A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 19

“The problem with life,” I said, “is that it goes by too fast.”

“Oh? That’s a familiar theme.”

“You know what I mean. I wish those guys could live forever.”

“Maybe they don’t want to,” Mary said. “Maybe they already have.”

“You sound more like me than I do,” I said.

“Really? I must be getting old.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“You’re welcome.” Mary thought a moment, then added, “They were nice, though.”

“I know. It was refreshing.”

I took the exit leading to Highway 17, then followed the arc until it dumped us onto the road that would take us to Norris. The air conditioning was on. Mary raised her hand and held it in front of one of the vents. I did the same. I said, “Feels good, eh?”

“It really warmed up out there,” Mary said.

“That’s what cavorting will do,” I said.

Mary put her hand in her lap. She shook her head and smiled. “Your friend Walt was dirty minded,” she said.

“So I noticed.”

Traffic was light. We passed by several houses and barns. The area, home to more than one large dairy, was planted mostly in alfalfa. The fields were lush and green. Some were ready to cut. A few miles further on, the alfalfa gradually gave way to orchards. There were apple trees, pear trees, and even a few walnut trees. Some of the walnut trees had been recently irrigated. Every inch of ground had been flooded, leaving the earth almost black.

Still in no hurry, I couldn’t bring myself to drive the speed limit. Mary didn’t seem to mind. Eventually, though, she asked what time my mother was expecting us. I said, “Well, you know Mom. She’s probably been waiting for hours. But I told her we’d be there about one.”

“Uh-oh,” she said. “It looks like we’ll be a little late.”

I checked the clock. It was a little after twelve. If I had pushed it, we could have made it to Norris by about one-thirty. But I didn’t push it. Instead, I merely noted the time and said, “Better late than never.”

As we continued on, there was less to say than I thought there would be. More to the point, there was less we could say. Mary and I already knew everything about each other. We knew where we’d been as husband and wife, the things we’d done together, and what the results had been. What we didn’t know was where we were going, if anywhere — except that it’s much more complicated than that. Once you’ve been intimate with someone, once you have known each other in the Biblical sense, and when your affection is born of love, when it is ongoing and pleasing and exasperating and humbling and embarrassing and thrilling, and when this intimacy has ceased, then it is impossible to sit in a car for four hours and blab about nothing as if it were something. It just can’t be done. If you don’t care, if you never cared, then that’s different. Then you can talk about all sorts of things that don’t matter. You can talk about fashion and politics, or business and religion. You can even talk about what a wonderful person you are. It won’t be true, it won’t have any value, but at least you can talk about it.

Being in love is hard enough. Loving the person you are supposedly divorced from is murder. I say supposedly, because, while Mary and I are divorced in the eyes of the law, in my heart she is still my wife. Our divorce was not really a decision. It was an agreement that we didn’t know what else to do. For all practical purposes, our divorce has been a prolonged time-out, during which we have watched our marriage from the sidelines.

In order to break the silence, I asked Mary if she was in the mood for some more music.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Beethoven is a hard act to follow.”

“How about more Beethoven, then?”

Mary opened the glove compartment and began sorting through the stack of CDs again. “There’s always Led Zeppelin,” she said.

“That’s true.”

She kept looking. “I have the second volume of the Beatles’ greatest hits.”


“Here’s some movie music by Henry Mancini.”

“Good old Henry,” I said.

“Here we go. Stravinsky. The Sacred Rites of Spring.”

“Oh, God. Where did that come from?”

“Somebody at work gave it to me. A birthday present. You remember Gina. I made the mistake of telling her I liked classical music.”

“So. She got you that. I despise Stravinsky. He gets my bowels in an uproar.”

Picturing this in light of her profession, no doubt, Mary laughed. “Me, too,” she said.

“Besides. He’s not even classical.”

“Oh? What is he?”

“Stressful. In fact, his music launched the Stressful Period. Then there were the stressful romantics, and after that the Americans took over with traffic sounds and noise from construction sites.”

“You seem to know quite a lot.”

“Hey, I’ve been around.”

“I see. I had no idea.”

“Yeah, well, you know. I try not to brag. Sometimes it isn’t easy. A guy gets to know so much, it’s hard to keep it all inside.”

“You poor man. Such a burden to bear.”

“Aren’t you jealous?”

“No. The thought never occurred to me.”

After she’d made it through the entire stack, Mary jogged the CD containers together into a neat square, then put them back in the glove compartment.

“No more Beethoven?” I said.

“Not right now,” Mary said. “Let’s just ride. Is that okay?”

“Sure. It’s fine with me.”

Mary scratched her knee. She rubbed her left forearm lightly with her right hand, then folded her arms across her stomach. She turned part way toward me, with her knees pointed in the general direction of the steering wheel. In the process, the extra material of her dress was pinned beneath her, making the dress tighten across her legs and creep up a few inches.

I tried to keep my eyes on the road, with only partial success.

Apparently comfortable in her new position, Mary made no effort to realign her dress. “I’m getting hungry,” she said.

“Are you?” I said. “Should we stop somewhere?”


“I don’t know. Aren’t there a couple of places in Rutherford?”

“Seems like. Unless you think we should wait. Are you hungry?”

“Starving, actually.”

“Wasn’t your mother planning lunch?”

“Oh, I’m sure she was. I told her not to. You know how it is. There’ll be food, whenever we get there.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t stop, then.”

“Maybe we should.”

In Rutherford, a meat-and-potatoes farming town of about ten thousand, I stopped at a gas station and cleaned the windshield. We had picked up quite a few butterflies from the alfalfa fields. It’s disconcerting to have mangled life forms stuck to the glass, especially when they aren’t quite dead. While I was at it, I went ahead and filled the tank, even though it had hardly gone down. After I paid the attendant, who was a clean-cut, slightly bright kid a year or two older than Matt, I asked him where there was a good place to eat.

“In Rutherford?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “In Rutherford.”

“Steaks, or burgers?”

“I don’t know. How about something in between?”

“There’s Mello’s,” the kid said.

“Mello’s? I think I’ve heard of that. Isn’t it a coffee shop?”

“Yeah. It’s pretty good, too. My dad goes there for lunch a lot.”

“Oh, really? It must be good, then.”

Just to be friendly, I asked the kid what his father did.

“My dad’s the mayor,” he said.

“No kidding. And the mayor eats at Mello’s. Well, that’s good enough for me.”

“The mayor owns Mello’s,” the kid said. “He owns this place, too.”

“I’ll be darned,” I said. “The mayor sounds like a busy man.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” the kid said.

Having reached the limit of his low-key sense of humor, and having gone through his little spiel for what must have been the ten thousandth time, the Ambassador of Rutherford abruptly lost interest. He gazed out at the road, then waved at someone who was driving by. I turned, hoping I might get lucky and catch a glimpse of the mayor, but the person waving back was an enthusiastic redhead of about seventeen or eighteen, probably checking to see if her boyfriend was free to talk.

Back in the car, while I was waiting for my chance to rejoin traffic, I asked Mary if she wanted to try Mello’s. “It comes highly recommended,” I said.

“Where is it?” Mary said.

“Well, according to good old Duke, all we have to do is turn left at that light, go a couple of blocks, turn right, go a couple of more blocks, and then turn left again.”

“Sounds easy enough. Or, we could just skip it altogether.”

“We could do that, too. It’s up to you.”

I pulled onto the road. Much to my disappointment, while she’d been waiting at the gas station, Mary had moved again and straightened out her dress.

“Why is it up to me?” she said.

“Because. You said you were hungry.”

“Right. And you said you were starving.”

“That doesn’t count. I’m always starving.”

“Then we should eat.”

“Not necessarily. We should eat, only if you want to.”

We came to the light. It had just turned red. “It’s now or never,” I said.

“Okay, turn,” Mary said.

“You’re sure, now.”


The light changed. I turned. “I just wanted to be sure,” I said.

To hide the fact that she was smiling, Mary looked out her window. “At least I know where Matt gets it,” she said.

As it turned out, Mello’s was much better than we expected. And speaking of Matt, they even had real milkshakes, and served them in large metal cans. They cost a fortune, but they were worth every penny. All in all, the place was a glorified burger joint, but the burgers were done with a genuine homestyle flair. They were rugged monsters, and no two looked exactly alike. Mary ate only half of hers. After I’d polished off mine, she pushed her plate toward me and said, “Have at it, kiddo.” I happily complied. After a week of light eating and a day’s fast, the meal was a physical and mental shock. It was wonderful. I felt great.

We ordered coffee.

“I’m going to need it,” Mary said.

“You can have a nap on the way to Norris,” I said.

Mary said she didn’t want to fall asleep, because she’d end up looking groggy when we got there.

The coffee was excellent as well. During the time we were at Mello’s, I drove Mary crazy by saying, “I think that’s the mayor,” while pointing at different men in the restaurant. Once, a pudgy gentleman of perhaps fifty-five came out of the kitchen. Dressed in white and wearing a floppy white chef’s hat, he stopped at one of the tables. “That’s the mayor,” I said.

“Oh, God,” Mary said. “Who is it this time? Oh. You mean the cook, or the guy he’s talking to?”

Both,” I said. “Take your pick.”

The two mayors obviously knew each other quite well. They talked for at least five minutes, joking and laughing.

After we finished our coffee, I tucked a five dollar bill under one of the salt shakers. We got up to leave. At the cash register, Mary tried to pay, but I was too quick for her. “Nothing doing,” I said. I asked the cashier for two peppermint patties and gave one to Mary. “For luck,” I said.

We ate our candy when we were back in the car. It was sweet and powerful, just the way peppermint patties should be. When she was done with hers, Mary smoothed out the foil wrapper, then held it up to her nose.

Instead of starting the car, I turned the key and rolled down my window. The parking lot was about half full. It was open to the street, and was bordered on one side by a low, thick hedge, behind which were several old houses that had been hijacked for business purposes. When we’d parked, there was a car on either side of Mary’s, but now the closest car was three spaces away. We were facing the hedge, and there was a beautiful brick chimney on the nearest house, which was a white two-story affair with a porch. Toward the rear of what had once been the backyard but was now a small off-alley parking area, there was a broad maple tree. The maple tree was full of sparrows. We couldn’t see them, but we could hear them.

“I think I could sit here all day,” I said.

“Here?” Mary said. “In the Mello’s parking lot?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“Well, for one thing, it’s too hot. For another, people would probably wonder what was wrong with us.”

“What — just for sitting here? I’ll bet no one would even notice.”

I’d notice.”


Just then, half a dozen sparrows shot out of the tree and landed on the chimney. They were all facing the same direction, and talking a mile a minute.

I reached for the key again. “I take it you’d rather get going, then.”

“I don’t mean it that way. I mean, I can think of a lot better places to sit.”

“Oh. You can? Where?”

Mary took my hand away from the ignition and guided it gently down to the seat. She said, “Hawaii would be nice.”

She let go of my hand. For a sweet, fleeting moment, I could feel where her fingers had been.

“Hawaii?” I said. “It isn’t exactly cool in Hawaii, you know.”

“You’re right. How about this, then? How about British Columbia?”

“There’s an idea. With any luck, we could be there in twelve hours.”

All at once, the sparrows flitted away, each in a different direction. The chattering in the tree continued.

“I guess that’s out too, then,” Mary said.

“Probably. I think British Columbia might require a separate trip.”

A bright reflection caught our eye as the glass door of the restaurant was pushed open. Three casually dressed young women came outside. After chatting briefly, they walked to their cars, two of which were in the row behind us. The third car was the one that was three spaces from ours. After getting in, the owner quickly ran a brush through her hair, then opened a cell phone, dialed, and placed the apparatus against her ear. She began talking almost immediately. One by one, the young women backed out of their spaces and left.

“They look like they’re having a hard day,” Mary said.

“They’re probably off to see the mayor,” I said.


“Or his son.”

“That makes more sense.”

Mary suppressed a yawn, then leaned back so her head would be against the headrest. She closed her eyes, then inhaled and exhaled slowly. Like a tired schoolgirl reciting a poem in bed, she said, “Dear Mr. Mello, you’re quite a fellow.”

“With lungs like a bellow,” I added.

“Hello?” Mary said.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “There’s no one at home. Would you care to leave a message?”

“Mmm,” Mary said. “Mmm.”

“Okay. I’ll tell him when he gets in. Anything else?”


“You’re being held hostage in the Mello’s parking lot? Don’t worry, miss. We’ll send someone out right away.”

Mary giggled.

“Here they come,” I said. “A multitude of marvelous mayors is marching madly to the rescue.”

“Save me,” Mary said.

“It’s too late. The mayors are marching onto Main Street. There they go. They’re gone.”

Mary opened her eyes. “Thank you for lunch,” she said.

“You’re entirely welcome,” I said.

“And thank you for the park.”

“The park? That was your idea.”

“Oh? I thought it was Walt’s idea.”

“Ah, yes. Good old Walt. Maybe we should thank him.”

“Maybe we should.”

“He was right, you know.”

“He was? What was he right about?”

“About this.” I moved closer to Mary and kissed her on the cheek.

She was a little surprised, but not upset in the least. “You men always stick together,” she said.

I kissed her again, this time in the soft, downy area close to her ear. Instinctively, Mary offered her lips. She tasted like peppermint — then came the rest of her — the deep, dark, feminine mystery that devastates and wounds and blinds and torments — the first moment — the beginning of time — the end — alone on the earth, walking in a garden — fragrant, desperate, free, without a care — the deep rumbling, volcanic — the flight of birds at dawn — knowing nothing, forgetting everything — wordless, nameless, urgent, peaceful, troubling, calm — and I gave in, like a helpless infant drawing his first breath, like an old man drawn to the fire of his twilight dream, my entire being feather-light, weeping with joy.

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

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