by Pat Nolan
BORN TOO LATE
I asked at a drugstore in Chinatown where I might purchase a calligraphy brush pen. I had to show them what I meant. I pointed to the barrel of my ballpoint pen. "Pen," I said, and then pointing to the tip, "brush." The pharmacist might have taken me for a drugster in my black nylon Oakland A's starter jacket, my clip of long hair, and the graying tuft under my lip. He blinked again. His young assistant, a woman, understood and directed me to a shop down the street. I was about to step off the curb when she caught up with me. "Hey, mister," she gave me the once over, "are you Chinese or something?" Obviously I wasn't. Perplexity made the oval beauty of her face all the more inscrutable. "Why?" I had to ask. "I don't know what it is. . . but you've got this air. . .like you were an ancient Chinese sage in a past life. . . ." Her eyebrows rose like animated brushstrokes at the realization of her gorgeously luminous impetuosity. I had to smile. "Those are the exact words my wife spoke to me when we first met." Her pert little red lipsticked mouth gaped in shock. "She must have stolen your place," I added.
The Indian has a message for my youngest son. There would be a potluck after the work party to restore the old hotel. "That goes for you, too, General," he said to me, "you could bring a crumb cake." At the old hotel, my son was perplexed by something that he had no word for. When I looked at it, I saw that it was just a wad of old bubblegum on the lip of an old cabinet. On closer examination, I saw that it was a wad of bubblegum shaped like a frog. I pried the bubblegum frog off the wood surface. My son insisted that it really was a frog, and he was right. The red frog began to stir. Later as we made our way down the length of the trunk of a huge fir that topped the log deck at the lumber mill, my son pointed out that the frog was following us. "Be thankful that it doesn't have those little vampire teeth," I said. At the end of the log deck, the red frog hesitated and I picked it up to bring it with us. It transformed into a pink infant on whose head was a beaded skullcap. I marveled at the way the swirl of beads caught the light and dazzled me with an incredible sense of well being.
Little squares of red tile neatly separated by clean white lines of grout. They're the deserted streets of a city razed by atomic fire. The squares are baked red. Too well done, actually, and actually, the buildings you'd expect to be jutting into the orange haze of sodium flares are underground. Will it be so in another century? I can't be bothered. I'm riding an indoor rowing machine to reduce my libido and preserve my vow of chastity. It's no use! the simple mechanics of the truncated oars are the beautiful blonde legs of a mysterious woman. Maybe it's just the way the light. . . . Oh! my head! I bumped my head on some low hanging plumbing; I was trying, on the glide stoke, to kiss those elusive lips! Were they my own reflected in the bright chrome? Who am I talking to? Answering? Are those cries of pleasure? There's no doubt about it; someone is in the throes of passion. Pardon my invasion of your privacy, madam, I was on my way out when I came, I saw, I conquered (not in that particular order, either). I must have been dreaming.
My family and I had been accepted to study at the Academie de Musique Francaise but once we enrolled and started attending classes, we realized how mean the French were being to us because we were Americans. They only allowed me to play the tambourine and my daughter the triangle and my son the woodblock. My wife sang with the chorus but was only allowed to move her lips, not actually sing the songs. One day I went with my daughter to pick up her literature assignment from her American literature professor. Her professor was Oscar Levant, the famous pianist. He gave her photocopies of some obscure poems by William Carlos Williams to study. William Carlos Williams! I started to cry with joy. This made up for all the wrongs we had suffered at the hands of these snooty French. When I awoke, I had tears in my eyes.
You may not like me. I'm an intellectual. That doesn't mean I'm not real people. You might be put off by someone you can be sure is thinking, being intellectual, just about every waking second, someone who would notice how you hold your hands or lean on a table or subtly pick your nose and flick it away and not say anything about it but just think about it and why or what motivated you to act that way; that kind of person might just be scary. And if you shove them on the shoulder with the tips of your fingers and get in their face, they talk faster and use big words that are supposed to beat you across the brow but can be confusing if you make the mistake of listening to them and some can even make you madder and some make you stop and realize what a jerk you're being, and depending on how you feel about being a jerk, you either back off and apologize or you just rear back and waste the fucker. Intellectuals take some getting used to.
Our snakeskin boots kicked up the powdered granite covering the trail like a layer of white volcanic ash. My partner wore his straw Stetson at such a rake that the shadow of the brim sliced across his nose and bisected his narrow profile. His girlfriend wore a long dark overcoat. The sun beat down, a metallic bright glare. The berm at the edge of the fire road where it dropped down into the chasm below indicated that it had been freshly graded. The hillside across the ravine was also rock. What looked like vegetation was a mountain of baled hay piled precariously around to the steep side. Cows grazed at the periphery. Occasionally, a dark shape would plummet down having lost its footing. We arrived at the gate across the road that led to the peak. It was set between sheer declines, a massive, high-tech barrier but with a skeleton key lock. The woman said she thought she could punch in the right codes on the control panel in the guardhouse. There were vultures on the other side, she informed us. And, we would have to do something about our hair.
He swallowed hard. The restaurant teemed with delegates, all with little plastic encased name tags pinned to their lapels or corsage-like just above the mound of breast, proclaiming their unspoken introductions. He had been slowly masticating the bland fare and indulging himself with people watching, an occupation of the smug and ultimately insecure. The mix of attendees at the three-day convention was skewed toward the fair sex as his was a field that appealed to women and one that offered many opportunities for upward mobility. He didn't begrudge them their choice, women were good at computer sales, better than men in many instances. The field was expanding and they were riding the bubble. More power to them. His gaze had strayed to a table of four women, two of whom were young, animated, and energetic. They barely stopped talking long enough to eat their salads. Of the other two, one was an older Asian woman who kept pace with what was being said by nodding her head even as she carefully and methodically put away bite after bite of her meal. The fourth woman was a large, older white woman with sloped shoulders, a splattering of wiry gray curls on top of a mousy brown perm that had long since grown out, and attired in a pastel polyester pantsuit outfit that was as tired and limp as her coif. This unexceptional vision accompanied a rear end that was three feet wide if it was an inch. He had noticed this particular klatch of ladies earlier in the auditorium during the orientation and announcement of agendas and workshops, and he had been startled by the size of her posterior as the group had made their way out of the assembly. Seated a few rows ahead of him, the woman's slender drooping shoulders had given no indication of her pear shape. Now, in the open bay of the restaurant, her pendulous rear hung over the sides of the chair she occupied in a way that only a caricaturist could render. What had taken him aback however was not her near satirical proportions but that he had actually visualized her naked. Not only naked because that could have been merely curiosity, but in a seductive pose on a bed similar to the one in his hotel room. And then, as if in a porno film, a close up of her vagina.
Bewilderment caused him to blink his eyes, swallow, and shake his head as if that would rid him of the images of this poor woman. Then he was filled with sadness, slowly but surely, as if he were an empty vessel, and a realization of his baseness, and ultimately his loneliness and desperation. He found his way to the cocktail lounge after the evening meet-and-greet social in the main ballroom, slipping his name tag into his suit coat pocket as he walked into the dimly lit room. He usually enjoyed the socials, a chance to renew acquaintances, meet the faces that belonged to the voices on the other end of the phones, talk numbers with distributors and company reps. More and more though, it was a younger crowd who thronged these affairs and who talked mortgages and flashed baby pictures. He could flash baby pictures of his grand children if he had any. He didn't, pictures or grand children. The lounge was a refuge of sorts. At the far end of the bar, a young man he recognized as a buyer for a computer store chain and a young woman he assumed to be in a related field were engaged in the getting-to-know-each-other ritual that would eventually lead them to bed; they were at the intense eye-language stage. He ordered a beer, lite, and stared at the glass as the bartender poured it for him. He waited for the head to settle a little and then quaffed a taste, catching sight of himself in the mirror behind the bar doing so. A slight smile settled below the hint of foam on his upper lip. My drinking buddy, he teased himself, so I never have to drink alone. He thought of toasting his image but didn't know if he could bear the self-parody. Lately he'd been experiencing pangs, a kind of yearning for some unknown state of being. Consequently, at times such as these, he would be faced with a vague sense of disappointment or dissatisfaction. He took a long draught, finishing half the glass, as if he were quenching a thirst though he was not particularly parched, having had a cocktail at the gathering. He poured the rest of the beer into the glass, catching a glimpse of himself doing so, and a shadow at the entrance to the lounge. He watched the mirror as the woman with the enormous behind and her Asian companion from the restaurant earlier that day approached the bar. He sat very still, holding his breath, as if that would make him invisible. They paid no attention to him, a few barstools separating them. He listened as the Asian woman ordered a glass of white wine and inquired after her companion's choice, which was simply stated as "Bud." The intonation of that monosyllable caught his ear. He spent a lot of time on the telephone in his line of work and had developed an accurate sensitivity to voices. He could distinguish them as clearly as any sales clerk could recognize the faces of regular customers. He never forgot a voice or the name that went with it. The white woman's voice was familiar. Her companion wondered if they should perch at the bar or take a table. Without a hesitation, the woman indicated the table. "Do you remember that old Bob Dylan song," he heard her say in a flash of recognition, "where he says, 'it sits on your head like a mattress sits on a bottle of wine'? Well, that's what I look like sitting on a bar stool, a mattress sitting on a bottle of wine." She added a low rolling chuckle.
There was no mistaking that sassy, hoarse voice, that laugh. Rikki, with Allied Tech. How many times had he flirted with her over the telephone, imagining a well proportioned, country girl with golden ringlets in her mid-thirties? And she had flirted back with him as well. He had even contemplated arranging a rendezvous, so salty had their phone repartee become. And here she was, only a few steps away.
The bartender questioned with the empty bottle but he shook his head, gathered his change from the bar, minus tip, and slipped out of the lounge, avoiding eye contact with the two women seated at the table by the door, and numbly made his way to the elevator and back to his room.
He showered the evening before he was to return home. He had an early flight out. The three days had gone by rather quickly. He had renewed old contacts and had made new ones. In addition, he had made mental notes of the rumors that always circulated at these functions. Who was hiring, who would be cutting back. Not that he was shopping around. He was past his prime and would never be considered by any company, but the information could prove useful to some of the younger Turks and Turkettes back at the office. He had even introduced himself to Rikki. She was happy to meet him though he thought he detected a hint of disappointment in her demeanor. Her usual raucous self didn't bubble up as readily as it usually did over the telephone. She was much more reserved than he imagined she would be. They had chatted amiably over lunch the second day, in the company of the Asian woman whose name was May. Any of the chemistry he had presumed from their phone flirting had gone flat.
That's that, he reflected, toweling off, relieved in a sense, but still oddly disturbed. Some unnamable nagging bothered him. It caused him to sigh and sag. He sat on the commode cover preoccupied by a feeling of emptiness, a large emptiness. He would be returning to the familiarity of his home the next day but he would be returning to no one. His kids had all grown up and moved out and, he supposed, he could probably say the same thing for his wife.
He glanced at the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door and his still blurred reflection. The condensation from the steam of his shower had cleared enough to give him a startling image of himself. He looked like nothing less than a pregnant woman, a really ugly pregnant woman. He swallowed hard.
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