WHAT THINGS, THESE THINGS, STIR THE HEART
by Joe De Quattro
In voicing his uncertainty Martin Colliver felt he was making a declaration.
“I have no idea how to do this!” He understood that admissions such as these, especially in the 21st century, were mostly unheard of (perhaps simply unnecessary), and had there been anyone within earshot he might have felt embarrassed by the strength of his voice. But the small, yet airy house he’d come to rent in a buggy, florid part of Massachusetts, an hour or so from the Cape, was set back a good distance from the road. And the Coverly’s, his nearest neighbors, whom Martin had met in the spring when the town had distributed solid waste and recycling barrels, were away for the summer.
“Really no idea how to do it,” he howled again. The “this” or the “it” of his distress was, generally speaking, philosophical, overwhelming, and ambitious. Less generally it was about getting on now in that giant, consuming baler that was the sexy, swift, plastic technology age. In other words, utterly out of Martin’s grasp. He was out of step, out of place, even before he’d split with Clare the previous winter. What was he fighting, after all? Who had time for it? It was best to allow oneself to be placed into that baler and be sorted out, go with it. Everyone, everyone to Martin appeared to have it together. Even as much had continued to go off the rails in the country, everyone seemed to be scurrying to their place. What was worse, every thing seemed to have its place. Intellectually he knew this was untrue, knew there would always be need, work to be done, much left unresolved. But emotionally, wildly, he believed it, believed he’d come awake with a sudden dawn nausea in a time that wouldn’t wait for him, couldn’t wait for him, that quite simply had no space for him, as he went on breaking forward through the blandness of his middle-age.
The girl in the other room he had met four nights ago at a laundromat not far from the house. At first it had concerned Martin that the house came without laundry. But he was a schlepping pro, had spent much of his adult life living in apartments without laundry facilities (item six on Clare’s list of grievances), and saw himself as an aging grad student, forever lugging his soiled things out into public (he didn’t ever drop-off).
The situation with the girl had begun with a meeting of eyes. At first he’d assumed she was looking at him merely out of curiosity as people often do when coming upon a car crash.. Needing to see the failure. One’s own possible end. Martin had gone on sorting and separating his clothes until after a while there were the eyes, this girl’s eyes, meeting his, curious but not gawking, unflinchingly direct, blinkingly sand expectant. Were they trying to ignite something within him, Martin dared to wonder. Not lust. No. Far greater, and certainly more complex. As he’d increasingly come to see it, eyes were the biggest problem in the 21st century, buried as they often were in a downward tipped skull so as to never really see other eyes, least of which his. This tool of observation, of love and hate, thought and peace, wonder and discrimination, of acceptance, deterrence, reason, rage, lust and smoke, of digestion, discourse, sadness, purity, happiness and toxicity, the eyes had miraculously become little more than a product of self-promotion. Of navel gazing. The few times, especially in the last six months, when strange female eyes locked on his, it was never for more than a nanosecond. A flash and away. A bounding rapidly away as if the woman would turn to stone if she held Martin’s gaze a moment longer. It wasn’t due to a lack of attraction, for on paper Martin had a level of attractiveness. Rather, what those looking eyes in their momentary appraisal saw: a man out of step and out of time with his time.
These eyes, though, the eyes of the girl…
Perhaps, Martin thought, as he folded his last t-shirt, placed it into his laundry bag and made his way over to where she sat, perhaps they understood something. He was just about to speak, not altogether sure what he was going to open with, when to his surprise she spoke first.
“I haven’t seen you here before.”
Martin, though he understood this statement to be directed at him, looked around.
“Yeah,” the girl said matter-of-factly, “you’re new.” She was seated with what appeared to be a celebrity gossip magazine (from the look of the photos), spread idly in her lap, and without any of the usual laundry day accompaniments: bag, soap, dryer sheets, an overall unshowered countenance. She was wearing brown lace-up boots into which her jeans had been neatly tucked, a wide leather belt, and a tan blouse open at the throat. The overall demeanor was that of someone on a layover between flights.
“Most people hide it better,” she continued with no urgency.
“Hide what,” Martin said.
“A trans—“ she started then stopped. “Moving from one place to the next.” There was an artificial brightness to the way she said this.
“I didn’t realize I was that obvious.” Martin’s tone was flat, though really he was ecstatic over what he’d just heard. Startled and overjoyed.
“Not obvious,” the girl said, “just a little transparent. It’s nice.”
She had turned up at dusk the following day. From the window of the kitchen and without a beat of concern or trepidation, Martin had watched her moving among the blue bell dahlia’s, asters, violets and crocuses. The evening sprinklers were going, fwick fwick fwick, though she didn’t appear to notice even as a forceful spray of water shot a dotted line across the front of her peach colored t-shirt.
Feeling instinctively that he couldn’t instruct her, Martin went and stood at the back door until she made her way around. With little verbal formality, he showed her inside, the great room (great here used as a classification rather than as an adjective), above which was the loft area where Martin had been retreating more and more often, the bathroom, the kitchen, the two bedrooms. The girl dropped her bag, which in its size suggested nothing temporary or permanent, in the large back bedroom.
“So I can go whenever I want?”
“I won’t keep you,” Martin said.
“What if you get sick of me?”
“Whenever you want.”
“Do you work?”
Martin was hesitant. “I do a lot of work,” he said, “but if you mean do I have a job, at the moment, no.”
“A while, then,” the girl said.
Martin considered her. “You don’t have a Massachusetts accent.”
“No,” the girl said, but as if the observation bored her. “I’m from the South.”
She didn’t have a southern accent either, though Martin didn’t press. He watched her as she unpacked, and as she pulled items from the bag, items for neither a long or short stay, she would intermittently look in his direction.
Martin didn’t say anything. The girl went on unloading her personal effects, a brush, a hair drier, a cosmetics bag (though it didn’t appear she wore make up), her cell phone. Martin looked away. How could he be disappointed? The girl was only twenty-one, maybe twenty-two. He couldn’t expect her, even in her laconic understanding of him, to be part of his declaration and so be without a phone. Besides, he had one. He wasn’t a Luddite. Wasn’t against technology. That was too simple. His phone was off, though. Twenty-seven days.
Martin left the girl and then disappeared up into the loft space above the great room. This he accessed by way of an oak staircase he’d had installed after much configuring and expense, like an airstair brought out on a tarmac for the President or the Pope. The space was furnished sparsely: a chair, a small white table with a lamp. It was sufficient, even if since gaining access his intentions were unclear. When he first saw it, though, standing on the carpet of the great room, he felt deeply stirred by something, and after going up by ladder to test his weight, sweeping out the chipmunk droppings and the spiders, he understood the spot to be something necessary. Necessary to go to.
Martin looked down and saw the scalp of the girl’s head where her hair was parted. Her hair wasn’t particularly clean, he thought, but the scalp was a healthy whitish red like the breast bone of a chicken. She began to climb. Martin lost sight of her then, listening to her feet, which were bare now, on the oak steps, listening and waiting, breathing silently, waiting for her to appear.
“No,” Martin said, “the opposite.” He leaned back in his chair, trying to appear casual. At ease. There was nothing on the white table. “Hey, let’s go out.”
But they didn’t. In fact, well-stocked as the house was, each time they gathered themselves to go there was something to prevent them: beer; salami and cheese; cans of beans; bread. Together, innocently enough, they proceeded to remain there. And while often they were on opposite ends, even on opposite floors seeing that Martin was spending a good deal of time in the loft looking for its intention, an undeniable connection grew.
“Adultery,” the girl said late one night. She was watching the news in her room. This was the third or fourth night. Martin often heard her talking to herself in her room with the television going. Mainly it seemed she watched the news.
“Look at this,” she said. Martin, standing in the doorway, hands in pockets, looked. It was a story about a forty-two year old Afghan woman who’d been executed by the Taliban for cheating on her husband. “Incredible,” the girl said. She was wearing men’s pajamas (not his), powder blue, and sitting in a plaid oversized chair that had been left behind by another tenant. “For adultery. For adultery they kill you. Right there for everyone to see. Bullets. Sick how men think.”
“In some regions,” Martin said.
At first the girl looked at him reproachfully, but then she nodded.
“Men,” she said.
“Men,” Martin said and nodded.
The girl muted the television and considered him now for a few long moments.
“What don’t you know how to do?”
The question, though it shouldn’t have, disarmed him.
“I hear you,” the girl continued. “Often at night. Sometimes in the morning. What is it?”
“It’s a small house,” Martin said, flushing heavily in the face. “I’m not keeping you here, I told you that.”
The girl offered a barely perceptible nod. “What don’t you know how to do? Really? You seem a little broken, but otherwise entirely capable.”
Martin didn’t say anything. It was his house and he felt no obligation to explain his declaration. He wasn’t bothering her, forcing her to stay. She was there of her own will.
“Tell me,” she said again.
Overwhelming as her insistence here was, the girl’s voice was soft, and when Martin looked at her, looked her dead in the eyes, he saw what he’d seen nights earlier at the laundromat. Not curiosity, not a need for facts or information, but genuine interest.
“Be in the current,” he said finally. He meant this, it explained a great deal, but because he’d never said it aloud it only sounded silly and pretentious.
“What does that mean? The current?”
“It’s what I don’t know how to do,” Martin said, trying to reassert some sanctity over his plight. “Like I was—look, I just wanted to be. Okay? Want to be, I should say. But as things were, in day to day existence, I began to feel more and more like I was in junior high school and everyone else was at the cool table. But it’s life! I mean, it’s not school. I was a man and I felt that way.” He was aware that he was using past tense. “Was unable to see my place, and so couldn’t be in it any longer.”
To this the girl offered no response, though the lift of her brow suggested he’d hit upon something of shared value.
“So you’re a rebel, then, is that it?”
Martin laughed, one quick snort. “Do rebels even exist now with all the advertisers chiseling away at individuality for years? We have monsters, sure, but rebels? Rebels often have heart. Are heroes.” He paused in thought. “There must still be some, I suppose.”
The girl appeared about to say something, but Martin stopped her gently. “I’m not a rebel, no. I want to exist in the current, in life, as it is now, in the face of its shining, sleek, plastic sexistence.” He paused imperceptibly to see how the girl might like this invented word. “I know it won’t change, in other words, that I’m outnumbered.”
“But cutting yourself off isn’t going to help.”
“That’s just it,” Martin said, “I’m not cut off, per se.”
“Not per se,” the girl said, “just overall.” She smiled. “At least you let me in.”
“I see it as stepping away in order to regroup.”
“Transition,” the girl said.
Martin ignored this. “I’m figuring out how to be in the current, back in it, and be myself. Myself. Does that make sense?”
The girl gave no indication either way.
“As it was I just felt horribly alone, more and more alone,” Martin said. “There’s other stuff, too, things I haven’t told you, about my marriage, and I’m not sure I want to get into it to be honest. It has its place but it wasn’t driving everything. I felt more and more alone. Despite the—connections. My God, all these freaking connections, socializing and not seeing anybody, words, talking with words and saying what, really? I couldn’t stand how alone I felt.”
Martin understood that he didn’t know the girl well, that while she was here with him, sharing this house now for however many days, he didn’t fully know how she viewed things. But perhaps this was best. Knowing too much might be painful.
Wanting to change the tone, he ventured further into her room and sat down just on the edge of the love seat which like the big plaid chair had also been abandoned by a previous tenant.
“When I was a kid, around fourteen or so,” he said, “I delivered papers.” At the word papers, he could tell that the girl became at once more curious yet confused. Given their age difference, more than two decades, and the look on her face now, he understood that there was a distinct possibility that she’d grown up in a household without actual newspapers around.
“I had a newspaper route,” he explained. “Over the back wheel of my bike I had these two metal baskets, like saddle bags, specifically for the job. The route. One day, as I was loading up the papers, a small bird, a finch or a thrush, I never knew which, I don’t know birds, landed on one of the little metal bars of the baskets. I waited a few moments for it to fly away. I mean, it’s a bird, they speed off when you blink at them, right? But this one didn’t. Just sat there like it was completely normal. Where it should have been.”
“It was hurt?”
“That’s the thing, it looked fine. There was no evident distress. Gingerly as hell I finished loading up the papers, I mean I had to get them delivered by a certain time or I caught hell from customers, then got myself onto the bike and started to pedal. Slowly. As I made my way down the street, I kept looking over my shoulder and there the thing was, black glass-like eyes looking around, looking back at me as if to make sure I was there. I’d park the bike, gently pull out a paper, drop it on the doorstep, come back, bird still there. Must have taken me two hours that day to do a route that normally took me forty or forty-five minutes.”
“You didn’t try to shoo it away?”
Martin made a face as if this were the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard.
“So you kept it,” the girl said. There was assumption in her voice.
“No,” he said, “eventually it flew away. I don’t know when exactly. It was there until I nearly finished but then at some point it was gone.”
The girl blinked all this in.
“Nothing happened,” Martin said more urgently than he’d wanted. “It was just an occurrence. Nothing beyond that. But it was out of control, if you get what I’m saying. Out of the normal pattern of things. Now—“ but Martin stopped.
“Now,” the girl said softly, “what?”
“Now everything has a designated place. Stuff, I mean. Things. Garbage. Plastics.”
“But isn’t that a good thing?” She half-laughed these words.
“Yes,” Martin said, “of course.” He hadn’t ever spoken about this to anyone before, but his tone was exasperated, as if he’d said it a million times already. “With a person, though, with people, I don’t know, it can’t be the same. It can’t all be compartmentalization, can it?”
The girl didn’t say anything.
“I knew I’d never forget the damned bird,” Martin said angrily. “I guess that’s the point.”
The girl nodded. “It’s a sentimental point.”
“Yes,” Martin said. “I suppose it is. So?”
“So is that what you’re looking for? Another bird-type situation?”
“How do you mean?”
“The look on your face. That look I noticed the other night at the laundromat. Do the two things connect?”
“Are you asking if I’m looking for sentimentality?”
“Sure,” the girl said, “whatever.”
“I don’t know,” Martin said. Then, almost laughing, “would it be so terrible if I were?”
“No,” the girl said. “Only unfortunate.”
“The bird affected me unlike anything before or since, really. Something I can only tell about and never unravel. Grand uncertainty. Mysterious. Opposite of compartmentalization, opposite of that current. Nothing sorted out.”
“So you are looking for a kind of adult version of that, then.”
“I’m not sure if that’s what I’m looking for,” he said. “I can say that that couple of hours with the bird, especially in light of the last year of my life, it feels unparalleled by any adult human relationship I’ve experienced.” Here, when the girl frowned, Martin, perhaps misinterpreting her expression, added, “I guess you think that’s pretty sick or sad.”
She shrugged and got to her feet. “Hey, should we go out?”
The question took Martin by surprise. “Yes,” he said, “sure. I mean, yes, we really should.”
But neither of them moved.
Nights they spent in their rooms, although more and more often Martin retreated to his loft space. In the mornings, sometimes in the evenings, he could be heard crying out, “I have no idea how to do this!” It began to comfort the girl, really, which was saying a great deal. Another might easily become annoyed. Days, many, began to pass. The weather turned. It rained, cooled, became humid, buggy. Smoky clouds drifting like ominous dirigibles over the house rolled into dark and monstrous cliffs, then dispersed.
“I know why you like it up there so much,” the girl said suddenly one afternoon. Weeks had gone by. Martin had only been able to keep track of time by way of his phone, off now forty-four consecutive days. They were lying side by side on the carpet of the great room, staring up at the cathedral ceiling.
“It forces people to look in order to find you,” she continued.
“People,” Martin said, “what people?”
“Fine,” the girl said, “me. In that one moment, looking for you, you’ve eliminated the possibility of distraction. I can’t just bump into you in here. Isn’t that it?”
This embarrassed him. “No,” he said. “That’s not it at all.” But then he wondered if it weren’t true.
“Sure,” the girl said, “come on. I’m always looking up there to find you. It’s actually kind of arrogant, really.”
As he’d been unable to determine various other things about her, if she was ever putting herself forward to him sexually; if, for example, she had felt contempt for his sentimental bird story, Martin was unable to see how she meant this.
“That was never my thought,” he said. “And again, there hasn’t been anyone here but you. What relevance can your point have then?”
Martin hadn’t said this with any vehemence, not even defensively, but suddenly the girl rolled into a sitting position and stared straight ahead a few moments.
“You understand what I’m saying,” Martin said, getting himself up on an elbow.
The girl didn’t say anything. She only got to her feet, looked straight ahead a moment or two more in that same way as if a phantom palm had just slapped her face, then went to her bedroom and closed the door.
That night Martin was far more demonstrative in his proclamation, “No idea how to do it!,” than he’d been since he’d started. Not shouting, but annunciating each word with a fervent depth and urgency unfamiliar to him thus far. He felt at once anxious but tremendously moved. He wanted, he supposed in some blind, blank area of himself, to send a message to the girl, an all consuming message, pull her forward and up to him once and for all. But she never emerged.
In the morning, the forty-fifth day, he expected to find her room empty, but there she was, on the day bed, asleep. Martin went about his business up in the loft, albeit more quietly now, “I have no idea how to do this,” until he heard the girl stirring below. When he came down, he saw that she had her things together. They stood in the opaque light of the kitchen.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“Are you?” Martin said.
“It’s a process,” he told her both as a way of explanation and apology. Despite the apparent friction, the packed bag, he felt lifted. As if they were finally getting somewhere.
“By the way,” the girl said with her hand on the doorknob and looking directly at him now. “Your bird story is sentimental. You have to know that at least.”
Martin nodded even though he was unsure how she meant this, and a moment later she left, pulling the door closed behind her. From the window over the kitchen sink he watched her exit the property just as she’d entered it, past the dahlias, asters, violets and crocuses, that same deliberate yet meandering quality evident in her stride. Martin remained where he was, unmoving, listening. He had no idea how long. He only remained there, still, without stirring, listening to the fwick fwick fwick of the morning sprinklers, and the sound of her footfalls as they took her away over earth laden with dead leaves.
About the Author:
Joe De Quattro is a Pushcart Prize nominated American Fiction writer. A finalist for the Curt Johnson Fiction Award, his stories have appeared most recently in Mystery Tribune and The Los Angeles Review.