The first time Alec heard the banging on his door, he had been thinking that the most unique thing about his life was that it had become endlessly repetitious. It was as if he had relived his life thousands of times at every hour. Now nearing the age of 60, he had left his relentless job as a driver for medicines in his 55th year to find that his long-sought retirement managed to be monotonous all over again.
He had never married or even had a date or even a kiss with a person in his life. Nor did he do any special kissing with animals or flowers, either. He had talked about his life these days only with two women, his sisters who lived in another state thousands of miles away. He credited his hermetic life to a childhood spent with an alcoholic father and a mother who was usually in bed with anti-depressants, plus his two older and lonely eternally spinster sisters.
He practically always felt sick after spending about ten concentrated years drilling his body against a small, vibrating truck.
Since no one knew anything about him, Alec knew that if he should just finally pass away from years of just not feeling well, at least no one would have the knowledge to say that he would die a virgin. As far as he had observed, while he may have never touched another person privately, he was less of a virgin than anyone who was in bed with someone every night. Surely everyone doing all this physical activity was getting the consequences of people who didn’t know what they were doing.
It wasn’t his idea that the sexual dimension was to become the most important issue in the local lexicon to ponder. Everyone else in the world had already decided that issue for him from the day he was born, when the first and only question people asked was whether he was a boy or a girl. Everything after that was only about his being either a boy or an actual man. He had finally decided that even going out of his small cottage to buy food was just another way to parade the same maleness issues around his community.
It was another day at 3 pm when someone had knocked at his door. By pure coincidence his place then had no noise in it, not even the TV, which was usually on duty every hour of the waking day. How bizarre, he thought, that the one brief minute that I have the TV off, now someone is knocking at my front door.
He waited the knocking out while he petted his cat on his bed.
The next time knocking came to his door was almost twenty hours later. It was now after ten am on a Saturday when he was watching NASCAR racing. The last thing he would do during NASCAR racing was respond to a rude, out-of-left-field knocking on his door. He had even pinned a reminder himself on the wall that the NASCAR show would begin that Saturday morning.
“Don’t sweat it,” he told his cat, whom he had named had named “Walter Jenkins” after the advisor who had once worked as a consultant for President Lyndon B. Johnson. “There is no law that that says I have to answer the door to this person even if he can hear me watching the TV in here.” This time the knocking on the door lasted twice as long, about five minutes. It is all because they hear me watching TV. “But why should I respond to them?” he asked Walter Jenkins. “They are nothing to me.” Walter Jenkins didn’t respond either. As always, the knocking went away.
Alec didn’t really know anyone in the town, so he assumed the knocking must have some from a persistent door-to-door salesman selling either magazine subscriptions or food subscriptions. He would surely fit into the “hot tip” category of either sale. Since no one could understand what he did every day, it was a pretty safe assumption to conclude that he could use new magazines in his little cottage to give him something to do.
As for his necessary food, he tried to make it a practice to visit the supermarket once and month and pack his old Camero convertible with all the groceries he would need for that certain time period. Since this was the middle of the month, he hardly needed anyone to bring him as an impulsive, unnecessary act of charity from out Albertson’s way.
The cold-cut butcher at Albertson’s Supermarket had long been a solidly-built woman named Christine, who was about a dozen years less than Alec but who made up for this by having a face that seemed about twice as big as his and everyone else’s face.
As Alec looked at Christine’s cheeks when she was chopping his meat, he wondered if a woman with all these wide surfaces on her face could fit many kisses over the years. She had especially drawn his attention by consistently marking down the prices of his cold cuts before he could pay for them at the front registers. Obviously she could have gotten fired for customizing special sales for him, but she was like a magician in her special markdowns, using chitchat as a diversion just as a man of magic could let a beautiful dove out at a moment when he was turning around a mirror.
In any given month, Christine might save him up to twenty dollars in her markdowns. Alec guessed that he must have looked a certain Catholic saint for her to give him so much unasked charity. He was surely like Saint Humphrey, who was so monastic that he only wore animal skins and after he was appointed bishop was martyred by a knight who thought he was an animal on the loose in the monastery. That was Alec, on the loose in Albertson’s as he watched Christine every month working on his meat.
He had been careful not to thank Christine too heartily for what she did for him. Still, he felt it was likely Christine was the woman he would kiss on the occasion of giving his first such salutation in his life.
At home Alec would read the writings of bachelors who had gone on to become internationally famous thinkers. He saw that best way to become a philosopher was to never marry. Even the old philosophers, like Diogenes and Plato, had to be bachelors. Diogenes had lived his entire adult life sitting in a bathtub, and when Alexander the Great asked him what was the most important need in the world, Diogenes told him to stand back and not cast his shadow on him. Truly, what kind of needy wife would put up with that kind of centered mindset? Plato, also, in his dialogues used the kind of syntax that other unmarried men Alec had known in his life used on him. That was yet another bachelor code stronger than bad breath.
Another thing Alec found out was that the bachelor philosophers were always much easier to understand than so-called married thinkers. Plato was just so much easier to read than Aristotle and everyone like him. The massively married Hegel, for example, was so less compelling in his writings than the life-long bachelor Kierkegaard. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche – the bachelor odd couple of the 19th Century – were so faster on their toes than all those harbored victims who were convoluted by wives and children.
Alec could even feel the feel Schopenhauer’s bachelorhood in the precious way the German placed words. Surely it wasn’t even necessary for Schopenhauer to go on about how a woman’s beauty was a just a dirty trick to create a baby, and that once the baby was born the little fiend would take a chunk of the woman’s beauty away with him like a kid stealing a cookie.
“Schopenhauer?” he said “Will to power,” he answered back, again and again, until he could fall asleep at night.
Alec mainly enjoyed old Uncle Arthur as he thought of Schopenhauer when the old philosopher described something like a disembodied will to power. For example, the invisible and unhearing force to swing from tree to tree in the jungle that gathered mass like a tornado and turned into a monkey. Alec himself knew of no will inside himself that could turn into a monkey, but he felt the force of a desire to turn into a young man as he once had lived.
The day he went to Albertson’s for the specific purpose of giving the butcher Christine his first human kiss, his main worry was that for the first time in his life, he might get put in jail. Finally, he made a resolution to go through with his decision by buying an unusually long amount of sausage and hiding his human kiss in all the meat like Waldo in a “Where’s Waldo?” puzzle.
“Can I kiss you, Christine, for being so good to me all the time?”
“Yes, you can,” she answered him, in the strangest voice he had ever thought he could hear from a human being.
“I know it must a little from out of left field, but you have always been so kind to me for as long as I’ve known.”
“Kiss me on the right cheek. The left cheek is my bad cheek.”
She leaned over on the counter, but her front end expanded so much when she leaned over that she only brought her right cheek less than on inch closer to his puckered lips.
Alec ended up doing most of the bending to kiss her right cheek, and he kissed it for four or five seconds since he was there anyway.
“This is too long,” she said at last, and she pulled herself away. “The trouble is that now everyone in the supermarket will want to kiss me.”
“I don’t think so.”
“We’ll have this place looking like some dirty street in Paris. Have you ever seen the Pigalle District, Alec? French people French kissing each other in every public place everywhere in Pigalle?”
“No,” he said. “I’m really sorry I made such a mess of things. Thank you for putting up with my insanity.”
He was walking out towards the registers sideways and crablike as Christine shouted for everyone to hear: “Goodbye, Alec, kissing boy.”
From then on Alec drove his poor old Camero another five miles to the other Ralph’s Supermarket to get all of his groceries at the first of the month. But he was always afraid that Christine might change jobs and suddenly show up at the Ralph’s cold-cut counter. What could he say to her then? Thank you, Christine, for saving me from dying before I kissed another human being?
One day when Alec was much younger and while he was thinking about what a useless impact he was making in the world, he impulsively volunteered for a night to manage a public shelter on Skid Row.
He immediately discovered that the place was the very minimum of the word “shelter.” There was only one room for both men and women about the size of a shopping-center laundry mat. The florescent funnel lights on the ceiling were left on all night, and during the most inappropriate hours after midnight the lights became bigger and ruder than before.
There were a couple of dozen people staying at the shelter that night, all but a few silent winos and drunks. The few that were not as drunk as insane created all of the noise and the laughter. Everyone had a space on the row of benches to either sit or lie on the entire night, and it was Alec’s job to have them stay at the same place instead of wandering around and causing trouble. There were no pillows, sheets or blankets because of all the lice in people’s hair. Everyone sat or lay on the benches fully dressed, often wearing coats and hats as they supposedly went to sleep.
Alec also sat in his coat and his hat, because the temperature of the shelter was hardly higher than the practically freezing weather outside. The table in front of him held the only instrument of the shelter, a nasty-looking black telephone. Beside Alec sat a younger man who had volunteered to be the second manager of the night, so they could take turns taking breaks. The young man was shorter, lighter and in every way less defined than the way Alec saw his own reflection in the black windows surrounding them. As the hours rolled on, Alec and his younger companion started talking more seriously with each other to avoid falling asleep amid all the vagabonds they were supposed to keep close watch on.
As the young man continued to talk, he increasingly communicated to Alec that he was afraid to be in this shelter with all of these drunks and these crazy people. One of the crazy women had already pulled a knife. She had claimed that a very small and middle-aged Asian man lost in his own very Asian world had been making obscene gestures to her. Alec took the knife away from the woman as soon as she somehow left on the bench to go after the small, older man.
“You cannot bring knives in here,” Alec had said, to bring the insane woman back to her proper place on the bench.
The shock worked instantly on the woman, who agreed to be good for the rest of her life as long as Alec gave back the knife so she could use it in self-defense on the streets the next day.
Alec shook his head and brought the knife back to his own place, where it joined the black telephone and the shelter’s check-in clipboard. The young volunteer on the other side of the table – whose name was Jeff – had become even younger, even smaller and even paler after the problem with the insane woman and her knife.
“Are you all right, Alec?”
The question if he were “all right” struck Ben as being one of the most feminine things that had ever been brought to him, and immediately he felt a stirring within him. Not that his physical stirring was any stranger. But before he stirring had come after some silent encounter with an inaccessible beautiful woman who may have just walked in from of him in her summer fashions.
To be completely scientific about this stirring – Alec aimed to be scientific at any cost – this man named Jeff didn’t have much manliness or anything else to draw such a reaction. The only thing Jeff had was a strong feminine quality that was stronger than that of most women.
When the physical stirring began, Alec turned his whole body and away from Jeff and brought out the Soren Kierkegaard “Edited Journal” that had been intended to help kill his Skid Row time. Incredible, he thought to himself, to be so abandoned by the world of women that my body out of desperation might start checking out the world of a man. But again, this Jeff could hardly be called anyone who advertised himself as a man. As long Alec could only be stirred by feminine traits – even if they were Jeff’s feminine traits – he saw his body still moving as it was programmed to react.
Alec left the shelter that night with the reckless resolution to cancel the rest of the nights he had volunteered for Skid Row service. He never saw the man named Jeff again but he also found it impossible to forget him. Meanwhile, Alec continued to look at beautiful woman in public as well as on picture screens for daily physical stimulation.
When he became a truck driver of medicines in his early twenties, at first Alec felt he had landed a good-paying job that he may not even have deserved. But with each year of driving medicines to the same pharmacies, he began to feel more deserving than he was earning. One unchanging fact about his vocation was that there were practically no other women truck drivers. Whenever he finally needed to share a lunch with someone, there were never any women around.
Three years after he had practically retired from public sight, Alec had to wait again through someone knocking on his front door. The fourth time it happened even in the dark night. He had gone to bed at seven that night, so all of his lights were out and so were all his electronics.
He felt real fear this time, n the dark. Before, the sunlight had been out to reinforce him. Now he felt compelled to tiptoe to his kitchenette where from a small window he peeked out at the front door.
A young man at his porch was looking right into the kitchenette window, right at Alec’s face. Another young man was with him, and he turned also to look into Alec’s eyes.
Both young men were dressed practically exactly alike. Both wore Hawaiian shirts. The first young man was a little taller, and his hair was bright blond, his Hawaiian shirt brighter red and carrying bigger flowers than did the second young man. The second man’s hair looked to be a treated light chocolate. They both wore shorts to the knees and white deck shoes.
To Alec’s disgust, the first young man held a wave to him, followed by the second young man’s three fingers held up in a wave.
It was a little after eight in the evening. The waves crashing onto Galeport’s ach spoke of a deserted landing beyond the next row of little white cottages. Alec could see neither stars in the sky nor any sign of a moon on the watch.
The two young men were smiling at him. Alec could not smile back because he knew of nothing to smile about. It fact it was the most impossible time to smile, when you were being invaded by people you had never seen before in the dead part of the night.
He raised his hand, involuntarily at first, and then he brought his other hand up to clasp his hands together. Somehow, in spite in his shaking, he created the pantomime of his hands becoming a pillow for his sleepy head to sleep.
The first young man with the harsh yellow hair acted back to Alec in the same pantomime, pillow to the head, then the pretense of sleep. At the end of the performance, the first young man flashed a smile of perfectly coordinated white teeth and threw a thumbs-up signal to Alec. Then both young men stepped off Alec’s porch and went off to be swallowed up by the night’s starless ink.
Even before he had tiptoed to a window, Alec had assumed that people knocking on his door would have to be men, the same kind of men he always worked with, the same kind he always had for lunch. He had estimated that out of 58 years of his life, forty-five of those years had been dominated by men and the other thirteen had at least representation from his quiet, humble sisters.
He couldn’t help but link his life without women to that stirring he had felt that night in Skid Row. He always knew it was a stirring that went on to continue life. But no woman would naturally want to continue life and pass onto posterity Alec’s non-descript looks. The difference was that no man was in danger of passing Alec’s flat life into a natural selection of the species. “I am the kind of living thing Darwin wanted to die out in non-reproduction,” he said to himself in a circular pattern.
During the younger years, when Alec was still having lunch with men – he also had lunch with three women in those years – the companion he could count on most for lunch at a “Flying W” truck stop was a driver of frozen bull semen named Michael. Alec guessed that was the reason why Michael always drifted into talking about organelles was the nature of the premium semen he was delivering from the top-rated bulls in the west. At their last lunch, Michael had gone too far into a territory that he finally became lost in.
“By the way, Alec, I’m still trying to figure who you really warm up to. Is it dogs?”
“No. It’s beautiful women, actually.”
“Beautiful women? That is so great, Alec.”
At that point, Alec picked up the check and left.
Christine, the cold-cut butcher, had not been that kind of beautiful woman. On the other hand, Alec could see how people were loving their dogs these days. So he was actually glad that he kissed Christine, in front of the whole world, while he was at it.
The morning after the two knocking men had arrived in the night, the same intrusion came back at 10 the next morning. At first Alec felt the way he always did, that if you ignore an intrusion it will go away on its own legs. But he was also aware of an air of confidence that wasn’t in his house before, as if the knocking at night would make the sunlight more fortifying the next morning.
When he opened the door, the two young men had on exactly the same clothes they had on in the night.
“So?” said Alec. “What do you want?”
“We were referred to you, Alec,” said the larger and the blonder of the two. “We are part of a school here there are a limited amount of openings. It’s a very high school of learning, and you’ve been recommended for a total scholarship. Your recommendations were so high that I’m afraid we were a little aggressive in trying to meet with you.”
“I don’t understand what you mean by a school. I’m a 58 year old man.”
“Exactly. It’s even more of a movement than a school.”
“I was highly recommended? By who?”
“People who’ve known you and gone through the school also.”
“You have the wrong person. I have two sisters left, and I haven’t even talked with them in years.”
“It’s really important,” said the softer, lesser man, “to explain the details to you.”
Somehow, the urgency coming from even the softer, lesser man convinced Alec to open door wider.
It was a good thing Alec still had a dining table that had survived with a couple of seats. Alec sat on his couch in front of his TV.
“What kind of school turns into a movement? Is it Christianity?” asked Alec. He was always ready to talk philosophy any time.
“It’s a school of attitude.”
“So someone in my family I haven’t talked with in years has sent you here to improve my attitude?” Alec asked.
“What’s wrong with improving your attitude?”
“I’m happy with it the way it is.”
“You’re telling us you’re the quintessential happy guy, Alec?
Already the men were becoming interchangeable in their questions, so that it didn’t matter who asked what question, and they were both giving him a know-it-all-smile.
“I don’t know what people mean by the word ‘happy,’” said Alec finally.
“We’re told you read a lot, Alec.”
“Hell yes, I read a lot.”
“You’ve probably already read about behaviorism.”
“B.F. Skinner’s crazy philosophy.” Alec had to show what he understood, always. “He raises his poor little daughter in a box to wrangle influences that controlled behavior.”
“Do you feel you’ve been put into a box, too?”
“What, in this place?”
The two seemed to shrug without moving a muscle.
“So what is your movement?’ Alec asked, to break yet another hanging pause,
“It’s really an informal exercise of joy,” said the larger young man. “We help people who don’t have their fair share of joy sing and dance on the beach.”
“So this is what my sister wants for me, the Age of Aquarius?”
“No. It wasn’t your sister.”
“Who in my family?”
“Your family and mother want you to do this.”
“That would be tricky. They’ve been dead for over twenty years.”
Alec looked at both of them to be sure they registered.
“They died over two decades ago,” he said.
Both of his visitors looked hard at him with more power than he had aimed at them.
Then Alec felt dizzy.
“Are you okay?” asked the larger guy.
“Tell you the truth, I haven’t eaten yet today.”
“We don’t want to stop you from eating.”
“Can you come back later?” He felt perspiration practically raining on him.
“Can we come back at one o’clock?”
“That would be great. That would be wonderful.”
He was found in his bed by his landlord three days later, with the better part of his body transformed into a far-reaching smell. A pathologist estimated he had been dead for nearly a month. It was actually the part of Alec that gathered into the air and reached out onto his neighbors that had brought someone in to check on him.