Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Carl

I guess I was a pretty typical high school guyI didn’t really have any interests, except for girls. Megan Caulley, however, wasn’t typical of the beauties that distracted me from my high school studies. In my daydream world of deified Scandinavian girls, she stood a little shorter than average, with ordinary brown hair. Her face was nothing dramatic, either, but set within it were a pair of eyes that made me curious. They danced with cleverness, cunning, or mischief, depending on the day of the weekscaring off half the guys in school and attracting the rest.

During the first years of high school, she had had a few boyfriends, but as it turned out each of them ran with a different crowd, so she had no reputation. Without rumors or gossip to guide me, I was on my own. I began my investigation in art class one Friday, and we went out for an aimless drive in the country that weekend.

We had been dating a few weeks (well, I’d gotten her out on a handful of dates, although I really wasn’t sure if we were datingI was too afraid of sounding unsure to actually come out and ask her if we were), before I started to figure her out. Like most people who find themselves blessed (or burdened) with having many prospects to choose from, she had developed a technique for narrowing down her choices, and soon I became well acquainted with this technique.

I might get into her car, for instance, for a day trip to the river, and she’d have the classical station on, and tell me that she only listened to classical now, so we’d listen to classical music all day. I never could tell how much of her was really into classical now, and how much of her just wanted to see if I was flexible enough to put up with it. The next week, she couldn’t stand classicalshe said she only listened to classic rock, or country.

In someone else, this behavior would have irritated me, but Megan made it into an all-encompassing joke. Although it was kind of extreme, I didn’t begrudge her the game. She had a fairly large field to narrow, after all, and the harder she was to get along with, the better my chances would be, as fewer and fewer guys would be willing to put up with her.

I felt like I was in on the game, too, as long as I didn’t come out and call it what it was. In a way, our courtship was like a battle of wits, and having always held my own, I intended to hold my own in this case, too, and to do it with style. I began to poke subtle fun at Megan and at the whole game. For instance, after she had bitterly denied that she still liked ice skating, which I knew she still liked, it just so happened that Disney World on Ice came to town. I got tickets to the sold-out show and asked her if she wanted to go. She held out for a while, but then grudgingly agreed to come along, and as the lights went down I saw her forget about her little game and really enjoy herself.

I often wondered, though, what it was, underneath it all, that I was so attracted to. Well, it came down to three things, really: she was sincere, she had a sharp sense of humor, and she was interesting. Moreover, she was a challenge. I felt like I was running in a tough race, competing for a rare prize. After a few weeks, I started to see myself as an early favorite. I had met her parents (who were not very pleasant), and had been invited out to the farm.

It was a hot August day when I went out to help her with the horses. Her family lived on a small farm thirty minutes out of town, and since her older brother Bill had gone off to college, her parents were having a hard time keeping up with the chores. I was no strapping young manactually I was a rather thin guy, but I shoveled manure for five hours that day, filling a wheelbarrow and then pushing it over to a pile and dumping it.

At one point I saw Megan on the porch with her dad, explaining something to him, and looking out at me. He stood, stocky and compact, with his arms folded over his thick chest, eyes hidden in the shadow of his hat. It dawned on me, from the way they reacted when I waved, that this whole day on the farm was just another kind of trialshe was testing me, as usual, but now she was doing it openly. I got angry, slinging the manure around, talking to myselfI don’t know, I just felt, smallbut then I calmed down and realized that she wasn’t just playing with me, like a bug in a glass jar. Her testing meant I was in the runningthat I had a chance of being the one she eventually choseand here I was, out on the farm, and my chances were actually looking pretty good.

After the corrals were cleaned up, I had a snack and then mowed grass for four hours. It took any romantic notions I might have had about owning a farm right out of my head. I finishedsunburned and fed upbut also happy to have cleared another hurdle. Megan brought me a water bottle.

“Here you go, working man.” I had told her that as a kid my sole responsibility was to take out the trash, and that a lot of times I had managed to forget to do even that.

“Thanks,” I gasped, as I drank.

Then she added, “My mom and I are going in to get some movies. We’ll leave you here with dad.” I looked at her. “Don’t worry,” she said, tenderly, “you’ll think of something to talk about - you’re a very clever boy.” It felt like a kiss. “Your other option is to rescue Franz.”

I let my face drop in exasperated disbelief as she proceeded to tell me about a small doll she had as a kid, which her brother had thrown onto the roof of the barn. She pointed to where on the roof she thought the doll might be (most likely lodged in the rain gutter, she said), and then over to the forty-foot aluminum ladder that lay on its side next to the tool shed. Her eyes looked deeply into mine. In the scheme of things, this seemed to be important. But then she added casually, “That was ten years ago, though. He’s probably been carried off by birds by now. I’ll see you soon.”

A big pink dust cloud rose behind her car as she drove toward the highway, cutting in front of the sun. I put the lawnmower back into the tool shed. It was a lie. She had told me a lie. Somehow, though, it didn’t matter. The way she did it, it didn’t seem to be a big deal. Like she thought a lot of me for seeing that it wasn’t a big deal that she’d lied to me and I didn’t call her on it. Like I had gained some ground with her, by not upsetting the game even in the face of a plain lie.

It did bug me, actually, but I put it asideI would deal with it later. Right now I had a decision to make: was I supposed to get the ladder and try to go up there, following the charade through to its conclusion, or just forget it and go back up to the house and see if her dad wanted to play gin? I stooped and lifted an end of the ladder to test its weight. It was heavy as hell, but I figured that if I tried it from the middle I could haul it over to the barn.

Well, I did that, and after several attempts I got the son-of-a-bitch upright. At its full extension it rested just under the gutter. Forty feet into the sky for a game, I thought. But I would have the opportunity to call her on her lie. That would be worth it.

Halfway up, I noted that my life was in danger, that I could really get hurt if I fell. Why hadn’t I got the old man out here to spot me? The ladder bowed in toward the barn wall, but I had a fairly good footing dug into the sod, so I was pretty sure it wouldn’t slip out from under me. As long as it didn’t tip backward, I’d be fine. But even if I found nothing up there I realized I couldn’t really call Megan on her lieit had been ten years, after all. Even if the birds hadn’t carried Franz off, he’d most likely have decomposed. But whether or not there was a Franz, either way, she’d know that I had done itthat I’d taken her at her word. And then I’d tell her that I was through with all this nonsense and that she’d have to be straight with me from now on.

I neared the topmy anger had made my body tenseand suddenly I froze up. The ladder wavered under me, and I considered just carefully creeping back down to the ground. But it had become more about overcoming my fear of the climb than anything else, and so I stretched out and got a light grip on the edge of the gutter, then delicately lifted my left foot up to the ladder’s second-highest rung, following it as smoothly as possible with my right.

I was three and a half stories above the ground, easily the highest I’d ever climbed, with my belt buckle just below the level of the flat roof of the barnand there was Franz! I was surprised to find him so quickly, but under the sludge that filled the wide rain gutter from end to end, I plainly saw a bit of peach-colored rubber that could only be a doll’s head. It hadn’t been a lie! My mind reeled, trying to process this new information, but a sudden breeze made me get my bearings in a hurry.

I steadied myself. Then I reached out for the doll, and dug through the black soil until I had him in my hand. The ladder shifted sickeningly beneath me, as one of its footings sank a little deeper into the grass. My blood went cold, and I pushed up and rolled onto the roof in a panic. I waited to hear the ladder crash to the earth dramatically, but it remained standing, foolishlyand now I was stuck. The fact that the ladder didn’t even reach the gutter, that it was now dark, and that I was no old hand at this anyway, left me stranded up there on the roof.

In a short while the lights of Megan’s car came along the gravel road, and soon she and her parents were gathered below me.

Her dad shouted up, “What are you doing up there?” I explained that it had looked like the gutters needed cleaning, and that I had come up to see, and now I was stuck. They all stood around for a while, quietly arguing about what to do. Mr. Caully re-set the ladder, and I tried approaching it a few timesbackwards and on my bellybut it was too scary. After that I just peered down at them, holding Franz behind my back. Over her father’s protest, Megan eventually went in and called the fire department. I empathized with the old man; being a farmer meant doing things yourself, and he was clearly embarrassed by all this.

I had to hide Franz. At first I thought I’d just toss him off the far side of the barn, but then I reconsidered, thinking an animal might carry him off before I got to him. In a flash I decided to hide him up under the back of my T-shirt, which I tucked in. I left my flannel untucked, so it would hang loosely over the little hump. No one would know he was there.

The next time I looked down, Megan and Mrs. Caully were setting up a card table with coffeecake and milk for the firemen. The big hook-and-ladder soon made its appearance on the road, then came on down to the barn. The firemen treated me like a helpless kitten, and wanted to carry me down the ladder like a child, but I insisted that I could make it on my own. On the ground, Megan took me, safe at last, in her arms, and the firemen gathered around the coffeecake. I was humbled. It was clear that I owed her father an apology.

That night, alone in the guest room, I couldn’t sleep, so I switched on the lamp and took Franz out from under the bed. I had cleaned him up some, and he really looked pretty good for all that he’d gone through. Now I would get my reward, I thought. I tore the top off the box of Kleenex that sat on my nightstand, and nestled Franz inside, where the tissues provided a little bed for him. He looked like the precious relic he was. The box had a nice floral pattern, and I was able to fashion a tiny card out of a piece of its top. I found a blue ballpoint pen, and wrote:

Dear Megan,
I missed you.
Love,
Franz

I snuck upstairs without making a sound, but in the hall the floorboards creaked loudly, and downstairs the Caulleys’ old dog let out a single, piercing howl. Knowing Megan’s parents would soon be out of bed to investigate, I hurried into Megan’s room.

“What’s going on?” she murmured.

“I brought you something,” I said, and I motioned for her to conceal the box under her covers. Megan’s parents appeared in the doorway.

“What’s going on?” her mom asked sleepily.

The words came to me slowly. I said, “I just felt awful ... for everything, and wanted to apologize ... for everything. And to you two, too.”

Megan’s dad cleared his throat and looked down at the floor. “We know you, ah, meant well.”

“We’re just glad you’re safe, Carl,” said her mom.

***

I am now forty-three. Over the years, I have quit smoking, when Megan took up running; I have become a father, soon after she decided she wanted kids. At her urging, I went back to college and got a degree, and now I make pretty good money. We took over the little farm, and I’ve come to like it out here; I’ve learned to draw, to accompany her on the piano, and to like camping; I’ve even sung in public a few times. These days she’s on a health kick, so we do yoga every morning, and eat healthy.

In short, I have passed every test that Megan has come up with over the last 20 yearsand with flying colors. And while I know she’s not finished with me yetand never will be, that’s just MeganI don’t worry about it anymore. As time has passed, I think I’ve proven that I’m clever enough to handle Megan Caulley.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mr. Olson

Mr. Olson was one of those old, old men who had somehow retained his physical power despite the years. Past eighty, he was still often seen in his driveway, loading or unloading his pickup, or working in the yard with a shovel or a rake. But no one mistook him for a young man: his skin was colorless, his cheeks fell slightly inward, and his head was mostly bald, although it was inevitably covered with a weathered gray fishing hat.

In contrast to her husband, Mrs. Olson, still youthful at sixty-two, was a small round woman with pink cheeks. The pair would have been cause for comment, had they gone out on the town together or given the occasional dinner party. Looking at them was like seeing two photos side by side – one in black and white, the other in color.

Now you might think that marrying someone twenty years older would entitle you to no end of stories and advice, based on the collected wisdom of your mate, but Mr. Olson wasn't much of a talker. In fact, for Mrs. Olson this was one of his most attractive qualities, since she came from a fairly quiet family herself. Yet Mr. Olson had a quiet that was deliberate, and bordered on a religious conviction. He thought that speech dishonored thoughts; or rather, that non-verbal communication was a much nobler form of expression.

Mr. Olson was a man of great emotion, however, and he made Mrs. Olson feel lucky to have him. Without words, and maybe in part due to their absence, he could bring to her that feeling of unconditional acceptance that all lovers crave. He had a way with gestures, both large and small.

She had a Schnauzer named Clarence that, for the most part, Mr. Olson just tolerated. Last summer, though, when the dog got sick, Mr. Olson spent two sleepless nights worrying and carefully nursing him back to health, and since then she had come home on occasion to find the two of them asleep together on the sofa. The sight always filled her with tenderness.

On the other hand, having outlived all his friends, Mr. Olson had developed a feeling of correctness that at times seemed like arrogance, as if he felt, "I have survived, so I am right.” It was a quality that sometimes disturbed their happy home.

The two usually spent their Sundays in the park with Clarence. But that spring Mrs. Olson's mother died, and after the funeral, a well-attended gathering of her mother’s dear friends, Mrs. Olson began to dress up and go off by herself on Sunday mornings, to the neighborhood church. She said it was just a way to feel closer to her mother now that she was gone, but in truth she also enjoyed the kind of easy, purposeless talk that always followed mass. Mr. Olson took it poorly – he had no room for religion, having suffered in a Jesuit boarding school in the thirties.

And so Mrs. Olson paid for her new association with the friendship of her husband; not all at once, but gradually. One day she realized that more than a week had gone by without a word passing between them. On its own, this wasn't so odd, but Mr. Olson had begun to deny her his non-verbal kindnesses as well – and it began to hurt Mrs. Olson's heart.

His displeasure was there in his face, a gloomy shadow of his silent responses to her everyday questions. His nod said Yes, but also said, You let me down. His shrug said I don’t know, and also said, I am not happy.

One Sunday morning, convinced that something had to change, Mrs. Olson decided to wear the special dress. The dress he had had made for her. The one she made sure she could always fit into. It was hand-embroidered with a beautiful pattern of red roses, which bloomed on an elegant black background. The dress meant a great deal to both of them. She took it off the hanger and put it on. On her way downstairs, she stopped in front of the mirror and toughened up a little to face him.

Downstairs, she found him holding Clarence and looking out the window. He looked over as she walked to the center of the room and raised an eyebrow in acknowledgment of the dress – she hadn't worn it for some time. She turned herself around slowly, and briefly extended her arms, and then she smiled at him and curtsied. Mr. Olson put Clarence down. A bitterness welled up from where his pride lay coiled inside him. He felt it was patronizing the way she thought she could use his heart to change his mind – to hell with that, he thought. He made his face calm, took a step toward her, then shrugged a shrug that answered "I don't give a damn" to every priest anywhere who ever dared to ask “Have you been saved?”

Mrs. Olson was crushed. The dress was them both, was their lives; it was the common face of their union that they showed to the world, and it was above the world, above their individual tastes, their individual concerns, even their individual beliefs. She saw him putting his resentment of the church above their love for each other, and it made her senseless with emotion. The room blurred. She took off the dress. She threw it in the kitchen trash. She went upstairs and put on the first thing she saw and then left for church crying.

Mr. Olson sat down on the sofa and stroked at his chin numbly; his anger was gone. He couldn't think of what this would all mean. He sat there for some time, and then went out to work, to see if he could begin to regain his balance. He went to the shed in back and got out the mower and wheeled it to the front yard. He bent and yanked the cord, looking forward to the solitude that the hammering engine always provided him. He pulled again. The engine wasn't catching. After a third try he checked the gas and the oil, but both reservoirs were full. The spark plugs were new. It occurred to him that he wasn't pulling hard enough. He bent and yanked the cord again and again, but he could not get the engine to turn over. He felt like a sick man struggling to open a bottle of pills. He sat down where he was in the grass, unbelieving, and his shoulders shook as he cried.

Returning from church, Mrs. Olson found him sitting on the front steps. The sight of him made her chest full again, but his peculiar aspect made the feeling less sharp. As she walked up the path, his expression made her stop, and he motioned for her to wait there. He went into the house, and returned shortly carrying a large bowl and a good clean towel. He led her the rest of the way to the front steps and sat her down there gently, as he crouched in front of her. He undid the buckles of her shoes, and she smiled, confused. As tenderly set her feet in the bowl, her smile broadened, and then she gasped as he lifted a large bottle of Chanel No. 5 out of the pocket of his overalls, and poured it over the tops of her feet. She heard the neighbor's rake across the street stop scraping, and then the pair of them laughed out loud for some time, as he washed her feet with the perfume.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Rebecca

I'm sure the Sisters of Service have some detractors in town, on account of our founder, Rebecca, who used to be the Dirty Woman, but I'm proud of what we do. I think we help some people. But some people think we're weird, because of Rebecca. See, she's not the Dirty Woman anymore, but she used to be, and she used to be a real crazy sight.

They called her that because she was always about as filthy as a person could get. From head to toe, it looked like she'd never had a bath or seen a bar of soap in her life. Except for the whites of her eyes and her teeth, which were as white as salt, her body was always covered in ash-gray dirt. She was weird, but it got to be kind of special to spot her as I drove around town with my mom. She was something different, alright. On top of being incredibly dirty all the time, she wore some pretty wacky outfits. On a hot summer's day, for instance, she might've worn a one-piece bathing suit with a frilly pink tutu over it. She always turned heads. And when she spoke her face and her voice were very animated. It looked like the faces of my mother's new friends, actually, when they speak to me or my dog. She was always smiling in this exaggerated way, and as she crossed the street she might say to a guy in his car, "What a bright, shiny car! It must go very fast! You must be very happy!" In a way, no one would say that, it was very weird, but in a way, it made sense – she was being like a clown, or like how a teacher is sometimes, playing a part.

I had a few good teachers in school, actually. I got along with them better than most of the kids. I was smart, but not the kind of smart that makes you lots of friends, more like the kind of smart that gets you tripped in the hall. People seemed really bothered when I got an answer right, and it also seemed to bother them that my clothes weren't always brand new. It was when we were shopping for school clothes at the mall that I had my first run-in with Rebecca.

It was winter, and she wore this huge fur coat in winter, but at the mall we'd see her without it on, and I always wondered where she could've stashed it. Then one day I saw a security guard, a round little woman, leading her out of the mall, and Rebecca said in her crazy smiling way, "What? Wait. Where is my coat? Let me get it first, please." Once the lady let go of her arm, she darted up an escalator. I followed at a distance, but lost her, and went into the bathroom. There she was. It was weird seeing someone like that, with the reflections in the mirrors and everything. I passed her and she smiled that strained smile at me. Once in the stall, I paused, hearing the shuffling of paper, and then I came back out to see what she was doing, and found her dragging her big coat out of the trashcan. She looked up at me, afraid, and so I said, "Don't worry. It's Okay. I won't tell," and she looked at me like a cat you don't know does sometimes, like saying, "Can I really trust you?" and then she got out of there. After that I started seeing her around more often.

And then of course came the day at the Y when she walked into the locker room with that huge bag of beauty products from Sav-On: shampoo, conditioner, soap, big sponges, fingernail clippers, fingernail file, cotton swabs, shaving cream, razors – it was hilarious. She got under the water and shouted. And then after a while she started singing:

I'm not the Dirty Woman anymore!
I'm not the Dirty Woman anymore!
I may be old
I may be poor
But I'm not the Dirty Woman anymore!

She asked me to scrub her back and I did it. I wasn't scared or anything. She didn't look at me with that clown face – like my mom's friend Dale, who wears her smile like it's a mask that's hiding a face full of worms – she gave me a smile that made me feel appreciated.

Once I had asked my mom where the Dirty Woman went when we didn't see her, and my mom got a faraway look on her face and said, "Oh, she goes back to her mansion in the woods and gets cleaned up and then spends a few days walking around in a clean white linen dress, sipping a glass of imported water from France, I suppose." But that day in the locker room I found out that she hadn't taken a shower in two whole years.

My mom has always been pretty relaxed, but I knew she wouldn't understand about the Service, so I've never told her. We always got along fine, but she's always smoked a lot of pot – I don't know, I never thought we really bonded like we could have, but we were always friends. We were close, but then not really, too. We'd snuggle up and watch movies together, but I never poured my heart out to her or anything. I guess she got lonely, because she started making friends with the women from work. They'd go out after work, or on the weekends they'd help each other with their landscaping projects. I was happy that she'd found some friendship, I just wished she hadn't had to stretch so far to get it.

After Rebecca got all cleaned up, I gave her my gym clothes to wear home. I know, that sounds gross, but they were a lot nicer than what she had with her. Her hair was a mess, too. We did the best we could with it, but it was a real mess. She ended up going to Cost Cutters in the mall the next day and getting it all cut off, and now she wears it really short and all slicked back – she really looks like a totally different person now. Lots of people don't even know she used to be the Dirty Woman.

Later that week Rebecca started the Sisters of Service, then I joined up. That June I turned sixteen, and I got a job at the Dairy Queen on Broadway. After about three months I was the manager, so when there was an opening I hired Rebecca. There are a couple other part-timers, but we actually work most of the shifts there. After eight hours the day is pretty shot anyway, so you might as well just stay working.

It's pretty good there. We get to eat a lot, and we can keep an eye out for anyone who looks like they might need the Service. The Service isn't a religion or anything, it's a service. Some people need the Service, some don't. We don't push it on anyone.