Burning the Days
by Greg Gerke
The winter seems long this time of year. It’s late February, and almost everyone we know is upset, though we don’t experience their anger, because we don’t see them at all. Either our daughter is sick, we are sick, they are sick, their children are sick, or the friends who don’t have children don’t seem to understand we can’t get together at eight o’clock for dinner because we are often asleep around nine. Before starting our film, the two of us sit around wondering who our real friends are. It’s as far as we get into philosophising – will pillow talk ever again take on a propulsive force? When so much is impaling, with sprightliness almost a solecism, one must thrust out.
A female friend of mine from college, Meredith, moved to the city a few years back, and we reacquainted ourselves in the icky, cliched way of “It was twenty years ago, but it’s just like yesterday,” which is a sometimes handy feeling. We have get-togethers, and, babyless, she likes to celebrate our daughter. She often comes alone, not with her husband, Ted. Ted doesn’t like me. Meredith told me herself. Ted actually doesn’t like you, she said, as if she had brought down a heavy piece of pipe onto my kneecap. I suppose this is why we are friends – we believe bluntness makes the best disinfectant. Of course, she didn’t need to tell me, I know basic body language. Ted has never looked into my eyes in the half dozen or more times I’ve seen him. I’m not bad-looking. I’m not a model, but I don’t have fungus growing under my nose or on my chin. Some men don’t like their woman having male friends. It’s not that, Meredith said. He’s liked all my other male friends. As she is a heterosexual woman who has one platonic non-gay male friend, she probably could have more than one. No, she said, he says there’s something about you – he can’t put his finger on it. But we’ve never spoken, I said. I know, it has to do with what you are without words. Without intelligence? He sees it that way.
Ted is a plain-faced, five-foot-ten male from Philadelphia. I should revise that “plain,” though he is that with everyone else but me, when a great constipation forms – lips pursed, pulled in, turtlish, – but he can’t hide his head when he is supposed to be a semi-alert and functioning human being in my company, so there’s a dented quality. There’s also a vulpine texture to the face, but I misuse the word because I want it to mean vulturelike – foxlike is too pretty. Really, it’s a hooked owl face: stiff, but gloomy and constantly plagued, as if he is pretending to be missing all his teeth. His hazel eyes, our daughter’s colour, were unswerving in staring at the table in the restaurant the four of us went to, or at the ceiling, or in the direction of the waitress, though she was clearly not there.
His passion, his source and core, never communicated by him to me, is beer, but it is more apt to call it beer snobbery. He knows all there is to know about this, has fine-grain knowledge of every microbrew in America and runs a website devoted to his joy. Trips are often planned around visiting the growing arrays of stateside microbreweries. In fact, the only time he paid slight attention to me was when I relayed the fact that I had visited a now defunct but well-regarded microbrewery in Bandon, Oregon, in the late nineties. Sidelonging, I could tell he was rapt as I told the anecdote of staying in the hostel there, right next to the microbrewery, which I then visited. It was my maiden voyage to the West, and I had brought my own pillow to sleep on in hostels and in my tent. By some misfit, I had brought a pillowcase that I still owned from my childhood; it detailed the Superfriends cartoon show and comic characters, with a lineup of all these muscled weirdo nutcases sprawled along the cover. I had just set up my bed for the night, when I popped over to the microbrewery for a taste. An older man soon wandered in, holding my pillow across his chest like a life preserver. Excuse me, where did you get that pillow? The hostel. That’s my pillow. Oh, he said, and slowly relinquished it, with a nod. But by the time I finished my story, Ted’s attention was back to the phantom waitress, because no details about their beer or its taste were forthcoming.
Beyond beer, there is another aspect to my and Ted’s disconnection. His job and his books. He is a proofreader for a major publishing house and devours many categories of non-fiction even in off hours. I like literature – poetry included – but he likes diets and the latest take on the sixties in America. We share a love of words, yet we cannot speak to each other. I don’t try anymore, because I have and he simply has nothing to say – torching me into white-hot sadness with his over-the-top antipathy. When another friend and I had our moments, that man would say, Well, at least we can connect over a book or film we love or our shared hatred for someone else, whatever gets us back to our safe zone. Ted flies in a different night. Maybe he wants a child. Even as I watch my own wrestling with a new set of screws, bolts, and nuts meant for someone twice her age, using the yellow nut to ease her teething pain, the Ted saga gets to me. Maybe commonality is overrated. And maybe this explains why Meredith is married to Ted. Blunt, severe Meredith with pent-up, insuperable Ted. I will never see the secret soldering point, which could be a bright spot as well. I shouldn’t think I understand all that is going on around me anyway. Kierkegaard, in response to a student badgering him about causation, said, Shut up about it already. I reach down and take a red circular slot and press it over the blue screw, then grab a yellow bolt and tell her, Turn it, that’s it, while making exaggerated twisting motions. But don’t fasten it all the way, just get it started. Then I remember I have to buy a six-pack to self-medicate, and Ted returns. I bought him a cheap T-shirt for his birthday, even though I wasn’t invited to the party – Good People Drink Good Beer, it read. I thought it might make him smile and sulk. Meredith gave it to him after-hours, when he was tipsy. He immediately found it unfunny, and she decided not to tell him it was from me, though he had strong suspicions.
When I get like this, annoyed by people who have had and, I hope, will not have any further trespass on my life, I branch out, beginning with a smug strut, to others in my past who have had more deleterious effects and write about them now that a proper distance, at least five years, has been achieved. I disguise them, often as amusing secondary characters in short stories, the ones I psychically describe – of the main one’s corpus I say little, preferring to let what they say and think speak louder. After a few hours of this, when on the half days I don’t watch my daughter, all three of us have dinner together and my wife asks what I did during my part of the day off, I say, The usual. After a pause, she’ll say, What are you writing about? It’s a tricky question. I’m not really writing about the characters I’m writing about; I’m writing about me and my relationship to the past and the present. Really, I’m writing about our everyday life, about her coming home from work and asking me that quicksand question, which, no matter how I answer, unsettles me. I can’t say that, though, but I once did, and either she didn’t hear me (a very low police helicopter flew over at the moment) or she did but displayed formidable control, because her face remained straight and calm – she who has no poker face. She probably thought I had said, Nothing, which is often my go-to answer, but she could have been so shocked at what clearly was not a joke on my part that it would take a while, hours, before warming to its import. But I should revise this. I’m writing about our everyday life from the perspective of my past. And I don’t expect to be understood.
About the Author
Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, LA Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. Especially the Bad Things, stories, was published by Splice in 2019. See What I See is now available from Zerogram Press. Among those praising the book is Christine Schutt, who said, “See What I See is the very brew needed in these parched times. Greg Gerke’s generous, thoughtful reflections on the beguiling experience of art are full of uplift and reverence for the illuming efforts of writers and filmmakers: Louise Glück, William H. Gass, and William Gaddis, Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson, to name but a few.”
Detail from Ewan Munro: Amnesia Brewing, Mississippi, Portland, 2010 (CC).