|Oct/Nov 2008 Fiction|
I don't recall if I've changed the names of these two people in honor of our current cult of privacy, but I will call the man Chuck and his wife June. Their last name was Charles. If you recognize these people as we go on, please let me know. I may want to disguise them even further in future drafts.
Anyway, this is a story about a man's divorce, and it happened in modern times.
Many people still thought divorce was bad, and that the proper union between two people ought to have forever written all over it. Other people thought that idea amusing because forever had fallen out of favor. No one believed in it anymore (so such people said).
Naturally enough, that latter cadre thought divorce should be simple and quick, a reflection of the times. If the spit and tingle had gone out of a marriage, well, no need to spend more time on the divorce than you'd spend with your typical ninety-minute movie.
The man, of course, didn't see himself as a significant part of sociology. He saw himself as a significant part of his wife, and his wife didn't want him anymore. She had taken drastic steps, too—hugely drastic—enough so to make him wonder if the species might not require more supervision.
By the way, since there is an undertone of gore in this story, you might not want to read it to your children until they are at least sixteen. You won't actually see Chuck's legs being chopped off, but it'll happen, and little kids might not understand.
Chuck had nicely developed muscles but not a lot of height. He had a tattoo, as well, of James Joyce on one of his forearms, and a tattoo of Emily Dickinson on the other. Chuck thought the two faces looked quite a bit alike. He enjoyed the way their chins moved ever so slightly as he lifted weights or typed on his keyboard. They looked like they might begin a conversation at any moment, and that seemed a fine thing for two such notables to do.
Chuck wrote plays that were produced in Chicago. He and June lived in the small town of Emily Handy about sixty miles from Chicago, so he had few difficulties getting into the city when he had to—while still avoiding what he called the spirit-ripping, teeth-gritting urban lifestyle.
Chuck had been writing plays for twenty years, and people liked them a lot. He put tough people—hitchhikers, farmers, rural thugs, ruined ladies, country lawyers—in tough situations and let them speak plainly of their hurts and joys. His characters could orate, too, or curse or cry as the need arose. Critics regularly said that Chuck's plays either made you want to hug the playwright whose pain sprawled so sadly on the stage, or else punch his nose out through his ears because the man was savage, simply savage.
Unfortunately, Chuck had never had the sort of ball-grabbing, sinus-squeezing play that might have knocked him into the big time, so his following remained small, if loyal--small enough, however, that it limited Chuck to theaters made out of old movie houses or renovated churches or the basements of various sorts of buildings. Since Chicago has no Broadway, Chuck told people his work was performed off-Loop, sometimes off-off-Loop.
Chuck, then, worked hard, but he didn't make very much money. When he told his neighbors what he did for a living, most of them became squinty-eyed and looked a little confused, because art is like that. They saw Chuck cleaning his gutters and mowing his lawn or emptying his car of grocery bags, and it seemed odd to them that an artist would do such things. Walking around in sandals, however, the way he often did, even in winter, and wearing the floppy, broad-brimmed hats he wore because the sun had once grown a small skin cancer on his nose, that seemed more normal for an artist—something a working man wouldn't do.
June Charles taught third grade in Emily Handy and made a lot more money than Chuck, although she regularly led that cadre of teachers who complained that they didn't make enough money, or they didn't make money at all in accord with their worth, or that they didn't even make enough money to compensate for the things they had to buy for their classrooms. June regularly bought pencils and crayons and construction paper with her own money. Now and then she would get a good deal from some school supplier or educational distributor who happened to be underwriting one of Chuck's plays, but recent years had found her increasingly rankled both that she had to do that, and that she might be beholden to her husband for the bargains.
It's easy to see, then, a certain sparkiness existed between June and Chuck. They loved each other, but June wanted some of the nicer things in life. When Chuck said he thought he was one of those nicer things, June said she meant shoes not always on sale or a car where the horn didn't honk whenever you turned on the radio.
One time she called Chuck a lout and said she had no respect for him. Chuck wanted to say something about that, but she'd been talking to a neighbor, and Chuck didn't want to show that he'd overheard the conversation. It made him feel bad, though, both that June thought it, and that now the town would know she thought it.
Chuck took great pride in his work, but he didn't know how you could make other people proud of you if they didn't want to feel that way.
"You've done all you can do," June said to Chuck one night. They were sitting at the kitchen table drinking beer, and June had her feet up on the table, her chair tipped at an almost perilous angle.
Chuck told her he didn't know what else he could do, that the entire convergence of all the disparate parts of his life had placed him at this particular point in space and time, and he couldn't argue at all with that placement. He worked, he said. He did the work his fate required. He did it well.
"Not good enough," June said. "Not your work. I don't mean that. I'm talking about your life, about our lives."
June stood about a foot taller than Chuck. Where Chuck was mostly bald, June had long auburn hair that could glow black to brassy in the sunlight. Long hair on women was not particularly stylish at the time, but young children liked it—especially a teacher's young children—because they're always trying to figure out the differences between men and women and will take whatever clues they can get.
"Not good enough," June repeated.
She pointed out to Chuck the loud, smoky car he drove into Chicago, the sagging front porch that moaned and jiggled when June sat in the wicker rocker and rocked while she graded papers, Chuck's wardrobe that ranged from old jeans to new jeans and old sweatshirts to new sweatshirts. Not ignorant of Chuck's work, June even mentioned a number of the actors and actresses who had used his plays to attain higher and more remunerative pieces of the artistic economy, leaving Chuck behind like a small light on a runway as huge airplanes flew off to exotic places.
Chuck liked that line, but he didn't tell June that. He didn't think just then that she wanted praise for her phraseology.
Then June said, "We can either get a divorce, or I can find someone who will show me good times and take me to smart places. If the times are really good and the places really smart, of course, divorce might follow anyway. That's where we are."
"Good times," Chuck said.
"I believe so," June answered.
"Do you have someone in mind?" Chuck asked.
"I teach third grade, honey. My fantasies deal with giant mice or sounds that can bite your arm off."
Chuck told June he didn't want to lose her. A great bucket of endearments poured forth then, Chuck finding romantic rhetoric in the lay of the gravel on their street, the lippy upcurl of their aging shingles, the delicate line of the painted flowers on their coffee cups (purchased at a Salvation Army store)—all of which June took in with a steely-eyed stare until Chuck finally said: "Would you like me to find you a boyfriend?"
For the first time in a long time Chuck thought he saw a real interest in something he'd said. He noticed June's toes wiggle in involuntary applause, a girlish gesture—the shy coquette. June smiled over the outrageousness of what he'd said, then laughed as Chuck continued with:
"Short, tall? White, black, Hispanic, Asian?"
"Iowa," June said.
"I've never known anyone from Iowa."
"Deformed? Pedophilic? Political? Athletic?" Chuck said.
"A certain echo, Chuck. Throaty, twangy."
"Religious? Diabetic? Deranged?"
"Penile," June said.
"When you've had the best, try the rest?"
"I thought you were being serious," June said.
"I'm sorry," Chuck said. "I am being serious. It's always been my understanding that what a man has is nowhere near as important as what he does with it."
"Once upon a time," June began, "there was a man with a shovel and another man with a backhoe…"
"One backhoe," Chuck said. "I gotcha."
"If there's a choice," June said.
"Uneducated? You've regretted all my years of learning? All of my attempts to delve beneath the meaning of things to find the meaning of things?"
"This isn't about you."
"From skull to ankles," June said.
"Eastern European, perhaps Chechen. From Iowa," Chuck said.
"Okay. But at the very least, an accent."
"Thick. I may not want to understand everything he says."
"I'm beginning to see some mistakes I've made," Chuck said.
"Not with me," said June.
Of course this really is all about Chuck and not June, particularly his attempt to find a boyfriend for June. What hurt the most was that list of characteristics, suggesting that what June truly wanted was a stud, a bunk muffin, a blanket banana. He saw her hanging from tree branches and being ridden like a strong vine. He saw her carried into motel rooms that had linoleum floors and a TV mounted in a metal cage. He saw her dancing with men whose reading lists were limited to speedometers, clever tattoos, and the labels on beer bottles.
Of hairy Chechens, Chuck had no idea where to find one of those. He knew the local French teacher might have had links to an Austrian, possibly a Macedonian, but only recently she'd lost her job at the high school because of budget cuts. Zella, too, down at Zella's Eatery might be helpful. Zella knew everyone; however, she also told everyone everything she knew, and Chuck thought June would require some discretion. Teachers normally like to keep their sex lives out of public conversations.
Chuck finally decided he would talk to Ken Handy (that is the man's real name). Since Emily Handy was named after Ken's grandmother, Ken tended to know all the ditches and the hidden nooks in town, all the pits and alleyways and secret places where a hairy Chechen or a hairy Macedonian might hide. Since Ken, too, had at one time been involved in local government, he also knew the difference between a great rumor that could be babbled about over coffee, and the secret need a man might confess because his heart hurt and all his memories seemed worthless.
"Chechen, I think, is only an example," Chuck said to Ken. "It's foreign in its effect, her way of saying close ties are not required."
"I understand," Ken said. "So an Uzbek, even an Afghan would do. An Ethiopian?"
"I don't think Ethiopians are very hairy," Chuck said.
"Hairy is important," Ken said.
"I think so."
"A beard?" Ken asked.
"That's okay," Chuck said, "but I think, I mean—I get an impression like a big, fuzzy body."
"A big, fuzzy body."
"That seems to be important to her."
"But this is going to save your marriage?" Ken said.
"June's pretty big on love, Ken. That's why she's stuck with me all these years. If she falls in love with a hairy Chechen or just some fuzzy guy from Alabama, that could be it."
"Maybe a language barrier, then," Ken said.
"That might work."
Ken Handy hauled hogs for a living and drove all over the country. He knew where the Ethiopians hung out, as well as the Chechens, even the Chinese, along with various Baptist cults, Republicans, Star Trek fans, vegans, NASCAR racers, breast feeders, survivalist militia groups, and monasteries for retired clergy. Sometimes Ken joked with people that he was like the Internet, except that all his websites were capable of sneezing, farting, and making love (the monasteries, perhaps, an exception to this latter). Ken had neither a computer nor any idea what the Internet was, but since people smiled and nodded their heads when he said these things, he supposed he was making sense.
Chuck told June about his meeting with Ken Handy, and June said, "So you're taking this seriously then, Chuck?"
Chuck had already noticed that June was letting the hair grow out on her legs and under her arms. She'd stopped painting her toenails and fingernails, too, so Chuck could tell right away that June was taking it all quite seriously, even if the business with the hair left him a bit confused. Possibly, she wanted mutual handholds, to grip and be gripped, with hair serving such a purpose (if done gently).
Maybe, he decided, it was only that June thought she could do this more readily if she became different.
"If I have become your salt-free vegetable, the least I can do is get you a pot roast," Chuck said.
"That's a good line," June said.
"Thank you, honey."
"Don't save it."
"A hairy Ethiopian?" June said.
"We had our doubts on that one," Chuck said. "But Ken's such a straight guy, he wouldn't pursue it because it was sounding a little racist."
Chuck noticed the next day that June got up early and went down to the basement to lift weights. Chuck bought the weights one time because he thought he needed to improve, but when one of his plays was optioned to Hollywood, he decided he'd improved enough and never developed a routine. Although he'd received a check for one-hundred dollars for the film option, he later found out the producer was a fourteen-year-old girl working on a high school project. Such capers were not unknown in Chuck's trade, but they always gave rise to a confusing set of emotions—a bit like having your doctor tell you that, no, that lump isn't cancer.
Praise the Lord, Doc.
It's an alien life form!
June, breathless and sweaty, then went out on the street barefoot and began to run. Chuck noticed she ran for eighteen minutes that first day wearing a headband, sweatshirt, shorts, and no bra.
"You didn't wear any shoes," Chuck said as she came into the kitchen.
"There's a devil out there," June said, "and I want to be able to feel it when I find it."
Chuck didn't think that would have been his first guess. He might have supposed she was toughening up her feet, or that she was letting the air push into a minor bit of athlete's foot. But a devil. He'd never even written a play about a devil.
Chuck began to think something might be wrong with June. He also knew that most men had similar thoughts whenever their wives began talking about the devil.
"Don't you think you might see him first?" Chuck asked.
"It's not a him," June said.
"There are girl devils?" said Chuck.
"Isn't that a man's greatest fantasy?" June said.
"Not something you step on during a jog," Chuck said. "Or I don't think so. Is this something I've told you about?"
June didn't answer him. Chuck supposed it wasn't easy to talk about girl devils lying in wait for you when you tried to work out.
Ken Handy eventually came through like a field full of corn sprouts after a fine spring rain.
One night June was out in the garage skipping rope and working on some bench presses. It was a hot night, steamy and humid. The humidity made the air in the garage feel like peanut butter going through a coffee strainer.
June was sweating enough to leave footprints on the garage floor. Her hair stuck to her head and neck and shoulders, and her lungs felt as though they had to search through each breath for available oxygen.
Thus, June felt unprepared when Ken Handy stopped by with her new husband.
Of course, it wasn't known that night that this would be her new husband, this man whose name—not even Chuck knew if it was a translation or not—was Gidget, this man whose skull was as hairless as the surface of a gentle pond, yet whose beard would have touched his waist but his waist had long since become unknown territory, a surveyable border, perhaps, resting somewhere below breasts the size of June's buttocks.
Definitely hairy, no question there. No depilatory could penetrate the thatch that ran from his wrists to his shoulders, no chipper-shredder, not even a chainsaw could have denuded the forest that was his back, his chest. His legs, too—ripply, curved, and thunderously muscular—could have supported the kind of small bridges that overrode quiet creeks.
Gidget weighed three-hundred and ninety pounds, and he was shorter than June.
When Ken Handy walked onto the driveway of Chuck and June's house on Deadwood Street, both he and Gidget saw June in the garage. She was hanging upside down from two thick leather straps on her ankles—doing sit-ups, and doing them quite effectively. Since neither of the two men had had an erotic thought since Ken picked Gidget up in Waterloo, Iowa, they both coughed. Sometimes the mind of a man can't think of anything to say, and so it decides to work the air for a few moments.
Ken brought Gidget into the garage. Ken thought Gidget walked about the way a bowling ball would walk if it had legs—rather relentless, with a certain bounce over any imperfections encountered beneath it.
"He's from Finland," Ken said to June.
"Oh my," June said.
"Is Chuck home?" Ken asked.
"Yes he is, Ken."
"I better go say hello," Ken said. "Then I gotta go. I got sixty hogs up on the highway wondering if life has anything more to offer."
Chuck slept on a cot in the garage that night. He didn't think he slept much because June and Gidget sat in the kitchen most of the night talking, and Chuck kept trying to listen. Gidget did know English, though a lot of the words sounded whistley and guttural to Chuck.
Chuck supposed a lot of men slept in the garage while their wives stayed up all night talking to a man who might find his way into her bed, who might even become a new husband. Some men, of course, might be touchy about it. Such men like things just so and will even notice when the wife has put a new doormat by the back door or changed a lace runner on top of the piano. They'll drink one brand of beer for forty years and use the same brand of motor oil in their cars for an equal amount of time.
If he's the devil, Chuck thought, he's pretty chunky.
Chuck found some merit in that thought. Normally, the devil was pictured as fairly lean. Chuck had always supposed that was because the fellow moved around a lot. Pretty perky, and he tended to pop up anywhere and everywhere. Could be, too, that he'd given up on Finland. Chuck didn't know much about Finland except that it was cold, possibly too cold for much outrageous sinning.
Here, though, in the Midwest, in Emily Handy, sinning had a good track record. As everyone knew, you could do anything in Chicago, and whatever Chicago didn't have time for, it exported out to the suburbs and beyond. Emily Handy was definitely beyond, but right there in town, Chuck knew, they now had a dirty bookstore, a strip club, a fertility clinic, and an abortion clinic. There was even one of those places where a woman who'd gotten punched around a bit by her husband could go and hide and heal and try to think of something better to do with her life.
There was meat, in other words, for the fat Finn's belly—if devil he was—a not altogether sanguine thought since it made Chuck recall the brand new tattoo on June's thigh, the one that read, USDA Approved, in purple. June said she had the tattoo made because sometimes a third-grade teacher runs the risk of becoming a third-grader.
Chuck now and then wondered if playwrights ever ran the risk of becoming their own plays.
Here is what Chuck learned about divorce in modern times. It might not be what you think but, overall, I believe it's pretty accurate.
As Chuck tossed his blankets aside and began to get up out of his cot the next morning, he felt a searing pain in his legs, like an augur grinding into his lower thighs or a herd of hamsters munching on hamster chow around his knee bones. This was not the kind of pain a man feels in the morning because he's gotten up older than he was the day before.
This was the kind of pain no television commercial would dream of touching.
This was the kind of pain your enemies knew you wished for them.
This was the kind of pain your enemies knew you wished for their children.
This was the kind of pain that normally happened between warm flesh and cold metal, often steel.
Or so he thought; that is, when he thought about it, he wasn't sure how bad it actually was—which Chuck knew was true of a lot of pain.
It seemed pretty bad, so he finally looked down at his legs, at the source of this pain that made him think of Latin Masses and oil-soaked cotton balls and oceans filled with ice cream.
Chuck had no legs. That's what he saw.
From where he used to have knees and on down he could see only the worst kind of space.
His first thought was that he'd never have to worry about shin splints if he took up running again, nor would he have to worry about bunions or ingrown toenails or plantar fascitis or which little piggy went to market or bumping his head on the roof in the attic.
Although it all still hurt like a bugger and he continued to run metaphors of pain through his mind, Chuck also noticed a surprising lack of blood on his blankets, his cot, even the garage floor.
Could you lose your legs in the middle of the night and not bleed?
Had something eaten his legs, one of those smarmy things that squirts out a touch of coagulant as it munches along? June often pressed him about cleaning the garage, but he thought her complaint had to do with clutter and messiness. If she'd said anything about monsters or flesh-eating bugs in the garage he would have been out there in a flash with a mop and a blowtorch.
More importantly, he wondered, could you lose your legs in the middle of the night and not be reduced to a pile of agonized screaming rubble? More importantly even than that, could it be that his mind had lapsed into a semi-conscious state wherein his mind simply refused to see his legs anymore? Was that how a man might feel as his wife bargained her way out of him and into another? Cut off at the knees, he thought. Could be I was too casual about the things June needed.
Chuck thought about calling out for June, then remembered she might be in bed with the big Finn. Certainly, he didn't seem the sort who would be showing June all the cultural baubles she'd felt were missing in her life with Chuck. A man from Iowa, late of Finland? Inconceivable that he could speak the language of Yo Yo Ma, George Lucas, Arthur Miller, Coldplay, Cheap Trick, or even the Cubs. Would he understand how to take June into the Lyric Opera in Chicago using the Metra from Elburn? Would he know where the Museum of Broadcast History was or how to get tickets for Blue Man Group?
Still, if understanding husbands could occasionally insert themselves into the affairs of their wives, it was not good to do it at the beginning of those affairs. You didn't want the poor fellow to think something kinky loomed, something involving blindfolds, whipped cream, or large quantities of tapioca berries.
Regardless, however, of whether or not he felt the pain proper to someone who'd just lost both legs, Chuck knew his condition, and certainly his marriage, were now in perilous straits. He wondered how Ken Handy had screened his candidates, if he'd even asked for a resume or references.
If something mysterious had taken his legs during the night, might something equally mysterious (and hungry!) return to gobble up some more of him? He looked down then and saw his hands still attached to his arms. He felt upward and checked out his nose and ears. Very good. Then, alarmed, he felt the cool breeze of panic that blows from the stomach up into the brain: his crotch. Jamming his hand quickly into his boxer shorts, Chuck felt—well, he felt all of it and was reassured that whatever he now was had no mysteries remaining.
"June?" he finally said. Her name, not a call. Chuck thought for a moment he was only trying to see if his voice still worked, that it hadn't been popped out like a CD pulled from a CD player.
"June?" Yes, a little louder though not yet a scream. Surprisingly, he heard a noise from the house, the sound of the kitchen door, then the larger sound of the garage door opening.
Chuck saw feet, four of them, all bare, as the garage door continued upward. June's legs he knew even now in their unshaven state, but he had to marvel at the legs of this man called Gidget. Holy smokes—muscular calves, strong knees, thighs with a protein bulk. Perhaps he'd carried dead reindeer on his back in Finland or hefted bales of hay on a farm somewhere in northern Iowa. Perhaps June had simply decided that with legs like that on her new man, her old man didn't need any legs at all. Women, Chuck knew, often liked to focus on economies of that very sort.
"Chuck?" June said.
"I'm in something of a spot here," Chuck said. "Do you have any idea what might have happened?"
"Of course," June said.
"You've always been so adaptable, so open to new things," June said. "Is this a problem, honey?"
"I believe it is," Chuck said. "I honestly do. My legs are gone as you can well see."
"Your arms, too," June said. "They're next."
"My arms?" Chuck said. "But my work? How can I work without arms?"
"You've been working much too hard, Chuck, and it hasn't gone anywhere."
"Money, fame—elusive, all of it. Gidget sees tragedy there, and I agree. We think you'd be much happier if you were a little less."
"But if you divorce me what'll I do? How will I get around?"
"Good heavens, Chuck, I've only just met the man, although to be honest he is a bit of a dumpling. A good talker, too, and his penis is sixteen inches long. That's why—perhaps you didn't notice—he wears funny pants."
"Maybe?" Chuck began.
"Maybe you could leave my arms. There are so many things I do with them."
"I don't know. Gidget says that after you take their legs they tend to be vengeful; not quite so empowered, of course, but they will go after you. He says it's best just to neutralize them completely and then see where they go from there."
"Not exactly a bicycle shop," Chuck said.
"You're so funny, Chuckie," June said.
"Do you mind if I call you Chuckie?"
"Only if you let me keep my arms," Chuck said.
"Oh, well—I don't know that a big deal has to be made of it. We were only thinking of your own good."
"I know, I know," Chuck said. "A little less thought on my own good, though, would be even better for me."
"Are you angry, Chuckie?" June said.
"Am I angry?"
"I mean these things happen all the time—sociologically speaking."
"This Gidget?" Chuck said.
"Did you sleep with him?"
"Not much. It was quite a night, I can tell you that, Chuckie."
"The backhoe," Chuck said.
"The man's not petite, you know. When I got up this morning I felt a bit like a piece of pita bread."
June later said that Gidget saw no problem with letting Chuck keep his arms. New relationships always involve compromise, Gidget said, new stories blending comfortably into old frameworks. He didn't, he said, want to make her ex-husband sad, particularly since, in the spirit of modern times, they had decided to keep him around. Gidget, using new canvas, aluminum tubing, and rivets, even built a backpack to hold Chuck so that they could take him along to museums, restaurants, dance clubs, outdoor festivals, church socials, and lectures at the university down the road, all those things June had wanted to do for such a long time.
They did not, however, take him to any plays. June was far too sensitive a person to do that to Chuckie.