AN OUTSIDE SMILE–MARKHAM SIGLER
Some time ago a man moved in next door. There was something about him, perhaps the way he walked, or the way he politely said hello, that made him the subject of speculation between my wife and I. He was 44, he was 28. He was from Hawaii, Morocco, Russia. Software engineer, state capital, degenerate, graduate student studying the architecture of the former Near East, welder, mailman, Hitchcockian spy.
“I am experiencing difficulty pinpointing the quality,” I said.
My wife looked at me thoughtfully.
“I think what you’re referring to is a certain disturbingly elegant quirkiness,” she said. “Or even detachment, a sense of cool. The Japanese have a word for this. Ekkae, or something like that. I think it creates a magical aura about him.”
We were sitting on the balcony of our uptown apartment complex drinking lavender tea. Ama ran her hand over her belly, which was playing rental to our first child. I ran my hand through my long, rockstar hair.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s it exactly.”
“In any case he seems like a very interesting guy.”
“I need to bring him into the fold,” I said. “I haven’t worked myself up to it yet. This kind of thing is easy, typically. Unfortunately not with him. But also, don’t you see, fortunately. It’s this two-sidedness that alerts us to his beauty.”
“Of course. Of course I see this.”
A few days later I ran into him in the hallway. It was an early Saturday morning and I was on my way to the firehouse to begin a shift. He was exiting the elevator with a stack of colored mail in his arms. My instincts took over, my schtick of harmlessness. I often resorted to a kind of insipidly quaint jargon when I was attempting to overwhelm a stranger with goodwill.
However, I was stunned into silence by the fact that he wore curlers in his hair. I had never seen a man with curlers in his hair. I felt a wave of inferiority wash through me, cleansing me of the day’s emotional security. He wore a splendid robe and navy silk pajama bottoms. He gave me an outside smile.
“Good morning,” he said.
We parted ways. I stumbled into the elevator and thought of what excellent material this would make for Ama and I.
I was reclining on the couch, contemplating my performance at last night’s disc golf outing. Often I went at dusk to join friends from all walks of life, the world fading into pink, intelligent men flanked by glorious hounds. The dogs were more beautiful than their humans at this point in evolution. I shot a little under par.
My wife’s phone rang from the bedroom. There was a book on my chest. I listened to her clear voice tickle my mind like a light wind over a blade a grass. She exited our bedroom and stood over me, benevolently uninterested in what I was reading.
“Well it’s official,” she said.
“Jeremy and Kelli are moving to Mexico.”
“Mexico,” I said.
She started cleaning the coffee table and I let the word roll around my mouth. I mouthed it slowly and carefully, trying to fathom its lexical mystery. Jeremy and Kelli were professors at UT, chemists who had become disgusted with the draconian mechanics of higher education.
“They have some money saved up. Jeremy wants to be a gardener. Kelli thinks she can find something teaching. It may not last. I thought there was a chance they would go to Australia. But I’m glad they chose Mexico.”
“Why don’t we ever talk about moving abroad and being bums?”
“Because we’re happy,” she said.
I smiled and watched her move about the room. Eventually she moved out of sight and I lay there, feeling the weight of the book on my chest. A leaf blower whirled on the streets. Ama reappeared with a small glass of vegetable juice. I was in a comic mood.
“Are you going to ask me if I want anything?” I said.
“I’m sorry, Honey. Do you want anything?”
“No. I’m all right. Thanks.”
“You know what this means.”
“We can finally become the default partyhosters. With Kelli and Jeremy out of the way, no one can stop us!” She laughed her pretend-evil laugh. It was almost a chortle.
We had discussed the prospects of being the default partyhosters for many moons. It was a fantasy of Heideggerian becoming. I fantasized about what it might do for our sex life, which had changed in recent years. Outside forces were increasingly welcomed.
I had told Ama I felt like she was my sister. I told her she was beginning to resemble a character in a video game from the nineties. She said she thought of me as a brother, a hot brother, a brother she wanted to make unlawful intercourse with. That defined our sex life for six months, and resulted in our currently unborn son.
I did not play many video games when I was growing up in the nineties. Still, this was where my mind went.
There was a table in the center of the firehouse. From the time I’d joined it had been there, a table with many purposes and a single, true purpose. We gathered there to play Texas hold’em. A certain outline of the sky was assumed and we wandered to the table like desert mystics upon a mirage. I stayed close to the table in my downtime, napping in my hammock, and when the table was three quarters full, I rolled out and made my way to my seat.
Lambert looked at me suspiciously.
“What’s on your mind, Vic?”
I looked at him.
“What a strange thing to say.”
“You look preoccupied. You never look preoccupied. You are the opposite of preoccupied. You are unoccupied. An unoccupied man. This is your role. You receive our occupations and discard them into the great psychological wasteland, located in equal parts in Greenland and on Uranus.”
I scowled at him and shuffled the cards. Tello sat next to me and took his glasses off and put them back on. Chief Farrow walked into the room and peered at us over his mustache.
“Vic,” he roared.
“Captain,” I said, dealing.
“What the hell’s the matter with you. Did you get caught with your hand in your pants again?”
“You don’t look like yourself,” he roared. “Be yourself. Be the empty vessel you were made to be.”
He exited the room with a flair that was almost dandy-like.
(The best leaders are wallflowers, especially in the circumstances exhibiting their leadership.)
Silver said that he had news. He was well-built and handsome as a lawyer. His wife had been a finalist for Ms. Texas twenty years ago. Now she was an accountant.
“Yesterday I became the first coach to be banned from Laguna Little League. The other coaches came together and decided it was best for all parties involved if I were banned. I yell at the umpires too much. They said I have a problem. Two umpires are in therapy. They want the league to pay. I need help. I’ve won three league championships in a row.”
“Guys,” I said. “Ama and I are thinking about names for the firstborn. Here are some theoreticals: Vill, Notosho, Yomaha, Domino, Tray, Zim, Amos, Board, Consul, Woody.”
“Yomaha,” Tello said.
We all appeared to take this under consideration. I’d dealt myself pocket nines.
I was biking home, drunk and pleased. There was something sacred to me about these fleeting moments as a semi-alcoholic, the ones when you are drunk and alone. Returning home from a night at the brewery with my mates, staying upright on the bike with Jackie Chan precision, swaying and still, I was an exaggeration of myself, a sweet parody merely enjoying the fruits of God’s creation.
I locked my bike up outside the complex. I was gregarious enough to invite a homeless man to sleep on the couch. Cats slank from the alleyway, streetlamp green. I tried to engage a mottled brown and gold one in a staring contest. Then I realized the new neighbor was standing besides the cat.
“Neighbor,” I said. “Where did you come from?”
He looked at me for a few seconds, somewhat taken aback. He was wearing a maroon jump suit. Adidas.
“Looking sharp,” I said.
“Tell me friend, what’s your name? Wait let me guess. Is it Eli?”
We were standing in front of the building. Animal distance between us.
“No, it’s not Eli.”
“Is your name Oregon?”
He laughed. “Good guess.”
“Tell me your name, friend,” I said, moving a little closer.
I cursed myself. It was so standard, lurking in the Venn diagram. He laughed and asked me my name. I introduced myself (I am Vic) and ushered him into the building. We entered the elevator in a state of organizing respect.
“And your wife’s name?” he said.
An innocent if not amusing question, I almost said aloud.
“I’d invite you in to meet her but she’s probably sleeping and wouldn’t like that. Plus,” I whispered. “She’s with child.”
He raised his eyebrows. The elevator door opened. I realized I was inviting him to invite me into his home. We stopped at his door and I believed, momentarily, that he was realizing his responsibility. It was well past midnight. I thought I’d save him the trouble, perform an act of everyday martyrdom, seeing a perfect image of him in front of tomorrow’s computer screen, programming for the NSA not because he was a patriot but because he was a soulful student of his capacity, a mercenary for the Self.
“Well Luke. One hell of a pleasure. Next time we’ll have to do this over a meal. Drinks. Although you don’t look like much of a drinker.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to come in? I thought you were coming in.”
I looked at him a little crazy-eyed.
“No. You must work tomorrow. Rest up. We’ll catch each other down the road.” I patted him on the shoulder and scurried into my room. Ama turned over as I cleaned myself in the bathroom.
“Dear,” I said, scrubbing my teeth. “You’ll never believe what happened.”
“Tell me.” She spoke in her delicious squeaky voice.
“I met our newest friend. His name is Luke. He wears Adidas jumpsuits after midnight and transmogrifies into cats.”
“That’s great,” she smiled.
“It is, isn’t it?” I said, getting into bed and gently mounting her.
There was a sense of drama in the air. Life took on that special frequency, everything zapped with the meaning only culture can provide. I started going to Luke’s in the evenings, twice a week, and sometimes he joined Ama and I at our place for dinner and tea (short lovely Ama looking like a fine ball of yarn). We learned that Luke was a librarian at the university and found it delightful that he had never crossed paths with Ama, an art history instructor. He was thirty-seven, had lived in Austin for four years, had moved here from California. He studied Arabic at NYU and wanted to become an archaeologist before he learned that archaeologists were extinct, a quip we all laughed well at. He moved to Austin for the same reasons everyone moves to Austin, Portland, Asheville, Boulder, and one day, Reno, Nevada: He had nothing better to do; plus, here, there were no state income taxes.
Ama and I began to plan a party. It wasn’t necessarily that we had never hosted a party before. This party would be the first, however, to define the entirety of our world.
I went over to Luke’s to tell him. I liked to wonder if he was safekeeping a Nicaraguan hooker or leading a virtual ibogaine ritual. He kept floor pillows spaced around a table. They were brilliantly colored. I would never ask where he bought them.
“Luke, we’re having a party. We want you to be the guest of honor,” I said as he handed me a cup of red mint tea. I could tell the bit about being guest of honor tickled him.
“I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”
“Something on your mind?”
“Is there?” he said.
“I’m not one to pry.”
“It’s nothing. Here, I’ll show you something.”
We placed our tea on coasters and walked into the hallway. We entered the last room, a small room. Naturally it was a shrine. Luke said nothing. The thing that caught my attention was the battle-axe on the back wall. It had an ivory handle some two feet long, and the mere sight of the blade had a way of silencing the mind. The axe was terrific. It made me think of a child’s warbly head. I looked at this thought, watched its meanings diffract across my mind. In a room like this it was possible to have such thoughts.
“Do you know what people are naming their sons these days?”
“Tell me,” I said.
“Axel. They’re naming their sons Axel.”
He didn’t look at me. He wasn’t really looking at anything. My eyes settled on the axe.
“Axe,” I said.
“Yes. Different from an axel. But not so different.”
We stood there. He looked at me and smiled in that gentle way of his.
Ama was on the balcony, brushing her hair. I watched her from inside the sliding door, trying to remember what the door was made of. It was the night of the party. Her stomach bulged. I was wearing my hippie headband with its informal tribal designs.
The cast of characters rolled in, names and faces from the spectrum of Austin, Texas. Denise and Lyndon, who owned a tidy record store across from Whole Foods. Tello and his new wife, frail and smiling. Conservative Silver, Ms. Texas and two of their boys. Other firemen, Ama’s UT colleagues, book club friends—including Lila, a Lebanese dance instructor for small children with whom I intended to set Luke up. A 30-year-old man named Will I had met when I acted in a local indie film, remarkable for his spiky gray hair and affluent void of personality.
I sat in the center of the room, rolling joints, singing along to Frank Sinatra, and slowly the party began. Two drinks. The sight of the host rolling joints. Ama was marvelous in action, swirling around the room. Will sat next to me and looked at the joints. I held one up to him and grinned. He recoiled, bleakly, a sense of intrepid despair about him. I liked the guy. He only wanted to talk about books and other deep things. He played the guitar. One day they would find him in his home, a pool on the floor, his eyeballs looking back at you with a kind of open-handed resentment.
Things picked up. Men arm wrestled in the kitchen. Ama turned on the electronic music station and started bouncing around the living room, fists clenched. I canine-smiled, palming my wine. Silver’s kids and I laid bets on which single men would encroach upon which single women. Ama appeared at my side eating a celery stick.
I looked carefully around the room. “I don’t know.”
“I thought we were going to introduce him to Lila?” she said.
“That was our intention.”
“Well, you should go fetch him. He’s just being shy.”
I looked at her. She was perfect. I handed the joint to Silver’s older son and walked over to Luke’s. There was a mild delay before he answered the door.
“Vic,” he said.
“Luke. There’s a party going on next door. What are you doing? A beautiful woman? A dancer? Who is already fascinated by you? She’s Lebanese.”
“I was just on my way, my friend.”
He stepped out and extended his hand, allowing me to go first. We entered the room. I felt royal, like everyone I touched would become divinely ecstatic. Luke was careful not to hover as though he expected anything of me, but I took him by the arm and led him to certain gatherings I felt would assimilate him. He shook hands with Will. I avoided Silver. Some of Ama’s book club friends looked at him. Margo was tall and red-haired, the alpha by way of being the most extroverted.
“Ladies, this is my friend Luke. He’s a librarian.”
“I knew he was something.”
“Look at you. You’re beautiful,” Margo said.
Luke was laughing quietly. I left to get him a drink. Tello, Jackson (a firefighter) and the Allens, handsome young men who were on the staff of the UT soccer team, were sitting on the bar stools around the kitchen counter. Lila was there. They were all staring at her while she drank and talked. She spoke with an intense melancholy as though it were some kind of sport. She made eye contact with one of the brothers, her expression floating on her face. The brother looked at her.
Denise came out of the sprawl and grabbed my arm while I was mixing Luke’s drink. We were always taking each other by the arms. She and Lyndon were our two oldest friends in the city. She wore a pixie cut and UT pajama pants.
“Who is your friend?”
“Is that the curly-haired boy’s name?”
“There’s a line and a fifty-five dollar entrance fee.”
“Take me to him.”
We passed through the bodies. I basked in the smoke and sidelong glances, the disembodied sound. Margo had her fingers wrapped around Luke’s shoulder, looking deep into his eyes. I stood there and coughed loudly.
“Luke, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
Denise took Luke by the shoulder.
“Don’t let this scare you. You look like the man I’ve been dreaming about for months. Not sexually. Tell me about yourself.”
“I studied with a charlatan in the Amazon for a year after I left graduate school,” Luke said. “He ate leaves. He taught me to play the ritual wind instrument. I experienced the sensation of being killed for sustenance by a wild animal.”
I led Margo away. We sat together on the couch, a place that has the quality of a forcefield, a place necessary at such a gathering. I asked her about the single life. She was newly divorced, an increasingly wealthy real estate agent. She licked her lips and slipped into an ennui I’d never noticed in her, an ennui that can captivate a refined acquaintance. She said she hadn’t this much sex since she was in high school.
The volume of the party continued to rise. I burrowed into my closet, looking for a trick, leaving with the suction cups Ama had gotten me for my birthday. There were four of them. Everyone crowded into the living room, cheering.
“Four!” I shouted.
I slipped them on and clambered up the side of the wall, inhaled and made my way across the ceiling. I didn’t stop, moving across the ceiling, alligator horizontal. The guests roared their approval. It was fantastic.
Ama and a man were on the balcony. They were talking, laughing. The city sparkled behind them: dim, mature sparkle. The man put his hands on the parapet. The night moved into the portion of coolness. Certain people left, others chilled, the real ones, that is, the ones who minimized obligations. I wanted the man to be flirting with Ama in a deferential way. I wanted him to offer her a cigarette and then recoil at his incivility, glancing softly at her stomach.
A clamor originated from the living room. My eyes shot over to see Luke towering over Denise, his eyes large and fiery discs. Initially it seemed as though Denise might defend herself, but her aura fell into resignation, sitting into the couch. It was clear Luke didn’t intend to harm her.
When he left, I walked over to Denise and sat down. I thought of innocence.
“It started when I told him he needed a haircut. I could tell this hurt him. It hurt him deeply. The idea that I thought I needed to say such a thing, to de-individualize him, in passing. I think this is the key. In passing.”
“Nothing is in passing with old Luke,” I said. “He is always on.”
“What’s the use of that if you can’t hold a conversation.”
Denise crossed her legs.
“I don’t blame him, in essence. It was trite of me to say. Boring, Vic. We try to implant ourselves in others by telling them how they should eliminate certain segments of their reality.”
“But that wasn’t the remark that did you in. There was more.”
“Yes, Vic, there was. We were discussing homelessness. I was telling him about the volunteer work I do. I told him that if one of the people I serve is able to make a better life for themselves in the world, then I’ve done well. He asked me what I meant by ‘done well.’ I said, ‘That I’ve used my time and my privilege to bring someone’s level of life satisfaction up.’ To improve their relationship with the world. He wondered if it mattered, the distinction between the homeless and the Valero clerk. I told him that was a cruel thing to say. It slipped out. But that wasn’t the remark that did me in. He just laughed. Not maliciously, of course.”
I glanced at the balcony window. I wanted to enjoy the way Ama was looking at the man, who at this point I suspected was either one of the brothers or a mystery colleague who had arrived late. I didn’t want to miss this. Denise spoke.
“My assessment of his cruelty entertained him. Maybe it should have. Who am I, Vic? I asked him why he was laughing. He said it didn’t matter. He suggested we move on to another subject. This is where it happens. I tell him he shouldn’t be afraid of things that make him uncomfortable. A darkness comes over his eyes. A wall comes between us. He stands up suddenly, knocking his leg against the table. That was that, Vic. That was that.”
I felt my inner mule nodding. It was so easy. Nodding. I looked at the balcony window. No one there.
In the days that followed I considered starting a journal. Again time pretends. I stand on the balcony and my eyes sweep downward, my eyes trace the building. I see a blackbird with a yellow bill poking from a small hole in the wall. Winter is just months away.
I found it interesting how effortlessly we gave Luke his space. Ama and I discussed names. I thought of the name Axel sentimentally, as though it were derived from big-screen sci-fi.
I arrived home one evening, drunk. Luke was leaning against a car in front of the building. He wore black leggings and a baggie red hoodie. Hood up. Smile with an idea of menace. I felt a boyish fear, standing with my bike. The automatic door opened and a girl walked out. She had a perm and a skinny body, she moved with striking poise. She reminded me of a cigarette. She looked at me, not without the expected admirable disgust, and wrapped herself around Luke. I thought she was twenty years old.
“Say hey, Mr. G,” she said to me.
She smacked her gum at me.
“Don’t mind her, Vic.”
“Luke. How are you?”
“I’ve been better old friend. I’ve been better.”
I asked them if they had a big night planned.
“Who do you think you are, Mr. G?”
I found the girl’s character impressive.
“It’s nothing,” I said.
“Then why do you ask? To make conversation, I guess. Why do people feel like they have to make conversation, baby?”
She put her head against Luke’s chest. Luke had a sorry expression on his face. I wanted to leave the situation. There was an understanding between me and Luke. I watched him reach behind the girl toward the hood of the car and saw the battle-axe emerge over her head. It was beautiful for many reasons, and I thought that its out-of-placeness was perhaps the most beautiful, the way it brought together the manmade environment, suggesting a locus of dangerous desire. I knew I was in no danger. I just looked at him, and he looked at me. We each looked at the other with luminous passivity. His sorry expression almost sorrier, my drunkenness becoming lame in its observant heart. The girl smacking her gum. I told them to have a good night and walked into the building. Ama was asleep. She didn’t wake up as I brushed my teeth. The baby was due in less than a month.
We were awakened early by sirens, a beating on the neighbor’s door, voices. I woke from a deep sleep and worried for people’s safety. Ama nuzzled into me and I held her. The knocking moved to our door. I walked through the apartment with my head held high. I was happy, somehow. A young Hispanic police officer told me good morning. He asked me if I knew my neighbor, Luke.
As I opened my mouth to repeat the officer’s question, I had a vision of myself on the balcony, looking downward on the street. Six police cars were assembled with the flavor of a placebo. The girl was sitting on the hood of the car, surrounded by officers, gesturing. Luke was being ushered into the back of another car, folding into the back seat. I was telling my son that I knew the first twenty-first century man to believe in God.
Markham Sigler is from Corpus Christi, Texas. His work has also appeared in Every Day Fiction, Molotov Cocktail and Revolution John.