THE CIRCLE OF FIFTHS

No, this is not related to binge drinking. The circle of fifths is a term in music theory devised by Pythagorus.   Jennifer asked if I knew what it was, and escorted me to the piano when I said no. She had me draw a circle and subdivide the circumference like a clock into twelve segments. C stood on the top, midnight and high noon. On the piano beginning at C she had me play a sequence of five steps, do to sol. G. Put G at one o’clock. D at two o’clock, and so on all the way back around.

Here we were, at the very beginning, and I’m already Elmer Befuddled when she drops in talk about major and minors and seventh. Pythagoras figured all this stuff out when he was still in his pajamas but me?

Like any good teacher, (good for me, in any case), Jennifer offers praise. I could find Middle C on the piano. She pulls out sheet music for Au Clair de La Lune, and I try to play it on her accordion.   The notation is very simple, i.e., simple enough for moi, and once I figured out where C was on the little keyboard I was on my way. God it sounded lovely. But then there were all those nubby buttons crowded together on the left hand side. They were aligned according to the circle of fifths. Ah, yes, er. Jennifer got a mirror so I could see where to put my big-fat-needing-a-cleaning fingers. She wrote in tiny letters under the notes, om cha, oom cha, oom cha, oom cha.

My first accordion lesson. Will I stand the onslaught of second-thoughts? Is this nuts or what?  Someone with less than average musical aptitude?  Someone with the rhythmical limitations of his too-white ancestry?  Someone who is roiled with impatience when stymied?  Someone who often doesn’t follow through?

I remind myself what I often tell my swim students: slow down.

HAPLESS MALES (33)

MR. CARTON HAS A REVELATION

Mr. Carton gets to the door and his wife Charlene asks if he’s going out like that. Quick on the draw, he notices he has put on only one shoe. Could they declare it absent-mindedness? Absent-mindedness is charming. He would be charmed if it happened to someone else, if it was a sock. But a shoe?

He doesn’t want to look at Charlene in case she looks alarmed. If Charlene is alarmed, he would be required to be alarmed too. He just wants to find his shoe and get out the house.

How could he lose his big shoe in a small house? Charlene believes in faeries and imps and such. Why would a faerie steal his shoe? Oh let the faerie have his shoe. He has a new pair that he never wears that he bought last winter for the rainy season that never came.

There is something very likable about the new shoes. Why has he not worn them before? When he walks it feels as though he is leaving impressive footprints, like Neil Armstrong’s on the moon. He feels undeniably iconic.

Later he will find they crimp his toes.

MY DEBATE

Since it is a well-known fact that it matters more how one is perceived as performing, rather than what one actually says or believes, I want to add my voice to the chorus of pundits evaluating last night’s candidates’ debate. I know I made a splash. It’s true I was not one of the chosen ten. Why only ten? I would ask. It seems so discriminatory. But then, I’m not a whiner. I’m more of a decider, in the Republican tradition of rough riders and deciders. As I was about to say, I decided that since I am known for strong opinions and have appeared on “Buffet of Pundits” numerous times, I feel qualified to add my perceptions regarding my performance, grossly underreported by the liberal media in Washington and New York.

First of all, I was gaffe free. I said nothing controversial about guns, God, or a man’s right to choose what’s right for a woman. Did I break through the jam of candidates? What do you think? Of course I did.  It’s true I don’t have a fresh face or much hair but it’s a comfortable face to many people who watch TV each and every Sunday morning, and I believe those people are the real Americans, the Americans who want to see us stay on top of the world and not be submissives to ayatollahs or sexual deviants.

During the awfully long debate I did not look at my watch a single time, but then, before you get all gotcha, I admit I don’t own a watch. Hillary owns a watch, I saw her check it when she appeared on “Buffet of Pundits.” My lapel pin, disappointingly, a flag with a cross superimposed (see pdf.), got no coverage in today’s media. (Note to self: enlarge.) I had scripted something sincere to say about it but none of the moderators brought it up. I don’t want to say the word but I will: conspiracy.

I was succinct with all my answers except when I got snared in the moderator’s trick question about whether we would vote to ban evolution and climate change. The base will forgive me for that.

I can already see a big bump in my poll numbers.

HAPLESS MALES (32)

START-UPS

He is my sister-in-law’s kid, and I guess that technically makes me his uncle. My wife is enmeshed with her sister; they had an abusive father. That’s their story and even if it’s true, it’s just a story. I met the parental ogre several times before he kicked, and he seemed pretty harmless, but of course they always do, the psychos.

My sister-in-law, let’s call her Betty, asked my wife Lindsey if her son could stay with us while he looked for a job in Silicon Valley. Betty has three sons, two of whom seem warm-blooded. The son she spoke of, Drew, contributed nothing to family gatherings. He skulked in a dim corner. The character he expressed on Facebook posts was a hot meal of whines and potty mouth denunciations of the idiots surrounding him in Akron.

Betty his mother understandably encouraged him to get out of Akron, go to California. She asked Lindsay if we would keep an eye on him. He was not the most predictable kid. Maybe, she feared, he inherited his Grandpop’s craziness.

Boys that age should be quarantined, that was my belief, and not sent to live with relatives.

Betty said he would pay us rent.

Lindsey doesn’t know the meaning of no. I saw the need to set down some non-negotiable terms. He would keep his room and bathroom clean. He would let us know if he was staying out after midnight. No drugs in the house. No exceptions. Most important, six months was the absolute limit. By six months he was on his own or it was Akron redux.

I was hoping when he arrived he might be changed from the sad sack last seen at a wedding who didn’t dance one dance. That was irrational; not the dance, the hope. We got him settled into his room in the basement and showed him the bathroom and where the towels were, etc. and went upstairs thinking he might join us, have a beer and get to know us a little, but that was irrational too.

I left it up to Lindsey to negotiate what was appropriate in terms of our own sociality, and so we barely saw him. The basement apartment had a separate entrance. If he was staying out after midnight, we didn’t know, nor did we know if he was spending his time getting to know the city or lying in bed all day.

After a few weeks of Lindsey wringing her hands, I’d had enough. I could hear some scratchy noise coming from downstairs. I knocked hard, then real hard, on his bedroom door. Eventually the door opened. He took the buds out of his ears. For a second I thought I saw a spark of life in his eyes but they went blank. I asked him the dumb parental questions, how he liked the city, if he was looking for a job, etc. He didn’t know if he liked the city. He already found a job.

This news excited me more than it did him. What the job was I had to pry out of him. Unsurprisingly, it was with a start-up. They were putting the finishing touchs on an app that would change the way we paid bills. I suppressed my raging excitement. The start-up was on the verge of going public.

I googled the company and sure enough, there was an article in the Mercury News about how it would revolutionize the way we “move money through our lives,” and how analysts figured the IPO would give it a 650 million dollar valuation.

Only once did he not decline Lindsey’s invitation to have dinner with us. That evening  he came upstairs with his laptop and put it on the table beside his plate. Even for Lindsey this was going too far, and she told him he’d have to put it away while we ate. Lindsey prides herself on her pot roast. Drew did not finish his helping. It wasn’t because he was vegetarian; trash from Jack in the Box filled our garbage cans. All through the meal his knee bobbed up and down. He asked if he could take his dessert, a slice of chocolate cake, downstairs, saying that they were on a horrific deadline. It was a relief when he closed the door behind him.

By the time we were three months into our co-habitation, I gave up trying to be nice; it went nowhere. I checked Facebook to see if we were getting slimed and found no posts. Either he was as busy as he said he was or I was blocked. I suspected the latter. I didn’t really need to know if we met Drew’s approval.

The revolutionary app whose IPO disappointed analysts by achieving only a 610 million dollar market valuation apparently didn’t facilitate the paying of rent. We were past the four and a half month anniversary of his arrival and there had not been one check or whatever forthcoming. I said to Lindsey, this was her job, her baby. We were not here to foster her nephew’s irresponsible behavior. She didn’t argue. She said she’d go downstairs and have a talk with him.

I suggested that she remind him we were one month and two weeks away from D-Day, out-with-Drew Day.

When she came back upstairs, I knew something had changed.

“What’d he say?”

She turned her head and got a mystical, faraway look. “He asked if we’d sell him the house. He was serious. He said he’d give us twice what we could get on the open market.”

It had happened. The Drewster had joined the ranks of those transformed: from schlub to master of the universe in the blink of an eye.

“Are we selling the house?” I asked, meaning to be facetious.

“Maybe we should. Think what we could buy in Oregon.”

I could not believe what I was hearing. “This is our home.”

“You’re right,” she said. “We love it here.”

As the days counted down, all the drama of the deadline happened upstairs. Lindsey and I were yelling at each other a lot. I’m sure Drew could hear us. Once Lindsey put out a feeler that we should give him more time but I squashed it right there.

I expected that there would be a final confrontation. Wrong again. With three days to spare, a truck pulled up and some guys in jumpsuits carted away his things. I figured Lindsey knew where he was going but she didn’t say, and I didn’t ask. The gilded will find a place to live, even if nobody else can.

I had to patch things up with Lindsey. Now and then, when she was unguarded, I got a look from her like she was wary of me. I sometimes wondered if when she baked a pie or put a pot roast in the oven in our cramped kitchen she thought about the kitchen she could have had in the farmhouse in Oregon with the apple orchard on the hillside and a barn for horses. There we were stuck in a city getting noisier and more crowded by the day.  I wondered, half-seriously, if Drew’s offer was still good.

One day, out of the blue, Lindsey said, “Drew’s back in Akron.”

“What’s he doing?”

“Living with his mom.”

 

HAPLESS MALES (31)

ONE MONKEY

The best thing that happened to my brother Carey that summer was getting shot at by Dingle Ashcroft. He was lurking in the brush next to the Ashcroft property, spying and egging on the dogs when all of a sudden the leaves of the ash tree started shuddering and shredding and falling in bits. Dingle had often threatened to shoot somebody; it was his way of being social, but nobody in town had actually had the privilege of being shot at, and it made Carey into a celebrity among the kids in junior high. He had a posse. He told everyone he’d seen the monkeys, that “the witch” came into the yard and she had a big mama monkey and three or four smaller monkeys about the size of five-gallon buckets running around her. The story had been going around town how besides the fifteen or twenty dogs, Old Lady Ashcroft was keeping monkeys. The mail carrier, Mr. Montgomery, was the only person who got near the Ashcroft house so he was the only person who might have been able to know if she did or didn’t, and he was the only person in town who wouldn’t gossip.

The Ashcroft kids rode the same bus as we did; when Arthur got on we would chant, Fatty fatty, eight by four, can’t get through the outhouse door. His sister was as skinny as he was fat. We had a rhyme for her too, Millie millie, one by six, built of spit and hickory sticks. That wasn’t even her name. It was Lucy. They ignored us and it only made us meaner.

Carey got his posse together after school to throw rocks at the Ashcroft fence and make the dogs go wild. They’d each throw a rock and run back into the woods. My brother loved to tell the story of getting shot at but he didn’t seem anxious to repeat the experience, staying out of shotgun range.He kept saying how he was going to get some rat poison and poison the dogs.

A lot of times I wished Dingle had been a better shot. I didn’t know how anybody could be mean to a dog. My dog was the noblest creature in the universe. “He’s black as Satan,” my mother said when she saw him, so that’s where he got his name.

When Satan and I went roamed the woods we often passed close to the Ashcroft property and three or four dogs would come tearing out to the fence and bark like crazy but Satan wouldn’t get provoked. He knew they were fenced in. One of the dogs I could tell was faking the fangs and fierceness and probably would have given anything to join Satan and me rather than be fenced in a dusty yard without even a blade of grass.

There was a lot of talk among neighbors about the Ashcroft dogs, what if they ever got loose. Mr. Albers also had a shotgun and Mr. Gomez had a .22 that maybe he should take down and oil, he said. The neighbors who had chickens and small babies wondered how worried they should be.

With school out for the summer I spent every day in the woods shooting the bow I had gotten when I was in the hospital my last birthday. It was the bow I had dreamed of my whole life. In the woods I was the last of Tecumseh’s warriors. Satan was my faithful companion.

After a month exploring every inch of the woods I wanted to expand our tribe. I knew Satan would not allow another dog so I thought, who? Nobody from school.

My birthday was coming up in August. I thought I might as well try, but the magic of last year was gone, probably because I wasn’t dying in the hospital like I was last year. My mother said, don’t be an idiot.

I wasn’t being an idiot. I would take care of it. I took care of Satan.

“What do you think, you can order a monkey and Mr. Montgomery will haul it up in his truck?”

My Dad said he was going to smack me if I didn’t let up on the monkey business.

“The witch will sell you one of her baby monkeys for five dollars,” my brother told me one day.

“I don’t have five dollars.” He already knew that.

“Tell you what,” he said, “I’ll give you five dollars for your bow.”

I loved that bow more than anything but I took the five dollars. Bills in hand I walked down the road toward the Ashcrofts. I could hear a machine whining in the garage, some woodworking tool like a lathe or a router. I hoped his job would keep Dingle busy a long time. The dogs snarled but didn’t bark—I was really glad—as I went up path toward the door. I hoped that neither fat Arthur nor skinny Millie would show up at the door. That would have been embarrassing. It was Mrs. Ashcroft who answered the door. I wish I could say what she looked like, but all I remember is a green bandana over her hair and red lipstick. I stammered something about buying one of her monkeys and showed her the bills and she slammed the door in my face.

At home when I told my brother he laughed and laughed.

My parents made him give me the bow back. I kept the five bucks.

YOU’RE GONNA DIE

It’s the fifth class and Cynthia still has one hand gripping the wall when she tries a front float. And this is in water that, when she stands, comes barely up to her ribcage. Her personality is relentlessly upbeat. She has responded positively to what she has accomplished thus far; she has put her face in the water. She has felt the water on her face, in her nostrils, and not freaked out. She has felt how her legs float toward the surface when she puts her face in the water, how her body is buoyant. But after trying unsuccessfully to let go for three classes, I guess even she must be getting frustrated, and I guess correctly.

I ask if she’d like to change the subject. She is a sport but she is wondering, change it to what? This is about as basic as it gets, isn’t it? I suggest since she’s comfortable floating while holding on, why not hold on comfortably with both hands and let her body feel the float, nothing else. Don’t even think about letting go.

She puts her face in the water, her hair floats on the surface, her back emerges, her legs rise. Here is her front float, and I can tell she feels it. I keep my hand lightly on her lower back so she knows she will not drift if she does let go…which she does.  Immediately the impulse to re-grasp the wall kicks in, her nerves seize up, but there is a gap, one second, two, before she grabs a hold. I point it out. She noticed it too. How about doing it again, going back to that same place, two seconds, no more.

She goes into her front float. The same sequence, the float, the letting go, the spasm to re-grasp the wall, the resistance, the clock ticking one thousand one one thousand…she grabs the wall.

Are we getting somewhere? Am I adding another layer to her frustration?

What would she like to do?

Do it again.

This time there’s no spasm to re-grasp the wall; she just goes into the float after she lets go. Three seconds, four, and then the curtain falls and she thrashes for a handhold.

What happened there?

It was like I heard a voice.

And what did it say?

I don’t know.

Listen to it. See what it says.

It said, “YOU’RE GONNA DIE.”

In the long term, I say, what the voice is saying is true, but in this particular moment it is telling a big fat lie. You’re in four feet of water. I am standing right next to you. The lifeguard is ten feet away. Unless you have a heart attack or an asteroid hits, neither of which is likely to happen, you’re not going to die right now, so you don’t have to listen to that voice right now and that’s all that matters. Right now. You can hear it without listening to it. Almost everybody has a version of this voice, saying things like you’re never going to get this, that it will never be fun, saying you don’t even deserve the fun. Your version plays its trump ace. YOU’RE GONNA DIE.

Don’t listen to it. It lies. It is not your friend.

HAPLESS MALES (30)

LUG NUTS

They were occurrences so trivial that he almost didn’t pay them attention: water running in the bathtub; a photo turned face to the wall; a drawer in the bedroom open, its contents disheveled. It was curious how quickly he latched onto the idea of a ghost, specifically the ghost of his wife Harriet. Curious because Henry was a sensible man, not a man who believed in ghosts. When you’re dead you’re dead, he was sure of that.

A reasonable man when confronted by the inexplicable seeks help, so Henry consulted a shrink who didn’t say it outright but pointed her questions in this direction: his unresolved anger was keeping his deceased wife alive to him.

The shrink had hit on something, but not in the way she thought. Harriet had always bitched about the bathtub, wanting a bigger one. Harriet hated his mother: his parents’ wedding picture was turned to the wall. The disheveled drawer was where she kept her jewelry. At the end of her life Harriet accused him of pawning her jewelry, though she never had a piece of jewelry worth pawning.

People on the outside who knew Harriet would have been shocked to discover the bitterness inside her. It was like she had a switch that activated when she passed through the front door. There was the outside Harriet, all smiles and mumbles and oatmeal cookies and the inside Harriet, all sharp words and aggression. Harriet may have died but nothing so ordinary as death would put an end to her anger.

Henry also considered the idea he was angry with himself for wasting his life placating her.

These perspectives shielded Henry from dismay when the odd things happened but eroded his core belief in himself as a rational being. This would have been tolerable if, as he hoped, the happenings dwindled but they did not. One night he found all the burners on the stove flaming and the Dutch oven glowing red. Another night he came home from the movies and found the police about to break down his front door. They said they had gotten a 911 call from his residence; a woman pleading for help, saying her husband was trying to strangle her.

Henry told the cops his wife had been deceased for six months. He was careful to mention she had died in her bed after a long illness. They flashed their lights into every closet and hamper. He could read their minds: where’s he got her hidden? After they left he started imagining it too, that she was in the house, that when he sat on his bed and took off his shoes she was a breath away, watching.

The shrink, hearing about the police and the Dutch oven, steered a new course, intent on getting him to understand that his suppressed feelings were so deeply unsettling that unconsciously he was trying to harm himself. What was it about a Dutch oven? the shrink asked. Henry laughed at this absurdity, but later he put it together, that during their first separation Harriet had an affair with a man from Holland. The Dutchman dumped her, and she came back to Henry. He should have duck-marched her away.

By the way the shrink tried to tamp down her alarm Henry knew she was not faking it, and he began to worry that what happened to a lot of people was happening to him; get caught in an undertow and all the power you think you have vanishes into nothing. The harder you struggle, the faster you sink. It was old age.

He filled the prescriptions the shrink gave him but he wasn’t regular in taking the pills. His instinct told him that the pills would only mask the problem, which, if he lived long enough, would manifest in other ways. It was going to take a radical approach, a painstaking watchfulness. If he was going unconscious and trying to harm himself, there had to be a borderland, a frontier he crossed where he could make the conscious choice to turn back.

This rational approach gave him comfort but every time he eased himself into a calm state of heightened awareness a light bulb exploded over his head or a robotic voice came through the computer with instructions on how to write a murder mystery.

He started to fear bedtime, the vulnerability he felt as she watched him take off his shoes. She always had an opinion about his socks. She had an opinion about his digestion. She demanded, what have you done with my jewelry? When he managed to fall asleep, he dreamed the same dream every night: he and Harriet had moved into a new house, a Queen Anne Victorian, unfurnished, a little run down. He explored the eerie and unfamiliar rooms. Something ghastly was in the house. Dream by dream he proceeded further, with deeper dread.

2.

I first got the picture that my neighbor Henry had loose lug nuts when he got going about genealogy. You know how some people go ape-shit about past lives. How they discovered they were related to John Wilkes Booth and Queen Hatshepsut, and all that crap. I’ll say this for Henry, his fantasies were a little more reality-based. He was obsessed about his great-great grandfather who served in the czar’s personal army. What czar I can’t remember. Why it was such an honor I don’t remember either.

Despite his obsession with his military ancestor he was a good neighbor. He fixed the fence that fell down between our yards. He didn’t ask us to pay half. He was a nut about his garden. He had all kinds of obscure herbs. His bushes were given military haircuts. He could get a little over-zealous. I caught him pruning the maple in the curb strip. Our maple. Turning it into a good little soldier. I told him to leave the tree alone. Then he did it again. My first reaction was to fume, but Andy my partner pointed out that since his wife Harriet died, Henry was behaving more and more off kilter. Andy said I should not take it personally.

Poor Harriet. I liked her. She was the kind of woman who said “dearie” and always had home-baked cookies in the cookie jar. Last February she began complaining about bone pain and having trouble breathing, and by June she was gone. You would have expected that when someone dies in a mysterious way an autopsy would be performed, but as far as I know there wasn’t one. We live among citizens that abhor taxes, and autopsies cost money, especially of 75-year old housewives. At minimum there should have been a toxicology report.

There I said it. I think Harriet was poisoned.

It’s an odd way to live your life, with a next-door neighbor you think killed his wife.

There were times Henry seemed truly bereaved the way he talked about Harriet like she was in the house baking cookies, but it didn’t stop there. I caught him setting fire to a pile of leaves in the back yard. When I jumped over the fence and grabbed a hose and doused the flames, he looked at me like I was the one whose circuits were scrambled. We haven’t had a good rain in years. The neighborhood is a tinderbox.

After that incident, I called emergency services about Henry—he doesn’t seem to have much of a family—and they referred me to social services who put me on eternal hold. We run on a shoestring budget here in this town. Last night Andy and I and some friends were out in the back yard barbequing when we smelled something awful, a waft of sulfur or some other kind of gas coming over the fence. I called the cops. I thought maybe Henry was dead inside the house but no, he came to the door when the cops pounded on it. They didn’t find anything. They weren’t very professional the way they let it be known they didn’t appreciate getting called out for a bad smell coming from the creek behind our house.

This morning a For Sale by Owner sign appeared on Henry’s front lawn. Andy was as surprised as I was. It seemed sudden, probably a bad idea since the downturn. I know it’s a contradiction that I could worry about Henry making a bad real estate deal because of his mental condition and still think of him as a wife-killer. That’s the way the mind works.

I rang his bell so I could explain why we called the cops last night. I was also curious what he was asking for the house. After four buzzes I was about to give up when the door creaked open. He didn’t acknowledge my apology.   He said he was moving into town, into an old house in the Green Lake District. He said “we” several times.

This isn’t any of my business, but I did call our real estate agent to give him the heads up. Andy’s not if favor of buying, but if the price is right, he can be persuaded. It would be a good investment, before they raise property taxes.