Fiction selection from the 2007 issue
Everything in a Place that Needs Finding
by Aaron Hellem
For Lent, Murphy gives up his fantasies of a seventeen-year-old girl with a short skirt and bra top getting in his sports car, ready to go for a ride in every sense of the word, and his wife, Marie, gives up on him. She packs some clothes and leaves a note, says she’s going to stay with her sister until he’s out of the house. There isn’t any discussing it, it’s just assumed he should be the one to leave and she should keep the house. The fair thing to do would be to split it right down the middle and each take half, but finding a ban saw that big on such short notice is equally improbable as a seventeen-year-old girl in a short skirt and a bra top pulling into the driveway in her own sports car ready to give him a ride, in every sense of the word. He wants to fight it out, fight for his right to at least fight for it, knowing he’d lose eventually.
He stands at the top of the driveway. Waits for his sports car. Waits for his seventeen-year-old fantasy to materialize out of thin air and let him drive. His brother pulls into the driveway. What a shitty way to start the weekend, his brother says. Murphy hands him his poke. You don’t have any suitcases? his brother says. Murphy gets in the car. His brother puts the poke in the backseat. Murphy closes his eyes as they back out of the drive, doesn’t want to see his house getting smaller on him.
Murphy crashes at his brother’s place, sleeps on the sofa, lives out of the things wrapped up in the tablecloth. His brother keeps saying how sorry he is for Murphy’s circumstances, getting kicked out of his own house like that. What you need is a steak and a beer, his brother says.
Something happens when you reach thirty-five that Murphy realizes now, sleeping on his brother’s sofa and living out of a hobo’s poke, somehow, after thirty-five years, the convictions and principles that you lived by become flexible and are no longer as obdurate as you once thought them; at thirty-five you are free, for instance, to have a steak during Lent, or, when you’re feeling down in the dumps, to drink as much scotch necessary to lift your spirits. He suggests this plan to his brother.
His brother says, I know just the place.
Murphy has to learn to live with epidimitis, that’s what chronic means, the urologist tells him, locates the dull ache pulsating around his testicles. The urologist tells him it’s not all that uncommon for some men and most of them go on to live very fruitful lives. The urologist says, Some are teachers, bankers, lawyers. One I knew and treated was an astronaut. Dr. Sung probes around Murphy’s testicles with his cold rubber-gloved fingers, pushing, pressing, pin-pointing the swelling and the inflammation. It sits on top of the testes, Dr. Sung says. Like a crown.
Murphy looks away, at the wall, up at the ceiling.
Well, I guess more like a cap, Dr. Sung says. He consults the file. Try taking hot baths, he says. Get the blood moving down there. Another course of the pills and hot baths. He even writes it on his prescription pad: Hot baths, twice daily.
Murphy takes the prescription from him. He can’t remember the last time he took a bath. He looks up and notices Dr. Sung staring at him.
You can pull your pants up now, Dr. Sung says.
Right, Murphy says. He pulls them up quickly, buttons and belts them with his back to Dr. Sung. Turns around. Can I go now? Murphy asks.
Of course, Dr. Sung says.
Right, Murphy says. He can’t get out of that office fast enough.
Murphy wonders if other people can tell just by looking at him, if it registers on his face or if everyone is equipped with evolutionary sensors that detect his chronic problem and women dismiss him as possible mate and men ignore him as competition. Can they tell enough by watching him in the grocery store to know it’s epidimitis? Do they even know what the epidymal heads are for, where they’re located? That they fit on the testes like a crown? That they do other things, too, like swell and enlarge for no apparent reason? He wonders if each time he shakes another man’s hand they can tell by his grip or the lack thereof that he’s not walking around with wrecking balls, so to say, but that his are out of order, on the disabled list. This is the definition of chronic, Murphy tells himself, when it vitiates every aspect of everything pleasurable. He wonders how in the hell he’ll ever get close to another woman when sickening pain shoots into his gut each time she gets close, real close. He studies himself in the mirror. The problem with having a problem with your balls is that there’s only two people who can have a look at them and see what’s going on down there: you and the doctor. Two people, and that’s it. You sure as hell can’t go into work, drop your pants and ask the guys there to have a look and give you the low down of your down low. This is something you can’t ask your mother about. No, this is one you’ve got to go alone. Murphy considers it a good sign that they haven’t changed color and still have all their hair. He figures he’ll know it’s cancer if they start losing their hair.
Murphy plugs up the tub, runs the hot water. Waits until it’s filled, then steps into it, lowers himself slowly into the steam and the heat. Eases in, eases back. He can’t feel his legs or his genitals, just a slight burning sensation in the bottoms of his feet, the hot burn when extremely cold yields to extremely hot. How does this make Murphy feel about himself, having to sit in the tub under doctor’s orders and auspices that it’s the one thing that’s going to save his gonads from chronic epidimitis? Ironically emasculating.
Murphy pulls the washcloth off his face, drapes it over his genitals instead. Increase the blood flow, reduce the inflammation.
The handle on the bathroom door jiggles. The door’s locked, his brother says from the other side of it. Tries it again.
I know, Murphy says.
What the hell for?
I locked it.
His brother stands outside the door, but doesn’t say anything. Murphy wrings out the washcloth, soaks it again in the hot water. Places it back over his genitals.
Are you using the sink? his brother says through the door.
I’ll be out soon, Murphy says.
You’re not in the bathtub, are you?
It’s the doctor’s orders, Murphy answers.
Let me in there, his brother says.
You’re not coming in here.
We have to talk about this.
I’ll be right out, Murphy says. He hears his brother move away from the door, down the hall, back to the living room. He glances down at his bits, floating there like a strange piece of kelp. It’s funny and not so funny at the same time that Murphy’s balls, small in his sack, if they had any lumps on them, no matter how small, could kill him for good, just like that.
Murphy never realized that a mid-life crisis not only included a divorce but a whole change of wardrobe, too.
You’ve got to stop thinking about yourself as a divorced middle-aged man, his brother tells him. You’ve got to learn to start thinking of yourself as a sex machine. His brother has him dressed in a t-shirt and jeans with holes in the knees. Say it with me, his brother says, I’m a sex machine.
I’m a sex machine, Murphy says. Murphy looks over himself in the mirror. This isn’t me, Murphy says.
That’s the point, his brother says.
Murphy turns around, considers the rear view. His deficiency is more fundamental that a change of perspective can’t fix. Now what? he says.
Now we cruise, his brother says.
His brother’s world is loud, filled with bass, people in each other’s faces screaming because they can’t hear one another yelling hello. It’s a world of knowing nods, gestures with fingers, eyes, shoulders that indicate whether someone is familiar and the degree to which they’re recognized and liked. Murphy feels like an undercover cop. The inside of the place resembles what Murphy imagines to be a terrible elongated epileptic seizure: the shaking, the strobe, the screaming. He glances around at all the fast-moving women, dancing half-dressed, some in skirts, some wearing underwear as outerwear.
What did I tell you? his brother screams at him. His brother moves into the crowd, leaving Murphy in the periphery with his shoulders hunched and his hands in his pockets. He’s not fooling anyone with the holes in his jeans. All he sees, all around him, are flashes of skin on men and women, dancing as though they were copulating with their clothes on. Murphy risks the crowd to get to the bar. Assumes a perch on the end of it. The bartender, who looks old enough to neither order alcohol nor serve it, doesn’t notice him until he makes himself known: raises his hand and calls for whiskey. She serves it to him with a cautious eye, watches him as though he were as a representative of the liquor board there to bust under-aged drinkers.
There are so many ways in which Murphy is not hip, is, in fact, utterly and hopelessly unhip: his clothes, his car, his comb over. What happens when a girl comes up to Murphy and says, You want to get out of here? and Murphy’s expected to take her somewhere? Murphy drops his drink down the hatch, holds on to the bar to keep himself steady. The bass of the music replaces his heartbeat and Murphy worries that he’s been left behind, won’t ever be able to catch up again. When your hair goes north and your balls go south, you can’t keep up like you used to. Time to punt. Murphy stares into the pieces of glass glued on the wall. His broken reflection. There’s no dignity in this, he says. His brother stands in the middle of the club, in the middle of a circle of girls, and all the girls are laughing, laughing, laughing.
Murphy pays his tab and leaves the club. Outside into the cool evening. He flags down a taxicab and gives his address to the driver. Take me home, he says.
The driver pulls away. Murphy tries to figure out what he’s going to say when he rings the doorbell. What he’s going to say when Marie answers and sees that he’s been crying and has holes in his pants.
She can’t end it like this, not now, not like this, Murphy says to the driver.
The driver glances back at him in the rearview mirror.
I’ve got epidimitis, Murphy says. You can’t leave a man like that.
You got what, man? the driver says.
Epidimitis, Murphy says.
It’s not fatal, if that’s what you’re getting at.
It’s just a matter of figuring out the right thing to say to let her know he loves her, how much he loves her, how much he wants her and wants to come back home.
The driver pulls up to the driveway. Stops the meter. You want me to stick around? he says to Murphy.
What do you mean? Murphy says.
You know, the driver says. Just in case.
No. Murphy hands the driver the fare and gets out of the cab. His house is dark. Even the porch light is off.
Good luck, the driver says, and pulls away.
Murphy’s left there in the dark at the end of the driveway. The house already seems like a stranger to him, or maybe it’s the other way around and Murphy’s the stranger to it. Two stories of darkened windows, pulled curtains. Murphy stands there in his own driveway like a solicitor, peddling unwanted wares. He approaches the front door. There’s no going back, Murphy tells himself. Stares into it: the knocker, the peephole, the foot mat. He pushes the doorbell and hears it ring throughout the house, the echo of it whining like the bell at the end of a boxing round. Murphy fixes his hair, gives himself the once over. He rings the bell again. The bedroom light switches on upstairs. Murphy can see the outline of her shadow moving around, past the window, then in front of the window. She pulls the curtain back to see who’s at the door. Murphy wonders if she recognizes him in his new outfit, the new Murphy in a borrowed t-shirt and pants with holes in them. He still doesn’t know what he’s going to say, the magic words that will fix everything. He hears her on the inside, descending stairs, flipping on more lights. The one in the hall, the one in the foyer. The porch light comes on and shines in his face. He rubs at his eyes, regains his composure. Thinks: There’s no way she’s not going to think I’m drunk. Hears her undo the chain, draw back the dead bolt. Murphy waits for the words to come to him, hopes to god they come to him, pop in his mind and mouth in a moment of divine intervention.
Marie opens the front door. Blinks at Murphy in the porch light. She glances at his clothes. He can’t explain those. She crosses her arms. Doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t invite him in. Stands there unyielding on the inside of the doorway. She waits for him to say something and he waits for the right thing to say. There are no magic words. He has holes in his pants and won’t ever step inside that house again. Murphy blinks at the porch light. His wife blinks at him. He knows now it was more than his hair, his teeth, his testicles. Always more than the accumulation of little things.