Fiction 2011 / Volume 41

Autumn Idol — Dennis Vannatta

It wasn’t that the man sitting on the second floor patio of the office building was especially unobservant; it was just that at this particular hour of the day—twelve-to-one, his lunch hour—he neither needed nor wanted to be observant. In his job as a C.P. A. for an accounting firm, he spent his workday in meticulous scrutiny of invoices, receipts, ledgers, etc., and on his lunch break he liked to let his mind drift. So, he was startled to realize one day that the area of trees and greensward across the boulevard from where he sat and upon which it was so calming to let his eyes rest was in reality a cemetery. Once he saw the tombstones scattered among the trees, he wondered how on earth he’d ever managed to overlook them. Almost that same instant, he noticed the couple sitting on the concrete bench in the shade of a giant magnolia.

It might have been the couple’s first day in the cemetery, but something about their posture communicated a sense of ease and familiarity, and the man on the patio sensed they’d been there among the tombstones, the azaleas and dogwoods and the towering loblolly pines day after day and he’d missed them. In fact, the next day they were back on their bench, and the day after that. He didn’t think the couple were mourners, though. There was that posture of ease, and—although they were far enough away that he couldn’t be positive about their expressions— he didn’t think they were grieving. He would bet the woman was smiling rather than grimacing. More than once her companion jerked his head back as one would when laughing.

They were young, that was certain, much younger than he—but then wasn’t almost everybody? He concluded they were young lovers although why they met every day in a cemetery, God knows. Definitely young lovers, though.

He was wrong. They were just very good friends. The woman in fact was engaged to her companion’s best friend. Their wedding date had been set for the second weekend in May, just after the close of the spring semester.

They both taught at the community college no more than two hundred yards from where they sat but hidden from the man on the patio by the trees in the cemetery and the tall redtip hedge beyond. Although the man had of course heard of the community college, he had no idea he rubbed shoulders with it, so to speak, at the accounting firm. He had a vague notion the community college was near the industrial park on the other side of town.

The man and woman did not teach in the same department. The man taught information science while the woman taught in the English department (alas, comp courses only, no lit).

They would argue good-naturedly about whose job was more boring, whose students the less interested and interesting, whose chairman the stupider. The woman would lament the difficulty of finding a venue suitable for the wedding reception—large enough for the pared-to-the-bone list of 125 guests, yet affordable—and the stress of a Baptist (her) marrying into a Catholic (her fiance’s) family.

“Or,” the man said, “the stress of a Catholic marrying into a Baptist family. Gotta stick up for Tony here”—Tony being the fiance.

They’d been coming over to the cemetery for a week or two—ever since it’d turned cool enough that they could sit outside comfortably at that time of day—before they noticed the man on the patio in the angle of the office building across the boulevard.

For the first couple of days they just noted his presence without thinking any more about him, but when he was in exactly the same place for the third straight day, the woman said, “There’s our friend,” and the man said, “You mean old Clyde?” Then he called out, “Hi, Clyde!” and waved until the woman, blushing and giggling, pulled his hand down, saying, “Stop it, you idiot!”

He started to say that the man on the patio wasn’t even looking at them, but before he could get the words out, “Clyde” suddenly stood up and disappeared back into the building.

“Oh look, now you’ve hurt his feelings,” the woman said.

“What did I do? I was just being friendly.”

“Like hell. You were being an asshole, as usual,” she said, trying to sound disapproving but unable to suppress a grin. She’d known him almost as long as she’d known Tony. They’d all met at the university where she was a Tri-Delta and he and Tony were Phi Gams.

“You’re right,” he said. “Alas, alack. Why oh why did I wave? The poor guy is probably distraught, probably in there swinging over the drain as we speak.” He mimed tying a noose around his neck and hanging himself from an invisible shower head, tongue hanging out and eyes bulging and crossed.

She swatted him. “Asshole. The poor guy looked lonely, always up there by himself.”

They both looked across at the empty patio. As if on cue, the man reappeared, resumed his seat, and turned toward them. He was wearing sunglasses, which strangely enough heightened the impression that he was staring right at them. Although neither of them said it, both thought that the man returning to the patio despite suffering the humiliation of being waved at by the grinning asshole across the street showed that he was indeed terribly, terribly lonely.

They were wrong.

He hadn’t even seen the man in the cemetery wave to him. A moment before, he’d noticed that he had no salt for his hardboiled eggs, and he’d gone back inside to retrieve a couple of the little packets he kept in his desk. Because of the low brick wall surrounding the patio, the couple across the boulevard couldn’t see that he was sitting at a picnic table, his bag lunch spread before him. He used to either go out for lunch or eat in the cafeteria shared by the several businesses in the building complex. He’d never even known the patio was there until he took a wrong turn one day looking for a colleague’s office. After that, he took his lunch there every day unless it rained.

You’d think he would have cherished the conviviality of the cafeteria, living alone as he did, a widower, the children on their own for many years now. In fact, the patio’s most attractive quality was its isolation.

The sound of the human voice irritated him. He worked mostly with figures, but the occasional telephone call and even rarer face-to-face encounter with a client elicited from him revulsion and dread. From his office he could plainly hear the administrative assistant he shared with five others talking almost constantly on her cell phone. He was the senior member of his “block” and technically her supervisor. Despite the fact that she managed to get all her work done, he should have nipped her unprofessional conduct in the bud, but back then he was trying to be a nice guy, or was timid, whatever, and now he felt it was too late to say anything.

The patio, then, offered solitude and quiet for at least one hour of his workday. And there was the additional pleasure of the young couple in the cemetery, whom he could watch without having to hear the sound of their voices.

He enjoyed constructing scenarios explaining their daily appearance on the concrete bench. The fact of the setting—a cemetery—was intriguing. What a strange place for a tryst. Yes, not a casual meeting but a tryst on a bench virtually hidden in the shadows of the magnolia instead of on the identical bench in the sun, artfully flanked by two lovely dogwoods. Something secretive involved here. Guilt implied. Betrayal of a third party, absent and unaware. Betrayal an accomplished fact or imminent, which was somehow even more titillating to consider.

Such a couple would be named Lenore and Jason, names evocative of Norse sagas and Greek myth, blood boiling in passion. (He’d been an English major in college before he met and fell in love with Missy and the desirability of earning a living wage cast its shadow over his career choice.) Beautiful Lenore! Valiant Jason!

He was wrong. Their names were Ellen and Hank.

She was barely in her grade school years when she fell in love with her name. Precociously attuned to matters of style (all the other girls followed her lead in reference to socks, sneakers, barrettes, book bags, fads of any kind), she intuited that her name rode the crest of a breaking new wave, the retro Ellens, Helens, Graces, even an occasional Iris and Opal, leaving the tacky Mistys, Dawns, and Dustys floundering in their wake.

It’s the nature of breaking waves to, unfortunately, break. And then must come a new wave. Sydneys, Kimballs, and Madisons began to appear, and Ellen and Helen started to seem less fashionably retro than simply out of date. Ellen announced that she had become Ell, liked that a bunch until someone asked, “You mean, like, Ell in, like, Elle Macpherson?”

Ell(en) suffered a crisis of identity. Was she doomed to be merely like someone else? Was she doomed to be—out with it!—ordinary?

She made a conscious effort to abjure style, high school high society, all that Valley Girl crap. Began to take her studies seriously. Won a small scholarship to the university, majored in English, made good grades, rushed the Tri-Deltas, found that she was considered hot whether she dressed the part or not, was not quite dismayed by the discovery.

Well-meaning friends set her up with the King of the Frats, Tony McCarthy, who stood her up two straight times to attend to “a friend in pain.” Did he take her for an idiot? Then she found out it was true. He’d had to talk his Phi Gam brother down from a bridge after he got dumped by his girlfriend since junior high. Ellen fell in love with Tony and adopted his friend, Hank, as she would adopt an abandoned puppy, sad, fragile, and cute.

Years later, Tony was in med school and Ellen had dropped out of her PhD program to teach five comp classes a semester at the local community college so they could get married when he began his residency.

She loved Hank, too, and felt guilty for being so happy when the economic downturn forced Hank, sporting his news Master’s in Info Tech, to take the job teaching for peanuts at the CC. “Hey, it could be worse. You could be shoveling shit in Mississippi,” Tony said. “I already got turned down for that one,” Hank said.

How Hank could make her laugh! Even when, on the bench in the cemetery, the conversation turned to the increasingly stressful subject of the wedding arrangements, Hank could make her laugh, and she’d laugh until her throat hurt at his imaginative suggestions for how she could dispose of the scores of essays she had to grade each week.

He tried to make her laugh at the man on the patio, too, but it was harder. There was something so sad about the way he sat there all alone day after day, a lonely old man.

His name would be Clyde or Herman or Calvin. An old man’s name.

They were wrong.

His given name was Tyler. He was bemused to see “Tyler” listed among the top ten names for newborn boys in 2004. He in fact had a problematic relationship with his own name. He was named after Tyler, Texas, where his mother came from and missed terribly after her marriage. As a child it embarrassed him to be named after “that god-forsaken place,” as his father always referred to the east-Texas town. It also embarrassed him when a new acquaintance would ask, “How come you have two last names?”

When he was in high school he announced that henceforward his name would be Ty, that he would no longer answer to Tyler. To the consternation of family and teachers, he stuck to his guns. His friends enjoyed the transformation, affording them as it did the opportunity to ask him if he wanted to go out and “Tyler one on” or to raise an unlaced shoe and command him to “Tyler it for me, Ty,” and other such puerilities.

He was soon sick of the name, wished to be Tyler again, but Ty followed him to college. Among his old friends and new ones, only Missy Shaw, who worked with him in the dorm cafeteria and was rather ordinary in looks and, frankly, wit, called him Tyler. Too poor for activities normally associated with dating, they’d take long walks, hand in hand. In the night shadows of the monument to university alums who made the ultimate sacrifice in our nation’s wars, he would hold her tight and kiss her temple, cheek, and neck as she whispered, “Tyler, Tyler, Tyler.”

She died when he was fifty-seven. By the time he reached sixty-three he could no longer tolerate the sound of human voices at work or in the supermarket because they were not her voice. At home, though, the first thing he’d do when entering the rattling-empty house was turn on the TV. If he didn’t, he’d begin to hear—from the next room, or the room beyond that—the whispered troches—”Tyler, Tyler, Tyler”—until he thought he’d go mad.

A friend of his, a widower about his age, remarried not long ago. He was very happy, he claimed, the new wife a comfort to him in his declining years. Tyler should consider it himself, the friend recommended. It beat the very devil out of loneliness.

But Tyler insisted he wasn’t lonely. It wasn’t loneliness to want no woman except the one woman he couldn’t possibly have. That was just bad luck.

On the other hand, he was still a male, still appreciated women in the abstract and, from a distance, at least, in the flesh. He liked to look at the young woman across the boulevard in the cemetery. He thought she was very pretty although at that distance he couldn’t tell for sure just how pretty. She definitely had a nice figure, though, nice legs. (Tyler was a leg man. Missy had been small-breasted, and her face was too square, but she had had nice legs.)

Lenore’s young man, Jason, was a lucky son of a gun. He looked like a smart-Alec, though, the way he laughed too much, threw his arms around as if to draw attention to himself. Lenore needed to be careful with that guy. Tyler knew the type, the love ’em and leave ’em type.

He was wrong.

Hank hadn’t had one complete date with a woman since his junior year in college when Clare Phillips broke up with him (no justification; it was over, that’s all; she was “moving on”).

After Tony talked him down from the bridge, and then Ellen adopted him as her project at the same time that she fell in love with Tony, Hank finally agreed, on three successive Friday nights, to go out with girls they picked out for him from among the best and brightest sorority row had to offer. He failed to show up for the first two dates, did show up for their third and final attempt at matchmaking only because he was afraid Ellen wouldn’t speak to him again if he didn’t. They kept it low-key, double-dating for pizza and bowling afterwards. But somewhere between the pizza parlor and the bowling alley, Hank disappeared. Terrified, Ellen and Tony looked for him first at the bridge and then at a variety of other places he might “do it.” They found him back at the Fiji house, sitting on the curb with a six-pack of beer—untouched— between his feet.

“Guess the dating thing’s not going to work,” he said, shrugging, a big grin on his face. Ellen burst into tears. She’d never seen anything sadder than that heartbreaking grin.

Hank didn’t feel as bad about his life as Ellen did. You can feel that bad only if things catch you by surprise, but Hank had long ago decided that some people fit into the world at odd angles so that things never quite work out for them, and he happened to be one of them.

He always came close. He was a good baseball player in the neighborhood but not quite good enough to start on the high school team. He could play guitar well enough for his garage band, but once they got out of the garage, the fellows decided they needed somebody just a bit better. He was handsome enough that women would turn their heads for a second look, but after that second look they’d decide, well, he’s not that handsome. He read Overbye’s Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos and dreamed of being an astro-physicist, but he couldn’t quite cut the math and so settled for Info Tech. Etc.

Sweet, petite Clare Phillips made up for everything. They were king and queen of their junior-high prom. (She called him “King Henry” in tender moments.)   They went steady all through high school, then went off to college together, marriage on a horizon that drew ever nearer. Then came The Big Brush-Off, as he called it.

He briefly flirted with ending it all, but then thought, What the hell, don’t take it so hard, pal. You’re just one of those guys for whom it doesn’t ever quite work out.

He imagined that the old gentleman across the boulevard—Clyde—was another for whom it never quite worked out. Sitting up on the patio glumly contemplating the handsome young couple beneath the magnolia, a reproach to the retched emptiness of his own life, Clyde, every day at just about this time, would consider (mostly in the abstract, he’d tell himself) ending it by leaping over the side.

He was wrong.

The patio wasn’t high enough, for one thing, for a man to be certain of doing the job. How ludicrous would it be to attempt to end one’s pain only to wind up a quadriplegic?

Tyler had of course considered suicide—what thinking man hasn’t at one time or another?—but he could never quite convince himself of the efficacy. He had his doubts about God. If he had to bet, he’d bet against the likelihood. If there was a God, though, he doubted that the old boy would have arranged things so that a man’s one joy in life would be cruelly taken away one moment only to be restored the next at the whisk of a razor blade across the wrists. How silly. No, death wouldn’t bring him any closer to Missy; it would only bring him closer to oblivion. At least now he could think about her, look at her image in the photo albums, watch her in home videos of Christmas mornings, Easter egg hunts, 4l of July picnics. (Too much of the kids, bless their hearts, too little of Missy.)

At least alive he could watch the couple across the street, although it was getting chillier now on the patio, the leaves in the dogwoods and sweet gums across the street turning red and yellow, more rainy days, with dour November coming on, when he was forced to take his lunch inside. Often now the couple failed to appear even when it didn’t rain.

He tried to imagine what they did on those days they didn’t come to the cemetery, but at most his imaginings brought them to the back seat of some car where they fumbled at each other like a couple of teenagers as Tyler’s pathetic old cock stirred feebly. Jesus.

In truth, they seemed to him a curiously chaste couple. They sat on opposite ends of the little bench, a foot of bare concrete between them, and rarely touched except when Lenore would take a playful swat at Jason for … Tyler didn’t know what for.

Lately he’d begun to wonder if they were lovers at all. He was now leaning toward the theory that they were merely friends, neither having a romantic or erotic thought for the other.

He was wrong.

Not long ago, about the time the leaves were starting to turn, it occurred to Ellen that she was spending almost as much time with Hank as with Tony. What with his studying for his courses, doing that volunteer work with the state rural health program, already worrying about the Step 2 exam in the spring, Tony had little time for a normal social life. But this was med school after all, no surprise for either of them. What it did startle her to realize was that she looked forward to the time with Tony more than the stolen moments with her fiance. Well, no, that was going too far. It was more like … It was more like . . .

Ellen was afraid she might be falling in love with Hank. She was afraid. Her heart raced with fear and desire when she thought of him. She tried to tell herself it was more the affection you’d feel for a sad, cute little puppy you’d found on the side of the road, and maybe it had been like that in the beginning, but what difference did it make what it was in the beginning? The question was, what was it now? Hank was cute, considerate, funny. He was a man who’d tried to kill himself over heartbreak. What woman could resist that? Would Tony kill himself for her? Silly question, unworthy of her, of Tony.

She couldn’t compare the two, Tony and Hank, because when she tried Tony disappeared and all that was left was Hank. It terrified her. She was devastated and relieved when, not long ago, shortly after her realization that she was falling in love with him, Hank said his department chair had given him the task of developing an interdisciplinary Info Tech course, and he was going to have to do most of the liaison work with faculty in other departments over lunch. He wouldn’t be able to see her much for awhile.

This obviously trumped-up excuse was the direct result of, the previous day, Hank accidentally touching Ellen’s breast as he reached to open the door for her. Much hilarity ensued. Ellen: “Oh, now don’t try to pretend that wasn’t intentional.” Hank: “Pu-lease, Pu-lease, don’t tell Tony! It was an accident, I swear it!” (Wink, wink.) Ellen: “I’ve read Freud, Mister. There are no accidents.”

The touch had been less erotic than electric. He felt like Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, charged by the touch of God.   He felt life flow through him. Life, fear, wonder, desire, dismay, love.

He’d loved her from the moment he met her, that moment two nights after the incident on the bridge when she’d put her right arm through Hank’s arm and her left through Tony’s, and the three of them had walked that way across campus to the bowling alley, for what could be farther from suicide than bowling?

He loved her instantly as intensely as he’d ever loved Clare Phillips, although in a different way. He’d loved Clare as one might love a woman who’d been his but loved Ellen as one would love a woman who was not and could never be his.

She was Tony’s. The issue wasn’t so much that Tony was his best friend. The best friends thing was frat boy stuff from college. Anyway, he hardly saw Tony any more. Nor was it gratitude, not really. It was more a sense of propriety. Tony had been up on the bridge with him, and it was proper that Hank reciprocate in some way. This was the way: no more lunch breaks with Ellen.

Not that that he was making any great sacrifice. To sacrifice means to give up something that you have. Ellen wasn’t his, never was, never could be. He had no more chance with Ellen than did that old geezer across the boulevard from the cemetery, whom he’d probably never see again.

He was right, of course. The old have no chance with the young. Not that Tyler wanted a chance. It wasn’t Lenore he wanted. (When he gazed at her across the boulevard, he’d get the young woman he could never have mixed up with the young woman he had had, and he’d whisper, “as my hopes have flown before … as my hopes have flown before ….”)

Hank went back to the cemetery one chilly December noontime, a month after he’d “ended it” with Ellen, long enough that he should have come to grips with it, resolved himself to it, but he hadn’t. He came to the cemetery, alone, not to escape his pain but to indulge it. Ellen had called him “Byronic” once. It’d hurt him even though he wasn’t altogether sure what that meant, and she saw it, was miserable with guilt for hurting him, cried. Her tears were balm for his pain because they meant she cared for him. It was good to have someone to care.

He walked through the gap in the redtip hedge that separated the college campus from the cemetery and sat for a few minutes on the bench, trying to evoke the feeling of being with her, but it was no good. He was just standing up to leave when he remembered the man across the street. He looked up at the patio, but it was empty.

Not ten minutes before that, Tyler, walking down the hallway, had passed the door to the patio and, following an impulse without motive or goal, turned and went out. He looked up at the sky. Walked over to the table where he used to eat his lunch, touched the wrought-iron chair. Cold. Looked across at the cemetery, the green of the pines and big magnolia among the leafless sweet gums and dogwoods. There was the stone bench beneath the magnolia. Empty. He’d never see the couple again. Something had gone wrong with them, had been wrong all along. A tryst in a cemetery. It had started wrong, and then had come a sundering, he felt sure of it, and now the couple would never know the joy that comes of spending a long life with the person one loves, never know the horrible eviscerating emptiness of a life without that person. How he envied them! Tyler returned to his office and ate his lunch at his desk, alone.

Hank would never see the man on the patio again. Next spring, on the first warm day, he’d come back to the cemetery. Maybe Ellen would come with him, just for old time’s sake, one last time before she married Tony. But probably not. The old man wouldn’t be there, anyway. He would have killed himself by then. Hank knew it as well as he knew his own name. A man Clyde’s age couldn’t bear such sadness, such loneliness. He’d make an end of it.

Ellen, at that very moment, was thinking of the old man on the patio, too. Not much of a coincidence. Each day at noon she thought of Hank, and she thought of the old man, and sometimes she even thought of Tony, but not much. There’d be a lifetime to think of Tony later. Later but soon. It was coming. There was nothing she could do about it.

When she thought of the old man, she wasn’t saddened so much as disturbed, almost frightened, the way he sat up there high above them, above everything, staring expressionless at the world behind those sunglasses even though he always sat in the shade, ominous, like some idol, but not an ancient one, an idol for the modern world, the Byronic hero grown old and calcified in his aloneness. Oh, Hank!

He was right. He was right. She was right.

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