Sunday, April 8, 2012

EXCERPT: Books By Covers

One of my personal favorite short stories I've ever written. From my anthology Slight Details & Random Events:

Books by Covers
Eric Arvin

Jimmy stretched his leg muscles on the steps in front of his apartment, releasing the tension for the torture. A good run on this spring afternoon would be just what he needed. It was a beautiful day, offering lovely promises. He could run for a while and clear the obstacles, the hurdles, in his mind. He often wondered when it was the real world started taking control of his psyche, regulating his inner thoughts until they mirrored one another. Had it happened innocently? Little by little? Or was it, as he had always suspected, clump by clump?
Runners don’t like clumps. They’re unexpected. Clumps can make a runner trip and fall.
Forget the world, he told himself. Forget the world you see. Forget the world as it’s reflected in your mind. Clarity. That’s what you need.
Jimmy set off tracking that clarity. He didn’t think he’d truly find it. The answers to his questions and concerns seemed too big. He’d been troubled for weeks after all. Still, a jog could help him think, to ponder. Jimmy needed that alone time. The small college town went on around him - mothers and children on sidewalks, the postman delivering his packages, cars driving leisurely past, college students off campus interacting with the townsfolk. So serene and just so. Like a film set or TV show from the fifties.
Jimmy headed in the direction of the liberal arts school. He had chosen to go to a larger university. Got his BA at a prestigious school up north, but dropped out of grad school before he could get his Masters. He regretted that. But at the time he just couldn’t do it anymore. He had had enough of education. He had been sidetracked by other things. Like the full-time gig at the fashionable clothing store to help pay off his increasing credit card debt. Or the insurance for the sports car he no longer thought of as his baby. Now, though, he desperately needed to get back to school. He envied teachers and college professors who were surrounded by academia at all times. He was in need of a real job, a career. Especially with the wedding coming up. Gunner had his heart set on a house, an expensive house. A house so expensive both of them would have to sell their souls to obtain it. But for Gunner, Jimmy would do it. Jimmy did a lot of things for Gunner.
Sidetracked. Short cuts.

Professor Robbins taught Classic Literature at the college. She was normally a content person. She had a nice, quiet life with a loving partner who she had met at Pride years ago, she had a smart, young daughter, she had a nice home on the college campus, and she adored her students. She loved the looks on their faces when they learned something new. That spark of epiphany that doesn’t happen but every so often; just enough to make it precious and longed for. Yes, she was usually happy with her life’s course. She had designed it.
But as she stared out the window over the heads of the small classroom of students taking an exam, she saw a handsome young man jog by. It wasn’t the man that stalled her really. Her tastes didn’t run his way. It was his seeming physical perfection, his lack of flaws, that captivated her. He looked like a sculpture, the kind she had struggled to create in her undergraduate career. She had so wanted to be a great artist. She studied the classics – Rodin, Michelangelo, Bernini – but she could never quite get it right. All her life it had been her dream to bring life from stone, her hands working an almost divine thing. Like a goddess.
But life in its pushy way convinced her to try other things. It prodded her in a more logical direction. Something which might bring more money and stability. Successful artists are rare, she heard over and over. Art is ever changing because tastes and fads change daily, hourly. An artist would be unemployable, she was told. Especially a sculptor. Who sculpts nowadays? There are machines for that.
He does, Professor Robbins said to herself defensively. This young man jogging. He sculpts his body every day in the gym. Like art, it takes skill, study, persistence, and time. He must be so joyous. The world gets to see his sculpture everywhere he goes. A great artist runs among us today. Don’t you see?
But no one would ever see. No one saw the world and its unfairness as well as she.
She closed her eyes. Dreams leave me alone. I’m happy. I’m quite content.

The college lawn was always Jimmy’s favorite part of the campus. Everyone was carefree as they studied or lounged on the grass. Their minds caught up in frivolous pursuits. Not a notion that things might get worse in the future. He remembered the future in college sounded to him like an obscure idea; something other people thought about. Something that was whispered with hushed dread, but never truly confronted.
Plan for the future? An impossibility. How can one plan for what they don’t know or have never experienced?
Jimmy felt envious of the students on the lawn, of the boys tossing frisbees over the heads of lovers. He wanted to sit among them again, to feel that blissful unawareness. But he also worried for them. How many would survive after college? How many could surmount the world’s bulky hurdles?
Dotting the lawn like wildflowers, the coupled lovers kissing made him think of his relationship with Gunner. Would they stay as passionate? He wanted a life-long romance. (Oh, how Hollywood has ruined that word!) Would it happen? Would Gunner stay with him till the end? Would Jimmy want him to?

Elise watched the man jogging. She wasn’t the only one, but she was most likely the only one not lusting, not hooting and making vulgar noises. A gaggle of girls on the south side of the lawn were doing enough of that. Elise was instead struck by the runner’s resemblance to her high school sweetheart. A twinge of bittersweet remorse enfolded her heart. The chemistry book on her lap suddenly felt heavier, less about her future and more about things left behind.
She was a senior now. She hadn’t seen Bud for over three years. She left him the summer before her freshman year saying she had to go. She had to get out of the small town she had grown up in. There was nothing for her there. Those were painful words to say. She realized they were probably even more painful to hear.
“There’s me. I’m here,” Bud had pleaded.
That wasn’t enough. She didn’t understand why he didn’t understand. She had loved him. And now this runner was breaking her heart and he didn’t even know it.
Elise couldn’t imagine ever feeling the way she felt about Bud toward anyone else. The world was filled with little boys and tiny men. Bud was different, mature. He was as wonderful as any woman could have hoped. He wanted to marry her. She had wanted the same once.
What happened?
She knew she shouldn’t regret her choices. College was always down the road for her in high school. But still, the runner was making it hard to forget lost chances. She tried to look away. She tried to focus on the body, not the face. Bud and the runner didn’t have the same body. Bud was strong from years of farm work, not weights.
Elise imagined the runner had never made a bad choice in his life. Mr. Perfect with his perfect body, his perfectly planned life.
That’s what she chose to believe.

The wedding was only two months away. Still too soon for Jimmy. Not that he didn’t want to pledge himself to Gunner. No, he wanted it more than anything, but there was just so much to do. There was a life neither of them could see that needed to be planned out.
“We’ll get by,” Gunner always said.
Money doesn’t fall from trees. You have to climb up to get it.
All their arguments lately had turned into fights. Fights about money. It could get bad. Fists could fly over money, over what needed to be done with it or how much should be spent when. Whenever Jimmy brought Gunner a gift, Gunner reminded him the money spent could have been used toward the house.
Gunner’s big, beautiful house that he had to have.
Jimmy tried to shirk the thought of that house off, to leave it behind on the college lawn as he ran. But it kept up the pace. Worries seem to be able to do that. They’re more up to a challenge than clarity. Clarity is free and unbothered. It drifts; it doesn’t run.
The way Jimmy saw it, they couldn’t both afford to go back to school. Gunner had already started with his new degree. But to afford that house, they both would have to get much better jobs. And Jimmy couldn’t get a better job without going back to school.
Circles and circles, running in circles.
Jimmy really didn’t want the house. It was very nice. He agreed with Gunner about that. But a nice apartment would have been better. In the long run, a new, larger apartment would be better both financially and for their relationship. Funny how money can take dreams and love apart like disection.
Love is all finances now.
Jimmy ran past the new construction site on campus. A state of the art science building was going up, replacing the old one. He didn’t understand why. The old one was nice. The construction workers were on a break. They whistled and catcalled at Jimmy.
“Nice tits!” one yelled. The others cackled in macho solidarity. There was contempt beneath those laughs.

Bull. That’s what they called him because that’s what he looked like. A big angry bull.
“Nice tits,” his fellow construction workers repeated what he said in a congratulatory manner. As if it were the most brilliant thing ever muttered and they wanted to remember it. They’d repeat the story at the bar that night.
Bull smiled, accepted their compliments, but he didn’t feel like a clever man. He felt full of doubts upon seeing the young man jog past. He wasn’t always a bull. He was healthy and young once too. He had a body others admired at one time just like the runner. Girls loved him. But now, after years of neglect and bad habits that body had disappeared beneath layers of another. Where had he gone? Not this flabby man sitting on scaffolding in the sun, but the man he was, the man he truly was, who had a sense of pride in how he looked. Where had that man gone?
This happened, he thought, as he took a huge bite of his double bacon cheeseburger. Life. Family. Responsibility. Everything that young runner was yet to find, if he ever would. He looked the type to never have problems.
Bull had looked like that once. Had people thought the same of him? That he never had problems? In Bull’s life, things were not handed to him. Things were earned or taken. Lots of things were taken. His little girl after his wife left him; all the money his ex-wife took from him each month; dignity; looks; health.
The doctor told him he’s have a heart attack if he didn’t start eating right. He was too overweight, his cholesterol too high.
Bull looked at his burger. He remembered a time when he was concerned with his health. He should try to be concerned again. But it was hard now. He would never get his body back anyway; he would never find his former self hiding within.
Why try?

Nice tits. Funny. Jimmy smiled, trekking onward toward the baseball diamond. He had to admit his pectorals, though all muscle, did bounce when he ran. Tits are tits to straight men. He could have been offended, but why bother. Those construction workers probably had so little fun in their lives, so little real purpose, that he would allow them their fun at his expense. At least the remark had momentarily distracted him from his problems.
He respected construction workers. Theirs was a hard job. A job with an estimable outcome. Something that might benefit society. Jimmy couldn’t say the same about his own job, his non-career. Managing a clothing store. What was so special about that? Day after day of hearing Little Susie Gotta-have-its gush over designer clothes. All his years of education, of being told by countless teachers that he could change the world, and what? Teachers lie. It’s their job.
The world changes without you just fine. You’re a colonist. A useless colonist. You’re a faceless runner in the Boston marathon.
The college baseball team was at practice. Hot young guys in shorts that molded their asses deliciously. But Jimmy wasn’t in the mood to gawk. Even if he was, he wasn’t too attracted to the younger set anymore. Besides, ballplayers had only space enough in their brains for a few things. Baseball, women, and doping.
Stereotypes play out before us. We accept them because we choose to.
Jimmy wished his mind was that vacant. He wished he could forget everything. Everything but men. Then he’d be a stereotype too. Just what the world wanted. He wished he could forget Gunner for a moment. He wished Gunner’s house away. Fallen down. Burnt down. Torpedoed.
Play ball, boys. Enjoy it.

Trevor watched the muscle man jog past. He was readying to practice his swing but the pitcher wasn’t ready. Trevor had seen the runner before. He must be from town, he thought. A townie. Townies like being around the college boys.
Trevor didn’t understand why he couldn’t look away. But when the muscle man came into view he had to watch. He was mesmerized by the mass of the man. He felt an uncomfortable tightness in his shorts. Thank god for his jock strap or the guys would think he was getting a boner staring at the muscle man. They couldn’t see it, but he felt it. Usually that excitement was a good thing, but he felt bothered by it in this instance.
I’m not gay. I’m not gay. But I bet he is.
Earlier in the day Trevor had taunted a classmate at lunch. One of the gay kids, out and open about it at the small college.
He was asking for it. It’s just teasing. He’ll survive.
Trevor was certain the kid was looking at him, leering. The kid wanted him. All the gay boys had a thing for him. He was sure about that. So this muscle jogger must have a thing for him too.
Were there such a thing as gay vibes? Homo-radio waves? Maybe the runner was sending his waves to Trevor.
Why did he feel so bad after he mocked the gay kid? After he called him names in front of everyone. The kid deserved it, right? Like this runner. Flaunting himself in front of the college boys. Trying to get noticed.
Which way’s the gym? Follow me to the locker room.
Trevor couldn’t stop watching the runner’s chest. How it bounced and moved. Beautiful. Could another man be beautiful?
Did I just think that? Why am I hard?
Trevor didn’t hear the pitcher say he was ready, though he rose the bat at the sound of his voice. His attention was still on the runner’s chest and his own crotch. But he definitely felt the pain as the ball nailed in the testicles.
Oh, God! I’m gay.

Jimmy stopped near the woods that bordered the campus. He needed a rest from all the voices in his head. All the ‘what-to-dos’. He took a deep breath and let in decision. It flowed through him like clarity. He knew what he had to do because there was simply no way around it. Appearances be damned.
They would make it past this bump in the road. He and Gunner would have a great life together and their wedding would be gorgeous. As big as Gunner wanted. They’d splurge. They’d use the money they were going to use for the house.
The house they would not be getting.
Gunner could hate him for a few days. That was preferable to Gunner hating him for the rest of their lives simply because finances had driven a wedge between them. Jimmy would explain this. Somehow, Gunner would understand. Surely, he would. Gunner was short-sighted but he wasn’t ignorant.
“And,” Jimmy thought, “it’s my life too. I’ll make him happy without a house.”
They could even go to school together. Both of them. Classmates.
But first he would have to think about when to break the news he had received that morning.
The doctor said, “Jimmy, you have a lump on your testicle.”
God, when to tell Gunner! He’ll fold. I know Gunner. Know him like a book.

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