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Twenty-six

Then she died. My mother, that is. When it rains, it pours. I told you there would be no war or famine here. Just another death.

This left my financial status fixed, at a modest level, for life. The fund that provided for this, however, exacted the family supply of cash – leaving my siblings the house and the various objects therein. This arrangement, of course, was all the buzz throughout the funeral party. Hey, something has got to fill that empty space. It made for an uneasy split between them and me. Not that they wanted her money. Sure, they would have liked some of it. But mostly it was resentment: they were pissed that I had been such a drain, and now got it all. They were out there busting their asses – careers flying like mad – while I did nothing and remained set for life. My brother, the Your Honor, could have pulled some switches I’m sure, changed the whole thing. He didn’t. Instead, we just ended the family, sort of, with those three being lovey chums with each other, and me on the outside. Well enough, I suppose. It had been this way for years, why not make it official? There comes a point in a family’s life when blood isn’t everything. You have to choose your friends, just like everywhere else. They chose each other.

She died of a heart attack. It was bad one, of course. She was at home, waiting for her old, dear friends, also widows, to drop by. They were going out for a tiny bite of dinner, as they did almost every night. They circulated among the local diners – the ones that served vegetables. Her friends drove by to pick her up, waited in the driveway, honked, got worried, went inside, and found her there, in the bathroom.

The funeral was on an unusually mild day for winter. It drizzled. The sky was thick, off-white. It was one of those days in which the cloud cover absorbed all sun and then rationed changing films of color all its own. The light was a gorgeous pink that morning, then blue, then brown, and, by funeral time a weird yellow. It stayed yellow throughout the afternoon. Everything, especialally the trees, was yellow.

Things didn’t click. The grief, all the people. The Wimp losing her grandmother. I showed up, went through the motions, kept it all to the minimum.

The next day, I was back at the theater, my new creation, logging my hours. A job like this I could do. Why? Because I came and went as I pleased. It had no future. I vacuumed the set furniture good, got it clean. I could use this place as a pad, invite somebody in, which is what I did.

Althea.

There’s nothing like grief to attract a woman. Actually, that’s not true. That’s movie stuff. They really don’t like it. It makes them edgy, just as it does men – unless the woman is well acquainted with depression, as Althea was. Grief offers a certain sexiness – for men and women – for people who well know the ups and downs of this life.

“You need somebody now,” Althea said.

“I guess I do.”

She was right. I did.

That’s one of the trillion differences there are between people. People who have felt really bad, for no good reason, and dealt with the pain – they are the ones who understand you when you’re down. I’m not saying they’re the best people to hang around with. After all, if they are in a state you wouldn’t want to get near them. But if they are normal, if their blood levels are within a therapeutic level and everything is okay, they can switch moods with the snap of a finger. Anything affects them; in fact, they are slaves to events, the currents around them.

Not so for some therapists, facilitators, doctors. They are there to examine, support, and be strong. They care. They empathize. But it’s got to be brief for them. You never know what you’re going to get from one moment to the next, because, ultimately, whether they say so or not – they’re acting with their brains, just talking to their hearts. Also not so with sick, depressed people who have experienced the real thing – like war victims, mourners. They are mood slaves too, but their rhythms are independent.

But you take a good manic depressive, who has had good treatment, led a sheltered, whacky life, feels okay on the given day, and that’s a sympathetic person, somebody who likes to sink into your mood with you and grovel around in it.

She wasn’t smiling like hell now. She was water-eyed, worried, indulgent, pulled back that blond hair and showed me her whole, concerned face. Chemical or no chemical, having experienced all those low moods, and high moods, she knew the difference, wasn’t afraid of them, slid right into my aura of grief like the good therapy junkie she was.

I said to Althea, “Please,” and I stretched my arms around her, squeezed her whole body to mine. We took up where we had left off that night when we had no place to go; we kissed. We got on the couch and made it last a long time. Finally, we were all set to do what we had both wanted to do since we first met in the hospital. All it took was a little privacy, a little theater furniture. I tried to get her to check out my pants with her hand, wanted to feel that warm, buttery touch the way I had that other night. She wouldn’t do it, kept her hands strictly above my waist, mostly massaging my neck and head, kissing the hell out of my mouth, letting her legs do all the real talking, pressing her cunt against mine through all the clothes, trying to make me come to a boil, getting the lid to explode off the pot.

“God I’ve got to get these off,” I said.

She wouldn’t say a word, this woman. She wanted it, but she wouldn’t go after it, just working me over with the kisses until I freed myself, unbuckled and kicked them off, grabbed her sweater and tore it a little, getting it off so fast, going after her jeans with both hands.

Dot dot dot.

My earliest memory is of a toy, pulling it out of a box, and wondering where it had been. Now I’m wondering, what was it? I think I’ll never know. It was a wooden thing, about the size of a toy truck. Is that what it was? Or a little wooden horse?

Who can tell you these things?

Everything is so clear in this memory. The room, the beige paneling, the red corduroy bedspreads, the woods outside the window. The blue toy box. But the toy? The toy! The center of the whole memory. It was a great toy, a spectacular find, but what was it?

It was not unlike this couch thing with Althea, finally getting the clothes off, getting inside her – but my toy! What was it? Is this how we determine what things are, by remembering where they were? Who we were at the time? Getting some kind of movie clip image of ourselves, like a photo, stuck in time, back there with no before or after, just the clear picture of ourselves at that one moment, still, holding a toy, somewhere in the first half-decade of life? The object is defined only by the memory, the love for it, has no substance of its own.

So the couch is a sloping thing, good for theater sets, for a single person to lie down on. It’s not made for two, but it works well. I was on top of her, all the way inside her, and we rolled over, down, into it, leaving me stuffed in the corner, squeezed in on all three sides – the couch below and beside me, and Althea completing the triangular enclosure.

So this is not a bad way to fuck, really. Trapped, squashed, cramped into the corner of a couch, nearly obliterated – hiding from the world – so that you can’t move too many muscles, but you can move perfectly well the ones that count. Fucking is more than mind and body; it’s a meditation, and meditation is still. Movement diminishes awareness. Althea, the guru of this meditation, tries to slow my heart, my breathing, tells me to “relax, shhuuuu,” and presses me deep into the couch, where I can shut my eyes and be one giant cock, fully enclosed, entering her rhythm of slow, interval squeezes. I was so hot before, just trying to get naked; now it’s a matter of gentle art. She pulls the bra off and gives me her breast to suck, lowers it down to me in the far reaches of couchdom. Where did I read this: that as soon as a woman takes a man’s balls in her hand his mind goes blank? True. But not true in a situation like this. You get down to the real fucking itself, right here, and the mind is as awake as it will ever be. When I did come, Althea was tuned right in, reached down and freed both my legs from the couch, pulled them up and squeezed me hard with each expansion. She got me off good, all the way.

So I guess you could say, it turned out fine the first time. This was more than the first time. It was a meeting of the minds, a therapudic onslaught.

Then, moments later, buried but still breathing within the depths of the couch (thank God it wasn’t a fold-out; I would have fallen inside, been there for a long time; they would have had to call the fire department) the theater door opened downstairs. Jerry Baker began to thump his way up the long stairway. We scrambled to dress ourselves, barely did so by the time he popped in.

“I’m surprised you’re here today,” he said.

“A job’s a job,” I said.

I finished buttoning my shirt. Tucked it in.

“Show biz,” he said. “You’re getting the hang of it.”

Althea said, “Hi.”

“How are you?” said Jerry Baker.

“Just visiting,” she said.

Jerry gave her a good look, thought about what he was seeing, looked back at me.

“This room looks good, ready for rehearsal. How are the shelves coming?”

My current project was putting together metal shelves across the hall.

“Two down, twenty-two to go,” I said.

“Big job,” he said. He looked at Althea some more. He said, “I know this sounds odd, but there’s something about you I’m looking for. Can you sing?”

“I love to sing,” she said. “I always have. I took voice years ago, before my children were born.”

Jerry snapped his fingers.

“I knew it,” he said. “When you don’t force situations, they turn out perfectly. How old are you?”

“How old do I need to be?”

“Eliza Doolittle,” he said.

“Really? That’s exactly my age.”

“I’m looking for her,” he said. “Would you like to audition?”

“Sure.”

“The show has been cast, except Eliza’s moving. I’ve been waiting for her to show up.”

Althea pointed to the piano. “Go ahead,” she said.

Jerry played, and Althea sang, “All I Want is a Room Somewhere.”

“We start rehearsing next week.”

Act one, scene two.

Show biz.

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