A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 2

Later that night, I finally permitted myself a small frozen dinner. I tasted each bite carefully, chewing slowly and wasting nothing. I tried reading for awhile, then fell asleep in my fatherís chair. I slept until around one in the morning, woke up, and then couldnít sleep at all. But my headache was gone. I even felt sort of human, which, these days, is all I ask for.

There is something to be said for health. Unfortunately, mine isnít what it used to be. My stomach complains, my neck hurts, my eyes water, and I canít stand up straight. Even my teeth donít match up like they did, having shifted and migrated and banded together in small angry groups, each demanding attention, some reacting to sugar, others to cold, and in general refusing to get along and to work together the way teeth are supposed to. The whole business wears me out. I am worn out. Forty-four years into the game, I drag myself around the apartment like an old man. Sometimes I even mumble. I say things like, ďThis is it, you know. Youíve got to get some exercise.Ē Or, ďWhat was that you said? Did you say something?Ē And of course I never get a satisfactory answer. If I do, I forget what it is, and soon find myself far afield, wondering how I got there, unable to remember where I started.

The book I was reading is called The Unnamable. It was written by Samuel Beckett, who was born in 1906 in Dublin, and who did his writing in Paris. I think itís a novel, but Iím not sure. The whole thing is slow going, basically one long paragraph, and I canít tell whether the narrator is a person or just a disembodied voice. Whoever he is, whatever he is, he questions everything and assumes nothing, even his own existence, which he thinks might be an illusion ó not that he cares, since caring would be the same as admitting he exists, which he is not prepared to do. All of this makes for an admirable hero. So far, itís a good book. Itís brave in a lonely sort of way, and not without a sense of humor. In fact, itís quite possible that someone with an uncluttered mind might even understand it ó a child, say ó which might have been Mr. Beckettís point all along.

Wide awake in any case, I decided to take a shower, hoping the hot water would relax me and Iíd be able to get some more sleep. Often I canít sleep because Iím simply not tired enough, having done nothing more than sit all day. It would be better if I were a farmer or a woodcutter. At most, typesetting uses only three or four muscles, leaving the rest to twitch on occasion and slowly dwindle to nothing. I should take a lesson from Mary. She exercises. She belongs to a gym, works out, and does aerobics.

That night was different. I was tired. I donít know how I managed it, unless my physical decline is great enough that Iíve now entered a new phase. Or maybe I was just tired of myself, having finally begun to realize that I am not who I thought I was all these years, but rather a balding imposter by the name of Monroe.

Before long, it was obvious sleep wasnít in the cards. The shower did no good at all. I turned off the lights, turned on the radio, and sat down again in my fatherís chair. Lulled by two quiet voices talking seriously to one another, I fell to thinking ó first about money, since money is something I never have enough of. I am amazed by people who know how to get the stuff, and who always know where it is, as if it flows like water in rivers underground and one only needs to sink a well. Many of these same people take more pleasure in finding money and having it than in actually spending it. Others spend it in a way that belittles others, but in the belittling they are belittled themselves. And there are those who spend their money gracefully, because their hearts and spirits are big, and for them the money is secondary. Speaking for myself, while Iíve always recognized the importance of money, Iíve never held it in high enough regard to sacrifice more than a few hours a week to have it. If I have to do something I hate in order to get money, if I have to be a liar or a thief, if I have to do things I donít believe in or if I have to pretend to be someone Iím not, then itís simply not worth it. Iíd rather be broke.

The trouble is, Iíd rather have money, too ó at least enough to be able to stop this masquerade as a typesetter and designer of brochures for local tire shops. A month ago, I did a four-page ďcremation authorization form.Ē In the process, I learned more about cremation than I wanted to know, right down to the nitty-gritty. It was awful. Everything was presented in cold, legal language, and on every page there were rows of boxes to check, and several places for people to initial and sign.

What it comes down to, I guess, is that I am both a pretender and broke. As for running my own business, Iím nothing more than a bad actor. I donít have any business to run. If a printer calls me with a job, I do it. If he doesnít, I donít. I read a book instead, or trim my fingernails.

I also thought about Mary. She sounded good, as always. I hadnít heard from her in a couple of weeks, though I did speak with Matt once or twice. To avoid homework, sometimes he calls me when he gets home after school. We catch up on sports, and I listen to him talk about baseball and the new kind of bat he wants to get, which only costs two hundred and twenty dollars. Then, for the sake of argument, I tell him I hate metal bats, a statement he is kind enough to pretend I am making for the first time. ďBabe Ruth used a club,Ē I tell him. ďHe wouldíve used a tree trunk if theyíd let him. Can you imagine his home runs having that cheap little plink sound? Heíd have given up the game.Ē After a brief, spirited defense, Matt gives in ó because heís my son, and because he wants me to buy him the new metal bat.

Matt is a good boy, and Mary is a good mother. Part of me ó a big part ó is very sorry we didnít have more kids, though itís foolish to think having a bigger family would have kept us together. More kids would have meant more bills, which in turn would have put more pressure on everything, where there was enough pressure already. And yet I canít help wondering if that kind of pressure wasnít exactly what I needed. Maybe a houseful of kids would have given me more incentive and less time to think of myself. I might have been inspired, instead of despired. Then again, if I couldnít manage with one, how could I expect to manage with several? If having a beautiful, wonderful wife like Mary and having a blond, bouncing baby boy werenít enough to inspire me, then maybe I didnít deserve to be married in the first place.

If my father were here, I know what heíd say. Heíd say I blew it. Heíd say I had everything, only I was too dumb to recognize it. For him, it would be cut and dried. You either succeed or you die trying. Failure is not an option. And he would be right, except that I did recognize it. Isnít that ridiculous? While I was blowing it, I knew I was blowing it ó and yet for some reason I was still unable to do anything about it. I donít think it was a lack of desire. And I donít blame Mary, because that would be taking the easy way out. It wasnít her fault. She tried. The failure is mine. She still says she was at least partly at fault, and that she could have done more. I donít buy it. If she contributed to our marital demise, it was because I contributed first. If she was irritable and disappointed, it was because she wanted to make things better and didnít know how to proceed.

If there was a turning point, if turning points do indeed exist, ours came when I left Mary and Matt alone for a week when Matt was eleven. It was something I never should have done, especially since I did it without warning, and without explanation. It was foolish, but I just assumed Mary knew why I was going. She knew I was miserable. But by not explaining, she felt I was telling her that I thought we couldnít talk anymore. And that wasnít the case. That wasnít how I felt at all. I just couldnít talk at the time. I could barely function. I was no good to her or to anyone else. And of course she did know why I was leaving. But leaving her so suddenly ó to juggle her work schedule, to take care of Matt by herself, and to find people to look after him while she was at the hospital ó made her feel like I didnít care anymore. I figured that out while I was gone ó on the very first night, in fact. We went over it all later, after Iíd apologized, after Mary was finally able to look at me and speak to me again.

To show you the state I was in, when I woke up on the morning I left, I didnít even know I was going myself. The idea came to me when I was in the shower. By the time I was out of the shower and dressed, I knew I was leaving. It was a question of mental survival. In my mind, staying meant going under, and leaving meant Iíd be getting to the bottom of things once and for all. As soon as I had everything sorted out, Iíd hurry back home, and everything would be all right. We would start living a normal life. Iíd be a better husband, a better father, and a better person. Had he been asked, even our mailman would have been able to tell I was running. I wish I had asked him. Larry was a nice guy. It would have saved a lot of wasted energy, several tanks of gas, and a stupid motel bill we couldnít afford.

This is the story of my life ó my thoughts and disappointments simmering slowly like an often-reheated but never-eaten stew, followed by a big, noble buildup, followed by a sudden, rancid explosion of desperate self-pity coupled with a blind, sublime clarity I assume to be revelation, followed by some form of escape, followed by waking up lost and lonely, and embarrassed by the fact that Iíve again managed to forget that this is what I always do. And then the whole thing starts over again, the terrible, futile process consuming weeks, months, and, finally, years. Over time the details have changed slightly, the duration of the ďepisodesĒ have varied in length from an hour to a week, but the results have always been the same. And through it all, culminating in our divorce, I have loved Mary, the one constant in my life, the one hope for sanity I will carry with me to my grave.

I drove hundreds of miles. I stayed in a motel, ate hot dogs, and watched old movies on cable. I talked to the desk clerks. I read the newspaper. I walked up and down strange streets, mumbling and looking at my reflection in store windows. I cried. I wrote letters to myself, and then to everyone Iíve ever known, and finally to people I didnít know. I wrote them to strangers I met on the street. I wrote them to city bus drivers. I wrote them to the old couple I saw one day posing for a picture with their grandchildren outside a museum. I wrote them in the rapidly accumulating dust of my life, then watched the wind and the rain sweep them away, and was relieved to see them go.

I didnít have an affair, but while I was gone I noticed other people having affairs, and I thought how really pitiful that was ó the efforts at being discreet, the empty words over flowery drinks, the quiet, romantic dinners, all leading to the big prize ó then the lies afterward, the guilty parting and subsequent return to real life, a life cold with vanity and mistrust.

The only thing missing was popcorn. And of course I played the loser in my own poorly written, ill-conceived play. The people having affairs, if they noticed me at all, probably thought I had stopped in town on business, had a bout of food poisoning, and suffered amnesia.

Maybe Mary is right. Maybe I do suffer a chemical imbalance. It would help explain a lot of things. It would explain the brief periods of elation and joy followed by days of emptiness so debilitating that Iím sure there is no point in going on. Not that I have the courage to commit suicide. I donít. Which makes me wonder. If Iím sure life is a sham, then why donít I do away with myself? If Iím so useless to myself and to everyone I love, what am I hanging around for? Unless the mood swings are just another game I play in order to keep from facing the truth about myself, whatever that is. That Iím lazy, I suppose. That Iím unable to put othersí cares before my own. I just donít know. When I feel good, when my mind is clear, when Iíve accidentally had a good nightís sleep and wake up feeling eager, itís as if I am a boy again and the world waiting outside is perfect and new. And Iím always amazed when it happens, and pleased. Itís like standing in a thick fog, and then suddenly the fog lifts to reveal a shimmering ocean. And then I remember Iím alive, and I start to notice things. I notice the breeze moving the hair on my arms. I notice the courtship of insects. And I remember that this is why I am here. To be alive. To recognize the possibility in things. To believe. To understand my place. Then, all too soon, the fog returns. Itís like living in a lighthouse. Parts of the coastline are blotted out. Then the world withdraws. Into the roar of emptiness.

On my way home, I did my best to avoid the main roads. In some cases I went out of my way to drive through towns so small their existence is known only to the post office and the people who live there ó and of course the insurance companies, who we know leave no stone unturned, no strata unmined, and the worth of no scrap of metal, fabric, or plastic ó or the life or lives attached to it ó uncalculated.

In a town bearing the lovely name of Jakeís Mill, I stopped for coffee, and then I actually bought a second-hand pair of pants from a woman who ran a store that sold everything from clothing to hardware. What attracted me to the place was an old White Mountain ice cream freezer sitting full of water outside next to a faucet by the front door. The freezer looked exactly like the one we had when I was growing up, right down to the wavy lines of salt etched into the swollen wood, and the rust clinging to the metal ribs.

When I was paying for the pants, I asked the woman what flavor of ice cream she was planning to make. The woman, who was in her mid-fifties and not wearing any makeup, smiled and said, ďBlackberry. Would you like to join us?Ē I told her Iíd love to, but that I needed to get home. Later, though, when I was back behind the wheel, I wished I had stayed and had a turn at the crank. But where there is ice cream there are also children, a reminder I didnít need. With Matt and his mother at home it would have been wrong of me to stay ó just as it was wrong of me to be gone in the first place.

The most painful ó and frightening ó thing was returning home and finding no one there. It was a warm evening and the house was stale. The windows had been closed for hours, if not days. Everything had been put neatly away. There were no towels that needed washing, no laundry to fold, no books or papers that needed picking up, not even a single crumb on the kitchen counter. In each room I was greeted with order and silence ó silence broken only by the sound of clocks ticking. I looked for a note, or some sign that Mary and Matt were coming home. What I found instead were made beds, vacuumed floors, and shiny faucets.

I sat down on the edge of our bed and cried. I had been gone for a week, and hadnít called home, not once. I had left my wife and son without telling them where I was going or when I would be back. That I hadnít known when I left didnít matter. That I expected them to be there waiting for me revealed the depths of my blindness, arrogance, and stupidity.


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

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