A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 12

I once read a story about a man who cured himself by eating apples. His problem was that he had won the lottery, quit his job, and didn’t know what to do with himself. As a result, he stayed up late, drank, and ate all the wrong foods. He was bored silly, because his friends still had to work. At the same time, his friends were bored with him, because he had lost touch with their problems. Tired, lonely, and constipated, he was considering suicide when his mother happened to call. Focusing on his constipation, she told her son that he should start eating apples. To please her, he did. Within a few short days, he was feeling better. Not only that, his entire outlook changed. Crediting the apples, he went to the library and checked out several books on the subject. He learned all about the history of apples and about how they were grown in different parts of the world. Feeling better and better, and having time on his hands and money at his disposal, he decided it would be nice if he could get involved in something interesting that would, at the same time, be of value to other people. He sent off for brochures, read the mission statements of countless nonprofit organizations, and made lists of worthwhile endeavors. None, however, caught his fancy. Then, while sitting one afternoon in his backyard, it came to him. He could buy a farm and grow apples. The idea was so appealing that he checked the real estate section of his daily newspaper to see if there were any apple orchards for sale. There were. Thrilled to the bone, he set out to investigate. In a small town out in the middle of nowhere, he stopped to ask for directions to a certain farm he was interested in. In front of the hardware store, he happened to meet a sunburnt and aging apple grower. The two fell into conversation. When the farmer learned of the stranger’s intentions, he smiled kindly, then told him all about growing apples, from a farmer’s perspective. It turned out that there was an incredible amount of hard work involved in bringing an apple crop to market. The weather could also complicate things. The stranger listened politely as the farmer went through an endless list of things to watch out for. Faced with so much practical thinking, he was unable to explain his own motivation. He soon realized that the pleasure of growing and eating apples was only part of the equation. Buying a farm and raising them commercially was a complicated matter. In the end, the man didn’t buy a farm. Instead, he planted an apple tree in his backyard. The story didn’t say what happened after that. The apple tree could have died the very same year, and the man could have killed himself after all. He didn’t, of course. He grew, right along with his apple tree, and bore fruit in ways he never could have imagined. He enjoyed his money, gave some of it away, married, had children, died, and was remembered along with the tree he’d planted. We know this, because whoever wrote the story did it in a way that left the door open to hope and possibility. And we also know because, everywhere we turn, there are symbolic apple growers all around us.

I called Abe with the estimate he needed, then spent three and a half hours working on the forms. In that time I set up all of the standard features, and found a way to display the logos without sopping up too much space. I didn’t finish because it took a lot of fiddling around to get things figured out, and because each of the logos had to be scanned in. That took quite a while. Also, I didn’t feel like rushing. By my reckoning, there was still about an hour’s work left. There had been no frantic calls from the customer. That made me nervous. Since I was beginning to wear out, I decided to get a fresh start in the morning. I still expected changes. And even though changes are to my advantage financially, I hate making them on complicated jobs. Sometimes, when you pull out one brick, the whole house falls down.

That evening I had yet another sandwich. Since I had done without coffee all day, I permitted myself a cup for dessert. I was getting ready for another crack at The Unnamable when, quite by accident, I started to write a story of my own. To keep myself from going back to work, I had turned off the computer. As I straightened out the stuff on my work table, I came across a funny little drawing I’d made several days earlier. The drawing had gotten mixed up with some printed samples Abe had given me of jobs I’ve done during the past few months. It was a cartoon rendering of a man’s head. The man had an enormous mustache that covered his mouth and half his chin, and that extended about two feet beyond his face on either side. Underneath I’d written, “Uncle Leo’s Mustache.” I had an Uncle Leo once, and he had a mustache, but it was small and neatly trimmed. The man I’d drawn had a big head and big, sad eyes. My uncle, who was my father’s brother, had a narrow head and was always cheerful. In short, the two Uncle Leos were nothing alike. On the same sheet of paper, without really thinking, I wrote, “Uncle Leo was a sad and lonely man.” I looked at the sentence, and at my familiar, sloppy handwriting. I looked at the drawing. I wrote another sentence. This one said, “He spent his days wondering what it was like to have a friend.” Within a few minutes I had written several more sentences. These explained how Uncle Leo lived alone in a little stone house in the country. The stone house was old and quiet, and no one ever came to visit. In a nutshell, Uncle Leo was just about the loneliest man on the planet. Without knowing why, he had found himself cut off from the world. I continued to write. I wanted to know whether Uncle Leo was stuck permanently, or if he still had a chance at happiness. As it turned out, he did. But it was an unorthodox kind of happiness — or, rather, his happiness was achieved by unorthodox means. What happened was this: one day, while Uncle Leo was napping in the shade on his front porch, a hummingbird noticed his mustache and decided it was a perfect place to build a nest. In short order, the bird laid two eggs and her babies were born. When Uncle Leo woke up — he’d had one heck of a nap, apparently — he heard rustling sounds. Aware that something was going on nearby, he got up to look and found nothing. He was completely puzzled. After searching everywhere, he finally realized he had a family of hummingbirds in his mustache. As politely as he could, he asked them to leave. He did his best to explain the awkwardness of the situation without hurting the mother bird’s feelings. Just as politely, the mother said they had nowhere else to go. She asked if she and her family could stay until the children had learned to fly. As it wasn’t in his heart to banish the birds, Uncle Leo reluctantly agreed. Thus began an interesting, though very trying, relationship. As the birds grew, the mother brought them more and more food. To satisfy their steadily growing hunger, she arrived with berries, then figs, then pomegranates — and then, finally, a whole watermelon. Though it made his neck sore, Uncle Leo’s mustache was roomy enough and strong enough to accommodate the birds’ needs. Then, just as he was getting used to the situation, a new problem arose. As the babies grew, they took to playing musical instruments. One was learning the harmonica, while the other was having a serious go at the trumpet. When Uncle Leo complained to their mother about the noise, she said quite sternly, “Now, you don’t want the children to go without music lessons, do you?” Flabbergasted, but not wanting to be responsible for the birds’ lack of musical education, Uncle Leo gave in. Owing to his sacrifice, the birds’ playing quickly improved. In fact, it wasn’t long before Uncle Leo found himself enjoying the music. Having grown accustomed to life as a human birds’ nest, he felt happy for the first time in as long as he could remember. He looked forward to waking up in the morning, and was no longer lonely. Transformed by fatherly affection and pride, his outlook improved. Thanks to the hummingbird family, life was finally worth living. Then, one fine, warm summer morning, Uncle Leo woke up to a very strange sound. The sound was silence. The birds were gone. Brokenhearted, he read a note the mother had left behind. The note said, “The children have grown, and to the winds we have flown. Thank you, Uncle Leo. We will remember you forever and always.”

Poor Uncle Leo. Poor everyone. Not a happy thing exists that is untouched by sorrow. And yet, there isn’t a sad thing we know that isn’t sweetened by laughter and light. Triumph and downfall, walking hand in hand. Love and hate. Confusion and enlightenment. Jealousy and serenity. The dead, passing into sweet oblivion. The living’s fond farewell. Eternity’s unmarked graves. A solitary raindrop, clinging to the vine, a world unto itself. The ocean’s ceaseless roar. An entire planet adrift, its lonely inhabitants waiting, crushed by knowledge, hungering for simplicity, striving, dreaming, fighting, weeping, calling. Possibility. Dear Uncle Leo. Dear everyone.

For a long time, I sat looking at the story, trying to decide what to make of it. It was fantastic, of course — in the sense that fantastic means “not very likely to have happened.” It was also true, and somehow very real. And it existed. This caught me by surprise. Unlike the hundreds of typesetting jobs I have done, “Uncle Leo’s Mustache,” which I had scrawled on both sides of two pieces of scrap paper, was an extension of myself. I could have thrown the paper away. I might never have made the drawing in the first place. Now that the story was done, I could still throw it away. But I didn’t. It was too unusual a thing to simply discard. My first impulse was to show it to someone. My next impulse was to hide it. I read it again. I changed a word here and there, listening as I went. Finally, I set it aside.

The beautiful thing about “Uncle Leo’s Mustache” is that I wrote it by accident. I didn’t do it for money. I did it for no reason at all. It was easy, and I had fun. And I felt something while I was sitting there.

In a rare flash of insight, I decided not to question the matter any further. I think I knew instinctively that, if given the chance, my brain would ridicule and dismantle what I had done. The fact is, it has tried dozens of times since — but each time I have resisted.

For the first time in recent memory, I slept well that night. There was only one dream I remembered having, and even that was peaceful, though it didn’t make much sense. My father sent me on a small errand of some kind, and I was riding a bicycle. After waving good-bye, I started out from our house in Norris, and soon found myself on a narrow country road with no one else around. There were no houses or buildings, only a scattering of oaks. Beneath the oaks tall, dry grass waved gently in the breeze, making a pleasant whispering sound. The road ended at the edge of an old vineyard. Instead of turning back, I followed a wide furrow between two rows of vines. Bouncing along over the clods and weeds, I felt lucky to be alone in such a nice place. When I came to the end of the row, there was a wide canal, and on the other side of the canal more vineyard. The canal was full of mossy, slow-moving water. Beside it there was a dusty path wide enough for a car or pickup to drive on. There were tire tracks on the ground, so I took the path, certain it would lead to another road that would take me where I wanted to go. Again, I met no one. After riding about half a mile, I came to an open area with a low wooden fence around it. The area was covered with green grass that was too healthy and thick to peddle through. On the far side, there were some old animal pens made of rough-cut lumber. The grass was up to my knees. I picked up my bike. The ground was moist and soft. Near the pens there was a low spot where there was standing water. I walked through the water without getting wet, then set my bike down on the other side of the fence. When I climbed over, I was met by a friendly man I’d never seen. The man, who was well into his seventies and wearing simple work clothes, asked me if I was looking for the road. I said I was. Pleased to help, he offered to show me the way. I got back on my bike, and wobbled along as he walked beside me. As it turned out, the road was only a few feet away. Being a hospitable sort, though, my guide stayed with me awhile longer. Eventually, we came to an abandoned house. The house, which was both ancient and enormous, was surrounded by tall trees. The man said, “No one has lived there for sixty years. Even then it was old.” We kept walking. Finally, we came to a crossroad. The crossroad was wide and well paved. I looked to the east. Though I’d started out in the afternoon, it was now just before dawn. A soft, pinkish-orange light was gathering behind some low hills. The hills were familiar, and reminded me of those outside Norris. When I turned to thank the man, he was gone. I peddled toward the hills, toward home, thinking, “This is where I started.” Then I woke up. It was almost two-thirty. For a minute or two, I tried to remember what errand my father had sent me on. Nothing came to mind. During the short time I was awake, there were many other details I tried to hang onto, but they were gone by morning.

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

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