The Pleasure of My Company (15 page)

BOOK: The Pleasure of My Company
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I
unfolded from my jack-knife bend. My voice deepened and my testicles lowered. I
spoke with the voice of a Roman senator: “I am average,” I said, “because the cry
of individuality flows through my blood as quietly as an old river… like the
still power of an apple pie sitting in an open window to cool.” I folded my
papers and sat down. There was a nice wave of applause that was hard to gauge,
as I’d never received applause ever in my life. Gunther Frisk clapped with
speedy little pops and leaned into the mike, “Let’s hope he means a Tepperton’s
Apple Pie!” The applause continued over his interjection and I had to stand
again. He waved me over and made a big show of giving me the check, then waved
over all the other contestants and gave them the smaller checks. The
auditorium lights came up and a few people approached the stage to ask for autographs,
which bewildered me. After about four seconds my time as a rock star was over,
and I was calmly ushered outside to a golf cart that had been secured by Brian
and driven back to his car.

On the
way home, Brian gave me several compliments that I discounted and denied. This
tricked him into reiterating the compliments, and once he was enthusiastic
enough, I accepted them. Then he segued into sports talk, mentioning Lakers and
Pacers and Angels, teams I was so unfamiliar with that I couldn’t connect the team
name with the game. But Brian had been so wholeheartedly on my side that I felt
obliged to respond with ardent head nods and “yeahs,” though I might have
misplaced a few, judging by Brian’s occasional puzzled looks.

Brian
took me to my bank and we barely made it before closing time. I deposited the
five-thousand-dollar check, keeping forty dollars in cash, offering Brian five
for gas. Not having driven a car in ten years, I didn’t know how
stratospherically the price of gas had risen. Now I know the amount was way low
for what he must have spent, and I would like to make it up to him one day.

 

I heard
about Granny’s suicide before it actually happened. She must have had second
thoughts or been unable to pull together the paraphernalia, as her death date
fell several hours past the day and minute of my reading of her note. This one
lay for just a few hours on my kitchen table before I pulled myself up to it
with a jam sandwich and cranberry juice. “Sweetest Daniel,” it began, and I
suspected nothing. Her handwriting was always large and gay, filled with
oversized loops and exuberant serifs. Only in the last few years had I noticed
a shakiness starting to creep in. “I won’t trouble you with the state of my
health, except to say I’m in a race to the finish. I can’t let my body drag me
down like this without fighting back in some way. My heart is sad not to see
you again, but on this page, in this ink, is all my love, held in the touch of
the pen to the paper…” Then, in the next paragraph, “I can’t breathe, Daniel,
I’m gasping for air. My lungs are filling up and I’m drowning.” She said, in
the next few lines, that it was time to free herself, as well as the ones who
care for her, of their burden.

Granny
had two Mexican senoras who attended to her, and one of them, Estrella, loved
her so much she called her “Mother.” One last line: “Finally, we do become
wise, but then it’s too late.” Granny, dead at eighty-eight of self-inflicted
vodka, pills, and one transparent plastic bag.

The
news of her death left me disturbingly unaffected. At least for a while. I
wondered if I were truly crazy not to feel engulfed by the loss and unable to
function. But the sorrow was simply delayed and intermittent. It did not come
when it should have but appeared in discrete packets over a series of
discontinuous days, stretching into months. Once, while tossing Teddy into the
air, a packet appeared in the space between us, and vanished once he was back
in my grip. Once, I positioned my palm between my eyes and the sun, and I felt
this had something to do with Granny, for it was she who stood between me and
what would scorch me. It was not that I missed her; she was so far from me by the
time it was all over that our communications had become spare. She lived in me
dead or alive. Even now, the absence of her letters is the same as getting
them, for when I have the vague notion that one is due, I feel the familiar
sensation of comfort that I did when I held a physical letter in my hand.

The day
after the letter was Easter Sunday. It reminded me that as an adolescent I was
primped and combed and then incarcerated in a wool suit that had the texture of
burrs. I was then dragged to church, where I had to sit for several hours on a cushionless
maple pew in the suffocating Texas heat. These experiences drained me of the
concept of Jesus as benevolent. I did, however, proudly wear an enamel pin that
signified I had memorized the books of the Bible.

That
Granny’s death fell so close to this nostalgic day was just bad luck, and that
Easter I lay in bed gripped in a vice of reflection. It was after ten, and
although my thoughts of the past were viscous and unbudging, the darkness in
the room intensified my hearing, allowing me to keep at least one of my senses
in the present. Amid a deep concentration on a potato salad of thirty years
ago, I heard a car door slam, followed by hurried steps, followed by a quiet
but persistent knock on my front door. I threw on pants and a T-shirt and
opened the door without asking who it was.

Clarissa
stood before me in a shambles, with Teddy clinging to her like a koala bear. I
had not seen either of them at all during Easter week.

“Are
you up?” she asked.

“I’m
up,” I said, and Teddy, holding out his arms, climbed over onto me. Clarissa
came in, glancing toward the street. “He’s back?” I said.

“He was
here all week and things were tolerable at least. But today he started getting
agitated. It’s like he’s on a timer. He began phoning every five minutes, which
got me upset, then he suddenly stopped calling and I knew what was next. I
heard a car screech outside my apartment and I knew it was him, so I got Teddy
and bumped his head hurrying him into the car seat.” By now her voice was
breaking and she soothed Teddy’s head with her palm. “Can I just sit here or
stay here for a minute or maybe the night till I figure out what to do?” But
she knew she didn’t have to ask, just stay. Teddy gripped my two forefingers
with his fists and I moved them side to side. “Do you have anything?” she
asked. “Any baby wipes or diapers or anything?” I had it all.

We
followed our previous routine. Clarissa and Teddy slept in my room, and I slept
on the sofa under lights so bright I tanned. Around 3 A.M. there was baby noise
and I heard Clarissa’s hushed footsteps as she lightly bounced Teddy around the
bedroom. Her door was cracked open and I said, “Everything okay?”

She
slid a bladed palm in the doorway, opening it by a few more inches. “You awake?”
she asked. “C’mon in, let’s talk,” she said. We passed Teddy off between us
several times as we entered the bedroom. I knew what the invitation was about,
camping buddies. But she seemed to have something on her mind of a verbal
nature. Clarissa accommodated my lighting requirements by closing the door
just enough to create a soft half-light in the bedroom. After a while we put
Teddy in the centre of the bed, and though he still was wide awake, he calmed
and made dove sounds. We were lying on either side of him and I put my hand on
his grapefruit stomach, rolled him onto his back, and rocked him back and
forth.

“What’s
going on with you these days?” asked Clarissa.

And I
told her of Granny’s suicide. “The funeral is the day after tomorrow,” I said. “But
I can’t be there.”

“Do you
want to be there?” she asked.

“What
could I do there? What good would I be?” I answered.

“I
think I should leave for a while,” said Clarissa. “Would you like me to go
somewhere with you? We could drive to Texas, you, me, and Teddy.”

“Too
late for the funeral,” I said.

“Yes,
but you would be there; you would have shown up for her.”

Upon
hearing Clarissa’s suggestion, my mind did a heroic calculation resulting in
an unbalanced equation. On one side of the equals sign were the innumerable
obstacles I would face on such a trip. I could list a thousand impossibilities:
I cannot get in an elevator. I cannot stay on a hotel floor higher than three.
I cannot use a public toilet. What if there were no Rite Aids? What if we
passed a roadside mall where one store was open and the others were closed?
What if I saw the words “apple orchard”? What if the trip took us in proximity
to the terrifyingly inviting maw of the Grand Canyon? What if we were on a
mountain pass with hairpin turns, or if, during the entire trip, I could not
find a billboard bearing a palindromic word? What if our suitcases were of
unequal sizes? How would I breathe at the higher elevations? Would the thin air
kill me dead? How would we locate the exact state lines? And what if, at a gas
station in Phoenix, the attendant wore a blue hat?

On the
other side of the equation was Teddy. I could imagine Teddy cooing in the back
while pounding arrhythmically on his kiddy seat, and I could imagine ideas for
his next amusement streaming through my head from Needles to El Paso and
displacing every neurotic thought. I could imagine trying to distil his chaos into
order and taking on the responsibility of his protection. And there was
Clarissa, who would be seated next to me; who, now that I was no longer a
patient, could be asked direct questions instead of being the subject of my
oblique method of deduction. I still knew very little about her, only that I
was in love with her. These two factors pulled down the scale toward the positive.
But I settled the matter with a brilliant dose of self-delusion. I manipulated
my own stringent mind with a new thought: What if I could convert one present
fear into a different and more distant fear? What if I could translate my fear
of the Grand Canyon into a fear of Mount Rushmore? What if I could transform my
desire to touch the four corners of every copier at Kinko’s into an obsession
with Big Ben? But my final proposal to myself was this: What if during the
entire trip I would not allow myself to speak any word that contained the
letter
e?
This is the kind of enormous duty that could supersede and
dominate my other self-imposed tasks. I quickly scanned my vocabulary for
useful words—a, an, am, was, is, for, against, through—and found enough there to
make myself understood. Thus “let’s eat” would become, “I’m hungry, baby! Chow
down!” I couldn’t say, “I love you,” but I could say, “I’m crazy about you,”
which was probably a better choice anyway. I could call Clarissa by name, Teddy
would simply become something affectionate like big man, bubby boy, or junior.
One minor drawback, I couldn’t say my own name.

This
idea of condensing my habits into one preoccupying restriction seemed so
clever that it filled me up with ethyl and I said to Clarissa, “Okay, I’ll go.”
Even though I had not officially started my challenge, my response was my first
stab at an e-less sentence.

It was
decided we would leave in the morning. Clarissa was afraid to return home to
pack; her bright pink car didn’t have the stealth we needed for even a night
run. She would have to buy clothes on the road. She had a credit card that she
said was at its bursting point, with a few hundred dollars left on its limit.
She had her cell phone but no charger, so we would have to be conservative in
its use. We waited until 10 A.M. when I could withdraw my remaining
thirty-eight hundred dollars for the trip.

I got
in the car and said, “It’s a long trip for us. I want our roads to know not
much traffic.”

“Huh?”
she said.

“In honour
of our trip down south, I’m trying to talk Navajo,” I said. Clarissa laughed,
thank God, and pulled away from the curb.

We knew
we would never get to Texas in time for Granny’s funeral, but the journey had
another grail: I would be able to see Granny’s farm one last time before it was
sold due to the lack of an interested relative to run it.

 

April in California is
like June anywhere else. It was seventy by 10 A.M., heading up to eighty. Even
though our reason for fleeing L.A. was sombre, the spontaneity of our trip inspired
a certain giddiness in us, and Clarissa laughed as we pulled up to the Gap and
she ran in for T-shirts and underwear and socks. Teddy looked at me from his
car seat and burbled while manipulating a spoon.

I, the
passenger/co-pilot/lookout/scout who was incapable of taking the wheel,
wondered what I would do if asked to move the car. Grin, I suppose. After the
Gap I hit the Rite Aid, and my knowledge of its layout sped me through dental
hygiene, hairbrushes, everything feminine that Clarissa might need on the
trip.

“I got
you razors and things,” I said. This was going to be easy; I had yet to miss
the letter
e.

I got
back in the car and checked the glove compartment for maps. There were a few
irrelevant ones, but the California map would at least get us to Arizona.
Pinpointing my current parking spot on a map of the entire state of California
was impossible, so I hoped that Clarissa knew how to get us out of town. She
turned over her shoulder and fiddled with Teddy. Then, she didn’t even ask
where to go, just started driving south.

The
traffic stopped and started along Santa Monica Boulevard, but soon we drove up
a centrifugal cloverleaf onto the freeway where Clarissa stepped on it and
accelerated to blissful speeds. It was as if the car had grown wings, letting
us soar over the red lights and curbs and crosswalks. I wondered if the reason
I was crazy, the reason that I had no job, that I had no friends, was so that
at this particular moment in my life I could leave town on a whim with a woman
and her baby, saying good-bye to no one, speeding along with no attachments to
earth or heaven. The moment had come and I was ready for it. We rolled down
the windows and the air whipped around us; Teddy chortled from behind. In honour
of Philipa’s dog, Tiger, I stuck my head out the window and let my tongue flap
in the breeze while Clarissa changed the lyrics and sang “California, Here I
Went,” and kept time by thumping her palm on the steering wheel.

BOOK: The Pleasure of My Company
7.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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