Men I Dont Talk to Anymore
Winner of the Tenth Annual Boston Review Short Story Contest.
Gale Renee Walden
8 Its Steve who pretends that Im more fascinating than I am, so I talk to him a lot, maybe too much. More than I talk to Matt, who is in an office with Steve, or more precisely a suite of offices with Steve. Steve and Matt are guidance counselors at the high school I work at and Im a tutor for dyslexic students, which is not such a limited field as you might think. Theres much more to it than just mixing up letters. Theres an oral dyslexia, an aural dyslexia, and a mathematical dyslexia that is similar to the reading dyslexia, except it is specific to numbers. Theres also conceptual dyslexia, which is the hardest one to work with: these students actually have amazingly accurate perceptions in a completely wrong context. I usually tell them to take a poetry class.
I maintain my own office in the older part of the building. It has a couch for students to sit on; I keep in touch with their teachers mostly by computer, and although I occasionally have reason to discuss a student with Matt and Steve, for most of the day I am without adult company. I like the whole idea of belonging in a place with a suite of offices; I like the idea of being part of a team, part of a group, which is why I visit Matt and Steve and try to make myself a part of their team and, since there is no compelling workplace reason, I try to make it seem like destiny and offer up archetypes. Were like the Mod Squad, I say. It goes without saying that Im Julie, but when Matt claims that hes Linc, I feel the need to correct him. Steve is Linc, I say. Youre the other guy.
I dont want to be the other guy, Matt says.
Why? The other guy was nice.
I dont want to be the other guy, Matt says, because no one remembers the other guys name.
Steve is way more black than you, I say, and then were all quiet because theres a possibility Ive said something racist or at least stereotypical in the counseling and guidance office, but also because its completely true and we all know it but we dont know why. Almost all of the faculty in this North Shore high school is white. Matt and I stare over at Steve who is paying no attention to us. He has downloaded a song at his computer, which goes as follows: Dan Blocker, Dan Blocker, Dan Blocker, Dan Blocker. Little Joe. Little Joe. All three notes of the song are in a minor key, which doesnt keep Steve from being completely cheered by it. He sits at his desk rocking back and forth to the tune, looking a little bit like Mr. Clean with his shaved head and earring. Dont you love the Little Joe part? he asks, delighted.
See, Steve is not blacker than me; he likes Bonanza. Matt is arguing with himself only. Matt is married to a can-do woman, which is how hes gotten this far in life, but in his office he rebels against it, sitting in the dark in the back of the suite of offices.
Steve and Matt dont really need me because they have Teresa, who is loosely their secretary and who cuts and complements the energy between the two of them in a non-threatening way that involves a rabid enthusiasm for basketball. Teresa keeps a bowl of Tootsie Rolls on her desk, which is one of the reasons I like her. Matts got some Butterfingers back in his dark office, but theyre still in the bag, not in the kind of bowl that Teresa keeps on her desk, so you dont know if youre supposed to eat them or not.
I really cant figure you out, I say to him on one of my rare visits back into that dark office. Youre very enigmatic.
Its the only thing I have going for me, he says.
Well, just tell me this. Are the Butterfingers for everyone or not?
You can have one, he says, which doesnt really answer my question.
I started talking to Teresa the day that Steve and Matt moved in together to avoid one of them having a bigger office.
We just didnt want to say that one us of had the bigger office; it might have led to some type of competition between us, Steve said. I winked at Teresa and then we both kind of looked in on them at various points and watched how they wobbled around each other like bowling pins. Sorry man, I overheard one of them say.
I give this until the end of the day, Teresa confided.
When I checked in at the end of the day, Steve had moved into a front office. That office didnt really support two modems, he said.
So heres how it looks now: you walk into the office and theres Teresa at her desk and in front of her desk are some sofas which usually have some students sitting on them waiting, and behind Teresa is an opening to the office that is Matts, and to the side of Teresa is another office containing a woman whose function is unclear to me, but who has decorated her office in a leopard-and-zebra velvet print. She has some stuffed tigers hanging down from rafters of the ceiling. Im not sure how she has gotten away with this decor, but I suspect that she doesnt really deal with students that much and thus is left alone. Plus, I bet the principal is a little threatened by her; I am. She doesnt look at anybody unless she decides to glare and her hair is really red. She has those pointy rhinestone glasses that Disney used in the sixties to signify meanness, and she carries around books with titles like Vagina Vespers and Shakespeare Was a Woman.
Anyway, the point is: Steve and Matt dont really need me. They have wives at home and a nurturing woman in their suite and, in case they need challenging, a feminist with sexually suggestive wallpaper. Thats plenty for them. Plus, Matt doesnt want to be the other guy in the Mod Squad, which is why I think Steve has come up with an assignment for me. Weve discussed the mixed-media project I give to the Malaprops. The student painting hanging in my officean enlarged hand pouring words over a bottle of poisondrives Steve crazy. I dont see how getting them to show how an anecdote can serve as an antidote is going to help them differentiate.
Sometimes they are confused about the truth of the mix-up.
Is there such a thing as metaphysical dyslexia? Steve asks. Because I think you have it.
Im going to prove to you that kind of pedagogy is worthless, Steve says. Heres an experiment: I want you to write a story, and I want you to call it Men I Dont Talk to Anymore. I have recently been telling Steve about the ex-boyfriend Ive just stopped talking to, without actually telling him much about the guy. Steve is mildly interested in this subject, partly because the guy has become a semi-famous actor. But thats not the reason I dont reveal things about him, not because I dont want to be self-important like those friends of people in Star, which I actually drive out of town to buy so that no one from the high school will see me and think that Im the kind of person who buys Star. Its not about that, its that Im excessively loyal to the past and the people in it. Even if Im not talking to them now, if I started talking about them, I know I could never talk to them again in the future. Occasionally one of them will call and I like to be able to pick up the phone and say hello.
Anyway, I tell Steve, all of my ex-boyfriends are a little famous, but most of them were behind the scenes. Its true. One of my ex-boyfriends had the finger that punched the Pillsbury Doughboy in the stomach. Another boyfriend was the voice of a Budweiser frog. You could write about them, Steve says. Matt comes to the doorway of Steves office and raises an eyebrow, but he doesnt enter the office. Theyve learned about their own space. Im talking about the idea, Steve says, raising an eyebrow back. Id read it, Matt agrees.
I cant believe they both want me to have a project so much that theyve conceived one and discussed it. Why dont you guys write it? Ill feed you tidbits. This cheers me.
We want you to have something to do, Matt says firmly.
I have plenty to do, I say, and leave. I walk through the newer part of the building where the Counseling and Guidance suite of offices is located, where everything is glass and fluorescent and fake wood, down a corridor into the old building where the wood floors are stained with decade-old spills and the heat comes out of peeling radiators. Its actually a square Im walking around. In the center of the building, behind the walls of the square, is an architectural hole of nothing. In the basement, in the center of the building where there is now nothing, there used to be a gymnasium and a pool whose glass-tilted roof rose up three floors. The roof is still there. The pool was covered over twenty years ago when they built the athletic annex, but sometimes on the stairways I can smell chlorine.
Anyway, the first time I saw Daniella I assumed she was part of the pilgrimage. I entered my office and shut the door, composed of heavy wood and a smoky, opaque glass. But I kept sensing a presence behind the door, like a slight shadow, and when I opened the door Daniella was standing there. I asked her if she wanted to come in and she just came in without saying anything. Thats when I found out her name, the only question shes been willing to answer.
Mostly what Daniella and I do is sit. At first I tried to find out things like what year she was in and did a teacher suggest me, but she just looked at the floor, and after a while I gave up. Generally she stays for half an hour, me looking at her, she looking at the floor. I justify this behavior by thinking that she must be getting something out of being here. For me it has become almost a meditative time. For some reason, I dont want to tell her to leave.
* * *
Dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of, just something that arises out of misguided wiring, oftentimes translated to visual receptors. Once its been diagnosed you have to use tricks to unscramble the wrongly decoded message. This is how I present it and there are some students who accept it just like that. Its not a disease, I say. Its a challenge.
Heres the thing, says Joe. I ask for their phone number and then I always get it wrong. They think I havent tried to call. Joe is one of the students who usually accepts things. He is bulky with thick eyebrows. He shakes slightly when he talks to me, which is something I find really endearing in boys.
Tell them the truth, that you mix up numbers.
The President of the United States is dyslexic, I say.
Thats a mean thing to say.
Well, OK. But Im just saying it doesnt mean you have to be held down by it.
If you have a rich and powerful father, Joe says.
Dont you have a rich and powerful father? I say, and wink. Most of the students here do.
I do, he says and smiles.
Just tell the truth, Joe. Thats what were here to learn.
OK, he says. His body is still for a moment and I imagine all his neurons settled into this truth.
When he opens the door to leave, a little bit of music from the hallway comes in. It sounds like nothing Ive ever heard before, like a cross between Gregorian chant and hip-hop. What in the world is that? I ask Joe.
Thats the Talking Crows, he says.
* * *
I have been thinking about getting candy for my desk, but there have been studies about sugar affecting brain wiring so I dont know if I could in good conscience offer it to the students. The thing about candy in a bowl is that theres a fine balance to be met. It cant be such a good kind of candy that youre going to want to eat it all, but it also cant be so bad that youre ashamed to offer it to people. Tootsie Rolls are a good compromise, but that would be derivative of Teresa.
Steve has some marshmallows in a big cup. Have some, he says thrusting the cup in front of me.
Are you trying to pass this off for candy? I ask. I dont think its going to work.
Have a handful, says Steve.
Im thinking about getting some candy for my office.
Really? Steve seems interested.
Probably not. Its kind of complicated.
It doesnt even have to be men that you know, Steve says, apropos of nothing. It can be men in your imagination that you used to talk to and then stopped.
What are you talking about?
Take Mark Twain.
Ive never talked to Mark Twain.
Of course you havent, Steve says gently. Hes dead. But actually thats OK. Some man you talk to in your imagination. Maybe hes dead, maybe hes not.
David Copperfield was the first man I fell in love with, but he was fictional.
Thats OK, Steve assures me. Did you ever talk to him?
Well then that wont work. You see what Im getting at?
Sometimes I used to talk to Abraham Lincoln. But I still do.
Well thats no good. Steve raises both arms above his head, laces his fingers together and leans back into the cradle theyve made.
Thats why I dont tell anybody about it.
No, I mean its no good for the project. Steve has taken to referring to the story he has conceived for me as The Project. Not only does it not fit into the title if youre still talking to him, but talking to Abraham Lincoln is like talking to Jesus.
Its nothing like that. Talking to Jesus is praying. Steve is an atheist and Im always trying to explain basic concepts to him.
Abe Lincoln is the Illinois Jesus.
Abes out, Steve says firmly.
I wonder if Linc on the Mod Squad was named after Abraham Lincoln?
I liked Linc, Steve says, in a tone I think is a little bit wistful.
* * *
In the corridor on the way back to my office, I am passed by both the principal and the Chaucer Lady. The principal is a man I dont really talk to anymore. Or rather, hes a man who doesnt talk back. He talked to me briefly when I was first hired but then he seemed to forget about me. Still, I believe its a forced forgetfulness; I think you have to be remembered first in order to be completely forgotten. The Chaucerian woman also walks the whole square of the old building to the new building a lot. Today shes wearing cowboy boots, so when she hits the wood floor she clomps, clomps, clomps.
Imagine how weird its going to be for me, says Wife of Bath Madonna. It will be like going to worship myself.
Ah, thats what youve always done, says the Miller.
Kiss my ass, she says.
* * *
I tell Steve.
Yeah, youre one of the people Id be afraid of, if I had ever dated you.
Youre one of the people who just wouldnt go away.
I go away. Not completely quietly, but I go away.
Why do you only get to have that kind of sex once a year?
Because its not the kind of thing you can plan for. Anyway, youre lying there, and there, in the bedroom window over rose bushes or something, comes your face.
Like in a dream?
Like in a dream except it wasnt, it was really your face.
And I had just gotten there by accident?
Totally by accident. Driving cross-country, some slight accident that tossed your wallet or something into my bushes, totally a joke by the universe.
And knowing all that, you arent going to invite me in?
It messed with the sex somehow. Steve looks angry. Theres something about the way you were socialized, says Steve. It wasnt completely right.
* * *
We are summoned to a meeting via e-mail; theres a flashing exclamation point next to the subject line, which says urgent. Room 222 at 4:00, the text reads. Im excited because meetings bring everyone together, and at 3:45 I stop by Steve and Matts office to go with them. They are deep in conversation about their two-year-olds and whether the in-transit poop to the day care is always the parents responsibility.
Excuse me, I say, we have a meeting to attend.
We dont all have to go together, Steve says.
Did you notice its in Room 222? Remember that TV show with Karen Valentine and Principal Constantine?
Before my time, Matt says. Matt is four years younger than Steve and I and continually reminding us of this.
Remember Bernie? The white guy with the Afro?
I suppose you think hes more black than me too, Matt guesses.
The whole point of Bernie was that he could never be black.
Are there reruns? Matt asks.
In Room 222 the principal decides to start off with a comedy routine. A short man, today he has dressed like Charlie Chaplin, but the plan has backfired and he looks more like Adolf Hitler. I suppose youre wondering why Ive called you here today, he says, and then pulls out a cigar, which he manipulates between his lips, apparently deciding to be Groucho Marx as well. He is not a man who has a strong sense of self.
Due to the rash of school shootings and other violent episodes, we will be installing extra security in the form of hidden cameras. The principal smiles up at the ceiling. Im afraid I cant tell you where the locations of the cameras are, because even though Im sure all of you can be trusted, we are asked not to reveal this. The principal shrugs and lifts his arms to the ceiling. Much is out of his hands.
Im going to find them, I whisper to Steve. Want to help?
No, says Steve. Shut up.
The principal looks straight through me, I am also going to ask for help in identifying any unusual activities, people who you havent seen around here before.
The principal looks up at the ceiling and smiles again. I have to be honest, he says, confiding in his audience. It wouldnt be right for me not to be truthful. Theres been an incident here. He pauses. Involving candy. We are asking everyone to remove all the candy from their offices.
What kind of incident? I whisper to Matt. Poison, do you think?
Im not at liberty to reveal more than that, the principal says.
A candy incident? Steve says on the way out. Thats ridiculous.
I decide to bring in candy. I rule out Reeses Peanut Butter Cups because of peanut allergies and plain little Hersheys bars because I might eat them all and Smarties because the name might be taken wrongly. The candy I decide on is a Mounds bar. I dont really like them, but if I really want chocolate Ill eat them and it always turns out that they are better than I remembered. They are the perfect office candy. Im pleased with the arrangement.
When Daniella shows up again, Im even more pleased to have a topic. Did you notice I have candy?
Would you like some? I ask.
OK, she says.
I am so surprised to hear her talk that I almost forget what shes responding to, but I recover quickly. Would you like a pink one or a blue one? I assure her that they are both the same. Its just that the candy company thinks pink and blue are Easter colors for some reason. Do you celebrate Easter? For some reason I think Daniella is Native American, maybe because I read somewhere that some tribes dont make eye contact with authority figures and Daniella will do everything to avoid eye contact. Mostly she looks at the floor or at the bookshelves. When I am speaking she will look at my kneecaps.
Theres something else about Daniella that makes her seem like shes from someplace else, and I cant quite figure out what it is; she has dark hair cut into a bob and she wears almost a uniform, a longer skirt, a mans shirt, and anklets peeking out from her hightop tennis shoes. Its not the most popular fashion but shes not alone in it.
I think it might be her eyes that make her seem foreign. They are a gray-green and she has circles underneath them. I once caught a glimpse into them and they looked old, like the kids you see in refugee photos.
Daniella, I say, I need your last name, and just like that she says, Green. This is unexpected, both the telling and the name. It doesnt sound Native American.
After the session, I take the name to the Counseling and Guidance office, where there are files on all the students, and give it to Steve.
Shes not a student here, Steve says, after hes had his bald head in the G file for a good long time. Nobody under that name.
How would she know about me to even come to me?
Does anybody besides you ever see this girl? Steve asks.
Im not imagining her.
Thats it. Turn her in. I want the candy back.
I bet you still have some in your drawer. Its true. Everyone still has candy but now its hidden. Everything is a little worse since that meeting.
* * *
* * *
I dont want to turn Daniella in; I like her better than the principal and I decide to find out more before I report her, so the next time I see her, I confront her. Daniella, I say, youre not registered here.
I was, she says. We seem to have broken the language barrier.
Right. I force a laugh to show Im on her side.
I drowned in the swimming pool. Ive got my worlds mixed up. Can you help me?
Youre not a ghost, Daniella.
How do you know? she asks.
Maybe we should talk to your parents.
My parents are still alive, Daniella says, but they live in Arizona now. Its not a state Im allowed to visit until they die. Which should be soon. Not that we are privy to any information like that, she hastens to add. Its just that they are in their nineties.
* * *
She thinks shes a ghost, I tell Steve.
That would explain why nobody else besides you sees her.
She isnt a ghost.
How do you know?
We can solve this. Im confident.
Im not solving anything with you.
Matt will come. I have a plan.
Im not wearing those.
Please, they have superpowers.
Matt makes a face like yeah right, but he puts them on anyway, like he doesnt have any power over those glasses.
You look really cool, I say. Theres a possibility I might date you sometime.
Im married. Matt flashes his wedding band.
Julie. There was always a possibility that Julie might date Mike.
If Julie was going toMatt puts his fingers in the air to make quotation marksdate anybody, it was going to be Linc.
* * *
The school newspaper began in 1946, six years after the founding of the school. Originally named the North Shore Nellie, its name in the sixties was changed to Four Shores. It came out once a week and from 1963 to the present the back issues are on microfilm, but the issues before that are in an old coatroom in old bankers boxes labeled 1946, 1947. The librarian takes me to the closet and watches as I open the first box. The papers are dry and yellow when we open the boxes. There is a smell of basement and old lilac powder that comes out of the boxes.
Somebody needs to do something with these, the librarian announces with annoyance, apparently without considering that she might be that person.
The papers from 1952 are filled mostly with local news such as the opening of the Walgreens on the town square and how it relates to the student body. We can only imagine the bows that will show up in a certain sophomores hair. New television sets are reported, along with invitations to come over and watch them, and then I come to a one-page Special Addition:
TRAGEDY IN OUR TOWN
There are two accompanying photos of Daniella Green, one from the school play in which she is walking among cardboard tombstones; the other is a portrait shot. This girl has long dark hair and eyes which almost flash outside of the photo. She looks like she cant be contained by something as small as a picture and although she does look a little like the Daniella in my office, Im confident that my Daniella was never on a debate team.
* * *
Daniella Green drowned in 1952, I tell Steve. I have the evidence.
So whos the girl in your office?
I think she might be one of the pilgrims.
Do you ever leave this office? Dont you know all those kids in costume? With personas from the Canterbury Tales?
The ones who are always listening to the Talking Crows? Steve gets up and starts to bop, making a stirring motion with his hands. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo.
That does seem to be the major refrain.
I dont recall a Daniella in the Tales. And did anybody drown? That doesnt make any sense.
The whole thing is making me mad. Listen, I cant make sense of anything. As far as Im concerned, a major point of the Canterbury Tales is that is takes place in medieval times. If youre going to switch time periods and location around, youre fooling with the entire narrative. Whats to stop people from switching names, changing plots? How do we know Daniella, which is probably a fictional name, hasnt stepped so far out of the story that she cant get back in again?
So she is a ghost?
One way or another, yes.
Does she like candy?
Did you ever figure out what that was about?
I think the principal went on a diet.
Steve, I say, you know all those men I dont talk to anymore? I talk to them all the time.
I know that, he says. I cant believe you dont. Then he looks at me almost kindly. You need a project, he says. He stands up and clicks his fingers, goes to Matts doorway and says, Come on, man. We need to find a student.
Matt doesnt come to the doorway.
Call him dude, I suggest. Tell him to bring the glasses.
When Matt arrives at the doorway, hes wearing not only the glasses but also bell-bottoms. I cant believe it. They knew this day was coming. Sometimes I completely and utterly love men.
I hope you dont think we are going to find and slay Death, Matt says. That never works out.
You know what Id really like to do? Steve says.
Divide a fart.
Steve and Matt are walking down the corridor.
They are going so fast I can hardly keep up with them. My blond hair
streams out behind me. I smile for the cameras on whose film Daniella
may or may not appear. There are mysteries in life to be solved. <
About This Years Contest
Boston Reviews Tenth Annual
Short Story Contest received an extraordinary turnout this year of more
than 700 entries. Id like the thank my two co-judges, authors
Steve Almond and Melissa Pritchard, whose lively ideas about the stories
made choosing a winner truly a democratic process. Thanks also to Jami
Brandli, Ignatio Ortiz Monasterio, Amanda Cornwall, Julia Magnusson,
Cortney Hamilton, Annie Ryan, and Jodi Burrell.
Our finalists, listed below, were an unusually eclectic group this year, bristling with personality. It was difficult to choose among them as they all had something original to offer. We singled out two as runners-up; we admired the dreamlike quality of The River Come Down and the masterful prose of Model for a Square.
Gale Waldens Men I Dont Talk to Anymore, our winning story, was unanimously praised for the strength of its voice and its mordant humor. We hope you enjoy it. Runners-up will be published in future issues of Boston Review, so keep your eyes peeled.
Men I Dont Talk to Anymore
Model for a Square
The River Come Down
Living Through Love
The Moon Man Roll
Seasons of Sorrow
Shed the Coat
Genuinely Shitty Things
My Last Days as Me
Originally published in the December 2002/January 2003 issue of Boston Review