What could be worse than having to be seen resorting to your own life? In my case, there was a fixed sum of experiences, of people, to or from which I could not yet add or subtract, but which I was skilled at coming to grief over, crucially, in broad daylight.
He was a head taller than I, but he had arrived, midlife, at a way of scheming himself downward as he walked, of wreaking onto his considerable body a succession of indentations, curtailments, so that whatever memory of him the townspeople might, if pressed, recuperate later on in the light of their houses would be that of an incompletely statured, sideswept man of unfixable purpose. He was not my father (my father had remained unheard of); but because I never addressed him by name (I instead tutoyered him left and right), observers understandably conformed the two of us to their familiar, cleanly notion of father and son.
He would tolerate no footwear under his roof. It was an issue, a policy, of hygiene. He held to a conviction about the unmanageable filthiness of shoes--that once you suffered contact with the bottom of one, you sank to the level of everything the shoe had ever been brought down upon. The piss slopped onto lavatory floors and then tracked everywhere by dint of the retentive sole of a publicly worn slipper was his standard weary example. And then the house would have the entire clientele of the lavatory circulating throughout it: the house would be thrown wide open again.
The man designed promising clothes.
I adolesced diplomatically by his side. I put in long days in the wide, thorough rooms. My heart performed. I fetched whatever the man pointed to. He had a rapid, nominating hand.
I was his head of hair. He would lay claim to the tacky mass of it--redisperse it, superintend it differently, complicate it with ribbons and barrettes, adjust the lights in it, provoke it to fresh successes. I would allow him to have his full say where I was just nerveless, slippery lengths.
In turn, he sought control of the cooking. He plotted our meals with a dismal rigor, mobilizing faded cuts of ham, even paler partings, sectionings, of fruit, jeopardizations of it, along the narrow extent of countertop. (An article of food should present itself as something else, he demanded, arranging lesioned vegetables on a tray for the headboard. "To cool the backs of the knees," he said. Or: "For where your feet will one day have to go.") The days I locked myself in my room, I could count on a raggedness of beef, in sheets, to be slid into thick wallets of bread and then be remitted, relinquished, on the mat outside the door I kneeled behind.
For I had already flung myself into the books that were expected to cause me the most trouble: our sickliest histories. I loitered in them: I stooped on the sentences, bestrode the tensed, buckling words, squatted there until the spread of events became mine alone.
The man knew, too. "What will you use for money?" was how he couched his knowledge.
Our life continued in this train for months. With my ear against the door, I could make out, when I wanted to, the fussing snitter of a scissors or the motory commotions of the sewing machine or, less often, the cantillation, intimate and menial, of the man's telephone voice. (There was a backer he was required to call.) I noticed that a woman from time to time passed by my window: we began to exchange waves. Nothing serious or signific at first--but, before long, a greeterly incontinence took hold of the two of us: our arms shivered away from our sides: even our wristfalls became communicational, summative. The first time I climbed all the way out, she guided me to where she said she slept: an ulterior milieu of lotions, spot cash, pedestaled cake savers ajar with the surrounding town. My hands lent themselves to her pink, winking undernesses. (She had the prevailing anatomy.) We made plans to meet again halfway between us. She named some eligible district.
A less penalized course of retrospection, however, would find me having already found that there was a living to be made by furnishing grounds for others in the town to regard me consanguineously: to knock on a door and be shown to a seat and then, by polite, solacing intervals, be drawn out as the furthermost yet of kin. I thus fingered their ashtrays, left informing redolences on their sofas and chairs. I wore a welcome hole in their lives. For once, mothers would have been perfectly in the right to talk in secret twos and threes. But how wrong could they have been to keep counting their children on the sly every hour on the hour? When at last the time came to eat, we confronted a speckiness in shallow bowls. Afterward, I would be alternately detested and regaled--the butt of every confidence. I remember setting enough nights aside to compose a hat: an extremely curtained and commemorative number that was later to be accorded all that ill-intentioned popularity.
The strings one neglectedly--neglectingly--pulls!
For it was on the strength of this hat alone, the boxed mock-up of it, that I advanced to another man: this one importunate, futureless, adept. We mostly had to travel.
His house and his "finds" (I am free to quote merely from the will) in time demised to me. I had to be driven out for a look at the place. What I could make out had a loose, unmastered aspect in the supplementary light I had been reminded to bring along.
After the auction: prompt, forgivable descents into marriage.
Delora: she must have lived her life in advance of the actual events, because her stomach would accept nothing further. (But she had advantages of height, of moisture.)
Grete: mornings, after shaking out our sheets, she claimed to see "blue minerals" all over the floor. (These she is said to still be sweeping.)
Liann: a whiled-away, vanishing girl. (She had come up through the ranks of her sisters.)
I hope I was impossible.
I hope I told last every one of them the same thing--that under no circumstances should the body ever have to depict itself.
More in keeping, then, with the nature of this anniversary confession are my chances, much later in life, of having had a boy looking in on me after work. (The work was the boy's alone.)
Then the boy fell sick.
The doctor squeezed his, the doctor's, face shut while he, the doctor, spoke terribly of English.
Both of them gave me their money so it would not have to go for food.
--Gary Lutz, from Stories in the Worst Way (Knopf, 1996)
What could be worse than having to be seen resorting to your own life? In my case, there was a fixed sum of experiences, of people, to or from which I could not yet add or subtract, but which I was skilled at coming to grief over, crucially, in broad daylight. For instance, not too long ago I concerned one of the local women, a fruitful botch of a girl. We worked side by side--did data-entry and look-up, first shift, in an uncarpeted, unair-conditioned recess of the ground floor of a bricky low-rise. I was forever taking her in over the partition of bindered reference directories that bisected our workstation. I would keep a sidelong watch over her as she ordered her daily allowance of cough drops in echelon on a square of paper towel. May the arms of other people be said to have an atmosphere? At the very least, may they be construed as aromatic systems of bone and down? Hers enjoyed, for my sake alone, an intimate publicity above the little dove-gray squares of her keyboard.
And the pastime she had! You are familiar, at least, with those bubble packs that almost everything gets sold in nowadays? She used to peel the clear plastic bubble away from its anchoring cardboard, emancipate what she had bought (yet another handset cord for her phone, maybe, or another pencil sharpener, or one of those tricky tooth-whitening sets), then stow into the bubble whatever she happened to have at hand (blood-gaudied parabolas of dental floss; some saxophone-shaped lengths of black plastic that paired socks had hung from in stores; significant clothespins; muculent tissues), reaffix the bubble to the cardboard base, then post the culled, reliquary results on one of the cork tiles that lined the wall of a corridor where everybody, including me alone, could not help having to see.
Our days, it turned out, held a lot of the same things. Mornings would arrive piecemeal, filling themselves out little by little, summoning tiny inheritances from the previous day--memorial resources in the form, say, of dust suddenly abundant enough for us to thumb from our screens--until there were valid hours bearing us up and we could at last swoon away from our machines.
My eyes would chance ambitiously onto hers.
The woman possessed an appropriately full, planetlike face. It had things on it I always took for something else--on her chin, for instance, a bluish streaklet that I assumed had to be ink. A bungled complexion, in short, and teeming features.
Inquiry: at what point do people become environments for one another to enter? I was entertaining thoughts along these lines because I had only recently brought to an end a period of clandestine gender on my part, a period of not having allowed my life to register on any part of me that saw the light of day. I had now gone as far as collaborating with my body to raise a pivotal tilde of a mustache.
One night, after work, under the ribbed dome of my umbrella (the one torn panel fixed over the back of my head), I thus led her to a restaurant. We perspired baffledly over our deep soups and did not look each other in the eye at first. I think I gulped around my food without eating very much of it. (I have been told that I swallow air.) I eventually started in on her, tendering the usual explanation--that people banded together into little domestic populations and could be seen getting up, en bloc, from tables. I went on to be understood that I did not expect to ever be cooked for, but that I would probably never stop expecting to smell cooking. I brought my parents into it, too--how I was their descendant, someone who had come down from not too high a height; how I had one foot in the two of them; how in my reflection in the greensick screen of my monitor I could sometimes make out a riling rehash of their faces; how they were no doubt speaking right that very moment at the top of my current voice.
For her part, she told me that as a schoolgirl she had been dismissed late one morning with sticklets of charcoal and clunches of unruled paper, and had been instructed not to come back until she had made rubbings of what it was like where she lived: the fretwork along the upper walls, the nailheads and knots of the floorboards, every unevenness of her household. Always pegging away at some fitting trouble, she said. People were always either coming into money or going through her things.
She payed out her arms toward me so slowly, so concealedly, across the tabletop as she spoke that I did not notice until her fingers had closed around my wrists.
Then her room: an unsociable half-circle of folding chairs. One of those collapsible music stands erect on its tripod--the lyrelike shelf, where the music was supposed to sit, holding out an open telephone directory instead. A sink and a splishing faucet and stacks of hand towels, face towels, bath towels, washcloths. No bed, just some mats we had to uncurl. The lamp made a tinny, frustrated sound when I switched it off. I imagine I must have unbundled her, peeled off her underdressings, dipped my fingers into her, sopped and woggled them around, browsing, consulting what she had made of herself inside.
Afterward: sink wash, sponge baths.
Because some days the world holds true at the drop of a hat, don't you find? Things favor themselves: whatever you reach for--a shimmered arm, or parts unknown--is ready, finally, to have itself handled. Other days, you can barely exempt yourself from what you might still be capable of. Instead of sleep, the most you count on getting is some cheesy quiet. It follows, then--should it not?--that in even the thinnest of light there are places at which to come to an accurate parting of the ways. At the most, I may have broken something not too major or prominent of hers.
In due time, though, I had her on the phone.
"Sororally," she was saying. "As a sister."
She walked off the job, or got herself promoted, reassigned, not long after that. I took it in my head to go back to the restaurant just once. I brought along a plump, companionable section of the Courier-Tribune--the part with the unremitting regional spot news. Swivel-eyed eaters took me in as I picked my way to the booth. How much harm could I have meant? A woman sat down, unaccompanied, to peer at me from the next booth--a much older woman, a differently futile ensemble of smells and noisings. I remember that during the progress of the meal (I had ordered one of the big, busying specials), I disturbed the pages of my newspaper, spoiling them, melancholizing them with sudden prosperities of eyesight, despecificating the stories until all that was still binding in them was a vague and ungiving sense of people motioning dimly toward me from within their own cumbersome towns.
I left off my reading and brought the paper down a final time, then stared ahead at the woman, with the news, and all I had done to it, still on view in my eyes. I exacted it onto her--confirmed it. This was as much as it took to get her up and going, her body irked forward by its clique of meddling organs. For my part, I must have made a decision to see how much of the ink I could soap off my hands.
To get into the men's room, you went through a door and immediately--no more than two feet in--discovered a second door, heavier, unpainted; and before you could get the thing open, you had to make room by reopening, by a good half-foot, the one you had already pushed through.
--Gary Lutz, from Stories in the Worst Way (Knopf, 1996)