Mars Renaissance: Eight Things a Man Should Know How to Do

Fiction, Prose, Uncategorized

Fiction by Tim Conrad

They are sending Lisa and me down to the capital for a statewide charity function that our office doesn’t care about.  We’ve been invited during our peak season, and our boss Gretchen tells us that someone needs to go as a show of solidarity.

  1. Listen

They are sending Lisa and me down to the capital for a statewide charity function that our office doesn’t care about.  We’ve been invited during our peak season, and our boss Gretchen tells us that someone needs to go as a show of solidarity.  “It’s like the golden rule,” she says.  “You help support other charitable causes so that they will support yours.”

     We are seated in her office among a menagerie of large and gaudy animal carvings that she buys from artisan guilds in developing countries.

     “I would go, but I’m busy,” she says.  She looks at me.  “And you know we can’t send Edgar.”

     It’s true.  Edgar can’t go. Worse yet, he would drag along his wife, a chain-smoker who collects Coca-Cola memorabilia and talks about it.

     “But why us?” Lisa asks.

     “Relax.  It should be fun.  It’ll be a free trip to Indianapolis.  You’ll give our organization a young face.”

     “But you don’t look a day over thirty,” I say.

     The event is three weeks away, but my apprehension is immediate.  I’ve been crushing on Lisa Mayes since last Thursday, when she started working with us.  Our office is a small, local chapter of a larger organization.  Aside from Lisa and me, we only have six employees: Leonard (an alcoholic in a bad marriage who sometimes sleeps in his office), Gretchen (the boss), Edgar, Robert (pronounced “Row bear” and reiterated so often that we call him ‘Silent T’), Beverly (our administrative assistant and resident cheerleader) and Bianca (a shadowy enigma of a woman who dresses darkly and hoards poetry books pilfered from the donation bin).  Desiree and Martin also used to work with us, but they were let go for simultaneous yet unrelated embezzling schemes.

     I believe that one of them could have gotten away with it if they hadn’t done it at the same time.  And if Martin hadn’t installed an in-ground pool in his backyard and invited us over for cocktails.

     The day Lisa arrives, I am immediately interested in her.  It’s a truism that a man within eyesight of a woman knows within fifteen seconds whether or not he’d ever sleep with her.  That morning, I have to help her set up her workstation—an operation that requires a bit of incidental leaning-over and reaching-around.  I keep it professional—I’m not a creep—but the feeling that comes over me is strange.

     She smells good, like a flower I don’t have a name for, and she wears a v-neck sweater with a small, crane-shaped pin attached to it.

     When I notice this, I say, “Have you seen Gretchen’s animals?”

     “No?” she says, and I get to laugh and tell her about the boss’s fair-trade zoo.

     “When she interviewed me, we met for coffee around the corner.  And she didn’t show me her office on the tour.”

     It’s neutral. She doesn’t seem willing yet to ally herself with me over her boss. I make a small, interested noise and sneak a look at her cleavage. “You should see them sometime,” I say. But she won’t until the following Tuesday when we’re called in to discuss the charity function.

 

2. Cook

     On Saturday, I shoot guns with my buddy Clark in his backyard.  He lives on some land outside the city.  For weeks, I’ve been taking care of the office’s recycling, and I bring it over, along with a twelve-pack of Schlitz, our preferred beer. When I arrive, there’s no sign of Clark, save for his cooler and gun.  The cooler is full of expensive German beer.  The green bottles lying in the ice seem distinctly un-American.  I cover them with the Schlitz.

     Clark comes out of the house.  He’s wearing a button-down shirt and a pair of seersucker shorts.  “Sorry,” he says. “I was trying to finish the chapter of a book I’m reading.”

     “What’s with the fancy clothes?” I ask.

“You have to work today?”

“I haven’t left the house.  Come on, let’s shoot.”

     He grabs the bag of recycling and walks out to where we’ve set hay bales along the tree line. “This is a good batch,” he says.  “A lot of soup cans.”

     “I work with a bunch of frugal liberals,” I say.

     I think of Lisa.  I remember the way she looked as she refused my leftover French fries at lunch.

     Clark comes back to where I’m standing.  I open a couple beers. “Thatta boy,” he says.  “We’re not getting any younger.”

     He moves to the cooler and rummages under the Schlitz for a green bottle.  He cracks it with an opener from his back pocket.

     “You’re up,” he says and hands me his gun.

     Afterward, we watch some TV.  I flip to the main sports channel, but it’s showing women’s basketball.  I look around for a distraction.  The room is cleaner than my last visit.  There are vacuum lines in the carpet.

     “Hiding a woman around here?” I ask.

     “Nah, my allergies have been acting up,” he says.  “It might be the dust.”

     I accept this and turn back to the TV.  A woman makes a breakaway layup for the home team.

     “You hungry?” Clark asks.

     “Am,” I say.  Then, “That broad’s sort of hot.”

     “Which one?” he asks.

     The TV shows a guard bringing the ball up the floor, the same one that made the layup.  I point.  Clark nods in agreement.

     “Is pasta al fresco okay?” he asks.

     “Your phone broken?”

     “No.”

     “Why don’t we just order a pizza? What’s your deal, man?”

     Clark is silent. I’ve stopped him halfway to the kitchen. He says, “What if we’re still doing this when we’re forty—wrecking ourselves with fast food and ogling unattainable women on the TV because we can’t love ourselves and sustain real relationships?”

     I turn back to the TV and stare at the crawl on the bottom of the screen, even though I fail to absorb what it says. Eventually, when I say nothing, he crosses the room and pulls a book out from under the coffee table. I read the cover aloud, Mars Renaissance: Eight Things a Man Should Know How to Do.

     “You going gay on me?” I ask, but I note the book’s authors.

     At work, I see little of Lisa.  Gretchen has her on a project that keeps her busy most days. The two of them spend most of the morning on conference calls to India.

     Meanwhile, I am relegated to local campaigns with Silent T.  We spend days canvassing nearby neighborhoods for donations for our annual budget.  It goes like this:  We knock on a door. Occasionally, someone answers.  Robert introduces himself, complete with the “silent-t” routine.  We spiel.  We pause. We hand out business cards. We discourse. We ask. We ask again.  They ask: “What did you say your organization does?”  We ask, “If you were to die next week, what legacy would you leave?”  We badger.  We ask, “If you were to die next week, how much do your children really need?”  We threaten to move inside, to their couch.  They relent.  They concede. They give us  a ten-dollar check, a box of old LPs, and a broken toaster.

 

3. Converse

     Our office makes many phone calls.  There are, in fact, more phone lines than employees.  In the afternoons, we are all supposed to call people and secure pledges. Our budget is under constant siege.  In the afternoons, Beverly calls her children and walks them home from school on their cell phones.  Silent T calls the home shopping network and begs whoever answers to talk dirty.  Edgar calls his wife.  Gretchen calls obscure countries and chases after new artisan guilds.  Leonard takes a nap and calls no one.  Bianca somehow has a private line.

     Lisa calls businesses and philanthropists.  I’m not a creep, but I listen to her calls.  I listen to her voice and imagine her in my bedroom, making polite but urgent requests.

     I have slept with what I think is a healthy number of women, but she persists in my mind, in part because of her constant proximity.  Yet I don’t want to conquer her.  I don’t want to mount her on my wall.  Also, I want to do it more than once with her.

     One day, Lisa takes the afternoon off from her usual phone calls.  I wander the building and find her in the lounge.  She’s drinking water out of a glass jar and rummaging through the game cabinet.  She looks up when I walk in.  “Want to play Scrabble?” she says.

     I nod. We play.  She wins by building off my simpler words. Her best word: supercilious.  I look it up after I lose.

    On the way home, I stop at a bookstore and scour the shelves for the book Clark recommended, but it’s nowhere to be found.  I am about to give up when I see a man walk away from the sales counter with book-sized brown paper bag.  I begin to ask, “Do you have—” but the clerk  cuts me off, lifting a copy of Mars Renaissance from beneath the counter.  He shoves it in a brown bag and tells me the price.  I thank him and pay.

     At home, I examine the dust jacket.  The book’s authors, Nigel Simmons and Colin O’Neil smile at me.  I recognize them both from adolescence. Nigel once wore a Lord Fauntleroy shirt to a junior high dance and tried to claim he found it in his parents’ attic.  Colin took ballet to help his athletic footwork but continued lessons after the season ended.  Nigel made elaborate dishes in home economics and was suspended once for bringing cooking wine to school.  Colin regularly hosted black-tie parties at his parents’ remodeled Victorian.  My friends and I once nearly beat up both of them during a school assembly.  We were all jealous of their female friends.

     The introduction is subtitled, “The day I stopped hunting and learned to love myself.”

     I begin reading: This is not a book about how to get laid, at least not in a classical sense. This is a book about finding a cleaner, more stylish and well-rounded version of you.  This is about breaking free of cliché and overcoming the unsatisfactory and primordial patterns of lust and conquest. This book is about discovering the true power of being a male. It is a lesson in how to be a modern gentleman.

     I flip to another page. “It’s about empowerment,” Colin says.  “If you change yourself preemptively, women won’t have that power over you.”

     “Mars is a beautiful planet,” Nigel adds.

     The eight things a man should know how to do are listed in the table of contents.  Under the heading Remedial Work, there’s “cook, clean, listen”.  Under Survival Skills, there’s “shop, converse, seduce.”  Finally, under Higher Functions, there’s “lead, dream.”

     There’s a pocket guide too.  It comes disguised as a checkbook.

     I try talking to Clark about Lisa a week after the German beer incident.  I meet him for lunch near the bank where he works.  He has shaved his goatee.

     “I don’t know,” I say. “I took home someone from the bar the other night, but I keep thinking about Lisa.”

     “That’s how you know it’s special,” he says.

     His salad arrives.  He finishes it before the waitress brings my patty melt.  When she does, I flirt with her and watch her backside all the way back to the kitchen.

     Nigel and Colin are seated at the booth beside us.  Nigel says, “Trade in your telescope for a microscope.  Don’t gaze at Venus until you’ve classified all that’s on Mars.”

     “I bought the book,” I say to Clark.

     He quiets me and his eyes grow strange.  He says, “It’s a private and personal journey.”

     I protest.  “But I recognize your change in facial hair from chapter two,” I say.

     Colin says, “Imperative: No goatees, no soul patches, no mustaches, and no neck beards.”

     “And when you shave,” Nigel adds. “Use gentle strokes.  It’s not a race.”

     “Can I just ask you this?” I say to Clark.  “Do you hear them too?”

     “All the time,” he says.

 

4. Clean

     At home, they’ve been going through my closets.  In the evenings, as I’m in the shower, Nigel peruses my work clothes, condemns and pronounces.  He relays questions to Colin, who sits on my toilet seat and gives me advice about exfoliation and skin hydration.

     “What are you going to wear to the big charity event?” he asks. “I don’t know,” I say.  “My suit?”

     “Oh no,” I hear Nigel yell.  “Not this! It looks like something you picked up at Sears for a ’93 fraternity formal.”

     “I was in elementary in ’93,” I say.

     “So was I,” he says, “but I still knew better.”

     On the way to work, they ride in the backseat and make fun of the men we see in passing cars.  “They all look so pathetic,” Nigel says.  “So devoid of imagination.”

     “Quick! What are two great flaws of the male gender?” Colin asks.

     “Lack of subtlety and lack of spontaneity,” I say.  It was part of the end-of-chapter quiz. Colin reaches over the seat and shoves a CD into the stereo.  Jazz begins playing.

     “And why shouldn’t men give in to the hunter mentality?” Nigel asks.

     “It’s a cliché and a trap.  Women use sex to manipulate men,” I say. “Let me ask you something: are you two…you know.”

     They look at each other.  After a beat, they say, “No, of course not.” Nigel says, “We love having sex.”

     Colin says, “With women.”

     Nigel says, “Haven’t we made that clear?”

     Colin says, “We’re trying to get you laid in a meaningful way.”

 

5. Seduce

     It’s a week and a half before the event, and I’m not making progress with Lisa.  Beyond professional interactions, she barely registers my existence.

     “This is exactly where you want her,” Nigel assures me.  “You want her to feel safe; she’ll put up defenses if she feels a threat.”

     Colin says, “Avoiding tags like ‘creepy’ is half the battle for men.  And what have we learned about tags?”

     “Even if you remove them, there’s always sticky residue?”

     Colin starts to correct me, but Nigel stops him.  “Close enough,” he says.  “It’s just not a road you want to travel.”

     That afternoon, Gretchen calls me into her office without Lisa.  There’s a new wooden orangutan dangling from the ceiling fan.  I must be staring, because Gretchen asks, “Do you like him?”

     I don’t.  I say, “How do you know it’s a boy?”

     “It’s easy to see from my side of the desk.”

     I look around the room.  “What else is new?”

     “I’m afraid we’re not going to have the funds to send you to that charity function,” she says. And for a moment, I’m relieved.  Because I’m curious, I ask, “What happened to solidarity of charitable causes?”

     “Oh, we’re still sending Lisa,” she says, “but we can’t afford two hotel rooms.”

     “But she’s so new,” I say.

     “And we need a fresh face.”

     This is the most confrontational Gretchen and I have ever been. For a fleeting moment, I get the feeling that I could sweep clear her desk and send her animals into prudish migration. But Nigel speaks up.

     “This isn’t what we talked about,” he says.  He leans against the filing cabinet in the corner and pets the jointed snake that’s draped over its edge.

     I ask Gretchen, “What if we share a room?”

     She laughs at this.  “I doubt that’s a possibility.”

     Later in the hallway, I corner Bianca.

     “What do you do with all those poetry books?” I ask.

     “What books?”

     It’s a tack I’d expected.  “I need them for a project I’m working on,” I say.

     Reluctantly, she leads me back to her office.  Behind her printer—her printer!—there’s a stack of slim poetry volumes.  I choose one called Approximate Center and read at random.  The first three lines mention, in order: desire, artichoke hearts, callouses, and ennui.  I take it from her.

     “Thank you,” I say.  “This should be perfect.”

     What I’m hoping for are sound bites, phrases I can internalize and adapt for my own purposes. Nigel has suggested this.

     “You want to join the conversation,” he says.

     Lisa likes poetry, or at least I think she does.  She went to school for literature, and has ended up working at our humble non-profit due to her highly-developed sense of sympathy and a nonexistent job market.  At least that’s how I imagine it happening.  I can’t imagine someone like her failing at much of anything.

     Colin tells me that this is a dangerous sort of female objectification.  He tells me that I need to stop imagining that attractive or talented women are any closer to perfection than I am.

 

6. Shop

     I talk with Clark the following weekend. We go shopping together, as male friends are prone to do.

     In the car, I thumb through the chapter that covers shopping.  “What do you make of all this?”  I ask.

     “What are you doing?”  Clark says.

     “What?”

     “You can’t read the book during a live scenario.”

     “It’s not a live scenario.  We’re not shopping yet.”

     Clark pauses and honks at a car stopped in front of us.  “It’s like listening to the CD of a band you’re about to see in concert.  It’s decidedly uncool.”

     This is more the old Clark.  I’m happy for a moment, until Colin chimes in from the backseat. “That doesn’t sound like very effective communication,” he says.

     “I feel bullied right now,” I say and Clark nods.

     “That’s more like it,” Colin says. “Now you’re communicating.”

     At the sporting goods store, we split up, but after ten minutes, we return to the front.  I ask Clark what’s wrong, and he tells me about a painting he saw above the urinal of a man leaving his gun and going to the restroom while a herd of deer moved by.  And I, in turn, tell him about the man who tried to help me, a man who blew his nose into a handkerchief while assisting me, a gross misrepresentation of the male gender.

     We don’t know what to say to each other for a moment.  “So you want to go shoot soup cans?”  I ask. But he doesn’t.  Instead he says, “I don’t know if we should see each other for a while.”  He says, “I need some time to work alone.”  He says, “I’m nearly finished with the book.”

     “Oh,” I say.

     At work, the budget is growing thin everywhere.  There are no longer paper towels in the restroom, and the air-conditioning only runs until noon.  Gretchen has decided to cut down on the number of phone lines, so now instead of our old scenario—many lines, few voices—we’re now forced to wait on each other to make calls.  It’s highly inefficient and it leads to awkward eavesdropping situations.  I’m especially embarrassed to hear Edgar on the phone with Mrs. Coca- Cola.  Every day she calls and recounts her online auction victories from morning.  It’s painful, and yet I tune in like it’s a radio broadcast.

     On the Monday before the charity function, Lisa wanders by while I’m eating lunch.  Since I’ve started cooking, I brown-bag my lunches and am therefore more of a presence during the downtime.  It’s taught me a lot.  I’ve watched Bianca at work with the donation piles.  She now steals and recommends books to me, which I read and then put back on the bottom of the pile.  And Leonard, I sometimes see wandering the halls like a phantom.  Even with the eavesdropping   situation, I’m still not sure what he does for us.

     But I haven’t seen much of Lisa, so I call out to her.

     “Lisa,” I say, and surprisingly she returns to the doorway.   Her eyes are red and puffy, as though she hasn’t been sleeping, and there’s a small stain on the cuff of her otherwise pristine sweater.  I don’t feel like I have permission to ask anything chummy like “Hey, how you been?” or say anything corny like “Long time, no see.”  Those things don’t mean anything anyway, but it’s what I would have tried before.

     Instead, I ask, “Do you want any soup?”  It’s what I’ve brought for lunch. She smiles.  “No, that’s okay.”

     “Are you sure?  It’s married soup.  I made it myself.” Now she’s laughing.  “What did you call it?”

     “Married soup.  Most people call it wedding soup, but that’s a mistranslation of the original Italian.”

     “You know Italian?” she asks.  She seems impressed, but I have to admit that I don’t.  I ask her what she’s up to.  She tells me she’s waiting on a phone call from an important contact and doesn’t know what to do with herself.  I say we should play checkers.  I retrieve the chess set from Robert’s desk.

     “Isn’t that a chess set?” she asks.

     “Sure,” I say, “but I don’t know how to play that. We’ll just use the colors like regular pieces, and when someone reaches the end, we’ll put Scotch tape on the top of the piece like a crown.”

     And so we do, except the scotch tape ends up reminding us of the tags on Hershey kisses. And the Hershey kisses make her think of her grandfather, who lived alone until she moved north a couple months ago to look after him.

     “I had no idea,” I say, but then the phone rings, and Lisa leaps up to answer it.

     I resist the urge to listen in.  Instead, I look at the board where I am being overrun by her pieces.

 

7. Lead

     When I get home, I open the book. Colin and Nigel have nothing to offer me.  I call Clark and get a recording that tells me he’s out of town on a spiritual journey.  I call his folks for confirmation, and they tell me he’s preparing for life as a monk.

     “Figuratively, you mean,” I say.

     “No,” his dad says.  “We couldn’t be prouder.”

     Clark’s family has always been religious, but I would have thought this would be a surprise. Finally, I call Lisa.  I’ve had her number for weeks—having stolen it from the directory at work—but it’s only now that it doesn’t feel creepy.

     She answers on the third ring, and I identify myself. “Hey,” she says, “sorry we didn’t get to finish our game.”

     “It was pretty much over,” I say.  I ask her how her big call went and she tells me about her failure, something I could have guessed. “Budgets are tight everywhere right now,” I say.

     “I know,” she says. “Speaking of,” she begins, and then proceeds to invite me to the capital.

     For a moment while I’m packing, I consider not taking the book.  After all, it doesn’t seem necessary.  I’ve accomplished most of what I set out to do, and yet, I can’t bring myself to leave it behind.  It seems like a conundrum of the self-help genre: now that it’s shown me my flaws, I can’t live without it.

     In the end, we take her car, even though I clean mine out just in case.  On the drive down, we make casual conversation.  I find out that she’s from Tennessee, and momentarily it reminds of the pick-up line, but I don’t say it.  The old me would have, but the new me can see Nigel and Colin in the rearview mirror.

     At the hotel, we park and split up.  We have a while before the event, and I don’t want to jinx anything.  I tell her that I’ve forgotten my cummerbund—Nigel’s suggestion—and need to go find one at a men’s store.

     I walk the streets with Nigel and Colin rehearsing my lines for the evening.  “Of course you should compliment her,” Nigel says, “but don’t make it anything too obvious.  You know, eyes, dress, smile, so forth.”

     “And don’t use fine, hot, or smoking,” Colin adds. “Those are on the trash heap of popular culture.”

     Nigel says, “Just be your new, better self, and you’ll be fine.”

     “Got it,” I say.

     “And what about the poetry?” I ask.

     “You’ll know if and when the time is right,” Colin says.  “And speaking of, don’t eat too much at dinner.”

     For an hour or so we strategize, but when I get back to the hotel, I am confronted by the reality of my situation: this is not a black tie affair.  Given my other choices—a pair of jeans and a t- shirt, or the white dress shirt without the jacket—I choose to endure my mistake.

     Determined to be a gentleman, I change in the first floor restroom. When we reconvene in the lobby, Lisa doesn’t comment on my attire, so I do.  “I’m sorry,” I say.  “I just assumed this was black tie.”

     She doesn’t apologize for failing to warn me. “You’ll be all right,” she says.

     The event is held in the Azalea, Magnolia, and Robert E. Lee conference rooms.  The hotel is a southern chain, and while they’ve slid aside the walls for us, the tracks on the ceiling reveal where the separations once were.

     We find our table.  They seat us with Marilynn and Leon, a couple who work for a  foundation that brings art to nursing homes, and with Laura and Kristin, retired educators who recruit and train ex-marines to work in elementary schools.

     We exchange perfunctory greetings.  It’s nothing like Gretchen promised it would be. During dinner, everyone talks about him or herself.  There’s no sharing of ideas or sense of community.  Leon says, “If you’re going to die somewhere, there should be something better than a painting of a glowing cottage on the wall.”  And then, as though she thinks she’s responding, Laura adds, “You know, there’s a real alarming lack of male role models in primary schools.”

     It’s a wearying dinner.  Lisa talks, but I don’t listen.  And when the entrée arrives, it’s vegetarian, even though I didn’t ask for it.

     “This is it?” I ask Lisa.

     “Everything’s vegetarian unless you requested otherwise.”

     I don’t want to admit that this is what I care about.  “I just meant,” I say, “that it seems sort of paltry from such a nice hotel.”

      I thought I was whispering, but around the table everyone has ceased talking and has quieted the sound of their silverware.  I’m annoyed now.  I look down at my plate.  “And what is this garnish?” I say.  “Parsley?  Is this nineteen-eighty-seven?”

     I catch Leon and Marilynn whispering amongst themselves.  I think they’re talking about me until they gesture toward the near wall where a drawing of a lighthouse hangs.  Meanwhile, Lisa has resumed talking with Laura and Kristin.  I hear her saying something about the bravery of servicemen both at home and abroad.

     I interrupt.  I ask, “Do you call yourselves recruiters then?”

     Lisa and Laura look at each other.  “Well,” Laura says, “we’re recruiters and trainers.”

     And I say, “Don’t you think it’s ironic that you’re recruiting them for more service?  Poor men.  I mean, do you give out free hackie sacks and backpacks and tell them what they’ll be doing will be appreciated?”  I try to smile, but all of this has come out more cruelly than I meant it, and immediately, I want to take it back.

     What’s worse though: they ignore me and resume their conversation.  Even Lisa won’t look  at me.  I try to think of what Nigel and Colin would have me do, but I can’t. Instead, I finish off both of our table’s bread baskets and an extra dessert before I stand up.  I get Lisa’s attention and tell her that I’m going for fresh air.  I try to be polite.  I say, “I’m sorry.  That really filled me up.”

     She looks perplexed.  She says, “Go for it,” and resumes her conversation with the recruiters.

 

8. Dream

     On my walk, I begin to face difficult facts, specifically the fact that I am a dreadful bore. Lisa doesn’t care about how exquisite the food is or isn’t or what I’ve done.  She doesn’t care that much about my renaissance.  I realize how I’ve turned this is into a game for myself—something only marginally different from the sort of hunting-and-fishing, divide-and-conquer of all my previous strategies.

     My momentum carries me down to a river, where couples promenade on a waterside trail.  I sit on the edge of an enormous flower planter.  Nearby, a man whispers in his date’s ear.  I can’t hear him, but the woman laughs loudly.  She says, “I never would have even thought of that!”  I sit for a bit longer, and when they stand up, I see that she is wearing his suit jacket.  And when they pass by me, he says, “Sharp tux, friend.”

     Back at the hotel, I head upstairs.  I stop at our floor’s amenities closet and fill the front of my shirt with ice.  I hurry to the room and dump the ice on the floor near the door.  I lose the tux in favor of an old t-shirt.

     Colin says, “You’ve given up.”

     Nigel looks over my t-shirt.  He says, “I could have sworn we gave that away.”

     I say, “I hid it.”

     Colin says, “So what are we going to do now?”

     I don’t answer.  I grab the ice bucket and position it at the end of one of the beds.  I go back to the entryway and sit down next to the ice.  And to their horror, I begin throwing it across the room at the ice bucket.  It’s something I used to do when I was young and again when Clark and I stayed in hotels on road trips. As I do it, I begin to miss Clark.

     This is, of course, where Lisa finds me.  She doesn’t knock, and instead I hear the key card sliding into the lock, and I barely have time to get out of the way of the door.  She’s carrying her shoes in her hands and looks exhausted.

     “You were right to leave,” she says, without preface.  “Nothing happened except they brought out a speaker and this pretentious jazz—”

     She pauses and looks down.  Beneath her the carpet is wet from the melting ice.  In that moment, I’m afraid of what she’ll say.  My fingers are cold, and the door remains open behind her. Briefly, I imagine barreling past her and into the night.  But instead, she smiles at me in a way I could have never hoped for.

     I explain.  I say, “I used to play this game on family vacations.  My parents weren’t much for TV, so we made up whatever games we could.”

     She’s laughing now.  She lets the door close and sits down beside me.  She looks in front of us toward the bucket, then over to our right at the bathroom.  She says, “You ever throw at the toilet?”

     I go for more ice while she changes.  And we throw for a while, listening to the satisfying splash when we make it and the equally satisfying clack of ice on tile when we miss.  We don’t talk, lest we spoil the acoustics.

     As we run out of ice, I take a piece of ice from the bucket and run it down her arm.   She laughs and shrugs me off.  “Knock it off, punk,” she says.  And I do.

     She says, “That reminds me. You’re never going to believe what I found in the closet.” As I wait, she crosses the room and removes Mars Renaissance from her suitcase. “Someone left it in the top of the closet underneath the extra pillows.”

     “What were you doing in the top of the closet?”

     “Rummaging.  Scavenging.”  She smiles.  “It’s something I always do when I stay in hotels. You wouldn’t believe what people leave behind.”

     In her hands, the book looks gaudy and inorganic.  She holds it out to me, and I take it. I manage to laugh as I look over the cover.  I open the dust jacket to Colin and Nigel.  They look up at me accusingly.

     Nigel says, “She feels threatened by your ambition.”

     Colin says, “There’ll be other women, but men need to stay united.”

     I look up at Lisa.  She’s laughing.  She says, “Isn’t it ridiculous?”

     Colin says, “Is it?”

     And I have to agree, that yes it is ridiculous, and briefly, as I close the book and cross the wet carpet to take her in my arms, I think of Clark in his new monastic existence, and my thoughts are taken to a dry brown mountainside, where it’s sunset and all around me, brothers chant perfect nonsense into the dying twilight, a higher place that I recognize but do not know how to reach.

 

 

 

 

Tim Conrad received an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and is currently a PhD student at Western Michigan University.  His work recently appeared in Emrys Journal and is forthcoming with Puerto del Sol.

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