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First, let me say of course I’m worried about all of it: the global warming, the cruel virus, the oaf in the white house. Iran and the bomb and North Korea too. The uptick in insanity. Everyone says keep an eye on the big picture, and I do! But I have two eyes, one on the big picture and the other on the littler picture. There are some real issues here.
My neighbor has more guns in his house than I do.
The paint is peeling off my car in great strips.
They no longer throw a newspaper in my driveway.
Bananas will cause heartburn.
The deer are eating the seedlings in the woods across the road.
My fingers have grown too fat for my telephone.
In the bathtub, I can’t keep my knees and my belly in the water at the same time.
People say he graduated high school. They should say he graduated from high school.
My wife has grown more beautiful of late, while I am dowdy.
I can’t understand the voice of the man who comes through the loudspeaker during a tornado warning. (Is he saying take cover now, or take over, pal?)
And they’re asking me to take over ….?
You might have some of these same concerns, and if so, I feel sorry for you. The world is messed up. I don’t think it will get better soon, not all the way better.
I Get Weary
Yesterday, a man came to my door. He had a small child with him, perhaps a girl. I wanted to ask, but that isn’t a question we ask anymore. It was never a great question. I told the man I didn’t want whatever he was selling. He told me he wasn’t selling, just walking through the neighborhood saying hello to people. His child smiled at me. Somebody needed more teeth, but it looked like somebody would get some soon.
“We just think life is good,” said the man. “We want to make sure everyone knows it.”
“You’re entitled,” I said.
“What I say,” said the child. Maybe a boy.
“Say what?” I said.
“What I say,” said the child.
“But what do you say?” I said.
The man smiled at his little girl. That child had thick full hair.
“We’re collecting stories,” said the man.
“I have no stories,” I said.
It isn’t true. I don’t give my stories away, is all.
“Difficult work,” said the man, “collecting stories. It’s like cleaning the air.”
He was right. I have tried cleaning the air. That’s hard work.
“We’d like to come inside your house,” said the man. “We’d like to look around.”
No, I didn’t invite them in. I own nothing of value, but there are people who will steal the words right out of your mouth.
“We could set up a tent in your yard,” said the man.
The boy did a girl thing with his bare foot.
“Do you read your Bible every day?”
I said I did not.
“Me either,” said the man.
“I don’t actually own a Bible.”
“Me either,” said the man.
“Is this a Bible?” said the boy/girl/boy child. She held up an egg. It was brown and boiled already, a little crack in it. None of the yellow stuff was coming out.
“It should be a Bible,” said the man. “It would be a Bible.”
We talked for a while and made an agreement not to meet again. Inside my house, the telephone rang and rang.
“Aren’t you going to answer that?” said the man.
A fox ran down the middle of the road. This was a real fox, not a dream fox.
“You should find a job,” said the man.
“I was thinking the same thing,” I said. “For you.”
“We could work together,” said the man.
“What I say, what I do,” said the young person.
“I get awfully weary,” I said. I’m sure it was me who said it.
When the fox came back up the street, the animal looked at me in a curious way, a red fox, but not a red, red fox. I have never heard a fox speak, at least not clearly. There may be something wrong with my hearing.
“If you don’t leave,” I said to the two (who were not foxes) standing on my doorstep.
“Don’t be that way,” said the man.
“What I do, what I say,” said the small person.
“We can make it rain,” said the man. “We can make it storm.”
I should have believed him.
“Don’t come back this way,” I said. “Don’t come back for my stories.”
“What a day,” said the child person.
They went away from my front door, and I have felt uneasy ever since. They were not angels in disguise. They might have been gods. The young one, something godly there.
I would like to know how many people saw them. I would like to know how many people saw the maple tree sway and fall in my yard that afternoon. It was right after that when my back began to hurt, as if I had lifted a heavy load and held it over my head.
My neighbor has more guns in his house than I do. I know this for a fact.
I have no guns in my house.
It is hard to tell a story about guns and not give everything away. Will it be a true story, a funny story? Is there anything funny about guns? Will it be a tragedy? What a question.
My neighbor Walter is a good man, semiretired, at home some days and not at home some other days. He owns guns that can kill a person permanently, but he loves all the animals that make a home in our woods. Sometimes he puts out food for the red fox. Walter also owns a big truck, and anyone with a big truck makes an excellent neighbor. His truck has a bright Confederate flag where the front license plate might be. I have a real front license plate, one with a rainbow that says support the arts. Walter and I don’t talk about this.
The other evening I made arrangements with my pizza man. That young man arrived with the goods and I got out my secret money, but before we did our deal, he wanted to turn his car around and point it in the right direction on the street in front of my house. The sky was raining, steady and dark, and here’s a sad part: the pizza man couldn’t see the ditch across the street, a chasm into which several pizza deliverymen have disappeared over the years not to be seen or heard from again. I rarely order pizza. The disappointment is too great when the delivery person can’t make it to the front door.
That is what is called an exaggeration, as a cautious reader will have noted. The pizza man did not disappear; he got stuck and he spun his wheels and he got out of his small gray car and stood in the rain somewhat pathetically looking up the driveway at my house as if I was Mr. AAA himself. I am not Mr. AAA. I do not own a big truck or a winch or any kind of heavy tool with which to help a pizza man.
But there was my neighbor Walter, who was always willing to start up his big truck and grab his tools and drive to the aid of a befuddled pizza man. Walter raced his engine and he gunned his engine and he encouraged his engine, and he drove around from where he parks his truck in the back of his house and called out heartily to the pizza man, somewhat less heartily to me. (Walter secretly believes I should have my own big truck for emergencies). In the back of his truck, Walter keeps a chain he bought from the antique store, a huge and heavy chain that – believe it or not, and I believe it – once belonged to the owners of the Pequod. That chain wrestled whales before Walter bought it and used it to wrestle pizza men.
Ah, that too is an exaggeration, a cautious reader will have noted. A cautious reader will think I am brimming with exaggeration. With a story like this one, you can’t be too cautious.
Walter startled my pizza man, a young person who had been stuck in a ditch before and worse, had been robbed and beaten and kidnapped and dismissed by the kind of people who take out their disappointments on pizza men. (Hardly any of that part is exaggerated). When my pizza man saw Walter approach headlong out of nowhere in a very big truck with an historic chain in the back and a bright Confederate flag in the front, my man let himself be frightened. And since the state I live in allows this sort of thing, my pizza man opened his glove box and took out a large black handgun, pointing it at my neighbor.
“Don’t come any closer,” said the pizza man.
Walter had arrived with an eager smile on his face, a smile the size of a pizza, a small one. (Okay, exaggeration.) He was greatly disappointed when he saw the pizza man’s gun. I sensed Walter’s sadness in the slump of his powerful shoulders.
“Now,” said Walter.
That was all he said at first.
I watched this story unfold from my front steps, trying to stay out of the worst of the rain. I was not close enough to tell you what kind of gun the pizza man pointed at my neighbor. I don’t know one gun from the next. Perhaps it was a Glock. It could have been a Nikon or a Sunbeam. A Honda. They would make a good gun.
At that moment, the gun went off and my neighbor Walter sat down hard in my driveway.
At that moment, the pizza man began to cry.
At that moment, Walter’s wife came running across the yard with one of Walter’s many guns, holding it close to her shirt to keep it from getting wet in the uncaring rain.
At that moment, the real and actual AAA guy showed up, driving a truck much bigger than Walter’s.
I tell you, it was a bad night. It is a story that is hard to tell. Some of these things happened.
Paint is coming off my car in great strips. The paint is peeling like never before in the history of our country.
It started when I took a trip to Knoxville. Knoxville is a medium sized city in Eastern Tennessee. I live near Nashville, which is a somewhat bigger city in Middle Tennessee. Memphis, on the other hand, is a rather large city in West Tennessee.
That’s what we call geography.
My friend Walter had a cat named Geography. Something to do with time and place, a cat’s time, a cat’s place, the sands of the desert, the way the temperature there will go from hot to cold and back again.
“At noon,” said Walter, “we were sweating, but at night we wanted to hug the stove.”
Does geography matter anymore?
A little boy saw my car at the gas station. He was there with his mother, watching her pump the gas.
“She’s doing it wrong,” he said.
“How can you do it wrong?” I said. “It’s pumping gas.”
The boy looked at me with pity in his eyes.
“If you don’t know, it’s best to keep on just like you have been,” he said.
I was flummoxed by this boy.
“What’s wrong with your car?” he asked. “Why is the paint coming off?”
I could tell he thought poorly of me. I wanted to impress him.
“It’s geography,” I said.
Only I said the word like a question. He was not impressed.
“Look, look,” I said, “there’s a red fox behind you.”
He turned around, but he didn’t see it.
“That’s too bad,” I said. “It was a red one.”
“You aren’t a good person,” he said.
I shouldn’t have done that to the boy. Children are our future.
They no longer throw a newspaper in my driveway.
I remember those days fondly. I remember walking out my front door and there the newspaper would be, a small present from a reluctant world. I read that newspaper. I read the front page and the back page, the sports page and the advice page. I read the comics. I read the bridge column. We all did. It’s how we lived then. We trusted each other.
I saved the funny pages and used them to wrap presents at Christmas. I am not a good shopper, and my Christmas presents were more like Xmas presents. But my wrapping paper was a hit.
One year, my family asked me what I wanted for Christmas.
“Oh,” I said, “don’t worry about me. I don’t need anything really.”
“Come now,” said my wife.
“Come now,” said my daughter.
“Give it up,” said my son.
“Really,” I said.
For a moment, my heart was full of laughter. It was Christmas.
Out my window, I saw three things: Walter’s wife carrying a large bag of presents from her door to her car. A red fox looking left, then right, then crossing into the woods. A newspaper lying in the street, an old one.
That was a sad Christmas, and not simply because nobody bought me a present. It was the Christmas of Walter. That’s what we call it.
Bananas will cause heartburn
If you think about it, a lot of good things aren’t so good anymore. Take Bill Cosby. Woody Allen. The Republican party. It’s the same with Cadillacs. Or Tonto.
We used to watch the Olympics on television. We watched people run fast and throw things through the air and skate in circles and swim back and forth. It was easy to believe in the goodness of those people; they were doing things none of us could do.
Faster, higher, stronger.
I wanted to go to the Olympics. I made a solemn oath at myself that I would get there. I planned to devote my life to a serious regimen of training. I wrote out the script they could read when they did a profile on me:
… born to parents who never dreamed their son would one day, from a humble beginning, reach for the highest star in the firmament of sport…
Someone needed to invent a new Olympic game for me to excel at, but people were filled with ingenuity, and there was time. I was young then. A boy.
My wife didn’t dream about the Olympics. She dreamed about the ballet, a serious kind of dancing. I’ll say this for her: she got closer to the ballet than I got to the Olympics.
Much of my life feels like a disappointment. I wanted to go to the Olympics, but I also wanted to be Perry Mason. You couldn’t beat Perry Mason. And I wanted to go on a date, many dates actually, with the woman from Star Trek, you know which one. The one who could read your mind, and it would be all right, she wouldn’t care if what you were thinking was a little questionable.
None of these things happened.
The new games they invented for the Olympics weren’t right for me. And Perry Mason stopped being Perry Mason and became that guy in a wheelchair. The American courtroom has never been the same. I grew up and came to live on this street with my wife, and these days our joy is to look out the window at the woods where the deer live peacefully with the red fox.
My wife is a good wife even if she can’t read my mind. It’s probably for the best.
The deer are eating the seedlings in the woods across the road.
I was talking to a friend of mine who is famous. I find it is hard to talk to famous people, though if you want to listen, that’s a completely different story.
I thought I was aware of all the problems with our planet earth: the increase in temperature, the loss of the butterflies, the fracking. Which sounds like a pious man’s obscenity.
“It’s the fracking Republicans,” I told my famous friend. “They are fracking everything up. They fracking didn’t used to be like that.”
My friend wasn’t able to listen to my observations. She was too worried. Famous people get awfully worried.
I wanted to reassure her.
“At least,” I told her, “there are still deer in the woods. They are living with us right here in town. I see them every day.”
I wanted to say more. I wanted to say, If I am the lion, they are the lambs. I wanted to say, Now is the time for the quick red fox to come to the aid of the country. I thought saying so would help.
“About those deer,” said my famous friend. “It’s a shame.”
“Oh no,” I said, remembering the butterflies, remembering the frogs. “The deer too?” I said.
My famous friend did an uncharacteristic thing. She looked at me.
“You,” said my famous friend.
“Me?” I said.
This alone, this sudden recognition, made me sad. Yes, it was me. It had been me all day. Who else could it be?
“About those deer,” said my friend, shaking her famous head. She sighed, famously. “Deer are not good. They’re not good at all.”
“When did the deer go bad?” I said.
“Don’t you know?” she said. “They are eating the seedlings in the woods. The woods are dying because of the deer.”
“I didn’t know,” I said.
I was sick at heart. The deer! Those little frackers.
“We need more predators,” said my friend. “Men with guns. You’ll have to get used to it.”
Her words made me see everything in a new light.
Her words made me realize, she was never my friend.
My fingers have grown too fat for my telephone
This I found out the other day, trying to call 911. I was worried about my neighbor lying in my driveway, his truck idling at the side of the road. The Stars and Bars watched over him.
I dialed again and again, and I couldn’t get these fingers to work right. I dialed a wrong number. I dialed the pizzeria! I found it difficult to understand why the entire 911 staff was down at Papa Papa’s World of Pizza.
“Do you want to hear about our special?” said a woman. A teenaged woman.
“It’s about Walter,” I said.
“Not water,” I said. “Walter.”
“I’ll get the manager,” she said. “He will deal with you.”
Meanwhile, Walter’s wife was pointing Walter’s gun at the stuck-in-the-ditch pizza man. Meanwhile again, she fired the gun, but she was not a good shot. The gun made a loud sound, and the bullet went off into the woods and the deer leapt about, showing their white tails. A red fox crossed the road in a great hurry.
A reassuring voice came over the phone. It was the voice of someone who had spoken to me many times before, often late at night, reaching out to me from the darkness beyond my door.
“Attention,” said the voice. “A tornado warning has been issued for all of Middle Tennessee.”
Or it might have said, “Attention something something … for Papa Papa’s will be sued for all eternity.”
It’s difficult to understand that kind of voice. It was a man’s voice, I was fairly certain of that.
“Help me,” I said. “Help Walter,” I said.
“Look, buddy,” said the voice.
Cook muddy? Rook Ruddy?
“Isn’t there someone else I can talk to?” I asked that voice.
“Not here,” said the voice. “There is no one presently here who is above me.”
That night proved something to me once and for all.
I … these fingers … we are just not good with technology.
In the bathtub, I can’t get my knees and my belly in the water at the same time.
Have you noticed, most people don’t know when to say lie and when to say lay. I blame Bob Dylan. It might have been a mistake to give him the Nobel Prize.
The night Walter died, I wanted nothing so much as to lie in my bathtub with the water up to my ears, the way I used to when I was a boy. I was a boy with a lot of promise. As a boy, I knew better than to lay in the bathtub. This was many years before I ever got laid in a bathtub, and that has been many years now too. I will lie in the bathtub but I won’t lie about lying in the bathtub.
But when I crawled into that bathtub, wanting just to lie there, to lay me down to listen to Bob Dylan’s lay, “Lay lady lay,” I discovered my predicament, which lay at the heart of living in the modern world. Because bathtubs used to be bigger. They used to wash all our sins away, not just the little sins like using the wrong verb in the bathtub. They used to wash away the sins of disobeying the father and the mother, of disagreeing with the teacher, of disentangling the dead metaphor, of disapprobating the disapproval. A bathtub could do that. And now, all a bathtub can do is lie there uselessly, not even covering with its warm water the wounded man’s belly, the weak man’s knees, the boy’s ears, the boy’s ears, the boy’s ears.
People use the phrase he graduated high school when they should say he graduated from high school.
They will say all sorts of things.
They will say lightening struck that night in my driveway.
They will say all the sudden it started to rain.
They will say this is the most unique day a man never managed to live through. And in the boring rain.
They will say the events of that night were all in God’s plans when it’s pretty clear God doesn’t make plans.
They will say into each life some rain must fall like they think they’re fucking Shakespeare.
They will say that man has a butt load of worries. Somebody help him.
I have even heard them say I could care less, when what they mean, what they really mean is
Let me get this one thing straight. You cannot graduate high school.
I won’t let you.
My wife has grown more beautiful of late, while I am dowdy.
Oh, you can ask anyone about this. Ask the child who comes to my door, or the man who wants my stories. Ask the policeman who drove his car slowly down my road that night (and why slowly, ask him that). Ask Bob Dylan, but don’t ask Bill Cosby. He wouldn’t know. Bill Cosby didn’t watch my wife on the television all those years ago and he isn’t watching her now or reading about her in the paper or wondering, how could this have ever happened?
You may ask the deer about my wife, and if they are done destroying our planet one small tree at a time, they will tell you. They sometimes watch her from the woods. They hide behind rocks or stumps and study her. I know what they are thinking. Why is she with him? Doesn’t she see what has become of him? Can’t she get him to buy some new pants?
We were walking down the lane that weaves through our woods. We were walking our old dog, and we were not thinking about Walter and the pizza man, at least two of us were not thinking about them. We were not thinking about Iran. What were we thinking of? That is a good question.
I saw a patch of brown lying beside the road, and I wondered if it was a piece of cardboard or an old shirt. Thoughtless people drive their cars through our woods and throw their waste objects into the tall grass. I pick those things up. I catalogue them. I am conscious of all that lies beside the road, especially when it is raining.
I looked closely into the weeds, and what I saw was a deer. A baby deer. A fracking baby deer just hours old. That deer’s mother had left it there beside the road, thinking it was safe, while she went off and murdered some seedlings.
I thought, what should I do? I could call someone, use my thick fingers, tell the voice at Papa Papa’s Pizza World to jump in a car and drive over here and help me figure out a plan. Or should I call a neighbor? I began to weep thinking I could not call Walter, who would have known the geographically correct thing to do in a situation like this, though he might have said a word or two wrong. Walter really did graduate high school. He graduated the shit out of that high school.
I found out later the deer mother was only doing her thing. That baby deer was safe. It didn’t have any smell yet. My old dog didn’t know the baby was there at all. My old dog tugged gently at the leash, dreaming of his dinner, a warm corner of the sofa.
I can’t understand the voice of the man who comes through the loudspeaker during a tornado warning.
I have been given fair warning in my lifetime about matters great and small.
Don’t throw that can of hairspray into the burn barrel.
Don’t linger in the paint locker.
Don’t let the foreman see you doing that.
Don’t talk back to me.
Don’t buy that car if your uncle can’t find the title.
Don’t toss your phone across the room like that.
Don’t make friends with a guy like Walter.
I will tell you this one last thing. It’s guys like Walter. It’s guys like him every time. They will do it, and the rest of us will never be the same. Maybe we weren’t the same to begin with. All I know is it’s raining outside and there is still a ditch across the road. Walter’s wife sold those guns.
“They belonged to Walter,” she said.
She is moving to another state. She sold Walter’s truck. I asked about the chain.
“I’ve got bigger fish to fry,” she said.
I wanted to tell her this. You don’t. You don’t have a bigger fish than Walter. The deer know I am right. The red fox knows.
I would tell her, we would do it all again. Me and you and Walter and the pizza man. We would do our part. I am sorry to say it.
Take cover now.
Take over pal.
I am finished with this story.
Barry Kitterman is the author of a The Baker's Boy, novel, and a collection of stories, From the San Joaquin. He has been a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, and at the Hambidge Center in Georgia, and he has received grants from the Tennessee Arts Council and the National Endowment of the Arts. He teaches writing at Austin Peay State University where he is the fiction editor of Zone 3 Magazine.