Back when I depended on roommates for survival, I would put an ad in the paper, then depend on luck to guide my choice among the respondents. Unfortunately, at a certain point my choice came down to potluck, since I received two calls, one a possibility, the other named Gary Hitler.
Pot-luck turned out to be Rhonda Rufflich.
Rhonda was a meaty dish—all animal. Pack rat. She even had rodenty incisors, long, backward-leaning chops, concealed by a whiskered upper lip. She would sniff the air when planning her day. I feared leaving, afraid to go to work, once I saw what she was capable of doing while I was gone.
She didn’t threaten so much as intrude. Her basic instinct, nesting, compelled her to make changes to my space as though marking my territory with her scent, making it her own. For example, soon after she moved in she unplugged my CD player and replaced it with her own. After that she moved a photograph of my grandmother to make room for one of Elvis Presley. Later she arranged her collection of plastic kewpie dolls on moss green shelving she installed herself in my living room. She presented these accomplishments without apology, wrinkling her nose and mouth together as if to thwart a sneeze. She had a proud confidence in my approval, like my cat does when plopping her kill at my feet. Rhonda had no neuroses in the shyness category; she simply made herself at home.
After I balked at the rearrangement of my furniture, Rhonda decided to move out. She said I was “too inflexible.”
Desperate now, I decided to give Hitler a chance.
Over the phone Gary Hitler sounded like Leonard Cohen with a cold—that is, his voice was a deep, froggy, smoke-husky thing, without en sounds, so that “I don’t know” became “I dought dough.” I thought, if he looks like Adolph—no way.
Hitler arrived at my door. Relieved, I saw he looked nothing like Adolph. Instead, his appearance bore no threat at all— trim and well built, he dressed in a flannel shirt —tucked in— and new blue jeans. His face, lumpy, almost doughy with sad-puppy, brown eyes, smiled and spoke a hello as normal as the hair on his head—a clean, tidy, short-cropped mane swept back; wide forehead shining. With all of that, I saw a harmlessness there, a halo hovering, then fluttering up and away—a zephyr of sparrows’ flight, or so I imagined in my desperation. He was an angel. He was an angel who was over his cold.
Despite my relief, my old midnight drift toward the negative returned. And here it came, a certain dread, beginning the night after he’d signed our homesharing agreement and before he moved in, which was to be the next day. As I tried to get to sleep again, all I could think was, Hitler is moving in ...Hitler is moving in.
Daylight brought reason to the mix. By mid-morning, his rental truck had backed into my driveway, and soon the bare, sanctum-sanctorum quality of my uninhabited extra room was gone, and in its place a TV, shelving, boxes on boxes atop a king-sized bed, all in disarray, like stew on toast. After he had returned the rental truck, he brought a bag of groceries into the kitchen where I was washing my morning dishes. “Think I’ll make a sandwich now, take a break,” he said, plopping his shopping bag on the counter and opening the refrigerator. A box of Fruit Loops removed and placed aside, out came the usual, including a loaf of beef which went straight into the freezer.
“Sure,” I said, welcoming him and gesturing toward the counter beside the refrigerator. “There’s the cutting board, and I’ll just be a minute here with these dishes—dishwasher’s out of order, by the way...but by Tuesday it’ll be good to go.” My discomfort set in again; I smiled and tried to act natural, even while my brain stem flashed,”danger ahead, danger ahead,” manifesting as, What if he stabs me in the back, first thing?
With my dishes washed and draining on the counter, I saw he had put away his groceries and was ready to make a sandwich. I watched his preparations, scrutinizing each step, each stealthy move, like a sparrow on her nest eyeing a cat below. I reached for a dish towel and began wiping dishes, keeping a beady eye on the action.
He arranged the ingredients for his sandwich on the counter above the cutting board, placing each object in perfect alignment: an onion; a tomato; white bread; a jar of mustard; a jar of mayonnaise; a package of sliced bologna. He removed a skinny, aluminum knife from the knife-holder. He stabbed the tomato dead center, then allowed gravity, boosted by a flick of his wrist, to yank it off the knife and onto the board. It landed with a mushy thud. His knife pulled an incision, slim as a laser cut, into tomato flesh; his slicing became my agony. The tomato bled all over the cutting board. I couldn’t stand it any longer and looked away.
Unaware of my discomfort, he said, piling tomato, onion, and bologna on one slice of mayonnaise-soaked white bread, “My sandwiches...I cut the crusts off. That’s why my wife divorced me. She said it symbolized everything about me she couldn’t stand, like how I made love to her.” Gary licked a dab of mustard off his thumb. “I left out the ‘wholesome part,’ wholesome, meaning passion and soul—to her; meaning the nutty part—to me, the too-much-trouble part.” He paused, shook his head in disagreement with his wife’s attitude and placed the second slice of bread on top: “I like my love like my sandwiches— simple, clean, and uncomplicated...none of that quirky love stuff for me, and that goes for vegetables in my sandwich too—none of that hippy food in there, green peppers, sprouts and the like, especially those thready sprouts, all matted and bunched, like kinky hair...” Then, off with the crusts— whomp, whomp, whomp, whomp.
I smiled, relaxing my birdy perspective. This was more than I wanted to know, but good news, just the same. It helped me quash another of my fears, the one going to sex between roommates. Now I know that’ll never happen, like I know I’ll never put milk in my tea...no hormonal nonsense here to ruin things...even if he has ideas, I can resist this guy, knowing how squeamish he is...phobic even...doesn’t like whole women?...feel sorry for him though...losing his wife over something he couldn’t change... still, I can see his wife’s point—a man who wants his sandwich without crusts?...is this sexy? Or so my thinking went back then: he wanted a woman without difficulty, without integrity, which was why the wife used the word wholesome; she felt like a slice of white bread, trimmed, sanitized, removed of its most nutritious part, its best part, its soul. She was a utility. Nothing more. As it was, I couldn’t imagine sex with Hitler.
Crouching down, I placed a pan in a lower cupboard. I hear his voice behind me now: “...but you don’t wanna to hear about my love life with my ex, eh? I have a way of telling too much, maybe ‘cause of my name. People assume I’m not human, so I go overboard trying to prove ‘em wrong.”
Standing up, turning to face him, I asked the question he had just inspired in me, “I imagine you’ve had your difficulties having the last name of Hitler. All due respect, wouldn’t life be easier without it?”
He smiled wide. It was a familiar question, no doubt. I noticed his dimples for the first time. “I suppose, if I wanted to be a politician, or a doctor.” An impishness welled in his face, brightening his eyes. “Imagine me as a dentist— ‘Dr. Hitler here, and how are we today?’” He rubbed his hands together, like a fiend, eager and ready to begin the torture. “Anyway,” he continued, picking up his sandwich and leaning against the counter, “I never wanted to be a professional, unless I could be a professional artist, a real painter instead of the house painter I am today. That’s the only thing I have in common with old Adolph—he wanted to be an artist...” He took a bite of his sandwich, surveying the kitchen walls while he chewed.
“...yep,” I said, “...and wasn’t he a house painter for awhile too?” As soon as I said it, I felt sorry for him again and tried to shift the subject. “Too bad he couldn’t have become an artist—think of all the people who would have lived if only he’d been accepted to art school!”
Gary considered this for a moment, nodding his head, comprehending, and swallowing the bite of sandwich he’d been chewing. His throat cleared now, he said, “No joke. Actually his stuff wasn’t all that bad —I’ve seen some of it— quite competent. It makes you wonder about the perils of giving up on your dreams, or allowing the artist in you to be discouraged by others... circumstance ...dictates of fashion ...ambition, or whatever ...does somethin’ nasty to your soul...” And with that, he took another bite of his sandwich, a thoughtful look on his face. I thought, and what about your soul, Gary?...but good...he chews with his mouth closed and doesn’t talk with his mouth full. This is a blessing. This could last awhile.
Feeling looser now, my little fears flitting off and away, I said, “You’re right. I could talk all day on the subject.” Then the contradiction between his artistic side and his food/lover side occurred to me. Emboldened, I ventured, “So you’re an artist. I didn’t know that. I thought you didn’t like ‘hippy’ stuff.’” I winked, hoping he would take the comment as a friendly jab.
“‘Hippy stuff?” he responded, winking back, giving me the Halt sign with his free palm as he swallowed his mouthful. “All due respect, I think that’s a misconception; not all artists are hippies. Mark Rothko, for example. He was the most conservative dude in the world...dressed like a business man, but there he was, blistering his canvas like...like...like goddam Zeus. Henry Moore too —another example— dressed in those tweedy jackets.” Grabbing a paper towel, he continued, “I had an art instructor who once said, ‘Never think you have to conform to anybody else’s style; and especially, never think you have to play the role.’ So I just try to please myself. That’s about all a person can do.” He wiped his mouth with the paper towel, muffling a burp.
“Well, of course. Good advice,” I said. I thought of my cousin who said, after reading Hamlet, ‘That’s why I don’t even try.’ “So you’d like to be a ‘real painter.’ Have you been able to do that, to paint?”
“Not really. All my supplies are in my wife’s garage, which used to be mine. No time to paint anyway. Child support. Overtime.” He opened the refrigerator and grabbed a carton of whole milk. “I have a little girl. She’s my life. That’s why I’m here—to keep expenses down so I can get through this phase.” Opening cupboards, he said, “So where do you keep your glasses?”
“Oh. Over there. To the right.”
Gary picked a glass from the mixed assortment I had accumulated over the years and set it on the counter. “Yeah. You’ll like my Deana. She’s one little darlin’.” He opened the carton and poured milk to the brim.
“And how old is she?” I asked, watching him down his drink, now noticing his hands—something tender in them, like new leaves.
“She’s five.” He wiped his mouth, then settled back against the counter, hands and arms gentle buttresses at the edge, fingers curling under. Cowboy stance. “Yeah. I’d love to be an artist, but give me a choice between being an artist and being a father? Hell, it’s no contest. I’ll take Deana every time. We’re not talkin’ sacrifice here, not at all. More like a risk. I consider it man’s work, absolutely. Takes more guts to love than all the climbin’ rocks, bangin’ heads in a football game, goin’ to war even— especially, lovin’ your child? You surrender to that and you’re a gonner. The risk you take is monumental. Anything happens to her...” Gary shook his head, closed his eyes.
I saw it then. Instantaneous. Monochromatic flash, photo negative. Seen, and as soon, forgotten.
“She’s so lucky to have you, Gary. So, do you see her often?”
“Yep. Every Sunday. And whenever I can—we’ve got joint legal custody, but the wife has physical custody for now...okay by me since I can go over there most any time I like, as long as I call first, of course. I may not be the perfect husband, but my wife at least knows I love our daughter. That’s never been an issue.” Stepping forward, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. “Here, gotta show you this.” He stood beside me, shoulder to shoulder, his wallet splayed open to a photo of his daughter. There she was, standing alone in the front yard of a tract home, cutie in Levis, cotton baby-doll blouse, blond hair with bangs, two sprightly pony-tails arching up and out, like cropped bunny-ears, chin tucked, a sweet, I-am-so-loved smile, hands together chest-high, holding a tiny white object.
“Oh miGod, Gary. She’s fabulous. What’s that she’s got there between her fingers?”
“That’s a ceramic lamb I bought for her. Tiny, isn’t it? She loves tiny things.”
That night, with Hitler in the next room, I fell asleep without trouble, hugging my pillow, absorbing warmth to the marrow. The next day would be a sunny one, whatever the weather. I was sure of it. I slept through the entire night.
The next day was Sunday. It wasn’t sunny, after all, neither by weather nor by circumstance.
Oh, it started out well enough. Gary was out somewhere when I got up, so I had the house to myself. I struck up a Leonard Cohen CD, and his song carried me into the kitchen “... Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river...& she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China...” I grabbed a tea bag and placed it in my favorite mug. Teakettle blew. Cohen’s near-sinister, dark-angel aspect felt innocuous in the morning light, with crows guffawing in the distance. I poured boiling water onto the tea bag, as slowly as possible— stood there listening, looking into my mug, hypnotized by the tea and tannin gradually merging with H20.
Next track, and I’m sipping tea, “...everybody knows that the plague is comin’... ...everybody knows, everybody knows, that’s how it goes...oh everybody knows...”
Nothing sinister there for me, only Cohen, unmasked. Nothing registered.
Shredded wheat. Soy milk. Sugar. Music. Tea. Solitude. Yes. All I needed was a good book.
As I ate my cereal, Cohen played on, confessing my sins “...like a bird on a wire...” and proclaiming my hoped-for redemption, “I have tried in my way to be free...”
Ten minutes later the phone rang. I put my book down and went to the desk to answer it.
Police on the other end. I blanked over the officer’s name, then heard, “...Gary Hitler...is this his residence?”
“Are you related to him?”
“No, I’m his roommate...is he in trouble?”
“He’s in the hospital, Ma’am. Can’t give you details. He’s in intensive care. We’re trying to find his next of kin.”
“Oh my god,” I said, reaching for a chair. “What happened to him?”
“Can’t say. I can only divulge details to family. Do you have the phone number of a family member?”
My teakettle began to whistle. I couldn’t think. I had asked for references...surely I did...did I see them on the agreement? “I don’t know if I have numbers for you. I’ll have to call you back after I look for them.”
“Don’t worry about it, Ma’am, we have other sources.”
By then the kettle was shrieking, piercing my ears—a furious wail.
I called the hospital. Only next of kin would be given information. I would have to wait.
The next day I found a notice in the paper:
INDIGO -- A 5-year-old girl was killed after being struck by a car while holding her father's hand as they crossed Broadway, police said.
Deana Hitler was pronounced dead Sunday at a 7-11. Both she and her father were hit by the car. The father is in a coma at John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital, police said.
Eye witnesses said the father saw the car coming and tried to pull the child out of the way, but the force of the car was too great, and the child was thrown approximately 25 feet, said Officer Jain Revelwith.
Soon after, Gary’s friends came by to move his things out and into storage. I went to see him once in the hospital. He remained in a coma, his head bandaged, his right leg in a cast and suspended in traction. I stayed only a few moments. I feared he might regain consciousness while I was there; I didn’t want to be the one to tell him about his daughter.
Six months later, he stopped by, his leg still stiff and painful, his hair buzzed like a Marine’s, revealing a ruddy, scudding scar that extended well across his forehead. His sorrow was as palpable as the parka he wore. I expressed my sympathy, my profound inadequacy swimming thick inside my head.
“How about some tea?” It wasn’t much; it was all I had to offer.
“I didn’t know who to blame.” he said, sitting down. “ The woman driving the car was talking on her cell phone, just leaning back, looking toward the sidewalk, blabbing. That’s what I noticed the instant I saw we didn’t have time to get out of the way. She ran the light. We were in the crosswalk and directly in her path.” He shook his head, a glint settling in his eye. “I tried to hold onto my baby’s hand...but guess I couldn’t...I don’t remember...”
“It wasn’t... your fault, Gary,” I heard myself say as I gave him his tea. I wanted to touch his head.
He took a sip, straightened up, dropped forward again, rested elbows on knees, looked at his hands.
“...so anyway, I got a settlement...no consolation...though I don’t feel guilty about accepting it—can’t go back to work yet.” He peered closely at the orange-blossom filagree on his cup, blinking his eyes.
“I’ve rented a little guest house nearby. It has an enclosed work space along the back.” He raised his head. I see his true face, the real thing—pale, weltered, asking for nothing, expecting nothing. Then this, sadly: “I’m trying to paint again.”
She wanted to know how he felt about it. “What do you feel about...” began the question, always.
He could never answer.
It wasn’t spite. It wasn’t a desire to frustrate their intimacy. He was not bullheaded, not a stubborn sort of male bent on maintaining control through silence. It was just that he wasn’t sure about what he felt and didn’t want to lie. That was part of it. He also feared a partial truth, letting it slip, to reveal only the slimmest tip of it, the part she wouldn’t like. He was sure she would take his one true word the wrong way, make it the whole truth, make assumptions, like the time she mistook the tapered end of a leaf curving out from under a rock in their garden as a lizard’s tail, her least favorite creature. It would be impossible to make her understand.
Anyway, the truth—how he felt—was more a bramble than a single, bare leaf; and to tell it, to describe the ground beneath it, the subterranean complex of roots and burrows and creaturely dens and cul-de-sacs and capillary subways, would be a betrayal of his whole notion of truth, a thing running counter to his soul’s best intentions. It couldn’t be done. After all, most of it was hidden from him too. This is as he would have it—an innocence between himself and himself, and between the two of them as well, avoiding the cliché, a contempt bred of familiarity.
Poor Jacob. He could not even tell her that much. As it was, he would merely answer, “...couldn’t say...” and roll over to face the far wall of their bedroom.
For her part, she wasn’t asking for the whole truth. For that she would read a novel, one with the audacity to reach for it. She needed something more basic, a simple word or two. She only wanted to be reassured by his attempt to speak about intimate feelings. It was the attempt she wanted. It would tell her all she wanted to know, the comforting inference there—hearing his voice, the hesitations, the searching of himself, his eyes closed, her head snuggled on his chest at the crook of his arm, the fit of their bodies, drawing a contour line of harmony by their juxtoposition on the bed—of his trust, his love, his friendship. All she wanted was to be let in, not shut out. He managed it with his buddies, at least a casual honesty of likes and dislikes, disappointments, triumphs and desires—why not with her? Without this, how could she infer any other thing than that he meant to be a stranger?
Poor Kathleen. Such had been her longings for some twenty-five years of their marriage. Regardless, she had learned to accept the good, ever hopeful. But now that she was in treatment for breast cancer, it had become her single most sober desire—that he would tell her, tell her something. It wasn’t enough anymore that he was there, his constant defense, as he was—there for her, waiting with her in the lobby of the UCSD Cancer Center, where from somewhere the sound of baby-wailing pierced that of the baby grand in the center of the great room, a piano playing frantically on its own and reaching a crescendo, while M.D. George R. Leopold looked down over his jowls from his framed spot on the wall, as visitors, doctors, and patients entered, or left, or forged ahead as best they could. He was there with her, waiting for her appointment, to watch them all—the one who seemed to slide along, envying the floor; another carrying his weight chest-high, falling forward, his lower self trailing as though slaving to a scent-bent dog on a leash. He was there too, to see a young couple in octopus love, and a couple in flip-flops, who floor-slapped their way past the furniture and the palms; there to see Mister and Madam, jangled on old hips, resolving each step in turn into triumphs of survival, she on her walker, he holding her elbow from behind, his constant-lover legs spindled to ankles comforted in socks and sandals.
He was there too during the shock and awe of cancer treatment. He was standing in the hall, when she called out from the shower, “Oh my god, oh no, my hair is falling out...” He drove her to her appointments and tried to be his old self, making light of her “new look” without the wig, his “sweet little Mexican hairless,” peeking at her out his twinkle eyes to woo a smile, just a little one, to replace the gray slouch of her mouth’s complaint. He stayed nearby too, through her long days of recovery, when all she wanted to do was stay in bed and work crossword puzzles, or watch the television, rarely to find any program she wanted to watch. She would channel search, while he finished the crossword or read the paper, and she would go through the entire line-up of programming, only to toss the remote to the foot of the bed in frustration, once she had exhausted her search for something she could tolerate, then roll over on her side, sinking into the cool pillow and a welcoming sleep.
He was still reading the paper on the bed beside her, when she awoke with chills and a fever. At the UCSD emergency room he waited beside her at the admissions desk, listening patiently to the conversation inspired by the registration clerk’s question, “And your religious preference?” He knew Kathleen wouldn’t allow that one to pass without challenge; despite her body’s bald, poisoned and irradiated state, her spirit was intact. She smiled, said, “None, but I trust this won’t disqualify me from admission here,” which snaps Jacob out of the warming ember of his view of the clerk, that is, a virginal, rosebud of a young girl. The girl did not smile back, but said, “Oh no, of course not; though” and here she smiled, “it might disqualify you from heaven—but I’ll pray for you.”
Wrong thing to say, Jacob sighed inwardly. Kathleen collected herself. “Do you mean to say you think god is so busy with other things that unless he hears your pleas on my behalf, he would have no knowledge of me? I would go to hell, because god was waiting for somebody to speak up for me?” The girl was unfazed, her response a non-sequitor : “God will give you a chance, of course, to choose heaven or hell. God is very merciful.”
A pause in the conversation. Jacob hopes that’s the end of the subject. The clerk is typing something, but Kathleen is thinking. She starts up again: “Can you tell me where you were before you were conceived?” The clerk stops typing, cocks her head in thought. “Well, perhaps I was a thought in God’s mind.”
“But were you in heaven or in hell?”
“I was not in Heaven or Hell, neither here nor there—I was nothing; I was nowhere.”
“Then since you have been nowhere already, neither in heaven nor hell, as nothing but a loop in god’s mind, as you say, why are you afraid of being such again?”
A pause. “I don’t know. I never thought of that.”
Jacob didn’t stay the night with Kathleen in the hospital, but he returned each day of her treatment for the infection they couldn’t diagnose. Her private room was on the third floor, a room as tasteful and well-appointed as any decent hotel, and her view overlooking UCSD and La Jolla appropriately cheering.
The first morning of Kathleen’s hospital stay, Jacob woke from a dream. This was odd—he never dreamed, or so he thought, and this one had his heart flailing in his chest like a bat in a sack. He sat up to calm himself—all the better to breathe—but try as he might to wake, the dream remained as disturbed silt in the waters of his mind: A bear. A big, black bear. A bear with a monkey face, a monkey face with human eyes, sorrowful eyes, blood-shot eyes. A campus. The bear is dead, dead on a bench. Little by little people emerge from somewhere, carrying books or backpacks or briefcases—casual, chatty, criss-crossing the park-like grounds on their way to wherever. The bear wakes. He is not dead, after all. He rises. Now he is loose among the oblivious crowd. Jacob watches the scene fitfully from behind glass, a window. He pounds the glass— “The bear! The bear!” No one notices. He is frantic. How to warn the people!? It is now on its hind legs, menacing, but seemingly invisible to the passers-by. He finds his cell phone. Who to call? He can’t find his list of emergency numbers. The face of his phone blurs. He realizes the crowd thinks the bear is a man in a bear suit. He screams, “No! No! No!”
Once his heart is quiet again, Jacob gets out of bed, makes coffee, grabs a bagel, goes out the kitchen door to the patio, sits down in a wicker chair by the garden pond, settles his gaze on the waterfall.
Kathleen. Right, he needs to check on her.
After making a call to the hospital from the phone in the kitchen—Kathleen’s temperature has not broken yet, but she is resting, stable, her white count rising slowly—he returns to his chair by the pond with his coffee and bagel, noticing a koi tail here, koi nose there, a ripple, splash, the water lilies beginning to bloom. He rises from his chair to get a closer look—the fish are busy, as usual, sifting algae from H20, as if to filter coffee for the morning’s cup. The constant nibbling amuses him—such noodle-lipped tenderness.
He knows Kathryn worries about them—even though he’s responsible for pond duty—speaking of dreams. It’s a recurring one, she told him, where all the water has evaporated from the pond, save a murky puddle at its floor, and there the fish are failing, some dead or gasping, button-eyes bulging, wondering why. She wanted to know how he would feel about selling the fish and filling in the pond so that this dream can end. He only looked at her, bewildered.
The sun. Breeze. A lizard does push-ups on a rock by the waterfall. A second lizard, smaller, appears, scoots beside the first who lifts a welcoming arm—front leg—across his visitor’s neck and holds her close. They are warming themselves, facing the view beyond of sea lavender, birds of paradise, bamboo. Jacob smiles— Kathleen will not be amused.