Reading Faces (Short Story)

The room was blue, a muted blue that was supposed to be warm and subdued, a blue that was supposed to evoke community. The bluer curtains were drawn and offered a contrast to the wallpaper of the back wall. The little shapes, whatever they were, blurred together and made a mosaic with the white space between them. The room had the feel of a swimming pool, a swimming pool that I was at the bottom of, and I couldn’t manage to swim hard enough to reach the surface.

People were starting to mill in and scatter among the bluely covered table tops. The mix was roughly half students and half professors. It was always like that, a gathering of the community of the campus writers, or at least the writers that had nothing better on a Monday night to do than come and hear me read.

“There was a mix up with the posters,” Joseph Emmett Clinow was saying to me. His brown beard was flecked with grey and I could barely make out his lips as he spoke. “The date on them was the nineteenth. We posted them all before noticing, and it was Friday before we got to change them. We’ve had it announced in the English classes.” He was the writing chair of the university, the one who would sign the thousand dollar check they’d mail to me.

“You’ve just saved my ego, Jack. I was thinking it was my fault no one was here. You’ll have to tell me how many people show up next week to have seen me.” I smiled at him.

“Oh, nonsense,” he said. “This is a good turnout. More will come in late. They always do. Just like a class to these kids. Everything is.”

I nodded. I remembered the days I spent in classrooms, before I got the Green Plains Quarterly. Clinow launched into an anecdote about his most blatantly tardy student this semester, but I wasn’t listening carefully. The kid walked in.

He was tall and gaunt, with an angular face and thick, dark eyebrows. The blond hair on his head fluffed slightly as he walked and he cast piercing blue eyes over the writing community of his college. He nodded curtly to a thickset young woman at a table at the center of the room, smiled at another seated near the buffet, and took a table near the back of the room. He held the chair for his companion, a tall young lady whose height almost exceeded his, and then he sat and looked at me.

I chuckled politely at Clinow’s epiphany. “About time,” he said, glancing at his watch and standing. He rose and went over to the podium. “Good evening.” Clinow loomed over, boomed over the podium, bent slightly so that the microphone would catch his words. “Tonight we are fortunate to have with us Charles Louman,” he began, sliding into the rest of his flat praise with a slightly bored taint in his voice.

He wasn’t exactly handsome. His hair was cut surfer boy, long over the ears, but not fashionably long in back. He didn’t care about fashion. What was fashion but the standards of everyone who couldn’t make up their minds by themselves? The turtleneck under my sweater clutched at my throat, forcing the air out. He laughed at something the woman he was with said, and when he was done he waved at another blonde woman coming through the door. She lambabdaed across the room, lie her pack at his feet, and sat across from him. I wondered which of them was his girlfriend, or if the both were, or maybe neither.

“And let me say, then, welcome, to Charles Louman,” Joseph said, and I almost missed the cue. I stood up, picking up Unclean Whistles, my first volume of fiction and The Moons of Saturn, my second collection of poetry.

“Good evening,” I said. “I’d hate to waste too much of your time, but if I didn’t, you’d be wasting your money. So without any ado, let me start,” I said, and I flipped open Unclean Whistles to the red bookmark.

I color code my bookmarks. Red orange yellow green blue pink and violet. I haven’t found an indigo bookmark yet. I generally make it through the blue bookmark before the kids get bored. The red bookmark was on a piece called “Title Track,” a piece about a college boxer who is on his way to making the all-state championships and dreams of the Olympics. I made a thread of his theme song, “Big Life” by Night Ranger, and had it come in several places in the piece. It turns out that the kid goes to a party, has some rather energetic sexual exploits, and oversleeps on the day of the Olympic trials and misses the weigh-in.

I looked up at the end of the story. I had a fitting segue crack, something witty that I thought of the night before when I sequenced and re-sequenced, outlined and relined, my performance tonight. I never write them down, or at least never bring index cards with my impromptu humor written on them to the performances. I met the eyes of the kid in back. He had his left hand cupped over his right fist with his thumbs under his chin, his eyes smiling with amused contempt. The title’s a gimmick, he thinks, the pun in the title amateur. Screw you. It was printed in Four Quarters.

I forgot my crack and smile crookedly at everyone else. There was one young woman in the middle of the crowd who was breathless. There’s always one or two, male or female, that think I’m a demi-god. I looked toward the back as I flipped open my verse. Two blue eyes bore like needles into my soul, undoing careful stitches of time. I found orange in front of a piece called “Shimmering Dreams,” a longish piece about how dreams are mirages in the sand that keep us going ever forward until we die of thirst, never tasting the sweet water or the coconut milk of the oasis. It’s a rather long piece, but I’ve read it plenty before, so I had all the inflections down, and I gave a strong reading.

“To the fountain of youth!” I said. “Drink deeply of it while you have it, for it dries quickly.” It was a tired insight, a little carpe diem that everyone had been telling them for centuries, and I was lower on the food chain than most of the people who had been telling them it anyway. The kid in back stared at me unblinkingly. My oasis isn’t a mirage, he said. I’m going to reach my dreams and drink them deeply. I’ll taste the grit and dirt and feel the sweat caking the sand onto my brow, but I’ll wash it down with a taste of the sweet water of my dreams. Dumb ass romantic.

I read yellow and green back to back. Yellow was a short-short, a slice of life of an editor looking through stacks of unsolicited manuscripts that aren’t worth much, reading and rejecting without any care or heart to his work. When he sits down to write something, it comes out like the stuff he’s been reading, dull and lifeless and flat, and he wonders if it’s because that’s what he’s been reading or if it was always like that. Not very long. I switch into green without looking up. Green is a piece called “Surf’s Up, I’m Down” about a man in his thirties who still gets out on his board when the doldrum of his newspaper reporting job gets to him. He gets out to the California beach and strips to his suit. He’s in okay shape, not as tight as he used to be, but not beer-gutted, not love-handled. The kids on the beach call him Poppa, and he hears one of them call him The Man behind his back. He is The Man, he realizes, and it breaks his heart.

I finished this one slowly. I think I lingered on the last paragraph even after I finished reading it. “He struggled a bit to get the board onto the roof of his Cadillac, but when he heaved the monster up, he stepped back to look at it, to wonder if the board really belonged on a Cadillac, to wonder if he really belonged on a board, if he really belonged in a Cadillac, or if he deserved neither one. He shrugged and brushed the sand from his jeans as he got behind the wheel and headed for home, Barb, and Steve.” It gave a nice existential touch to it, I thought, but I wondered if there ever was a nice existential touch.

It’s going to happen to you, too, I thought. Smug as you are now, some day you’re going to get older and tired of running after your dreams. Some day you’re going to be The Man, looking out at a sea of young faces and spouting Naturalist pieces. He didn’t believe me, he wouldn’t believe me, and it would never happen to him.

I read blue, a poem about growing up. I had written it when I was younger. It was free verse all the way through until the last two lines, a couplet that threw the whole free verse thing off. I had been very proud of it in nineteen seventy nine. This kid was probably six or seven then. Reading Weekly Readers. Though fast they run and far they seem, if you run too, you’ll catch your dream. Not only was it romantic, it was bad poetry. He was probably thinking he could have written better in nineteen seventy nine. Maybe he could have.

I skipped pink and ran through violet. I couldn’t leave him with something amateur to remember me by, and I couldn’t drop the pink bombshell of failed marriage on him. I wondered if I was trying to be ironic when I put the pink on “Discarded Husks”. Violet wasn’t much better, but I liked saving good stuff for last, a reward if the audience was patient enough to last through my seven pieces. Violet was “Counting Chickens,” a little humor piece about an Illinois farm boy who promises chicks to each of the four little girls he likes in his elementary school. He counts the eggs in his henhouse and finds only three eggs, and he has to worry who to slight and what excuse to give for it, but when the eggs hatch, one was twins, and he has enough to go around. I wrote it in my college days, probably when I was studying O. Henry in my American Short Fiction class. I took a deep breath and looked up. He didn’t hate me for that one. There was hope for me yet. The crowd applauded politely. Clinow thanked everyone for coming and invited them for refreshments in the reception.

The crowd began milling over to the buffet and over to me. I thanked a few for coming and made small talk with the foolish pilgrims, and wondered what I would say to him when he came over. Would it be the “fight the good fight” or the “don’t let them get you too?” Which would he respect more? Would he respect any at all? After a few minutes of chatter with everyone else, I looked around the room, breaking apart clusters to find the kid, and I was really not surprised that he was gone, that he hadn’t come over to shake my hand, to lie to me and tell me he liked my stuff or be coldly silent when he thanked me for reading, if he thanked me for reading. I was not surprised that he had passed me over. I would have done the same thing.

Originally published in Show and Tell, August 1995.