She was seven pounds something ounces. No birthmarks. Her birth, I was told, was unremarkable, except she arrived three weeks late, and even then she was in no hurry to come out. She reached all her milestones on time, or in some cases just a little behind the curve. She rolled from back to front and front to back. She was slow to smile. What made her smile was anyone’s guess. When it came to speaking, though, she didn’t say her first word until she was two years and eleven months. The babysitter sang, “Looks like you’ve finished your milk, Little Lizzie,” and Liz said, “Apparently.” There were several witnesses, I was told, significantly her father.
A month later she finally got around to naming her significant others, her objects, her ma and her da. She said “mother” accompanied by air quotes. And the following day she said “father” and rolled her eyes.
Her first complete sentence was spoken to her mother but within earshot of her father. “You married him,” she said. It came in the middle of a changing, and half a moment later, she said, “Why these diapers?”
Her mother had only ever planned to have one child. Father hadn’t planned on any. He certainly wasn’t eager to try again. Mother cried. Maybe her girl was gifted, but she felt robbed. Where was the cuteness, the innocence, the vulnerability, precisely those characteristics that in concert with a new mother’s hormones should produce the sweetest feelings of tenderness and love and well-being? She couldn’t very well claim her child was not her child. Evidence abounded. But Father made the claim, not mine, as often as he could, to almost everyone he met. Mother wrote a long and detailed description of the sources of her dissatisfaction. With marriage. With motherhood. With life. Father moved from the family’s apartment in Brooklyn to the far side of a mountain in Colorado. Eventually Mother cried herself into a long quiet sleep from which she never woke.
This much I’ve been told about young Liz and her family. Roughly as much as we know about baby Jesus and his parents, and as with that story, so here, we only truly get to know our subject around age thirty. Were there daisies or bucking broncos on her first-grade pencil case? Did some kind adult take off her training wheels and run alongside with one hand on her seat and the other on her handlebars, cheering? Did some lust-driven teen fumble with the clasp of her training bra? We can wonder if she played soccer or field hockey, had boyfriends or girlfriends or both, smoked dope, aced her SAT, or spent a year at Pelican Bay, we can wonder, but I don’t know. Does the W tattoo on her shoulder stand for Women or Wittgenstein? Was she drunk when she got it?
Liz was a temp in an office on Market Street, downtown SF. As a bicycle messenger, occasionally I’d bring packages to that office and upon first seeing her I took an interest in her, though it is difficult to say why. Her eyes, maybe. Maybe the back of her head. I think it was her incredible self-assurance. She had something I wanted, but so do a lot of people I meet.
One wet, windy Tuesday I was exhausted from racing traffic. I’d had to make a couple urgent trips uphill to Union Square. My knees ached. I remember thinking — this can’t be my life. When I arrived at Liz’s desk, she’d been summoned away, perhaps by one of the managers. I flopped into her chair and listened to my heart, still pounding. Her phone rang eleven times before I decided to answer it — a pen and notepad at the ready. I only wanted to be helpful. Or that’s the story I was prepared to tell.
The caller, like me, had never in fact met Liz, though I at least had laid eyes on her. She introduced herself as the second wife of Liz’s father. She’d had a very hard time tracking Liz down and she was almost breathless with excitement when she got me. The purpose of the woman’s contact was to inform Liz of her father’s death, and to invite her to the funeral.
Presumably she, the caller, had learned all she could about Liz from Liz’s father. Before he died, he read the letters he hadn’t read from Liz’s mother, written shortly before she died. On his deathbed, he’d had a few regrets, bad investments, useless diets, he wished he hadn’t tried so hard to quit smoking, when in the end it was a few bad mushrooms which undermined him, but most of all he regretted having abandoned his wife and little girl back in Brooklyn. Illness, it seemed, got him thinking about eternity.
Why the woman on the phone shared such details with me — how could I know? Maybe because I pretended to be Liz’s supervisor. Maybe because I said we could not afford to spare Liz at such a busy time. Maybe because I insisted she, the woman, was a fraud. It seemed she felt the need to prove her intimate knowledge of Liz. Of which, she really had none.
Incidentally, I’d never been to Colorado.
“What the hell are you doing in my chair, Package Boy?”
It was the first Liz had ever spoken to me. As I said, I had seen her once before — that time she peered over the top of her book and pointed to a place on the corner of her desk for me to set down a manila envelope. She signed for it, and promptly spun away to face the wall. I stood a moment admiring the swing and bounce of her hair, scooped up my receipt and departed.
Liz picked up the notes I’d scribbled from my phone conversation and again turned her back to me. She wore a sleeveless top, thus I saw the W tat on her shoulder, a font I didn’t recognize.
“Where did you get this information, Package Boy?”
I couldn’t tell if she was angry or amused, some of both I think. If half of what her father’s second wife told me was true, she was a rare specimen, possibly dangerous.
My first impulse, I don’t know why, was to tell it straight. “A woman called. I pretended to be your boss.” And then I lied. “I can explain,” I said.
“I’m all ears, Package Boy.”
“Please don’t call me that,” I said.
“Why not, Package Boy?”
I’m twenty-two and I look like sixteen. There’s a nerve there and she was stomping on it. I gathered my resolve and said to her, “I could also not explain. What’s it worth to you, Temp?”
I think I’m good at reading expressions; one has to be somewhat skilled whipping through downtown at near light-speed on a bike. I know when a driver is paying attention, I know when a driver doesn’t give a damn. Liz cared, though she tried to hide it. Her irises were blue and steady like the edge of glass, but a single muscle in her handsome jaw twitched. I had her. I thought.
She sat on the corner of the desk and crossed one slender leg over the other. She leaned in close, her face only inches from mine. “What do you want?”
I thought I might want to slap her. Or kiss her. I’d already taken her chair and violated her privacy. Either seemed a reasonable next step, but I was suddenly overcome with shyness. It’s that question — what do you want — it always freezes me up. Finally I managed, “How ‘bout coffee?”
“This is how you get your coffee?” She walked over to the small table with the coffee maker and poured me a paper cup full. She set it on the desk in front of me.
“Your father died,” I said.
Again, the subtle twitch, nothing more. “That’s not what I asked,” she said. She paused very briefly, bit down on the tip of her thumb, then said, “Let’s go.” She swept up her handbag and started toward the elevator.
“Don’t you have to tell your boss?” I said.
“I thought I just did.”
For what it’s worth, Len was born prematurely — three months ahead of the plan. His first bassinet was made of glass. The first parents he knew poked him and measured him, and handled him with latex gloves. He didn’t tell me. If he’d have said it, I probably wouldn’t have believed him anyway. I had an inkling. He’s small for one, but has very strong legs. His personality, like his body, is built from compensation, always in effect trying to catch up, trying to find any advantage he can to make up for his deficits.
The coffee we shared came in stemware and tasted like gin. My idea. I’d get him talking and see how clever he really was. I’d get some facts, then in the evening test their validity. The internet is an incredible tool, of course.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Short for Leonard?”
“It’s not short for anything,” he said, a little color coming into his cheeks. This guy was a real piece of work.
The look in his eye daring me to make a crack.
Here we were, the two of us out together on account of his leverage, his bribery, but I could tell he wasn’t having the fun time he’d expected. People rarely do when they go out with me — I’m not sure why. One day I’ll brush up on my conversation skills. Or it could have been the inclement weather. Or maybe, as he said, his knees were aching. In any case, I was developing a theory about Len. Two theories. The first: he doesn’t really want what he wants, he only wants to be assured that he can get it. It’s all in the conquest — I’ve met a few guys like him. My research supported this hypothesis. Early deprivation, abandonment, foster homes, frequent change of schools, evidence of learning disability, special classes, always the need to prove himself. Basketball was a fiasco. In wrestling he showed promise, until he pinched a nerve in his neck. I suspect he hears the theme song from Rocky like a tape loop in his head. My second theory may not be so different from the first, a matter of degree perhaps. Len knows what he wants and he wants it badly, but it doesn’t exist. In my way of thinking, theory one and theory two amount to the same, a driven man on the road to misery. But in the second scenario I find the guy a little more sympathetic.
As for myself, I have little trouble saying what I want. I want a sandwich with grilled Portobello mushrooms. I want time to pursue my investigations, these involving the great thinkers of the Enlightenment Period. Now I’m studying the life and work of Scottish philosopher David Hume, 1711-1776. Often, I want to be alone. When a partner, man or woman, asks me what I want, I’m ready. The trouble comes when they ask, “Liz, what do you really, really want?”
On cue, Len Lipschitz hit me between the eyes.
“Do you want to go to your father’s funeral?”
He tilted his head. He wears his dark hair very short by the way, except for a long forelock, a contrived looking thing, and coming in from the rain it looked like a wet tail inching south across his forehead.
“You’re making more assumptions than I can count,” I said. “For example —”
“Do you want to go?”
“For example, you’re assuming that the woman on the phone was telling the truth.”
“Do you want to go?”
“And that that man was in fact my father. And —”
“Liz, do you want to go?”
“Do you?” I said.
“I’ve never been to Colorado,” he said.
We exchanged numbers. We met again for coffee. What we discovered was we had very little in common. She was born late. I was born early. She was precocious, I have yet to bloom. But we shared a desire to quit our jobs as soon as possible. “It’s a shame though,” I said. “I bet you’re good at copying and collating.”
“I’ll cut you,” she said. “I’ll poison you.” She laughed. I think she liked me, but I wouldn’t have been willing to put money on it. We slept together. I mean slept. Only slept. In her bed. This, after a night of planning our excursion.
If at first she was reticent to share her thoughts, once started she wouldn’t quit. Though what she shared and what I asked about seemed to rarely intersect. We’d boarded the Zephyr train from SF to Frazer, a small town in Winter Park, Colorado. Zephyr, she told me, is from Zephyrus, Greek god of the west wind. Did it matter that we were traveling east?
“It’s perfect,” she said. “Into the wind’s teeth.” Precisely how she saw the journey.
“Why?” I asked. “Is there something you’re afraid of discovering?”
She bit her thumb and shrugged. Then she told me about David Hume, even recited long passages from his Enquiry into Human Understanding, and about her life’s mission du jour, “to cast a shadow of doubt over all things seemingly certain.”
“What are deductions,” she said, “but the manipulation of inductions. And what are inductions but guesses, beliefs. Just because the sun has risen every day of recorded history does not mean it will rise tomorrow. When the cue ball hits the eight ball, you will tell me that the eight ball travels according to some basic principles, laws of motion.”
“Yes,” I said, “everybody knows that.”
She laughed at me and said, “Sometimes I wish I had what you have, Package Boy.”
“And what is that?” I remember distinctly, it was early afternoon and we were pulling into the station at Winnemucca, Nevada, the biggest sky I had ever seen in my life.
“Ignorance,” she said. And then, after a moment, she punched me on the arm and said,
“Now don’t start sulking, Len. Ignorance is a good thing. Embrace it.”
Suddenly I was alone. Len slung on his backpack, stepped through the sliding doors of the train, and sailed away. It took me five minutes to pack my books and notes and clothes and toiletries into my suitcase, and thirty minutes to find him, sitting in the coffee shop of the Winners’ Casino on Winnemucca Boulevard. Thirty minutes was time enough for me to ask myself why I had included him on my journey, and why was I making this trip at all. One half hour lost and alone, roughly halfway to my destination, yet feeling farther away than when we’d begun. What was I hoping to find? Both Mother and Father were deceased, and I have barely any memory of them anyway. Could I say I was on my way to pay my respects to a man who never respected me? Or to hear again the ludicrous account of my early years from the woman who claims to have been his wife? Who never met me? As I say, I had time to ask the questions, but when it came to answers my mind was as empty as the huge sky over the foothills in the distance. Of only two things did I feel certain, that I would not be here if not for Len, and that I had no desire to carry on without him.
You see, I do know what I really really want, and Len Lipschitz has it. Or depending on how you look at it, he lacks it and I have too much of it. I want to want the way he wants!
I saw the back of him on a stool in perhaps the gaudiest coffee shop on the planet. He leaned in to take a sip. “You’ve come a long way for a cup of joe,” I said, “but I shouldn’t be surprised by that.”
He didn’t turn around, merely mumbled, “You’ve come a long way to find me.”
“Another assumption on your part,” I said.
“Well then, I don’t see. But I will pretend that I see because that would be embracing my ignorance.”
The waitress shoved a menu at me. On it was a portrait of Sarah Winnemucca, also known as Thocmentony, or Shell Flower, the Piute princess. What did I know about her? She spoke five languages. She was a translator and dedicated her life to improving understanding between the white settlers and the native tribes. There was an omelet named after her.
“I’ve come a long way to find you,” I confessed. It’s not pleasant to admit when you are wrong, but not nearly so distasteful as I imagined it would be. I said, “I admire you, Len.”
He turned a half revolution on his stool to face me. His eyes were pensive, his forelock full-bodied. He was becoming handsome to me.
Sometimes persistence wins — you get what you want. But it seems I’ve had almost equal success with resignation. I walked away and she came following. Perhaps I could only have her if I didn’t want her. Perhaps I didn’t want her, but still I wanted her to want me. It is the story of my life and it doesn’t make a bit of sense.
“Are you hungry,” she said. It should have been a simple question. I started crying. She sat on the stool beside me and put her arm around my shoulder.
“I’m here, too, but where?”
“The middle of nowhere,” I said. It was just an expression. I didn’t know what part of nowhere we were in.
“I think you’re exactly right,” she said. She seemed to brighten at the prospect, as if to be in the middle of nowhere was an accomplishment, something better than being on the east or west side of nowhere. She offered a brief but effective appraisal of our careers so far, bike messenger and office temp. And she evaluated our journey, our objectives, what might be gained by attending the funeral, meeting the second wife, etc. She finished with, “Are we a couple of fools, Len?”
“I guess we are.”
“I think we’re not.”
She spun me on my stool until I was facing her. She gathered the front of my shirt in her fists and pulled me to her. She kissed me. “Let’s get a room,” she said.
I tried to be cool, but it’s just not in me. “Okay,” I said. “Okay!” and pumped my fist.
“But first, you have to make me a promise.”
“Hear me out.”
“You have my attention.”
“Once you’ve had me, you have to still want me.”
With that she studied my face. Really studied my face. She pulled on my chin, looked hard into my eyes, turned my head left and right as if to inspect my ears. She didn’t seem to need a verbal response, which was good, because I didn’t seem to have one. She let go of my chin and took my hand, led me like a child through the cafe, through a gift shop into a lobby where we approached the front desk from the backside. A man in a straw hat and bolo tie turned to greet us.
The room was my idea, but Len offered to pay. He’s pretty sweet about things like that. He was a bike messenger, I was a temp, our savings combined couldn’t have filled a cart with groceries. We met halfway, which is to say, we went Dutch, and no frills. “Just a bed,” I said to the man at the desk. He looked Piute, maybe Shoshone. He said, “Don’t you want walls and a ceiling, too?”
We all thought for a moment about his remark.
“I want to finish college,” Len said.
It was the first he’d mentioned it. “I want an orange cat,” I said.
“I want to rehabilitate my knee.”
“I’ll rub it for you,” I said. And then I said something I’ve never told anyone. “I want to learn to ride a bike.”
“No one ever taught me.”
With key cards in our hands, we bid the clerk farewell and followed the carpet to the elevator. We began undressing each other on the way up. Len was peeling off my shirt and then he stopped and said, “What’s the W stand for?”
There had once been a Winnifred, and a William, or was it Wallace? Honestly, I couldn’t remember. “What should it stand for?” I said. I knew what he’d say and I was tempted to speak it before the word came out of his mouth. But why should I do that? The grin he was grinning made me smile in spite of myself.
“How about Winnemucca?”
Daniel Coshnear is author of two collections of stories: Jobs & Other Preoccupations (Helicon Nine, 2001), winner of the Willa Cather Fiction Award, and Occupy & Other Love Stories (Kelly’s Cove Press, 2012). He is currently completing a third collection tentatively titled The Second Lowest Common Denominator.