When you looked at the guy you could almost see the walls he had built around himself. It was like he was saying NO and NO again, continuously, never affirming anything for fear of something that couldn’t quite be placed.
His energy was all wrong. While some people shine colorful lights on the world like conductors of harmonious vibrations, this guy was nothing but a black hole. A fat, poorly dressed black hole.
Nevertheless, he was my mother’s new husband, and she was forcing me to spend time with him.
“Listen,” she said with a sigh, “I’m not dumb. I see what’s going on. Karl doesn’t connect with you. You don’t connect with him, either. I see you guys, the way you look at each other.”
“Mom, he doesn’t look at me at all.”
“Ok, but I see the way you look at him. You sneer a lot when I bring him out to dinner with us. You look. . . What’s the word. . . Incredulous. You look incredulous a lot.” She raised the straw up to her lips without moving any part of her body except her elbow and began to suck up lemonade. Her back remained perfectly straight. So did her hair, and her eyes for that matter. Mom was a master of being stony.
I fingered the bread that the waiter had rested next to my coffee and said “It’s because I am incredulous. I mean, I’m always wondering about how my mother could have met and fallen for such a god awful person.”
A normal mother might have slapped her son at this point. My mother just looked at me blankly and played with her straw.
“I’m sorry mom, but you deserve better. What on earth does Karl do for you? He’s ridiculously fat, he’s over sixty, his hair is always greasy and weird, he never talks, he never has an opinion. . .”
She interjected: “That’s why I love him. He never has an opinion. I don’t think he knows what the word means. You must not realize how refreshing that is, after your father and his politics. Oh, and Karl is so refreshing in bed, you should just see the way he moves his hips. . .”
“Oh, here he comes!” She stood up quickly and walked to embrace Karl, who had just walked into the dining room and was glancing around, presumably looking for her. I watched them hug with a slightly disgusted look on my face. He could almost swallow her in his bulky cream colored suit. We briefly made eye contact, then Karl quickly looked away and squeezed her tighter.
At that moment I realized something: I scared him. Something about me had him on edge. The walls he had constructed were probably to keep me out of his head. He had to tune me out somehow. But what was so threatening about me?
To my surprise, mother left the diner and waved to me through the window, a coy smile on her face as she turned and jogged across the street. I put my hands on the window like a lost puppy left at the humane society. She couldn’t do this to me! Leaving me with Karl!
For a second Karl and I were frozen in time, ten feet apart in space, looking right at each other in controlled agony and frustration. I think he was debating on whether or not to hightail it out of the place. Finally, he relaxed, took a deep crackly breath, coughed, straightened his gaudy jacket, and began to walk toward my table.
“Hart. How are you?” He was jittery. He picked up the nearest napkin and began plucking at it from the moment he sat down. He wouldn’t look up. The napkin would soon be in tatters.
Before I could reply he spoke again: “Your mother put me up to this. She told me if I didn’t do this, she wouldn’t marry me.” Thin dots of sweat began descending from his hairline and into his eyes.
“Do what?” I asked.
“Come with you to your office. I have to go into your office and sit there for. . . For ten minutes.” The napkin was now nonexistent and his hands reached for something else to play with. I could hear his ragged and uneven breathing as he stared down at the empty lemonade in front of him.
“I don’t understand. . .”
“Can we just do this? Get it over with? Please?” Karl ran a hand through his shiny greased hair and glanced quickly around the nearly empty diner. “I really want to just go and be done with it.”
I stood up, mostly just to see how he would react. He was twitching and beginning to soak his dress shirt. “This is a little strange Karl. I don’t know. Why would she make you just sit in my office? Does she want you to steal something from me? Maybe one of my books. . .”
“No! I don’t have to steal anything! Let’s go!” He spun around and was out the door before I could react. When I had the bill paid and stepped into the midday sun, he was standing across the street, holding himself up with a light post, heaving. He seemed to sense me and looked up through a procession of slowing cars, and I barely understood him when he garbled “Can we please get this over with now?”
We took a cab across town. He sat next to me but was clearly in some other Karl-specific world, nervously tapping on his leg and looking out the window. I sighed, and we didn’t speak.
My office was crammed in the middle of a two-story 1960’s economy space which was occupied by at least a hundred other history academics. People here studied every kind of history one could imagine. They wrote books, they gave lectures, they taught classes. Most of all, though, they sat in their offices and talked to one another in a classy form of mutual masturbation. Most of what they discussed never left the building.
Karl almost collapsed when we entered through the side door. He was whimpering, and only took baby steps once the door shut behind him. It was like he was cautiously wading out into a freezing lake. The look on his face was nothing short of pure misery and terror.
“What the hell, Karl? What is the deal here? You look like you’re about to die.”
“I think I might.” He said, inching toward the elevator I was holding open for him.
“Is it elevators? Because it’s only one floor, and we could walk. . .”
“NO!” He screamed, falling to one knee. “It is not elevators. It is not you. It is not anything I wish to tell you! Would you please let me go there and get this over with?” Karl crawled into the elevator and heaved himself up on the bar. I couldn’t stop watching him, and I was becoming slightly amused at his tragic act. I took some satisfaction by witnessing his rapid unraveling before my eyes.
I clicked on the light to my office, and Karl groaned from behind me. My office was very simple: A standard metal desk strewn with unread correspondence, and nearly forty thousand books. They spilled from bookshelves and from under the desk, from the lone window’s ledge and the closet where not a single item of clothing was to be found. The books were stacked around the small room like a miniature metropolis, rich with skyscrapers.
I cleared off the only chair in the room, tossing several magazines and books aside, then pointed to it. Karl had still not entered the room. He stood in the hallway, and appeared to be shrinking into nothing. He jiggled uncontrollably.
“Do you want to sit here?” I said, motioning to the chair.
He shuffled in like an old lady and crashed into the seat, pulling his legs into his torso as best he could. He closed his eyes and moaned wretchedly. When he spoke, it was barely a whisper: “Tell me when it’s been ten minutes.”
I stood there and watched him. I wanted to make an incredulous face, but then I remembered how my mother had told me that I always made those faces around him. I wasn’t trying hard enough to like him. But what was there to like, really? Here was a grown man, over half a century in years, balled up and sobbing for no visible reason in my office. He looked like he was fighting off dragons in his head.
This gave me an idea. I wandered over to a small stack of books near the closet and searched for a detailed and interesting book on dragon mythology. It was full of graphic illustrations and gothic art depicting all styles of the fire-breathing beast as they were imagined throughout history. I remembered how my mother had told me that Kurt had a tattoo of a dragon on his ankle. Maybe he could get into this book and chill the hell out.
I quickly found the book and snatched it out from under the pile. In one motion I tossed it into his lap and said “Check this out. Mom told me about your. . .”
As soon as the book touched his hands he flew out of his seat, screaming like a small girl. He flailed and twisted, hopped and contorted. The book slammed against the far wall and bounced back to knock over one of the book towers, which began a domino effect that circled the room. Books were tumbling everywhere, and in the middle stood Karl, yelling nonsense at the top of his lungs. I’d never seen such a fit of hysterics in my life. Soon the books were knocking into his knees and thwapping him across the waist. He began to give in and just dropped his arms and slumped over as the last book tumbled to rest. Karl then fell back into the pile, unconscious.
The books were also spilled over me, but only up to my knees. It was chaos. Seeing Karl resting so peacefully on the books brought a small smile to my lips. They engulfed him like dull, musty wildflowers. I watched him for ten minutes of fitful breathing and choked snores. He looked calm, for once.
I was about to try and wake him when he started talking, his eyes closed and clenched, his mouth loose and wide. I couldn’t understand at first, so I crawled closer. This is what he was whispering:
“Through freedom’s delight there is no fright. For fright to be free it must control me.”
He repeated it over and over. I didn’t notice at first that after he few times of saying it his eyes had opened. Yet he continued to say the phrase, with increasing confidence and velocity, until he finally sat up and looked at me in the eyes. Karl seemed different. He smiled and repeated the phrase once more.
I sat on a mess of books and looked back at him, incredulous.
He dug himself out of the books and stumbled to the door. His shakiness had been replaced by a sort of grace in his movements. He adjusted his cream jacket, ran his hands through his hair, coughed politely, and said “Thank you so much, Hart, you really helped me out here.”
Karl turned and left, whistling an off-key tune.