The slip taped to his locker at the post office was an obscene shade of rose—a private pink that called to mind the very thing that had gotten him in trouble in the first place.
Ole kept on eating pie with Ryan, who sat in the front row of his class for the next three weeks. His contract was up and he needed another job while he tried to get it renewed, but Sugar Bends was slim pickings: Checking groceries didn’t pay enough, the canning factory was too far out of town, and he was no good at sales. On the last day of the semester, he said he was going to work for the post office, and she laughed at him.
“Boys love playing Bukowski,” she said, slapping him on the arm. “Go have fun.”
“Do you want to keep seeing each other?”
Her eyes raked over his failed wisps of mustache, his ironic Star Wars holiday sweater, his pudgy hands. He was a feminist literary scholar. In ten years, she’d be a grandmother. When she smiled, his brain sputtered helplessly in dactylic pentameter. He had dated women before, as a woman, but this was different. The way she felt about him changed the way he saw himself, and he wanted to see himself, always, the way he appeared reflected in her eyes.
“Let me think about it,” she said.
“Had we but world enough, and time,” Ole said. “This coyness, lady, is no crime.”
“You’re going to look fine as hell in a mailman suit.”
He did, and the women whose mail he delivered found ways to let him know it. In Florida, all mail carriers wore pith helmets, and Ole was vaguely aware of looking like a British colonial in his uniform, with the regulation knee socks and polyester shorts. Sometimes, he thought of what Ryan said about playing Bukowski, but since he was not a drinker, he chose to believe it was only a joke.
Ole wasn’t especially attached to masculinity in the traditional sense; it seemed incidental to him. His weekly shots eased the blue mist of misery that clung to him, but they had not turned him into Superman. He was just an ordinary guy with a job and nice manners. But married women—woof. They transformed him in a way that no hormonal medication could. Like the full moon on a werewolf’s neck, they aroused the beast in Ole.
The first time he went into a strange woman’s house and entered the invitation of her arms, he was shocked at the churning violence he felt inside him. His hands, dry and cracked from handling paper and printed circulars for ten hours a day, scraped over the woman’s skin and snagged on her lacy chemise. The things they did on her sofa—in front of the dog, no less—brought on a clinging blush that stung him all day, mingling with his sunburn like a fever. He knew that the heat he felt was the licking flames of hell; his blush, the mark of the same mortal sin that goaded men going back to Catullus. Yet he fell into this woman’s embrace four days a week without a thought for the condition of his eternal soul. She did not awaken beauty in him, but vulgarity.
When one girlfriend was not enough, he took on another. And then another. Always, he was careful to choose a second woman a few blocks over—because he knew that women talked, and even ones that weren’t friends had a way of getting to know too much about one another. There was plenty to learn. One was a graduate of Oxford—no, Merton College—which was somehow different, a distinction she described at length every time he went to see her. One tasted of low tide, as though she had been drinking brackish water. One was a devoted knitter and dressed head to toe in her own cozy creations. One was rich and tried to entice Ole to stay a weekend at her cottage. One liked to sing for Ole; before her husband brought her to Sugar Bends, she headlined two cabaret shows a week in Gainesville. Now, Ole was her only audience. He was the sole observer of all of his girlfriends’ private hours and a patient witness to their performances.
Yet he fell into this woman’s embrace four days a week without a thought for the condition of his eternal soul. She did not awaken beauty in him, but vulgarity.
In his presence, they brightened; he had always known that gender was a farce, but he could not feel harshly about it, seeing the pleasure his girlfriends took in creating the illusion of femininity. When Ole was coming, they applied makeup, wore colorful underwear, shaved in new places, and spoke in dulcet tones. Ole held up the mirror of himself as proof of their loveliness. He acted like a man so that they could feel like women. How much any of them believed it was anyone’s guess.
Remembering the women he dated before, he was surprised by how insensible he used to be. The blonde leading the blonde. Now, he knew that any of his girlfriends was about four orgasms away from falling in love with him. All of them cherished his little gifts and compliments (even a gumball-machine trinket sent them into sentimental spasms), which made him miserly and careful. All his gestures, loaded with significance, added up to something more than dating in his girlfriends’ minds. The aggregate of his actions were condensed into a honey-drip intimacy that felt saccharine to Ole and made him cautious of visiting too often.
He plodded through his mail route on swollen feet, feeling the fatigue of a man who had walked away from the world of women only to find he had traveled in a circle. After a while, the charming faces began to bleed together. He felt as though he was dating a many-headed feminine Hydra: Each painted mouth chattered and simpered at him, and each one snaked back to a single voracious body that renewed itself at double speed between assaults.
The biggest house in Sugar Bends was at the end of Banyan Street, where a famous author and his wife lived on ten acres sequestered behind a hedge of bloomless oleanders that hid the sprawling grounds from the neighbors’ prying eyes. The old man’s mail included letters from fans of his long-ago prizewinning novel; people used his name in the same sentence as Roth and Mailer. Ole had studied books but never met a real writer, and the vast sagging porch and skeins of Spanish moss that swayed on the big trees in the yard evoked in him a sense of awe. This was Tennessee Williams; it was Eudora Welty. It was the South, which had a literature of its own that was so distinct that it may as well be another planet altogether.
The house lolled on a seedy picnic blanket of blue crabgrass dotted with dandelions. Pollen powdered the windows opaque, and a single palm frond splayed across the dangling gutter like a distraught odalisque. Ole slouched up its steps. The house reproached Ole for his salaciousness; his past self would have despised what he’d become—a selfish libertine, a womanizer. He had wanted only one lover and ended up with a dozen. What kind of man does that? the Oxonian shouted at him when he confessed that he had lingered elsewhere. He was a strange kind of man because he knew better. He used to believe in poetry. Now, he used it as a weapon. He had not failed at manhood. He had simply given up playing by the rules that kept girls safe from men grown predatory, like him.
Although the sun was at its peak and Ole was sweating mightily, he felt a chill come through him as he stepped into the shadow of the porch. He lifted the rusty lid of the mailbox, and a small, slim hand snaked out of the door. It wore a delicate gold bracelet and its nails were shredded and dull. It opened toward Ole like a sentient flower, and when he placed the letters in its palm it retracted into the dark house.
“He’s not here,” a voice creaked.
“Are you authorized to receive his mail?” Ole asked, idiotically. The hand reappeared, its gnawed fingertips curling around the doorframe. The crack widened and Ole saw the pale lamp of a face floating in the darkness of the house. The eyes glowed redder than strip-club neon, and it took Ole a moment to see that the sunken pits in the luminous skull were shielded by thick, orange-tinted celluloid lenses.
“I’m his wife,” the voice said. The face came closer so that a thin seam of sunlight fell across it. Ole blinked as the details of the stranger fluttered out of the dark: thick hair bleached to a spectral whiteness and cut in an unflattering bob shaped like a triangle. Behind the glasses, eyes spaced wide like a doll’s, round and buttony. A thin upper lip that hugged a row of receding, glossy teeth. As pale as a person who never saw the sun.
He had not failed at manhood. He had simply given up playing by the rules that kept girls safe from men grown predatory, like him.
The stranger let Ole look her over and then shrugged. “Want to come in?”
He glanced over his shoulder at the golden, moss-feathered boughs and blue sky. Then, the stranger’s fingers closed around his wrist and drew him forward. As though enchanted, he entered the dark coolness of the author’s house and the afternoon receded behind him. He felt as though he was descending into the icy water of the cavernous sinkholes in the Ocala Forest, where the pits of the swamp were chilled by an invisible current that ran hundreds of feet below the surface, feeding a second river that lay beneath its sunlit cousin and hid the skeletons of ghostly fish, pirate gold, and undiscovered organisms with bones as fragile as sentence diagrams.
His eyes adjusted slowly, and in a few moments he realized that the smell packing his nostrils was coming from not the house but the lithe body beside him. It was the metallic scent of burning envelope glue, perspiration, and stomach bile. When the stranger guided him through the dank cave of the living room, he wrinkled his nose and followed her blindly around the overstuffed lounger, sunken couch, and knee-biter coffee table loaded with unread mail. She led Ole to the kitchen, where he was seated in a Shaker chair with a punishingly upright back and given a plastic cup of water. No ice.
Up close, in the dim light of the filthy green billiard lamp, the author’s wife was prettier than Ole expected and maybe a quarter of her husband’s age. She leaned against the stove and nursed a sticky Sprite with a slab of lemon floating in it like a set of dentures. Her husband was ancient—a holdover from half a century ago—and his wife was an infant in comparison, unmarked by the years and seasons that carved deep grooves in the other faces Ole visited on his route. Her silky caftan was streaked with what looked like butter, as though she had wiped herself all over with a piece of toast. Behind her, gluey pots and pans cluttered the cold burners. A fragile note of mold danced in the air. Ole was too polite to ask her if it was possible to open the window.
When he shifted in his seat, he sensed a mysterious unctuousness on the ancient wood. A violently crimson, half-chewed pistachio—he could see the indent of a tooth in its meat—rested in the center of the kitchen table. He had been in many houses; married women demurred about the messes in their homes or the small imperfections of their bodies, but Ole knew these meek explanations were for manners only. This stranger, whose palatial nest was a grotesque crypt of dead palmetto bugs, kitty-litter crumbles, grease-caked dishes, and souring sheaves of water-warped paper, did not apologize. Her eyes glistened behind the orange celluloid lenses.
“Is it bright in here for you?” the stranger asked.
This was usually a prelude to candles, in Ole’s recent experience. He was riveted to the Shaker chair by a combination of lust and fear. The wife slapped the dimmer switch on the wall and the room was plunged into a murky darkness. Silhouettes blotted out the stacked pots and leaking sacks of garbage. Ole was too disoriented to show himself out and had no confidence that he could make it through the threatening battalion of mess in the front room. He held the handle of his mail bag tightly, wishing he could climb inside of it and vanish into the safer, regulated world of paper.
The woman’s head seemed to float as her lightened hair and pale face came toward him. Even in the dark, the celluloid glasses were bright as flames.
“I don’t usually turn the lights on,” she said as she took the chair closest to Ole. “I’m very sensitive to light. I wanted to get those blackout curtains, but Bobby wouldn’t let me. He says they’re stuffy. That’s how I know he doesn’t really love me. He refuses to change the light bulbs, even though he knows high wattage hurts me.”
“Do you like the moon?” Ole asked.
“How did you know?” Her dry little hand skittered across the table and clamped over Ole’s with the strength of a scorpion. He flinched, but she pinned his fingers to the sticky place mat. “All poets love the moon. It was made for us. I prefer to write by moonlight.”
“Do you leave the glasses on?”
“When you write,” Ole stuttered. “Do you keep wearing your special glasses?”
Normally so loquacious with women, he was stunned by how stupid he felt sitting next to this one. The sentences that he had spun in front of classrooms full of students and to lonely ladies across town frazzled on his tongue. He had a master’s degree. He could recite sonnets from memory. Yet, in the presence of this poet, he was reduced to talking like a kindergartener. Her utterances, diagrammed, were stubby iambs; whatever she had was contagious.
“These are my campfire glasses,” she told him. The vivid lenses glittered at him. Her hand clawed its way to his elbow, then his bicep, and finally nestled into the curve of his neck. He was speechless, sweating.
He was vaguely aware of the passage of time by the wall clock’s darting minute hand, but when the poet slipped her palms over his eyes, he felt himself falling into a profound swoon. Her rancid perfume filled his nose as she slithered closer, settling in his lap. For such a small person, she was deceptively heavy, body dense as a dancer’s. Her grubby caftan engulfed him. He gripped her waist as she pressed her face against his. Her teeth sought his neck, and her sour breath clotted against his ears. As his disgust overwhelmed his other senses, he felt himself thicken inside his own skin, muscles and fibers swelling with a hormonal rush that started in his stomach and bloomed to the ends of his fingers, which searched the poet’s body like piglets rooting for crumbs.
He touched her everywhere, discovering how the fine grit coated her, from the elastic seams of her briefs to the pubic hinge she ground against his hips. He felt the stubble on her legs, the musky tufts of hair under her arms, and the sandpaper pads of her feet as she snuffled against his uniform and sank her teeth into his ear. He slid a terrified finger into the oily, slippery mouth inside her briefs and she writhed against his hand, sucking him in with a vampiric hunger that made him fear for his digits, his palm, his wrist, his whole arm, but he rose to meet her with the courage of a man facing his destiny. His legs stiffened in a rictus of desire that drove him up, and he lifted the poet and clasped her to him like a bride. In a moment, he had carried her down the kitchen steps and out onto the lawn and they turned in a slow circle as the sun faded behind the live oaks and the purple ink of twilight seeped into the grass and washed everything clean, dark and clean as the period at the end of a sentence.
He had a master’s degree. He could recite sonnets from memory. Yet, in the presence of this poet, he was reduced to talking like a kindergartener.
Hours later, Ole surfaced like a diver from the poet’s sticky embrace. He clawed aside the cascading caftan and rolled away from her. He had burrs in his socks and his nails were caked with salty scum. Overhead, a fragile ring of moon emerged from the crown of trees.
“What time is it?” Ole mumbled. His lips were puffy and raw from being chewed on. One of his boots was off and its laces looped like garter snakes in the grass, refusing to be tied.
“What?” She rolled toward him and removed her glasses. Her face, coming close, was the same limpid color as the moon, her eyes craters that held the endless hunger of a distant, nameless sea.
“I have to,” he croaked. His voice was parched from murmuring sweet nothings and his throat felt like a husk. His spirit lingered close by, a ghost that wasn’t sure whether they should be coming or going. The lost hours flashed before his eyes—the poet on her knees, the poet on his chest, the poet splayed across the grass, the poet in tears, the poet shrieking with laughter. His mail bag was still in the house, but he was afraid to go back for it; there were penalties for each infraction he’d committed, a stack of disciplinary chits that added up to a resoundingly pink you’re-fired slip. The magnitude of what he’d done made him shiver and peel the poet’s hands off the lapels of his shirt.
“Urge not my amiss,” he said, but she only cackled and tightened her grip.
“That’s a poem?” she said. “A poem? That’s not real. Not—no. I’m real. That’s not how poems should be.”
“It’s ‘Sonnet 151,’” he said. He reached for his boot. His wretched fingers fumbled with the eyes and laces and refused to cooperate. The poet nestled closer. Her sour tongue probed the corner of his mouth.
“Look around you. This is what it’s for,” she said. Her sweeping arm took in the moon, the dangling moss, the tantalizing lights of the planes descending to the landing strip in Jacksonville. Her face—the face he had explored with such devotion and intensity—cracked in half, a broken bone of a grin that seemed to lengthen as he gazed at her. She was not like other wives, playing at romance while their husbands weren’t home. She would devour him, boots and all.
With a jolt, he shoved himself away from her and got to his feet. He staggered toward the oleanders and the jagged fence, the suburban street beyond it. She called after him.
“You will never forget me,” she said. “I am a letter written on your soul.”
The oleanders clutched at him as he pushed himself free and ran full tilt down Banyan Street with his shirt flapping and his skin streaming with sweat, all rancid and flayed open, like a mango rind left rotting in the moonlight.
He told none of this to Ryan when he met her at the diner a few days later.
The scratches on his neck had healed; he even managed to sleep a little, after the fever had burned its way through him. The slip taped to his locker at the post office was an obscene shade of rose—a private pink that called to mind the very thing that had gotten him in trouble in the first place. He had left his uniform crumpled in his locker. The blackened, battered boots that had scuffed half the linoleum on his postal route thudded into the dumpster behind the mail trucks. He had skimmed his pith helmet over the surface of the lily pond near the school and watched its turtle-shell crown capsize into the crinkled, algae-rich crust that covered the water.
The diner pie tasted wrong in his mouth, and as he worked his jaw around the gummy pecan paste he sensed Ryan watching him with something like motherly concern.
“Don’t worry, it’s not contagious,” he told her.
She graced him with a look of extreme mercy that was so kind he dropped his fork.
“Tomcatting is all well and good,” she said. “But there’s always a bigger kitty right around the corner. That’s why you should keep to your own back alley.”
“Stay out of Kennewick’s subject matter,” Ole muttered, remembering Garth’s warning and the hedge of oleanders that guarded the house on Banyan Street with their poisonous sap, the dark green leaves like thorns.
Now, it wasn’t a choice to stay out or not. He couldn’t go back. In a way, it was a relief not to be needed. The women would not miss him; if they had ever adored him, it was for the momentary diversion he’d provided. He had reminded them of their power over men and shown them that there was a different masculinity out there—a new kind of problem for them to solve. But he was not impervious to them, the way their husbands were. The poet had found her way under his skin and penetrated more deeply than he ever could. It was degrading. He couldn’t say he hadn’t loved it. And it would be some time before he recovered.
“If you can’t handle poets, steer clear of poetry,” Ryan said. She slid his pie plate to her side of the Formica and picked a flake of crust free with her bejeweled fingers. “And vice versa.”
“Tomcatting is all well and good,” she said. “But there’s always a bigger kitty right around the corner.”
She smiled at him and slipped the crumbs into her mouth. Her skin was splashed with sun and she had silver threads in her hair. The diamond on her finger glittered knowingly. She would never leave Kennewick, no matter how many times Ole came back to her. To any of them. There were women everywhere, but none like Ryan—or maybe they were all like her, cats turning gray in the dark. His gentle words failed him. The poetry he’d recited to married girls had wriggled in his lap, lithe and toxic, and practically gashed out his tongue.
Ole swallowed and reached for the fragments of speech that skittered across the inside of his brain like fractured stars. He searched for the phrases and turns he used to know and how they fit together. There were rules to language; he used to teach it. He used to be the guy who always knew what to say.
“We never talk anymore,” Ole said.
“Is that what that was?” she mused. “Talking—did we ever?”