Debarking
written and read by Lorrie Moore

 

Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn’t get his wedding ring off. His finger had swelled doughily around it—a combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition, he said to friends. “I’m going to have to have my entire finger surgically removed.” The ring (supposedly gold, though now that everything he had ever received from Marilyn had been thrown into doubt, who knew) cinched the blousy fat of his finger, which had grown around it like a fucking happy vine. “Maybe I should cut off the whole hand. And send it to her,” he said on the phone to his friend Mike, with whom he worked at the State Historical Society. “She’ll understand the reference.” Ira had already ceremoniously set fire to his wedding tux—hanging it on a tall stick in his backyard, scarecrow-style, and igniting it with a Bic lighter. “That sucker went up really fast,” he gasped apologetically to the fire marshal, after the hedge caught too, and before he was brought overnight to the local lockdown facility. “So fast. Maybe it was, I don’t know, like the residual dry-cleaning fluid.”

“You’ll remove that ring when you’re ready,” Mike said now. Mike’s job approving historical preservation projects on old houses left him time to take a lot of lenient parenting courses and to read all the lenient parenting books. “Here’s what you do for your depression. I’m not going to say lose yourself in charity work. I’m not going to say get some perspective by watching our country’s news each evening and by contemplating those worse off than yourself, those, say, who are about to be blown apart by bombs. I’m going to say this: Stop drinking, stop smoking. Eliminate coffee, sugar, dairy products. Do this for three days, then start everything back up again. Bam. I guarantee you, you will be so happy.”

“I’m afraid,” Ira said softly, “that the only thing that would make me happy right now is snipping the brake cables on Marilyn’s car.”

“Spring,” Mike said helplessly, though it was still only the end of winter. “It can really hang you up the most.”

“Hey. You should write songs. Just not too often.” Ira looked at his hands. Actually he had once gotten the ring off in a hot, soapy bath, but the sight of his denuded finger, naked as a child’s, had terrified him and he had shoved the ring back on.

On the other end of the phone Ira could hear Mike sighing and casting about. Cupboard doors closed loudly. The refrigerator puckered open, then whooshed shut. Ira knew that Mike and Kate had had their troubles—as the phrase went—but always their marriage had held. “I’d divorce Kate,” Mike had once confided to Ira, “but she’d kill me.” “Look,” Mike said now, “why don’t you come to our house Sunday for a little Lent dinner. We’re having some people by and who knows?”

“Who knows?” asked Ira.

“Yes—who knows?”

“What’s a Lent dinner?”

“We made it up. For Lent. We didn’t really want to do Mardi Gras. Too disrespectful, given the international situation.”

“So you’re doing Lent. I’m unclear on Lent. I mean, I know what Lent means to those of us in the Jewish faith. But we don’t usually commemorate these transactions with meals. Usually there’s just a lot of sighing.”

“It’s like a pre-Easter Prince of Peace dinner,” said Mike slowly.

There were no natural predators in this small, oblivious, and tolerant community, and so strange creatures and creations abounded. “Prince of Peace? Not—of Minneapolis?”

“You’re supposed to give things up for Lent. Last year we gave up our faith and reason; this year we are giving up our democratic voice, our hope.” Ira had already met most of Mike’s goyishe friends. Mike himself was low-key, tolerant, self-deprecating to a flaw. A self-described “ethnic Catholic,” he once complained dejectedly about not having been cute enough to have been molested by a priest. “They would just shake my hand very quickly,” he said. Mike’s friends, however, tended to be tense, intellectually earnest Protestants who drove new, metallic-hued cars and who within five minutes of light conversation could be counted on at least twice to use the phrase “strictly within the framework of.” “Kate has a divorcée friend she’s inviting,” Mike said. “I’m not trying to fix you up. I really hate that stuff. I’m just saying come. Eat some food. It’s the start of Eastertime and, well, hey: we could use a Jew over here.” Mike laughed heartily.

“Yeah, I’ll reenact the whole thing for you,” said Ira. He looked at his swollen ring finger again. “Yessirree. I’ll come over and show you all how it’s done.”

Ira’s new house, though it was in what his realtor referred to as “a lovely, pedestrian neighborhood,” abutting the streets named after presidents, boasting, instead, streets named after fishing flies (Caddis, Hendrickson, Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear Road), was full of slow drains, leaky burners, stopped-up pipes, and excellent dust for scrawling curse words. Marilyn blows sailors. The draftiest windows he duct-taped up with sheets of plastic on the inside, as instructed by Homeland Security; cold air billowed the plastic inward like sails on a boat. On a windy day it was quite something. “Your whole house could fly away,” said Mike, looking around.

“Not really,” said Ira. “But it is spinning. It’s very interesting, actually.”

The yard had already grown muddy with March and the flower beds were greening with the tiniest sprigs of stinkweed and quack grass. By June the chemical weapons of terrorism aimed at the heartland might prove effective in weeding the garden. “This may be the sort of war I could really use!” Ira said out loud to a neighbor. Mike and Kate’s house, on the other hand, with its perfect lines and friendly fussiness, reeking, he supposed, of historical preservation tax credits, seemed an impossible dream to him, something plucked from a magazine article about childhood memories conjured on a deathbed. Something seen through the window by the Little Match Girl. Outside, the soffits were perfectly squared. The crocuses were like bells and the Siberian violets like grape candies scattered in the grass. Inside, the smell of warm food almost made him weep, and with his coat still on he rushed past Kate to throw his arms around Mike, kissing him on both cheeks. “All the beautiful men must be kissed!” Ira exclaimed.

After he got his coat off, and had wandered into the dining room, he toasted with the champagne he himself had brought. There were eight guests there, most of whom he knew to some degree, but really that was enough. That was enough for everyone. Still, they raised their glasses with him. “To Lent!” Ira cried. “To the final days!” And in case that was too grim, he added, “And to the coming Resurrection! May it happen a little closer to home this time! Jesus Christ!” Soon he wandered back into the kitchen and, as he felt was required of him, shrieked at the pork. Then he began milling around again, apologizing for the Crucifixion: “We really didn’t intend it,” he murmured, “not really, not the killing part? We just kind of got carried away? You know how spring can get a little crazy, but believe me, we’re all really, really sorry.” Kate’s divorced friend was named Zora, and was a pediatrician. Although no one else did, she howled with laughter, and when her face wasn’t blasted apart with it or her jaw snapping mutely open and shut like a scissors (in what Ira recognized was postdivorce hysteria; “How long have you been divorced?” he later asked her. “Eleven years,” she replied), Ira could see she was very beautiful: short black hair; eyes a clear, reddish hazel, like orange pekoe tea; a strong aquiline nose, probably a snorer; thick lashes that spiked out wrought and black as the tines of a fireplace fork. Her body was a mix of thin and plump, her skin lined and unlined, in that rounding-the-corner-to-fifty way. Age and youth, he chanted silently, youth and age, sing their songs on the very same stage. Ira was working on a modest little volume of doggerel, its tentative title Women from Venus; Men from Penis. Either that, or Soccer Dad: The Musical.

Like everyone he knew, he could discern the hollowness in people’s charm only when it was directed at someone other than himself. When it was directed at him, the person just seemed so totally nice. And so Zora’s laughter, in conjunction with her beauty, doomed him a little, made him grateful beyond reason.

Immediately, he sent her a postcard, one of newlyweds dragging empty Spam cans from the bumper of their car. He wrote: Dear Zora, Had such fun meeting you at Mike’s. And then he wrote his phone number. He kept it simple. In courtship he had a history of mistakes, beginning at sixteen with his first girlfriend, for whom he had bought at the local head shop the coolest thing he had then ever seen in his life: a beautifully carved wooden hand with its middle finger sticking up. He himself had coveted it tremulously for a year. How could she not love it? Her contempt for it, and then for him, had left him feeling baffled and betrayed. With Marilyn he had taken the other approach and played hard to get, which had turned their relationship into a never-ending Sadie Hawkins Day, with subsequent marriage to Sadie an inevitably doomed thing—a humiliating and interminable Dutch date.

But this, the Spam postcard and the note, he felt contained the correct mix of offhandedness and intent. This elusive mix—the geometric halfway point between stalker and Rip van Winkle—was important to get right in the world of middle-aged dating, he suspected, though what did he really know of this world? It had been so long, the whole thing seemed a kind of distant civilization, a planet of the apings!—graying, human flotsam with scorched internal landscapes mimicking the young, picking up where they had left off decades ago, if only they could recall where the hell that was. Ira had been a married man for fifteen years, a father for eight (poor little Bekka, now rudely transported between houses in a speedy, ritualistic manner resembling a hostage drop-off), only to find himself punished for an idle little nothing, nothing, nothing flirtation with a colleague, punished with his wife’s actual affair and false business trips (Montessori conventions that never existed), and finally a petition for divorce mailed from a motel. Observing others go through them, he used to admire midlife crises, the courage and shamelessness and existential daring of them, but after he’d watched his own wife, a respectable nursery school teacher, produce and star in a full-blown one of her own, he found the sufferers of such crises not only self-indulgent but greedy and demented, and he wished them all weird unnatural deaths with various contraptions easily found in garages.

He received a postcard from Zora in return. It was of Van Gogh’s room in Arles. Beneath the clockface of the local postmark her handwriting was big but careful, some curlicuing in the g’s and f’s. It read, Had such fun meeting you at Mike’s. Wasn’t that precisely, word for word, what he had written to her? There was no too, no emphasized you, just the exact same words thrown back at him like in some lunatic postal Ping-Pong. Either she was stupid or crazy or he was already being too hard on her. Not being hard on people—“You bark at them,” Marilyn used to say—was something he was trying to work on. When he pictured Zora’s lovely face, it helped his tenuous affections. She had written her phone number and signed off with a swashbuckling Z—as in Zorro. That was cute, he supposed. He guessed. Who knew. He had to lie down.

He had Bekka for the weekend. She sat in the living room, tuned to Cartoon Network. She liked Road Runner and Justice League. Ira would sometimes watch her mesmerized face, the cartoons flashing on the creamy screen of her skin, her eyes still and wide, bright with reflected shapes caught there like holograms in marbles. He felt inadequate as her father, but in general attempted his best: affection, wisdom, reliability, plus not ordering pizza every night, though tonight he had again caved in. Last week Bekka had said to him, “When you and Mommy were married we always had mashed potatoes for supper. Now you’re divorced and we always have spaghetti.”

“Which do you like better?” he had asked.

“Neither!” she had shouted, summing up her distaste for everything. “I hate them both.”

Tonight he had ordered the pizza half plain cheese, and half with banana peppers and jalapeños. The two of them sat together in front of Justice League, with TV trays, eating slices from their respective sides. Chesty, narrow-waisted heroes in bright colors battled their enemies with righteous confidence and, of course, laser guns. Bekka finally turned to him. “Mommy says that if her boyfriend Daniel moves in I can have a dog. A dog and a bunny.”

“And a bunny?” Ira said. When the family was still together, unbroken, the four-year-old Bekka, new to numbers and the passage of time, used to exclaim triumphantly to her friends, “Mommy and Daddy say I can have a dog! When I turn eighteen!” There’d been no talk of bunnies. But perhaps the imminence of Easter had brought this on. He knew Bekka loved animals. She had once, in a bathtime reverie, named her five favorite people, four of whom were dogs. The fifth was her own blue bike.

“A dog and a bunny,” Bekka repeated, and Ira had to repress images of the dog with the rabbit’s bloody head in its mouth.

“So, what do you think about that?” he asked cautiously, wanting to get her opinion on the whole Daniel thing.

Bekka shrugged and chewed. “Whatever,” she said, her new word for “You’re welcome,” “Hello,” “Good-bye,” and “I’m only eight.” “I really just don’t want all his stuff there. Already his car blocks our car in the driveway.”

“Bummer,” said Ira, his new word for “I must remain as neutral as possible” and “Your mother’s a whore.”

“I don’t want a stepfather,” Bekka said.

“Maybe he could just live on the steps,” Ira said, and Bekka smirked, her mouth full of mozzarella.

“Besides,” she said. “I like Larry better. He’s stronger.”

“Who’s Larry?” Ira said, instead of “Bummer.”

“He’s this other dude,” Bekka said. She sometimes referred to her mother as a “dudette.” “She’s a dudette, all right,” Ira would say.

“Bummer,” said Ira now. “Big, big bummer.”

He phoned Zora four days later, so as not to seem discouragingly eager. He summoned up his most confident acting. “Hi, Zora? This is Ira,” and then waited—narcissistically perhaps, but what else was there to say?—for her response.

“Ira?”

“Yes. Ira Milkins.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know who you are.”

Ira gripped the phone and looked down at himself, suddenly finding nothing there. He seemed to have vanished from the neck down. “We met last Sunday at Mike and Kate’s?” His voice quavered. If he ever actually succeeded in going out with her, he was going to have to take one of those date-rape drugs and just pass out on her couch.

“Ira? Ohhhhhhhhh—Ira. Yeah. The Jewish guy.”

“Yeah, the Jew. That was me.” Should he hang up now? He did not feel he could go on. But he must go on. There was a man of theater for you.

“That was a nice dinner,” she said.

“Yes, it was.”

“I usually skip Lent completely.”

“Me, too,” said Ira. “It’s just simpler. Who needs the fuss?”

“But sometimes I forget how reassuring and conjoining a meal with friends can be, especially at a time like this.”

Ira had to think about the way she’d used conjoining. It sounded New Agey and Amish, both.

“But Mike and Kate run that kind of house. It’s all warmth and good-heartedness.”

Ira thought about this. What other kind of home was there to run, if you were going to bother? Hard, cold, and mean: that had been his own home with Marilyn, at the end. It was like those experimental monkeys with the wire-monkey moms. What did the baby monkeys know? The wire mother was all they had, all they knew in their hearts, and so they clung to it, as had he, even if it was only a coat hanger. Mom. So much easier to carve the word into your arm. You were used to pain. You’d been imprinted. As a child, for a fifth-grade science project, in the basement of his house, he’d once tried to reproduce Konrad Lorenz’s experiment with baby ducks. But he had screwed up with the incubation lights and had cooked the ducks right in their eggs, stinking up the basement so much that his mother had screamed at him for days. Which was a science lesson of some sort—the emotional limits of the Homo sapiens working Jewish mom—but it was soft science, so less impressive.

“What kind of home do you run?” he asked.

“Home? Oh, I mean to get to one of those. Right now, actually, I’m talking to you from a pup tent.”

Oh, she was a funny one. Perhaps they would laugh and laugh their way into the sunset. “I love pup tents,” he said. What was a pup tent exactly? He’d forgotten.

“Actually, I have a teenage son, so I have no idea what kind of home I have anymore. Once you have a teenager, everything changes.”

Now there was silence. He couldn’t imagine Bekka as a teenager. Or rather, he could, sort of, since she often acted like one already, full of rage at the incompetent waitstaff that life had hired to take and bring her order.

“Well, would you like to meet for a drink?” Zora asked finally, as if she had asked it many times before, her tone a mingling of both weariness and the cheery, pseudoprofessionalism of someone in the dully familiar and official position of being single and dating.

“Yes,” said Ira. “That’s exactly why I called.”


 

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