Scenes from an Unlived Life
By Fred Skolnik
After the girl with the green eyes committed suicide and A. quit his job, he resumed his idle life, though he always kept an eye out for her irate brother. He also sold his car, though not his gun, figuring he would have no further use for it, that is, the car, now that his life moved in a few fixed channels. Getting up at ten or so in the morning he usually had a cup of coffee and made his way uptown, sometimes stopping in at the Library, sometimes answering the want ads. In this way, after a few months, he found a new job adding up time cards from morning till evening with a well-endowed girl called Libby in an airless room filled with neatly labeled folders. He worked much faster than the girl but she was more experienced and therefore knew the answers to all his questions, such as what to do when someone punches in at 9:08 and punches out at 5:07, the answer being dock him a quarter of an hour, which A. thought was unfair, so they argued about it for a while in the solemn manner of payroll clerks, though it wasn't she who made policy but the fat woman at the head of the department and even she was not a law unto herself but responsible to the higher-ups who sat in the big offices on the fourth floor and had their own toilets. Libby told him that Miss Pellegrino, the fat department head, had not wanted to hire him, having her own favorite from among the applicants, but the comptroller himself, Mr. Lattimer, had intervened, convinced that A. was the more qualified of the two after A. had demonstrated his prowess at multiplying two-digit numbers in his head. "You're just the man we're looking for," he told A. This did not deter Miss Pellegrino, who got her candidate into the stockroom, as she was chummy with the head of Personnel, a spinster like herself, and was no doubt waiting for A. to slip up. The callow youth favored by Miss Pellegrino occasionally wandered into Payroll, looking into A.'s office with a smirk and even flirting with Libby. A. could not deny that he too was attracted to her. Nominally she was in charge of him. Though sturdy, she moved quickly, full of bounce.
"How long have you been working here?" he asked her.
"Two years," Libby said.
"Do you like it?"
She brought salads to work every day in a glass dish which she ate at her desk, that is the salads, with wholewheat crackers. Clearly she was watching her weight, being pretty close now to the point of no return, with nicely shaped calves and solid thighs and big though manageable breasts. Sitting opposite her A. often got an erection and had to temporize when she sent him on an errand. At lunchtime he usually jumped out to the deli but sometimes ate in the cafeteria upstairs where employees tended to seat themselves departmentally. It was clear to A. that there was a certain amount of interdepartmental rivalry or friction in the company and even alliances forged among department heads. Sales and Purchasing never sat together. Mr. Lattimer occasionally sat with Mr. Mazar, the head of Production, but that may have been to get closer to his secretary, an attractive young women named Camille, who was from France or Italy and spoke with a charming accent. A. got friendly with Mr. Evans of Advertising. Mr. Evans had apparently been around forever and was therefore a fount of corporate lore, telling A. many inspiring stories about the heroic exploits of the company's officers in their pursuit of greater profits.
A.'s apartment depressed him now. He felt closed in despite his view of the street, with one bedroom window looking out to nowhere and a little patch of sky visible between the surrounding buildings and the other window blocked by some trees so he couldn't really see what was going on in the building across the yard where women occasionally forgot to pull down the shade when they undressed or came out of the shower. He had his bed in the center of the bedroom and a night table on one side and some books stacked on a chest of drawers and some more on a shelf in the closet and the rest in the living room. In the chest of drawers he kept his underwear, his socks, his shirts and his pants. In the closet he kept a few jackets and his gun. That was all there was.
A new president had been elected, exciting many people, but it would be years before his memory transformed the nation. A. was not taken in by his manner. A. had a manner of his own, operating outside History. Libby may or may not have been charmed by it, but if she was, she would have been one of the few people who were. Miss Pellegrino certainly wasn't. She was short and stout and waddled when she walked. She also had a brassy voice. There wasn't much more you could say about her.
Mr. Lattimer told A. that he could go pretty far in the organization, given his facility with numbers. There was plenty of room for advancement in Accounting, and even beyond. The company, after all, was expanding. It had recently acquired a plant in Maine or Connecticut. It was making itself felt wherever spare parts were bought and sold. A. considered this and could even envisage himself advancing through the ranks and perhaps one day standing himself at the head of a huge corporate empire and having his own toilet and maybe a bar on the top floor of corporate headquarters where he could look out at the city and perhaps dream his old dreams of conquest or maybe just scratch his behind while contemplating quarterly returns. It would be a kind of life. He wondered if he could be happy living with a girl like Libby, that is, marrying her and settling down and having two children and watching ballgames on TV, thousands of them, until one day he died. Something in him rebelled, however. He did not know yet that men lived best in their dreams and fantasies. He wanted his dreams to come true.
Libby dressed well. She always wore nylon stockings and high heels and a touch of perfume. She had a nice collection of sweaters, which did justice to her big breasts. She had a strong neck and full lips. She was like a feast.
"Let's go out for lunch Friday," he said to her one day. "My treat."
"I don't know. That's fattening."
"It won't kill you. You look great."
"No I don't."
"You do. You look terrific. Come on, you can get salads there too."
A. still didn't know if she liked him. There were no indications one way or the other. She held her cards pretty close to her chest, as the saying went, and had no trouble concealing them there. He wondered if she read books or had a boyfriend. He found it easy to talk to her. He desired her. It was as if the girl with the green eyes had never lived. Libby lived in Brooklyn, so that might have been a problem if they started going out together, involving long subway rides again, though of course if things worked out she could always stay over at his place.
Finally, after putting him off for a couple of weeks, she went to lunch with him, ordering the antipasto salad. A. had lasagna. "You want wine?" he said. "We gotta go back to work," she said. "This bread is great," he said. "I'm trying to cut down," she said. "Your figure's perfect," he said. Maybe she blushed. She ate daintily and smiled at him from time to time. He was making progress. He undressed her in his mind. He wanted to put his hand on her knee but thought better of it.
After the meal they walked through the park near the office. A. felt good. It was a nice day. On Fridays everyone stretched out the lunch hour and no one in the office said anything about it. Pigeons swooped down from the rooftops occasionally with the flurry of a hundred wings. The air was hot and still, recalling other times and other places. A contemplated the people in the street. This was the world and he was in it. He had a sense for a moment of the infinite possibilities of his life. He felt a part of the crowd, caught up in its movement, in the movement of time and history too and in the harmony of the universe. He wanted to throw his arm around Libby's broad shoulders and pull her toward him to feel her body against his. She might have been a little stout but had the nice legs with the powerful thighs and big breasts so A. was generally aroused when he contemplated her. She may also have had a slight tic in one eye. A. noticed that the eyelid fluttered or drooped from time to time. They sat on a bench and she told him about her family, her old high school girlfriends and a number of the movies she had recently seen. None of this was of any interest to A. She also shared some office gossip with him, mostly concerning the "bosses," as she referred to them. She had a round, pretty face. A. imagined getting her big breasts out of her brassiere, which he visualized as a kind of halter with numerous straps and buckles which had been specially fitted to her in a salon for big-breasted women.
"I always see Mr. Lattimer with Camille," A. said.
"I think they're having an affair," Libby said.
"Is she married?"
"No, he is."
"Would you cheat on your husband?"
"I'm not married either."
"If you were?"
"I don't think so."
"Good for you."
In this period, A. intensified his reading. He read an abridgment of Frazier's Golden Bough and Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Reich and Stekel and a bit of his old Schopenhauer. He also thought he might try Toynbee since History as such did not interest him unless it presented a grand theory. This was the life A. had created for himself. He showed up at the office every morning wearing a tie but not a jacket and flirted with Libby. It was a pleasant way to spend the day, edged with sexual tension. Occasionally he called her over to look at a card and her hair would brush against his cheek and one of her big breasts might brush against his arm and her perfume made his head swim and she must have known that she was arousing him, or perhaps not, never imagining what was going through his head.
Occasionally too Libby was called into Miss Pellegrino's office to answer a complaint. When she was summoned she leaped up from her chair and skipped down the hall with amazing speed, as though relishing the opportunity to vindicate herself. After all, her addition was flawless, as was A.'s, and only rarely was there a real error that could be laid at her door. A. admired the self-confident way she handled herself on these occasions. Nothing fazed her. She was always cheerful. He imagined that her upbeat personality would spill over into her life outside the office, so that she would always be forging ahead and overcoming obstacles. A desired her.
This was not to say that she would have him. She seemed more interested now but for all he knew she might have had a boyfriend, though he doubted it. Or might not have seen him in a romantic light. A. assessed himself. He was neither short nor tall or fat or thin. He was in fact quite ordinary in appearance though those who took more than a cursory look might have detected an inward-turning quality that did not augur well. On the other hand he was good at fighting and playing ball and had a quick mind so conceivably she was attracted to him, being a girl who might not have been able to get any boy she wanted though many would have been prepared to use and discard her. It was their custom now to walk to the subway together after work, parting on the downtown side of the street where Libby got her train to Brooklyn. One day it started raining so A. took shelter there with her and she waited with him at the bottom of the stairs until the rain let up. He lit a cigarette and watched the women coming down the stairs. Libby was wearing a tan raincoat with a stylish belt and her high heels and nylon stockings with wisps of hair blown across her neck and face and was actually quite handsome so A. smiled at her as they stood shoulder to shoulder with their backs against the wall and then put his hand in her big pocket and said, "Keep me warm," and she half-turned to him so he kissed her and she said, "That was a long time coming," so he knew she wanted him.
After the kiss, it was easy. He took her uptown on Friday night to see Shoot the Piano Player with English subtitles. He imagined she was bored but she put on a brave face and he could see that she wanted to be agreeable and make a good impression on him. They were after all on a date and he imagined that going out on a date would have a special meaning for someone like Libby, who would have dressed very carefully and exchanged a few words about the coming evening with her parents or any brothers and sisters she may have had if they were in the habit of talking about such things, describing or characterizing him in ways that A. could not imagine, taking him more seriously than he took himself. This was flattering but he was worried about her taste. "What kind of movies do you really like?" he said.
"This was a love story."
"It's hard to follow when you have to read all the time."
"That's true," A. said.
"But I had a good time."
He took her back to Brooklyn and kissed her a few times in her hallway, wanting to feel her big breasts. She had a sweet-tasting mouth and knew how to kiss but the tic or flutter in her eyelid distracted him. Though she lived with her parents he understood after a few more dates that there wasn't any problem about staying out so the next time he brought her over to his apartment and negotiated her into his bed, but did not enjoy her very much beyond kissing her and feeling her enormous breasts because he ejaculated the minute he was inside her, could feel it coming the second before and rushed to get it in, so it turned out to be an anticlimactic moment, so to speak. If she was disappointed she didn't show it, consoling him a bit and saying, "My poor baby." She wasn't a virgin of course. After that she came over regularly and they were a couple. A. was in fact enjoying her more and more. They were in an exploratory phase. He liked to take her from behind and she didn't mind. She was very free and easy in bed and that was good.
Miss Pellegrino, though, got wind of their romance fast enough and used it as a pretext to get him out of Payroll, claiming they were distracting each other and that consequently their output had fallen off. Mr. Lattimer intervened and moved him into Accounts Receivable. Miss Pellegrino installed her protégé in his place, but Libby ended up doing most of the work herself as he was next to useless. His name was Tom Turner. Miss Pellegrino called him Tommy T. and may have had a crush on him, but Tommy was clearly interested in Libby. A. couldn't say exactly what he was after – an easy lay or something more serious. A. thought he was a jerk but that didn't rule him out as a suitor. He realized that they were becoming rivals. It seemed too that not a few of their co-workers were aware of their mutual pursuit of Libby. Mr. Lattimer, for example, always winked when he saw them together, that is, A. and Libby, whereas Miss Pellegrino always frowned. Mr. Mazar and Camille too were in Tommy's camp, often huddling with him, while Mr. Evans was squarely behind A.
Libby, however, was clearly not interested in her new partner. She stayed over at A.'s place at least once a week. They were like a married couple then and she'd sit on his bed and peel off her nylon stockings with a little sigh like a tired housewife and sometimes take a shower in his bathroom, standing in the filthy bathtub and soaping herself vigorously before coming out in the sexy lingerie she brought with her in an overnight bag. A. was getting better at controlling himself too as the novelty of taking her wore off and the sex became a little routine so that he would occasionally let his mind wander, which was an effective way of prolonging the act. She was a little possessive now. She had friends and wished to display him. They went to a party. A. was not comfortable dancing but got carried away a little by the pulsing rhythm of the music. It made his mind race. He would have liked to live his life to the sound of that music. He would have liked to join the dancers on the floor and cut the cord that bound him to himself. And in the movement of the dancers he saw too the drama of their lives and the nobility of those who struggled against the forces that would destroy them and the tragedy of those who did not prevail and felt a closeness to the people in the room though he did not articulate it and it did not last very long. And later in the train that rocked on the winding tracks, he saw his reflection in the window, suspended wraithlike and transparent as the stations flashed by with their dim, baleful lights. And she was there, resting her head on his shoulder. He could see her in the window too. She was wearing high heels and nylon stockings. He laid his hand on her knee and it was like an electric current running through the two of them. The car was almost empty. He was not unhappy. He desired her.
In his bed she said, "I love you," so he said, " I love you too," just as he had to the girl with the green eyes, and she sighed. He of course did not love her and after he dismounted her desired her much less than in the moment she opened her legs and invited him in, not feeling even the slightest tenderness. Her big breasts lay flat against her chest and were a little shapeless and her chin was just starting to sink into her throat but on the other hand he liked the softness of her belly and her big thighs. She had started talking about getting married as though it was a foregone conclusion. He never knew if he really satisfied her but she sounded as if he did, making a lot of noise in bed, though he suspected it was only to encourage him, or herself. On certain intimate occasions he told her about his aspirations in a voice that was nearly like his own and she said, "You can do anything you put your mind to, baby."
Libby was clearly waiting for him to "pop the question," as he overheard her family refer to it once. When he avoided the subject she pouted and her tic became more pronounced. Nonetheless, she had the pretty face with its round, smooth cheeks, the general impression of roundness being at once appealing and somewhat alarming in its potential for balloonlike expansion. But in her high heels and nylon stockings with her fine, sturdy legs and round calves she was attractive. When they sat on the sofa together he liked to run his hand up her dress or feel her breasts like an adolescent but in bed he was sometimes less than ardent and once or twice she cried, saying, "You don't love me," or, "You think I'm fat and ugly," and A. had to reassure her, saying, "I do, I do," or, "No, not at all," but never managed to put enough conviction into his voice to reassure her entirely. Her parents were upbeat people, a little like Ozzie and Harriet. The mother was always baking and the father owned a men's clothing store. Occasionally he lent them his car on the weekend so that they could get out of the city. Libby made him take her out to Long Island a few times to visit her friend Joannie, who had a baby. A. felt out of place there. He saw that he could never be like them, preoccupied with family life. On the other hand, he also envied them. Joannie's husband worked in a sporting goods store so A. was able to talk to him about guns. He also wanted to get a pair of boxing gloves and a heavy punching bag so that he could let off a little steam from time to time. Joannie's husband invited him to come into the shop the next time he was out their way. Libby watched Joannie breast feed her baby and asked her a lot of questions.
Libby may have gained a pound or two in the time they had been going out but on the whole A. had to marvel at his good luck in finding a girl as agreeable as Libby to put to his own uses while he sorted out his life. He was in a transitional stage but had certain physical needs that could not be placed in abeyance as well as a variety of sexual fantasies that craved expression. Libby was ideal in this respect. She demanded little for herself and would lie patiently on her back long after reaching the point of diminishing returns as A. feasted on her flesh. Her legs were nice. He liked to open them as though by force while holding her by the wrists. She was an accommodating girl and pretended she was being raped. Afterwards she always snuggled up to him and got chatty. "When we get married," she said, "I want my own house. I hate the city. We could live near Joannie. Doesn't she have a nice lawn with that hammock? You have everything you need out there, shopping and movies and parks. But we'd need a car. I could drive you to the train station every morning if you still worked in the city, or you have car pools sometimes." A. suspected that, once married, she might show her true colors and become a little shrewish. Already she tended to nag, wanting to go places and do things when A. preferred to watch a ballgame on the new TV he'd bought.
A. had new responsibilities now. Accounts Receivable was definitely a step up on the organizational ladder. He kept a big ledger and made check marks when payments came in. He phoned customers about unpaid bills. He sat in a big room, across the aisle from Accounts Payable. Everyone took his job very seriously. This was America, after all, where you could be solemn about manufacturing dog food. Libby came by two or three times a day and they always had lunch together. Everyone knew they were going out. Occasionally Mr. Lattimer himself swept through the office, winking at A. Miss Pellegrino eyed him suspiciously, or perhaps resentfully. She had it in for him.
A. continued to daydream occasionally about the corporate life, that is, advancement in the chain of command until he reached the heights occupied by the likes of Mr. Lattimer and got his own toilet upstairs and a salary to go with it so that he might enjoy what the great land had to offer its more ambitious inhabitants. Then he might indeed purchase a house in Long Island with a lawn and a hammock and plenty of room inside, a library for his books as well as a billiard room and an exercise room in the basement and bagels and lox every Sunday morning for the traditional brunch. In the meanwhile A. had gotten a ten-dollar raise and was becoming someone to be reckoned with on the corporate ladder.
Libby said, on more than one occasion, "Don't you want to marry me?" and A. naturally temporized though he generally desired her. He saw that unless he took radical steps there would be no escaping union with Libby, which had its own logic and even appeal. He might of course have broken off with her, left the country even, but that was very far from his mind, existing solely in the realm of possibility, where it had its own life, a life that could be charted, a life that must necessarily have assumed a certain shape, just as his life with Libby would assume a certain shape.
A. was in a rut, which was at one and the same time comforting and alarming, or more precisely, sometimes comforting and sometimes alarming. He understood that if he let things run their course his life would transpire without his active participation in it, sweeping him along. All around him he saw people being swept along. It seemed as if they were choosing their lives but even they must have known better. It was the big boys upstairs with their own toilets who made the world go round. A. was only twenty-two now but he understood a thing or two about the way things worked. No one of course would have credited him with such prescience. He didn't count for much in the general scheme of things.
A. was in a rut. Regular sex with Libby gave him something to look forward to though he didn't particularly enjoy her company when they weren't having it and was in fact eager to be rid of her after they did so that he could get back to his daydreams or perhaps read a book. He had read all the James Bond novels and had discovered Eric Ambler. It was clear to him that Libby was using sex to ensnare him. She wanted a home and children and would settle for anyone who was halfway civilized and not unpleasant to look at. A. fit the bill and was also good at fighting and playing ball, not to mention the sharpness of his mind. She might have been in love with him.
But A. was very far from loving Libby. He remembered the girl with the green eyes, whom he had loved for a while in the flesh though not as much as in his idea of her. That idea had been born the moment he laid eyes on her and had sustained him all those years until reality intervened. Unlike Libby she had not tried to ensnare him but had only yielded to the force of his desire, though she had no doubt wanted a home and children too. A. was not equipped to love a woman in the way women expected to be loved. Something had gone amiss.
"Why don't you move to Brooklyn," Libby said to him on more than one occasion. "You could rent an apartment there. Then we'd be near each other and I could stay with you a lot."
A. was renting his apartment by the month. It would have cost less if he'd taken it on a yearly lease but he didn't want to tie himself down in case a miracle occurred and he found himself at the head of an army embarking on a military expedition in a far-off land.
"It's a convenient place to live," he said to her. "And we're always together anyway. Don't you like sleeping over?"
"I could sleep over in Brooklyn too."
"What's the difference where you sleep?"
And so on and so forth.
She was right of course. Had A. believed in his future he would have rented a real apartment in a real neighborhood and lived a real life, keeping all his books in a bookcase and hanging some pictures on the walls. In any case, one Sunday he let Libby drag him out to Sheepshead Bay to look at a basement apartment and something on the second floor of a two-family house. The basement apartment was smaller than the one he had and the walk-up was too expensive. This was a vindication of sorts and got Libby off his back for a while.
These were the configurations of A.'s life. Buried in them was a vast array of unrealized possibilities. One of these was attached to the rifle standing upright and ready for use in his bedroom closet with the box of shells he had taken from his gun-loving stepmother hidden behind the row of books on the shelf above it. From time to time he took it out to get the feel of it. He hadn't really touched it since the suicide. He looked down the sights as his stepmother had taught him to do, standing back from the window but nonetheless picking out targets in the street and then pulling the trigger, prepared to be surprised if it turned out that there was a bullet in the barrel though he knew there wasn't.
The sound of those rifle shots often reverberated in his head. They were like hammer blows intended to smash the chains that bound him to the world and to himself. He thought of them as making the leaves rustle in the forest and causing a leopard to look up from its afternoon slumber and of brown women coming down to the river's edge to bathe and the beads of water glistening on their bellies and their breasts. These images were not so much invented as drawn from a kind of common fund accessible to all the sick in spirit. A. had many brothers, he was a repository of universal urges, but he was alone.
Occasionally he thought of shooting Libby or Miss Pellegrino or the girls of Accounting in the big, open room where he sat all day. These were just passing thoughts but they had their appeal. Other than Camille and one of the girls upstairs in Personnel, none of the unmarried women in the company was particularly attractive. If you had lined them all up in a row, Libby would easily have taken third prize by virtue of her powerful body and not unpretty face. If you had stripped them naked and turned them upside down like sides of beef hanging from a hook, Libby might even have taken first prize. Men would always desire her, at least for a night or two, so A. considered himself fortunate in that respect, as Camille was apparently taken by Mr. Lattimer and the girl in Personnel wasn't really his type and was probably a good deal older than he was. Nonetheless A. felt that he was sorely in need of advice, or rather confirmation of his deepest instincts, those that urged him to reclaim himself. Otherwise he might fall into the trap that Libby had devised, or throw himself away in some apocalyptic way.
Libby wanted to marry him. He understood this and was tempted. The rewards would be free access to her body and home cooking. He had reached a critical point in his life. He wondered if the tic in her eye would ever go away. He was not the author of himself. He was whatever came into his head, but his future was already mapped out in the formal sense. He could have been anyone but he would always be himself. Thus his life with Libby would unfold where another life might have laid its tracks, overriding it but assuming its shape. He was not the author of himself.
A. did not have the courage to cut the cord that bound him to the world, but he was sorely tempted to and could imagine an impulsive moment when he would leap out of himself and seal his fate, irrevocably. A. was at war with himself. The wars he fought were in his mind. His will was not attuned to his desires or his dreams. He occupied space. He was in the world, bound by its imperatives. He ate, he drank, he slept, he defecated, he blew his nose, he transported himself from place to place, he observed his surroundings and reflected on his condition. He was what he had been and not what he could become. He was imprisoned in himself. He could not put his finger on what he was, other than saying that he was a sentient thing recording impressions and thinking thoughts that were just words and images that he watched unfolding in his mind though occasionally there was a stab of feeling or a mood settling over him or rather infusing him like a dye or a melody but even then he was and was not a part of himself.
A. stood back from the window and aimed the gun at a woman in the street. He could hear the shots in his head. He remembered the girl with the green eyes. Whenever he began to think about her he shut her out of his mind. He had killed her, even if she had killed herself. He did not wish to think about that at all. Of course Libby knew nothing about it, nor did he entertain her with tales of his childhood adventures. He did not feel the need to impress her in any way. He took her for granted. She was a sex object, as the saying went. Beyond that he had little interest in her.
Nonetheless, whenever Libby came over they spent a few uncomplicated hours in bed before dropping off to sleep. A. put the idea of marrying Libby out of his mind for the moment. The next morning they went to work together, pressed against each other in the crowded subway car. A. had an erection. He whispered to her that she might hang her purse on it. That came from Henry Miller. Libby giggled. She liked sexual jokes but generally A.'s witticisms went right over her head. At the plant A. walked up the stairs behind her and admired her fine calves. They parted in the corridor with a quick kiss. A. sat down at his desk in the big, open front room. Libby went into her office and closed the door. The fat matron who ran the Payroll department arrived a few minutes later with Tom Turner in tow. A. couldn't imagine that there was anything between them though sleeping with her would have been a surefire way to get ahead in the organization. Tom came through the big room now and said to A., "Libby in yet?" going through the motions of fondling an imaginary pair of oversized breasts so that there could be no mistake about whom he was referring to.
"Fuck off," A. said.
Tommy grabbed his crotch, that is, his own, and winked. At Libby's door he turned around and blew a kiss at A. A. told Libby when they were having lunch that the next time Tommy got too smart he was going beat the shit out of him. Libby said he was harmless.
"Does he start in with you?"
"Just once. But I slapped him."
"Good for you."
After lunch everyone settled down again. Pretty soon all the adding machines were going at once, making a horrendous racket. The big computer was also humming and chugging away. Long ribbons of adding machine tape were trailing everywhere like used toilet paper in a big latrine. Mr. Lattimer came through once or twice smoking his pipe and winking at everyone. Libby came out of her office and skipped through the big room, presumably on her way to the toilet. At 5 Tommy came out and made a show of buttoning his fly.
A. said, "Meet me out back."
"It'll be my pleasure," Tommy said
They met downstairs in the loading area. A surprising number of office workers showed up too to egg them on, standing on cars or hanging on to railings to get a better view. A. knew enough not to get too fancy. He threw a hard cross that hit Tommy squarely in the jaw and made him stagger back. Then he came in fast and unleashed a flurry of hard lefts and rights. Tommy went down and covered his face with his arms. There was a big cheer behind him. A. was contemplating kicking him in the head a few times when Mr. Lattimer came charging out of the building and pushed A. away. Maybe Libby had been talking to him because the first thing he said, to Tommy, was, "You're fired," and then to A., "Get upstairs and clean yourself up," though A. hadn't even broken a sweat. Tommy got up and limped away holding his side. Libby met A. on the staircase looking fretful. A. said, "He insulted you once too often." Libby said, "Oh, baby," and threw her arms around his neck, almost crying. "My hero," she said.
Libby got another assistant, this time a girl just out of high school who was more interested in boys than in time cards so Libby again ended up doing most of the work while the girl entertained the young men who came by to flirt with her under the pretext of clarifying their payslips. A. remained loyal to Libby, who had a far more inviting body. He looked forward to sleeping with her on the weekends and to reading the books he took out of the Library during the week but to little else, unless it was watching a ballgame on TV or sitting by the window with the rifle in his lap. Each day, however, he entertained many and diverse thoughts. This was his inner life. But when all was said and done it was not enough to lift his spirits. He was not after all insane but bound to the world. The world imprisoned him. He could only escape it by relinquishing it.
Occasionally, too, extraordinary events occurred in his own immediate surroundings. Mr. Evans' son was stabbed to death in a mugging. And a few months after Tommy Turner was fired, the fat matron in Payroll tried to hang herself. That was a shocker that had everyone talking for months. It was Mr. Lattimer who found her, getting the super to open her door after she didn't shown up for work or answer her phone for a couple of days. Apparently she had made a few unsuccessful attempts, unable to find a fixture of any kind that could hold her weight, and finally crashing down and breaking a leg. A. wondered if her attempted suicide had anything to do with Tommy. She may have entertained certain hopes in that regard. He imagined that once Tommy saw that he had no further use for her, he had severed the connection, just as A. might sever his connection with Libby if something more promising came along. In any case the fat matron quit her job and moved to another state. Libby, for her part, was hoping she'd get promoted now that there was an opening at the head of the department but Mr. Lattimer apparently didn't think she was ready for such a big step up the corporate ladder so he brought in a desiccated little man who had been doing this kind of thing for thirty years and soon made it clear who was boss. Otherwise, nothing out of the ordinary occurred until Camille was hospitalized with acute appendicitis but the doctors caught it in time and she was back at work within a week.
In this way another year passed. When A. picked up Libby at her house, the whole family observed him expectantly. These were Ozzie, Harriet and two teenage boys, her brothers. They must have spent a lot of time talking about him, with Libby in the middle reassuring them. She believed in their future and was determined to ensnare him. It occurred to A. that she might try to get pregnant. He used condoms but once or twice they had torn. He realized that this was not the place to skimp when he stopped in at the cutrate pharmacy for his Trojans. He would have been happier if she had used the pill or a diaphragm but then he would have had to monitor her. Ozzie and Harriet always tried to make him feel at home in the quarter hour or so that it took Libby to get ready when he came by. Harriet served him a big piece of her homemade apple pie and Ozzie sat down beside him and tried to engage him in conversation. The younger brothers just stared at him. One was in high school and one was in junior high. They both had acne and didn't look like the type of kids he would have wanted to hang out with when he was their age. Whenever they went out on a formal date, Libby always wore a new dress that swished or crackled, looking like she was on her way to a wedding. She also wore a garter belt for her stockings, three-inch heels, perfume, makeup and a lot of jewelry. Young men turned to look at her. She had a very dignified way of walking when she was dressed to kill, with her head held high as though dwelling in some rarefied stratosphere above the clouds and therefore relying completely on A. to steer her in the right direction. "How do you rate that?" some slimy youngster had asked him once in the street.
A. for his part wore his old suede jacket and chino pants. Sometimes he wore his scuffed suede shoes as well. Libby didn't seem to mind, as this was an improvement over what he generally wore in his leisure hours, and besides, the clothing issue could be straightened out once she took charge of his life. They slept together three or four times a month. Libby considered them engaged. Then one day they had sex in her bedroom when everyone was away. "This is like being married," she said. "It's nicer when you do it in your house."
"When is everyone coming back?"
"Can I stay over?"
"If you're a good boy."
She lived in a row house with her bedroom on the second floor overlooking the street. For dinner she insisted on making a roast to demonstrate her domestic skills. A. would have preferred a pizza or some chinks. The meal was okay though. A. wondered if the family had absented itself for just this purpose. They must have thought of themselves as playing for very high stakes. After the meal she put on a record and insisted that they dance. Then they made out a little on the sofa and afterwards they watched some TV. At 11 o'clock they went to bed. "Isn't this nice?" she said, and after he came inside her with a great moan she brushed the hair out of his eyes and added: "It could always be this good."
A. wondered. He rolled off her and caught his breath. As far as he was concerned he was through for the night, but Libby snuggled up against him and started cooing away. A. temporized until he was aroused again and then took her with a great deal of dirty talk but this didn't satisfy her either and she wanted to have another conversation so A. said, "I'm wiped out. Let's go to sleep."
In the morning she made pancakes. A. had them with coffee and then had some of mom's apple pie. Afterwards they took a walk. Libby wore one of her crinkly dresses and a fancy hat, looking like a churchgoer. They of course didn't go to church. They went to a record store on the busy main street of the neighborhood. A. didn't have a phonograph but Libby did so she bought a Bob Dylan record and also one by Peter, Paul and Mary. They had lunch in a kosher deli. Afterwards A. wanted to go back and have some more sex but Libby wanted to take another walk. They got back at three o'clock. Libby put on the Bob Dylan record. A. pulled at her arm until she agreed to go upstairs with him. He got into bed first while she dawdled on the other side of the room. "Come on, come on," he said.
"I'm not a whore," she said.
"Of course not," A. replied.
"You treat me like one."
"What are you talking about?"
"Just because it's free doesn't mean you can have me whenever you want."
"What does that mean?"
"You're not making any sense. It's the guys who pay for it that get it whenever they want. That's the whole idea."
"That's not what I'm talking about."
"So what are you talking about?'
She started crying of course. A. knew exactly what she was talking about. Her tears moved him. He held out his hand to her and pulled her toward him and found himself saying, "I love you," and she said, "Ask me to marry you," and he said, "Okay," and she said, "Well?" and he said "Well what?"
"Ask me," she said, almost in tears again.
"Will you marry me?" he said.
"Yes! Yes!" she cried and threw her arms around his neck.
A. laughed and said, "Calm down." He was not entirely averse to the idea. He recognized the advantages, had contemplated them in the past, and for a moment could believe that this too would be a kind of life, an ordinary life, though he had dreamed of conquering worlds. Certainly it would solve a lot of problems.
Afterwards they made love. Libby was as ardent as she'd ever been, A. less so. He was thinking about what being married to Libby would entail. Beyond the sex and the homecooked meals he couldn't see any real advantages, and in the end he'd have to pay for that too. He knew he'd have to develop a strategy for seeing her as little as possible. Working together was not a problem. In fact it was a spur or goad to his desire, as this was where she looked her best, elevated and slimmed down a bit on her high heels and the big breasts irresistible and efficient and forceful too in the way she went about her business. When Ozzie and Harriet got back with the two brothers, Libby announced that they were getting married. They could barely contain themselves, that is Ozzie and Harriet. The two brothers just blinked stupidly. One of them was picking his nose. Harriet gave him a big hug, that is A. Ozzie shook his hand and slapped him on the back; then he brought out the schnapps. By the time A. got back on the subway he was a little drunk. He might even have dozed off for a few minutes. He was not unhappy. He felt a little relieved. His future was now mapped out for him. Someone else would be doing his thinking for him.
Libby's parents now treated him like a son. It was clear to A. that the family had been a little anxious about her future, detecting the same propensity to roundness in her that A. had and thinking that the sooner she got married the better, even to someone like A., who had no real prospects that they could see though good at fighting and playing ball. She must have assured them that he could go pretty far in the bookkeeping trade as he could add and subtract rapidly and even multiply large numbers in his head.
Libby announced their engagement at work during a coffee break while A. stood sheepishly at her side and tried to smile. Afterwards Mr. Latimer called him into his office up on the fourth floor and they had a drink together. "I knew you kids would hit it off," he said.
"Well, I guess we did," A. replied.
"Have you thought much about your future here?"
"I can see it," A. said.
"My future here."
"I hope so. I've been thinking about bumping you up a notch."
"I'd like you to work with Mr. Boggs in Costing."
"That would be great," A. said.
"Good," Mr. Latimer said. "You'll be getting a ten-dollar raise too."
"Thank you," A. said.
"Don't mention it. You've earned it."
Libby was beside herself when he told her. She clapped her hands and said, "Hooray for you." She was still making a little more than he was, but that didn't bother him at all. He liked the idea of turning out quotes on a permanent basis. It was leisurely work, a little like writing poems. That was from Mr. Boggs, whose wife was a French professor, teaching literature, A. believed. He presented himself in Mr. Boggs' office the following Monday. Mostly he had to run around the building getting estimates from the various departments and then add in the fixed costs. After Mr. Boggs approved the quote, he had to get Mr. Lattimer's signature before bringing it over to the company treasurer for final approval and then down to Sales, which occupied the entire ground floor of the building. Some of the quotes were quite big, running into the millions of dollars. When they got a big contract, there was always a little celebration up in Mr. Lattimer's office. Making money put everyone in a good mood, even A., though he wasn't getting very much of it himself.
A. had begun his climb up the corporate ladder. Libby was proud of him. She bought him a second tie so that he could alternate it with the one he already had. From time to time she came into his office, especially if Mr. Boggs was out, and once she sat in his lap and let him feel her up. He liked the idea of an office romance with her better than the idea of marrying her. Mr. Boggs liked to light a cigarette at three o'clock in the afternoon and reminisce for an hour or so. A. would light a cigarette too on these occasions and occasionally nod or interject a few words to show Mr. Boggs that he was paying attention. Mr. Boggs had fought in France, which was where he had met his wife. They'd never had children. One of them was apparently sterile, it wasn't clear which. Occasionally they spoke in French on the phone. He called her "chérie." A. envied him, both for the fluent French and the educated French wife, not to mention their Upper East Side apartment, though he couldn't see what they had in common. He couldn't see what he had in common with Libby either. But it was too late now for second thoughts. She had roped him in. He was corralled.
A. bought a suit for the wedding. Libby helped him pick it out. He asked her if she thought he needed a new pair of shoes, hoping she'd say no, but she of course said yes so he had to buy them too. She stopped sleeping with him a month before the wedding so that the wedding night would be special, as she put it. A. masturbated once or twice but found that in general he was calmer now that his fate was sealed. Nonetheless he took out the rifle once or twice and pointed it in the direction of the street. He could hear the shots ringing out in his head. He imagined shooting Libby and Ozzie and Harriet and the two brothers and then climbing high above the street and picking off passers-by one by one. That was a motif, the shots ringing out in his head. He didn't really know what it was trying to tell him but he found the note of finality very satisfying. Of course he couldn't really kill Libby and spoil her wedding preparations. He was still a sensitive soul. He was aware that this must have been the high point of her life. It was considerably less than that for A. He was just being swept along.
Harriet had her hair done. Ozzie had him fitted out for a tux, insisting that he wear it instead of his new suit. A. bought a few paperbacks to keep himself occupied during the honeymoon, two Ed McBains and an Eric Ambler. Of course he figured there'd be plenty of sex too and he was looking forward to it as well as seeing a few shows and knocking down a few stiff shots of Glenfiddich. A. wasn't averse to having a good time. In the meanwhile Libby found an apartment in Brooklyn not far from her parents' place and A. moved into it a couple of weeks before the wedding. He regretted giving up his apartment in Manhattan. Libby was there almost every day, getting it ready, but she wouldn't sleep over so A. had the big double bed to himself. However, he found it hard to sleep. In his heart he knew he was making a big mistake. He thought of Eliot's line, something about a pair of ragged claws. He had the Collected Poems but it was still packed in one of his boxes. It was Libby who did the unpacking when she came over after work, apparently not expecting A. to bestir himself, though she would hand him each item, telling him where it was to be put, unless it was obvious, as in the case of the books, which went in the bookcase. Ozzie and Harriet came over to have a look. Harriet said, "This is nice." Ozzie said, "It sure is." Harriet reminisced about her early days with Ozzie. "We lived in a place just like this." Ozzie had apparently worked as a shoe salesman before he went into haberdashery. Harriet had been a switchboard operator before she started having babies. Libby regarded her parents fondly. This was cherished family history. One day, if things worked out, A. himself would be inspecting an apartment just like this one for a son or daughter. The daughter would look like Libby and the son might look like A., being carbon copies, miniatures or younger versions, but A. would not really be connected to any of them, would not see himself in the boy, would not remember himself as he had been, only regretting what he might have been.
A. sat alone in the new apartment a few days before the wedding thinking about his life. It would be untrue to call this a decisive moment. We have spoken of critical points but only in the sense that they drew him further and further away from the possibility of living an authentic life. In these years there were no decisive moments. He was fated to become what he was. And yet in each successive moment he recognized his own farthest possibility and contemplated it as though it were obtainable. He contemplated too the gun standing upright and ready for use in the bedroom closet though Libby did not know it was there. He thought of the freedom it would give him, freedom from the world and the possibility of having a world, casting him into distant space alone in himself, floating free. These thoughts came into his head of their own accord. He did not will them. He was not, strictly speaking, responsible for them though the world would hold him accountable for what he did. Something in him surely belonged to him and that was called his will though there was something beside it or behind it that could curb it and that was called his conscience. But his will and his conscience operated without the mediation of conscious thought. They presented themselves to him as voices or images or urges heard, seen or felt. He was like a spectator in the theater of his mind. He could not say who or what he was.
A. slept alone in the big double bed that Libby had gotten for their bedroom. She was already officially on vacation from work with another week to come for their honeymoon after the wedding. In the morning he made eggs for breakfast and took the subway into Manhattan. In the evening he ate one of the meals that Libby or her mother had prepared for him and put in the freezer. Then he watched television until Libby phoned with the next day's instructions. Generally they involved things he had to pick up in Manhattan. They were on very intimate terms now, already sharing a life. A. looked forward to sleeping with her again and thought about her big breasts. One of her eyes was always half-closed now, with the eyelid fluttering when she was agitated. He could live with that. He wondered how she would look with an eyepatch. He doubted if she could carry it off in her current physical shape. She wasn't the type in any case. He imagined going blind and walked around the apartment with his eyes closed for a while. He got pretty good at it. He remembered a cartoon about Oedipus by Jules Feiffer. He read for a while and watched a ballgame. He was counting the days now. His future had been mapped out for him and he was eager to begin living it as he had no other prospects. As the wedding day approached things got hectic and then feverish. Everyone was involved in the arrangements except A., who was thought of as holding the fort, as Ozzie put it – the fort being the apartment, he supposed – though all he really did there was watch TV and walk around with his eyes closed. Personally he was completely settled in. He had his books on shelves and his six pairs of underwear, his dozen pairs of socks, his eight shirts and his three pairs of pants in a chest of drawers. In the closet he kept a coat, a windbreaker, a dressy jacket, two ties, his new suit and his gun. That was all there was.
Libby called the day before the wedding and told him what time to be there and how he was going to get there. She also told him to run down to the deli and get bagels and lox so that they'd have something to eat the morning after before catching their plane. A. had been entrusted with the tickets. When he got back from the deli he transferred the tickets to the inside pocket of his jacket and laid the jacket over the back of a kitchen chair. As far as he was concerned he was ready for the big day.
There were two eclairs in the refrigerator. He had thought to save one for breakfast but couldn't resist having them both with his coffee. Afterwards he washed out his coffee cup and made sure nothing was out of place in the kitchen. He figured Libby would appreciate that and be better able to focus on getting ready for bed when they got back after the wedding. He had looked through her things and saw that she had some very sexy lingerie. He imagined making love to her and got a little excited. He believed she had lost a little weight over the last month or so after putting herself on a strict diet. This had nothing to do with looking good for him, he surmised, but with looking good at the wedding. He had the feeling that she took him for granted now that the knot was about to be tied. She had reeled him in. He was landed, though it was of course not too late for evasive action. He could bolt, as it was put – disappear, vanish, leave her in the lurch, turn up in another city and start his life again, or even leave the country. That would have been highly embarrassing to all concerned, but not to him. He would have gotten out while the going was good. He wouldn't have to face the music.
A. sat on the double bed with the gun standing upright between his legs. He had slipped in the magazine so it was ready for use. He didn't really know what he was doing. Impulse drove him. He was not the author of himself. Then he walked to the window and looked down into the street.
Fred Skolnik was born in New York City and has lived in Israel since 1963. He is best known as the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal. He is also the author of The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011), an epic novel depicting Israeli society at a critical juncture in its recent history. A second novel, Death, was published by Spuyten Duyvil in May 2015. His stories and essays have appeared in over 150 journals, including TriQuarterly, Gargoyle, The MacGuffin, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Words & Images, Literary House Review, Montréal Review, Underground Voices, Third Coast, Word Riot, The Recusant, and Polluto. Under a pen name, he published two novels in 2014: Rafi's World and The Links in the Chain.
"Scenes from an Unlived Life" is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress called Things Unsaid, which is a modern retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid. (Updated April 2015)
Born in 1979, Elahe Behin studied graphic design at Tehran University. She is a member of ASIFA (Society of Iranian Animation Filmmakers) and a member of the Iranian Illustrators Society. She has experiences working as a graphic designer for several advertising companies, illustrating several books for children and adults. She also participated in the production of several short animations. She is a prize winner at the 8th Tehran International Animation Festival, 2013. She currently lives in Rasht, Iran where she works in her studio. Her works can be found here. (Updated May 2015)