Fiction

Bare

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bare

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I shaved my balls a day after Claire left. A few weeks later, the bottom of the shaft. By the time her mail stopped coming and the telemarketers had finally deleted my number from their database, I was bare as a coffee cup.
     We had grown apart since sometime around when the dog died. I took it hard. I quit my job, cashed out my 401k, started listening to Pink Floyd again, asked myself big dark questions I couldn’t answer. I was thirty.
     Claire arranged for the cremation and then tucked the box away in the attic. She got a promotion, senior vice president in charge of motivational corporate wall communications. She was the youngest vice president in the history of Motivate Inc. She started coming home late, leaving early, using words like “results-based” and “value proposition.” She put motivational posters up around the house, started leaving lists of things for me to do while she was at work, left Smart Company magazine open to articles about “Getting Back to Business” and “Four Steps to Spotless Credit.”

promotion

     She was making money. She bought a new XTerra and a living-room suite. She put the old couch on the back patio. I sat out there and tried to turn my dark thoughts into dark novels. The couch still smelled like the dog.
     By the time she sat down with that look in her eye, concerned and resolved and looking forward to getting it all over with, whatever had happened between us had been happening for a long time, gathering mass, each little thing curling around itself, becoming part of the big thing, the morass of history and now that was our relationship.
     I was sitting outside on the couch. She put a towel over a cushion and sat down. “We have to talk,” she said. She sat up, pushed out her boobs. This was her professional pose. “I don’t think we want the same things anymore,” she said.
     I poked at the cuticle of my big toe.
     “I want an exciting life with a good-looking group of successful friends. I want a faster, quieter car. I want vacations on white-sand beaches. You just want to sit on the patio and write the first sentences to novels you’ll never finish.”
     I looked up and even Claire could tell she’d crossed some sort of line.
     “You just leave them there in that stupid yellow notebook,” she said.
     I picked something that felt and smelled like a tiny piece of cheese out of my toenail, flicked it out into the yard.
     “And that about wraps it up,” she said.

I sat on the patio and drank a bottle of wine, smoked a half-pack of Marlboro Reds while Claire and her sister, the sister’s boyfriend and a suspiciously familiar guy in Dockers and hair product worked through the house. They whispered over whose books were whose, picked through the plates and

My penis looked like a lost thing, like a hand reaching out of quicksand.

bowls, cups, mugs, wine glasses, and silverware, examined the George Foreman grill and the fajita machine and the smoothie dispenser. They took down the motivational posters. The sister’s boyfriend yanked “If you’re not riding the wave of change . . . you’ll find yourself beneath it” off the mantle and leaned it next to “Adversity does not build character . . . it reveals it.”
     Every now and then the sister or her boyfriend would stick their head out, slowly, with a careful knock on the screen door. “Is this yours?” they’d say, holding up a Dave Matthews CD or an Old Navy fleece.
     “No,” I’d answer, without looking, taking another drag on my smoke and staring at the back of the strip mall across the highway. “It’s yours. It’s all yours.”

It wasn’t a decision so much as a thing I just did. A day after Claire left, I was standing in the bathroom shaving my beard with the electric razor, naked and ready for my shower. I looked down. Suddenly, it all looked so messy — a hornet’s nest of thick, bristly hair. There were random gray ones in there, brittle and ugly, sticking out at bad angles. My penis looked like a lost thing, like a hand reaching out of quicksand — desperate, small, and doomed.
     I pulled the razor off my chin and drew a delicate line along the bottom of my scrotum. Buzzing on my balls, a thin, almost electric prick. Black squiggles on the white tub.
     I ran a finger along the skin. Smooth. I tugged on the loose sack, examined my work. It was bald, coated with innocent stubble like a baby chicken.
     I lowered the setting and went back in.

 

           

  

 FICTION

  

           

  

promotion

Without Claire my time had no organization. I woke up when I woke up. I ate when I was hungry. I sat on the patio and wrote the first sentences to novels. Sometimes I wrote the second sentence, and for a few, a whole introductory paragraph. In my head, I composed masterworks, entire books full of darkness and angst, death and misunderstandings and The Human Condition.
     Time went funny. Every night, Claire didn’t come home. She didn’t come home at 7 and at 8 and again at 9. She didn’t go to sleep at 11 so she could wake up for pilates at 6, and I didn’t follow. The dog didn’t pant up to me, bowl in mouth, at five thirty, didn’t need to go out first thing in the morning, 3 in the afternoon, 9 at night.
     I wrote the beginnings to stories and I went to bed at midnight, at 6 in the morning, 7 at night. I ate cereal for dinner, hot dogs for breakfast, sunflower seeds at 10 in the morning. I masturbated and I thought and I watched SUVs creep in and out of the mall parking lot while I sat on the couch and the dog smell slowly melted into mildew.
     I wondered what Claire was doing, when she would call, whether I really missed the motivational posters or had just gotten used to the clear images of streams and sunsets, yachts and skydivers and wide blue vistas.

The next time was more deliberate. Why have balls that are sleek and new when there’s still a tangle down there? I got out the razor and worked my way around the bottom of the shaft, disgusted by how far the hair was creeping up the penis itself.
     Why didn’t Claire ever say anything about this? She must have felt something sneaking in there, had to wonder what was this wiry brush between our naked bodies, this fly in our ointment.
     I looked at it, a thin line of black sneaking halfway up the front of the shaft. I ran the razor toward the tip, watched the trail reduced to skin, pink and new and elegant.

I decided to drive until I ran out of gas. Then, I would make a home in the new place. I would invent myself all over again. I would call myself John Folsom, perhaps would speak with an accent. When my new friends asked about my past, I would become dark and quiet. “That’s in the past,” I’d say,

The final shaving was easy — exciting, even.

squinting and emitting a faint but recognizable hint of violence.
     I started by drinking a bottle and a half of wine, smoking a pack of cigarettes. Then I drove to the 7-Eleven and bought more cigarettes. I went back to the house and finished the second bottle of wine.
     I started packing but I only had my small duffel bag and there were so many t-shirts — old Dead shirts, shirts with the names of bars that had long gone out of business, shirts from summer camp and high school and college. I piled them up, one on top of the other, and they reached to my crotch.
     All of these T-shirts could not make the trip. They had the names of places I’d been, things I’d done. A careful observer — say, the beautiful but misunderstood French librarian in the small town where I would resettle, who would slowly yet inexorably find herself drawn to John Folsom — might start digging around, could actually reassemble my past based solely on these cotton articles of evidence.
     I took the shirts out to the couch, arranged them in stacks. I got my matches, sat down, decided to smoke one more cigarette before torching it all — couch, shirts, dog smell, Claire smell, everything. I sat down. I was tired, drunk, maybe hungover. I closed my eyes.
     I woke up the next day with the sun. I was still me. I was not John Folsom. I did not talk with an accent. I was no more dark and mysterious than the Spin Doctors tie-dye I’d used as a pillow.

The final shaving was easy — exciting, even. I bought a new razor and some lotion that promised to be extra soothing for sensitive faces.
     I took my time. I brought some extra lamps into the bathroom, put on some Thelonius Monk. I bought a hand-mirror. I went slow, delicately clearing a path. Then I lathered up and shaved the whole thing again.
     Everything felt different. My fingers and my sensitive parts were like old pals that were seeing each other in a completely different light. Even the most incidental, everyday contact was a revelation. Something as simple as a post-piss jiggle took on a whole new feeling.
     I went through two bottles of Astroglide in that first week alone.

  

           

  

 FICTION

  

           

  

promotion

Claire called. The machine picked up and Claire’s voice told her to leave a message.
     “Let’s talk,” she said, “We have too much history to just stop like this. I miss, you know, the whole thing.”
     She hung up and I watched the phone for a long time. What would John Folsom do? John Folsom didn’t talk about his past. John Folsom worked a blue collar job and kept his mouth shut. John Folsom didn’t need some motivational executive with an excellent ass and an SUV full of memories to give his life meaning and order. He lived one day at a time. He appreciated the small pleasures in life — a fine cigarette, a smooth bourbon, a young librarian’s tongue placed delicately but firmly on his smooth, hairless balls.
     I hit delete, watched the red message light blink once and then resolve into a perfect zero.

The couch didn’t smell like the dog anymore, just smelled like smoke and mildew and highway exhaust. I walked around the house until I got tired. I stared at my yellow notebook full of first sentences. I went into the bathroom, shaved my head, looked in the mirror, and then shaved my beard, too.
     I sat on the couch and watched the mall parking lot. I was restless. I felt like doing something. But the money had run out. The car had no gas. My T-shirts were already arranged in chronological order.
     I went into the bathroom, stared at the mirror.
     The eyebrows are the hardest part. You’d think that once you stand in the shower holding a razor on your scrotum that it would be all downhill from there.
     You’d be wrong.

I was writing outside on the couch when the sliding glass door opened. Claire. “Let’s get back together,” she said.
     “Hi,” I said.
     “What happened to you?” she said. She ran a hand over my bald head, fingered the place where my eyebrows had been. I closed my eyes. It felt good.
     “Its a monk thing,” I said. I tried to put some sarcasm in my voice but it just sounded whiny.
     “You’re trying to get back at me,” she said. “I probably deserve that.”
     She sat down, put a hand on my leg. “Let’s get back together,” she said. For the first time, I could see little wrinkles starting up around her eyes. I stared at her hair. Jesus, it looked wild. She’d let it grow out and go curly. It looked like a hive, like anything could happen in there. I wondered what

I stared at the stubble. It looked like the stalks of things.

she’d been doing all this time, what happened to the Dockers and hair product guy, how she’d been spending her time, why I wasn’t more angry, and what she was wearing under her dress pants. “You can’t be ready to just throw away everything we had,” she said. She pushed out her boobs. “What do you think?”
     “I don’t know,” I said.
     But I did know. I was out of money. I was tired. And Claire was so sure of herself. She had no doubt at all. It was easy to give in. Maybe I needed somebody to tell me what to do, to get me onto second sentences, full paragraphs, to outline the novel of my life.
     “This will be good,” she said.
 
    I nodded and tried to convince myself that it was true. I felt like I was almost home after a long drive on unfamiliar freeways, looking forward to that final sleepy glide through my own neighborhood.
     “So it’s settled,” she said.

Things were good for awhile. There was food in the refrigerator, gas in the car. We went to bed at 11 and woke up at 6. We went shopping at the mall. Claire helped me get my resumé together. The county came and took the couch.
     But things were getting itchy. Stubble. It looked even worse than the hair had, an aggressive stand of tiny hairs colonizing my groin. It looked like a strip mine where trees were coming back, malformed and wrong.
     “Let it grow back, for God’s sake,” Claire said. We had just finished making love, and I was staring at the stubble.
     “But don’t you . . . ” I started.
     “It’s too much upkeep,” she said. “You’re spending an hour a day shaving all this hair. That’s time you could be looking for a job. Cleaning the house.”
     I stared at the stubble. It looked like the stalks of things. It looked like failure.

  

           

  

 FICTION

  

           

promotion

We slipped into our old routines. Claire came and went. She pored over motivational messaging sales charts, plans for motivational websites, text messaging services.
     I ate breakfast when she left, lunch when she called to check on my job search, dinner an hour after she got home. I sat at the kitchen table and tried to turn my first sentences into first paragraphs, pages, chapters.
     It never worked. I was writing backwards. Each paragraph was a tar pit that kept getting deeper, laden down with history, detail, motivation, entire generations of backstory, until I gave up and started over with a fresh, clean sheet.

Valentine’s Day loomed. I had no money. I had nothing to offer.
     Claire sent me a text message: “Passion: There are many things in life that will capture your eye, but very few will capture your heart.”
     I sent back my most recent first sentence: “On the second day of June, Phillip Oshkovaka put his gun and canteen in a backpack, wrote a suicide note composed of nothing but the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” placed the note beneath the Christmas tree his mother tended year round in the living room, and slipped out of the house without a sound.”
     She shot back: “Believe and Succeed: What lies behind us and what lies before us are nothing compared to what lies within us.”
 

I pulled on the pubic hair, which had grown back. "It’s a heart," I said.

    I replied: “In every house there is a place where the mid-day sun alights for just a second, illuminating the surroundings, the dust bunnies and forgotten toys, the food scraps and bits of earth that have fallen off workboots, until they are as lit from within, glowing, touched by magic.”
     I watched the phone, waited for the little message ding. There it was: “Achievement: Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.”
     Holy shit, I thought, she’s right.

She got home early. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” she said. She handed me a card. She’d drawn a big heart and handwritten: “Love: The greatest motivator of all.”
     We stood there for a moment. She shook her hair out of its ponytail. I led her into the bedroom. “Make yourself comfortable,” I said. I went into the bathroom and got ready. After a few minutes I walked out. I was naked.
     “What the fuck is that?” she said.
     I pulled on the pubic hair, which had come back in. “It’s a heart,” I said. “It’s the shape of a heart.”
 
    “That’s my Valentine’s present?” she said. She got out of bed, started putting on her clothes. She stalked into the kitchen and poured a glass of wine. I followed. “Put on some clothes,” she said, “That’s disgusting.” She opened her briefcase and pulled out a stack of papers.
     I stood in the hallway. I looked at the heart. I had let it grow back for her. I had spent an hour with the razor, carving perfect lines, fighting the urge to keep on going, shave the whole thing clean.
     “I’m not looking at you until you put some clothes on,” she said. “This obsession of yours is not productive.”
     What would John Folsom do? He would give her that look — quizzical, a little amused, a little dangerous.
     I gave her that look.
     “Are you having a stroke?” she said.
     I walked into the bathroom and packed the razor and my toothbrush. I grabbed a handful of T-shirts and my yellow notebook. I pulled on a pair of jeans. I took the picture of the dog, stuffed it into my bag. I slipped out the back door and into the car. I started it up and drove, through the neighborhood and onto the beltway. I kept going. There was plenty of gas. John Folsom might speak with a German accent. Or Spanish. Russian.
     No, I thought, finally. He would talk like me.
 

  

           

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dave Housley is a co-founder and fiction editor of Barrelhouse magazine. His stories have been published by, or are forthcoming in, the Backwards City
Review, Gargoyle, Gulf Stream, Hobart
, and the Potomac Review.


© 2006 Dave Housley & Nerve.com