A snapshot of the ageless process of aging.
First published by Adelaide Literary Magazine, Year III, Number 15, August 2018.
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Rita appears in Stan’s doorway forearms extended, middle fingers raised. A faded AC/DC T-shirt—red thunderbolt on black background—hangs past her knees. She’s short, thinks Stan, but who isn’t these days? The last time Dr. A’s nurse asked his height, and Stan answered as always five-nine, he detected a smirk. Stan swivels his chair away from monitor and keyboard, and confronts his wife’s fluttering eyelashes and upraised fingers. Gray, uncombed hair storms about her octogenarian features. She doesn’t have her teeth in.
“You know what?” she says, wrinkled lips pulled over gums. “Fuck you too. Asshole.”
Stan turns his palms up, but she’s gone, just like that, one second sputtering obscenities from a puckered mouth, throwing him the double bird, the next back to couch and television.
Stan reconstructs the events leading to Rita’s demonstration. From the living room, he’d heard her voice rise over the honking flat screen, her words increasing in volume. But they remained a babble due to her remoteness and the blaring television, and—Stan acknowledges in the interest of fair play—some loss of hearing acuity on his part in the upper frequencies. He wasn’t being an ass, he tells himself. He just couldn’t understand her and was trying to relay that information, but chose, he now realizes, regrettable rhetoric. “Speak the fuck up, will you,” he had yelled. Stan guesses she keyed on the expletive and, as usual, jumped to a conclusion, and, as usual, chose retaliation over discourse.
Stan slumps. All he wants are golden years that are golden: his coolmath.com, mindgames.com, bridgebase.com, his npr.org. And his book in progress, working title Everything They Should Have Told You in Algebra II. He’s looking into self-publishing, will not have to deal with agents and publishers, just amazon.com. Maybe he’ll spend some money and hire an editor.
His mind comes back to Rita. Jesus, it’s not like he ignores her. They go out two or three times a week. They go to movies. They go shopping. If she visits his study or catches him at breakfast, they pass words about the kids, the grandkids, current events, other things, friends who have died. But this mumble-shouting from the living room drives him over the edge. Whenever she wants, babbling from the couch, demanding a response, appearing in his doorway with obscenities and rude gestures. He doesn’t have to take it. That’s right, just like the song, which band? Stan can’t remember, but a pounding four-four beat, oh we’re not gonna take it anymore.
Stan pushes on the arms of the swivel, rises, wobbles the hallway to the master bedroom, slides the closet slider, and grabs a long sleeve polo, striped, red and white. He’d bought it when the red stripes matched his hair; now the other stripes match what’s left. He pushes his feet into black sneaker-shoes, sits on bed’s edge, bends, bends further, and engages the Velcro straps of the left shoe. Takes a breather and repeats for the right shoe.
In the living room, Rita eyeballs Stan from her couch slouch.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“You can’t drive in the dark, you fool.”
“You’re the one who can’t drive in the dark. Fool. You’re the one who can’t drive, period.”
Rita throws her feet to the floor, tries to stand, falls back. As Stan closes the front door behind him, he hears, “Stop. Where are you going?”
Stan’s in his car, a Toyota something, turning the ignition key. Bells chime and he drags the seat belt across his red and white polo. He pulls the shifter a notch and regards his side mirror. Above it, Rita stands in the doorway, mouth in motion. Stan sighs and pushes a button. The driver’s window retracts and Rita’s words take form. “Put your lights on, you fool.”
Stan twists the stick on the left side of the steering column illuminating garage, walkway, front stoop, his wife’s thunderbolt T-shirt, her furrowed, gray-framed face. I am not an ass, Stan says to the steering wheel. I am taking a well deserved break from all this shit. He looks again to the side mirror and backs to the end of the driveway. He turns his head left and right until no headlamps appear for two blocks, backs into the street, brakes, pulls the shifter two more notches, and slides his foot onto the gas pedal.
Stan has in mind MacKenna’s on South Main. Can’t remember the last time he was there, some occasion, end of school year, retirement party, it’s been a while. He noses into a parking spot at the end of the block braking hard as the front of the car rises with a loud scrape. Jesus, why don’t they make these things so they clear the curb? Down the sidewalk, two dudes glance up from cigarettes. Stan checks his phone—a missed call and a text. He puts on reading glasses: please answer are you ok. Stan looks at the visor, sighs, looks back to the phone, and taps yes yes am fine.
Stan waits for the smokers to go back in and pushes the car door open. Bells chime and Stan twists the stick on the steering column. He hoists his body erect as the headlamps fade, slams the car door, and pushes the lock button on the key fob.
Stan enters MacKenna’s. Not as dark as remembered: no more the drifting tobacco smoke; exposed brick and wallboard instead of oak panelling; tables and chairs instead of booths. To Stan’s left, a waitress sets down plates that look like full meals. Her arms and the back of her hands, and her face when she turns, are a deep brown. Her eyebrows lift and Stan thinks, Jesus, she’s giving me the look. Reach a certain age and can’t go anywhere without getting the do-you-belong-here look. Stan bypasses her impertinence with a bearing for the bar.
The bartender’s Hispanic, thirties or forties, with a shaved head. The tooth behind his right incisor is gold and a gold earring hangs from his left ear lobe. He speaks casual, flawless English with Spanish words tossed in.
“You want a table, amigo?” He points at the waitress. “The señora can fix you up.”
“Bar’s fine.” Stan raises his butt to the middle of three empty stools. The bartender drops a plastic menu in front of him.
“Anything to drink, compañero?”
“Jack and a Bud.”
The bartender widens his lips but narrows his eyes. “For the Jack Daniel’s, number seven okay?”
Stan returns the smile. “Number seven’s fine.”
“Bottle okay for the Bud? We don’t have it on tap.”
“Do you want a glass of water?”
No I don’t want a glass of fucking water, moron. Stan forces another smile. “No, I don’t want any water, thank you.”
Stan dons glasses and scans the menu. Cursive letters blend with a pastel background. The lighting no longer seems so good. In another setting, in an all-senior setting, Stan might irradiate the menu with his flashlight app. He removes his glasses as a shot glass slides toward him followed by a long-necked bottle.
“Need a glass, amigo?”
Stan smiles. The bartender smiles and slips away.
A light handclasp envelopes Stan’s right elbow. He swivels into the gaze of the African American waitress, her lips a heavy red, hair straight with russet highlights, eyes coal black.
“Jeannie,” she says. “Jeannie Collins.”
Stan recalls the name and conjures a portrait, a teenager from years past, adds weight, adds furrows, tries to arrive at the face facing his. One of the smart ones, he remembers.
Jeannie moves her hand from elbow to forearm. “Mr. Kay, I don’t recognize myself sometimes. Hey, Ramón.” The bartender looks over. “Mr. Kay here was my math teacher for trig and calc.”
“Cómo?” Ramón steps toward them but then away as a customer down-bar raises a finger.
“Well,” says Stan. He taps the menu. “What’s good here for an hors d’oeuvre?”
“I’d go with the fajitas,” says Jeannie. “I’ll put them in for you, Mr. Kay.” She backs away. “What a surprise.”
Stan turns the shot glass in his fingers, raises it to his lips, and tilts. A mild burning. Can still take a shot. He places the glass on the bar and tips the bottle of beer.
His phone chimes. Stan lowers volume and ignores the vibration. Now comes an incoming text. Stan holds the phone at arm’s length and reads: are you ok? He sets the phone on the bar and types in the reply window yes yes yes.
Jeannie returns to Stan’s elbow. “They’ll be out in a few.”
Ramón approaches on the other side of the bar and says, “Trig and calc?”
“Yeah. Did you know speed’s the first derivative of distance?”
“I had no idea.”
Jeannie looks into Stan’s face. “And acceleration’s the second.”
Stan laughs but wonders why Jeannie’s working at MacKenna’s, why she isn’t an engineer or a teacher. Jeannie responds to his thoughts. “I wanted to do something, Mr. Kay, you know, with my education. But right out of school I got a job in the bottling plant.” She tilts her head in the direction of the Coca-Cola bottling plant by the river, closed ten years now. “The money was good. Then I got married. A couple times.”
Jeannie steps away to wait on a table. A few minutes later, she returns with the fajitas. “My older daughter’s a senior at state. She’s real good in math.”
“That’s great,” says Stan. But he doesn’t remember the daughter from class and doesn’t remember seeing Jeannie at a teacher’s conference. Then it occurs to him that he’s retired over twenty years.
“I can do change in my head,” says Ramón.
“Thirteen thirty-seven out of a fifty,” says Jeannie.
“Easy. You get back three pennies, a dime, two quarters, a dollar, a five, a ten, and a twenty.”
“A lost art,” says Stan.
“Used to work in my uncle’s bodega. Cash only.” Ramón extends his right right arm over the bar with a closed fist and Stan thinks, what the fuck, then recalls from a video a new form of greeting. He raises his own right arm and bumps fists. “Amigo,” says Ramón.
Stan bites into a fajita and lifts the beer. Almost gone. His phone buzzes. Jesus H, but he picks up, swipes, listens, and responds in a low voice. “It’s fine. Everything’s fine.”
He recalls Jeannie now. Not a lot of African Americans in the school. Skinny, attractive, although Stan didn’t look at students that way. Sometimes he looked at fellow faculty that way, in particular, Anna Wasser with her put-on accent, a vague middle European. She often appeared when Stan was atop Rita, or flying solo, still does on occasion, Rita snoring on the couch, him on the trundle bed in the den, oh Anna, oh Stan. But never once had his mind wandered to students that way—a line not to be crossed.
Customers come and go. Stan crooks a finger and Ramón approaches.
“Another,” says Stan.
“Another what, amigo?”
“Jack and a Bud.”
Ramón looks aside, looks back. “Tell you what, compañero, let’s skip the Jack.”
Stan smiles. Ramón smiles.
Stan sips fresh Bud and nibbles cold fajita. He’s making another grab for the Bud when his eyes dilate and his thighs clench. Stan drops a leg and touches floor. He drops the other leg and stands, looking across tables and the heads of people eating and drinking, out a window onto a streetlamp-lit night. He wonders where he is.
“Hey, amigo, está bien?”
Ah, Ramón the bartender. MacKenna’s. “Need the toilet,” he says.
Ramón points in the opposite direction.
Stan reverses direction, sees doors with stick figures, and advances on the one with pants. The room’s small, a sink, a short divider, urinal, a stall. Stan unzips in front of the urinal. As he waits, Dr. A’s admonitions come to mind: nothing wrong, natural for his age, hurry up and wait. On their first consultation, Stan had attempted to address the doctor by name, sixteen letters, many vowels punctuated by n’s and v’s. The doctor laughed and said just call me Dr. A, then made a joke, after all, I call you Mr. K. On their last consultation, an annual physical, Dr. A described, using the index finger and thumb of his left hand, the expansion of the aging prostate. Stan had no choice but to watch and listen, being bent over the exam table with the index finger of Dr. A’s right hand poised at the portal to his rectum. Dr A reduced the circumference of the finger and thumb in front of Stan’s eyes and explained how the enlarged prostate chokes the urethra and at the same time pushes against the bladder, causing both urgency and restriction, most unpleasant. At this point in the discourse, Dr. A pressed inward with his right finger. Stan’s sphincter tightened and his eyes watered. Dr. A said, everything in there is quite normal for your age, I assure you.
A dribble of urine commences. It stops. It starts again.
The bathroom door opens and Stan senses a larger, younger body passing behind, entering the stall, not closing the stall door, erupting like a downspout during a storm. The eruption ceases and a heavy blond presence looms on Stan’s left, running water over hands then grabbing a paper towel. Their eyes meet at ninety degrees and Stan gives a nod. The big guy returns the nod. “How they hanging, pops?” He scrunches the paper towel and shoots it into the trash.
Stan looks down. Still dribbling. How’re they hanging? I’ll tell you how they’re hanging, like a piñata before the last blow. Stan shakes, shakes again, zips up, washes his hands.
Outside the bathroom, Stan runs two palms along the bar and regains his stool. Ramón looks at him, or rather looks past him. Stan twists and catches a glimpse of Jeannie. He turns back. Ramón is looking away.
The Bud tastes funny. Stan holds the bottle at eye level and wonders if they replaced the Bud with water while he was in the bathroom. Or Bud Light. He puts the bottle back on the bar. Ramón smiles. Stan smiles.
Stan hears Jeannie yell last call and says to Ramón, “What time you close?”
At his elbow, Jeannie says, “It’s more like a restaurant these days, Mr. Kay.”
Stan lifts his bottle. “I guess I better drink up.”
Jeannie rubs the middle of his back. “Ramón will bring your tab.”
Stan puts on glasses and examines the bottom line. Seventeen something—seventeen fifty-five, he thinks. He places a twenty on the bar. He finds a five and places it on top of the twenty. He waves to Ramón as he drops off the stool. He waves to Jeannie as he locates the door.
Stan pushes the unlock button on the key fob. Nothing happens. He pushes another button taking care to stay away from the red one—he hates setting off the freaking alarm. Nothing. He tries the first button again and realizes the car to his front is not his, that his must be the car at the end of the block flashing and beeping. Shit, these new cars, they all look the same. He totters to the car at the end of the block and its driver’s door yields. Stan enters by lowering his backside to the car seat while hanging onto the car door and jamb, intending to swing his legs around. He completes the first maneuver but his feet won’t come around. In fact, the maneuver is being reversed as his hands are tugged by two dark hands. He raises his head.
“Upsy-daisy, Mr. Kay,” says Jeannie.
Stan is standing. Jeannie guides him around the front of the car and pulls open the passenger door. Stan lowers himself into Rita’s seat. Jeannie walks back around and takes the driver’s seat. “Buckle up,” she says.
She twists, looks through the rear window, and backs out. She shifts into drive, holds her foot on the brake, and looks in the rearview mirror. “I guess you didn’t know,” she says. “We have our super special valet service tonight.”
Valet my ass, thinks Stan. What’s going on?
Jeannie’s eyes flick again to the rearview mirror which bounces a flash of light, and she moves her foot to the gas pedal. Stan peers into the mirror on his side. They’re being followed, Ramón no doubt. It hits Stan then, the Bud when he came out of the bathroom, the funny taste, they’ve slipped him a mickey.
Jeannie chatters. “I just loved your math classes. I still know my trig values for thirty, forty-five, and sixty. I can still do derivatives with the power rule.”
“What’s the cosine of sixty degrees?” says Stan.
“What’s the first derivative of four x squared?”
She’s right again. They’re turning off Main Street. Stan can’t imagine Jeannie harming him, but Ramón, there’s something shifty about him, his gold earring, his gold tooth, his amigos and compañeros. He can imagine Ramón talking Jeannie into robbing him. An easy mark.
“I wished I could have done more with it. But it passed on to my daughter and she’s doing something.”
“That’s great,” says Stan. It occurs to him then: not robbery but sex. He looks at Jeannie in profile. Is that how she pays the rent and sends her daughter to school? Tips and tricks? And Ramón—he can see Ramón as her pimp. Stan recedes into his seat belt. Paying for sex doesn’t bother him. In fact, it excites him, and she’s not his student anymore. But performance, that scares him, getting it up, keeping it up. He can still climax solo—given sufficient time—but—where are they going?
“It was hard, Mr. Kay, raising the girls, paying the bills. I’m ahead now but it was hard and I couldn’t think about further education. You know what I mean?”
“I’m sure you do,” she says. “Teacher salaries weren’t all that great. You should have got more. And all those sour grapes over vacations and summers, bullshit if you ask me.”
Stan peers at the headlamps in the sideview mirror. Still being followed. But then out the window he recognizes Broad Street and now they’re turning onto Lampier Lane. They’re going by Janet McCarthy’s, then the Fellini’s, the new family across the street. The car slows and turns left into number twelve. The headlamps play on Stan and Rita’s garage and front walk and stoop, then fade. The motor stops.
Stan and Jeannie sit in darkness. The light over the front door arcs across stoop and steps. The television flickers against the front picture window.
Stan says, “How did you know where I live? Google?”
Jeannie laughs. “I don’t need no Google, Mr. Kay. Don’t you remember the senior barbeque? “
Stan remembers. Every June he had the senior math club over for a barbeque.
“You cooking hamburgers and hot dogs. Cold soda in the bottle. I know exactly where you live. That barbeque, that was the highlight of my senior year.”
“You played all this old rock. Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, we thought it was radical. And one time Mrs. Kay, she—” Jeannie’s mouth turns down. “Is—is Mrs. Kay?”
Stan says, “Oh, Mrs. Kay, she’s fine, she’s fine, still kicking.”
“I’m so glad to hear that. I was saying, you flipping burgers and Mrs. Kay bustling all over.” Jeannie leans toward Stan. “And this one time Mrs. Kay comes by you and says something, and you give her this pat on the butt. We all put our hands on our mouths and said, oh, did you see that? It was the talk of the school.”
Jeannie pushes the driver’s door open and walks around the front of the car as Stan pulls and pushes his way from the passenger seat. Jeannie drops the car keys in Stan’s hand and leans forward with arms over his shoulders and the side of her face against his. “Stay safe,” she says before walking down the driveway toward the car at the curb.
Stan climbs the three steps to his front stoop and looks through the picture window. He sees one of Rita’s hands hanging from the couch, her left one with gold ring and diamond. He turns and waves as the car at the curb flashes its lights.