Smelly might have sensed our cord being cut when she
heard me shaving with the electric razor on the toilet, shaving not my face.
Something about the buzzing sounds and the pieces of strawberry-blond hair
falling onto the surface of the blue water made me think of what might happen
before an autopsy.
“What are you even
doing?” She’d made camp outside the bathroom door. Round four of Candyland with
the girls, acting like every gumdrop and peppermint card was some kind of keg
was my answer, heading for taint town.
asked obvious questions, then repeated my answer in the form of another, all in
the guise of casual conversation. Sounding annoyed only certified my guilt. “Mowing? Are you shaving your, ahem, for
Then some shit like that. Since we’d moved to
Brooklyn from rural Washington, Smelly baited me about anything she perceived
as sexual, such as speaking to a woman, any woman, like the T-Mobile lady who
called to sell us stuff, or a colleague at the University where they’d given me
a job teaching writing to undergraduates. Now this included grooming the area
she’d left un-chartered the last three months.
she cheered to one of our daughters, prepping them for the Special Olympics.
Watching my wife
play mom used to make my eyes all dewy. Now all I saw were gobs of makeup
covering pock marks and wrinkles and squished pimples, even applied to her shot
out breasts in an attempt to fool God knows who into believing those turnips
were garden-fresh. The shaver went over some rough spots and made some chortled
sounds. She took a turn down Manipulation Alley, reminding the girls that in
less than an hour daddy would be gone for a month, the longest period so far in
this ticking time bomb we’d come to call our sacred union. Yeah, she was about
as subtle as a trailer-park wasp from St. Louis who never left the house and
knew her husband had become a prostitute of the soul, even though his fidelity
record was sparkling. Smelly wasn’t her real name of course, but her real name
rhymed with it.
scoop was this: After the success of my debut novel Cock Block, a major
University gave me an adjunct position and most recently, the Author’s Symposiums
and Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia offered me a one-month residency, as
well as the most important thing: Parole. Smelly was against it, naturally,
since she was against anything that required my departure from our two-bedroom
in Park Slope, including work. Some people might think this was born from love.
It was not born from love. Born from love would have been a simple
let-me-give-you-a-you’re-going-overseas-for-a-month-goodbye-blowjob. But she
was too busy cutting out pictures from the Pottery Barn catalogue and filing
them in a letter-sized envelope in alphabetical order. On the front, she’d
written, “Long Shot,” in red sharpie.
went ahead and laid one on her after throwing my suitcase in the trunk of the
cab. It was supposed to seem genuine, but not without regret, even though her
mouth tasted like a potato salad burp. After hugging the girls, I stroked
Smelly’s cheek Redford-style.
miss you,” she told me, “We’ll miss you a lot.”
I lied. Understand one thing: When you’ve known the end is near since the
beginning, and felt the pains of its certainty for years, that anchor in your
heart on the USS: “Soon to be a Weekend Dad” feels more like a tug come
the back window of the moving taxi, my cheeks and throat went all hot and tight
as the girls got smaller and smaller. The last image before turning the corner
was my two-year-old in Smelly’s arms waving at me by clapping the fingers of
one hand against her palm.
have a beautiful family,” the driver told me.
that what he said made me feel all whipped-cream and ass-pants inside, but I
said thanks, and maybe some cliche like, “Don’t I know it.”
captain said in a French accent that the trip to Charles De Gaulle would take
roughly seven hours. I looked around to see if any other famous writers were on
board. A plump brunette wearing blue jeans and a baggy green athletic jersey
smiled at me and stared a few beats longer than casual. She had sparkling
California porn-star-eyes, the kind that lie to men’s faces about the pain
they’ve caused, or doubtless will. It was clear she recognized me, which made
her a student participant, probably some spoon-fed MFA candidate from NYU or
Hunter College. The fuck-me eyes, the cheekbones like ice skate blades, they
were really working. Sadly, her face was marred by the rest of her. In my
novel, which, again, is the multi-award-winning Cock Block, this tub of
titus might have had her own chapter, that is, when one has potential, but
can’t lay off the yams. Some guys would slam Cottage Cheeseburger over here for
how hot she could be. Not this guy. After breaking eye contact I took
out my brand new legal pad and wrote a five-page poem titled, My
Twenty-Five-Volume Elegy. Then I swallowed an Ambien, watching the past fade
into the passing clouds until my eyes closed and only darkness remained.
in Paris for the connecting flight, I remove my wedding ring and stash it away
in my carry-on. After the tram to terminal B, I find my next gate, buy a five-Euro
Espresso that tastes like a wet dog and smoke five cigarettes near the news
stand, feeling in control of my image for the first time in years, rather than
suffocating in supermarkets and drug stores as Smelly nags me about different
brands of jelly mid-stroller push, wondering if everyone around us sees me as
the bespectacled, scowling, poopy-diaper-changing Nike dad my not-so-fuzzy side
tells me I’ve turned into.
like this one’s mine,” Cottage Cheeseburger says, stuffing herself into the seat
beside me, which is thankfully an aisle one, making her free to stomp her way
in and out for the nine dumps she’ll surely be taking on this three-hour
you’re reading?” she asks, once in place, burrowing through her blue duffel.
I show her what
I’m reading and she freezes in mid-guffaw.
“I so love him. I
hate it when people label him a drunk and a misogynist.”
“Yup,” I manage.
staring for a while before busting out her own book, which is, surprise,
surprise, my prize-winning debut. This is the part where she waits for me to
notice and begin a chat. I continue reading, scanning the same sentence twelve
times. Then she fakes a scowl, says, “Wait a second,” and flips to my jacket
photo, a black and white which features me smoking a Kent and leaning against a
brick wall – Kerouac-style, just better-looking. I sigh, shut my book, and face
“I knew you looked
familiar,” she wants me to know.
I field the next
going to be the best. Don’t you think?”
At this point, not
“I can’t wait to
meet Henry Howell,” she almost screams.
So she’d read my interview in Box magazine
where I cited Howell as one of the most powerful writers above ground. He’d had
a few award-winners in his first few years out of Iowa that established him
among lit-folk, masterpieces like, The
Fat Lady’s Song, Biting Wire, and
my favorite, Vaseline Sandwich.
“Lucky him,” I
say, sure she’s never read a word of the guy.
Cheeseburger turns her whole body to face me. “I’m in your workshop
though,” she says, lowering her chin to the nape of her neck, which, don’t know
why, reminds me of the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man, then tells me, “I was
supposed to be in Howell’s, but that was before I started reading,” and with this
she looks over her shoulder, then turns back and whispers, “Cock Block.”
This is flattering. Her only mistake is mistaking me
for the kind of teacher who gives a shit about writing, which Howell probably
does. He’s now head of the graduate writing program at Arizona State.
Cheeseburger drones on about my award-winning first novel.
“The ‘Riding the
Bull’ part totally made me cry. You hit every emotional level without once
editorializing how horrible the narrator is.”
Which means she
missed it altogether. That’s a hilarious scene. The narrator, Lance, goes
Hogging in Key West with three of his boys one night during Spring Break.
Hogging means you try to take home the fattest girl you can find. Lance wins,
and goes back to some behemoth’s motel room, strips, takes her from behind,
grabs onto both of her cannons real tight, whispers in her ear how she’s the
fattest nastiest pig in the world and holds on for dear life as she tries to
buck him off. This is called Riding the Bull. Cottage Cheeseburger thought it
was some kind of feminist statement. Hell, most critics think the whole book is
I lower my chin
too and tell her the way she says the title of my book gives me wood.
“You’re bad,” she
I tell her I like
the way she says this as well, and ask if she’s staying for the month or just
the first two weeks. She says the month and gives me a low-lidded grin.
enjoy the long stare mostly because it hurts too much to look at the rest of
seeing that all my documents are in order, the passport control lady, who could
easily pass for Jack Palance, stamps them, narrows her eyes and sends me off
into the world. Baggage claim consists of me smoking a Kent and watching all
the twenty-something participants who were on the same flight ogle each other
and quickly look away. Cottage Cheeseburger starts chatting up a bespectacled
beanpole wearing a green wife-beater and jeans with a chain hanging as the
carousel starts dumping luggage. I’m the kind of guy who stands right by the
mouth, poised like an Obstetrician ready to catch a newborn. Two minutes later,
I’m wheeling my suitcase out to the lobby of Polkovo where a crowd of Russians
are waiting for loved ones. I spot the sign that says “Author’s Seminars,” and
am greeted by a six-foot-tall cross between Michelle Pfeiffer and Klaus Kinski,
although the latter so works for her, wearing a baby-blue halter-top and white
short shorts. She’s got short blond hair and full lips, perfect neck structure,
and a stomach flat as a pancake, which is one of the true tragedies of
parenthood: Apart from the suction of youth – as well as morning head - the
ironing-board tummy is the other thing you’ll never see again.
Bates,” I say and give her a firm but not-too-firm handshake, then kiss her knuckles,
making sure to make slight tongue contact.
name is Vaselina. Very glad to meet you.”
have warm hands, Vaselina,” I say.
beanpole makes his way over and says hello to Vaselina in Russian, then
introduces himself to me in English as Sergei, which sounds like Sure Gay to
me. I already dislike him. He recognizes me, of course, and tells me he’s
studying Biochemical Engineering at MIT, but has been writing all his life. I
tell Sure Gay that this is fascinating, but don’t know what a Biochemical
begins to explain. I tell Sure Gay I’m not interested in this information.
is a broad-shouldered, round-faced black man, about my age, who I recognize as
Gerard Jefferson, the author of, “I, Snuffleupagus,” and, “Not-So-Native Son,”
which was short-listed for the National Book Award. A little on the preachy
side, naturally, but not without talent. Still, just like every black guy who
can write in complete sentences, the critics compared him to the likes of
Ellison, Richard Wright and the other one. Gerard takes a stand-offish position
as another participant arrives and gives a baggy-eyed hello all around, saying
her name is Pamela. Pamela’s a short brown-eyed nectar with glasses and the
only flaws I’m seeing are a freckle with a black hair erupting from her face
and one breast a tad smaller than its sister. She’s about an eight on the
kneel-down-and-let-me-paint-your-face-with-glazed-icing scale, but in full, and
mind you, I’m compensating for jet lag, about a six and three-quarters. I’m
thinking that All Over My Face might be a great title for my next book when
Cottage Cheeseburger trots over in tears and rather than introducing herself,
screams, “They lost my luggage!” Then she decides to bury her head in the crook
of my shoulder and spasm as Vaselina speaks with some official types.
tell Cottage Cheeseburger to relax, I’ll let her borrow a T-shirt or something.
This doesn’t get her off of me, although she pauses crying to look up at me
with pulpy eyes and whisper, “That is so sweet.”
drive to the hotel in what’s called a Marshutka, which is a smelly, barely
operable van, through rush-hour traffic. Every store we pass has a sign out
front written in some wing-ding-looking language. Pamela asks Vaselina what a
Pectopah is, and has a deep voice like a man’s, which brings her down to a six.
Vaselina tells us in baby talk that Pectopah means restaurant, that the P’s are
actually R’s and the H’s are N’s. Apart from that, nobody says much and I notice
that Pamela is playing peek-a-boo with Gerard, while Cottage Cheeseburger chows
on her nails, probably more hungry than nervous. That Pamela seems attracted to
Gerard bothers me. My wife Smelly was one of those before we met. Like Smelly,
Pamela is attracted to skin, knowing nothing about the person underneath. This
is shallow and base in my opinion. Yet, every time I see a black man, visions
of Smelly and him plopping around in our bubble-filled pink bathtub course
through my brain.
Feeling more bored
than disgusted, I dig out the empty Zoloft canister from my sock, pick off some
bud and stuff it into my cigarette, then light up as everyone stares, realizing
me as the genuine article. Vaselina starts to tell me something in a playfully
reprimanding manner. I stop her by saying, “Lay off, Babushka. You wanted the
company of fame? Get some.”
takes an indifferent puff when I pass it across to him, but no one else has the
sack. I’m half asleep by the time we get to the hotel. When I step out of the
Marshutka, the driver hands me my bag and Vaselina leans in with a smile and
whispers, “Babushka means grandmother,” then leans in even closer and calls me
hotel is a five-story University complex. None of the people who work at the
front desk speak English or seem to have ever seen a human being before. Two
blond American guys, one heavy-set, the other dwarf-sized, with one arm – no
joke - half as long as the other, and both named Josh, greet us at the
entrance. Vaselina takes our passports for registration and normal-armed Josh
offers to walk me to my room. I caress Vaselina’s Crisco-covered legs in my
mind as she hikes down her skirt in the corner of the lobby in the real world.
place I’ll be calling home for the next month is a tiny dormitory with two
mattresses the size of coffins. Something about them reminds me of when we
converted my oldest daughter’s crib into a toddler bed. There’s a TV mounted
high up in the corner, a desk covered with books, a rotary telephone and a small
window with white stains all over it, and lastly, a bald-headed man sitting
naked on one of the beds, reading a Russian sex pamphlet. This person is at
least six-and-a-half feet tall and without any hair whatsoever, even eyebrows.
After a minute or so he puts down the pamphlet and doesn’t bother to cover his
grotesquely large and pink erection, instead, he looks at me wide-eyed, gets up
and extends a glad hand.
must be Thaddeus. I’m Charles Padgett.”
image of a stepfather sneaking into the shower with an adolescent Charles, a
rotund-bellied guidance counselor, palming a tube of KY, passes through my
all mine, Charles,” I assure my new roommate, who also happens to be one of the
most renowned science fiction writers on the planet.
voice seems a thin crack between effeminate and sweet to the point that it’s
spooky. I can’t help but notice that his penis has not winded down. I’m waiting
for him to ask if any of this bothers me.
loved your book so much,” he says, moving closer, saying the last two words
twice. “Dick Lit, do you call it? How funny. What you were trying to do was…
was so…” He pauses and licks his upper lip. Now Charles is not speaking, just
smiling with loose lips and a cocked head. It occurs to me that the resemblance
between him and the guy from The Hills Have Eyes is striking. He looks
over both shoulders for an imaginary friend and asks me, “Do you know where all
the prostitutes hang out?”
dodge past him to my bed, where I toss my suitcase and sit down on the edge of
the exposed mattress. Charles sits on his bed as well and faces me, legs
told me this was the Ebbet’s Field for whores,” he carries on, “but none of the
assistants seem to know where to find any, even the girl ones.”
lighting up a smoke in hopes that he’ll protest and I can find Pavelovsky, the
program director, and end this relationship based upon a friendly conflict of
interest, Asthma, or allergies. Nothing doing, though.
is,” he says, scratching himself, “I didn’t come here as a writer.”
is my reaction, “Did you come as a…hamster?”
doesn’t understand this. I don’t actually believe he understands a word he’s
came to find a wife,” he says.
came to lose one,” I answer.
stares at me blankly. I can still feel it as I drift off.
I wake up three
hours later and it’s still light out, even though the clock says it’s twenty
o’clock, which is either six or eight PM in normal people time. Charles’s bed
has been made immaculately and there are two towels sitting on top along with a
note that reads, in a five-year-old’s handwriting: “Thaddeus! Towels!” I borrow
his sex pamphlet and rub off a quick one to some airbrushed blonde named
Slatvana, noticing my shaved region’s begun to get all grip-tapey. Slatvana’s
number is listed below the picture, along with the words, “Gentel Men Only.” I
finish all over the misspelled word and leave the pamphlet where I found it,
since Charles has ticked a few of the pictures as potential brides. I swallow
two Zolofts in the shower, put on a black turtleneck and slacks and head down
to the lobby.
group of fifty some odd writers stand clustered by the entrance doors, the sun
beaming in on all of them as they ask each other whose workshop they’re in. I
recognize the Joshs, Vaselina and Sure Gay, who’s trying to woo Pamela in the
corner. There’s no sign of Henry Howell, who, besides a barrage of Russian box,
is the only person I am interested in meeting. Then again, he could be any one
of these losers. His book jacket photo’s got to be older than most of the
scribe wannabe’s surrounding me in this veritable halfway house. When the coast
seems clear of Cottage Cheeseburger I chat up Vaselina, who’s wearing a black
fuck-me skirt and a white blouse that’s half opened revealing the edges of
milky comings. I decide to dazzle her with my Russian skills.
I say, take her hand and kiss it, doing the tongue thing again. This brings my
wood back thirty percent.
she says and gives me a smile full of yellow, crooked teeth. “Did you have some
sleep?” she asks me, and I note that her accent sounds borderline French.
I had some,” I’m telling her, “but I’m not adapted to sleeping without a warm
body beside me.”
she pouts, and scrunches up her forehead.
decide to keep it going. “Had a shower too. It was warm and totally and
completely wet. It felt so good you can’t imagine.”
it, because the city it often loses the hot water for several days.”
did enjoy it. I always do. When I first step in, I like to let the hot water
pour all over my face. All over your face is a great feeling.”
field the lull.
“I hose off for at least three minutes before
just getting stupid with the soap.”
me,” she says and touches my shoulder as she walks away then says something to
a short guy with a moustache. That she made physical contact means she was
seriously into my story. Now both Vaselina and the short guy, whose eyes are
half closed, are staring at me, speaking privately, which makes me think
Vaselina is planning a threesome, which, if it’s with another guy, is not a
threesome, it’s a gang bang, and that’s not my thing at all. It’s very
important for me to have the full penis...
A small hairy hand
turns me counter-clockwise, revealing a corpulent man with a black beard and
wild hair. The Russian accent means this is Pavelovsky, the man who read my
book and introduced himself in an email that read exactly like a William Carlos
Your description of fellatio
was great, man.
All expenses paid, man.
first words to me here in the lobby are, “Hey, man. Great. Great. See you at
the banquet. Okay, man. Bye.”
I get in before he continues saying the exact same phrase to all the faculty
is, “So, should I call you Pavel?”
man,” he says with the same tone of voice, and goes over to Gerard.
eyes approaches me next and before saying anything, observes me with a series
of studious nods. He looks to be somewhere in his twenties, with patches of
speaks as if he’s reading from a book in a foreign language, understanding the
pronunciation perfectly, but with no clue as to the meaning of the words.
the crowd, Charles is chatting up some of the potential-wife-assistants while
shooting me furtive glances.
Howell here?” I ask.
missed his connecting flight. He was bitten by a snake somewhere in the German
wilderness. He faxed us an hour ago.”
been bitten seven times. This is nothing.”
Squinty walks over
to a group of Africans in full-on tribal gear, one of whom is holding a copy of
Strunk and White, then sees me ogling
Vaselina, and comes back, stands two inches away from me, rolling his tongue on
his inner cheek and telling me, “On your first shot of Absinthe tonight it’ll
hit you this is the closest thing to freedom you’ve tasted since grad school.
You’ll try some smooth shit with the assistants who have been well-trained in
the art of taking none of the inevitable advances of you people seriously. My
job ends with herding all of you back here safely, where you’ll walk the young
plump woman who can’t stop staring at you right now in the corner up the
stairs, who you think is below your standards but will end up doing what you
ask in the third floor lounge chair because what standards can you pretend to
have when you’ve got a “save me from the hell I’ve created” albatross hanging
from your neck. You’ll workshop unreadable stories every morning through the hangover
glaze, make your phone calls, check in, check out, check yourself, after you
attempt to buddy up with Howell who won’t even respond to your saying hello and
in two week’s time this world will be the only world. You’ll say these things
to Pavelovsky and me, one of the Joshs, those of us who do this every year and
we’ll nod along for a while. Vowing to never return to the hole you dug back
home, maybe you’ll meet some local girl at one of the bars and after she drinks
you under the table you’ll walk around the city and make out on corners until
she digs her claws in for the kill. You won’t know they’re claws, you’ll think
those big blue eyes are the things that save you from the guilt and pain from
filling in that hole, but you will now know you’re going through with it. The
last few days you’ll spend your time saying to everyone how in one month’s time
it feels like you’ve been friends for years, like a family here, and we’ll nod
and go along with it until you’re standing by a taxi cab one month from now,
kissing your mistress bye bye and weeping your way across the Atlantic in the
bathroom. You’ll come back to an empty house because your wife and kids are at
the in-laws in Boca or Yonkers for two more days and when you flip on the light
and see the banner hanging says “Welcome Home, Daddy” it’ll hit you like a fuck
punch and you’ll try and pull that invisible rip cord and end up with a fistful
of collar. Few days after the wife gets back with the kids and smells your shit
with a glance, you’re alone again in that house, which is probably in some part
of Brooklyn you thought was writerly enough not to make you feel like some tract-house-dad,
putting the last of the half-ass duct taped boxes in the U-haul and tipping the
movers thinking this was easier than you thought. Week later you’ll be back
right where you’re standing now, except all you’ll feel is the same thing you
felt when you saw the banner – difference being it’s not you who’s the ghost in
your own home this time, it’s all of us ‘cause we’ve gone back to ours. You’ll
call up Natasha Anna Olga Lena and say here you are like you promised and won’t
ever see it coming that she never believed you in the first place and forgot to
tell you this little tiny thing about her live-in engineer fiancé who she’d love
to leave and it’s a little more complicated and let me explain.
That’s when you
belong to us.
After that, one
summer, five ten twelve years from now, maybe you’ll be saying what I’m saying
to some two-bit hack we didn’t have to bait to hook and who knows, maybe you’ll
even go by the title of Co-Director of the Author’s Symposiums and Seminars,
which abbreviated spells “ASS” for a reason and it’s not the reason you want it
“Now, all this considered, maybe you’ll stop leering at my wife,” nods
toward Vaselina, winks at me and returns to the African tribe.
is when I understand two things: Squinty is Peter Allen, co-Director of this
program, and the inventor of Schitzo-Text, which is the art of slamming four
Redbulls and typing anything that comes into your mind over a ten minute
period, then setting it on fire and peeing on the ashes, and the second thing
is that now might be a good time to call Smelly. I find a phone over by the
check-in counter and dial direct.
are you doing?”
am I doing? Good morning to you too, sweetheart. When did you get there?”
night. I think. They said it’s always daytime in the summer. A few hours ago.”
reason you couldn’t call a few hours ago.”
I wanted to hear you complain. I’m homesick already.”
Because you were
sleeping a few hours ago, dumbass.
“Aha,” she says,
her warmth and fuzziness still intact from an ocean away. “Bet there’s gonna be
a lot of that this month.”
“A lot of what?”
“Never mind, Thad.
Go play with your friends. Must be nice.”
Because all her
friends are spandex shorts and Gap Pocket-Tees. Because mine are afraid to even
come over anymore.
dead silence, then she adds, “So. Having fun?”
yet. This pleases you?”
huh? You going out tonight with all your new girlfriends?” She makes her voice
all porn-star-squeaky when she’s derisive.
we’re having a few before the inaugural Pushkin orgie, then a handjob contest
for faculty only, with, you know, Boy Wonder masks and all, but after that, who
knows, a bunch of us might step out for a cup.”
live it up sweetheart. I’d love to join you, but I’ve got two children to take
loves you, baby.”
see the line of writers, teachers, Africans and Russian program assistants
filing out the lobby doors. Cottage Cheeseburger is standing off to the side,
staring at me, head cocked in sympathetic patience, not connected any which how
to Smelly and me, only to Squinty’s premonitions. With a martyred sigh, I nod
in her direction and push out my best smile.