It was a day when some other things would occur. Sherman's ex-wife was coming by early to help him pick wallpaper for his den. Sherman's den was a den only in name. There was a TV there; that's true enough. It was an old Sylvania and still had rabbit ears on top of it. Sherman didn't watch much TV. The room also held the boxes of manuscripts that Sherman had accomplished over his long life. It was quite a collection. There were maybe twenty stacks of boxes. About three decades worth.
Sherman was not a writer, exactly. He had never had an original thought. These manuscripts were other people's novels that he had retyped, bound with large clips and put away in boxes. He would often say, paraphrasing Nabokov, of whom he had a box, "There are no good writers; there are only good rewriters. " One box held 13 Faulkners. There was a box of beat novels: On the Road, Naked Lunch, Go. He had a couple of boxes of postmodernists: Giles Goat Boy, The Origin of the Brunists, Lime Twig, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. He had an Eastern-European box, carefully retyped copies of the slim works of Bruno Schulz and Danilo Kis. Sherman's favorite box was his Iris Murdoch box. It was fat with manuscripts, practically bursting at the edges.
There were boxes for classics, too, of course. The Brontes, the Russians, all of Melville, a small box of Kafka. When asked what he did Sherman always answered truthfully: I am working on a novel.
So, Sheila wanted the room's faded wallpaper stripped away and replaced with something "gayer." She said the word with no irony. Sheila had no irony, no sense of humor, though she had a sense of space to beat the band. She fancied herself an interior decorator though she really sold real estate.
Also, on the agenda this day, their son, Kurt, was coming over to spend the afternoon. Sherman told Kurt that they could do whatever he wanted—shoot the works, his choice 100%, just name it. Kurt said that he wanted to watch a show about skateboarders on TV. That was the afternoon.
And, finally, sometime during this overplanned day, Sherman's girlfriend, Trudy, was bringing food and "something naughty." This is what she whispered into the receiver that morning, though she lived alone and there was no one within shouting distance who would have heard her speak the off-color phrase "something naughty." Trudy was leaving it up to Sherman's imagination to try and solve this erotic riddle. Sherman knew without even wasting one grey cell on the process what Trudy's version of naughty would be. Trudy would be wearing a thong. She had talked about thongs non-stop for a week, after they had seen a statuesque actress in a movie wearing one. Trudy had poked Sherman's ribcage and hissed in his ear, "That's called a ththong. Would you like to see me in one?" Sherman had smiled. She poked him again, "Well, wouldja?' Sherman turned politely toward her and mouthed, "Yes."
All the way home from the theater and all that night and the next day Trudy was on about the thong. In truth, though Trudy's figure was rather pear-shaped, Sherman had pictured her in a thong—a rather inane and oddly incongruous thought—and been aroused. Perhaps he was superimposing that statuesque actress's hindquarters onto his girlfriend, whose own caboose resembled, well, a caboose. Whatever the case, Sherman was indeed looking forward to this small addition to their lovemaking repertoire. Sitting at his computer that morning, retyping Riceyman Steps, Sherman had a half-mast erection as his mind typed the word "thong."
What brought Sherman back down to Earth, so to speak, was the knowledge that his hat was being blocked. Right then, while he simmered through Arnold Bennett and half-formed concupiscent contemplation. His hat, his Panama, had suddenly, as if he had woken up into someone else's hat after a Rip Van Winkle sleep, stopped fitting. And now it was out of his hands.
His callipygian girlfriend Trudy called again mid-morning. She was chipper. Sherman hated chipper. Say what you will about his shrewish ex-wife she was never chipper.
"So, anyway," she launched right in. "How long do you think this paper thing will take?"
Sherman could hear her dangerously long fingernails tapping a tinny tattoo.
"Don't know," Sherman sighed
"What's wrong, Bunky?" Now Trudy was all maternal.
"Nothing. Got a lot going on here."
"Besides the ex and the son, what? You working on a new book?"
"Hm? Yes. Riceyman Steps."
"Chink novel?" Trudy asked.
Sherman quaked and quivered. His heart sank as he thought about his girlfriend and her primitive ways. An existential nausea traveled down his shins into his loafers.
"Yes," Sherman said. "Er, no. no. The Chinese are not well-known for—oh forget it—"
"Ok, Mr. Snip," Trudy said, nails tapping.
Sherman let a quiet simmer answer.
"I should come late afternoon then? After 3?"
This had already been established. Sherman groaned with the weight of non-love.
"Right," Sherman managed.
"Don't forget the you-know-what."
"No-you-don't," Trudy sang.
Sherman hung up.
Sheila arrived with a tall thin man in tow. He looked sheepish and apologetic, for just what it was hard to say. Sorry he was taking up space it seemed.
"Sherm, this is Ike Bana. He knows walls," Sheila said, pecking Sherman on the cheek. She smelled like caraway.
"Ok," Sherman said.
"Sorry," Ike Bana said, extending a hand.
"You see the problem," Sheila started right in. "This has got to come down." She reached her hand near but did not touch the offending wallpaper. "This is Graceland chic, I think." Here she splintered a laugh.
"Yes," Ike Bana said. "Sorry," he turned toward Sherman.
Sherman gave him a tight smile, almost sympathy. His mind was a million miles away. Well, not a million, but a few. At Michelagnoli Hats. On Cooper Avenue.
It didn't matter. They didn't need Sherman. Sheila was not going to ask his opinion on anything anyway. So he backed away slowly. Found his way to his keyboard and sat and stared at the screen. He had never had writer's block, that was what he thought suddenly, and it was a great comfort to him.
Sheila and Ike Bana spun around the room like ballroom dancers, from this wall to that. Making little simpering noises, sharing little sniffs, dusting their immaculate hands and saying to no one in particular, "Ok."
"Done?" Sherman said, looking up.
"Right," Sheila said, that confident smirk on her mug like a lipstick stain.
"Ok then," Sherman said. He was searching for the magic word that initiated departure.
"You've got, well, you've got some problems here," Sheila began.
Sherman sensed a long sermon mounting.
"You have my blessing," Sherman cut in. "Do what you will."
Sheila pursed her lips as if Sherman were lemonade.
"Of course," she said, gathering her handbag and samples.
"Sorry," Ike Bana said, again shaking hands with Sherman. When Sherman's hand died a limp death in mid-shake Ike Bana pulled his hand back again and offered this parting sanction: Sorry.
Sherman fixed a simple lunch, some cheese, some bread, and ate it at his desk. This Arnold Bennett was shaping up nicely.
When Kurt arrived, all huffing and backpack slinging, he caught his father in a catnap, head on desk.
"Up, Pops," he said in the blithe way teens have of speaking to their progenitors.
"Mm," Sherman said, half rising, stretching like a grimalkin.
"TV working," Kurt said. It was sort of a question.
"Yes, yes, I think so," Sherman said, head full of popcorn. "You drive over?" Kurt didn't have a driver's license yet, though he was old enough. It was never really clear to Sherman what was going on about this. Supposedly his mother was taking him to get his learner's permit but that never seemed to happen. How Kurt got from place to place always seemed a mystery.
Kurt looked at his shoes.
"So, what do you want to do?" Sherman asked, rubbing his fuzzy head. Conversation started to come back to him, how to do it, what it was for.
"We can't watch TV," Kurt said, again the ambiguity between query and statement.
"Well, sure, sure we can. I just thought—" What did Sherman think?
Sherman often these days found it difficult to talk to his son. It almost made him nervous, the attempt. He strained to find a subject matter they could coast with. He never did. He knew nothing about his son, about his son's life, his interests. Kurt was sixteen. Sherman was pretty sure about that.
Kurt was already fiddling with the knobs on the TV, frustrated clearly by the fuzzy pictures he was getting.
"It's on network?" Sherman started just as the picture began to talk. It did appear to be a skateboarding show, of all things.
Kurt fell backwards onto the couch. Kurt's backpack hit the floor simultaneously.
"Well," Sherman said. "Mind if I just work on my novel? Will that bother you, the typing?"
"No," Kurt said. He never asked about his father's novels. For all his son knew Sherman could be in line for the Nobel Prize, if he knew what the Nobel Prize was, or how one got it.
Sherman turned toward the screen, awkwardly, at his left elbow, keeping his old Doran copy of Riceyman Steps open with a stapler. Part Four, part one. At the window. He began to tap away in earnest. Kurt got up and turned up the volume on the TV. The announcer sounded like he was 18. The near hysterics of his voice felt like an electric current in Sherman's head.
Sometime later, after Sherman had typed many pages, he realized his son was standing, already shouldering the backpack, the TV off. Kurt's face was placid, bored.
"Wh—" Sherman said as if coming up for air.
"Bryn's here," Kurt said.
Sherman had no idea who Bryn was. "Ok," he said.
Kurt was halfway out the door when Sherman remembered to say, "I love you."
Stupidly, Sherman looked at the TV as if for an answer. His room was suddenly emptier than it had ever been. No one lives here, Sherman said to no one.
When Trudy arrived Sherman looked at his watch. Then he remembered his hat. He was thinking about the hat when Trudy placed her lips against his and wiggled her tongue inside his mouth the way you might work a screw into an old piece of wood.
"Hey, Hot Stuff," Trudy said.
"Trudy," Sherman said.
"You eaten?" she asked, tossing her purse onto the floor. It landed in the exact spot where Kurt's backpack had been parked. Sherman tried to figure out if this meant anything. Just more unnecessary coincidence, he thought.
"I think so," Sherman said.
"Lunch, Sweet, did you have lunch? Or an early dinner, perhaps?"
Sherman looked again at his watch. He thought again about his hat.
"I brought a hoagie," Trudy said.
Trudy made a great ceremony of cutting the sandwich, arranging the halves on plates with chips on the side, setting ice tea by each plate.
"Oh, forgive me," Sherman said. "I'm not hungry. I ate some cheese."
Trudy looked at her chosen mate.
"You ninnyhammer," she said, looking around the room. Her brow wrinkled, her mouth turned downward, and Sherman felt his stomach lurch a bit. She took the sandwiches with her into the kitchen. Soon she was back and smiling again. Trudy was a fast healer. She was practically indestructible.
Trudy leaned over Sherman's desk, her absurd, sexy outfit barely containing all her overbaked flesh. "This your new novel?" she twittered.
Ok, Trudy thought Sherman a real writer, that is, a man who made up his own stories. She was uncommonly impressed and proud of his boxes of manuscripts, and often made half-hearted attempts at goading him to publish them, half-hearted because she had mixed feelings about his actually becoming a success and could envision him wishing for a better female companion if the world were whispering his name.
"Yes," he said.
"Oooh, dear, read me some. Let me just lie back here on the divan (she really said divan) and disarray my clothes a bit and listen to your newest. Ok, Sweets?"
And she really did disarray her clothing as if she were a courtesan in a harem. She pushed one pulpy breast out of its casing, propped one leg up so that Sherman could see all the way to Oklahoma. A glimpse of thong!
"This will be like literary foreplay," she announced, licking her thin lips.
Sherman suddenly felt as weary as a bled calf. He pulled some of the finished pages of Riceyman Steps out of their box. He cleared his throat where bile rose.
"Ahem. The entrance-gates to the yard of Daphut, the builder and stone-mason, which lay between Mrs. Arb's shop and the steps proper, were set back a little from the general frontage of the north side of Riceyman Steps, so that there was a corner at that point sheltered from east and north-east winds."
"I don't know where you get the things you write, I really don't. Hey, come whisper some of those words in my ear, Mr. Shakespeare."
Sherman lowered himself onto the couch next to his giglet. He found that she was in earnest about whispering passages from his writing into her small, fruity ear. He leaned over and said, breathily, "His fear now was lest his grand passion should on this occasion be overcome by bodily weakness."
"Oh, Sherman!" Trudy expostulated. She pulled him out of his trousers and swung him around a few times. Her thong worked its necromantic buzz. Afterwards Sherman was sweaty and sore.
How Trudy left was almost as mysterious as Kurt's departure. Afterwards Sherman couldn't remember saying goodbye. He couldn't remember why Trudy wasn't staying the night. Was this the way his life would be from now on? People appearing and disappearing like thoughts, like scraps of cloud? Then he remembered: Trudy's sister was coming in from Baltimore. He had said goodbye. Trudy had kissed him long and hard. Trudy was gone and it was ok.
At exactly 7 p.m. the phone rang.
"Yes," Sherman answered. He was tired, tired.
"Sherman, Mort Cuenca here. Hats."
"Yes," Sherman said. He was trying to concentrate.
"Look, this, heh heh, I don't quite know what to say. This has never happened before. Look, I've stayed past closing trying to think what to say here, ok? Twenty-seven years we close right at 6, twenty seven years, see, and I've been here every day of them. Heh, so, Sherman. This hat, your hat, right? So, look, the thing is—"
Sherman thought he was in a nightmare. Listening to this sentence that never seemed to reach its purpose was akin to trying to scream without a voice or running when your legs were rubbery.
"—we've lost it. Heh. We've lost your hat."
Sherman pressed the phone hard against his ear, as if in self-abasement he could wring a different answer out of the world. A different version of his life seemed at hand—yet just out of reach. If he knew what to do—if he had a clue—
"Forget it," he heard himself tell Mort Cuenca. "It's just an old hat."
"Look—" Mort Cuenca began.
But Sherman was already hanging up. The phone was already in the past, the conversation already a part of his life he had assimilated and forgotten. He found himself staring at his old wallpaper. It had a satin sheen to it. A shiny green surface. He moved his desk chair a little closer to the wall. He could almost—if he squinted and leaned forward a bit—see himself.
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