The Persistence of Versions

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(Arlene Gottfried)

The handwritten sign in the bar window said, “Watch college sports here.” I was passing by, just, “shuffling through things,” as I said back then. That was back then. I said things like that all the time back then. I’d even mention pets back then. I’d lift a drink and say stuff like, “Here’s one for you, Mr. Kimper.” My wife didn’t like me referring to pets that’d passed on. She’d say, “Pets are not just things. Us? We’re not any better, being people.” Neither of us knew where any of it was going.

I looked at the sign in the bar window and it made me think. A lot of things didn’t make me think. But that sign sure did. I was preparing myself to have some mettle, to trust and spare, as they say. But just then I was snared by the thought of this sign, of the person who wrote it. Like, what was this person thinking? Why was it just college sports? And why so specific on one thing and not the other? Who wants to just watch all college sports? Like, college hockey or college lacrosse or cross country? Did they show professional sports too? I don’t know. I was good at stumping myself back then. My wife would say to me, “Why are you always asking questions that just end up leaving you more confused? Things are what they are. Get over it.” I couldn’t. Get over it, that is. I was always stuck in it.

Just shuffling through things, I kept at it. I was carrying two bags of sundries at the time. That’s what I called groceries back then. I said sundries. My wife liked it, so I kept at it. I said a lot of things just to keep her at bay.

Have you ever taken a handful of mini-marshmallows and some chocolate chips and put them all in your mouth together and then let them sort of melt in there, slowly chewing the mixture as it gets mushy on your tongue? Well, I was in the habit of doing that back then. I’d sit in my desk chair in the window and watch the happenings on the street while I was in a sort of trance and in the throes of a kind of ecstasy about it all. I’d get all blissful and go on ogling people going by doing things like jogging uphill in Bermuda shorts and walking dogs and sometimes taking out the trash too. I would try not to stare, but wasn’t always so successful at it. My wife would catch me doing this and watch me, and she’d tell me later that it made her somehow calm to be observing me observing things like this with all those gobs of sugar slowly caught in my mouth. I don’t know why she never said anything to me or stopped me. She’d just sit there and watch me watching.

I guess I should mention names. We all have them. My wife was Bell and I was Frank. Still am, as it is, of course. But it’s just that back then we didn’t get to calling each other by our names too often. Unless it was serious. Then we’d say each other’s real names. Otherwise we’d go, “Bellwether,” or “Satchel Paige,” or whatever popped into our head. I don’t know if it made anything easier or better. It was just something that we did, and we never questioned it. She’d get to putting the dishes away and would find a place on a plate I hadn’t scrubbed quite enough, and she’d say, “Seth Manchester Daniels! How could you?!” It was certainly something. Sometimes she even called me, “Cypress,” or she’d say, “Cy, for short.” Those were pretty fine times.

But, like I said, I was shuffling past this bar with the handwritten sign in the window, and I had my two bags of sundries with me of course. I got to thinking about how it was that we all got to be the way it was that we were. I know this might sound simple and obvious and not worth going into, but I had an odd way of thinking about things back then. It was like I was detached from how I usually looked at myself in the world, like I was just watching myself go through the motions of being alive. I know, it sounds corny, but that’s how it was. So, like I said, I got to thinking about how it was that we all got to be this way. Who was this person shuffling by this bar and thinking about this hand-written sign in the window? Why was he here? You know, that sort of stuff. It got me nowhere of course, so I stopped it.

I was doing pushups in the mornings back then. I’d eat two hardboiled eggs and get to it. Back straight, all the way down without bouncing, and back up. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to lift Bell up off the bed and carry her around in my arms. “Getting stronger,” I’d say to myself as I pushed my torso up and down from the carpet. “Getting strong now.” I counted up to twenty, stopped, and counted again. Back up. Back down. Until I was dead sore and all tuckered out.

It was really living. That’s what I told Bell. I’d go, “This is really living, Seamstress, isn’t it though?”

She’d say, “Don’t get all tetchy with me. Get touchy with me instead.” Then she’d douse the lights. She always wanted the lights low. And there I was, always trying to brighten things up. She’d be running the vacuum over the shag, before I’d get to it with a comb and a flashlight, and the lights would be off. “Vacuuming in the dark again, dear,” I’d say. “You’ve got to get some light on the subject, Scuttlebutt.” I’d say that too.

Back then, I’d start things with, “Funny, but…” a lot. It got on Bell’s nerves. I’d say to her, “Funny, but I’ve got a perfect record of never talking to strangers, Toots Shore.” Or I’d go, “Funny, but we’ve got to trust the weather report.” She couldn’t stand it. And her face would get all scrunched up and demonstrative, and she’d really blow steam about it.

“You’re better at being angry than I am. It really beats the band.”

“Shit. You? You’re so cold you could spit snowballs.”

“And then. And then. And then.”

“Just a bit of little-kid talk, that.”

“Something’s not on your mind.”

“Sure. Sure it isn’t.”

All this was happening, and it was like my back was turned to it. I don’t know how to explain it. I was there but I also wasn’t, too. It was the flimsy tentative stuff I was made on. Never completely trusting the where in the who of what I was. Plodding along. Taming the baser instincts. Reaching a working agreement with the bacteria inside my gut. Just speculating and watching. There wasn’t much tying me to being the person I’d always called me. Frank was just a name after all — just like Bell or Sassafras or Elemenopea.

“I dreamt of your death last night, again.” That’s what Bell said to me one morning after we’d had enough coffee to call ourselves alive. We were sitting facing each other at a small table by the kitchen window that overlooked a parking garage.

“How’d I perish this time, Golly Gee?”

She gritted her teeth and winked both eyes, one at a time, at me. It was my pleasure to be able to watch such stuff.

“In a remote-control car. You were tiny. Or the car was real-car-sized. I’m not sure which. But I had the controller…”

“Of course you did.”

“…and I kept making you do donuts, around and around, peeling out, you know? And you loved it. You were having the time of your life.”

“Sounds rapturous.”

She flicked her coffee mug with a finger. It made a cheap chime that pinged in my ears for a second. “Really. But, you know, after a bit you got tired, or I got tired of it. I don’t remember. And then you spun out, totally out of control. And then. And then….”

“And then?”

“I don’t know. You got flung. It was too much. And you ended up in some cactus spines. I’m not sure. But your body was lying on them, all punctured and bruised and cut-up. There was no way to rescue you. And then…and then I woke up.”

“Huh?”

I let that hang there between us like a stick of dynamite gone stale and useless. A real dud of possibilities, or a line struck from a love letter, or a flat spare in the trunk you forgot about until you blew a tire. Everything was mush. I wished I were in a Jacuzzi, outdoors, in the snow, sipping bourbon dolloped with maple syrup, and not thinking about anything at all. Not one thing on my mind. But I wasn’t. I was where I was, who I was, and there was nothing to be done about it.

“A rarity.” Bell was biting her nails. “And you, there, not spilling one ounce of your guts at all. Or even singing. You could at least sing me something.”

“Or we could just hug for a bit.”

“It’s ‘for awhile’ anyways.”

“Sure. It is.”

We hassled and belabored through the rest of the morning, not looking at each other much. The sun was starting to get in the curtains, and we had other things to attend to.

Bell. You should have seen the things she did to clothes when she moved around in them. A curve of a scarf, the swerving filmy grace of a slip, the rustle of a dress’s hem, even the slight scrunch of a sock falling down her ankle was enough to make you swallow your gum and get down on a knee. Less than her eyelids’ flutter that rarely said we were for anyone else, I wondered in the dalliance of my days who I really was in the ashtray of the world. She’d flip a finger up to her lips when she saw me coming in with my sayings about what was to come. You see, Bell, she knows all of my likes and dislikes by heart. I have long had this theory that if I say a thing out loud it won’t come true. But she doesn’t want to hear it. And, you know, it’s always “one of those days” when things get to being strangled and usual, as she’d put it then. I’ve botched myself into a corner with her. She shrinks from my embrace.

I don’t know why, but the mail keeps getting delivered later and later in the day. Pretty soon it’ll be midnight when I hear the mailman clomp into the building. I keep thinking about what day it is, saying it out loud a few times when I figure it out. There’s a certain rhythm to it, an equilibrium of the week and the month and all the damn years that sweep us away like carpet dirt. And I go on, meandering and moaning. Taking in the trash just to put it back out again. Maybe I should go back to that bar, pull up a stool, order a beer and a shot, watch some college sports on their TVs. I don’t know. I feel like somebody’s trying to tell me something. I need a push. Just a start to get me going, maybe. But, hell, I’m all maybes. Nobody should have to make all their own decisions about who it is they are going to be, or who that was in the first place. I’ll just sit around and melt chocolate chips and mini-marshmallows in my mouth and wait for someone to come by and tell me what to do and who to be. That’s all there is to it. That, then, is all that there is.

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