Dennis knew, had known since forever, he knew, that he was drawn—fixated—with how he compared with others. Stevie “Lightning” Harris, his classmate way back in elementary school, was a faster runner, and Dennis, now decades later, still remembers his feeling bad about that, although he had never been particularly athletic, but it was just that he didn’t have the same acclaim as Stevie, whom he actually recalls thinking a really good guy. But still, the main thing that Dennis recalls years later is that Stevie each and every year was crowned Lightening by popular consensus, all the way through to when Dennis had moved away going into seventh grade. Stevie was fast, even if Lightening had to—or at least thought he had to—pin-wheel his arms, rotating counterclockwise one from the other, as he took those turns, running full out, often just for the fun of it on the recess play yard or in one of the infinite number of games of One-Two-Three-Alivio.
Well, Stevie had probably stopped doing that pin-wheeling thing, Dennis was pretty sure, and probably before second or third grade.
I still remember this shit, Dennis thinks, which makes him feel disgusted, but also amused. Dennis knows that he’s actually a pretty good guy, he’s typically kind and generous with people, he’s always been a responsible and hard-working fellow, but Fuck me, he says to himself, as well aware of his harshness toward himself as any other part of his flexible self-regard.
It’s a mood thing, this harshness toward himself. Years of therapy and the right tweaks in prescriptions have taught him that, which is why he’s really making an effort, but now he’s thinking about other Shit from grade school! Jesus! Janice Nelson, another sore spot, even better at math homework, as Dennis had been forced to see one afternoon, and in some ways, when he gets to thinking this way, it is as if he’s still sitting in the quiet of Ms. Sullivan’s third grade classroom, after some sort of droning on Ms. Sullivan had been intoning, and he finds it both amusing and annoying, A fucking time traveler, but even this isn’t enough to dismiss this stuff he is remembering.
Not that Dennis would have ever thought of or characterized Ms. Sullivan’s tone this way back then, as droning, as steady and persistent as the hum on a bad amplifier, or a distant leaf blower, just as he also knows that it would not have ever occurred to him to have any sort of judgement about an adult back then, back when he was so young—Probably not until the end of junior high, I’d guess—and then he’s back to re-hearing the sharp announcement that had emerged from that monotoned teacher, a claim that had cut into his wandering attention, that Janice was the best at the math problem pages.
Janice, not him.
It is only many years later when the understanding of his feelings about this sudden clear announcement has come to him, the severe disappointment found not in his standing—a 92 point average, against Janice’s clearly superior score of 99—but that it had seemed to him that he was not even close. He had been mentioned as second in the class, but that hadn’t seemed important to him, even way back when.
Not Even Close, he now imagines on his tombstone, which makes him laugh.
Dennis knows that the Janice story probably remains alive, resurrected, only because Dennis, in his adult life, has thought about it for the first time he has done so, and that only because of an in-session exercise his therapist at that time had guided him through—Whatever the fuck that was, Dennis thinks, which is what he tends to think when he thinks at all about any of these sessions, those rare times he finds himself thinking about them. But Dennis had been impressed with his clear recalling of the particular scene, the sense of the classroom, on the second floor of the annex, the moment recollected in his present, his understanding that it hadn’t been so much that Janice was better, but that his discomfort, his sense of self, had recoiled at the gap between him and her, the sense that he was little different from most of his class, nothing special, instead of celebrating being second best. Dennis can remember little else from this act of recollection, including the actual point of the therapist’s exercise, but he still recollects this feeling that he wasn’t special.
Isn’t special, he thinks, Something of a haunting sense, he tells himself now, If I’m being honest.
I’m a sick fuck, he is also thinking, not without a silent laugh, thinking back on that specific instance in his life, and how it is one of a mere few clear moments, along with the wending wild arms of Stevie running, or when in first grade Dennis had succumbed to peer pressure to give Ruth Pickles a kiss, after having told Steve, and Brian, and pudgy Alan, and one or two other boys whose names are lost forever now, that he had thought Ruth cute. He wonders how he might have expressed this opinion back then, trying for a bit of tenderness in thinking of his very young self, but the tenderness gets lost in his trying to work out what exactly he might have said. He is pretty sure that he had blurted out the confession in an effort to participate in the lunch conversation at the tables, but the only other thing Dennis has a really clear memory of from that time was when—That guy Michael?—had slapped Alan on the back while Alan was pulling milk with a straw from his lunch glass bottle, and the milk coming out of his nose, shaped just like a straw, two straws, the right diameter, both nostrils. Dennis finds it funny and oddly comforting that this is his clearest memory of that time.
No shite, he tells himself. Of course I remember that.
Dennis knows he can assume he had achieved some sort of singular status that day of the Ruth Pickle kiss, a first place standing of embarrassment—Shame?—among his fellow first-graders of Ms. Holmes’ classroom, although the roar of this in his head then has long since faded into a funny anecdote he tells people sometimes, although it now occurs to him that he can still recall that roar easily enough, that crescendo of static and panic, now that he takes a moment.
That feeling, that roaring, was like breathing to him, is what he thinks, it always was just something that seemed ever-present, although Dennis knows this to be an exaggeration, but he wonders if the Pickles thing might be the first true memory of the feeling. He had been a young first grader, probably still five when he had made his announcement that he has no doubt was quite innocent, but he’s told the story often enough to have to wonder how much he actually remembers, and how much he has created the remembering.
Dennis was a year past sixty, had once been married, back before he had reached the age of thirty, and then unmarried by thirty-five, no kids, Thank god. Imagine having kids, he tells himself, although he has as often thought about missing out as much as he’s tried to enjoy the sense of relief, even physically shudder when he thinks of having kids with That Bitch, but Dennis has long ago formed the habit of shutting out any thinking that has to do with that women he had been married to for almost one-half decade, The Five Hundred Years. Dennis misses having a girlfriend these days, although not that much. He misses having the touch and physical presence of a woman, although he also knows he has always been struck by the simple unpleasantness of the potential for another person’s needs revealed. Feelings, he sings to himself, Nothing more than feelings. He has sometimes told friends that this is his theme song, but he is well enough aware that it’s an empty irony.
He’s recently taken to wondering how much, if at all, other sixty-something men masturbate. I want a woman! he quotes, now more or less habitually, periodically, a tip of the hat to Fellini’s Amarcord, a movie he had long-identified with, basically from his first viewing during a film series in college, then followed by his annual re-viewings. A tip of the hat to a part of him that still longs for a woman, and thinking of this, he laughs. Which part? Ha ha.
He has a few friends of long standing that he makes himself see once in a while, and he has come to understand that the timing of his visits tends to coincide with those periods of his when he has been judging himself more harshly than usual, when he is increasingly sure that so many others are so much better than he is, when he becomes more convinced that he is A worthless piece of shit.
He can need those visits, the embraces, the assurances, the caringly applied assessments from his friends that he is kind, loving, always ready to help.
And they are right, he knows, some part of him knows, but he also knows that he’s reluctant, tentative, hesitant to be open, to admit out loud his times of raging self-doubt, his fascination with the glowering desire for annihilation, feeling silly, or too demanding—Or too weak–but grateful, too, always, for the warm embraces.
Yay! He says to himself.
Fuck you, you’re okay, he tells himself, and he knows he is being both funny and kind of pathetic. In every way, with every day, I’m getting better, he says to himself, in his thoughts. Years of therapy have helped him understand the tricks of feelings and the mind that make up a large part of who he believes he is.
One thing he knows is that he had been very afraid of grown-ups, well unto early teen age, when he finally started to see them as individuals, at least sort of, people who might be good, or okay, or just another asshole. The fact was that as a kid Dennis didn’t think much of adults otherwise, other than beyond their lurking constant danger, of him being in trouble, being found wanting, disappointing, despite that he knows that he had been a well-behaved kid. Fuck ‘em, he thinks to himself when he thinks of that fear, the fear it had taken well into adulthood to fully lose, or at least for him to have turned into the adult himself, the adult he fears most.
Oh, for fuck’s sake, he says, disgusted, but amused, too, at this turn of thinking. The problem with thinking is that you have thoughts, he thinks to himself.
Now that he’s not far from retirement age he can shake his head in disbelief that he had been that way, although well into therapy, probably sometime in his early thirties, he had come to realize this habit of perception of such pervasive threat, realizing—At least–how much a psychic artifact his distrust has been. Mr. Fucking Sensitive Child, is often what he thinks of this now, along with such wondrously cutting and self-abnegating interior bon mots as The Drama of the Gifted Child and Mewling Infant.
Mewling Infant, indeed, was one of his favorites, especially as he came to find the humor of his ongoing and generalized distress, especially as he came more and more to terms with who he had been and what he had long struggled with, so that The Seven Stages of Man not only showed off the value of his liberal arts education, but seemed relevant to the stages in growth he’d endured, he’d experienced.
More or less.
Not that there is ever final victory he thinks, it is always all still there, the trauma, the hard-wiring, the reflexive habits of the mind and spirit, The Bullshit, as he thinks of it all. He was long past being fearful of now fellow adults, perhaps in large part because he had slipped into their company as the years had passed, of course, but much more so this was the result of his determination to understand that original and pervasive perception of the world Dennis had inhabited growing up, an angry, raging father, an abstracted mother, and there was still, often enough, the occasional fear reaction for him to push through, even now, but understandably so in regard to those rare acute threats—the oddly escalating political argument, or a parking space dispute or some bone-headed driving stupidity that he’d react to only to have the offender go on the offensive explosively, or that time his boss had gone toe-to-toe with Dennis over a difference in views of how to succeed in the business Dennis had been managing for that company, the younger owner’s gym-built shoulders flexing as he has snapped, muscles turning iron-like as Dennis had reached out and had touched his boss’s forearm. Dennis said as much, in his funny way, about the iron muscle, which had taken care of that little incident, getting a laugh, although he had been fired shortly afterward.
Fuck ‘em, Dennis thinks, as he thinks back at that particular episode, now nearly two decades in the past, but also any and all such incidents, Fuck ‘em, a mantra-like summation of his response to conflict.
Fuck me, Dennis thinks.
And then he is thinking about needing to get to work on his latest assignment, the sort of thing he’s been doing for quite a while as a consulting contractor, still working in the field of technology, but his work having more or less devolved into writing white papers and case studies for tech companies, explaining new software products to potential customers, or the occasional article published in one or another of the relevant trade magazines, still more or less the sort of advertorial that made him feel vaguely embarrassed to be doing, but while it all was becoming increasingly boring, it paid the rent.
More or less.
Dennis had been finding it even harder than usual to chase the freelance work. His contacts were aging out, and the young up-and-comers taking over the VPs and CTOs and marketing director positions seemed to regard Dennis and his older age with suspicion, or worse, incomprehension. High tech remained a young person’s game, Dennis knew all too well, and while occasionally one of the young bucks might exhibit a glint of recognition or interest when Dennis talked about some early development he’d been involved in back in the day, more often what Dennis now got back from them was blank looks or even signs of active disinterest. Dennis understands, too, that it probably doesn’t help things that he was basically not interested in the work, a sense he was sure he somehow radiated, as much as he might feign interest in this particular new twist on middleware, or that new functionality, or how certain new features made the software in question particularly exciting or entirely essential for entire new markets, supposedly. Dennis was good at what he did, but he was finding it much harder to make those pitch calls or send out those emails, and he is often convinced that his distaste for the work is somehow emanating, beacon-like, from his expression, and even in his correspondence or voice messages.
Fuck ‘em, he sighs to himself, more prayer-like than curse. I can always live in a cardboard refrigerator carton.
Dennis didn’t want to do this work anymore.
Dennis has been writing poems. In fact, he had been doing this for a long time, although on-and-off, and, especially in his early middle age, while successfully working professionally and re-building an old tiny single family in a small city right outside of Boston, and getting married and divorced, getting out there with dating, and some long-term girlfriends, but he had not written much, not surprisingly, given his busy life.
Or maybe I was happy.
But he had always written poetry and read poetry, even going back to his high school days, God help us, he says to himself when he thinks of all the dopey and drippy shit he’d written over the years, but he’s been back at it for a while. He had been part of writing workshops in college and had helmed the annual literary publication of his university for two years running, had done some readings in those days that Dennis largely thinks about with plenty of embarrassment, those very rare times such reminiscence gets through his guard at all. It was all juvenilia as far as he was concerned, off the table for judging, except maybe judging a good laugh, but he had had some serious bouts of writing poetry, including an old manuscript that he was pretty sure he’d keep to himself, but over the last decade or so, he had, to his surprise, put together another manuscript book of poems, one in which he had some confidence.
Or whatever might pass for confidence in such a weird undertaking, he thinks to himself.
Dennis also has a good start on another manuscript from more recent work, and yet another, and a surprising number of new poems.
Well, I’m surprised, he thinks.
Or starts of poems, anyway.
He is basically feeling good about the writing, but he basically doesn’t know what to do with any of it, reluctant as he is to add yet more poetry into the great floating universe of it not being read, he was pretty sure.
But it’s not just why bother, he admits to himself, But good enough? he asks himself, and he feels that familiar vibration in his chest, his diaphragm, that feeling that had made him think about Janice and Stevie, about that reflex of his to conclude that he simply isn’t good, or good enough, simply can’t be the special being he had long come to recognize has been a driving hunger in his life, a hunger that apparently could still have the power to dampen his palms, or have him go eat something he shouldn’t, or walk about only to discover his motion is random, windows stood in front of, not seeing anything.
Dennis has long had other writers, poets, and artists among his friends and acquaintances, and this had provided some comfort over the years by letting him think of himself as some sort of bohemian, although this had always been something of a good news/bad news joke on him, as he well knew. In the heady days as an undergraduate, his self-conception as a culture hero, his violent independence from his father and mother, his projection of a brand new self, had felt good, and he still remembers with odd joy a story the girlfriend-turned-wife of one of his closest friends had told him, from when she and her hometown girlfriend had come to the campus as freshmen. Not that the story wasn’t increasingly offset by embarrassment, but it still retained some core of importance, too, for Dennis.
This woman had first told him the story a couple of years after any of them had been in school, already settling into adult lives, but still early enough that the college habit of parties remained in force, when the atomization of old relationships was starting, still largely unnoticed. She had told Dennis about the first time she and her friend had seen him, at least two years before he was introduced to her, only when she had begun dating a close friend of his.
She and her hometown girlfriend standing on the quad looking around at this new world, she had spotted Dennis, a junior at the time, walking down one of the concrete paths that connected one of the buildings with the student union, and she had nudged her friend and directed attention at him, commenting on the thrift store tweed sports coat, the beret, the poetry book poking out of the jacket pocket. That was what a college student looked like, they had agreed, apparently sincerely, if her comments later, whenever she told the story, were to be believed.
The evening she had first confessed the story, Dennis had joked that he should have been smoking his pipe, something he thought was a funny joke, but also something that embarrassed him, as he had indeed taken up pipe-smoking during that brief period, but he had kept that fact from further informing his wisecrack that evening, feeling both somewhat secretly proud, but also enduring the description’s embarrassment silently.
The odd certainty of a college kid, he thinks. He sometimes referred to himself, in introductions at that time, as Condor Leatherpalms, a persona of a working class poet, and as Dennis is mulling over Just what the fuck what he should be doing with his poetry, he recalls that this name had come from the store display label for a pair of work gloves. He thinks of all this and sighs, then laughs, a quiet burst of breath.
The same friend this woman had gone on to marry had gone on to a life in poetry and professorship, and who now had many poetry books and even more prizes for his efforts. Of course, it had often been a difficult time making a living as a poet for his friend, for years toiling in the slavery of adjunct teaching, and sometimes, Dennis was sure, his friend had envied Dennis’s earlier professional work, or, at least, his salary. Being a poet had meant that his friend had had to take other jobs, and for the first few years after his MFA the availed work was sometimes dismal. But as the years and publications came his friend had found himself a tenured professor, heading up the graduate writing program at a state university, and Dennis took pride in his friend’s achievements, although Dennis could see that the envy was now his.
Envy at times, but, increasingly, frustration, too.
The problem Dennis was wrestling with was how to get his friend’s attention, not as a friend, since the friendship remained one of his strongest, but as a poet and as someone who could read and comment on some of Dennis’s more recent work, if for no other reason than to tell Dennis not to expect much, or, just maybe, that the work was pretty good. The problem was that his friend, as something as a senior light in poetry at this stage in his career, and certainly as an active participant in what Dennis had coined “The Po’ Biz,” was called upon constantly to read manuscripts, whether as a responsibility of the program he directed, or for prize reviews, or as part of the mutual obligations he shared among his colleagues and contemporaries.
Dennis had made a few gentle inquiries, but his friend had made it clear in different ways that he was already exhausted by the demands upon him. It had become increasingly clear to Dennis that his friend actually valued Dennis for not being in the poetry world, and as an old, dear friend with whom he could escape from the constant requests, demands, and often unpleasant pressures of that scene.
All of which made Dennis quite disappointed, of course, although he was pretty sure that he kept that disappointment to himself.
So much for being special was a complaint that Dennis didn’t dare to express out loud.
So much for being special, Dennis thinks, thinking about this all, still finding something funny in the way his mind works.
Dennis is now at his desk, manuscript pages across the desktop, reading one of his latest efforts up on the screen.
Jesus, he tells himself, after reading it again, looking for the close of the poem. Dennis realizes that the poem reads more like a suicide note than anything else, and then he’s off shuffling through the various poems on his desk, reading them from this perspective. Doom, the inescapability of the human condition, the pointless of life are the consistent themes, he sees, and he is struck by the funereal, despairing tone of seemingly all of them.
Jesus Christ, he thinks to himself.
But the poems, some, at least, are pretty funny, too.
He is also thinking that these themes are legitimate themes for poetry, and as an English Major, and a wide reader of poetry, he even knows that this represents something of a tradition, elegiac, even, a view of the tragic, but with its own beauty, too, the struggle for meaning, the place for love, but still, he’s finding this a bit disturbing, although he’s confused about whether the disturbance is from the works’ themes, or his dread that these poems are simply all dreck, or simply because he has been kind of unaware of the unvarying tone of the work.
Fuck it, he tells himself, somewhat furiously going from one poem to another, and then back to the keyboard to open other files, and he is skimming over them, saving some of these poems into a new folder, a possible manuscript collection that he names Suicide Note, which makes him laugh, a quiet burst of breath.
This is fucking great! he tells himself, with both hope and dread, sitting back for a moment, grinning, either horrified, or amused.