Sitting here in my back yard, this young man who calls himself Bob has just revealed that he is from Missouri.
"Ah," I say, "the Show Me state." I take a sip of Ethiopian blend coffee -- acidic, bilious -- from a stoneware mug. "Isn't that what they say there? 'Show me?'"
Bob pops a bit of croissant into his mouth. A barely audible laugh escapes him like a swallowed sneeze.
"Yup," he says.
The morning is cool, the desert breeze woven with threads of mountain air. November in Tucson begs for breakfast al fresco, which I've obliged. A glass-topped cafe table divides us: Bob from me, me from Bob, my corpulent old form from his slender young one, each of us an opposite pole on the clear fragile wheel between us. For the hundredth time I wonder what he sees in me. He takes off his cap (CAT, black and yellow, a farmer's or mechanic's stains on the brim), and sets it on the table. I look through the table's clear top, toward his knees: jeans faded at the front of the thighs, the cap (stained), up to the pleatings and crinkles at his crotch; I move on, body to face to eyes, where I can see he's making a similar visual survey of his own. I have no illusions as to what he sees: a man nearing fifty, pale and plump and balding. (Why, Bob? Why are you still here?) When he's finished with his quick appraisal, eyes up steady, I look away. I look at the cloudless sky, the impotent marshmallow of a sun.
Bob has followed me home. Sunday mornings, early, I go to the outdoor market at Campbell & River, and today it seems I've purchased more than tomatillos and masa. I hadn't pursued him; he had pursued instead. After the shopping, after the drive home, he'd pulled his pickup truck behind my compact in my driveway, leaned across the truck's seat and out the passenger window as I removed the bags from my car, and told me he could cook. The cap shaded his brow, eyes, nose from the morning sun, but revealed the mustache, thin and glowing, the flash of smile, the guileless chin; around him, around us both, the drumroll rumble of his truck. I'd allowed him to shut the engine off, motioned him to follow me (even in his filthy workman's boots) into my home, my living room, my kitchen, out to the patio set in back where he sat down at once, as if he'd been there before, as if it was a place familiar to him. He stretched his legs and laced his hands atop his head. I gathered us breakfast from the kitchen. He offered to help; I declined. Leaning near him as I placed the food onto to the table, I could smell his smell, honey-colored tinged with green, fresh like new-mown hay.
Now I sit across from him at the outdoor table, awaiting rituals I've almost forgotten.
For a while, we simply allow the morning to happen around us. Cactus wrens and woodpeckers fight for bread crumbs I've scattered among the gravel and cholla. I look at Bob, he looks away. Palms rustle. Cedars dapple. Bob coughs, once.
A surrounding redwood fence feeds the illusion that we're alone in the world, just Bob and me and the birds, an island somewhere away from it all, but the occasional sound of a passing car on a nearby street shatters this dream again and again.
All words suddenly seem momentous, overly full. Each prepared quip or question or bit of factuality comes to mind with a weight like lead, too heavy to find a voice, and drops away again into the dark pool of every sentiment that's ever gone unspoken. Silence remains, the only viable option.
Bob's Yup still hangs in the dry blue air around us.
He rises. Bob does, he rises and moves toward me.
I'm too old for this, Bob, I want to say. I'm too fat for this. This isn't something I've done in quite a long time, Bob, and the whole situation is making me rather uncomfortable now. How young are you anyway, Bob? Twenty-three?
But Bob is pulling my legs apart.
Are you a fetishist, Bob? Is that it? A thing for the fat? Do you like the short and stubby among us, or only short and stubby professors of mathematics particularly, whose students, former students, walking behind their former professor in the halls of school, call out: Dr. Duck, sir? or Yo, Professor Penguin! But how, really, could you know all that? Have you considered my context, Bob, or do like the fat just in and of itself?
And now he's on his knees before me, and now he's trying to free me from the confines of my clothes, and now he's taking me, pink and scared and limp, into his mouth, pink and wet and resolved, and I close my eyes against the image of Henry VIII, a fat king holding court, but the image, eyes closed, only affirms itself, and so I open my eyes again. I see his hair, Bob's hair, the dull color of dried weeds, and catch the scent again and recall the only thing my late father ever told me about his time in World War II: that if a soldier caught a whiff of new-mown hay, he was already dead; that the smell of hay in the battlefield was the odor of nerve gas. I close my eyes again. I take a breath and hold it.
Do you do this regularly, Bob? Pick up men at the outdoor market? Does this occur at indoor markets too, the stalking the driving the getting invited into the homes of strangers? Bob? Do you do this at McDonald's? The cinema? The opera (or is the opera not your thing)? Museums? Rest stops along familiar highways? The rodeo? Do only the desperate allow you access?
Am I your first, Bob, or only your first today?
Can you hear me with your mouth full?
Will I crumble if I breathe you in?
I'm in bed with all the house's lights off. I'm floating in the buoyant warmth of sleep, lying fetal beneath the jersey sheets, the comforter, a dozen pillows.
I feel the bed shudder, the rush of cool as the covers rise, the exhalation around me as they get pulled tight again. A firm press of knees at the back of my legs, a soft breath stroking the down of my neck, an arm surrounding me and pulling me backwards, back to sleep.
Drifting, I want to ask: Who?
But I don't dare.
My neighbor, whose name I don't know, has a chicken, whose name I also don't know, but whom (which) I call "Mabel Gentry." I suppose this appellation is my way of endowing the chicken (in my mind) with both a countrified (Mabel) and civilized (Gentry) air, thus elevating my interaction with the silly thing above the realm of mere barnyard antics.
Occasionally Mabel Gentry comes into my back yard, sneaking in through an opening between the redwood slats of the fence, craning and bobbing her neck, feet strutting with a high-toed hesitancy as if she's about to step into a pile of something offensive to her peckish sensibilities. I realize that I'm assuming Mabel Gentry to be a female, but I don't know why, since I haven't the slightest idea as to how to sex a chicken. I also don't know why Mabel Gentry keeps coming into my back yard, since when she does she doesn't seem particularly happy about it, often making strangled noises as if her neck is being wrung. They're guttural noises, horrifying, although sometimes I have to wonder if Mabel Gentry isn't strangling but merely trying to speak to me in German. Or perhaps a chickeny version of ¡Kung!. Hard to tell.
Whenever I see Mabel Gentry in my back yard, I try to entice her through my back door, into my kitchen. I do this with bits of bread. I scatter the bits of bread in a general line from the center of my yard right up to the kitchen door. Of all the things I don't know (and they seem to be adding up), my reason for enticing the chicken is yet another unknown thing, but one on which I have some theories. I'm thinking maybe that this enticement is a test of some kind, a self-test of my (literal) animal magnetism, or perhaps a test of sainthood. If I can coax a chicken in through my door, and then perform two subsequent proofs of saintliness, I can take my place in the Holy Order of Things. I'm not a Catholic, but I can't see as this should be a hindrance. It seems reasonable to me that anyone might be a saint and simply not yet know it. Persuasions notwithstanding.
One day Bob (who has been given a provisional key to my front door) arrives unannounced to find me standing in the kitchen doorway holding a slice of bread out toward Mabel Gentry. The only saving grace here is that I'm not naked as I usually am when I'm at home alone. Today, for some reason, I'm wearing a pair of flannel boxers (tasteful and slimming vertical stripes of navy and hunter green). I'm clucking and calling, making an unspecific idiot of myself.
"Chick-chick-chick," I'm saying. "Here chick-chick-chick."
Mabel Gentry, distant chicken, crooks her head, answers me in a foreign language.
Bob closes the front door through which he's entered, walks over to me, wraps his sinewy arms around my waist. His chin rests on the top of my head.
"Can I ask what you're doing?" he says.
"Trying to become a saint." I explain about the three miracles, how the chicken will help propel me into the hagiographic records.
On each side of me, Bob's fingers take a fluttery walk up my arms, elbows to neck, tickling all the way. "Birds on your shoulders," he says.
Good enough, I think. To hell with Mabel Gentry.
"Your eyes," Bob tells me one time. "You looked like you knew things."
"I didn't," I say. "I still don't."
"You do. You know math stuff. You studied science, right? You can break things down to their basic whatchacallits -- "
"Components," I say.
" -- and put it all back together again."
"Sometimes," I say, "it's best to leave things as they stand. Sometimes the beauty is in the mystery."
"Knowledge is power," Bob says.
"Ah, but true knowledge," I say, "is powerlessness."
"Okay, Bob . . . let's test this theory of yours," I say. "If knowledge is all that matters, tell me: How many lovers have you had before me? And tell me if you love me. Tell me if you'll ever leave me. Tell me how many times a day you look at another man and wonder what it might be like with him. Tell me if you don't, sometimes, wish for something better than what you have with me."
"I can't tell you all that," Bob says, after a moment's thought. "That'd just be stupid."
"Yes, Bob. I know."
I'm in my back yard, sunning my naked body on a blistering August afternoon. I'm lying on a sagging plastic chaise, protected from voyeuristic intrusion by the yard's occluding fence. The sun is apocalyptic. Everything is white and hot. The world has ceased to exist; even my body, in a puff of smoke, has left me. I've become a creature of sizzling thought, crackling through the vacuum of space-time. I am the heat. I rise.
I suppose my thoughts could be composed of anything, since I'm at one with the universe, but what I'm thinking of is Leonardo da Vinci. Not an inappropriate thing to be thinking of if one has overcome the boundaries of physical existence and has moved into a state of pure, essential beauty. I'm thinking of the Golden Mean, of Leonardo's depiction of it in particular, as illustrated sublimely in the "Study of Human Proportions according to Vitruvius" -- Leo's arm-wheeling sketch of a man surrounded by circles and squares, a frozen man who seems to move, flapping his arms as if he wants to rise above the limits of the page, a two-dimensional nude making angels in the sepia sands of time. Which leads me in turn to think of the sketch's inspirer, Vitruvius, the Roman architect who expanded the Greek's ideals of Platonic harmony based on the diatonic (seven-tone) musical scale, but which he realized most concretely in the Fibonacci ratios (1-to-2, 2-to-3, 3-to-5, 5-to-8, etc.), a series eventually converging at oh-point-six-one-eight. And I'm thinking of how Vitruvius took that oh-point-six-one-eight and applied it to everything, uncovered the hidden relations of planets, landscapes, physical structures, applied it to the human body especially, and churned up such an abundance of heavenly fodder that Leo da V. would be impelled, fifteen centuries later, to sit at a wooden table and, thinking of Vitruvius, doodle a perfect man.
In allowing this popping, twisting, hissing train of thought to lead wherever it will, I'm thinking how magical it is that, theoretically, an average man (like Leo), seated in an average chair and leaning forward so that his trunk precisely bisects the right angle formed by the seat and the back of the chair (he would be leaning forward, then, at an angle of forty-five degrees), how the seated man's mouth would then be perched at a height from the ground corresponding exactly to the position of an average (standing) man's crotch. My thoughts steal the sketching style of Leo's work above, and in my mind I trace out two perfect nudes on imagined yellowed paper. Seated figure. Standing figure. They animate: another trick of imagination. I watch as the average standing man (wheeling his arms) takes a single tottering step toward the average seated man. And then another step. Another.
My earthly body, not having melted away as I hoped it would, is pondering these earthy thoughts when it hears the creaking of the back door's hinge. My eyes pop open; the world slams back together into its former state.
Bob comes through the door, home from his compressed late-summer session at the community college, where he's taking basic courses in an effort to lift himself from the cultural shackles of a Hillbilly childhood. I've tried to persuade him that his backwoods roots are in fact the very core of his charm, but Bob is quite determined to flesh himself out with higher education.
"How was school?" I say, stirring myself awake.
"Oh, fine, I guess," he says. "Art history. Today was the Mona Lisa. Can you imagine, a whole hour on the Mona Lisa? And I still don't have a clue as to what the professor was yapping on and on about."
Bob plops his books on the patio table, near where I'm lying. He stands there, stretches, yawns.
Peeling myself from the chaise, I rub my hands at the dimpled grid in the skin of my back, trying to rid myself of the Cartesian imprint of the chair's plastic weave. I stand slowly, move to one of the wrought iron patio chairs, where I sit again and let my eyes roam up and down Bob's slim, tight, well-sketched body.
"So," Bob says with a sigh. "Know anything about art?"
"A little," I say.
I lean forward at an angle of forty-five degrees, reach out for Bob's belt buckle. I look up long enough to see an enigmatic smile forming on Bob's face.
"What's this got to do with art?" he says.
"Take another step," I say, "and I'll show you."
The next time he drops by, I'm squatting in a corner of my small kitchen, facing the juncture of two walls. I should also say, I guess, that I'm naked -- if this doesn't go without saying by now -- and holding a clear plastic spray bottle in my hands.
"What the hell?" Bob says as he steps inside.
"Spraying cockroaches," I say. "One cockroach, specifically."
"With cockroach spray," he guesses.
"Oh," Bob says. "Mm. Right."
Bob thinks this to be a semantic challenge on my part. I'm often trying to tease him with semantic challenges, since Bob himself is semantically challenged. I'm allowed this little harassment as long as I don't overdo it. If I overdo it, Bob gets pissed off.
"Anti-cockroach spray, then," he says.
Apparently, I haven't overdone it. Bob plays merrily along. His big teeth are like an extra lamp in the dark house. He takes off his stained cap and tosses it across the living room. It lands neatly on the sofa, where one of us is sure to sit on it later.
"Not quite anti-cockroach spray, either," I say.
Still squatting, I turn to show him the bottle I'm holding in my hands, holding in both hands, like it's a big revolver. A forty-four, maybe, or a thirty-eight. I've been imagining myself to be Ponch from C.H.I.P.s or, alternately, Angie Dickinson, a.k.a. Sergeant Pepper Anderson from Police Woman. I don't tell this to Bob, however.
"Windex," Bob says, reading the label on the clear bottle. "But the stuff inside's not blue." Bob pauses without saying the obvious, that the stuff inside is, in fact, yellow. He seems to consider the darker implications of yellow fluids just in general, and the more particular implications of me sitting alone in my home spraying some kind of yellow fluid at a cockroach. Naked. He makes a shape with his mouth, a sort of tortured moue beneath his blond mustache, but still says nothing. Bob is displaying the silence which often serves, for him, as tact.
"It's Lysol," I say. "Just Lysol and a little water."
Bob nods knowingly and squats beside me, facing, like me, the juncture of the kitchen walls. A foot above the ground, right there in the line of juncture (you could also call it, I suppose, the line of separation), sits a cockroach. It seems too dark and heavy to be floating there on the wall like that, but there it is, right in the crack.
"Lysol," Bob says, "kills cockroaches?"
"Mm," I say. "I'm not sure, really. I'm just testing a theory."
"A theory that posits the hypothesis that Lysol kills cockroaches?"
This makes me stare at Bob for a second or two until I recall that he's currently taking a basic science class.
"Exactly," I say. "See, I read somewhere that cockroaches have bacteria residing in their little tummies. And without those bacteria, the cockroach fails to thrive."
"And so you're spraying Lysol at 'em."
"It's anti-bacterial," I say, and shrug.
Bob takes off his shirt. He has a nice chest, Bob does. Nice shoulders, too, and a tempting little caterpillary line of hair that crawls from his navel downward. When I first remarked on this caterpillary aspect of his belly-hair soon after we met, Bob licked my ear and said: "Mm, it's going to be a rough winter." Hillbilly wisdom.
When his shirt is off and is resting on top of the cap on the sofa, Bob squats down again beside me. A goldish aura is oozing all over the place. Pheromones are pooling at my feet.
"I refuse to be distracted," I say. I turn to aim the spray nozzle at him jokingly for a brief moment before turning back to the cockroach which is still straddling the junction (or separation) of the two walls. The little bugger hasn't moved. I give the cockroach a spray, just a short blast from the nozzle that lands on its crusty exoskeletal backside. It skitters an inch or two upward and stops again, unmoving.
Bob says, "We all have bacteria in our stomachs, you know. Everything does. I bet even bacteria have bacteria in their stomachs."
Mm. I let him think about what he's just said, but the circularity remains circling somewhere over his head.
"Okay," I say. "Let me put it this way. You are, I assume, familiar with the if-then form of any hypothesis, right?"
Bob nods, grinning.
"Well, then, here's my hypothesis: If I can kill bacteria, Bob, and if without bacteria nothing can live -- are you following me so far? -- then I can kill anything."
I can't tell if Bob's heard me, or if my statement's sunk in. He stands, continues grinning as he takes off his work boots, and squats. We balance there on the balls of our feet, staring at one another for a moment more, and then Bob stands again, removes his pants, and squats again. In only his jockeys and thick wool socks, Bob says, "I think you've made an erroneous assumption. A specious argument. A pivotal fallacy."
Honestly, I'm too stunned to speak.
"The problem," Bob says, "is that you're assuming the little critter will eat your Lysol. Or drink it. Or whatever."
"Yes . . . ?"
"But what if it keeps its little mouth shut tight? Huh? What then?"
Rarely do I stop to think about anything Bob says. This time, however, I stop to think about it.
"Hm," I say.
Bob grunts as he stands this time. I'm not sure if the grunt is supposed to signal self-satisfaction at his recent brilliant insight or if he's just growing tired of squatting and standing again and again. He walks through a doorway into my bedroom and returns moments later, au naturel, naked as a jaybird (as he might say, and often has), suited only for a birthday. Little Bobber bobs along in front of Bob.
He's holding a shoe of mine, Bob is, in one hand. It's a dress shoe I rarely wear, a brown wingtip, Florsheim, a pricey shoe with a rubber sole that squeaks whenever I walk in it on freshly waxed tile. (Why is it, may I ask, that squeak-prone shoes are also the shoes one most often wears to places where one most often encounters freshly waxed floors? Office buildings and banquet halls and funeral parlors, in particular, I'm thinking. Why is that? Perhaps I should ask Bob. He would know. Bob now apparently knows everything, having taken his courses at the local community college.)
Bob jabs the toe of the shoe into the corner. The cockroach crunches and falls to the floor. It wriggles its little legs in desperation. I seem to hear Vincent Price's voice in falsetto just before Bob smashes the cockroach into a smeary goo.
Bob bends to kiss me.
"You do realize," he says, "that you're naked."
After a mutual shower, as we're drying each other off, I try to persuade Bob to hang by his knees from the shower curtain rod. It's a sturdy rod, and Bob is not so heavy that he might bend or break the rod should he give it the full weight of his body.
"C'mon, Bob," I coo. "Just once? For me?"
He frowns, but does it anyway, grasping the rod with his hands and swinging himself up. When he's hanging there, upside-down, I tell him to let his arms dangle toward the floor.
"Jeez Louise," he says. "What for?"
But his hands drop dutifully down.
"Just a sec," I say. "Just hang there for a tiny little sec. I'll be right back."
I scamper off to the utility cupboard in the kitchen, root around for a bit, come back to the bathroom holding a can of black shoe polish. I find an old toothbrush in the medicine cabinet above the sink, and begin to paint Bob's blond armpit hair a glistening black. Bob endures this with a noble silence.
What I've failed to tell Bob is that, while he was working a construction job somewhere in the Tucson Mountain foothills in the ongoing effort to pay rent on an apartment that he rarely sees, I've spent the morning watching a marathon showing of Remington Steele in syndication. Four full-hour episodes just earlier that day. In the last episode I'd seen, Mr. Steele was dressed for much of the show in a sleeveless leotard, posing as a circus performer to catch the ring-leader of a gang of subversive roustabouts. At one point he and Laura went through an entire acrobatic routine, with Remington finally swinging (by his knees) from a trapeze. At the crucial moment of highest tension (which has instigated this elaborate fantasy with Bob), Laura, on an opposing trapeze, is preparing to fling herself into the air and afterwards be caught be Remington's capable hands. Those hands, in a cutaway- and maliciously abbreviated shot, hang down from Remington's body to expose a set of the most amazing armpits I'd ever seen: fan-sprays of bristly masculinity; dips and curves of lithe muscular interaction; pit-curls dripping with heated exertion. I managed to tape this fleeting scene (having seen it coming, or having hoped that it would come, or having prayed that I might catch just the teensiest little glimpse of Remington's sleeveless pits) on my VCR, and had spent the remainder of the day frozen in a fit of hirsutophilia, glued to the paused image of those rare twin tufts lying just out of reach beyond the glass screen.
In the bathroom, I coach Bob as to dialogue. I give him his lines and make him repeat them until the desired effect is nearly achieved. I close the lid of the toilet, and sit, and watch the performance unfold.
"Don't worry," Bob says, as if he's addressing Laura Holt (who is presumably also swinging from a shower curtain rod on the opposite side of the steamy room). Bob sways his body to and fro a little to heighten the drama of the moment.
"I'll catch you," Bob says.
I clear my throat pointedly. Bob looks over at me, upside down, his face an interesting shade of puce.
"A little lighter on the British accent, sweetums," I say.
Bob groans but swings himself again, stretches his arms outward and down toward the floor, a movement which results in a delicious deepening of the coifed hollows currently under my scrutiny. God help me, I almost squeal. I want to rise from the seat of the toilet and launch myself forward. Instead, I take a breath and hold it, waiting.
"Don't be scared," Remington/Bob says at last. "Laura? Just let go."
Bob comes over one day to find me on my back on my bedroom floor; my ass in the air, my bare shoulders wriggling against the carpeting near the bed. My hands and feet are both flailing above me in my attempt to grab my ankles, bring them down, straddle my head with my knees, hook my feet beneath the bed frame: a position, I think, which will bring my crotch to my mouth, or nearly so. I'm trying, so to speak, to swallow my own tail, and it's proving to be a considerable undertaking for such a fleshy and inflexible soul as myself.
"If you succeed in this," Bob says from the bedroom doorway, "you won't need me anymore."
I manage to grab my ankles, but my butt falls back to the floor. I've formed my body into something like a capital delta (), a triangle with a floorward base, a posture which is closer but not close enough to my intended goal. I try to bend my spine while pulling downward on my legs. I rock and grunt.
"If you loved me, Bob," I wheeze, "you'd help me out here."
My belly, legs, and arms block my view of him, but I hear the squeaking of his leather work boots come toward me. I feel the gentle push of his rough palms on the back of my thighs. I feel myself tipping backwards and experience a sudden welcome flush of vertigo.
(A curly little hair floats down to land on my upper lip.)