Nagoya Writes

February 14, 2008

U.S. Grant in Japan (parts one and two) by Edwin Putman

Filed under: Issue: 2004,Prose,Putman — usbengoshi @ 4:19 pm

Look at all the weight I’ve put on. Twelve and a half kilos in less than a year. For crying out loud. I’m big as a banyan tree. I itch. I peel. I sweat. I seep. I have water reeling off me like juice from a peach. And, as if that isn’t enough, I have this unusual mold on my crotch, eating away at me. Whatever that is! It’s been a plague on my privates since about the middle of July. It’s driving me crazy.

I hate the humidity– the damp heat that’s been chasing me all summer, bugging and nagging me, making me want to stick a hand in my pants, to make adjustments and scratch. I feel like I’ve wet myself. Something inside me is leaking. I can hardly walk, the way my legs rub together. Itching. Scraping. Chaffing. Smoldering under my unmentionables. I feel like a watermelon rotting in the sun. Should I start to wear underwear? And when will it begin to get cool? Have I started to stink?

I’ve been having some trouble. Nothing goes right for me anymore. And all this fat you’ve been looking at is only a part of it. It’s not even the worst part. It’s just the most obvious. I was skinny all my life. Lithe and lean. I was on my university track team, for crying out loud. Maybe I wasn’t a great athlete, but I was on the team. And I was very fit. And I did my part. I even got a scholarship for it, for the love of the lord. And don’t hate me for that. I lot of people will, you know. Money for nothing. Road trips. Games. These things make them angry. It doesn’t make sense. You work your ass off all week– eight kilometers in the morning, weights at noon, and on the track for two hours in the afternoon while everybody else is choking their chickens or watching TV. You work so hard you want to throw up, and people hate you for it. They think you’re a prick. You’re not sensitive enough for them. You’re competitive, aggressive and mean. But not to worry about what those people believe– that’s the important thing. I’m as sensitive as the next guy I think. In fact, the way I see it, I’m none of those other things. I’m typical. Anyway, that was then and this is now. And now my life is a mess, as I’ve said. It’s frustrating.

I get to work just barely on time this morning and Hoshino-san from the music department is waiting for me in front of my office door. He’s been asking me to do a translation for him, and I’ve been forgetting to look at it. I tell him I’ll mail it to his office this afternoon. I’m a wimp. I should have never let myself get roped into this. I need to say no to these things. Translating isn’t my job and I don’t like to do it. But in fact, I’m hardly too busy, it looks easy enough, and he seems like a nice enough guy. His office is way across campus from mine and I hardly know him. But he’s never bothered me for anything before. And who else is he going to ask? And what will it hurt? It’s only a couple of pages. It would be easy if I wasn’t so lazy. I promise again that I’ll have it for him today and he leaves, bowing his head three or four times. Another poor victim of my abundant good intentions.

It’s Friday and that means I have to spend more time than usual in the departmental office at the university. I hate it there, but that’s where the copy machines are and I have to prepare my material. I have my lesson plans down to a simple three step process: Copy a page from a book of stick drawings that’s so old nobody in the modern English teaching world seems to have ever heard of it but me; pass out the copies; and talk about the pictures in a very slow voice. I try to talk about them in a slow enough voice, in fact, that an hour and five or ten minutes will pass before I finish. It’s an hour and a half class and I want to let the students out early so they’ll like me a little bit, but not early enough for the other professors to hate me– usually after about an hour and a quarter. And I help facilitate this by coming to class about eight minutes late in the first place. It’s a system. It works for me.

My quadralingual colleague, Colclasure-Le Clerc, who teaches French at the university and speaks English better than I do has his own three step lesson plan, he likes to tell me. He does his planning three steps before he enters his classroom. Of course, he’s only joking. I’m not. That’s the difference between him and me. He can joke about these things. I don’t feel very well. In fact I never feel well at work. It doesn’t settle well with me. I only do it because they pay me.

Everybody in the office says good morning and smiles. I smile too as I go to the copy room and make my copies. Then when I come out everybody smiles again. It all seems so awkward on the one hand and on the other hand so very normal. It’s more or less what I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years. And still I don’t know anybody. Maybe I don’t want to. Or maybe they don’t want to know me. And how could I blame them? I’m different. I’m a gaijin.

I somehow stumble through my first period lesson. But then again, any monkey could, I guess. I pass out my pictures, tell my story and let the students go. All I can think about is the heat. It’s the fifth of October and I’m sweating in a T-shirt. For crying out loud. It’s only first period and already I want to grab at my crotch. Between classes I go to the restroom and let down my pants. I wipe myself off with a tissue. There are no paper towels in the restrooms here, and that’s another weird thing. There’s no toilet paper either, most of the time. You have to bring your own little pack of tissue to most public toilets over here. A pain in the posterior, so to speak. And there aren’t any napkins in the restaurants over here either. Not usually, I mean. You can’t count on it anyway. You have to use those same little packs of tissue that you use in the toilets. Go figure this out, for the love of the lord. Life is a mystery, especially in a foreign country.

Second period starts and Atsuko is sitting in the back of the room near the wall. Her skirt is already slid up almost to her waist and the first thing I see when I turn from writing today’s vocabulary on the board is her panties.

Every Friday, second period I do nothing more interesting than look at Atsuko’s panties. And I wonder what she’s thinking. She looks so innocent and tender. She can’t be doing this on purpose, I think, yet she must be. She does it every week. She sits in the same place. She wears the same skirt. Maybe the same panties too– white without lace or frills, just a simple strap running between her cream colored legs like lilies, wide open, week in and week out. I’ve come to expect it. I even look forward to it, for crying out loud. I embarrass myself. I’ve never said a word to Atsuko except to call on her once or twice a week in class, just like I call on everybody else, and whenever I do she quickly closes her legs as if it’s a conditioned response. But all the rest of the period her legs are as open as a tulip in the sun, and I feel guilty for looking. But I do look. And who wouldn’t? And who wouldn’t wonder about what’s going on here? She’s like a little girl. You know the ones who will pull their dresses up over their heads from time to time for no apparent reason. Most of them, of course, quit doing that before they’re old enough to make it very interesting. Atsuko just didn’t it seems. I watch her shift in her desk, turning her legs ever more in my direction, yet not ever looking at me. Except for the incongruous fact that she’s showing off her panties like they were a bowling trophy, she seems like the shy type. She can’t speak English to save her life, and she almost never looks at me. I’m not sure she even knows how much I’ve been looking at her. Or at least at her panties.

What I ask myself, though, when I see Atsuko this way, with her skirt hiked up on her thigh, her hair hung down in front of her face like a fern, and her little white panties on view like cherry blossoms in springtime, is why. What is she thinking and why would she do this? I don’t deserve this kind of frustration, for crying out loud. What have I ever done to her? Does she do this to all of her teachers or only to me? Is it because I’m a gaijin?

My job is too easy. I’m bored. I need a hobby.

I turn back to the board and think of something instructive to say: An old man decides to make some soup. . . For the love of the lord. This is what I do for a living!

Why am I still over here? In Japan I mean. So far away from everything familiar to me? That’s the real question that keeps coming back to hassle me. And the simple answer is my friend Chin Dick No. It’s his fault I got into this ridiculous situation in the first place. At least it’s his fault I dropped out of the math program when I was a college student and started studying English. He was too long in the toilet at a little shopping center on the east edge of Glacier National Park one summer day as he and I were on our way to Maine, and while I was waiting for him to take a shit I wandered into a book store and did something I’d never done before. I bought a novel.

It was Ragtime by E. L. Doctor, which turned out to be the first novel I would ever read. So maybe it’s E. L. Doctor’s fault I’m here, half way across the world from where I belong, teaching English to assorted 19 year olds, restless and bored like all 19 year olds– indeed like I was that summer I bought the E. L. Doctor novel that would lead to this mess I’m in. I’m teaching English to a continuous stream of 19 year olds who don’t know English from Schminglish, and looking impassively at Atsuko’s panties. I read the novel in the truck while Chin Dick No drove across the Great Plain to some little town over the Minnesota border where I made him stop because it had gotten too dark to keep reading. In fact, I read the book twice in a row. Once through Montana then again through North Dakota, finishing for the second time in the little Minnesota town in a hotel room that evening. And I did this in spite of all the great scenery I was missing.

That’s a joke. There’s no great scenery in Eastern Montana. And none in North Dakota either. I suppose you know that already. Anybody who doesn’t hasn’t been there. Or else he hasn’t been anywhere else.

Anyway, I apologize for doing that. Joking, I mean. I know my jokes aren’t funny. They’re almost as not funny as Colclasure-Le Clerc’s who yesterday, in the middle of an unending scrabble-like game of our own invention, picked up the little plastic B as if he were going to play it adroitly on one of my squares but hesitated, then paused and held it out on his open palm saying “To B or not to B, that is what I am ponderning. Ho ho ho”. Yes he saidho ho ho. He always says ho ho ho, scrunching up his bearded red face and rolling his erudite shoulders. That’s so I’ll know he just told a joke. I’ve learned to appreciate the hint. Now I know when to laugh, and more importantly, when not to. I wish he knew when to laugh at the jokes I try to tell, if only because he seems to feel bad that he doesn’t. He’s a nice guy. He would hate to hurt anybody’s feelings. Maybe I should say har har har when I try to be funny. Just to make it easy.

Monsieur Etienne Colclasure-Le Clerc. He’s my friend as well as my colleague. With his rolled intellectual shoulders, forward leaning erudite gate, nearly bald pate, big feet, scruffy beard, and general half-kempt appearance he looks like Horse Badorties, and if you don’t know who that is it’s because you haven’t read a book called The Fan Man by William Kotzwinkle. That was my second novel. I bought it at a small store in Sault St. Marie, Michigan a day or two after I finished reading Ragtime for the second time. I read it in a cafe that same afternoon while Chin Dick No was running around trying to find a doctor who would look at a spider bite he’d got on his foot and be generous enough to treat it for free. It was an easy read and, though I don’t read much in the way of literature anymore, I’ve picked The Fan Man up several times since then and read it from beginning to end. Indeed I read it again just the other day. That was my fifth time through it I think. The Fan Man is about a comi-tragic week or two in the life of a bum named Horse Badorties. I used to think he was laughable. I used to think he was funny. But now I think he’s sad. He has my sympathy. He’s the only guy I can think of whose life is more fucked up than mine is. It’s a life of hope and failure, hope and disappointment, hope and despair. I feel sorry for him, which of course is silly. Horse Badorties is nothing but a well crafted figment of his author’s imagination. I, on the other hand, am a real live bone and blood human being. He should feel sorry for me.

So, the first novel I read was Ragtime. That was a few months before I turned twenty. The Second was the Fan Man. Then I took off from there like a house on fire, with one book following another. And if you want to know how I’d managed to get through high school without having to read Brave New World, The Scarlet Letter and the other dull things you probably had to read, it was easy. In the American education system? For crying out loud. Now you must be joking! I faked it,. I sat in class and more or less listened to what the kids who actually did read those books had to say, then pretended to partially agree. Like I said, it was easy. And I was in the goddamn National Honor Society for crying out loud. For the love of the lord. Life is a mystery and there’s no use trying to unravel it, I’ve learned. I’m a clever enough fellow, I think, but these things are beyond me.

So the first novel I read was Ragtime. The second was The Fan Man. The third was Welcome to Hard Times, which was also by E. L. Doctor. It happened to be set in Eastern Montana where the scenery is bad as I’ve said, though I read it one evening in Bar Harbor, Maine, looking out over the sea. The scenery was wonderful in Bar Harbor, Maine. The best you’ll ever see. I’d got a job on a lobster boat there and begun living in a boarding house with a bunch of girls who didn’t like me but were more or less willing to hang out with me from time to time anyway, depending on alcohol or drug availability, I think.

Then Chin Dick No who wanted me to call him by his real name, which was Darrell, kept getting angry because I couldn’t stop calling him Chin Dick or CD or just plain No. These were the names my silly group of friends had got used to calling him over the years– Lynyrd and Rube and Mark The Genius and me. He was of Eastern European decent– Hungarian I think– but we believed Chin Dick No would have been his Chinese name had he only been Chinese. This was because he had a very weak chin and not much of a muscle of love if you know what I mean. It was Mark The Genius who gave him this name. Kids can be cruel, as I’m sure you’ve seen.

Chin Dick was a couple of years younger than the rest of us and still in high school the summer he and I went to Maine. I’d known him a long time. He’d been on the high school math team with Mark The Genius and Lynyrd and me. You could say we were math nerds together. Though pride makes me add that at least I was a math nerd who could run fast and jump high. Or else it’s some other kind of inadequacy that makes me mention that. Also, that I have a regular chin. And other things.

Chin Dick was bitter and brilliant and sharp as a thorn. Maybe he was smarter than The Genius himself, though in one of those uncanny sort of reverse miracles only possible in American high schools, and maybe only possible in the one I went to, his IQ had been measured at ninety-eight. The Genius’s I mean. And this, if you don’t know, is on the low side of average. The Genius was always eager to point that fact out to us, particularly when he’d just solved a problem that the rest of us weren’t able to do. He’d say something like “Yeah, and my I Q is only 98. What does that say about the rest of you guys?”, which of course made us laugh because we all knew IQ scores didn’t really mean anything, not in a real world. But not having much of a chin– that did mean something, and though nobody in Bar Harbor, Maine knew anything about the size of his penis I don’t think, Chin Dick felt frustrated that, because he was ugly, he couldn’t get a job to better suit his abilities there, so he left.

He’s an accountant now and everybody calls him Darrell, which is hard to imagine, but now is now and then was then. He got upset because I had the boat job at the lobster operation while he had to cook the crustaceous damn things at a stand on the pier and put up with tourists, so he quit one day in a huff and a scene, leaving a lobster or two to simmer in the pot, and started hitchhiking back to Oregon. He left me alone in Maine, smelling of lobsters and salt water all the time, which in combination with my general lack of charm during that period of my life– not considerably unlike this period of my life– was doubtless why I had to be so thankful for any alcohol or drugs my house mates would be kind enough to consume in the evenings, because that would make them willing to spend time with me.

I worked on the boat all day pulling up lobster pots, baiting them, and putting them back in the water– God knows why Chin Dick thought this was something to be jealous of– and in the evenings when nobody was drinking or getting high, which was way too much of the time I thought, I read fiction. After Welcome to Hard Times I read Slaughterhouse Five which is by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. as you certainly know. Then Breakfast of Champions, also by him. The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols. One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest by Ken Keasy who happens to be from Oregon like me. The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abby. The River Why? by David James Duncan, from Oregon too. Lolita by Nabokov. The Naked and the Dead by Mailer. The Thin Red Line by Jones. The Sotweed Factor by Barth. In Watermelon Sugar by Brautigan. Trout Fishing in America also by him. And Little Big Man by Berger. Then on the way back home at the end of the summer I picked up Catch 22 by Joseph Heller which I finished over a couple of days in Yellowstone National Park in the rain.

By the time I got back to university at Southern Oregon I had decided to quit mathematics, which had come to feel like masturbation to me– kind of embarrassing, depressing, considerably less than rewarding, but easy. Literature had become more alluring than numbers had ever been for me, and I’d determined to try hanging my hat on the English major’s rack for a while. I was even excited about the decision, for crying out loud. It just goes to show you. What is it they say? Be careful what you want, you might get it. I wanted an English degree. I saw it as a chance to put my math nerd days behind me, study something that normal people were interested in, and learn something I could talk about at parties. It was kind of like having a hobby, and I spent the next three years happily reading and discussing some of the most boring stories ever conceived, listening to the ramblings of professors who were even more boring than the stories if possible, then writing essays of my own that would ratchet up the boredom coefficient yet one more degree, all the time trying my best to be the sensitive literary type on the one hand and, on the other hand, to sleep with as many of the gorgeous babes in the English department who really were the sensitive literary types as I possibly could. And over the course of three years of literature at Southern Oregon University the total number of English Department babes I was able to sleep with turned out to be two, one of whom got sick on me.

And that more or less explains why I don’t enjoy fiction anymore. No, not the girl who got sick on me– it was not actually because she slept with me that she got sick I don’t think, though that’s certainly a possibility. Rather, however, I suspect it was because she’d had to drink so much beer just to make herself willing to sleep with me in the first place that she got sick. It’s my misguided education in English that explains why I don’t read many novels these days. It also explains why I’m over here teaching English conversation and looking up Atsuko’s skirt instead of working at a real job someplace and having a real life with a real resume and a real education like Chin Dick No for example, whom I never see anymore, not only because I live way over here but also because his wife doesn’t like me. She doesn’t like Mark The Genius either, though she doesn’t have to worry about running into him any more than she has to worry about running into me because he has moved almost as far away as I have with his IQ ofninety-eight. He’s become a director at one of the big museums in New York City. She doesn’t like Lynyrd either. I’m talking about the wife again now. She doesn’t like Rube. She’s got a chip on her shoulder. She doesn’t like anybody. Who knows? It could be she hasn’t been getting the satisfaction she needs.

But university wasn’t all bad. There was The Sound and the Fury, The Open Boat, Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, The Dos Passos trilogy, The Handmaid’s Tale, Ethan Frome, Ironweed, and the Hemingway short stories. These were good things. They weren’t good enough to make up for all of the bad things I was made to read I don’t suppose, but they were pleasing. Then there was the track team. That was fun. There was Fat Head. He was a hammer thrower and the funniest guy on campus, I figured. Hanging out with him was a lot of fun while it lasted. He told everybody we met at parties and so on that I had the second biggest penis on the team. This was not true, of course, but the simple fact that he’d say such a thing attracted a lot of attention, first to him and later to me. Then he’d laugh and tell everybody, “It only makes sense when you think about it– God has ways of making people even”. I’m still not quite sure what that means.

His girlfriend, Hacky, who later became his wife, tried to crawl into bed with me one night, having foolishly fallen for the line about the second biggest penis apparently, and that more or less ended my friendship with Fathead. A frustrating thing.

And what was all of that about anyway, come to think of it? Because I didn’t even screw her or try to. I didn’t even want to. I sent her on her way like I thought a friend would do. But what good did it do me? It’s a fickle world, full of uncertainties. Friends come and go, and vanities abound. A beautiful day turns to cloud then it rains. Nothing is certain under the sun except change and revision and even those two are fleeting. Look before you leap, but he who hesitates is lost. It’s all contradiction and bathos, and none of it makes any sense. Try and figure. But oh well. Not to worry. She wasn’t my type anyway. Fat Head’s girlfriend, I mean. She was too big.

Of course, that was then and this is now. There isn’t anybody too big for me now. And nobody’s trying to crawl into bed with me either. Not even the pure girl Junko, who used to adore me.

Hacky is dead, or so I’ve heard– Fathead’s girlfriend who tried to get into bed with me. Life is unfair. You don’t screw your best friend’s girl when you have the chance and then she goes and dies on you. Just like that. She’s gone. Opportunity really does only knock once, it seems. And then what? A dirty little kid will come knocking on your door, leave a burning bag of shit on your stoop, then run away laughing. You haven’t got a chance. And you stomp on it. The burning bag of shit, I mean. Because, like most people you’re rather more reflexive than reflective. You act before you think. You see a fire on your stoop, you put it out. It’s simple instinct. And anyway, you’d rather step in shit than watch your house burn down, probably. But what are those for options? For the love of the lord. You should have just fucked your best friend’s girl when you had a chance. Why? Because you could have. You had an opportunity. Now you have a belly on you as big as Buddha and who knows when you’ll ever have another one? Opportunity , I mean. Another chance to get yourself any. As a matter of fact, who knows when you’ll have another chance to do anything? Life is a grab-bag. There aren’t any certainties. You probably knew that already.

And then there was the girl who didn’t get sick. At university I mean. Talking about good things. Her name was Mary. She was taking a seminar on Ulysses by James Joyce, reading it over and over again, and I think that’s the real reason she was attracted to me. The name thing I mean. My own name is Ulysses. I guess I haven’t mentioned that. It’s Ulysses S. Grant. The same as the 18th president. Maybe you’ve heard of him. But please call me Sam. That’s what everybody calls me.

Anyway, this novel by James Joyce, they call it the best fiction written in English in the twentieth century, and Mary liked to belittle me for what she mistook as an inability on my part to understand the intricacies of a great piece of literature. What it really was, however, was more like an inability on my part to read beyond the second page of the damn thing, it being another one of those stories that bored and confused me. James Goddamn Joyce, for the love of the lord. He was an expatriate too. He was an Irishman who lived in Italy. He taught English. He wrote the best novel written in English supposedly, and nobody outside of a university classroom can read the ridiculous thing. The world is a mystery. It isn’t worth pondering, and all the math in the world won’t help you find any answers. All the literature won’t either.

Mary used vaginal foam. I’d never seen that before, though at the time I still hadn’t seen much of anything. She was a long haired Southern belle and very charming with a crooked cute smile and a long lovely body. She wasn’t your absolute knock out beauty, it’s true, but that kind of beauty is overrated anyway. I’ve never again known a girl to get as wet as she did that first time I put my hand in her pants at Omar’s Cafe in the corner booth, watching Fat Head watch me, shaking his head and grinning. But Mary and I went our separate ways too. She went back to the South somewhere and I went off to Vermont where I ended up raking leaves and shoveling snow for a living. I went there with a girl named Emily.

Now that’s the other reason I’m here in Japan– Emily. There’s always another reason, you should know. Take any expatriate, and he’s got another reason. He probably won’t tell it to you. He wouldn’t want you to know it, but there’s a reason he’s here. Inertia is one thing, of course. That will keep a person in a place once he’s stopped. But there’s a reason he stops in the first place. And there’s a reason he doesn’t make any effort to leave. At least if he’s been here for as long as I have there is. Nobody lives here just because this is where he wants to be. Not for this long. There’s only so much to see after all, and almost nothing to do. Hemingway was only in Paris for seven years, don’t forget. A mere stopover. A European vacation, you could call it. I’ve been in Japan for a third of my life. I doubt I’ll ever leave. An expatriate like me is a peculiar thing, neither here nor there and not one thing or another but somehow stuck awkwardly in between. And anybody who stays here as long as I have is doing it because there’s someplace else he doesn’t want to be, and that someplace else is back home where people know him. He’s got a secret reason for staying away. Maybe it’s a debt problem. Maybe it’s the law. Maybe it’s taxes. Maybe it’s alimony. Maybe he hates his family. But it’s certainly something. Everybody has his own reason. Maybe he just walked out on his wife. That’s what I did. I walked out on Emily.

I met her at University when she was a sophomore and I was a few short weeks away from graduating. She worked in the library and I’d been aware of her for most of the last year. You know the way guys are always kind of aware of the girls around them, thinking of them at least subliminally as potential possibilities. But being naturally shy in the first place, and still not quite over all those years of conditional training as a math nerd in the second place, I couldn’t get up the nerve to start a conversation with her till the time I surprised myself by sitting down at a table where she was eating a bagel alone in the Student Union on an afternoon when I’d been drinking, because of course she was beautiful– the over rated type of beauty– the type of beauty that will take your breath away, then take away everything– and I’m typical, as I’ve told you, so beautiful women frighten me. That’s unless I’ve been drinking. Then, of course, nothing can get to me.

“Have you ever noticed there aren’t any words that rhyme with Emily?” she asked.

“No. I haven’t noticed that” I said, looking her drunkenly in the eye and feeling fortunate that the conversation had started on ground that should be fairly easy for me. Words and all that, I mean. This was, after all, what I’d been studying for the last three years. “Because there are lots of words that rhyme with Emily.”

“No there aren’t,” she said. “Name one.”

“Emily schmemily bimily. Extremily. There’s about a million of them. What are you talking about?”

“Those aren’t words.”

“Why not? They’re as good as any other words aren’t they? And they rhyme with Emily.”

“They don’t mean anything.”

“So what does ‘nuthces’ mean?”

“Nutches isn’t a word either. What’s your point?”

“So when Dr. Suess says ‘Nuh is the letter I use to spell nutches who live in small caves known as nitches for hutches’, those aren’t words?”

“Dr. Suess is different.”

“Yeah, he’s different. He’s good with rhymes.”

“He never rhymed anything with Emily.”

“Well, maybe he didn’t but he could have. Actemily. Sublimily. What’s your point? What difference does it make whether your name rhymes with something or not. “

“Just because your name is Sam.”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“Talk about Dr. Suess! Sam I am! I like green eggs and ham! There are lots of words that rhyme with Sam. Real words. That’s my point.”

“Sam schmam, thank you mam. Who cares how many words rhyme with Sam? And who cares if they’re real words or not. What difference does it make?”

“Why don’t you just admit you don’t know a single word that rhymes with Emily? I think it’s kind of neat. I have a unique name. What’s wrong with that?”

“OK. You have a unique name. I don’t know a single word that rhymes with Emily.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. In fact, I don’t know a single metaphor for Emily either. Also, I don’t know a single simile.”

“You’re an asshole,” she said.

Maybe I am. But I’m typical I think. And what Emily didn’t understand then was that my real name isn’t Sam at all, as you know. It’s Ulysses. Now talk about a name that’s difficult to make rhymes with! Ulysses schmyulysses, for the love of the lord. She didn’t take it very well when I told her this though. She flipped me the bird and casually waving it in front of my face said very slowly, deliberately and rhythmically “Well then Ulysses, do you know what this is?” She picked up her bagel and left, wagging her middle finger in the air over her shoulder as she walked away.

We got married the summer before I turned 25. This was about a week after she’d graduated from university– at the top of her class, I should say. Summa cum laude, for crying out loud, University of Vermont. Business department, of all things. Here I’d been, raking leaves and shoveling snow for a living– the things you can do with an English degree– and she’d been studying how to make real money. We’d been together for two years by then, and do you want to hear something funny? Even on the day we got married I think we both knew we wouldn’t be together forever. This doesn’t mean we didn’t love each other. It just means we had already lost faith in love. Or maybe it just means I had. Who am I to speak for her? I haven’t seen her in years. And even when I was seeing her every day and every night I didn’t really know what she was thinking . But we did go ahead and get married. Maybe this was out of naivet�. Maybe it was out of hope. And maybe those two are the same. And maybe they’re both the same as stupidity.

We went back to Oregon where my friend Lynyrd had helped her get a job at his company, and this put a halt to my raking and shoveling career. Oregon, being a land of fir trees and rain, doesn’t have much in the line of snow to be shoveled or leaves to be raked, and of course, though it goes without saying I suppose, there was never any money in the raking and shoveling thing anyway, though for some reason that didn’t bother me. There had been enough to pay for her summa cum laude at least. But still, it seemed to bother Emily immensely. So I did something I thought I’d never do. I got a job doing the other thing you can do with an English degree– I got a job teaching English. There’s no money in that either I found out, but at least it was stable, and to my surprise I found that I liked it. For the next several years I was happy.

Then Emily blind sided me. But I say that only because I didn’t see it coming. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have. I have two good eyes, I just didn’t want to see.

She was on her knees planting flowers in the garden one Spring afternoon when I came home from the rock climbing gym. Climbing was a sport I’d taken up in Vermont after I’d graduated from university and left my track team days behind me. It was part of that trying to be more sensitive thing. Anyway, I found her in the flower bed when I came out through the back door of the garage where I’d just hung up my climbing gear, and though I don’t know flowers from schmlowers I said “It’s a beautiful day for this isn’t it? Would you like me to help you?”

She didn’t answer and I thought she hadn’t heard me so I said “What can I do?”

She didn’t say anything. She didn’t nod or turn. She had a little shovel or trowel in her hand, whatever you call it, and she just kept poking it into the ground and turning over dirt. Not fast. Not slow. Just methodically. Poking and turning. Poking and turning. But I noticed she was no longer planting anything. “Are you OK?” I asked her.

“No,” she said. She kept her back to me, still kneeling, and with her hair down over her face I couldn’t tell for sure but I guessed she’d been crying. I stepped closer to her and sat down on the edge of the flower bed which was a little bit elevated. I was tired and, resting my elbows on my knees, I held my head in my hands. I figured I was in trouble for something, and knowing already that even on a good day I was less than ideal as a husband, I was trying to remember what I might have promised to do that day but forgotten. I’m an early riser, and she was still sleeping when I’d got up and drove out to the climbing gym that morning without saying anything, and all I could think was I must have forgotten something I was supposed to do with her that day. I must have left her hanging in the lurch again. Broke another promise or something. A picnic with her family? Lunch with her boss? A company outing? Like I said, my abundant good intentions! They leave a lot of victims.

But this was a long time ago and I didn’t understand the problem very well then. I understand it better now. My intentions are good. But I’m not.

“Listen,” I said, “You’re not going to believe this but I don’t even know what it is I did. I’m sure I did something. I don’t doubt that. But I don’t know what. I’m sorry. That’s all.” And I should have stopped there, but I didn’t. I’m typical. I said “Maybe I could do better at these things if you would help. For example, you already know I get up about three hours before you do. Maybe if you could tell me in the evening before you go to bed what my responsibilities are for the next day I might not forget them. Or why don’t you leave a note on the refrigerator door or something?”

“I do leave notes on the refrigerator door,” she said and threw a piece of dirt at me. And that was true, of course, but at the same time it wasn’t. She left notes about dentist appointments and special garbage days and days to get the damn dog wormed, things like that, but those aren’t the kind of things I had trouble remembering in the first place. Who could forget the damn dog, after all? What I had trouble with was social engagements. Mostly I think that was because subconsciously I didn’t want to see anybody anyway. Or else consciously I didn’t. But having been hit in the neck by a dirt clod I came to my senses a bit and shut up for a while. And by a while I mean only a minute or two, but a minute or two can seem like an eternity sometimes, and this was one of those times. I turned towards her so that I was facing into the flower bed and sitting with my legs crossed. I stuck my hands into the dirt she’d been turning up. It felt cool and refreshing on my fingers which were still raw and feverish from rock climbing. Emily had stopped repetitively turning over the soil and resumed actually planting flower bulbs. I took that as a good sign. I said “So what did I do?”

“You didn’t do anything,” she said. “You never do anything.”

“OK. OK. So what did I not do? I mean this time? Specifically?” I asked her. Foolishly.

But she didn’t answer. She kept on planting her flowers and ignoring me. And I kept on sitting in the dirt which was damp. Moisture seeped into my jeans. But the sun was out and it felt good on my back. After another very long minute or two I took off my shirt and moved about two meters away from her to lie down in the grass. I’d been rock climbing, as I’ve said, and I was tired. My arms hurt. My calves hurt. I shut my eyes and I don’t know how many minutes had passed but I was nearly asleep when suddenly she said “Today is my birthday.”

“Happy birthday,” I said sleepily. And she threw the trowel she’d been digging in the dirt with at me. It hit me in the ear. Now Emily doesn’t have a very good arm, so it wasn’t that big a deal, but it did cut my ear in half. It left me with a top half and a bottom half to it, each flopping kind of loose and free. In fact, there’s still a big scar there, right across the middle of my ear, for the love of the lord. Can you see it? It used to be an ear sore but now it’s just an eyesore. Anyway, neither of us said anything after that about her birthday. She went into the house and I laid there in the yard trying to keep my hand away from the two halves of my ear, exercising the hope that if you ignore something long enough it’ll go away, which of course is the same vane hope Emily had been exercising with me till the moment she let fly with the trowel. Finally, the damn dog came over and started licking my face. He licked the blood off the two halves of my ear then yawned and laid down in the grass with his head on my crotch. Stupid thing.

Then a few hours later it started to hurt. My ear I mean. The two halves of it. I’d gone to bed early but couldn’t get to sleep, so I got up and went downstairs to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror. The two halves of my ear were the deep color of egg plants and thick with a crust of blood. I decided I should go to the hospital so I went back to the bedroom to get my keys off the night stand but when I got there Emily was siting on the edge of the bed. I’d woke her up. This was unusual. I normally couldn’t wake her up in the middle of the night if my live depended on it. Or if hers did. I sat down beside her and we talked for a while as if nothing had happened between us. No rock climbing. No flowers. No birthday. No trowel. I showed her the two halves of my ear and she agreed they didn’t look good– I should go to see a doctor. She even got up and drove me to one. The emergency room at Providence Hospital.

A doctor there sewed the two halves of my ear together, taped it up, and gave me some pain medicine which began to take effect almost immediately. Then riding back in the car, with Emily beside me driving, I had almost fallen asleep when out of the blue she said “I’m going to marry Jim.”

Jim was a guy who worked in her office. He’d become a friend of mine and my friend Lynyrd’s who also worked with Emily, as I’ve said. Lynyrd’s the guy who helped her get the job in the first place. The three of us had taken up kayaking together. Lynyrd and Jim and me. More of the trying to be sensitive thing. I couldn’t fit into a kayak now to save my life, of course. And for that matter, I couldn’t climb up a rock wall either, but now is now and then was then. And then, Jim and I were friends. We’d been going out about every Sunday on the Sandy, the White Salmon, the Clackamas, or the Deschutes. We’d also taken a number of longer trips together including a ten day float on the Colorado in the Grand Canyon. My point is we knew each other. He knew me. I knew him. What I didn’t know though was how well my wife knew him too. When she said she was going to marry Jim I didn’t even know who she meant.

“Who the hell’s Jim?” I said.

“Jim Daily.”

“My Jim Daily? Are you joking? I know you’re upset, but now you’re telling me you’re going to marry Jim Daily? My Jim Daily?”

“Jim Daily. Not your Jim Daily. Just Jim Daily. Why does everything have to be yours?”

“You’re in love with my Jim Daily?”

“I didn’t say I was in love with him. I said I was going to marry him. And quit calling him your Jim Daily.”

“You’re on drugs,” I said. And though I immediately suspected this would prove to have been a mistake, she remained perfectly calm.

“Why do you say stuff like that?” she asked me. “I’m not on drugs.” And she was right. In fact, I’m the one who was on drugs. The pain medicine I’d been given had slowed me down and all I wanted to do was meld myself into the car seat and disappear.

“I’m going to be in love with him,” she said in a moment, as if that explained everything.

“What does that mean? You’re going to be in love with him? You’re out of your mind. And all this because I forgot your birthday. You’re going to marry a dweeb because somebody forgot your birthday.” I was speaking slowly. In my mind I was crawling.

“No. Not because somebody forgot my birthday. I’m going to marry a dweeb because you forgot my birthday.”

“You should have just left a note on the refrigerator. TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY. Then we’d be home eating birthday cake right now, my ear wouldn’t be cut in half, and you wouldn’t have to be marrying Jim Fucking Daily. My Jim Fucking Daily.”

“I’m not marrying him because I have to. I’m marrying him because I want to. Anyway, it’s not just because you forgot my birthday. You always forget my birthday. What did I expect?”

“That’s a good question. What did you expect? Because if you really wanted to do something special on your birthday maybe you should have left a note. Maybe you should have said something about it before you went to bed. Something like ‘Don’t go rock climbing tomorrow because it’s my birthday.’ That would have worked.”

“You’re suppose to remember my birthday by yourslef. I’m not supposed to have to tell you,” she said.

“On the other hand, what’s a birthday, anyway? Just another day older. Deeper in debt. Who needs that? I love you everyday. I don’t love you any more just because it’s your birthday. It doesn’t make any sense. Birthdays are for kids. I mean . . . what? Did you have a deprived childhood or something?” I knew I shouldn’t have said this and I regretted it immediately. I braced myself for another cuff on the two halves of my ear, but none came.

She was calm still. She said “No. My childhood was wonderful. It’s my adulthood that’s being deprived.”

And that’s when I started to take her seriously. I said “Look, I’m sorry I forgot your birthday. We could have had a great day if I’d have only remembered, but I didn’t. I have birthday issues. OK. In fact, I have birthday issues so bad I don’t even remember my own birthday most of the time. I’m going to work on that. OK?”

“You don’t need to remember your birthday. I remember your birthday. That’s the point.”

“The point is I love you, Emily. I love you every day, and that includes your birthday. The other point is you’re not going to marry Jim Daily. You’re confused. You don’t know what you’re thinking.” But what with the pain in the two halves of my ear, and the drugs, and just being tired anyway, maybe I didn’t sound convincing.

“Don’t be so goddamn sure of yourself,” she said.

“Because first of all you’re already married,” I went on. “Second of all you’re not in love with Jim Daily. And third of all who would want to marry Jim Goddamn Daily even if she was in love with him?”

“I would,” she said. “And I’ll tell you why. I’d marry him because he’s not like you. He doesn’t look down on every single thing the way you do. You don’t respect anything. Every thing’s a joke to you. You think everybody’s a joke. You think every single person’s a fool. But they’re not jokes. They might be fools, but they’re not jokes. They’re people. They’re persons. Not every single thing in the world is funny. It just isn’t, Sam. You think everybody’s stupid, and I’m sick of it. I mean, Sam! Not every single body in the world is stupid. Not every single body in the world is a joke. You’re not going to believe this but there are actually some people out there who are smarter than you are. And there are actually some people out there who know more than you do.”

“Jim Daily isn’t one of them,” I said.

“See! That! That’s what I’m talking about. Why do you have to be so snide about every thing?! I thought Jim was a friend of yours.”

“Isn’t that a coincidence? I thought he was a friend of mine too.”

“What do you mean by that? What are you thinking? Do you think I’m having sexual relations with Jim? Is that what you’re thinking? How dare you? I’ve never laid a hand on Jim. He’s never laid a hand on me. He doesn’t even know I’m going to marry him. I decided that all by myself. I decided it today.”

“Oh. So you’re going to get married to a guy you’ve never laid a hand on, huh? That figures. I know it’s been a part of your philosophy on marriage to avoid anything remotely like sex with the guy you’re married to, but don’t you think this new twist is taking it to an unusual extreme.”

That was it. She slammed on the brakes and pulled over to the side of the road. “Get out of the car!” she started screaming. “Get out of the car! Get out of the car!. You asshole. You goddamn asshole. Get out of the car!.” So I did.

Two days later I was in Japan teaching English. The first week I was here I met the pure girl Junko. She was the nurse who took care of my ear when I got here. Then she would go on to take care of everything. She used to adore me. I never did get around to telling her I was married.

She never did marry Jim, though. Emily I mean. I was right about that. Jim would have been about as right for Emily as Goofy would have been for Minnie. I mean they weren’t even the same breed of animal. Emily was summa cum laude with a body like Golly Miss Molly, and Jim was a hard core math nerd. I mean a real unconverted, unrepentant, unreformed and almost unembarrassed math nerd. In fact, at Emily’s company he was an accountant like my friend Chin Dick No but with a regular chin. Though I don’t know the size of his dick from schmick I do know this about it. His dick I mean. It’s been in my wife.

I know this because he told me. What Emily had said was true enough. She really hadn’t slept with Jim while I was still living with her in Oregon, it seems. Rather it happened a while after I’d left. Their affair had started abruptly and ended abruptly I learned. Jim flew all the way over here one weekend about a half year afterwards to tell me. “I slept with her once . . . and it didn’t go all too well . . . then she dropped me . . . unceremoniously,” he said. None of this surprised me but God only knows why Jim thought I wanted to be told it. Life’s a mystery. Go figure. But I don’t really blame him for doing it– sleeping with Emily. He saw an opportunity and he took it. That’s all. Besides, I was gone gone gone and somebody was going to do it, for crying out loud. Sleep with her I mean.

Second Period comes to an end right on schedule. That’s to say fifteen minutes early– right on my schedule, I mean. Atsuko pulls her skirt back down along the line of her thighs as she wriggles out of her seat. She doesn’t look at me when she leaves. It’s so hot and wet and sticky. I wipe my brow and watch her ass as she walks to the door. She even walks like a little girl, for the love of the lord. She isn’t even pretty. My balls itch and as soon as everybody is out of he room I shove my hand into my pants to rearrange some things. I can barely reach around my big belly. I’m leaking.

I gather up my materials and head to my office. I need to start on that translation for Hoshino-san in Music. But when I open my office door I find Colclasure-Le Clerk sitting at my table, pondering the scrabble-like game and waiting for me. “I brought you some coffee” he says. I sit down on the sofa with a sigh and when I don’t say anything more he asks me “Are you doing OK today?” He’s trying to cheer me up. He’s a nice guy. After a few more seconds of silence however he leans over the Scrabble board and carefully picks up the H. He sets it on the table and slides it with one intellectual finger to the edge nearest to me. “Well, maybe I should just get the H out of here then if that’s the way you’re going to be,” he says. “Ho ho ho.” He’s my friend. He feels sorry for me. He’s the one and only person in my sad fucked up world who knows that the pure girl Junko is gone. The day before yesterday she packed up her bags and moved back to her family. This frustrates me. I miss her. I’m sensitive.

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2 Comments »

  1. don’t feel sorry for horse badorties. That’s not the point. Individuals make life worth it. Nobody has control

    Conformism is death. Don’t let the clones get you down

    Comment by pete — April 12, 2008 @ 9:47 pm | Reply

  2. Mr. Putman, this is mark the genius. I just got back from diggles and pigg. I can’t believe you didn’t mention vrenda olson.

    Comment by Mark the genius — August 16, 2009 @ 9:27 am | Reply


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