Note: In answer to a reader’s comment (“hardwater”) I have written a note at the bottom of this story.
Twenty years before, Todd would spend an hour in any ordinary restaurant with a calculator, calculating the eventual result – least and best – of a bond investment, a mortgage commitment, or his wages. All that calculating – or luck – had proven profitable. Now, at 58, he was comfortably affluent, and did little work. But he missed the guts. Now he would go into a café, order a pie and coffee, and know the rough answer even before he drew his calculator or his pen out (or for that matter, lifted his fork). It was an empty exercise. He had nothing to gain, no strong impulse of greed or security, and he felt the vacuum of this. It felt like his life was lazily sliding over warm ice. Not in any danger, but without traction.
He’d grown up poor, but somewhere, somewhere physical and psychic, even as his now-sold business began to thrive, he’d picked up a level of sophistication that allowed him no comfort from driving a big Cadillac, or wearing loud clothes, or speaking loudly in cafes, or showing off his modest wealth. So he drove a tin-box Tracker, five years old, and dressed in jeans. (Though here, as a tourist, he had a shiny red rented compact car, a Yaris.) And he was too aware – or perhaps too passive – to slide into deeper forms of decadence.
He was too close to death, at 58, to welcome or seek any exotic degradation of his soul. And he found repulsive any vision of himself as, say, a haunter of brothels in his grayness, or a ravager of rear ends, an oily porpoise perched on some brocaded couch. The lust, the selfishness, the egoistic use of another—none of these appealed to him. Other avenues of passion had closed years and months ago – he couldn’t locate the exact door, now that it had closed. The quiet clink, light as the tendril of breeze that swims the bedroom space, or lifts the kitchen curtains; but a clink still, or perhaps a click, but definite, the admission to himself that he knew the difference between love and lust.
So he couldn’t with clean, burning heart – heart justified with the high octane of rebellion, or biology, or a rationalizing philosophy of love’s permission – he couldn’t chase young lust, or, as he had in his twenties, a married woman. He knew what love was. He loved his wife, married three years; and he loved his children, all five. He would never cause them shame; he couldn’t. To top it all off, his suspicion and certainty that there was an afterlife kept him from obvious forms of decadence.
Despite all his reasons for satisfaction, for contentment with his middle class affluence, he had felt clearly, lately, several times in the last few months, a large, fluid, not painful, not fearsome, but bothersome emptiness. It sloshed inside him like a light, floating liquid, so that at the oddest moments, while he was rounding a mental corner, it would slosh up and surprise him with its cool, light touch.
At the moment, he sat, ankle on knee, on a black iron-slatted bench in the sunshine, at a downtown corner of Cobourg, Ontario, an obvious tourist in his duck shorts; while Margaret went poking about in the local stores, hunting for souvenirs for the kids – his three and her two, all grown except for his 17-year old Nancy, the bouncy baby of the family – and the one who resented her step-mother.
He might easily live to 88 – 30 years away. Too long, if the emptiness continued. He was even bored by his life’s favourite hobby – looking at real estate.
“Hi!” he said, rising, standing ready. Margaret advanced on him like he was a plan, a scheme she had to unfold quickly.
“Hi. Look. I want to go to that dress store. Here’s a realty thing.” She handed him a local real estate home buyer’s sheet. “Can you give me another fifteen minutes?” She waited impatiently for his answer. Lately she often showed a mild, hidden impatience toward him. He assumed it was related to his quiet passivity, to the circling wafts of emptiness he had begun to sense.
The next day, he decided to look at a piece in the “realty thing.” Fifty acres at a bargain price, but strange directions. He drove a half hour north of Cobourg to, as the directions stated, a dead end road. Walk past the railway tracks. He didn’t see the tracks, and the road wasn’t a dead-end, but continued, up, not paved, dry water gullies running like emptied veins down its middle, but broad, obviously drive-able. There was a “No Exit” sign and a yellow sign stating that this was a “non-maintained” road. One of his greatest fears was being stuck in some back trail, unable to turn the vehicle around, and the embarrassment of reporting to the rental agency that he was a schmuck. So despite the drivable appearance of the passageway, he parked the car off the end of the paved section, and set off on foot.
The road climbed a hill through treed cover, almost a forest, then leveled out. The woods disappeared and large abandoned agricultural fields lay on either side. Knee-high grass and weeds grew in sullen, isolated clumps, and here and there clumps of green bushes stood, like oases in the dry fields, green mirages promising something sweet and aromatic in the desert of sandy, rust-red dirt. There’d been a recent rain; the soil, compacted by the falling drops, baked softly in the September sun.
The road was long, wide and very open for an un-maintained passage. It surprised him, cast a spooky whisper over his journey. As he walked, two vehicles approached from the distance before him. He waved as they passed, the country wave, a hand held peaceably up, open-palmed, but neither driver, nor the one passenger, a grim woman, waved back from the first, white car. A black SUV with tinted windows followed. He trudged along, considering whether to turn back. But a native stubbornness kept him going.
A half hour later the road entered between two bosomy swells of green, nodding trees. Fifty feet before him a wide steel-and-wire gate, solidly locked and flanked by a wire fence, blocked his way. No realty sign. Just a “KEEP OUT.” He was half tempted to hop it anyway; it promised much more than the poor second way to his left. But remembering the grim people who’d driven past him, he decided not to push.
The left fork grew into – actually, dwindled into – a much more modest clay track, not much more than the width of a car. First, soft, muddy, it ran through a grassy clearing. It was a small, lush, sunlit clearing, and the bordering trees bent warm and shining in the sun. He turned quietly and wandered into that road, watching the trees. There, twelve feet up a tree, obviously up there because vandals had trashed earlier, bigger signs that now lay scattered, rain-curled, rotted and sun-faded in the grassy verge. High up there was a small realty sign, less weathered but only half readable, almost apologetic – and cryptic: “For #ale – 905-#43- #2#3. Mat# Besoig##e #0 acr##.
He contemplated whether to go further, or to back away from this place, which scared him slightly. To give himself time, he stood and tried to absorb the goodness of things, the lush meadow, the bright, shiny grass coming forth from the fertile earth, growing, blossoming – but it didn’t get rid of the spooky feeling.
His mind jumped to an internet movie he’d watched some weeks ago, a crude documentary that insisted Christianity was merely disguised sun worship. That Jesus was a myth, based on the progress of the Sun (“son” exchanged for “sun”); the 12 disciples, the 12 astrological constellations; Jesus’ birth, born at winter solstice, just as the Sun was reborn. And that Jesus was simply another in a long succession of prior Sun-man-gods, Mithra, Horus, Orpheus – all born of virgins, all born around Dec. 21, all with 12 disciples…
Intellectually he agreed with the proposition, but he’d been born Catholic, and his heart missed being encompassed by the boundaries, the arms, of a nurturing, protecting thing, the promise that if he were good, all would be well, forever…
I am good, he thought.
Not really heartened, he ventured further, diffidently, wondering where the 50 acres lay. Soon the road thinned to a deeply rutted cart path, now dry and hard as stone. The ruts were so deep and narrow that he had to walk on top of the hard clay peaks, a foot above the ruts. The thin-limbed trees seemed to wrestle with each other; they so closely embraced the road that he stopped himself from falling into the ruts by grasping their branches. The peaks and furrows constantly interchanged, so he had to leap nimbly from peak to peak. He tried walking in the narrow furrows, but gave up after scraping his ankles painfully on their hard, unforgiving sides.
He grew afraid, too, that his foot would lock in a furrow and, losing his balance, he might snap or twist an ankle. So he stumbled awkwardly along the bruising road. The trees closed in even more, their weak, leaf-swathed arms brushing his face or bare arms with the tentative grasp of lovers. It had cooled, gnats swirled lazily in the dankness. The sunlight, though he saw it above, didn’t lie in the path. Something made a sound in the brush, and he jumped.
With an irrational sliver of panic, he ducked into a hollowed side path from the rutted trail – it ran through a screen of bushes, then emerged in a vast, hot bowl dotted with scrub bushes. It was so large he could not see a tree-line defining any boundaries or horizon. Everywhere, paths ran up and down small ridges and hollows, and wound around. He began to walk down one. There were so many hard-packed trails baking in the sun, too many to remember his turns and twists. So, fearing he would get lost, at each fork he took the right hand one, assuming this would eventually bring him back to where he was.
He heard nothing, no machines, no dirt bikes. Fear, unknown fear lay about him. They must be biker trails, but the paths were such hard clay – and in some dips so sandy – that no tracks showed. What else could they be? He began to feel not silly, but ridiculous. He feared being discovered alone by a wild troop of bikers or just wild young men. It was his aloneness, and his obvious lack of reason for being here, his obvious lack of purpose, that would make him odd, ridiculous, and he knew how gangs sometimes felt a need to exterminate or thump the ridiculous, to exterminate absurdity. Absurdly, he strode on, almost brave now.
After awhile, pausing first to feel, to grope at the deep, almost melancholy thrill it produced in him, wondering what it meant, he strode left down one small roller coaster path, then right, then right again (then, forgetting himself, left) and at last, with a rising heart, a slight, light lift, he gave up trying to note which way he’d come….
The exhilaration of abandoning his right-turn plan, he supposed, would last as long as he chose to make it last. As long as he chose to be lost, that sad, sweet lift of his heart would hover strong as a silent hummingbird. But if he regretted being lost, if he wanted to go back, then fear would strike.
Todd stopped short and jerked upright in the twilight, heart pounding. There, at the base of a bush, were feet, and bright blue sky. He bent quickly before thinking. It was a mirror someone had propped against a bush: it was his own feet and legs. He knelt and leaned, peering; his face, oily, sweaty, his eyes overly serious, staring back to pierce him. That face was demanding, guarding his inner secrets without humor, perhaps secrets he held from himself. He stood quickly, afraid someone might be near, at his back. He surveyed the land around, though he was in one of the thousand small hollows, and couldn’t see much. Without humour – seeing its lack in his face bothered him. Twilight was approaching. Time to go home.
Then, without sound or warning, to one side of the trail, a man squatted. The man watched him. Suspiciously, or with assured violence? Todd couldn’t tell. His unkempt beard was grizzled gray. He held a large sack tightly by its closed throat. His pants clutched his waist in the same way, heavy woolen pants, and an old sweater, torn open at one elbow, hung from the rack of his shoulders.
“You startled me,” Todd said. Though, strangely, he didn’t feel startled. After the shock of the mirror, he didn’t feel any surprise. As if another human being was welcome.
“The mirrors tell me when someone’s coming,” the man said in a voice that was slightly off kilter, his tongue hanging on an eccentric hinge. “It reflects up there.” His eyes looked up at the sky, as far as Todd could tell. “And when it’s gone, the light’s gone, someone’s here. Right here.”
“Yeah, I see,” Todd said politely. “What’s in the sack?”
“Everything I need, nothing you need. No sir.”
“You live around here?” Todd asked.
“Only until someone comes home. Then I got to get out of here.”
“Do you know the way out?”
“Yes and no.” The madman closed his lips solidly around that.
There was a silence. A breeze flew over and through Todd. The atmosphere changed. Todd, still upset by the intense, demanding, serious face that he had discovered was his own in the shard of mirror, as if to ward it off, blurted out suddenly: “I just want love,” but clearly and loudly, enunciating each word, as if the madman could not hear. Then the breeze vanished. The air was still and clear again. Todd felt shamed and humiliated, vulnerable, open. Excited by having made such a pure, brave, senseless statement.
“Got to go,” he mumbled, and stumbled away from the mad man. He heard nothing following him.
“What was that?” he thought, nervously, Why was he here? But his hopes of getting quickly home reared up in disappointed surprise as he saw, several lurches down a hard-packed clay hill, that mirrors now were everywhere. Large shards and small ones, well-preserved squares and circles and jagged pieces, all strung haphazardly from bush branches by string, or crooked in the forks of twigs and branches. There must have been twenty or thirty. The sky reflected crazily in most of them; some were bright, some were dark, reflecting nothing.
Seeing them, Todd drew physically into himself. His shoulders drew in, arms tight to his chest, legs squeezed together, scrotum pulled in; and half-turned, almost like a small pirouette; and shuddered, one huge shiver. He looked at the horizon, where now the tops of trees showed, golden in the late afternoon. “This will end soon,” he thought with determination. He took one step forward, then caught himself – that way lay a dream, too much exploration – turned, and headed back in – hopefully – the general direction he’d come – veering to the left, though, to skirt around the place where he’d met the madman. Generally, he hoped and guessed, he stumbled along in the direction where he’d find the road – and everything familiar. He clomped along. His legs were tired but his motivation was strong, making his steps large and clumsy.
The way back almost accomplished itself, was surprisingly quick, easy and smooth, as if his instincts had known where to go all the time. Suddenly, there was the line of trees and weeds and the rutted road.
An hour later, back in the car, he luxuriated briefly in a sense of security. He wondered if he should recount his adventure to his wife. Adjusting the rear-view mirror before he pulled into the road, he caught a glimpse of himself. His expression was so fierce it again surprised him. But now, rather than worry about it, he quickly looked away and pictured the way back to Cobourg.
A day later, they flew home. That evening, he sat in a booth at the White Spot Restaurant with Margaret and his son Tony and his son’s wife. He hardly knew his son’s wife. She was always quiet, but he could see intelligence in her eyes. His son was intelligent too, he knew, but he masked it, kept his voice guarded and his eyes wary. The four of them chatted without purpose, hesitantly.
He first saw her two booths away and across the aisle, bending at the knees, all six feet of her folding with a strange, fascinating poise, as she extended a graceful arm under the booth to pick up something spilled. There was nothing remarkable about her appearance, yet an invisible magic crept and moved about her, a magic maybe only he could see (for no crowds gathered around her. In fact, later, he half wondered if she had just appeared that instant – part of him, that he would not admit to the surface – thought she might be a goddess.) She seemed suspended between all extremes, neither beautiful nor ugly, fat nor thin. A healthy head of glowing black hair, movements measured and poised, black skirt and white blouse – she was nineteen or twenty. He turned back to his family, feeling both satisfied and intrigued. The notion of fascination – letting himself be fascinated – was impractical and inappropriate, so he dismissed it.
But several minutes later she was at the table, laying their cutlery, and he felt she’d come because she’d caught him watching her. Her body, her stance and smile radiated ownership of him, and he liked it, immensely. She laid his setting last. The cloth napkin wouldn’t lay flat; it had half opened. She opened, folded and laid it again, without hurry, and flattened it with a careful, sensual caress. Her whole hand slowly pressed the napkin. Glancing upward at this gesture, he saw her looking with soft directness at him. Her eyes stroked him with quiet assurance, with unassuming but intimate confidence. He averted his eyes swiftly, to stare down again at that strangely pleasing hand; it lingered a moment longer, pressing the napkin, signalling untold, underwater pleasures. He could tell that hand had never had children, it was too calm and certain – mothers’ hands were tentative, hovering, compassionate, alert with nervous care.
He was grateful, felt the experience was worth – everything. He had been touched by a god. He knew immediately that everything in life, everything, only equaled one moment of that invisible touch. He also surmised, immediately, that this alluring hand knew cock, it caressed that napkin to tell him just that. He could see its graceful length stroking, hypnotizing. He looked up again, but this time at the table of his family, masking his guilt. Fearing his momentary obsession had become obvious to everyone at the table, he fled the goddess.
He fled because if she had said, “Arise and come with me,” he would have. He automatically chose to avoid his children’s shame, his wife’s hurt, the human wreckage. Even as he watched his son and Margaret talk, refusing to look around the restaurant for the goddess, he felt steeped in the elixir she’d poured upon him. But he could say nothing, and he did nothing, except to now look at his son and try to summon ordinary words, a bit of ordinary conversation, to disguise his secret adventure, to disguise everything, as he felt her go away. He knew he would never see her again. (He had not proved worthy.) But he failed to find anything ordinary to say fast enough, and his son stared blankly at him with opaque eyes, and Margaret said to his son, “Do you want wine, Tony?”
“Why have I been touched?” he wondered on the drive home. He could see Venus sitting in her bedroom, back straight, at her vanity mirror, contemplating her beautiful self. Regretting his earlier flight from her love potion, his eyes had covertly searched the restaurant for her as they exited. But she seemed to have vanished as completely as she’d appeared. “Does it have any meaning? Was it a signal? Am I meant to change my whole life? Am I meant to chase her? Nineteen or twenty-two maybe?”
That night, at home, Margaret couldn’t get a jar open. She dropped a knife. She exploded, began screaming at him.
“What’s the matter with you?” he said.
“I hate you! Pedophile! Pervert! I hate you!” Her words sang with anger and hurt. He didn’t understand. Of course, she must have noticed something. But he’d been faithful. He hadn’t chosen. Hadn’t abandoned her. He didn’t understand. He didn’t understand in the bigger way, either, anything. He went into his office, shut the door and sat at his desk with his hands over his ears, because her voice hurt his brains. He didn’t understand. He seethed with delicious dissatisfaction.
In answer to a comment by a reader, “hardwater,” that Todd’s Story was really two stories, I thought I’d do something which is really gratifying but seldom wise: comment on my own story.
Todd has moved from ennui to “delicious dissatisfaction.” To do this, he had to restart his spiritual or emotional engine. He had to move from his nascent/hidden self-loathing, or fear of his self, which was displayed in the mirrored land, to the opposite state: love, embodied in the beautiful young waitress. He has gone from anxious self-consciousness with a manic, masculine god of mirrors to lapping at the orchid-sweet feminine presence calmly radiating from the goddess of love, Venus.
So the answer to Todd’s ennui is love, but even love becomes complex: strains of lust, eroticism, enter too. The sight of her hand sends him into adoration of her — sexually and physically. (“Her hands knew cock.”) So I think Todd’s story, tho’ in a sense two stories as you point out, is also a “necessary pair.” A pair of opposites, really. You can see Todd as a pilgrim, one who just took a significant (says me) step forward. But there are many more tests/challenges to face. “Delicious dissatisfaction” is not happiness.