The Writing Disorder


New Fiction


by Joan Connor

      The octogenarian, who has fallen off his bicycle, calls Caroline from his summer home in Vermont, which is just down the road from her parents’ summer home. He is the father of Jack Junior, someone with whom she used to work years ago in Philadelphia. So she does the proper thing, the ethical thing, the soon-to-be doomed thing and offers to help him out. She jots down his list of necessities: olives, porterhouse steak, shoelaces (why shoelaces if he cannot walk?), triple A batteries, and a casaba melon and rings off. She walks into the kitchen.
      Her mother says, “That man calls you a lot. Are you sure this is on the up and up.”
      “The man fell off a bicycle.”
      “This is why you are still single.” Her mother hefts the lettuce head in her palms like a crystal ball.
      “He’s Jack’s father.”
      “Feels like a date set-up to me.” Her mother gives her the oracular mother look and bangs open the head of lettuce on the counter. A spritz of water jets over the fruit bowl.
      “You’ll see.”

      Caroline knocks on the octogenarian’s peely paint door. The grocery bag rips and the contents spill, the melon landing plumply by the mangled bicycle propped against the wall. It is one of those sad houses with a case of Depression asphalt shingles. The lawn screams with weedy neglect. The window sashes skew into impossible angles, not right, not right. She stoops to scoop the melon from the rain-packed dirt. The door vectors open, thump, and she is staring at sudden sky — horsetail clouds against a hot July sun — a melon plugged to her chest and her demure madras skirt bunched around her thighs. Her tailbone protests.
      “Got the whoopsies, I see,” the octogenarian says.
      At least she assumes it is the octogenarian. She is staring at sky, nursing a melon, but it is his voice. “Sorry,” she says. She struggles to her knees, giving her skirt a tug down and scrambling up.
      “I’d give you a hand, but I am incapacitated at the moment. The leg. Come on in.”
      She scurries, trying to gather the scatter. She butterfingers the batteries, bends again, trying to balance melon, steak, shoelaces, olives, feeling like a juggling orangutan on roller-skates. She follows him into the dark house, which she has not been in since Jack Junior visited from Philadelphia three years ago; it looks the same. Tattered skiing posters and art postcards tacked on an olive drab wall, a domed reliquary of a refrigerator, curling linoleum, a flea market table and unmatched chairs. Pretentious shabbiness. She drops the melon on the table. The enamel top drums.
      “Do you want the meat in the fridge?”
      He leans against the wall, studying her, a spindly tall man with a David Nivenish mustache and a late late movie charm. He is wearing an ascot. No one should wear an ascot. No one, unless he is in a late-late movie, should wear an ascot.
      “There you are,” she says, dumping the rest of his list with a flump, a patter, a clunk.
      He does not make a gesture toward his pocket, toward removing a wallet, splitting it, unfolding some bills with a crisp What-do-I-owe you. Okay, a gift of mercy.
      “You can cook it for me in a moment if you would. Let’s visit awhile.” He gestures toward the living room, a nonchalant sweep of the arm, still leaning against the wall, and she enters.
      She sees.
      Frank Sinatra spins on an old record player. Two Martinis (hence the olives) sweat on the coffee table, a wedge of cheese between them melting to “My Way.” This is not good; it is so not good. It’s spider and fly. It’s fox and goose. It’s octogenarian and the good Samaritan. “I really can’t stay. I have, I have appointments later, you know how it is.” But he lurches in behind her, trapping her against a de-upholstering chair, and tumbles into the Danish sofa that has fond memories of the good ole days. He neatens his hair and mustache with succusatory fingers, pats the seat next to him. “Please, sit down.” Venery agleam in his eye.
      Oh mantic mother, she sees. But the poor guy lives alone. He took a fall. He’s lonely.
      Frank Sinatra’s crooning about little town blues. She sags into the sofa but not as close to him as cheese to Martini, as far from him as the sofa permits where a coil threatens to snap herstill throbbing coccyx.

      Martini One: he tells her about the woman he used to live with. Recently live with. She left a year ago.
      Caroline keeps a deathwatch on her Martini. It’s 11:00 A.M..
      The woman was a reporter. They lived together for seven years, but she moved on and out. He shows her a picture of the reporter standing in front of a mosque, a blue scarf unfurling against her dark NPR hair. She is smiling. She is also Caroline’s age. This does not bode well.

      Martini two (hers.): He tells her about some twenty-something intern who works in the office of some artsy-something journal that he edits in New York. The twenty-something wore crinolines, layers of crinolines, which she flipped up when she straddled his lap and screamed, “Oh daddy, make me yours.” The anecdote’s vocabulary includes words like stamina (still Latinate), then declines to Anglo-Saxon words, solid, muscular words. Then slides to pussy which might purr cutely in another context. This is not it.
      He chuckles and adjusts the ascot. “She was a frisky little filly.”
      Caroline stares at her drained (by him) conical glass. Ole blue eyes is crooning about strangers in the night. Caroline wants to frisky filly right out the door, after garroting Jack Junior. She wants to put the octogenarian under the good Samaritan’s donkey, hoof him, cart him to the innkeeper’s and give the innkeeper coins to throw him out.
      Instead she says, “Indeed. I really must be going.”
      “I thought you were going to cook for me,” he says swirling his Martini lickerishly, stem between fingers.
      “Appointments beckon. Got to run.” She hears the crinkle of crinolines as she rises. Retro a go-go. Gotta go. “No need to get up.” And she hotfoots it, goes hell for leather, beelines for the door. “Ta.”
      When she opens it, she stalls, stops, staring at her chariot of escape, her bright red promise of a car. The right rear tire is flat, flat out flat. She feels the air go out of her in a whoosh. There is no God. There is no Michelin Man. There is no justice in the universe. Only a farcical web of arachnid coincidence spinning her into a paralyzed chrysalis. She wants to flee, she wants to fly, but she is as apterous as a kiwi, as a kiwi fruit. Behind her she hears ole gimpy legs stumping it to the door in time to ole blue eyes. Who sings a duet with his daughter ? — Then afterwards we drop into a quiet little place and have a drink or two, And then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like I love you. Who does that?       The octogenarian towers behind her in the door.
      “May I use your phone?” she asks. “I need to call Triple A.”

      Martini three: She needs to call Double A.
      Forty minutes, Triple A promises. Forty minutes tops.
      The octogenarian is pulling out photo albums which feature Jackie O. on Ari’s island without the pillbox hat, the Dior suits. Au naturel. Telephoto lens, he explains, paparazzi, sunbathing. Jackie O? Jackie OH MY. “These are very rare. Isn’t she exquisite?” A David Nivenish word given the circumstances which are not good, which are de-exquisiting by each ticking second that Triple A does not arrive, whip out the lug wrench, and get her red car keeping its merry promise, tootling back to the oracular mother with sworn affidavits NEVER to doubt her again.
      The octogenarian asks her if she knows how to dance.
      “I have two left feet,” she says. She wants to kick him with both of them. Why did her mama raise her right? She should tell him to bugger off. She should tell him to ride that broken bicycle headlong into a Mac truck. Instead she says, “Shouldn’t you eat something? Why don’t I cook your steak.”
      “Cook my steak? Why, darling, I didn’t know you cared.” His eyebrows leer like Groucho Marx’s greasepaint.
      He resurrects himself and executes half of a hobbled waltz with a shadowy sparring partner.

      She bangs around in the kitchen looking for a broiler. It’s in the sink, of course, with the dirty dishes, fat congealing on top of the cold water, floating like dismal islands. She pulls the stopper. The water sucks down like a thirsty alcoholic glugging in the Sahara, and she hunts for a scouring pad. She excavates one from an archeological dig into a drain pan by the sink — rusted, soapless, hopeless — runs the hot water and scrubs into the crusted layers, twenty layers of meals, at least twenty. Meanwhile the octogenarian Frankensteins into the kitchen, clop, clop, clop. Where are the murderous villagers when you need them? Where are the burning torches?
      The Chairman of the Board is skipping in some groove while the octogenarian’s ascot discovers a mind of its own, flipping like a pennant out of the collar, fluttering while its wearer explores More Joys of the Juniper Berry, Part Four.
      Photographs of the reporter curl, tacked to the window next to the sink. She wonders if he has any photos of crinoline girl, she preferably not astraddle. Caroline trains her eyes on the broiler.
      The octogenarian claudicates around the room, mixing drinks, plopping olives, issuing steak orders. Rare. Almost bloody. He looms over General Electric, the stalwart military fridge, glass in hand striking a pose that calculates sophistication, a stylized world-weariness, granted gimpy sophistication and stylized world-weariness as he favors the bowed left leg.
      Caroline bustles, trying to look the busy, busy cook, shift him from thinking frisky filly to thinking frumpy fry cook. She stares at the red plastic wall clock over the stove. The plastic wall clock over the stove stares at her. Tick. Tick. Tick. Where the hell was Triple A?
      She slides the broiler pan into the oven, cracking the door. Tick. Tick. Tick. The odor of searing meat fills the unventilated kitchen. She bends over, keeping an eye on the spitting fat.
      Then he makes his move.

      Martini Five: Harpo Marx without the horn.
      The octogenarian staggers from his studied pose; the Martini arcs. A spritz of Martini jets over her back. The olive missiles. The glass crashes. He embraces the demure Madras skirt. Actually he pitches forward into the demure Madras skirt.
      As the Martini glass rolls back and forth on its side in diminishing semicircles, the dance begins. Caroline screams and corners the table. The demure Madras skirt hightails it. The octogenarian hobbles on. She scampers. He shambles. She scoots. He shuffles. But — truth — with each totter the old dodderer appears more limber, more supple, more feline.
      Has he been feigning? He’s springing around like he just invented basketball (hence the shoelaces.) It’s a game. To him this is foreplay. It’s a dance. To her this is mortification.
      Smoke is billowing into the room from the cremating steak. Frankie is still grooving deeper into the groove with a rhythmic ratch, ratch, ratch. Music you can run to. Nice beat.
      Caroline says, “For God’s sake, this really must stop” as she slides past the vigilant, refrigerant soldier for the second time.
      Tick. Tick. Tick. Ratch. Ratch. Ratch.
      Then the smoke detector screeches on with its electronic bat-from-hell ballad.
      Tick. Ratch. EEE-EEE-EEE-Ratch. Tick. EEE-EEE-EEE. Ratchtickee.
      At this precise moment the Triple A truck pulls into the yard.
      Like the cavalry. Like the good Samaritan himself. Like there is a God. And a Michelin Man.
      Caroline bangs out the door, panting.
      The Triple A man has on a blue uniform with his name embroidered on his pocket: Brad. She could kiss it. A wonderful name, a short uncomplicated, competent, useful, masculine name like a little nail. What were they called, those little nails? Oh, yes. Brads.
      “Looks like you got some trouble in there,” Brad says.
      Caroline turns to check on the arson, sees smoke billowing out the door. “Oh, yes. I was just tending to it. How long will it take to change the tire?”
      “Ten minutes.”
      She could kiss him. She really could. She races for the door. Humankind was kind after all.
      The octogenarian greets her. “Welcome back, honeypot.”
      Okay, maybe not.

      Martini Six: None.
      The presence of Brad for some reason curbs the old goat’s goatishness. He settles into the sofa and snoozes. Caroline snaps off stuttering Frank, locates a fan (in the bathtub of course) and blows out the smoke, some of it. The steak, which would now make an excellent hole-less button, she tosses out. After scrubbing the broiler for a second, she tosses that too into the overstuffed wastebasket. It clangs. To hell with niceties. She leaves the melon, the shoelaces, the triple A batteries on the table. (Hence? She doesn’t even want to think about what they were for.) She washes and rinses the Martini glasses, one now chipped, and is about to creep out the door, but she can’t. She needs to check on him. He is old. He is lonely. He is, likely, hungry — no redemption for that unsewable button of meat — and is incapacitated — doubly — and no doubt a bit worn out by the aerobic foreplay.
      She sticks her head into the living room to check on him. His eyes closed, he looks simply vulnerable. He looks like an old man.
      His eyes flap open.
      “Goodbye,” she says. “I’m late.”
      He struggles to stand, ever the gentleman. “Just keep in mind,” he says, “if you ever want to fuck a horny octogenarian, I’m your man.”
      She stares. That was certainly high on the TO DO list. She leaves.

      Tooting away in the merry, cherry car, she feels free, as free as a Kiwi with wings, a Kiwi fruit with wings. But then, but then. Her hands begin to tremble on the wheel. First anger. Then an overwhelming sadness. She pulls over onto the berm.
      Was this it then? Was this her future? No Greek islands for her, no yachts, no extravagant shopping forays. No one to spoil it all by saying, I love you. Just a sad old man with food stains on his ascot. A robber falling upon her, the priest and the Levite passing her by. Figmentary appointments. A date (which was not a date) gone bad.
      But then she thinks of him, the octogenarian on his wobbly bicycle pedaling solitary to the grocery store to pick up his few items, pedaling solitary home, passing an evening alone with his Martini and Frank into the wee hours thinking about the postcards, what was, what might have been. The following sorrow of otherwise. The return to an empty house.
      She had a new tire on the car, a mother waiting to hear the story. And her mother, she will not say, “I told you so.”

      Joan Connor is a full professor at Ohio University and a professor in Fairfield University’s low residency MFA program. She is a recipient of a Barbara Deming Award, the John Gilgun award, a Pushcart Prize, the Ohio Writer award in fiction and nonfiction, the AWP award for her short story collection, History Lesson, and the River Teeth Award for her collection of essays, The World Before Mirrors. Her two earlier collections are: We Who Live Apart and Here On Old Route 7. Her work has appeared in: Glimmer Train, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Chelsea, Manoa, The Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, The Journal of Arts & Letters, and Black Warrior, among others. She lives in Athens, Ohio and Belmont, Vermont.

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