By Paul Silverman
A risk of the old agitated depression, wouldn’t you say—when a one-glasses man has to choose between two pairs of glasses to wear to a quick dinner and a concert? Why does a plain man like Sydney Burrows suddenly have two pairs of glasses? Is it any wonder his skin crawls and his stomach attacks his windpipe? And then he has the Lone Ranger, of all people, metaphorically hunting him down, stalking him across the Freudian badlands—and this is all happening on Symphony Night in Boston, which is being billed as a duel between Schoenberg and Beethoven. Is it any wonder Sydney Burrows can’t swallow his escarole and apple salad? That the rubbery leaves are stuck in his throat and making his eyes bulge? And that his wife Elyse is ripping to get Sydney’s meds changed tomorrow to something that works? If not a switch to Zyprexa, or ECT, or straitjackets, or icewater baths, perhaps a few more million Zoloft milligrams might do it.
“Can you breathe?”
“Yes I can breathe. I just can’t eat. It won’t drop.”
“Drink water. DRINK.”
“I can’t drink water. The water gets stuck too. It runs into the fucking escarole and backs up. It’s a pipe just like in a toilet. Can’t you understand that?”
“I never understand. Only you understand. Only YOU can understand YOU. So why I am I here?”
Elyse Burrows clicks and re-clicks her handbag, folds and unfolds her napkin, crunches an ice cube from her Grey Goose and Midori. Her dentist told her never to do that. She tears a chunk of baguette and mops up copious grease from the saucer of cayenne-flaked olive oil, breaking her vow of no starch ever, no matter what. She gets hungry because she’s angry, and she yearns to devour Sydney’s uneaten salad. Escarole, even rubbery escarole, is too good for him.
“Can’t we drop this Lone Ranger thing and simply have a good time? Is this too much to ask?”
“Who gives a shit about the Lone Ranger thing? We talked about it in the car. It’s over and done. What’s wrong with you?”
Driving in to Boston they had been battling all the way. Wham-bamming each other over this, the joint project that was to be the slam-dunk. Sydney had read a squib online about Clayton Moore, the man who played the Masked Man on TV. Read that he had started wearing the mask off the set. At home. Around town. As though he were no longer acting. As though he had really become the Lone Ranger. Instantly Sydney sniffed royalties, fame—a book deal. But now he was weaseling out of it, now that Elyse, in her view of the matter, had worked like a tribe of Tontos, doing days and nights of research. During which she had found out Moore had only worn the mask off-set now and then, and that most of the time he had worn dark aviator glasses that were only somewhat mask-like.
“It’s not over and you know it. You’re just waffling.”
“I’m not waffling. I’m choking.”
“Then drink. DRINK.”
“I can’t drink. This is driving me crazy.”
“Why is it you’re allowed to go crazy over everything?”
“This isn’t everything.”
“What is it then? What?”
“It’s not what you think.”
“How do you know what I think? Stop telling me what I think.”
“You think it’s because I think there’s no story in the Lone Ranger thing.”
“You said there’s no story. That’s exactly what you said. Do you deny that you said this?”
“I said it, of course I said it. No mask, no story. Why is that my fault? But that’s NOT what I’m thinking about. At this moment. In fact, it couldn’t be further from my mind. I’m thinking about…”
At this point the waiter removes the two salad plates—hers clean as a whistle and his hardly touched—and plunks down two plates of steamed Maine codfish wrapped in green cabbage leaves and bathed in cream.
“Yes, yes,” says Elyse, “I’m ready. Let the shoe drop. You’re thinking about…”
“These two dishes. YOU wanted the codfish. I wanted the calves’ liver in Madeira sauce. Why do I always have to get what you get?”
“And that’s why you’re having a hissy fit? Ruining the night? You’re lying. You can’t be that shallow. Not even you…”
“This is the only place in town that makes calves’ liver. All the way here my mouth was watering for calves’ liver. Just contemplating it made me famished. I could have swallowed a whole calf I was so relaxed.”
“Look. At liver I draw the line. You want liver, you come here alone. The smell of it makes me gag.”
“So now it’s me that’s gagging. I can’t even eat the codfish because I can’t get past the escarole. And please don’t tell me to drink, DRINK…”
For this dining experience, which included coffee but not dessert, Sydney and Elyse pay $186, plus tip. Then they walk through smarting sheets of rain down Huntington Avenue to Symphony Hall. And all this time he still hasn’t told her what he’s thinking about. REALLY thinking about.
She asks again at intermission, when he can’t swallow the complimentary members’ champagne served in the Serge Koussevitsky room, where they have four bartenders, assorted nuts and chocolate, and the Maestro’s memorabilia on display.
“Spit it out, say it. Nothing can be worse than this. Do you hate me? Do I make you so nervous you can’t get a salad leaf down your…”
Sydney is amazed at how long a cud of escarole can stay clogged in his Adam’s Apple. It’s never been this bad before. He recalls an article he read about the European bearded vulture, an Alpine denizen whose stomach acid, the strongest of any creature on earth, can dissolve huge bones on contact. He tells Elyse he wishes he were that vulture, because the escarole would be gone in a poof.
In the old days, Sydney and Elyse would talk about nothing but the music they’d just heard. She would chatter about the parts where Beethoven foreshadows Schoenberg. And he would hold forth on the strains of Schoenberg that hark back to Beethoven. They would feel scintillating and simpatico, two soaring bubbles in a single champagne flute.
“It’s not you,” he tells her. “It’s the glasses.” All Sydney’s life he’s been a one-glasses man. Worn one pair of glasses until it’s time to get new ones. But these days it isn’t so easy. Sydney and Elyse have a daughter, Brianna, a fashionista, who recently moved out of the house to her own Back Bay apartment. The glasses she picked out for Sydney are pure buffalo horn, designed by the same Italian who does the insides of Lamborghinis. The glasses Elyse picked out for him are by Ralph Lauren, and for years they were his only glasses. But, every time Brianna saw them, she began to wince and wrinkle her nose, as though she were smelling garbage, and rotting garbage at that. Lens Crafters is what Brianna calls these glasses. In her fashionista world, Lens Crafters means the same as Dress Barn. Or Men’s Wearhouse.
So Sydney now calls himself the man of two glasses. At home with Elyse, he wears the so-called Lens Crafters. Every time he visits Brianna in the Back Bay he wears the buffalo horns. The glasses couldn’t be more different. Thin stems for the Laurens/Lens Crafters, a nearly rimless look. Thick ones for the buffalo horns, a hipster retro look.
But tonight he’s pocketed Elyse’s and donned Brianna’s, even though he’s with Elyse. He tells her it’s because they’re in town, not out in the North Shore suburbs where they live. What if they were to bump into Brianna at the restaurant? At the concert?
“I don’t want to hurt her,” Sydney says.
“And what if you’re hurting me?”
“I know I…”
“I don’t want to hear about it.”
“But you asked me what I’m thinking about. You’ve been asking me all night.”
“I don’t believe your answer. So what’s the point?”
He proceeds anyway, arguing all the way through intermission, then all the way back to their seats. “I can’t stand being two…”
The cymbals crash. “You, you, you. Nobody wants to hear you,” she says. “It’s Schoenberg’s turn.”
The concert ends and they return to the drilling rain, walking several blocks through ever-thinning crowds, until the sidewalks are utterly empty, except for two men up ahead. The neighborhood has changed. Sketchy. This was the closest lot they could find that wasn’t filled.
Something is not right with the two men. The one farthest ahead is black, thirty-ish, in blue mechanic’s coveralls, looking as though he had just gotten off work in a garage. The one closest to them is white, fifty-ish, paunchy and suited up, looking as though he might have been at the concert, or a party. Suddenly the black man wheels around and roars, “You. You better stop following me.” And he puts up his fists.
But the white man doesn’t even pause; he keeps on trotting till he’s right up to him. His gait is strangely rubber-legged. As he turns to face the black man, Sydney and Elyse see he’s wearing glasses: yellow-tinted, John Lennon style. And that he’s rubber-legged even standing still. Flapping like a windsock. That’s how boozed up he is.
“You stop following me, NOW,” the black man says.
“Well if it’s a fight you want,” the white man says, with a politeness only a drunk could manage, “first let me take off my glasses.”
And he removes the yellow-tinted glasses, slips them in his pocket, and puts up his two fists. At which point the black man throws a roundhouse that lands right on the chin. The drunk falls immediately, hitting the concrete so hard there’s a hideous cracking sound, and he crumples into a motionless heap. The black man doesn’t stick around, and neither do Sydney and Elyse. Trembling and palpitating, they retrieve their car, pay the attendant, and call 911.
As they approach the Tobin Bridge and the North Shore, Sydney feels the escarole drop. The trembling ceases and his esophagus feels wide as the Mass Pike. He’s famished, he’s at ease. He wants to stop at Kelly’s Roast Beef, Santoro’s Subs, anywhere.
“Look,” he says softly. “Maybe we should revisit this Lone Ranger thing. Search some more. Maybe the mask isn’t the only angle.”
Elyse says nothing, but adjusts herself in the passenger seat. She’s at least six inches closer to him. Finally she speaks:
“Well, what do you think we should be looking for?”
Sydney enjoys the calm in his innards. He salivates as he pictures various snacks and meals. Then he comes to calves’ liver. He imagines the sizzle of it with such zeal he can smell it. Then he feels something in his vest pocket.
“I dunno. A silver bullet maybe?” As Sydney says this, he makes a glasses change, whipping off the Brianna glasses and sliding the Elyse glasses out of his vest pocket.
Through the Ralph Laurens he looks to see if she’s buys what he’s saying—and it appears that she does. In fact, she reaches for him. But he knows he hasn’t said a thing. Not a thing. Just some crap about a silver bullet. He could have said let’s do a book on the European bearded vulture, it would have had as much substance. They pass a Mister Donut, and he can tell—if Mister Donut sold calves’ liver in Madeira sauce, she’d probably let him order it. Sydney’s glasses start to fog. He loves Elyse’s hand on his thigh, the way she rubs and kneads and searches. He loves it when they’re collaborating.
Paul Silverman’s stories have appeared in The South Dakota Review, Tampa Review, The North Atlantic Review, Word Riot, Eclectica, Stickman Review, In Posse Review, The Pedestal Magazine, The Timber Creek Review, Alimentum, The Front Range Review, The Jabberwock Review, Jewish Currents, The Coe Review, Hobart Online, Amarillo Bay, The Adirondack Review, The Paumanok Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Subterranean Quarterly, Thieves Jargon, The Summerset Review, and others. His piece, “Getaway,” published by VerbSap, is on the 2006 Million Writers Award shortlist list of Notable Online Stories. Byline Magazine, Lily and The Worcester Review have nominated his stories to the Pushcart Committee. New work recently was accepted by The Minnetonka Review, Oyster Boy Review, Tryst and Ragad.
Photo "Human Mask: The way people think" courtesy of Marius Largu, Bucharest, Romania.
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