Tiny Struggles

July 21st, 2013, 3pm

It was 28.3°C with few clouds. The wind was calm.

He managed the walk to Main Street, three blocks, two long avenues, and didn’t worry about how he looked — a big whitehead poking along the sidewalk. Things were getting better, not that Tiny knew the absolute right moment to leave his house, because out the back door his garden merged with theirs, and the neighbors might be around. Summer weekends, everyone hung out.

He could leave through the front door, but that resembled a first entrance in the middle of the second act, which was why, finally, Tiny quit acting. That excruciating second, when his presence on stage was unmistakably felt, disarmed him nightly. Even appearing in the Soaps got to him, but he’d made a bundle. Tiny’s new existence in the country was awkward, remarkable — remarked upon by those who knew him — exciting, and maybe permanent. He’d figure it out as he went along.

— It’s not really the country, the row houses on your block, they’re city structures, one friend said.

— You’re in the hood, another said. The ghetto.

— It’s a mixed nabe, Tiny said, imitating a nightly news guy, the face of the real America.

Not much separated the houses, a few feet, low fences, honeysuckle, ugly weed trees no one bothered to dig up. To build high fences or plant overbearing trees could appear unneighborly or sinister. Inside his private domain, anything was possible, he could do anything, but he didn’t, no one does, or few do, anyway. No one used all his freedom, and, wherever Tiny was, nameless others entered his mental space.

Upon awaking, Tiny pulled the curtains half-open, for some natural light and to show the neighbors he had nothing to hide. To his left, the neighbors were also city converts, professional people, architect and designer, a black and white couple, Nicholas and Arthur, who kept to themselves and had friends over occasionally. Tiny was invited when he first arrived, but informally they agreed to preserve a sense of the city and be neighbors who borrow a figurative cup of sugar.

Most days and nights, the street was dead quiet. A few shouts and bursts of loud music, nothing much. The other night, or early morning, was anomalous, because Tiny woke up to cries and yowls that wolves make when their cubs are killed or kidnapped.

An obese white woman, who sat on her ruined porch every warm day and night, was wailing to a disheveled, skinny man, You’re not leaving are you? You’re not leaving me are you? You’re not walking out are you? You’re not you can’t leave me.

Tiny squirmed below the window ledge. No one had ever yowled at him, he found it kind of magnificent — the passion. Nothing like that, unless he counted the stinging email rebukes from his older sister, Georgina.

Tiny, on the phone, you acted like everything was fine and dandy between us, and I’m supposed to pretend the way you do. You feel your behavior doesn’t call for an apology. But when your friend’s dog bit me on the calf, and their dog went RIGHT FOR ME, instead of comforting me, you said the bite was nothing, Look, you’re not bleeding, you said. Nothing, no compassion. How would you like it if …

Family. Tiny couldn’t escape them, even now, three hours away from them and their city. He was the baby and the tallest, perversely nicknamed Tiny. His given name was Theodore, after the fat Roosevelt, which his father thought was funny. His father had bought the farm six years ago, his mother was doing the big fade, and before he moved away, Tiny had split with his girlfriend of six years. His twin brothers were jerks, and his sister was angry at him for being born.

It was a new life he wanted.

Some stores in town were easier to enter than others. Some owners or managers welcomed him, some greasily, others held back, restraint or contempt, he couldn’t judge. He was no judge, that was his father. This afternoon, the pale, lithe woman in the cheese store, her blond hair screwed into a furious top knot, seemed disagreeable. Tiny intuited that Top Knot despised selling jams and cage-free eggs from happy chickens. This is where I end up, she’s thinking, slicing a chunk of aged Gouda for … She couldn’t find words for him, Tiny decided — what and who was this tall, 40- something, pale-skinned, dark-haired man in faded jeans and an unironed shirt, untucked. He watched her, fascinated.

It was an up-and-coming town, at least it had been up-and-coming when he bought the house; now people were saying it would come back. The town will come back, you’ll see, it always comes back. The town thrived and failed, an organism dependent on visitors who savored its Victorian houses and country-style stores selling thick bars of French soap and 1920s dish towels laundered in bleach. Now Tiny was moving through a fastidious space. He picked up a bath-sized fluffy white towel, which could wrap a small car, and fingered its thick pile. He hovered over an ample bunch of dried lavender, whose scent offered instant sanity.

Mostly, the native population was out of work, blacks, whites, integrated and equally downhearted. The town-kids’ future didn’t seem unknowable: Taxes low, public schools abysmal. More and more stray cats, who would never be neutered, screamed in Tiny’s garden, because he liked cats and fed them scraps when no one was around. His sister always said, “You make your own messes.” He couldn’t walk on the grass without sliding in shit.

Main Street stretched on and on against real time. Tiny strolled toward an unhurried café or good bar; he wasn’t hunting, exactly. The best bar in town served a mixed-up-everything clientele, and weekend nights drew a big crowd from surrounding towns smaller than his. His town. Our town. Above the bar’s spotted mirror, to the left, Tiny read reassuring words on an oldfashioned black board. “Use PARA- word in sentence. Your sentence wins — Martini on the house!” That Victorian she couldn’t afford — paradise.

He advertised in the local paper for a paramour. His bad! Tiny usually needed an incentive and took a seat at the long, white marble-topped bar. The only person he’d ever met, down one end, was a solitary, bookish man who dressed up as James Joyce, so Tiny forgot his name because he unfailingly thought, James Joyce.

Paradox, paralysis, parasite, parataxis, parallel.

Near Mr. Joyce, ignoring him, an exasperated 50 ish man exclaimed to his group, “It’s not the fine arts, it’s the construction business.” Down the other end of the long bar, a svelte woman about his age peered at him. He drank his Vodka tonic. She peered again. Tiny smiled. She peered again, anxiously. He walked over to be friendly.

— Do we know each other, Tiny said.

— I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else. I’m not wearing my glasses.

— But I am someone else, Tiny said.

She looked perplexed, not amused, so he tipped his invisible hat and returned to his end of the bar.

Paradoxically, the fox …

He finished another Vodka, another sentence. “Who doesn’t long to be a parasite and never work?” He handed the paper to the red-faced, buxom bartender. “No good deed goes unpunished, no bad deed goes unpublished,” he murmured intimately, to restore his cool. This is a wit’s end, he told himself.

Life’s just full of niggling compromise. Tiny wouldn’t sweat the small things, that was city life. Walking home along the dreamy back alley, Tiny fed his fantasies, starting one, re-playing it, she’s on her knees, starting another, staring at the huge, blue sky, sun still a flaming red ball. The new version fails to start, he can’t get it started, but how can he fail at his own fantasy. Defeated, momentarily, Tiny remembered his college friend Tom, who looked upset one morning in the cafeteria. Tom habitually dreamed he was flying. “Last night,” Tom said, “I couldn’t get lift-off.”

His neighbors Nick and Arthur’s lights were on, three more cars in their parking area meant guests, while his other next-door neighbors — renters not owners — sat at a long, wooden picnic table, eating corn and hot dogs. Barbecue smells, country life, the sweet life.

— Nice evening, folks, how’re you doing?

— Just great, how’re you doing? one of the men said.

Five adults and one child lived upstairs in the two-story house: two stringy white guys, one hefty black woman, one scrawny white one, all in their 30s; a lean, light-skinned black woman, 20 maybe, and a 10 year old white boy. Tiny had heard the boy call both men “Daddy.” He couldn’t tell them apart, either. The family must view him as a weirdo. The weirdo in their midst. The scrawny, white woman took her time responding, as if on delay. “We’re fine, thank you … and how are you?” She had a singsong voice, and emphasized “and how.” He dubbed her the ironic one. The lean, young woman appeared to be sulking, her thin face drawn with cheekbones like flying buttresses. She didn’t greet him at all, she scarcely raised her head, but he wished she had. Her name was Chelsea, her black cat, Satan. Unfixed, he was sure.

The old sun started its descent, and Tiny was aloft on his terrace, squinting at the newspaper, and watching the birds on his lawn — sparrows — peck away at masses of birdseed he’d thrown into a super-large metal salad bowl. The birdseed company advertised its seed as irresistible to colorful birds — he’d had two Blue Jays, one redbreasted Robin. Hundreds of sparrows arrived the same time every morning and evening, positioned on the electric wires, a scene from The Birds, until he refilled the bowl. No one else fed the birds the way he did.

This was great, this was better than living in the country, he reckoned — it was sort of a city in the country, with benefits like gardening, feeding birds and stray cats, renewal along with the seasons, the chance to be natural and free, because things were different here.

Tiny fixed himself another Vodka. Everyone spied on their neighbors, and why he cared about getting caught or being nosy, he didn’t know, except it conformed with his being citified, a veneer to shed. Tonight, a large white-frosted cake appeared, ablaze with candles — the birthday of the scrawny woman, 35. The neighbors to their right, who kept a beautiful garden, were barbecuing in tandem; by outward appearances, they were white, one father, one mother, two sons, the traditional family. The hulking blond boys, close in age, 19 or 20, stood at the fence flirting with Chelsea. She leaned in, they leaned in, three bodies pressed against the flimsy barrier. He wondered which one she would choose. Not him, that was certain.

Tiny followed the progress of Chelsea’s romance like a sitcom, a week of day-time backyard flirting and fence-leaning, the brothers in baggy shorts, she in her polka dot bikini, then night-time hanging out, until one evening Tiny spotted Chelsea in the other backyard, at their dinner table, while her family, eating their dinner, glanced at that other backyard, ruefully, and he thought, like a soothsayer, there’s going to be trouble.

It didn’t take long, Chelsea selected the bigger of the two. Tiny tried to gainsay why, because they both appeared to be good-natured hunks. Maybe one had a great personality or was a better kisser. Chelsea and the boyfriend pitched a tent for two in his family’s backyard, and every night, they’d disappear, and every morning, she’d scoot back to her house, or, if she’d gone home to sleep, Tiny would awaken to the boy’s calling her name, sort of mournfully, Chel-seeeee. She’d emerge from her house, sleep-deprived and sleepy-faced, and glowing. Chel-seeeee. Chelsea began saying Hello to him, too. And then the boys did. She was blooming in her new world, from the looks of it a better one.

The two families didn’t actually acknowledge each other. They weren’t feuding but there was a gulf between them. Like families separated by the Berlin Wall, some in the East, some the West, unable to communicate, raised so differently. Satan regularly jumped over the fence into the wrong yard, and Chelsea carried him back, not saying a word, returning quickly to the other side. More and more, the scrawny woman turned her back to the girl, who was or wasn’t her daughter, as Chelsea raced to that other backyard. And the scrawny woman started leaving garbage near Tiny’s side of the fence, not taking it to the dump. When it started to stink real bad, he’d talk to her, gently.

The August weather lay heavily on everyone, oppressive as the country’s news. Tiny couldn’t eat dinner in front of the TV anymore, not at news time; and he couldn’t avoid any of it, not by turning on the A/C or the TV. Things seeped in. Tiny and his one-way street were at peace, nothing grievous happening, the obese woman sat on her ruined porch like a Buddha, the skinny man coming and going, kids played in the street, and the guys next door became friendlier, by attrition if nothing else.

In October, the weather changed to bright and zesty, plants dying, trees bursting with fall. Tiny’s days were OK, a little boring, or too good, so he knew it would change, because everything changed — better or worse, there was always change. “You can count on that,” his mother used to say, before her dementia set in. Tiny would need to find work soon, but maybe he wouldn’t be able to. He might fall in love, even with Top Knot. He might win the lottery, but if he won millions, so much he didn’t know what to do with it, that would become a burden. Most lottery winners led rotten lives everafter, hounded by relatives, and some killed themselves. He would apologize to his sister, and promise her money when she needed it.

The weather turned colder, his first winter in the country.

He bundled into his old, heavy coat, swung his gray wool scarf around his neck, found a tote bag, and opened his front door to the world. He’d walk to Main Street, do his shopping, visit Top Knot, who had her moments. He didn’t get far. Chelsea was standing in front of her house, her belongings on the street. Everything, all her clothes and CDs, had been flung out from the second floor. Five big, shapeless mounds. Chelsea, in only a T shirt and jeans, was gathering up what she could, putting it in black garbage bags, and crying without making a sound. Tiny gathered stuff too and set it on the sidewalk. They did that together, silently, until her boyfriend showed up. He embraced Chelsea and looked at Tiny.

— They kicked her out, the boyfriend said.

— Kicked her out, Tiny said.

— Yeah, the shits kicked her out.

— Why? What happened?

— Because she doesn’t have a job. None of them got a job, but they kick her out, and she’s just 18.

— She’s jealous, Chelsea said. She’s jealous of me.

Tiny knew she was the scrawny blond.

— Chelsea’s got nowhere to go, the boyfriend said.

— Nowhere to go, Tiny said.

The words sounded like stones.

The three stood together, Chelsea bending in toward her boyfriend for protection against the wind. They looked at him intently.

They wanted him to offer her a place to stay for a while, he had a house all to himself. He couldn’t. It would turn bad. He just couldn’t.

— Jesus, Tiny said, this is really terrible.

— I don’t know what I’m going to do, Chelsea said.

— She can’t stay with us, me and my brother and her, and my parents, the boyfriend said. It can’t happen.

The wind whipped around them, and Tiny drew his scarf up near his mouth. He could pretend to be tone deaf or blind. He could explain that his mother was coming to live with him. But then it might happen. Stranger things than that happen.

— I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I wish I could help you. You’ll find someplace.

— Yeah, the boyfriend said, social services or something.

— Something’s gotta happen, Chelsea said.

— It always does. Something happens. You can count on things to change, Tiny said.

He could see their hope collapse. The three of them stood there, then the two of them looked at each other, maybe for strength, Tiny thought later. Chelsea faced him, purposefully.

— You one of those toxic bachelors, she said.

— Me? What do you mean?

— You know, a fickle dude. A love ’em and leave ’em guy, she said.

— I’m not …

— You know, ambiguous, she said.

Ambivalent, she means, but he wasn’t going there.

— I just like living alone, that’s all.

— Everyone has to live with themselves, the boyfriend said.

— Yeah, Chelsea said, you have to live with yourself.

She said it fiercely. Tiny could protest more that he wasn’t toxic, but it might be better to let her think he was ambiguous. Toxic Bachelor must be a reality show. He pulled his scarf tighter. It was freezing. She must be freezing, he thought. But she held her head higher.

— I can take care of your cat, he said.

It was a gesture.

— Satan? Chelsea said.

— Sure, I can do that, if you want. I can take care of him for a while. If you want.

Chelsea studied him, her boyfriend studied him. They glanced at each other. It took a stupefyingly long time, and the ball was in her court. It was her call.

— No way, no fucking way, Chelsea said, fiercer now. My cat goes with me.

She and her boyfriend bent down, grabbed some clothes, and carried the stuff toward the alley.

The way Tiny told it to close friends, he’d given her room, so she could reject him. He wouldn’t ever know what she thought. Chelsea moved the next day. The scrawny woman’s garbage stayed there, along with Chelsea’s clothes, frozen, for a long time. Tiny heard rumors about where Chelsea lived and with whom, but the boyfriend didn’t follow after her. That surprised him.

by Lynne Tillman

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Lynne Tillman

The author of five novels, four collections of short stories, one collection of essays, and two other nonfiction books. She has collaborated often with artists and writes regularly on culture. In 2014, her second essay collection, What Would Lynne Tillman Do? will be published by Red Lemonade Press. https://facebook.com/pages/Lynne-Tillman-Writer/…

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