Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Being a Man

(I found a couple of short stories I wrote decades ago. They are printed on paper with the holes you can tear off on both sides. An old dot matrix printer that, if I'm not wrong, is still on a shelf in one of our guest bedrooms. I wrote this one when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School. The other that I'll post soon, I wrote for a creative writing course in 1969. "Being a Man" is from '70 or '71)


Francis Smatter hated waking his wife up. At least that's what he always told her. That is even what he thought. But it more likely that he enjoyed it. Joyce slept deeply--deep down where no creatures can survive...where there is nothing but darkness and oblivion. And she was extremely difficult to awaken.

Francis, though claiming to hate waking her up, often made a game of it. Some rare mornings, when he felt especially adventurous, he would hold something cold against her neck. Other times he turned the radio news station to full volume. Occasionally he would rattle the Boston Globe above her head or crinkle a potato chip bag she had left on her nightstand. But most often he would merely sing her a song--the first song that came to mind, usually from the 50's, a Nat King Cole song--and kiss her on the mouth after eating his toast so she would wake up with crumbs on her lips.

Always, before he woke up Joyce, Francis would brew coffee and eat toast. Each morning he would look in the refrigerator for the butter and jam and think about how strange it seemed that the bulb in the refrigerator hadn't burned out once in the thirteen years they'd been married.


(When Francis' voice had only begun to change, his father called him out of his mother's hearing into the kitchen. His father had a moustache and drank too much  and Francis assumed all father's were the same.

"What will you do, Francis," his father asked, trying to open a bottle of Rupert Beer on the table top, "when you are a man?" Francis' father hooked the bottle top on the edge of the table and struck the top with the heel of his hand. Francis could see a church key on the cabinet but assumed his father liked to open beer this way. Francis did not notice how drunk his father was.

"That's a long time from now," Francis answered.

"But I would like to know," his father said, just before the bottle slipped from his hand and shattered on the floor sending small waves of been across the linoleum  after chunks of jagged brown glass.

Francis' mother exploded into the kitchen as soon as the bottle hit the floor. "You lazy, drunk bastard," she shouted, "the opener is right over there!"

For some reason, Francis always remembered that his mother ran into the kitchen holding a half-eaten chicken leg helpless in her hand.

"When I am a man," Francis said, to himself by this time, "I will marry and take a mistress." He was thirteen years old at the time.)


Judy always gave Francis yogurt for lunch. One noon Francis realized that he had never eaten yogurt with his clothes on.

"You know," he said, glancing over at Judy, beside him in the bed, the sheet folded across her stomach, her breasts high and firm, a tiny dollop of yogurt dropping from her spoon onto her right nipple, "I've never eaten yogurt with my clothes on...."

Judy wiped the yogurt away with her hand before Francis could lean over and lick it off. She stared at him as if he had picked his nose or farted. Francis thought, not without sadness, that they would not have sex at lunch for many more days. He hoped it would last until they had peach Melba yogurt again--that was his favorite.

It had been 25 years since he told himself what he would do when he was a man.


One Saturday morning, when Francis was inexplicably reading Kafka, he received a collect call from his college roommate. Francis grew up in Belmont but went to college in Ohio.

"You've got it back," his roommate said after Francis answered the phone and accepted the charges.


"That damn Boston accent. You've got it back. You can shift gears for a while but it always wins out."

Francis was already tired of not understanding the conversation. "What wins out?" he asked.

"Your true nature," the voice said. Then after $0.13 worth of silence, the voice asked, "do you remember how drunk we got at the Michigan game in 1960?"

"Is this why you called, Francis asked, without noticeable irritation, "or do you want to borrow money?"

"I want to borrow money," the voice said. To Francis' ears the accent was flat, hollow, the 'r's' in 'borrow' were harsh.


Joyce drove fast when she took Francis to work. She drove so fast and was always so sleepy in the mornings that Francis would talk to keep her awake and chain-smoke Kent cigarettes.

"Sorry about putting that can of frozen orange juice against your neck," Francis said, lighting a Kent with a paper match. He threw the match out the window as Joyce swerved into the fast lane, barely missing an MG.

"It wasn't very pleasant, first thing in the morning," Joyce said.

"I hadn't done anything like that for a long time," he said. Joyce was now driving in the breakdown lane near the Kenmore Square exit. There was a Buick Electra with the rear jacked up about a hundred yards ahead. A white haired man in a grey pinstripe suit was waving wildly at her.

Francis threw the half-smoked Kent out the window. Joyce veered into the slow lane, causing a VW bus full of nuns to swerve dangerously close to a Greyhound bus headed for Toronto in the next land. There was much squealing of brakes.

"Jesus," Francis said, "those were nuns!"

"It was so juvenile, Francis," Joyce said, yawning, back in the breakdown lane.

"I just hate to wake you up," Francis tried to say as a way of explaining the frozen orange juice can against her neck. He tried to say it but it wouldn't come out because the breakdown lane was running out and there was a concrete abutment ahead. Joyce was driving at 71 miles per hour. Francis tried to light another Kent but had problems inhaling.


Francis was of an age that he should have gone to Viet Nam. He should have defended the right and might of his country in rice patties in Southeast Asia against the terror of the yellow peril and the international communist conspiracy. And he didn't. He got drunk at football games until he was drafted and then got drunk in bars near Army posts in several geographic locations in the United States and Germany. Francis never thought anything about his fate. He neither felt guilty nor pleased that he didn't go to Viet Nam. He always expected it--in much the same way he later always expected his marriage would end--and neither seemed to happen. Nothing changed in Francis' life. All endured until he was used to it.


One morning, while the coffee brewed and Francis looked for the butter and the jam, he noticed something puzzling in the refrigerator. The globe burned as brightly as ever, as brightly as it had for thirteen years, but that morning it illuminated a half-empty of can of Alpo dog food--carefully sealed with Saranwrap. The dog food sat, comfortably and at home, between an aluminum block of cream cheese and a jar or horseradish sauce.

The radio was blaring a mariner's report for Cape Cod when Joyce woke up. "Good morning", Francis said, full of good cheer.

"Must you wake me like this?" Joyce asked, extremely cross. "How Belinda can sleep through it I'll never know."

"I hate to wake you up. It's a dirty job and I have to do it." Francis said.

"Why are you so damned cheery?" she asked. Francis did not hear her, he was looking at her sholder, how thin it was, the strange curve of the bone.

"Have you ever dislocated your shoulder?" he asked.

"This is not the way I want to wake up," is all she said. "She didn't mention her shoulder at all.


"Joyce," he said, after they had dropped off Belinda at school and were speeding down Storrow Drive, "we don't have a dog, do me?"

She looked at him with something akin to affection. "What a silly question," she said, "of course not."

He lit a Kent and tried to say, "watch the road!"

Horns were blaring.


Belinda Smatter was eleven years old. She had finished fifth grade and sometimes put half-chewed gum in Francis' Kent packs. He never mentioned it. They seldom talked, and when they did, it was painful. Like the time Francis took Belinda to Fresh Pond in the summer, just before his affair ended.

"How was fifth grade?" he asked. "Did you like it?"

"Real bummer," she said, pausing to pick up a stone from beside the pond. Francis imagined she had a rock collection, something that began with a science project.

"Did you like your teachers?" he asked, wondering why he'd never seen the rock collection, never been asked to school to the Science Fair where Belinda's rocks won some ribbon or another.

"Turkeys, each and every one," she said.

They walked on. Belinda picked up several more stones and put them in her jumpers pockets. The pockets bulged like the cheeks of squirrels.

After a long time, Francis said, as close to desperation as he remembered ever being, "What do you like?"

"Prince, Twisted Sister and French kissing," Belinda said, matter of factly. Francis took her to an ice-cream stand and bought her a peppermint ice cream cone. on the way out, she took all the rocks and piled them on a table. "Boy, they'll bitch about that," is all she said.

Francis said nothing. He chain-smoked on the way home.


Francis did not mind his job although he feared people did not know his name. And he hated going into his boss' office. Mr. Burrows was always smoking cigars and slapping his knee at his own jokes--most of which were obscene.

"Lewis," Mr. Burrows said as Francis approached his desk. "you seem uptight lately, you should loosen us."

"I'm Francis, not Lewis,"  he said. He was staring at the stuffed Siamese cat on the bookshelf behind his boss' desk.

"That's what I mean, Francis, you take everything so seriously. I was just joking about the name business and you didn't get it." Mr. Burrows lit a cigar. Francis didn't remember ever seeing the stuffed cat before.

"Did I tell you the joke about the nearsighted gynecologist?"

"Yes sir," said Francis.

Mr. Burrows slapped his knee and laughed. He was the kind of man who turned red in the face when he laughed and blanched when he was serious."What you have to decide," he said, beginning to pale, "is whether...are you listening, Lewis?"

"Yes," Francis replied, "and I'm Francis."

"Right, Francis...", Mr. Burrows seemed to be thinking some deep thought. "What you have to decide, perhaps the only important decision you'll ever make, is whether you're a man with a penis attached or a penis with a man attached."

There was a long pause. Francis nodded and Mr. Burrows erupted in scarlet-faced laughter.


"I may kill Mr. Burrows

"Why are you calling now? I'm in the middle of lunch." She sounded annoyed.

"What are you eating?" Francis asked. "I had yogurt." He thought he heard a dog barking in the background.

Judy pulled the pillow from under Francis' head. "Must you call your wife from here?" she said, throwing his pillow on the floor.

Francis covered the receiver with his hand. "I think I hear a dog," he whispered to Judy.

"And I think I don't want you coming here anymore," she said, eating the last spoonful of her yogurt. Her hair was in place and she showed no sign of weeping.


(Once, while Francis was in junior high school, he was playing street hockey in the school yard when his father came by. His father was on his way to the grocery store. He called Francis from his game and sent him instead, with a list and $20 bill. When Francis came back with two bags full of Campbell's soup and Heinz tomato ketchup and Karo syrup and other things, his father was leaning against the school yard fence watching the hockey game.

"One thing," he said, without looking at Francis and growing serious, "one thing must be decided, Francis. Do you know what that one thing is?"

"No," said Francis.

His father turned and looked at him for a long time. It was Autumn and a chill was in the air. Francis thought, at that moment, that his father surely loved him.

"You will be forced to decide," his father said, wistfully, patting Francis on the head before taking the bags. "You must decide to be a man, Francis. That is what must be done."

As his father walked a way, a bit unsteady on his feet, Francis pondered their moments together.)


Francis received a letter from an old army friend. "Dear Frank," it began, "do you remember how drunk we got in Frankfort? Do you remember the waitressess we picked up and all they did for us?" Francis did not remember.

The letter went on for half a page and there was a postscript--"Would you send me $250 until I get straightened out?" There was an address in Baltimore.

Belinda was watching TV while Francis wrote the check. It was a comedy where poor black children were adopted by a rich white man. One of the children was extremely cute.

"Isn't that kid cute?" Francis said.

"He's a nerd," Belinda answered.

"Don't you like this program?" he asked.

"No," she said, "it's really dumb."

Francis addressed the envelope.


At the office,, looking across the room at Judy's long, white legs and feeling something akin to sorrow, Francis overheard two secretaries talking as they walked by his desk.

"Mr. Burrows' wife really loved it, so when she passed on last month, he had it stuffed and put in his office," one of the secretary's told the other.

"His wife's cat died?" Francis asked. The two women looked startled as if they did not know Francis could talk.

"No," one of them said, "his wife died. He had the cat killed."

Francis hadn't known.

"By the way," the woman continued, "did you know you have dog hairs all over your suit?"

Francis hadn't know that either.


The next day at work, Francis answered the phone and heard Joyce's voice.

"Francis," she said, "do you know why the bulb in the refrigerator never burns out?"

"No," he said.

Because I change it ever three months whether it needs it or not. I always have," she told him.

"Oh," said Francis.

"Incidentally," she said, "I wrecked the car on the way home from the hairdresser's this morning. George came and picked me up. I had some x-rays, but my shoulder wasn't  re-injured."

"I'm glad," he said. And he was glad.


Francis finished his toast and kissed Joyce. She sat up in bed with crumbs on her lips. "Joyce," he said, "there's something I've been meaning to ask."

Joyce yawned. "What is it?" she said.

"Why do we always  have dog food in the refrigerator?"

"For Monarch," she said, rubbing her eyes.

"Monarch?" he said.

"Yes," she said, rolling over as if to go to sleep again. "You have to ride the bus again today, the car's still not fixed."


(Francis' mother died a week before he graduated from college. At the commencement, his father came up to him, lifted the mortarboard from his head and held him close. He smelled of whiskey and salami.

"I just want you to be happy, son," his father said, tears flowing down his cheeks and disappearing into his moustache. Francis' father was only slurring a little."You're a man now."

"Yes sir," Francis said, feeling vaguely close to his father.

"Too bad your mother missed this," Francis' father said. The blew his nose, wiped his face and disappeared into the crowd.)


On the way to work the first morning after the car was fixed, Francis said to Joyce, "does Monarch leave the dog hairs on the couch?" He picked some brown fur from his sleeve.

"Of course," she said, swerving off Storrow Drive and through a red-light to Charles Street.

"You almost hit that policeman," Francis said. He took a Kent from his pack and tried to pull off a wad of half-chewed Dentine. "Is Monarch George's dog?" he said.

Joyce nodded. She was stuck behind a huge Avis truck and very annoyed.

"Who is George?" Francis asked.

The traffic opened up. Joyce accelerated into the center lane. "You have to be a man about this," she told Francis.

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.