Nathan Leslie

The Toaster

           I’m reading David Hume in a coffee shop. One of those coffee shops with carefully ripped and ragged thrift shop couches. Eliminating cause and effect—all that. I don’t like philosophy. She says she’s not there, ironically. She says she truly likes the coffee there. I tell her I don’t usually go out of my way to confirm my taste buds one way or another.

            She smirks.

            Her hair is dyed that purplish henna color, the way the “cool” and “independent” women do. Lots of kitschy berets. She’s short and rather toad-like. I’m not terribly attracted to her, but she’s sexy on some level I’m trying to pinpoint.

          I’ve somehow already stereotyped her as a pretentious Baudelaire-reading, Velvet Underground-listening pocket of annoyance.

            Somehow this makes me gravitate to her more.

            We exchange phone numbers.

            When I get home, I notice at the bottom of the scrap of paper she drew a picture of a penis, with a smiley face under the balls.

                                                            §:§:§:§:§

            The second month is always the most difficult. The first month is pure exploration: it’s new, it’s a thrill. The second month, I’m fighting off boredom already. I admittedly move fast. We’re living together.

            She’s prettier than I initially gave her credit for. There is a wild animal spark in her eyes, which reminds me of a hyena ready to devour a carcass.

            We mostly stay in, order Thai carryout, listen to her collection of obscure vinyl. She has a thing for John Cale, which I don’t particularly understand. She reads passages to me from George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Miranda July. She calls them “supercool.” I find their writing hipper-than-thou annoying, but I don’t say a thing. She says she’s a writer, but I never see her write. Typical.

            She almost always orders the green curry. She says it gives her a buzz.

§:§:§:§:§

             I begin taping her as she sleeps—her request. Audiotape. Sounds of her exhaling. Her breath whistles.

            “Send the tapes to my father,” she says.

            “Your father?”

            “I have my reasons.”

            She writes the address in black marker on a large pink envelope. There is something somewhat pornographic about this.

            I do what she says. I’m not a man with many secrets. I’m an open book.

            “Everyone has secrets,” she says.

            We drink lots of water. At any given time there are seven or eight half full glasses of water around the condo. It’s okay; I’m in between things. I’m laissez-faire on unconsumed water glasses.

 §:§:§:§:§

            Her elderly neighbors—the Jacobsons—have complained to the condo board about her. They have said she’s a no-good druggie. I’m responsible for testifying on her behalf, which is uncomfortable since I don’t know her name. I thought I overheard someone on the phone calling her Camilla, but I can’t risk being wrong. I tell her my name is John, though it’s not.

            This is not a relationship based on trust.

            I find out through the condo board that her name is not Camilla. It’s Karen Bice. I tell them my name is John Allenton.

            “I have never seen her ingest drugs,” I say. “Unless you count Thai takeout.”

            She wants to egg the neighbors’ front door. Instead, she snatches their Sunday paper.

 §:§:§:§:§

            “I’m Stan Bice,” the man says. I’m standing in the doorway in my boxers and Florida Gators t-shirt. “Karen’s father.”

            I realize then I hadn’t shaved in ten-plus days. I probably look like a beatnik druggie.

            He brushes by me. He’s taller than I’d imagine for her father. His skin is also quite a bit darker.

            “Are you Middle Eastern?”

            I know it’s an idiotic question. I regret it, though I seldom experience regret.

            “You’re fucking my daughter and you don’t even know where her people’re from?”

            I shrug.

            “Isn’t that the kind of thing you ask before—”

            “It could be. If I were smart.”

            “She’s half-Armenian, okay. I’m Armenian.”

            “Okay,” I say.

            “Her grandparents were killed in the genocide. Both of them—her mother’s side.”

            I nod.

            I ask him if he’d like something to drink. Cold seltzer?

            He doesn’t respond. He does not look happy.

 §:§:§:§:§

            Her father stays. He won’t sleep on the sofa or floor, so he sleeps in the bed with us. He does take sleep medications though—he admits it helps him zonk out.

            When I have sex with his daughter we do it very slowly, so as to not wake him. We feel it’s fairly safe. Once, in the middle of our fucking, he sighed and turned over. It was difficult to remain aroused after this. His back looks like a shag carpet.

            He says he was moved by the touching audiotapes of his daughter breathing. “It made me feel like a young father again,” he says.

            He’s not a bad man.

            We order Thai again, drink water. She reads us bad, pseudo-hip fiction in the vein of Aimee Bender. The story features a talking toaster who is having an affair with the coffee maker. It runs hot for a while then burns out. I’m wondering why a toaster is male. I’d think, given its slots, it would be of the female persuasion. I don’t say anything.

            “I wish I could write like that,” she says.

            “When is the last time you wrote?”

            “I don’t know—before I met you, I guess.”

            “Are you a writer?”

           “Yes. What kind of question is that?” Her eyes bug out. I can tell, however, that she is 1/3 amused.

            “Well?”

            “Yes?”

           “When do you write?”

           “I don’t have to. I am a writer. I am always writing up here.” She taps her head. I’m the toaster, I realize. Maybe a toaster oven.

 §:§:§:§:§

            Her father says he’d like to tell her a secret.

            “Shoot,” she says.

            We’re having raspberry pop-tarts and pineapple juice. The combination tastes like dish soap. It’s morning and we’re hungry. We’re wolfing down the pop-tarts despite the chemical aftertaste.

            Her father is drinking only water.

            “You’re adopted. You’re not even half-Armenian. We adopted you, when you were two.” He says this is why he is here—to tell her about her past.

            I expect a melodrama. She licks the raspberry jam off her thumb, eyeballs her father and takes a slug of juice.

            “Okay,” she says.

            “That is it?”

            “What should I say? I don’t care. It doesn’t affect me. It’s fine.”

            Her father expected something different. So would I.

            “Would you like some coffee, John?” she asks, standing to make it.

            I want to tell her my real name, since we’re in truth-telling mode. I decide I’ll wait until later.

 §:§:§:§:§

            Karen’s father doesn’t say anything about the lovemaking. And he’s the kind of man who would. Karen says he’ll be leaving soon, but he doesn’t motion to. I begin to regret shacking up with Karen. I’m not sure why I did.

 §:§:§:§:§

            When I come home, Karen’s father is there on my couch, gut spilling out, drinking prune juice in his boxers.

            “Hey, cowboy.”

            I nod.

            “Do you like prune juice?”

            “I don’t know,” I say.

            “It’s very good for your colon, you know. It cleans you all out. It liberates the colon. Quite refreshing.”

            “So I hear.”

            “So I’m supposed to ask how was your day?”

            “Are you asking?”

            “Yeah, sure.”

           I snort. I don’t feel like detailing the particulars of my lived experience to this man. Given the circumstances, I’m not even sure I’d like to relate the particulars to Karen, either.

            I shrug.

            “I’m tired,” I say. “I’m going to lie down.”

            “The prune juice will be in the fridge,” Karen’s father says.

            I nod, nod, nod.

            I close myself in the bedroom and go back to David Hume. I read for ten minutes, fall asleep.

  §:§:§:§:§

            Her hair is in my face. She’s nuzzling into my neck. I sigh. Now I’m awake, unfortunately.

            “Can we do something about your father?”

            She tells me she owes him money, a lot of money. Tens of thousands. They worked out a deal where he could stay with her indefinitely. He wants more “intimacy” in their relationship. When I press her on this she tells me he just always wanted to be closer to his daughter. Who doesn’t? We all like daughters.

            “Is he really your father?”

            “What kind of question is that?”

            Her breath smells of prune juice. This isn’t promising.

 §:§:§:§:§

            At dinner Karen and her father sit on one side of the table. I sit on the other. They talk about Jim Jarmusch and evangelicals and Sonic Youth. I listen. They talk about cooking and wine and aperitifs and architecture. I listen. I feel ignorant.

            I masticate. I listen to the sounds of my mastication. It’s annoying at best.

            As I watch them I do a little facial compare and contrast—ears, nose, chin, eyebrows, eyes. I don’t see a resemblance between Karen and Stan. This doesn’t mean everything, but it means something.

            “You like Mystery Train?” Stan asks me. “It’s the Elvis one.”

            I shrug. I’m not an Elvis guy.

 §:§:§:§:§

            I can’t bring myself to kick her father out and I can’t simply break up with Karen (and kick her out). Instead, I go walking. I walk down Sullivan Street. I pass the warehouses and thrift shops and crystal/pseudo-hippie head shops. I kick at pebbles on the median strip and gaze up into the greenish-tinged, polluted air.

            My air is polluted too.

            When I was six, my father used to take me to a small state park in the hills. We’d hike in silence and afterward he’d ask me what my favorite part of the hike was. I never had a quality response. I’d usually say, “It was all fun,” or something of the sort. He’d try to tease out some particulars from me by buying me a snowball. The ice was so cold I could barely open my mouth.

            I still can’t.

            The question is why did he care what I thought?

            I don’t have that much to add.

 §:§:§:§:§

            When I get back, I tell Karen I’m moving. I tell her I still like her fine and everything, but that I don’t see myself dating her father. This seems intuitive to me. She’s eating a plum. What’s with all the prunes and plums?

            “Okay, well,” she says. “Let’s just see what happens.”

            “No, you don’t get it. I’m moving,” I say.

            Her father scratches his hairy shoulder and stifles a burp. He’s watching porno in the corner. A threesome with two guys ravaging some poor little Filipino woman. Karen says something in Armenian. I didn’t know she knew any. Shows how deeply I know her.

            She leans over kisses him on the lips, whispering, smiling through her teeth. I can see her tongue flicker between her teeth. She kisses her father, her adopted father, whatever he is. I’m supposed to be envious, or something.

            “My father says he’ll pay you five hundred to stay,” Karen says.

            I sigh the sigh of the damned. I look away for a long time.

 © Nathan Leslie

Nathan Leslie’s seven books of short fiction include Sibs, Madre, Believers and Drivers. He is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection. His first novel, The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, was published by Atticus Books in 2012. His short stories, essays and poems have appeared in such literary magazines as Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, South Dakota Review, and Cimarron Review. He is currently the fiction co-editor for Shale, a fiction anthology. His website is www.nathanleslie.com.

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