October 24, 2011
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Before he became a middle school teacher, Howard had for a while been a lab assistant for Dr. Carting. Mouse Boy, his friends had called him. Four rows, ten cages per row, one mouse per cage. He had liked the mice, their twitching pink noses and bright whiskers, but the work became tiresome and he suspected he carried around a faint aroma of mouse. So when Dr. Carting said her boyfriend needed a clerk to help him finish his book on the anthropology of circumpolar peoples, Howard took the job.
He proof-read the index and checked the spelling of the unpronounceable names, making innumerable trips to the copier and the library. He studied the soapstone carvings that sat on the shelf above Dr. Alexdrovich’s desk, comparing the information on the tiny labels on their bases to the captions under the photographs in the book. It was tedious, but at least no one called him Mouse Boy, and when the book was published, Howard’s name appeared in the acknowledgments.
After his stint with Dr. A., he went back to school to get his teaching credential. He thought he’d probably teach high school, but soon realized that middle school was where he belonged. He thought of Mr. Turner, who had been such a powerful influence on him when he was in junior high. Don Turner had helped Howard see round his pudginess and glasses to the boy who could wrestle and understand trigonometry. He had urged him to read Shakespeare and Vonnegut, Kesey and Harper Lee. He had guided him through the terrible letter of condolence to Portland’s parents. Mr. Turner had been something solid and parent-like when his own parents seemed not to notice Howard, seemed preoccupied with the twins.
Even now Howard could feel the agony of being 13. Sometimes when he looked at himself in the mirror in the morning, he was surprised to see the face of a grown man looking back at him…
September 27, 2011
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The bougainvillea had again spilled over the railing onto the deck, a magenta skirt. Howard gazed at it as he dressed. His mother had loved the plant, which seemed the antithesis of all the snowy places she had lived. Here, under the warm sun, it grew everywhere in gnarled, woody abandon, draping its brilliant pinks and oranges across walls and fences.
Moira had loved it too. Reminded her of home, she said, and right away, as soon as they moved into the house, Howard had dug a hole in the patio planter and carefully spooned soil around the exposed roots of the young plant. For a while, it had been a modest houseguest, its heart-shaped leaves and papery flowers the perfect backdrop for snapshots. But at some point, when Howard was turned away, it had bloated and surged, taking over everything in its path.
Then — now, soon, he could see — Howard would battle the bougainvillea with clippers and leather gloves. The delicate flowers and tender leaves gave no hint of the inch-long thorns secreted within the fluffy greenery. As he attempted to subdue the plant, pruning it back to a more reasonable size, he swore and bled, Moira standing in the patio wringing her hands.
Now Moira was gone and so was his mother, but the bougainvillea clung to the wall, insistent as a memory…
March 2, 2011
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Morning scratched around his head, looking for purchase. But he was slippery with sleep, heavy with the blanket of somnolence, shielded by the darkness within his closed eyes, and morning could find no way in. Birds announced. A few drops of rain tapped on the skylight. Dreams darted unnoticed. He sank deeper into the hammock of night and slept undisturbed.
February 7, 2011
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There was something about his face that wasn’t right, Howard thought. But he so seldom really studied himself in the mirror, how could he be sure? During his morning meetings with the razor, he rarely looked into his own eyes, focused instead on unmasking the patchwork of cheek, jaw, lip.
But now it was his grandfather’s face gazing back at him — Big Dad’s deep crease crossing his forehead, the long nose, the softness under his chin that would turn into jowls. Even the glasses, square dark frames, and the gray-blue eyes, seemed those of the old man. Is this what his mother had seen every time she looked at him — the father whom she had loved and hated, the father who had resented and respected her in equal measure?
Howard pulled off his glasses, put them back on, leaned closer to the mirror. No, it was not his grandfather; it was his own familiar, ordinary face, neither handsome nor ugly. There was a tiny drop of darkening blood right below his ear where the razor had nicked him. As he dabbed it away, he saw what was different: it was the mustache. In his mind’s eye, he saw himself as a man with a mustache. But after Moira had gone he had shaved it. How many months ago? Was it nearly a year already? All those mornings, shaving without thought, without seeing, without recognizing himself.
Turning away from the memory and the mirror, Howard walked slowly out of the bathroom.
January 12, 2011
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Howard waited for the coffee to soak in. Some mornings he woke up feeling like a dry sponge, shrunken and hard, inflexible, useless. This was one of those mornings. Maybe it was last night’s drinking. Maybe it was the unappealing thought of the work that would accumulate on his desk in drifts during the week he would be out of town. Maybe it was the prospect of sleeping alone another night, another year.
He took a gulp of the black brew and waited, stared unseeing at the newspaper in front of him, listened to the clock ticking on the kitchen wall. He thought about the toy soldiers he had had as a kid. Little dark khaki figures, arms at the ready. A tiny tank. He wondered what had become of them. Imagined a line of them marching off into the fog.
Why am I thinking about toy soldiers I haven’t seen in 30 years or more, he wondered. Then he realized that the front page photo, which he was trying not to see, was of a soldier crouched next to a crumbled wall, weapon raised. If only they were toys, Howard thought. But these flesh and blood fighters were deployed and destroyed as casually as the little plastic men—always men—of his childhood. He wasn’t sure if this was an argument against toy soldiers or a reason to promote the continued, lifelong play with toys that might preclude the need to send children to war generation after generation. War was no way to control the population. He thought of his father telling him about small villages—in Italy? France? he wasn’t sure—that foundered after World War II because none of their men returned. They had to wait for the little boys to grow up.
He refolded the paper with the picture hidden, drank more coffee, waited.
December 23, 2010
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When had he stopped wearing a belt?
Howard glanced down at the modest outward slope of his belly. He could still see the top button of his jeans—some measure of his growing girth that seemed important. He thought back to the neat rows of hooks on the doors of his father’s closet: on the right, bow ties, unfurled at the ready; on the left, belts, dozens of them. Fine leather belts with modest gold buckles. Serviceable old belts his father wore around the house. Howard could remember the leather smell of the belts and the shoes and the crisp scent of fresh shoe polish. He thought of the ties: how he had never seen his father in anything but a bow tie; how his mother had ironed a little handwritten label on the back of each tie describing the color of the suit it should be worn with.
Each night, his father would collect a suit, a belt, a tie, a folded shirt taken from the cleaner’s blue paper wrapping but still with a paper band around the chest and collar stays in place, shoes, and clean shorts, undershirt and rolled socks, and move it all from the bedroom at the far end of the house to the bathroom at the front of the house that he shared with Howard. There, every morning, they’d shower and brush and weigh and dress without disturbing his mother. He remembered the childhood fascination with his father’s electric razor, the little brush he used to sweep his whiskers into the sink, the smell of Lectric Shave. The routine of mornings, few words exchanged.
Howard looked back at his unbelted middle…
December 11, 2010
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Howard opened his eyes, surprised to see that it was morning. He had no memory of the night, of dreaming, of turning over. It happened so rarely now. He had taken sleep for granted. Had, for decades, dropped into its deep pool without a ripple. Awakened with the fading wisps of vivid dreams. Then, perhaps ten years ago, sleep had become elusive. He wasn’t tired at night, had to lure sleep with hours of reading or hypnotic television. Some nights that old blissful tiredness would overtake him and he would turn out the light only to discover that he was wide awake. Or he’d sleep and wake up feeling finished with sleep only to discover that it was still the middle of the night. But last night, sleep had been waiting for him, a familiar lover.
The bedroom faced the morning, a wall of windows and doors opening to a small deck where he’d often sit with his coffee. He still expected to see Moira there, pretzeled into a yoga pose to greet the day. But she was never there. She had departed before sleep had left him, or perhaps they had left together, eloping, abandoning Howard to the empty embrace of his down comforter.
December 9, 2010
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His father wore a heavy gold college ring with a round red stone—a garnet?—on the pinky of his left hand, but no wedding ring and, god forbid, no other jewelry.
Once Howard’s aunt had given his father a very substantial gold chain. This must have been in the 70s, when real men wore gold chains. But his father was aghast, truly dismayed at the prospect of having to wear a necklace for even a moment. How had he and his sister managed to live well into middle age, his father had wondered aloud, and be such strangers? How could she imagine that he, her plain and undecorated bowtie-wearing brother, might suddenly embrace gold chains?
But when his aunt visited, his father would dutifully take the thing from the small top drawer in his bureau and put it around his neck as carefully, and with as much distaste, as if it were a live snake.
December 1, 2010
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Howard muttered to himself as he picked among the tools in the box. “This is no way to keep tools,” he could hear his grandfather saying. “A man has to show some respect for a hammer, elsewise the hammer won’t show no respect for the man.”
He had tried. Truly he had. He had let Big Dad position his hand on the well-worn handle, his small child’s hand completely enclosed within his grandfather’s large calloused fingers, lift his arm back and swing down again with force, striking the nail, driving it home into the scrap of pine. Again and again. He had tried. “No boy, you’re chokin’ it up. Let the hammer do the work. Lev’rige,” he’d say, “Lev’rige.” The workbench was scattered with Howard’s bent nails, his pieces of wood spined like sick porcupines with nails that leaned and flattened, but seldom drove true.
His mother could do it. She could swing a hammer, make good with a saw and a wrench and a screwdriver, build things and repair just about anything that broke, although she left most of the repairing to Big Dad, “so he could feel like a man,” she’d say. “His biggest disappointment,” she called herself, only child to this man who needed sons. But Howard knew early on that the baton of disappointment had been passed as he found his way into books and bugs and baking, but could make no peace with the hammer…