Mainly, Tim chases skirts. He catches most of them. He devours women the way a goat grazes grass, or maybe it is more the way a goat eats paper out of your pockets at a petting zoo.
"Tonight, whatever," I say, watching Tim as he stands at the door rubbing the paisley on the chest panel of his short-sleeve button-down shirt.
"I don't care what you don't say," he says. "This one's magnetic."
Tim is a flammable combination of out-of-control confidence and irrepressible disappointment. He used to say he was going to be a great writer. But after his first-year writing professor scribbled Eh? and Translated from the Latvian? in margins, Tim said he hated books and attached himself to a frisbee. He tried to join the FBI after college but failed their examination--not the smarts part but the part that led them to the conclusion he could never be trusted. He found lowly work at a magazine, but they fired him for bedeviling female editors above him, who turned out to be one class of skirt he could chase but never catch.
Tim took a job at a coffee shop as a short-order cook until he botched the heating of a can of string beans. He was supposed to cut a thin slot along the rim of the can, empty the liquid, pour boiling water in, shake it around, pour the water out, open the can, and serve. But he poured in evaporated coffee instead, the dregs, and the aggressive ingratitude of a regular customer led Tim to brandish an eight-inch chef's knife. When the police arrived, Tim was holding only a butter spreader, claiming it was the knife in question. No one wanted to press charges, but Tim walked out backwards, holding the butter spreader the way one holds a cross against vampires. Not even the police said a word.
Then Tim got a job running manual elevators, the non-union swingman. People got on and announced the numbers of the floors they wanted. "I can do this," Tim said at first. If he missed a floor, he smiled and said, "Relax, I'll catch you on the way down." But when a tenant whose floor he always missed told him of the building owner's plan to put in automatic elevators within a year, Tim parked the elevator between floors and jumped out, narrowly clearing the shaft. He walked down the nineteen flights and bought a barrel of Foster's Lagen He said every run in that elevator was a microcosm of his life.
Now Tim works in a bookstore, an underling in stock assigned to the back room. Tim says he finally likes books again, not to read, but as neglected objects that need to be held.
Tim came back into my life just after his stint in the elevators. I was out of college, and I hadn't seen him in a few years. We passed each other late one night on Houston Street and traded good wishes. Five days later there was a note on my apartment door: Do you live here? ~Tim. There was a phone number at the bottom, and I didn't call it, but a week after that Tim showed up. He didn't ring, didn't knock. He was just sitting on the welcome mat when I opened the door to step out into a morning.
"I'm out of work," he said. "I lost my share in my apartment. I have nowhere to go."
I must have shrugged.
"Of all my high school acquaintances," he said, "you always had the biggest heart."
I knew he was trying to goad me into saying, Acquaintance? I thought we were friends.
"How about your parents?" I asked.
"They're dead," he said.
"They're not dead," I said, without any real, up-to-the-minute knowledge.
"They will be," he said. "They're dying."
I looked at him.
"We're all dying," he said. "Just let me crash on your couch for a few days. Till I get my bearing."
"Bearing?" I said, still thinking about acquaintance.
"A couple of days," he said. "That's all anybody's talking."
"You can't bring girls here," I said.
"Goes without saying," said Tim.
I feel like a sucker as I watch Tim's red hair flaring out my front door, the heap of shirts he rejected as "non-magnetic" desecrating my desk chair. Most of those shirts are mine. Tim rarely showers, so they need to be washed. I try my hand at bundling them, tying the arms of the most potentially magnetic one around all of the others, the way the one-handed son would do it at the Chinese laundry if I didn't do it for him. It is as if that one shirt is hugging all of the others, loving them in their squalor. I sit at my desk in my dark one-bedroom in the East Village and struggle through ten minutes of unfamiliar Latin without a dictionary. I grab the shirt bundle and head to work at the ad agency where I am the junior member of the team working on slogans for an international chocolate conglomerate.
On my way to the subway, I stop at the laundry and stare at the son folding shirts with his one arm, using his chin when necessary. His mother does the washing. His father changes money and tends to the abuse of the self-service machines. The one-handed son never moves from the station in the back where he checks in the drop-off laundry. I stare at him for too long a time. He strains and almost-rises from his tape-patched stool and uses his uneven yellow teeth and his sole hand to tie, untie, and retie a laundry bag until it reaches a condition of tidiness that is satisfactory to him.
The family-run laundry with its dirty walls and worn linoleum floor has a sad honesty I cannot stop thinking about. When I reach work, on the chair of my retro-chic cubical is a wordy memo from my team leader about the need to convey the feeling of luscious without using the word luscious. My phone rings. It's Tim telling me to come out with him tonight. "Like you promised," he says, telling me I can wear one of his shirts, be his wingman, and run my hands up one of his superfluous skirts. I tell him I don't like leftovers. Anyway, I remind him, I've got Anne--my college sweetheart. She recently told me she'll leave me if Tim isn't out of my life by the end of her countdown, but I don't tell him that.
I'd kick Tim out this very day, but his mother, he's been swearing, is in the hospital, actually dying. As the FBI knows, you can't trust Tim, so I use my lunch hour to go see for myself. The hospital, like every hospital, smells like truth. The endless corridors of painted cinderblock walls, the unrelenting sheen of the speckled white floor--they're all long on candor. I say her name. The nurse at the desk asks me if I'm family. I'm her son, I say. She finds the name and room number. When I enter the room, she is lying in the gizmo bed, hooked up to machines and tubes in the usual medical incarceration. I walk up close and take a good look at the pale color of her face, wrinkles, freckles blending with age spots, and worn-out lips that resemble Tim's. I touch her arm gently. Her eyes open.
"Oh, company," she says. "So good to have company. But who are you?"
I tell her, and almost as soon I wish I hadn't told her. I wish I'd said I was a candy striper, or a volunteer from some church.
"You're the one who's corrupting my Tim, letting him stay with you rather than come crying to his mother," she says. "A mother knows what her boy needs. Tim needs a good cry."
"Of course you know," I say.
"Do you know what I have?" she says.
"First it was my liver. Now it's renal failure. On account of I drink. And you know why I drink?" She blinks at me twice. "People like you."
"I'm not corrupting Tim," I say.
"Are you saying I corrupted him?"
"No. Tim is corrupting himself. Tim is sort of like corruption on hollow legs."
"How dare you say that!" she says. "If Tim's father were alive, he'd kill you with his hands."
She is coughing. Her monitors are beeping. She is reaching out at me, her arms trembling. A nurse comes in, ushers me out.
"People don't corrupt themselves!" Tim's mother shouts. I hear her gasping.
In the hospital lobby, I call Anne on my cell.
"Anne," I say. "Do people corrupt themselves?"
"Of course," she says.
"Thank you!" I say and I hang up.
Anne calls back and says, "What the hell?"
"Sorry," I say. "I didn't mean to ..."
"What is the matter with you? Where are you?"
"At the hospital."
"It's his mother, Tim's mother," I say. "His mother is dying, and his father is dead."
"Don't be a sucker," she says. "You're taking me out tonight. And you're getting rid of Him tomorrow." Anne won't say his name. She only says Him. I keep telling her you can only say Him about God. She has her reasons for not liking Tim, not only that he keeps me out late, but also that he once seized Anne in front of my eyes, landing a wet, smelly kiss on her mouth and palming one of her breasts. I grabbed his hair and pulled him away. It was clear that he was drunk, but that did not help me with Anne.
"He's a friend," I say.
"He's an acquaintance from high school," she says. "What the hell's going on here? Is there something I should know?"
"Anne, she blames me for corrupting him," I say.
"I do, too," she says.
We hang up without saying good-bye.
I stop in the gift shop, look for something for Anne, grab a get-well bear because it looks cute. It's carrying a basket of small, round chocolates.
Tim has his upside, his undouaeable flare. Like reciting from memory passages from Dubliners and lines from Yeats with his impeccable third-generation brogue. Like heating up string beans by pouring cognac through a slit in the can, putting it straight on the gas flame, bringing it with pinch-nose pliers to the table, flambe. That is the Tim who was going to be a great writer.
I get back to work a little after the time I should be getting back from lunch, holding the get-well bear.
"Who's sick?" the leader of my team asks.
"We're all sick," I say. "We're all dying. Tattered coats upon a stick."
The team is too exuberant to express their distaste. Instead they flash gleaming smiles and tell me they have a slogan they're all in love with: Life should be a dream.
"Isn't that a song?" I say.
"That's could, not should!" they bark in unison.
"I don't know," I say, sure they feel I am trying to corrupt them.
"Look it over," one of them says. They appear to care what I think, each of them.
I'm sitting at my desk considering Life should be a dream when Anne calls.
"I've been going over my life," she says. "It's Him or me. No hard feelings, either way. Just choose already."
"I'll talk to you about it tonight," I say.
"We're not seeing each other tonight," she says. "You're staying home and deciding. Tomorrow is the day you go forth."
"My little plum," I say, stalling for words, wondering how to keep up with her.
I am gripping the phone as I hear hers slam.
Life should be a dream. I still think it's too close to the song, but I'm going to tell them to go for it.
The phone rings. It's Tim, sounding squishy.
"You haven't left yet?" he says. "Yesterday you said you'd come out tonight. You're such a liar."
"It's not tonight yet," I say. "Where are you?"
"In the bookstore," he says. "In the stock room. They have an old red phone mounted only three feet off the floor. I have to kneel to dial you, like I'm praying."
"Tim, your father's really dead and your mother is dying," I say.
"Some answer to my prayer," he says. "Ah, what do you care?"
"I care," I say.
"Okay, but how much?" he says. "Can I stay a few more weeks?"
"Weeks?" I say.
"Good," says Tim. "I knew you cared enough."
I pick up the laundry on my way home. I try to have a conversation with the one-handed son, but it's only small talk and I assume he knows it. Home, I divide the shirts pointlessly again, hanging mine and putting Tim's on top of the battered linen suitcase that belonged to one of his forbears. I open a beer and crack my Latin book.
The phone rings while I'm trying to parse a sentence, someone from Tim's bookstore who says his name is Patrick. He tells me Tim was fired a week ago but still comes in every afternoon, drunk, asking if he can take a leak in the stockroom toilet, mumbling passages from Irish authors with a cheap imitation brogue.
"He has a good brogue," I say.
"What do you know about brogues?" he says. I can hear that Patrick is from Ireland.
"Apparently not much," I say.
"We want you to tell him to stop coming here," he says. This Patrick has a beautiful accent.
"Why me?" I ask.
"Because you're the one Tim told us to call," says Patrick. "He said if you tell him, he'll listen."
"You believe that?" I say.
"It's not a matter of belief," says Patrick. "He said it. I'm bloody calling. So please do. And let's hope it works, because if it doesn't we're calling the police."
I'm thinking about how great it would be to hear Patrick recite the passages Tim is so fond of. But I'm glad I don't. I don't want to focus on Tim sounding shabby. I'm remembering Tim as the master of his domain, a gifted, lanky king--lead actor in the high school plays, praised writer of verse in tenth-grade English; soccer team star until they kicked him off for distributing hash to the defensemen; drummer extraordinaire, so good a reader they drafted him for orchestra. I remember him making his brilliant mischief from the back of the orchestra, using eight measures of whole rests to lean forward into the ear of Larissa Duncan and whisper "fellatio ... [heavy breath] ... fellatio," which caused Larissa to mis-breathe and besmirch the entire French horn section, of which she was first chair. Tim only wanted to be a jazz drummer, but he was so talented that our fierce and acclaimed director, Mr. Lubitzky, fancied him a percussionist and required him to be in the orchestra as a prerequisite to being in the jazz band. Tim did know all of the instruments, knew them intimately. "Do you know you can turn a cymbal inside out?" he said to me during one rehearsal as I was trying to keep up with my snare drum part. "Watch," he said, proceeding to bend with his superlative tendon strength the concave all the way to convex, about three-quarters of the way around. "I need your foot," he said, "to hold it down." He knelt down to muscle the last section. It didn't seem possible. I saw Tim struggling. Then I saw the last quarter go. "Keep keeping your foot on it. When I say now, you lift it up," said Tim. When Tim whispered "now" at a place where there was to be a cymbal crash, I let my foot go. The cymbal soared six feet in the air, making a sound five times louder than a regular cymbal crash. It was jarring, clangorous. The orchestra stopped playing. Lubitzky kicked me out. Tim waved.
"Patrick," I say, "I'll tell Tim, but do me a favor. Could you recite Yeats' 'Sailing to Byzantium'?"
"Bloody fuck off!" he says.
"Just the same, I'm still going to tell him," I say, trying to show Patrick he can't corrupt me.
Patrick hangs up, hard. I take another beer, pick up my Lewis and Short, try to figure out the etymology of "to corrupt." Corrumpere. "To destroy, to ruin, to waste." It's from com, the intensive prefix, "utterly," and rup-, the past participle stem of rumpere, "to break." It means to break utterly. I decide that someone who didn't know this might think the cor stood for heart.
The phone rings.
"Are you coming out, or are you going to stay home like a molting seal and read your Latin?"
"They fired you," I say.
"Patrick said you said to call."
"I'll just stay with you for a while--stay in with you, reading, every night," he says. "You will be a good influence on me."
"Tim," I say. "It started as me agreeing to let you stay for a few days. Now it's gone on far too long. Exactly how long are you planning to stay with me?"
"Until you kick me out."
"Okay, I'm kicking you out," I say. "It's official."
"Fine," he says. "I'll be out tomorrow. But you're still coming out with me tonight, right? For old times?"
It's one of the good dive pubs, crowded, fugacious, with a halcyon waft of piss and beer. Tim is leaning against a bar stool, holding court. There are a couple of ladies on either side of him. Tim's kind of ladies.
Tim's kind of lady has been in town only a couple of weeks. Or she has been here too long and is talking about leaving, trying to scrape together the money she needs for the bus. Or she's drunk even before he arrives at the bar, squawking loudly about forgetting her birth control. Tim's kind of lady is on the rebound, or looking to rebound. Always oddly giggly. Always good-looking, but also marred. Always looking for a good time, or at least a better time than she's been having.
"It's Mr. Fun," says Tim.
"It's Mr. Magnetic," I say.
"This is Jill," Tim says. "This is Wendy." Jill has red hair, but not as red as Tim's. Wendy is blond. Jill seems like the one on the rebound: she's got her hand, but not her arm, on Tim's shoulder. She swings around, pirouettes, grabs her beer from the bar, chugs it, puts it back, all without lifting the long soft touch of her upcurved fingers from Tim's shoulder.
Wendy is drunk, blond, and leggy, gorgeous except for the light scar that weaves a trail between her jaw and neck. She falls against me, then catches her balance.
"Tim says you're Mr. Fun," she says through a sloppy smile.
I growl and she giggles, her large mouth open like a cavern. She pulls away, turns, bends down, grabs her hair and starts trying to recompose it.
"Does it have to be tomorrow?" Tim asks, his eyes soft, the way he can make them when he's willing to let you know he's truly needy.
"It does," I say.
"Yet you'll drink with me tonight," he says, laughing. "You bastard!"
"I'm Mr. Fun," I say, and he faces the bartender and orders all sorts of drinks. I stick with Wild Turkey, also a couple of beers. Jill and Wendy have been patient with Tim, but soon they start to compete for his attention.
"You said we'd get rid of Wendy and head downtown," Jill tells him. "We've been here three hours."
Wendy hears and starts kissing Tim, and there's jumpiness in her legs. Tim puts his arm around her and takes her aside. He talks sweetly to her, and she smiles up at him with her eyes closed. He comes back with his arm around her waist.
"Wendy's yours," he whispers to me. "I told her you're kicking me out. I told her if she can make you let me stay, I'll be indebted to her. I told her Jill is too delicate to dump in public. Have fun."
I don't even nod.
"You know you love it," he says, and he's right. I think, in this drunken state, that he's nothing short of amazing. Whether or not his shirts are magnetic, he surely is.
Wendy is slobbering on me. She is sweaty, smells like she's in heat. She is whisper-shouting into my ear, grinding her crotch into my thigh. "Tim says I have to bust you up from your smart and pretty girlfriend. Says he doesn't think I can do it. Says if I can, he's mine. Do you think I can do it? Does that kind of thing turn you on?"
"Tim talks a lot of shit," I say.
"Hey, lighten up!" Wendy says.
I'm drunk. I hate Wendy, and I crave air. I elbow a few people in the back to speed my exit from the bar, walk a couple of blocks, pause to buy a cola from a vender, start running. I stop by my apartment for the bear, hall a cab. At Anne's place she opens the door and kisses me, her arms around my shoulders, my arms loping down around her narrow back, my hands set upon her solid plum of a bottom. The bear falls out of my hand and lands against the back of her ankles.
"What was that?" she asks.
I bend down, pick it up, present it.
"Get well?" she says.
"It's from the hospital," I say. "I was in a daze."
"Hard to imagine," she says.
Anne moves her face closer to mine, sniffs me.
"It smells like there's girl on you," she says.
"Just odor, no flesh," I say.
"Stop calling him Him," I say. "He'll be gone tomorrow."
"Is that true?" she says, her mouth making one of her uptight, center-line smiles.
"I'm choosing you," I say. "He's leaving tomorrow. Life should be a dream."
"Be serious," she says. "Why are you quoting that stupid song?"
"That's could," I say. "I'm saying should."
"You've been out killing brain cells."
"It's a sad thing with Tim. Will you admit that?"
"I'll admit it," she says, "once he's gone."
"I know you hate him, but I'm sure you know something I wonder about. What is it? Tell me. What do women see in him?"
"Animal," she says.
"That's what I thought."
"Oh," I say, upset that she knows something about Tim I've never figured out.
"And you can't fix it," she says. "It's not something anybody did to him. He was born wounded."
"And his women? Were they born wounded too?"
"No, they were wounded by someone. Tim is hopeless. The women who like him have hope, but they're most comfortable having it dashed."
I don't want Anne to start analyzing me. I want to think I'm just a guy with a big heart who is helping out a person in need. But maybe my big heart has been shrinking.
"Stay over," Anne says.
"I don't want to give Tim the run of the place," I say. "Not on his last night."
"Just stay," she says.
Anne likes me when I'm drunk. She cleans me, rubs me, nestles me into her bed, brings me cool water, ravishes me, crazed by the way the liquor has taken away my edges. She rides me sweetly, as if in a dream.
I kiss Anne and walk to my apartment in the bluish glow of the first morning light. My door is unlocked. I walk in. Tim is sitting in the high-backed chair in the corner of the living room, and I go into a brief tirade. About Tim. About me. I tell him I don't give a shit whether he was born wounded or someone wounded him. I tell him I've got troubles, too. I tell him I might not even have hope for myself.
Tim begins calmly putting his shirts into a bag, rolling down and buttoning his sleeve.
"You should listen to yourself," he says.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Look at you. You have nothing left to hope for. College sweetheart. Hotshot job. Both of your parents sweetly breathing."
"They're divorced," I say.
"Big deal. So they compete for your affection. Your father gave you a fucking credit card."
"It's only for an emergency."
"Ha! And what does your beautiful mother give you, pussy?"
"You're sick," I say. "I saw your mom yesterday. She was lying in a stained hospital gown. Why don't you go visit her?"
"You always think you understand," he says.
"I want you out," I say. "Now!"
"I should make you pay for the great high you've ruined," he says, and he walks into the kitchen, comes out walking backwards, holding his butter spreader. He picks up his suitcase, stops in front of me on his way to the door.
"I'm sorry, Tim," I say.
"Sorry?" he says. He reaches into his shirt pocket, takes out the key I gave him, drops it into my hand. "Don't worry," he says. "I didn't make a copy."
I watch him walk down the bare entrance hall, carrying the suitcase as if it has no weight. My front door banging shut echoes in a way I've never heard before. Louder, fuller--like a gargantuan tree falling in the forest when only you are there to hear it.
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|Publication:||The Carolina Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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