A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 13

I got up at seven, feeling well rested. I showered right away, shaved, and made coffee. Again, I limited myself to a single cup. While I was waiting for it to finish dripping, I checked on my supply of sandwich material. If I stretched it, there was enough for the day, as long as I didn�t mind being a little hungry. It would have been simple enough to go out and buy more food, but I didn�t want to use my rent money to do it. I was already planning to use rent money to pay for the trip to my mother�s. What I was really hoping for was that a kind and wonderful printer somewhere would bless me with a check. Abe owed me about three hundred dollars. I thought of asking him for a hundred, but, as a general rule, that�s something I try to avoid. He�s not exactly rolling in the dough. And he�s pretty good about paying me when he gets paid. I always have to remind myself of that. Sometimes, when people owe me money, I get paranoid. I start to think they are purposely leaving me high and dry, just to see me squirm. It�s sick, I know, but there you are. I also knew that if I could make it to Norris, I�d be in for a good day and a half of solid eating. In other words, hope was on the horizon.

For breakfast I had half a slice of bread and a small piece of cheese. What I wanted, and what I could have eaten with ease, was a four-egg Denver omelette and two or three biscuits drenched with melted butter, topped with a spoonful of my mother�s homemade apricot jam. In fact, I wouldn�t mind having that right now.

I poured my coffee and turned on the computer. While the machine was coming to life, I opened the blinds on my front window and slid the window open for some air. I took the chain off the door and stepped outside. The parking lot was still mostly full, but there was quite a bit of noise and activity. Apartment doors were being opened and closed, cars were being started, and people were sneezing and coughing. I heard someone say, �Hell � I have no idea. Call me later. I�ll have it figured out by then.�

Ernie Taylor�s car was in its space. The night before, I hadn�t bothered to notice if it was gone, which would have meant he was working. I thought of popping over to say hello, because if he had worked, there was a chance he�d still be up. But I didn�t. I didn�t really feel like gabbing. I felt like minding my own business and moving along quietly into the day.

It took an hour and a half to finish the forms. There was quite a bit of measuring and calculating to do, because I had to divide the available space by the number of columns required, both horizontally and vertically. Then I had to draw the lines and copy and paste them at exactly the right intervals. There was no room for error. There was no room, period. When I was done, the forms were neat, but crammed. They looked good at a glance. Using them, however, was going to be tough. It was going to require patience. As a matter of fact, the forms were ridiculous, and exactly what the customer deserved.

Two hundred and forty-five dollars was the figure I came up with for the job. I was filling out the invoice when Abe called. �You�re not going to like this,� he said.

�Hold on,� I said. �Before you say anything, I want you to know that I just finished the forms. They look great.�

Abe groaned.

�Uh-oh,� I said. �Is it that bad?�

�Worse. I heard from the twin witches on Essex Road. One of them is bringing in some changes this morning.�

�Changes?� I said. �What kind of changes?�

�That remains to be seen.�

�Oh? Well, they must be pretty major if she can�t just fax them over.�

�That�s what I�m afraid of. I told Sally to fax the stuff. But she said it would be better if she came in. She said there are things she�ll need to explain.�

�How delightful,� I said.

Abe laughed � either that, or someone stepped on his big toe. �So,� he said, �did you really finish the forms?�

�I most certainly did. Only moments ago, in fact. You should�ve seen me. I was on a roll.�

�You�re too efficient.�

�Yeah, right.�

�Well, it�s their fault, not yours. I�ll tell them the cost went up.�

�You�ll have to,� I said. �I�m five hours into this job already.�

To myself, I said, Five hours. Five rotten hours. What a waste.

Abe said he expected Sally in by ten at the latest, and that I could pick up the stuff anytime after that. I told him I�d be there by noon. We ended our conversation.

I rinsed out my coffee cup and put it in the sink. I rinsed the pot, threw away the filter, and rinsed the coffee-stained plastic thing where the filter goes. I turned them over on the counter so they could drip into the sink.

Feeling less than inspired, I brushed my teeth. Then I printed out the forms to take to Abe�s, so we�d have something to look at and to go by. I put the forms in a folder, got out my wallet and car keys, and put them on top of the folder so I wouldn�t accidentally leave it behind. As I was doing so, �Uncle Leo�s Mustache� caught my eye. It was sitting where I�d left it, on the other side of my work table. I picked it up. Looking at the picture, I said, �Foolish man. You�ve got hummingbirds in your brain.� But Uncle Leo didn�t answer. I read the story again. Then I read it a second time, just to be sure. I smiled, in spite of myself. Since it was still early and I was otherwise caught up, I sat down at the computer and opened the word processor. I typed in the story, taking my time, watching with amused pleasure as the sentences and paragraphs took shape on the screen. When I was done I saved the file under the name of �uncleleo,� then printed it out. For the fun of it, I scanned in my drawing and set up another file with the drawing at the top of the page and the text down below. I printed out the second file. As I studied the result, I couldn�t tell who was happier � me, or Uncle Leo.

The two of us were having a nice, quiet conversation when the phone rang. It was Abe, with a quick question about the estimate I�d given him the day before. He�d talked again with his potential customer, who now wanted a price option for doing the job in three colors. I told Abe that twenty dollars would cover the extra work and the printing out of the color separations. He said that was about what he�d figured, but that he thought he�d call just to be sure. Just then, I heard the bell on his door ring in the background. He greeted whoever it was that came in, thanked me, and said he�d see me later.

I set Uncle Leo aside again for the time being and gathered up the other jobs I�d done. After checking them over one last time, I entered my charges in the columnar pad I use to keep track of the money I supposedly have coming in. If I�m ever audited by the IRS I�m sure they�ll have a good laugh. Then again, they�ll probably feel sorry for me. The person they send out will apologize for the intrusion and say, �My God, man, how do you live?� And I will say, in the immortal words of Rodolfo, the penniless poet in Puccini�s La Boheme, �You ask how I live? I live.� After the tax man leaves shaking his head, a beautiful, frail young woman will knock on my door and ask me to relight her candle. We�ll fall madly in love. Later, when she takes stock of my squalid surroundings, she will say, �My God, how will we live?� And I will say, �I haven�t the slightest idea, Babe. I�m broke.�

My bookkeeping chores out of the way, it seemed only logical to go out and deliver the jobs. I hate to have finished jobs lying around almost as much as unfinished ones. I�m a person who likes a clean slate � which is probably why I�m always starting over and never getting anywhere. But I know one thing. A delivered job is that much closer to being one that�s paid for. And since I had time before I needed to be at Abe�s for the Essex update, I figured I might as well make use of it � even though the last thing I wanted to do was to see a bunch of printers. I hate printers. They�re always talking about paper stock, and colors of ink, and press runs. I�ve yet to meet one who likes opera � or who has heard of Puccini, for that matter. On the other hand, they think I�m weird for not owning a television. When I tell them I can�t stand all the advertising, they look either threatened or confused.

Marshalling my resolve, I stacked the jobs in the order of my stops, with the Essex forms on the bottom. After a quick glass of water, I locked the apartment and headed for the parking lot. On my way to the car, I must have looked somewhat determined, because a neighbor taking out her garbage smiled and said, �Off to slay dragons, I see.�

�More or less,� I said. �How�s it going?�

�Oh, not too bad. It�s my day off.�

�Well, then, you�re ahead of me,� I said.

The woman, whom I�ve seen many times but said hello to only once or twice, adjusted her grip on the bulging paper bag in her hands. Approximately my age, she was dressed for a day of housework, with perhaps a little napping thrown in. Her hair was up, and she was wearing faded jeans and an untucked blouse that buttoned down the front. The top three or four buttons of her blouse were either missing or undone, and it was obvious she had nothing on underneath.

I could tell by my neighbor�s expression that she had noticed my noticing, so to speak, and that she really didn�t mind. It was all very brief, far from innocent, and very nice. We each continued on our way. By the time I had started the car, she was coming back from the dumpster. Under the guise of letting the engine warm, I watched her as she passed by on the sidewalk. She gave a little wave to let me know she knew what I was up to. I got a kick out of that. I waved back, wishing I wasn�t the type of person who is so used to behaving himself.

On the way into town, my pleasant fantasy drifted from my neighbor to Mary. This is not unusual. Simply put, I miss my wife in more ways than one. In the time we were together, we learned to enjoy each other in ways that left us feeling not only satisfied, but quiet and very close. There were also occasions when a wonderful spirit of play helped define our activities � a sweetly erotic spirit that would stay with us through the day, and, quite literally, drive us both crazy. When sex was a storm, we ran through it naked. When it was a sanctuary, we entered into it in silence. When it was a game, we played it as children. When it was a mystery, we were attentive to its clues. When it was painful, we said we were sorry. When it was unremarkable, we both claimed responsibility. Whatever it was, whenever and wherever it was, however it was, it was us, and that�s what I miss. A neighbor is one thing. You can think about a neighbor for a minute or two and it is a pleasant distraction. But a wife is something else. A wife is a physical and spiritual mate and lover who makes the world a glorious place to live � until your own personal pain and confusion either chase her away or chase you away. When that happens, you are cut off from everything that matters. Life becomes a distortion. You move about in a fog.

The image of Mary in my mind was pleasing and troubling. It was hard to think of her without wanting to do something about it. Impossible, in fact. Urges are interesting. They have a way of upsetting one�s equilibrium. Under their spell, all bets are off. You become someone else, or you become who you truly are � I�m not sure which. Reason is suspended. Who needs reason, anyway? All reason does is make you do typesetting and go to meetings. Passion � lust � these are things worth dying for. Who ever died for a two-color business card? But a nude night of nuptial negligence � ah, that�s something else altogether.

I couldn�t help thinking ahead to our weekend trip to Norris, and wondering if Mary would consent to a little fling while we were away. It was great � there I was, a broke divorced guy in a beat-up car loaded with typesetting on his way to town, hoping his ex-wife would be willing to � to � have a philosophical discussion. Talk about ridiculous. I even tried to think of a secluded place that might be suited for said discussion. There was the Norris Starlight Theater, a lumpy prairie parking lot with speakers lined up on poles, but it closed down years ago. I think the gophers finally won that battle. As if Mary would have gone with me to a place like that. As if I would have asked. As if every planet in the galaxy wouldn�t have to be perfectly aligned for such a childish dream to come true.

I turned on the radio. I turned it off. I hummed �America the Beautiful.� I wrote a letter to my congressman, mailed it, and waited for his office to blow sky-high. When it didn�t, I sued the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of the Interior, and the secretary who answers the phone. I weaved in and out of traffic, honking my horn and making obscene gestures. I helped an old lady across the street. I saw a cave man on a horse, reading Huckleberry Finn. I attended a secret meeting of a dangerous underground organization. I ate the microfilm and had plastic surgery. I fled before the coming ice age. I wrote, performed in, and attended a play on Broadway. I took the elevator. I had a picnic with a group of Zen Buddhists who claimed to be chickens. I changed my name to Beethoven, lost my hearing, and composed a new symphony, all while waiting for a light. But none of it worked. I still wanted Mary, and missed her.

Like a demented elf, I sprinkled typesetting-dust on the printers on my list. I gave them their bills, listened to their drivel, and laughed on cue at their jokes. Upon leaving each shop I mumbled under my breath, �Another one down,� then staggered off down the sidewalk. Until at last only Abe remained � Abe the Great, the benevolent king of Water Street. The Earl of Recycled Paper. The Viceroy of Volume Discounts. The Grand Marquis of Three-Part Carbonless Forms.

�Abe,� I said, �we have to talk.�

�Troubles?� he said.

�I�m exhausted,� I said. �I need a vacation.�

�You and me both.�

�I�m at death�s door.�

�You look okay to me.�

�It�s nice of you to say that. But I�m a sick man � a sick man.�

�Well, I�ve known that for years.�

�What am I going to do?� I said.

�How should I know?� Abe said. �I�m a printer, for God�s sake.�

�You are?�

�Okay, that�s it. Is this a joke, or what?�

�I was hoping you�d tell me.�

I opened the folder containing the forms I�d slaved over. I spread the forms out on the counter. �This is it so far,� I said.

Abe looked at the forms. He looked and looked and looked at the forms. Then he looked at me. Abe is nice guy, really. I hate him and all, but that isn�t his fault. It�s mine. I hate what he represents. Seeing him is a reminder that I am not getting any younger, and that I should be doing something else. Abe is a printer. He works hard, and squeaks out a modest living. He makes enough to take an occasional day off during the summer and go camping with his wife and kids. How can you fault a guy for that?

�Save these,� he said. �Just in case. They look good.� He got a folder from his desk, put it on the counter, and added, �Okay � here�s the latest.�

There was as much stuff as the first time, and it was in just as much of a mess. I tried to make sense of it while Abe did his best to explain what the Essex Girls wanted. What they wanted, apparently, was for me to be miserable. I asked Abe if he thought it might be a good idea to show them what I had done before I got started on the changes, which were going to make it necessary for me to start over and rework the forms from the ground up. He said he�d already made that suggestion, and that it had fallen on deaf ears. Then he repeated what he�d said about saving the work I�d done. �Don�t worry,� I said. �I�ll produce it in court, if I have to.�

After we�d put the new stuff and the old stuff back in the proper folders, Abe said, �Is there any way you can have this done by tomorrow? Afternoon would be fine. Or will you need until Monday?�

I told him that since the logos were already scanned in, and since I could borrow one or two things from the first go-around, that I could manage. �Anyway,� I said, �I won�t be around this weekend, so I�d better get it out of the way.�

Abe�s expression brightened. �Leaving town?� he said.

�All right,� I said, �you don�t have to look so happy about it.�

�Where you headed?� Abe said, grinning.

�I�m going to the beautiful little town of Norris.�

�Oh? To see your mom?�

�If she doesn�t see me first, I guess.�

�In that case, I�ve got good news,� Abe said. �If things go okay, I should be able to give you a check tomorrow.�

�A check? Did you say a check?�

�Well, assuming the mail is good to me today.�

�I knew there had to be a catch. Where is that mailman, anyway? I�ll beat it out of him.�

Abe looked outside. �I think I saw him,� he said. �Yeah. There he is. He�s hiding behind that car.�

�We�ll see about that,� I said. For effect, and because I�d had more than enough of printers and print shops for one day, I grabbed the folders and dashed out. My brilliant exit, however, was thwarted by fate. On the sidewalk, I ran smack-dab into a sauntering derelict, who I swear came from nowhere. When I dusted him off and tried to apologize, he gave me a vacant, boozy smile and said, �No problem, Frank. I�ve got all the time in the world.�

I glanced back into Abe�s shop. He was at the end of his counter, watching. The derelict continued on his way. Abe smiled and shook his head. I shrugged. Without further incident, I reached my car, unlocked it, and plopped down behind the wheel. Then I started the engine, checked my mirrors, and joined the traffic on Water Street, wondering who else had seen my performance.

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

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