He booked an appointment with an ear, nose and throat specialist.
He couldn’t recall if the hissing in his ears began before his wife left or immediately after. A chicken and egg dilemma. All he remembered is that the interference in his ears came on quickly. One morning, he told Dr. Gros the ENT, he awoke early and wondered why the television test pattern was making that monotonous hiss. Which was strange. Because the television wasn’t on.
“So it’s not a ringing, per se?” the doctor asked. Gable thought ringing sounded more dangerous than hissing. He was convinced he had a sinister tumor bearing down on a crucial nerve or on one of those little bones that look like stirrups or hardware. (Gable Massey was not a hypochondriac, but when things didn’t go away on their own, he started to worry. And of course, he knew that fears come naturally with age.) Dr. Gros wore a little round mirror on the center of his forehead, attached by a wide headband decorated with several characters from Winnie the Pooh. The only hair on his head was a renegade tuft of orange fuzz that waved behind the mirror as if a breeze blew across the room.
“Hissing only. Like when you put a shell to your ear at the beach.” In the past few weeks, Gable had concocted a half dozen ways of describing the sound in his ears. It was definitely not ringing.
“I have conch shells like that in the garage at home. I do that ear thing sometimes just so I can get a vacation feeling. Strange, isn’t it? Both ears, correct?” He paused, clearly enjoying his unexpected recollection. “Ah, well, what you have is tinnitus.” This is the same diagnosis Gable’s neighbor had offered. He was an accountant. Tinnitus. Ringing in the ears—even though this wasn’t ringing.
“Tinnitis.” Gable repeated it aloud to let the doctor know that he could still hear.
“Garden variety tinnitis. There are support groups and things for people who have it. Tinnitus really drives some people up the wall. They go mad. I suppose that’s not something you want to hear right now, eh? Is the hissing keeping you awake at night?”
No, Gable told him. And that was the truth. Gable had been sleeping like a baby since Hollis left, which surprised and even delighted him a little. He would have predicted he’d lose sleep over her.
“Could it be the humidity?” Gable asked the doctor. In Lake City, the humidity got blamed for everything from business failure to still births. This summer had been particularly thick. Gable told someone just the other day that it was so humid, you could all but scoop up air in a Mason jar. At some point, probably that one, Gable began to associate humidity with ear pressure and blamed the hissing on heavy air.
“It could be anything because no one knows what causes it. That’s why they have support groups. Fear of the unknown.” At the angle Dr. Gros stood above him, Gable could see himself in the doctor’s tiny mirror. He thought, I don’t look tired. I look scared.
“Tinnitus is usually a clue that you are starting to lose your hearing. Slowly lose it, I should say. Now, you seem a little young for all that to start, so we’ll just test your hearing every six months or so. You can find those support groups on the web, I think.” The way he said it, Gable could tell that Dr. Gros’s hearing was fine and he had no intention of ever having to deal with hissing in his ears.
Dr. Gros asked one last question as he reached for the door. “By the by, experienced any head trauma lately?”
He went to a hooker.
Gable was surprised that he knew where to go. That place between the post office and the train station, where the street made a hard, unnatural left, sharp enough to slow any of the sporadic traffic that made the trip after dark. I’ve become a cliché, Gable thought. A lonely white man with three twenties in his wallet. And he hated clichés. When he graded student papers, he reserved his most violent, artistic circles for the trite language in their essays. One time, when one of his young writers asked, “Why is it so awful to use something that everybody knows the meaning of?” Gable didn’t have an answer. But he didn’t retreat from his war on clichés. Even his. Every separated man eventually sees a hooker, right?
He knew one thing for certain. He would not seek the benevolent prostitute. The hooker with a soft spot. The woman of ill repute with a heart of gold who could ferry Gable to the shores of salvation through the mere act of cuddling and listening to his story. A fifty-dollar hug. That is not what Gable Massey needed. What he needed, he thought, is an out-and-out skank, a woman who dared you to flirt with death when she peeled off her thong. He wanted there to be the slim possibility that somewhere down the road, his penis would ultimately drop off like the nubby remnant of a baby’s umbilical cord. This was Gable’s street-walker death wish.
Gable saw a woman leaning against the Amtrak sign, rubbing a stick of deodorant under one armpit. He wondered if this was proper prostitute etiquette. He slowed to make the sharp turn, lingering long enough to let the half dozen other ladies in slick boots and Salvation Army halter tops covey around his car. Deodorant Girl scratched her ass up and down on the sign. Gable wouldn’t roll down his window until she looked his way. He waved at her to come to the car, a wave that was more like a plea. The other women leaned in toward every window of the car. Gable saw the sweat beads between their breasts. The humidity, he thought.
Her name was LaCharme, and she smelled like a cosmetics counter. Six or seven scents covered and masked each other, in turn masking and covering something musky at her skin’s surface. When she slid into the front seat of Gable’s Volvo, she immediately reached for his crotch. “Drive under the bridge, okay?” she said. He told her he wanted to go to a hotel, and her price immediately jumped. Gable didn’t flinch.
In the Econo Lodge, LaCharme unzipped her boots and kicked them away. She wriggled out of a too-tight jean skirt and let Gable stare at the fact that she wore no panties.
“Do you have a heart of gold?” he asked her.
“Say what?” she called from the bathroom. She walked back in on her toes, tapping little dollops of hotel hand lotion into her palm, then spreading it on her bare shoulders.
“Are you the benevolent hooker?” Gable asked. He was seated on the bed, his palms resting on the tops of his thighs, which were still inside his pants.
“I got a pussy like thunder if that what you mean.” She started to turn back the velour spread on the mattress. Gable stopped her. “Listen, my ears are hissing. I want you to do something for me.”
“Ears?” she repeated.
He told her exactly what he wanted her to do. He asked her to whisper things into his ear, whisper so low that he almost couldn’t hear. “Try to make me miss what you say,” he said to LaCharme.
“Whisper?” she asked.
“Kneel down here beside the bed. I’ll lean my head over, then you whisper. We’ll change to the other ear after a while.” Gable lay on his back, his hands crossed on his chest. LaCharme needed to be completely clear about the instructions. “Whisper something dirty?” she whispered.
“No, nothing dirty,” he told her. Gable was enjoying making up the rules as he went along.
LaCharme went to her knees and put her lips so close to Gable’s ear, she thought she felt some of the tiny hairs around its edge. It took Gable by surprise when he recognized what she was doing. He knew the tune right away. She was singing her ABCs in a tiny, thin voice. She stumbled a bit early on and mangled the l-m-n-o-p section as well. When she finished her zee, she paused for moment, then reached across the bed and cupped Gable’s crotch. He waited to feel something, a flutter, a rush, anything. The thought flickered across his mind that he had, indeed, paid for this woman, that he should try to get something memorable out of it. LaCharme moved her hand slightly upward and Gable realized that he was utterly useless. He shut his eyes and shook his head. LaCharme saw him, took her hand away and whispered something so quietly, Gable imagined she could have been in another room. “You one fucked up white man.”
I heard that, Gable thought. I heard that.
He gave his wife a hint.
Gable Massey thought that if he evolved into a subconscious, constant presence in Hollis’s life, she would remember why she loved him once. Mere asking wouldn’t bring her back. He had tried that. It needed to be subtle to the point of mysterious. It needed to be osmosis. He didn’t want to be seen so much as be sensed. He didn’t want to be an annoyance so much as a strange, sudden itch that comes out of nowhere.
He began his nightly walks to Hollis’s apartment after midnight. (It wasn’t far, maybe ten or twelve blocks.) Without knowing it, Hollis had left an extra key to her Saturn station wagon in the garage at the old house, hanging on a finishing nail. Gable would hold the key in his hand the whole way to her house. In the parking lot of her apartment complex, he’d find the Saturn, unlock it and crawl in the backseat where he’d spend the entire night wrapped in the one blanket he brought with him.
Hollis and Gable used to take long trips during the first couple years of their marriage, trips that had no plan and no real purpose. They would leave in the car, in the middle of the night, picking a direction as they meandered to the edge of town. They would take turns driving. He loved the feeling of falling asleep in the back seat while Hollis drove through the dark, wondering which state they’d be in when he woke up. And he loved watching Hollis sleep when it was his turn to drive. He would angle the rearview mirror at her, catching shimmers of her reflection as they passed oncoming cars. He loved the quiet on those trips, the sounds of sleep.
Gable set the alarm on his wristwatch so he’d be sure and leave before daylight or before another tenant appeared in the parking lot. He thought about leaving her things, little remnants of their years. A photograph maybe, or a hair clip. Just something to slip into the crack in the seat. But Gable decided against it. That would violate his desire to be nothing more than a suggestion. The last thing Gable wanted to be at this point was overt when he wasn’t around.
Gable smiled when he imagined Hollis climbing behind the wheel in the mornings, looping her seatbelt across her chest and wondering why her Saturn always seemed to smell like her former husband. Smelled like Gable who is losing his hearing. Like Gable who is sleeping in cars. Like Gable who is helping hookers with the ABCs.
He went to therapy.
Correction. Gable only told Hollis he went to therapy. During one of their sad, awkward talks in the days just after she’d left, Hollis told Gable she thought he should see someone.
“See someone,” Gable echoed.
“A therapist. Someone that you can talk to, who can help you figure yourself out. I sure don’t know who you are any more. I have this feeling you don’t know either.” Hollis was seeing a therapist. She had refused Gable’s request to attend a counselor as a couple. I need to work on myself, she’d told him. I don’t have the energy to work on the both of us. She’d put it in terms of a favor. Do this favor. For me. See someone.
Gable went to the phone book and looked under Counselors and Therapists. There were thirty-seven names. He knew Hollis was seeing a female therapist, so he decided on a male. An Asian male. Dr. Albert Lo Chin.
Gable didn’t have the money or the desire to actually call Dr. Lo Chin and make an appointment. He just needed his name. He just needed a ghost doctor. This was his favor to Hollis. She didn’t need to know that he never actually attended a session. And there was no way for her to find out. She couldn’t check behind him. Confidentiality and all that.
“Thank you,” she said when Gable told her about securing the therapeutic services of one Dr. Lo Chin. “Did he help?”
“He was wonderful. A very quiet man. He sort of made me do all the talking. Getting my money’s worth, I guess. Ha, ha.” Gable was surprised how much he enjoyed tampering with the truth. “He wanted to know the whole situation. He said he can understand how things got the way they were. The way they are, I mean.”
Hollis stared at Gable and cocked her head slightly. “He said that?”
“Yes. He’s very insightful. I told him how you felt you didn’t belong in our house any more, you know, that day at the sink with the crying and everything, and he said that maybe there was a coming together of things, timing he guessed, or actually bad timing that pushed us around a little, but – and here’s what I thought was so smart of him—he said that those sorts of things can be overcome if both people are willing to try, you know, give it a shot together and of course, if the two people involved aren’t arguing about anything in particular, if it’s, well, like too abstract to figure out.” Gable paused, realizing that he was talking faster and longer than normal. Hollis continued to stare at him like he was speaking in tongues.
“I really liked him,” Gable offered up into the silence.
“So, where’s his office?” she asked.
“That medical mall. Over by the hospital.”
Hollis nodded. “Really? Did you make another appointment?”
“Oh yeah. Next week. Early on.”
“Thank you. I really appreciate you taking the time to find a therapist.” Hollis smiled at him for the first time in weeks.
“Dr. Lo Chin thinks I’ll make progress. He said to be sure and tell you that.”
Hollis’s brow furrowed. “He said to tell me?”
Careful, Gable thought. Careful.
“Actually, he said I should feel free to discuss any of our session with you. Whatever I thought might help things, I should mention it. That’s what he said.”
“Gable, therapy is for your benefit. It’s not going to bring me back.” When Hollis said things she had rehearsed, she had a habit of biting her lower lip. “We are a little beyond that.”
“Dr. Lo Chin told me you might say something like that,” Gable answered. Hollis was still biting her lip when she turned away.
He read his mail in the sunroom.
When Gable came home from school in the afternoons, he liked to drink a beer and go through his mail in the small room at the side of the house. Each day, he still received a great deal of Hollis’s stuff, both the important things and the junk. He made quick decisions which things were important enough to pass onto her. It didn’t bother him to sort her mail. It felt useful, like he was helping.
One afternoon, the largest envelope came from Dwyer, Mann, Helm and Welch. Inside, a handwritten note on formal Dwyer, Mann, Helm and Welch letterhead said:
Per Mrs. Massey’s request, we are forwarding a copy of this document for your review. Please have your attorney make any corrections or suggestions and return to us immediately.
Gable couldn’t make out the signature.
It was the first time he’d seen his life on paper, his possessions divided and subdivided, his history with Hollis broken into neat, formal paragraphs. He finished his beer and got another, read the document again. Hollis had mentioned days ago – actually on the same day that he reported on his therapy session with Dr. Lo Chin – that she was moving ahead with things. And this was one of the things.
In the document, Hollis’s lawyer listed several specific objects in the house that should be considered hers and not marital property to be divided. Those were the things that Gable brought into the sunroom and destroyed. A pot thrown by an artist in North Carolina. Crystal champagne flutes from her grandmother. An etching from an art gallery in Atlanta. Et cetera.
Each time he broke something or ripped something, Gable tried to come up with some clever line or witty send-off, the kind of thing he imagined Cary Grant might say as he smashed his estranged wife’s requests, if there were a Cary Grant movie like that. When he slung the pot on the floor, he said, “Not quite the vessel it used to be, eh?” When the champagne flutes exploded on the tiles, he said, “Ah, well, not a very good year for champagne anyway.” It was Gable’s way of avoiding melodrama.
He brought the broom from the laundry room, swept up the pieces he could find and poured them into a large cardboard box. Then, he washed out the empty beer cans and tossed them in the box as well, just to hear the sound they made.
He slowed down on the curve.
Even though it was after midnight, LaCharme was still out, holding up her Amtrak sign again, digging through her pocketbook when he waved to her. She must have told the other girls about Gable; none of them tried to approach the car.
She climbed in and leaned over, bit his earlobe and said, “Hey, Whispering Man.” Then, she noticed the cloth wrapped around his hand. “What? You bleeding?”
“I cut myself this evening. On a champagne glass. It’s nothing.” He pulled a u-turn and drove toward the other side of town.
“You bring me any?” LaCharme said.
He found the Saturn in her parking lot.
Gable spread the blanket in the back seat as neatly as he could manage in the dark and motioned for LaCharme to get in. “I take it we ain’t just whispering tonight,” she said as she rolled her hips into the air and slid the jean skirt down her legs.
Gable closed the car door quietly and took a deep, deep breath. He smelled LaCharme’s fresh deodorant and the several different cheap perfumes and colognes that were fighting to do their mutual masking and covering. Tonight, she was chewing gum, too. One of those happy smells. Spearmint, he thought.
LaCharme asked him to open a window and let some air in, said it was too hot to be fucking in a car with the windows up. He didn’t answer and didn’t reach for the buttons for the window, just pushed himself inside her when she wasn’t expecting it. LaCharme began to recite her ABCs slowly, then began to moan in rhythm with Gable’s movements, growing louder with each beat until she was screaming. He didn’t notice the noise, didn’t pick up a thing. Gable had closed his eyes and was busy imagining what Hollis would think the next morning when she slid in behind the wheel. He wished he could be there to see the way her nose crinkled, to see the confusion on her face as she wondered what that smell was. She would try to pinpoint the odor, the smell of two bodies, wondering if it was actually her. Is it me? He wished he could hear what she had to say.
Gable opened his eyes and looked down at LaCharme. He realized he was dripping sweat onto her from his forehead and the tip of his nose. Her mouth was open but he couldn’t make out what she was yelling.
LaCharme reached up and pushed Gable’s chin toward his shoulder. She pointed at the window that was slightly fogged. Gable began to turn as the beam from the flashlight hit his face, as he suddenly heard all of the voices filling the space around the car.