A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 6

Instead of taking the freeway to the Parkway exit and then taking the Parkway downtown, I stuck with the surface streets. This was a mistake. Thanks to a paving project on Hawthorne, what should have been a pleasant twenty-minute trip turned into an hour-long ordeal. With nowhere to turn, I was forced to wait in a long line of traffic while a demented flagger allowed a small number of cars through, apparently at whim, then switched and let at least three times as many pass from the other direction before deciding it was our turn again. This process was repeated so many times I lost count. When my turn finally came to pass, purely out of spite, the flagger suddenly flipped his sign around, held out his sunburnt arm, and made me wait one last time. A power-mad, arrogant twit, he had half a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, and was wearing a pair of those highly reflective sunglasses you can see trees and buildings in. When he let me go several minutes later, I waved, then made him jump by leaning on my horn � not exactly an adult thing to do, but it made me feel better.

Safely downtown, I decided to make a quick stop at the bank before heading to Water Street. After visiting the drive-through ATM and coming away with the princely sum of twenty dollars, I turned right on Mason, where I poked along behind an elderly gentleman in a pale-yellow Cadillac convertible. The gentleman was puffing on an enormous cigar. I could see the cigar each time he turned his head. This was something he did quite often, because he was busy admiring young women on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, as could be expected, the person behind me chose to ride my bumper even though there was nothing I could do to speed up. Naturally, I slowed down, letting my foot off the gas and coasting for several seconds until Mr. Bright got the message and backed off. A moment later, he turned right and entered a parking garage. This didn�t surprise me at all. I�ve found that people who tailgate seldom have a real reason to hurry. They only want to be noticed, and to let you know they are in control. Then they go shopping, or they go home and heat up a can of beans, just like everyone else.

The cigar smoke smelled good. I know the things are evil, and that the tobacco companies are evil, and that the people who smoke are evil, but, I�m sorry, I still enjoy the smell of a good cigar. It beats the smell of car exhaust any day � which, for some reason, is not evil, even though it�s killing us all. That we focus on smoking while the oil, auto, and chemical companies glibly poison the planet, I find a little, shall we say, juvenile. It�s kind of like talking about population control. It�s easy for you, pal, because you were born. Are you telling me you would rather not have been born, just to ease the burden? And speaking of poison, what about fast food? It�s hard to think of anything more evil than charging money for unidentified food-colored objects floating in grease.

One block in anticipation of Water Street, the west side of Mason widens to two lanes. Since I was going to be turning left, I pulled into the left lane alongside the Cigar Guy, who apparently thought he�d find more girls by turning right. We motored up to the red light together and stopped. The cigar he was smoking was black, and as big as a baseball bat. About an inch of ash clung to the end, which nearly hit the windshield. The Cigar Guy himself was probably close to eighty-five. He had a deep tan, thin white hair you could see his scalp through, and a marvelous nose that must have weighed eight pounds. His shirt alone was worth more than my car.

The light changed. I turned left onto Water Street. He turned right. Immediately thereafter, I heard a metallic crunch. In my rearview mirror I saw two cars with their front fenders touching. They had come to rest on the white line that separates the two northbound lanes of Water Street. One car was the convertible that belonged to the Cigar Guy, and the other was a silver four-door Mercedes I�d met in the intersection, and that had turned left when I did.

I pulled into a small lot one block down and walked back to the accident. Traffic was edging by on the right, between the convertible and the row of cars parked along the curb. When I got there, the driver of the Mercedes, a man in stylish sunglasses and wearing a dark gray suit, was talking to the Cigar Guy, who was still sitting behind the wheel, unruffled and puffing away. To his credit, the driver of the Mercedes was trying not to be upset, though it appeared both were at fault and had tried to change lanes without looking. His respect for age and wealth, not necessarily in that order, was apparent. Had the driver been someone like me in my dumpy Escort, it might have been a different story altogether. Of course I�m paranoid and could be wrong. On the other hand, you could tell just by looking that the Cigar Guy wasn�t the kind of person you pushed around. He was taking the whole thing in stride. For all I know, he has several more Cadillacs at home, and it was just a matter of changing cars and then picking up where he left off.

A minute or two later, the man in the suit got back in his car. After a little jockeying and scraping, the drivers freed their freshly marred vehicles and continued on.

I walked back to my car, which looked even smaller and older than when I�d left it. Instead of getting in, I took out the folder that contained the eye doctor�s business card and my bill for twenty dollars. I locked the car again and set off on foot.

The print shop was four blocks away, a reasonable distance even in my condition. But by the time I was half a block along, I already wanted to quit � everything. My life. Seeing. Thinking. Being a witness. I wanted to find a bench, lie down, pull a newspaper over my face, and go to sleep � forever. It�s hard to explain. I know I was tired. I know my stomach was empty, and that I was dehydrated from drinking beer the night before. But it isn�t that simple. It never is. In a matter of minutes, I was gripped by a sadness that seemed to come from everywhere. It came tumbling out of second-story windows, and seeping up through the sidewalk. Sadness was in the breeze, and in the sound of the traffic. Most of all, it was in the faces of the people I met walking, and in the way they walked. Dozens of people, no greeting shared, eyes looking away. Worry. Fear. Loneliness. Anger. Frustration. I know they were busy, preoccupied, concerned. As I said, it�s hard to explain. I wanted to reach out to them, to touch them, to bring a smile to their faces. Just a smile. That would have been sufficient. It would have been a start. But I couldn�t. No one would even look at me, except from a distance. That�s what we do. We look at each other from far enough away that it appears we could be looking anywhere. We size each other up, then, as we approach, we look away, or straight ahead. We don�t say hello. We don�t nod. Sometimes we look right at each other, without expression. What does this mean? I hate you, you hate me? Please leave me alone? I am great, I am sufficient unto myself? You couldn�t possibly understand, so don�t even bother? I don�t know. I really don�t know. But it�s sad.

Of course I kept going. I had to. I had work to do. A delivery to make. A printer to talk to. Maybe even another job to pick up. I kept going, because if I stopped, no one else would have. Night would have fallen, I would have been alone, and life would have gone right on without me. As it does anyway, I suppose.

The part of me that hates life said, �What a fool. Throw in the towel, already.�

The part of me that loves life said, �Whatever you do, don�t throw in the towel. Things will get better. It�s worth it, so just hang on.�

The part of me that thinks life is a joke said, �Enjoy yourself. It�s just a game.�

The part of me that takes life seriously said, �What a terrible waste of the precious, hidden, undiscovered talent that everyone has. If only there were a way to bring it out.�
All the while, the part of me that recognizes the folly of the other parts smiled and said nothing.

I am less, not more, than the sum total of my parts. That�s what it comes down to. I either care too much, or too little. I don�t know how to reconcile what I see with what I feel, or how to devise a sensible way of living. I simply go along from day to day, trying to weather the storm. I�m not arrogant enough to think I�m right, and I�m not insecure enough to think I�m wrong. I�m incapable of faith, and undermined by skepticism. I want to help, but I don�t know how. I want to start over. I want to forget everything I know, and to banish the carefully constructed illusion of myself that is so lazy and hungry for attention. There must be a better way to go, an honest way that doesn�t require crosses or medication, denial or membership, or any other form of hocus-pocus meant to simultaneously organize, utilize, and distract human beings while promising the moon and paying in disappointment and sorrow. For what we think is new is really old, and always incomplete. As we are incomplete. I ask for everything, expecting nothing. I ask for a night of genuine rest, and a day of worth and accomplishment. For a light heart, and a sweet song. A lullaby, and a dream. When the world ends, as surely it must, silence and stars. Wisdom. From infinity, a nod. Grace. I ask for nothing, expecting everything. Not to be a ghost in the streets of the town where I live. Not to be despised or ridiculed. Not to be considered a threat. Not to live in vain. Above all, and perhaps most foolishly, I ask that my ignorance be forgiven.
The tiny bell on the printer�s door rang, announcing my entrance. The shop was quiet � unusual for that time of day. There were no customers, and Abe Scanlon, the owner of the one-man operation, wasn�t about. To the left of the counter, the carpeted door to his basement was propped open. The light was on at the bottom of the stairs. From somewhere deep within, I heard Abe call out, �Be with you in a minute.� Then I heard a pallet being dragged across the floor, followed by a loud bang. I yelled back, �It�s only me. Take your time,� so Abe would know it wasn�t a customer and would have a chance to finish whatever it was he was doing.

Abe is one of the neatest, most organized printers in the business. I�ve seen a lot of them in action, so I know. His shop is small, and every piece of his equipment is strategically located to minimize steps and maximize production. He has two presses, a camera, a high-speed vacuum folder, a collator, two or three heavy-duty staplers, a hole-punch, a numbering machine, a light-table, a table-sized paper cutter, a photocopier, a telephone and fax, a cordless phone, a stainless steel sink, a small metal desk, and a coffee pot. Counters, work space, and built-in storage shelves line the wall under the windows on the street side. In one corner, not far from the door, tons of sample books represent years and years of his best work. A bulletin board with recent samples occupies the wall to the left of the photocopier. A lot of that stuff, I�ve done. Connecting it all is a narrow, well-worn path that�s kept remarkably free of debris.

The amount of work Abe puts out is phenomenal. More than once I�ve told him he should hire help. His answer is always the same: �They�d just get in the way.� Which is true. Every now and then, one of his kids will be in the shop. Though they are cheerful and try to help, I can see he�d prefer they weren�t there. It isn�t too bad if he has a small stapling job or something else that needs to be done by hand, because a son or daughter can take it upstairs to a little storage loft where he has another table set up to work on. But it�s hard when they�re involved in the general commotion. Not that he isn�t crazy about his kids. He is. I also happen to know that he doesn�t want them to grow up to be printers. He doesn�t mind what he�s doing, but between the tired feet, the chemicals, and the varicose veins, he can�t help thinking there are better ways for his children to make a living when they grow up. Of course, if it turns out that one of them really wants to be a printer, he won�t stand in their way, and will do everything in his power to help. He just doesn�t want to encourage it, that�s all.

A couple of minutes later, Abe turned off the basement light and bounded up the stairs. He fastened down the door, revealing its carpeted side, then slid a cardboard box of unprinted envelopes over it so no one would be tempted to walk there. Practically in the same motion, he straightened up, wheeled around, and went behind his counter, where we stood facing each other over a plastic tray full of paper clips, glue sticks, rubber stamps, and other printing-related odds and ends. Next to that, I�d put my folder. Glancing down, and without missing a beat, he said, �Did you bring me a present?�

�Something like that,� I said. I opened the folder and moved my bill out of the way so Abe could admire the finished work of art.

He looked it over. �Not bad for an amateur,� he said.

�Gee, thanks,� I said. �I got everything on there, anyway.�

�So I see.� Abe picked up my bill, turned around, and added it to a neat stack of invoices on his desk. �Don�t worry,� he said. �They�ll love it.�

�That�s what bothers me.�

Grinning, he grabbed a sheet of paper sitting on top of his fax machine and put it on the counter.

�For me?� I said.

�For you,� he said. �This came in just a little while ago.� He took a pen from the tray, then quickly made a few notes on what I could see was someone�s letterhead. Almost before he was done, he spun the page around so I wouldn�t have to look at it upside down. �These people are moving,� he said, �so I need to have you change the address. Now that it�s going to be a P.O. box, they also want the type in the address line to be bigger, so it still lines up with the telephone and fax numbers.�

�I think I can manage that.�

�Okay, and they also want to add a one-point rule, starting here, that runs all the way across the page.� Abe looked up to make sure I understood.

�Okay,� I said. �With the line, I�ll probably have to move the address down a little, but that�s no big deal. Is that it?�

�That�s it.� He glanced at his watch. �Tomorrow okay?�

Though I hated the idea, I told him the next day would be fine, and that I would drop it off in the afternoon.

Satisfied, in his usual efficient way Abe slipped the eye doctor job into one of his own folders, then put the letterhead into my empty folder and closed it. A sly smile appeared on his face. �There are two flies in the kitchen,� he said. �Which one is the cowboy?�

Caught off guard, I slowly repeated what he said. I pretended to think about it for several seconds. When enough time had passed, I said, �Uh, I have no idea.�

�The one on the range.�

For Abe�s sake, I managed a laugh. Not that his joke wasn�t funny. It was, in a simple sort of way. I just wasn�t in the mood for it. �Where do you get �em?� I said, dying for the moment to end.

�From the Internet � though most of them aren�t that clean.�

�I�ll be darned,� I said. I could tell by Abe�s pleasantly amused expression that I was in for a further demonstration. I was trying hard to prepare myself when the bell on the door rang and two young women came in. They were dressed for success, as the saying goes, and one was carrying a cell phone. The other had an imitation eel-skin binder that she placed on the counter and immediately opened as if I wasn�t there � which, come to think of it, wasn�t far from the truth.

Still smiling, but with a completely different expression � an expression that showed his respect for money, and the groceries and insurance it could buy � Abe looked at me and said, �I�ll see you tomorrow, then.�

Pleased to be so lucky, I picked up my folder and said, �Okay, thanks,� in the best business voice I could muster. I walked to the door and opened it. The bell rang again. On my way out I heard Abe say, �What can I do for you?� to the two young women standing at the counter. One of them answered, but I couldn�t make out what she said, because there was a gravel truck rumbling by on Water Street. Not that I wanted to. I was already afraid I�d be stuck doing a job for them, and that after I did it they would want things changed, and after I made the changes, they would want even more changes, and after that they would decide to go back to their original layout, which they would want to have printed immediately, because all the changes had made them late. And, wouldn�t you know it, that�s exactly what happened. I finished that job two days ago. I think.

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

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