An Unfit Man

Honorable Mention, the 14th Annual 'Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest

Peter Sick was now a eunuch. Although this was a well documented and irrevocable fact, he had not totally embraced his new reality. It made him uncomfortable. Peter needed more time to adjust.

He also needed a new pair of running shoes. Not really for running, but for walking the up and down loop through his neighborhood west of town. Hill work, he called it. He had resolved to drop 20 pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas, while most Americans would be gaining 8, according to the Newsweek Magazine in his urologist's office. The last few years had softened his middle and he didn't want her to see him like this.

He was nearly 60, short and bulky, deep-chested and broad across the back. The last time in Santa Fe, she had called him a bull when he got a little too rough, comparing him to the minotaur in the Picasso print which hung in the master bedroom. That was 13 years ago. She had been with more men since, two of whom she married. Her second divorce was final a few months ago, and she had left a message on his office phone. He had taught her not to call him at home.

She had agreed to meet him after Christmas, and she knew not to ask him where he would spend the holiday. They would each fly to Albuquerque, then drive together an hour north to Casa de Lobos, the house in Santa Fe which he had designed for Dexter Long, his college roommate. He had ignored the evidence that his architectural fees and the construction costs had been financed with drug money. He won a design award for the house. Best house made from mud, he had joked.

She had been his student and his mistress. She dropped his class; he avoided peer review. A semester later, she left architecture and enrolled in fine arts. Her paintings now sold for six thousand and up.

Peter had taught her things about herself. Her only boyfriend back then was young and knew nothing and could not help her. Peter patiently and methodically cracked the shell of her shyness on the sharp edge of her pleasure. She rewarded him with baritone bursts of lusty laughter. Sometimes he wondered if he missed the laughter most.

***

He surveyed the store from just inside the front door. A male clerk crouched in front of a woman dressed in a mauve sweatsuit, with strands of turquoise hanging around her neck. She was sitting on one of the formica cubes in the middle of the room. Boxes and discarded shoes littered the area around them.

A girl built like a 14-year-old boy leaned against the counter. She wore the blank expression of someone waiting to pose for Grant Wood. Then she noticed him, and came to life.

- Can I help you, she asked?

He looked down at his feet.

- I supposed one could argue that I need to replace these.

- Those are relics, she said. I've never seen a pair of Asics that old.

- My father gave them to me just before he died.

- You're kidding right?

- He wanted me to save his soles.

She rolled her eyes.

- Come over here. He followed her, starting to undress her, stopping when the image blurred. She probably plays for the other team, he thought. She pointed for him to sit on one of the formica cubes.

- Kick off your right shoe. He sat and obeyed.

- Pop your right foot in here. She slid a metal measuring device that reminded him of a starting block under his foot.

- Stand up, put some weight on it.

He shifted his weight to his right leg.

- 10 and a half double E. In a perfect world, it would be an 11 and a half double E, but there's no such thing. So let's try an 11 double E. She jumped up, took two steps toward the back of the store, then stopped and looked at her watch.

- Oh shit. Sorry. I gotta go. My vet closes at noon. Danny, can you help this guy when you get done?

Danny was slipping the 10th different shoe on the right foot of the slender blonde. They were surrounded by a ground zero of boxes, box lids, and shoes. She watched Danny's every movement, her thin neck tilting first right, then left. She was probably 40, but could play 30 in the right light, Peter thought.

He tied both of her shoes and she walked briskly away, then back. She watched him watch her walk and smiled.

- What do you think, Danny asked.

- I don't know. She sighed and pulled each shoe off, then rolled each white sock off its foot and plopped the socks into her Louis Vuitton bag.

- I'm sorry that I have been so much trouble, she lied.

Women like her were always trouble, Peter thought. But god, how he had enjoyed them. They had been his hobby. He loved collecting memories and replaying them at odd hours when life became routine. Then one day the doctor is performing the annual finger wave up your ass and he tells you that something feels funny.

- Do you want me to hold a pair?

- No. Let me check at the club. They might have something.

She pointed each delicate foot and slipped it into the sandal her young footman offered. Her pedicure was new: each nail a perfect white crescent.

- I'll be back, she promised.

They watched her leave.

- Sorry that took so long. Danny began stuffing shoes into boxes and stacking them. He shook his head. She tried on every pair of eight double As we had.

Danny was in his early 20s. His sun-brown face was framed with thick black curls. He was over six feet, with a lean, muscular body. But not like a runner, Peter thought. Some runners looked like cadavers. But this kid reminded him more of a center fielder, like Dexter before he went face down on a mirror too many times with a straw up his nose.

- Did she say 11 double E?

- Yes, Peter answered. Danny balanced a tall stack of boxes and headed for the back of the store. Peter walked over and looked up at the large black and white photo hanging high on the wall. It was the scene at the end of a race. Probably a marathon, he thought, judging from the anguished looks on the mass of runners pressing to the finish line. He studied each face until he saw one that reminded him of the way she looked when she was trying to come and it wasn't going to happen and then it did.

After telling him that the biopsy was positive, the first doctor politely asked him if he were still sexually active. Peter remembered that he had been bothered by the use of the word "still," as if answering affirmatively should be the cause of embarrassment at his age. He was given the name of another doctor in Houston, who was experimenting with nerve grafts as part of the surgery. It sometimes works to save function was the only endorsement.

The young man returned, carrying three boxes of shoes.

- Try this one, he said, handing him a brilliant white shoe with orange and blue details.

He pulled on the shoe. Then the other.

- You know that she wasn't shopping for shoes, don't you?, Peter asked.

He stood and wiggled his toes.

- What do you mean?

- She wanted to try you on. I believe it was fairly obvious.

- You do?

- Yes, I do.

Peter walked away 10 yards or so, and back. He did not consider it essential to run around the perimeter of the store.

- And even if I'm wrong, you could easily encourage her.

- What about her husband?

- What about him? He hasn't paid attention to her in years. He's at the club playing golf. No, forget that. It's opening weekend of deer season and he's with his buddies spending 10 thousand dollars trying to kill a hundred dollars worth of meat. Just so he won't have to be home with her. And they both know it.

Peter had watched too many couples half trying to hold it together. They hired him to design a new house, a dream house, anything new, any dream. They pored over the plans, but had not real ones for themselves. Just another space to fill with silence.

- How do they feel?

- Perfect. I'll take them.

- Don't you want to try on the others?

- Why? These fit fine. He started to tell the young man that when you find a good fit, hang on to it. But he knew that Danny would have to learn that for himself. Or drink too much Scotch if he didn't.

Neither of them had noticed her come back. She stopped a discreet distance away and motioned for the young man to come over. She put her mouth close to his ear and whispered something. Then she took a folded piece of paper from her purse and put it in his pocket, pushing it down and tapping the front of his shirt over the notice with the flat of her fingers. Then she wheeled and strutted out the front door.

They both watched her leave the second time and, for a minute, neither of them said anything and then they both laughed. Peter Sick shook his head.

- How did you know, Danny asked.

- You get old, you know things. That's the only good part.

- You don't seem that old to me. Not like my father.

- I'll take that as a compliment.

Danny took his credit card and put his old shoes in the box and stuck the box in a sack that had a logo of a stick man jogging. Peter saluted him with a fist pump and walked to the door, pushing it open with a sharp jab from his forearm.

***

He parked in front of the building under a large sign made from barn wood and handpainted in 4-foot letters with Dexter's first name.

He went in and sat at the bar.

- Hey, Professor. How's things?

- Fine, Bud. If you don't mind the details.

Bud wore a cook's apron and a do rag neatly tied around his head. He looked like Van Gogh. He pulled one of the handles and filled the pint glass with dark beer and held the glass as he slid it over in front of Peter. Peter offered a 10, but the bartender waived it away. So Peter shoved it into the tip jar and they both knew that he would get a second beer on the house when he was ready.

- He here?, Peter asked.

- No. Been gone about an hour. Left this for you.

Bud picked up a letter-sized clasp envelope from the back bar and handed it to him. Peter opened it and pulled out several pieces of paper: a map, a set of instructions for turning the water on, a list of numbers to call if anything broke during the stay, and a blank sheet of paper with a key taped to it and a note scrawled across the bottom half.

- Is she a student?, the note asked.

- You are a lecherous old bastard, it continued.

- Enjoy!, it ended, followed by Dexter's initials.

- I expect a full report, the postscript warned.

He left the envelope lying on the bar beside his glass and walked to the men's room.

Peter Anthony Sick stood at the urinal. His gaze drifted over the sheet rock wall, every inch of which was filled with graffiti. Modern cave art. Stick figures of men with penises drawn as long as the other two legs. Good time phone numbers. His eyes finally stopped on the same six words he had read each time he had stood here for the last two years.

- THE JOKE IS IN YOUR HAND was printed in black marker.

After he finished, he stood there silently. For a moment, he thought of her. Then he shook himself dry and leaned forward enough to look down over his belly to see if he had gotten spots on his new shoes. end story

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