Contact Incident

Contact Incident

     Her trim eyebrows are arched and uncurling, her careworn face a little faded, when she cuts me short in a low biting voice with an impatient, “Key Rist!” before—color flaming into her cheeks— a bitter, “I know, I know, you’re fine, just fine—never better,” adding with a severe frown a defeated, “whatever.” 

    There follows a wide, uneasy silence, taut and tense, during which she folds the watercolor bed scarf in two and carefully places it like a yoga mat on the burned, shiny avocado carpet, just inside the ceiling lamp’s pop of dirty yellow light. She fixes herself another G&T.   

     Then, as if not wanting to be seen, she nimbly drops to the floor and sits on the runner, her reed thin arms around her knees. A familiar pose I used to see as an alluring, ballerina-like mien. Now all I see is one ringed hand making a flitting, dismissive motion, the other careful not to spill a drink.

     After a hard pause she so lowers her voice that I must lean over from my perch on the edge of the king-size to hear. It hurts a little to hold the position ‘cause the damned ulcer’s acting up. ’S why I’m drinking White Russians. But unlike her I’m not drinking to keep the misery at bay, that’s for sure. I feel just fine, thank you, just fine—hale and rosy!

    “You know what you are?” she says in an icy, clipped voice that, like a winter wind, nips into my leisurely brio, like the Italian guy would call it—or would have.  Calmly, stoically, I sip and wait to learn what I am, as she communes with herself for a moment. At last, she patters, with a long-stifled sigh that, back when, I found charmingly breathy, but now sounds like the whine of a wire, “You’re a liar.” Then, unlimbering herself, with quickened voice, “No-no… you’re the classical liar!”

     “I’m—the wha-at?”    

     A lineman is what I am—a lineman for the county. . .. I know, I know, I’ve heard it a million times—just like the old Glen Campbell song, right? ‘Cept not in Wichita. . ..  in Kansas, though . . .. Or was it Oregon? or Iowa? or Texas? Well, I don’t know which-which Wichita ole Glenn had in mind, but for me it’ll always be smack dab in the middle of Kansas, ‘cause that’s Picnic country, Kansas is.

     Talkin’ here ’bout my all-time favorite movie. Picnic. With my all-time favorite scene: Bill Holden, with loosened tie and swaying hips, rubbing the palms of his hands together ever so slowly to a perfect in pink Kim Novak sashaying down a bank toward him, before they commence to dance to the slow, soft tempo of “Moonglow.” Needing each other more than wanting, so to speak, and wanting for all time. . ..

     Filmed at Halstead Riverside Park, Kansas, it was, that scene. ’S right. . ..  Which just happens to be where we always take our small vacations, when it rains. ’S ’bout 170 miles from Lebanon. ’S where I work, ‘cept when it rains. Then we head for HRP, as we used to call it . . .. Now—well, now we just go off like a couple of small vacay bots, driven by the invincible force of habit. . ..

     Hard to believe we used to re-enact Bill and Kim’s mating ritual . . .’S a fact, though—even in the rain, especially in the rain, best of all in the September rain—just like the old song. . .. Only without paper lanterns. . .. That was back when she used to call me her Lebanon lineman. . .. Now, “the classical liar,” and it’s not raining on this small September vacation, which the company says I need ‘cause of the “contact incident.” ’S what they call a high voltage burn. . ..

   Then, subito, like the Italian guy would say— used to say—, she says, “D’ya know what  ‘Lebanon’ means?” Subito, just like that. 

     I told him once over hoagies, the Italian guy at work, ’bout our Picnic ritual and it sorta bummed him out, I think, that we didn’t hang paper lanterns, y’know, as in the movie, even in the rain. He said that every year on the eighth of September pilgrims carry paper lanterns through the streets of Florence in celebration of the birthday of the Virgin Mary. Rain or shine. Imagine something like that? . . . That’s where he is— was from, Florence. . .. Did I mention he was the one who put me on to ole Will? Will Durant?    

     Guess you could say hoagies were our ritual, the Italian guy’s and mine.  Couple or three times a week we’d scarf ‘em down for lunch in our green and white bucket truck. Not the healthiest meal for an ulcer, I know, but what hell. Two or three times a week—

     The last time, which, believe it or not was September 8, I say to him, ‘cause, y’know, I’ve just finished the ratty copy of ole Will he lent me and have an opinion or two ’bout philosophers, I say to him, “Seems to me they talk in circles.”     

     Cerchi,” he goes flatly.

     “Right,” I say, and try to explain.

    They all start with some first thing, philosophers do— some untested premise. Then they follow it up with a true premise or two. Then the next guy comes along and knocks the legs out from under the first guy’s first thing and then goes off with his own first thing.

      “Circular,” I repeat, making a vast air circle with my hero, before adding, “viciously circular.

     Circolare,” he says, nodding understanding, if not agreement.


     Then, I don’t know why exactly, but all of a sudden, I’m off on the ancient Greek Zeno, and he goes, “Ah, paradosso,” which I take to mean paradox ‘cause that’s what Zeno’s remembered for, y’know, his paradoxes. But more ’n that, like ole Will says, Zeno believed we have no free will ’cause everything’s out of our hands. Which is—what? well, depressing on one level, but comforting on another, if you think about it. . ..  Anyways, that was Zeno’s first thing: Everything’s sorta fixed—predetermined. . ..  Ole Will says Zeno was once beating on a slave for some fault or other when the slave up and says to him, “What I did was, by your own philosophy, destined from all eternity.” And you know what Zeno said? Get this: “Me, too,” he told the slave, “I was destined from all eternity to beat you.” Imagine! And on that note the beating went on. . ..      

     Well, I dunno whether he’s getting what I’m saying —hell, I don’t even know if I get what I’m saying. We’re just shootin’ the bull . . . battin’ the breeze . . .  chewin’ the fat—Lordy, did he love our slang! . . .  Anyways, right away he stops chomping and turns real quiet.  Then he whips his head backward and takes his chin between his blunt fingers. After a while—a long while at that—he drops his head, solemnly and sadly, and raises his thick, knitted eyebrows, that to me look like a couple of caterpillars wobbling over his sun-veined eyes, and he makes a sound like “ntze.” Just like that, “ntze.” Then he says, “Scusami,” and using the sub like a baton, “more like-a-jads-a,” which doesn’t surprise me ’cause to him everything is like jazz—from politics to religion to sex. . .. The whole friggin’ world and everything in it is just one big jam session, the way he sees it—saw it, I mean.

   Then his arms start slicing the air and his hands go like pulling taffy and his fingers are darting out from his calloused palms. He’s trying to set me straight, y’see, ’bout philosophers.

     “Dey more like-a musicisti jads-a”— jazz musicians he means— playing off each other’s licks— “improvisando,”— scattin’ over the basic melody, which of course is hard to pick up once they get to “inceppamento”— jammin’, the jazz philosophers, I figure he means.

    “’Dat’s-a why you need-a-Will-a,” he says, and calls him a “cicerone,” before shutting his heavy jaws on the hero. Then—I can still see it— he sticks a calloused, slightly greasy finger in a slightly creased cheek, and says, “Delizioso!”

      He’s got a point, I’m thinking, though, frankly, as far as I can see ole Will saw it all as a rollicking good tale. ’S why he called it The Story of Philosophy. Me I’d call it—what? Feedback Loop, maybe. But what do I know? Like I said, I’m a lineman, not a philosopher. . .. But I do admit a—what? well, a respect, you could say, yes, even a respect bordering on reverence for the stony reserve of the Stoics.

   “Ahh!’ he goes, “Gli Stoici!” Then kissing his fingertips with each word, “Elasticità! . . . Silenzio! . . . Ironia!” adding, of course, “Just-a like-a jads-a.”       

     Then he wraps and stores for later what little ’s left of his lunch—which is probably still in the back of the truck— and he mutters through his teeth, “Circularo.” Then he presses the heel of his hands and his fingertips together to make a sorta heart, which he then proceeds to move up and down in front of my face, as if to say, “What are you talking about?” Then he hops out of the truck and into the cherry picker, ’cause the ulcer’s got me feelin’ too sick to go up to do some hotline maintenance on the high voltage power line in the 600 block of country road 867. . ..

      ’Bout half-way up he turns and, with his mouth wreathed in a smile, shouts down to me, “Ricorda improvvisazione!”

      Near the top he waves an arm suggestively, then disappears in a lightning-like flash, enveloped in a cloud of blue and white smoke that quickly turns black, then grey, before dispersing into the ether without a trace—except for a scorch mark left in the concrete between my feet.

     Lebanon’ means ‘white’,” she goes, with la-di-da precision, “d’ya know that?”

     Of course, I knew that....  and that Lebanon’s the “contiguous geographic center of the country” and that “it’s not too awfully far from one of the country’s oldest flying horse merry-go-rounds.” Like she hasn’t told me — how many times? — and always when we’re on a small vacation ’cause of the rain and she’s three sheets to the wind. And I go, as usual,

 “Don’t say!” as if for the first time, which, by the way, I actually found . . . beguiling, the first time.

       I have to admit, though, even now it amazes me when she brings up the meaning of “Lebanon.” Its etymology, I mean. . .. ’S a word I picked up from ole Will. He said philosophy has to do with the love of curiosity—etymologically speaking, he meant. . ..   I’m amazed, curious y’could say, not that “Lebanon” means “white” but that a dietician would know such a thing. ’S what she is, a dietician. . .. A philosopher would, mebbe . . . mebbe the Italian guy at work ’cause bianca— y’know, that’s Italian for “white”— sounds a little like “Lebanon,” don’cha think ? But a dietician? . . .  Not that a dietician couldn’t know such a thing, mindya, but still—well, you know what I mean. Solid, practical, gen’ly speaking, I’m talking, ’s what they tend to be, dietitians, wouldn’cha say? . . . Gen’ly. . .. Not that I’ve known a lot of dietitians. . .. Come to think of it, she’s the only one. So, mebbe I shouldn’t genlize, but I’m just sayin’ ’s all.

    “‘White,’ . . . ‘purify,’ . . .  ‘snow-capped,’ “she goes on rhythmically, as if to the steady beat of her own pulse, . . . as if quick tears are ’bout to run down her cheeks. They have, by the way, in the past. ’S when she used to say, “You’re always there to catch them.” I was, too.  Now—well now, I don’t know what I’d—

      I break in in song, “‘And if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain.’”    

      With a manic laugh she quotes over me, “Ready to Tanqueray?” and then, quick to her feet, and me as well, we’re up for another round.     

       “Why do you say that,” I ask her, “that I’mthe classical liar’? I’m just curious.”

       “’S a paradox,” she goes, and lapses into the solitary, green, synthetic leather chair, while I lean into our makeshift bar, a laminated particleboard dresser with a mirror that shows everything in the spare room of blind walls and bleed air, dark and misty.

        After an appreciable interval for me to get hold of what she’s just said, I finally find my tongue and go, “A para—,” but break off with puzzled amusement, as she, of a sudden, bolts out of the chair, and begins scuttling around the perimeter of the circle of light, one hand holding high her drink like the Flame of Liberty, the other waving the bed runner like the Bloody Shirt, before saying with mock soberness riding a note of high, thin laughter, “’Zactly! The classical liar!” then, dropping the scarf, hushly, with a finger on her lips, but no less as real as a razor blade, “’S what you are. The classical liar.”

   Then, she stalls, and, marcato, she goes with a thrust, “Everything you say about how you feel is false.”    

    “’S ridiculous!” I counter.    

     “Is it?”   

     “I don’t always lie.”   

     “You would say that.”    

     “B-but why do you say that?”    

      “Cause you’re the classical liar. . ..”

     So goes our cutting contest.

    Frankly, that’s something I wouldn’t expect from a dietician. I mean something straight out of Zeno like that. Straight out of the Italian guy at work, who says—said— of jazz musicians: They were liking things before they were cool since before it was cool to like things before they were cool. . .. At least, I think that’s what he said, but with all the, y’know, rolled r’s an’ dropped aitches and added a’s, well, it’s hard to say exactly. But that’s my best guess.

        Anyway, faster than a scaled haint, I say to her, “I’m just continental,” hookin’, y’see, albeit a tad desperately, into her “classical” thingy.

        “Right, right,” she fires back with a foggy voice that does nothing to dampen her sense of wrong, wrong.

      “Freedom, absurdity, the meaning of life, ’s me,” I go on, riffin’ over her, now and then shooting her the hairy eyeball, “not a liar, and certainly not a classical liar—not a Trump! not an Il Duce!” Then, really smokin’, I let loose, “Continental! ’S what I am— ‘cept,”— and here I admit that here I’m prob’ly just noodlin’, — “’Cept,” I can’t resist taggin’, “when my ulcer’s—” and, for no reason at all, I break off and-and, subito, a deep-welling of something leaves my voice clotted in my throat, and I gulp my drink like-like-like I’m swallowing a sob.

   Then—I don’t know why— on an impulse, I guess you could say, I say, “I wish it was raining.” And my voice—my own voice! well, it scares me ’cause—well, it’s thick and trembling, y’see, with some-some alien emotion. . .. And then there hits me like an unexpected wave . . .  the overwhelming certainty that-that the next time I speak it will still be strange and sad and still shaking, and that it will never, ever smooth out again. . .. 

     My jaws work, but no word issues forth. . ..

     Her face, —which, as I say, just minutes ago looked aged and faded— suddenly appears surprisingly bright and mobile and full of soft light, and her eyes—well, they’re like two glassy blue reflecting pools that are quick to read meaning behind my sullen words, and they fix me like pins when she says, calm and steady, with a faint smile, “Had been raining, don’t you mean?” Then, in the same sober tone, “Or that your ulcer wasn’t acting up? Or that it wasn’t acting up enough? to keep you off the line? Isn’t that what you mean? Really? What you feel? Really?

    Then, in one lithe, puckish movement she’s on the bed, one hand propping up her head, the other holding her drink.  

    That’s when—

    Well, her frank free voice ebbs, and her face turns wavy and begins to blur around the edges, as if there’s a grey wet fog in my eyes. . .. and, my nerves in wild clamor and my mind sparking with engrams of the Italian guy at work, I lean hard enough into the dresser to rattle the mirror. Then, subito, I’m on one knee, like a fighter taking the count after being clipped, or a man proposing marriage, —only, my face is buried in the scarf in a torrent of sobs.    

     After what seems forever, I hear a distant voice calling from beyond the fog of longing and-and atonement.

     “I know, I know,” it goes, con simpatia, like the Italian guy would say, con simpatia—almost like a mother comforting a child—with a strong vein of sympathy and understanding that pierces the heavy shroud of remorse and regret.

     Brave and watchful—I can, though barely, make out as I return from my leave of absence— are the sparkling wide eyes behind the voice that intones, con simpatia, though my eyes are still clouded with tears that sting like the straggling memory of ourselves.

     “You know what I think?” goes the voice, steadfast and reassuring, “I think we should head go over to HPR—”

     “But it’s not raining!” I bother the sheltering words with the tangled emotions of a petulant child. Then, done in, fisting my eyes, drawing out my words, I half gasp, half cry, “Why-isn’t-it- raining?”

     — “and on the way, —” the voice goes on boldly, bravely, —as with lids lowered, brows raised, lips parted ever so slightly, she rises off the bed, oh so gently, as not to awaken someone sleeping beside but not with her—, “let’s see,” it goes, “if we can’t find some paper lanterns.”

     Then standing, she puts down her drink and gives an off the beat finger snap, ever so slowly, and the same again, and still again, ever so slowly, like a real in the pocket hip cat, and my heart leaps toward her.

     Then, suffused with the unflushed beauty of sudden sadness, arms reaching out, palms up, as if to give or get, she whispers, as if pricked in a tender place, “Whaddya say to that, Lebanon lineman?”

Vincent Barry

After retiring from a career teaching philosophy, Vincent Barry returned to his first love, fiction. His stories have appeared in numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad, most recently (2017): Dime Show Review, Mulberry Fork Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, The Broken City, The Fem, Dual Coast, The Fiction Pool, Subtle Fiction, Fiction Week Literary Journal, Star 82, and Abstract: Contemporary Expressions. Barry, whose work has been nominated for Best of the Net 2017, lives with his wife and daughter in Santa Barbara, California.

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