Talk

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Self-portrait by Stephen Dixon.

He hasn’t talked to anyone today. I haven’t talked to anyone today. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to. It’s not that he hasn’t wanted to talk to someone, but he just never had the chance to. He only realized he hasn’t talked to anyone today when he sat down on the bench he’s sitting on now. In front of the church across the street from his house. I like to sit on it after a long or not-so-long walk around my neighborhood. I usually take the same route. Almost always end up on the same bench. One of the benches in front of the entrance to the church. It’s now 6:45. Closer to 6:47. I haven’t talked to anyone today since I woke up more than twelve hours ago, rested in bed awhile, exercised in bed awhile, mostly his legs, and then got out of bed and washed up and so on. Did lots of things. Brushed my teeth, brushed my hair, dressed, took my pill, let the cat out, let the cat in, gave the cat food, changed its water, let the cat out again, made myself breakfast, ate, got the newspaper from outside before I made myself breakfast and ate, same things almost every morning soon after waking up, same breakfast, coffee and hot cereal and toast, maybe blueberry jam and butter on the toast every third or fourth day instead of butter and orange marmalade, same newspaper, different news but some of it the same, same cat, same water bowl for the cat, same kibble in a different bowl for the cat, same plate for the cat’s wet food and same wet food till the cat finishes the can in about three days. Then I shaved, did some exercises with two ten-pound barbells, one for each hand, curls, he thinks they’re called—the exercises—and so on. No one phoned. The classical music radio station was on when I shaved and exercised and after he was done exercising he turned the radio off. Then he sat at his work table in his bedroom. I could use one of the other two bedrooms in the house to work in or the study his wife used to work in, but I prefer this room, the master bedroom they used to call it to distinguish it from the other bedrooms, the room that was once their bedroom but is now only his since his wife died. She didn’t die in that room. She died in that room. She died in one of the other bedrooms. He had a hospital bed set up for her in that room more than a year before she died and she died in that bed. She was unconscious for twelve days in that bed before she died. Do I really want to go into all this again? Just finish it. She was lying on her back in a coma for twelve days in the hospital bed. Or just unconscious for he doesn’t know how many days and then in a coma, when she opened her eyes, or her eyes opened on their own, and her head turned to where he was sitting on the right side of the bed and she died. He closed her eyes with his hand. Her eyes struggled to stay open and then, after he closed them a second and third time, they stayed permanently closed. The day after she died I had the hospital bed removed. He bought a new bed for that room a week or two later so his older daughter could sleep in that room again when she visited him. But I was thinking before about my not talking to anyone today. No opportunity to, as I said. He could have made the opportunity to, I suppose, but he didn’t. I didn’t go out of my way to talk to anyone today, he’s saying. He likes these kinds of conversations to happen naturally. He’ll be in the local food market, for instance—not to bump into people he knows from around the neighborhood or initiate small talk with employees behind the food or checkout counter with shoppers he doesn’t know—but to buy things, mostly food for himself and his cat—and he’ll bump into someone he knows. Hi, hello, how are you? and so on. Maybe with someone whose hand he shakes, back or shoulder he pats, cheek, if it’s a woman, he kisses. Someone who most of the time stops his or her shopping to talk to me, and whom I like to talk to too. Am I being clear? He thinks so. Anyway: that didn’t happen today. It’s happened plenty of times in the almost twenty years he’s lived in the house and been going to that market. But I didn’t go to that market today. No market, and he rarely sees anyone he knows at any other market. He did, after writing in his bedroom for about three hours, go to the Y to work out. I often see someone I know from the Y in the fitness room, or whatever that room with all the resistance machines, he thinks they are, is called. Fitness center. Fitness center. And sometimes he sees two or three people there he only knows from the Y and have a brief conversation with them or just say “Hi” or “Hello” or “How you doing?” to. And he has, in the local market a few times—the one he almost always goes to because it’s so close and the prices aren’t that higher than the big chains and they get you out fast because they have lots of working checkout counters for a store its size and just about all the checkout clerks know him—bumped into people he knows only from the Y and chatted with them. Though for the most part these chats are shorter than the ones he might have with same people in the Y, and one or the other of them will usually say something like “Funny to see you here after seeing you so many times in Y” or “I almost didn’t recognize you out of your gym clothes.” As for the weight room in the Y, which is right next to the fitness center, he has fewer conversations there than he does with people in the fitness center, since there are much fewer people working out in it. They also seem more serious and involved in their workouts. But he’s still had a few conversations there when both he and the other person working out took a minute-or-so break from the weights and were close enough to talk to each other. Like a few days ago. “I always see you with a book. What are you reading now?” this person asked him, or said something like it: a man; very few women work out in the weight room. Someone he’d seen several times before in both rooms but never spoke with or even said “Hi” to but might have smiled or nodded at. He held up the book so the man could see the cover. “Gilgamesh?” the man mispronouncing it the same way he once did till his wife corrected him. “Never heard of it. From the cover, it looks like it could be a fantasy or horror novel.” “In a way it sort of is,” I said. “But it’s a new or relatively new translation of an epic poem, maybe the oldest literary work, or the oldest one found so far. With a long introduction as interesting as the work itself, and with great notes.” What’s it about?” He gave a brief synopsis of it, based on the introduction, since he was only a third of the way into the poem. And then—“This might give you a laugh”—why he bought it. “The oldest work—a classic—and the only one in my family never to have read it? My older daughter, who graduated college eight years ago, read it when she was nine or ten and took a special humanities course in grade school. And I was in the bookshop last week, the Ivy on Falls Road, looking for something to read. I always have to have something to read—at home; if I take a walk and think I’ll stop to sit and rest. Even here between sets on the sitdown resistance machines for a minute or the stationary bike if it doesn’t have on its TV screen something especially good on the movie channel—and I saw it. In the store, this book, and remembered I’d never read it but for many years wanted to. But I’ve told you more than you probably wanted to hear, and you want to get back to your weights.” “No,” the man said, “it’s interesting. Gilgamesh. I’ll remember,” and we both resumed our workouts. That’s how the conversation went, sort of. I know I went on too long. He often does most days because he gets to talk so little. But today there wasn’t anyone he knew at the Y to say even a word to, which was unusual. Most times, someone at the front desk there, after he slides his key through the barcode recorder, or whatever that piece of plastic on his key ring is called, and his name and photo appear o
n the monitor and automated voice says “Access granted,” someone behind the desk will look at the monitor and say “Have a good workout, Mr. Seidel,” and he’ll say “Thank you.” But the one person behind the desk—usually there are two people there—was folding clean towels for members with the more expensive plan and more elaborate locker rooms, and didn’t look up. He went into his locker room. Sometimes there’s someone there I know from the Y and we’ll talk a little. But the room was empty when I first got there and then after my workout. Sometimes, though this doesn’t happen much, he might talk with someone in the shower room after his workout, but the one guy showering there today was someone he knows doesn’t want to talk. I’ve seen him in the locker room and shower and at the front desk checking in dozens of times. Never downstairs in the fitness center or weight room. He seems to only come to the Y to swim. And I never saw him communicate with anyone. I don’t even think the people at the front desk say “Have a good day” to him, or if they do, he doesn’t answer them. First thing the guy does when he gets to the locker room is put his athletic bag on a bench and go around the room closing every locker that might be even just slightly open and make sure every bench is aligned with the banks of lockers. Then he’ll walk around the room again and pick up any trash he sees on the floor—tiny pieces of paper, thread, part of a broken shoelace, for instance—and drop it into a trash can there. Then he’ll undress and get into his swimsuit and lock his locker and go to the pool with his towel and in his shower slippers. I said hello to him a few times, but gave up. He looked right past me as if I hadn’t said anything or he hadn’t heard. Today I avoided looking his way once I saw who it was. I feel he doesn’t want to be looked at either. I could have gone to the small food shop at the Y and ordered a sandwich to go—chicken or tuna fish salad on rye toast with tomato and lettuce and once each a powerhouse and grilled chicken sandwich, which weren’t good—and while it was being made by an employee in back, exchanged a few words with the shop’s owner about a number of things. The owner just takes the orders and rings them up and serves the food if anyone’s sitting at one of the two tables there, which I’ve never done. The owner likes to talk. A few days ago it was strawberries. He said he grows them in his garden and they’re very small this year, he doesn’t understand it. I told him my younger daughter put in a number of strawberry plants two years ago, I got nothing but a few tiny ones last year, but this year they’re all over the place and big, “What can I say?” And he once told me, when I asked, how to get the shells off hard-boiled eggs without taking any of the white of the egg with it. “Boil them for thirty to forty minutes. Infallible, and perfect for deviled eggs.” But he didn’t want to order any kind of sandwich today. He still has in the refrigerator, and it’s probably still good but a little soggy, half the chicken salad wrap he got from him yesterday. What were some of the other opportunities to talk today? And by talking, I mean to someone, a human being, not the cat. He talks a lot to his cat. Actually, it’s his younger daughter’s, but she lives in an apartment in Brooklyn, the cat likes to run around outside, so he’s taking care of it for the time being. “Hey, little guy, want something to eat?” Talk like that. “Want to go outside, Rufus?” “Go on, go on,” when he’s half in and half out the door. “I don’t want to catch your tail, and you can come back whenever you want.” “It’s getting dark, Rufus. Want to come inside?” “Come inside, Rufus. Don’t make me have to chase you.” “You here to help me with the weeding?” Because sometimes when I’m weeding outside, he’ll lie down on his stomach beside me and pull a weed out of the ground with his teeth and play with it or try to pull one out of my hand that I just got out of the ground. Also, sometimes when I talk to him it seems he talks back to me with a couple of meows. And when he’s at the front door and I let him in, he always meows in a sound he uses no other time as he scoots in or walks past me, as if saying thanks to me for opening the door. He never meows, though, when I open the door to let him in, or even to get out. When he wants to go out he’ll stand silently facing the door or stand up on his back paws and scratch the door with his front ones till I let him out. If I don’t want him out, he’ll walk quietly away from the door after about two minutes. But no other opportunities to talk to someone today? Can’t think of any. Usually, during his late-afternoon walks, he’ll see at least one person walking his dog and he’ll say more than “Hi” or “Good evening” to him. He’ll ask the breed of the dog, for instance, and if he asked it the last time but forgot it, he’ll say “I forgot what you told me your dog’s breed is” or “your dogs’ breed is,” since several people in the neighborhood have two dogs of the same breed, and one couple has three, and walk them together. I’ve also asked this person or couple what the dog was originally bred for. Not that I’m really interested, but it gives me a chance, if it was a day I hadn’t talked much, to talk more. “Hunting foxes?” “Herding sheep?” “Going after moles or other burrowing animals like that in holes?” He once joked, and regretted it right after, for the guy didn’t seem to find it funny, “Catching Frisbees?” But in his walk today he saw no one he’s talked to or just said hello to before. Saw no one, period. Oh, people in cars, and a jogger, but she came up behind him without him hearing her and was past him before he could even wave. Maybe when he gets home he’ll call his daughters and, if they’re in, speak to them. Although it doesn’t have to be in their homes. With their cell phones, they could be anywhere: walking on the street; having a drink in a bar. He speaks to them almost every night around seven. Seems to be a good time for them. They’re done with work for the day, haven’t started dinner. They call him or he calls them. But that’s the kind of day it’s been. Where he hasn’t as yet said a word to anyone. Not one, and it makes me feel kind of strange or odd. It’s true. It does. Both of those. But enough of that. Maybe, really, it’s better not to dwell on it. If his wife were alive and still relatively healthy, or just not as sick as she was the last three years of her life, he would have spoken to her before he left the house. That would have been nice. “I’m going out for a walk,” he would have said; “like to join me?” If she didn’t or couldn’t because she was still working in her study or something else, then when he got back she might say, as she did a lot, “See anything interesting?” or “Meet anyone on your walk?” Or just “Did you have a good walk?” Or he might volunteer: “I had a good walk. Farther than I usually go. Saw some beautiful and unusual flowers. Our neighbors, especially the church, really take care of their properties. But for the first time in a long time I didn’t see anyone else outside except a fleet-footed jogger, who ran past me before I could even say hi to her. And of course people in the occasional passing car, but they don’t count.” Or if she were too weak to walk and didn’t want to be pushed around the neighborhood in her wheelchair —“People stare; I don’t like it”—he’d say “All right, then, if I take a brief walk by myself? And I will make it quick. I won’t stop to talk to anyone.” “Why should I mind?” she said a number of times. “Get out. You need a break. And talk all you want.” “So you’ll be okay here alone?” and she always said “I told you. I’ll be just fine.” But he shouldn’t think of himself as odd or strange just because he hasn’t talked with anyone today. I’m not odd. He’s not strange. Thirteen hours? That’s not so
long. Listen, this is where life has led me, to this point; something. He can’t quite put it in words now. But he’s trying to say what? What am I trying to say? That it’s not his fault he hasn’t spoken to anyone today? No, that’s not what I wanted to say. Forget it. I think if I had someone to speak to other than myself today, I’d be able to say what I want to say understandably. Coherently. Clearly. Some way. But again: enough. He opens Gilgamesh and turns to the page the bookmark’s on. I resume reading what I stopped reading when I was on the exercise bike at the Y. Is that the best way to put it? What if it isn’t? What’s important is that I know what I mean. Or another way could be “He resumes reading at the place he left off when he was on the exercise bike at the Y.” Any real difference? Some. Second’s better. I’m reading when someone says my name. He looks up. It’s my neighbor from up the hill from my house. Karen.

“I didn’t want to startle you,” she says, “so I called out to you as softly as I could. You seemed so absorbed in your book. Am I disturbing you?”

“Not at all.”

“Nice place to read, I’d say. Quiet. Surrounded by all these lovely flowers the church has planted. Best time of day too.”

“Yeah, it’s a great place. I come here almost every day around this time after a long walk. And I’m thinking, I don’t know if I should admit this, and it’s kind of laughable, but you’re the first person I’ve spoken to all day.”

“Oh, that’s so sad,” she says. “You know what? Why don’t you come by our house tomorrow for a drink? Jim and I have been meaning to have you over for I don’t know how long. We’ve talked about it several times, but as you can see, we’re great procrastinators.”

“I don’t know. Maybe another time. I’ve become such a hermit, which I know isn’t good, although it helps my work, but—”

“Nonsense. Tomorrow. Say around six? Bring your cat. I’m only kidding. What’s her name?”

“His. Rufus.”

“Rufus. I see him running all around. Once up a tree. He never seems to just walk. And hiding in bushes. But it’ll be wonderful talking to you over an extended period of time instead of only these quick chats or when I run in to you at the market. By the way, what’s that you’re reading?”

Gilgamesh.”

“Oh, I remember it from college. You’ll have to tell us tomorrow why you’re reading it. I mean, what made you, I’m sure, take it up again. Tomorrow then? Sixish?”

“Yes. Thanks.”

She smiles and goes. He reopens the book. What page was I on again? He thinks. Eighty-four, I think. He turns to it. I’m right. So, today won’t be a day where I can say I didn’t talk to a single person, and tomorrow won’t be one either. Well, it wouldn’t have turned out that way today anyway. He probably would have reached one of his daughters on the phone later. Maybe both.

 Executive editor Jac F. Mullen explores “Talk” here, in the epilogue to the October print issue.