The man’s laundry had been piling up in baskets again. He was clean out of things to put on.
The man heeded all this from the standpoint of his furniture, which set limits on where he could be, on which positions he could take in life. That apartment seemed to him more and more a deformity of space, a disfigurement of the very idea of a place to be called one’s own.
The ones who beat him to the laundry room this time didn’t have the look of tenants. It was two women. One had a loose-fitting, indistinct body that she wore as if she could fling it off at a moment’s notice and reveal herself to be just about anyone else. The other was all skin and bone scarcely clothed.
There were just three washers, three dryers. The man saw that the women had all of them going. He had brought a basket of specialty underwear. He gave the women a look, and they returned it right away, just to get things squared. But things didn’t feel settled to him at all.
He carried the basket back to his apartment and decided it might as well be time for a bath. The apartment had an outsize tub with disobedient faucets. Months ago, when he had sworn off showers and started on the baths, he had tried store-bought bath salts and foams, tablets, bubble-forming sweeteners, syrups. Then he stopped being particular about what he took in with him. Things no longer had to float or dissolve. Newspapers he brought into the tub with him came apart soggily and blackened the porcelain. Some days it was picture frames or whatever else he had pried off the walls on his way in, though he drew the line at anything unjustly sharp. Other days it was just cake mixes, leftovers. He liked it when the water got thick and chowdery.
When he stepped out, he did not bother to dry himself. Whatever might have attached itself to him in the tub stayed stuck there until the air in the room dried him enough for whatever it was to fall off.
You’d get no argument from him about how people grow less and less substantial as the day wears on. Still, he was very careful to organize and conceal the few sounds that came from his apartment. These days, there was little more than sneezes, intestinal ructions, thunders from the rectum, coughs, throat-clearings, unexpectedly loud yawns, snores of his own that awoke him from naps. He had long ago discovered which fan—the rattly box one on the floor, the oscillating windowsill one, the hooded ventilation fan above the stove—could offset or undo any disturbances of the body when the thrush of the TV tuned to a vacant channel or the sink’s running water would not be enough to do the trick. He made sure he stood in front of the right fan when there was to be a noise that could not be avoided.
Sometimes the toilet seat got stuck to his rear end when he got up after further of his chores there. Then the seat would free itself and clunk down onto the porcelain. Would the neighbors have known he’d had to go again?
He sometimes made headway from room to room on his haunches.
He had a little radio, and on the mornings it snowed, he listened over and over to the lists of school closings until he knew them by heart: Kellerville area, Longstead area, Mount Holly area, all the outlying place-names, all the Our Lady of’s. Sometimes there was only a two-hour delay, and he wondered what it must be like, to have the boon of two extra hours like that.
Some days he was free to dote on all the sweets and excellences of his body, the reach of his esophageal acids, the sting of his bile, the shackliness of his carriage when he started off toward another room with a new resolve to set some money aside.
The town itself lacked much longitude, it was a clay-colored locale, the parsnip-shaped dome of the courthouse was the one and only landmark, and there were blind spots among the population. He had not kept up with how the people were managing to make their behavior stick from day to day.
It is not a town he would have chosen himself, but when he was growing up, his sister had reached for something, touched it in a way they had been taught never to let anything be touched, and then she died. The family thereafter had to move shrewdly and afar. He had been told he would be no less himself where there were mostly trees. The thing was to get himself soaked up by surroundings. When he was old enough to get himself enclosed in a marriage, the woman he chose had snooping fingers and fingernails left undazzled. She kept thinking that teetotaling had something to do with math, pursued backyard agriculture with unsuitable tools, banged up against his mother once too often at the stove, seemed to be snoring herself hoarse the one night the two of them were going to try something new. They were already too old to have friends. She had once had a couple of nieces to take shopping for community-college clothes, but then they graduated and found husbands and lost track of themselves and any bodily wonderment.
For the longest while, he had a record of perfect attendance at the table when meals were readied on time.
She grew solid and unbudgeable, but weirdened barely further in her chair. Then one day she expected him to try on some sort of abridgment of a pair of pants—not shorts, exactly. He could already picture the townspersons taking one another politely aside to say, “That shouldn’t be.”
The members of the committee that granted divorce in that town had it in for each other and could almost never get anything done. The town charter required that all six live together and share one big bed that was just a decorated platform that required going up a couple of flights of steps. They were always in each other’s way but were required to say, “No, no, you’re good.”
The man had studied their group photograph in the paper. The paper came out only every other week. In the photo, one of the members looked barely out of her teens. Her breasts were just rude blurts. Also in that edition was an opinion piece about the new generation. They were said to have trouble with coming out of one hour and getting going in the next without forgetting to bring something along as an offering or encumbrance.
You could spend a whole day reading this paper. The man clipped an article about a “bedroom community” going up just down the road. Things could take a turn, he thought.
Days came and went, but the nights had a magnitude all their own.
The man set about ignoring his wife until she thought better of things, bought herself a car (the manager at the lot sold her on an unsporty, slabby hatchback he claimed incapable of incurring any catastrophe), moved out, then perished months later in some vehicular misperformance or another on her way to getting some follow-up thyroidal blood work done on a whim. Roughhoused relations of hers came out of the woodwork, pinned all the blame on him. The exception was a young woman in purplish-blue gym trunks, fraying, who stayed after the others drove off. She claimed to recompense her child for any daily interest shown in astronomy. Would he care to make a donation? She showed him a star chart the child had made. He couldn’t make anything out in it. He looked and kept looking for anything poking out of a night sky rawly drawn.
It was hard to miss the volumes of feeling rising and falling within her—the flushes and blanches again and again.
“Did you know about her?” she finally said.
It turned out she was another of the nieces of his dead wife’s. In lieu of a medal, he gave her some lackluster silver dollars, saw her off, sat down with the paper again. The classified section was by far the largest, but it was mostly one notice of name-change after another. A Leni was now a Lenny, a Joel now a Jo Elle, and so on down the alphabet, which cooperated.
In the weeks to follow, any people the man thought to call would reach right away for anything close by to eat: a suddenly unforgotten block of peppery cake, a sandwich incompletely dressed. People needed to have a reason to have their mouths open other than on the man’s account alone.
Then a letter arrived from the niece-person. It came without a return address. In it, she explained that the child wasn’t hers. It was a kid she’d sometimes babysat, but that was years ago. Could she be forgiven? Would it be possible for her to return the silver dollars?
He went about his business, in no mood to argue with himself.
Another letter came a couple of days later, the envelope weighted with coins, more than he’d remembered giving her. She claimed to be almost forty, claimed to have lost a baby somewhere along the way, and had a lot to explain about why the upper deck of her teeth was in better alignment than the lower. Would he be interested? Could he see her as a politely unhappy, cleaned-up, sunny-faced drunk he could stand to be around after anything that the workday might have hammered onto him hadn’t yet taken hold?
Again, no return address. No way to respond. The postmark named a dump of a place a few towns beyond. There were reasonably interesting things on TV, if you gave them a chance, shows devoted entirely to houses about to be broken up and lie in bricky ruins, and he had found a bakery he’d always overlooked. The things they sold as croissants were uncurved, underbaked, indefinite inside.
The third letter, a week to the day later, was about some man she had let live with her for a little over a month. The two of them had each wanted the other to be the mightier of them, to see better days, then report back. Then one night, something came over her, and she told him, “Don’t stop being a queerie on my account,” and set him up with a brother she said she’d neglected to menion. The brother lived in the better part of town, and her man went to live with the brother in a rented place that had a lone turret in which her man sometimes hid himself for no reason and to no effect, because it must have felt good to get roughed up so regularly for once. She sometimes came over so the three of them could all hold hands, with her in the middle. “See?” she’d say. But this brother of hers had a lot of court dates and soon had to report to jail every weekend. She’d see him off. It was all well and good to have remembered his kisses, because they had been austere to a fault, and arousingly acidulent, but hindsight after so many years was no good through eyes ruined so excitedly on others. Her brother would come home Sunday nights and scold her man for not having done enough around the house, for not having cooked something sufficiently exquisite. Her brother’s dick must have always been awfully red and sore after just those two nights away. Her brother gave her man the preliminary okay to go back to her, but she had already found somebody else and was enchanting this new one in that brute, rote way of hers. But he turned out to be a queerie too. They all did.
So what did he, the recipient of these missives, think? The one good look he’d gotten of her after his wife’s funeral—was there any reason for him to look anywhere else for someone to shrug his life off on?
He was patient. He waited for another letter. None came. There was a bus that ran every other hour to the postmarked town. He one day took the bus, got off, walked around. There was little to see or do—houses barely presentable (and with ungiving windows), a few large apartment buildings whose stairwells he scaled, then climbed down as if in exercise (nobody was around). He stepped into a restaurant. The waitress wasn’t her, and from what he could see, the cook wasn’t, either. He didn’t finish his entrée (a gravied consequence of veal). “You’re not still working on that?” the waitress said. He walked around a department store that was just one huge room. Nobody was her. The department store had a candy counter. He bought a minority of loosened chocolate to contend with while waiting for the bus. The chocolate tasted dry, off.
The bus driver took his money and laughed. “Nobody finds her,” the bus driver said. The chuckle sounded practiced and apropos.
“All right,” the man thought. “I am sloppy and old.” Sundown was on schedule. On some days you felt the loss of human nature within yourself more than on others. He walked back to his apartment. There was only the one exercise he actually knew how to do. He had once tried to explain it to somebody. “That might not technically be considered an exercise,” he’d been told, but he did them on a mat by the unimproving hundred. That night he made a tally. Sixteen hundred!
He started loitering his nights away in the shallows of the slipcovers. He had a dream in which he was berated for having brought home the wrong kind of bread for that corner of the world. The berating voice was hard for him to place. His mother with the beginnings of a cold? His late wife trying to sound unsickenable of heart?
In another dream, he was at the counter of the only local fast-food place. (In waking life, he had started making a second home for himself there.) In the dream, the counterperson assembling his order propped the packet of fries against the wrapped sandwich so that no fries would touch the paper place mat on the tray.
In a follow-up dream, the counterperson, now a low-voiced woman with an ebbing role in life, explained that it wasn’t technically a place mat—the name for it was tray liner.
That dream had a sequel, too. The counterpersons this time were mostly men, grown and curtailed and uncaringly attentive. His “for here” food was handed to him with madcap displeasure in a paper bag. He awoke braving his own affection with a hand squeezing his upper leg.
The months came and came. In no time, he didn’t really know anybody anymore, and those he didn’t know he read about in the paper as they went about overturning their marriages or dying out of spite.
The man snubbed all available venereal fare, then one month let himself be put through some duping, computerly long-distance amours with women from the big, smirching cities of the North. One of them had jerked herself free from some dulling family saga, though she still kept tabs on a brother. There was a rubicund delicacy to her adult acne. It looked embossed on her professionally. She wore shorts in all weathers as a way of settling some score or another. The other woman was finessive about her milky good looks and liked to get the conversational ball rolling by whispering, “Funny how things happen.” She cinched all of her eye-opener dresses with the same flimsy cloth belt. Her breasts looked packed onto her. Neither of these women knew about the other. For a while, he felt a muddle of something uncustomary in his groin and gut. He took buses to visit these two in their hampering, loose-carpeted apartments. He held their hands in a clowning way that came as no surprise. Their pasts lacked any chronology he could master. He figured that this much—a tasting-menu meal here, a riverward stroll there among other suppositious couples tugged toward each other in emotional fracas over somebody else—would be highlight enough. Enough of these trips, though, and these two turned out to be plain-hearted and barely germane to him anyway. And were they really rescuers?, he wondered. They might as well move even further hindward to their own kind.
Then on a day already frail, and failing, a woman approached him on the sidewalk. She had a man’s billfold out. She nodded toward a car in which a younger woman sat in darlingly timid, sleeveless unease, looking as if any earlier life of hers had been sheared away. What might engorge?, the woman wanted to know. The billfold had been shaken open to reveal the greenery of hundreds upon hundreds. He kept walking.
After the long absence, though, he was finally welcomed back at the school where he had long ago taught vo-tech communications. It was a community college with dorms. Each building had its own smokestack. The young removed themselves from local households and learned to love the clop of hardback books as they were dropped onto the floor.
It was to be understood that he wasn’t very good but at least was better than any of the applicants who had made it in for interviews. It was also to be understood that he would be considered staff, not faculty. Over the phone, a voice he did not recognize said: “You’re sure to understand that we can’t pay you a regular salary, but we’ll see that you get some money at the end of the month, though it’ll vary. Whether you want to take anything from students is entirely up to you. We’ll all be looking the other way. We figure you’ve got some inheritance, but still. If these terms are agreeable, say yes after I turn on the machine. Hold on just a sec. Okay, now.”
He said yes.
At the end of the first month he was handed an envelope sagging with coins, but inside he also found a batching of dollar bills, and a couple of fives, and a suspiciously crisp fifty he figured he dare not use. Sheets of fast-food coupons had been folded with exquisite unconcern.
One afternoon a prickly kid who had stopped coming to class came to his office with a hundred-dollar bill and said, “My pop says to give you this.”
He took it.
Another afternoon a girl in unworldly getup came by, mostly to vent her youth. But she had a paper bag in hand. “Here,” she said, before leaving. “My mom bakes.”
He took the bag home, unopened. Curiosity got the better of him by week’s end. These were cookies of an unmitigated rustic spice, stale but divertingly chewy. Within the hour, his bowels unlocked.
The classroom lacked a door he could shut. He put the kids through keyword-recognition drills, taught them how to see to it that a paragraph got a topic squared away. One day, in the standing water of their early thirties, the students would look back and remember that his lectures had meant, if not the world to them, then at least a thankfully forgotten part of the world. He liked how they felt so tenderly about themselves even now. Some of them had been taught all along to “get something out of” whatever they read, so they came at books with a taste for ransackery, entered them pryingly. Others were mostly free-mouthed girls who rarely sat up. They wore floor-scraping, drabbled skirts that kept even their shoes a secret. The one with the dumpy arms was morbidly lively while she slept through class. The workbook required for the course was mostly blank space. Quizzes were taken on little sheets torn from a rainbowed scribble pad and were over before you knew it, but for the exams he passed out rag-content paper of regular size, and there was time for each student to commit to the page an odor of her own and get it fussed into the fibers of each sheet as the base of the palm got dragged along behind the cramping fingers that conducted the pen. When the papers were turned in, he could count on finding a warpage to many of them, as if water had somehow come into the picture and then been mysteriously drawn off.
His office was a by-room, a sideroom, and his desk was more like a dresser. One drawer held slop cloths and liquid soaps. Sometimes there would be a knock at the door. “I’m guessing these are yours?” a voice would say. An arm would hand over the eyebrow pencils, the specialist tweezers, the cleverly shaped bottles of nail-polish remover. These he would set aside for possible resale on Saturdays.
It was mostly students who dropped by, students in curricular dishevelment. He would manage to get a book into their hands, get them to sit busily with the book, to give it some play, play their hands over it, achieve a mastery at least of its dimensions and heft.
One kid had learned to run his eyes over a page until he found a word he liked and might want to take home. Another could take up a pencil and draw a line down through the spaces between words and make a maze of the page.
Once in a while he would get a student on the lookout for herself in the people she met. They usually wore detailed shoes and drank little of the soda they were always carrying around. They often had a flutter in one knee, a tiny throb in the thigh muscle. One of her kind once wanted advice. This one had a blond floss on her arms. She talked about her “sitch” and her “cirk.” Her cirk was her circumstance—her lankiness, her trouble with keeping up with the household commandments of her parents and the other girl’s parents whenever she was allowed over there. (She was never sure how much of a holdall the girl’s heart actually was.) Her sitch was her situation, the limelight she was in with the two males always after her. She took out a catalogical notebook and showed me the sketches she had made of them. There was a plussage of dark hair on their faces that was never quite a beard. She had drawn the two of them in vicious shadow. Then there was the brother, she went on, who arranged bruises along her arm or blackened and blued her legs and knocked the occasional wind out of her. And the father—she wanted to show him one or another part of her body where a hand had landed heavily on it.
She brushed a hand of her own along the shoulder of his sweater.
“Tell me something I can take to the grave,” she said.
He’d sat through this sort of puckery before. He would’ve known this shade of lip gloss anywhere. (Ash-gray it was again.)
What was he to have told her, though? That a lie was just the truth with the facts staggered differently in it?
He was pushing the furniture in the office one day, trying out different arrangements, when he discovered, behind where the tall bookcase had stood, a hole that had been drilled into the wall. It gave out onto the office next door. He got down on the floor and could see into the other office. There weren’t any lights on, just light from a window. He couldn’t make out any human presence. He got up, went to his dresser, pulled out the businesslike, middle drawer. A pencil looked inessential (the point seemed weak), so he took it and returned to the floor, fillipped the pencil through the hole. He could see where it landed on the carpet over there. He pictured the cleaning lady eventually stooping for it. He hauled the bookcase back into place. He had a class to get to. He was late by a few seconds at most. He broke the ice for the first five minutes or so, then asked a girl about the reading assignment. She answered pianissimo.
That evening, it was just like him to have forgotten that he had had a sister all these years. (There was back matter aplenty to a life like his.) He called her and was told he was perfectly welcome to come live in the little outbuilding at the edge of her property however he saw fit. She described the grassy alleyway he would enjoy noticing from the room-length span of window. He packed.
It was mostly patio furniture and yard pieces when he moved into the place. The little there was of upholstered stuff—that sofa, mainly—was steeped in the redolences of somebody else, definitely not the sister. This was the smell of somebody who had circulated her furies far and wide. He pictured her as somebody generally on the mark when she shot language at particular people. She was not the sort of person you even had to meet for her to completely shove you aside. It was easy to get in the habit of drowsing on that sofa and pressing his face refreshingly into the cushions.
For the rest of his life, even more surely, there was just that one low-hanging towel—the lower left side of it for the face, the lower right for the hands.