I was sitting on a park bench. No, I wasn’t eyeing little girls with bad intent. I was reading a novel because the movie version comes out in a couple of weeks. Kate Winslet is going to be in it. She’s a good actor. I find it condescending to call them actresses.
The novel’s dust jacket was removed so it was just a plain black hardcover. On the next bench over were two street kids. Homelessy. The boy peered over and asked, rather aggressively, “Is that a bible?” I wondered if his father was a fan of the good book, if maybe he beat the boy, and so, once old enough, the boy ran away. That would explain a lot. The girl peered over, more intently, and said, “No, it’s not a bible, it’s a book.”
That was my daily dose of vitamin D. I mean parallelism. I mean irony.
Raymond Carver wrote stories. He drank a lot. He died youngish. Some say he was a perfectionist. Many say he was a minimalist. I wonder how he felt about that label. I don’t often wonder how other people feel. I don’t much give a shit.
My colleague Stacy gives a shit. She wears a bandanna, no make-up, and spent a year in Mongolia with the Peace Corps. Came back, became a high school science teacher, married a professional musician, a beta-male who plays classical guitar. I wonder what kind of sex they have. I’m guessing incense and sitars and hirsuteness.
Walking home from my last trip to the supermarket (I have no car) an obese woman approached me in a big old automobile, a Grand Marquis or a Regal or maybe it was a Crown Vic, spewing some story about how she needed money to get her through the week until payday. The fat woman was Hispanic but spoke pristine English. She gestured to her two daughters, one in the passenger seat and the other in back, then something about asthma medication and how anything I could give would help. I used the word ‘sorry’ twice, but gave her no money.
I’ve never been a gives to beggars type. I read a lot of Nietzsche when I was in high school. Pity repulses me. The street kids cursed a lot, and were on drugs, but they were thin, and I was far more tempted to give them a few bucks than I was the woman who begged and pleaded in front of her daughters, who vowed to give me her address, or to go back into the supermarket with me and let me buy the food and medicine for her to show that she wasn’t going to squander or misappropriate my charity. It wasn’t because I thought she was lying that I refused to give her money. I believed her, as much as I can believe anything (that the moon landing wasn’t shot on a film set, that AIDS came from some monkey in Africa and not an underground lab in Montana), I knew she wasn’t a fake, one of those guys playing blind or claiming to be a homeless Vietnam vet despite being the wrong age, but I earn my money, and I don’t have a car, and she was easily eighty to a hundred pounds overweight.
The other day I wrote the words ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’ on the board and asked my students to explain the difference.
Megan is a well-proportioned woman. Alpha-male firefighter for her husband. I’m assuming their intercourse is athletic and vigorous. I saw her left breast fall from its lodging and slip out the side of her dress at a semi-formal school function last year. It was a helluva breast. She runs triathlons and used to be a cocktail waitress at a Las Vegas casino. Then a brief engagement to a verbally abusive cardiologist before she transferred into this school district, fleeing him. Megan’s face reminds me of my mother’s.
Seated on that same park bench, back in the summertime, I contemplated a nearby statue of Columbus. It’s very hip and postcolonial to dismiss old Chris as a murderer-rapist-pillager but in the year 2000 four Harvard intellectuals ranked the thousand most important people of the millennium and Columbus came in second, behind only Johannes Gutenberg.
I’ve never been to Mainz, Germany. I always read hardcover novels with the dust jacket off. Don’t like to get my fingermarks on the cover, especially if it’s glossy in texture or predominantly dark in color. I wonder how sociologist Max Weber read his hardcovers.
“Sir, excuse me, please, can you help us, my daughter has asthma, sir, she needs her medication.” Named it too, the made-up word for the drug produced by a billion-dollar corporation which ensures that her daughter’s breathing remains regulated, normalized, controlled. Nodding along, I let her finish her spiel. I felt no guilt. I didn’t walk away in mid-sentence or scold her afterward. She did not deserve rudeness. She was a desperate woman. I have felt desperation. I have stolen. I’ve never killed or raped. I contemplate suicide, but not all that seriously.
My daily dose of generosity is reserved for the speckled orange and black stray cat that meows outside my door most evenings, usually as I am finishing my single nightly gin and tonic. I provide him with water (because milk gives them diarrhea) and sometimes a can of tuna fish. I pet him with my winter gloves on, as I’m allergic to cats. I call him Tony, because his color scheme reminds me of Tony the Tiger. Cereal boxes are some of my favorite things in the world. If there’s a heaven, I bet it has lots of cereal. I tend to prefer Kellogg’s cereals to those of General Mills. I put bananas in my Rice Krispies. Otherwise I just pour the cereal in a bowl, add two percent milk, and eat it with a tarnished but clean spoon. I own one spoon, one fork, a butter knife and a steak knife. All were purloined from restaurants. There is very little furniture in my apartment. I never let Tony the stray cat inside, though I can tell he would like to enter, make my apartment his home. But I am, as I said, allergic (inherited from my father), and Tony would likely scratch and/or urinate on my few but cherished material possessions. And though it is cold outside and I sometimes cry in a happiness-loneliness mix when he purrs to me, I cannot and do not let him in.
I’ve let women in. Jessica Thomas. Jessica Lytle. A Kristyn, a Katherine, a Kristine, a Karen (my favorite, she was tall). I wouldn’t mind canoodling with the Stacys and Megans of the world, married though they may be. I’ve yet to have an affair with or fuck a married woman. I occasionally fantasize about my students. Many of the seniors are of legal age. Most don’t appeal to me though. I actually prefer women to girls, which I think puts me in the minority.
For the first time in over a century in the United States, marrieds are a minority. Matrimony is, I think, a quaint but archaic custom. I doubt I’ll ever indulge. I know I’ll never have kids, that’s definite, but I don’t want to rule out marriage. There certainly wouldn’t be a ceremony in a cathedral. Nor would there be a ring. There would, of course, be premarital sex and cohabitation.
Last week I used the word ‘altruism’ and one of my sixth period students asked me what it meant. I told him his homework was to go look it up for himself. The following day I had him share the definition with the class.
Andre Dubus wrote stories. Some have been made into movies. His son is a writer too, also named Andre. He sells more books than his dad did. That Oprah woman who I hate even featured one of the son’s books on her television show. Andre the father, the better writer, wasn’t a big drinker. He was a paranoid ex-Marine, carried a gun at all times. He died youngish too, in July of 1986. He was driving home, in Massachusetts, and he stopped to help two people, a brother and sister named Santiago. Their car had collided with a motorcycle that was lying across the highway, abandoned by a drunk driver who’d fallen off of it. Dubus assisted the siblings toward the side of the road. The man spoke no English. The woman was stunned and staggering, but could walk. Dubus thought she was in shock. As he escorted her to the safety of the shoulder, an oncoming car swerved to avoid the wreckage. Dubus shoved the woman out of the way and was hit. He lived for thirteen more years, confined to a wheelchair, tortured by depression and infections, enduring constant mental and physical pain, his own finances insufficient to maintain payment of his medical bills. Some writers more famous and successful than Andre held a benefit to raise money for him. Through the bloated lie that is Catholicism he somehow found an inner peace. He continued to write, living every day to its fullest or somesuch, eschewing bitterness and self-pity. He died of a heart attack at age fifty-two.
Raymond Carver recovered from alcoholism and he too embraced life. He died at fifty, in Washington state, of lung cancer.
Children die of asthma. Homelessness claims lives as well. So does AIDS, although the notion that it is decimating Africa is a lie. Just as many people die in Africa each year of malaria and tuberculosis, but those diseases lack the political cachet of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
That was my daily dose of real-time history. Previous lessons included topics such as: global warming is the wrong climate change theory, politicians are far too certain about everything, bike helmets and car seats are saving children but killing childhood, and Southeast Asian sweatshops are actually good for the native third-world population because they keep the fourteen year-old girls who work there for a dollar a day from becoming prostitutes.
I don’t consult Nietzsche or Max Weber as much as I used to. Do people still read philosophy and sociology? I know they don’t read stories. The short story is a dead artform. Sex is pretty vapid, even if the woman is of great height or an au naturel beauty or has exceptional breasts. I will be sad the day Tony stops coming around and purring to me. I will assume he is dead, my gloves will become utilitarian, and I will move on with my life.
Wake up. Eat a bowl of cereal. Explain the definitions of words to teenagers.