Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fiction - Silent Type

NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language.


What follows is a work of fiction. I’m not going to apologize for it, but I should warn you that I’m no expert at this. I’ve dabbled in fiction before but never to great effect. In fact, among the worst grades I ever got in an English class was for a short story I wrote in 9th grade. I got a B-minus—the lowest grade in the class, my teacher told me. (I could whine and say the teacher had it in for me, but she really didn’t; we got on very well and I got good grades on my other stuff.)

Before I get to the story: please note that all the normal disclaimers apply. Everything about this story is pure fiction, and any resemblance of any character to any actual human, living or dead, is purely accidental and coincidental. I am not in the story, and neither are you. So relax.

Silent Type

My friend Lester Steele has a lot to say, but generally says little, at least to us, his friends. I would describe his social style as somewhere between laconic and curt. He can actually be quite the orator when you get him going, and for a long time I assumed this was why he hates to talk—that he fears becoming a blowhard or something. But one time I managed to get him to explain, at some length, his reticence.

What Lester told me is that, as an attorney, he uses words all day long, chiefly to bully people, and when he’s off the clock he abandons words just like a mechanic lets his car fall to ruin, or a career line cook orders take-out when he gets home. Early in Lester’s career he advanced some legal position that, unbeknownst to him, was just flat-out wrong, but he didn’t realize this until later, after nonetheless winning his battle and getting his way. This was formative: it severed forever the link between truth (or even accuracy) and his ability to prevail.

Another time I caught Lester in an expansive mood (more accurately, I induced this mood via hard cider—more on this later), and gained some more insight. He said his rhetorical arsenal was getting more advanced: his non-verbal communication at work—for example, intentional ticks he employs during depositions, like causing his eyelid to twitch, or pulsing out the veins in his neck, or even doing something as blatant as trimming his nails, just to throw off his opponent’s balance—have become so brutally effective, he almost doesn’t need words anymore to bully people. So even when he’s stonily silent, he’s doing it. It’s long been the case that he’s found himself unintentionally practicing his craft on the rest of us, which he hates; now he can do it without words. So it’s to the point that he almost can’t stand our company at all.

I met Lester for a bike ride the other day. When I rolled up to the coffee shop to meet him, we exchanged only the briefest of pleasantries. I apologized for being late; he nodded; and we rolled out. It’s funny riding with this guy: his form is good—he’s obviously a seasoned cyclist—but he still rides 32-spoke wheels and refuses to get a modern helmet. The logos on his leg warmers have mostly peeled off and almost dangle, like skin tags, and I almost can’t resist plucking them off. But he’s oblivious to all matters of gear. It’s not a money thing; he’s presumably loaded. The rest of us have joked about staging an intervention and modernizing all his equipment, somehow at his expense.

We headed off up Claremont Ave, a two-mile climb at a 10% grade. Right near the bottom, while we were still warming up, a black Lexus SUV pulled out from the Claremont Hotel parking lot without looking, and we had to hit the brakes. I was astonished even before the driver, a worn-out Stepford wife with brittle hair and expensive sunglasses, rolled down her window and yelled, “Slow down—this isn’t a bike path!” Now, in a perfect world, Lester would’ve said something pithy that really put her in her place, but he remained completely silent. I had the usual back-and-forth with her, which was about as eloquent as small-market talk radio until, inevitably, I ended the discourse by slapping the back of my neck, twice, with my open palm, while making an “O” with my lips. The gesture is vaguely suggestive—of what, I don’t even know—and it never fails to elicit greater outrage than, say, flipping the bird or pantomiming something explicit. I was actually hoping to get some kind of rise out of Lester, but he looked off up the road and more or less patiently waited for the altercation to be over. Then he clipped back in and continued to pedal his bike.

Lester, at the tail end of a bad cold, was coughing up stuff and spitting it on the road at regular intervals. He really didn’t look so good—and yet, as the climb progressed, he just kept going harder and harder. Normally when a guy throws down the gauntlet, he flashes you a look, but Lester just stared at the road ahead. We left behind the high-end but architecturally challenged homes and followed the winding road up through the Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve. If I were a hiker with a knapsack full of guidebooks I’d cheerfully tell you about the mugwort, foxtail brome, thistles, and coyote bush growing along the road, but I’m a cyclist and wasn’t paying attention to anything like that. I stared at Lester’s back wheel for awhile, dying to keep his pace, and then pulled up next to him. He didn’t look over.

I started half-wheeling him, but this too seemed to escape his notice. Eventually he pulled ahead, but still he didn’t so much as glance at me. I knew he was on the rivet because his form was for crap, his shoulders rocking and his torso bobbing along, which you don’t normally see with Lester. He kept coughing and hawking loogies—and kept hammering. I couldn’t bear to watch: how could he go so hard when he’s not even well? I gazed off into the distance, noting a trio of turkey vultures lazily riding a thermal upward, and chuckled to think perhaps they were waiting for Lester and me to turn ourselves into carrion.

I didn’t feel much better than Lester looked, but if he wanted a battle royal, I thought, he shouldn’t be denied. So I waited until I was really dying—meaning he probably was too—and launched a sudden attack, passing and dropping him. The early evening sun was behind us and sinking, so I looked down to watch for Lester’s shadow, which I figured would be just below me when he got my wheel. Except he didn’t. I realized I had gotten a gap and, without looking back, continued to hammer. Still no shadow. I continued, in agony.

A minute later I couldn’t resist, and looked back. Lester hadn’t lost much ground, and his body hadn’t changed position since I’d attacked. It appeared he hadn’t even gotten out of the saddle. And he still wasn’t looking at me. He was just glaring at the road about ten feet ahead of him, steaming along. I felt kind of silly, like this duel only existed in my own mind. I backed off the pace and fell in behind him again. It just about killed me to stay with him, and there was no compelling reason to do so except morbid curiosity. What was up with this guy? Had I royally pissed him off over the Lexus driver?

He continued to pour it on, all the way to the final stretch, when his pace approached a sprint. I was thrashing ugly out of the saddle just to keep up, and just before the top he did the weirdest thing: he sat up and took his hands off the handlebars, and I thought he was going to throw his arms up in a victory salute, which didn’t make sense given the non-duel we’d just not fought. But instead he flung his hands forward, middle fingers up, flipping off … what? The ride? The road? The panorama unfolding before us? Then he put has hands back on the bars, checked for cars, ran the stop sign at Grizzly Peak Blvd, and started coasting down Fish Ranch Road.

The rest of the ride was uneventful. I continued my half-assed effort to draw him out, chattering away cheerfully and figuring if he didn’t like it he’d just tell me to shut up. Which he didn’t. At the end I asked, “Any chance of a furlough tonight to get a couple beers?” This was a bit of a joke. Lester famously didn’t drink, but we both pretended pear cider was non-alcoholic. Sometimes I could get him to go out. Finally he spoke. “Call me later,” he said.

That was encouraging; after all, he could have easily said nothing at all, the moody prick. Not that phoning him could have accomplished anything. He never answers the phone. It used to be that his wife would answer, and after some painful small talk she’d put him on, but that was before caller ID. Now nobody ever picks up. So I drove over there at about nine, by which time I figured Lester would be done putting his kids to bed. His wife answered the door by her pursed expression I gathered I was slightly less welcome than a charity guy with a clipboard. I don’t think she dislikes me, but seems to regard my bachelorhood with vague suspicion. Who knows, maybe if I conformed to her world better and had a wife and kids, we’d all go out together like forty-year-olds are supposed to.

She invited me in, we endured an awkward half-hug, and then I literally smelled Lester before he rounded the corner into the living room. More precisely, I smelled his jacket, which as always reeks of stale, sour cigarette smoke. I took this as a very good sign. Lester doesn’t smoke, but he has this leather bomber jacket that always stinks like this. I think he must periodically loan it to a friend who smokes, for the sole purpose of keeping the smell from wearing off. He only wears it to bars. I once pestered him about this until he explained, “Until they take the final step and ban third-hand cigarette smoke in bars, I’m going to make the experience as authentic as possible.” His wearing the jacket tonight meant he was actually going to come out with me. His wife said what about their video, but Lester didn’t respond. “Well, we have it for three nights,” she said quietly.

When we go to a bar it’s always the same one. It’s a nice dark place, the walls wood-paneled like a hunting lodge, with pictures of ducks and stuff on the walls, cushy deep leatherette booths, and a fireplace. It is saved from theme park perfection by a few pool tables, always occupied to add the continual clacking of balls to the general din. The music in there is loud enough to give you cover for conversation, but not so loud you have to yell. And of course they have the pear cider that loosens Lester’s tongue without officially violating his alcohol taboo.

For maybe half an hour Lester and I just sat and drank. I’m not really a bar type but it’s not hard to fake it. It was at this very bar that, years ago, I asked for a Fat Tire, and the barmaid said, “A Fat? Comin’ right up.” So now I just ask for a “Fat,” trying to sound casual. I suspect I sound like a self-conscious idiot, but then, how hard can it be to say “Fat” convincingly? It’s pretty sad how I admire the regulars for feeling completely at home here, but the fact is I do admire them.

Halfway through our second round I finally spoke. “So Lester, did I piss you off today over that Lexus driver, or what?” He shook his head (really it was barely more than a bidirectional nudge of his chin). I continued, “And yet you lit it up on Claremont and completely tooled me. What was that about?” He took a big drink of his cider, coughed, and said, “I was just hammering. It had nothing to do with you.” I pondered this a moment. At the time it really had seemed as though I was extraneous to his suffering.

I waited until he’d drained his cider and said, “So what’s with flipping the bird with both hands there at the end? I suppose that wasn’t aimed at me? Were you flipping off that Lexus driver after the fact?” Lester shook his head. “No,” he said, and then, after a pause, “That was just the curling back of the lips of a snarling dog. Those middle fingers were the canines.”
“So what were you snarling at?” I grinned.
“I was just pissed off,” Lester replied.
“At the Lexus woman?”
“No. Just pissed off in general.”
“So why did you even ride with me, if you were so pissed?”
“Okay, you’re right, the Lexus driver set me off.”
“Why didn’t you get up in her face then? Instead of leaving me to bawl her out?”
Lester paused. He stared at the ceiling for a moment. Then he paused some more. I decided he needed another drink. I went to the bar, got another beer and another cider, and sat back down. My second beer wasn’t half gone yet. Lester stared at his cider for a good long while. “Look,” he said finally. “It’s related to my work. Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to blather on about my job or anything, but here’s the problem.”
ooooo“Wait,” I interrupted. “You should talk about your work sometimes. You probably have the highest-powered career of anyone I know but it’s like this taboo subject or something. I’m legitimately interested in it.”
ooooo“You really aren’t. It’s all work. It’s just a big hassle, like all jobs everywhere. I mean, if you work in Hollywood and hang out with big stars or something, that’s going to interest people. Otherwise it’s just somebody’s day to day hassle.”
ooooo“But there’s a lot at stake, right?” I said.
ooooo“Nobody ever dies,” he said. “Listen, when you watched Mr. Rogers or Ernie & Bert as a kid, did you ever wonder what they did for a living? At the beginning of every show, Mr. Rogers was just coming home, changing his shoes, putting on his sweater, glad to be done with his workday. Did you ever once wonder what job he’d just come home from?” Lester gave me a chance to answer, but of course I had nothing to say. “No. Of course not. It’s not interesting. Nobody cares, and nobody should.”
ooooo“Okay, so what were you starting to say? A minute ago?”
Lester took a big drink of cider, licked his lips, and continued. “Well, here’s the thing. All day long at work I fight with people. Not all lawyers do this. Lots of them research stuff, or write stuff. But altercations are my specialty. I’m good at them. My boss throws me into the middle of every altercation he can find. The more he does this, the more we win, the happier our clients are. It’s the point of my existence there. So I get really used to being right all the time. Well, not even necessarily being right, but just seeming right. I almost always prevail, and so I’m used to it. I’m like addicted to it.
ooooo“So whenever some person, or some entity, crosses me outside of work, it’s like when some martial arts type gets jumped in an alley. I just unleash on the bastard. The manufacturer conveniently loses my rebate application, or my insurance short-pays my claim, or my phone company quietly raises my rates. Every day it’s something, some new hassle, all thrown at me by companies who make their money jerking people around, knowing that most people don’t have the stomach for it. Hell, most people aren’t together enough to redeem gift cards, much less mail in rebates or cover the checks they write. And the companies have learned to make money off of exploiting this. So I tell myself it’s a matter of principle to smack these bastards down.”

Lester took another drink. “So every fricking day I spend battling people at work and then battling other people on the phone when I come home. It’s all a battle and each victory seems emptier than the last, because they never add up to anything. All I do is hold even. Life dishes out an inexhaustible supply of crap to deal with, just like no matter how much phlegm you cough up or blow out your nose, your goddamned body just creates more of it. At work I’m a prick all day, and I try to leave that behind when I come home, but it’s just a habit I can’t shed. I do try, but some little life hassle always puts me right back in that mode. So I guess you’re right, that woman in the SUV actually did set me off today. I managed not to engage with her, but of course she’d pissed me off, which flipped that little switch in my brain. Which in turn set me off thinking about this thing that happened the other day.”

Lester drained his cider—boozing-wise he’s a lightweight, but still he’s a really big guy and can just pour it down—and then continued. “So about that Lexus driver. I should explain something. Lots of guys, they lose their temper and do something stupid, mouth off or commit a violent act, and then they regret it later. I’m the other way around. I always manage to rein it in, exercise good judgment and everything, and then I regret that later. Instead of feeling relief that I didn’t take the bait, I start to feel angry at myself, at my own good judgment, I just stew. Like I said, I’m in the habit of prevailing and just can’t shrug shit off.”

I wished the barmaids came around to the booths here. I wanted to get Lester more cider but didn’t want to break the spell. Giving him alcohol is like putting gas in a car. He paused, and I almost got up for another round, but I waited and he started back up.

ooooo“So here’s what happened. I was at the corner grocery the other day with the kids getting a jug of milk, and Magnus begged me to get him a fruit leather. There’s a big display of them right at the checkout. My standard reply is, ‘Sorry, they’re not on sale.’ This time he said, ‘But Dad, they are!’ And in fact they were. Not wanting to destroy my credibility or break the news to such young kids that the world is an awful place with no justice, and because I’m a sucker for a sale price, I relented.

“Of course Alida wanted one too, and it took them a few seconds to pick out what flavor they each wanted, with me urging them to hurry because the cashier was already ringing up our milk. I helped them put their treats on the conveyor belt, and as I stood up this guy who had been behind me in line got right in my face! He was glaring at me, straight into my eyes, seriously like inches away from me, all angry like I’d insulted his mother or something. It was a totally bizarre action, a violation of my space, very threatening. And when something like that happens, I think it’s normal for all the civilization and learned societal decorum to just drop away, preempted by a completely primal response. At least, that’s normal for me. This seemed an act of outright aggression—and for what? Because I delayed him ten seconds at the checkout? I expected that once I’d risen to my full height—a bit taller than him—that he’d back down.
“Nothing about this guy gave him the right to be so bold. He was just a skinny little fuck, about our age, with nerd glasses, a polo shirt, fucking Dockers or something—a real Doogie Howser type. In other words, not nearly a match for a scrapper like myself whose natural pugnacity ought to be completely obvious to anyone who crosses me.” Lester stared into his empty glass, then lifted it and leaned way back to drain the last couple drops into his mouth. Then he just sat there. The pub was completely dead and I managed to signal the barmaid, who was bored enough to bring us out another round. Thank God. If Lester doesn’t drink almost continuously it’s like he just peters out. He sat in silence while the barmaid brought our drinks. She put my beer next to the other full one on the table. I sheepishly drained the last of my second beer and let her take the glass. Lester took a big drink and set his glass back on the table.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking,” Lester went on. “There’s really only one right way for this scenario to end: I stare back at the dweeb, he immediately realizes he’s underestimated me, and he puts his hands up, palms forward, in supplication, and then removes his glasses, drops them at my feet, and with a contrite gesture invites me to step on them. But he didn't do this—he kept right on glaring at me. Any of our primate cousins would have immediately set out to strangle him, and my own brain responded with the non-verbal equivalent of KILL. I stepped forward, forcing him to take a step backward or be knocked over. The fact that he stepped back was good, but it wasn’t enough. Had my children not been there, or had they been trained to respond to ‘Earmuffs!’ I would have said something like, “The fuck you starin’ at!?” If he still stood his ground after that, I’d drag him out of the store and beat his ass. But of course I couldn’t do all this—my kids were there, I’m a responsible family man, I have a lot to lose. So I just glared at him, and at last he flinched.” Lester took another giant drink of his cider.
“I turned to the cashier,” he continued. “I’d been planning to pay in cash, but now I perused my wallet to pick out just the right debit card. I asked very sweetly for $20 cash back. Just then Magnus and Alida, practically in unison, said to the cashier, “May I please have a sticker and a balloon?” Good, children! Yes, let’s have some stickers, and by all means fire up the helium-spewing clown! Of course my kids’ timid little voices weren’t quite loud enough for the cashier to hear, so a fair bit of a dialog was required. The cashier herself was visibly smitten with the kids and in no rush whatsoever, and it took her a good while to summon the manager for balloon duty. Meanwhile, in all the excitement I somehow managed to enter the wrong PIN, and so had to start my debit transaction from scratch. This all took several minutes and a line was forming. I kept waiting for Mr. Hurried In-Your-Face to express himself again, but he didn’t. But you know, this passive-aggressive thing really isn’t my thing. It just doesn’t satisfy. I mean, deliberately inconveniencing the jerk was better than nothing, but frankly my civilized mind was barely winning its internal behavioral battle. I wanted blood.”

As Lester related this, I felt the strangest feeling—a physical sensation of the room gradually turning, with my vision not quite keeping up. I was like when you’ve just spun around a bunch of times in an office chair to get yourself dizzy, or when you’ve drunk too much. The only other times I get this sensation is when somebody has just delivered really bad news. And yet there was no bad news here. Just a tale that I was thoroughly enjoying. The voices in the bar, the music, the clinking of bottles, the clacking of pool balls, had all become slightly muted. It was like a head rush when you stand up too fast.

Lester went on, “So this was what started running through my head after that damn SUV driver cut us off. More to be pissed off about, and here I hadn’t even processed the Doogie Howser motherfucker yet. The dude had not been properly humiliated, and so there I was hanging on to this anger over it, still stewing like two days later. What’s wrong with me? So I started hammering up the hill. I kind of hoped the intensity of my effort would drown out all thought, but it didn’t. If anything it just got my mind racing even faster. I ran my mind back over all the details. What was it the worthless little man was buying? It was something in a little bottle, an herbal supplement, or maybe some amino acid or something. He’s probably a damn vegan, and here he was mixing it up with a guy who’d just eaten a bunch of red meat! The fool! He was so obviously a pussy—where did he get off, trying to stare me down? Is this what he does, goes through life lording his above average height over people, successfully intimidating them with only the slightest provocation? He literally underestimated me. If I hadn’t been kneeling down, he probably wouldn’t have messed with me at all.
ooooo“The more I thought about as I rode up Claremont, the angrier I got, and the higher the gear I shifted into. It really hurt, but that didn’t matter anymore. Surely I was working through other, greater sources of stress, but I found I could easily load all my life frustrations right onto this stupid jerk who thinks his precious time is more important than two little kids getting their fruit leather.” Lester drained his glass.
ooooo“As for you: like I said, my little hammer fest wasn’t about you. You were just collateral damage. In fact, you were less than that. You didn’t even exist. At the top of the climb, I just had this overwhelming anger and found myself flipping the bird to the road, myself, the world in general. A pointless gesture, but it seemed necessary at that moment. And then, just a few seconds later, as soon as I went over the top of the climb and was able to coast, my whole mood went slack and I utterly ceased to care about the stupid little episode at the store. If I saw that guy again now, I’d probably laugh. Unless he got up in my face again, in which case he’d have to hope my kids were there to protect him.”

Lester looked intently at me for a moment. “Tell me what you’re thinking right now,” he said. This caught me off guard. I’d been listening for so long, it was like I forgot how to talk, how to form a sentence of my own. “Well,” I started, hunting for the words, “this is the problem with being too progressive, being the modern man. We start to deny our basic urges. We get all tuned into finessing social situations, reading facial expressions, basically behaving like women, when we want to be Jason Bourne taking in the room and measuring the distance to everybody in it, every possible threat, or like the Daniel Craig James Bond who could figure out how to kill half the people here in like five seconds, blowing up oil drums and everything to make his escape. We modern sensitive types have acclimated to this gentler society but we still have these killer instincts we haven’t evolved out of.”

Lester picked up his glass but there was nothing in it and he set it down again. “That’s not what I see on your face,” he said. “You don’t look like a frustrated man tamping down his aggression. You actually look like you might have almost smirked a minute ago. What are you really thinking right now?”
I was pegged. I hadn’t even realized it until he pointed it out, but I had felt something like a smirk. Something about the end of his story had struck me as a bit … pat. Such an excess of facility in his telling of it. So now I answered, as honestly as I could: “Well, I was just wondering. That story you just told. Have you told it before? Or had you worked it out in your head?” Lester didn’t answer. He just looked at me.

Perhaps ten seconds passed. I couldn’t take the silence. So I went on, “When you have those angry feelings … do you, like, think them through in complete sentences? Or do you narrate them to yourself? The way you told that story was just so … polished, I guess.”

Lester picked up his glass yet again, and slammed it down on the table. Fortunately the coaster had stuck to the bottom, cushioning the blow. “Glib,” he said. “That’s the word you’re looking for. Damn it!” Just as he said “Damn it,” there was a lull in the music and his voice carried a lot further that he’d intended. Several people looked over, including the barmaid. Lester put his elbows on the table and his head in his hands.
Another song started up, a pool ball clicked, and Lester slumped back in his chair and exhaled. “Listen, that’s just the way I talk,” he said. “Even as a little kid I spoke in these perfectly shaped sentences. In my career this is called thinking on my feet, and of course it’s an asset. The rest of the time, it’s pretty much useless. I just hold people captive, for no good reason, a captive audience, like I want to have everybody in my grasp, hanging on my words. Like I did, with you, tonight, which might have swelled me right up, gratified my ego, except you’re inwardly laughing at me like I’m some kind of freak show.” He got up and took his reeking leather jacket from the back of his chair. Without another word he walked out of the bar.
I just sat there, a bit stunned. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I finally decided since I had two untouched beers in front of me, I might as well have a few sips before heading for home. This might give Lester enough time to calm down a bit. He’d be walking straight down San Pablo Ave, and it was cold out there; surely he’d accept a ride home. It’d be an awkward, silent drive—but then, what else is new? dana albert blog

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