Peter Donahue is completing a Ph.D. in English at Oklahoma State University where he is the associate editor for Cimarron Review. His stories have appeared in Karamu, Red Cedar Review, Midland Review and others. "The Cyst" comes from his story cycle, The Cornelius Arms.
No one likes a middle-aged guy living off by himself. That's my sense of it. They think he's a pervert, luster after little children, pathetic loner, loser, hopelessly stuck in mid-life crisis, beyond the love of a good woman or even therapy. Why else does he live in that old apartment building downtown? Is he queer? He's got a Ph.D. for godsake, from a big-time university back East. He could teach. Write books. Herr Doktor.
I'm not a cynical guy. This is the life I have, which I've settled into, and I get a bit defensive now and then. Who doesn't, regardless of circumstances, get defensive on occasion? Who isn't struck by how life should hold more of this or less of that? Better jobs, better bodies, better sex. Education makes no difference—usually. For instance, how many people have heard of John Cowper Powys? I wrote a 369-page dissertation on his works, primarily the Autobiography, while at Syracuse University nearly a quarter of a century ago. A religion professor there, having heard I was writing on Powys and believing I must share the author's brand of sensuous mysticism, confided to me he regularly had visions of St. Augustine atop the MONY Tower in downtown Syracuse. In fact he was once transported back to the Baths of Sozius to witness Augustine vanquishing the Manichean heretics in debate.
My problem may be that I'm not more mystical. I don't even have a good fetish. Unless, of course, the dove I keep counts. Which I doubt. I do lust, it's true, which may diminish mystical capacities, or augment them, I don't know. I lust in my heart, as the 39th President confessed, and in my hand (called self-pleasuring these days), although not inordinately, or so I trust, and certainly less frequently since detecting several varicose veins, eye-liner thin but feeding the main line, which the urologist told me were nothing, just aging. For a time Powys was into pornography, though renouncing it later in life, and I've taken Japanese clients into the Fantasy Arcade down on First Avenue, but really it's not my style. Now and then I meet a woman and we go for a drink. We laugh, we talk, we discretely explore each other's past and present, have dinner (some place modest), and I invite her to my room. Occasionally she accepts. Sometimes we check into the Waterfront Inn.
Djuna, who gave me the dove six months ago, said the Chinese believe a bird in the home brings good luck. Certainly doves boast a famed history of loyalty and companionship, though they're not song birds and plumage-wise pale next to parrots or cockatoos. Djuna was
the most recent woman in my life, as the saying goes. She's African-American. We met in a basement café in Pioneer Square. She was reading a novel by a Native American writer and I was passing the hours in my lonely-guy, middle-aged way. When she looked up I asked how her book was.
"It's good," she said as flatly as one of those taped messages over the telephone, turning the page and stirring her cappuccino with a spoon.
"Would you recommend it to a stranger?" I followed up and leaned toward her table to fake eyeing the jacket cover.
She looked at me, big brown eyes wide with caffeine, her lean face as dark and shiny as glazed Mexican tile, and set her book down, very deliberately, on the table. She looked me over with the most queenly look I've ever been subjected to. "When I'm done with it I'll let you know," she told me and picked up her book again.
I pulled back even more discretely than I'd leaned forward. "Excuse me," I said to her down-turned head, "Please," and signaled her to resume her reading, which she already had. I reached for one of the cloth-bound books, all forgotten titles, that line the basement café's turn-of-the-century brick walls, and after a quick inspection of the frontispiece put the book back and carried my cup to the front counter for a refill. When I returned, Djuna was tying the strap about her burgundy raincoat. I smiled when she glanced my way, then she left.
Not an auspicious beginning. But we continued to run into each other at the same café. She eventually finished her novel, we talked it over (in younger days, in true Edwardian fashion, I fancied myself the "bookish bachelor," though lately, I hope, I'm less pretentious), and afterwards we went for a late dinner at a trattoria around the corner. A few nights after that we went to the Waterfront Inn. We opened the curtains and undressed one another in front of the window overlooking the bay. The hotel's lights reflected off the water and rippled on the ceiling of our room. For over an hour we did little more than embrace and petI in my briefs, she in her foundationals—and kiss wildly. Then she unsnapped her bra, we tugged each other's underwear off, I kicked the bedspread to the floor, and together we ceremoniously removed the condom from its aluminum sheath.
All night, Djuna soothed and stirred me. Her skin was undulantly shaded like a woodland pond, her body supple yet edged. Around three a.m. we tossed some clothes on and took a stroll outside. In the next couple weeks we returned twice to the Waterfront, then went several times to my apartment, and for a brief stint spent our nights at her small bungalow house on Capitol Hill, her queen-sized futon far more comfortable than my rusted and creaky Murphy bed. But our interest had already begun to peter out.
Then one night we saw some foreign film at the Egyptian Theater, and a few days later, mutually and acrimony-free, we decided to stop sleeping together. Neither of us wanted anything long term, since she had her career and I had...I can only guess. We agreed race had nothing to do with it, though for my part it's hard to tell in such matters. I'm sure my testicular condition contributed nothing to our split-up. I doubt she ever knew.
As tokens of respect, we exchanged gifts the next time we met a week later at the café. I gave her the latest behemoth novel by Kathy Womack, the Native American writer she liked so much, and she gave me a dove in a teakwood cage. Our conversation was awkward. Djuna was still an insurance adjustor then. She recounted claimants' stories to me. For instance, the young man who got drunk after being released from the hospital for a motorcycle accident, then fell off a cliff, broke his skull, and died. His parents wanted to collect $80,000 life insurance, but Djuna had to tell them their son's reckless behavior entitled them to only twenty grand. In all, she said, she wanted a different job.
Seven weeks after I brought the dove home, it laid an egg. The shell was light tan, like suede leather, with a dark speckling on it.
The day before, the Japanese Cultural Council called me with a job for the next afternoon. I hire out to Japanese businessmen and students for English instruction. I help them with pronunciation and idioms, and now and then writing projects—proposals, reports, term papers, that kind of thing. I charge students $30 an hour and the businessmen $60. It's not the same as being a tenure-track professor at some place like Southeastern Georgia State in Statesboro, GA, where I held my last professorship before resigning six years ago out of sheer academic ennui/exhaustion/exasperation, pick one. Still, the tutoring pays the rent.
This time, because Yushi Hakasawa did not play golf, I took him to the zoo. I'm a popular tutor because rather than sitting face to face in a room thinking up small talk, I give my clients a cultural context for language acquisition. Which is to say, we go on field trips. With the businessmen, I head out to Jefferson Park and play eighteen holes, zipping about in the golf cart reviewing golf terms in English—bogey, divot, bunker, slice, Hogan, etc.—my greens fees and club rentals paid for on top of my hourly rates. The students I take to the mall or maybe to a hockey game since I'm a big fan of the Thunderbirds, our minor league team, and the kids like the rowdy crowds.
But Yushi was his own man. We met at the posh Madison Hotel downtown and ate sushi at the bar on the 19th floor overlooking the city and harbor. Yet over our raw tuna and $36-per-pound abalone, Yushi explained that he would rather eat in "American-style restaurant" from now on. He didn't like sushi, as it turned out, and when I proposed stopping at Dick's Burgers on our way to the links, he said he didn't like playing golf either. So I lifted the last sliver of pink, snappy ginger into my mouth with the plastic chop sticks and suggested the zoo. It took a few minutes to make myself understood—I had to do my elephant imitation with entwined arms swinging in front on my face—but eventually Yushi got the picture. He signed the bill the waiter set before him and we drove his Avis car to the Woodland Park Zoo.
At the entrance, I sang several lyrics from the Simon and Garfunkle zoo song while Yushi paid for our admission. "It's all happening at the zoo, dee dee dee." Yushi was amused.
We pushed through the turnstile and just inside the gate stopped at the espresso cart for a double cappuccino. Caffeine's a sure bet to get client and consultant—which is how I like to refer to the relationship—jabbering up a storm. First we stopped to look at the ibex, the Pyrenean variety, my favorite. According to the plaque, which I read aloud despite Yushi's limited comprehension, the ibex is a surefooted, sturdy wild goat which lives in herds, except for the old males, which are usually solitary. The ibex is also greatly reduced in numbers.
Just then a whining five-year-old tugged its mother past where we stood, fatigue and despair wrought across the mother's face, and I explained to Yushi the expression, "Spoiled brat." He laughed, but then turned back to the ibex in its pen and pointed to the muddy, surefooted hooves of the old goat standing on a rock ledge. "What kind hands it has?" he asked.
It took me a moment to understand him, then I said, "Hooves."
His face widened. "Ahhhh, whouss."
"Vvva," I urged. "Hoova."
"Very good," I said, and we moved on to the tapirs, another ungulate mammal, and then to the ostriches in their large holding area. At the bald eagle cage, I explained the bird's symbolic importance and how they were on the Endangered Species List, and what that was, and yet how they were coming back and could even be seen around Seattle occasionally. Then we entered the glass-enclosed aviary. Under the canopy of tall deciduous trees and various palms, looking up toward the chatter of exotic cagelings among the foliage, there, of all people, was Djuna. A British writer who lives in Seattle wrote that the city, with its population of 800,000 or so, is nearly the same size as Dickens' London, where one could become lost among the masses as well as happen regularly upon acquaintances—the perfect novelistic city. And so here was Djuna at the zoo.
Putting my hand on Yushi's forearm and gesturing him to stay where he was, I sidled over to her and whispered, "What? No doves?"
Not the least startled, she looked away from the big-beaked bird she'd been watching and considered me at her side. "It's called a Laughing Bird," she said. And as if on cue the creature in the upper branches of the magnolia tree gave up a loud, sustained cackle. Djuna gave a nod toward Yushi. "Friend?"
"Client," I said. "Imports-exports."
She looked at me, her manner impervious but for the shimmer of something in her eye. "Aren't you going to introduce me?"
When I did, Djuna and Yushi politely shook hands and then, to my surprise, in accordance with Japanese custom, bowed to one another and exchanged business cards. Djuna—as she later explained that evening over the phone—had just the week before accepted a job on the mayor's Commission on Pacific Rim Trade.
In the Autobiography, Crazy Jack says, "Just as I saved myself from my worse sufferings at Sherborne by pretending to be mad, it is possible to save yourself, the other way around, by pretending to be sane." I pretend a lot these days. Some days one way, some days the other. I'm not always sure which direction I'm going, though, which makes me think Powys was generally right about American men: we're tragic without knowing we're tragic. Nonetheless, I can say, like the great forgotten literary mystic fetishist himself, I'm happy. I've been told, besides, a time or two, that I look like Powys: unruly silver curls, sledgehammer nose, and small primary eyes of pale blue.
When I returned to my efficiency that evening—after happening upon Djuna at the zoo, after Yushi paid me $150 for our 2 1/2-hour session, and after I stopped at the Virginia Inn for a couple of pints of expensive micro-brewery ale—I found that the dove had laid its egg. I opened the cage, as I do every other day to let the bird fly about the small room, but it wouldn't leave its newly laid egg, which was about the size of a large marble. The mother dove (which to this day remains unnamed) watched its egg with one eye of its delicate, angled head. Then it fluttered down from its perch to the cage floor and strutted about its egg flicking up paper shreddings, sunflower seeds, and its own crusty droppings. I wanted to touch the egg, weigh it in my hand, and stroke its shell, but I'd been told as a child that birds reject an egg that's been handled by human hands. Just the same, I knew I couldn't leave an infertile egg at the bottom of the cage to rot. It occurred to me then that I might lacquer it. I could buy a jar of clear nail polish, give the shell several coatings, and return the egg to its loving mother. With this project in mind, I reached in through the narrow cage door. The mother-dove obligingly stepped aside as with index finger and thumb I carefully lifted the egg from its makeshift nest. Then, to my horror, as I withdrew the fragile ovum, I tapped it against the side of the cage and cracked the shell.
The gentle, grey-brown mother dove seemed to watch me with great confusion, angling its head from side to side. I felt horrible. I rushed the fractured, slightly seeping egg to the kitchen counter and thoroughly rinsed my hands in the sink. I felt a pain rising in my chest, so hurried into the bathroom, opened the medicine cabinet and shook out an aspirin first, then a 500 IU vitamin E capsule. I take one of each every day because my father, a depressed businessman and widower, cigar smoker and gin drinker, died from heart disease at 50. So now at 50 myself, I'm with Edgar—ripeness is all.
When I came back to the kitchen, I put the small, fractured egg into the white plastic grocery bag I use for trash and carried it down to the dumpster in the alley. I headed straight over to Ralph's Deli two blocks away where I bought a handful of those little, brown aluminum-wrapped chocolate footballs—fairly close to the size and shape of the dove's egg. I brought them back and placed one in the bottom of the cage and waited. The dove seemed uninterested. It cocked its head and eyed the chocolate football but seemed unwilling to interact with it. I thought of calling Djuna for advice, since she'd given me the bird, but instead fell asleep on the couch with a bad headache and a half-hearted erection.
About once a month I wish I were more mystical, more of the religious/artistic aesthete type, Siddhartha cum Thomas Merton. But what nonsense. Such thinking is the residue of writing a too-long dissertation on one of the most affected minds of the century. And being old enough to join AARP.
About one month after the sad episode with the dove's egg, a urologist at Virginia Mason Hospital told me the lump I discovered many weeks earlier on my left testicle was merely a cyst. It's nothing, he assured me again, removing the white polyurethane gloves he'd donned for the examination. It's the size of a pea, he went on, though to me it felt more like a bowling ball. I asked him if it could be removed, surgically, and he said certainly, if I wished to lose the whole testicle, and repeated, it's nothing, forget it. Didn't he want to do more tests, I inquired, wondering to myself why this trained urologist wasn't being more sensitive toward my fragile male psyche. Didn't he know his brusque diagnosis could potentially wound my entire sense of self-worth? No, he said, more tests weren't necessary, and tossed the gloves into the waste basket beside the chrome examination table. He'd clearly grown impatient with my persistent apprehension. Okay, I thought, acquiescing to his diagnosis, so I don't have cancer. Still, major life changes seemed in order.
From the hospital I took the bus back downtown, walked over to the Virginia Inn, and downed four pints—two ale, one lager, one stout—which cost me ten bucks. Homer, the bespeckled bartender, put a fifth pint before me and rapped his knuckles on the bar. "On the house," he said and walked away.
When I finished it and strolled out onto the sidewalk, evening was setting in. I stood on the corner wondering where to go and what to do next when I felt a hand on my elbow. It was Djuna again, this time hurrying to get to a Trade Fair going on at the Trade Center on Western Avenue. She told me she and Yushi were in negotiations over a contract between his Tokyo-based conglomerate and a small Seattle-based software firm. She was quite excited about the deal's prospects.
"Congrats," I said, and asked, "How's his English coming along?"
"We understand one another," she answered, rather too suggestively I thought. "And I'm also picking up some Japanese." Then, quite abruptly, she said, "It's good to see you again. Let's have coffee sometime." And off she dashed, probably guessing how drunk I was, or so I suspected.
I tottered down the steep hill from First Avenue to the grass and concrete park beside Pike Place Market, where I sat on a bench watching traffic speed along the upper tier of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The sky was getting that steely blue cast to it that tells us we're in for several weeks of drizzle. Across the placid waters of the Sound, the Olympics were disappearing from view as the light faded. I had to pee but didn't want to drag myself back up the hill to the tavern. I worried about my dove, poor thing, and digging my hand into my jacket pocket found the last of the chocolate footballs and ate it.
That was all several months ago. Since then I've been considering relocation, maybe exploring Kyoto or Seoul or some such place where English instructors are in demand. Where philosophers and poets are national heroes. Where middle-age is distinguished, and old-age honored. Where, who knows, a cute little geisha might await me. There's really no telling.