It wasn’t early retirement, it was a layoff late in life, and now that jobs were about to open up somewhere else, in some other division, the man kept being told not to make himself a stranger. Some days he could make himself feel just a stone’s throw from his old life. On other days he became known as the perfect guest. One host was a woman whose face kept collecting things on itself, new growths and swellings and blisters. Her nose reminded him a little of the stylus on a sundial. Her wrinkles were mostly longitudinal. This host had gone to the expense of having a sink installed in the guest room, and by this point the man was forever making the trip, and on the mornings of departure he would be forever resorting to the previous day’s underwear to mop up any last beads of water or urine left in the sink. He would pluck loose hairs from the bedclothes. He would empty the wastebasket into his carryall before walking downstairs to bid his farewells.
Other hosts had much bigger houses. He got to know himself in the round in the draining waters of their bathtubs. He had a real aptitude for shaving, for clearing his face of all the hair plotted onto him while he slept. In some houses, he left telling decrements of it in the sink.
One host had a boreal disposition but kept inviting him back. This host had a grown son with several things wrong with him. The son liked math but was too generous in his calculations and always dragged extra amounts into the sums, the totals. You could always count on a windfall when it was up to him to add things up. He was the same way with spelling. He did his best to make up for whatever insufficiency there was in whatever the thing was that had to get itself named.
It was a new century. It was getting harder and harder for us to see very far out of ourselves. (I did not count myself as an exception.)
People started sending their bodies out ahead of themselves as decoys. There was life, and there were the memories you expected to get draped over it in a new kind of waste motion easy to learn. The pressure we felt was simply the pressure to feel the pangs. I myself remember having to be taught never to use the word “you” and instead to refer to whomever I was talking to as “the present listener” or “the receiver of these words.”
People were weary. His daughters were long grown. One of them was suitorly toward everybody. He wondered what it was he was smelling on her arm one afternoon. All weathers at once? You look at a daughter like that and do everything you can do to tie up the loose ends of the little that nature had done in all its botchworks at birth.
The other daughter was the daughter with the overpacked face, packed with more features than came standard on a woman.
Both went around all year in shorts and whatever was just about sleeveless. The weight they had put on gave their legs and their arms a fetchingly underspecified look.
Some days the two of them looked sourceless, nothing to do with him at all.
Other people at least learn how to drive.
The daughters had had to be taught early on about mirrors. They had to be taught that by the time you got one home from the store, it had already seen enough. By the time you got the thing mounted onto a bedroom wall, it was hardly the most reliable instrument for self-inspection. You had to take into account its exhaustion after having had to catch and then throw back and endorse so much overparticularized difference in passersby. By now its accuracy, its retentiveness, was shot. It was sloppy and would throw back just about anything at the beholder. It would dishonor.
The older daughter started collecting the hardware you resorted to when you were still thinking about putting some pictures, reproductions, up on a wall. She hadn’t bought any of the pictures yet.
He worried about her stature. Her flesh seemed to be sucking her up from inside. He wasn’t particular about where things turned up on people, as long as they were all finally there somewhere. Sometimes the line of her mouth looked like a caption written for what the eyes were trying to say, if only “How is Delores taking it?”
Delores was the sister.
Sometimes you looked to your fingers to see what you were just now letting go of.
She was married at 32. The rehearsal flew by faster than the service. For a while, she was under the impression that the minister was going to take her under his wing. She actually thought that she’d be seeing a lot more of him in the days, the months and years, to come. But on ceremony day he was a stuffed shirt. She felt no backing behind her at all.
Her husband moved her to a place that was on the books as a small city but barely had the heft and elongations of a town. There was nothing much to draw people from anywhere else. The place had already broken itself up into competing neighborhoods, each with its crass stack of apartments. She lived with this husband on the ground floor on a through street. People, usually teenagers on a tear, barged against their windows at night. Her husband’s body was far too big a thing on him. It didn’t help that sweaters themselves were so big that year. You naturally humor people all the more when they’re trying to pull something over on you. She started wearing gloves around the house. She liked visiting the public library and reading the names on the check-out cards. She would pull books from the shelves just to read the cards, the signatures, the grids of due dates, and she would feel the wonderment of it all — a register of things successfully brought back! Some days had no inner lining at all, but a day packed tight could always end up with punctures. Plus there was a rank unintelligence to the town butcher. He came out from behind the counter one afternoon to accuse her of heartfelt unexpressed indiscretions. Right then and there she started writing a note with a pen he was already claiming as his own. In the motel room afterward you could at least run strange, slow-falling waters over whatever it was that was barest on you now.
The scariest words keep turning out to be “This might be who we are!” She had a way of swanking her sorrows before her as she advanced. She was always polite about saying, “I’m not sure what you get out of this,” but she herself liked feeling scrapped. The day came when I helped myself to her notebook and scouted around in it for any jotty impressions of him, any descriptional smidges of their minutes together. I found only a generality of us all in there, in the deep dimple of a p, in the lazy bicep of a hardly looped e.
This woman, this suburbian known barely to herself, worked as a medical secretary, though she had never earned the certificate, and she’d lost custody of the daughter (an electively blonde, dove-eyed, elbowy cutthroat enchantress, already twice a freshman at the same local college, already long versed in fakery and disfavor and doomful dance moves and a knack for how easily two innocent kitchen chemicals could be licked one atop the other onto a scrip of ATM-receipt paper in colory approximation of a party drug to be exchanged with classmates’ visiting cousins for enough money to buy enough of the desiccated citrusy things and freeze-dried meats she claimed she lived on), though this woman kept going to great lengths to make sure her drinking was measured, even swank, and our fights (hair-splitting arguments, mostly, about the differences, say, between name-brand and store-brand dryer sheets) had almost a buoyancy to them, but sometimes the sweetlessness of our state of affairs (she was 42 and diabetic, strappingly butch and obstructed; I was a deficient 36 and double-jointed no longer) got the better of us in below-stairs restaurants, in 99-cent stores, in each other’s harrowingly unpersonalized bed. Neither of us made much money or had a credit card. Our cars were jinxed, unclean compacts. We did not get along, we had almost nothing in common, nobody else talked to either one of us except at work, and then only when the day’s labors suddenly called for stabs to be taken at teamwork, and our parents, though still alive and on the go (hers were managing a monument showroom somewhere on the west coast of Florida; mine were touring Canada in a rented tent-trailer), had turned their backs on us, and the only point of our going down on each other, something we did at least every third night or so, was the reward of my tasting myself on her lips right afterward and her tasting herself on mine. The one other thing that kept us together was that we would have a serious conversation of goodly length (the topic might have been that day’s storms of discourtesy and accusal at work, or a guilting birthday-themed dream the night before), and then, right afterward, we would have the exact same conversation all over again, only with me repeating her half of it, word for word, and her repeating my half. There was surely love enough, miserly love aplenty, in the conscientiously retaliatory unlovedness that came up between us during every weekend day spent together, because there was little else to do on weekends but lose our cool making the rounds of the malls and outlets and consignment-shop plazas, suitable places to air our grievances with each other in public.
Whatever money that didn’t go directly to rent, utilities, gas, and fast food went for clothes — Norton McNaughton blazers, Sag Harbor sweater sets, knockabout low-rise Bugle Boy cords in blues and greens. This woman had a ruthlessly perfumed folksy stepsister who worked the register at a thrift shop and would ring up only every fourth or fifth sweater or skirt or sports jacket when we bulled through her lane every Friday night with a shopping cart loaded for the week ahead. “Never give your co-workers the satisfaction of seeing you in the same thing twice,” this woman would say, though we both knew we went through the workday mostly unnoticed, taken for people with nothing left to stifle or deride. There was little to be fabled about the way our lives kept being led away from us. She no longer even shut the door to the stall when she sat on the toilet at work, her self-dimming and wistfulness there for all to see as they reformatted their faces at the mirrors, talked damageously of the peaks and precipices of afternoon that still lay ahead. She’d let her little litter of shit plip-plop out of her behind as soon as the faucets went finally silent. One Labor Day weekend we drove to a town up north with a pale stretch of beach along a Great Lake and rented a motel room where she slept around the clock. I sat on the floor and wept through the comics and wrinkly singers on the Jerry Lewis telethon. The candy machine off the lobby had just about everything you could hope for. At some point she got up and went out to the pool in the bikini she’d slept in. That must have been right when I walked out to the car — I had her keys — and left.
Garielle Lutz’s books include Worsted and The Complete Gary Lutz.