A Man A Man

I prepared and rehearsed an anecdote for Sigmund. He is a temp and I am a temp. I see him two Mondays per month, when checks are distributed. Sigmund is beautiful. He looks like the schoolmaster in a children’s book, twiggy and gloomy and stiff. When he takes his pay stub from Dilman, our secretary, he bows at the waist as if to demonstrate how meager and grim his life has become.

The anecdote was from the previous week. A woman on the F train had gone up and down the car, claiming that some among us were manifestations of Beelzebub. When she got to me, I had high hopes but was passed over. Turns out only women can be Beelzebub. The anecdote’s takeaway was that failure can happen at any time, in any place. I wanted to present myself to Sigmund as simpatico, as someone in whom confidences would find their proper nook.

Dilman overheard the anecdote, and tsked me for my negativity. He is even fatter than me. He keeps a shining green apple on his desk as an end-of-day treat, and will refer to it as “my sweet granny.”

“Don’t worry,” Sigmund said. “To me you will always be Beelzebub.”

And that was that, and that was more than enough. But then a strange thing happened. Before Sigmund left, Dilman asked him about his weekend.

“I had rehearsals,” Sigmund said. “Contemporary dance. Like this.” He raised an arm above his head and made an awful face.

“Contemporary dance!” Dilman said. “When is the performance?”

“Tonight, in fact. Eight o’clock.”

“Oh drat!” Dilman thwapped his thigh. “I have cooking class tonight and we’re doing crab rangoons.”

At which point Sigmund could have left. But because I’d snared him with the anecdote, he was obliged to ask, “What about you, Monty? Do you want to see something weird?”

 

My first and only sexual experience was in college, when I asked Omkar Chakrabarti, an Operations and Research Finance major, if he would take off his pants and underwear and close his eyes for two minutes. I was refused with great gentleness, but seven years later we reconnected in an online game of Diplomacy. He was Britain and I was Germany, and in a sequence of moves that played out over two happy weeks, we together conquered Europe.

 

The performance space was an apartment. Chairs and kitchen stools and ottomans were arranged around the living room carpet. Sigmund entered from the bathroom.

He wore a white onesie and tossed himself around until his knees were red. His body was like something you’d find in the attic, a wire frame wrapped in yellowing crepe, and he chose to emphasize this with cadaverous poses and a dour expression. The music sounded like petulant machinery. But there were touching moments when Sigmund lifted his arms and allowed me to appreciate those intricacies of his body that he had perhaps overlooked: the orderliness of his armpit hair, an unexpected and very slight protrusion of his stomach. When he slapped the floor, I felt the reverberation in my bottom.

Afterwards, we walked to the train. Snow gathered in my hair and his. Through his winter jacket, Sigmund smelled like sweat and hand soap.

“The dance,” he said, “is based on a cartoon. An old Russian cartoon about a boy who runs off to live with a cat and a dog and a bird and a cow. That was the original title, A Boy, a Cat, a Dog, a Bird, a Cow, but I changed it to Organism, because that’s what the people want.” He made an ironic scowl. “Or that’s what I thought the people wanted.”

I blew through all my anecdotes, blat blat blat, and for my pain was invited to the following week’s Bathtub Oral History Show, where Sigmund would tell the audience a story from his life. At the subway station, I had nothing left to say, so I bade him good night, congratulated him again on his performance, and walked three times around the block before descending myself.

 

Outside the theater for the Bathtub Oral History Show, my elbow was seized by a hand in a purple mitten. It belonged to Dilman.

“Sugar snap pea!” His piggly eyes twinkled in the winter sun. “Can I hop in line with you?”

The opening story—in which a gym teacher dreamt about her dead nephew while awaiting the results of her Crohn’s test—was punctuated by Dilman’s noises of sympathy. Little clucks and gasps, an “oh my” and many “goodness”es.

 “You see people on the street,” he said during the applause, “and you have no idea. None whatsoever.” We were, by a margin, the two largest people in the room.

I didn’t catch most of Sigmund’s oral history. I remember that it was a coming-out story and that it involved his father, but my mind was pulled in three directions. The first was a vivid imagining of Sigmund at seventeen, sitting on an unmade bed in a pair of old jockey shorts, with dark scabs on his knuckles and spider-leg hairs across his chest. Second, I was composing my own story, as if I were a Bathtub Oral Historian. I picked the time in third grade when I bought a York peppermint patty on my way to school and hid it in my windbreaker’s pocket. We spent that day rehearsing our class play, and afterwards I ran to my jacket and pushed my hand into a mass of ants.

But the third and worst distraction was Dilman, who was weeping. I didn’t notice at first, but then I heard a squeak and turned to see that his face was so wet it shone in the stage light. There was no ignoring him after that; every inhalation was thick with feeling. When the show ended, he held my wrist as if to steady himself.

He insisted we wait afterwards.

“I was blubbering!” he said to Sigmund. “Ask Monty. Monty, was I not blubbering?”

Sigmund was flush and bashful after his performance. He asked if we would join him and a small group of friends on a “getaway” next weekend at his stepsister’s cabin in the Hudson Valley. That evening we were added to an email chain. Dilman’s salutation to the group included two smiling emoticons, a shrieking emoticon, one of a geisha, and one with hearts for eyes and its head on fire.

 

In the days before the trip, social apprehension caused my bowels to fill with a hot, gurgling liquid. I concocted hypotheticals that could act as conversation starters: Would you rather live for nine hundred years as a mushroom with a good vantage on world history, or two hours as Napoleon just after his victory over the Prussians at Jena? Invisibility plus cancer, or flight plus impotence?

But I relaxed when I met the men. There were ten in all, and they were a true Whitman’s Sampler. There was Alfonzo, a dance instructor from Trinidad who, with his small head and muscular torso, looked like a boy in a costume. He spent much of the evening drumming with virtuosity on the glass coffee table, and early on did me the big favor of laughing at my jokes while Sigmund was nearby. There was Israeli Gil, who brought the cases of Chablis. Whenever he filled my glass, he poured a few extra glugs and winked like we shared some secret. Normal White Gil was a bond trader in his late sixties recuperating from spinal surgery. He huffed every time he took a step and engaged in conversation reluctantly. His boyfriend Klaus asked everyone, sotto voce, to forgive NW Gil’s orneriness, but I found it enormously comforting.

At night we played parlor games. In one, we went around adding a word to a story that grew increasingly pornographic and surreal. In another, we were made to mimic famous paintings. Later in the evening, we gathered in the living room—whose bay window offered a view of the black forest, the snow, and the few stars that could be seen this close to the city—for a game called “What Makes A Man A Man?” A name would be drawn from a glass bowl and that person would talk about the moment in which he transitioned out of boyhood.

Alfonzo went first. He told about his Auntie Claire, who lived in a garden apartment in Chaguanas with Giganto, a white, long-haired cat who hissed her out of her own bathroom and left scars along her arms. She liked to lift the cat and kiss the top of his head, then toss him before he could swipe at her. “Please tell me,” Alfonzo said, “what kind of love is this?” One day, Alfonzo was walking to his Auntie’s house when he saw, in a nearby alley, two pit bulls circling a terrified Giganto. Alfonzo did nothing to save the cat, and compounded his sin by lying to his aunt. “I say to her that I see him in a tree in La Horquetta, chewing on a hummingbird.” In learning to live with this deceit, he explained, he became “the Alfonzo that is here with you today.”

When NW Gil’s name was drawn, he spent some time shifting in his seat. “Fuck it,” he said. “When my daughter was born. That’s all I got. I know that’s not a very interesting story, but I’ve got a daughter, not a story.”

I was all the while tweaking and revising my anecdote about the York patty and the ants. In reality, I’d reacted with a kind of moral repulsion. It was an old habit to secret treats away to gobble in the dark. The black swarm—I really thought this—was like my own grotesquerie made manifest. I tried to crush as many as I could. On the walk home, I felt a tickle and watched a survivor do a round of my palm and fingers, pausing to lift his head and assess with his antennae the nature of his new situation. I crushed him too. But I needed a funnier ending, and one that better emphasized my gluttony. Maybe I ate the whole thing, bugs and all?

Dilman’s name was called next. I’d forgotten he was there. We’d come up on the same train, but I spotted him on the platform—trailing a wheeled suitcase, glancing back to ensure it was rolling correctly—and ducked into a car. Here he was now, slightly adrift from the circle, sitting in an office chair with his hands linked on his belly.

“Oooooooooh pickles,” he said. “Where does one even begin?”

Israeli Gil hooked his foot around Dilman’s chair to pull him closer.

“Okie doke,” Dilman said, “here we go. I was born into a cult.”

He nodded at the raised eyebrows.

“Mm hmm! Full on. Morning routine was to brush your teeth, comb your hair, and kiss the center of your palms, ’cuz that’s where the nails had been driven through. Every day, after lunch, we had to go out to the cornfields and talk to Jesus. You went three hundred steps, no more no less, and then you confessed for an hour. An hour! And here I am, six, seven years old, hot as a hog and stinking of corn stank, and my big problem is I can’t find the sins to fill the time! So what I did was this: I committed little mini-sins so Jesus wouldn’t get bored. If I was sprinkling some salt, I’d jig a little bit on the floor. I’d brush without toothpaste. I blew raspberries at the goat. And if this didn’t get me through the hour, I’d tell jokes or sometimes, and I’m not lying, I’d dance! I just wanted Jesus to be happy. I wanted to turn his frown upside down.”

“Is he serious?” Klaus asked.

“He is!” Dilman said. “We had a leader and everything! You’ll never guess his name in a hundred years. Want to guess? You’ll never guess it. His name was Donald. Bible truth. Here, here I can summarize him, give you the gist. One time Donald took us young’uns out back behind the barn where we had this ancient and gorgeous hackberry tree. He had us sit on the grass there and listen to the branches do their little rustling, you know? Make those little sounds? Then Donald, he asks, ‘Who murmurs thusly?’ which is how he liked to talk. ‘Is it but the wind? Or is it the old goat, the sower of mayhem and confusion?’ So I stand up and say, ‘It’s Satan hisself, Donald, you spotted ‘im!’ And Donald, he took my hand and said, soft as you please, ‘And how could you recognize him, Dilman, lest the goat has established colonies across your length and breadth?’ Well that shut me right up, as you can imagine. And so that was sort of the feel.”

“Jeezus,” said Xander, who taught German.

“But my story is this: When I was nine years old I was linked up. Want to know what linked up means? Linked up means pledged to be married, and I was linked to Gerty Bright, who was eight.”

Someone inhaled sharply. Dilman looked around the room, gauging.

“I know it. Believe you me, pudding, I know it. But it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. We wouldn’t be married-married until we were fifteen. This was more like planning. Now, I knew two things about Gerty Bright. One, her hair was so thin you could see her scalp. And two, she once forgot to add cheese to the Thursday lasagna, so that she was forever considered a muddle-brain. So when we were linked I figured I’d drawn the short straw.

“I mean, who was I? Hungry all the livelong day, big as the moon, couldn’t lift a hammer without dropping it, and weepy. But I remember watching Gerty do her chores. She had to carry this pail of milk, and it was so heavy she had to set it down and sort of push it across the dirt. That old milk was sloshing every which way, and each time it spilled, I made a mean little comment to myself. Oh, I was repulsed by her. I couldn’t stand the idea of a life with her, apologizing for her, correcting her mistakes. Loathsome, loathsome!

“So, to get away from her—not from Donald, not from the daily, hourly tomfoolery of that life, but from her—I decided to emancipate myself. There wasn’t nothing to it. My main chore was to drive the old Chevy into Fayettesville and trade our hooch for supplies. The woman at the store was always giving me brochures for Child Protective Services and going on about the intolerability of my plight. So I packed my toothbrush, my socks, my two pairs of underwear, and a box of Lucky Charms. But the night of my escape, I got what’s called an attack of conscience. I was halfway down Route 22, but I turned right around, drove back, woke up Gerty Bright, and took her with me.

“Now I’ve given this a lot of thought. I used to attribute that decision to guilt over all the terrible thoughts I’d thunk against Gerty. But now, I mean right now, I’m seeing it different. I think it was plain decency, of which I knew nothing. Who knows where it came from. A gift from God, I suppose.

“I told Gerty we were headed on a sacred mission, and she didn’t catch wind ’til we were at Saint Aloysius’s House for the Unfortunate in Oak Bluffs. And when she did catch wind, hoo Moses, she was hot as a pot-bellied stove.

“All through those years we lived together, in Biloxi and then in Salt Lake, Gerty never let up on me. If she stubbed her toe, she’d say, ‘Look at the misfortune you’ve caused, you fat devil!’ Or, ‘Woe! Woe, thy name is Dilman!’ She told fibs on me all through high school. Made my life more challenging than it needed to be. But I took it as penance, you understand? For judging her so.”

In the silence that followed, I glanced at Sigmund, who sat on the couch with his praying mantis legs tucked under him, his face the unformed putty of total attention.

“And I suppose,” Dilman said, “that I was being a, you know, a man. But it only lasted a little bit. Like I became a man and then went back. You think that’s possible? Like an itty bitty island of manhood in an ocean of childishness?”

Sigmund inhaled slowly through his nostrils. When he spoke, it was as if each word was its own discovery. “It can feel like that, perhaps. But I don’t think so. I think that once you’re in it, you’re in it. There’s no going back.”

Throaty noises of agreement could be heard all round.

I had the feeling my name would be called next, and it was. But I would not speak. No matter how I was cajoled, I would not do it. I was drunk and bold enough to stand and say something about needing water. I went to the kitchen trailed by protestations and boos. I hopped up onto the central island and pushed aside some empty bottles of Chablis so that I could lay on my back. I wanted a moment to myself, but instead I fell asleep.

 

In high school I was called Gumball for the rubbery texture of my body. I encouraged this, and even did a thing where I loaded my lunch tray with slices of chocolate cake and ate them with my hands. It worked; I got out ahead of the joke. It was during this time that I discovered Claudettes Chikn Shak on HBO. I’d seen her before, the plus-size drag queen billed as “The Nation’s Biggest Mistake.” I’d seen her on a billboard in furry white boots and hot pants, Tina Turner-wig askew, holding two bottles of Courvoisier to cover where her breasts would be. When, on the show, she climbed onto a waxed and saddled Adonis to ride down NYC’s Fifth Avenue in nothing but cowboy boots and tassels, I saw something akin to my cake shows. This was not, as the literature claimed, a demonstration of pride; it was shame transmogrified into something shimmering, monstrous, and unique.

 

The gray corpse of night before sunrise. The song of the refrigerator. The churn and cough of basement machinery. Someone had turned off the kitchen lights. My brain pulsed with old, dark blood; it would be a day of horrors. I decided to call a cab and leave a note.

But first, as a goodbye present, I allowed myself a little exploration. I stood at one door and listened for the small intake of breath, then the pause, then the long exhalation. The next door’s sleeper was louder, with the occasional glottal percussion, the apneatic gulp. It was difficult to tell if either belonged to Sigmund. I braved the stairs, moving like molasses to limit the noise. Lamplight extended from beneath a door. I held my breath. There—the murmured note of a man’s voice. Then another, octaves lower, almost a vibration. It was the soupy kind of talk that bubbles up between periods of sleep. The air was thick with their breath and the laundered scent of their clothes, some astringent aftershave, the horse smell of unwashed hair and underarms.

Downstairs, I stood at the living room’s bay window. Haze as thick as cream swallowed the base of the forest. Above the brittle fringe of tree-tops, an orange sky bore the last traces of night. And to the left, in an expanse of snow, the dark sphere of Dilman.

I was not surprised to see him there. He had obviously spent the night enjoying the success of his story, savoring each remembered moment as one enjoys the bits of food one burps up after dinner. Finding his joy too large for the house, he’d gone outside.

But he was altogether too still, and I couldn’t see any breath clouds. Good God, had he actually died from satisfaction? Was it possible? I went in search of my New Balances and, not finding them, stepped into someone’s Crocs. I pulled open the sliding door and lumbered out, jacketless, across the snow.

“Dilman!” I hissed. “Dilman, are you dead?”

I was halfway to him before I realized that he was a shrub. I turned to see the real Dilman standing at the glass door, perplexed.

When I got to him, he said, “Your sweatpants are soaked. And look at your toes, they’re red as piglets.”

He guided me to the love seat and went to fetch a towel, which he wrapped around one foot and squeezed. He was about to repeat this with the other foot when I kicked him off.

“What were you doing out there?” he asked.

“I wanted to watch the sun rise.”

“You were running like mad.”

I rolled up the wet bottoms of my sweatpants.

“Come,” Dilman said. “We’ll watch it from the kitchen.”

Dilman made coffee, careful not to slam the cabinets. I asked him what happened to the girl.

“What girl?” He said. “Oh, Gerty. She lives with her hubby Jeb in Las Vegas. She sends me these postcards that you tilt one way, show one thing, another way another. Like martini glass full, martini glass empty. She’s a hoot.”

I heard the sounds of waking, varied creaks and wooden groans. Whenever Dilman moved, I circled the kitchen island to keep as much of it between us as possible. Though I’d decided to stay, I was repulsed by the thought of Sigmund coming downstairs to see us, Monty and Dilman, enjoying the consolations of friendship.

 

Over breakfast, it was decided that we would walk the two or so miles along the country road to a local Solstice Fair. Hot apple cider was promised, and fried dough and face painting. I trailed behind Dilman to observe how the men treated him after the previous night’s performance. But to my surprise he was left to himself, hands deep in the pockets of his fleece, humming faintly and lifting his face to the sun.

Most of the men followed Sigmund to the face painting tent, but I followed Dilman toward a jungle gym where some sort of birthday party or war was taking place. Children used pool noodles to fight each other within a ring of parents who shouted strategy and reminded them to hit below the shoulders. Dilman picked up a lavender noodle and charged into the fray, hollering when he fell victim to a combined assault. I heard Alfonzo’s big, musical laughter behind me. He was filming it on his phone.

He spoke to the version of me on his screen. “Montague, he needs your help.”

For the sake of the video, I stuck out my tush and gave a thumbs up while two boys pummeled it.

I did a circle of the fair with Normal White Gil, who shared his brown bag of donuts. The walk had been a small hell for him, and he consoled himself by telling stories of past sacrifices he’d made in the name of love. These mostly involved his ex-wife, and the juxtaposition of his grim tales and panda bear makeup buoyed me as well.  We were both in good spirits when we returned to the play structure and saw that it was empty save for Dilman and a boy in a green jacket. They were playing peek-a-boo, and from a distance the child seemed a being of pure enthusiasm, shrieking whenever Dilman popped up his head from behind the slide. Closer, I saw he had some developmental issue, a syndrome. He screamed and chortled, and there was a sustained note of amazement in his laughter that I recognized immediately; it was a reaction to Dilman’s cartoonish rotundity, to his swollen breasts and the marbled pink sphere of his head. The boy was amazed at the ugliness of his new friend. Dilman was slick with sweat and panting audibly.

“Look who’s here,” said Normal White Gil. Sigmund was approaching, painted like the Queen of Frost: a ghostly pale face, sky blue eyelids and lips, cheekbones sharpened with navy accents and temples sparkling with glitter. I could only glance at him, so piercing was his beauty.

I could not allow him to see Dilman in such a state. I jogged to intercept Sigmund. I turned him around, hooked an arm through his, and cinched his knobby elbow in the flesh of my own.

“I had some thoughts on your dance performance,” I said, improvising. “If you don’t mind. The notes of an amateur, a know-nothing.”

“Please.”

“I wonder if you’re a bit too...deliberate. Do you know what I mean?”

“I don’t,” he said.

“Wrong word. What I mean is that you could allow for some openness. Allow for surprises. Your body has more to say than you do.”

To this he said nothing.

“What I mean is that maybe you don’t know the best things about yourself.”

His face, in all its brilliance, was like that of a Disney villainess whose schemes have been thwarted by a child.

“I think,” he said carefully, “that I might know a bit more about myself than you’re giving me credit for, Monty. I’ve logged a lot of hours.”

I released his arm. After the minimum period that politeness required, he excused himself, taking his face with him, as if to demonstrate that beauty is either given in abundance or not at all. I watched him go, and heard from behind me the boy’s laughter and Dilman’s ragged voice, crying out, “What fun!”

 

I sat across from Dilman on the train ride back. He reclined into his neck-pillow and regarded the window with eyes half-closed. The scenery was swampland at sunset, with gold-flecked water and reeds that in their passing looked like dog hair.

“What a glorious weekend,” he said. “If I’d known I had such a weekend in store, I wouldn’t have minded so much the tribulations of my youth.”

I nodded. We passed the parking lots of storage facilities, their puddles the same bloodshot color as the sky.

“Oh, tell me,” he said. “Tell me your story. One fact. One seed,” he gave me a puckish look, “from which the ivy of our friendship will grow.”

Above him, a large, black fruit fly clung to the train’s wall, motionless, ignorant of the progress it was making through the world. Bathed in pink light, Dilman had the triumphant and porcine aspect of Henry VIII.

“Once upon a time,” I said, “this was in third grade, we performed a class play. We’d been studying civil disobedience, and the teacher wrote this medley of songs about the Suffragettes, and about Selma, and about the Stonewall riots. On the first day of rehearsal, our teacher read out each part and who would play it, but she forgot me entirely. Don’t worry, she fixed it later and gave me the role of a ‘70s policeman. I still remember my line: Not in my city, not on my block! Not in my lifetime, not on my watch! But so I sat there while the other kids were called to the stage, one by one, all except for me, due to clerical error. This was precisely the kind of thing I’d always been dreading: exclusion, exile, disgrace. I guess I suspected myself inadequate, and my big fear was that this would be revealed. And here it was, the revelation. But the amazing thing was that I didn’t feel bad at all. Because all I could think, at that moment, was that I had hidden in my jacket a York peppermint patty. I remember this so clearly. Instead of feeling left out, I felt like I had been selected for a better fate. By which I mean that I had chocolate in my future, and they did not.”

Before I could continue, Dilman laughed enormously.

“Hooray!” he cried. “Hooray for Monty! Oh, it’s perfect. You can have your songs and your costumes and your cues. I’ve got a secret! I’ve got something beyond your wildest dreams! I’ve got something special coming my way.”

He laughed again, then sighed in his contented, sing-song way.

Of course, he had it entirely wrong. What was coming were the ants, the shame and all that followed. Although the anecdote was set up like nine-pins, I didn’t tell it. It wouldn’t have played. I understood that between the Dilmans and Montys of the world, a story of self-deprecation takes on a different aspect, like a joke told in an empty room. Instead, we spoke about Sigmund. We took turns praising him—his independent-mindedness and fidelity to truth, those aspects of his physique that were most moving. This took on its own momentum, so that any pause was understood as an appreciative pause, each observation an opportunity for refinement and explication, until, some time after the sun had set, Dilman broke off to describe a man of comparable charms whom he had known in Biloxi, Mississippi. And so we spent the last hour of our time together enjoyably, doing what travelers do, comparing the nice things they’ve seen.

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