A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 8

After I quit reading, I was about to fall asleep in my father’s chair when I decided it would be better to spend some time tidying up in the apartment. First I cleaned the counter in the kitchen. I even went so far as to move the toaster and shake out the crumbs — something I hadn’t done for at least a year. Then I moved on to the bathroom, where I attacked the sink and mirror, both of which have mysterious stains that can’t be removed — the legacy, no doubt, of other happy tenants. I was about to do the toilet when I realized I was out of the smelly stuff you squeeze under the rim. As a temporary measure, I gave it a flush, then sprinkled cleanser in the bowl. A couple of minutes later I went over it vigorously with the brush, achieving a satisfactory, semi-sanitary result.

Next, I sat down at the computer and managed to clear some much-needed space on the hard drive by deleting several large files. Mostly, they were just earlier versions of jobs I had done that had been superseded by customers’ changes. One was for a company that had gone out of business. Another was for a comically ornate wedding program I’d done for one of the town’s richest families, who just happen to own the area’s fanciest golf club, as well as several acres of prime real estate planned for use as a new business park. In other words, the kind of people who normally wouldn’t give me the time of day. In fact, they didn’t have to, because Abe handled the job, while I remained conveniently offstage and out of sight. I also got rid of some old quotes I had given for jobs that never materialized — always a pleasurable task. Entrepreneur that I am, I rarely lose sleep over the ones that get away. Most of them aren’t worth keeping anyway, and have as much appeal as cut bait.

I was in the middle of a game of solitaire — not the computer kind, but the kind with real cards — when the phone rang. Since my mother had called earlier and I had talked to Mary the night before, and since it was too late in the day for business, I assumed it was Matt checking in. I picked up and in a low, somber voice said, “Good evening, Monroe’s Mortuary.”

But it wasn’t Matt. After a brief silence, I heard someone say, “Is this Steve?”

Foolishly, I admitted it was. The voice was familiar, but I couldn’t place it.

“This is Terry,” the familiar voice said. “Terry Mitchell?”

“I don’t believe it,” I said. “Terry? What are you doing?”

“Well, nothing much. I talked to your mom a few days ago. She gave me your number, so I thought I’d call.”

Thus began what turned out to be a rather awkward conversation between two old schoolmates from Norris who hadn’t seen or talked with each other in twenty years. Until he called, the most recent thing I knew about Terry was that he was going to school somewhere in Idaho and was engaged to be married. Hearing from him was a complete surprise — the kind of surprise that, despite all the pleasant memories it dredges up, makes you wish you were someone else.

We did our best to trade insults, as was our habit long ago. But everything we came up with sounded forced, due to the passage of time and the inevitable difficulties we had both faced and didn’t care to reveal. He did say he was still living in Idaho, and that he was a teacher in a private school. I found this unlikely bit of news amusing, since I know from personal experience that Terry regularly tortured his teachers at Norris High School and poked along with a C average the entire four years. We had a few laughs over that one. It was then, right when we were both beginning to relax a little, that he told me he was in town, and that he was calling from a teachers’ convention at the snazzy Lion’s Gate Hotel, located on Vista Ridge Drive.

This is something I did not want to hear, because I knew immediately that it meant we were supposed to get together for coffee and talk about old times. Old times are one thing, but it’s impossible to talk about them without also going into what has happened since, and what is happening now. Not that I don’t like Terry. I do. If we weren’t friends, we were about as close to that as a couple of brainless high school kids could be.

And of course this is exactly what he had in mind. To make matters worse, he was leaving the next day, so it was a case of now or never — the latter being so tempting that I almost begged off. Amidst a flurry of one-liners, we made arrangements to meet an hour later in the coffee shop next to the hotel.

Even after hanging up, I wasn’t sure I was going. It would have been a simple thing not to go, and not to answer the phone if he called later, wondering where I was. It would also have been the wrong thing. Slamming the door in an old friend’s face does not pave the way to heaven, or even to the Bahamas. And so I went. I took another shower, shaved, brushed my teeth, put on clean clothes, locked up, got in my car, left the parking lot, and headed for the freeway.

About five minutes into the trip, I remembered that I had only three dollars and ninety-six cents left over from the twenty I’d taken out at the ATM. That and the handful of ones I’d started with would not be sufficient for the piece of pie we would have with our coffee, if we didn’t go all-out and order a sandwich or something else to eat — food being a handy crutch in situations like that. While it seemed likely Terry would offer to pay, that wasn’t something I could rely on. Besides that, I’m not a cheapskate. I might be broke, but I’m not inhospitable. All of which meant it was necessary to stop at the bank again and take another small slice out of the rent money.

After holding up the branch downtown, I followed Water Street south for several blocks until I came to Vista Ridge Drive, then wound my way up to the hotel. Overlooking the city, the Lion’s Gate faces east. Besides being a nice place to stay, it offers the only real convention facilities in the area, also making it the place to go for wedding receptions, reunions, and business deals.

I found Terry in the waiting area of the coffee shop, thumbing through a full-color real estate guide produced by a slime-ball public relations outfit that’s well known in the graphics business for charging at least three times what a job is worth. He had a small mustache, and his once shaggy hair was short and neatly combed. His clothes were better than mine, as was his posture and all-around appearance. Having gone to seed myself, the contrast was embarrassing. But, as there was nothing I could do about it, I took a deep breath and spoke his name — whereupon he looked up, smiled, and said, “I’ll be darned. You look familiar.”

Trying to be clever, I said, “I’m sorry Steve couldn’t come. He asked me to meet you here. My name’s Bill Morris.” Terry laughed and we shook hands. Bill Morris was an English teacher we both hated — “Morris of Norris” we called him, among other things.

Shortly thereafter we were seated by a charming young lady who bore a surprising resemblance to Lauren Bacall, but lacked the style and grace necessary to take advantage of it. Also, her voice was silly and squeaky — a definite drawback. Of course, one sees this sort of thing all the time. The other day, in fact, I saw a guy who looked a lot like Sir Laurence Olivier, but he was selling insurance.

Comfortably seated in a booth with a fine view of the parking lot, we settled in for our mini-reunion. I asked Terry if he was hungry. He said he was, and opened his menu. “Good,” I said. “Because I’m buying.”

I’d originally planned on something light, but was actually beginning to feel hungry again. Thinking of what I had earlier, I scanned the menu for sandwiches. I was looking for something that translated into “Two slices of sourdough with some ham and cheese slapped in there” when Terry asked me how things were going. I told him things were going fine, just fine. Then I asked how things were going with him. He said things were fine with him too, making us even. “How was the convention?” I said.

“Oh, I guess I’d have to say it was boring.”

“Meetings all day?” I said.

“Yeah, some. And some classes.”

“You mean a seminar type of thing?”

“More or less.”

“With overhead projectors?”

“You got it.”

I glanced at my menu, glad I hadn’t been there.

To keep the ball rolling, Terry said, “So, I talked to your mom.”

“That’s right,” I said. “I’ll bet she got a kick out of that. Did you stop by, or just call?”
“I paid her a visit. She even fed me.”

“That’s no surprise,” I said. “In fact I’m going up there this weekend, so I’ve been fasting.”

It suddenly occurred to me that my mother hadn’t told me about Terry’s visit, either. That seemed odd. It was one thing for her to be cagey about Mary’s phone call, but leaving out the visit of an old high school chum was completely out of character. I filed this bit of information in my withered gray matter, hoping to make sense of it later.

Terry turned his menu over and looked at the back, then he opened it again.

“What’re you having?” I said.

“I think I’ll go with the club sandwich,” he said.

“I’ll tell you what sounds good,” I said. “A great big bowl of chili.”

“Do they have that here?”

“Are you kidding? This is a class joint. But there’s a little place out at Four Corners that does chili. Texas Jane’s.”

“Really? How is it?”

“How is it? It’ll put you in the hospital,” I said. “Talk about a grease fire. But what a way to go.”

Terry laughed. “Sounds like some of the stuff we used to eat,” he said.

“It certainly does,” I said. “Not to mention the stuff we drank.”

Terry smiled, but I could tell by his expression that he no longer approved of drinking. This bothered me, because once you start disapproving of things there’s no end to it. Not that I condone everything. For instance, I don’t believe in orgies, unless they’re with someone you like really well, or are planning to get to know better — that is, if the situation permits. One can’t always be asking questions. There’s such a thing as going with the flow.

“How about you?” Terry said. “Have you decided yet?”

“I think I’ll go with the grilled chicken,” I said. “And a salad. I’ve got to lose twenty pounds. No noodles, no ice cream, no fun. God, what a life.”

The waitress — a confident redhead who looked like no one famous but who did an excellent imitation of herself — arrived and took our order. With nothing else to focus on, we were left to pick our way through the minefield of adult happiness and joy. As it turned out, Terry was also divorced, and had been for years. He had married a girl from Idaho by the name of Julie, whom he’d met at school when he was studying to be a teacher. From what I could gather, they had separated fairly early on. There was no mention of children or a second wife. After confirming my own marital status, I dug through my wallet and pulled out my favorite picture of Matt dressed in his high school baseball uniform. That went over well.

Soon thereafter, Terry asked me what I was doing for a living. “So, I hear you’re in the printing business” were his exact words.

“Well, according to my mother,” I said. “Actually, I do typesetting and layout on an old computer.” It would have sounded better if I’d lied and said something kosher, like, “I run a small studio,” or, “I’m into graphic design,” but I’m sure I would have gagged.

“That’s interesting,” Terry said. “What kind of stuff do you do?”

I almost said there was nothing interesting about it, but as Terry looked genuinely intrigued, I decided against it. “Oh, the usual,” I said. “Business cards and brochures. Anything that helps people make a buck.”

“I’ve always wanted to have my own business,” Terry said with enthusiasm.

“I don’t blame you,” I said. “It’s a glamorous life.”

“Come on,” he said. “Don’t tell me you’d rather be working for someone else.”

“Well, there’s no avoiding it in any case,” I said. “Since one can’t live in a vacuum. I’ve tried, by the way. It doesn’t work.”

Distracted by their movement, I looked outside and saw an old woman in a wheelchair being pushed by a bony, embarrassed boy of about sixteen — obviously her grandson. Terry also looked. An old man followed on foot, carrying a woman’s purse. They were on the sidewalk, heading for the entrance, and the old woman was talking a mile a minute.

“But I know what you mean,” I said after they’d gone by. “To answer your question, no, I wouldn’t.”

Terry was still looking out the window. “I didn’t think so,” he said.

“Still, it’s not for everyone,” I insisted. “It’s not all fun and games. There’s a certain amount of pressure involved. And when things go wrong, guess who gets the blame.”

Much to my surprise, Terry looked disappointed. Turning back to the table, he said, “That’s true. Anyway, I’ve been teaching so long, I doubt I could give up the old paycheck.”

“Paychecks are nice,” I said.

“They can also make you lazy.”

I took a sip of water. “Look,” I said. “Life’s too short for us to be sitting here talking about money. You know what I mean? We’re here, and that’s what counts.”

“I hate teaching,” Terry said. He picked up his spoon and put it down again.

“Of course you do,” I said. “There’s something to hate about everything.”

“Sure there is. Only I hate all of it.”

“All of it?”

Terry nodded. Unfortunately, what he said made perfect sense. As nice a guy as he is, he was never teaching material. I knew it, and he knew it. Admitting it, that was another thing. That took courage. Or desperation. Either way, I was sorry I had laughed about it earlier when we were on the phone.

It wasn’t long before our food arrived. That helped. Some. Not enough. While we were eating, I went through my usual song and dance, doing my best to lighten the atmosphere. We talked about the old days, and I asked him about his parents, and about his younger sister, Kelly, who was pretty without knowing it, and whom I danced with once in the high school gym. I didn’t ask her. She asked me. It was wonderful. We held each other close, and it meant something — what, I don’t know. I don’t even remember the song.

Terry said some nice things about my father that I really appreciated. It’s amazing what people remember. Little by little, we both relaxed. It was a good evening. A sad evening. It was pathetic.

Finally, after several cups of coffee, we called it a night. Somewhere along the line, I think I might have told Terry I was glad he had called, and that I was sorry he wasn’t going to be in town a little longer. Or, maybe I didn’t. Maybe I just thought it. Not that it matters.

What matters, I think, is this: There are an awful lot of nice, unhappy people in the world who are stuck doing things they really shouldn’t be doing. They’re stuck because their backs are against the wall and they don’t want to starve. They’re stuck because they didn’t know how to stand up for themselves when they were kids. They’re stuck because they were tested and branded and herded into classrooms by frightened adults who, often with the best of intentions, brainwashed them into thinking they were doctors, lawyers, insurance salesmen, teachers, electricians, customs officers, store clerks, or mechanics. They’re stuck because, once upon a time, long ago, the human race took a wrong turn somewhere, and we’ve been dealing with it ever since. Take it from me. I know. I’m stuck, too.

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

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