G A N A M O S !
BY MATTHEW MANOYAVE
These last two mornings he’s raised his sleepy lids and clearly seen the central images of his dreams, he’s even heard his own voice silently repeating a line or two of dialogue behind his dark-blue open eyes. The first morning, two mornings ago, Cob remembered a dream about the waitress at the pizzeria. Not the Italian shop serving slices on wax paper and plastic trays, the gourmet seventeen-flavor pizzeria with the kilned and glazed child-drawn and designed plates. From the first glance she was his kind of woman, the waitress at the pizzeria. Weeks went by and he became a harmless and nonchalant stalker, but there’s more to it than that. She came to him in dreams and when awake he’d follow her as casually as any member of a community follows any other. He’d eat expensive artichoke and fresh-sliced tomato pies alone, see her pass in her rust-eaten, piston-dropping Jetta as he waited for the bus. Go into a cafe and order coffee he didn’t need just because he saw her sitting alone at a table, and he’d order it to go, she wouldn’t even look up once. You couldn’t call this stalking, he was just aware of her when she passed, when he walked into her presence.
Then one night at the Behan, Cob thought he heard her say ganamos. She always had a small crowd around her. Even if he only saw her face for a moment between the shoulders of two tall men, her head, even when surrounded by men on their toes, seemed to rise above the others. She’s taller than average with skin like pale cinnamon washed with gray and eyes like oval lanterns. And cool, cool, you could tell by her slight jives, the way she angled one sweatshirted shoulder and raised her elbow to make a point. Under his breath he called her a clay scarecrow. Later as everyone around her left, Cob spoke to a burgeoning alcoholic cordonbleu who doesn’t yet drink before noon but occasionally mixes his coconut milk and morning espresso with a shot of kahlua. Her admirers swung on their coats after digging through a whale of jackets piled on the formica counter perpendicular to the end of the bar. Alone at last, and for once, she uneasily orbited Cob and the cordonbleu. Cob looked at her and nodded back at the cook who slurred on associating downtown with piccolo playing street beggars and his new bargain-bought, water-resistant coat. “Did you say ganamos?” he asked her, interrupting the cordonbleu who shrank back to a barstool. She held a glass of red wine. An odd choice in a small pub with Guinness mirrors canvasing the walls and strings of white Christmas lights crossing the low-beamed ceiling over tables shoved at every angle. She blinked slowly and said “what?”
“Did you say before something like, ‘We were in Ireland and it was totally ganamos.’”
Cob’s tall and stooping over his pint to reach her ear, soft-spoken too, once called the king of the mumblers, sometimes aware to crisply bite off the end of his words rather than swallow them, maybe not this time. Later, as he walked home picturing the two of them as seen by a stranger at the far side of the bar, he realized that his natural stooping and her craning to hear his mumbling cut a sort of crushed-top, heart-shaped profile. But this open-ended heart remained incomplete. If he had his way she would have stood on his shoes and got real close to him, but what could he expect? He’d only laid one garbled and indecipherable line on her to which she answered, “No. I did say ‘We were in Ireland . . .’ but not, what did you say?” They were smooth right off. She leaned in to hear him then out again when she spoke. She stationed herself at arm’s length, her back to the bar which stretched away under a sad assembly of half-drunk, abandoned pint glasses. Behind the bar and above the stereo cabinet pulsing out techno whorls, a rectangular fishtank caged a few frogs.
Cob did his best to enunciate: “Ganamos. ‘We win’ in Spanish . See: it’d be fine to say you were in Ireland and it was totally ganamos—it was totally like: we win!”
“I like that: ganamos. You speak Spanish? I’ve been to Mexico...” They talked about Chiapas. They’d both been there. She says she was in the jungle and gave (what he heard as) a pod with a prune juice top to an Indian who mothered two green-eyed albinos. Cob tells her about a rooster he saw sacrificed by an ancient Indian woman who waved and hypnotized the bird over thirty candles until its neck angled-up straight, stiff, and brittle from the woman’s hips. Then she broke that neck.
“Have you been to Ireland?” she asked, changing the subject.
“Never have and never will ‘til I’m older.”
“Isms . . .”
She said angling-up her chin.
“Then: exoticity. Up here everyone’s on about Ireland. Fuck Ireland. There’s the rest of the world. Tierra del Fuego. Machu Picchu. I don’t really want to go just to get in a brawl in Cork. The only reason I’d go to Cork is that’s where Murphy’s from.”
“Do you want to go to the Lady’s Well Brewery there?”
“I mean Murphy the character not the stout.” She screwed up her brow and asked his name. “Cob. But not like corn on the...short for Jacob.” “You say it like cub? Like a little bear? But you’re going to be a big bear when you grow up. You’re already bigger than one.”
She didn’t say her name and he didn’t ask. Instead she went on about how Ireland’s so romantic, she fell in love over and over, she has a boyfriend, she says, but he didn’t go with her. Cob stared and nodded, thinking that women should never mention their boyfriend in the first minute of conversation. It’s as if the talk now wears a speed limit or chastity restraint. It means she’s aware of a cocked eye, an insidious tone, responds in the tritest way: my boyfriend, as if he spoke only to her genitals and that phrase poured quick drying cement across her pelvis. Oh yes, you have a boyfriend, and so you talk of falling in love in Ireland, after one a.m. in a pub cradling a glass of red wine with all the men on their toes around you. Flattering. If only her cheeks were pocking or showing another sign of age and abuse. If only she didn’t fill the frog’s rising air bubbles with innuendo.
One frog and an unidentifable amphibian floated up against the glass of the fishtank. You could see through them, murky patinas barely coating ligamentous bones. Grits of fishshit rising and falling around them through the milky tank water. She called the frogs dinosaurs.
“Oh dinosaur’s so big. Too cute. Can’t look.”
One frog fell away from the other. Then jerked its phalanges and slowly rose to double the other’s body, pressed vertically up against the glass. Cob watched her as she lock-eyed the fishtank, narrating the frog’s play-by-play.
“Think I’ll hide behind you for awhile so they can’t see me.”
A young dreadlocked guy with a taut mask of skin over his sharp bones rolled up and interrupted. Perhaps she was hiding from this guy or Cob just read that into her dialogue. Cob sat up on the counter perpendicular to the bar, above them three hushed stagelights angled toward the corner where they’d cramp a band some nights. She pecked the dreadlock quickly on his tight cheek, they talked indecipherably into each other’s ears. Cob heard that the dreadlock was sleeping on someone’s couch for awhile and it was chill, she should come over there. Cob stood so much taller than both of them, too big, a drunken lurch with a neck like a brontosaurus, shook her hand saying it was a pleasure meeting her, thinking that he relies on archaic civility to distinguish himself as what? A fool walking home alone, politely turning the corner by the kitschy early-80’s record shop. On the record store wall he passes a mural of a harmonious interracial utopia streaked with pastoral trollies cruising through Cezanne-like storefronts all whitewashed over more each week as the weather chipped away at its already washed pastels. He thought, I’ll see her again and we’ll say another word. He went home and wrote: Another night not with Sheila, one of any, met the waitress at the pizzeria, her eyes between a rabbit’s and a hawk’s. Half Irish. A black Irish true. We watched the frog in the fishtank converse with the amphibian. She called it a dinosaur. Talking the verses between the two. Me to her, her to me. The frog floated to the surface. We saw its guts, transparent. Ganamos, Ireland, Chiapas, exoticism/ity, fern with prune juice, albino mother, ended in nice to meet you, take care. Never ends, there’s next week. One of those who starts her first speech about her boyfriend while drinking red wine ‘til past one in a pub surrounded by men on their toes. She’s never in her bedroom reading Oë, looking at her calves, thinking never and not of me.
Cob’s been having these dreams that he remembers and carries through for a few days until another comes, eclipses and stalls in front of the first. In one dream this woman from the Behan with the wine and the boyfriend asked him out at her pizzeria. She was older than she is, her face fuller, she wore gray sweatpants pulled to show her calves appling-out more towards the back of her knees than her Achilles’ tendon. White socks rimming out of her beat running shoes. She asked him out. Cob’s unconscious puritanically censored the time they spent together, but later he sat at a table at the Behan across from one of the younger, thinner bartenders and a few regulars. The whole bar was shifted perpendicularly and all the rows of booths somehow ran directly into its midpoint. The fishtank was a television showing the World Series. The pitcher threw a no-hit shutout. She came up behind still waitressing, put an empty glass on the table, her exposed calf hung right besides him. Cob lay two fingers across it. It felt like pillows. The others sitting across the table recognized this display of affection and laughed in a knowing, congratulatory way. Many months had passed between the talk about ganamos and this desire-fulfilled dream. During these months they avoided eyes or acknowledged the other only by looking away. Once as Cob tried to leave the Behan she stared at him sideways while whispering into her lover’s ear—a medium-sized, bearded, pony-tailed, baseball-hatted whoever, both of them sharing the same bench, small of their backs to the wall, leaning, their elbows a third across the initial-chisled table—Cob fantasized she said: If I ever leave you for anyone it will be him. Cob thought she might have said this as he eyed the clock hung next to a spike-pointed helmet from the Great War, still early, trying to maneuver his way through the crowd clustered between the packed stools and the booths, everyone listening, talking, staring through the smoke enlivened with traditional Irish music, its repetitions building to a tin-whistle and accordion frenzy.
Cob carried the image of an attractive clay scarecrow, full-cheeked and earth-eyed face glancing over her shoulder, her calf exposed almost down to the reflective heel of her running shoe. The morning after the dream he saw her behind him in the bathroom mirror at work, this action shot with calf exposed. Why this preoccupation with her calf? Because once while watching a woman at an automatic teller, a short woman on her toes to catch her returned card, he thought: “Beauty in calves closer to the backs of knees than Achilles’ tendons.” At the time the thought echoed so loudly that Cob scraped this maxim on the back of a deposit slip, the triangular pen almost dry on its metalbead rope. Beauty equivalent to money in the bank, and now with the automatic teller there’s that stimulating moment when the deposit slot urges the envelope in and you guide it disappearing into the machine as it hums and clicks in response.
The next night there was another dream and the next morning another dream remembered. Sitting on a mattress in a narrow living room just larger than a wide corridor, the light muted red and the source unseen yet starred by colored petals of holiday light stretching where the bare walls met the ceiling, decorated with pictures nailed up at the frames. Two women moved, (“like passion,” he heard himself think), while throngs of sunglassed revelers pushed into each other avoiding the two dancers, some stepped on the rounding corners of the mattress and lost and regained balance, falling and stepping and somehow continuing out of sight When Cob leaned back to stare at the pictures on the ceiling, the area within the stained wood frames only showed blank cardboard, yet one emaciated dancing girl dressed in a skin tight, oreo-striped slip lock-gazed the pictures. The dancer more casually dressed in a thick knitted turtleneck wore big-screen glasses in which Cob saw glowing squares, (“like a television reflected in a smiling viewer’s teeth,” he heard). When he looked up, the screen above just mooned a blood dun.
Next to him on the mattress, an olive-skinned woman in a black cotton dress glassing down to her combat boots, crouched doubled-over, her thighs pressed into his, her torso swung away over the mattress. She sat up. Her teeth and eyes showed red reflecting the unseen light, she called Cob a schmuck: “You’re a schmuck.” This insult halted Cob’s dreaming heart but still the women were like battery operated flowers following whatever sun their eyes found in every object around them. The dancing seemed to narrow their hips and lengthen their forms, reminding Cob of thick nightcrawlers stretched at each end. The woman next to Cob called him a shmuck: “You’re a shmuck.” Cob asked why. “The way you treat her.” “You’ve only heard half the story. There is another story, another half, my half.” In the dream Cob continued, saying, there’s another story, another half, my half, another story, another half, my half, until her lips sealed and folded over and her eyes closed, probably still glowing behind her lids like a photographed dog’s. The dancers’ heavy high-heeled boots stepped woodenly, seemingly isolated from the movements jumping like mercury in their thighs up along and under their arms, snapped off by a quick whip of their hands to the beat. The music dropped. They disappeared.
The next morning Cob only saw the dancers’ fluid cuts, red teeth, eyes mouthing the word he heard in his own voice: shmuck. And as he woke, the carmine-flecked darkness on the underside of his closed lids opened to the diffusion of his windowshades, his own voice trailing silently away behind his swollen eyes, repeating there’s another story, another half, my half, another story, another half, my half . . .
Cob carried a large paper bag with white, braided, stiffly arching handles. In the bag a rectangular box sat gift-wrapped in tasteful department store paper. He held the double horseshoe handles with two hands at crotch level. In the box, a present for Sheila. It was expensive, more than he could afford, he’d probably bounce his rent later in the week. He acted on impulse, his own voice nagging the red-eyed word schmuck over and over or the image of the pizza waitress and her tempting calf that sent the impulse, the overriding necessity, to buy Sheila an extravagant gift. Cob waited for the bus. She only lived about two miles down Huntington. She worked at a hospital, in the accounting department. She made more than him, often picked up the check. She said she felt better buying than knowing that a simple dinner could exaggerate into financial stress/disaster. Sheila lives in a shopper’s paradise, carrying a garden of buying potential in the black suede pouch riding the small of her back. She believes in consumer product as fetish, devoting much of her time to that church, riding escalators with many bag-handles looping from her already gold-charmed forearm. “Shopping pays homage to the deity of renewable happiness.” Not only will she say this phrase when the subject turns to someone’s new earrings at the hospital, but on their monthly casual day in the accounting department, Sheila wears the T-shirt from which she learned this mantra, a 50-50 blend quickly mail-ordered from a catalogue of silly and risqué slogans she keeps in a wicker basket across the top of her toilet’s pink porcelain.
Cob lives comfortably alone, buys a tooth brush when the bristles fan out, stockpiles thousand sheet rolls of toilet paper, cans of black beans, white albacore in water, whole stewed tomatoes, hoards used records and thumb-stained paperbacks. Temps thirty hours a week. Why even make the effort? Not quite love between them, an odd adhesive of circumstance, familiarity, history. She was the only one who called him Jake rather than Cob, Jacob or Jay. Jake only reminded him of an old black lab from his youth with a quick whip of a tail and a “Jake-the-Rake” nametag hanging off his collar. And when he thought of Jake the name reminded him of her, but he couldn’t help super-imposing the old dog’s overzealous wag on her nicely-orbed butt. When Cob and Sheila were together and not conscious of making an effort, he’d jibe and flounder-out unleavened perceptions. She’d tell a circuitous story in a tone better set for eating barbecued corn. At first he admired the precision of her chant, the steady tattoo of phrases never hitting the return bell, never even misstepping or stuttering. Her words flowed as from a faucet of whitewater running and running never suddenly heating up anywhere near lukewarm. There was something that drew Cob to her and something, perhaps the same trait, that pushed him away. Eventually after almost two years of level relations she managed to direct her speech’s sleep-walking torrent into Cob’s ear, relating her impression that he only thought of her as sexually convenient. When he was alone did he not, when waking warm and alone and carnally inspired, did he not carve images more charged than the shapes he knew well when waking at Sheila’s side?
He hadn’t thought much of that. Cob often relied on the recent past to trigger his fantasy and so he thought of Sheila’s goose-plucked flesh straddling him, her knees against the bed, her calves doubling his thighs. Then she’d blend into an image of a passing stranger’s talaria, and her flight on pillowed steps through air to him, and how the wings at her ankles flipped and purred, soaring in place next to his jostling calves and bucking shins. He used to force his imagination, digging down telling himself what to desire, but the last few mornings his desire had been dictated. In a less solitary existence this inspiration would lead to something stormy and calamitous, skewering two alcohol-marinated lovers with a single cherubic shot, hanging them out to dry on a rack of shimmering conjugal embers. Now alone and estranged from Sheila, the inspiration, the hot shot in his pocket from out of the blue, only provided a pastime, a cloud of preoccupation to knead, knowing all along that if he fell, he’d only fall back down to the same quiet rectangle of his mattress, the next morning he’d wake and another image would hold him.
When she asked him he said he did not actively fantasize beyond the thought of her, the dreams of ultra-powered chugging distilled in one granny-smith sized calf, or liquefied and hurtling through two worm-wriggling dancers, had nothing to do with him. They were arranged without motive, and the only thing that puzzled him, that compelled Cob to obliterate his savings in the name of a sudden gift was that even as he waited for the bus with two quarters and a dime each ready on the tip of a finger, even then, resting the heavy-stressed bottom of the bag at his feet; even as he waited for the bus to give his gift to Sheila, he saw the waitress looking over her shoulder and up at him, her form like a once-twisted strip of ribbon flattened and disguised in the grainy concrete. A miniscule shard of cutglass sparked at the apparition’s heel, even the dry aggregate of minerals at his feet seduced him. The worn toe of his leather boot domed like a palace mirage to the one dimensional beauty appearing below him. It wasn’t just the hounding image of the waitress that sent him downtown with a pocketful of crisp ATM-pressed twenties, it was the after effect, the resounding, the hangover, the red eyes now so sufficiently stamped in his consciousness that a can of Coca-Cola was immediately associated with his inner voice’s own privately remorseful scarlet letters: s-c-h-m-u-c-k.
He blinked twice and she was gone. Cob stood alone, his expensive gift at foot, only keeping the bus pole company. Torsos in cars pivoted to look at him once and then away. A bus worked closer through the traffic and jaywalkers. It was the other bus, the neighborhood loop. He wanted the 39 downtown. A squat and wide latina with splintered hair dyed the same rust as her jeans leaned on a chainlink fence a few feet of Cob’s signpost. A second later a younger version of this woman, with tighter features and fresher makeup, appeared. She walked up speaking quickly, the two touched hands. Cob watched an old man work his bearded jaw, cursing to himself, his heavy wool sweater tucked into his pants and belted over. Cob was dressed the same, he silently accused the old man of trendsetting, turned back toward the two women. Five children, the sons and daughters of the younger woman, threw back their heads for a treat. The human nest of children at the bus stop gave way to an acquaintance approaching and lazily watching his shoes. They hadn’t spoken in a few weeks. The acquaintance usually wore a hat but today wore nothing, not even a full head of hair. Wisps of brown stringy clumps were overwhelmed by the gust of his every step. Cob never saw him without his hat. Along his scalp the hair reminded Cob of duck down or the almost clean patch where a flea-bitten dog chewed its fur down to the skin. Cob stared at the sidewalk in front of his toe. Relieved she was gone. The spark of cut-glass standing out more like a star than the reflective heel of a waitress-apparition in the concrete. Cob looked up in time to exchange a volley of hellos, whatcha doing, waiting for the bus, figured. The acquaintance passed, the blue heels of his sneakers dragging along the concrete then planting and pivoting into the record shop at the corner exhibiting the peeling mural of whitewashed and blotchy harmony. Above the record shop a billboard advertised the handsome and smooth-fleshed face of a Marine.
She’s waiting for me now, Cob thought. He looked down the street to his left and saw no bus. She’d like the gift, she’d take him back, maybe then and there, wrapping him up in her nautilus’d legs. She’d like the gift, not that she’d expect it, a Wednesday, no celebration planned, and if she didn’t like it, he had the receipt. She could exchange it for twenty smaller gifts or add a hundred and get something ambitious. The Trojan horse at my feet, he thought. She’d see the gift everyday she sat in front of the television, each time she flipped it on she’d think of me.
The squaking children at the bus stop, the youngest crying about having to wait, the oldest sat on the freshly waxed hood of a Hyundai, then jumped off cooly as the car alarm punctuated its variations on annoyance with the robotic phrase: Attention! Intruder! And all the while no bus appeared. With his coins in his palm, Cob decided to walk to the next stop, if only to get away from the kids and the car alarm and move his legs a little. Walked past the record shop, the dentist, the llamadas internacionales variety shop, Wanda’s shoes, he kept walking past the laundry mat, the polish-run convenience store selling girlie mags some punk always spread to a shot of an airbrushed D-cup showing an inverted victory sign at her blushing crotch. About halfway to the next stop, the bus passed, the latino children’s faces pressed up against the window as the bus rushed past. Cob jumped to the curb, holding out his fist with the exact change in his palm, he only motioned to the passengers and the movie advertisement along the side of the bus, the driver didn’t see him. He watched the bus hurtle to the next stop and pick up the few waiting there, then crank through the gears and pull further away.
Shit! he almost threw his change at the pavement. He kept walking past the next and now cleared bus stop. He could easily make it to the next stop before the bus would come, but then the balding acquaintance overtook him. “Weren’t you just waiting for the bus?” he asked. Cob explained. The acquaintance said he heard the car alarm when he left the store. He pulled an old Cure record out of his bag. “Not bad. Only three bucks.” Cob said he got his money’s worth. They said their good-byes, Cob hurried on, calculating the delay and the estimated arrival of the next bus. Three minutes to the next stop. Quarter mile? He speedwalked, shifting the bag from left to right every block he crossed. Up ahead he saw a woman waiting and reading at the next stop. He hurried on and again the bus passed before he could get there. He ran but still was too far away for even a patient bus driver to wait, assuming he’d even seen Cob running in the mirrors. He rushed on to the next stop. Thinking all the time, I should just wait at the stop, wait at the stop, patience, I’ll get there eventually if I wait, but he kept on as if he were being chased, as though racing the bus. Why the game? Just wait at the next stop. But by then he was halfway between the last stop and the next, if he waited where he was, the bus would pass every time, he’d have to hail a cab or hitch. He rushed on to the next stop.
While stepping off a curb to cross a side street, he switched the handles of the bag from one hand to the other, and one handle tore loose from the paper bag like a horseshoe about to get tossed, the bag floundered, the box thudded to the sidewalk. Cob threw the broken handle at his feet, rattled the box. No loose shakings, the decorative paper frayed through at one corner. With his arms supporting the gift back in the torn bag, he walked on, craning his neck around the bag that rested against his chest and chin, and again the bus passed. Now that Cob stood at a stop halfway to Sheila’s house, he paused, put the box down, and held back a kick. He looked at his watch, he should have been there ten minutes ago. He picked up the bag and began walking again, not like an Olympic speedwalker, but steadily ahead with a determined pace that gave away nothing. He quit thinking, kept ahead, cars passed, a truck passed, a workman jack-hammered the street while two others in reflective vests watched, the neighborhood changed. He walked ahead, at the next stop two kids in huge Michelin-Man jackets and baggy jeans stared through him as Cob walked thinking of arriving at Sheila’s on foot. It was only a few more blocks, the bus passed, he saw the two puffy jackets make their way through the aisle.
He turned down her sidestreet and stared up at the faux-Victorian Sheila shared with six other renters, Sheila’s car was gone. The porch was covered in boxes and recycling, he looked at his watch, an hour late. He rang her apartment’s bell, somewhere up inside the house he heard a thin metallic grate, no answer, he expected no answer. He left the package on the porch, stepped down the stairs, walked back out to the street to take the bus back home. His change still warm in his palm. Walking back to the bus stop, she probably waited until two after the time I should have shown, he thought, then took off to buy another sack of potpourri. In this neighborhood that box on her porch would last twenty more minutes, probably it’d be resold in an hour. A VCR, why would I ride my last hope on videos? If I loved her I’d invite her over for dinner and offer her the bulbs of a dozen roses as an appetizer and a single orchid floating in spring water for the main course. Instead I abandon an expensive entertainment mechanism, something for her to pass a few hours whenever she thinks the hours need passing. I thought I could come over and watch a movie and sit beneath a blanket with her solid thighs up over mine. Easing the cassette into the machine, a manageable compromise of big screen ideals. For two hours we could stare away at a screen together and make wry comments, all the while our legs together and my arm around her, beneath the blanket a Siamese twin, sedated, united, peacefully at ease with each other and the world. Instead I show up late, too impatient to wait at one stop, insistent on keeping my legs moving, racing the impartial busdrivers, I show up late, abandon the gift on her porch.
Out on the main street Cob leaned against another bus stop sign. No one stood near him, stay at the stop, no time constraint, no rush, not even a need to head back home. Maybe she left a message on his machine. Just as he had his troubles arriving maybe something pulled her away even before his expected time of arrival. What if she never made it home herself? What if as Cob waited for the bus home she pulled up past him in her red Corolla in a daze after an unexpected turn of events or a twelve car pile-up or an unforeseen emergency? An overhead view of the area would show Cob walking to the bus stop away from her Victorian while a red Corolla approached the house from the opposite direction. Perhaps due to forces remaining unequal and acting upon them, mutual wills to reunite were slighted and fate would magnify and become unconsolable. Cob thought that for the last year, perhaps for his entire life, he always walked just one block away from a significant collision, that if he walked on road-A, on road-B walked either the one who would influence the rest of his life or something equally fantastic and illusory, as if when the world entered his circumference of sight, it altered and morphed into a fatuous land of mailboxes, trashcans, station wagons, and asphalt, as if reality were a curtain beyond which existed the composite of all the sprawling lands through the wardrobe, the looking glass, over the rainbow, as if beyond the soundstage confining him were a world of fabulous allusions.
Cob waited and no Corolla passed. No sign of other waiting passengers. Two lanes of traffic sporadically dripped outbound and, on the other side of the trolley tracks, two lanes of identically scattered cars dribbled inbound. The traffic outbound cleared, Cob looked far down Huntington, not a bus or car approached. He stared across the street at a group of college kids who taunted him from a distance extreme enough to ignore even as he stared directly at them. They gestured and heckled for Cob, who stood inoffensively at the stop. Distracted by the college kids, he didn’t notice a white hatchback pull up and stop in the passing lane of the outbound traffic. A woman ran over to him, she reminded Cob of a champion French bodybuilder he once met with the same long dark hair and a slight stoop beginning at the waist and a little bend at the knees as if she always walked on the balls of her feet and carried heavy maces in front of her. She asked Cob: “Are you waiting for something?” Cob answered, “The bus,” as if this sort of question were as typical as every car that passed with windows rolled up and not a word exchanged. She ran back to her car, in the time it took to ask if he was waiting for anything, traffic idled behind her. She finally pulled forward through the next intersection without even pausing at a stop sign, the gray hatchback behind her played you go, no, you go with a red sedan trying to cross the intersection. Both started and braked, inched ahead and braked again, until another two starts and stops would cause fenders to bend. The gray car ceded and as the red car finally crossed, a shiny blue sportscar pulled around the gray hatchback on the right and almost broadsided the red sedan, screeching its brakes and sidesweeping off into the shoulder. The blue car regrouped and continued onward and traffic flowed as usual. Cob laughed, just by standing at the bus stop, waiting, he began a chain of events which almost ended in crumpled metal.
The bus arrived and he flawlessly negotiated the short ride back to his neighborhood, stepping out of the rear door of the bus and crossing the street at the record shop. An old dog he assumed blind turned its stringy head at him when Cob forced some spit through his closed teeth. Cob always stopped for one second to let the dog smell his hand and since he didn’t want that wet-dog-smell this one always had regardless of the weather, he’d always end their meeting as soon as it began. When he got to his apartment door he checked his mail, nothing, then up the lightly spiraling staircase one floor, and into an apartment smelling of rotting fruit and the accompanying fruitflies. The night before he noticed the bananas had blackened leaving a sticky paste like melted licorice in the bowl. Instead of flushing the bananas or dropping them off the front porch into the many wide-mouthed brown plastic easy-target garbage cans on his four foot long front yard, he just threw them into the kitchen trash where they continued to rot and meld with the other putridities.
He checked the answering machine, nothing. Maybe Sheila was in an accident, maybe she left for good, maybe she was called into work for some emergency accounting or executive assistance and support, maybe and most likely she waited two minutes after the time Cob was supposed to show and at two after she blew doors and headed directly to a boutique and bought an industrial-strength sized sack of mulled and parched rosebuds, willows, and aromatic cloves. The sweet stench of air fresheners at the altar of sanitation! American cleanliness! Cob ranted and indecipherably coupled synonyms for uncontaminated bleached dry and detoxed living. To an observer at that moment in his high citrus stench of an apartment, Cob would seem a controlled maniac, a man obsessed with his trash, yanking the white plastic bag out the white plastic container, pulling and knotting the yellow ties, all the while mumbling invectives at some unseen personification of sterility. He bounced the plastic bag on his knee, holding the yellow ties in one fist ahead of him like a freeze-framed jab against this ridiculous foe of frantic cleanliness that just jumped into the ring of his consciousness. He dropped the bag off the porch, it twisted in the air, burst hitting the bottom of the trash can. Cob turned and went back inside, he grabbed the broom and swept, sweeping behind the doors always open between rooms, sweeping beneath the solid iron gray radiators, sweeping the dank muck coating the tiles between the sink counter and the shower in the bathroom. He even mopped. Then Cob ran a rag over all the door frames in the apartment, dusted all the furniture, windexed all the surfaces, the black metal of the stereo, he cleaned the cupboard shelves, cursorily running the now filthy rag over all the old cans of stewed tomatoes, black olives, chicken broth, even dusting the yellow cardboard box of baking powder, the twist-tied bags of labeled spices. Since all the dusting covered the floor once again, he swept, pushing the residue of his entire stay in the apartment into a dust pan which the broom reduced to an ever-decreasing line of grime which he swept away until that line remained unseen and bearable.
So why not buy an ax? The backyard’s overgrown with saplings and last year’s sprouts twice as thick around the trunk as this Spring’s growths, Cob thought why not do some pruning? Yardwork to set himself at ease. He searched the basement for an ax only to find empty boxes, a few abandoned bicycles, and a cache of disastrously gaudy oil paintings of naked women. If he’d then found a cobwebbed ax in the corner his first chore would be the destruction of those paintings, shards of canvas littered across the basement’s cement floor maybe would please him. Who could have painted these? His new downstairs neighbors? It’s incredible the dedication and discipline and investment such masterpieces require, did one misproportioned, stumpy lady model for the other? Luckily the talent didn’t focus on representational accuracy so Cob couldn’t match the swirled and fogged over faces with either of his new neighbors. He once heard that all artists were sacred because unlike the creations of politicians or generals no one could be harmed by an artist’s work. Maybe this is somewhat true, still Cob felt an unavoidable impulse to harm the paintings, as if the fact that there were no hidden masterpieces waiting for his inadvertent discovery in the basement was an affront to his sense of the marvelous. It was a frustrated event, he stared harder at the paintings hoping that he overlooked a subtle quality that didn’t immediately appear, but he only saw a barbarous waste of materials better slated for whitewashing than creating. He held back a kick, all the time fantasizing that if his boot tore through the canvas, he’d step back and see something worthwhile. Cob walked out to the hardware store and bought a heavy wood-handled ax, the clerk packaged the ax in a single brown bag that just covered the cardboard-sheathed blade. As he walked back the sun dropping behind him cast a long shadow down the street, he seemed to walk on stilts with his new purchase extending out of his narrowly projected hips like a misplaced tail about to strike. Cob turned the corner to his apartment’s street and his shadow faded as it climbed the graffiti scrawled side of a block-long row house. He didn’t waste the last hour of light climbing his buildings stairs, fumbling with his keys, properly disposing of the paper bag, changing into yardwork clothes. He opened the chainlink fence enclosing his short front yard and stepped along the worn path around the side of the house, tearing the packaging and cardboard off the ax-blade, ready to battle the neglected backyard practically at a run. Winter snows had dropped limbs off the full-grown overarching trees from neighboring yards, chainlink fences extended along the left and right of the yard while the back perimeter was marked by a neighbor’s old decaying garage with a collapsed roof. Long before Cob moved into the apartment someone spray-painted a target of concentric circles and a small Valentine’s heart on the garage wall. Between the target and the heart a dead elm rose up with an oval tar-stained scar starting a foot off the ground until it closed off to a point tall enough to walk into if it hadn’t been tarred-over. He saw it all through a shock of brambles, overgrown weeds, and choked saplings. Swinging the ax low to the ground like a machete, Cob knocked the growth away from him, it swam in the air for a second then arched deeper into the yard. He muttered to himself all his minute afflictions and frustrations, anything that came to mind, like a list of things to pack for a trip on which everything he’d remember he’d take away and leave in whatever land of accumulated debris he reached.
Each sidearmed stroke continued in a half-circle from back beneath his right shoulder, continuing from his earliest memories of everyone who once slighted him, even the most requisite juvenile attacks, the stroke of the ax sped through all the years of adolescence and all the forgotten or buried apprehensions and pressures of conformity and the maintenance of acceptance and all the accompanying games of spin-the-bottle at parties in backyards larger than this with no chainlinks surrounding, serving shirley temples in plastic cocktail cups you could squeeze to shards, insecure, scoffing at the bottle gone three times between one couple, the twelve-year old wisdom of proclaiming animal magnetism and even marriage after three more directly lured spins, sitting back on a couch watching it all uncomfortably staring away with two black friends equally wary of a game of pecking on thin, just-maturing lips. But each memory was insignificant, there was nothing worth carrying away and deserting, it was all easy and as inseparable from Cob as his hands or eyes. Still he cut, the ax continued through and with each swath of bramble another memory returned and the clutter of his past quickly regrew if only to be uprooted as soon as it surfaced. The ground seemed as roughly cut as a head shorn with shearing scissors, his boots’ planting and pivoting to lead the weight of the ax stamped down the growth that he’d cut flat across the stalk rather than up at an angle, lifting the root from its hold in the ground. With each stroke of the ax, he grew fond of every returned memory. Soon the backyard’s sweeping chaotic height was dropped to a crisscrossing mat of twigs and grasses and only a few saplings were left standing. He dropped each sapling with one blow, then cut each one into three pieces. For each tree, he imagined a specific person, someone he had welcomed illusions of as one welcomes compliments or unexpected gifts, someone he failed to contact because of a belief in unattainable ideals, a sapling fell hacked three times over. All the time he cut away at the backyard he knew he was achieving very little, the motion of the ax and the twilight in the air around him softened his mood, there was nothing to really provoke him anymore. Cut down everything in the yard, everyone, and every memory until there was nothing left to prune and chop three times over but himself.
He imagined all the trees in the yard falling in an ordained way to encircle him in a fresh cut tomb. Somehow the last tree when slashed would fall on top of the hut miraculously rising up around him and closing out the last of the light and leaving him to attack himself in pitch darkness, to turn the ax on himself, to turn from placing emphasis on others and sticking it to himself. As he cut, Cob heard himself thinking that it was never the fault of anything around him, he knew it was his own, once the last sapling fell, there was no prison of weeds, twigs, and brambles piled around him. The last sapling didn’t cut off the light above him and lock him in for a new life of confinement. Instead the last whack of the ax brought relief, everything that spread in lifeless disarray at his feet, rather than the vital swarming clutter before he entered the yard with his ax, told him it was time to give himself up to another round of illusions. Cob put down the ax and decided to get some coffee-oreo ice cream. He walked down the street toward the ice cream parlor and at the end of the street he turned the corner near the record shop and saw that the old mural of community paradise was painted over, not whitewashed, but painted a blue reminiscent of days when the sky seems to cradle the depths it hides.