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"Earwax," short story excerpt

Monday 9/27/21

I had this neighbor who was a kind of barbarian, I’d say, named Dizio, which sounds like a flippant name for a flippant person, but he was this fairly young professor—forty-something—who taught film studies and authored a book on Italian neo-realism, of which he had three full boxes of said book in his garage next to the lawnmower of the guy that used to live across the street who had moved away.


Some people in this life are keepers of other people’s lawnmowers. They’re the kind of person that cause another person to wall away the part of the brain that keeps track of what has been loaned, because sometimes, when you have the cash, and it’s time for an upgrade anyway, it’s just not worth going across the street to get your stuff.


He reminded me of this kid I knew in college who was a foul beast. I don’t know how else to put it. A rancid, rancid dude, named Ernie.


I remember the first thing Ernie said to us freshman year was that his high school nickname was Earwax, and we could call him that. We were all in the room of this rotund kid named Micks—Micks from Minnesota. It was that first weekend, and I guess the rotund kid with the soft-wind type of voice—someone who seemed like they were born to walk around in a robe and shower sandals—was a natural for the part of genial host.


Someone had scored a thirty pack of Natty Lite. Green Day’s Dookie was ripping loud as we were getting piss-beer ripped. The football team that we’d all automatically just become fans of—because that was the school we went to—was playing on ABC in the Big House out in Michigan, and here was this kid saying we ought to call him Earwax.


“I’m not calling you something I don’t want in an orifice,” Micks said sans any anger, in his regular, “oh-look-isn’t-my-voice-like-a-soothing-early-autumn-wind-in-the-trees” voice. “I’ll just call you Ernie.”


Now, I don’t know if that was this crestfallen moment, for the artist formerly known as Earwax, like he’d been robbed of a portion of his essential self, and that is why he overcompensated going forward like he did, but he was formidable in that strange human arena of doing too much to make up for what had been very little, or certainly nothing of substance or import.


We’d go out to the bars, with our fake IDs—this being a time in America’s history when said proof of who you were—as if this was but a metaphor for the hazy notion of the soul—could be achieved with some poster board, a ruler, and black magic marker, with holograms being the stuff of the Star Wars universe and not your freshman dorm where you could hear the sounds of a couple fucking in the shower next to yours because it was late and you had a migraine and the hot water helped on your end of it, and someone’s roommate was home, which was the privacy end on theirs.


Micks, of all people, had a penchant—for the ladies dug him as a sweet-as-Pooh Bear-honey avuncular presence—for declaring, at the moment of most intense and sublime galactic chaos, “I’m gonna nut.”


For it is as they say: every blind squirrel finds his share, which was a regular enough occurrence for Micks that everyone started call him cashew, or the Big C, an irony to those who knew that his mother had died of breast cancer his sophomore year of high school, which he’d start talking about late on Saturday nights to the strains of something like a Weezer ballad, and would continue expatiating upon to the point of tears in a display of vulnerability that would often enough coax forward a different form of vulnerability—the sort synonymous with willingness, nakedness, and, yes, orifice again, though more southerly located—from one of his gal pals, which is the Sly Boots-term Micks used to describe a certain sector of his female friends as he powered through another meatball sub with extra sauce in the dining hall and recounted the past weekend’s debauch.


So we’d be out at the bars, and after last call, when you’re standing there on the street, shivering because you were Johnny Too Cool, and Johnny Too Cool never brings a jacket, Ernie would start bellowing, “We suck titties!” Repeatedly. As though on a breast-loving loop of the most committed, stentorian oral fixation there had ever been.


If you stood too close to him, drunk girls gave you that, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” look. I’d want to be like, “look, baby girl”—which is how I talked in my head, but never out loud—“you don’t condemn the dude standing next to Raskolnikov at the vodka hut because that other asshole took an axe to his landlady, so back the fuck off. And, um, maybe come home with me?”


We had all watched this documentary about a sex addict, and at that time in my life, I was amenable to becoming one of those. We’d play the same bit of the video—Micks taped it—over and over again, when this English septuagenarian is out on his back deck in a Speedo, telling the interviewer—some Welsh woman—how he needs to get his rays in, like he’s training for boffing people. He wants to give the fairer sex what he says the fairer sex both deserves and needs.


I recall he was super studious. He was focused, committed. He even had this saying: “You put the time in, you can put the brine in.” He might as well have been Erasmus, as far as we were concerned, with his devotion to his area of expertise.


You knew the people making the film felt bad for this bastard, because he was pitiful, but maybe you only realize that when you’ve been pitiful enough yourself; which is to say, you’ve grown up.


I don’t mean aged. Reached a certain number. You’ve actually grown. The changing number of the years isn’t any more relevant, necessarily, to that process than the poster board had been back in our dorm.


He was obviously near the end of his run as this harpooner of loins—another term he favored—but he nipped back into his house with agile alacrity to return with this scrapbook of the women with whom he comingled. Because he took their pictures. He wouldn’t see the women again. Or they wouldn’t see him. He’d never been married, never had kids (got “fixed” at university, knowing the life he thought he wanted to lead for himself).


It was fucking heartbreaking, actually, when he brought out this book, which was the only way he’d ever known anyone, it seemed, if that is knowing anyone at all. The pages were all yellow, and he said something about how he’d try and imagine what some of them had done with their lives, what they had become, if any of them even remembered him, and getting jacked by his Johnson, because he couldn’t stop talking like that, as if his defense mechanisms were all that were keeping him out of the fetal position. Then on this one page his face just broke into what I’ll call this massive smile of sadness. You know what a death rictus is? This was a life rictus.


On most of the leaves of his big book of love and love-that-never-was, he had head shots—and often pubic pics—of a dozen women, but there was only one on the page that produced that life rictus effect. The guy actually started to cry. He called it getting weepy. He looks at the camera, which I realized he had never done in the entire interview, his whole segment, up until that point, and I knew, after the fact, that he’d made a conscious decision not to do so, but now he couldn’t help himself.


I never had a greater need to hear what another person was about to say to someone else who was not me, but also was me, in a way, because there I was watching. He gave a couple doleful shakes of his head, and then he said, “Good Lord, could she ride.”


So I was telling you about Earwax, which is how we referred to him when he wasn’t around. You’d get the derision and those looks of “you sick, silly child,” from twenty-year-old-women out on the street as the words of “we suck titties!” rang into the November night, but Earwax inevitably took one of these women home, or more than one.


When he was having the latest installment of his extended min-series of threesomes, Micks would say to me, “Those are someone’s daughters,” as we all but put our ears against the wall to hear that muffled thudding of bodies, and I was tempted to counter, “Oh, that’s where you draw the line, with the three-spot?” He also had this technique of pulling down his pants upon a group repairing to somebody’s dorm room after the bar, before couples went their separate ways and sought for private cover, and stroking himself, saying, “Watch, I’ll get it hard for you.”

A girl would interpose, “Gross,” but in that tone of, “Hmm, not that gross at all, I’d be curious to see and hear more, and soon you may frost my eyes with your galvanizing man juice,” which would result in Earwax adding, “Hold on a sec, I’ll appease you," whatever the hell that meant, as he twiddled the knob part.


Ever since, I have studiously avoided using that verb. We were in church one time—my wife, my daughter, me—and the priest read some lines from the Old Testament that went, "And thus God was appeased,” and all I could think of was the heavenly father with sticky brows.


My neighbor Dizio was like an adult version of Earwax. I called him Earwax the Second. Not to him, obviously. My daughter Christina used to go by Chrissie up until probably high school, I’d say. What I liked to tell people I knew—other dads—was that we were so close that you’d have to have like this magical razor to slice sunlight so thin that you could get a ray between us. I’d written a novel that fourteen people might have read, discounting my family, and my mother, who said she read it thrice, which meant she might have once read a third of it. But that’s how I talked, when it came to this one subject, and that’s how I meant what I felt, you could say.


It’s a funny thing, being over-the-moon in-love with your kid. Everyone loves their children. Everyone thinks their child is remarkable, has all of these qualities that no other children, or people, do. But it’s just how you think. It’s what you project into this being you had a hand in bringing into the world, just as death will later have a hand in taking them back out of it. They could be Little Hitler, and so long as they’re not sawing the legs off of puppies, you’re going to think what you do, which is also what you have to think. It isn’t about reality. Nor is it about fantasy either. Sometimes, things just have to be certain things, even if that’s not what they really are, if you know what I mean.


I think two people are probably the closest two people can be when they see parts of themselves in the other person—parts they had never noticed before. They can be good and bad parts. You’re happy to have the former and are like, “Oh, wow, bonus me!” And you don’t chafe at the latter, you don’t get angry. You see something you can work on, which will benefit you, yes, but will also benefit this other person because you’ll be giving them a better version of yourself.


People talk about wanting their kids to have the best, and they mean the best life, the best job, the best retirement package some day, the best health. But when we are both in love with someone—and I mean something far beyond romance—and when we are conscious of how we love them, we will do anything so that they also get our best selves. And sometimes we find surprising ways to get there. Which brings me back to the adult Earwax...