On the morning of his twenty-ninth birthday, Michael Marcone lay naked on his plaid and woolly ottoman with one leg propped on the cushions, the other hanging off the edge in a listless and altogether unattractive manner. He stared at his knuckly toes which seemed, he thought, to grow more hirsute with every passing day.
“I am morose,” he said to himself. “Morose, morose, morose.”
Michael Marcone was morose because now that he was twenty-nine, nobody threw birthday parties anymore with all the fun junk that went along with it.
“Streamers,” grumbled Michael Marcone. “A piñata in the shape of a chicken.”
To improve his mood, Michael Marcone reached for the box of sugar-coated breakfast O’s that was propped next to the ottoman and poured himself another bowl. Then the TV announced that the cartoon about the troll was coming on. This, combined with the fourth bowl of cereal, brightened things, he thought. But only marginally. For Michael Marcone knew that nothing, not even the troll cartoon, could replace spending his birthday in party form with friends.
Alas, Michael Marcone had been a philosophy major and had no friends.
“How did Sartre put it?” Michael Marcone said aloud, as he often spoke aloud for company, “ L’être et le neant . Being and nothingness.”
Ever since he abandoned the adjunct teaching position at the community college, Michael Marcone had sullenly remained inside his portion of a split-level, only venturing out for cereal or a low-budget cheerleading video. It was an outrage, he thought, that no one else on the philosophy faculty supported optional classroom nudity as an expression of Kant’s dualist freedom.
Michael Marcone drank the purple-stained milk from the bowl in one, long slurp and belched. “I never asked to be this free,” he said.
The doorbell rang.
Michael Marcone shared the split-level with a Pakistani couple and their five children. Whenever the doorbell rang, it was only a matter of seconds before the Pakistani children started hollering. Michael Marcone cocked an ear. Five, four, three, two, one.
“That’s odd,” he thought, and then remembered that the Pakistanis had two days ago flown to Disneyland for a family reunion and that Michael Marcone was supposed to feed their cat, Liberty .
“Crap!” shouted Michael Marcone. He was thinking about the fact that it had been two days since Liberty was fed, and that Liberty had likely since torn up the place or inconsiderately gone and died, when he opened the door to find two women, young and old, standing before him.
The women wore crisp, female suits, pink and lavender in hue, sturdy high heels that matched the suits and, as it was such a fine spring morning, immediately reminded Michael Marcone of a pair of freshly tinted Easter eggs. Their hair piled in coils at their top of their heads and they carried short briefcases over their small shoulders. A stack of shiny pamphlets in their hands. The older woman’s hair was white as a cloud, and her clear blue eyes turned down at the ends, as though fallen. The color reminded Michael Marcone of an open sky containing nothing except the necessary elements: nitrogen, oxygen. A scintilla of carbon dioxide.
The eyes of the younger were just the opposite: the interior, the pupil-cornea-lens combo, were a complex brown that made Michael Marcone at once think of long dirt roads that were difficult to navigate and the bloated car salesman on television who perpetually screamed, “DO YOU THINK YOU CAN DO ANY BETTER?” Immediately, Michael Marcone knew that this girl—heels together, clutching her pamphlets—meant business. But despite her motivation, which hung on her, he thought, like an ugly pendant, Michael Marcone recognized femininity in her feminé, and was smitten. The way she had it twisted, the hair-bun looked like a large pastry, and somehow brought out a softness in her brow. She was thin, he thought, but innocuously sexy. Her figure curved like a delicate spoon; her cheeks flushed with a light sweat from the unexpected spring heat; and her breasts were sweet and pointed, like two piles of sugar.
Michael Marcone felt a delightful tingle in his joie de vivre .
“Ladies,” he said, grandly. “What can I do for you?”
The elder of the two uncomfortably passed her briefcase from one shoulder to the next. “Why,” she said, “you’re naked, sir.”
Naked, naked, wondered Michael Marcone. What did this mean, ‘naked?’ Then he felt a moderate adjustment in his lower regions. He looked down in time to see his joie de vivre rising to greet the morning sun. Ah, he realized. Naked .
“We’re here about the Word of Jesus,” the younger said, and moved her weight from one heel to the next.
“Pardon me,” said Michael Marcone. “For a moment.”
He quickly shut the door and went upstairs for his trousers. Digging through the closet, he came upon a white blouse with billowy sleeves and tassels which he had purchased for fifty cents at a local thrift shop when he went through that Bohemian, poetry period. On well-built personage it might have looked dramatic; on Michael Marcone, student of repose, it just looked depressing. But he persevered. He shifted the tassels and positioned himself in front of the floor length mirror. He sucked in his belly until his upper regions ballooned, then ran both hands over his balding head in a swift, scintillating manner.
“Splendid,” he said, and returned downstairs.
The women did not look pleased. The younger even less so. “Sir,” she said, “have you heard the word of Jesus?”
Her voice! thought Michael Marcone. What a lark! As soft as a whisper on a tulip!
“Why, no,” he said, feigning ironic detachment for the sake of some poon-tang. “I haven’t heard the word of Jesus. But I would be very interested in knowing what it is. Won’t you come in?”
The women glanced at each other and then, chins high, stepped into the entrance of the split-level. They moved their eyes from the comic books stacked tidily in the foyer to a half-open bin of Lego’s in the middle of the living room. Michael Marcone made a sweeping gesture toward the television set.
“Have you seen this?” he said. “It’s the one where the troll goes spelunking in the wintertime. He freezes in a cave and falls in love with an imaginary female troll that appears in the ice like an oasis. He reaches for her and his hands freeze into the ice. It’s an extremely moving program.”
The younger woman narrowed her eyes. “No,” she said, “we have not seen the cartoon.”
“I’m Alice Johnson,” said the elder. “Please forgive Dora. We’ve been on our feet all day. We’re from the Jamaica Plain division of the Church of the Heart of Immaculate Conception.” Alice noticed Dora scowling at a collection of macaroni wreaths and gave her a sharp elbow. “We’re Morality Developers.”
Michael Marcone clapped his hands. “Excellent! My morale is in dire need of development.”
“What is your name, sir?” said Alice .
“My name is Tibor,” said Michael Marcone, who once read that men with names from Romance novels get laid more often. He gave Dora a quick look and lowered his voice. “Tibor Bentworth.”
“All right, Tibor,” said Dora, picking at the top of her pile, “if you’ll just take a look at our pamphlet, here…”
Alice looked admonishingly toward Dora and fingered Michael Marcone’s sleeve. “That’s a lovely blouse you’re wearing, Tibor,” she said.
“Why,” said Michael Marcone. “This old chemise? It was from my days as a poet. Alas, they are no more.”
“Oh,” said Alice . “I love poetry.”
“My poetry,” Michael Marcone said, “means everything to me.”
“Would you recite some?” said Alice .
“I couldn’t possibly.”
Dora, examining a halo on top of the television set made from an assortment of clumsily sculpted tin foils, frowned. “Don’t make him,” she said. “If he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t have to.”
Michael Marcone laughed and tossed his hands in air. “Oh all right,” he said. “I suppose we have time to be convivial before we deal with the business at hand. Come everyone. Come Dora. Let us go to the kitchen where the acoustics are better and you can be comfortably seated at the kitchen table.”
He led the women into a kitchen no wider than a coat closet. The kitchen table, it turned out, was a card table, on top of which was a stack of paper plates and a jar of buttons. The women pinched themselves into the foldout chairs.
Dora gestured to the jar. “What this?” she said.
“My buttons!” cried Michael Marcone and rushed forward. He grabbed the jar from the table, hugged it to his chest and stepped sideways to the closet. He placed the buttons gently on the top shelf, all the way to the back. “I apologize,” he said, returning to the table. “My buttons mean almost as much to me as my poetry, and are not for public consumption.”
Dora grunted. “We weren’t about to consume anything,” she said.
“Dora!” whispered Alice . “Go ahead, Tibor,” she said.
Michael Marcone stood before the two women and cleared his throat. “And now for the poetry.” He spread his legs, as though commanding a ballet position. He closed his eyes and began reciting:
Look at the way you walk.
Don’t you know you look stupid?
I mean, who is going to take you seriously
When you walk like that?
I recommend cutting it out.
Michael Marcone froze, sucked in air through his nostrils and bowed, regally.
The women looked at each other. They began clapping.
“That was lovely ,” said Alice .
“It was something ,” said Dora. She unfolded a copy of the pamphlet on the table. “Now if you’ll just have a seat,” she said, “we can explain to you about the pamphlet.”
“Wait!” cried Michael Marcone, dashing to the cupboard. “It’s my birthday! We must have cake!”
Michael Marcone removed three packages of pre-wrapped Twinkies from the cupboard and put them on a plastic plate with cherries painted on it. Michael Marcone owned the entire set of CherryWare, which he bought from the thrift store for two dollars. It was only missing the gravy boat. Upon purchasing the set, he had requested the donor’s personal information from the clerk to locate the missing gravy boat, but the clerk wouldn’t tell him. Instead the clerk called security to escort Michael Marcone out of the store: an unnecessary and rashly bureaucratic action, Michael Marcone believed, for he had every intention of releasing his kung-fu grip from the clerk’s lapel. Ever since then, Michael Marcone had taken several trips to the thrift store to buy a dime-store item with a twenty-dollar bill.
But that was neither here nor there. Now Michael Marcone had a lascivious tulip waiting for him, and flung these thoughts from his brain like a used tissue. Now was most definitely not the time, he thought, for schemes of toil and retribution.
Now was the time for love.
Michael Marcone reached into the fridge for milk, ignoring the day-old expiration date, and shook the carton vigorously for moment or two. Then he removed three glasses, also donned with cherries, and poured until they were frothy at the top.
“ Voila ,” he said.
“I’m on a diet,” said Dora.
Alice , looking pleased about the fortune of a Twinkie, gave Dora a sharp look. “Jesus,” she whispered fiercely, “would never refuse a Twinkie.”
“What about the birthday song?” said Michael Marcone.
Dora scowled. “I’m afraid we don’t have time for…”
“It can’t hurt to sing,” said Alice . She took a large bite and swallowed. “We are Servants of the Lord, and Servants of the Lord sing.” She glanced at Michael Marcone. “Don’t they?”
Michael Marcone nodded deeply.
Dora leaned over to Alice and whispered, “I don’t believe he cares two hoots about the Lord,” but seeing that she was outvoted, shrugged. “Oh, all right,” she said.
So Michael Marcone leaned back in his chair, munching happily on his own Twinkie while the two women sang:
Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday to you.
Happy Birthday, dear Ti-bor,
Happy Birthday to you.
Michael Marcone wiped a tear from his eye. “That was beautiful ,” he said. Then he knocked his paper plate to the floor with his elbow.
It was no accident. From beneath the table he could see the earnest flower’s legs. How they pressed tightly together, he marveled, like pursed lips. Michael Marcone lingered for a moment, and imagined running his hand between the knees and deep into the thighs until he reached the dark and original city. He swooned and held onto the floor with his palms for stability. Here was a genuine Vestal Virgin, in corporum, seated at his kitchen table. He stared longingly at the creamy flesh that disappeared into darkness, her sacred fire hidden behind a veritable wall of dollar nylon. The thought that he might break through made Michael Marcone sit upright, dizzy with history and the possibility of smut.
“Now for the pamphlet ,” said Dora.
“Not yet,” said Michael Marcone. “First we must save the life of a helpless animal very dear to my heart. The cat that lives upstairs.”
“A cat?” choked Dora.
“It hasn’t been fed for two days,” he cried, and grabbed a key from a drawer. “It’s an extreme situation.” Michael Marcone dashed into the next room, slipped on his slippers and pretended to slam the front door. But instead of leaving, he went behind the couch and peered in at the women from the living room.
Alice looked at Dora. “I’m allergic to cats,” she said. “What should we do?”
“Nothing,” Dora said. “We’re wasting our time here.”
“Time,” Alice reminded, “is never wasted delivering the Word of Christ.”
“But we were making quota before we came here,” Dora said. “We’ve already spent a half hour on this one house. I really don’t think we’re going to get the ten dollar donation out of him.”
“Do you think Jesus cared about quotas?” Alice said, carefully selecting another large bite of Twinkie.
Dora’s own Twinkie remained perched on the plate, unopened. She looked toward the door and, ensuring that the host was in absentia, threw a fist on the table. “If we don’t make quota today,” she said, “I’m not going to earn my merit badge, which I need if I’m ever going to be able to stop this door-to-door stuff and be promoted to Spiritual Associate!”
Quickly realizing her error, Dora immediately covered her mouth. “Oh Alice ,” she said, “Oh Alice, I’m sorry.”
Alice put down the Twinkie and stared sadly at the plate. She took a long sip of the milk and swallowed, as though unable to taste the difference between fresh and expired. She ran a long and wrinkled finger around the rim of the plate, in and out of the design of cherries; a plastic web of fruit, entangled. Finally, she said, “That’s okay. You’re young. You should aspire for Spiritual Associate. It’s the thing to do.”
Dora bit her lip and stood up from the table. “Look,” she said. “I’ll go help Tibor with this cat and then we’ll just ask him for the donation and then we’ll go. How does that sound?”
Alice closed her eyes and nodded.
Dora collected herself. When she appeared on the front porch of the split-level, Michael Marcone was sitting on the first step with his legs crossed, holding a gray, tattered book close to his face, titled Ethics . Wind blew in waves over his chemise.
“Did you know,” he said, without looking up from his pages, “that Descartes believed Man could never doubt his existence, because the mere act of doubting was proof that he existed?”
Dora stared at him with her mouth closed. “I don’t know what you’re supposed to mean by that, Tibor,” she said, “but I want you to know that Alice is very upset with the way you’re behaving. We’re just two ladies trying to do our job, here, and I think it would display a good deal of character if you would show us some respect and take a look at this pamphlet.” Dora clipped her heels together and adjusted a knob on her briefcase.
Michael Marcone shrugged. “ Cogito, ergo sum .”
Dora’s briefcase closed with a sharp snap. “I don’t speak Spanish. Look, I’ll help you with this cat thing, but then we’re going.”
“Fine,” said Michael Marcone, gloomily. “The cat’s upstairs.” He gestured to the upper half of the split-level, at the top of a narrow row of steps. Michael Marcone insisted that Dora go first; after all, he thought, he was a gentleman. He wanted to make sure the young petal did not trip on a step and go catapulting to the ground landing with her legs wrapped around his head or in some other crucial position.
They reached the top step. Michael Marcone inserted the key in the lock and stepped inside the Pakistani’s dom. Liberty , in a comet of brown and black, sprinted across the living room. Michael Marcone stepped inside, and gasped. Although the architecture of the Pakistani’s apartment was identical to Michael Marcone’s apartment, the two could not have looked more different. Where Michael Marcone kept his collection of travel-sized lotions, the Pakistanis displayed a French mahogany armoire. Where Michael Marcone had wall-to-wall industrial carpeting, the Pakistanis had oriental rugs displayed on wooden floors in neat and even squares. He wandered past the kitchen, where two stacks of Chicken Delight cans for Liberty were piled on the counter, and went into the master bedroom. There was an enormous canopy bed, the posts of which looked hand-carved with tiny little birds.
“How beautiful ,” said Dora.
“I can’t believe it,” said Michael Marcone. “They’re loaded.”
“Look at the way the drapes hang perfectly over the canopy,” breathed Dora. “Like a catalog.”
Liberty wrapped herself around Dora’s legs, then jumped onto the bedspread and looked at them, imploringly. “ Reee ,” she begged. Above the bed, mounted on the wall, was a wooden plaque that read: “ Pakistan : Land of the Pure.” Dora sat herself on the corner of the bed and stared at the plaque. “I’m going to have a bed like this,” she said.
“I’m not,” said Michael Marcone soberly, not giving a whit about the plaque. Now he was gazing at the way Dora’s knees fell apart from each other for the first time all morning. Then, as if to purposefully torture Michael Marcone, Dora got up on her knees and crossed the bed. She went to the wall and delicately traced the insides of the carving with her manicure, her long legs balanced by a hard little rump. “This looks handmade,” she said, softly.
Michael Marcone felt his insides dislodge and turn over. The previous tingle in his lower regions now reared its head and whinnied. What was it Kant said? “Freedom of thought leads to freedom of action.” Now here he was, on the bed, in the veritable thrust of the moment, and all the words that had danced around his brain the last many years had suddenly disappeared and all he could think was, “Dora.”
Michael Marcone had achieved Freedom of Thought.
“Dora,” he moaned. He threw his arms helplessly around a post of the canopy and ascended the bed. “ Dora .” Overcome with lust and uncomfortable reason, he fumbled clumsily in his trousers. Money, he thought. The girl wants money. He pulled a crumpled ten dollar bill from the wallet in his pocket. “Here,” he begged. “For God’s sake just take it.”
Dora gave Michael Marcone a puzzled look. Then, with quick expertise, she picked the money from his hand. She folded the money and put it in her purse. She got off the bed, stood in front of him and unbuttoned her lavender dress. It fell to the floor like she spilled it. She stepped out of her shoes and put her hands on her hips, wrapping her fingers around the elastic waist of the pantyhose that made her stomach divide into two, even folds. Then she walked over to Michael Marcone and calmly reached for his buckle.
“Well, wait a second,” he protested. “Just hang on a second, okay?”
Dora retreated. She pulled her dress back on, and laughed. “I knew it,” she said, and encircled Michael Marcone. She nicked his wallet from the pocket of his trousers and removed another ten dollar bill. “Chicken,” she whispered.
Michael Marcone stood frozen to the floor.
Dora went to the bathroom, primped herself and then went to the front door. She turned to look at Michael Marcone. “Successful people do what unsuccessful people won’t,” she said.
The door slammed loud behind her.
Michael Marcone didn’t move. He had not achieved Freedom of Action. He watched the door for a moment and then went to the kitchen. Liberty coiled herself quickly around his legs. He opened a can of Chicken Delight and examined the insides. The meat looked firm and chunky. He picked up a fork and took a small taste. It was salty, he thought, but overall not a terrible experience. His stomach didn’t turn over and reject it outright. He ate again, and slowly felt his presence returning. He ate until the entire contents of the can had been devoured, and then looked down at the cat.
“ Cogito, ergo sum ,” he said.
Then Michael Marcone removed his shoes. He removed his pants and socks and even the billowy chemise, until he was standing completely naked in the Pakistani’s kitchen. He reached for another can of Chicken Delight.
Liberty , in a pitiable manner, softly meowed.