Norman Mailer Isn’t Dead
Norman Mailer was dead; that’s what the morning paper was telling Henry as he sat at the kitchen table, eating his oatmeal and drinking his coffee. It was Henry’s day off. He didn’t particularly care about Norman Mailer, but the news got him to thinking about his mother and the fights they used to have back when he was still in high school and living at home. They used to fight over just about everything. Terrible things would be said, and if the fight became bitter enough, one of them was bound to invoke the name of his father. The name of his father was what they said when they really wanted to hurt each other.
Eventually the fight would end with his mother getting in the car and going for a drive to cool off, and while she was gone Henry would play this little game with himself. He’d imagine that she’d been involved in some kind of terrible accident, that she’d been killed, and that the last words he’d spoken to her had been words of anger and rage. He’d work himself up into such a state that when she finally returned home he couldn’t get his pleas for forgiveness out fast enough, and when he finally moved out, he’d managed to convince the both of them that he was actually a much more penitent and sensitive boy than he really was.
All this he remembered because his mother hated Norman Mailer. His mother thought Norman Mailer was a chauvinist pig.
Later that afternoon while Henry was watching television he got a phone call. He didn’t recognize the number but he answered it anyway. It was someone looking for Huey. He’d get these a lot; he’d had the phone for about a year, but apparently before that the number or a very similar number had belonged to this guy Huey, and about once a week someone would call up asking for him. This time it was a woman calling. “Is Huey there?” she asked.
“Nope,” said Henry, but he didn’t tell her she had the wrong number. She had a nice voice and it’d been a while since Henry had talked on the phone with a girl with a nice voice. He imagined she was very beautiful. He imagined she had very long, dark hair and a pretty mouth and a locket she wore around her neck with a portrait of her dead grandmother.
“Could you leave him a message then?” asked the voice. “Could you tell him Emily called about Friday night? Could you tell him Emily says Friday sounds fine?”
“I could do that,” said Henry, “but he probably won’t get the message anytime soon. He had to go out of town all of a sudden. He won’t be back until Sunday.”
“Oh,” she said. She sounded disappointed.
“I’m not doing anything Friday,” Henry offered.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t even know you.”
“Well, my name’s Hank and I know your name is Emily,” said Henry, “so we know that much.”
“I don’t know,” she repeated. She seemed to be thinking. “Will you hold the phone a minute?” she asked. “Just a minute. I’ll be right back.”
“Okay.” He heard her set down the phone and then some light knocking in the background and then after about another minute he heard her pick up the phone again. “Are you still there?”
“Listen,” he said. “I promise I’m not a stalker or anything. I’m a good guy. Besides, you called me, remember?”
“I called Huey, actually,” she said. “But I guess okay. To tell you the truth I’m sure I’ll be able to use a drink come Friday. Besides, you seem harmless enough.”
“I am,” he said. They made arrangements to meet at eight o’clock, and then he hung up the phone. Later that evening as he was brushing his teeth he imagined her in bed, reading a book or a magazine (she wore glasses when she read) in a skimpy negligee, with the locket of her dead grandmother lying heavy against her bare skin.
Henry arrived early to the bar. He sat down at the counter and ordered a beer and started a tab. There were only about half a dozen other people in the bar and none of them were likely to be Emily, unless Emily was the middle-aged Chinese woman playing video poker in the corner. Probably not, thought Henry. He stared at the mirror in front of him and nothing but the jingling of the bells above the front door could get him to look away.
He turned to see a very, very large woman walk in and stare Henry down when she caught him looking at her. Henry didn’t think he’d ever seen a woman so big. She was six feet if she was an inch, and she had her blonde hair up in a bouffant, which made her seem that much larger. Her clothes were tight and fit to her body shape in ways that accentuated her belly, her thighs, the girth of her hips. Henry quickly looked away as though he’d been caught doing something terribly wrong, which of course he had. He’d been staring. Now she was walking toward him. Oh no, thought Henry. She took a seat one stool away from him, and when he dared take another look at her he found that now she was staring at him.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Are you Hank?”
Henry blinked. “Nope,” he said. “Sorry.” His tab was still open and he still had two-thirds of a beer left to drink. The bartender was over at the other end of the bar, chatting up the Chinese lady, and Henry tried to wave him over without calling it to the girl’s attention—a challenging task considering she was sitting right next to him and the bartender and the Chinese lady seemed to be getting on like gangbusters.
The door opened again and Henry took another skittish glance, not looking to see who was coming in this time but how he could get out.
“Are you waiting for someone?” she asked.
“Nope,” said Henry. “Just leaving.”
“But you’ve still got half your beer left,” she pointed out.
Henry looked down at the beer. It was a good beer, much better than he normally would have bought because he wanted it to look like he had some class when she, this girl, came walking in. He picked up the beer and drank the rest of it in one gulp.
“Hey, guy!” he called to the bartender. “How about getting my tab?” The bartender turned from the Chinese lady to scowl at him, and then he went over to the register and swiped Henry’s credit card.
“You know what I think?” she said. “I think you are Hank.”
“Whatever you say, lady.”
“I think you’re Hank,” she continued, “and when I came in, and you saw I wasn’t the little cupcake you were expecting, you decided it’d be easier to play this little game than be a man. That’s what I think,” she said.
“Listen,” Henry leaned forward. “I just came in here to have a quick beer and then leave again, but if it makes you happy I’ll be Napoleon fucking Bonaparte. I’ll be Norman Mailer if you want, just leave me the fuck alone, will you?” Henry was surprised at himself, and he expected to look over again and find her crying, and then he’d feel like an asshole. But when he did look over she wasn’t crying. She was smiling.
“Oh, really?” she said. She pulled out her phone, pressed a couple of buttons and put it up to her ear. All of a sudden the third movement of Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto In D Major started playing inside Henry’s pocket. “Your phone’s ringing,” she said.
“I know,” he blushed, and the trace of a smirk slipped across his face. “I just don’t want to answer it. It’d be rude.”
“Ha!” she laughed. “You’re a real son of a bitch, you know that?”
“I didn’t come here to fuck you, you know. I just thought it’d be nice to have a drink. I didn’t realize you were such a douche bag. Boy, wait until I tell Huey what a piece of work you are.”
Henry hesitated, and then thought, what do I have to lose? He was never going to see her again, he might as well be out with it. “I don’t even know your friend Huey,” he said. “The fact is you called the wrong number, so go ahead and tell your Huey whatever you want about me, it makes no difference.”
Her smile dropped a little, but just for a moment. She stood up. “Well you know something,” she said, “I wouldn’t want to have a drink with you even if you were Napoleon or Norman Mailer. You’re a real prick, you know that?” She picked up her purse from the bar and turned and walked out, and only after the door had already closed did Henry shout after her, “Norman Mailer is dead!”
Henry looked around; everyone was staring at him. He felt the blood surge up to his cheeks and he quickly signed the bill and followed her out. He didn’t leave a tip. He took a different route home, through the residential neighborhoods instead of the highway with the strip mall and all the gas stations and the fast food restaurants, even though the highway was quite a lot faster. He was already beginning to regret himself.
Maybe he’d been too hard on her. Maybe he should have stayed and had a drink after all. It could have been just that; it didn’t have to lead to anything else. It could have been as nonsexual as two guys having a drink after the game. After all, they’d never said anything on the phone about a date, but now, now he’d gone ahead and made a mess of the whole situation, and what if she went home and did something desperate? Sure she’d seemed tough enough at the bar, but what if she’d collapsed as soon as she’d walked out the door?
He still had her phone number. He could give her a call—just a quick call, just to make sure she was alive. Maybe he could even apologize. He pulled out his phone and found her number and dialed; she picked up after three rings. “Huey?”
“It’s Hank, actually.”
“Oh. The prick,” she said. “What do you want, prick?”
“Never mind,” he said and hung up. He pulled up in front of his apartment and wished he had taken longer coming home. It was depressing to be home so early on a Friday night, but all of a sudden he remembered something, a line of defense. He climbed the stairs two at a time and he didn’t even bother to turn on the television before pulling out his phone again. He dialed another number this time.
“We’re sorry,” said the automated voice. “All our representatives are currently helping other customers. Your current wait time is: five minutes.”
Henry didn’t sit down. The urgency of his task demanded he remain standing. A rumba started playing on the other end of the line and Henry wondered as he waited, as the Muzak began to hit its rhythm, whose old phone number they’d give him this time.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED