Debarking
written and read by Lorrie Moore

 

“You can’t imagine the daily dreariness of routine pediatrics,” said Zora, not touching her wine. “Ear infection, ear infection, ear infection. Whoa. Here’s an exciting one: juvenile onset diabetes. Day after day you just have to look into the parents’ eyes and repeat the same exciting thing: ‘There are a lot of viruses going around.’ I had thought about going into pediatric oncology, because when I asked other doctors why they’d gone into such a seemingly depressing thing, they said, ‘Because the kids don’t get depressed.’ That seemed interesting to me. And hopeful. But then when I asked doctors in the same field why they were retiring early, they said they were sick of seeing kids die. The kids don’t get depressed, they just die! These were my choices in med school. As an undergraduate I took a lot of art classes and did sculpture, which I still do a little, to keep those creative juices flowing! But what I would really like to do now is write children’s books. I look at some of those books out in the waiting room and I want to throw them in the fish tank. I think, I could do better than that. I started one about a hedgehog.”

“Now what’s a hedgehog exactly?” Ira was eyeing her full glass and his own empty one. “I get them mixed up with groundhogs and gophers.”

“They’re— Well, what does it matter if they are all wearing little polka-dotted clothes, vests and hats and things,” she said irritably.

“I suppose,” he said, now a little frightened. What was wrong with her? He did not like stressful moments in restaurants. They caused his mind to wander strangely to random thoughts like Why are these things called napkins rather than lapkins? or I’ll bet God really loves butter. He tried to focus on the visuals, what she was wearing, which was a silk, pumpkin-colored blouse he hesitated complimenting her on lest she think he was gay. Marilyn had once threatened to call off their wedding because he had strenuously complimented the fabric of her gown and then had shopped too long and discontentedly for his own tuxedo, failing to find just the right shade of “mourning dove,” a color he had read of in a wedding magazine. “Are you homosexual?” she had asked. “You must tell me now. I won’t make the same mistake my sister did.”

Perhaps Zora’s irritability was only creative frustration. Ira understood. Though his position was with the Historical Society’s Human Resources Office, he liked to help with the society’s exhibitions, doing posters and dioramas and once even making a puppet for a little show the society had put on about the first governor. Thank God for meaningful work! He understood those small, diaphanous artistic ambitions that overtook people and could look like nervous breakdowns.

“What happens in your hedgehog tale?” Ira asked, then settled in to finish up his dinner, eggplant parmesan that he wished now he hadn’t ordered. He was coveting Zora’s wodge of steak. Perhaps he had an iron deficiency. Or perhaps it was just a desire for the taste of metal and blood in his mouth. Zora, he knew, was committed to meat. While everyone else’s cars were busy protesting the prospect of war or supporting the summoned troops, Zora’s Honda had a bumper sticker that said, RED MEAT IS NOT BAD FOR YOU. FUZZY, GREENISH BLUE MEAT IS BAD FOR YOU.

“The hedgehog tale? Well,” Zora began. “The hedgehog goes for a walk, because he is feeling sad—it’s based on a story I used to tell my son. The hedgehog goes for a walk and comes upon this strange yellow house that has a sign on it that says, WELCOME, HEDGEHOG: THIS COULD BE YOUR NEW HOME, and because he’s been feeling sad, the thought of a new home appeals. So he goes in and inside is a family of alligators— Well, I’ll spare you the rest, but you can get the general flavor of it from that.”

“I don’t know about that family of alligators.”

She was quiet for a minute, chewing her beautiful ruby steak. “Every family is a family of alligators,” she said.

“Well—that’s certainly one way of looking at it.” Ira glanced at his watch.

“Yeah. To get back to the book. It gives me an outlet. I mean, my job’s not terrible. Some of the kids are cute. But some are impossible, of course, some are disturbed, some are just spoiled and ill-behaved. It’s hard to know what to do. We’re not allowed to hit them.”

“You’re ‘not allowed to hit them’?” He could see she had now made some progress with her wine.

“I’m from Kentucky,” she said.

“Ah.” He drank from his water glass, stalling.

She chewed thoughtfully. Merlot was beginning to etch a ragged, scabby line in the dead skin of her bottom lip. “It’s like Ireland but with more horses and guns.”

“Not a lot of Jews down there.” He had no idea why he said half the things he said. Perhaps this time it was because he had once been a community-based historian, digging in archives for the genealogies and iconographies of various ethnic groups, not realizing that other historians generally thought this a sentimental form of history, shedding light on nothing; and though shedding light on nothing seemed not a bad idea to him, when it became available, he had taken the human resources job.

“Not too many,” she said. “I did know an Armenian family growing up. At least I think they were Armenian.”

When the check came, she ignored it, as if it were some fly that had landed and would soon be taking off again. So much for feminism. Ira pulled out his state-workers credit card and the waitress came by and whisked it away. There were, he was once told, four seven-word sentences that generally signaled the end of a relationship. The first was “I think we should see other people.” (Which always meant another seven-word sentence: “I am already sleeping with someone else.”) The second seven-word sentence was, reputedly, “Maybe you could just leave the tip.” The third was “How could you again forget your wallet?” And the fourth, the killer of all killers, was “Oh, look, I’ve forgotten my wallet, too!”

He did not imagine they would ever see each other again. But when he dropped her off at her house, walking her to her door, Zora suddenly grabbed his face with both hands, and her mouth became its own wet creature exploring his. She opened up his jacket, pushing her body inside it, against his, the pumpkin-colored silk of her blouse slid upon his shirt. Her lips came away in a slurp. “I’m going to call you,” she said, smiling. Her eyes were wild, as if with gin, though she had only been drinking wine.

“OK,” he mumbled, walking backward down her steps, in the dark, his car still running, its headlights bright along her street.

He was in her living room the following week. It was beige and white with cranberry accents. On the walls were black-framed photos of her son, Bruno, from all ages, including now. There were pictures of Bruno lying prone on the ground. There were pictures of Bruno and Zora together, he hidden in the folds of her skirt, and she hanging her then-long hair down into his face, covering him completely. There he was again, leaning in between her knees, naked as a cello. There were pictures of him in the bath, though in some he was clearly already at the start of puberty. In the corner stood perhaps a dozen wooden sculptures of naked boys she had carved herself. “One of my hobbies, which I was telling you about,” she said. They were astounding little things. She had drilled holes in their penises with a brace and bit to allow for water in case she could someday sell them as garden fountains. “These are winged boys. The beautiful adolescent boy who flies away. It’s from mythology. I forget what they’re called. I just love their little rumps.” He nodded, studying the tight, sculpted buttocks, the spouted, mushroomy phalluses, the long backs and limbs. So: this was the sort of woman he’d been missing out on not being single all these years. What had he been thinking of staying married for so long?

He sat down and asked for wine. “You know, I’m just a little gun-shy romantically,” he said apologetically. “I don’t have the confidence I used to. I don’t think I can even take my clothes off in front of another person. Not even at the gym, frankly. I’ve been changing in the toilet stalls. After divorce and all.”

“Oh, divorce will do that to you totally,” she said reassuringly. She poured him some wine. “It’s like a trick. It’s like someone puts a rug over a trapdoor and says, ‘Stand there.’ And so you do. Then boom.” She took out a hashish pipe, lit it, sucking, then gave it to him.

“I’ve never seen a pediatrician smoke hashish before.”

“Really?” she said, with some difficulty, her breath still sucked in.

The nipples of her breasts were long, cylindrical, and stiff, so that her chest looked somewhat as if two small sink plungers had flown across the room and suctioned themselves there. His mouth opened hungrily to kiss them.

“Perhaps you would like to take off your shoes,” she whispered.

“Oh, not really,” he said.

There was sex where you were looked in the eye and beautiful things were said to you, and then there was what Ira used to think of as yoo-hoo sex: where the other person seemed spirited away, not quite there, their pleasure mysterious and crazy and only accidentally involving you. “Yoo-hoo?” was what his grandmother always called before entering a house where she knew someone but not well enough to know whether they were actually home.

“Where are you?” Ira said in the dark. He decided in a case such as this he could feel a chaste and sanctifying distance. It wasn’t he who was having sex. The condom was having sex and he was just trying to stop it. Zora’s candles on the nightstand were heated to clear pools in their tins. They flickered smokily. He would try not to think about how before she had even lit them and pulled back the bedcovers he had noticed the candles were already melted down to the size of buttons, their wicks blackened to a crisp. It was not good to think about the previous burning of the bedroom candles of a woman who had just unzipped your pants. Besides, he was too grateful for the fact of those candles—especially with all those little wonder boys in the living room. Perhaps his whitening chest hair would not look so white. This was what candles were made for: the sad, sexually shy, out-of-shape, middle-aged him. How had he not understood this in marriage? Zora herself looked ageless, like a nymph with her short hair, although once she got Ira’s glasses off, she became a blur of dim and shifting shapes and might as well have been Dick Cheney or Lon Chaney or Lee Marvin or the Blob, except that she smelled good and but for the occasional rough patch had the satiny skin of a girl.

She let out a long, spent sigh.

“Where did you go?” he asked again anxiously.

“I’ve been right here, silly,” she said and pinched his hip. She lifted one of her long legs up and down outside the covers. “Did you get off?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Did you get off?”

“ ‘Get off’?” Someone else had once asked him the same question, when he’d stopped in the jetway to tie his shoe after debarking from a plane.

“Have an orgasm? With some men it’s not always clear.”

“Yes, thank you, I mean, it was—to me—very clear.”

“You’re still wearing your wedding ring,” she said.

“It’s stuck, I don’t know why—”

“Let me get at that thing,” she said and pulled hard on his finger, but the loose skin around his knuckle bunched up and blocked it.

“Ow,” he finally said. His skin was abraded.

“Perhaps later with soap,” she said. She lay back and swung her legs up in the air again.

“Do you like to dance?” he asked.

“Sometimes,” she said.

“I’ll bet you’re a wonderful dancer,” said Ira.

“Not really,” she said. “But I can always think of things to do.”

“That’s a nice trait.”

“You think so?” she asked, and she leaned in and began tickling him.

“I don’t think I’m that ticklish,” he said.

“Oh.” She stopped.

“I mean, I’m probably a little,” he added, “just not a lot.”

“I would like you to meet my son,” she said.

“Is he here?”

“He’s under the bed. Bruny?” Oh, these funny ones were funny.

“What is his name?”

“Bruno. I call him Bruny. He’s with his dad this week.”

The extended families of divorce. Ira tried not to feel jealous. It was quite possible he was not mature enough to date a divorced woman. “Tell me about his dad.”

“His dad? His dad is another pediatrician, but he was really into English country dancing. Where eventually he met a lass. Alas.”

Ira would write that down in his book. Alas, a lass. “I don’t think anyone should dance in a way that’s not just regular dancing,” said Ira. “It’s not normal. That’s just my opinion.”

“Well, he left a long time ago. He said he’d made a terrible mistake getting married. He said that he just wasn’t capable of intimacy. I know that’s true for some people, but I had never actually heard anyone say that out loud about themselves.”

“I know!” said Ira. “Even Hitler never said that! I mean, I don’t mean to compare your ex to Hitler as a leader. Only as a man.”

Zora stroked his arm. “Do you feel ready to meet Bruno? I mean, he didn’t care for my last boyfriend at all. That’s why we broke up.”

“Really?” This silenced Ira for a moment. “If I left those matters to my daughter, I’d be dating a beagle.”

“I believe children come first.” Her voice now had a steely edge.

“Oh, yes, yes, so do I,” he said quickly. He felt suddenly paralyzed and cold.

She reached into the nightstand drawer, took out a vial, and bit into a pill. “Here, take half,” she said. “Otherwise we won’t get any sleep at all. Sometimes I snore. Probably you do, too.”

“This is so cute,” Ira said warmly. “Our taking these pills together.”

He staggered through his days, tired and unsure. At the office he misplaced files. Sometimes he knocked things over by accident—a glass of water or the benefits manual. News of the coming war, too, was taking its toll. He lay in bed at night, the moments before sleep a kind of stark acquaintance with death. What had happened to the world? March still did not look completely like spring, especially with the plastic sheeting duct-taped to his windows. When he tried to look out, the trees seemed to be pasted onto the waxy dinge of a wintry-looking sky. He wished this month had a less military verb for a name. Why March? How about a month named Skip? That could work.

He got two cats from the pound so that Bekka could have some live pet action at his house, too. He and Bekka went to the store and stocked up on litter and cat food.

“Provisions!” exclaimed Ira.

“In case the war comes here, we can eat the cat food,” suggested Bekka.

“Cat food, heck. We can eat the cats,” said Ira.

“That’s disgusting, Dad.”

Ira shrugged.

“You see, that’s one of the things Mom didn’t like about you!” she added.

“Really? She said that?”

“Sort of.”

“Mom likes me. She’s just very busy.”

“Whatever.”

He got back to the cats. “What should we name them?” One should always name food.

“I don’t know.” Bekka studied the cats.

Ira hated the precious literary names people gave pets—characters from opera and Proust. When he’d first met Marilyn, she had a cat named Portia, but Ira had insisted on calling it Fang.

“I think we should name them Snowball and Snowflake,” said Bekka, looking glassy-eyed at the two golden tabbies.

“They don’t look like a snowball or a snowflake,” said Ira, trying not to let his disappointment show. Sometimes Bekka seemed completely banal to him. She had spells of inexplicable and vapid conventionality. He had always wanted to name a cat Bowser. “How about Bowser?” In the pound someone with name tag duty had named them “Jake” and “Fake Jake,” but the quotation marks around their names seemed an invitation to change them.

“Fireball and Fireflake,” Bekka tried again.

Ira looked at her, he hoped, beseechingly and persuasively. “Really? Fireball and Fireflake don’t really sound like cats that would belong to you.”

Bekka’s face clenched tearily. “You don’t know me! I live with you only part-time! The other part of the time I live with Mom, and she doesn’t know me either! The only person who knows me is me!”

“OK, OK,” said Ira. The cats were eyeing him warily. In time of war never argue with a fireball or a fireflake. Never argue with the food. “Fireball and Fireflake.” What were those? Two lonely middle-aged people on a date.


 

HTML style by Stephen Thomas, University of Adelaide

Modified by Skip for ESL Bits English Language Learning