Fiction

Eminence

Gary Lutz

There was a time I would not hear of women, and a time I looked to them as my betters, and months when my heart went out to anyone done up as a person, but it was usually men I suited: men who liked to keep their words a little stepped back from their meanings and mostly wanted to know whether I was still in school or was hard on shoes. I would awaken to the poundings of one or another of them taking his elbowing ease in the shower stall. The bedside table would of course hold quarters, and a lone dime, out of date and valued-looking, and no doubt a patched-up, gadabout ten-dollar bill—I guess the test was simply how much I would be just the sort of person to take. So I would let pocket change of my own drop to the floor in what I counted on adding up to an answering reproof, then top it with a spruce twenty. I would usually think better, though, and pick everything up, his and mine both, and disappear into my clothes and be gone before he was dry. Still, I suspect that I went unrepresented in much of what I ever did, if I get my drift even now.

There was a father, for instance, who wanted me to help save his daughter from him, or else he wanted to be saved from her—at some point I gave up keeping track of the ones I had been a party to keeping spared. There was a drumble of TV noise from the apartment below; that much is still with me. And he ticked off the points of nervy resemblance: upraised veinage, standout nose, teeth looking stabbed into the gums, arms unfavorable for even the joke sports. A broth of sweat came off him, and I hate it when they talk right into your mouth, but he kept it up until convinced there was nothing set out between my legs other than whichever mishmash he figured on being all hers. (At the time of which I write, circa my youth, there still were glories to be brought out in people behind their backs.) Weeks later I was introduced to the girl at some function I showed for. She was clean-lined, nothing new or unearthly—a desponding thing in a shirtdress, looking care-given and sided with beyond her years. The father was at the steam table, turning over the local foods. He had a tousled smile. “It’s like you never left,” he said.

I had been staying with four or five others thriving compliably on the top floor of a three-story sublet. Freaks of drapery to keep us from the morning sun, double-strength cosmetics and pills of the moment in handbags nailed shoulder-high to the wall—it hardly helped that this was in one of the little cities that had been thrown down at the approaches to a much bigger one once enough people were pinched for time or too moody for the commute. The town had already run afoul of its original intent, and there was a misgiven majesty to the newer, upstrewn architecture that left people flimsier in their citizenship, less likely to put their foot down. So we walked ourselves into recognizability in and around the plazas, the pocket parks, the foremost shrubberied square. You could run your feelings over one unrested person and get them to come out on somebody else a little distance off. There was no need to even come face to face to be stuck in failing familiarity forever.

People eventually answered any purpose or were no skin off my nose.

There was Joeie: clean-tasting but a trace too saline. Colored easily, needed his full eight hours, believed in taking each of his meals in public. His loves were drugstore luxuries and the fitting instant you knew for sure that something was finally finding its way down the wrong pipe. But sometimes the rope I woke up with around my ankles and wrists was only laundry line and the knots weren’t even serious.

And Tarn: He was either off doing somebody a wonder or having something further burned away from his complexion—you looked for the underlying advisory in his motions and let the whole of it lounge in your understanding for a while. Nights I found the key to his car, there was a minor toll bridge I could have just as soon avoided, but I liked surrendering the warmed quarter to the collection attendant in the booth, his arm a sudden, perfected thing of the open air.

It was the night Tarn was first threatening to move out that another came across with a car trunk’s worth of guitars. These were junk guitars, folk-singer styles, with the strings raised penalizingly high above the fretboard. He wasn’t satisfied until one was strapped onto me and he had his hand spread over mine to depress my fingers and get a few dud chords going steadily. When he started to sing, the better part of the lyrics reminded you that with a stepmother and a stepsister, the prefixes alone, if you bothered to do even any of the thinking, made it all but expected of you to walk all over these women and, if you were still up to it, climb them stairwise to a height from which their originals might at least look easier to buy for, easier to mistake for two good eggs. It’s not that I mind it when a pack of lies with real effort behind it gets pitched way over my head to somebody reliably cruel at a remove. But the song was going on and on, with too much yellow smile between verses. He later offered to make it up to us by driving everybody to a party in the city. There was a kid there with an isolating refreshment, something he alone had been given to eat. His fingers kept bringing it up from a plastic sandwich bag opaque with condensation. I was among the least encouraged to get an arm landed lankly on his. One or another of us stayed in touch with him months afterward in notes that amounted to mostly “More soon.”

Some nights, though, we just dosed it out among ourselves. Kept it going round and around our thinned and souring circle. It was illucid and weighed on our speech. There was so much to decide against as one with mouths that stickied! The others would have to doze off before I could begin poring over an iridescence at the inner bend of an elbow, I hoped, or some delicate hingework behind a knee. It was usually Tyner who never fell asleep. I would guide his fingers onto my arm, try to interest them anew in moles so blurry they looked loose, then re-intimate that they were his to slide about to advantage. I was with him the day he won with the instant ticket. I let him use the rim of my bracelet to scratch out the gray antic ellipses, my arm dragging subordinately along. We took the bus to an odd-lots furniture concern for the glass-top coffee table he figured could do the trick. We walked the thing home stretcherwise: there was delight to find in catcalls from the thick civic traffic. The table went to his room, and a tenderness took over in his voice to get the favor finally asked of me. So I got undressed on top of it and tried to be sleepy and unmindful of my petite bowels and bladder while he worked himself up for drawn-out disappointment below.

I do not want to make it seem as if this is all we ever did. There was a neighbor lady’s dog we agreed to feed when employments she could no longer postpone called her far from where she otherwise would have had no reason to keep speaking to us so brightly half the time. It was one of those full-natured, kerchiefed dogs that liked being bossed around. Days it fell to me to fill the dish, I did not so much call his name as thin it out to the scanty inner vowels, but the thing would still put in a complete, gladdened appearance. I would watch him eat, take advantage of his company, draw myself out about things, any part of life I no longer was any part of, just to get listened to without bias or retention. There were also some weak-willed plants to be doused if I thought of it and dresses that were all too tight on me and seemed to smell of more than just one person, though I wasn’t an authority on who all she thought she might be. But I must have liked it over there—I know I liked mooning over the little that came in her mail, even the same circulars that came to our place but which, withdrawn from her box, seemed to enjoy much more shimmer on the type.

As for women overall, though, I went along with what Lorn said about how they were set deeper within themselves and moved about reproductively in a world spaciously different from ours but sharing the same sorry places to meet up for a bite. And it’s not as if I had never at least got myself arranged around one of them, though all I was probably doing was trying to show her out of her body and then not act surprised when my hands slipped right off wherever I tried to unload the things. (Even the older ones are truly as smack-smooth as they are made out to look.) But there was nothing to be held against any of them, either singly or in the dissastisfied aggregate, even if you now and then had somebody’s sister coming forward with rundown makeup and a mugginess to her arms to tell you the only reason you were a waiter instead of a grill man was so you could stand over and above people in couples and make a living looking down your nose. (There were only so many things you could say in return that would come across as both the truth and a dig. I had worked up enough of them to put into conservant, fallback rotation, but lately I just pointed to my groin and explained that if we give them names it’s because they spring from us, we bring them up, we’re forever wiping their snotty little mouths.)

So what’s left? The only other question still worth entertaining should not have to keep being only “Who else?”

Which I take to mean that the answer can’t be parents, or even brothers and sisters, because we all were done with practically the exact same ones. Mother would signal the end of a conversation by saying she could feel inside her skull the precise contours of the space a headache would require, though she did not yet have the actual headache. Father had grown a beard that was more like a black cloud loitering in front of his face. (The beard was purposely mostly air.) The sister or brother was younger and had to have it drilled into the head again and again that it was one house if you came into it from the back and a different one altogether if you came in from the front: the people were the same, they were nice to you to your face, but nobody was being fooled: no one was living here everlastingly.

They were all of them buried neck and neck, so help me, in anything left for us to root against when we set ourselves afresh upon the days.

So that leaves who else to never let you forget the spirit and slants of whichever humidifying proximity must have been solely his? Kittrick? Reese? Malin?

Kittrick: There was a fine-drawn signature of dark hair on the backs of his hands that I had been after him to let me chase away with a razor, on the ground that there should be such a thing as seeing too much spelled out on people. He was a cherisher, true, but there was always something probationary in his regard for whatever he cherished, and he never let you in on how soon he might be through. It was up to me to hold the pocket lighter when he did the bust-ups of his acne with the pin of the name badge he had to wear for work.

And Reese: He went about in low-hanging sweaters and was quick to disappear from whatever he understood of one person and then get going in what might be likelier of the next. I saw some valiance in how he raked us all over the coals. He pointed out the ruthless valedictory business I apparently did with my hands at the close of a meal, something he claimed I brought off under clever cover of separating myself from the napkin and getting up from the table. (I have yet to figure out what he might have meant. I have always believed in rectitude and inexertion as long as any food is still set out.)

But Malin I knew first from only the phone. He had been calling most nights from a wide agricultural county to the north, a modest rural torment in his voice, the voice of a downtaken, suitorly man married full well. My only duty was making sure he dropped off before I finished any cradlesong synopsis I could come up with of a tricky, frugal workshift without deodorant, maybe, or a self-chaperoned tour of the dashier glory holes. But one night he was all revolt and filthied principle. It was suddenly a bone to pick with me that he had married fresh from a haircut, slashes of gloomful hair still on the forehead, down the front of the neck, and that no sooner was the wedding over with than he was less sure than ever of just exactly how he was cut out to be pitted against her, so the two of them had to live first as brother and sister, then as mother and banged-up son, then as women both, with a cuticular bloodiness to whichever hand set the table when neither’s motives were of the best. He must have been making out an invitation in the way I held my tongue, because the next morning he arrived with vague teeth and a tremolant ascension at the end of every sentence: I trailed him to his car when he went for the change of clothes. But before the day was even out, there was a let-up in how he had gone weak around the gauzy waves of my sleeves. I was already expected to shampoo his eyebrows with a tar extract, then see that the minced and runny things he barely ate would crest just so on his plate.

So is that the one time the question stopped being “Who else?” and became only “What other bones do you have in your body?” or “Where are you going to go with all those clothes?”

Because the answer could then be nothing more personal than that at the rebounding municipal college I was a figure of considerable scholastic mystique because I looked over my notes before the quiz and tried not to get cross when the chairs had to be pushed back into a circle. The late-afternoon section of the summer course in speech was mostly boys, because it was mostly boys—repeaters, sweet-naturedly tardy, brush-burned in their undershirts—who had trouble sticking to their points and making it even as far as the middle minute of the three-minute impromptus. But when my turn came, I was slower-hearted in walking them all through how I saw it:

• that I was not the good listener everyone kept insisting I was, but I liked hearing people out the way I expected balloons to be quick about losing their air—I wanted the breathy, informative smell on their mouths right afterward;

• that the busy signal doesn’t really have to sound like bleedbleedbleedbleedbleed, but even if it does, you can always fall back on the variety of brightwork and wrong-endedness in a day already taking after the night before;

• and that I could kick myself every time it did not come out to even so much as a syllogism no matter how often I got it stacked up onto the three needful tiers:

1. You go with what’s most available on people.

2. On men it is an eminence that luckily never lasts.

3. The mess it leaves is nothing that ever bespoke too much or took up any room in what you knew of people a pale day later.

Except there was a farmers’ market open only a couple of nights a week, and I could pick out the one to follow from a produce stand and into the men’s room. There was just the one stall, and the latch was broken: it was up to me to lean against the door to keep up the privacy. Then the unzipping, and we were standing a polite foot apart, my arms retired now behind my back the way his had been first, his eyes already more wishless than mine. We let the things shy off from ourselves, bumble out the way they always did, twinge and dodge and dither a little, until they were kissing unassisted. It was out of our hands, or none of our doing, and then afterward I was at my very best all over again, witnessing the differences from me amassing in him almost instantly.