You say you don’t know why I’m hiding in a stinking alleyway, playing Beethoven symphonies on the lids of garbage cans and masturbating to the memory of my dead wife. I could turn it around and ask you the same thing, Jack: why you’re living in a three-bedroom house in Oakville with a blind woman named Elaine Trumbo and painting racing stripes down the sides of your sweatpants.
Consider the damage the war has done. Consider the non-stop cough of car horns shattering the windows of vacant motels. Consider this: with each year, since we were small children drinking warm water from garden hoses and playing croquet until dark, I have become one year older, and there’s been no stopping this temporal onslaught. The years pushed me out of my parents’ house and slapped me around behind the plaza where we used to buy bags of chips for five cents and Archie comics for twelve cents. I liked grape ice cream and you liked spumoni, perhaps because your last name was Spumone.
“Better Spumone than sputum”—the motto that made you school president. Better Jack than jism. Better Betty than Wilma, and Betty than Veronica, too. Better beaten and gasping than dead and impaled on a steering wheel like Bobby Fischbaum, his car crumpled into the monkey bars we used to play on. Better not forget to take your medication, even when you’ve got to refill your waterglass to get through all those fucking capsules. Better beggar than beagle.
She’s dead, but I did not leave her. I stepped out the door, looking back over my shoulder and shouting, “Going for smokes,” and you never know where life’s journey is going to take you, like you never know how the years are going to shove you around. I walked down the street and sauntered into the convenience store like the happiest man alive, which I was, and I bought a pack of Rothman’s, or Rothmans, I can’t remember whether or not there was an apostrophe, even though I probably went through several thousand packs, which is to say one per year until I was three thousand and twelve, my current age, though I wear the years well. When I left the shop, I turned right, and I cut through the synagogue parking lot, and I ended up at the highway, where I waited until I could dash across, first to the median, and then to the other side. In the distance, apartment buildings rose black against the inky blue sky, and smoke churned out of chimneys and blended with the dark clouds.
I was thinking about her as I walked back, although “back” ended up being the opposite direction, as I decided to circle the globe and still be home in time for dinner. I was in the land of factories by the time I could walk no more, at least for that day, and I climbed a fence and tried some doors and finally found my way into a building that billed itself as “foundry jiminez,” and I crawled into a mould that fit my body exactly.’
Jack, I did not know then that she was dying, she hadn’t told me, and you wouldn’t have known it to look at her, or even to fuck her, which I hope you never did, though occasionally the glances that passed between you and my wife did not go unnoticed by my bloodshot peepers. Oh, there was sleep that night, and a siren in the morning, and footsteps, and the clanging of machinery, and blows to my face, perhaps by Jiminez himself. I was offered a job and given a small apartment with a dog and a typewriter named Princey—they were both named Princey—and years passed.
I made beautiful things. They were shiny and useful, and you probably have one now in your kitchen in Oakville. I worked and took my morning break and worked and took my lunch and ate a sandwich with cheese and grasped for straws and, finding none, drank straight from the glass and worked some more and went home. I petted Princey—both of them—and after several years remembered I was running an errand.
My journey home was filled with fairy-tale marvels. The world had changed so much I barely recognized it. The sidewalks were filled with tiny desks and computer stations, and seated at each was a child, slumped and pale, tapping the keys while resting his forehead against the monitor. They hummed and rocked and screamed, but their fingers kept tapping, Jack. And when I looked a little closer, I saw that their fingers rarely touched anything but numbers. Imagine a world of numbers and nothing else. A world where “dog,” “cat,” “spumoni,” and “tree” do not exist. Only numbers, endless trains of numbers spreading like viruses across the fingerprints of our youth.
I couldn’t help but think that if they’d only kept the price down on Archie comics, none of this would’ve come to pass. And that thought kept me occupied until I finally reached my house, realizing I’d already smoked all those Rothmans and would have nothing to show for my absence. As I reached for the doorknob, I felt something tugging at my ankle, and it was Princey—the dog, not the typewriter. I knelt down and petted his head; he’d come so far, he’d been so loyal. I went to push the door open but it wouldn’t budge. I made a fist and banged, then banged some more. I remembered the children tapping out numbers on computer keyboards, and wondered if perhaps I now had children.
The door swung open, and a woman stood there, but she was not my wife. She wore an apron bearing a picture of a carrot and Jackie Gleason. I had never seen her before. I explained my thing and she explained her thing and then she put her hand on my shoulder and nodded sympathetically. She offered me a cigarette and asked me to come in. By “in” she meant away from the outside, to within the walls of the house I used to own, where I lived with my wife, whose insides, although I didn’t know it, she’d never told me, were being eaten away by termites. The woman who lived here now, this new woman, offered me a place to sleep for the night, but I asked her only to look after Princey, and she said her daughter had always wanted a dog, and I told her about the other Princey, the typewriter, and how, if her child was one of those number-tapping ones, she wouldn’t even know what a typewriter was.
I asked her, “Are there still typewriters? Are there still telephone answering machines? What about Red Skelton and Tony Orlando and Kim Novak and Cracker Jacks? What about the American bald eagle? ” I began to weep. Nothing was the same anymore! The woman who lived here now, in my house, gave me directions to the cemetery where my wife was buried, and told me to come back any time.
In the streets, with a light cold rain beginning to fall, I marvelled over the old neighbourhood. It was like I’d never left, except that everything was different. There, just down the block, was the store where I’d bought the smokes. But it wasn’t a store any more, it was a sign studio. I crossed the street and pushed the door open. A man was perched in a chair across the room, his back to me, his hand holding a brush suspended over a sign in progress.
“What’s it say? ” he asked, and I replied that I couldn’t see, that he was in the way, and he said, “No, the sign you want—what’s it say? ”
Did I want a sign? Did I want this man to paint me a sign? He must have been right, because otherwise why had I come into his shop? I had never before imagined having a sign, Jack, but suddenly I knew that a man without a sign is a wanderer, a nonentity, a golem, a bit actor you recognize but whose name you can never remember. I had no money to pay this man for a sign, and no plot of land to drive it into.
“I’ve got nowhere to put it,” I told him. And without turning, he replied, “You don’t need no place except your back; I can make you a sandwich board.” I told him this was a big decision, and he agreed, and I told him perhaps I’d curl up in the back alley behind his shop, if he didn’t mind—that was where, as a teenager, I’d smoked my first cigarette—and I’d ponder the wording, I’d rake my nicotine-stained fingers through my hair and settle on something. I’d choose an epitaph, or a slogan, or a wedding proposal. I’d find the words, Jack, maybe five or six, that would tell my wife why I’d walked out of that house and circled the globe and missed the birth of our children, why I wasn’t there to stop the termites that ate out her guts, why I hated myself, and banished myself to a crevice between two garbage cans, where dogs sniffed at my fetid crotch while I slept, and I dreamed of Betty, and of spumoni ice cream, and the perfect six words to express to my wife the exquisiteness of my love for her.