"What’ll it be, folks?"

"I want two poached eggs on toast, ham, hash browns, and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice."

"Large or small?"

"Large."

"White, whole wheat, or rye?"

"Whole wheat."

"You, sir?"

"He’ll have the same. And coffee. Bring us some coffee!"

The waitress departed.

"I hope you don’t mind me ordering for you. Is that all right? And please don’t worry about paying; this is on me. After all, if it hadn’t been for you, I don’t know what I would have done. Do you believe it(?); we’re actually going to eat? I’m famished! You should have seen the dirt that came off me in the john. Incredible! I nearly took a bath in their pint-size sink. Look; my nails are a disaster area.  No, don’t look. What I really want to do is shampoo my hair. There wasn’t time; it got too crowded. See that woman over there? She walked in just as I was pulling back on my bra. You should have seen the look she gave me. Anyway, I feel a whole lot better."

The waitress returned.

"Hallelujah; coffee!"

Brandy took a loud, appreciative "slurp."

"I swear I must be addicted to this brain-buzzing stuff. So, you like to play with the half-&-half, too? Isn’t it fun—the way it sinks then mushrooms up when you stir it in? My father taught me how to drink coffee. ‘Never add more than one lump of sugar; add cream to turn it tan not white; and always drink it hot—piping hot; Daddy hated for what he called ‘Joe' to turn tepid. I was real little then, but I still remember. Except I’m fond of it white. And I like two sugars. Have you ever noticed how getting those proportions just right always cues the waitress to come and freshen your cup? Raw sugar’s better than this bleached stuff—though I think sugar is bad period, don’t you? Ever put whipped cream in coffee? It’s heavenly… How about some music? Rock, country, jazz; what do you like? I like all kinds. Wait; I’ll see what’s available on the juke."

Simon watched as Brandy crossed the room, feeling a surge of affection, a twinge of despair; they’d been through so much during the past twenty-four hours, yet here she was behaving like a mere acquaintance. Or was she simply nervous? Or embarrassed to be seen in public with a mute (as she tried to fill in his silences with her non-stop chatter)? Sad, he thought, as Brandy's passage caused every man at the counter to swivel on his stool in her direction.

‘I sound like a goddamn bimbo; what’s gotten into me? Every time an intelligent man pretends at least to like me, I start driveling on and on like the village idiot. I can hear myself doing it. If I’m not stupid, I might as well be. Not that his total lack of speech helps mine sound any wittier. I wonder if he’s aware of what an advantage muteness is; it’s so unrevealing. Silence is golden, they say; but it’s also unfair. Well, all I’ve really done is ramble on a bit; I’ll stop. Besides, he’ll like me for who I am or like me not at all… Now, let’s see; music: F2, H3, N8.’

Her selections made, Brandy hastened back. Breakfast, in her absence, had been served.

"Food! Have you ever been this glad to see ham and eggs?… Mm, tastes divine!"

Simon had forgotten about his appetite—a reflex whenever he confronted some major change. This had happened often, sometimes with alarming severity. When first he took to the open road, for example, three full days went by before he realized he had swallowed not a bite. By then he was weak, dehydrated, and starting to hallucinate. It usually took being presented with food to relieve him from these fasts. Then, for a time, his interest in nourishment reemerged… only to disappear if his transition proved incomplete.

"Simon, do you have any specific plans for when we get to Tucson?"

He shook his head.

"You’re not meeting anyone: friends, family?"

Same response.

"Well, you’ll be needing a place to stay, won’t you?"

He wrote on a napkin with his fork: SALVATION ARMY.

"Oh… Well… Listen; I’ve been thinking. I don’t know anybody in Tucson. I think I might have a friend living outside of town somewhere, but nobody inside. So, when I get there, I thought I’d maybe stay at a motel. You know, until I can find an apartment? That’s what I did when I first moved out to LA—except, there, I had a roommate. I’ve never gone to live in an unfamiliar city all by myself. And I really don’t know Tucson from Timbuktu. So, I was thinking, maybe you wouldn’t mind staying with me for a while? I’ll have to pay for a room anyway, so it won’t cost you anything. And I’d feel a whole lot safer having somebody else close by. Somebody I can trust. What do you say? Interested?"

Her offer took him somewhat by surprise (in light of how inauspicious he considered their ‘cultural’ re-entry; Simon’s slant on the greasy-spoon’s environment was anything but positive). Brandy, he concluded (perhaps too rashly?), was back in her element. Yet, despite his tacit censure, he surprised himself by answering with a nod.

"Great! It'll be fun. You can help me search for my brand new digs. Then, after I move in, how’s about I have you over for dinner?"

Though Simon’s acceptance pleased her, Brandy was careful to implant that the arrangement would be ‘temporary.’

"More coffee, Miss?"

"Yes, please… Hey, I put a quarter in your juke box and haven't heard a peep."

"Out of order."

"Oh. Well, can I have my money back?"

"Sure, Sweetie; I’ll take it off your bill. Coffee, sir?"

The waitress wore a yellow uniform with thick black stripes at the waist and hem: her hips widespread, her breasts pendulous, her hair bleached-blond and as stiff as a dime-store wig. She had been pleasant about the refund. She poured more coffee for Simon, then labored off to other customers, tipping her pot over upturned cups like an oversized bumble bee.

Four men from the next booth got up and filed past—s l o w l y—each one taking a calculated glance at Brandy’s physique. Simon noted her discomfort, his glance no less acute. Pulchritude, he thought, might very well be a curse. To be looked at, not seen into, was to have ones genuine beauty all but ignored. He considered a lot of women renowned for their good looks to be downright ugly, pathetic in their need to incite desire.

"Jeezus, Simon, you’re staring. You do that a lot, you know. It’s bad enough getting ogled by the local yokels."

Brandy gestured toward the foursome; Simon gestured an apology.

"Though I must admit your stares are more polite. Most men positively drool when they check out a woman's body. Guess they think it’s flattering. But, boy, I’ll tell ya, it really gets on my nerves. Woman enjoy 'flirtation'; it’s visual rape that makes us feel like whores. And you know men are just as prone to being embarrassed as we are? I mean when the tables are turned? I used to spin around and march right back to guys whose 'gawks' undressed me, look them up and down then straight in the eye. Sure did make 'em squirm. They’d try to save face with a smirk or a wink at their buddies, but, basically, they got the message; felt exactly how it feels to be sized up like meat. Since the age of twelve, I’ve been sort of big—you know, up top. I can remember praying, actually praying, I’d be able to walk from home to school without hearing a wolf-whistle. Never happened. I’m not bitter—though Heaven knows I could tell you lots of sordid tales. It’s just that I’ve had to teach myself that most men act like jerks—present company excepted, of course. You ready?"

While Simon stocked up on peppermint-flavored toothpicks, Brandy paid the bill, leaving a five-dollar tip blotting up water-rings on their vacated table.

Simon ‘could’ have paid. Three days before meeting Brandy, a Baptist minister had dropped him off in downtown Las Vegas. "Welcome to Sodom," he’d said, then drove off in his Lincoln Continental, leaving Simon at a bus-stop with a rain-soaked newspaper and seventy-seven cents. In the paper he found a coupon good for one free breakfast and some slot machine tokens. He went to the advertised casino, ate a meal (as soggy as the coupon), and, in a dispirited mood, fed the gratuitous tokens to a one-armed bandit… winning! On his third pull an avalanche of quarters spilled out and overflowed the tray. He stuffed his pockets, then went ‘gambling.’ Within the next six hours he had amassed what (by road-denizen standards) was a veritable fortune.

As Brandy and he now climbed into the car, Simon had two hundred dollars in his shirt’s left-side pocket, another six hundred stuffed haphazardly inside his pack. But money, somehow, had ceased to mean what it once meant. Eight hundred dollars, when he had first set out, would have been an enormous comfort. In fact, while thumbing around in those early months, he had carried a sizable stash;  struck him as unthinkable (being a novice) to have few or zero funds. Then, about half a year into his wanderings, he had gotten an over-night ride from this cheerful sort who insisted on buying him dinner. The following morning, in a gesture of grateful reciprocation, Simon paid for breakfast—with money he had hidden inside his pack. Fifteen miles outside of El Paso, this cheerful sort’s baseball cap ‘accidentally’ blew off and out the window. He stopped. His obliging passenger clambered out to fetch it… and the cheerful sort drove off with everything Simon owned.

That lesson had been a hard but invaluable one. It was as if the final vestiges of his past had been, in an instant, whisked away. After the initial shock, panic and frustration, Simon found himself happier, calmer, and far more relaxed. For the first time in his life he breathed the rarefied air of freedom. In owning practically nothing, he had somehow gained everything. From then on, money or no, he managed to get by. When there were no rides, he walked. When there was no food, he went hungry for a while. He came across things: a coat, a pair of shoes, a can opener, a comb… things. Things were always available. He would lose them, find others. Money came and went just like the things. He never recovered his stolen pack. He likewise never recovered his former possessiveness.

Thus Simon regarded his present affluence with relative apathy. The opportunity to spend his wealth, or lose it, would no doubt come to pass.

Meanwhile, Brandy, as she drove, was practicing a relaxation exercise learned during dance training. The image she used was of a spiral staircase, winding, top to bottom, the length of her spine. First she concentrated on her diaphragm, breathing in and out at a steady, pulse-synchronizing pace. Then, imagining herself at the stairwell’s top, she spiraled down, releasing tension in each successive vertebra as she went… resulting in her impression that a channel had been opened… through which thought and sensation could travel unimpeded… making her aware, now, of the car’s vibration… and of Simon sitting quietly in the seat beside… until a truck horn blared, its BLAST undoing her tranquil state of mind.

A semi driver was trying to get her attention. He edged up alongside. Simon leaned over into view; the truck sped past.

"Don’t pay any attention; it happens all the time. Listen, I just got an idea. See that blue book on the back seat? That’s my journal. I’ve kept one for as long as I could write. Why don’t you pen a letter or something; I mean to me. I haven’t had time to jot down stuff about yesterday. You know, about our meeting and everything? If you were to make an entry, it would jog my memory later. Whatever you like, okay? I’ll keep quiet… Really; anything at all will do just fine."

Simon had once been a prolific correspondent. But not anymore. There was no one now with whom he wished to be in touch. And even if there were, his roving from place to place made pen pals impractical. Suzi had been the last human being to whom he had written. He winced—the pencil in his hand like an inefficient splint.

 

 

Dear Brandy,

I haven’t written to anyone in a long, long while. The last was to a girl I used to know. Her name was Suzi. You said I could write whatever I wanted. For some reason, I want to tell you about her. She was pretty. We met on campus in one of my University’s life-drawing studios. I was an art major. She was a drama student who modeled sometimes to help pay her tuition. I knew every swell and hollow in her body before we ever spoke. I was only a freshman then, and I suppose I fell in love with her. Maybe because she was the very first girl I’d ever seen nude.

I found her posing schedule in the Department Head’s office. Whenever I could, I sat in on those classes. I kept separate sketchbooks, one with nothing but drawing after drawing of her. Eventually, she noticed me. She asked one day how I managed to carry such a heavy course load. When I showed her the volumes of drawings, all of her, she was flattered. We started dating.

I was shy, initially, still a virgin. When she found out, she laughed, teasing me about my ‘blushing schoolboy innocence.’ It was true; up until then my sex life consisted of girlie magazines and a cherished, dog-eared copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Before long I received what Suzi termed my ‘Freshman's orientation.’

My minor was Philosophy; hers was Home Economicsbecause, she said quite candidly, it made for an easy A. I was academically bright; she was more worldly. I used to wonder how we could be the same age; she was so much more knowledgeable. Especially about sex; she knew everything. Things I hadn’t even imagined. Still, something seemed missing. As intoxicating as it was under her influence I started to realize our relationship was somewhat shallow. Not that this dawned on me quickly.

In fact, by graduation, we still were togetherexcept our roles had reversed. I had been accepted into graduate school, out-of-state, and found myself looking forward, if secretly, to a whole new life. Suzi was apprenticing at a local theater company. She wanted to stay. We argued. Finally, she decided to interrupt her career to help support us both while I went on for my Masters. I had a regent’s scholarship but money was still tight. It was during the next awful year that our relationship turned sour.

Suzi took to domesticity more readily than either of us would have predicted. And, because we had moved away from family and friends, she started relyingsociallysolely on me. From an outgoing, sometimes promiscuous companion, she had turned into a doting, dependent, pseudo-wife. Odd; just about the time I stopped being jealous she discovered fidelity.

I was an okay draftsman, but Philosophy attracted me more. I studied Aesthetics, Theology, Metaphysics. When I began talking about altered states of consciousness and the insights they might foster, Suzi talked about marriage, house work, and having babies. We became stumbling blocks for one another. If only we had been honest, admitted then and there we wanted different things, we might have parted friends. Instead, a kind of undeclared war broke out between us. She attacked with sentimentality and temper tantrums. I retaliated with rhetoric and affected poise. The knack we showed for finding each other’s weak spots was uncanny. Things peaked just before finals; I moved out, sleeping nights in a vacant dorm room on campus, studying days hole up in the fine arts library. It was a miserable way to end, but anything was better than slugging it out toe-to-toe.

I got my degree, and, simultaneously, several job offers, one from a design firm based in downtown Baltimore. I took it, and moved there. Suzi eventually followed. She had reached the pleading stage. I refused to see her. I was a hotshot then; within six months I’d become a junior partner in the firm. But it was a very high-tension, competitive game they were all playing, and a pretty mindless one, at that. Jargon and shop talk monopolized everyone’s conversations, and no one seemed to be aware of how these terms defined a kind of noose, strangling whomever was foolish enough to slip it around his or her neck. I began spending less and less time at the office. Within a month, my reputation slipped from “boy-genius” to “dreamer” to “malcontented shirker.”

Meantime, Suzi shifted tactics, trading her humble pleas for high-handed threats. She had “sacrificed her career” for me so I could “make it," and my having done just that meant she had ”outlived her usefulness.” Furthermore, if I thought she was going to let me “prosper in peace,” I’d better “think again.” It was like living in some horrible soap-opera.

I saw Suzi once or twice with another man, but it happened too conspicuously for me to believe it wasn’t another ploy. And whenever I was most unhappy, she redoubled her efforts. I gave in, occasionally, waking up on wrinkled sheets from a one-night’s reconciliation, hating myself for pretending a passion I no longer felt, rallying my integrity (albeit afterwards) to re-bar the door.

At the firm, my position was in jeopardy. There was so much ill-feeling both waysmy contempt for “peer-group pettiness,” their resenting my “self-styled superior attitude"that I was being pressured to resign. Things got worse. And Suzi, with flawless timing, launched her final assault.

I think I was expecting a suicide note; it would have fit right in with her melodramatic antics. And a note did come. I found it taped to my apartment mailbox. All it said was, “I’M PREGNANT.”

Predictable as this might have been, I can honestly say it caught me totally off guard. Suzi had been on the pill for as long as I had known her; longer. She never missed a day. I didn’t want to believe her, yet there was something in the manic way she was behaving that made me more than suspect it might be true. And, ‘if’ she’d stopped taking the pill, I ‘could’ have been the father. I thought back to our fleeting truces, wondering why two guilty souls were allowed to conceive an innocent third.

If I hadn’t been so self-concerned, I might have recognized Suzi’s symptoms for what they were; she was mentally unbalanced. From scenes of shrill hysterics to periods of sullen depression, her life had become an archetype for extremes. Whether there were other factors adding to her confusion I was unaware; I only knew that I had played a primary roleone of which I was not the least bit proud. I denied responsibility. If Suzi wanted to be a mother, that was her affair. She hadn’t asked me about it. Why should I be involved in a choice she made on her own?

When we next met, she swore her pregnancy had been an accident; the pills hadn’t worked. She had started late, or something; she had been ”upset.”

It sounded plausible. But, in my growing apprehension, I tried to disbelieve. She was working as a cocktail waitress in a lounge well-known for its week-end pick-up trade. What made her presume that I was the father? Surely there were other, no doubt ‘several’ other, candidates.

She went away for a while after that. I quit my job. Winter was in its long, drawn-out death throes. A year and a half had passed since graduation; there I was, disillusioned and unemployed. I brooded for two months. My only consolation was that Suzi had stopped tormenting me. Then, like a once-recurrent nightmare, she was back, knocking on my door in the middle of the night with an old shoe box clutched in her armsthe one she used, I recognized, for storing our love letters. What followed was a scene I’ve chosen to forget. She left, is all I remember. I never saw her again.

After that, I had to get away. I moved to Monterey, California, where I rented a studio apartment from a Baltimore friend who kept it as a summer retreat. I could trust him to keep my whereabouts to himself. I lived there, in virtual isolation, for the next eighteen months. I took long walks along the beach. I read. I thought. I began to draw again. Short of funds, I tried exhibiting my work. Nothing sold. I was advised to try San Francisco, where the market was “suitably sophisticated.” I did, only to find another elaborate game, this one full of agents, critics, politics, percentages, and promotion schemes. I retreated to 'my peninsula' for another dose of solitude.

Finally, I felt confident enough to contact Suziif indirectly. I wrote her a letter, an apology, in effect, that I enclosed with my rent check, asking my friend back in Baltimore to post it there. Weeks passed. Then I got a note from Suzi’s family. The day after I last saw her she had been found slumped on a bench in the park that bordered my old apartment. She had ”bled to death,” read the coroner's report, ”from a self-induced abortion.”

I felt numb. I walked to the ocean. Huge breakers were rolling in. I walked right out into the surf and called out her namescreamed it.

For two-plus years since then, I haven’t uttered a word.

Simon

 

Brandy glanced over. She had, indeed, kept quiet; not once had she interrupted him.

"Finished?"

He leafed back through the pages to where he had begun, wanting to tear them up. If Brandy read what he had divulged, she would know his silence was a sham. And she would no doubt misconstrue his reason for maintaining it—which had nothing to do with penance, he believed, or with his past. The past was a dead issue (literally and figuratively). Silence, on the other hand, was a key to future doors.

"Don’t re-read it; you’ll only be tempted to change things. Whatever comes straight from the heart is always best as is; it’s more honest. Give it here."

Brandy took the book from his hands and tossed it onto the back seat.

"You were at that a long time; look."

The sign they approached, then passed, read TUCSON 86 MILES.

Again, she glanced sideways.

"Don’t worry; nobody reads that journal other than me."

Her intuiting his uneasiness made Simon wonder… What else had she gleaned while her passenger 'reminisced'?  A horn sounded. Another trucker pulled alongside, leered at Brandy, and, upon spotting her companion, sped ahead. Horns had been honking (come to think of it) off and on the entire time he sat writing.

Brandy shrugged (as if responding to Simon's subtext).

"What can I do? It takes all kinds."

*

*

Clouds had mustered...

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