A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 18

Morning came and the car wouldn’t start. The battery was dead. It doesn’t pay to buy cheap batteries. I called Mary and explained the situation. She said it would be no problem to pick me up at the apartment, and that she would be there in a few minutes. She asked me what I wanted to do about the battery. I said the battery was no big deal, and that I’d take care of it after the trip — either on Sunday evening or Monday morning, depending on when we got back. Mary suggested picking up a battery on the way out of town, so I wouldn’t have to worry about it later. Her idea made perfect sense, as usual.

After we hung up I took a check out of my checkbook, folded it, and put it in my wallet. As I was putting the checkbook away, it occurred to me that having an extra check might not be a bad idea, as a backup in case of emergency. So I took out another one. I had no intention of using it, of course. As for my credit card, I stopped using that years ago — or, rather, I should say the bank stopped letting me use it. Far behind in my payments, the overdue payment notices I’d been receiving were supplemented by phone calls at all hours, until, finally, my charging privileges were withdrawn. Now, as a distinguished member of the Humbled Debtors Society, all I do is make payments. When I’m late, as occasionally happens, I receive a phone call from someone named Seth in San Diego, or Martin in Minnesota, or Dave in Duluth. With my credit history on their computer screens, nothing I can say is likely to impress them, so I just stick with the truth. I tell them yes, I know I’m late, and that with any luck I’ll be able to send them a little something before the week is out. They dutifully add this to their growing list of notes in my file — tap, tap, tap — as if they cared, and as if it really mattered.

Mary had been to the apartment only a couple of times, but she had no trouble finding it again. I hated having her come. I watched from the window for her car. When I saw it, I quickly stepped outside and locked the door before she’d had a chance to find a place to park. She saw me and waved. I bounded past my own car as if it weren’t there and opened her door on the passenger side. We said hello. As I was about to get in, Mary said, “Hey, aren’t you bringing anything?”

I felt like a fool. I told Mary I had a small suitcase, and that I’d forgotten it inside. I closed the door and trotted back to the apartment. In that short time, my next-door neighbor decided he had to leave, so it was necessary for Mary to move her car. As soon as he’d gone, she pulled into my neighbor’s space. Meanwhile, I’d left the door to the apartment open. I picked up my suitcase, which I’d left in the chair by my work table. At the same time, I noticed “Uncle Leo’s Mustache.” Against my better judgment, I decided to bring Uncle Leo along. I quickly opened the suitcase and tucked him into the flap on the middle divider. I closed the suitcase, picked it up again, then put it back down when the amount of light in the room made me realize I had also forgotten to close the blinds. When I turned around, Mary was at the door, looking in. “Almost ready,” I said.

Mary smiled.

I smiled. “Need to use the bathroom or anything?” I said.

“No. Do you?”

“Not really. I skipped coffee this morning, so I’m in good shape.”

“Me, too. I thought we could get coffee on the road, later on.”

“Good idea.”

I closed the blinds, picked up my suitcase, and joined Mary at the door. “The place is an absolute mess,” I said.

“Oh, well,” Mary said. “So is mine.”

“I know better than that,” I said. I stepped outside and put down the suitcase, then closed the door and locked it again.

Mary opened her trunk. After I’d put my suitcase in next to hers, she closed the lid and handed me her car keys. “I was hoping you’d do the honors,” she said.

“I’d love to,” I said.

After stopping off for an ultra-cheap battery made by a no-name company that will be out of business before the warranty expires, we headed for the freeway. Since it was still fairly early, the traffic wasn’t bad. Heading north, we soon cleared the city limits, and I raised our speed from fifty-five to sixty-five. About fifteen minutes later, after we’d cleared the curves and the hilly area north of town, I turned on the cruise control.
Once we’d settled in completely, Mary started looking through some CDs she’d taken out of the glove compartment. A moment later, she asked me if I was in the mood for Beethoven.

“Always,” I said.

Mary put in one of the CDs. She’d chosen the Sixth Symphony — one of our mutual favorites.

The music provided the perfect accompaniment — to our thoughts, and to the passing scenery. I complimented Mary on her choice. She said she hadn’t played that CD for a long time, and she didn’t know why. We talked some more, then broke off to listen to the music. The world outside came closer. The morning light shining on the alfalfa and corn fields became part of Beethoven’s dream.

It was wonderful to be with Mary again. She was looking good, as usual. I could tell she’d been resting well, and that she’d been keeping up with her exercise. As for myself, I felt tired and looked the part. Anymore, the skin around my eyes is blotchy and dark, like an overripe banana. Not enough sleep, money problems, ignorance — all are contributing factors. Whereas Mary’s face is still smooth, mine looks like a battlefield. I have creases in my brow and lines in my forehead. Maybe I should be like the guy in the story and try eating more apples. The only thing is, I’m broke and he won the lottery. On the other hand, if I remember correctly, before he struck it rich he was fine. I’m not fine. I’m an idiot. Can apples cure idiocy? I have my doubts. Can money? Obviously not. Therefore I’m stuck, and should leave the apples for those who know better.

Mary’s left hand was resting on her leg. She’d worn a dress, because she knew my mother, being somewhat old-fashioned, still preferred dresses over pants. Motionless against the airy pattern of pale, delicate flowers, her hand seemed part of a painting. I wanted to touch it and to feel its warmth, as I have so many times in the past. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. If I had, and if Mary had pulled away, our trip would have been spoiled. Any possibility we might have had for closeness later would have been lost. I couldn’t take that chance. If she had taken my hand, though — if it had been her idea to begin with — then everything would have been different. But that didn’t happen either.

We talked about Matt. Mary said he’d told her to tell me he’d been working out at the gym she uses, and that he’d gained three pounds. While we were talking, Mary’s hand moved. It smoothed the fabric of her dress, then brushed the hair away from her face. It became part of the conversation and sweetened the atmosphere, giving it a positive, feminine charge.

A mile clicked by, and then another. Traveling away from my life and yet somehow toward it, the distance between us began slowly to melt. Little by little, I was able to relax — and to laugh, which I did several times as Mary related the antics of some of her fellow-nurses at the hospital. The way some of the women carry on during their off-hours, it’s amazing they are able to function at work. Those recently unattached, especially, seem prone to wild nights out with men they’ve only just met, who ply them with drink and make no bones about what they’re after. Some take luxury cruises, or vacations south of the border, where their behavior is kept off the record by sinister strangers who pick them up like ripe, fallen fruit. Of course there are plenty of sensible, boring nurses, who lead sensible, boring lives — women who work hard, go home, take care of their children, and listen to their husbands complain — but it’s no fun talking about them. When these nurses take a vacation, for instance, they usually go to the Washington Monument. On their days off, they take naps, or they go to the mall to buy their family new underwear. Sometimes they do both. They also have a hard time letting go of some of the things that happen at work — the sad deaths, the counseling of bereaved family members, the ever-increasing struggle with bureaucracy as the noble pursuit of health care is sullied by greed and modern American business ethics. As far as male nurses go, the few Mary knows have definite ego problems. For some reason, these guys all own sports utility vehicles, and they all want to be head nurse in the emergency room. With so many born leaders around, sometimes it’s hard to get anything done — until someone like Mary comes along and orders them to stop acting like children and get to work — which they do, while grumbling under their breath about how their abilities are being wasted in such a backward environment. But, as Mary is fond of saying, it takes all kinds. Unfortunately, there are all kinds, and they all want their fifteen minutes of fame. What they don’t realize is that they had it years ago, when they were in their sixth-grade Christmas program.

Indeed, the hospital culture is an interesting one. The stories I’ve heard. While we were still on the subject, Mary told me about a certain inept doctor whose mistakes recently have nearly cost his patients their lives. Not only is he a sloppy surgeon with a high rate of post-surgery infection, he has on several occasions ordered improper dosages of medications. When the mistakes were pointed out, the guy flew into a rage. In one case, Mary was directly involved. The patient in question had diabetes. That being the case, if given, the amount of medication the doctor had ordered would have been lethal. After researching the matter to be sure she was right, she called the doctor at home. He screamed at her and threatened to have her fired, then ordered her to give the medication. Mary refused. “You come in here and give it yourself,” she said. “I’m not going to murder someone.” About twenty minutes later, the doctor did come. Without a word, he changed his order to a safe dosage, then went home again.

“You did the right thing,” I said. “The guy’s a freak.”

“With an incredible amount of power,” Mary said. “I’m a crusty veteran, so I wasn’t afraid to stand up to him. I hate to think what I would’ve done fresh out of school.”

“Probably the same thing.”

“No way. I would never have challenged a doctor like that.”

“You would’ve done something, though. Told someone.”

“I would have, assuming I caught the mistake. If I didn’t, then I would have gone ahead and given the medication.”

“That’s a pleasant thought. Except that you were sharp, right from the beginning. You knew your stuff, even then. You would’ve caught it.”


“Anyway. It didn’t happen.”

“No. Thankfully.”

We were quiet for a moment. The symphony had progressed to the part that sounds like an afternoon thunderstorm. Up ahead, not far from the road, I noticed an old Ford pickup parked alongside an irrigation ditch. The door on the driver’s side was open and the tailgate was down. The owner, a farmer in his late-sixties, was standing nearby. He was holding a shovel parallel with the ground and looking down at the water. Since I was in the right lane with no one close behind, I slowed down and honked. The farmer turned around and gave us a friendly wave. I waved, and then sped up again.

“What was that for?” Mary asked.

“Just being friendly,” I said.

“Oh. I see.”

“Actually,” I said, “Dad used to do that. Remember? He honked and waved at everybody. It drove Mom crazy.”

“I remember.”

“Why? Does it bother you?”

“No, not really.”

“Oh. Darn. I won’t do it, then.”

A couple of minutes later, I did it again. This time there was a tractor pulling a small trailer, and on the trailer there were five or six workers blabbing on their way to wherever it was they were going. They all looked. Two of them waved. I waved, then Mary waved. The person driving the tractor looked bewildered.

We both laughed. “Isn’t this fun?” I said. “By the time we get to Norris, we’ll have made lots of friends.”

“You’re nuts,” Mary said.

“Thanks,” I said. “I try.”

Unfortunately, there was no one else to wave to for quite some time. I threatened to wave to other drivers on the freeway, but Mary cautioned against it, saying these days you never know who has a gun. Familiar with the concept of road rage, I decided to follow her advice.

Winging our way north, we passed along the outskirts of half a dozen smaller towns. With varying degrees of success, each was trying to peddle its wares, which consisted primarily of real estate, hamburgers, and gasoline. We stopped off for coffee in one such burg, noting it had a small restaurant we’d tried before without getting sick. It was a nice break. We dawdled over coffee for half an hour, watching the traffic go by. The place was only about a third full, and it had that typical breakfast smell of frying bacon and hashed brown potatoes. I asked Mary if she wanted something to eat, but she declined, saying she knew she’d be overeating at my mother’s. By then I was starving, so I broke down and ordered toast, which I finished off in about three bites. Mary offered to pay, but I refused, as the hundred dollars I had was already burning a hole in my pocket.

After a quick bathroom visit, we hit the road again. It was beginning to warm up, but Mary decided she could manage without the air conditioning awhile longer. There is a nice little town about halfway to Norris, not far from where it’s necessary to switch from the freeway and head northeast on Highway 17, which is a pleasant two-lane that winds through farm country that always makes me feel like I’m in Europe somewhere, even though it’s obvious I’m not, because everything out there is as American as apple pie. The town goes by the name of Shepherd’s Point, but I’ve yet to see any sheep, so it seems pointless, unless the town was founded by retired shepherds who were sick of sheep and so banned their presence. I had it in mind to stop there, because the town has a beautiful old library and park Mary and I both love. The park is graced by some of the biggest and oldest oak trees I’ve seen. It’s worth stopping just to see them up close, and to take a walk in the shade.

As it turned out, Mary had the same idea. She even brought it up before I did. This was a good sign, because if she wasn’t enjoying herself she would have insisted we press on, in order to get to Norris as soon as possible. I was certainly in no hurry. Anything that would make the journey last was fine with me.

It wasn’t quite eleven when we reached Shepherd’s Point. The library was open, and three cars were parked in front of the building. The park itself was empty, except for three old men sitting at a table in a sunny spot behind the library. The men were talking and playing cards, wearing crumpled hats, and looking very much like they were out of Rockwell’s America. One of them said hello as we passed. Mary and I both returned his greeting.

What the park lacked in people, it made up for in squirrels. In fact, there are probably more squirrels in Shepherd’s Point than human beings. Every few feet, we were greeted by one of the creatures looking for a handout. Mary was delighted. In the uppermost branches of the oaks, meanwhile, raucous crows were competing for the best perches. Playfully asserting themselves, their operatic voices echoed beneath the canopy. But nothing was settled. The birds were more interested in comedy than supremacy. When one of them swooped by, I grabbed Mary’s arm and told her to be careful. “Watch out,” I said. “They’ll go for your eyes.”

Playing along, Mary hid her face and said, “They will? Oh, my God.”

“You’d better believe it,” I said. “Crows love eyes. In fact, there’s an old Russian saying. In the land of many crows, the man with one eye is king.”

“That’s a Russian saying?”

“I believe so.”

“Does Russia have a lot of crows?”

“They do. But they don’t call them crows. They call them jackdaws.”

“I see.”

“Good. Let’s keep it that way.”

We continued our walk. There was no path to follow. The ground, quite level except in the immediate vicinity of the trees themselves, sported a thin layer of soft grass — much like the sparse beard of a one-eyed Russian prince who writes poems for a no-eyed peasant girl he’s been forbidden by his one-eyed father to marry. Such is life in the land of many crows. At one point, we came to an enormous tree. We stopped to feel the bark, and to look up at the tree’s massive, spreading branches, which were as big as trees themselves. At my suggestion, and after a good deal of coaxing, we tried reaching around the tree. But our arms weren’t long enough. During our experiment, the fingertips of my left hand touched the fingertips of Mary’s right hand. We pressed our bodies against the trunk and wrapped our other arms tightly around the tree, stretching and groaning. For there to be a chance, it was necessary to lay our faces against the bark. When we finally gave up, our clothes were littered with bits and pieces of dry moss.

Mary looked at me and laughed. We brushed ourselves off. After claiming I’d ruined her dress, she said I had a piece of something in my eyebrow. When I tried to move it and it didn’t come out, she did it with her finger. “Thanks a lot,” she said. “I feel like a wood nymph.”

“And a lovely one you are,” I said. “Even if you are covered with grit.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“As you wish.”

“Those men are looking, you know.”

“They are? I’ll be darned. You’re right.” Though we were a good forty or fifty yards away, I gave the cardplayers a friendly wave. One of them waved back. “See?” I said. “More friends. Isn’t it great?”

“Stop that! We still have to walk by them.”


“They’ll think we’re crazy.”

“No, they won’t. They’re our friends.”

“They’re your friends, maybe.”

“Ah, now, don’t be that way. You’ll see. They won’t think a thing of it. This is a park, after all. People are supposed to have fun.”

As it turned out, when we passed the men on the way back to the car, they were all smiles. One of them, a pleasant codger with a maze of wrinkles earned the hard way, piped up and said, “Good to see you young people out there cavorting.”

“Glad you enjoyed it,” I said.

“That’s a good-lookin’ gal ya got there,” the man said.

“Why, thank you,” I said. “This is Mary.”

The man, who was obviously still keen on the female sex, said his name was Walt. He introduced his card-playing companions, and we shook hands all around. After briefly passing the time of day, we parted company. In a way that was both kind and peremptory, Walt said, “You take care of her, now.”

I said I would.

“G’bye, young lady,” he said.

“Good-bye,” Mary said.

We walked back to the street, brushed ourselves off one last time, then got in the car.

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

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