COLUMN FORTY-ONE, JANUARY 1, 1999
(Copyright © 1999 Al Aronowitz)
LEAVES FALLING DAY AFTER DAY
[Robert Klein Engler lives in Chicago. His poems and stories have appeared in Borderlands, Evergreen Chronicles, Hyphen, Christopher Street, The James White Review, American Letters, Commentary, Literal Latte and many other magazines and journals. His books of poetry, One Hundred Poems and Medicine Signs, are published by Alphabeta Press. He was the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award for his poem Three Poems for Kabbalah, which appeared in Fish Stories Collective 2. and Flower Festival at Genzano which appeared in Whetstone. Leaves Falling Day After Day first appeared in the Blithe House Quarterly at http://www.blithe.com/ and is reprinted here with the author's permission. Robert Klein Engler's drawings appear in Black Elvis, Rio, and other e-zines. Examples of his writing are found online. Go to http://www.yahoo.com and search for "Robert Klein Engler." His books are available through amazon.com. Email: email@example.com. ##]
.I imagine you can tell a lot about a
man by just watching him make a sandwich. The way he gently scoops the chicken
salad onto slices of whole wheat bread, piling it into a mound like a summer
hillside in Provence, trimming the lettuce and arranging the leaves so they will
extend decoratively over the umber bread crust with a ribbon of green, adding
mayonnaise, spread like cadmium white on a canvas prepared for a portrait, then
cutting the sandwich into triangles and setting them on a blue plate so that the
wedges make a valley into which potato chips are nestled, and then, for a
garnish, adding a few radishes like red straw flowers in a field; all of this
says something about the character of the man who does this work, something
about his delicate fingers and hands that someday might also grace another body
with the same touch. Finally, he sets the sandwich on the counter with a gesture
that mixes pride and arrogance. Does any artist do less when he adds his
signature to a finished painting?
I saw all this watching Harry make a sandwich behind the counter at Dickens' Coffeehouse. As I watched, I realized this man had the gentleness and attention to detail I so much needed in my life now. You see, it has come to this, I have reached middle age and I live alone. Neither of these is a matter of choice. I have spent my currency of days just like any other man. The years pass, and we either age or die. What choice is there in it? I wish I were as young as Harry, a beautiful man in his twenties, but I am not. What I am left with are wishes. I remember my mother saying once, If you fill up one hand with wishes and the other with shit, guess what hand gets filled up first?
My mother was a difficult woman who often spoke bluntly. Regardless, the truth is, there is no use wishing I were younger. Likewise, there is no use wishing someone will come and live with me if they do not want to. The last lover I had in my house I threw out because I could not put up with his drinking. I don't want to go through that again. I remember the night Chris came home drunk once too often and woke me up just after I had gotten to sleep. He fell drunk into the bed and didn't even say a word in the way of an apology. I knew he was out with someone because he had the odor of sex about him. So, something snapped in me. I got up, went to the closet, found the old upright vacuum cleaner, plugged it in, and with a great roar, started vacuuming the bedroom rug. After about a minute of this awful rushing wind, Chris sat up in the bed and announced, What the fuck are you doing, I'm trying to get some sleep!
What? I said, what? I can't hear you, I'm vacuuming the rug!
Chris leaped out of bed and ran over to rip the cord from the socket in the wall. I walked over to where he was standing, came up to him, real close, and just looked him in the eye. I was too angry to realize we should be only playing. If we were playing, we were playing with razors now.
He stood there, the cord dangling in his hand like a flaccid snake. Then, without warning, he took a swing at me. It was too late for me to duck out of the way. I just shut my eyes. Nevertheless, I was not struck. His fist smashed into the wall instead. Suddenly, I realized he was too drunk to even take aim and hit me. I looked over and there was a hole in the plasterboard the size of a man's hand.
That's it, I shouted, get out! I will not have you here another second.
Fine, he said, I'm gone! I'll call you later about picking up my stuff.
Before he slammed the back screen door, Chris turned around and yelled, And don't send me any poems either!
Then he got on his motorbike and roared out of the garage. The next morning I patched the
The patched hole looked like the scar on a body that was once in a great battle
hole in the wall with paper tissues and plaster of Paris. Then I
hung a picture of two cats over it. I didn't see much of Chris after he moved
out. I once heard he had gotten married. When I sold that house a few years
later, I took down the picture and saw again the spot where I patched the hole. It looked like the scar on a body that was once in a great battle.
I touched the
wound. It was still soft. I suddenly remembered Chris's voice, his profile, the
taste of his flesh. I never did send him any poems.
The last time I had sex with Chris was about a month before the incident with the vacuum cleaner. I had been in bed almost asleep when he came home and lay down on the couch in the front room. I got up and sat next to him. I did not want to say anything, I just wanted to be next to him, to feel his warmth. I remember taking off his shirt that smelled of tobacco smoke and beer. I rubbed his stomach as he lay on his back, with his arms raised and his hands locked under his neck. He said nothing. He refused to touch me.
I told him, Please, force me to go down on you. Chris reached over and took my head in his hands. Suck it, asshole, he said, as he forced my head down to his groin. I opened his belt and unzipped his jeans. His hard-on stuck out from the elastic of his white briefs. He pressed even harder now on my head, pushing my mouth over the red helmet of his cock. I took him in my mouth, and he forced my head up and down. He pulled my hair till I could feel it hurting. I began to choke, but he kept me in place with his strong arms. I could hear him breathing heavily, then felt his hips rise and fall as he directed the motion of my head. I shut my eyes and resisted gagging. I felt he was going to force his whole body down my throat. Then he came, gush after gush, followed by his legs jerking, then relaxing. I tried to swallow, but his juice oozed out of my mouth and down the shaft of his cock.
I reached up to wipe my lips and felt his slippery oil falling in strings around his balls. I rubbed it in, losing my fingers in the curled locks of his hair. Chris said nothing, he just brushed my head away, turned over, and seemed to fall asleep. I sat at the end of the couch, watching him, and then brought myself to release. A deep sigh came out of me as I caught my cum in my hands. Then I wiped them with a handkerchief I had in my robe pocket. I looked back again at Chris. He was asleep now and breathing heavily. I got up, bent over him, and kissed him on the cheek. His face was cold. His cheek was covered with stubble.
I took his pants off and covered him with a blanket. I went to the bathroom, washed my hands and mouth, and then went back to the bedroom alone. I remember slipping off to sleep thinking some lump, some word, some grief was still stuck in the back of my throat. This is how I came to live alone. I wanted nothing to do with another relationship for a long time. I bought a city apartment. I was moving away from a bright place in the country and coming to another that was foggy and uncertain. Now I feel something is at work that seems to join all our destinies: me talking to Harry, you reading this, my life moving past the point where Chris left me. It all fluctuates and yet at the same time connects. Thus I end up in a coffeehouse watching Harry make sandwiches. Is this any different from the tug everyone feels when they ponder the direction of their life? Perhaps all that can be said is half of what we get we choose, the other half is given to us, parceled out from all the possible destines the universe is capable of generating.
What pattern is at work here, knitting us together in some cosmic design? Grief makes one man old, while making another man seem young again. The wind picks up. Great flags stretch out, undulate and flap against the bright blue sky. Then a sheet of clouds unrolls from west to east. One season leaves and another is on us. Before we even know what is happening, one stage of life departs and another arrives with the same yearly uncertainty and surprise.
So, I didn't realize something had shifted in me until I started watching Harry make that sandwich as I sipped tea. Then I realized all the effort I had spent in living without Chris was now evaporating. I looked again at Harry. How I admired the way he moved, the delicacy of his hands, the fall of his blond hair on the back of his head. Watching Harry make that sandwich convinced me I had to make a plan.
How, I asked myself, could I seduce him? I wanted to do this in spite of the realization I wasn't absolutely sure where it would take us. When I first met Harry he told me he was studying mortuary science, and that some day he planned to be a funeral director. I would joke with him about where his hands were before he came to work at the coffeehouse. Still, in the back of my mind a voice was saying something I could not discern. I have always been afraid of death. It struck me as unusual how Harry could have such a matter-of-fact attitude about it. Perhaps this is what attracted me to him. Here was that strange mixture of death and beauty the Victorians found so fascinating. I had a hard time imaging those delicate hands sewing up the lips of a corpse in the morning, then in the evening frothing the cream on top of a cafe latte. Harry tells me that just like the Foreign Service, there are a lot of gay men in the funeral directing business. The general public is unaware of this, just as they are unaware of all the details that go into diplomacy. He says there is something about being gay that makes men suitable for this kind of job. Their status as outsiders make them capable of dealing with situations ordinary people find uncomfortable.
As I sip my tea I am amazed how Harry can make something like death, which for me is so sensational, sound so ordinary. I want to know more about what he does, what kind of classes he takes, how he can survive a trip to the morgue once a week and not get emotionally drained, how he can move so fluidly from the world of death to the world of life. I decide to take a bold step and ask him out to dinner. If I am going to seduce him, I have to start somewhere.
It is autumn now, and as I walk home I see the trees are losing their leaves. Another season passes, and the leaves fall again with their gestures of renunciation. I think about my childhood, that part of me that was lost to my father's early death, followed by an adolescence of work and struggle. Where does it all go? Lately, I have wondered if things are not irrevocably lost, but are instead transformed, taken up, included in something new and unexpected. Perhaps the parts of our lives, even the parts of ourself are gathered up stage by stage into our continuing transformation. We do this until the fullness of time is upon us.
Walking home I realized my arms have gathered in twice as many leaves as Harry's arms, my eyes have seen twice as many rainy days, twice as many footprints in the snow leading nowhere. By the time he catches up, I will be gone from the world. I know I can carry his soul. Is mine too heavy for him? Must I stop here and pretend I do not care so much for him? Here is my plan. I am going to ask Harry out to dinner. If he says yes I will ask him about his life as a student of mortuary science. I will tell him I am writing a story and one of the characters is an undertaker. I really don't know anyone who does this as a profession, so what he tells me will help me get the details of the character right. Then I will see how it goes from there. If he asks me over after dinner for a drink we will take it along another step, and so I will go, one step at a time. If he is with me all along the way, fine. If not, well, our lives will go on. I am not altogether certain I want to live with someone again anyway.
I have all these awful habits now. Picking my nose, clearing my throat when I get up in the morning with a growl, and then spitting in the sink. There are probably odors in my apartment I don't even notice any more, even though I have been accused of being a fussy and meticulous queen. I like things neat and in place, even if they stink. I make people who come over leave their shoes at the door because there are so many dogs in my neighborhood I don't want them tracking dog piss on my carpets. If they ride the L, I have them wash their hands before I let them touch anything. The subway is so dirty and grimy these days I suspect there must be some new forms of life evolving in the dark muck that rests between the ties and bubbles noxious gas into the damp tunnels.
I hear on the news that they are practicing ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Croatia. I think to myself that we do not need ethnic cleansing in Chicago. What we need is just some good old-fashioned cleansing. They ought to hose those subway stations down with industrial strength disinfectant from time to time. My sister says when I talk like this I sound like a cranky old man. She says this is a sure sign I'm getting rigid in my ways. Really, isn't this whole story nothing more than a middle-aged man's misdirected quest for youthful male beauty?
Shouldn't I forget that and just move on to something more appropriate like pipe smoking or opera? Why would a guy half my age even look at me twice? I bet if Harry were ever to get close to me and smell the old tobacco and sherry on my breath, he would be repulsed. That is my first thought, but my second thought always goes back to the realization that those delicate hands of his have also made up the mutilated face of a corpse, dressed the broken limbs of a dead widow, sewed up the chest wound of a car crash victim, washed the body of an old man dead from his useless counting of leaves falling day after day into the canyon of despair. It is the marriage of youth with death Harry holds daily in his hands that I find so attractive. He has held bodies in a way so very few of us have. He has seen the naked truth of what we are, patched it up, filled the cavities with cotton, painted the lips, dressed the arms and legs. So, why would he be afraid to hold my still-warm limbs, run his hands through my thinning hair, kiss my mouth still speaking the glories of the world?
Harry seems to be a young man not afraid of age and death. He is not afraid because he is
Most writers have a fear of heights, the fear of rising above their subject so high they see it in the context of what it really is
so close to it he does not know what it really is. The day may
come when he takes a step back, when he takes the long look at what he has been
doing, and when that happens, he may turn his face away from the truth that lies
vulnerable and exposed on a stainless steel cart; but until then, he has the
bold authority of youth. Harry knows I am a writer. He does not know writers
often take the long view of subjects and so are filled with many fears. Most
writers have a fear of heights, the fear of rising above their subject so high
they see it in the context of what it really is. I told Harry once I am afraid of
flying. I haven't told him about my fear of death.
Harry, are you still going around with that guy I saw you with at Sidetrack on the Fourth of July? I ask, bending over the counter where the espresso machines sit. Harry has his back to me, but turns and looks over his shoulder.
No, not anymore, he says.
I see, well how about going out to dinner with me? Here is my phone number. We can talk about your studies.
I guess we can, Harry says softly.
I'm writing a story and I want to have a character in it that is an undertaker. I want to get the details right. You can help me.
That sounds cool.
So here's the deal, you call me, and I will take you to wherever you want to go. On me. We can talk and eat. How does that sound?
Let me take this order over to the table in the corner and I'll be right back. Harry took two cups of frothy coffee and some paper napkins on a black tray from behind the counter. I followed him with my eyes as he walked to the front of the coffeehouse. I remember Socrates once said we first love someone, then we think they are beautiful. A tuft of blond hair stuck out from the back of his baseball cap. Even from behind, Harry is beautiful.
The next Thursday it rained all day. It was one of those autumn days in which the sky seems to weep endlessly and uncontrollably over the loss of a summer love. I taught my classes in the morning and found them agreeing with the mournful sky. I'm sure my students suspected I too was silently weeping over something lost. Still, they can take it out of you, those students, and very little comes back as consolation. I remember talking about Benares, the holy city of the Hindus. I informed them that this is the place where many pious Hindus go to die. It was both the city of death and the city of light. One could see a carnival while at the same time watch the cremation mounds burn like lighthouses all along the shores of the Ganges River.
I asked my students if they knew the other name for the city of Benares, the city of death, I asked them if they knew its sacred, holy name.
One girl raised her hand and said matter-of-factly, Saint Benares.
The class laughed. I laughed too. Sure, why not, I said, and turned to look at the rain coming down on the other side of the classroom window with the authority of ancient tears. The drive home in the rain from the college was awful. Every other street was being torn up by city work crews. The expressway ramp at Pulaski, which was undergoing renovation, still wasn't open. Traffic was down to one lane on Archer. I was exhausted when I pulled into my parking spot. Then I had to carry two bags of groceries to the lobby and wait for the elevator up to the eighteenth floor.
Just as I was putting the key in the lock, I heard the phone ring. I have voice mail, but there is something about a phone ringing that makes me run to answer it. I made it in the door and grabbed the phone receiver in the kitchen just in time. It was Harry calling.
This one call made up for the awful ride home in the rain and all the other annoyances that had happened over the week. Harry said he wanted to go to dinner with me. I was delighted. I asked him where, and he suggested Bocadillo Junction. This is a new, trendy bistro that serves Southwestern style sandwiches. What makes Bocadillo Junction so popular is the way they serve their food. The sandwiches are delivered to your table on a model railroad line that runs from the bistro's kitchen throughout the dining room. I had read about it in the newspaper just the other day.
We made plans to meet Friday night. I would pick Harry up at his apartment and we would head down to the Near North neighborhood and have sandwiches at Bocadillo Junction. Things were falling in place. Dinner at Bocadillo Junction with Harry was a delight. The dining room consisted of a series of booths made to look like caves cut from the rock of the Southwestern desert. Miniature cactus and tumbleweed plants cascaded down the wall and came up to the edge of the table. Even the salt and pepper shakers looked like cactus. The menus were held in place by one of those ubiquitous howling coyotes. Every booth also had an opening in the side wall shaped like a railroad tunnel.
After we placed our order for margaritas and El Paso burgers, we waited. A railroad whistle sounded, and a model train emerged from the tunnel carrying our drinks on a flatcar, and our sandwiches on boxcars. When we removed our order, the train went around the tracks and disappeared into the tunnel. We could see the same thing happening all over the dining room. A man sat in the center of the room dressed in a striped railroad hat and overalls. He directed the trains from a console that looked like a switching yard. Everyone seemed to be having a great time. The room was filled with talk and laughter. The stereo was playing country and western music. Harry was pleased to be here. Our conversation was cordial to start. We talked about the rainy weather and our jobs, mine at the college and Harry's at the coffeehouse.
After a few more margaritas, we began to open up to each other. Harry told me he came from Wisconsin and that his family had been in the undertaking and funeral business for three generations. It was expected that he would also go into the business, so he was sent to school in Chicago. It not a simple matter becoming a funeral director these days. There are courses in chemistry, cosmetology, bookkeeping, all sorts of things to study and know. Then there was the question of the professional status of the business. There are funeral directors now, not just gravediggers or undertakers.
Some time around the end of our spicy cottage fries, we talked about our past loves. Harry had a few more adventures than I did, and since he was a generation younger than me, his attitudes about what I called promiscuity were a lot more liberal. Eventually I asked Harry the question most on my mind. What is it like to touch the body of a beautiful dead man?
Just like any other dead body, he replied, then took another sip of his vanishing margarita.
Now I am not one who accepts that death is just another aspect of nature, something ordinary and normal. Death for me is a great evil, it is the enemy. I believe we were not meant to die. Something happened, call it sin, call it a curse upon our parents, whatever, something happened and death entered a world where it was not supposed to come. When it did come, it brought gifts, gifts so rare we still cannot understand them. Flowers that titter in bloom for only a day, molds and fungi eating decay with the glow of phosphorus, a virus that seems like a wheel of fortune when seen under a microscope, blank eyes that stare down the darkness, that stare down the sun, these and many more are the rare gifts of death. Unfortunately, death came to the world and set up a home. We have grown so used to it now, we wonder if beauty is possible without it. I honestly wish Harry and his science could be put out of business. How could I tell him that? Instead, I repeated my question with a slight variation.
What is it like to touch the body of a beautiful, dead boy?
There was a long pause, then Harry answered. I don't get to do that very often. I realized he did not understand my question. I let it go. Why press the issue? The tragedy of beauty passing was not as evident to him as it was to me.
I see, I answered. It's just that I am so unfamiliar with all this.
We perform a valuable service, Harry continued. Very few people want to take care of the dead bodies of their relatives and friends. Besides, most people die when they are old and sick. The young ones often die of accidents and gunshots. We try to make them look better, try to make it easier on the relatives. Think about it this way: most doctors do not work on healthy, beautiful people, or lawyers defend the young and innocent.
After our dinner of sandwiches and margaritas at Bocadillo Junction, Harry invited me back to his apartment. I had not been inside when I picked him up, so I was pleased to receive an invitation. Harry's apartment was on the second floor of a large building in Bucktown. It was a one-bedroom, furnished with a mix of styles, certainly not undergraduate, but not Lake Shore Drive condo either. What struck me most about it was that it was neat as a pin. Nothing was out of place. The magazines were squared off and piled one on top of the other according to size. The bar glasses were set equal distances apart on the small table in the corner. Two armchairs flanked an overstuffed couch in the front room. This order appealed to me. I like to live the same way.
Harry went to the fridge and got two beers. He handed me one and we sat on his couch. Harry sat at one end and I sat at the other, where a large fern draped its leaves over the back. I could feel them brush my hair. We talked about this and that. After a while, Harry got up and went to the bathroom. I sensed he was restless. I wondered if I should leave. Then I heard his voice from the bedroom.
Bob, Harry said, Will you come in here, please. I got up from the couch and walked to the bedroom. Harry was standing by the window looking out at the street. The bedroom was dark. Only a light from the street gave the room a pale orange glow.
Let's go to bed, Harry said gently. He reached over and began unbuttoning my shirt. I was surprised it would happen so easily. I reached up to his cheek, and cupping it in my hand, kissed him on the lips. Both Harry and I removed our clothes and fell on the bed. I wrapped my arms around him and he rolled me on my back. He kissed me full on the lips. I could feel his delicate hands explore my body. He had the gentle touch I imagined, the touch that my skin had not felt for a long time.
How old are you? Harry asked. I did not answer. I sat up and rested myself over Harry's waist. I inserted his hard-on in my mouth and began to play my tongue along the shaft. I could feel his muscles twitch under my alternating hard and soft play.
I think you must be as old as my father, Harry said jokingly, as he rubbed the hair on my groin and stomach. Here, lay back, he said, half asking, half demanding.
I did not object. Harry's hand began to move more rapidly. I could not resist. I gave myself to him, and in a matter of moments, splashed over my stomach. I took a few deep breaths, and rubbed my eyes. I felt like I had come to the end of reading a long book. I felt like I had closed the cover on the story of a complex life, and that for a moment I just wanted to hold the whole matter of it in my hands, hold it, savor its meaning and not worry about losing the details to time and distance. After a while I realized Harry was breathing beside me. I could feel the motion of his hand now against the bed. I reached over to help, but he whispered it was OK.
A few seconds later I felt him tense up, gasp a few times, and then relax. Harry reached over to a box of tissues that were on the nightstand, gave me a few, and then began to wipe himself off with some others. I tried to get the glue of our wrestling from my hands, but decided to just lay back and be still. I don't know how long the two of us were there on the bed, next to one another, silent and waiting. I remember hearing the muffled noise from the street, the dull beat of the stereo Harry had left on in the next room, the ordinary knocks and rattles you hear living in an old apartment building. The rich umber of the dark was like a blanket. Half-light from the street gilded a picture frame Harry had placed on the dresser in the corner. The shadows locking our clothes to the floor made them look like the gray and washed-out rocks of an alien landscape. Above, the ceiling seemed to melt to fog, to the deep atmosphere of twilight
The two of us lay there sandwiched between his kindness and my stories. After a while, I rolled on my side and kissed Harry again
Thank you, I said.
Harry reached up his hand and stroked my hair.
What do you want out of a relationship? he asked cautiously.
I'm not sure now, I said, surprised by Harry's question. I guess I want someone I can trust, some one I can rely on, who won't let me down. I would also like someone to travel with. I want to go to Rome next summer. Is that odd? It's hard to travel with someone. You have to have that special person to do it well. I guess that's what I want. Sex is not so important now. And even that has to be different. It has to be gentle, it has to be caring. I guess I just want to connect with someone again, Harry. When straights get married they have children to show that they loved once, that they made something from their passion. What do gays have? A shadow box filled with ceramic figurines set on the wall of a fashionable apartment in Boys Town? I would like something more to show for my life than that. It seems I have been living one disconnected story after another, going from one fragmented relationship to another. I would like to find someone that I could connect with for a while. Harry, I want someone who will take care of me when I die. I want someone who will hold and wash my body gently. I don't want to be cut open and sewed up. I just want to be put in a coffin and laid gently in the ground. Is that too much to expect? I guess I want to be with someone like you for a while, Harry, I said softly. I just want to be able to count on you. Am I making any sense?
I think I understand what you mean, Harry said.
And what about you, Harry, what do you want?
I'd like to go with you to Rome. That would be cool. I've never been there.
We rested in the dark bedroom for a while, not talking anymore, not anxious, just together and breathing. I shut my eyes and felt at peace. I am safe here, I said to myself. Harry accepts me. Then I felt a motion at my side and opened my eyes. Harry got out of bed and walked to the bedroom door.
Where are you going? I asked.
To get something to eat, he said softly. For some reason I'm still hungry.
I watched Harry slip his arms into a dark robe as he turned the corner of the doorway to his small kitchen. A light snapped on and half filled the bedroom with angular shadows. I heard the fridge open and then a drawer. There was a knocking of plates and silverware, followed by a short pssst! That must be a can of beer, I thought. Then the voice I came to trust asked from the kitchen, Bob, are you hungry? I can make you a sandwich too. ##
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