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By Lorrie Moore
Paperback, 240 pages
List Price: $13.95
Gerard Maines lived across the hall from a woman named Benna, who four minutes into any conversation always managed to say the word penis. He was not a prude, but, nonetheless, it made him wince. He worked with children all day, taught a kind of aerobics to pre-schoolers, and the most extreme language he was likely to hear seemed to him to be in code, in acronyms, or maybe even in German — boo-boo, finky, peenick — words that were difficult to figure out even in context, and words, therefore, from which he felt quite safe. He suspected it was not unlike people he knew who hated operas in translation. "Believe me," they would explain, "you just don't want to know what they're saying."
Today they were talking about families.
"Fathers and sons," she said, "they're like governments: always having sword fights with their penises."
"Really," said Gerard, sitting at her kitchen table, gulping at near-beer for breakfast. He palmed his beard like a man trying to decide.
"But what do I know." She smiled and shrugged. "I grew up in a trailer. It's not like a real family with a house." This was her excuse for everything, her own self-deprecating refrain; she'd grown up in a trailer in upstate New York and was therefore unqualified to pronounce on any of the subjects she continued to pronounce on.
Gerard had his own line of self-excuse: "I was a retard in my father's play."
"A retard in your father's play?"
"Yes," he said, realizing that faced with the large questions of life and not finding large answers, one must then settle for makeshift, little answers, just as on any given day a person must at least eat something, even if it was not marvelous and huge.
"He wrote plays in our town. Then he did the casting and directing. It was harder to venture out through the rest of life after that."
"How awful for you," said Benna, pouring more near-beer into both their glasses.
"Yes," he said. He loved her very much.
Benna was a nightclub singer. Four nights a week she put on a black mini-dress and what she wearily called her Joan-Crawford catch-me-have-me shoes, and went off to sing at the various cocktail lounges around Fitchville. Sometimes Gerard would go see her and drink too much. In the spotlight up front she seemed to him hopelessly beautiful, a star, her glass jewelry launching quasars into the audience, her laughter rumbling into the mike. He'd watch other men fall in love with her; he knew the fatuous gaze, the free drinks sent over between songs-he'd done that himself. Sometimes he would stay for all three sets and buy her a hamburger afterward or just give her a ride home. Other times, when it was crowded, he would leave her to her fans-the businessmen with loosened neckties, the local teenage girls who idolized her, the very musicians she hired to play with her-and would go home and sit in his bathroom, in his bone-dry tub, with his clothes on, waiting. The way their apartments were laid out, their bathrooms shared a wall, and Gerard could sit in his own tub and await her two-in-the-morning return, hear her enter her bathroom, hear her pee, hear the ruckle of the toilet-paper roll, the metal-sprung flush, the sliding shower door, the squirt, spray, hiss of the water. Sometimes he would call to her through the tiles. She would turn off the shower and yell, "Gerard, are you talking to me?"
"Yes, I'm talking to you. No. I'm talking to Zero Mostel."
"Listen, I'm tired. I'm going to bed."
Once she came home at three in the morning, completely drunk, and knocked on his door. When he opened it, she was slumped against the frame, eyes closed, shoes in hand. "Gerard," she drawled, thrusting her shoes at him, "will you make love to me?" and then she sank to the floor and passed out.
Every morning she downed a whole six-pack of nearbeer. "You know, I'm a widow," she said, and then told him quickly about a husband, a lawyer who had been killed in a car crash.
"You're so young," murmured Gerard. "It must have been devastating."
"Nah," she exhaled, and then, peeling an orange, sang "O what a beautiful mourning," just that line. "I don't know," she said, and shrugged.
Near their apartment building was a large baseball field, rarely used. From Gerard's living-room window he could see the field's old rotting scoreboard, weathered as driftwood, its paint peeling but still boasting the neat and discernible lettering: HOME and VISITOR. When he'd first moved into the apartment, the words seemed to mock him — scoring, underscoring, his own displacement
and aloneness — so much that he would close the blinds so as not to have to look at them.
Occasionally now, however, late at night, he would venture out onto the diamond and, if it was summer and warm, would sprawl out on the ground at a place just to the left of the pitcher's mound and stare up at the sky. It was important to dizzy yourself with stars, he thought. Too often you forgot they were even there. He could stare at one star, one brilliant and fidgety star, so long that his whole insides seemed suddenly to rush out into the sky to meet it. It was like the feeling he'd had as a boy playing baseball, focusing on the pitched ball with such concentration that the bat itself seemed at the crucial moment to leap from him with a loud smack and greet the ball mid-air.
As an adult he rarely had those moments of connection, though what ones he'd had recently seemed mostly to be with the children he taught. He'd be showing them how to do reaches and bends — like trees, he would tell them — and when he put on music and finally had them do it, their eyes would cry "Look at me! I'm doing it!" the sudden bonds between them and him magical as home runs. More and more he was becoming convinced that it was only through children that one could connect with anything anymore, that in this life it was only through children that one came home, became a home, that one was no longer a visitor.
"Boy, are you sentimental," Benna told him. "I feel like I'm talking to a Shirley Temple movie." Benna was a woman who knew when she was ovulating by the dreams she'd have of running through corridors to catch trains; she was also a woman who said she had no desire to have children. "I watched my friend Eleanor give birth," she said. "Once you've seen a child born you realize a baby's not much more than a reconstituted ham and cheese sandwich. Just a little anagram of you and what you've been eating for nine months." "But look at the stars," he wanted to say to her. "How does one get there?" But then he thought of her singing in the Ramada Inn cocktail lounge, her rhinestones flashing out into the dark of the place, and thought that maybe in a certain way she was already there. "Tell me why you don't want to have children,"
Gerard asked her. He had for a solid week recently allowed himself the fantasy of someday having a family with her, although she had shown no real interest in him after that one night in his doorway, and usually went out with other men anyway. He would sometimes hear them clunk up and down the stairs.
"You know me," she said. "I grew up in a trailer. Your own father made you a retard. You tell me why you want to have kids."
Gerard thought about the little deaf boy in his class, a boy named Barney, how just today Barney had said loudly in his garbled and unconsonanted speech, "Please, Mr. Maines, when you stand behind, can you stomp your feet louder?" The only way Barney could hear the music and the beat was through the vibrations in the floor. Gerard had smiled, kind and hearty, and said "Certainly, young man," and something raced and idled in his heart.
"Sometimes I think that without children we remain beasts or dust. That we are like something lost at sea."
Benna looked at him and blinked, her eyes almost swelling, as if with allergy. She took a long glug of near-beer, swallowed, then shrugged. "Do you?" she said. "I think maybe I'm just too exhausted from work."
"Yes, well," said Gerard, attempting something lighthearted.
"I guess that's why they call it work. I guess that's why they don't call it table tennis."
Excerpted from Anagrams by Laurie Moore © 1986. Reprinted with permission by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc.