Debarking
written and read by Lorrie Moore

 

“Why don’t you come to dinner?” Zora phoned one afternoon. “I’m making spring spaghetti, Bruny’s favorite, and you can come over and meet him. Unless you have Bekka tonight.”

“No, I don’t,” Ira said mournfully. “What is spring spaghetti?”

“Oh, it’s the same as regular spaghetti, you just serve it kind of lukewarm. Room temperature. With a little fresh basil.”

“What should I bring?”

“Oh, perhaps you could just bring a small appetizer and some dessert,” she said. “And maybe a salad, some bread if you’re close to a bakery, and a bottle of wine. Also an extra chair, if you have one. We’ll need an extra chair.”

“OK,” he said.

He was a litttle loaded down at the door. She stepped outside, he thought to help him, but she simply put her arms around him and kissed him. “I have to kiss you now here outdoors. Bruny doesn’t like to see that sort of thing.” She kissed Ira in a sweet, rubbery way on the mouth. Then she stepped back in, smiling, holding the door open for him. Oh, the beautiful smiles of the insane. Soon, he was sure, there would be a study that showed that the mentally ill were actually more attractive than other people. Dating proved it! The aluminum foil over his salad was sliding off and the brownies he had made for dessert were still warm and underneath the salad bowl were probably heating and wilting the lettuce. He attempted a familiar and proprietary stride through her living room, though he felt neither, then dumped everything on her kitchen table.

“Oh, thank you,” she said and placed her hand on the small of his back. He was deeply attracted to her. There was nothing he could do about that.

“It smells good,” he said. “You smell good.” Some mix of garlic and citrus and baby powder overlaid with nutmeg. Her hand wandered down and stroked his behind. “I’ve got to run out to the car and get the appetizer and the chair,” he said and made a quick dash. When he came back in, handed her the appetizer—a dish of herbed olives (he knew nothing about food; someone at work had told him you could never go wrong with herbed olives: “Spell it out—h-e-r b-e-d. Get it?”)—and then set the chair up at Zora’s little dining table for two (he’d never seen one not set up for at least four), Zora looked brightly at him and whispered, “Are you ready to meet Bruny?”

Ready. He did not know precisely what she meant by that. It seemed she had reversed everything, that she should be asking Bruno, or Bruny, or Brune, if he was ready to meet him. “Ready,” he said.

There was wavery flute music from behind a closed door down the hallway. “Bruny?” Zora called. The music stopped. Suddenly a barking, howling voice called “What?”

“Come out and meet Ira, please.”

There was silence. There was nothing. Nobody moved at all for a very long time. Ira smiled politely. “Oh, let him play,” he said.

“I’ll be right back,” said Zora, and she headed down the hall to Bruno’s room, knocked on the door, then went in, closing it behind her. Ira stood there for a while, then he picked up the Screwpull, opened the bottle of wine, and began to drink. After several minutes Zora returned to the kitchen, sighing. “Bruny’s in a bit of a mood.” Suddenly a door slammed and loud, trudging footsteps brought Bruno, the boy himself, into the kitchen. He was barefoot and in a T-shirt and gym shorts, his legs already darkening with hair. His eyebrows sprouted in a manly black V over the bridge of his nose. He was not tall, but he was muscular already, broad-shouldered and thick-limbed, and he folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the wall in weary belligerence.

“Bruny, this is Ira,” said Zora. Ira put his wineglass down and thrust out his hand to introduce himself. Bruno unfolded his arms but did not shake hands. Instead, he thrust out his chin and scowled. Ira picked up his wineglass again.

“So, good to meet you. Your mother has said a lot of wonderful things about you.” He tried to remember one.

Bruno looked at the appetizer bowl. “What’s this grassy gunk all over the olives.” It was not really a question, so no one answered it. Bruno turned back to his mother. “May I go back to my room now?”

“Yes, dear,” said Zora. She looked at Ira. “He’s practicing for the woodwind competition next Saturday. He’s very serious.”

When Bruno had tramped back down to his room, Ira leaned in to kiss Zora, but she pulled away. “Bruny might hear us,” she whispered.

“Let’s go to a restaurant. Just you and me. My salad’s no good.”

“Oh, we couldn’t leave Bruno here alone. He’s only sixteen.”

“I was working in a steel factory when I was sixteen!” Ira decided not to say. Instead he said, “Doesn’t he have friends?”

“He’s between social groups right now,” Zora said defensively. “It’s difficult for him to find other kids who are as intellectually serious as he is.”

“We’ll rent him a movie,” said Ira. “Excuse me, a film. A foreign film, since he’s serious. A documentary. We’ll rent him a foreign documentary!”

“We don’t have a VCR.”

“You don’t have a VCR?” At this point Ira found the silverware and helped set the table. When they sat down to eat and poured more wine in their glasses, Bruno suddenly came out and joined them, with no beckoning. The spring spaghetti was tossed in a large glass bowl with grated cheese. “Just how you like it, Brune,” said Zora.

“So, Bruno. What grade are you in?”

Bruno rolled his eyes. “Tenth,” he said.

“So college is a ways off,” said Ira, accidentally thinking out loud.

“I guess,” said Bruno, who then tucked into the spring spaghetti.

“So—what classes are you taking in school, besides music?” asked Ira, after a long awkward spell.

“I don’t take music,” he said with his mouth full. “I’m in All-State Woodwinds.”

“All-State Woodwinds! Interesting! Do you take any courses in like, say, American history?”

“They’re studying the Amazon rain forest yet again,” said Zora. “They’ve been studying it since preschool.”

Ira slurped with morose heartiness at his wine—he had spent too much of his life wandering about in the desert of his own drool, oh, the mealtime assaults he had made on his own fragile consciousness—and some dribbled on his shirt. “For Pete’s sake, look at this.” He dabbed at the wine spot with his napkin and looked up at Bruno, with an ingratiating grin. “Someday this could happen to you,” Ira said, twinkling in Bruno’s direction.

“That would never happen to me,” muttered Bruno.

Ira continued dabbing at his shirt. He began thinking of his book. Though I be your mother’s beau, no rival I, no foe, faux foe. He loved rhymes. Fum! Thumb! Dumb! They were harmonious and joyous in the face of total crap.

Bruno began gently kicking his mother under the table. Zora began playfully to nudge him back, and soon they were both kicking away, their energetic footsie causing them to slip in their chairs a little, while Ira pretended not to notice, cutting his salad with the edge of his fork, too frightened to look up very much. After a few minutes—when the footsie had stopped and Ira had exclaimed, “Great dinner, Zora!”—they all stood and cleared their places, taking the dishes into the kitchen, putting them in a messy pile in the sink. Ira started halfheartedly to run warm water over them, and Zora and Bruno, some distance behind him, began to jostle up against each other, ramming lightly into each other’s sides. Ira glanced over his shoulder and saw Zora now step back and assume a wrestler’s starting stance, as Bruno leaped toward her, heaving her over his shoulder, then running her into the living room, where, Ira could see, Bruno dumped her, laughing, on the couch.

Should Ira join in? Should he leave?

“I can still pin you, Brune, when we’re on the bed,” Zora said.

“Yeah, right,” said Bruno.

Perhaps it was time to go. Next time Ira would bring over a VCR for Bruno and just take Zora out to eat. “Well, look at the time! Good to meet you, Bruno,” he said, shaking the kid’s large, limp hand. Zora stood breathlessly. She walked Ira out to his car, helping to carry his chair and salad bowl. “It was a lovely dinner,” said Ira. “And you are a lovely woman. And your son seems so bright and the two of you are adorable together.”

Zora beamed, seemingly mute with happiness. If only Ira had known how to speak such fanciful baubles during his marriage, surely Marilyn would never have left him.

He gave Zora a quick kiss on the cheek—the heat of her wrestling had heightened her beautiful nutmeg smell—then kissed her again on the neck, near her ear. Alone in the car on the way home he thought of all the deeply wrong erotic attachments made in wartime, all the crazy romances cooked up quickly by the species to offset death. He turned the radio on: the news of the Mideast was so surreal and bleak that when he heard the tonnage of the bombs planned for Baghdad, he could feel his jaw fall slack in astonishment. He pulled the car over, turned on the interior light, and gazed in the rearview mirror just to see what his face looked like in this particular state. He had felt his face drop in this manner once before—when he got the divorce papers from Marilyn, now there was shock and awe for you; there was decapitation—but he had never actually seen what he looked like this way. So. Now he knew. Not good: stunned, pale, and not all that bright. It wasn’t the same as self-knowledge, but life was long and not that edifying, and one sometimes had to make do with randomly seized tidbits.

He started up again, slowly; outside it had begun to rain, and at a brightly lit intersection of two gas stations, one QuikTrip, and a KFC, half a dozen young people in hooded yellow slickers were holding up signs that read HONK FOR PEACE. Ira fell upon his horn, first bouncing his hand there, then just leaning his whole arm into it. Other cars began to do the same, and soon no one was going anywhere, a congregation of mourning doves! but honking like geese in a wild chorus of futility, windshield wipers clearing their fan-shaped spaces on the drizzled night glass. No car went anywhere for the change of two lights. For all its stupidity and solipsism and scenic civic grief, it was something like a gorgeous moment.

Despite her reading difficulties, despite the witless naming of the cats, Ira knew Bekka was highly intelligent. He knew from the time she spent lying around the house, bored and sighing, saying, “Dad? When will childhood be over?” This was a sign of genius! As were other things. Her complete imperviousness to the adult male voice, for instance. Her scrutiny of all food. With interest and hesitancy, she studied the antiwar lawn signs that bestrewed the neighborhood. WAR IS NOT THE PATH TO PEACE, she read slowly aloud. Then added, “Well duh.”

WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER, she read on another. “Well that doesn’t make sense,” she said to Ira. “War is the answer,” she said. “It’s the answer to the question What’s George Bush going to do real soon?”

The times Bekka stayed at Ira’s house, she woke up in the morning and told him her dreams. “I had a dream last night that I was walking with two of my friends and we met a wolf. But I made a deal with the wolf. I said, ‘Don’t eat me. These other two have more meat on them.’ And the wolf said, ‘OK,’ and we shook on it and I got away.”

Or “I had a strange dream last night that I was a bad little fairy.”

She was in contact with her turmoil and with her ability to survive. How could that be anything less than emotional brilliance?

One morning she said, “I had a really scary dream. There was this tornado with a face inside? And I married it.” Ira smiled. “It may sound funny to you, Dad, but it was really scary.”

He stole a look at her school writing journal once and found this poem:

Time moving.

Time standing still.

What is the difference?

Time standing still is the difference.

 

He had no idea what it meant, but he knew it was awesome. He had given her the middle name Clio, after the muse of History, so of course she would know very well that time standing still was the difference—whatever that meant. He himself felt he was watching history from the dimmest of backwaters, a land of beer and golf, the horizon peacefully fish-gray, the sky a suicide silver, the windows duct-taped with plastic sheeting so that he felt he was observing life from a plastic container, like a leftover, peering into the tallow fog of the world. Time moving. Time standing still.

The major bombing started on the first day of spring. “It’s happening,” Ira said into Mike’s answering machine. “The whole thing is starting now.”

Zora called and asked him to the movies. “Sure,” Ira said. “I’d love to.”

“Well, we were thinking of this Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, but Bruno would also be willing to see the Mel Gibson one.” We. He was dating a tenth grader now. Even in tenth grade he’d never done that. Well, now he’d see what he’d been missing.

They picked him up at six-forty, and, as Bruno made no move to cede the front seat, Ira sat in the back of Zora’s Honda, his long legs wedged together at a diagonal like a lady riding sidesaddle. Zora drove carefully, not like a mad hellcat at all, which for some reason he’d thought she would. As a result they were late for the Mel Gibson movie and had to make do with the Arnold Schwarzenegger one. Ira thrust money at the ticket taker saying, “Three please,” and they all wordlessly went in, their computerized stubs in hand. “So you like Arnold Schwarzenegger?” Ira said to Bruno as they headed down one of the red-carpeted corridors.

“Not really,” muttered Bruno. Bruno sat between Zora and Ira, and together they all passed a small container of popcorn back and forth. Ira jumped up twice to refill it back out in the lobby, a kind of relief for him from Arnold, whose line readings were less brutish than they used to be, but not less brutish enough. Afterward, heading out into the parking lot, Bruno and Zora reenacted body-bouncing scenes from the film, throwing themselves against each other’s backs and shoulders with great, giggling force. When they reached the car, Ira was again relegated to the backseat.

“Shall we go to dinner?” he called up to the front.

Both Zora and Bruno were silent.

“Shall we?” he tried again cheerfully.

“Would you like to, Bruno?” asked Zora. “Are you hungry?”

“I don’t know,” Bruno said, peering gloomily out the window.

“Did you like the movie?” asked Ira.

Bruno shrugged. “I dunno.”

They went to a barbecue place and got ribs and chicken. “Let me pay for this,” said Ira, though Zora had never offered. He would spare them the awkwardness.

“Oh, OK,” she said.

Afterward, Zora dropped Ira at the curb, where Ira stood for a minute, waving, in front of his house. Bruno flung the back of his hand toward him, not actually looking. Zora waved vigorously through the open window over the top of the car. He watched them roll down the end of the block and disappear around the corner. He went inside and made himself a drink with cranberry juice and rum. He turned on the TV news and watched the bombing. Night bombing, so you could not really see.

A few mornings later was the first of a new month, his birthday month. The illusion of time flying, he knew, was to make people think life could have more in it than it actually could. Actually, time flying could make human lives seem victorious over time itself. Time flew so fast that in ways it failed to make an impact. People’s lives fell between its stabbing powers like insects between raindrops. “We cheat the power of time with our very brevity!” he said aloud to Bekka, feeling confident she would understand, but she only just kept petting the cats. The house had already begun to fill with the acrid-honey smell of cat pee, though neither he nor Bekka seemed to mind. Spring! One more month and it would be May, his least favorite. Why not a month named Can? Or Must! Well, maybe not Must. Zora phoned him early, with a dour tone. “I don’t know. I think we should break up,” she said.

“You do?”

“Yes, I don’t see that this is going anywhere. Things aren’t really moving forward in any way I can understand. And I don’t think we should waste each other’s time.”

“Really?” Desperation washed through him.

“It may be fine for some, but dinner, movie, then sex is not my idea of a relationship.”

“Maybe we could eliminate the movie?”

“We’re adults—”

“True. I mean, we are?”

“—and what is the point, if there are clear obstacles or any unclear idea of where this is headed, of continuing? It becomes difficult to maintain faith. We’ve hardly begun seeing each other, I realize, but already I just don’t envision us as a couple.”

“I’m sorry to hear you say that.” He was now sitting down in his kitchen. He could feel himself trying not to cry.

“Let’s just move on,” she said with gentle firmness.

“Really? Is that honestly what you think? I feel terrible.”

“April Fools’!” she cried out into the phone.

His heart rose to his throat, then sank to his colon, then bobbed back up close to the surface of his rib cage, where his right hand was clutching at it. Were there paddles somewhere close by that could be applied to his chest?

“I beg your pardon?” he asked faintly.

“April Fools’,” she said again, laughing. “It’s April Fools’ Day.”

“I guess,” he said, gasping a little, “I guess that’s the kind of joke that gets better the longer you think about it.”


 

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