A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 4

The apartment I live in now is devoid of personality. It’s more like an office with a sink and a bed. I really miss living in a house. On occasion, I will take Matt home after watching one of his ball games, or I will pick him up to take him somewhere if he can’t arrange for a ride with one of his friends. It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, it always hurts to see the place where I used to live — partly because it reminds me of the sad things that went on there, but also because it’s a real home, with a real purpose and continuity. The flowers in front, the potted plants by the door, Mary’s delicate little wind chime hanging on the porch — all of this speaks volumes. I don’t even have pictures up. I do have my father’s chair, though. Other than that, this place could be inhabited by anyone — which means, I suppose, that I am lifeless and dull. But that’s not true, either. The place is meaningless, that’s all. And I just don’t have the heart to try to make it less so. It would be an exercise in futility. It isn’t home, and it never will be.

Another thing I really hate about apartments is that there is always someone nosing around. It’s either the manager, or some exterminator he’s hired, or a drunk looking for one of my neighbors who moved away a year ago. The lack of privacy is a killer. The fact that I can’t choose the color of paint on my walls doesn’t help. Uniformity may be cost effective, but it shrivels the spirit. And I don’t like having to listen to people flush their toilets and argue in the middle of the night. It’s like living in a cell. If the guy two doors down has the stomach flu, everybody knows about it. If a man and a woman are having — well, a fling, then everybody knows that, too.

People who live in apartments — at least the kind I’m living in — tend to move frequently. Their jobs change, or their marital status, or whatever. For the most part, this is good — until their replacements move in. Some tenants are impossible to ignore, because they insist on being seen, and in other ways making their presence known. Their music is too loud, they hog the washing machines, they block your parking space, they leave cigarette butts by your door, or some other thing. Not all neighbors are bad, of course. The problem is, people shouldn’t have to live so close to each other. It isn’t natural. Humans need breathing room. When we don’t have it, we become suspicious and rude.

All things considered, for me, moving is pointless. Even if I had the time, energy, and money, I still can’t stand the thought of sifting through the ads, making the calls, and checking the places in person to see if they measure up. They don’t — and I refuse to pretend otherwise.

There is one saving grace, however. In spite of my disposition, I’ve made a few friends during my stay here. All have moved away except one, a cab driver by the name of Ernest Taylor. Ernie, who is in his late fifties, is also divorced — three times, in fact. Over a beer, he’s shown me pictures of his former wives and told me a little about them. I say over a beer, but the fact is, we’ve gotten drunk together several times.

According to Ernie, his first wife was addicted to sex, his second wife was a monster, and his third wife had multiple personalities. An interesting assortment. More than once I’ve told him, “Ah, but imagine if that were all rolled into one woman — then you’d have something.” Of course he’s not the type to fault his former wives entirely. If he were, I doubt very much we could be friends. Nor is he the type, as I am, to take all of the blame. Not that I’ve told him everything, because I haven’t. He certainly hasn’t told me everything — which suits me fine, and is probably one reason we still get along. But really, we do see eye to eye on most things. What we don’t agree on, we simply leave alone. It’s a good understanding. Each of us takes the other on his own terms, and doesn’t expect him to be something or someone he’s not.

That cab driving actually appeals to Ernie makes sense, because he is a true renegade. The cab driving business has a way of attracting renegades. It is one of the few, if not only, jobs left in town that pays cash daily. At the end of his or her shift, each driver turns in the day’s earnings and receives a percentage in return with taxes taken out, thus settling accounts. Duly blessed, the driver wanders off into the sunset, perhaps never to be heard from again. Several drivers Ernie has told me about have their fingers in many pies, from legitimate business ventures to dealings better done in the dark. To use his own words, most drivers are seedier than hell. Quite a few drink heavily, some cheat, and one he mentioned deliberately sabotaged his car because he hated the owners of the cab company. That driver has since moved on. He may be locked up by now, though chances are he’s driving for another company, hopefully in another town.

What makes Ernie a renegade? To begin with, he has little use for society’s standard conventions. He abhors the herd mentality, despises materialism, and thinks all politicians should be shot — including the small-time wannabes serving on our own city council, who are, by and large, businessmen and land developers looking out for their own interests. Ernie is not pure by any means, but he has a big heart and a sincere desire to help the underdog. And who is the underdog? Those of us who are trampled on by society, or made to look awkward by people who, despite their wealth and influence, contribute nothing — those of us who are shoved into corners and under bridges because we were born at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, or to the wrong family — those of us who refuse to conform, and who have paid a tremendous price for our freedom, and who will never give it up — those of us who try and fail, then try again — those of us who laugh in the face of ridicule. Beyond that, the underdog is anyone who cares about what happens — to us, to the planet — and is willing to admit it, even if only to himself.

When the world looks at Ernest Taylor, it sees a seedy guy with a scraggly gray beard, wearing a sweat-stained baseball cap. It sees a guy with poor posture who doesn’t bother with exercise. It sees a guy who is going nowhere, and who has no prospects. It sees these things because that’s what it wants to see. What it misses, though, is a pair of sharp, gray eyes, a sympathetic smile, and a genuine amiability with no strings attached. What it misses is a man who is extremely well-read with a keen sense of humor. But, labels are easy. Slap a label on something or someone, then it becomes unnecessary to think. Thinking is work. It’s also fun — or at least it can be if you don’t mind making a fool of yourself on occasion.

Still planted in my father’s chair, the thought finally occurred to me at about three a.m. that Ernie might be up. His schedule, if you can call it that, is pretty much whatever he wants it to be. He usually drives during the night, but when he has something more important than work to do, he gives the dispatcher a shout and begs off — standard practice among drivers at the company. The way the business is run, there is always an idle driver or two looking for an extra shift — usually to make up for taking time off that they shouldn’t have and really can’t afford to lose. So at that hour, if he’s home, it’s likely that he’s up, because he’s used to sleeping during the day.

I got up, then turned on the small lamp on my work table. A kink was developing on the right side of my neck from too much sitting, so I reached up with both arms and stretched as far as I could. The kink didn’t go away, but it didn’t get any worse, either. I took this as a good sign. I stretched again, this time holding my arms to the side and parallel with the floor. I almost lost my balance. When it felt like my fingers would fall off, I lowered my arms. I thought of bending over and touching my toes, but decided injuring my back wasn’t likely to help my neck.

Taking common sense one step further, I quit stretching altogether and put on a pair of pants, which I hadn’t bothered to do when I got up again after showering and failing to fall asleep. It was an arduous task, for at that late hour I seemed to have lost my equilibrium, which is apparently restored when a person sleeps, or when he’s dead, whichever comes first. To be safe, I settled on the old T-shirt I was wearing and opted for slippers instead of shoes. Ernie lives only a few doors down, so padding daintily that short a distance didn’t seem like too bad an idea, especially since it was dark and no one cared anyway.

Thus attired, I opened the door and stepped out to see if Ernie’s old blue Impala was in its space. It was, in all its sulking glory. It seemed to be drawing energy from the security light in the parking lot, but I might have been mistaken, since my equilibrium was not at its optimum level. After closing the door behind me, I aimed myself in the direction of Ernie’s apartment, set off on my journey, and was soon close enough to see that his light was on and that his front blinds were partly open.

“About time you got here,” he said when he came to the door. “Come on in.”

I went inside and Ernie closed the door. Playing along, I asked him how he knew I was up. He said, “Hey, I know these things. I’m alert. I pay attention.”

“Meaning,” I said, “that you eavesdrop and stick your nose into places it doesn’t belong.”

Ernie laughed. “Damn right,” he said. “Whenever possible.” He plopped down in his old leather recliner, and I sat down on the couch, which was formerly cream-colored but now has so many stains on it that a kind of pattern has arisen — a pattern not altogether unsatisfying to look at, as long as you don’t question its origin. Reaching into a brown paper bag on the inverted crate that serves as his coffee table, he said, “Go ahead, help yourself,” and pulled out a handful of unshelled, heavily salted peanuts. I took some, and complimented Ernie on the impressive pile of shells he already had going on the table. He told me peanuts were the only thing he’d eaten all day, and that he’d been craving salt for some reason.

“I’ve never seen peanuts this salty,” I said. “Where’d you get them?”

“Oh, from some old guy I haul around. He’s got barrels of ’em.”

I wasn’t surprised, because it seemed Ernie was forever hauling old guys around, and they always had barrels of something. It makes me wonder — if I happen to live that long, what will I have barrels of? Not money — I know that much. Maybe cheese, or pumpkin seeds.

“The deal is,” he said, “I’ve been trying to figure something out.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

He looked at me hopefully. “You’re intelligent,” he said, as if agreeing with him would make everything all right.

“Is this going to be a joke?” I said.

“It could be. I’m not sure.” Ernie paused long enough to crack open another peanut shell, toss the two nuts into his mouth, and add the shell to the pile. Chewing, he said, “It could go either way.”

Rather than to rush things, and feeling shot in any case, I started to work on my own peanuts. They were salty. They were also the best peanuts I’ve ever tasted. It wasn’t just the salt. The peanuts themselves were obviously better than what you can find in the store.

Ernie cracked open another one. “How’s Matt?” he said. “Still playing baseball?”

“That’s about all he does,” I said. “He’s getting pretty good at it, too.”

“I’ve got to go to one of his games,” Ernie said. “That’s all there is to it.”

“It’s kind of hard when you sleep during the day.”

“I can get up. In fact, I’m thinking of changing my schedule around. Staying up all night’s for the birds.”

Tell me about it,” I said.

Ernie gave me his trademark Oh-ho look and said, “So — one of those days, eh?”

“I thought you had a joke you were going to tell me.”

He smiled, but in a way that let me know he was willing to back off for the time being, if that’s what I wanted. He said, “Okay, I do. Only it’s not a joke.” He leaned forward and flipped his empty shell onto the pile. “You’ll love this. I’m thinking of getting married again.”

“Married?” I said. “As in, married?”

“Yes, something like that.”

“Wow. I thought you’d sworn off the stuff.”

“Me, too. You know, I think it might be a hormone thing.”

We each had a peanut, and then another.

“I guess it sounds kind of stupid,” he said finally.

“Well, no, not necessarily,” I said.

“It’s not like I’m in love,” he said. “I outgrew that a long time ago.”

“Oh? I didn’t know love was something you outgrew.”

“I’ve been married three times, remember.”

I wanted to say “So?” but I didn’t. Instead, I said, “Okay,” and let the word hang, hoping he’d catch it and swing the rest of the way.

He cracked open another shell. “I mean, at this point, it sounds a little bit corny. You know? Look at me. I’m diseased — horny, but diseased.”

After mulling over that valuable tidbit, I decided to leave it alone as well. I said, “Where did you meet?”

“Oh,” he said. “You’ll love this. We met on the Internet.”

“The Internet?”

“Yep. Isn’t that great?”

“Well,” I said, “that’s what’s going on these days. Why not?” Then I asked where she was from.

“I don’t know,” Ernie said. “She’s not from around here. I don’t think so, anyway.”

“She hasn’t told you?”


“That’s odd. Have you been seeing her for very long?”

“Nope. I haven’t seen her at all.”

“Well, that’s interesting,” I said. I meant it, too, even if I didn’t look the part. Being up after my bedtime has a way of draining the color from my face. But Ernie was wide awake, and quite obviously in the mood to talk. Which he did. I tried my best to listen, and I think I did pretty well, at least under the circumstances, when you consider the fact that right after I said the situation was interesting, Ernie got up, walked into his kitchen, and brought back two cans of beer. The beer made things really interesting. And of course what could be better — beer, peanuts, and Internet romance.

The odd thing about it, though, was that it really was a romance. At least it sounded romantic to me. There was certainly enough mystery involved, and we all know mystery lends spice to any relationship. Sometimes what you don’t know is easier to fall in love with than what you do know. Imagination is a lot better than franks and beans, in other words. Of course I knew Ernie was leaving out a few strategic points, but in my capacity as untrained listener I didn’t press the matter. He said he wasn’t in love, but I could tell he wanted to be, which was something I found, if not inspiring, then at least heartening — not that I was obligated to feel anything at all, since in reality I was only a sleepy divorced guy sitting there in the middle of the night drinking beer and eating peanuts. And that I did feel heartened was somehow in itself heartening — if that makes any sense. It showed I was still alive, at any rate, which may mean something or nothing at all.

After another two beers apiece, Ernie wasn’t exactly choosing his words carefully, and neither was I. For a time our conversation took a philosophical turn, then it wound up in a ditch and turned raunchy while we tried to spin ourselves out of the mud. To tell the truth, I’ve always been outclassed when it comes to talking dirty. For one thing, I usually end up turning red as a beet. My upbringing was such that certain things were never discussed — things involving the female anatomy, for instance. Even Mary is more comfortable with that than I am. Of course, she’s a nurse, so she ought to be. Which reminds me. According to Mary, nurses are among some of the crudest people she’s known, both in language and in points of reference. But I say they have every right to be, when you consider what they have to see and put up with every day. You’ve got to let off steam somehow. While jogging and meditation may be helpful on your days off, you have to do something to survive during the actual heat of battle — especially if you’re working in a hospital that’s running on twelve-hour shifts, a ludicrous arrangement that’s all too common these days.

Romance itself is a funny word, or at least it’s a tricky one. Young and old alike, we’re all pretty much trained to think romance is reserved for the younger set, though we make certain allowances for Sean Connery and Harrison Ford, who some women find irresistible for reasons that are beyond me. Generally speaking, when women see a guy like Ernest Taylor, their hearts don’t skip a beat, and they don’t think, “Now, there goes someone I’d like to meet.” Nothing against Ernie. They just don’t.

Trained observers of society will say there are many complicated reasons for this. I say it’s because we’re stupid. I will go one step further and say that I’ve done some observing of my own. And while my observation isn’t based on formal training — which usually amounts to a group of people sitting down and agreeing on what they will include and what they will exclude in their particular way of looking at things, and, in the process, who they will include and exclude — it is based on a sincere, sympathetic interest in the human animal. Put another way, I don’t really hate people. I just sound like I do.

Romance is happening everywhere, if you know what to look for, and if you are willing to see things in other than sexual terms. Sex is a bonus, not a prerequisite. There is romance in the tired-looking husband and wife out buying groceries together. There is romance in the old man and old woman you see talking to each other in their yard about the bugs on their roses. Romance means being considerate, and doing something small, special, and unrehearsed every now and then for the one you care about. Romance becomes possible when two people are willing to bare, little by little, their hearts and their dreams. The key word, I think, is vulnerability. Without vulnerability, romance withers and dies. When that happens, sex is no longer a bonus, but a diversion — a selfish agreement to make temporary, mutual use of one another.

In spite of his dirty talk, which was more a coverup than anything else, it was vulnerability I sensed when Ernie told me about his Internet romance. A kind of fear mixed with reverence. Fear that what he was feeling was real. Fear that it was not. Fear that she felt the same. Reverence for the possibility. Then again, for all I know, it might have been the alcohol.

I asked Ernie if the two of them planned to meet any time soon. He said, “Hell, I don’t know,” which I understood to mean he was afraid it might ruin everything. Then he told me they had sent their pictures to each other, also via the computer. “I’d show you now,” he said, “but the computer’s off and I don’t feel like getting up. She’s not bad-looking, though. A little old, but what the heck.”

“And you don’t know where she lives,” I said again.

“That really bugs you, doesn’t it?”

“Well, yeah. It seems kind of odd.”

“It was my idea, to tell you the truth. But if it’ll make you feel any better, she doesn’t know where I live, either.”

“Huh,” I said. “I’ll be darned.”

Ernie crinkled his empty beer can. “I wonder,” he said. “Maybe we could get married on the Internet, and then just leave it at that. What do you think?”

“Makes sense.”

“It does?”


“Damn you. What I’m saying is — hell, I don’t know what I’m saying.”

“I do. You’re saying, if you keep your distance, you can’t mess anything up.”

“Is that what I’m saying?”

“How should I know?”

“I thought so. Damn trouble-maker.” Ernie got up out of his chair. “Another beer?”

“Why not?” I said. “I’ve got nothing going tomorrow anyway.”

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Also by William Michaelian: Winter Poems and Another Song I Know

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