“Earthworks–Polyphemus” by Suzanne Stryk (detail)
You’ve got money problems, my accountant tells me. You’ve got too much money just sitting in the bank doing nothing.
What do you suggest I do?
Retire, fall in love, and buy a vacation home in Tahiti, he says.
So I tell him: Thanks, Dave. I’ll think about it.
Fact is I don’t think about it. I don’t think about it at all. That’s not my life. I’m sixty-one years old and divorced. I live in a one-bedroom apartment on the seventeenth floor of a twenty-floor apartment building in downtown Boston.
My apartment is sixteen hundred square feet, overflowing with antique furniture. The spoils of my marriage. What didn’t fit in my apartment or go with my wife ended up in a storage unit across town.
My front door doesn’t open all the way. That’s because I have three chests of drawers lining the entrance hallway. No room for them anywhere else. I have two armoires in the bedroom. One’s empty and the other isn’t. There’s not really enough space for the antique German king-sized bed in there. I don’t care because I don’t sleep in the bedroom. I sleep on an old sofa I purchased at an estate sale two years ago. It’s paisley and ugly, but it’s comfortable. And that’s what I care about now. Comfort. I sleep with the TV on, the sound off. I usually fall asleep listening to some jazz CDs, something mellow. Cymbal and snare as soft as mouse footsteps over fine paper, liquid piano, distant fade of trumpet, something that makes you think you’re disembodied, underwater, floating.
I made a rule two years ago: No more than four bourbons before bed. Just enough to fall asleep. No hangovers. I don’t need that. Just sleep. Sleep, alone in the dark.
I work at a law office, I do contracts, I work as much as I can. I bill forty, fifty hours a week. I used to be full-partner, now my name’s just on the wall in the waiting room. Younger guys bought me out five years ago. They let me stay on. I don’t make the big decisions and that’s fine with me.
My ex-wife got remarried last year. Her name’s Gayle. His, Ron.
I go into the office most weekends. I take extended lunches. I go to a nice seafood restaurant nearby. There’s a waitress there: Holly. She’s pretty. Working her way through Northeastern as a communications major. She’s blond and tall and has a perfect figure. Perfect. I leave her big tips. Sometimes thirty or forty percent. She flirts a little, she doesn’t need to flirt, but she still does.
I don’t want to come off as the dirty old man. So I don’t ask her many questions. I don’t want to know she has a boyfriend. I pretend to read the Wall Street Journal. I pretend to care about the world while I eat. She works every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday at lunch. Friday evenings at dinner. I take lunch late and say I want to sit near the window, so I can sit in her section. I pretend to look out the window. I can see her reflection in the glass as she cleans off the tables behind me.
What do you do? she asks me one Saturday afternoon as I pay my bill.
I’m a lawyer, I tell her. I tell her my son works at my firm. I tell her: He’s taking the whole show over in a couple of years. That’s when I’ll retire to Florida with my wife, Gayle. He’s hard at work back at the office right now. Works right through lunch most days. He’s more ambitious than I am. He’s about your age, I say. I’ll bring him in here to eat with me next time.
She smiles and blushes and tries to change the subject. I never forget that smile. I think about it when I’m half asleep in the morning, when it’s still dark out and the room is silent and I might fall back asleep.
Truth is, my son Jeremy never worked for me. Last time I saw him he loaded what he called his life into the back of his friend’s car. He gave his mother a kiss and a hug. She was crying in the front yard, telling him not to leave. Then he got into the car and he drove off with his friend. I watched all of it from his bedroom window. Then Gayle turned and looked up at me. I knew she would leave too. I punched him in the face earlier that day. He told us he was gay. He told us he was moving to California. He told us that he never had a chance to live a gay life and that’s what he wanted to do in California.
That day was the third time I punched him.
The other times. Once when he was fifteen and he came home with a pierced ear. The second time we were walking in the park near our house. I told him about hard work, about getting into the right schools, and what it takes to be a success. He was seventeen years old and he told me he never wanted to be like me. He called me a loser.
That’s it. He left and never came back. He stayed in touch with his mother through e-mail.
I think about that stuff now and it makes me want to drink. My doctor tells me I can’t drink as much I used to and he tells me to cut back. Something wrong with my liver. So, I don’t think about that stuff.
Not thinking is a habit. It’s a way of looking at my life. Sometimes I look at myself as I lie on my sofa at night, trying to sleep. A rumpled-up blanket covers my legs. I look down at my legs and I think they might not even be there. From this view it wouldn’t make a difference. Same view, legs or no legs. I think: that’s how people with no legs get by, that’s how they don’t go crazy. They look down and from a certain view their legs might as well be there.
So, you take another drink and close your eyes and you fall asleep thinking you’re a whole person again. I’ll bet that’s how it works.
One evening, I’m working late at the office and Gayle calls and says that Jeremy was in a car accident. Her voice is shaking and electrified. Jeremy is in the hospital, in critical condition. That’s all she knows. She’s on her way to the airport with Ron. So, that night I pack and I get on a plane and fly to L.A.
I drink on the plane. I sit there and I try not to think. I can’t sleep. It’s early in the morning. Pure black outside. A dull roar – the steel-grinding sound of turbines – crushes everything inside.
I start to remember. It’s almost ten years ago now and Jeremy tells me he’s gay. He sort of teeters there for a while after the blow, like he’s numb. I’m standing there, fists clinched. He’s standing there trying to re-focus. I think: He’s going to lunge at you and then you’re going to push him against the wall and get him in the stomach. I look at him. He just stands there. I think he might fall over. He doesn’t. He never looks at me. He never lunges at me. He just looks stunned and then walks out of the room and goes upstairs and shuts his door and packs. I go fix myself a drink and try to think about a case I’m working on. No good. I hate him at that point. I want him to hate himself. I wonder if he does. I wonder if that would make me happy. I think so. I fix another drink. I’m drinking alone in my study, doors closed, and then I want to kill myself for hating him the way I do.
Now I’m on a plane. I think about that day. All of us in a big house behind closed doors. That was my fault. I shake my head and mutter something to myself. The guy in the seat next to me hears it. I don’t care.
The flight attendant walks by. I order another drink.
I get to L.A. and take a taxi straight to the hospital. I find the I.C.U. on the hospital directory. I wait in line in front of the reception desk. Ron sees me. He’s been waiting there for me. He hugs me. I don’t hug him back, not really. I only put my arms around him in a perfunctory sort of way. Gayle’s in the bathroom, he says. She’ll be out here in a minute. We’ve been expecting you for some time. Christ, I’m so sorry about this. Thanks, Ron, I say.
I don’t ask Ron how Jeremy is. I don’t want to know. Then I see Gayle. I look at her face.
Now I know. I see it. It comes to me as she walks towards me, unspoken.
Gayle wants to go with me back to Jeremy’s room. We walk down a long corridor and finally get to his room and she makes right for him. I just stand there in the doorway. I can’t bring myself to walk into that room. Gayle starts talking to him, crying. He’s unconscious. Tubes are running over him. His neck is in a brace. His head and face are bandaged. I can’t even tell that it’s him. Even his legs are bandaged.
There’s a shrill sound filling the room. It’s like, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep… Except really fast. I know that’s the sound of an E.K.G.
I walk across the room to the window. I get to the window. It looks out over L.A. It’s morning. The whole town is gross and brown and greasy looking. The traffic is bad and I can see cars jammed up on the streets below. I see all these people crawling around down there like filthy little bugs. I think that if the window could open, I could hear them yelling at each other in ugly voices.
I lean forward and put my forehead on the windowpane and it feels cool and clean. When I look down, I see all those little bug-people walking around down there in the streets. It looks horrible and chaotic. After a few seconds a helicopter flies over the hospital. I look up at it. It’s a little solitary shape moving fast through that big yellow L.A. sky. The sky that’s the color of pee and almost makes me sick to look at it. I just stand there, watching it go until I can’t see it anymore.
Pretty soon, Gayle notices the E.K.G. and says she’s going to find the doctor or somebody to try to get his heartbeat under control.
Now Gayle is gone. She’s off down the hall looking for the doctor.
I take a good look at him. I walk over to his bed. My lips move and I hear my own voice and I say, Hey there, kiddo. Those stupid words tumble from my mouth like words spoken in a foreign language I’m not very good at. He’s still. No response. He didn’t hear me. Thank God.
I listen… All I hear is, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep…
I sit down on his bed, right there, right next to him. I see his arm there beside him. I touch his arm with the backs of two fingers. Skin I haven’t touched in years. Then I put my hand on his arm. Then I hear it: Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep…beep… beep… beep…beep…beep…beep… Of course it startles me. I take my hand away and then I hear that beep, beep, beep, beep sound real fast again.
I’m scared, more scared than I’ve ever been in my whole life. And I’m thinking that if he would just give me that again, just one last time, that’s all I will ever ask for, from anyone. Do it for me, just one last time. That’s all I’ll ever need.
So, I put my hand down on his arm again, on his forearm there, like I did the first time. I listen. Then, after a few seconds, beep, beep, beep, beep…beep… beep…beep…beep…beep… Just like before, the sound like tides. Wow, I think to myself.
Just listen to that. Wow.
Marc Larock received his B.A. in philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder and his M.Phil. in philosophy from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He teaches philosophy at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Read an interview with Marc here.
Pingback: April 2013 | Rkvry Quarterly Literary Journal
Pingback: Interview with Marc Larock | Rkvry Quarterly Literary Journal