The Appearance of a Hero

The Tom Mahoney Stories

Peter Levine

St. Martin's Press

HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?
 
 
HE TELLS ME he felt it once—love. Lust, mainly, though he had hoped it would turn into love. He—a friend I know from work—is dedicated, driven, will be as good a salesman as there is (they taught us at a seminar in Dallas to learn one story and to tell that story well, tell it to any potential client: the birth of your kid, the day you won the big game, your most recent vacation—it doesn’t matter what story; its only use is to begin a conversation, which will lead to a sale)—he is quick, incisive and, we all tell him, a wonderful listener.
In his personal life, however, I believe my friend is laid-back, fun to be around, attractive in all ways. I don’t know him too well, but I admire him. Something about his easy way.
His lover, this woman, almost ruined him. He holds his glass of scotch and soda up to his lips and says he couldn’t believe it—it was, in his life, the first time he knew he was feeling stress. Anxiety. He had been studying for the Series 7. He said he’d wake up at night in a panic. What with all that was going on with her and the test.
My friend has a chest like you wouldn’t believe—thick and strong, like a swimmer’s. Thick black hair.
The woman was his boss from his first job out of school. She was tan, fit, had short blond-brown hair—the type of woman who looked like she might have been a tennis instructor, or a high-impact aerobics instructor. She liked it in the ass, he tells me. That was one thing that turned him on about her. It was her favorite way, actually. It was also when he knew there was something different, and possibly wrong with her, and part of what made him fall for her so badly.
How it started, he does not tell me. Not this night, the canopy of the lounge we’re at pulled back, the sky blue and void of clouds, the two of us just having drinks, a quiet place near Lake Michigan; no pressure, just two guys having cocktails: slacks and shirts and gleaming black shoes and thin belts and thin bodies. A moment without a past or a future. Well, a bit of a past—a story. His story.
This woman. Maybe they met for drinks after work, had a few (he more than she), took a few bumps of coke (he does it, but only when it’s around him), had a cigarette, and then the sex. He said her body was clean and unblemished, tight; her pussy was waxed—beautiful, he tells me, just beautiful. There was also the issue of her being his boss. It excited him, he says. A thrill.
He is the type of man who lives for such things: the big sale, a rush. Four black coffees in the morning for my friend, and four scotch and sodas at night.
He kept his apartment and she hers. People at work knew—it wasn’t a big secret. The guys at the office (it was in Arizona, he says) thought it was cool. They thought she would have been wild in bed. Was she? How was it with her? Good?
He never really told them. He never told them that once they did it in her office, during work hours—well, toward the end of the day, but still. He never told them that there was a pathos to how she liked to do it, what she liked to say—it was beyond him to think of it in terms of demeaning her—that wasn’t it at all. She would say, Fuck me in the ass. Fuck my asshole. He had never heard such things, and he had heard a lot.
He did it.
“How did it feel?” I ask.
He takes my finger and makes a fist around it.
The other things they did together were what normal couples did. She liked to hike (he less so, but he was more than willing to do it for her). He had a hard time keeping up with her. So much energy. Over rocks, across fields, on the hard-packed desert floor, the heat bearing down on them like a mantle, they hiked to elevation. She loved to sweat. She drank hardly any water when she did these things. Her body browned. In the evenings, they would do dinner. Candles, low lights, white tablecloths, fish or salad to eat for her, beef if they had it for him, scotch and soda, cigarettes, sunburned legs touching each other under the table, sandals fallen off or dangling—the whole of the desert watching her, as if it knew she was worthy of being understood, reckoned with.
He never had to say a thing, he said. She did all the talking. But it wasn’t annoying. He liked her voice. A smooth, even voice. Happiest person he’d ever met. Sunny. Really, a delight to be around. Skin tight around her mouth. Talked about the work they were doing, the money they were then making, her house, her garden that she loved—all the succulents she kept, the deck she’d built, the desert and then the mountains beyond. It was a nice home (he had seen it a few times), but it had been so sparsely decorated. She had moved in seven months ago and still there were boxes around.
She announced that she wanted to buy a pet. To share. How did that sound? Would he go in on one with her? It meant something, he felt. Sure, he said. They were moving their relationship forward. What a fantastic woman. Drank deeply from life, she did.
What he asked her that night, which was not much (she had already offered so much), was about her growing up, her childhood. She said he knew all that already. She was from Portland.
He said he knew, but he just thought it would be nice to talk about; he felt like he hadn’t been the best conversationalist. As he was saying it, he realized that he had seen no pictures of her family at her place. He assumed her parents were still alive, working or retired. He knew that she was an only child. He had assumed they’d have talked about these things.
She said it had been nice, fine—very good, actually; her spirits seemed to dip and then lift as she told it, and he knew here, he tells me, that she was fabricating an upbringing that she felt would be one not that he would want to hear, but one that would be suitable to be heard.
She did not go on at length about her parents, only told him what they did (her father was a mechanical engineer and her mother was a lawyer). She then went on to tell him all about what she’d done in school, all the activities she’d been involved in, the clubs (president of the distinguished lecture series, writer for the business section of the university newspaper, intern for the dean of the school of arts and sciences), the partying she’d done there, then work: one company, where she’d worked as a personal financial adviser and then this most recent company, and then working her way up the ladder. There was no discussion of the difficulties in being a woman in a man’s business, no discussion of harassment. She was happy on all subjects.
At his apartment, after work, he studying from the kind of book you’d keep a door open with. She wanted to go out, but he said he really had to study. The fan going. A clean-line apartment building. The walls were white. He had put up a number of large photographs of him and his father: playing golf, at the Cubs game—they were so close. His mother had taken them. The girlfriend never asked him about this. He had hoped that she would.
She watched television, sitting beside him. Her policy was to work hard and leave work at work. He, on the other hand, was still junior, and had to pass the exam if he wanted to move up. She told him not to worry about it. He said he was a little worried.
He had made it through college with little effort—he’d never been going for honors. He had gotten hired on charm alone. Could talk to anyone and everyone admired him. She said the exam wasn’t that hard. She’d passed on her first try; she was sure he would. They’d go out and celebrate; she had a surprise for him. He asked her what. She said he’ll have to wait to find out. He tells me that he couldn’t wait; he desired her. She had this effect on him, got him hard right away, like a piece of lead pipe, like a truncheon, she in a T-shirt advertising a sports store and baby blue terry-cloth shorts, straddled him on the leather sofa.
Air-conditioning was coming down from the vents. The night was purple above the skylights. He says it was always like being with a goddess—and he is not a man to speak in hyperbole. He means it.
All clothes, off. Her knees on the sofa, she told (not asked, told) him to put it in her ass. He said he wanted to do it the regular way. She reached behind her. The book fell off the sofa. No, she said. My way. This way. She grabbed him, licked her other hand, wet her asshole, wet the bulb of his cock, and put him inside.
If that was how she wanted it, he tells me, then that was how. I loved her.
*   *   *
On the way to the pet store. They were going to get a lizard. You have never seen someone so excited, he says. She was freaking out. It was like picking up a new car. The truth was, though, I was kind of excited, too, he says. For her. But also for us. We were going to do this thing together. It would bind us. We would have to care for it together. Feed it. Talk to it. Clean the aquarium. Even though we had decided to keep it at my place. Though her place was so much larger, so much more light (she even had a good spot for it in the great room). She promised she would always be over to help.
At the store, they looked around at the lizards. They had snakes, too. But snakes you had to feed mice, and it was too big a hassle. There were salamanders—too small.
Then they saw it—this iguana—not moving, really, just sitting in its glass aquarium, its lids folding upward. Skinny green thing. It had this look on its face, he says. He didn’t see how someone could be so excited by an iguana. It didn’t really do anything. The pet store smelled like dog food and piss. He didn’t like it very much. In fact, he was a pretty clean guy. He liked the toothpaste tube to be clean, for instance. That was one thing she was never good at—always left crap around the toothpaste.
She declared the iguana would be named Hector. She asked him, squeezing him on his ass, if he liked that name. He didn’t really, but he said he did. She didn’t mean it in the Greek way. But he decided he was at least going to think of it like that. He wanted to get out of the pet store. The lights were too bright and unnatural; he wanted to get back into the dry heat of the desert, drive with the top down, the good feeling of the hot leather against your back. She was talking fast to the store clerk, a young Hispanic guy, who was a bit startled by her energy. My friend shared a look with him. The look also said that it’d be worth it—to be with her.
They left: Hector the Iguana, a giant glass aquarium, a plastic bag full of iguana food and vitamin supplements, aquarium accoutrements—including a fake log. They put all this in the trunk. But not Hector. Hector sat on her lap. She stroked him. He looked nervous. My friend tells me he’s pretty sure the animal was nervous. She was very aggressive about stroking it. He wanted to talk to her about the feeding schedule. Stucco and adobe-colored strip malls were going past. The mountains, in the distance, and all the land—which threatened to assume the city, to run them out. She said she’d take great care of him. They say that iguanas form serious emotional attachments to people, he reminded her.
When they got back to his place, she watched as he put the aquarium together, put the water attachment on, filled it, took Hector from her. She resisted, said she wanted to hold him longer; he said the clerk had told them Hector needed to get adjusted to his aquarium. He grabbed the lizard: hot and expanding in his hands—knowing it immediately preferred him, could feel it falling in love with him, could feel it wanting to be a buddy with him, and he then resisted it, put it in the aquarium, dropping it on the soft wood chips. Here you go, buddy.
Such a pathetic creature, he says. I had hoped the name would give it some honor, but still, it looked a little sad. I knew then, he tells me, that I was going to have to give more of myself to it than I had planned, and I know this about my friend: There is only so much to give.
She came over to look at it. Her smell, he tells me, was out of this world. Like she was always walking out of the shower. It’s crazy, what with all this woman had done. She once told him that she sodomized a guy with a carrot. She said that she would do the same thing for him if he wanted. He didn’t want that. She touched him, staring at Hector. It was a sunny day, and he said it was too bad he had to study. He went over to the couch.
But of course, he says, asking the bartender for another scotch and soda, he didn’t do that. He didn’t study. He desperately needed to. There was more to learn. He had a life to think about. He wanted it to be old-fashioned. Where he could support the family all on his own. It was silly, he admits, but it was what he wanted. This test seemed to him to be the first barrier to beginning it—how odd, he tells me, that up until that point, life had seemed like a smooth plane, unobstructed.
She asked him if he’d fuck her up against the window of his apartment. He said, No, not right now. He almost couldn’t believe that she would just say it like that—even though she had said this sort of thing many times. I’ve got to study. Do this first, she said. She wriggled out of her khaki shorts—always wriggling out of her shorts, he says. She leaned over the windowsill. She started playing with her pussy and then her asshole. She said she wanted Hector to watch his parents do it. He said that was gross, but what the hell could he do about it?
He did it. As he did it, he thought to himself that he was surely in love—this was what love was. He liked to see the desert outside. It was flat and clean and dry. Everything was in its place. It was so quiet. All one could hear was the air-conditioning. And her moaning. His cock in her ass.
At times, he tells me, he could feel her ass contracting, and maybe, once, he says, in all the times they did it that way, her having to shit. Could feel it pushing up against him. He didn’t care, or care whatever his cock might have looked like afterward. The extremity of the act must have equaled, or been commensurate with, the extremity of emotion. That emotion being love. His first real one.
That lizard, he says. I learned something about life from that lizard.
*   *   *
He had to go to a conference for a week or so back here in Chicago. Visited his parents, who still lived here. Stayed downtown at the old Hotel Nikko. It was good, because he needed the evenings in his room to study. She had a key to his place, was practically living there anyhow, taking care of Hector. At the conference, they were talking about growth equities, capital opportunities, focus funds. The stuff was interesting to him. He made friends so easily. They went out to lunch, all these guys. The House of Blues. Talked about midwestern college sports. They listened as my friend talked—he had been an athlete in college. They talked about making a lot of money.
But he was calling this girl during his breaks, and she wasn’t answering the fucking phone, he says. He couldn’t figure out where she was. He called her at work and the secretary said that she’d called in sick. So he called her house, his apartment. Some colleagues he spoke to (he said it was a work-related matter)—they didn’t know any more than the secretary. He missed a call from her—she just said, Hey, it’s me. She did not tell him not to be worried, that she was okay—none of this she mentioned. He’d left a dozen or so messages for her and all she had for him is Hey, it’s me? Like nothing was going on.
*   *   *
At night, in this hotel room. He was leaving the following day. He was calling her constantly. This was so unlike him. He felt like something essential had been excised from him and only now did he realize how vital it was to his existence.
He thought about something that never happened, but which he sort of wished had happened. An evening at her home. Her wide bed. She naked in the bed. Had sex before, but now they’re sleeping. She is, at least. But not him. He’s up. He’s naked and he leaves her bed and opens the sliding patio door and walks onto a small balcony. The backyard is the desert, blue and unmoving.
The Saguaro sleeping, the coyotes sleeping, the desert mice, the cracks in the earth taking in air and no water—he can hear the rivers under the layer of dry earth swimming, rumbling like a conveyor belt under the desert crust. And he, my friend, watching all this, and feeling completely light, completely unrestricted. The feeling you have after you come, after you shit, after you swim. All manner of blue is covering the desert on this night he’s imagining. Pores are shrinking on his kind face. His chest is widening. Blood is filling the veins in his arms from the lovemaking. And he realizes that this is what peace is. This is all right, he thinks.
It was all a fiction, though. He had his phone on his chest, waiting for her to call. He was trying to study. He fell asleep.
At one point, he had a dream that his phone was going—that it was her. She’d been in an accident. Had to go up to Portland to see her folks (her mother had fallen and broken her hip and the father needed her help), but she couldn’t fly—there was bad weather up there—so she’d decided to drive. Another car on the highway. Rain. The accident was bad. She’d be okay. She was only now just coming out of the surgery—she had a bad gash on her leg and a dislocated shoulder and they’d doped her up—and he was the first one after her parents that she’d called. She’d be okay. She’d be back to normal soon. Could he come to see her? She needed him. In the dream, he told her he was already on his way.
But it wasn’t the phone and it wasn’t anything. He felt, prayed, that the dream was real. But he had an empty-stomach feeling, knowing that it wasn’t. He was sweating and his heart was slowing down. He thought that he was dying. He was pretty sure he was having a heart attack, wondered if somehow, someone would find her and tell her that he had died, for he would want her to be at his funeral—even with his parents—to show them what a great girl he had found, what she might have been like as a daughter-in-law. His parents had wanted him to return to Chicago immediately after college, but he hadn’t, and he thought she would be evidence of a life that he had made for himself out west.
But this pain. It was cool in the room, but he was roasting, and went into the bathroom (too bright) and got sick all over the place. Had to bend over and clean up all the filth with toilet paper. He went back to his bed, back under the covers, felt worse than he’d ever felt in his life. His life had been too easy; it had not prepared him for this.
He arrived home late afternoon, went directly back to his apartment. No messages from her. He called in to his office and the secretary, who knew that he’d been sleeping with the boss, said with irritation that she was still not in. In fact, they didn’t know where she was. But she was the head of the little retail office, so if she wanted to take off, she could. He said okay. He went to check on Hector. The animal was all white, like cigarette ash. This is what happens when iguanas don’t get enough light, the proper nutrition. She hadn’t watered it, either—probably the entire week. It had a look on its face like it wanted to die. He felt sympathy toward it. The shades were drawn in his cool apartment. She was supposed to come and open them and feed Hector. But of course, none of that. He took it out of the cage. It felt lighter, of course. The texture of its skin as if it were melting.
And then my friend, a happy man, jovial—he tells me that he cried. He never wanted it. He can’t remember the last time he’d cried.
He opened up the shade. Its claws on his shirt felt so odd. He took its little water feeder and put it to Hector’s mouth. The pathetic thing—it opened its mouth to receive. He stood by the window. The girlfriend, his lover, she might have been dead. It was possible.
But he knew that this was not the case. He knew that her disappearance was an eventuality. He’d known, that first time, something was wrong about her. Too happy, too greedy with the love. And being a guy—he couldn’t think straight. A woman who liked it in the ass? A woman who wanted to fuck all the time? How could he have thought properly about things? One can’t expect such things from a mortal, he tells me.
He held the iguana the way one would hold a baby.
He tells me it really would have been great if she could have met his family, or if he could have introduced her to them. He’d had girlfriends before, sure, but none so outgoing and nice. The kind you really think about spending holidays with, the kind you’d want your kids to be around because she’s so fun and would make them laugh all the time and do fun stuff with. In truth, he tells me, he sort of imagined a whole life with her. A good one, too. One of those outdoor-activity kind of families. Maybe a son and a daughter who did sports. A desert life, all new.
Hikes through orange canyons with a flake of blue sky above, following dried-out riverbeds, backpacks and hiking boots and bottled water and a compass and knife and floppy hats; the smell on all of them of sunblock, streaks of white on noses and cheeks. Sitting with his family—he watching them and feeling, what? Pride, certainly, but also serenity, a life fully realized, and the wonderment of how one could go so long and not know that one had been living a half-life. She was the other half. It was something about the desert, and this woman, he says.
He was still so young—there was no reason, other than she was older than he was, just a handful of years, that it might not have happened.
*   *   *
That week, he did the regular stuff. He was broken and was beginning to heal. You get over love, don’t you? A broken heart. At work on Monday, they said that she—his woman—had taken a leave of absence. Some of the guys asked him what was up and he said that he didn’t know. He had his test at the end of the week.
He tried to get her out of his mind. He went to work, worked hard. Drank a lot of coffee. He stopped trying to get ahold of her. There was no playbook for what to do when a lover goes missing, one whom you are not committed to necessarily, or rather, only committed to through a pet. That was the whole of their estate. He ran in the evenings, in the heat. Came home, took care of Hector. It licked the sweat off him, off the backs of his hands. Its tongue was like a little soft spike. He held it for a bit, because he knew that iguanas were especially clingy. Dumb thing, he thought. God, he thought. The desert. The woman, the heat.
He showered, studied. Had a drink and then another. Scotch and soda. His heart was bruised. Maybe had a joint. To get by. Maybe other stuff.
The week went. Hector was turning green again and fattening.
He came home from work Friday night, the day before the exam, and there she was. She looked tired—like something had emptied out from her.
“Hey,” she said.
“Where were you?”
“Oh. I had to take off for a bit. I had some things I had to take care of.”
He was wholly unprepared. The love he felt went back into his heart. It could be the three of them again. The lizard, too. Why not the lizard? She was safe. He went to hug her. She hugged him a little, but there was nothing there—no recollection of what they had been doing, or had done, or of a future they might have had.
“Where did you go?”
“Los Angeles.”
“I thought you were dead.”
“Nope,” she said. “Still alive.” She was gathering certain things. She had with her a tote bag. She was in the bathroom.
“I just—I tried calling you. My God. At work, they didn’t know where you were, either.”
“I don’t work there anymore,” she said.
“What?”
“I quit. I needed a change,” she said casually.
He was not understanding this. Nor should he. In his life, he had never encountered someone like her and so he did not recognize the pattern: the highs and the lows—didn’t know what that signaled, didn’t know that a person could behave this way. He had something so good. It was a kind of passion, which he misunderstood to be love. He didn’t know such things were transient, that she would never be a dear woman.
“You just left. Do you think that’s fair? I was worried half to death. It was killing me. I thought I’d had a heart attack.”
“Well, look. We’re not married,” she said.
“Hector. You left him alone while I was gone. The dumb fucking lizard. I didn’t even want it. It almost died, you know.”
“You loved it,” she said. And here she lifted the lid of the cage, reached into it, and pulled it out. She was looking at it like something foreign and disgusting. It tried to scramble out of her hands, to move toward him—he was the one the creature loved. She grabbed it by the tail, and sure enough, he tells me, the fucking tail came off. It detached.
“Can that happen?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says. “And it doesn’t grow back.” Hector went under the table. For a second, she had a remorseful look, but that was it. She was holding the tail. She laid the tail on the coffee table. She went back into the bathroom and continued to collect her things: toothbrush, makeup, floss—all things that were hers. These resources he’d never thought about. That which aided in her mystique.
He just stood in his little living room. It was all so unbelievable to him. The desert was white and yellow. Suddenly, he felt very old.
He leaned down and there was the tail. What the fuck? he thought. He scooped up Hector from under the table. In his hands, it lowered its head. Never was it a large creature. It had little flat circles for ears. An ugly animal.
“Okay,” she said, glumly.
“I don’t understand this. I don’t get any of this,” he said, the lizard in his hand.
“Well, you’re still young. But this happens.”
She didn’t apologize for nearly killing him, with the whole panic attack business (he didn’t know it was that), the lizard, for killing his young heart, for killing his belief in certain things: order, love, sex—the belief that they could all be magnified, all be extreme and still work.
*   *   *
He didn’t get it, he tells me, because there was nothing to get. The thing was, he explains, this fucking girl—this beautiful, fucked-up girl—was crazy. But not crazy in the way all girls are crazy, but literally. Later, she wrote him from Oregon. She said she was sorry about Hector. She told him that she was sorry for the whole mess of things and that she was only just now waking up.
“What about Hector?” I ask.
“I let him go,” he says. Let the green thing out into the desert. “I didn’t fucking want it.”
As for the test, he passed it. He took it and passed it and that was it. He got laid off from the job he was in anyhow. A lot of people did around that time. I was one, too.
He got a good severance package and finally returned home, where he met me, where I myself was working a new job and attempting to reorganize that which I had found disorganized in a previous life, one far less interesting than his.
*   *   *
He’s finished his drinks and I mine, and the night is black and terrific. He wants to know if I want to go out with him. More drinks. Maybe meet some women. I’m surprised he still has the spirit for that, though he is young and it was some time ago now—that business with the old girlfriend.
No, I tell him. I’m beat. I’m done for. He takes out his billfold and I tell him that I’ve got it this time and he protests, frowning, and says no, and I say that I insist, putting my hand over his as he reaches for the check.
“So, Robbie. That’s the story. I hope it was one you wanted to hear,” he says.
“Well, it was pretty funny,” I say, though I’m not sure it is funny. Mostly, I find it sad, and sad in a way I cannot name. And as I leave, he and I parting ways, me walking back to my car, and to a form of an evening much different, I am sure, than the one he will enjoy, I think that the sadness is the sadness you feel when you see someone innocent, like a child, get bullied. You want to protect the victim. You want them to be ignorant of the pain.
Parked near the lake is my car—a beautiful silver thing on which I blew my entire bonus, and which, I feel, was entirely worth it.
That conference—the one we had in Dallas—where they said you only need to know one story. Well, this is my story. His story. You’re lucky if you enjoy even a fraction of what he enjoyed—the pleasure, the ecstasy—while avoiding the pain. You simply can’t have it all. There are still great pleasures in the world. But you have to enjoy them sparingly. Any decent American could tell you that. Even in this station in my life, I know it.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Peter Levine