Fiction | June 01, 2004

EVERY MONDAY, Wednesday, Friday, Mr. Lenzen would get a shower and, if necessary, a shave. Baths were easier in a practical sense—if he slipped and fell showering, ankle, wrist and hip bones could break but he insisted on showers. They used less water. Conservation had nothing to do with it. Water bills can get high, and in the interest of saving money, Mr. Lenzen was willing to engage in a moment of coincidental liberalism. In this case, a good business risk.

I’d said once, turning on the faucet for his shower, “I thought good business had something to do with safety, Mr. Lenzen.”

He’d said, “No baths again! Ever! I’m no Roman!”

“Then why should you get the royal treatment?”

“No baths! Ever!”

Mr. Lenzen preferred Bic disposable razors for his shave. Not because they were softer on his skin, though they were. They were a better deal than a permanent razor. He could conceivably die at any moment, and an eight-dollar Gillette Mach III would then be a posthumous waste. A three-dollar bag of fifty disposable razors would last, at about a one-shave-per-week rate, for a year. At that point, another bag of fifty disposables could be purchased for the ensuing year. At the end of that year, the living itself would be gift enough to trump any desire in Mr. Lenzen to ever shave again. He could then die in peace, unshaven and having saved, over the course of two years, two bucks on toiletries.

I knew Mr. Lenzen had the muscular capability to shave, and that it might have done some good for his spirit, which might, at some mysterious molecular level, have done some good for his antibody production, but he’d have probably cut himself and bled to death because of the poor vision. Mr. Lenzen refused altogether to wear anything visually corrective. When Mr. Lenzen was watching television, he was really simply hearing television, his head, in the moments he thought I couldn’t see him, turned to the side for better reception. Even so, his hearing was only marginally better than the eyesight. Mr. Lenzen was, therefore, most attracted to the television show which was loudly consistent with his worldview. At five o’clock and then again at eight o’clock, Mr. Lenzen religiously participated in the debates on FOXNews’s The O’Reilly Factor, invariably in defense of the host. Not that the host needed it.

In a lot of ways, Bill O’Reilly was like Mr. Lenzen. O’Reilly directed conversations with his guests to best illustrate his point. Mr. Lenzen directed, entirely, me. O’Reilly took extremely complex regional, national and world issues and simplified them into right and wrong. Mr. Lenzen was always right, never wrong. O’Reilly was a master at skirting the surface of issues over which scholars gathered for week-long panels on C-Span, wrapping everything up in nine minutes (an hour-long show less fifteen commercial minutes results in five nine-minute segments), ending with a moral condemnation (“C’mon, Senator, you’re a better person than that!”). Mr. Lenzen would rather skip the formalities and get right to the condemnation (“You piece of shit!”). Both were soapboxers, neither listeners, both raised Catholic, both shouters; both had dubious pasts (“O’Reilly,” I’d reminded Mr. Lenzen one July weekend, “started out on Inside Edition.”). And both (I learned this about O’Reilly on an A&E Biography that Mr. Lenzen demanded we watch that same July weekend) were cheap.

“The cheapness shouldn’t bother you,” Becca would say. We talked on the phone this past summer every night after I put Mr. Lenzen down. It was our ritual.

“You’re doing this for your soul, babe. Money should mean nothing to you.”

“Working for Mr. Lenzen,” I’d said, “it just about means nothing.” “He’s got no one left but you.”

“I sleep on the couch, Becca. Feet out over the armrest.”

“He’s fighting testicular cancer at eighty-three, Dysmus.”

“That’s nuts. What a ballsy bastard. He must have some big cojones.”

“You’re right, baby. I know, I know. I just hate O’Reilly. I have to listen to his big mouth twice a day.”

“I thought you said he’s on three times a day.”

“He is. One A.M., too. But Mr. Lenzen’s deep into his O’Reilly wet dream by then.”

“Dysmus. Don’t you have reverence for anything?”

“You’re off on this one, Becca.”

“You have to believe in people, Diz.”

“You haven’t met him, Becca,” I’d said. “Actually, you should be thanking me. I’m like a superhero. I protect the whole world from Mr. Lenzen.”

“I don’t have to meet him, Diz. Every person alive deserves to have their case heard.”

“He’s a case all right.”

“He’s a person, Diz. He has a heartbeat. He’s good.”

“Becca,” I’d said, imitating O’Reilly, “you’re spinning again.”

“Stop it,” Becca would say suspiciously. “I don’t like when you imitate him.”

“This is a no-spin zone, darling.”

“Be patient, Dysmus.”

The No Spin Zone. That’s the book Mr. Lenzen had ordered for me on www.foxnews/oreilly.com at the end of June. It was a substitute for my monthly stipend. The book’s an autobiography of O’Reilly that was a New York Times best-seller for at least a year and follows a segment/mantra of The O’Reilly Factor emphatically discouraging conversational spin. What a waste: Mr. Lenzen spent twenty-two dollars on something I would never read. But looking back at it now, it probably was a sound investment for Mr. Lenzen, good business: I mean, the book was, after all, inside his house.

I’d hidden the book on a coffee table cluttered with Safeway coupons, thinking, stupidly, I’d never hear about it again. But despite the blurred vision, Mr. Lenzen found the book. He ordered me to put it on the mantel above the fireplace, right in the center, so everyone could see it.

“Oh,” I’d said, looking around, “I guess I’d be everyone.” “Mantel!”

That wasn’t hard; nothing else was on the mantel but dust. No books, no photos. The No-Spin Zone was one step from kindling, I’d figured, with one little slip dusting the mantel.

Any time I’d near the fireplace, Mr. Lenzen commanded, “Read that book!” All summer he sat in his chair, guarding the phone from any long-distance calls, yelling any time I entered the vicinity. He’s the only person in the history of the world whose blood pressure could rise in a recliner.

* * *

I’d met Becca this past summer at the public library. She was and is a shelver. On that day Becca wore a pink dress which, when she leaned over to shelve books below the waist, showed her boobs. I could see in her face that she didn’t know. She swears, even now, that she didn’t know, and the proof, she says, was getting rid of the pink dress once I told her. Anyway, at least then, it wasn’t as good as it sounds. It was the first time I’d seen a live woman with underarm hair—more underarm hair, in fact, than me (I’ve never had much, despite being three-fourths German, a fourth Italian, but I’ve enough). It was strange. So my eyes, after registering the nipples, returned for a long time to the shadow under her arms.

Becca had black leg hair, too. Actually, as I was sitting cross-legged in the Poetry section, I’d seen that before I’d seen anything else but had not processed it, in some kind of subconscious denial. In retrospect, I should have given serious consideration to the ramifications of leg hair, lengthy leg hair, on a woman. Then I wouldn’t have been caught off guard by Becca’s shadows. I mean, the chances of underarm hair drastically increase if there’s leg hair, right? Me missing the leg-hair lead-in was like someone surprised by a rose garden after entering on a walkway lined with rosebushes.

Outwardly, I did what I usually do when I find someone eccentric: I totally ignored Becca. I tried to evince the impression of a nonchalant reader. I could feel in my peripheral vision that she was finished shelving and had stopped moving. So I waited for the braless boobs to leave, but I didn’t hear a sound. When I looked up, she was still in the aisle, blue eyes resting gently on my book. I knew she was going to ask me to get up and sit in the reserved reader section. No laissez-faire readership allowed in the library.

Then, sure enough, she said, “Why are you sitting there?” I said, looking down, “Why do you have leg hair?”

She didn’t respond. I tried to read a line but couldn’t concentrate in the silence. I looked up. That’s when I knew that even the best guess-work is bad guesswork. Tears were starting in her eyes.

I’d said, “I’m just playing, just playing. Do you like Seamus Heaney?”

She nodded, looked around, slid down next to me with a person’s length between us, said, “Yes,” and, of course, I fell in love with Becca right there.

I listened to her whole story. Becca was raised on a commune in Maine. There were two families, I guess you could say, that concocted the idea. One set of parents was Becca’s, who’d met the other set of parents (who would eventually also be Becca’s) back in “the tumultuously dangerous Berkeley days.”

In the spring of 1975 both couples drove cross-country to avoid the tumult, ended up in the reputably verdant Baxter Park of Maine, watched the moose feed and fuck, fell in love with the altogether new phenomenon of seasons changing before their very eyes, held congress over the idea of starting a community of just them (“and whatever children we bring into the world!” insisted Becca’s then pregnant-with-Becca mother), purchased property adjacent to the park with Becca’s grandmother’s considerable leavings and, that same spring, put up a handmade adobe wall to keep the moose out.

What was bound to happen, happened. Who but Berkeley idealists couldn’t see it coming? When you’re living out a Victorian novel, no one but the diabolical forest around for miles, it seems perfectly logical to me, after a respectable period of fidelity of course, to make the big switch with the neighbors—the only neighbors. Especially when the couples in question were formed in the era of Updike’s swinging ’60s. The neighbor, Jim, after citing spousal insouciance, started an affair with Becca’s mother, Tanya; Becca’s father, Mark, a former Cal rugby hooker, responded by utilizing the only other healthy outlet, coupling up with the neighbor mother, Shannon, who, not surprisingly, was a harpist. In less than a month, the four of them had divorced and remarried, all from and to each other. That made Becca and her sibling, Molly, who were nine and seven, respectively, at the time, stepsisters to Bob and William, their neighbors, now stepbrothers, and daughters or stepdaughters to every adult in an eight-mile radius. This is a true story, all the way through.

Of course, everyone split up eventually. Becca came out to California, ended up returning to Berkeley to find some answer as to how she had been raised, hitched a ride south to Santa Clara one afternoon after deter-mining that the answer, whatever it was, could never be ascertained, found a job in the public library, stayed. Molly lived on a mushroom farm in southern Arizona, then built a house of aluminum cans, tires and other recyclable material somewhere in the desert. She and Becca meet once a year at a peyote festival called Burning the Woman. The last Becca had heard, Bob and William both had gone off to college: Bob, a Protestant, at Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, California; William, a Catholic, at the University of Notre Dame. Becca’s blood father and stepmother ran a chowder house in New England; her blood mother, recently divorced from her stepfather, had purchased a New Jersey warehouse and transformed it into a studio for aspiring performance artists.

“Well, Becca,” I said, amazed: she truly trusted me, “I guess you’re lucky all the adults in Utopia were straight.”

Becca put her hand over her mouth and looked around. She laughed so loud a coworker in the next aisle hissed, “Shhhh!”

Then she whispered, “What about you?”

“I live with Mr. Lenzen,” I whispered.

“Oh,” Becca whispered, nodding. Some time passed, and she whispered, “Who’s he?”

“He has cancer.”

“Oh,” Becca whispered, immediately. “Then you must save him.” She amazed me. “Yes,” I said. “Yes.”

* * *

This past summer I’d fashioned myself to be a writer. My project was a Silicon Valley novel for which I could not find a beginning. I needed a job to support the work, or at bare minimum, a place, and found an ad in the San Joseé Mercury News classified section that seemed perfect:

Full-time caretaker needed for fan of Bill O’Reilly
Room (couch), board (no long-distance calls, UPS/pizza delivery, or unapproved menu),
$25.00 monthly stipend
(408) 247-3780
No calls from 5:00-6:00 PM. or 8:00-9:00 PM.

I’d obeyed the qualifications to a tee. I dialed the number at 4:53 P.M. I was told the house address and nothing more. When I said, “Does Franklin cross Washington?” I was told, “Find it!”

Writers are, I believe, a strange breed. Who or what else is more magnetically attracted to dysfunctional people? More reliant upon them for subsistence? Maybe that moron Dr. Phil, maybe the C.I.A. If I’d heard that day across the telephone line, “Franklin does indeed cross Washington, sir. It would be my pleasure to give you thorough directions,” there’s a small game chance that I would never have gone out to the address in the first place, would have found in the twenty-five minutes prior to arriving at 1691 Franklin something more entertaining and story-worthy and would not now be telling about select things that happened there from that moment on. But, in all honesty, when I heard the scratchy command through the phone and the instantaneous dial tone, I immediately thought, I gotta meet this rude bastard.

At the steps of the house, I heard yelling through the door. I waited to hear a response. Though I knew we had not set a time to meet, I looked down at my watch anyway, worried that I was late. The yelling started again. It was not, by any interpretation, a plea for help. On the contrary, it was an attack: the kind of yelling you hear at a baseball game when a coach gives an ump a mouthful. And it was getting worse. I put my ear to the door and heard, “Where the hell did this lefty pig come from, Bill? Destroy him! Don’t hold back!”

I heard a voice in the background and, after some time, guessed from its deep, steady intonation that it was a television host/anchor/reporter.

I heard, “This is a no-spin zone, counselor! That’s the way it works! You can’t lie here! Once you do, you’re out of the box! Get it?”

My watch read 5:36. I remembered the ad in the paper, deduced that “Bill” was probably Bill O’Reilly. Someone, most likely the rude bastard, was talking to a television, vigorously. Then I saw the confirmation under my heels: an O’Reilly doormat, black background, with “The Spin Stops Here” in bright red. I cleaned the dirt from my shoes, all of it, and knocked. The yelling drowned the knocking out, so I rapped on the door again, louder.

“Who the hell do you think you are? You deserve to be shot! You piece of shit!”

“Come on, counselor! You’re spinning again!”

I pounded with the meaty end of my hand, took half a step back. “Wait!”

The deep, steady voice returned. “You’re spinning, counselor!” I pounded again.

Wait!

I waited as ordered, thinking that “wait” meant something like, “I’m presently commencing to the door. You won’t have to wait much longer.” But as the seconds passed and I heard the yelling intensify even more, I knew that “wait” truly meant, “Wait until I feel like opening the door!”

Finally I decided to leave. I was halfway across the rocky dirt when the door opened. I should have just kept walking, but I stopped and turned. The rude bastard was as tall as me (6’2″), bow-legged, blindingly white, squinting. At least eighty. He had furry gray elephant slippers on his feet, the trunks at his toes extending skyward. Yellowy-white boxers hung from his waist, a V-neck T-shirt stretched across his upper torso and an O’Reilly Factor baseball cap covered his head. The cap was folded at the bill, G.I. style, a little ridge. There was no way in hell he saw me. He was looking off at the telephone pole, twenty feet away.

“Hurry up!” he shouted, turning back into the house. “While it’s still a commercial!”

In seconds, the yelling started up again. I looked around for neighbors, witnesses, passersby, pets. Anyone or thing that would see me take the first voluntary step forward. Approaching the house, I calmed myself by thinking of an interview with Faulkner I’d read once. If “Ode on a Grecian Urn” was worth, as Faulkner told the interviewer, a dozen old ladies, then that poem must have been worth every old man alive.

* * *

It’s amazing, looking back at it now, how much energy Mr. Lenzen was able to harness in his mission to destroy my book. He put his heart and soul into the attacks. His whole face would scrunch up, and, despite the soreness in his muscles and bones from the chemotherapy, he’d sit up and defy the cancer within him with outbursts bordering on lunacy. I’d seen slam poets in Oakland with less pitch in their voice and bounce in their head. He’d go on and on, sometimes for as long as an hour. Occasionally Mr. Lenzen’s voice would reach such a high volume that I thought, or hoped, his vocal cords would burst. If Mr. Lenzen could not beat testicular cancer, he was going to take it out on literature’s ass.

It had been some time since Mr. Lenzen had read anything qualifiable as literature, but he knew enough about its history of creators to make a judgment of me. “Look at that guy who blew his head off!” he’d shout. “Or that guy who died broke in LA. Look at that loon who jumped into the Thames.” To Mr. Lenzen, these were the true stories of broken hearts and busted bank accounts. I remember being determined to write during Mr. Lenzen’s literary tirades. I thought it would be a kind of private, defiant tribute to the power of literature, an homage to predecessors—the apostle Paul, for instance, penning God’s words in prison—who’d written under some kind of duress.You’ll find the words even in the worst surrounding, I’d thought.Adversity, rather than stifling your voice, gives you something real to write about. But every time I tried to focus and find my muse, I’d look down at the paper in disappointment.

* * *

I heard it from him during evenings, mornings, afternoons; some-times I heard it in his sleep. And usually it came from hip-height, as he sat in his recliner awaiting The O’Reilly Factor, as I wheeled him through the hospital for his chemo treatments, as he emptied his large intestine. He did it in front of nurses, physicians, mailmen, Mealson-Wheels delivery drivers, anyone. He did it in a slumber between winces of internal pain.

“No future!” he’d yell out, eyes closed, slobber collecting in the corner of his mouth. “Wasting your life! You’ll get nowhere!”

“I don’t want to get anywhere,” I’d say calmly, dusting the only lamp in the living room. It was a light bulb sprouting from a solid, lacquered oak block. “I’m just fine where I’m at, Mr. Lenzen.”

“What are you doing in that business if you don’t want to get any-where?”

“It’s not a business,” I’d say calmly. “It’s an art.”

“Hah, hah, hah! An art! Hah, hah, hah!”

That would wake him up. He’d rub the sleep from his eyes and frown. He’d take a deep breath and shout, “Listen!” These were the moments he believed that true wisdom flowed from his mouth. I know he believed it; I read through his twenty-two-page cancer journal today.

“Wanna write about something?” he’d ask. “I got a thousand stories about prices! Everything has a price! Every choice! Every decision! Prices! You think you’re gonna write the next big book? Bill O’Reilly didn’t think,” Mr. Lenzen’d said. “Bill O’Reilly just did!”

“Was the price of his book having fans like you, Mr. Lenzen?”

“O’Reilly did it!”

Becca said to find in myself that empathetic element to help me understand Mr. Lenzen, but I had, without telling her, other ideas. I wanted, without Mr. Lenzen dying, revenge.

I got it once. It was memorably rare, in that it worked out perfectly. It happened some time in mid-July. The preceding weekend we had watched the aforementioned A&E Biography of O’Reilly, a broadcast I found tolerable because Mr. Lenzen was unprecedentedly quiet, and there were no commercials. That meant he could not turn at the break and shout, “See! I told you!” Not until the entire episode was over did Mr. Lenzen turn and shout, “See! I told you!” but I was already in the bathroom scrubbing the toilet.

That particular week Mr. Lenzen was riding high. Everything he had seen/heard on the A&E Biography was a confirmation of the worthlessness of literature: O’Reilly was a former high school English teacher who “finally saw the light and got out while he still could!” O’Reilly kept his private life private “unlike treacherous writers who retch it onto the page!” O’Reilly believed in America “and when was the last time you read a patriotic novel?” All week long, I endured the slew of non sequiturs in hope that my plan would eventually succeed.

I remember now it was a Friday. That’s when O’Reilly gets cute, with a week of putting people where they belong behind him. Sometimes he’ll have an attractive female celebrity to playfully joust with over foreign policy, 9/11 and Tim Robbins; other times he’ll have a Criminal of the Week segment: Saddam Hussein, Sean Penn, Martha Stewart or the nation of France. Then he’ll wrap everything up by reading the letters—some flattering and supportive, others on the offensive. My letter, I like to think, was neither.

* * *

Mr. Lenzen was eating grapes. He’d been told by the nurse to eat at least one bunch of grapes a day. In her haste to get out of the house she skipped half the equation: I’d boil the grapes to flush the fruit of bacteria. Mr. Lenzen ate them until lips, tongue and the collar of his V-neck T-shirt were purple.

“Dysmus Hagen of Santa Clara, California,” O’Reilly said.

Mr. Lenzen stopped eating and looked over at me, incredulous. I could see a kind of hope in his eyes: Was I of the newly converted? I pointed at the screen for him to watch. Mr. Lenzen’s head turned ever so slowly as O’Reilly read my letter. I’d written:

“Dear Bill,
I am perpetually impressed by and plan to emulate your uncanny skill in manipulating discussions to your liking.”

O’Reilly started laughing and then said, “Thank you, Mr. Hagen. I think.” Then, still in his Friday cute mode, he said, “I promise I’ll go home and look up some of these words in the vocab lessons from my teaching days. It’s time I dusted off some of the old files.” I felt a momentary affection for O’Reilly’s fleeting and somewhat feigned humility.

Mr. Lenzen, however, was staring at the screen, not moving. Even after the show ended, he just stared at the screen. He didn’t get it. Why was the letter just one line? What was the point? Was I attacking or supporting O’Reilly? A fan or an enemy? Was I digging into the trenches with O’Reilly, ready to fight his fight? Would I finally abandon being a writer? Were patriotism, frugality and proselytizing on my horizon?

As it turned out, Mr. Lenzen sat there for two hours in total silence, eating grapes, stupefied by the letter. At eight o’clock, when the same episode of The O’Reilly Factor reran and my letter was aired a second time, Mr. Lenzen unabashedly turned his head toward the window to catch every word. He still didn’t get it. Were language and syntax also the enemy?

That’ll teach him, I thought.

“Dysmus!” he finally said, falling asleep in his chair.

“Let’s get you to bed, Mr. Lenzen. O’Reilly’s on again at one in the morning. Just in case you missed something. I’ll be writing if you want me to wake you up.”

“Go buy more grapes in the morning!”

“Too expensive, not a good deal, Mr. Lenzen. Too sour. How about lemons?”

“Buy grapes!”

* * *

This past summer Becca said she read somewhere that we all die a little, day by day. I said then the difference with Mr. Lenzen was the lid: he would stop dying a little before the year was out if he didn’t do chemo; the cancer would eat him up. Or if he did chemo and it failed, he would stop dying a little most likely within months, the chemo devouring him. Or—the best scenario—if he did chemo and it worked, he’d stop dying a little as long as one to five years from the time the chemo was deemed a success.

There was never a choice for Mr. Lenzen. It was the fight that mattered. I’d read him an article about chemotherapy deriving from mustard gas used in World War I trenches, how it zapped the immune system, asphyxiated antibodies and, the good part, murdered foreign agents. How he’d vomit once a day and lose his eyebrows. I explained the whole process to Mr. Lenzen, even brought back books Becca found in the library, and he’d said, “To hell with those books!”

Mr. Lenzen got his shots on Tuesday before The O’Reilly Factor. Epogen, a solution that augments red-blood-cell count, was first, right arm. I’d fill the syringe properly, pushing the air bubbles out so that some of the solution dripped down the point of the needle. Then I’d dab Mr. Lenzen’s arm with alcohol, push the needle in and slowly squeeze down the trigger with my thumb. Next was Nupogen, a solution that augments white-blood-cell count, left arm. I’d open a newly packaged syringe, fill it, remove the air bubbles, dab the alcohol, insert, push down in slow, gradual increments. Mr. Lenzen never complained, eyes on the screen in anticipation of The O’Reilly Factor.

“Get ready! Learn something! This man is number one on the air-waves! Number one talk show in America!”

“Yep.”

“Can’t beat him!”

“Nope. Here it comes, Mr. Lenzen. Get ready.”

His arm would suck in the solution, and Mr. Lenzen would yell, “He’s number one in your field, too!”

“O’Reilly’s an indentured servant?”

“Literature!”

I’d slowly push in the other needle, hearing The O’Reilly Factor intro music. Then Mr. Lenzen would grow reverentially quiet.

“Hello, I’m Bill O’Reilly. Thank you for watching The Factortonight….”

* * *

One time Mr. Lenzen missed The O’Reilly Factor. It was a Wednesday, just after his shower, in mid-August. He’d collapsed in the kitchen, sprained the right wrist. Grapes were all over the floor. I lifted him to his feet, one arm wrapped around his waist. I said, “Will you get rid of those stupid elephant slippers now?” He whispered, “Get that,” and I reached down for his O’Reilly Factor baseball hat. I pulled it over hairless scalp and down to that spot just above his eyes where the yebrows used to be and drove him to the hospital in downtown San José. He got a soft cast for his wrist and some liquid sucrose. The nurse monitored the IV in Mr. Lenzen’s arm, and the resident physician said, T’m sorry, sir. I am terribly sorry. There’s nothing else we can do. Every floor of this hospital is the same. We have three channels. No FOXNews. Please stop ringing the bell. You must think about conserving your energy now.”

* * *

This past summer my plan was to write in the A.M. hours. I secretly prepared for it the whole day. The book always seemed so promising when I wasn’t actually doing the writing. Scouring the bathroom, elbow deep in Pine-Sol, I’d think of my characters, how I’d redeem their souls from the emotional sewers of the Silicon Valley. Cooking dinner for Mr. Lenzen, hands pungent with garlic, I’d imagine the boiling-hot tension at the apex of the plot in my book, how I’d raise the reader to his feet, make goosebumps run the length of her arms. Or I’d clap the dust from the rugs, watch the cloud float in the evening dusk and remember the words of Pound, “Make it new.” I could do that. Newness and garlic were coming out my pores. At the behest of Mr. Lenzen, I’d cut coupons from the San José Mercury News, draw up a grocery list according to the two-for-one deals and consider the narrative importance of frugality of detail. During the day, the book filled my head. When the sun went down and Mr. Lenzen was asleep and there was only the silence of the stripped walls and the writing, I’d call Becca. Ten o’clock sharp. Becca was always there, waiting unfailingly, usually reading a book of poetry. We’d talk—or Becca would talk—for hours, until past midnight. I learned to never hang up the phone until I was tired enough to sleep. I wanted Becca to exhaust all the topics. The ominous task of night writing scared the shit out of me.

I’d try with the deepest sincerity to listen, register and respond to the latest developments in Becca’s life—monitoring an ESL program at the library, contributing paint balls to a performance art show in Santa Cruz, enrolling in a tapestry class at the Parks and Recreation—but sometimes, I’m ashamed to admit, I faked it. I “uh-huh”-ed my way through a good number of conversations with Becca. Deep down, I felt guilty about calling myself a writer. So in the morning hours I’d just listen to Becca’s beautifully hopeful voice and drift. I knew that if I opened my mouth I’d ruin the momentum of what she was saying, and then the writing was right there waiting for me.

* * *

I was employed by Mr. Lenzen from June 7 to September 2. I was paid for the month of June with a hardback copy of The No Spin Zone; received for the month of July ten lotto tickets at a dollar apiece, all of which were subject to a fifty-fifty cash split in the event of consequent winnings, the legal conditions verified in mutual witness on yellow 8 1/2 x 11 lined notebook paper signed and dated by both parties. I was given an “honorarium” of $12.50 for the month of August with a contractual stipulation of receiving the remaining $12.50 when and if Mr. Lenzen beat testicular cancer and I was still there, and had been there “with no reservations” (a series of conditions that were nullified altogether if Mr. Lenzen passed on).

During my stay at Mr. Lenzen’s house, there were sixty-eight episodes of The O’Reilly Factor. On the Fourth of July weekend, there was a one-hour special on patriotism. With its FOXNews weekdays slot scheduled at 5 P.M., 8 P.M., and 1 A.M., 204 episodes aired. Included on the distinguished list of guests were former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, actress/activist/self-help coauthor Janeane Garofalo, former NBA basketball star Charles Barkley, Pulitzer Prize-winning FOX Correspondent Geraldo Rivera, New Jersey Poet Laureate Le Roi Jones, transgender activist Dana Rivers, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General (Retired) Thomas McInerney, FOX News Correspondent Oliver North, Modesto police officer Anis Dixon, NAMBLA sympathist Donna Nane, National Organization for Women (California Branch) President Megan Seely, Playboy Playmate July 1988 Julie McCullough, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Reverend Al Sharpton, Sara Eltantawi of Muslim-Americans for Justice, Father Seamus McManus of the Boston Diocese, California gubernatorial candidate Gary Coleman (I), the mother of Susan Sarandon and other notables.

Except for the Fourth of July, the postman came Monday through Saturday at noon. I’d meet him on the steps, say, “Gracias.” The Meals-on-Wheels delivery drivers came on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They brought either roast chicken and slaw, meatloaf and mashed potatoes or beef stroganoff and broccoli. On Fridays the nurse came to resupply the epogen and nupogen, check on her patient’s general health, offer rudimentary and extremely brief advice, agree with her patient about Bill O’Reilly. A Seventh-Day Adventist came with rainbow pamphlets, and Mr. Lenzen said get the hell out of here. A plumber came to the house once in June, unplugged the toilet clogged with vomit. He was given half the money written out on the receipt under “labor.” He and Mr. Lenzen argued. Finally he said to hell with you, you cheap geezer, and left. No neighbors ever came. If Mr. Lenzen had a family, they never came either. Becca came once that summer, insisted on it. I told her Mr. Lenzen could only handle visits in fifteen-minute doses, and then she’d have to leave. Becca said right, I know, don’t worry. I said don’t try to be Mother Teresa and save the world. There’s a reason no one but me will take care of this man. Becca said, right, Saint Dysmus. I told Mr. Lenzen I would return his $12.50 honorarium and the Lotto tickets if he was polite and kind to Becca. He said who’s she and hand it over, you can’t change your mind again once you say it. I tucked the tickets into his soft cast, placed the money in his palms. I never saw him move faster, dosing them. Becca came, and Mr. Lenzen fell asleep while she told him about Maine. She’d broken her wrist when she fell into a pond while trailing moose. She left the house unscathed, told me I didn’t under-stand people. I closed the door and Mr. Lenzen woke up, turned on The O’Reilly Factor. That was late August, two and three-quarter months along and the second-to-last day with Mr. Lenzen. I had the whole book finished in my head, eleven pages finished on paper.

* * *

I don’t believe in raw premonition, but I believe a bit in conditioned intuition, and when the UPS man tossed the package at my feet this afternoon and morbidly ordered, “Sign this,” I knew it belonged to Mr. Lenzen and that he was dead. I also knew that Becca would be mad when I mentioned his name, wouldn’t talk to me for awhile.

She was on her way to shelve books at the library. She stopped at the door, tapped the package, said, “Looks like a donut box, Diz.”

“Yep.”

“Who’s it from?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you read it, babe?”

I looked at the name and said, “Mr. Lenzen.”

Her beautiful blue eyes went big with the big question, and I said, “Yes.”

Becca put her hand over her mouth, and I said, “But don’t get all stressed out, okay? I don’t want you going to work like that. It was going to happen eventually. He had a nurse twice a week. That’s more than some people.”

At a little after 6 P.M. I’d put on a sweater, pulled a beanie down to my brow and, despite the threat of rain, barbecued Becca’s favorite dinner, soyburgers. At 7 RM., she came home from shelving and said, “Hello,” and that was all. For four hours, she wouldn’t eat or talk to me. In that time, she’d called her sister in New Mexico to confirm their faux-Cherokee teepee at Burning the Woman, lined the aluminum cans into a row on the porch and, one by one, smashed them, collected them into a Hefty bag and tied it, watered with a syringe her cilantro, oregano, basil and paprika, lain down on the bed to read the poetry of Samuel Maio, wept, risen to say something to me, stopping just short of the first denunciatory word, vacuumed, Windexed the sliding glass windows, written a letter to the Governor of California demanding an immediate reconsideration of his plan to cut public school funding.

I hate when Becca won’t talk. The whole studio echoes with silence or, worse, her naked feet sticking and unsticking to the hardwood floor. And she always gets dressed—puts on a robe or one of my Pendletons. She gets so mad she doesn’t want me to look at her naked. It’s damned funny: any time she’s not mad and we don’t have guests, which is more than the majority of the time, she’s naked. She does everything naked: reading books, folding laundry, writing letters, doing yoga. It didn’t take me too long after moving in a little over four months ago (September 2) to embrace a nude domestic life. When Becca and I make love at night, it feels like something that just has to be done to properly close the day. It feels like the last in a natural sequence of events.

Becca slides into a nightgown which, absurdly, reaches halfway down her shins. She has the very alabaster skin you would expect from someone raised on a commune in Maine. From the palms of Becca’s hands to the soles of her feet and all the way up to her cheeks, chin and forehead, Becca is Maine-white. I love her skin. Especially now, four days into January, the California sun mild and hindered by wind during its shining hours, I understand Becca’s skin. I kiss her hand; she gently reclaims it.

I say, “Do you want me to close the sliding glass, baby? Are you cold?”

“No,” Becca says.

She sits down at the table, eats her soyburger in silence. The package sits by her feet, against the wall. I’d opened it after Becca left for work and found my paycheck for the month of June (The No Spin Zone in hardback), my eleven-page novel and Mr. Lenzen’s twenty-two page cancer journal, a yellow tablet of notebook paper, curling at the edges. Against my better judgment, I’d read through the journal while eating lunch. It’s as shitty and angry as you’d expect from an eighty-three-year-old man fighting a losing battle with testicular cancer. There are diatribes against me, diatribes against the enemies of Bill O’Reilly, diatribes against this generation, diatribes against the past, diatribes against literature, diatribes against cancer, diatribes against the nurse, diatribes against the hospital, diatribes against grapes, diatribes against tomorrow, all of it amounting to one big diatribe against the very thing he was fighting for, life itself. Mr. Lenzen beat cancer for four months without me, with nothing but spite in his heart, anger rushing through his veins. That old doctorly wisdom about smiles contributing to better health probably never applied to Mr. Lenzen.

When the journal is pared down to its core, there are only four basic facts worth salvaging: 1. Mr. Lenzen was raised in the Great Depression, during which time he sold stolen apricots on a downtown San José street corner. 2. Mr. Lenzen was a stockbroker who went bankrupt in the late ’60s and was able, through total parsimonious discipline, to purchase the very run-down one-bedroom house I lived in this past summer. 3. The No Spin Zone was the greatest literary achievement in recent history. 4. I would not finish my book.

If Becca read Mr. Lenzen’s journal, all the order in her world would collapse. She would ask me, “How can someone get like this? How can you be so stripped of hope?”

I’d say, “He survived on it for four months, didn’t he?” and then apologize for being callous.

Poor Becca. If she’s mad, she’s mad to her very core, and she can’t cover it up with the fakery of casual conversation. I do love that about her. Conversely, when she’s happy, she’s purely happy, and it’s easy to get swept up in her happiness. Sometimes when things are going well, I let myself drift just so I can be taken down the current of Becca’s happiness.

But her absolute emotional honesty also scares me. Especially when I begin to envision Becca leaving me for someone else, something I’d probably do if I were in her shoes—find someone with a job and an income, someone not searching each day for janitorial/laborer/driver work in the classifieds, someone without cynicism. I can see her walking in one day from ten hours of shelving and saying, “Diz, I’m not in love with you any longer. You have to leave.”

And I’ll say, “Who is it, some bookworm?”

“It doesn’t matter who, Dysmus,” she’ll say. “It’s you. It’s your doubt. You don’t have enough faith. I’m tired of you stealing faith from me. That’s what matters.”

Poor Becca. She’s mad now, still. Looks over at me, silent, opens her mouth, looks back down at her soyburger, eats. I know what she wants to say. She wants to get right to the heart of the matter.

“Diz,” she wants to say, “how can you even stand saying his name?” I’d say, “Easy. Like this: Mr. Lenzen.”

“But how could you do that to him?”

“Do what?” I’d say. “I haven’t talked to him in four months. Will never talk to him again. How could I have done anything to him?”

“Don’t you feel anything?”

“Yes,” I’d respond. “Lucky.”

“How can you say that?”

“Easy. Lucky. Damned lucky.”

“Diz.”

“It brought me here, didn’t it?”

Right there, she’d have nowhere to go. Either she’d have to say, “You should have stayed and taken care of him,” and negate the four months of proximal love that’s blossomed between us, or, “I’m glad you left him,” and negate her compassion for Mr. Lenzen. She’d feel both, of course, and stay quiet.

“It’s a matter of prices,” Mr. Lenzen would say to Becca. Or rather, “Prices!”

Eating her soyburger Becca feels both now, the love and the compassion, and it angers her. She wants to make a choice between the two, but not only that: Becca wants to make the right choice. She still believes in that Emersonian New England commune shit of absolute choice.

I say, “Do you want me to go to the store, baby? The store’s open all night. I’ll get us fresh fruit and veggies.”

“Yes,” she says, chewing. “We need soy milk, edamame and grapes.”

Grapes. I look for cynicism in her big blue eyes, but it isn’t there. It’s never there. It’s all mine. I’ll keep it, take it with me to the store, do everything in my power to leave it there.

I say, “You know I love you, baby.”

“Yes,” Becca says, her eyes on the package. “I know that, at least.”

* * *

On my last day of employment with Mr. Lenzen, he was throwing up purple bile. It was runny and spotty with blood, streaked with phlegm. I stood by Mr. Lenzen with a glass of water, a towel and an amber, see-through bottle of pills for his cramps. Mr. Lenzen’s cheeks and arms were red with pressure. When he finished, I wiped his mouth and walked him to his chair and went back to the bathroom and got on my knees. I Ajaxed the toilet, Pine-soled the bathroom floor, 409ed the wall of spot-vomit. I turned the fan on to dry everything out and went back to the living room to ask if he needed a pill. When he said, “What the hell for?” I went into the kitchen.

I made a sandwich for myself, gingerly ate it and began thinking about the writing. There was some wisdom in what Mr. Lenzen had said about the “doing” of writing. O’Reilly didn’t think, Mr. Lenzen had said, he just did, and it was a less-than-subtle implication that I didn’t do enough. But how did he know? From ten at night until nine o’clock the next morning he was always asleep, recuperating from the cancer, the chemo and his two hours of violent bonding with O’Reilly. Was the defeated writer something that even a blind and deaf old man could see? In my servile gait? In the slouch of my shoulders scrubbing the floors?

“Dysmus!”

“Yes, Mr. Lenzen.”

“Bring me some water!”

“Okay.”

I abandoned the writing for a moment, came out to the living room. Mr. Lenzen was sitting upright in the chair, breathing in deeply through his nose and out the mouth. There were red handprints on his white knees from the vomiting.

I said, “Are you okay, Mr. Lenzen?”

“What the hell do you think?”

He drank from the glass, handed it back to me, returned to the breathing exercise. The nurse had said on a Friday visit that maximizing oxygen intake maximized his chance to beat cancer. When she said it, I registered her use of “chance” and not “chances.” Sometimes maximum is damned small.

Mr. Lenzen started to recover. The talking came. I went into the kitchen to wash dishes. Then the yelling began, and I turned on the water. I ran it over my hand until it was warm as urine. There were no dirty dishes. I opened up the cabinet and took down all the clean plates, stacked them in the sink. I washed the first plate, racked it, let the water, now piping hot, envelop my hand, washed the same plate again, dried it with the bottom of my shirt, racked it, picked it up again and washed it a third time, the water still running. There were two more plates to wash.

I heard, “Dysmus!”

“Yes, Mr. Lenzen?”

“Dysmus!”

“Yes!”

“Come out here, damnit!”

“Okay.”

Mr. Lenzen tried to stand. I put a hand out, and he clutched it. I lifted him. He squinted at me, trying to find my eyes. “Listen to me,” he said. “Look at me.”

I did.

“That girl is no good for you, son.”

I looked outside and saw the lone tree in the yard of rocks and dirt, totally stripped of leaves. I’d pruned it down to the nub the first week with Mr. Lenzen. I said,

“You want I should chop that tree down, Mr. Lenzen?”

“Listen to me. She’s no good. You’re a dreamer. She’s worse. She’s a soft and weak hippie. She’s forty years late. Are you listening to me?”

“I’ll uproot that tree if you want, Mr. Lenzen. That tree is pathetic.”

Mr. Lenzen grabbed my elbow, sat down on the chair and leaned back, exhausted. He had amoeba-shaped purple spots on his shirt. I said, “O’Reilly’s on in thirty minutes.”

“Listen to me!”

I looked down at Mr. Lenzen. “I’ve got to clip the tree.”

“Do the yard work later!”

I opened the door and slid into my knee-high workboots on the porch. “The Spin Stops Here” doormat had little pollen balls around its edges. I’d clap it clean later. I walked down the steps into the yard and out of Mr. Lenzen’s range, examined the tree, decided it could wait to be trimmed again for a couple of years, came back up the steps and into Mr. Lenzen’s range, snapped “The Spin Stops Here” doormat in the hazy summer sun, laid it down at the doorstep, took off the boots.
The house was silent. Maybe he was asleep. Or dead. I opened the door, heard, “You’ll get nowhere with her!” and went into the kitchen to rewash the plates and bowls. Afterward, I would rewash the silverware. Then I’d 409 the walls. After that, I’d scour the scum from the tub, the bile and shit from the toilet. I stacked the dishes and listened to the water hum. Put my hand in the steam, holding it there.

“Look at you!”

It was hot.

“Got no ambition! No future!”

I held my hand there, watched it redden, tried to drift.

“Wasting your life with that woman! To hell with her!

When it comes down to it, I’ve no imagination: I heard the switches click off, the fantasy line cut. Every creative faculty in me severed. I felt the water coursing in the sink like a boiling reminder to do, do, do, don’t think.

I came out of the kitchen, soaked to the elbow. Mr. Lenzen sat up, about to speak. I walked over to him and said, “Keep your fucking mouth shut, old man.”

I reached across him for the telephone and punched the number with all my weight upon him. Then I stood up, dragging the cord across his shoulder and neck, and pushed his hand back when he reached forThe O’Reilly Factor cap at my feet.

“Becca,” I said.

“What’s wrong?”

I looked down at Mr. Lenzen. His chin was in his chest. I twisted the rd under his face and over his head so he wouldn’t choke to death.

He was quiet, a little bob to the top of his head.

“I love you,” I said into the receiver. “You’re everything to me.”

* * *

Becca’s just like Mr. Lenzen: she falls asleep fast. She’s snoring now, filling the studio. The cycle is fascinating to me: Becca’s mouth opens inhalation, closes once the air is in, pulls into itself in the brevity of 1 eyeblink, opens and blows out in exhalation, the snoring part. The hole thing’s like watching an anemone pumping water through itself n a reef. Every aspect of the cycle is connected to life. And Becca’s a eady snorer, too, all the way through the night. It doesn’t bother me bit. I’m used to it. I like it. Mr. Lenzen’s snoring—which was just as cud as his shouting—always seemed sonorous, harmonious. I would actually look forward to hearing Mr. Lenzen snore.

I tiptoe across the studio and put the grocery bags on the counter. The counter splits our “kitchen” and “bedroom/living room.” Becca has pictures of us all over the studio, but the greatest concentration is on the counter. I like the clutter of the pictures, have never once made any attempt at reorganization. And also there’s a coffee machine, rice cooker and telephone, those mechanical essentials of living together.

The groceries need unpacking. I look back at Becca, wait for an exhalation to begin. Everything is perfectly in order: one bag entirely of canned goods, the second fruits and vegetables and the third frozen items. When you shop at midnight, you’ve the luxury of being perectly anal with grocery packing because it’s usually you that’s doing the packing.

The Healthy Choice soup, canned pears and peaches and vegetarian chili each get their own shelf in the pantry. I line them up along the cans already there, pushing the newer cans furthest back. I leave the grapes, nectarines and tangelos on the counter so Becca can arrange them in the morning. She likes to color-coordinate the fruit like a Norman Rockwell painting. I open the cabinet beneath the sink, lean the liquid soap against the rim of the brown bucket.

I look back at Becca, wait for an exhalation, open the fridge slowly. The light peeps out. I look back at Becca again. She sleeps deeper than Mr. Lenzen, totally unfazed by light. She told me last summer that only confrontation awakens her. It’s been longer than four months now, and I haven’t awakened her once. Though I trust her self-assessment, I’ve never tested her theory on light. I’m wary even of my own breathing when I observe Becca’s peaceful slumber.

Our fridge is filled with healthy food I’d never eaten before meeting Becca. I’d only mocked it. Chocolate Silk, hummus, soft tofu, kimchee and, in between and encircling everything, vegetables. Asparagus, broccoli, tomatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, cucumber and Becca’s favorite, artichoke. It’s amazing—isn’t it?—how fast we adjust to change? I actually enjoy being an herbivore, can truly feel the difference in my digestive system. I add beets and green onions to the garden in our fridge.
I look back at Becca again, wait for the exhalation, crack the freezer door as little as possible. The freezer exhales its own cold breath, and I put in my face for a peek. It’s a small freezer, so we purchase our frozen foods in sparse amounts. I line the three cans of Safeway pineapple-orange juice along the freezer door, push the packaged edamame into the rear by the icemaker, stack the vegetarian pizza on the other vegetarian pizza, close the freezer door, killing the light.

It’s funny the way things go in the dark. When the world and your girl are asleep, you can pretend that the things you truly know deep down, you really don’t know. You can forget about whatever fraction of the past you wish to forget, or you can forget the past in its entirety and pretend that there’s such a thing as just now, pure now. In the vague and inexplicable darkness, you can drive out whatever part of yourself is most sharp, most remembering, most acute. You can walk by a package as if it were a package left for ten years by the original renters of the studio and is now simply a household fixture, a part of the interior decoration. You can say, I went through the package once already today, what the hell’s left to do but walk around and step over it forever?

I sit cross-legged at the foot of our bed, turn on the television. Immediately hit the mute button. The television makes everything in the studio gray. My feet, my hands, my legs, like the color of clay. Becca snores through a Christian infomercial. There’s a little dove in the corner of the screen, its wings extended, its beak pointing heavenward, trying desperately to fly out of the television. I look over my shoulder, see Becca’s mouth at eye level. She snores right through the flashing, revolving, converging sequence of the opening cut of Sportscenter. It’s like a laser show you’d see in the Exploratorium or a scene from some ’80s sci-fi film. How the lasers have anything to do with Kobe Bryant escapes me. The neighboring channel has a wild-eyed man wrestling alligators or crocodiles—I can’t tell which—until he whips the reptile into a headlock, twists it toward the screen, where I can see by the long, narrow slope of the jaws that it’s a crocodile. With respectble composure, the croc-conqueror is talking to the screen, pointing out something about the croc’s rowed teeth as the croc whips its tail back and forth in the sloshing mud. I skip along past Lifetime, TNT, Disney, right through Oxygen, Telemundo, Nick at Nite, over CNN, CNBC, and the Comedy Channel. I automatically stop, like a knee jerk, at FOXNews.

O’Reilly’s in his standard cobalt-blue suit. It’s the beginning of the show. I know because of “Talking Points,” ” the opening segment, where O’Reilly gets to opine. And for the deaf or the slow or the foreigner, the printed message of “Talking Points” is displayed in an upper-right-hand box on the screen. The background is blue and red. O’Reilly is white, Irish. Everything’s perfectly coordinated with his speech, the memo point by point, sometimes with numbers for clarification, italics for emphasis. Today, for the third and last time, O’Reilly’s solving the only seemingly herculean problem of border control. The catalyst for the segment is the lead national story detailing eighteen border-jumpers who suffocated to death in the back of an eighteen-wheeler in Texas. O’Reilly says it’s time we assumed control of things down there, time we brought in the troops, lined them along the border like so many toy soldiers.

“Talking Points” ends, and O’Reilly turns away from America to face his guest in the studio. It’s author Tom Clancy. He should be on O’Reilly’s side. He’s wearing a black USS Nimitz baseball cap, leaning back in his chair with legs crossed, very dignified Asiatic eyes directly on O’Reilly’s. They’re separated by a round table. O’Reilly has his elbows on its surface, script in hand. He begins to say something, and already Clancy’s shaking his head in disagreement. I would have thought Clancy a good guest.

I turn the volume up to the lowest level. It’s enough to hear O’Reilly very dearly. He says, “Am I wrong, Tom?”

Clancy’s eyes, still dignified, are dismissive. “In fact,” he says, barely audible, “you are wrong, Bill.”

The frowns bunch up on O’Reilly’s forehead. He’s contemplating a position of attack. If Mr. Lenzen were here to see it, he’d be shouting words of encouragement.

“Get him, Bill! Get that arrogant author!” O’Reilly says, “Where have I gone wrong here, Tom?”

“Well, Bill. You’re Irish.” O’Reilly nods, anxious. I can see a trace of Becca-hope in his eyes. Clancy might be an ally. “You’ve seen what happened with Irish-British relations after troops were positioned in Belfast, Bill.”

“Come on, Tom!”

“Bill, it would ruin relations with Mexico for a century.”

“Now hold on a minute, Tom! This is the no spin zone! You’re not gonna get away with that stuff!”

“And that’s just one city in Northern Ireland, Bill. We ourselves have troops spread over five different continents around the world. A proposal to return troops to guard a border longer than 2,100 miles seems absurd to me. The logistics of the argument fail with respect to just space alone. It can’t be done.”

I hear Mr. Lenzen yell, “You defeatist traitor! Not only can it be done, but it must be done!” I say, “Don’t listen to this pop-writer, Bill.”

“Baby?”

It’s Becca. I woke her up. I mute the television just as O’Reilly’s face reddens, just as he’s getting heated at Clancy.

“Why you watching that guy?”

I shrug. “He’s all right.”

“Since when? Come to sleep. It’s past one.”

“All right.”

“Baby,” Becca says. “I’m sorry, baby.”

The camera zooms in on O’Reilly, completely leaving Clancy’s position at the table. O’Reilly’s head fills the whole screen. His index finger juts out and accuses every soul awake.

“Diz. I know you love me. I know you do.”

I turn away from O’Reilly and his index finger, look back at Becca, raise my eyebrows.

“You won’t put anyone in front of me, Diz. I know it.”

I turn back around. “Is that enough?”

“What’s bigger than love, baby?”

I wait. I hear Becca sit up, her back to the wall. I say, “And what about this past summer? What about that fucking book?”

“The summer’s gone forever, Diz. That’s how it goes. Seasons live, seasons die.” I look back at Becca and want to ask, “How can you say that?” She says, “And you can start the book later. It’s right there in the box. Ready to be picked up when you’re ready. Come to bed.”

I turn The O’Reilly Factor up for a second. O’Reilly shouts, “Come on, Tom! This is the most powerful nation in the world! And we can’t secure our borders! You don’t expect the good people of America to accept that nonsense, do you?”

“All right,” I say.

I mute O’Reilly, leave him on for some light. I walk over to our door and lock it. Becca watches me, crosses her legs under the nightgown.

I check the sliding glass door next, lock the screen. Double-check the stove, make sure all the gas is turned off. Sometimes Becca forgets. At the bed, I run my hands along Becca’s ankles, feel the goosebumps on her skin. She’s cold. I turn the ceiling heater on, open a drawer, give Becca a thick pair of wool camping socks. Then I unplug the phone so she can sleep late on her only day off.

“I forget anything, baby?”

Becca pulls up her socks, lifts the nightgown over her head. “Come on, Diz.”

“Okay,” I say.

I bend down to everything Mr. Lenzen left me. The package is closing in on one day in our studio. It could be a hundred days before it moves again. It could be five. Or a thousand. Then one afternoon without warning, it’ll be swept away in the indifferent breeze, right out of the studio.

I pick up The No Spin Zone. I open the book and flip to the jacket in the back. Scan through O’Reilly’s bio, nothing I don’t know already. He’s a New York Times best-seller, enough said. I put the book down. Mr. Lenzen’s yellow journal is dull gray in the dim light from The O’Reilly Factor. I don’t touch it. The bravado of surviving the Great Depression, the lamentations over the bankruptcy, the premonitions about the inevitable failure of my writing, all of it as lifeless as my book. I don’t touch that either. The one-twentieth of a book sits in the box, utterly without title, held together by a rusting paper clip. I know that when Mr. Lenzen last held the book in his hands, he was laughing aloud, building up antibodies: “See! I told you!”

When I left Mr. Lenzen to love Becca, I knew that even if those eleven pages were the sum of all that is redemptive in me, the whole thing was pointless. Just like Mr. Lenzen said. It’d never grow into a good ending. There was never even a beginning. It’s like, what’s the point of writing a single sentence when you’ve got so much meanness in your heart?

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