Issue 10

Fiction

Robert Kinerk

Everything I Know of Love I Learned From the Funny Pages


I worry about dogs, for obvious reasons. But even a cat will sit and watch you. Cats lead such privileged lives. Their religion is disdain, though when they speak of me what they speak about is love.
I know that from a neutered male I took to feeding pack­aged treats. He learned my rounds and waited till I left my house, usually around 10:05 p.m. I got the feeling, eventually, that he wanted to reciprocate. I mean, he’d eat from my hand and then stroll away tossing this look back over his shoulder. It was like he was saying, “You want to see something? OK. Come on.”
I actually did follow him once. But just that once. He took me down between two houses and around to the yard in back. Even before I made my way to the window I could hear people inside yelling. A man and a woman were having it out. The man looked like he had a job pounding on metal, perhaps in a car body shop. He barked what he said, but the woman wasn’t a person who would stand for being barked at. She was giving back as good as she got, so eventually he reached out with his paw, not to slap her, but to show her how close she was to getting slapped. She took a swipe at his hand.
I had to turn away. “I can’t take it,” I said to the cat. I started to leave, and the cat stared after me, on his face that look of sarcasm only cats can get. Perhaps I should have told him violence is a thing I do not like to see. I like it when two people are just sitting there not doing anything. She might be reading and he might be cutting his toenails. There’s so much beauty in the way a person cuts his toenails, the way he’ll lose himself in a task that takes great concentration.
I’ve kept a notebook almost since I started. I try to jot down brief descriptions of memorable observations. Exam­ples would include:
The whipped cream couple.
The levitators. Don’t even ask me about those two.
The elderly threesome.
The guy who did it while he also ate a tomato.
The couple who got up immediately afterwards and care­fully remade their bed.
The indefatigable youth.
You never know what you’re going to see. A lot is fantasti­cally boring. You’d be surprised how many couples just turn the lights off. That’s it. Click. Darkness. It makes you wonder how there’s any reproduction in the world.
I was in a neighborhood a while back I don’t go to very much. There’s plastic Madonnas on everyone’s lawn. What you read into that is long nighties. The house I had in mind was nondescript, a dark-brown three-decker. The back had the standard wooden stairs with generous landings. On those landings people store their bikes and barbecues and so forth. There are bedrooms on both sides of such a house. As a rule, I’m not fond of side bedrooms. Often those houses are built cheek by jowl to their neighbors, maybe fifteen feet apart, so when you’re looking in one set of windows your back is to the set behind you. Not something recommended. What kept me from chickening out was the fact that a) there were bushes, and b) I am such an expert at standing still, I can be lost in shadows to a person even spitting distance away. I am one of the shadows, actually. I pride myself on this. Put me in dark clothes; stand me in shadows; even on a moonlit night, I’m invisible. It works best when there’s been snow, because shadows in a yard of patchy snow are so wonderfully mottled. It’s the calmness I like, the stillness at the heart of things.
I was about eye-level with the bottom of this building’s bedroom window. The shade was pulled, but not enough— one of those tan paper shades on the wood roller you know is going to go whacky on you and not roll up someday. It had a string pull, and the pull had a round, decorated catch. Homemade, I think. Knitted or crocheted. I’m very touched by things like that, by homely utility.
The bedroom was crowded. Way too much junk. Photo albums stacked up on the dresser. Belts and scarves draped over the headboard. The closet door wouldn’t close because something blocked it on the floor, shoe boxes probably, and God knows what was in the shoe boxes. Not shoes. The shoes were underneath the dresser. I also saw them lying in the hall. The light came from sconces, a kind of mellow light. The kindness of the light was something I appreciated because there was a woman undressing who wouldn’t have stood up to the intensity of higher wattage. Gravity had done its job on her. It had tugged her fleshy arms. It had tugged her pulpy breasts. There was a sagging to her seat, and her stomach made a pouch. A Rembrandt nude, but all within the bounds of what’s acceptable. On the plus side, she had gorgeous auburn hair. Not a natural color, but whose hair is? It came down in waves to the top of her back. It had the kind of bounce you associate with youth, although, like I said, she wasn’t all that young. Her hair caught the light and her bangs were so abundant their shadows hid her face.
It wasn’t till she finished with her stocking work and gave her head a toss that I could see how delicate her looks were. Intelligent and delicate. The nose, the mouth, the chin all fine. Her features had aristocratic leanness, different from the weighty rest of her. Her face made you think she must have had movie-star looks at one time. That’s the thought that occurred to me, and when I thought it, I construed at once this scene in which she’s on a set with moody lights, like in a smoky bar. She slowly turns. She’s looking for the male lead, a guy who’ll lack her class and amperage but who’ll be sexy in a hood sort of way.
About her eyes there was something that should probably be left unsaid. She looked like someone who had given up a lot.
She was nude for just a second, and the light was less than kind to her bulges and the places where she’d stretched. The reason she was so briefly nude was because she had a silken nightgown laid out on her bed. This was something del­icate. You could even say delicious. It clung to her. It graced her roundness and gave it mystery. The color was a kind of burgundy, so there was this hint of tonal harmony to her, gra­dations not of red exactly but of that part of the spectrum— the roses and the ports.
She next attacked her hair. There was a hairbrush in among the dresser’s mess. She lifted it up and slowly went to work. The brushing gave more body to her.  That’s the thing I was privileged to see. She was brushing her hair to commune with herself. I saw that in the leisure of her strokes. She pulled the brush completely to the end of each worked strand. She released it and that strand gave a little jump. It drifted back among its fellows. I couldn’t see what her eyes were focused on, but I felt almost certain she was studying the sculptured look her nose had and the creamy smoothness of the space above her eyes.
While she was giving her hair its coddling, a guy came in the room—her husband or whoever, a guy about her age. He wore cloth slippers and he shuffled. The slippers were so big they would have fallen off if he took ordinary steps. He was wearing moss-colored sleeping shorts that kept him covered from his belly button to his knees. He was dark-haired, with a chest hair pattern that gave his pale belly too much promi­nence. I couldn’t see what his eyes were like because the glasses he wore had dark frames. He was carrying a book and was using one finger to mark his place. He crossed close to the woman and she moved just enough to make room for him. He was on his way to his side of the bed, and he hesitat­ed for just a fraction of a second when he understood they’d touch. It was like he hoped she might give way. She didn’t, though. When he passed her—a moment marked more by the rippling of her fine garment than by any kiss between their flesh—she followed him with her glance to see what the touch had stirred.
It hadn’t stirred anything. He hadn’t registered her liquid presence, or the nightie swaying, or the round softness un­derneath. He still marked his place in the book he carried. He turned the sheet down. The night was warm. They didn’t require blankets. He plumped the pillow up and set it on its end to be a backrest. He shuffled off the ugly slippers. He climbed in bed and, sitting up, the sheet to his waist, he twist­ed around to change the angle of a shade so he could get a clearer beam aimed at his book.

Meanwhile, the woman at the mirror had finished with her hair. She found a place on her cluttered dresser clear enough to set her tortoise shell brush down. She spent some mo­ments picking through objects I couldn’t see. She was looking for something in the mess before her. When she lifted it up, I recognized the pixie-sized bottle that scents come in. She read the label. She must not have been quite convinced it was the scent she wanted because, while she continued to hold it in one hand, she was busy with the other pushing back the belts and hair bands and whatnots on the dresser to look for a, maybe, more potent perfume. Or that was my guess. If that was the case, she must not have found what she was looking for because she stopped as she had before and read the cho­sen bottle’s label. She undid the cap. To get the thing open she had to be dainty. Her hand took on the look of a Balinese dancer’s. She brought the opened bottle near enough to kiss. She inhaled its aroma. While she sniffed, a kind of pleasant thought must have come to her. She put the thought in words for her partner’s benefit. Her comment wasn’t enough to steal his attention from his book. He didn’t raise his eyes to watch the delicate wetting of her fingertips and the touching of those fingers to her neck.
She slid up next to him in bed. She wasn’t pressing him. He had built a psychic fence, but her drifting scent and warmth must have been palpable. She made stabs at conversation and arranged the sheets and plumped up her pillow, which was, like his, turned on its end so she could rest her back.
A mellow light. A bedroom setting. A woman’s worn but pretty charms. There might have been music, but I was out­side and couldn’t hear. What I witnessed was this little offering made of herself. I wanted a happy ending, but he continued reading. There wasn’t any kiss. There was just lights out.
I slid out of the bushes. I made my way out to the street.  I was fingering my notebook and patting pockets for my pen. This hadn’t been a viewing like the whipped cream couple, nor even like the geriatric threesome. I wanted it written down, however. Not for the sex but for something else. For valor maybe, like I could make a note that would memorialize her and in that way render my respect.

When I opened my notebook, the neutered cat came mewing up. I was sitting in a park on one of those wrought iron benches with plank seats. Not in the park so much as on the edge of it, near a streetlight but still in the shadow of trees. I was surprised because I’d never seen the cat that far from home. His little wafer of a tongue flicked out. He had groom­ing to attend to—his striped forelegs and his dainty paws. I reached out my gift-giving hand. He could see it was empty. No treat this time. He barely gave my hand the time of day. He continued licking his paw and wiping his head until he had accomplished those necessities. He got to his feet again. His dainty steps brought him closer to me. He looked up with that intelligent look cats have. He opened his small mouth, and although he didn’t speak, I could have sworn that he meant to speak, and if Nature would have allowed him to do that, what he would have said was, “She wants to come with you.”