Keith Lee Morris
Notes for an Aborted Story Called "The Cyclist" That Turned Out to Be Too Much Like "The Swimmer"
Guy's getting older, still around the old town. Has new, younger girl protegee he's interested in (Lauren). They're at his apartment or office, maybe he keeps an apartment, anyway he can't bring himself to actually make a pass at her -- he's older, it's inappropriate, etc. -- but there is some physical contact and he can't tell how she feels about it. They go to a bar/restaurant and he knows a lot of the people in there and so many of them are divorced/remarried, etc., lots of past history. He's supposed to be meeting a friend who's moved to another city at (where?) the library? and he excuses himself to go meet him. He meets the guy (John?) and they have a couple of laughs and they're going someplace when he sees an ex-girlfriend (Laura) maybe talking on a cell phone to her mother outside the library (?) and there's a lot of past history here and he tries to ignore her as he goes in until she calls after him in a very soft appealing voice and he lingers to try to talk to her. But he only gets little snippets of conversation w/her -- she keeps holding her hand over the mouthpiece to talk to him while still listening to her mother -- and he finally has to leave to go after his friend feeling nostalgic and regretful and a little angry and bitter and maybe more than half in love again, maybe more half-in-love than he is w/the new girl. Suddenly, as he begins to search for friend, he finds his wife, who's arrived there (library?) on some errand (or is the guy married?). She looks very pretty and happy and he's half in love w/her. They look for John together, first in the library, then figuring that maybe he slipped into the bar across the street, or whatever. After a while he kind of gives up and the wife (?) leaves and then the guy remembers that his friend's next appointment was across town somewhere, so, still feeling very muddled and confused and as if the past and present are overlapping in the persons of this new girl (Lauren), his old flame (Laura), and his wife (Laurel? Lara?) and he can't seem to figure out which one he's most attracted to or which time in his life he's most fond of, but he gets in his old truck to go look for friend, all the time preoccupied w/thoughts of these three women (who by now are beginning to look a lot like past, present, and future personified (or maybe not too much, and not in that order)), but as he's driving he gets less and less steady. Harder and harder to drive the truck, finds himself swerving around the road veering into opposite lanes, and he starts wondering if he's drunk maybe from the drinks w/Lauren, but at any rate it's becoming obvious and he's getting afraid of the cops so he sees this old bicycle leaning against a stop sign at an intersection (delete "at an intersection") and he pulls the truck over and gets on the bike, but that's hard too and he wobbles along the road w/cars honking, etc., until he finally sees the lights flashing and hears the sirens and he knows he's caught. Is this a 3rd person or a 1st person story? It should not seem like a dream at all, other than the action of the story, which progressively leads it in that direction. Mood is wistful, then ominous and unnerving. Is this too much like "The Swimmer"?
It's not too much like "The Swimmer." What's different about this guy, call him Patrick, is that he's not disillusioned and he hasn't wasted his life on a trivial round of cocktail parties and empty associations, he isn't slowly awakening to his own dissatisfactions, too late, and trying to manufacture some hopeless heroic endeavor that will take him through the vapid days of his past and end in nothing but existential aloneness.
This guy's problem is just the opposite -- life's too full, too ripe with possibilities, all of which he's acutely aware of and yearning for. For instance, when they're at the window of his apartment, he and his beautiful protegee, talking about her music (Patrick is no loser, he's a former keyboard player for a rock band that had a Top 40 hit and a number of critically acclaimed albums -- he quit when he knew the band was going downhill, and returned to his hometown to open a music school), and they brush against each other, her breast against the back of his arm and his arm moving involuntarily, bumping against her breast further (she smiles shyly -- "Ouch! Watch it!" she says) and resting for a second on her shoulder, he knows immediately exactly what her breast would feel like if he were to release it from the red tank top and the white bra, the strap of which he's already studied with interest, and as he knows this he also knows and is reminded of what it would be like if he went home to his wife, who's older than the protegee but still an extremely fine-looking woman, and slipped into bed with her, how the familiarity of sex with her would be just as appealing in its own way as the unfamiliarity and newness of sex with the protegee, and at the same time he's looking out the window, and out there in the street is a guy trying to negotiate a delivery truck around a tight turn, he can see the guy's hands busy on the steering wheel and the gear shift, his eyes gauging the tightness of the turn and the traffic in the rearview mirror, and he wants to be the one driving the truck, wonders if he could coax the truck to make that turn, and then he knows, too, that there's a woman in someplace like Ecuador who would be just right for him, and a landscape there fit for dreaming. And more than that, even, he knows that in another life there might be time to write all this down or turn it into a song. He wants to be a thousand places doing a thousand things and he wants the time to turn back just one hour a thousand times. Or he'd like to travel back or go ahead a hundred or a thousand years. He wants to know the name of that tree and that flower. He wants to understand exactly why and how the wind blows and how one would go about designing the structure of that unusual building across the street. What's the topography of the Aleutian Islands, anyway? This question is capable of plaguing him.
So he goes about his days with his heart and head full.
At the restaurant he takes Lauren, the protegee, to, he sips his beer wisely, trying to maintain the proper pose in relation to her. He wants to slide his foot under the table and bring it into contact with the soft flesh of her smooth calf -- nothing more than that, not now. He knows too many people here. In the next booth sits Happy Chubb, a friend from high school, and his third wife, Lisa, and her little daughter from her first marriage. Patrick and his wife don't have any children, but he thinks all the time that he'd like to. It's her job that keeps them from it. She's a web designer and catalog layout coordinator for a company that sells seed packets and fancy gardening tools, and she makes a lot more money than Patrick does. Her job is fascinating enough, but even more fascinating right now to Patrick is the job of Happy Chubb, who works for the forest service, and right in the middle of something Lauren is saying he thinks of Happy Chubb out in the woods planting trees, shaking the excess dirt off the little seedlings, probably, digging out a little hole in the dark earth with some implement, maybe something as simple as a spade, and putting the roots of the seedling into the hole carefully, but quickly, the movement so practiced most likely that he thinks of something else -- maybe of Patrick (who knows?) and the wild days of their youth, and how that very Patrick went on to write songs that he, Happy, now listens to on his stereo, even though the songs are getting old now and he's maybe a little tired of them, and all of this is in proximity to a cool stream winding through the forest. What a job, what a life.
"Do you like going out in the woods?" he asks Lauren, and she looks a little perturbed -- he obviously hasn't been listening.
"Too many bugs," she says, and he nods.
What if he could take her back to the apartment right now, he thinks (it's a studio, though, not an apartment, even though it has a little bed in it for the nights when he stays there late, it's a studio where he gives lessons on the piano and the guitar and even occasionally the drums, and records little pieces of music all by himself, and where he has three or four thousand albums and CDs, he's into vinyl but you can't get everything on vinyl these days, and he wants it all, everything decent and semi-inspired and semi-honest whether pop or jazz or country or classical or what have you, he loves it all and sometimes finds himself staring out the window with tears in his eyes as he listens, it happened just the other day with "Dear Prudence," of all things, that gorgeous decision with the closing chord progression, wondering how the man thought of that, at what moment in his life, maybe staring out a window in the same way he, Patrick, was doing now, and how would it be to have been that man, with the world just laying down for you, and still that music running through your head? He'd written good songs himself, very good songs, he knows, and yet you could never be John Lennon, you couldn't reproduce that time, that heady atmosphere, that had made the Beatles what they were, and he was more than a little sorry he had missed it, had been too young by far, and even if he had written some songs that were just as good as the songs John Lennon wrote, no one would ever say so, because he hadn't been in the right time and place), what if he could take her to the studio right now and lie down with her on the little bed, the portable fan blowing over them (how did the fan work, exactly, you turned it on and the blades whirred around, but why did it blow the air in only one direction, because of the shape of the blades, of course, and how had someone figured that out, and when, and who?), and he could take off those white shorts she wore and run his hands over her body and examine her, to what extent she shaved or didn't, for instance, and what a pleasure it would be to hear her gasp or sigh or cry out, wouldn't it? And yet at the same time how good it was not to have fucked around during his marriage, he had a long track record of not doing anything a man might be expected to do and he found that interesting, and one indiscretion would mean he had to start all over again as far as the being faithful department went.
"You're a beautiful girl," he tells Lauren, "and very talented. I'll see you next week." And off he goes, remembering his appointment with John.
John is a musician also, a former bandmate, now a music writer for a fairly obscure mag in New York. He could imagine having John's job, too. They meet outside another restaurant (not the library at all), and an improbable sequence of events is set in motion. First, parked in the parking lot, wondering why it is that his air conditioner won't work when the motor isn't running, and whether he could fix it, given the proper tools and reference materials, he thinks about how he and Lauren could have sex and then go on from there, how he could divorce his wife and manage Lauren's budding career, how he could write songs for her and produce them, be the man behind the scenes, and they could move to New York (long before she gave up her career to have children, this would be) and live in SoHo or the East Village or what the hell Central Park West, or maybe L.A. would be better, the dry hills and the canyons and the beaches and the limousines, or even Nashville. He meets John but barely pays attention to him, thinking more about how John lives in New York and how they could meet up from time to time there.
But as they get ready to enter the restaurant there's Laura, the ex-girlfriend. It's as if he's back in a different life, looking at Laura, her hand with a little silver ring on the index finger holding the cell phone, the rather dark hair on her forearm (this had always bothered him), the high, child-like sound of her voice (which had always bothered him, too), a car's red brake lights to his left, backing into a parking space with a squeak of the wheels, and in a little downtown park just past the restaurant's entrance a crow strutting under the long branches of an oak tree, the crow cawing once, twice, and then making tiny muttering sounds, like a disgruntled old man (He's never heard that noise from a crow before -- did they do it all the time? He's always been interested in birds.); all of these competing sensations and observations he experiences as if from a former point in his life, like a man who stands across the street from a house he used to live in and sees a hand suddenly switch on a lamp in a window and imagines that it's his own hand and that he's there in that room he knows so well, though he'll never be inside it again (this analogy occurs to him, and at the same time it occurs to him that, if he were actually seeing a hand switch on a lamp in a house he used to live in, he might imagine that it was like seeing an old girlfriend whom one would never live with again).
He can see John inside the restaurant, already talking to the hostess, motioning out the window to him on the sidewalk, telling the hostess, "There are two of us."
But he feels like a wheel spinning fast, how at a certain point it appears to be going backward. There's Laura, and all the feelings he used to have for her and had just ten minutes ago for Lauren have spun up inside him from a place he'd absolutely forgotten, didn't know he had in him anymore (how did the mind store those feelings, how could they exist there in a place you weren't aware of? An old book falls off a shelf, falls open to a certain page where the spine is weak, it's a page you've read many times before), and it didn't seem possible that he wouldn't go to her now, put his arms around her shoulders, whisper endearments, didn't seem possible that he wouldn't arrive an hour from now at the little apartment they'd shared on 1st Street, home from his shift at the convenience store, and that she wouldn't be in bed napping, and that he wouldn't lie down there with her under the cool sheets in the afternoon light, and that they wouldn't turn to each other in that familiar way that always led to sex and long conversations afterward, glancing out the window at the maple tree. She had been with him back before it all started, when the band promised not to amount to anything, and it seems to him now that that was a perfect time, a time before anything was certain in life and it could all be enjoyed with a sense of anticipation.
His feet move scut-scut-scut, scraping over the sidewalk, and she sees him now, he's passed in front of her rather than behind her, it was his choice, he could easily have gone around behind, and she smiles at him exactly in that way she used to smile at him when they met unexpectedly in public and he would be thinking of something else, maybe of another girl he'd dated way back in high school, or thinking of another of the thousand things he'd never done but was always on the verge of telling himself to go do, thinking of gears and wheels and pulleys and how things kept on turning inside things, and how the earth kept spinning around and how he couldn't even see it, couldn't find one place to look at on the seemingly fixed earth where that constant motion was evident, and he tries to figure it out again now as his feet go scut-scut slowly, is he walking against the grain of the earth's rotation or with it, but there isn't time, not time to think it through, she's smiling at him and she's held up her finger to him to say, "Just one minute, I have something I want to talk to you about," and his heart is thrilled, she's as pretty and as nice as he's ever seen her, as if the ugly sessions of crying and breaking things had never occurred.
He stands waiting on the sidewalk. He listens to her talk to her mother (it's her mother, no doubt about it, the same voice she used to use when talking to her mother, not the one she used in talking to him or the one she used with her friends or the ones she used with people from her office, and he wants, he thinks, to study voices, not singing voices (those he knows), but all the voices people used to express different meanings and feelings and the nature of relationships). She holds her hand over the phone -- "How are you?" she says softly, her eyes lively, a coy smile forming the perfect center to her heart-shaped face.
"I seem to be in the middle of a lot of things," he says, but she has the finger held up again, isn't listening to him. "Uh-huh, uh-huh," she says, "you have to quit that, Mother, just quit it," and where she's sitting on the bench, her leg shows a little sign of agitation, swaying back and forth steadily, quickly, exactly the way he remembers seeing it now a hundred or a thousand times. She puts her hand over the phone again, "Just one second," she says, but there's friction in his feet, he can't hold onto this place on the ground any longer, and the scut-scut of his feet begins to pull him away, and she pouts at him (pouts!) for just one second, and then there's the intimate smile and her hand waves, just the fingers flapping, like a tiny bird's wings ("bye-bye!"), as if they'll be seeing each other back at the apartment this afternoon after all these years and this chance meeting hasn't meant anything.
His heart is sore as he walks through the darkened restaurant, but he's revived again at the sight of (lo and behold) his wife, Lara, who's finishing up lunch, wiping her mouth with a white napkin, staring at a page in a catalog. It's as if he's spun out of a dark passageway into the full light of a sunny afternoon, and for a moment he feels that there can be nothing better than this life he lives right now.
But the feeling goes away. He sits down next to her (not across from her, because he feels he wants to be close to her at this moment, close to the life he shares with her and close to the hope that they'll have children soon to share it with), but she greets him indifferently, almost as if he's been there all the time -- his appearance here is nothing special. Still, her eyes are pretty flitting across the pages of the catalog (it's work-related, of course), and her voice is mellow and easy and the swell of her thigh right as it goes up under her skirt is something to see. You could spend a life, one life, with this woman, he thinks.
He's forgotten all about John, isn't thinking wistfully at the moment of the music they played together on stage and in studios and hotel rooms and apartments or the time they rented a beach house in the Outer Banks and spent a week getting stoned and looking at the arc of stars in the autumn sky, and when his wife settles up the bill and asks about his meeting, he's startled to realize that John has disappeared. John is nowhere.
Maybe they missed each other there somehow; he'll check at the bar across the street, and his wife will walk him out and say goodbye until that evening, when he'll be waiting for her in the living room, ensconced in front of the computer, reading up on automotive repair or the Aleutian Islands or the customary behavior of birds. On the way out, there's a guy nearly asleep on a barstool, and at that sight he does grow wistful, remembering how, back in the old days, that was always one choice for how to spend an afternoon.
Laura is gone, not out there on the sidewalk any longer, and though he was afraid she'd be around still and there would be an awkward, sheepish moment with his wife, he's now sorry she's gone, and he's sorry, too, he realizes, that, this meeting with John having gone awry, he didn't spend the remainder of the afternoon with Lauren.
Now his wife gives him a peck on the cheek and says a few words and turns to go, and at the sight of her calf tightening mid-step, a thought turns in his head, and like tumblers aligning to open a lock there are these three women, one walking away down the street, one perched on a bench with a phone to her ear, one standing at the window of a studio, and each of these women is in the presence of him, a multiplicity of self, and each of these selves capable of its own multiplicity, capable of imagining itself on and on ad infinitum, and yet all of these selves contained, confined, within the one self, him, Patrick, who can only be one place, one time, one thought, one phrase spoken to one companion, always merely exactly who he is.
And in this strange moment when he is reminded of mitosis and mirrors and the rippling of water upon the entrance of a stone, there comes to his mind a song, his own song, he knows, a melody laying claim to him, and yet unlike any of the other songs he has ever had approach him in this way, something new, in a new vein, and his feet want to scut-scut to the studio, try to make something of this music he hears, the long slide of a guitar down a scale, eerie and almost baleful, and a piano that feels like dead petals falling in a place as wide and empty as he has always imagined heaven to be, or how he remembers Wyoming. But he has to find John, seemingly.
He checks the bar across the street, the lot where the truck is parked. There is no John anywhere, and though the song continues to occupy some space somewhere in Patrick's head (it's been driven to a darkened corner by the jukebox in the bar), he feels obligated to find this friend of his, this old and still occasionally valued friend, with whom he was once a rock star (although even as a rock star Patrick remained slightly circumspect, only dipping one foot into the pool, so to speak, always poised partly poolside, thinking of opting for law school, often visiting sites of local interest in the cities they toured instead of doing drugs and hanging out ith groupies at the hotel, as if he were never convinced that there wasn't supposed to be something more to the whole thing, some other aspect of the experience that he stood in danger of missing), and so he hops in the truck and begins to drive across town to a destination that he dimly remembers in connection with John's plans.
The afternoon has come and gone, twilight has passed in a heartbeat. At this point the story becomes strange. We know what happens, how this man, Patrick, who is by now clearly differentiated from the central character of the John Cheever story, "The Swimmer," the recent reference to pools notwithstanding, becomes confused, perhaps begins to hallucinate, wonders if he has by some unusual process become drunk during the course of the afternoon, and we can even imagine how he might see the ground, the pavement, the numerous trees and stop signs, whirling past him in such a way that they remind him of the curvature of the earth, that he might begin to believe he is not getting anywhere at all, and that as he pushes the accelerator further and further toward the floorboard, he is in fact only diminishing his chances, merely speeding up the trees and the stop signs while in no way effecting the forward motion that will take him beyond the earth's opposition. The laws of centrifugal and centripetal force, friction and gravity and tides, he can't understand it all, and yet (my God!) out the windshield an explosion of stars.
He can't drive any longer, and there's the bike, then, propped against a stop sign, unnoticed by all of humanity but him. He'll hop on it, we know. He'll pedal in the dark (it's an old-fashioned bike with no gears and no reflectors) and he'll try to stay clear of all the cars, the drivers of which don't seem to have the same problems with physical laws that he has, and believe it or not all three of the women will be forgotten now, he will have only that sad song in his head, and, though the bike presents locomotion problems of its own, which he attributes to his rustiness and his bewildered state, it is much more peaceful than the truck and the fight against stasis and/or retrograde, and the sad song has time to take shape again, and as he listens it occurs to him that this is the very song of multiplicity and inversion, that to play it properly would take a hundred hands on strings and keys playing backward, like a thousand records spun all at once by hand in opposition to the spinning turntable.
He hears the sirens, he knows they're coming for him, and he stops, hops off the bike and begins to walk (I picture him now dragging the bike through some field, away from the road, down through a ditch, across railroad tracks, into some field where the night sky is whole and uninterrupted and the long dead grass of late summer whispers against his heels, and he stops, stands completely still, holding the handlebars to keep himself from spinning, because looking down at the ground he is dizzy, the spot underneath his feet turns and turns, around him, the hub of the ground's rotation, and he clamps down with his feet in the blind night here and now, another motion, another beginning, another song).