|Jan/Feb 2008 Fiction|
So I used to teach when I was a drunk, college teaching, professorial pedagogy of a humanistic sort. Very bad, the drinking. Very bad, the humanists, too. They lay claim to everything, while the cockroaches laugh at their feet. I once told a class that humanity was nature's way of saying nobody's perfect. One of my students said she sent that quote home in an email to her mother. Her mother wrote back, I thought you said you was studying accounting. Still, you draw upon the images you have, and then build them into things your students have never before encountered.
One time I told a class that I was an alcoholic. At least half of them mumbled or whispered, "Cool."
I was certain the reaction would have been the same had I told them I forced my wife to have sex with strangers at truck stops, or that I regularly wrote letters to the president threatening to commit suicide in the Oval Office.
I quit drinking then, and I quit teaching. Sobriety and pedagogy are simply incompatible. Just ask any teacher. Any honest teacher.
Then I began to lose my bones.
I went down to the Old Finnish Steam Bath one morning the way I used to do to turn a hangover into steam. Sobriety had eliminated that need, but I missed that fiery wrap of superheated air, that vision of an evangelical hell. I missed as well the clubby comfort of the old three-story house, its walls bulging at odd places from a century's worth of steam leaking out of the rooms and into the walls and joists and insulation.
Anyway, I went down there to see if anybody had any answers. I was quite certain, you see, that I'd lost my right upper arm bone (humerus) sometime in the previous night. Essentially, I felt intact, but my right arm wobbled and I could only sporadically move my hand.
The Finns, as I recalled it, spent a great deal of free time at the bath, pushing their bodies into great excesses of heating and cooling, sometimes slapping themselves with cedar branches, or in winter, running out into the backyard to roll naked in the snow (a high fence around that big old house preserving decency). Always, though, always did they scrutinize every last wrinkle, mole, scar, varicosity, bulge, pimple, boil, tuck, and wen on both themselves and anyone else in the steam room.
They knew bodies not like an anatomist, but like a loyal user.
After I finished explaining my predicament, this bone loss, one of the old Finns at the steam bath wanted to know what I'd been drinking all those years. He must have weighed in at three-hundred pounds, a weight he carried with some majesty since he was well over six feet tall. I couldn't help but think he must have exceptionally honest bones. His name was Carl Pekkanen.
"Vodka," Carl said, "causes involuntary orchidectomy, while cheap whiskey will have you barefoot in the snow with several toes missing."
"Champagne?" I said, trying to be funny.
"You'll still have your dick," he said. "Only you'll be carrying it around in your hand."
"But a missing humerus?" I said.
"Comes from quitting," he said. "Maybe you should start drinking again."
"Think that would help?" I asked.
"Nobody likes a quitter," he said with a laugh that caused droplets of water to fall from the hot ceiling. "Not bad, hey?"
What Carl seemed to be saying was, Don't try to make sense out of this. We each have a crazy person inside of us, and sometimes the crazy person takes over, and sometimes he doesn't.
There had to be some humor in what happened the next week when I lost both of my femurs, but it escaped me for a time. Though a man of consummate fidelity (my wife, ironically, quite often disgusted by my virtues), I found myself lying on the bed in our own guest room while a prostitute looking down at me said she wasn't sure what she could do. The prostitute looked to be about fifteen, but I knew she was over thirty. I'd checked her driver's license the way you're supposed to do now with even part-time help. She also had hairy armpits and a wig that didn't fit very well.
"You have pretty feet," she said, "and lovely calves. But from your knees to your butt bones, it's all muscular mush."
"Should I be worried about that?" I asked. "Is that unusual?"
"Where are your bones?" she said.
"Men ask themselves that all the time," I said, "usually during moments of great crisis. It's why we don't like to sit during moral quandaries. We're afraid that if we have to stand up suddenly, there won't be anything there."
"What?" she said.
"Moral quandaries," I said, "those moments when all you can do is choose between bad and awful."
"Doesn't sound like much of a choice to me," she said.
"I rest my case," I said.
"That isn't all that's resting," she said.
"Is there nothing you can do?"
As her mouth engulfed my shrunken member, I felt a great rush through my endocrine system, a redemptive whoosh as depressed organs thrust themselves boldly back into good times. Slowly, my boneless thighs filled with air, and I felt strength returning. My toes tingled, my chest heaved, and my outy navel resumed its natural state. A whole man once again, I remember having serious questions about what I should pay this young woman.
Her services had not been sexual, not really. Her services had made me whole in the way that one of those natural or holistic healers might have done. She had not simply blown me, she had blown me up like a large balloon. The feeling was not at all unpleasant.
I had trouble getting out of bed the next morning. My legs hurt, though all my bones seemed still to be in residence. The prostitute (of course) was gone, though I was puzzled to see that I was, in fact, in our guest bedroom. Perhaps Bliss, my wife, and I had had a fight, and I'd either stormed out of our bedroom or been thrown out. Honestly, though, that had never happened before.
Might I actually have brought a prostitute into our house while Bliss was asleep? Not possible without your femurs, and they had been gone. Perhaps they still were. Maybe I was only dreaming that I was intact and whole and nearly as tall as Carl Pekkanen. There's no question that any drunk, whether reformed or not, has to keep a cool eye on the inventory.
During one of my many, and always unsuccessful, trips to the unemployment office, I asked if they had any openings for boneless men.
"Homeless men?" the young counselor said.
"No, no, no," I said. "Boneless men. Boneless."
I remembered this woman from her days as my student, a woman in her thirties now. She made me think of butter melting slowly on a griddle. On the other hand, her dress with its spaghetti straps on her shoulders made me think of clavicles. So often we judge ourselves by height, sadly neglecting such things as the ribs and clavicles that give us some width in the world. Without width, after all, doors would not be necessary, and then where would we be?
As I recalled, she'd been quite political back then, an advocate, I believe, for fair play for Monica Lewinsky. I think what bothered young women the most back then was the simple fact that you could get in trouble for nothing more than a blowjob. Sex trouble, they believed, ought at least to involve the kinky, if not the downright demented.
"Have you ever thought about your clavicles?" I asked her.
"I'm no slouch," she said, a generous smile suggesting that she enjoyed her pun. "I can tell you're into bones. You used to do that in class."
"You remember me?" I said.
"I think you were a little taller," she said. "Maybe you're shortening up. I've heard that happens as you get older."
"But I talked about bones," I said. "In class?"
"Not as I recall. But you were a master of the tangent, that segue from will-this-be-on-the-test to does-this-have-anything-to-do-with-anything? I remember you began talking about Sisyphus one day, and then for the next forty-nine minutes, it was all about your rock climbing. With your wife, I think. Oh, and both of you were naked."
"Yes," I said, "we did that."
"Naked?" she said.
"Yes," I said. "It had something to do with honesty."
"Oh," she said. "It seemed odd that you would tell us that."
"You needed Celsius," I said, "and everyone was giving you Fahrenheit."
"Or something like that," I said.
"So now it's bones."
"Could be," I said. "I've been quite concerned about my bones."
"They make us what we are," she said, "yet we never see them—at least not under happy circumstances."
"Not happy at all," I said.
"Professor?" she said, spreading out a sheaf of papers in front of her.
"I don't know what to do here."
"You know what?" I said.
"That's something I tell myself every morning when I get out of bed."
Cruel it is to be visited by images of losing your skull.
Pot roast, I think it was. My wife, Bliss, came toward me carrying a Royal Doulton platter—dinner out on the deck during a quiet spring evening. The cardinals and squirrels chattered up an indignant babble, but most noticeable was the heady scent of the flowers and bushes starting to bloom. Bliss and I had occasionally cavorted beneath our lilac bushes, our passion so outrageous it left us burping lilac perfume for days afterward.
I heard the click of Bliss's heels, and when I saw the black fishnet stockings encasing her legs, I thought of fine Charolais beef. Something of ankles is in that picture, too, along with thighs, hips, and all the many promises of marriage. She may have had a spot or two of gravy on her naked breasts, a reminder of things we'd done at other times with pepper sauce and the digital camera. Bliss is not a shy woman.
On the Royal Doulton platter, however, my skull rested on a bed of egg noodles.
"Jobless," she said, "you're fair game. I've already peed in your eye sockets."
"It's that bad?" I said.
Frankly, I thought the thing quite distinguished looking. I remembered, too, all the times people had commented on my "noble mien": naturally curly hair (steel gray now), aquiline nose—the head authoritative especially when slightly puffed by the effects of various liquors. An older man with predictable habits, I was—yet, cool. I'd been told that.
"If you don't pay the bill, they turn off the power," she said. "I doubt if I can produce enough methane gas to power a generator. Can you?"
"That wouldn't have been my first thought as far as penury goes," I said.
"I know," she said. "You'd probably have me out on the street selling my toes at so much a fondle, all the while playing Gaelic ditties on a mandolin."
"I'll stand next to you, wearing a sandwich board, selling lessons in ancient Greek," I said.
"Jesus Christ, can't you be practical? Even the Greek restaurant downtown is closing, and those are modern Greeks. If I have to let the world start fondling my tushy, we're through, buster."
I held my skull in my lap as the two of us ate the noodles. Surprisingly, there was nothing gross, garish, or anatomically difficult about this moment. Bliss, too, seemed satisfied that she'd grabbed what was most important in my wavering life and could now do whatever seemed most sensible.
Again I consulted Carl Pekkanen, my Finnish anatomist.
"How's the sex been?" Carl asked. "The unemployed often lose the toot in their noodle."
"They do?" I said.
"Is that a rebuttal?" Carl said.
"Not exactly," I said. "Maybe it's more of a squeak than a toot, but it's there."
"So is your wife—carrying your noggin around on a piece of good dishware. Pissing in your eye sockets, though. That's a new one. Sounds pretty angry. Anyway, you should feel lucky she didn't decide to take your feet."
"I should?" I said. "I mean, she took my head. That's damned serious."
"It's hard to get around without your feet," he said. "But all kinds of people go around sixty, seventy years and hardly ever use their head."
Once again Carl released his rain-making guffaw.
"Carl?" I said.
"What about my noodle? Regardless of whether it toots or squeaks."
"Here's what you need to know," Carl said.
"She took your head and served it to you on a platter, right?" Carl said.
"Right," I said.
"She'll think of something."
Carl was right.
Bliss forbade my wearing any clothing whatsoever, a gesture, we both knew, designed to show me how inconsequential I truly was without an office key or a business phone number. Fortunately, our warm spring turned into a warm summer. I felt quite comfortable and even began to think about giving away some of my suits and sport coats and heavy dress shoes. I vowed to myself that any future teaching job would only be in a place where I could teach naked—no more barriers, no more costumed posturing. Dignity would assert itself through the purity of my thoughts alone.
That, of course, did not stop Bliss from giving me a good pinch on my butt when she felt like it, or a painful squeeze of one of my man boobs.
Convenience store clerks, toll collectors, Kiwanis peanut vendors standing in the street, they were all marvels of politeness to Bliss, with each of them (among others, many others) suggesting with near papal solemnity how much easier her life would be were I boneless.
"Transport," one of them said. "You can buy canvas carryalls now that do the job quite well."
"It can be done," said a hardware store owner as he instructed Bliss in the differences amongst various toilet plungers.
"But he's quit drinking," she said. "It all sounds so very much like an undeserved punishment."
"We all deserve punishment," the hardware store owner said. "It's why we slip and fall on the ice or stub our toes in the bedroom at night."
"Boneless," I said to Carl. "Is that possible?"
"In a good marriage," Carl said, "anything is possible. Mostly, though, what's being got at here, is that they—women, of course—like us soft, and we're not very often that. We get all bony and muscular and then stand in front of them at hard noodle and wonder why they'd rather read a magazine."
"So I go along with it?" I said.
"Just think of yourself as an old quilt," he said, "put together by fine ladies with nimble fingers."
"Anything else?" I asked.
"That about covers it," he said. His laughter, however, was squelched by a steamy sneeze. I ended up slapping him on his naked back.
Which led Bliss and me one day into a Wal-Mart and the bathroom in a Wal-Mart with me lying on one of those Koala Bear changing tables without a bone in my body. I felt different. I felt odd. I felt like Jello Brand gelatin stuffed with leftovers.
Gone were my long walks. Gone was voting and mowing the lawn, eating chicken wings, or quoting Kant to my colleagues at faculty meetings. I envisioned Bliss rolling me up like a window shade for storage, perhaps unrolling me and laying me out on the coffee table when we had guests for dinner (someone else decanting the wine).
Still, I had the feeling I was in the presence of something profound, something monumental for women everywhere, and of cosmic importance for men whose bones had done much too much for far too long while receiving no prizes and very little thanks.
I had, you see, an erection that was now nearly as long as my deflated little body.