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Secure Your Own Oxygen Mask, Then Assist Others

By Don Fredd


I’ve been married for sixteen years.  Denise is an educational psychologist.  When we are invited out she’s the center of attraction.  People ask her advice about their children.  She’s big on programs, especially acronyms that spell out cute words.  My son, Joey Stalin, keeps exterminating people.  Any suggestions?  Get him into PAP (Prevent a Pogrom).  They do wonderful work.

My own profession isn’t very exciting, not that I’m in any way jealous of my wife.  I design computer programs for television weather-forecasters.  The next time you watch the news and weather, note the clicker in the meteorologist’s hand.  My action graphics and dynamic colors make the next cold front, tornado or hurricane a feast for the eyes.  But who the hell cares.  It’s too complicated and boring to explain to anyone at a cocktail party.  I usually say I’m self-employed and let it go at that. I’d rather stand on the periphery of Denise’s conversational campfire, basking in the glow of human wackiness as she dispenses guidance to the paternally clueless.

                                                          ***

We are going out.  There is a get-together at the Doblers.  Link (short for Lincoln) Dobler is a substance-abuse specialist.  He’s important, someone Denise thinks she needs to network with.  He’s into programs that have several numerical steps.  I dislike these affairs.  I don’t socialize very well.  When I hired Ed Sizemore to help me with a project for Channel 8 in Bangor, Denise wanted to ask him and his wife for dinner so we could get to know them better.  I said that I really didn’t want to know him better.  To which she uttered her famous catch phrase, “I sometimes wonder what I ever saw in you.”

                                                       ***

They are twenty or so at the party, mostly couples in the “helping” professions.  Denise wades in, air-kissing her way through the clinical forest to get to Link Dobler.  I eye the catered buffet.  It is colorful, but non-descript.  There is little clue as to what each tidbit is until it’s tasted.  Another loner, wearing a bow tie, scuttles over to me.  He is Doctor such and such.  We debate whether I’m eating a piece of salmon or a pimento nestled in cream cheese with a Melba toast base.  He’s head of a research lab developing drugs like methadone to take the place of crack cocaine so addicts won’t have to steal.  He asks what I do.  I tell him I’m writing an article for Parade, the Sunday paper magazine supplement, on how to tell Japanese people from Chinese using a five-step process.  I move on, tossing my salmon (I think) hors d’oeuvre in the trash as I go.

                                                          ***

I spot a woman seated by herself next to the dining room entrance.  She’s balancing a paper plate on her lap, which is mounded with too many salad items plus pate.  It is impossible to eat hunkered down as she is.  Leaning over to take a sip from her wine glass, the small mountain almost topples completely.  She is rather plain looking and overweight.  I grab an extra paper plate and go over to her.

She is grateful for my help in off-loading some of her food.  We start to chat.  I’ve been thinking about having an affair.   I notice her hair is thin on the top like a man’s, and her teeth seem overly large for her mouth.  She asks me what I do and I explain it in very complicated, meteorological terms.  I toss in some computer jargon as well.  When I get done she says she doesn’t watch the weather because it’s depressing.  She’s Link’s sister.  Their mother died six months ago.  She tried living alone in Ohio but couldn’t take it so Link got her an apartment in town over on Everett Ave.  There is a support group nearby for adults who’ve lost their aged parents.  I’m asked if my parents are still alive.  I tell her I’ll have to ask my wife who keeps track of our relatives and all other household related items.  I leave her grappling with little cubes of pistachio-coated goat cheese.

                                                            ***

Denise and I have a signal; we pretend to scratch an ear.  It means let’s wrap things up and head home.  Denise is center-seated on the black leather couch.  She is flanked by Dobler and Dr. Bow Tie, who has finally found a home.  There are five people sitting in a semi-circle using over-sized throw pillows.  I meander over and stand behind the group, giving the secret signal to Denise.  She ignores me.  I squat down behind the arc of disciples, one of whom is Susan Dobler.  I’ve been thinking about wife swapping.  Susan can’t sit cross-legged like the others because she’s wearing a short skirt, so she is kneeling.  She has a broad rear.  She probably shouldn’t wear short skirts, but she smells nice.  It’s not perfume, just a nice clean, shower soap smell. 

Susan teaches second grade and is self-conscious about the job, given the intellectual environment of the folks her husband associates with.  If Link and I did swap wives, he’d get the better of the deal because Denise is much prettier than Susan.  She’s also jogs and is more intelligent, but it would be interesting to be in bed with Susan just for a change.  She leans forward to pick a stray cocktail napkin from the floor, and I see she is wearing plain white underwear with frayed elastic.  I catch Denise’s eye once more and again give the signal a bit too obviously.  People are looking at us so she asks me if I’d be a darling and get her another glass of wine, pinot noir.

I get up, go over to the bar area and pour her a glass of Chardonnay.  When I return Link is bemoaning that people who shouldn’t have kids keep having them.  He mentions a certain family in town and everyone, including Susan, chimes in with an encounter they’ve had with at least one of the miscreants who evidently spread crime and aberrant behavior like Johnny Appleseed.  A bald and heavily bearded man who reeks of born-again Christianity counters the argument by proposing the novel idea that the good Lord has a reason for everyone and everything.  I hand Dense her drink, look at him, and wonder out loud if men and women would have kids if sex were devoid of pleasure. 

“It seems as if the orgasm is a come on to procreation, like offering the dog a treat to get him into the car for a vet visit.  Would people do it at all if the only reason were just to have babies?”

Denise stares at me.  Is it because I got her Chardonnay, which she hates, or that I’m making a complete ass out of myself? 

“And what’s the deal with sex organs being near all those excretion orifices?  What kind of cosmic message does that send?”     

Born-again-bearded-guy stands up and faces me as if I were the playground bully. 

“Are you insinuating that God is a trickster who designed fleshly pleasures as bait just to keep humans reproducing?  Do you know the spiritual joy a married man and woman have when they unite as one?”

Again, half the people are looking at me, the others at Denise.  I step back over the assembled adherents, and wonder if I should drive home or let Denise behind the wheel.  If she drives, her anger might make her lose concentration and sideswipe parked cars.  If I drive, it will give her plenty of time to enumerate my many faults.  I decide I’m cooked either way so it doesn’t matter who drives. Link is starting another round table discussion topic.  I interrupt and explain that my orgasm ideas are not new; in fact, they are from Plato’s The Republic.  I’ve never actually read Plato.  I‘ve just gotten into the habit lately of saying that to deflect criticism, knowing no one will ever bother to check on it.

Denise gets up from the deep cushioned couch awkwardly.  There is an intriguing flash of red panties, not that I will ever see more of them this evening.  She thanks Link and Susan for the nice time, but she needs to get a certain person home before he has too big of a hangover tomorrow.  I want to tell everyone that I’ve been drinking Diet Sprite all evening but quickly realize that, by being an alcoholic, I can leave early.  It’s a fair trade.       

We get out to the car and Denise wants me to drive because she’s had some wine and is so angry.  We get in.  I note that she’s crying. 

“I don’t ever ask you for much, do I?”

I start the car but it stalls.  I restart it but accidentally turn the key again while the engine’s running.  There is a high pitched, grating screech.  Denise is resting her elbow on the window.  Her right hand covers her eyes as if she were blocking out the sun. 

“Just a few visits a month to people who are kind enough to invite us into their homes.  And you can’t even act decently for that short amount of time.”

I adjust the side and rear view mirrors and rev the engine slightly because of the damp air.  When Denise gets to the part about what she ever saw in me, that’s when I’ll ease out into the street and head for home.     

 

Don Fredd lives in Townsend, Massachusetts. He has had or soon will have fiction appear in literary journals including in The Transatlantic Review, The Southern Humanities Review, Rosebud, The Armchair Aesthete, Word Riot, Prose Toad, Tribal Soul Kitchen, WriteThis, LitVisions, Wild Violet, Grasslands Review, Bullfight, The Pedestal, 3711 Atlantic, Megaera, Double Dare, Slow Trains, Pointed Circle, Raging Face, Cautionary Tales, Poor Mojo and SNReview.  His poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, The Paumanok Review and the Café Review.  He teaches Writing and Literature courses at New Hampshire Community Technical College.

 

Photo courtesy of of Freeimages.co.uk.

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