A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 1

I don’t get out as much as I used to. When I do, I usually end up feeling sad. A week ago, for instance, on my way home from buying toothpaste, I saw a homeless man standing by the freeway entrance. He was holding up a cardboard sign with the word help written on it in capital letters.

The homeless man hadn’t bathed in months. He hadn’t been out of his clothes for months. But he could write — unless he had asked someone else to make his sign for him, or had found it lying in the dead grass by the side of the road, which is possible but not too likely. That he could write is important, I think. It means that some thirty-five or forty years ago, when he was a boy, he went to school. Or, if he didn’t, then at least someone took the time to teach him his letters. His mother, perhaps. As I have never been a big fan of school myself, I hope it was his mother. And if it was, then maybe he still remembers her. Maybe he was thinking about her when I drove by, and missing her.

That I did drive by, instead of stopping, made me ill. Not that I could have helped. I was moving slowly, and he looked right at me. His reddish-brown hair was long and straggly. The lines in his sunburnt forehead were clogged with dirt and grime. I thought, There he is, for God’s sake. There is one of my fellow human beings crying out for help. There is a man who has been reduced to holding up a sign in front of hundreds of strangers too busy to care — or worse, afraid to care — afraid he might be a killer, and that if they were to stop and try to help him, they would wind up in a ditch somewhere and never make it home.

He looked right at me. I kept going. The two cars in front of me and the one behind me did the same. As we gathered speed for our on-ramp assault, I caught a glimpse of the homeless man in my rearview mirror. From two hundred feet away, he looked like a dirty brown statue, a historical marker ignored by the highway department.

At home, I opened the brightly colored box containing my new tube of toothpaste. I held the box at an angle and let the tube slide out into my hand. After putting the tube on the counter next to the sink in the bathroom, I opened the cabinet door beneath the sink and dropped the box into the large brown grocery bag I use as a wastebasket. I turned off the light and went into the kitchen. I thought about eating, but decided against it. My hunger had lost its validity. Temporarily, of course. You know how it is. Something you’ve seen or experienced touches you deeply and moves you to a nobler plane, but then later on you get really hungry and your concern for humanity loses focus. You care, God knows you do, but the thought of biting into a pickle plows like a hippopotamus into the clear pool of your compassion. The next thing you know, you’re warming up some three-day-old enchiladas. I did pour myself a cup of coffee, though. I needed something, and the coffee had only been sitting on the warmer for five or six hours.

Coffee in hand, I sat down in front of my computer. In my apartment, space is at a premium, so I eat at the sink and work at the kitchen table. Sometimes I eat while sitting in my father’s old vinyl easy chair, but it’s not very comfortable, since I have to hold my knees together and keep my feet under the TV stand. It’s not quite that bad, but you get the picture. Anyway, I don’t have a TV. But I do have a stand, which I use as a bookshelf.

I took a sip of the coffee and began sorting through some of the stuff on the table. There were several unopened bills that I decided to ignore for another day or two, on general principles. Actually, until I’m paid, nobody else is paid either. Half a dozen hole-in-the-wall print shops in town owe me money, but until they are paid, I won’t be paid. Such is the life of a small-time self-employed typesetter with limited skills and an old computer.

On the screen was a business card for an eye doctor. The card needed changes. Why an eye doctor needs a web site, I will never know. Is it to cause eye strain and get more business? Even magnified at two hundred percent, there were enough phone, fax, and pager numbers on the card to make my eyes water. Some people have no sense at all. Two offices at different locations, each with suite numbers, the doctor’s name in large, bold type, a hideous logo that looks like a frog’s eye, and I’m supposed to find room to add a web site and an e-mail address. Next they’ll want the Book of Psalms. “Hi. This is Pam calling, from Dr. Freeman’s office. The doctor would like to add the Book of Psalms to his business card.” Lady, there ain’t room for a single psalm. Why don’t you tell the doc to keep a copy of the Bible in his waiting room?

Other than that, I was pretty well caught up. Heck. I’m always caught up. That’s why I’m broke. But being caught up has its advantages. With the extra free time, I am able to hone my regret. Every once in a while I try counting my blessings, but the list is a short one. Besides, feeling grateful and contented is not nearly as satisfying as dwelling on the royal mess I’ve made of everything over the years. My ex-wife will attest to that — Mary, the level-headed registered nurse, who subscribes to Reader’s Digest. God, how I hate that sappy magazine. Before our divorce, I dreaded my visits to the bathroom. There was a stack at least three feet tall in there. More than once, I accused her of keeping the things around to annoy me. I was joking, of course. She worked hard, and the magazine helped her unwind.

I must say, Mary is a wonderful person. I am ashamed of myself for driving her away. But I was an idiot. A selfish baboon. Instead of keeping a stiff upper lip, I gave in to my melancholy tendencies. In fact, I wallowed in them. The truth is, feeling cheerful never seemed like much of an option. To a large extent, I still feel that way. The sheer volume of negative things going on in the world makes optimism seem a little silly. And yet I realize optimistic people are probably our only hope — provided they’re not stupid. If nothing else, a good dose of optimism would improve the condition of humanity’s stomach lining — no small thing in itself.

We discussed the matter at great length. We discussed everything at great length. Mary minored in psychology. I was her project. Maybe that’s why we stayed together as long as we did. After years of grueling analysis, she came to the logical conclusion that I was depressed — not exactly a shocking revelation, but valid nonetheless. She even suggested drugs. But I’ve never been much for taking pills. It seems pills inevitably lead to more pills. And while some pills may do a certain amount of good, I think they also compromise the integrity of the system as a whole, as well as one’s ability to tune in to the underlying problems. Suffice it to say I’m not a proponent of the quick fix. For all I know, it might be that depression is what I’m supposed to be feeling right now, and that one day it will have run its course, having served its purpose, having played its part in the overall scheme of things. And, who knows? If that time ever comes, maybe I will cease to be a babbling idiot and become a productive citizen, as unlikely as that sounds.

I want to say that I’m better off alone, but I know better. I also want to say Mary is better off without me, but I don’t believe it. I used to, but not anymore. There are too many signs to the contrary. I still wonder what would have happened if I had tried a little harder. I did try, but the trying didn’t cut it. I should have done something more. I shouldn’t have let her go. The trouble is, our divorce was an intellectual one. Neither of us had sufficient ego or arrogance to belittle our life together. Hatred was out of the question. Anger, even. The result being, to this day, I have never felt really and truly divorced. You’d think three years apart would be proof enough. But it isn’t. And then there is the son between us, the beautiful blond boy who loves baseball and girls, who will finish high school before we know it, and be off on his own adventures.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. And that part about the ego — what a load of bull. I’m embarrassed I even said it. I’ve yet to meet anyone whose ego, if measured in terms of gas, wasn’t big enough to float a blimp. The truth is, Mary and I took turns tormenting each other. At least this is another part of the truth. The whole truth is something we will probably never recognize or understand. But the sex was good, if you will forgive my saying so. And so were the sweet moments afterward, lying in bed together, listening to the house settle in the middle of the night, and to the neighbor’s cat walking on the roof.

I piddled around for awhile with the business card, trying to find a way to fit the new information the doctor wanted. Finally I got it to work, after reducing the size of everything else and cramming all the lines of type together. It didn’t look half-bad, really. It didn’t look good, either, but there is only so much a guy can do. Anyway, the doctor had his web site and his e-mail address. I printed out the finished product and put it into a folder to give to the printer I do work for whose shop is on Water Street. I also included my invoice for twenty dollars, which, with any luck, I will see in a month or two.

That evening, out of the blue, Mary called. After talking about our son, Matt, for a few minutes, she asked me how I was and if I was still having trouble sleeping. To simplify matters I told her I was sleeping a lot better recently, which was a bald-faced lie. When she called I still hadn’t eaten. Instead I had spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about the homeless man I’d seen, and about homeless people in general, whom, when you come right down to it, I know very little about. A few days earlier, I had read in the newspaper that the city police department was planning to drive the homeless out of their encampments by the river, in an effort to clean up the area for joggers and other respectable types. I remember at the time wondering where the homeless people would go, but only briefly, until I was distracted by something else in the paper — something equally important, no doubt, and therefore meaningless. Who knows what it was. It might have been something about the world’s oil supply, or an ad for women’s underwear.

I had the start of a headache, and didn’t feel like talking about the quality of my sleep. I’ve never been a very sound sleeper. To make matters worse, for the last year or so I’ve been having dreams off and on about my father, who died of lung cancer nine years ago. All the time I knew him, Dad was just a stick of a figure, a big smoker and a little eater. He had a high, raspy voice and he smiled a lot, without showing his teeth, which were discolored and not in the greatest condition. When he laughed, he usually ended up coughing. He worked for the city in the little town where we were from, a place called Norris, which I still visit two or three times a year to see my mother — not nearly often enough, as it turns out.

Everyone liked my father. Dad was handy with tools, and could fix anything. He was also a good plumber, and would drop whatever he was doing to go and unclog our neighbors’ toilets. By the time I was in high school, I’m sure he’d crawled around under everyone’s house in town at least once.

I’m proud to say that he and I were pretty good friends. There were quite a few times I made him mad, but it never took him long to get over it. He wasn’t one to stew over things. He’d just tell me straight out that in his estimation I had made a mistake. Then he’d tell me why he thought it was a mistake, and he always managed to back up his argument with examples from his own experience. It had nothing to do with his authority or my lack of perfection. He was only interested in teaching me how to get along in the world and be a better person. We’d talk, then he’d put his hand on my shoulder — God, I can feel it, even now — and he’d ask me if I wanted to help him with whatever project he had going on around the house.

I know he was disappointed in me when I quit college, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be doing there. I took a smattering of classes, most of which I skipped. Dad’s schooling had ended with high school, and he was firmly convinced that a college degree would spare me the grief he’d suffered in trying to raise a family. Before he landed his job with the city, he was a truck driver and was gone a lot. He also graded turkeys at a plant in the next town. He even mowed lawns. It didn’t help matters that my older sister, Kay, was a teacher, and that my younger brother, Bob, planned to be an architect. But before quitting school I did meet Mary, and that he was happy about. Looking back, I’m sure he thought she would straighten me out. This almost happened, until both of us gave up trying — formally, at least — three years ago.

The one thing I’m grateful for is that he didn’t have to witness our separation. He would have been heartbroken, I know. He loved Mary, and he loved our son, who was seven years old when Dad died. These are the things you think about. The crazy little games they’d play, the silly presents they’d give each other, things like old marbles or spoons or leaves from the yard. Or the people they’d invent. Matt had an invisible friend Dad claimed to have met personally and had lunch with on several occasions. The friend’s name was Johnny Gogoons. Who knows where that came from. But Dad also had a friend, who by some strange coincidence happened to be invisible, named Johnny Gaggis. Gogoons and Gaggis. They might have been attorneys. From what I can remember, Gogoons was the taller of the two, and was a pitcher for the Yankees. Gaggis was a traveling shoe salesman with the strange ability to materialize whenever he had a customer. He had sold shoes to everyone in the county, except to crusty old Mr. Hinshaw, who was almost a hundred years old. Since Mr. Hinshaw was deaf and never left the chair on his front porch, he was a hard-sell. As Dad told it, every time Gaggis went to Mr. Hinshaw’s, he failed to sell him a pair of shoes. Finally, he resorted to all kinds of stunts. Once, he put a new pair of shoes on his hands and walked from the street up the sidewalk to Mr. Hinshaw’s porch on his hands. But Mr. Hinshaw wasn’t impressed and sent the acrobatic salesman away. Another time, Gaggis played the trumpet directly into Mr. Hinshaw’s ear so he’d be sure to hear it. This did the trick. By the time the song was over, there was a tear in Mr. Hinshaw’s eye. The song Gaggis had played so beautifully was “My Wild Irish Rose.” It turned out to be Mr. Hinshaw’s favorite, and so the old man bought a pair of work shoes. He never actually wore the shoes, because he couldn’t bend over to put them on, but at least he bought them.

Yes, these are the things you think about. No wonder I feel guilty — first, for our separation and divorce, then, for not making more of myself, though perhaps the jury is still out on that. I hope. It would be healthier, I’m sure, to let go of the past. Dad is gone. He killed himself smoking. Whatever happens, that won’t change. That I see him in dreams is natural enough, and probably not that unusual. I’m even grateful, because I miss him, and the dreams somehow bring us closer. What bothers me is that in most of the dreams he asks for my help, and I am never able to give it to him. He is tired, often too tired to leave his chair — the one I have with me in the apartment now, the one my mother insisted I take, because she could neither bear to look at it nor part with it completely.

When Dad was alive, he never needed my help. Or, maybe he did, and I was just too young or too dumb to recognize it. In one dream recently, I was drifting slowly in the sky above our old neighborhood in Norris. It was early in the morning, just before the sun was up. I remember the air being sweet and dry and easy to breathe. My arms were outstretched, and I wasn’t surprised at all to be where I was. Looking down I could see the lawns and the trees, and the cars and the pickups parked along the street. Soon — which is sometimes forever in dreams, the forever in which hope is rekindled and childhood relived — I found myself walking up the sidewalk in front of our house. My mother and father were outside, sitting in their wood-and-canvas lawn chairs near the front steps. Dad was asleep and Mom was worried because it was time for him to get ready for work and she couldn’t wake him up. She asked me if I would try. When I did, speaking to him softly and then touching his arm, I realized he was dead. When I told my mother, she said, “What a pity you were late,” as if I should have known Dad’s life depended on my being there sooner.

As it turned out, Mary had called Mom on the phone earlier that day. They’ve kept in touch, which is good for both of them and good for Matt. Mary said my mother was thinking of moving. This caught me off guard, because Mom is the kind of person who puts down not only roots, but tubers and rhizomes as well. Plus, she never said a word to me about it. That seemed strange. Not that she seeks my advice on anything. She doesn’t. Since my father’s death, she has taken care of her own affairs.

The thing is, I can’t imagine Mom living anywhere other than in the house where I grew up. I don’t want to, either. Maybe it’s selfish, but I think if Mom were to leave, I’d feel lost, because there would be no truly meaningful place left for me to go. All of which I told Mary.

I asked Mary what my mother had said about moving.

She said, “Not much, really.”

“Did she say why she wanted to move?” I said. “Or where she was going?”


“Didn’t you ask her?”

“I did, but she didn’t hear me. She started talking about something else.”

“Well, I guess that sounds pretty typical.”

Mary was quiet for a moment. “Anyway,” she said, “I don’t think she wants to move.”
“What does she want, then?” I said.

“Probably some attention.”

“Oh. Which I haven’t been giving her.”

“That’s not quite what I meant.”

“Maybe not, but it’s true.”

Mary sighed. “What I’m saying is, I think little by little the place is getting harder for her to look after. It has to be. You know how she takes care of things. The same way your father did. If something isn’t perfect, she probably feels like she’s letting him down.”

This made sense — and hearing it made me feel rotten. I thought of my mother, alone in the house, with no one to talk to, and no one to turn to for help. At the same time, I knew she wouldn’t be happy anywhere else, because her whole life is there. Then, the image of the homeless man came to mind. I said, “I’ve got to get up there more often. That’s all there is to it. I know Mom is seventy-eight, but she’s healthy. With a little help, she can stay right where she is. Besides, where’s she going to go?” As I said this, I looked around the apartment, noticing the bare walls.

Mary agreed. We talked about it some more. She offered to help, and suggested we drive up together, pay Mom a visit, and see if anything needed doing around the house. That’s Mary for you. When duty calls, she jumps right in. While I’m moping around and laying out business cards, she’s on the phone with my mother, and, in her own way, looking after both of us.

We decided to go on Saturday, and to come back on Sunday, because Mary had the weekend off. I assumed Matt would be coming along, but Mary said he already had plans to stay over at a friend’s house. The friend’s house was by a park. In other words, they’d be playing baseball. And so it would be just the two of us. We agreed on a time, and I said I’d be by to pick her up, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Title Page & Copyright      Post Your Comments      View Comments      Top of Page      Next Chapter

Also by William Michaelian: Winter Poems and Another Song I Know

Cosmopsis Books ~ San Francisco

Site Guide & FAQ