Glen worked nights at Motorola and didn't have much going on during the day so most afternoons he watched the public access television station, the "Eyes of Phoenix," and although eighteen months earlier he had sworn off women forever, Glen thought it was probably all right to watch the pleasingly round woman who turned up on his screen weekdays from three to five when most folks were working and the public access programmers needed a little filler. The woman worked at City Hall and sat in the fourth row, second cubicle from the far right. From his avocado-colored La-Z-Boy Glen watched as she answered phones or stared at her computer. Because she was often very still for half an hour or more, her only discernible motion being the tiny and persistent twitch of her right index finger, Glen suspected there might be more than a little Solitaire being played. City employees. What a life. Those folks could get away with anything, as far as Glen could see. Trying to see what she was up to, he sometimes stood and moved closer to the television. But although he could make out the color of her hair—an amazing rustypipe red at least two feet long and pulled into the same thick ponytail day after day—the shaky cinematography of the public access camera could not or would not reveal the contents of her computer screen.
At the top of each hour the woman rose from what looked to be an ergonomically sound desk chair. She stood behind the chair and did exactly five jumping jacks; then she lifted her pale and plump arms over her head. She locked her fingers together and leaned back, arching a bit. Glen watched as her breasts pushed against her button-down shirt. Oh, she was full all right. Full as a laundry basket on a Friday afternoon. She was round as an orange, thick as sausage gravy, the prettiest cupcake in the box, and weekdays from three to five she was all his, a risk-free investment of time and energy and, sure, passion. Here was a lover who would never pat his cheek on her way out the door as she said, "Sorry, Glen. No can do."
Sometimes, our hero was tempted to phone City Hall and ask if he might speak to the lovely red-haired lady in the second cubicle from the far right. But then he reminded himself that he had sworn off women forever and besides, he wasn't creepy. Just lonely. As long as he didn't phone he could continue to pretend, as he often did, that the woman was standing at the foot of his bed wearing nothing more than his commemorative T-shirt from Sturgis, circa 1988, her hair loose and snaky, hips in full sway as she sang Boston's "More Than a Feeling" in a voice that was more than sultry. Afternoons when his father was out of the house and Glen could beat off without leaving his La-Z-Boy, he imagined himself rising from his recliner and standing behind the woman, her co-workers rapidly fading to black, his fingers ready and nimble as a guitarist's. "Here," he would say, "let me help you with those panties." And she would.
Some afternoons he saw her duck low in her cubicle and pull something from her nose. Other times she popped zits or tugged at her underwear. She scratched, rubbed, smoothed, soothed, twisted and picked her way through the days, it seemed, and rather than turn him off, these small and private gestures, these unintended admissions of vulnerability, sealed the deal for Glen. On the day she scratched intently at her crotch area for well over a minute Glen was so undone that, when his father came home from the bar for an early dinner, Glen could barely rouse himself to make polite conversation or microwave the frozen broccoli spears for the early dinners they sometimes had before Glen's shift started.
Glen had been a faithful watcher for the past three months, since the toasty day in April when his finger had paused above the remote control and he saw her for the first time and he thought, "Hot Damn!" He watched day after day because he was certain the woman had no idea that Glen Greene, who didn't have much going on in the afternoons; Glen, whose father Bill had moved in eighteen months earlier, just after Glen's girlfriend Princess threw him over not for another man but because she suspected that there might be something more in this life than being Glen's girlfriend ("Sorry, Glen. No can do," she had said. "It's not personal, but I wake up every morning and I look at you and I look at this bed and I look in the mirror and I honestly can't believe this is my life."); lovesick Glen, whose oleander hedge was the only thing separating his house from the vast apartment complex where it so happened that the woman who worked at City Hall had recently rented an efficiency after some trouble of her own; this Glen thought the red-haired lady who jumpingjacked her way through her shifts at City Hall must be, well, terrific.
Truth be told Elaine Peterson preferred to play Hearts when she was squandering her time as a public servant. She liked the feeling of community that had sprung up around her daily card games. She liked Ben, Michelle and Pauline—the computer-generated players who surprised her day after day with their skill, their shadowy luck-of-the-draw, their hidden agendas. On a Monday afternoon in July when temperatures reached an astonishing 117 degrees and the air conditioning rumbled steadily all day, with little effect, Elaine watched as Michelle played the queen of spades on Ben for the third hand in a row.
She became suspicious. Had these two old buddies—card-playing pals for who knows how long—consumed one too many tequila sunrises at happy hour and tossed all caution to the unpredictable desert winds? Did they blow a fuse, so to speak, and awaken to discover Ben's sandals under Michelle's bed or one of Michelle's favorite hoopy earrings (Elaine imagined she must be the type of woman who wore hoops, ballsy as she was when playing cards) lost forever among the tangled mess of Ben's sheets? When Michelle played the queen of spades a fourth time and won the game, Elaine wondered, how long before one of them got drunk and made the first of what were sure to be several ill-advised, late-night phone calls? (Elaine hoped it would be Ben.) Would Elaine arrive at work one morning to discover that Ben had been replaced by someone named Barry or that Michelle had become Maureen? What about the game? Maybe Pauline, quiet as she was, would tire of the whole damned scandal and run off to join a Mac-based Parcheesi group. Elaine wondered. Worried, even. She stood, stretched, did her jumping jacks, and as she jumped—one, two, three, four, five—she imagined another scenario completely. Maybe, she thought, Ben and Michelle belonged to that group of lucky creatures who screw freely, whimsically even, within their own social group with little or no fear of Dire Consequences. Elaine had heard about these mythical creatures. She even worked with a few of them. They were mostly young, slim folks, either very tan or very pale, who moved with ease from one complicated sexual situation to the next. For her part, Elaine would have been more likely to share a cocktail with a unicorn.
At twenty-eight she had been in love twice. The first was with a good friend, a man she grew up with, a real sweetheart. She hadn't spoken to him in three years. The second and most recent had been Ned, a plumber of murky character.
In the first case Elaine had loved the friend with the intense self consciousness of someone who has fallen asleep on a city bus and awakened to discover herself at the end of the line, sleepy and stranded in an unfamiliar neighborhood full of strange smells and lovely but confusing music, perhaps in another language; someone who is being informed by the bus driver that she must disembark immediately. When Elaine fell in love she began to drop things—keys, glassware, pizzas, various small appliances that needed to be lifted for purposes of cleaning. She couldn't eat. She tensed up during lovemaking, couldn't come to save her life, and she grew pale from lack of sleep and pent-up energy. When Elaine fell she had trouble making simple choices at the supermarket and she often found herself fondling the same two pears for long enough that people began to stare. In the first case, with the friend, Elaine had begun to believe that she was doomed, that she and the friend were doomed, and as the sweet-natured (but not particularly insightful) friend stood by bewildered, Elaine processed the entire relationship in a matter of weeks and mostly in her own head, and she came to the conclusion that it "wasn't working out." Her best friend Noreen said it was a terrible thing to see and after the friend lost patience and began to date a woman who worked at his neighborhood convenience store the normally optimistic Noreen ("Love is a gift," she often told Elaine. "Get it while you can!") suggested that Elaine might want to take it easy for a while.
With the plumber of murky character things had been different. There had been no processing, no second-guessing, and no indecision over pears. Perhaps it was the Zoloft—that vaguely wan plateau of emotional stability—but just as Elaine made up her mind to overlook Ned's crummy gifts, his morose outlook, his cut-to-the-chase approach to lovemaking and his sketchy habit of looking at Elaine's shoulders when they were talking, just as she decided to sit back and enjoy the ride, to get it while she could, Ned helped himself to the spare key that Elaine kept under the geranium on her porch-ette. Then he helped himself to her stereo, television and cordless phone as well as her wok, her Visa card and a full bottle of Zoloft, which she never bothered to replace, pricey at it was and besides, it was too embarrassing to explain to the folks at the Employee Wellness Center and Elaine didn't want them thinking she was some sort of Zoloft-head, or worse.
After Elaine finished her stretching exercises she returned to her game of Hearts. She peeked over the top of her cubicle from time to time and kept an eye out for Joan the supervisor, who hadn't been by much lately, not since the day Joan had stood at the vending machine in the break room and said to a recent hire, "That one in the second cubicle from the far right, the one that jumps around all the time? The tubby one? That's Elaine. She's crazy as a rat in a tin shithouse" and Joan had turned to see Elaine standing in the doorway and she knew that Elaine had heard and Elaine knew that Joan knew Elaine had heard and just in case Joan wasn't sure that Elaine heard, Elaine wept until her nose was the color of a strawberry and her shoulders ached and she didn't even have the heart to answer the phone for the rest of the afternoon. It just rang and rang.
If he hadn't spent so much of his life drinking, gambling and whoring around, Glen's father might have had enough money to set himself up in some swanky little assisted-living community on the outskirts of Phoenix. He might have been living in Apache Junction in a trailer home that was all his, a cozy two bedroom with a carport and a good selection of middle-class widows loafing around the clubhouse swimming pool. He might be spending his days rubbing sun block on the expansive shoulders of some retired schoolteacher from Mesa, a lady of substance and good humor who would suggest, often, that they retire to Bill's trailer for what he liked to call a little afternoon delight. If he had played his cards right Bill might be spending his afternoons taking the phone off the hook and drawing the blinds. At the very least he could be gambling at the Ak-Chin Indian Casino.
Instead, he was stuck living in downtown Phoenix with his more-than-depressing son Glen—partly because his license had recently been revoked after a misunderstanding with the amiable young man at the DMV who suggested that Bill might want to "let your children take over driving you around town"; a misunderstanding that turned ugly when he attempted to sock the young man in the nose but lost his balance in the swing and instead delivered an embarrassingly weak punch to the kid's left shoulder, a punch that hadn't hurt the kid a bit but had been enough to get Bill's license yanked, perhaps permanently. Bill was truly stuck in downtown Phoenix with his more-than-depressing son Glen.
Afternoons when Glen was watching the boobtube and staring at that girl from City Hall or locked in his bedroom doing Godknowswhat (Bill hoped that Glen was at least jerking off, anything to indicate his son wasn't completely lost to his grief over Princess), Bill crept through the oleander hedges that separated his son's little house from the vast apartment complex on the other side of the alley. There, he helped himself to one of the three swimming pools that were mostly unused during the day, save for a few kids and one or two homeless men who also managed to sneak onto the grounds.
After his swim Bill usually headed for the Garnet, where he passed the afternoons drinking highballs and shooting the breeze with Legs McPhee. Legs was ten years older than Bill and he therefore felt at liberty to refer to Bill as my boy. "Change or die, my boy," Legs often said as he patted the two stumps where his legs used to be. "Change or die." Afternoons Bill and Legs made ridiculous wagers, bummed cigarettes off the bartender and haggled over who would buy the next round. They made flagrant passes at several old women from the neighborhood who occasionally wandered in for a glass or two of Zinfandel. Legs was luckier with the women than Bill. He said his secret was that the loss of his legs after a near fatal diabetic attack two years earlier had forced him to adapt his lovemaking to what he called a more "female-centered sexuality." Among the ladies in the neighborhood word had spread quickly that Legs McPhee was a good sport, eager to please and a learned man. "I focus on their pleasure," Legs told Bill.
It was depressing, Bill thought. If an old man in a wheelchair was getting more nooky than he, Bill reasoned, it was definitely time for a change. Change or die, he thought. So he paid careful attention as Legs drew diagrams on beverage napkins and used a pistachio and a lime wedge to illustrate certain important aspects of a woman's anatomy. Bill looked around at the old ladies sitting at the bar. He thought about his ex-wives. So much was explained—the headaches, the bad attitudes, the unexpected and recurring yeast infections. So much time had been lost.
"How could I have missed the boat on this, all these years?" he asked sadly.
"Missed the boat!" Legs hollered as he patted Bill on the knee. "That's a good one. Har, har, har. Well! Now you know, my boy, so there's no excuse for abandoning ship too soon, if you get my drift."
"Bartender!" Legs shouted, as was his custom, "pass me that glass of olives and let's have ourselves a little more talk about what I like to call the feminine mystique." Legs patted Bill on the knee. "I made that up," he said.
Bill watched and drank and listened. He couldn't wait to tell his son about this. He thought of Glen—thirty-four, his belly well over his waistband, most of his hair gone save for the wispy blonde ponytail that he insisted was still in fashion. Maybe that's what went wrong with Princess, Bill reasoned. Maybe his son didn't know about the feminine mystique. Not that Bill had much liked Princess anyway. "Watch out for the skinny ones," he told his son after she moved out. "The skinny ones age meanly," he said, "thin around the lips." But having Princess around had been better than watching his son do nothing except trim the oleander hedges and stare at the tube. Bill finished his highball, wiped his mouth and carefully wrapped the olive, pistachio and lime wedge in a beverage napkin. He tucked the small package in his pants pocket. Tomorrow at breakfast he would tell Glen a few things about women, a few things that might get him out of the house, for once.
Eighteen months earlier, on the night Glen swore off women forever, he drove to South Mountain, an urban park with a number of hiking trails and a good view of the flat, sprawling city below. Night had come fully in by the time he parked near the top of the peak. Several cars were scattered around the small gravel lot. Glen watched as shadows of heads moved together and apart, bobbing and weaving, leaning, cheeks, shoulders, bellies pressed together. Princess had moved out the week before and he was on the fourth day of an epic bender. For the first three days his good-natured co-workers had taken turns looking after him. They had pulled their trucks over to let him cry or puke or beat on things (hoods of cars, walls, his own forehead). They had held his elbows, patted his back and on the third day two of them had grasped his shoulders and legs as they carried Glen out of the Garnet and to a pickup, where they tossed him in the back and got the hell out of the parking lot before another punch could be thrown. The co-workers had done their best to help. They said all the right things—that Princess was a bitch, a whore, a cunt—and they reminded Glen that there would be other women, women more worthy of Glen. They said, "Fuck her. Fuck her," and it helped some. Then on the evening of the fourth day the co-workers went back to their work and their own women, and Glen found himself alone, muttering those words that had helped—bitch, whore, cunt—as he filled a large Hefty bag with a few things that Princess, in her haste to leave, had forgotten. Fuck her. Fuck her.
In the parking lot at South Mountain with the city already lighting itself up for the night, Glen pulled the bag from the back seat of his old Camaro and set it on the gravel. He took a long drink from the fifth of Jack Daniels he had been carrying in the glove compartment and placed the bottle in the Hefty bag. He looked out over the city, fuck her, as the bourbon began to stretch itself through his limbs, a thin and warm unspooling. The night was temperate, car windows down, and Glen felt loose then, a little burned. There was the start of something behind his eye sockets, something that might be the beginning of grief, as he listened to voices from the other parked cars. They rose up like paper bags in a dust storm. A woman's voice whispered, Yes, and a man whispered, Please, and another woman whispered, Like that, like that, like this, and Glen, his throat burning and whiskey-tender, swung the Hefty bag over his left shoulder and started up the trail.
It was the same trail that he and Princess had hiked on their first date. It had been the end of April and the days were already well over a hundred degrees. Glen remembered how they had sweated until sun block dripped into their eyes. They had huffed and sworn off cigarettes and booze and fatty foods; they had promised to get more exercise, then laughed because those were odd topics for a first date, topics that suggested something bigger than a first date, that they were into something, already. They had stood side by side at the edge of the trail and competed to see who could spit precious water from their canteen the farthest. She had beaten him by spitting a six-foot stream of water, a diamond arc that hit a boulder and glistened for a few seconds before it dried up. Then they had made out with Princess leaning up against the granite face of a boulder that rose fist-like in the center of the desert. His fingers had been firmly into her shorts, their sunburned bodies full of heat and their mutual pleading. Like this and Please.
Twice, on the night he swore off women forever, Glen fell over small objects on the path—a thin palo verde branch, a stone the size of a softball—and each time he dropped the Hefty bag and held his knee and cursed her, the bitch, for bringing him here, to this. For these falls, like the heat, the split bag, the voices from the cars, the whiskey in his back pocket, and the bruise on his cheek from the bar fight the night before, these falls were also her fault and Glen placed the blame squarely on Princess's absent shoulders, right where it belonged and as the ancient saguaro lifted their arms to the sky, he stood in the desert and swore that he was done with women for good.
At the end of the trail Glen leaned over a fire ring and sniffed the ground. Satisfied that some rookie hadn't pissed on it, he began to gather fuel for the fire he had been planning since he had stood in his and Princess's bedroom—his bedroom now, he reminded himself—and he had shoved the first of her many forgotten things into the Hefty bag. A half-full box of Tampax, tax returns for the three years they were together, several self-help books that Princess had started to read in the months before she left him, a bottle of Motrin, a stapler, a dozen dried yellow roses that he had sent her for a birthday two years earlier, her favorite cassette tape of old Blondie songs and much, much more.
Close to the fire ring he found a few ocotillo spines and an empty beer carton. He found a pack of cigarettes with one left inside. In the scrub next to the trail he found a business-sized envelope, several thin mesquite branches, an empty fast food bag, a clothes hanger. He used half a book of matches to get the fire going. Then he sat on a small boulder and poked the fire with the hanger. He lit the found cigarette and breathed it in as if nothing in this world ever mattered so much or was so good as that smoke snaking its way into his lungs, filling them. He closed his eyes and tried to pretend that he was far away from the city, that he was truly in a desert wilderness, that he might at any moment be attacked by a mountain lion. He imagined himself fighting off the lion, valiantly, but not before it tore a chunk of flesh from his thigh. He saw himself dragging his torn limb to the edge of the mountain. He would stay close to the small fire and tear his T-shirt into strips that he would use to staunch the blood that was coming fast from his thigh. Eventually he would dry out like jerky, and die, but not before he suffered mightily for two days—sucking on prickly pear, swatting at determined flies, watching the turkey buzzards skulk about—and his last thoughts would be of Princess, to wonder where she was, what she was up to. In his last moments he would forgive her and Princess (wherever she was) would somehow sense all of this and she would find her way to the fire ring where she would see Glen's corpse curled around itself, the fire firmly out, and she would pound her fists against her tiny, martini-glass breasts. She would swear never to love another man, and she wouldn't.
Elaine had never paid much attention to the employee newsletter, a charming treatise that instructed her to GET ON BOARD!! Nor did she read the half-page notes that had been stapled to the back of her paycheck a few months earlier, and because carbonated beverages gave her terrible gas, she was rarely close enough to the vending machine in the break room to read the small sign posted on the wall. Elaine did not have lunch, cocktails, casual conversations, smokes or sex with any of her co-workers and she never joined the three young women who sat in the adjoining cubicles and who sometimes got high in the parking lot during their lunch break. If Elaine had done any of these things she would have been fully informed that the public access camera was rolling from three to five, Monday through Friday "Until Further Notice," and knowing that she and her co-workers turned up in the living rooms of thousands of citizens who were home afternoons—the retired and unemployed and drunk, the new mothers and fathers, the dying and the ill and those pretending to do one or the other as well as the beatup, beatdown, fucked-up souls who couldn't quite pull it together—Elaine might have behaved differently.
If Elaine had had any idea that she was the main character in the fantasy life of the heartsick man who worked nights at Motorola and who lived on the other side of the oleander hedges directly across from her parking slot, she certainly would have behaved differently at her desk. She might occasionally have worn her hair loose. In a giddy moment she might have turned toward the camera and deftly (and yet shyly) unclasped the top button of her cotton shirt. She might have put a little more wiggle in those five jumping jacks. When her phone rang, when some dinosaur with a rotary actually managed to sneak past the automated system, she might have looked at the camera and mouthed the words Hold. Please. Thank You. She might have blown a whimsical little kiss, Marilyn style, toward the camera or flashed a peace sign or, on a bad day, she might have given the finger to all those people. Or she might have quit her job immediately, arguing that her privacy was being violated in profound and creepy ways. She might have taken issue with the argument that, because she was a city worker, the general public was entitled to know that she was a booger-picking, panty-tugging, zit-popping misfit.
Besides, Elaine only tugged at her underwear when laundry day was looming, when she was down to nothing but the grimly yellowed panties she had outgrown or worse, the numerous pairs of G-strings that Ned had given her for her birthday, for Christmas and "just because." He had carefully handed over the teeny pink and white striped packages and said, "I got something for you" and because the Zoloft had fully kicked in by then Elaine took the packages, kissed him and then dumped the garments into her underwear drawer. Before the Zoloft she might have ridiculed him. She might have said, "Oh-Ho! A gift for me, huh?" She might have said, "Take them back and try again, Ned." Or she might have cried and said, "You don't know me at all, do you?" and despaired that she was doomed to spend her life dating men who handed out G-strings as if they were sacred texts.
Since Ned had made off with her things and Elaine had stopped taking her medication, the panties were nothing more than itchy reminders that it was time to do the laundry. Which was a problem because, along with her other neuroses (obsessive-compulsive, lack of impulse control, paranoid, phobic), Elaine feared dryer lint. She wouldn't have called it a phobia, exactly, though her shrink, Dr. Agnes Clearing, certainly called it that. It was more like an aversion. A concern. A little tickle at the edge of her psyche. Mostly, Elaine had come to terms with her own lint; that is, the lint generated from her pillowcases, bath towels and socks. But in a vast apartment complex like the one where she lived, the dryers were brimming over with other people's lint. Laundry Day was no fun at all.
On a Sunday afternoon she organized her basket of clothes. She filled her pockets with quarters, then wound her hair in a tight bun and a tied a blue bandana over it. Although it was 108 degrees out, she wore long pants and a sweater. She used safety pins to pull her sleeves tight around her wrists, just in case any rebel dryer lint made a break for it. Lint, for those of you who haven't looked it up—Elaine certainly has!—is defined as pieces of thread, ravelings and fluff from one's clothing. And while fluff may sound harmless enough, further study reveals that it is a "loose soft mass of fur, dust, hair, etc." Etc! Elaine thought. Fingernails. Dead skin. Dust mites, for Cripe's Sake. Etc! Dandruff, sweat, semen, menstrual blood. Toe jam.
Sunday afternoon she removed a paper dust mask from the box of a hundred masks she had recently purchased at Walgreen's, after the assistant manager was kind enough to root around in the back for the Big Box. She tied the paper strings firmly together over the blue bandana, then pulled on a pair of bright yellow latex gloves and picked up the overflowing plastic laundry basket. She headed for the laundry room.
As she passed one of the swimming pools four deeply tanned children held hands and leapt into the deep end. Elaine imagined four small and undisciplined bladders releasing in unison. In the three months since she had moved into the vast apartment complex she had not once been in the swimming pool. And she had no plans to do so. A skinny old man with a white moustache and big bunch of white hair lounged on the only deck chair that hadn't been stolen. He sat up and whistled as Elaine walked past. "Nice rack!" He shouted. She shifted her basket from her hip to her chest. She kept walking.
For $450 a month (a/c included) the complex housed 2,500 souls. It had three swimming pools (two "worked") and a rec room that could be rented for birthday parties, weddings or wakes. The rec room contained a ping-pong table but no ball or paddles. A stained gold and green plaid sofa with the stuffing coming out of one arm was pushed against the back wall. The sofa was next to a broken vending machine and someone had spray painted over the Coke Is It logo so that the current message was Cock Is It. On the wall above the sofa was a framed photograph of the Phoenix skyline just after sunset, the pinks and oranges gathered around the shoulders of the Superstition Mountains, the colors duking it out for the last word. In the photograph an airplane was coming into Sky Harbor airport. Here also someone had been by with a can of spray paint. Blow me! was scrawled over the stream of jet fuel flowing from plane's tail.
At the back of the rec room was the laundry room and it was here that Elaine gingerly removed the usual dryer lint as well as several freshly washed cigarette butts, two withered matchbooks, a parking ticket, a condom, two dollars and a squishy stick of Dentyne. All this for only $450 a month. Blow me, she thought. When her clothes were gently tumbling and clinking in the dryer Elaine stepped outside. She placed her hand over her heart. Sweat crawled under her dust mask. Snaky tendrils of her remarkable rustypipe hair clung to her neck. Her forearms were damp under the long sleeves. That night she called her mother, collect, and informed her that she had had to remove at least a pound of lint from the dryer baskets. "Sweetheart," Mrs. Peterson said, "I'm sure it wasn't quite a pound." "Mother," Elaine said, "you could have hooked a rug with this lint."
Monday morning Glen arrived home from work around seven and sat at the kitchen table looking over a stack of bills while his father microwaved bacon, mixed up a can of orange juice, and fried a couple of eggs and pancakes. Glen paid bills from Visa, Sears, Home Depot and the Home Center. He wrote a check for $214.75 to a bar on 15th Avenue called the Home Away from Home. This was to pay for a broken ceiling fan and thirty-five pint glasses that had been smashed during a brawl Bill and Legs had begun after a group of young men hassled Legs. Glen also sent $65.35 to Dr. Samuel Romero's office, where Bill had recently spent an entire morning waiting for a diagnosis and prescription after a bunch of little pimples and blisters turned up on the backs of his legs, arms, belly, even my pecker, for Christ's sake, and then erupted. Glen pushed aside his checkbook and turned to his father, who was arranging a garnish of cilantro atop the fried eggs. He said, "Dad, you're killing me. You know that?"
Bill handed his son a plate. "Shit, I know," he said, "I thought only little kids got impetigo."
"Maybe it was from the swimming pool," Glen said.
"Nah," Bill told him, "Nothing could live in that pool for very long. Chlorine." He stuffed a forkful of pancake into his mouth and kept talking. "Maybe I caught the rash from one of those old biddies down at the Garnet. There was one a few weeks back—"
Glen said, "Dad, I don't want to talk about your love life."
"I'm just saying—"
The old man shoveled more food into his mouth. "Son, why don't you come for a swim with me after breakfast?"
Glen waved a butter knife at his father.
"Can we talk about something else?"
"Matter of fact," Bill said as he felt around in his pocket for the pistachio nut, the withered lime wedge and the wrinkled olive. He laid them on the table. "Matter of fact, we can talk about something else. I meant to bring this up a week ago." And he did. He talked and talked.
After, Glen stared at his plate full of pancakes. Still there. "Jesus, Dad. I know this stuff. Is this what you and Legs have been doing at the Garnet? Talking about this stuff?"
The old man looked proud. "Yup," he said, "and it's changed my days, I'll tell you that much." He scratched a small sore on his left arm. "I thought this information might be useful to you, Son. Get you out of the house some."
"I don't want to get out of the house," Glen said. He tugged at his thin ponytail. "I told you I'm done with women. For good."
Bill stared at his son. The swag lamp above the table illuminated Glen's pate. Smooth as a bowling ball. He noticed the lines that were starting to crisscross his son's forehead. His child was aging. "Look," he said, "I am bored to tears. When are you going to get off your duff and give me some grandchildren?"
He began to stack his bacon on top of his pancakes.
"Legs has seventeen—ten boys and seven girls."
"Then maybe Legs will loan you one or two of them for an afternoon," Glen said.
"It's not right, you sitting around here all the time in that La-Z-Boy."
Glen stabbed his fork into the pancake sandwich.
"Well, at least go get yourself laid, wouldja?"
"Come to the Garnet with me. It's the best of both worlds, Buddy. The women are broke and broken in, hardy har. Friday nights some young ones even come in."
Glen thought, No wonder all your wives left you. He said, "No."
"Change or die, my boy," Bill said, "That's what I always say. Change or die." He waved his fork at his son. "Come swimming with me. It'll do you good."
Glen stood and pushed his plate to the center of the table. "I'm going to trim the oleander hedges and then I'm going to bed for a few hours," he said.
"Not too much off the top," Bill said.
After he had finished with the breakfast dishes Bill walked into the living room and sat in Glen's recliner. It could be worse, he knew. One of Legs' sons, Charlie, was currently serving a three-year sentence at Florence. The boy was wearing pink underwear and working on Sheriff Joe's chain gang. Glen was a good boy, overall. A little cowardly maybe, when it came to love, but then Bill thought maybe he hadn't set the best example for the boy, what with his four marriages and so forth. The old man scratched his left leg, hard, and stared at the television for a long, long time.
The Sister Agnes oleander, which is distinguished by its faintly scented white flowers and particularly rapid growth, can achieve a height of more than twenty feet in just a few years. A single plant can quickly create a thick dark green hedge, dense demarcations between homes and apartments, between mine and yours and yours and his and his and theirs, and so forth. In spite of its slightly poisonous leaves, Elaine had heard stories of entire clans of homeless people who slept in oleander hedges, their skin toughened against the irritating milky secretions that leaked from broken stems or crushed flowers. Once, when she was coming home from buying laundry supplies and singing out loud to herself—Old man take a look at my life, I'm a lot like you were—someone shushed her, Shhh!, from somewhere deep in the oleander hedges. Monday morning when she was rushing to get to work by nine she listened to the sturdy snip, snipping of the neighbor's pruning shears. "Not too much off the top," she called to the other side of the hedge. A man's exasperated voice called back, "I know. I know already."
But Elaine worried about the oleander hedges all the way to work. She worried the neighbor might become overzealous in his pruning. She worried he would forget to trim at an angle and the newly cut branches would become vulnerable to disease, or pests. Maybe the entire hedge would die. Maybe the tiny white blooms would whither and fall onto her old car, covering the windshield with dying flowers. Or maybe she was just getting a head cold, and that was making her more sensitive than usual. Elaine had awoken stuffy and phlegmy. Her nose was red and swollen.
As she was blowing her nose and waiting to make a left turn into the parking lot at City Hall, a large dog—a shepherd of some sort—ran into the middle of the busy street and was struck by a small car. The dog lay stunned for a few seconds; then it tried to stand up. It lay less than two feet from Elaine's car and she heard it yelp as it tried again to stand. Its back haunches slid back and forth, a loose pivot, its back unhinged. The animal cried out and the cry became a long, low whimper as it struggled again and again to stand and flee the street. The dog was blocking traffic and several people began to honk. "Shut up," Elaine yelled at the windshield. "Shut up." She left her car and walked over to the animal. It was still trying to stand but clearly its hip was broken. Someone honked, then someone else. "Shhhh," Elaine said, but the animal's eyes were full of pain and fear, its throat constricting in time with its whimpers. The driver of the car that had hit the dog came and stood next to Elaine. "What should we do?" he asked her. A police officer turned up with a blanket and the three of them created a makeshift stretcher. They loaded the animal into the back of the squad car. Traffic thinned and everyone continued on their way to wherever they had been going.
But Elaine sat in the parking lot at City Hall and cried until her nose whistled. She could not stop thinking about the dog, even as she clocked in and tried to focus on her work. She played Hearts. Pauline made her move. Then Michelle. Then Ben. The dog had tried to get up but it couldn't and Elaine thought she might have moved more quickly to help it. She made her move. Pauline played the nine of hearts. Michelle played off suit, as did Ben. Elaine made her move. Sometimes, she swore, she thought she might be losing ground.
Anyone could see how tired she looked, even through the crappy lens of the public access camera. When the top of the hour came and she did not stand for her five jumping jacks, Glen leaned forward in his recliner. She did not lift her pale and plump arms above her head or link her fingers together for a great stretch. She did not pull at her underwear or pop zits. What she did was blow her nose, a few times. Then she rested her cheek against the computer screen and Glen thought he saw some reflection, a little shine, on her cheek. He rose from his recliner. He touched the television screen. He covered her. And this day when he imagined himself standing behind the round lady with the rustypipe hair, her co-workers rapidly fading to black, he touched his finger to her cheek, warm and feverish, and he imagined himself saying, How can I help?
"How can I help?" he said. He stood close to the screen for a few more minutes, then returned to his chair as his father watched and listened from the door that led to the kitchen.
This was their plan: They would sneak into Glen's house after he had left for work and they would steal his television. Legs would hold the TV on his lap and Bill would push Legs' wheelchair the five blocks to the Garnet. Once they got the TV to the bar Jimmy the Midget, the night bartender, would take it off their hands and pass it off to a fence. Bill and Legs would drink for free for a month.
It was the third night after the new moon. A warm and rare summer rain fell lazily across the city. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" Legs asked as Bill grunted and set the television on the older man's lap. Bill covered the set with a blanket, tucking the corners firmly beneath Legs' wasted thighs. He said, "It's either this or sneak up on him when he's sleeping, hold a knife to his belly, and tell him that I'm going to cut his liver out if he doesn't get out of that goddamned recliner more often."
"OK, my boy," Legs said. "But if we get caught I'm blaming it all on you. Got it?"
Drunk as they were Bill and Legs could barely balance Glen's 27-inch color television on Legs' lap. Bill pushed the wheelchair out the front door and down the sidewalk. They tried to move quickly but the rain and booze and old age slowed them down. The rain fell steadier now and it began to soak through their clothes. Bill pushed the wheelchair down Glen's gently sloping driveway and into the street. His arms were aching already from the strain of lifting the television off the entertainment unit. He began to shiver. He thought he might be getting too old for this sort of thing. Legs certainly was. Bill stumbled and it occurred to him that he would be dead soon; probably not too soon, probably not as soon as Legs, but soon enough. The two men reached the end of Glen's street and turned onto 7th Avenue. A car sped past them and honked loudly. The driver swerved at the last minute and intentionally drove through a deep puddle. Bill tried to put his body between the arc of water and Legs, but he was not fast enough and they were soaked to bone. "That little son of a bitch. Shit," Bill said. "Sorry Legs."
But the cold and damp and liquor had gotten to Legs. He began to laugh. And sing. "Well it's been rough and rocky travel, but I'm finally standing upright on the ground…" Bill joined in, "and after taking several readings I'm surprised to find my mind still fairly sound."
Legs said, "Pass the bottle," and Bill did, a few times, and when the two finally arrived at the Garnet, they were still singing Haggard—drunk as lords, cold to the core, balls in their bellies. Jimmy the Midget said, "Holy shit!" and he lifted the television from Legs' shrunken lap and called to a couple of old ladies to gather paper towels from the ladies' room. "Here you go," said a busty old woman with bright green eyes. She handed Bill a stack of towels. He scrubbed at his face and hair. He gave her the eye. Nice rack.
Glen called the police, who didn't seem at all surprised or interested to learn that someone had broken into his home and taken nothing except a 27-inch color television. It happened all the time. Addicts. Kids. Jokers. While he waited for his homeowner's insurance to pay up, Glen moped around the house and missed the red-haired lady from City Hall.
"Come to the pool with me," his father said. "Come for a little swim. Why not?"
Why not? Glen thought with more than a little bitterness and using their hands to keep the branches of the oleander hedge away from their eyes, the father and son pushed through the shrub and exited just a few feet from Elaine's beatdown Chevy Nova. Trying to look as if they were residents, they strolled casually to the swimming pool. They dove in, paddled and splashed, then loafed on the pool deck. Bill said, "Isn't this better than wasting all your time in front of the damned boobtube? Maybe you're even a little glad that thing is gone?"
"No, I'm not," Glen said.
He was lying on his stomach, the warm and rough of the concrete against his belly, and Bill was lounging on the only deck chair when Elaine walked past on her way to the laundry room.
"Will you look at the hips on that one?" Bill said.
Glen looked. He saw the latex gloves, the long-sleeved shirt and the dust mask. "What's with the get-up?" he said.
"That there's a woman you can sink your teeth into," Bill observed.
"Jesus, look what's she wearing."
"That's a woman who could give birth to your baby in the morning, set your table at noon and still have enough energy to give you a blowjob as the sun is setting."
"Is that a dust mask she's got on?"
Bill said, "You should ask her over for dinner."
"For who? You?"
Bill narrowed his eyes a little and watched as Elaine balanced the basket of laundry on one hip as she fit her key into the door of the recreation room. "Nah, too young. That one will want babies, all right."
"What's with all the gear she's wearing?"
Suddenly Bill shouted, "Hey, Sweetheart!" and Elaine stopped and turned toward the men. She yelled something back, though it was muffled by the dust mask.
"What's that?" Bill shouted.
"Dad," Glen said, "leave the poor woman alone."
"What?" Bill said. He shouted, "What say you take a little break and join me and my boy for a swim?"
She squinted at the two men on the deck. The younger man was sprawled on his belly. His bald head glistened in the sun. His thin ponytail hung like soggy lint against the back of his neck. He wore a pair of baggy swim trunks, which were covered with pictures of small bottles of Tabasco sauce. The word Hot! was scrawled beneath each bottle.
"Come on," Bill called to Elaine. "Come for a little swim."
Glen said, "Dad, knock it off or I'm going home."
Elaine set her laundry basket on the sidewalk. She put her hands on her hips. The yellow latex gloves glowed bright in the mid-morning sun. A strand of crimson hair escaped the bandana and danced lazily around her face before it came to rest on her cheek.
Glen sat up.
Bill shouted, "Life is short, my girl. Come for a little swim."
"No way," Elaine shouted back, but her words were muffled by the dust mask and neither man understood her. She lifted a plump arm and tucked her hair back under the bandana. She stretched a little, arched her back and pulled the dust mask away from her face for long enough to repeat herself. "That pool is filthy," she said.
Glen narrowed his eyes and leaned forward, staring hard.
Bill laughed and scratched himself. "Ah, nothing could live in here for very long," he said. "There's enough chlorine here to make you blind."
"Forget it," Elaine said, but she stood still. She looked from the old man to his son. Glen looked at Elaine. Bill looked at Glen, then at the woman wearing the dust mask, then back at his son.
"Get it while you can," he told his son. "What?" Elaine said. Glen said, "Do I know you?" and she said, "Where do you live?" and then Bill hollered, "I said, 'Get it while you can.'
Why don't you take off that mask and join us for a little R and R, a little splash-a-roo?"
Elaine hesitated. She looked from her basket of clothes to the two men lounging on the pool deck. Glen thought he heard her say, "Get it while you can," but then she picked up her laundry and balanced it on her hip. She shouted, "I have a cold," and she fled.
Elaine fell asleep just after midnight with a mentholated cough drop tucked in her right cheek. About half an hour later the cough drop slid from her cheek to her throat. She sat up in bed and gagged a little. It was lodged sideways in the back of her throat. She was getting a little air, sure, but not nearly enough. She tried to clear her throat. She said, "Ack. Ack. Ack," but the cough drop settled in more firmly. Elaine felt her gorge rising and her head turning heavy. A thin panic set in. She folded her right hand over her left fist and pushed hard at her sternum once, twice, three times. It stayed where it was. She rolled off her bed and lay on her side on the floor. She thought of the dog in the middle of the street, its hipbone unhinged. Elaine pushed against her sternum as the panic grew, thickened, and turned wild. She banged her head against the carpet, knelt on the floor, and slammed her fist into her chest. "Ack. Ack. Ack." I am going to die, she thought, and she began to claw at her throat, her short fingernails leaving deep scratches in her flesh. Head roaring, she rocked back on her heels and pounded her fist again and again against her sternum and with each punch she thought, I am going. To die.
It exited Elaine's throat with enough force that it hit her dresser with a moderate Think! and bounced harmlessly to the carpet where it lay like a good-sized ruby.
Elaine threw up. Then she sat on her bed and wept for a while. Man alive. Choking to death on a mentholated cough drop, alone in your apartment, on any old weeknight. Eventually, she supposed, the authorities would have found her stretched out on the floor in her ratty old Sears nightie with the coffee stains down the front, just a heap of red hair and yummy hips. And just how, exactly, had she spent her twenty-eight years? Working a crappy job? Playing Hearts and inventing secret lives for the computer-generated players? Avoiding dryer lint? Refusing to take a swim on a perfectly lovely afternoon? Sad. Sad. Sad. If the laundry weren't already clean, Elaine thought, she would march into the laundry room without any gloves or bandana or dust mask and, barehanded, she would clean out every lint trap in the joint. She would sink her face into a pile of it—and breath. Or maybe she would carry a pile of it back to her apartment, start a collection and weave a rug with her bare hands. Fluff! Sweat! Semen, dandruff, menstrual blood, fingernails, dead skin, dust mites. Toe jam.
"Isn't it marvelous!" she would say to anyone who might listen. Isn't it marvelous?
She imagined herself marching toward the laundry room, her hair loose and snaky, full of static, her fingers bare, her breath easy without the dust mask. Maybe she would stop on the way and take a little swim, dive right into that vat of bacteria, the teeming residue of all those bodies—the children with the undisciplined bladders, the itchy old man. "Come for a little splash-a-roo," he had said. Isn't that marvelous? Elaine looked out the small window of her bedroom at the gravel parking lot and the oleander hedges beyond.
After she had squeezed herself into an ancient black one piece and given several hard tugs to the rear end of the suit, Elaine gingerly picked up the mentholated cough drop and set it on the dresser, next to her jewelry box. She wished she had a swimming cap, and then she wished she weren't the type of person who wished for a swimming cap. She looked at the cough drop on the dresser. She was glad she didn't have a swimming cap. It would be good to let her hair soak up all that pool water. She glanced at the red display of her clock radio. It was 1:45 a.m. She grabbed two towels from the basket of clean laundry in the corner of the bedroom.
After listening for almost an hour as his father and the busty old woman from the Garnet thrashed around in the guest bedroom, Glen found himself standing in front of the gate to the pool. In the dark he tried to read the handwritten sign affixed to the gate. He squinted. "Pool Closes at 10 p.m. Trespassers WILL BE ARRESTED." Just in case, the management had secured the gate with a small padlock. It was only a few minutes after two and the city was well on its way to quieting down for the night. Lights were going out all over town. A siren screeched in the distance, but it was far enough away to be comforting. Glen looked at the sign again. Oh well. He turned to walk back to the oleander hedges.
"I hopped the fence," a woman's voice called from somewhere on the other side of the gate. She spoke shakily, as if she wanted to sound like hopping a fence was no big deal.
Glen peered through the chain-link fence and tried to see into the pool area. In the far left corner of the pool he could barely make out the shape of a darkened head. He listened as water was gently displaced around the woman's body. She was treading water. "But the sign says—" he called out.
"Oh, I know," she said, "but I figured, hey, get it while you can. Right? You know? I mean, most definitely."
"Right," Glen said. "Definitely."
"Besides," the woman said, "the water is great." She made a loud show of sighing—Ahhhh—then said, "It's really, um, tepid. But in a good way."
The trip over the fence was not made without difficulty. Glen got his belly caught on the top row of links, the sharp ones. He perched with his torso on one side of the fence, his legs on the other, like some sort of human see-saw. He tried to hold himself away from the fence, which was making deep scratches in his belly. He grunted. He could feel the heat from the security light on his mostly bald head. It occurred to him that, although he couldn't really see much of her, the woman in the pool must be getting a pretty good look at him.
"Boy!" he said. "You must be a gymnast. And brave, too."
Elaine was silent. There was no mistaking those swim trunks, the Tabasco bottles (Hot!), or the thin ponytail that clung like a piece of lint to the back of his neck. He was the man she had seen earlier in the day sitting at the feet of the pushy old man. She started to swim toward the pool ladder.
"I mean," Glen said, "that this is hard work." He grunted twice, then heaved himself the rest of the way over the fence. He hit the deck of the pool hard and sat pressing his fingers against his belly. Elaine stood in front of him, one towel carefully draped around her hips. She was efficiently wrapping the other towel around her hair. "If you could let me pass, please," she said. "I think I'm done here."
He looked up at the hefty figure standing over him. It was awfully dark and awfully late, and his belly was starting to bleed a little.
"I know you," he said and as he said this, not a second before or a second after, he knew. He took in the solid promise of her round hips and her rustypipe hair hidden now beneath the towel, and he knew.
"How do you know me?" Elaine asked.
Glen's heart bumped into his kidneys. Change or die, my boy. Change or die.
He took a deep breath and touched his belly. "I mean," he said, "that I would like to know you."
"I would like to know you," he said again.
They were floating on their backs and listening to the full, 3 a.m. thrum of that enormous flat city, that cowtown, that concrete fist in the desert.
Hairshining and throatsore, Elaine flapped her hands lightly beneath the water's surface. She tried to stay afloat. And in that holy teeming darkness, she allowed her body to drift just a little closer to Glen's.
Elizabeth Wetmore lives in Chicago with too many cats and the poet Jorge Sanchez. She is writing her first novel and touching up a collection of short stories. Her work has appeared in HAYDEN'S FERRY REVIEW, BLACK WARRIOR REVIEW, CRAZYHORSE, and elsewhere.