frontier, the border between before and after. I was sure I knew what was happening and I had no idea whatsoever. He wasn’t encouraging, he wasn’t discouraging. I proceeded.

How old thirty-two was then, how young now. I say this as if that’s some kind of surprise. It isn’t.

We traveled together up and down the East Coast. In each city we visited the museum to look at paintings. For me it was a period of absolute enchantment; for him I don’t know, perhaps a period of anxiety. He understood better than I the possible repercussions. I took his willingness to undergo the risks as proof of his love and I resolved to be worthy of it.

My parents must have known something was afoot when I told them Father Pepe had invited me to go with him to Italy. I portrayed it was an art tour, not a wise strategy since they still thought of me as a would-be lawyer. It was a homecoming for Father Pepe, a chance for him to say goodbye to his beloved Nana. Also we would be in Padua for the famous festival of St. Anthony, the saint of lost things. That year there was some special jubilee.

They gave their permission. It was a different era.

I would have gone without it.

Giuseppe—he asked me to call him that—and I spent time in Como and Siena before arriving in Padua a few days before the big feast. The family house, I was surprised to find, was a hillside villa with six or seven bedrooms and a pool surrounded by a large garden. Giuseppe and I had bedrooms on separate floors.  A period of celibacy began. There were no cues given about how and when it would end. Talking to his mother he called me il studente. It confounded me he could be much more open within my family than his. Looking back, of course, it makes sense. Still, he might have helped me understand. I blame him for that.

We joined the throng of pilgrims processing past the golden reliquary encasing the tongue and jawbone of the saint whose oratory persuaded the fishes to poke their heads out of the sea to listen. That so many people believed this goofiness amazed me. I didn’t say that. I got the impression that it meant something to Giuseppe. It was another side of him I had not been seen in Maryland.

I swam every afternoon and lay in the sun. Sometimes, not often, Giiuseppe would join me. Invisible but potent prohibitions defined our behavior. He didn’t touch me, not even casually.

Nana’s condition in a bedroom upstairs controlled the weather in the house. Twice Giuseppe administered last rites. She refused to die. After being in a coma for three days she sat up and demanded a glass of prosecco.

She was going to live to see her 95th birthday and a party was planned.

Relatives descended, including a seldom-mentioned younger brother from Bologna. A professional soccer-playing, dazzling younger brother. Enrico. Riri, with two girlfriends in tow. I trailed around after him, trying to get his attention away from them. It was hopeless but I couldn’t stop myself.

Nana’s party in the jasmine-scented garden with music and laughter should have been a high point of my life but I drank too much wine and got very mawkish. I was convinced that Enrico danced in his swim trunks primarily to torment me.

I had just vomited on the yew hedge when Giuseppe found me.   Out of a need to confess and partly in revenge, I told him I was in love with his brother. He ushered me back to my room and put me to bed and disappeared. The next day in the late morning when I came to life he was nowhere in the house. All day it poured a cold rain and he didn’t return.

The following morning the rain had stopped. I had enough money for a one-way train ticket to Bologna. That was as far as my plan went. One of my qualities I’m most grateful for is I seldom look far ahead to see what might go wrong. Without that quality I would not have had much of a life.

I expected Bologna to be about the size of Siena and presumed it would be easy to find the stadium where the professionals play. I didn’t consider there might not be a game, they might be out of town, etc. My Italian was so patchy that between mangled questions and semi-intelligible answers, it was a small miracle I found the stadium. There was a game. I bought a ticket and joined the crowd siphoning in. By then I was less obsessed with finding Riri than being with a group doing something together. I was lonesome.

My seat was near the rim of the stadium. The players were the size of ants. I thought I recognized Riri in a striped green and white jersey but as play started I understood blue and red were the Bologna colors. The rossoblu were winning; ecstatic cheering flooded the stadium. There were two, maybe three candidates among the rossoblu who might be Riri.

After the game I descended to the field and found him in a halo of fans. When I caught his eye he looked perplexed trying to place me but once he did, he seemed to accept my being there as normal. He invited me to join him and his mates for a victory celebration.

The party in a nearby taverna was boisterous. Having learned my lesson I was a little more careful about how much I drank. Riri and his crew had no such inhibitions, and it was nearer dawn than midnight when the party straggled out. I had told Riri I was booked in a hostel near the train station. Now I regretted the lie, thinking that he might otherwise invite me to his house.

Then, as if a wizard had waved a wand, I was alone on the cobblestone streets. A cat darted from shadow to shadow, hunting rats, perhaps. I came upon a fenced garden. I climbed over the metal gate and lay down under some weeping trees. It was muddy, and the wetness came through my jacket. I was too sober to pass out and too cold.

I begged in the train station for the fare back to Padua. I looked like a muddy bum. People shied away. I finally snuck on board and hid in the bathroom most of the ride back.

Giuseppe greeted me with the ardor of a father welcoming back a prodigal son. He sent my muddy clothes out to be washed. He took me to his bedroom. He held me, and forgave me.

Nana had slipped back into a coma. She was still alive when we flew back to New York.

The one who forgives is a stranger to the forgiven. He went upstate to a monastery for a retreat and I went back to my parents’ house in Baltimore.

By school term Father Pepe was back at St. Vincent’s coaching basketball and teaching art class again. I avoided him. I rationalized it was for his sake and at his wishes, but I didn’t know what his wishes were. I only knew something had changed for which there was no undoing.

I won’t make any judgments about that sixteen year old. The young have illusions about the old; an old man has illusions about the young man he was. I will let him be, let him remain lost, as he appears to be.

I am a painter. I have been a painter since those days. I have not gotten wealthy but I have made a life. My partner supports my work. We have been together for over thirty years.

Every second year we travel to Italy to attend the Biennale. Though Padua is close to Venice, last year I revisited it for the first time. I had learned that Father Pepe was diagnosed with leukemia and that he had retired to an abbey near the university. I have kept track of his life.

The garden of the abbey was overgrown. The fountain in the courtyard sprouting seedy weeds. I was trembling when I entered his room in the infirmary.

I would not have recognized him. His face, round and congenial in memory, was gaunt. He looked like a bird of prey. His eyes had not changed, still dark with a deep gaze. I wondered what he saw when he looked at me.

I asked if he’d like to take a walk. He said he didn’t have the stamina, so I offered to push him in a wheelchair. The chance to get outside the walls of the melancholy abbey pleased him as much as it did me.

We did not get far. I was afraid he was going to pitch out of the chair when we jolted across the cobblestone streets. Soon we were back in his room. We had run out of things to say so he took the pictures off the shelf under the window and bragged about his nieces and nephews. One picture showed a balding guy with a gut, his arms draped over a boy and girl, perhaps grandchildren. Who is he? I asked.

My brother Enrico, Giuseppe said. The one you loved.

My impulse was to protest, no, it was you. But it’s not easy to lie to a dying man, one who is making a joke at your expense.

HAPLESS MALES (9)

HITCHES OF TIME TRAVEL

Time travel is nothing but a hackneyed storytelling device so you might imagine his surprise when as an old man he discovered that through a weird stumble of destiny he was capable of it himself. Or something like it. He suddenly had the power to bifurcate, to take the wisdom of his experience and advise his younger self about which choices were good ones, which ones a disaster. Don’t go on that date. Make sure the burner is off when you leave the house. Don’t assume your father knows what he’s talking about.

It was like he had two lives in his one self. He could give his younger self a much more joyful life as well the prospects of a more satisfying future.

And that’s what happened. The younger improved self did the impossible; he became as real, as individuated as the self that had gone on the date, left the burner on, etc. Amazingly, the new younger self also didn’t resent being told what to do by the know-it-all older self.

But there was a glitch. There is always a glitch in time travel. The younger self, with his comparatively friction-free existence, began to sluice through time’s chute at a greater speed than his fraught original, the one who made the mistakes. At an alarming rate this new being got nearer and nearer the smug old man, looking more and more like a mortal threat.

HAPLESS MALES (8)

*COCKLEBURS*

At dinner parties peculiar things started coming out of his mouth. Opinions. They were mostly liberal opinions and he lived on the West Coast so they plausibly belonged to him. What was peculiar was that they weren’t really his opinions. He didn’t have opinions beyond what kind of socks to put on with dress shoes but there he was proclaiming with absolute certainty about the IMF, the fault of NATO in the Ukraine, that daylight savings time should be abolished. Most of these opinions were ones he had picked up on television or from the comments section in the Times. Opinions stuck to him like cockleburs.

There was something invigorating about having opinions. The guests at the other end of the table put down their forks and wondered who was that person so committed and so smart about esoteric subjects.

Some topics gave a higher return than others. The afterlife, whether there was one, was a rainmaker. Previously he had never considered the question. Why would anyone care? He selected his opinion. There is an afterlife.

He promoted this opinion so often that it pupated into a hairy worm, a proto-belief. He got defensive if someone challenged him. For ammunition he started reading accounts about near-death experiences. They all had the same themes, the tunnel, the welcoming spirits. His proto-belief morphed again, this time into the butterfly of belief.

It was comforting. Even so, something still nagged, one little burr in the knapsack. He suspected that people claimed mystical experiences to get attention or the bucks.   He knew it was only his opinion, a real one, not a fake, though there was no difference.

HAPLESS MALES (7)

KITCHEN WORK

Desmond’s wife Lauren was throwing a party to celebrate the holidays and their remodeled kitchen. Desmond had argued strongly against the party. The guests would be mainly neighbors he hardly ever spoke to and people from Lauren’s work. He would have to brave the traffic on the peninsula to pick up Mother at the Home. Forty miles each way. Desmond had lobbied to put Mother into a facility closer but his sister Caroline wouldn’t hear of it. “Mother’s ninety years old, of course she’s declining,” Caroline replied when Desmond said Mother was not being well cared for.

Caroline never doubted she knew what was best for Mother. Caroline knew what was best for everyone. “The longer you sit on your duff, the harder it will be to get a job,” she admonished him. He knew he should be looking for a new job but he was stuck, paralyzed by resentment. If the kitchen hadn’t been remodeled he wouldn’t have to be looking for work. He might be able to retire.

He had been taken off guard when Lauren and Caroline, who hated each other, teamed up against him. “Desmond, don’t be a tightwad,” Caroline said. “Lauren’s been wanting to redo her kitchen for twenty years. I know a great contractor. He’s on the board at my church. He’s very creative.” Caroline was a rabid Methodist.

One Saturday morning the contractor was at the door. Lauren let him in. Mitt, late forties or fifties, blue jeans, hair like a Texas governor. Soon he was in the kitchen taking measurements. Desmond asked to see an itemized estimate but Mitt would offer only a ballpark figure. “We’re not building a ballpark here,” Desmond said. Lauren wrote a check as down payment based on a figure Mitt pulled out of his ass.

During reconstruction Desmond stayed away from the house. Then he lost his job and he was home during the day. The house was a cavern of dust and the agonizing sounds of money going down the drain. One day Desmond noticed—he hadn’t been paying much attention, but he couldn’t miss this—that Mitt had installed a window over the kitchen sink. “Whose idea was that?” Desmond asked, enraged. He didn’t want the neighbors watching him doing his dishes.

“Mine,” Mitt said. “Let in some light.”

Desmond canned Mitt on the spot which made him feel good about life, but left him with an unfinished kitchen and an unhappy wife. Desmond decided to finish the work himself. He was handy, and there wasn’t that much more to do, tiling around the sink, touching-up the painting, and installing knobs. It gave him something to do. At Home Depot he bought some blinds to cover the window.

Now they were having a holiday party and the guests were about to arrive. Desmond downed a shot of vodka. He might get really drunk later, but not until after he picked up Mother. His goal was simple, to get through the party without a single emotion. He was doing his best to help Lauren fill the tray with hors-d’oeuvres. She was obviously impatient with the way he was cutting the celery. He ought to get credit for trying. The phone rang.

“Your lovely sister,“ Lauren said rolling her eyes and handing him the phone. He was surprised Caroline was calling so early. Usually she waited until they were at dinner to cancel. She was calling to say she had rented a car and they would pick up Mother.

“Did you hear what I said?” Caroline asked. “If the traffic’s not too awful we might get there a little early. Is that okay?”

After he hung up, Desmond asked Lauren. “Is she coming with somebody?”

“Not that I know of,” Lauren said.

“She’s picking up Mother,” Desmond said. “That’s a first.”

Desmond was in the bedroom when the doorbell rang. The vodka was starting to taste nasty, which was a good thing. Consonants were getting evasive.

He squeezed some toothpaste onto a toothbrush and gave his teeth a freshening. The avenue to a fresh mind was fresh teeth. He heard a male voice, and Lauren’s fake-cheery greeting. An insight, like a stroke, crossed his consciousness and fizzled.

Caroline had come with a date. “You remember Mitt,” Caroline sang out, ignoring Desmond’s hostile look. “Mitt,” she exclaimed after making a beeline to the kitchen, “everything looks fabulous. The tiles around the sink were a great choice.” That meant that she had chosen them.

Mitt followed her into the kitchen and took a close look at the sink. “Whoever installed them didn’t know his ass from his nudpecker,” Mitt said. “Bet they leak.”

“Come in, Mother, you’re letting the flies in,” Desmond said to his mother left stranded at the open front door. Joke-y was always the first tone he tried on her.

Mother looked at him with detachment. “Are you my son?” she asked.

“Who else would I be?” he asked.

“The guy from GasPro.

“What guy from GasPro?”

She averted her face as if he’d struck her. Not looking him in the eye, she gave him a big artificial smile. “Pleased to see you again, I’m sure.”

Lauren shunted Mother to a chair in the corner near the hors-d’oeuvre table where she began chewing on a cauliflower floret. Desmond made a contract with himself to do anything not to live so long.

The doorbell rang and rang. The crowd made it easier to avoid Mitt and to follow him at the same time. The earlier flash of insight had developed into something more limpid. Desmond was nurturing the fantasy— it was ripening into a compulsion—to plant the fireplace poker in Mitt’s skull. He would tell the police he didn’t know what came over him. He would be that idiot guy, that schmuck. He poured himself another shot of vodka. That murderous schmuck was better than the schmuck he was an hour ago.

He saw his mother with her sorry hands, staring into a void. “Do you know who I am now?” he asked her.

Mother had two active expressions, clouded confusion or blue-sky vacuity. She showed both in succession. “Why do I always have to tell you?” she asked.

“Because you’re my mother,” he said.

“You’re someone I used to see on the block, once upon a time. You want more out of me, talk to my lawyer.”

“You’re my mother,” he said.

“Is that what the security people say? What do they know? What is that awful music they’re playing?”

“It’s Christmas music.”

“Would you ask them to put on something more grown-up? It’s giving me a headache.”

A headache! Him too. It was an enormous relief to realize the throbbing pressure at his temples was The Little Drummer Boy’s rumpa-pumming. Rather than being psycho he was a vessel of clarity, or would be if he knew how to squash the little bugger. It wasn’t coming from the CD player on the shelf. It was like poison gas piped in.

He knew he was overheated, overreacting. He made his way to the garden door. Outside he would cool off, calm himself down. The party was in the homestretch.

In the kitchen the contractor was stiffly petting Roscoe the cat and Desmond lingered to witness the moment when Roscoe would whip his head around and sink his teeth into Mitt’s inept hand.

Roscoe came through. “Bad cat,” Caroline shrieked as Roscoe darted through a forest of legs into the bedroom. Lauren, horrified, pulled the bedroom door shut and locked Roscoe in.

A brisk north wind blew through the garden. In the night sky a new moon paired up with a bright star. Probably a planet. Maybe Jupiter. Maybe the star of Bethlehem.

Someone came out the garden door. Desmond intuited immediately it was Contractor Mitt the Methodist, and knew that the moment had arrived, either of redemption or catastrophe, but when he turned he saw two boys, neighbors’ sons. Given their awkward reaction  Desmond assumed they’d come outside to sneak a joint. If he hadn’t felt awkward with his slurry words, he might have joined them for a toke or two but it was too cold to stay outside in any case.

Back indoors he sank into the couch. The cold clean air and the bright moon had restored an elevated sense of purpose within him if he could only identify what the purpose was. It no longer seemed to be murder.

As quickly as it had come, the uplift drained away. The noise of the party  washed over him with a tidal force. Bing Crosby was singing Silent Night.   He wanted everyone to go home now but the party was showing no hint of falling apart. Some people were even dancing.

Where was he? In his house. He was the host and lord over all and his power was useless if unused.  He walked to the bedroom. He heard a scratching on the door and opened it.

“Sic em, Roscoe,” he said.

Desmond was thirsty for water. In the kitchen the new faucets pissed him off, made him feel stupid, unable to tell cold from hot without having to think about it. He listened to bits of the conversation behind his back: the cat with diarrhea, the cost of tuition.

Someone put a hand on his shoulder. “Wise you switched to water,” Caroline said.

Desmond had another flash of insight. “You’re not the only one bonking the Methodist,” he said.

“What are you talking about?”

“You and my wife.”

Caroline spun away. Moments later he heard her shout in the bedroom and then without a shred of dignity or restraint she flung open the door and let a big blast of cold air over the party. The contractor hurried after her. In a surprisingly short time the other guests were grabbing coats and vamoosing. Desmond smiled and said how nice it was that everyone came until everyone was gone except Mother either asleep or dead in the easy chair and Roscoe nosing some frosting on a paper plate across the floor. The music continued to hock its nauseating cheer. Desmond found a cord and yanked and something in another room clattered to the floor as the music went dead.

He might be sobering up; he wasn’t sure. Where was Lauren? She wasn’t in the kitchen. It was amazingly quiet in the kitchen except for an almost inaudible dripping.