And Vernon Klinker made a pass at Sally Jones-Dibky and didn’t even care that her best friend, who turned out to be jealous, saw him do it.
So then Harlan Henderson said to Silas Cornerbird, “That’s fucked up. That’s really fucked up.” Only Silas didn’t know what he was referring to. He just pretended he did so Harlan wouldn’t explain it and bother him anymore.
And someone in the kitchen said, “One tomato is never fair,” but you couldn’t really tell who it was and I might have been the only one imagining how incredible an unfair tomato could be in the hands of a strong woman. Everyone else was probably wondering, What would you answer someone who said something like that anyway?
You understand, don’t you, that I hadn’t yet realized that I wanted to be humiliated. Sexually, I mean. Not just ordinary stupid put-downs. Something imaginative. Something to get me going.
And then this reservation guy with black braids and a silver belt began licking the back of his hand and I couldn’t decide how I felt about it so I started coughing.
It was like I was watching myself and I was thinking, “Why are you doing this thing to yourself?”
So then I didn’t know what to do so I didn’t do anything.
And the phone rang and nobody was answering it.
So I answered it.
The phone said, “Howard? Howard is that you?”
I said, “Yes, it’s me.” But the phone didn’t believe me. Not for a minute.
She said, “Why aren’t you Howard?”
I didn’t know what to say. I wondered if I might be Howard.
She didn’t say anything. But I could tell she wanted to.
You could see that it wasn’t the kind of party for delivering heartfelt speeches or creating intimacy. The guest of honor was having an intense collaboration with his hair. Then we noticed the south wall was a garage door and the kitchen table a cable spool. There was a map of Gettysburg in a spaghetti stain on the bed, which served as a sofa. We were either delighted or desperate. They looked the same.
And why, in the middle of the festivities, did the guests draw an invisible circle around themselves and separate, with their mouths still flopping like comic-book shoes?
Someone tried to cheer someone up by saying, “There’s always someone unhappy somewhere.” Someone was not ashamed to be avoiding the obvious.
We all tried to visit the inside of our heads, but there wasn’t any celebration there either.
We weren’t very successful at gesticulating wildly to get the host’s attention. By now we were as miserable as he was. We tried to draw new circles.
Someone knocked on the door and the host answered, saying, “Hello there, I thought you were dead.”
And the new guest said, “What do you know about death?”
And the host said, “From the looks of my party, a great deal.”
And the guest said, “If that were really true, this might be a truly perceptive and penetrating gathering.”
Then someone who was secretly attacked without warning tried to put on the dark cloak the evening had been wearing. It fit poorly. A satire without any self-awareness.
When we no longer felt bad about what we would have missed had we not come, it was time to go home. Then we could look safely back at this moment with longing.
A harbor town. Where the crusty young sailors kick the barnacles off their bellies and dance with anyone who will have them.
Take one of the sailors and kick him around a bit to get things started, an ugly man made uglier by too much time at sea, an angry man made angrier by not knowing what made him angry.
Then let one of the locals think his girlfriend has more money than he does and how can this be.
The rest has been imagined by everyone, but do it again, with more detail; the particular curses, the color of her torn dress, the movement of a drop of blood flying gracefully through the graceless air of the smoky bar, the smell of the alley when he finally wakes up and the name he gives the one-eared cat he takes back with him onto the boat.
He’s not responsible. Maybe nobody else is either. The girlfriend was made out of fog and everything missing from a sailor’s dream. That’s how he got this way. The way his teeth depart after he wakes up and can’t remember. That’s how lost he feels when his shipmates are drawn to the cat, its hair wild and the hissing coming from everywhere.
A Map of Her Life with a Small Woolen Garment at the Center
It might be a better story if you wrote all the words down in a different order, but don’t do that, okay?
You have met and solved several people already today and a reasonable man is just another irritating human being like yourself. You have no reason not to believe this is true, Miss Muffy Muff, Miss Again and Again, Miss Don’t Want To.
So today we shall praise you and call you the mother of pillows and tomorrow the obituary of your fork may be sufficient to feed your contributions. And if in this your world be thus restrained, let us find ourselves escaping once more with your cleverly mobile flesh toys and occasional errors in lubricational salutation.
For this is the point at which the more reliable text ends.
But suppose your imaginary roommate unwittingly dusts and vacuums the ancient neglected apologies and you feel a spate of incongruous modern guilt.
Oh dear, oh dear, what shall we do?
Let’s ask all the lovers who sleep in it too.
Had I been encased in reasoning, I might have tested its existence for consistency. Still other reasonable fools might wish to illustrate their recurring confusions. Picture 3, for example, shows a man weaving his hairy home in France. In Picture 2 another man is carding wool on the roof of an itinerant English cottage. In Picture 1 a third man is spinning, carefree, as if such activities could not be punished, in front of an ancient Scottish castle.
You can pound him with your fist, but a stone would be more reasonable.
Oh my, oh my, don’t let this go by.
Let’s ask all the children who live in the sty.
And you still have no reason to believe another life is false, Miss One More Time, Miss Do Me Again, Miss Can’t Get Enough of Anything Me. You see, a reasonable man might desire some kind of verifiable evidence, but that does not mean he would be right to alter the course of events.
This is the point at which a more reliable text begins.
And so today we praise such men and perhaps we feed upon them. For we have discovered these same men in bed with our fears and this leads us to confession. We wanted them to keep track of the participants, to illustrate our difficulty and to continue our attempt to fit the lambs into the predictable field of reliable stones, which we have created with our useless resistance.
It’s the deceptive comfort we’re certain of. It’s the itch.
Rich Ives has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. His writing has appeared in Verse, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Northwest Review, Quarterly West, Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Virginia Quarterly Review and many more. He is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander. His story collection, The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking, was one of five finalists for the 2009 Starcherone Innovative Fiction Prize.
“Having learned my world as a left-hander, I tend to do things in reverse. I grew up in the Midwest, without a porch, in the neat, clean plastic-loving sixties, among the kind of people who themselves grew up with porches and told me the stories that came from them. So after I had moved West as so many Midwesterners do, when I could finally afford a house, I built a log one on an island in Puget Sound, where a Midwestern kid’s dreams of the West could come to rest on a full front porch with lots of water, framed by trees as tall as the television Westerns I had used as my earliest models of manhood, before that became so complicated and filled with words and hungry spaces. Of course, my front porch is really my back porch because it’s where I go to remember where I came from and make up stories that tell the truth about that in a left-handed way.”