Kick That Bottom Dot
by Paul A. Toth
Here we are again, Friday number 158. As usual, I don't care which movie we see, yet down I-29 we zoom, sailing around the bend, towards the big green sign that reads SPRIMONT 1 MILE, E. 23RD ST. THIS EXIT. The arrow points toward an abandoned elementary school in a field of milkweeds, where Frank and I used to park. They're full of moon and milk, those weeds, poisonous to the gathering bugs that pepper the air like spraypaint. Half a mile on the other side of the overpass you can see the accumulated flicker of electricity, voltage, fuses, wires, connectors, outlets and inlets, juicing the complex like fireflies in heat. How the cineplex glows, pregnant with picture stories.
This time, I'm prepared for what always follows the credits, when the quiet and dark strike down story. I can handle being story-less. But not Frank. Not even for a second.
See, tonight I'm taking his story away. It's what murderers and diseases do, stealing stories. It's what dictators do, upending stories of whole nations. And for the rest of us, it's what we do in our more minor ways.
Frank never had much story, so he grabs what he can from movies. He makes a good case for bringing kids up with religion -- Jewish, Mormon, anything, long as you give them a plot, some historical context. You've got to at least give a kid something to tell a therapist.
Poor Frank's parents had too much story of their own, so they left their son to his own devices. He didn't have any. Now he's forever trying to squeeze himself into stories, but like a guy with size 23 feet, never finds a proper fit.
For too long, I've been his story. I've got a size 23 foot stuffed in my head, big toe jammed through my lips.
Frank was the inspiration for the phrase, "Get a life." He considers a walk around the block adventurous, a trip to the grocery store epic. His epiphanies are cheaper than unshelled peanuts, rages bland as unsalted popcorn. I know tonight will be the most important thing that's ever happened to him. For years and years he will mark this date as the beginning of --
I watch him drive. His hand hangs over the steering wheel. He checks his speed, the speed limit, his speed, but even the speed doesn't belong to him; it's just physics.
Speak, Frank, speak.
But nothing. His hand on my leg, my shoulder, back and forth, checking for reality, grappling and gripping, making sure, confirming. Yes, the props are in place, everything is hooked and snapped. This is terra firma.
Why isn't he into bondage? Maybe tonight will finally draw him into the world of buckles, ropes, knots. One day I'll pass him on a New York street and not even recognize him in his Village People get-up.
"What?" he says, mouth hanging open, staring at me like a kid on Christmas opening up a pack of underwear.
I sigh the all-signifying sigh. It's underwear, stupid. You put it on your ass.
"Jeez, " he says. "What?"
You keep samin' when you oughta be a changin', mister. And how I enjoy his discomfort. I'm the leader of the death squad, digging holes for nuns. Call me Miss Dulavier.
He turns on the radio. Two DJ's finishing up their shift. Johnny Redeye and Sneezer. Frank laughs, checks to see if I'm laughing, trying to match his laughing to some Ms. Manners' laugh-o-meter.
"What's your story?" he asks.
He actually just said that. He suspects something. Poor Frank, adding up clues like Sherlock Holmes with Alzheimers. "What's your name? Watley? Whatmore? Whatdaughter? Oh, for God's sake, dear old me: It's 'Watson'!"
Redeye farts. Sneezer sneezes. I turn off the radio. Frank turns onto East 23rd Street.
"What?" he demands.
Now we're moving Etch-a-Sketch style through the parking lot. His face inches nearer the windshield. He drives, I suddenly realize, like my mother, bug-eyed with caution, tentative in a way that wants you to notice. How I hate Frank's pinpricking of the world, bleeding it dry with his constant tiny measurements.
I should tell him now, but there's a ritual to it. You can't just end everything. You need ceremony, arc. You leave them hanging on the question mark, screaming "jeez" and "what's the story" before you stomp the punctuation and kick that bottom dot to kingdom come. Why? Because the end's a little story within a story. It's got a beginning, middle and end all its own.
Although the window is already up, he rolls it some fraction tighter. He checks the mirror. He grooms his mustache. Frank takes the "he" out of mustache. I would like to rip out each of its 27 eyebrow-sized hairs. He has worn it since high school. He cannot part with it. If Frank had been a high school football star, he'd still wear his jersey, tits poking through the mesh. Instead, he has a mustache to match a 1980's Member's Only jacket.
Now hear this: Frank went to the prom. He would never miss it. Instead, he went and nothing happened. The girl hid the photo in some chest, the event unrecorded in her diary except for the notation, "Got home at ten last night. Still no call from Jake."
Now Frank is 37 years old. He position as last choice on prom night evolved into last choice for chicks who enjoyed their twenties as Jaded Daughters of the Divorced, happy to kick St. Valentine in the nuts.
You take those ticking women and you split them into two groups, the settlers and the unconverted. The settlers settle, the unconverted try to convert but just can't. I'm in the latter group. It took Frank to make me realize.
It's movie time, Act I. A man who doesn't know he's dying survives a war and returns to his wife. He coughs when he says he loves her. Everybody notices but the guy, the girl, three doctors and a psychiatrist. We're one smart movie audience, see?
Oops. Did I skip our waltz through the parking lot, complete with Frank's trip over curb and guffaw? Did I forget the Extra Large Popcorn and requisite, "Cardiologist, stat!" reply to suggestion of butter? Did I neglect that he relaxed his legs over the chair in the next row, knowing full well the attendant would come? That when the attendant arrived, Frank sighed the way old people do when their children say it's time to leave? Or that as the previews rolled, he told me, "If ya gotta go, now's your chance," for the 158th straight week?
It's not these events but their repetition that drew me into his maddening loop, into the counting of Fridays and mustache hairs. What tiny things cause our story killings, our violation of commandments that miss the top ten cut.
God, I want the movie to end. It's a tear jerker. Frank tries to unjerk tears. He watches with his head tilted higher than normal. He's contemplating life's bigger themes. He's filled with story, inflated as the Super Bowl blimp.
Suddenly the movie hits a lighter note. For comic relief the dying man's dog chases its tail, threatening to knock loose the master's oxygen supply.
Maybe now's a good time to admit it. Yes, I'm cruel. Okay? I am. What do you think about that? Bad choices and misfortune have made me bitter. My ovaries are raisins. I flirted with Jesus and decided I can only love my neighbor from a distance. I have no charitable instincts. I won't even go to bars because I can't muster the drunkest empathy. A man like Frank comes along and I look him dead in the eye, refusing not to realize every realization that in the name of love requires refusal.
Sure, I'm twisting tongues. I've also got my hair wrapped around my finger and I'm biting my cheek. It's not easy on me, this cruelty, but it does come naturally. I'll pull my hair until pitilessly irritated that this moment so irritates me. That's how we ladies do things, Frank.
Don't get me wrong. I've been on the receiving end. I've met my match, men who smirk with betrayal, whose grins eat shit upon discovery. I've been banged and panged. I've consulted the I Ching and reached out to astrologers. I've even sought the advice of my mother, who once told me, "The only thing dumber than a man's dick is the balls that leave him hanging for child support afterwards."
Afterwards: It's the word for the sad sickening aftertaste life always leaves. Old Manic Millie had a way with words and she sure passed it on to her daughter.
Have I informed you I'm redbushed and freckled, a fetishist's fetish? That I'm creamy-skinned and burn at the sun's slightest wink? That Catholic boys always think they're the first to ever have a thing for redheads or swim in the funnels of their psychic tornadoes upon learning the names of those who came before them...in me?
As I said, Frank is not one of them, no, no.
Sometimes I wish he'd do something presumptuous here in the dark, but first I'd have to draw him in or take that popcorn box and play Mickey Rourke. Yet another sad thought.
Okay, Act III. Here it comes: The dead man's brother grabs the woman's hand and they look at each other and -- we know, we know, we know -- they don't love each other that way but they'll marry and console and service each other like medical technicians. The dead man won't mind. She's in good hands and he knows a woman needs it approximately X times per year and anyway in heaven you can't see beneath the clouds -- you're too busy singing and going to the eternal, everlasting family reunion.
Now we watch the credits. Frank insists on this. I read the names of the best boy and the grip and every other dumb fuck who picked up a screwdriver or painted a sign on some non-union set.
"Well," he says, stretching in that way that makes certain people homicidal towards cats. "I give it two stars."
My little Roger Ebert.
"What?" he says.
I grab his hand, dragging him towards the exit.
"Where's the fire?"
"I'm going to leave you."
He heard me but tried to deafen himself by shoving every thought ear's way. If I am not careful, he will simply repeat the word "what" for whatever length of time the occupant(s) of infinity can bear.
"I know you heard me," I tell him as we cross through the parking lot, "but here it is again: I am leaving you. You will never put your face in my red bush again."
"What, what, what," I say, hanging my tongue out like a sheepdog. "Duh-yuh-buh-yuh-whut-whut?"
"Are you all right?"
"Shit, yeah. I'm dandy. Get in."
I'm driving. I plan on keeping this car.
"I don't get it. Are you joking or what?"
"I'm taking you to your mom's. It's back to Penthouse and the old yappaslapawhappado for you, Slim. But first things first."
Just in case I'm having doubts, and I'm not, he puts on his safety belt. This is the type of last minute confirmation that every killer receives, whether via imaginary satellite transmissions or the beguiling ways of the faithless.
The latching of the seatbelt sends me squealing out of the parking lot like Magnum P.I.. We careen around the curves and swoop through intersecting headlights with the criminal grace of alcoholic drivers. His entire body contorts into what's. His blood beats what and he pisses streams of what and he sweats and swallows what. He is what, undefined and hazy, part of questions but never answers, except in Jeopardy form.
I am manic and unfettered, gasolined and accelerated.
"Let's go park," I shout above the horns of approaching cars, swerving into the school's empty parking lot.
"You say it like a question."
I shift into park before we're even stopped, the car lurching and jerking right in time with Frank. I take my shirt off, just to creep him out. I hadn't worn a bra and now I realize why.
"You ever count my freckles?"
"I didn't think so."
I start counting. "One, two, three," I say, jabbing my arm. "Listen: If you jump on top of me right now, if you ravish me, if you practically ra-ra-rape me and atta-atta-tack me, if you maul and overpower, suck and bite and slobber on me, well, I'll reconsider. Hell, I'd marry you, Ebert. Two thumbs up your ass and if you're lucky movie passes in the wedding cake." I start unbuckling my pants. "What do you say?"
He shrinks and shirks. He opens the door and backs out into the parking lot. I start the car and I'm laughing my goddamn freckles off. They're popping off my skin, zinging through the air like shrapnel, little copper dots that fleck and chip the night.
I shift into drive and pull forward into the field of moonlit milkweeds. Frank begins to run, a little jog and then a sprint, until freckles fly off his shoes like sparks. Oh, I won't hit him, but it's funny how he powers through the underbrush like a bull-legged W, how when he falls he makes a sprawling H, then rises skyward like an A, and flees T-like through the weeds before finally disappearing into the fading haze of the cineplex.
About the author:
Paul A. Toth lives in Michigan. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart prize and Best American Mystery Stories. His novel Fizz will be published in late 2003. He recently completed his second novel. For more information and complete credits, please see www.netpt.tv..