In memoriam: B. H.
Unable to dance, Hughlett Rubiner felt unloved. Against his will he stayed within the raised wooden square, stood as obtrusive and ignored as a support beam, as around him danced the couples and coupled. Hughlett did not sway, clap, or lift his feet. Everyone else danced on. Every step, twirl, dip, every whisper and laugh, every movement of their limbs and bodies and mouths, was a stiletto to Hughlett’s heart. Paralyzed, he prayed. An errant kick, God, shoe upon his shoe, what for even a bump to the hip. At midnight he’d be sixty. No one at the wedding knew.
Blessedly someone stepped on his foot and Hughlett, released, returned to his table. His was the etcetera table, of wedding guests of no category or purpose. He attempted a nap in his chair, couldn’t. The twin trumpets kept him startled. A tablemate, some chinless spinster, asked Hughlett what it is he wants to do. Hughlett asked what his options were. She bent forward her head and inspissated a chin. Make do, Hughlett thought. He said, Get up and let’s go pollute the coatroom. She agreed. Hughlett said he’d meet her there.
She went one way and Hughlett, slowly but with no indecision, approached like a hunter the laid-out desserts, which sat on the white-clothed table like they’d been museumed. A waiter, wearing the hell out of his purple jacket—and large and handsome, too, shaming the guests and also the groom with his costume, stature, and looks—stood guard. He did his best to discourage Hughlett. Sir? A few minutes, sir? Can you wait? Please? Until the dancing’s done? Hughlett declined. I don’t need what you’re pushing, he said, I’ve got pockets, which he filled with cider donuts and miniature bottles of champagne. That jacket, Hughlett said, I can borrow it. He stepped behind the waiter and pinched the purple lapels as the waiter, his great beautiful face quivering, unsheathed his wide hilly arms.
Hughlett put on the jacket and sensed its tailored power. It was time to go. He forgot the spinster, now maybe naked spread waiting in the coatroom, because bigger things beckoned. He routed through the dance square, cleaving as many clutching pairs as he could. The pairs parted and reattached, bound by invisible elastics, without complaint or comment. No one noticed Hughlett’s plummy jacket, nor his departure. The summer night was warmer than he preferred. He mounted a bicycle not owned by him. Hughlett pedaled and counted his regrets. Four, including his marriage.
One, Mizzie, who in anemic moonlight had pulled him near and whispered commands. She was fifteen, with know-how and confidence; he was up a year, but fat and not yet unafraid of his own member. He blushed and mumbled something like a no. Softly she said, Fag. Her face was shadow. At least touch me, you fag. His blush got serious and he did touch her, but with his foot, poking and stroking her unfastened softness with his big toe. For a few minutes she bit her fist and made the appropriate noise. It was that softness he’d been considering for forty-three years.
Two, closing his eyes while with the great gun slicing platoons. He’d been informed of the rough number of gooks he’d got, but never did he see death, only dead. He’d aim, close his eyes, shoot, strafe, shoot, shoot, shoot, open his eyes and see the dead he’d wrought; and repeat. It is possible that this memory, like this bicycle, belonged to someone else, but it was far too late to chase provenance.
Three, he never learned to play an instrument. Trumpet would’ve been terrific.
Four, his marriage. He’d met Danielle in a palatial department store in downtown Cleveland. She was in heels but on all fours. He espied her atop the model bed, pulling taut the linens, sharpening corners, and flattening bulges. Hughlett lost breath and sense at the sight of her, the fruitful rises and dips of her chest, waist, hips: what spilled forth and what didn’t. O God, Hughlett said, here’s mine. He crawled to her and onto the short bed. He worshiped her curves, her crests and swells. He persuaded her to move south; he owned a house and had good government benefits. She noticed the birds and hated the weather.
She demanded a child. Hughlett feared defiling her perfect architecture. Still, twice it did take, timorousness notwithstanding. But both times the baby, who seemingly understood its own obscenity, slipped out. Danielle lost interest in most things and began to go naked. Neighbors complained or congratulated Hughlett, who had trouble bearing the profanity. One night he caught her with a woman and a man, owners of the local dry cleaners, posing for Polaroids. He shouted, Worship her! Worship her! The three reacted with astonished fury, throwing punches and curses and lamps. He retreated to the woods and wrote a note: Wife, I cannot bear the profanity. Goodbye. All I wanted was all of it. Send me a Polaroid. Yours, Hughlett Rubiner, who is not some Priest.
His motivations an engine, Hughlett pedaled on. He talked down a suspicious sheriff, who thought he knew the bike. A deer stepped onto the road but paused, let Hughlett pass. He arrived without incident at the dry cleaners’. He buttoned the jacket’s top button and felt duly righteous.
He proffered the champagnes and most of the donuts, now misshapen and pinched, atop unstarched shirts and sticky plastic. An offering to Danielle. He couldn’t conceive the appropriate benedictions. Danielle recognized Hughlett and took off her shirt. She was pregnant, her perfection only enhanced. Her skin had absorbed the napthas and benzenes, and she shone. Her startling dips and spheres, aglow. Hughlett fell to his knees and claimed the baby as his. I am the Lewis and Clark of your reproductive organs, I have colonized your womb, I have planted my flag on your soils. Not my seed, perhaps, but my baby. She ate a donut and concurred.
They mounted the bike, he on the seat and she on the handlebars, and rode to the local diner. Men were eating hard thin steaks, thinking rarely of sin. Hughlett stepped up onto a table and was ignored, despite the jacket; men in this place often stepped up onto tables. He beckoned his wife up and this spread a silence; bare-breasted pregnant women did not often step up onto tables. Hughlett lobbed a speech. Gentlemen, do you know what illusion is? Do you wear your seat belt? Check your cholesterol? I wear a seat belt, I know my cholesterol’s number. Let me tell you what’s what. Restraint, persistence, patience, savings, sayings, ambition, survival, recreation, uptime, realization, relaxation, retreat, responsibility, maturity, perspicacity, and luck. Tonight I have retroactively made a baby.
No one listened. His wife had fled. Hughlett left the diner and rode back to the wedding. The band was still at it and the dancing went on, though less balanced. Dessert had not yet commenced. Hughlett returned some donuts but kept the purple jacket, and then he danced. He bobbed his head and picked up his feet and felt the stirrings of rhythm all over. The second song he closed his eyes and the third song he really and truly lost himself. The fourth song a terrific grenade went off in his head and he lost his sight, and then his life, but his body, shaking and shuffling without him, kept perfect time.
Menachem Kaiser is originally from Toronto. His work has appeared in BOMB, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Vogue, New York Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently in the MFA program at the University of Michigan.