Debarking
written and read by Lorrie Moore

 

He had never been involved with the mentally ill before, but he now felt more than ever that there should be strong international laws against them being too good-looking.

“How are you liking Zora?” asked Mike over a beer, after work, after they’d mulled over the war and Dick Cheney’s tax return, which had just been reprinted in the paper. Why wasn’t there a revolution? Was everyone too distracted with tennis and sex and iris bulbs? Marxism in the spring lacked oomph. Ira had just hired someone to paint his house, so that now in his front lawn he had two signs: WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER in blue and on the other side, in black and yellow, JENKINS PAINTING IS THE ANSWER.

“Oh, Zora’s great.” Ira paused. “Great. Just great. In fact, do you perhaps know any other single women?”

“Really?”

“Well, it’s just that she might not be all that mentally well.” Ira thought about the moment, just last night, at dinner, when she’d said, “I love your mouth most when it does that odd grimace in the middle of sex,” and then she contorted her face so hideously, Ira felt he had been struck. Later in the evening she had said, “Watch this,” and she took her collapsible umbrella, placed its handle on the crotch of her trousers, then pressed the button that sent it rocketing out, unfurled, like a cartoon erection. Ira did not know who or what she was, though he wanted to cut her slack, give her a break, bestow upon her the benefit of the doubt—all those paradoxical clichés of supposed generosity, most of which he had denied his wife. He tried not to think that the only happiness he might have been fated for had already occurred, had been with Bekka and Marilyn, when the three of them were together. A hike, a bike ride—he tried not to think that his crazy dream of family had shown its sweet face only long enough to torment him for the rest of his life though scarcely long enough to sustain him through a meal. To torture oneself with this idea of family happiness while not actually having a family, he decided, might be a fairly new circumstance in social history. People were probably not like this a hundred years ago. He imagined an exhibit at the society. He imagined the puppets.

“Sanity’s conjectural,” said Mike. His brow furrowed thoughtfully. “Zora’s very attractive, don’t you think?”

Ira thought of her beautiful, slippery skin, the dark, sweet hair, the lithe sylph’s body, the mad, hysterical laugh. She had once, though only briefly, insisted that Man Ray and Ray Charles were brothers. “She is attractive,” Ira said. “But you say that like it’s a good thing.”

“Right now,” said Mike, “I feel like anything that isn’t about killing people is a good thing.”

“This may be about that,” said Ira.

“Oh, I see. Now we’re entering the callow, glib part of spring.”

“She’s wack, as the kids say.”

Mike looked confused. “Is that like wacko?”

“It’s like wacko, but not like Waco—at least I don’t think so. At least not yet. I would stop seeing her, but I don’t seem to be able to. Especially now with all that’s happening in the world, I can’t live without some intimacy, companionship, whatever you want to call it, to face down this global craziness.”

“You shouldn’t use people as human shields.” Mike paused. “Or—I don’t know—maybe you should.”

“I can’t let go of hope, of the illusion of something coming out of this romance, I’m sorry. Divorce is a trauma, believe me, I know. Its pain is a national secret! But that’s not it. I can’t let go of love. I can’t live without love in my life. Hold my hand,” said Ira. His eyes were starting to water. Once when he was a small child he had gotten lost, and when his mother had finally found him, four blocks from home, she had asked him if he had been scared. “Not really,” he had said, sniffling pridefully. “But then my eyes just suddenly started to water.”

“I beg your pardon?” asked Mike.

“I can’t believe I just asked you to hold my hand,” said Ira, but Mike had already taken it.

The hashish was good. The sleeping pills were good. He was walking slowly around the halls at work in what was a combination of serene energy and a nap. With his birthday coming up, he went to the doctor for his triennial annual physical and, mentioning a short list of nebulous symptoms, he was given dismissive diagnoses of “benign vertigo,” “pseudo gout,” and perhaps “migraine aura,” the names, no doubt, of rock bands. “You’ve got the pulse of a boy, and the mind of a boy, too,” said his doctor, an old golfing friend.

Health, Ira decided, was notional. Palm Sunday—all these goyim festivals were preprinted on his calendar—was his birthday, and when Zora called he blurted out that information. “It is?” she said. “You old man! Are you feeling undernookied? I’ll come over Sunday and read your palm. If you know what I mean.” Wasn’t she cute? Dammit, she was cute. She arrived with Bruno and a chocolate cake in tow. “Happy birthday,” she said. “Bruno helped me make the frosting.”

“Did you now,” Ira said to Bruno, patting him on the back in a brotherly embrace that the boy attempted to duck and slide out from under.

They ordered Chinese food and talked about high school, Advanced Placement courses, homeroom teachers, and James Galway (soulful mick or soulless dork, who could decide?). Zora brought out the cake. There were no candles so Ira lit a match, stuck it upright in the frosting, and blew it out. His wish had been a vague and general one of good health for Bekka. No one but her. He had put nobody else in his damn wish. Not the Iraqi people; not the GIs; not Mike, who had held his hand; not Zora. This kind of focused intensity was bad for the planet.

“Shall we sit on Bruno?” Zora was laughing and backing her sweet tush into Bruno, who was now sprawled out on Ira’s sofa, resting. “Come on!” she called to Ira. “Let’s sit on Bruno.” She was now sitting on the boy’s hip while Bruno protested in a laughing, grunting manner.

At this point Ira was making his way toward the liquor cabinet. He believed there was some bourbon there. He would not need ice. “Would you care for some bourbon?” he called over to Zora, who was now wrestling with Bruno and looked up at Ira and said nothing. Bruno, too, looked at him and said nothing.

Ira continued to pour. Zora straightened up and walked over to him. He was both drinking bourbon and eating cake. He had a pancreas like a rock. “We should probably go,” said Zora. “It’s a school night.”

“Oh, OK,” said Ira, swallowing. “I mean, I wish you didn’t have to.”

“School. What can you do? I’m going to take the rest of the cake home for Bruny’s lunch tomorrow. It’s his favorite.”

Heat and sorrow filled Ira. The cake had been her only present to him. He closed his eyes and nuzzled his face into hers. “Not now,” she whispered. “He gets upset.”

“Oh,” Ira said. “Well, then I’ll walk you out to the car.” And there he gave her a quick hug. She walked around the car and got in on the driver’s side. He stepped back up on the curb and knocked on the window of the passenger’s side to say good-bye to Bruno. But the boy would not turn. He flipped his hand up, showing Ira the back of it.

“Bye! Thank you for sharing my birthday with me!” Ira called out. Where affection fell on its ass, politeness could step up. But then there was the heat and sorrow again just filling his face. Zora’s Honda lights went on, then the engine, then the whole vehicle flew down the street.

At Bekka’s coo-coo private school, to which Marilyn had years ago insisted on sending her, the students and teachers were assiduously avoiding talk of the war. In Bekka’s class they were doing finger-knitting while simultaneously discussing their hypothetical stock market investments. The class was doing best with preferred stock in Kraft, GE, and GM; watching their investments move slightly every morning on the Dow Jones was also helping their little knitted scarves. It was a right-brain, left-brain thing. For this, Ira forked over nine thousand dollars a year. Not that he really cared. As long as she was in a place safe from war—the alerts were moving from orange to red to orange; no information, just duct tape and bright, mind-wrecking colors—turning Bekka into a knitting stockbroker was OK with him. Exploit the system, man! he himself used to say, in college. He could, however, no longer watch TV. He packed it up, along with the VCR, and brought the whole thing over to Zora’s. “Here,” he said. “This is for Bruno.”

“You are so nice,” she said, and kissed him near his ear and then on his ear. Possibly he was madly in love with her.

“The TV’s broken,” said Ira, when Bekka came that weekend and asked about it. “It’s in the shop.”

“Whatever,” Bekka said, pulling her scarf yarn along the floor so the cats could play.

When next he picked Zora up to go out, she said, “Come on in. Bruno’s watching a movie on your VCR.”

“Does he like it? Should I say hello to him?”

Zora shrugged. “If you want.”

He stepped into the house, but the TV was not in the living room. It was in Zora’s bedroom, where, spread out half-naked on Zora’s bedspread, as he himself had been just a few evenings before, lay Bruno. He was watching Bergman’s The Magic Flute.

“Hi, Brune,” he said. The boy said nothing, transfixed, perhaps not hearing him. Zora came in and pressed a cold glass of water against the back of Bruno’s thigh.

“Yow!” cried Bruno.

“Here’s your water,” said Zora, walking her fingers up one of his legs.

Bruno took the glass and placed it on the floor. The singing on the same television screen that had so recently brought Ira the fiery bombing of Baghdad seemed athletic and absurd, perhaps a kind of joke. But Bruno remained riveted. “Well, enjoy the show,” said Ira, who didn’t really expect to be thanked for the TV, though now actually knowing he wouldn’t be made him feel a little crestfallen.

On the way back out Ira again noticed the sculptures in the corner of the living room. Zora had added two new ones. They were more abstract, made entirely out of old recorders and other woodwinds, but were recognizably boys, priapic with piccolos. “A flute would have been too big,” explained Zora, shortly after Ira had said, “So … you’ve been doing some new work!”

At the restaurant the sound system was playing Nancy Wilson singing “For All We Know.” The walls, like love, were trompe l’oeil—walls painted as viewful windows, though only a fool wouldn’t know they were walls. The menu, like love, was full of delicate, gruesome things—cheeks, tongues, thymus glands. The candle, like love, flickered—in the brass tops of the sugar bowl and salt and pepper shakers. He tried to capture Zora’s gaze, which seemed to be darting around the room. “It’s so nice to be here with you,” he said. She turned and fixed him with a smile, repaired him with it. She was a gentle, lovely woman. Something in him kept coming stubbornly back to that. Here they were two lonely adults in a crazy world lucky to have found each other even if it was just for the time being. But now tears were drizzling down her face. Her mouth, collecting them in its corners, was retreating into a pinch.

“Oh, no, what’s the matter?” He reached for her hand, but she pulled it away to hide her eyes behind it.

“I just miss Bruny,” she said.

He could feel his heart go cold, despite himself. Oh, well. Tomorrow was Easter. All would rise from the dead.

“Don’t you think he’s fine?”

“It’s just—I don’t know. It’s probably just me coming off my antidepressants.”

“You’ve been on antidepressants?” he asked sympathetically.

“Yes, I was.”

“You were on them when I first met you?” Maybe he had wandered into a whole Flowers for Algernon thing.

“Yes, indeedy. I went on them two years ago, after my so-called ‘nervous breakdown.’ ” And here she put two fingers in the air, to do quotation marks, but all of her fingers inadvertently sprang up and her hands clawed the air.

He didn’t know what he should say. “Would you like me to take you home?”

“No, no, no. Oh, maybe you should. I’m sorry. It’s just I feel I have so little time with him now. He’s growing up so fast. I just wish I could go back in time.” She blew her nose.

“I know what you mean.”

“You know, once I was listening to some friends talk about traveling in the Pacific. They left Australia early one morning and arrived in California the evening of the day before. And I thought, I’d like to do that—keep crossing the international date line and get all the way back to when Bruno was a little boy again.”

“Yeah,” said Ira. “I’d like to get back to that moment where I signed my divorce agreement. I have a few changes I’d like to make.”

“You’d have to bring a pen,” she said strangely.

He studied her, to memorize her face. “I would never time-travel without a pen,” he said.

She paused. “You look worried,” she said. “You shouldn’t do that with your forehead. It makes you look old.” Then she began to sob.

He found her coat and took her home and walked her to the door. Above the house the hammered nickel of the moon gave off its murky shine. “It’s a hard time in the world right now,” Ira said. “It’s hard on everybody. Go in and make yourself a good stiff drink. People don’t drink the way they used to. That’s what started this whole Iraq thing to begin with: it’s a war of teetotalers. People have got to get off their wagons and their high horses and—” He kissed her forehead. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said, though he wouldn’t. She squeezed his arm and said, “Sleep well.” As he backed out of her driveway, he could see through her front bedroom window, where the TV was firing its colorful fire and Bruno was laid out in a shirtless stupor. Ira could see Zora come in, sit down, cuddle close to Bruno, put her arm around him, and rest her head on his shoulder.

Ira brusquely swung the car away, down the street. Was this his problem? Was he too old-fashioned? He had always thought he was a modern man. He knew, for instance, how to stop and ask for directions! And he did it a lot! Of course, afterward, he would sometimes stare at the guy and say, “Who the hell told you that bullshit?”

He had his limitations.

He had not gone to a single seder this week, for which he was glad. It seemed a bad time to attend a ceremony that gave thanks in any way for the slaughter of Middle Eastern boys. He had done that last year. He headed instead to the nearest bar, a dank, noisy dive called Sparky’s, where he used to go just after Marilyn left him. When he was married he never drank, but after he was divorced, he used to come in even in the mornings for beer, toast, and fried side meat. All his tin-penny miseries and chickenshit joys would lead him once again to Sparky’s. Those half-dozen times he had run into Marilyn at a store—this small town!—he had felt like a dog seeing its owner. Here was the person he knew best in life, squeezing an avocado and acting like she didn’t see him. Oh, here I am, oh, here I am! But in Sparky’s, he knew, he was safe from such unexpected encounters, and after any such unexpected encounters he had often come here. He could sit alone and moan to Sparky. Some people consulted Marcus Aurelius for philosophy about the pain of existence. Ira consulted Sparky. Sparky himself didn’t actually have that much to say about the pain of existence. He mostly leaned across the bar, drying a smudgy glass with a dingy towel, and said, “Choose life!” then guffawed.

“Bourbon straight up,” said Ira, picking the bar stool closest to the TV so that war news would be hardest to watch from there. Or so he hoped. He let the sharp, buttery elixir of the bourbon warm his mouth, then swallowed its neat, sweet heat. He did this over and over, ordering drink after drink, until he was lit to the gills. At which point he looked up and saw there were other people gathered at the bar, each alone on a chrome-and-vinyl stool, doing the same. “Happy Easter,” Ira said to them, lifting his glass with his left hand, the one with the wedding ring still jammed on. “The dead shall rise! The dead are risen! The damages will be mitigated! The Messiah is back among us squeezing the flesh—that nap went by quickly, eh? May all the dead arise! No one has really been killed at all—OK, God looked away for a second to watch some I Love Lucy reruns, but he is back now. Nothing has been lost. All is restored. He watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps!”

“Somebody slap that guy,” said the man in the blue shirt at the end.


 

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