Praise for “Dogs Chase Cars”:
“Dogs Chase Cars made me laugh out loud. Many times. It reminiscent of Carl Hiaasen’s books – an excellent crime drama coupled with hilarious dialogue and situations. In terms of laugh-a-minute romps, this is indeed one, but with slightly less romping than the average Jilly Cooper horse-fest. Porter has pulled one out of the hat with Dogs and if you asked me whether you should read it I would reply, “yes – definitely.” Take this book up to the counter now and buy it. Unless you are shopping on-line, in which case you should add it to your ‘cart’ and proceed to the ‘checkout’ neither of which have a tangible existence outside the ether of the interworld…. um, anyway, in Mike Boon speak that basically means I totally loved it.”
Mike Boon, comedian/writer
Ok look, here’s the deal as they say over here. You have arrived during a conversation, an argument, really. I don’t suppose you planned it but that’s just how it is, so we will have to make the most of it.
The gist of it being that Megan, my wife of four years and at times impossibly American, is lambasting me once more for my lack of drive and ambition. The thing is—she has a point. Her having a point is sort of the stumbling block as far as I’m concerned. I can’t really admit to her that she has a point but nor can I deny it.
“Harry!” she demands, followed by the hiss of patience flushing down the pan. “Harry!” She calls me Harry because it’s short for Horatio. Only strangers call me Horatio. Everyone else calls me Harry because it makes me seem like less of a tit.
“Have you seen the last demand? Have you? It’s right there on the notice board and this time it is not going to be me that pays it. Time you pulled your weight.”
This is also true. I used to pull my weight. I was even considered quite adept at pulling my weight at one time. I imagine people said things like, “There goes Horatio Goodman – now there’s a guy who pulls his weight.” I’m not really sure what the change was but lately, pulling my weight is not the noble goal it previously seemed.
“You know, Harry—taking photos of screwing couples is not paying the bills.”
Hard to argue there. That’s the thing with Megan. Her logic is tough but reasonable. It sort of backs you up until you have to nod and admit that you’re losing. I find that a very difficult thing to do. I haven’t always been a long lens pervert, either. That is another relatively new development.
“You need to get some money off these people. What the hell do you agree with them?”
Truth be told, I have approached negotiations in a flexible manner with the majority of my existing clients. That is, I had charged both of them and neither of them has paid yet. Mr Straub, whose daughter worked part time at the Seven-Eleven, has paid me thirty dollars toward expenses. This had been good for fuel and a burrito. Oh, and I think a pen, one of those gel ones. Luckily, we already own a camera, so that was an expense I have not needed to charge.
We also have a small room (a partition off our bedroom) that doubles up as a dark room from my photography phase, which is quite fortunate. When it is not being used as a dark room, it tends to be used as a study, which is a hangover from my writing phase. Megan sits in there when she is paying bills. Paying bills is not a phase. Still, these phases come in handy when unforeseen overlaps occur.
Mr Straub is typical of the enquiries I have received so far. He is confident in his suspicion that Mrs Straub is being rocked to sleep by someone else twice a week.
Usually, he informs me, Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons. “Sunday afternoons,” he has told me. “Can you imagine the shame? On a Sunday afternoon?”
Mrs Boucher is or was my other customer of note. She is Canadian and lives in nearby Silver Springs. I have no idea which part of Canada she originates from. As Canada is larger than some planets, I doubt it would mean much to me, regardless. Mrs Boucher has been fairly sure that Mr Boucher was receiving professional help. That job had involved parking my van a little further down the road and declining hand jobs, blow jobs, rim jobs and fist jobs for a couple of hours a night. Who wants to do that for a living? It even sounds like work.
I had managed to gain photographic evidence that Mr Boucher was indeed contracting out and he was fairly busy scouting for tenders. Trouble is I still don’t feel too great about the results. I have felt touch and go about asking for settlement on the account. Also, I still have the dirty photographs in my office drawer. This detail has not proved to be any source of comfort for Megan.
My business card is subtitled ‘Private Investigator’. It means I am my own boss, can customise my hours and work out my own charges. Plus– I love the romance of it. It felt like a solid idea. It came to me five months ago. I had been sleeping on the couch after another ambition and drive discussion. Sherlock, our yellow lab, had climbed onto me and attempted to make the limited space into a bicycle made for two. He had decided the best way to achieve his goal was to park his ball bag on my forehead, which is never positive. I had pushed him off and sworn at him. Then his name had struck something like a target inside me and I thought, ‘Shit me, that’s the answer.’
Store detective to private detective, without the need for a single exam. That was five months ago and here we were again, having the drive and ambition conversation. It comes up quite a lot.
“Look,” says Megan. “I’m serious now, Harry. Don’t jerk me around. I want you to get help. I want you to see Caleb.”
“Oh, that again,” I tell her and get lost in the fabric of my shirt. I am now brushing the arms off, occupying myself and proving that I am much too busy to go and see ‘Caleb The Counsellor’ and have my head attacked with a tin opener. Even if I could see any value in analysis, it costs more than a sex change.
“Yes. That again. Things are not improving, are they? You promised me that you would see him and I expect you to follow through on it. I have to be able to trust you, Harry. Besides, he worked miracles for me.”
Megan walks over to me and gestures for me to be seated. I am in no position to argue or challenge and so I am seated. Our couch—the one I sleep on from time to time—although on the small side, is relatively comfortable. When Lambert first moved in with us (I’ll get to Lambert), we owned a huge four-seat bench but Megan had hated it. It was a real man couch.
It had peanuts and coins inside it. It had a worn dent where a spring had lapsed and also a few beer stains and at least one burn inflicted by the ashes of a weekend joint. I liked it; it suggested masculinity to me. As I am unlikely to carry a gun just to fit in masculinity is welcome from any source, regardless of how unlikely.
To Megan the couch screamed ‘bus stop.’ “Look at us, three adults and a dog all in a row,” she had said. “It’s absurd. We look like we’re waiting for the end of the world.”
The inevitable rolls around like it will and I will soon discover if Caleb Pink can put some ambition into my drive, or failing that perhaps find some drive to force into my ambition.
I elect to catch the Metro, just in case I need to think on the way back. Megan tells me that these meetings and discussions can be cathartic. I have to be honest; I had to look the word up. It surprised me that Megan had used it… Lambert maybe; that’s the type of word he casually drops over the sports section and toast. That would not have surprised me. Megan? That surprised me a little. Not because her intellect is lacking in any way, just because Megan is not pretentious in the least. She never makes quotation marks with her fingers and I would bet heavily on an argument against her having ever used the term ‘per se’. Megan never refers to herself in third person and avoids rising speech inflection. In fact, all of those little details that leave me wanting to drive a pick axe through a forehead.
Anyway, I catch the Metro, in case I need headspace on the way back and I ride the Red Line all the way into China Town. Some of the other people in the carriage look to me as if they may be using therapy. How can you tell? Is it obvious, like a limp? Or is it ever safe to assume one way over the other?
Caleb’s small office is situated above an old discount clothing store in China Town, somewhere near the MCI Centre where the Capitals and the Wizards sell their wares. Caleb opens the door himself and I am mildly surprised to find that he does not appear to employ a secretary of any kind. Just a huge cheese plant sat beside a small desk upon which sits a smaller spider plant. The office is rounded off with a couple of chairs, some framed, fake water colours (why are they always Monet?) and one of the chairs is a member of the long chair family and presumably designed for people like me who need their heads looking at.
I decide that Caleb is probably not averse to catching some dreams on there when times are slow. Everyone has down time. At least, everyone I know has down time.
Caleb extends his hand as is customary and I shake it with what I hope is a well observed balance between a firm grip and allowing the blood to continue to capillaries unimpeded. As I am English I do actually worry about striking the right balance in this regard. I can recall conversations between my dad and some uncles regarding handshake etiquette. It is another of those areas that seems to be neglected these days but has left its mark on me nonetheless. We trade names, just for fun.
“English, huh? I’m a New Yorker, Jewish New Yorker—the whole shit shack. I know, I know. You got Woody Allen rolling around in your head, all those films, right? Well, that’s not the half of it, except that it could be some of it. Sit down. Lets’ get to work.”
I tell him that Megan had received counselling from him three years previously and ask if it would represent a conflict of interest if I am also treated by him. Caleb is wiry and his hair is dark and somewhat bushy, infused with steel at the temples. He wears frameless glasses that appear almost invisible on his face, except for the nose pinchers.
“No, I don’t think so. I remember Megan. Pretty together as I recall. I never forget a woman with a great… you know? Idea of who she is. I hope you haven’t come here because you are screwing around on Megan? I won’t be impressed if that’s the case, she’s a great girl. She always arrived on time and paid on time. They are the rules but some of these…” he searches around for the word, “…jerk-offs don’t abide by either one of ‘em, know what I’m saying? You’re a lucky guy. Why not just go home and kiss and make up and save yourself a pile?”
I am puzzled. This sounds to me like Caleb does not want my custom. Confusingly, this also means that he would rather not have my money. I had yet to meet anyone in the United States who did not want my money. I decide to play it tactically, feel him out a little bit. Megan wouldn’t just let me go home. I have to find a way to give this man some money.
“Why would I be cheating on Megan?”
“I knew it. Crap. Look, you’d better take a seat—there on the couch thing. Why are you cheating on Megan?”
“Well you may think you’re not. You have probably rationalised the whole thing. It’s not uncommon.”
“No,” I say, feeling slightly tight at the chest, “I mean, I’m really not cheating on Megan.” Caleb regards me across the top of his frameless glasses, “Why, in that case, did you say you were?”
“I didn’t. You suggested I might be but I’m not. Do you think we could start again?”
He picks up a pen, collects a pad from his desk (near the spider plant) and sets a tape machine rolling. He crosses his legs and inspects a cowboy boot briefly. I have no way to know what he is looking for. Perhaps a scuff or a touch of dog shit.
“OK.” He pauses for a second, looking me up and down. “But tell me the truth. No more of that strange stuff.”
I agree, nodding my head and unsure why I feel as though I am out of line. We achieve little in this first session. We move around each other like bull fighters, looking for openings and suggesting possibilities. I tell him about my failure to hold a job without it boring my nuts off. He asks me a multitude of questions. Some strike me as logical, given the context and progress of the conversation. Others seem a little peculiar and still others, quite bombastic. Particularly when he wants to ask about my sex life.
“So, how does it feel? Are you still regular, you know – in the bedroom?”
It seems odd answering questions of this nature from a man who already knows Megan and it does cross my mind that perhaps this is some sordid game he is playing to aid his fantasy recall and deposit into the wank bank.
“Are you an experimental guy, or a strict missionary man?” I frown at him. “Hey, it all adds up. Women these days… you know, they like what they like. They know what they like. I mean, they have always known what they like. It’s not a new thing. Now though, they say what they like. They ask for it. They demand it. Is Megan demanding, Harry? Does she make demands of you?” I chew my bottom lip a bit.
“How about fantasies? Does she express fantasies? Is she orally fixated? Does she have a healthy attitude toward the phallus?” I think about interrupting. Caleb unfolds his legs and arranges them in the opposite direction, shifting in his chair a little.
“Does she ever dress up for you? Or you for her? Or does she prefer the straight naked approach?”
“I’m not sure where this is going?”
“Does she like role play?”
“Do you want to have sex with my wife?”
Caleb narrows his eyes now. I am being scrutinised. “Now, no offence Harry but why would you ask me that? Is this something that you worry about? That other men want to sleep with your wife?”
Following the session, I do pretty much what I tend to do when I have spare time on my hands. I walk through China Town and head to The Rock. It’s a sports bar across the street and around the corner from the MCI. It stands alone, with vacant lots either side, as if by some force of will it has pushed its neighbours over and told them to get the fuck out of here, if they know what’s good for them. It looks like a decent sized detached house from out front, with a fading yellow porch visor that bears the telephone number and bar name. Signs outside chalk up promises of NFL coverage, good service, happy hours and cheap, cold beer. It sounds good to me, especially the cheap, cold beer.
I sit myself in a booth and take a sip. The place is dark—it always is in here during the afternoon. Regardless of the time of year, this bar feels like a cave closed off from the rest of D.C. I fully expect to emerge from here one early evening when the sun has been sucked right out of the sky and discover that the rest of the city has been bombed off the map whilst I watched the Redskins lose again on the road to the Eagles or Giants.
“Hey, everybody… the city is rubble, I think somebody bombed it.”
“Yeah and the Skins blew it in overtime. Shieeeet.”
Two men are seated at the bar a few feet from me. They have their backs turned to me. I can tell one is older, listening to their voices. His sounds more worn somehow. Not like he has had a tracheotomy or anything, just tired. He is telling the younger man about the situation at home. He runs through the routine, knowing that he is being listened to. This seems important to him.
“So I tell her, look–this is driving me nuts, either you are leaving me for this guy or you’re not. Know what I mean? Sure you do. I tell her, ‘If this is how it’s gonna be, I’ll take my chances with TV dinners and my right hand.’ She didn’t know what to say to that, I could tell. So I got more in. I was on form. I told her, ‘He can have you anyways. He obviously likes his women to be critical.’ That was it. I haven’t seen her since I got up for work on Tuesday morning. No calls, nothing. I tried her friends. One of them even called me a chauvinist. Me a chauvinist! I couldn’t believe my friggin’ ears. Can you believe your friggin ears?”
The younger man shakes his head, moving peanuts around in the small ash-tray like receptacle on the bar. He could not believe his friggin’ ears, either. I worked my way through three beers before I noticed a young guy hovering around as if he wanted to make conversation. I make eye contact and he walks directly over to me.
“You’re the guy from Takoma, right? The English guy?”
“That’s right. Have we met before?”
“No, but I’ve seen you before. That English teacher lives with you.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Tell that fuckin’ douche that if he comes within six miles of my girlfriend again that I will personally see to it that he never sticks his thing in anything again.”
“Who should I say passed the message on?” He tilts his head, perhaps listening to the wheels go round.
“Why? How many college girls is he screwin’?” It was a fair question and not one that I would like to try and make a serious attempt at answering.
After another two beers, I decide to Red Line back to Takoma Park. Partly to pass this happy little missive to Lambert and partly to let Megan know that I have gone through with it. I am now receiving counselling and that it should not be too long before my drive and ambition arrive at the same bus stop.
“Bastards. They think everyone wants to listen to their shit.” My attention is taken by an old man in my carriage. He nods toward two teenage girls in explanation. They are listening to MP-3 players and their enthusiasm for volume can be noted over the rumble of steel on track. “What is it with these assholes?” he asks, all vexed and perplexed. “Why do I have to put up with this every single day?! I tell ya—I wish I was a younger man.”
I get off at Takoma Park station. This has been my home for six years now. Takoma Park was developed in the 1880s and had been what was then known as a street car suburb. I think this may have meant that it was settled by commuters who had to work elsewhere; obviously in this case they had to work in D.C. The place became a town in its own right in 1890 and many of the houses look as though they date from around this period. There is an interesting mix of brick and whiteboard, single level condo and two or three storey houses. Belonging to the state of Maryland–which also boasts Baltimore—the town formerly belonged to both Montgomery and Prince George Counties. This had changed in 1997, when the whole hot dog was traded to Montgomery for a few baseball cards and visitation rights to the old band stand for jazz and blues festivals. I like this place. I have developed affection for it. I am happy to call it home and its peculiar, old world, new world attitude appeals to my inert sense of contradiction.
Our apartment, situated on Garland Avenue, is a basic two bedroom fifteen hundred a month condo with wooden floorboards and a modern interior design. We have a flimsy partition in the main bedroom which allows us to have the extremely small study/dark room that I spend so much of my time in.
Garland sits on a parallel between two of Takoma’s main thoroughfares: Carroll Avenue, which features much of the town’s retail opportunity, and Flower Avenue, which rolls all the way up to the doorway of Columbia Union College. This seat of intellectual prowess is the current employer of my part time friend and full time headache Lambert Windle.
Lambert and I are former colleagues. When I first moved to the U.S. I worked in the student services department at Columbia on a temporary green card and with a sponsor who vouched that I would not be staying too long and hopefully wouldn’t shoot anyone through the eye.
Through Lambert I met Megan. As the time scales blurred in my favour and against the wishes of the U.S. Immigration Department, my initial six month stay was broken up by a trip back to England and then a return journey after three months. Try as I might, I could not leave Megan behind. Things had happened quickly—much more quickly than I am accustomed to but something about the whole situation felt like it was the right one for me.
For all the publicity that states the country is open armed and welcoming, residency here is in no way a formality. More openly armed and unwelcoming.
In fact, I would say that the authorities made it their single minded mission to run my ass off the continent. They did this in a variety of ways. They stipulated how many days I could stay and how many days I should and could be absent during the year. They interviewed me at length regarding Megan, my intentions and my qualifications. They sought references, criminal background checks and probably iris scans. In the end however, their most effective and devious plan—the one that almost paid off—was that they made me wait.
They made me wait in airports. They made me wait in embassies. They made me wait for the post. They made me wait until I was unsure of why I was waiting. Eventually and not before time, they finally seem to have accepted that Megan and I are married for conventional reasons and have faded into the background a little. The suggestion of passport control still makes me twitch.
Lambert had long been a ladies man of some legend when I met him. He is tall, around six three or so, slim and elegant in appearance. He is reasonably good looking, I can see that. The thing that really helps his cause though is his ability to assimilate himself into virtually any conversation and company. He is an actor and he will act his ass off if it means he will get laid.
Lambert came to stay for a couple of weeks just over two years ago, when he and Isobel finally split. She had given him more last chances than Kiss reunion tours but the dog just wouldn’t stay in the kennel.
I am currently attending the creative writing classes that he gives on an extra curricular basis on Wednesday evenings on Houston Avenue. Scenes like the one in The Rock are worryingly frequent occurrences for Lambert and I sometimes think he will end up as one of Takoma’s average of two homicides per annum.
“What’s up, homey?” Lambert was playing solitaire at the coffee table. I wondered how long it had been since he had been forced to rely on a good hand. I also wondered why he persisted in his infantile practice of addressing me as homey.
“I was given a warning with regard to your behaviour earlier.”
“Really, who was it?”
“No-one I knew; short, muscled guy in his twenties.”
“Shit, that helps. You should have taken Sherlock with you.”
“I didn’t ask his name. Wasn’t big on conversation.”
Lambert threw down the six of diamonds, looked out the window blankly and then eyed me with a half smile playing at his mouth.
“I’ve got a date tonight with the lovely Lena.”
“Lena, next door Lena?”
“Lena, next door Lena.”
Lena is the Indian woman next door, who had buried her husband the previous summer.
“Jesus, Lambert. Ray is barely in his grave.”
“World keeps spinning, Buddha.”
“Christ, Lambert. I can’t believe you’re going to screw Lena.” I could believe it, I just couldn’t believe it. “Have you got no class?”
Lambert made a show of scowling; it was his usual bluster and thunderbolt of bullshit.
“Look, Harry. I don’t make the rules. Do I make the rules? When a woman is ready to climb back on board the bus, she’s ready to climb back on board the bus. It’s time to move on, baby.”
“Ray trusted you.” This of course is an outrageous lie on my part. Very few people trust Lambert, hardly any of whom are attached to women.
“Ray left the party. Ray is no longer at the table. He is no longer in residence. Ray gave notice, cashed in, checked out, bought the farm and bit the big one. Ray isn’t here anymore my moralistic little friend. I thought you would consider it good news. Lena is one hell of a woman.”
“Fine.” It is the truth. Lena is one hell of a woman. No doubt.
“Wow. Loosen up, John Wayne. Your English streak really comes out, sometimes. Y’know—you would make someone an ideal mother one of these days.”
“I couldn’t be a mother,” I tell him with conviction.
“Why not?” His face registers a mild fleeting interest in between thoughts of wooing Lena and banging Lena.
“I’d be worried about you trying to screw me.”
Lambert lets it float away. Instead of replying, he takes himself into the kitchen, or dinette, or dining area or en-suite cafeteria, and pours some coffee from the pot. He lights a short, thin cigar. We have an agreement. He can only smoke in the apartment when Megan is out, not due to return for some time and he makes every effort to disguise the post cigar air. The house rule is a flat and inflexible no smoking, whatsoever. That was never really going to work for Lambert. Instead, he and I have this gentleman’s agreement. Besides, as the great man once said, “Rules is for fools.”
I ask myself on occasion whether or not Lambert is happy. He seems content to drift along teaching English literature and shagging his way through the grateful housewives that attend his creative writing classes. I just ask myself if he might be missing some central pieces. Men like Lambert—I speculate on whether or not they get lonely. Whether or not they would recognise loneliness if it came and climbed into the sack with them? Or whether they would just nail it to the mattress, roll over and fart.
“Lena’s a good woman,” I say. I’m not just filling dead air over the coffee pot, this is the second time I have said this in the space of a few seconds. It’s true enough. I have conversed with her enough to be sure of my footing in this regard.
The evening of Ray’s passing, Lena had come here to cry in our bedroom and await the removal of Ray’s body. She had been joined by Megan, who is quite good at crying in our bedroom and was happy to show Lena the ropes.
Lambert and I had sat awkwardly, aware that this was female grief. It was a ‘keep your distance’ outpouring with a promise of quiet to come. This was a grief that allowed women to enter but had no need of men. I had been proud of Megan that night. She hardly knew Lena until that point but had instinctively known how to be a woman: strong, supportive and whatever else women are when they cry together. I’m guessing that intuitive and instinctive are up there high on the agenda. Also, despite talking for the entire remainder of any daylight hours, women always seem to know when to shut the fuck up and just mope. You cannot teach this stuff. By comparison, Lambert and I excelled at avoiding each other’s eye contact, searching cable for a flash of tit (Lambert had the remote) and silently working out the details for an acceptable point at which we might be excused for beer.
“You’re off the hook,” I had told him. “Go for a beer.”
Like a kid no longer grounded, Lambert grabbed his jacket, saluted me with a raised fist gesture and met the evening for a drink.
Ever since that night, I have been a bit delicate around Lena. Not because she has changed, more because I have changed. I just feel weird approaching her. Fearful that I might say something awful and have no idea why she is spitting tears. This means that I mostly keep my distance now, although I do put her rubbish out by the kerb from time to time. Whilst I was keeping my distance, Lambert was making his plans and now he was moving in for some duvet time. You had to give the man his due, he didn’t lay idle and watch the grass grow beneath a widow’s feet.
I ask him where he intends taking Lena this evening. He is all smiles and aftershave, having moved on from the coffee and parked the cigar.
“I thought we might head into Georgetown.” Lambert likes the anonymity Georgetown affords him, he probably likes the beauty of the place, too. He has just never related that part to me. I decide to ask him if he likes the beauty of the place.
“Hey, I’m as romantic as the next guy, as long as the next guy is not you.” We like to indulge this little practice of embracing stereotypes when we mock each other. Lambert calls me Niven as in David Niven. I call him George W as in ass prick.
Lambert stops on his way out to fuss over Sherlock. The dog whores himself for a few seconds, gorging on the attention and then collects his favorite old shoe and retreats into his basket. Sherlock’s eyes fix to me as he gnaws away at the thing; he is not daring me, just watching me. His tail thumps the basket wall in slow beats and he is lost, I know, for twenty minutes or until a foreign sound arrives anywhere near the door.
“So,” I prod, “…how did it go last night?” Lambert exhales and passes the joint back to me. We are sat out the back, on the grass like two school kids hiding at lunch time.
“Well, you know a gentleman is never indiscreet,” he tells me. He tips his head slightly, allows a dry cough to escape. He is playing the game but I know he will spill. I don’t want the gruesome truth. I have no use for it, just like to know how he gets on in general. I like to cop a feel of how he operates.
He sits quietly and contemplates something I am unable to share, unable to see. Primarily because his eyes are closed; and as well as I believe I know Lambert Windle, no man knows another man that well.
“She is a fine woman,” he tells me and I suspect that we will get nowhere. I have a light head, it isn’t a balloon yet, it is just testing me to see if I am still on the train. I squint to avoid eye burn and pass the dying butt back to him.
“She is a hell of a woman.”
So, we know that much about Lena and no more. Perhaps he will thaw if I approach from a different angle. I ask him if he would like to chase the shit with a beer. He replies along the lines of his soul rejoicing and my rewards in the next life and I shift myself to the kitchen/dinette/food preparation space. When I get back and pull him a beer from the plastic puzzle of circles, he opens his eyes and rolls his face forward at the neck.
“There is a great sadness to her, Harry. Something I couldn’t reach.” Lambert talks like this after blow. He gets grandiose, believes he is in some small way saving the world.
We dodge back and forth around her sadness and her fine qualities as if he is placing an ad in the items for sale column. I feel like I am bullfighting with Caleb Pink again. Is it me? Do I inspire this litany of non-responses and half explanations? Is it men? Is this what we have come to, having only so recently left the security of our caves? I was beginning to prepare myself for violence. Well, not really, but you know how it gets? This frustration washes over me once in a while, like I’m missing all of the necessary neurons to connect the disparate passages of speech together. Information floats around my head, whilst at any given moment Lambert is capable of entering the chat chart at number one.
“I just think it’s too early, Buddha.” I know—he called me that before. Did you pick up on it then, too? He likes to call me Buddha sometimes. Buddha, Niven… I’ll be sure to identify the other names he uses when they come around, too.
“Too early for her to be seeing anyone or too early for her to be beating you off with Sherlock’s poop scoop?”
Lambert lets loose with a sideways chuckle and shakes his head. “I just mean too early, Harry. All the way around too early. She looked at the menu and there were tears in her eyes. She told me ‘Ray this and Ray that’ all the way through the meal. I mean, she’s intelligent, funny… all that good stuff but let me tell you my friend, that woman is damaged.”
“She loved Ray,” I remind him. “It’s only been, what—nine months? Maybe ten? You can forgive her a little nostalgia, Lambert. She’s had a hell of a time.”
“She has but not last night. No-one was going to have a hell of a time last night.”
Now it is my turn to shake my head and quaff the last of the beer. “That’s pretty insensitive Lambert, even by your standards.”
“I think you may be right, H. I think I may need to cry for the lost nature of my soul. I might even swear off women for a while. You know, take in the scenery—go to a game or two.”
Later that night I am sitting up in bed with Megan and she is consulting her diary. I am reading a second hand thriller that I picked up at the ‘Bring and Buy’. I’m not getting into it, so nothing is lost. They forgot to include any thrills in the first chapter.
“Yes babe? What’s up?”
“Mr Straub is paying me tomorrow. He called today and apologised for the delay. He is paying in full, says he will consider it a divorce expense and claim it back from the soon-to-be ex-Mrs Straub.”
“Poor guy. That’s good news, though. How much do you think we’re in line for?”
“All told, hours put in and expenses claimed; I gave him an invoice for just over six hundred dollars.” This is the truth. It still means that I under charged him in terms of hours but at this point, any payment is good for the business.
Megan lays her diary down on the bed and removes her reading glasses. I notice a couple of grey hairs just over her ear that I have never seen before. It doesn’t hurt or anything, it’s just an observation.
“That’s good going, Harry. I’m really pleased. I’m glad you agreed to see Caleb, too. It shows me that you want to do the right thing. It shows me that you have some respect for me.” That is the truth as well. I do have respect for Megan, I love her. Although I know that love and respect can lose each other in the silences that occur in a long-term relationship. You have to work at it, I once read. You have to talk things through. You have to compromise and never go to sleep on an argument. They are the Golden Rules. Actually, I read them last week on the shitter, laying some beer and Mexican food into the plumbing system.
“I’m proud of you, Harry. Thank you for doing this for me. Thank you for doing it for yourself, too.”
“I’m doing it for us.” Sometimes, cheese aside and on the slide, I know what to say and when to say it. I know how to say it and I feel good about my ability to get through all of that relationship stuff and the Golden Rules. Other times, I open my mouth and either nothing comes out or something wholly inappropriate shoots me in the throat and puts me on a sex ban. Balance. That’s all I’m asking for here. If I can’t have balance, at least let me have the power of recognition so that I might know when these occasions are upon us. It might also help if I could know when my sense of humour is likely to get me punched in the sack.
Megan and I lay there in the quiet with the lights off. The windows are open because the air con is unreliable. My dad tells me it is temperamental but I’m not too good at ascribing human failings to machinery. I have no affinity with the mechanics of a thing, that’s probably why my dad can do that. He can humanise engines because they make sense to him. They don’t feel foreign in his hands. He carries machines off, my dad. They suit each other. Machines are not comfortable in my company. We eye each other for a while and agree to go our separate ways. It almost always ends in me making a phone call requesting help. My dad has danced with a few machines, in his time. I miss him. I miss my mother, too. We talk every couple of weeks or so but it isn’t the same as an ice cream in the back garden and the smell of their washing powder.
With the windows open the noise from the road bleeds through the gaps. I play a game in my head. I try to identify the cars from the sounds they make. I listen to the engines but this is not my forte. Instead, I populate them and try to imagine where they might be going, what they might be doing. I imagine scenarios, loved ones crying at home, laughter perhaps. One man is trying to give up smoking and I give him a week, two at most before he dumps the patches and his family thank a higher power for the receding of foul moods.
There is a woman who has decided to drive through the night for an audition in South Carolina. It is for a radio show, I decide. Initially it was to have been New York—off-Broadway—but then how to explain an over night drive for a city that never sleeps and isn’t too far away to start with.
When I drift off, I dream about Ray. I was right. He really doesn’t trust Lambert.
It is Monday and the morning routine unfolds itself. The three of us are well rehearsed and speech is kept to a minimum. Megan is always the first to leave, having eaten a banana and a natural yogurt with a low glycemic index and a fat content that would shame a crack in the wall. She is out the door with a kiss on the cheek for me and a wave of the hand to Lambert. She impresses me in the morning, she never fails to pull all of her shit into the same direction and hit the tarmac on time. It is a natural born talent and although I have been in training for many years now, I can never quite synchronise all of the little watches.
Lambert reads the sport section of the Baltimore Sun. He is from Baltimore. He never buys the D.C. papers and likes to check on how the Ravens are stacking up. “Man,” he says in a tone of genuine awe, “Ray Lewis is still a monster.” I know enough about the gridiron these days to be able to contribute. I know about blown coverages, rolling coverages, zone coverages, triple receiver sets, shotgun formations and various other examples of football speak.
“Ed Reed is talking up retirement again. He’s still one of the best safeties in the league—you’re going to have to open the safe to get a decent replacement for him.” Lambert does not joke or patronise, he knows I’m serious, knows I’m informed. He respects the fact that I have learnt the game to a standard that most fans would find acceptable.
“Ed would be crazy to go now. They finally got a QB in this Flacco kid.”
“You won the Superbowl with Trent Dilfer.”
“What are the Redskins doing at guard next year? I’m assuming Randy Thomas won’t be around?”
“Not with his cap figure,” I reply. “Samuels has gone thanks to the neck injury. It’s going to be a new-look group of hogs next year.” On we go, assessing not only the Redskins and Ravens but also the Steelers, Raiders, Panthers… we go on like that for the best part of ten minutes. Lambert never bothers to try and engage me on baseball. I once told him it was populated by men in pajamas who take steroids to see who can spit their tobacco the furthest. We agree to disagree on baseball.
Lambert tells me something about one of his students. This kid is having a bad time with his father. Lambert thinks that the police may have to get involved soon. “The guy is threatening his own son on a regular basis. He is a prized turd. The kid’s not a bad kid. He’s a bit mouthy but nothing beyond what you would expect.”
I can tell this is on Lambert’s mind more than he would like to admit. Lambert has an affinity with teenagers; I see it when I am out with him. They are comfortable around him, relaxed when they speak to him. It is one of his real strengths and I am not sure if he gets it. I am the next to leave. I take Sherlock for his morning walk and enjoy the pre-heat before it descends.
Sherlock deposited at home and the heat having slapped me around all the way into the city, I remind myself that Caleb had told me I had better not be cheating on Megan. Now, I am not cheating on Megan. I can categorically state that I have never cheated on Megan. I haven’t got an escape clause asterisk to attach to that, either. The reason I bring it up is that questions are raised regarding the therapeutic alliance between counsellor and subject. I mean isn’t Caleb supposed to remain a neutral observer? This struck me as pretty non-neutral. Had Switzerland decided to shoot Nazis on their borders, I think they would have lost their label as Europe’s great impartial seat of peace. As it was, they settled for hiding millions in Jewish wealth for fifty years.
I arrive at Caleb’s place to find that he does have a secretary, after all. She is not wearing a name badge, or any other form of identification, so I settle on Doris. Doris is wearing a two-piece lady-man-suit with medium height heels and has stacked her great masses of treacle coloured hair onto the top of her head. I presume this is so that she can find it all should a fire break out.
She is a little too old to be wearing the low slung, revealing little blouse that she mostly manages to restrict her pendulous breasts within. You have to marvel at a woman whose tits appear larger than the rest of her body. How do they do that? It is a simple question of physics. Surely gravity is overdue at this particular party? Ignoring my sense of disbelief at her ability to stay upright, Doris leads me through a door opposite the one that contains Caleb’s modest operation. I had noticed this door last time I was here but had paid it no regard, assuming it to hide a cupboard.
On the other side of the door I am greeted by more water coloured fakes and a desk that looks to me identical in every detail to Caleb’s, even down to the spider plant. I picture some warehouse on the outskirts of D.C.—part of a huge retail complex of single storey temples dedicated to the religion of consumerism; the faceless sun trap leads to a vast rolling garage door and beyond it, armies of these desks, all replete with spider plants and a small pile of photocopied and framed Monet masterpieces—purely because I have nothing else to consider and want to stay away from Doris’ outsized tits. I decide that Caleb must have another set back at home. He has obviously gone for the three-for-two deal. The one that has threatened its final week for close to a year.
Doris indicates a chair on which she would like me to supplant myself. Refreshingly, this is a comfortable, old, beaten, leather armchair. It reminds me of my man couch and I run my hands over the cracked, faded contours of the arms romantically. I am enclosed within this soft enclave of furniture. I feel as though I would rather stay here than head into Caleb’s office. On a whim, I wonder if Caleb will indulge me by agreeing to counsel me here, in reception.
Doris is on the phone. She looks past me at one of the fakes on the wall, pretends I am not even in the office.
“Well, yes Mrs Levy. I will pass the message on. You don’t think so? Well that is good news. Mr Pink will be very pleased for you.”
Moments later, Caleb’s short and slight frame is standing in the doorway. He is wearing a fastened waistcoat over a white t-shirt and jeans. His cowboy boots shine at me and tell me they are recently acquired for a good price.
“Come through, Horatio. How are you doing?”
“I’m good enough to be out and about and twisted enough to be here again.” Caleb arcs his eyebrows, smiles half-heartedly and excuses himself to discuss something of urgency with Doris. As I wander through his open office door I hear hushed and sharp tones of complaint. I connect it to the telephone call I just overheard and realise that the global economic downturn has flexed its greedy fingers around here, too.
Caleb shows me another chair to sit on, not the chaise longue of the last visit, this is more like the first chair—the man chair in reception. If this had been here throughout my maiden voyage I had kept my eyes fixed firmly to the shoreline and never seen it. I welcome its seductive spread around me and lounge. I cross my legs in a way that frees my bollocks to hang, as nature has always intended. This way, I should not have to contend with irritating ropes of sweat forming at the creases between leg and groin. In this heat, in this position, I was, in short, a happy man.
“What do you do for a living, Horatio?” I fail to notice the question initially, lost in a reverie of leather and dry testicles.
He registers my silence, perhaps senses that I am elsewhere and helps me out. “What do you do for money, honey?”
“I’m a private investigator.”
“Like Jim Rockford or Dan Tanner?”
“Yes, I suppose—although they are a little before my time.”
“Mike Hammer, Kojak. I get the picture. Interesting. How do you feel about it?” I feel that he has weighted the word feel a little unfairly. He has managed to make it sound unclean, almost like I am likely to physically feel something. Perhaps him though more likely Doris.
“I don’t think I feel anything about it, really.”
“You don’t think you feel anything. That’s interesting. Let’s stick to feelings for now; and by the way, sure you do.”
“In what sense?”
“In every sense. It isn’t for me to plant suggestions in your head. But something as pertinent, as intrinsic as a job is going to provoke emotion. I want you to tell me about it. From the basic do you like it? To the more self aware issues of how the work affects your sense of self, your identity.”
“Well, I’m still new to it and I haven’t yet made it a steady income. It’s coming, though. I went and collected my first settled account payment on the way here this morning.”
Caleb takes a break from adding notes to his loose-leaf pad. He nods and returns to writing notes on his loose-leaf pad.
“So that felt good.” I plough on, looking for clues, asking for pointers. When do I stop? Have I said enough, or too much? Am I giving him what he wants and why should I worry about what he wants?
“Why did it feel good? Was it the reward for the effort, or was it more to do with the fact of fiscal recompense? You know—our ability as men to provide?”
I supposed it was more to do with the latter but certainly had something to do with the former and I pass this along. We talk about my yellow van, about the fact that I often take Sherlock with me so that Megan doesn’t have to look at his boners all night. We get into the nuts of what I do for a living: catching the cheat. Fuelling the evidence for the divorce courts, photographing middle aged men in their younger girlfriends’ underwear. Actually, that last one is yet to occur but it will as sure as eggs is eggs.
“Is this a role you feel comfortable with?”
“Well, it’s better than being a store detective. That felt as rewarding as nailing my feet to a wave. It does feel a little weird though, considering I have a friend staying with me who makes the average womaniser look like a monk.”
“Really? I mean do you have evidence?”
“How bluntly do you want this? The weekend he moved in, having only just split up with Isobel—sorry, Isobel is, was, his partner—I walk in on him literally screwing some woman up the ass. He had known her for two hours and he had her bent over our coffee table. Luckily, Megan was staying with her mother for a couple of days. Otherwise, Lambert would have been out on his ass.”
“You say it was up her ass. Is your hostility somehow directed at this area?”
“What, her ass? I can’t even remember her name or whether or not she even had a name. What’s her ass to me?”
“That’s what I am asking. Or is it that this man, your friend, at least on this occasion, preferred the anus to the vagina? Perhaps you ask yourself if his preference for anal intercourse may in some way be a comment on your friendship?”
Now that is just the sort of teeth grinding horse shit that made me want to run away when Megan said I had to get my brain looked at and hopefully fixed.
“Lambert is as heterosexual as it is possible for a man to be.”
“Perhaps it is your feelings for him that are confused? Even if you are not, or do not consider yourself homosexual, it does not mean that you are not able to feel something other for this man than you have for other men.”
The chair feels less comfortable. My nuts’ swinging free suddenly becomes a source of irritated focus. “I do not want to have sex with Lambert,” I tell him.
“Sure you don’t.” I am not warming to this. I do not like the way in which he says that last comment. There is an air of satisfaction about him, like he has proof hidden in a brown envelope locked into a desk drawer and he can produce it to break me at any given moment.
“Look Caleb, I know that you don’t know me but really, you’re off on this one. Lambert and I are friends. He is probably the best friend I have, at least here in the States, anyway.”
“Perhaps you are transferring your feelings for a man at home onto Lambert? It is not unthinkable.”
“Where has this sudden obsession come from?” I am agitated now. I am asking him why? Am I wearing a sign proclaiming ‘I am repressed…?’ I have no idea where he is going with this or why he seems intent on going there.
“Perhaps it’s you, Caleb. Maybe you have these feelings for men.” I stumble around like a pre-pubescent boy in the schoolyard who is not yet sure how to ask the big questions.
“That is interesting. Perhaps. Perhaps not. It is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Particularly as we are here to discuss you.”
I fidget with the keys and coins in my pocket. I rescue some rogue currency that makes a bid for freedom and the comfort of the chair. I imagine them rolling into the depths of the seat, coming at last to rest on a wooden cross frame to forever remain until this chair is one day skipped, or set to flame. Will it sit in other offices; will it aid testicular ventilation in another line of business? I like to think not. I like to think that it will remain here for its natural span. It will witness the squirming of men and women alike, unused to having to explain their sexual preferences, perversions and fantasies. I had not expected this in counselling. I had expected a metaphorical arm around the shoulders. Not so much the metaphorical dick in the ass.
Who would have known that? I have a glimpse of how the pioneers of the analytical process must have twisted on their cerebral hooks, suspended as they were above the flaming pit of confusion and hostility. I wonder how the Freuds and Jungs managed to crowbar their sexual agenda into the conversations with their near traumatised subjects. Times change, we are more liberal, this is not as disturbing for me. And yet, do they? Do times really change? Are we really any better equipped to explore the facets of humanity that we personally do not feel able to confront? Are we any less likely than those early subjects of Freud to blank out, deny or run away—to ignore the puddles of uncertainty forming in the gut and the bowel and carry on regardless?
We tell ourselves we are liberal, I tell myself I am liberal and yet when I meet with my brothers—one older, one younger—we lapse into the humour from the school yard at which I found myself earlier. Cheap, pointless humour. Humour that could so easily be misconstrued as aggressive by the untrained ear. It is the humour of ugliness. The joke about the sacred cow being brought to her knees at the waters’ edge. It is the one about the old woman forced to hitch up her hem and reveal that she actually owns male genitalia and has spent her entire life living with the confusion of physicality.
Actually, I have left my capacity behind. I am now wholly unsure of what I am contemplating, what it means to me, much less to humanity. I am not the man to move the human race forward in any regard. I am confused as to why my head would wander off unaccountably and put me through this. And isn’t it all bullshit anyway? Love is love and regardless of who you stick it into, who sticks it into you, isn’t the core of who you are much further beneath the surface than that? I want to say all of this to Caleb, show him that I am not a man who cannot tolerate those who are not me. I am a man born in the nineteen seventies and finding his way around the culture shifts and accepted mores that have occurred within my lifetime. I don’t have any answers. Much of the time I lack the necessary acumen to even ask the questions.
I want Caleb to know that I am not homophobic; I want him to know that I am fine with other people’s choices of faith. I need him to know that I am a live and let live guy, that I like a beer and a book and that I am not a horseman of the apocalypse here to smite any grotesque bastard who refuses to conform to my worldview. I want him to know that my worldview is just fine, actually—that I am happy with it, comfortable with it. But even as I think this, I realise that I am lost. That I have no idea what my worldview is. That it is of absolutely no importance, regardless.
Instead, I simply grope for the truth as I see it. The one that I am unable to articulate but am sure of all the same. I throw the full weight of sincerity into my voice and I tell him, “Look, Caleb. I’m really not harbouring any sexual feelings for Lambert. Really.”
The silence sits there and waits for the next big thing to come along.
We merely look at each other and at our shoes, at the spider plant.
“Well, I think maybe next time, it may be of some benefit to explore the voyeuristic nature of what you do for a living.”
“Is it all about sex?”
“You tell me.”
“No. You tell me. You’re the one with the theories and the line of questioning.”
“Please, don’t be hostile to facing yourself. But yes, if you want my honest opinion, it is almost always about sex. By the way, how do you work out your rates? For your work I mean? I’ve had a death threat and I would like to know who it is from.”