Author Bio: Lynne Sharon Schwartz is the author of fourteen books, including Disturbances in the Field; Leaving Brooklyn (nominated for the PEN/Hemingway First Novel Award); In the Family Way: An Urban Comedy; Ruined by Reading; and most recently, The Writing on the Wall. She lives in New York City.
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Referred Painand Other Stories
By Lynne Sharon Schwartz
COUNTERPOINTCopyright © 2004 Lynne Sharon Schwartz
All right reserved.
When I was a young woman I had a secret passion. At first I didn't quite grasp that it was a genuine passion. I was married and thought I already had what I wanted. This other thing, I thought, was just fascination and fondness. Also he was too old and a little ugly. But as time passed I recognized it for what it was.
It was his size, first of all. Very large. Imposing. When he got up out of a chair I could see the air shifting deferentially to make room for him, as if the very air at his proximity undulated in its yielding, like fabric or flesh. He was infused with gravity, like a rooted tree or a large piece of machinery, and walked with deliberation, as if he drew strength from the ground and was reluctant to lose touch with it. And his darkness. His skin was leathery, his hair so black and smooth it looked like metal. And his voice. Deep, as if it snaked up from someplace near his groin. Deep and a trifle harsh, almost with a sneering edge. Yet full of kindness. A kindly sneer, if such a thing is possible. And courteous, safe, gray eyes.
He came to our house, sometimes with his wife. He sat in the big armchair, a golden drink in his hand, his feet rooted to the floor, his arms resting on the armrests like Lincoln in his stone chair in his monument. He spoke in his deep, pebbly, sneering, warm voice and smoked cigarettes, wrinkling his brow with each puff, holding the end facing inward so I wondered how his palm didn't get burned. He befriended my young, boyish husband, took him under his wing in their shared line of work. He was kind. And I wanted to be near him and hear his voice.
He felt it too. He looked at me with appreciation and desire, the kind of desire that is civilized and tamed when it would be out of the question to let it run free. The kind of desire that in a man of his age grows wry and ironic and mellow, yet doesn't shrivel or seep away. He made gallant, civilized remarks of the kind that older men are-or were-permitted to make to younger women, meant only half-seriously, tinged with rue, the erotic seasoning of his aging. I wanted to let him know that I did take them seriously, that I felt the same even though he was so much older. I didn't think of him as fatherly. No. I wanted to make him happy. I wanted to see how pleasure would make him look. I wanted precisely the wry, rueful, and, I imagined, heated gratitude he would offer in return. I wanted to whisper in his ear that I wanted him, and to see his melancholy surprise-for he was melancholic, he had had disappointments-and then to take off his clothes and make love to him as if he were a stony monument I was bringing to life with my hands.
But I never did this. It was out of the question. Even so, I nursed the secret feeling that the two of us might one day do the things commonly considered to be out of the question, however the question might be termed. My married life continued, and meanwhile I wanted to stroke the steely hair and take the leathery face in my hands and feel the texture of the skin, which I imagined would be coarse to my touch, and kiss the lips from which the smoke emerged and feel the large body quicken under my hands. I wanted to astonish him with the offer of myself, whisper to him that he was the sexiest man I had ever seen and watch his shy, surprised demurral and then see him emerge masterful and confident as he realized I was telling the truth.
But I never did. I was brave only in thought, not in deed. I went on with my life, with him remaining an unattainable pleasure, out of the question, and meanwhile he grew old, still looking at me with desirous, courteous gray eyes, till finally he got so old that he got sick, and sicker, and began to waste away, and I saw the wonderful sexy ugliness of him grow thin and wasted with disease.
One day his wife called and asked if I knew of anyone who could come over and cut his hair, for he was too weak to go out to the barber. I said as a matter of fact I knew how to cut hair quite well, which I did: I cut my own hair and, in the days when we couldn't afford haircuts, had cut my young husband's hair as well. I went with my two pairs of scissors, large and small, and an electric razor for the hairs at the back of the neck.
He was wearing a plaid bathrobe and slippers, reclining on the couch, propped up on pillows. He still looked at me with appreciation, but the lustful or desirous nuance had all but left his gray eyes, as if to say that now it was truly out of the question, while before it had been only morally or socially so because of convention or timidity or consideration for the others involved. His skin was no longer dark but yellowish like a bruise, as if the rich maroon of the blood beneath no longer flowed with vigor. I could see the bones beneath his face, especially the sharp cheekbones. No more golden drink in his hand, no more cigarette facing inward, to his palm. His ankles were white and, without socks, bereft. His neck was wrinkled. He needed a shave and the bristles were coming in white. I thought of offering to shave him too, but I had no experience with shaves and didn't trust myself to touch his throat with a razor in my hand, which might tremble or do something unexpected out of wild regret.
No one would call him sexy now but to me he still was: I remembered what he had been and could see it was all there in his mind. I also knew I could never make love to him now, even in thought; he would break under my touch, however gentle; he was brittle. I think I had always lived with the notion that as I grew older I would gradually shed my diffidence and one day amass enough nerve to do what had appeared out of the question. But it was taking me too long. He was too much older to wait for as long as it was taking me.
His wife had moved a large chair near the window and placed a sheet under it to catch the falling hair. She helped him up from the couch and over to the chair. It was a warm day, and he shuffled the shuffle of the aged in heat; he no longer drew strength from the ground but sank into it, preparing the way, digging the grooves of his grave.
He sat down carefully in the chair as if his bones, so close to the surface, might shatter from too hard an impact. I arranged a towel around his neck like a true barber and prepared to cut his hair. First I combed it, smoothing the strands down with my hand in the wake of the comb. He had a side part and the hair was straight, still plentiful and starkly black, though the sideburns and the hairs at the back of the neck were growing in white. I combed his hair gently and smoothed it down. The hair was not metallic as it appeared but soft, and very clean. His wife must have washed it that morning. All silky and springy to the touch. His body smelled very fresh too, even though the day was so warm. I began to cut. First in front, clipping bits from the locks that fell across his forehead. Then the top and the sides. I stood above him, looking down on his head. He sat docilely like a boy in the barber's chair, but unlike a boy he emitted a heavy immanence like that of a man receiving skilled ministrations, while I circled around him, clipping here and there, combing down and smoothing. Clip, comb, smooth. Then I worked on the sideburns with the small scissors, holding them very close to the skin but careful not to nick him. I tilted his head sideways with the pressure of my hand to have easy access to the sideburns; at that, his eyes closed for an instant, then slowly opened. I did one side then walked around him and did the other. As I walked I glanced out the window; there was the park where he would probably never go again. He followed my gaze: the greenery, the blazing blue sky. His wife sat nearby and watched, and she and I kept up some idle talk though I couldn't say much; I was concentrating on the haircut. He said nothing, as though the effort would be too great. Or perhaps he was too absorbed in this, our first intimacy, my body circling close around him at eye level-he would be breathing me in-and didn't want to interrupt his concentration by words.
After the sideburns I straightened his head with my hands-he was so willing and responsive under my hands-then went behind him and clipped in back. When I tilted his head forward with the pressure of my hand, he let out a little groan-I had pushed too hard. I apologized. I patted his head in apology as you do a child's. I lightened my touch. I plugged in the electric razor and started on the back of his neck. I must have nicked him because his body gave a little start and his lips parted, then closed again. I saw his wife wince in sympathy. She was worried, I could tell, that this was taking too long, it was too hard for him to sit upright for so long, so I tried to work faster, and yet I didn't want the haircut to be over. I shaved the back of his neck clean, turned off the razor, and circled around him examining my work and clipping stray hairs here and there. A few fell on his lap. I glanced down, hesitating, and he brushed them off with a faint smile. Though he looked wearied, even asking to be released by now, I didn't want to release him, I loved so much the feeling of his head under my hands, of standing so close, closer than I had ever stood except for a brief greeting or farewell, and of touching him under his wife's anxious eyes. I wished I could touch his face and neck and shoulders too, to give him some small bit of what I had once dreamed of giving in abundance, but here, now, that was truly out of the question. Maybe if his wife had left the room for just a moment I might have leaned down and whispered in his ear, I've always had a passion for you, I've wanted you all along. But probably I wouldn't. Now, although not out of the question-why is it that death always changes the question?-that would be in poor taste; it would be mocking his weakness, now that he could do nothing more but prepare to die clean and neatly shorn.
Finally, reluctantly, I released him, and my hold on him.
Two weeks later he was in the hospital. I went to see him. As soon as I reached the doorway I knew I shouldn't have come. It was an intrusion. It was past the point for visitors. There was a nurse bending over his face, maybe removing a thermometer from his mouth. His wife was asking her about a "procedure" that had just been done. He was propped up in bed, framed by the two women bending anxiously over him, like a Christ figure in a Renaissance painting, a deposition, with the Marys drooping on either side. He was gaunt. The bristles of his beard had grown in white. The skin of his face was so fine and translucent that I could see the contours of the skull beneath. But his hair was neatly combed; it was, I saw with satisfaction, a good haircut. A little grown in but structurally excellent.
He caught sight of me standing tentatively in the doorway. His gray eyes flickered with surprise and reflexive appreciation but no civilized lust whatsoever. That was all gone. Instead he showed a pained, almost irritated look-not simply the pain of his illness but an irritation at me, as if the eyes were asking, Why didn't you ever, then ...? Why bother me now?
I lowered my eyes in shame at my mistake and he took pity on me. He was so much older and more worldly. He still had resources. He raised a hand and beckoned me in. I stepped forward soundlessly. While his wife and the nurse continued to talk, unaware of me, he murmured in a voice hoarse and strained, past rue but not past kindness, hot with fever, "My barber!"
Later I tried holding a cigarette the way he had. I held it with the lit end facing inward, to see what he had felt. A strong heat penetrated the center of my palm and radiated out to the tips of my fingers. I held it there till it burned down.
Excerpted from Referred Pain by Lynne Sharon Schwartz Copyright © 2004 by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Hostages to Fortune...........................8
The Stone Master..............................113
The Trip to Halawa Valley.....................129
Sightings of Loretta..........................176
By a Dimming Light............................211