Gentility

June Unjoo Yang

Evenings, he teaches an amateur watercolor class at the local community college. His students are housewives baffled by the proper use of perspective, their foregrounds peppered with importunate saucer-eyed spaniels, fox cubs huddled in foliage, deer. They're wounded, says Barb, a new divorcé. Get it?

Yes, he gets it, averting his gaze from her short skirts with slits up the front and slightly off to one side, fashionable five years ago. He leans over her easel and sketches in tree trunks, the papery bark of a white birch, rings in a cut redwood. She presses against him with the tops of her breasts spilling over her push-up bra, purple lace visible through the weave of her blouse. There are freckles in the folds of her skin. Old skin. He could tell her, lay off, she's barking up the wrong tree, but he adds a pond to her forest scene, a riot of Spanish moss and shy creatures watching from their dark nooks and crannies. He likes Walden, the last book he read in its entirety; could he, like Thoreau, go it alone and never regret the decision? He wonders. Sometimes he thinks he could tenant a cave, a garden hewn in limestone, the slow drip of stalactites to mark time passing.

Like sightless fish, he shrinks from too much sun, sweltering beneath an afghan crocheted by an aunt who had raised him when his parents died, her sitting room crowded with kitsch: heart-shaped candy dishes, ashtrays spoofing urns, and the porcelain drummer boy he detested for its rouge and Clara Bow lips. One day he aimed a baseball at that mail-order cherub and knocked it to kingdom come. A red-letter day; he couldn't stop smiling at the memory. He'd never apologized to his aunt for it, either, but when she died, she left him the house and everything in it, as if scolding. He has filled it with his paintings of saucer-eyed children. He used to have visitors, young friends he chatted up and asked to model for him, but he never, ever touched them. He bought them gingersnaps and watched them stuff the crumbs into their mouths with plump fingers, fists. They gave him pleasure, just watching. Now he buys cookies for himself and eats them every night, alone, with a glass of milk on his bedside table.

Sometimes he brushes his teeth, sometimes not. Before retiring, he likes to swill tepid water against his teeth to revive the old gingery flavors.