HAPLESS MALES (20)

MR. BLUE

Mr. Blue lived in our attic. He had his own entry up the back stairs but we seldom heard his footsteps. Now and then we invited him to a meal, which he seldom accepted. We sensed he didn’t trust us. Mr. Blue was not the best of company.

“How are you,” we would ask.

“Tired.” Mr. Blue was always tired.

“What have you been doing, Mr. Blue?” we would ask.

“Working.”

“Besides working?”

“Working.”

Mr. Blue worked from home, but what he did he never explained. Occasionally he took a walk. When he got back, if we were unlucky enough to encounter him, he would always dump his bag of grievances and irritations on our doorstep. He despised every change in the neighborhood, especially the new people with their pooches and their phones. We had pooch and a phone, but he said what he said.

Poor Mr. Blue. Our commiseration was a form of pity he claimed not to want. He hinted he had a plan, an arc his life was following. In a rare moment of openness he revealed it. “By January I’m going to have a girlfriend and get my novel accepted.” It irritated him that we burst into laughter. Anybody but Mr. Blue would see what a joke that was, as if these things were something you could order on Amazon.

We didn’t get a glimpse of him for the next six weeks or so. We imagined him upstairs feverishly tapping away at his novel and trolling websites for Ukrainian brides. We wondered if we’d see ourselves in the novel if it got finished; maybe, we joked, the villainous landlords.

We were concerned that that his eccentricity was turning into pathology and that we might need to take more proactive measures to get him the help he needed. When we bought our house we had tried to have him evicted. Of course we hoped he would not end up on the street, living the wretched life of the homeless but we had no control over that. We finally decided we’d never recoup costs battling his lawyers. We had come to the grim conclusion that he’d outlive us up there.

It was a remarkable surprise when one day he came down to pay his rent and told us he was getting married. He was ahead of schedule. It was only November. We didn’t ask any questions, such as where he and his bride-to-be met or what she was like. Mr. Blue would see our questions as prying. We figured we would meet the girlfriend on the stairs or the sidewalk. Obviously we wondered if she was imaginary, maybe some inflatable sex toy. We had seen a movie about that kind of infatuation and it was hard to erase from memory.

Mr. Blue would be moving out. His lease permitted only one occupant.

Risking misunderstanding, we expressed our wishes to witness the happy occasion of his wedding. Mr. Blue snorted, which we took for a negative.

It was another thing we were wrong about. A week later he gave us a printed invitation. We were amazed and impressed with its professionalism. Later we would suspect it had been an edition of one.

The wedding was at 2:30 Thursday in City Hall. Getting dressed we felt an uncommon lightness, as if it were our lives taking a happy turn.

At City Hall we were escorted into a waiting area. We didn’t know any of the other celebrants. In getting acquainted we discovered they were all waiting for other weddings. We thought that we might have the wrong date or the wrong time even though we knew better. We had been bamboozled. What was the point of Mr. Blue’s deceptions? We were about to go home when a clerk announced the wedding of Mr. Blue and a name we didn’t catch. We followed the clerk into a side chamber and there was a bride in a white dress with a veil and a bridesmaid, but no groom. Just the four of us. The veil covered the bride’s face so we couldn’t satisfy our understandable curiosity.

The judge came in. He was not a genial type and after giving the groom another few minutes, huffed out. The bride and her bridesmaid were whispering to each other in a language we couldn’t make out. Some Slavic-sounding language. Maybe she was, after all, Ukrainian.

If she had lifted her veil we would have felt more inclined to approach sooner and offer our sympathy. It seemed an appropriate thing to do. She must feel very ashamed, we thought. Devastated.

When the clerk escorted another wedding party into the room and it was clear the nuptial window had closed, she lifted her veil. We saw not the pinched face of a shamed woman but a face full of merriment, lips that slipped into an easy smile, sparkling eyes. What was Mr. Blue thinking, abandoning this jewel? She seemed to be taking her abandonment as the comedic course of events, maybe even a blessing. Her name was Chimay or Charmay or something like that. We were too polite to ask what kind of name that was. We noticed her hands were rough and red.

We weren’t sure if this was all meant as a wicked joke.   We also considered that something dreadful might have happened to Mr. Blue, an accident of some sort, and we dreaded the police would be at our doorstep when we arrived home. But that didn’t happen.

“Maybe he’s up there finishing the last chapters,” we said, trying to find some humor. We shuddered in tandem at the thought that Mr. Blue might be dead up there in the attic. Neither of us was willing to climb the back steps and find out.

The police came and we told them the story of the aborted wedding. We covered our cowardice by saying we didn’t feel entitled to invade Mr. Blue’s space without his permission. We gave the cops the key and they went up the back stairs and we sat below in the kitchen, anxiety corroding our stomachs.

What a relief it was when they came downstairs without having found the decomposing body of Mr. Blue. Promising to call if anything turned up, we saw them out. We wondered if anything in our behavior made them suspicious of us. They seemed to have a hard time believing our story.

HAPLESS MALES (19)

AUDIOLOGY

It was no wonder Pops was going deaf. He had worked on a Ford assembly line most of his life. He didn’t seem to care much about losing his hearing, but I noticed how more and more he sat off to the side at gatherings, not participating. Most of the family gave up even trying to call him on the phone. We could tolerate him shutting down; it was his choice. But when the bathroom overflowed because he couldn’t hear the water running, and he didn’t go to the shelter because he didn’t hear the tornado warning sirens, something had to be done.

I was the one who pushed most, the oldest of the siblings and the one who lived closest to Pops, so I got the job. His condition bothered me more than the others, I think. It was like he was dying a slow death. He used to be a man who flourished as the center of attention, an inveterate flirt, always at the head of the table. He loved telling ancient, Borscht Belt-type jokes, as embarrassing as they were hilarious.

“A little boy wrote Santa Claus,” he said to the grandkids. “‘Santa Claus, give me a sister.’ And Santa Claus wrote back, ‘Okay, send me your mother’.” I’m not sure my kids understood the joke, but they howled. “See how red your grandmother’s face is,” he said to them. “What do you suppose that means? Santa Claus might be your grampa.”   And the kids shrieked.

He lost interest in a lot of things after Mom died. The stream of jokes dried up. The one thing he kept at was his woodworking. Maybe he had an addiction to noisy machines. He kept turning out useless objects (wooden candle holders, cracked soup bowls) and pawning them off on whoever faked admiration.

He was in his workshop, his arms covered with sawdust when I came over to take him to his audiology appointment. He acted like it was a surprise, and I was afraid that he had forgotten, but beneath his coveralls he was wearing his good slacks.

On the way to the clinic he didn’t say a word. I couldn’t tell if he was resentful or simply passive. I felt almost obligated to review the forms he filled out in the reception area to see if he’d been truthful about his hearing loss.

When Pops’ name was called, he told me to stay put, he’d be okay going it alone. I resumed my reading of an old Vanity Fair.

The appointment seemed to take forever. I heard Pops’ laughter before the door opened, a sound unheard for a long time.

“Is this your son?” the audiologist asked, indicating me.

“That’s him. The one who keeps bugging me,” Pops said.

She took my hand, introducing herself. A lemony smell, faint but sharp, drifted my way. Her eyes were dark and amused. I could tell she liked Pops, and he had a sizzle that wasn’t there before. It was not surprising; Doctor Rivera with her shiny black hair and her almond skin was a knockout.

“I’m going to take your father outdoors to test some hearing aids with background noise,” she said. “It shouldn’t take too long.”

I watched the silent show through the lobby windows. The audiologist helped Pops situate the devices first in one ear and then the other. Except for her thumb, she had a ring on every finger of her left hand. Once the hearing aid was in place, she and Pops waited until a bus or a big truck drove by and when it did, the audiologist kept talking. Though I could barely hear the rumble of the bus, I imagined I could hear her voice, not the words but the tone, smooth as caramel.

Pops kept sidling up to her, not in any way that would seem outrageous or blatant to a casual observer. She engaged his hands in putting in and removing the hearing aids. She had a lot of experience in directing and deflecting male attraction.

Back inside, Doctor Rivera told Pops to make another appointment for a fitting. On the way home Pops was more talkative than he had been in months. I asked him if the aids had worked, whether he was going to buy a pair.

“Hell, no. Too expensive,” he said.

“Then why did you make another appointment?”

“Are you blind? Did you get a look at that flight deck?”

“Flight deck” referred to an old joke involving two sex-starved pilots home on leave.   A “chestnut”, Pops once called it.  The “flight deck,” featured an oval neckline dipping down to a glimpse of cleavage.

“I told her the one about the deaf guy and the prostitute. ‘Member that one? Right up her alley.”   Here emerged from his shell  was the old Pops. Be careful, I told myself, what you wish for.

A week later he had not changed his mind: he wasn’t going to spend that kind of money. I knew he had the money to spend. I told him then that there was no reason to keep the appointment, that I wasn’t going to take him.

He said, “I’ll get there on my own.”

He was waiting on the porch when I arrived. He had on a tie and was carrying a narrow package.

“What do you have there?” I asked.

“I made something for Doctor Rivera,” he said.

As we drove across town my curiosity swelled. “What did you make her?”

He took it out of the box and undid the tissue. I audibly gasped, though not audible to him.

“What is it?”

“Are you blind? It’s a whale,” he said. “Doctor Rivera loves whales.”

That was a whale and I was Doctor Freud seeing penises in unlikely places. Pops swaddled it in the tissue and put it back into the box.

The appointment seemed to last longer than the first. Again I heard Pops cackle before he emerged. Doctor Rivera was wearing a lilac colored blouse. A strand of amethysts festooned the “flight deck.” She barely acknowledged me. She bussed Pops’ cheek when she said goodbye. It did not seem very professional.

“Listen to that,” Pops said as we were walking to the car.

“To what?”

“That bird. Are you deaf?” It was a mockingbird, high on a wooden light pole over Anza Street. Pops was wearing hearing aids.

“I can turn them back in within twenty-eight days,” he said.  “That’s what I’m going to do.”

“How did the audiologist like your gift?”

“Loved it. Said she was going to add it to her collection. You don’t need to shout.”

HAPLESS MALES (18)

A BOW, A BOWL

Ethan had practiced meditation for a long time but he would not say he was good at it. As soon as he got relaxed, sleep sucked him down a black hole. Even if he napped before sitting or drank two cups of coffee, snozzola. Once in a while he stayed awake the whole thirty minutes, awake being a relative term. Though his head wasn’t rolling around on the stem of his neck, his mind was a tar pit he trudged through until bong, there went the bell.

Teachers said it, and it was true that practicing in a group is more conducive to staying present, and so Ethan, having heard about a meditation center within walking distance, showed up on Saturday morning. Little did he expect the place, a former Radio Shack, to be packed with chattering people. It was like a damn meet-and-greet. Fortunately there were two rows of zafus off to the side.  Ethan walked through the tea-sipping crowd and bowed and sat down on one of them. His mind was cranking overtime; there he was, goody-no-shoes, showing these idiots what practice is about. God he was such a twerp and a hypocrite. He sat down anyway. Marinated in self-hate was better than making chitchat.

Soon enough it got quiet. Ethan and his volcano of self-criticism quieted down too. The cushion, him, the fuzzy space ahead. Just the cushion. The moment. The breath. And the guy flexing his feet and wiggling his toes in the most repulsive pea-green socks ever. Ethan understood the agony of having a cramp but when you’re sitting you’re supposed to be at one with the sensation of pain. If you really need to flex, you do it in a subtle way that denotes reverence for the privileged silence.

He wasn’t the only one being inappropriate. The gangly guy who had tapped the baton on the ringing bowl at the start conspicuously rolled his shoulders and his neck, showing everyone what a flexible spine he had. Ethan was sure he would get nothing out of meditating in this place, with this crowd. As soon as the bell sounded, sayonara. Done in silence.

Surely fifteen minutes had passed, but it was hard to tell. In his usual life Ethan was expert at telling the time without looking at a watch. He was never off more than five minutes. But sitting time was full of warps and woofs. Two thoughts happened in such conjunction they were almost simultaneous. 1) Fifteen long painful minutes to drag kicking and screaming into the exhausted past. 2) Only fifteen more minutes to actually practice. To have a tiny awakening or two.

Was that an oxymoron, a tiny awakening? Any aperture, no matter how small, has a view of the infinite. Isn’t that what he believed? But the point was: not to have beliefs, any beliefs. Beliefs got in the way of being present. Where he wasn’t. Where was he? Not in the present. He turned his attention back to his breath.

Ethan was aware of breathing, not breath.   Not his breathing but the breathing of the guy in the awful green socks. Not quite snoring but the preliminaries. Getting louder. The energy in the room began to eddy around this guy’s chuffing and burbling. Ethan, as we know, had his own issues around sleepiness so he could feel enormous compassion for this clueless guy.  Ethan, at least, had never snored, as far as he knew. It was such a juicy moment in which to practice he was a little disappointed when the guy woke himself up and sat up straight and the room was silent again.

Probably ten minutes left. Maybe eight. Enlightenment can happen at any moment; teachers said that too. That was a belief, wasn’t it? If teachers could have that belief, so could Ethan. Then why couldn’t it happen in one of the moments that composed the next seven and half or so minutes? Weren’t those moments as potent as any? It could be this moment. Or this.

HAPLESS MALES (17)

YELLOW PLUMS

As sophomores, Clay and Delbert were both members of the golf team. Clay was varsity, Delbert junior varsity. Twenty years after graduation, they encountered each other in a parking lot in the suburb of Louisville where they both lived and they started playing golf together every other Wednesday at one of the municipal courses. Besides being divorced men careening toward forty in a southern city, they had nothing much in common. Even the word “municipal” could start an argument. As golf partners, however, they were surprisingly compatible. Each won enough times to stay happy yet dissatisfied, craving supremacy. Clay remembered himself as a significantly better player in college, but it wasn’t the case any more. Delbert was more accurate off the tee; Clay played with more touch.

Clay always declined Delbert’s invitation to hang out in the clubhouse bar after their rounds. The pickup-up scene wasn’t his thing. Delbert, however, was an unabashed troll and a successful one for his age. The only night Clay went along Delbert stranded him to go off with the barmaid. “Too good to pass up,” he said in lieu of an apology. What irritated Clay most was that the barmaid had been flirting with him earlier.

Clay had flirted back or at least, considered flirting back. It was a good sign even if he wasn’t ready to make a move. It meant he was getting over his divorce. He had been shell-shocked by how everything got distilled into what could be grasped. Marilyn got custody of the kid and that was okay. He loved Phillip but Phillip wasn’t interested in him. The kid was fourteen and no boy likes his father at fourteen.

Clay fought Marilyn for the house and got it. It was a single-level ranch style built in the 1950’s. He grew up in that house, and his parents lived there until they died. The next-door neighbors, the Howells, were like family.

Clay and his sisters inherited the house after their mother passed. It was in terrible shape. The foundation on the west side sagged eight inches. Ivy was coming through the walls. Clay bought out his sisters. It took him three years to restore it and three months for Marilyn to futz it up.

Good riddance to her.

***

November came and Clay and Delbert stopped playing. The winter was long. There was a big February snowstorm but on the first spring-like day in March, Delbert phoned and Clay eagerly pulled out his clubs, a thrill that was almost erotic. He forgot about his resolve of last November to find a more congenial partner.

It was an extraordinary day brimming with spring’s promise of renewal. There were still patches of dirty snow in the rough but the fairways were green and pristine. Instead of fiercely competing, Clay and Delbert encouraged each other and each broke ninety.

That perfect day gave their partnership a grace period of a few Wednesdays but it fizzled. Clay lost all patience with Delbert’s running at the mouth. No reasonably attractive woman could pass without Delbert making some crude remark. Then Delbert crossed the line when he began slobbering about Jessica, the seventeen year-old daughter of the Howells next door. Delbert had glimpsed her a couple of times when he’d come to pick up Clay. He started calling her “my beloved.”

One Wednesday in May Clay came down the steps from his house and found Delbert sitting in his car in front of the Howells’ house. As if it were a joke, Delbert admitted he was stalking, trying to get a glimpse of Jessica through one of the windows. “She doesn’t know I exist,” he moaned semi-comically as if that were something other than the pathetic truth.

Clay told him to go home and not come back. He almost said he’d call the police if he did. That was the end of their golf dates.

***

In the middle of the night Clay awoke from a particularly engrossing dream, awash in its emotions. In the dream a seismic event had taken place: a kiss, an amazing kiss. The person he was kissing, he realized, was Jessica.

For a few days he could not walk past the Howells’ house without feeling anxiety, shame, and a sweaty anticipation.

One afternoon Clay looked out his living room window and saw what he first thought was an illusion. There was Jessica on a ladder picking the yellow plums from the tree whose branches extended over his garden and the Howells’. Clay got his binoculars and gawked long fraught minutes. Jessica seemed to sense she was being watched and looked in Clay’s direction. She quickly descended the ladder and went inside.

There were still many ripe plums to be picked. He waited an hour to make it appear coincidental and then set up his own ladder on his side of the fence. He picked plums until he had filled two buckets.

The plums were in the recycling bin that he rolled to the curb when he next saw Jessica. She was in front of her house with some of her friends. They were all in shorts slung low and T-shirts cut high exposing their navels, chatting with a guy in khakis and loafers. The guy’s hair in the sunlight had the weird orange tint of a man’s do-it-yourself dye job. The man, Clay realized, was Delbert.

“Hi, Mr. Blevins,” Jessica called to him. Why “Mr. Blevins”? She had always called him “Clay.” Her friends tittered. What was so funny?

He and Delbert didn’t acknowledge each other, not even slightly.

Back in his house, Clay immediately researched legal age in Kentucky. He had to find a way to keep her out of Delbert’s hands.

“My beloved,” he whispered.

HAPLESS MALES (16)

THE ONLY ONE

“I’m sorry,” a friend said upon hearing about his brother’s death.

Cory’s comeback was, “You’re the only one.” Cory got a little charge out of this transgression of polite discourse. He was only telling the truth. He had never been close to his brother. Cory and Stephen were years apart, eras apart. Stephen was a lawyer who shilled for the lumber companies in Washington whereas Cory had dropped out of high school, did odd jobs, and was a tree-hugger.

Cory grew up under the impression that he was one of fate’s unfortunate pranks. His mother had been in her mid forties when she became pregnant with him. Both parents made it no secret how unexpected and not particularly welcome his arrival had been. They already had the son they wanted, smart and well-behaved, in pre-law. By the time Cory was a teenager, Stephen was already a junior partner. His example was dangled before Cory as another reason to feel badly about himself.

When Cory got older, he understood how it might not have been his parents’ intention to demean him but the damage was done, whatever the motive. Before he was twenty he moved to California. Stephen was on the West Coast too but far enough away, first in Oregon and then later in Washington.

Over the years Stephen made a few attempts at establishing a connection, none of which Cory reciprocated. One summer Stephen and his wife Anne drove down the coast on vacation. They allotted an afternoon to spend with Cory who took them into the Sierra to Sequoia National Forest. He made his brother pose for a photo alongside the massive stump that was once “Queen of the Forest.” If the message hit home, it wasn’t acknowledged.

Cory rejected the idea that he might cut Stephen some slack, that Stephen’s job possibly was something banal like insurance or tax legalities. Even as such, Stephen was living a fat life from the business of cutting down trees. His shirts were pressed: his hands manicured; he drove a Lexus. For Cory paying bills was a Sisyphean task; one out, another in.

Cory had just passed his thirtieth birthday when he heard, not from his parents but from his ex-wife, that Stephen was terminally ill with ALS. Cory felt so many things at once; a little panic, a hint of satisfaction tinged with regret and compassion. ALS, he imagined, was a terrible way to die.

Compassion was not a preferred feeling. Compassion implied empathizing, perhaps offering aid and comfort. That was not going to happen.

The prognosis, in terms of time left, was somewhat vague so the news of Stephen’s death coming so soon after the news of his illness knocked the wind out of Cory. After debating for several days, he called his parents back in Ohio. His mother on the phone sounded as though she had aged decades. Her voice cracked; she sobbed. His father didn’t sound much better. From him Cory got the impression that Stephen had killed himself rather than face a torturous decline.

“You’re the only one” now sounded painfully crass. It was never true. Stephen’s wife Anne had loved him and so had his parents. Cory hadn’t given his brother much of a chance. He decided he would go to Washington for the memorial service and he bought a new suit he couldn’t afford.

The new suit stayed in its plastic wrap. He heard from his parents that Anne had taken Stephen’s ashes up to Mt. St. Helens and scattered them in the woods in a private ceremony. The lack of a memorial bugged Cory. He wanted something to be final.

One day he found  an official looking parcel in his mailbox with the return address of a law firm in Tacoma. Cory dreaded opening it, sure it was some bad news though he didn’t know what it could be, and it sat on the kitchen counter for two days before he slipped a butcher knife under its flap. Inside were papers for Cory to sign. He was the sole beneficiary of one of his brother’s mutual funds, to the sum of $74,672.14.

He was immensely grateful, even though he did not want to be.

That night for the first time he had a dream about his brother, not a long, involved dream; a dreamlet. He was sitting on a couch at a party and his brother unexpectedly came into the room and sat beside him. He was in anguish, suffocating, gasping for air. He grasped Cory’s shoulder, imploring him for help but there was nothing Cory could do.

The dream was so disturbing that it awoke Cory, and he shook his body to slough off any residue of the dream and the certitude that his brother would never leave him alone.

 

HAPLESS MALES (15)

THE MILKY WAY

When he is sure his parents are asleep he climbs out his bedroom window and walks out to the fence beside the big pasture. He slips under the barbed wire and lies in the grass. He imagines his mother yelling, you’re going to get chiggers. Their home is far enough away from the city that the sky is dark enough to show the Milky Way. All those stars pummel him with their grandeur, but he’s still unsatisfied.

He wants to have a vision to seal his existence, probably of the Virgin Mary since she does most appearances. Jesus would be too much to handle considering all the ways he is not a good boy. He is disobeying by lying in the pasture staring up at the sky, doing his best to be worthy of a vision. He concentrates to project a winning kind of humility, something Bernadette of Lourdes possessed and those kids at Fatima, Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.

Maybe you had to be a girl, maybe having a pecker disqualifies him, makes him impure. He doesn’t want to think about purity lying in the soft grass, the smell of clover a temptation to remember how nice it feels being impure and how confusing. The message the adults are so insistent on teaching him is clear. Pleasure is a sin. What is confusing about that?

Probably even thinking about touching himself disqualifies him. Sure enough, no vision. Not even a falling star. He is sleepy and considers going back to bed. Before he does he might as well let his hands do what they are so eager to do, and blast himself off into his own private space wild with constellations.

HAPLESS MALES (14)

DOGGY RULE

Love exists in our neighborhood.

Clarissa loves the painter Andy.

Andy loves the pixellated stars on PornHub.

The stars on PornHub achieve a different level of love than lay people.

Lay people is not meant as a pun.

Puns are what Soralia loves, that and Sister Marta her gym teacher.

Sister Marta sometimes loves Jesus.

Jesus sometimes loves Dolores when she wins at Scratchers.

Dolores sometimes love her no-good husband.

Her no-good husband loves his 65 T-bird all the time.

The T-bird makes sounds like something well-loved.

Makes a sound like a cat in heat.

A cat in heat takes love to a different level.

A cat in heat caterwauls some Tina Turner.

What’s love got to do with it?

What Tina Turner loves we won’t know

Until she writes her memoir. Maybe she has already.

Marco Rubio has. Some people exist to write memoirs.

Tina Turner, I would guess, does not love Marco Rubio.

His mother only sometimes loves Marco Rubio.

Marco Rubio loves the great people of the great state of Florida.

The state of Florida loves elections because it does them so well.

Many people love things they do well.

Neighbor Claudia loves her garden.

Her garden gives neighbor Paul the hots.

The hots sometimes means rage and sometimes an attraction he won’t acknowledge.

Neighbor Paul professes to love, would die for, his dog Farkle.

Farkle reciprocates. Farkle loves everybody.

The truth is, if neighbor Paul had a heart attack during one of his rages, Farkle would transfer his love in a minute to the first available kibble dispenser.

Canines rule the city.

The city says it loves variety but prefers money.

Money is a philosophically debatable form of love but reliable.

Money loves our neighborhood more than most neighborhoods.

So much it wants to eat it raw.

Eating it raw is an authentic form of love, entirely digestible.

Digestion is the thing that Marvin cares for most. He won’t eat radishes.

Onions pickles celery peanuts or coconut cream pie.

Nobody, alas,  loves Marvin, not even Farkle.