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The Listener

I was a few days into my latest project, sitting at the Diner with coffee and cake, wondering when something would happen, and as soon as the speculation formulated, someone slammed their body into the chair across from me. I looked up from my plate. A young girl, olive-skinned, short black hair, black shirt, black pants, black eyeliner. Were her shoes black? I looked down.

They were.

"You're always here!" she gushed.


"I figured I'd come over and say hi. I'm here with my friends, over there.” She gestured vaguely at a table of kids; they all looked just like her. "Don't you get bored talking to the same people every night?”

“I guess.”

She grabbed one of my cigarettes, lighting up with a pleased grin.

“Do you go to Bound?”

“No, what’s that?”

She grinned wider, began bouncing in her chair.

"You haven't heard of Bound?" she exclaimed.


"It's a gothic-industrial-sadomasochist theme night at Vous. We just came back from there. It was rollin. My friends Darkraven and Miles were there. They're good friends of mine from school, well, maybe not good friends…..well, Miles is a good friend. Darkraven can be an asshole sometimes," she said ruefully, inspecting her fingernails. They were painted black. "He's bi and thinks he can match any woman at pleasuring any man. One night I had a sweet boy over that I was planning on using and abusing and Darkraven was there, drunk like he always is, and was pretending to be asleep on the floor while me and my boy were fulfilling the instinct, you know? I was going down on this guy and he's loving it, I'm thinking, great, everything is perfect and going on plan, I'll drive him nuts and he'll love it and we'll have terrific sex. But then Darkraven gets up and comes over and literally pushes me to the side and starts going down on this guy. The guy absolutely loved it. I said fuck it, I'm tired of routines, I went in the bathroom while they fucked. Can I have another cigarette for later?"

I gave her another cigarette.

“You're so sweet. What was the point of the story?" She slapped her forehead and giggled. "Darkraven and Miles were both down there but I avoided them for the first part of the night, so when I finally did say hi they were all miffed and didn't want to come with us. Not like I care, if someone wants to be like that. Just like this one girl who was down there tonight, trying to groove but looking like a fool. Wearing some kind of hippie gear like she was going to a Phish show. Like anyone is going to give her any kind of props coming into Bound dressed like that. People like her don't understand that Bound is all about doing what you want to do, not just coming in and acting square."


"You know, you don't talk much!"

"No, I just listen."

"Why is that?"

"I really don’t have anything to say."

"I can understand where you're coming from." She took a drag off the cigarette. "So," she said after a pause, "why are you always sitting over here by yourself every night? Are you a poet? Do you write poetry?"


"Yes, poetry! Do you write it? Is that why you're sitting here, you're thinking of things to write about?"

"No, I'm not a writer."

"Are you a greenie?"

"What the hell is that?"

"An environmentalist. My roommate is one. Cool people, they smoke dope.”

"Nah, I'm not one of them either."

"I'm just wondering, cause you kinda look like one, you know, with the glasses and the hair and the pale skin. So, are you a hippie?”

“Hippie? Nah.”

“Just wondering, because a lot of hippies now don’t even look like hippies. You know, the respectable image is up front…..”


“You go to raves? You’re a raver?”


“What the hell are you then, man?”

I thought about it, then shrugged.

She leaned forward, eyes wide and shining. “I’m a goth myself. You might even say I’m a bit of a raver, too. I’m a goth-raver. But I try to give some of my time to important causes, too. Like free trade. Did you go down to the free trade protest in D.C.? I went down there with Miles, and my friend Conaness---she’s a big time roleplayer---and some other people I can’t remember. It was the best time in the world! We smoked so much dope, and took acid at the end of the day…..” Her eyes clouded with nostalgia, and she was silent for a few moments. Then she snapped back. “The important thing was being there to show support for free trade. I think it’s really important that people are allowed to trade, well, freely, you know.”

“I thought…..ah…..”

“What? What?”

“I thought the protest was against free trade.”

She looked at me quizzically. “Was it? I could have sworn it was for free trade…fuck it, I was high, totally out of it.”


“But the question is, what are you doing over here every night?"

"It's a long story."

"Make a long story short, then."

“I’m not much of a talker, really.”

“But you listen well, really well!”


“You have a female?” she asked pointedly.

“No, I’ve tried to meet some, but----“

“You shouldn't try to meet women, you just let them meet you. I'll give you insight into female psychology, okay? All right. First thing you should know, no woman ever wants to be approached. That's just like rape. It's worse than rape. It's the year 2001 and men should be more considerate and thoughtful and sensitive and---"

"The last woman I was with, I approached. She didn't mind."

"Not everyone is evolved up to standard yet."


“If a man wants to meet a woman, he should not approach her. He should just sort of hang around in the general area, and if she notices him and likes him, then she’ll talk to him….men approaching women is pure aggression. It’s a throwback to the last century, where, Jesus Christ, every man had the right to beat women with sticks if they wanted to. We’re past that now….not that everyone knows that yet, but they’re going to learn. Oh yes, they will learn.”

“I see.”

“It’s hard being a woman these days, it’s so hard.”


“But I must get back to my friends. It was interesting talking to you. You seem like an intelligent person, just like me.”

She jumped up and rushed back to her table.

The whole group was laughing, giggling, every voice nasal and sharp and annoying just as hers had been, their faces laughing and contorted, their arms jerking like the limbs of marionettes.

I finished my cake and coffee, wiped my mouth, left some bills and walked out into the cold.

And I got into the car, took out the notebook, stared at the word listening.

I wondered where I should go.

A landmark? Someplace important, someplace I hadn’t been to in years.

The mall in Anne Arundel?

How long had it been? Four years ago, right before my eighteenth birthday. A double date that had happened out more out of boredom and chance than design, and I had lost my virginity at the end of the night with my date, Cathy.

I never saw her again after that. But thinking about her made me want to check out the mall again, and maybe the park afterwards. I made an illegal u-turn and went back on the Beltway. One hell of a drive to get there, but it wasn’t like I had anything else to do, and besides, I had the listening thing.

By the time I got there, the wind was howling steadily and sharply. I forgot to get my coat from the backseat, so I shook and rubbed my forearms. The parking lot lights were still burning even at this time of the morning, and they cast enough brightness to illuminate the wide glass doors of the entrance. Inside the doors, almost pitch black.

I walked up to the glass, pressed my face against it, trying to see inside. I was trying to figure the spot where we met.

Nothing. Not a shape, not an outline.

I was turning around and regarding the barren expanse when I noticed the cop car approaching in the distance. I sighed, shoved my hands in my pockets.

The cop took his leisurely time, crawling at a speed of five miles an hour towards where I stood perched on the curb.

I had my license ready by the time he pulled up and unrolled his window.

"Can I ask you what you're doing here?"

"I was waiting for someone."

"What?" he cried incredulously, glancing at my license. "You're out here at 3 in the morning waiting for someone? Come on buddy, you can think of something better than that to tell me. Be creative or something.”

"Kind of a long story, officer."

"I like all kinds of stories, as long as they're short."

"To be honest---”

“Honest. That’d be nice.”

“---I met a girl over the Internet tonight, she wanted to have sex. She told me to meet her here."

"Here? Your creative powers are not very good, my friend. Let's see what the computer brings up on you. Tell me, just for fun, why in the hell would a girl ask you to meet her here at this time of night and not the Diner across the street?" He looked up from the license, eyebrows arched. “What kind of woman would want to meet someone here?

I explained that she was a really juicy tramp.

The cop shook his head and chuckled. His radio crackled and he listened to it for a moment, then he handed my license back, reluctantly.

"You're clean," he said.

"So I’m out of here?"

“Free to go, you’re saying?”


“What about the girl you were waiting for?”

I opened my mouth, said nothing.

He smiled. The teeth were impossibly white and straight under his thick mustache. “Uh huh,” he said, nodding.

“I don’t think she’s showing,” I said quickly.

“Oh, uh huh.”

“A slut anyway,” I added. “Diseased.”

“You have to watch out for that these days.”

“So I’ll go now….”

He glanced around the parking lot. “Stick around for a moment or two. I’m not so sure you’re on the up and up, not just yet. You’re not on angel dust by any chance, are you? High? Beamed up?”

I shook my head.

“Been drinking at all?”

I shook my head.

“On any type of medication?”

I shook my head again.

“Yeah?” he asked skeptically. “So if I were to run you in for trespassing, on the condition that you’d be released with no charges if you passed a blood test, you wouldn’t have a problem with that?”

I sighed. “Nah…..”

He just kept staring at me for many suffering moments.

Then he smiled again. “Well, you seem okay. You don’t look like you have the most stable set of nerves in the world, but you seem straight.”

“So I can go now?”

“Well, hang around a couple more minutes. You don’t mind, do you? Just hanging around for a few more minutes?”

I shrugged.

“Fine,” he said.

He picked up his radio, muttering something to the dispatcher. A message squawked back to him, and then he muttered something else.

I just stood there, doing nothing.

“So what do you think of the Redskins?” he asked.


“The Redskins, the game coming up this Sunday. You think they’re going to take the Packers or what?”

“Oh,” I said. I thought for a moment. “Maybe.”

“Maybe? With those draft picks the Packers got? Don’t put any short money on that bet. The Skins are going to get their asses whipped.” He looked up at me, abruptly suspicious. “You a Dallas fan?”

“Uh, no.”

“You don’t even look like a football guy. Baseball, that’s your thing.”


“Hope you don’t mind hanging out for a minute.”

“No, it’s no problem.”

“Tell me about your date tonight. Is she young, a hot chick?”

“Yeah… nineteen. She’s a redhead.”

“I love those redheads. Fiery women.” He paused, looking off in the distance. “That’s the goddamn problem, I’m not married, not dating anyone. The only damn women I meet are the ones I arrest, and they’re all crazy.”


“Of course, there are some benefits as far as women go. Like pulling chicks over for traffic violations. Pal, just between you and me, okay, I can’t even tell you how many blowjobs I’ve gotten from women who wanted to avoid a ticket. And it was always their idea, I’m telling you! I don’t have to do a damn thing, just pull the ticket pad out, and they always offer….”


Crazy, I tell you.”

“Uh huh.”

“Hopefully I’ll meet a nice woman soon,” he said wistfully. “That’d be nice. I want to have kids, you know, two boys and two girls. What nice woman wouldn’t want to meet a cop?”


“Say, you don’t mind hanging out, right?”

“No, it’s okay.”

“All right. You know, the shift gets sort of dull. It’s nice to have someone to talk to besides the dispatcher.” He looked down at his fingernails, then back up at me. “So what’s your story anyway?”

“I was meeting this chick…..”

“No, I don’t mean tonight’s story, I mean your story. Like, what’s your deal? It’s three in the morning, why are you up so late?”

“Uh,” I said, “basically I work from three p.m. to eleven p.m. and I can’t sleep at night. I don’t have anything to do, so I just drive around.”

“Drive around?”

“Yeh, just drive all over the place.”

He just looked at me, incredulous.

“Just drive around all over the place?” he repeated.


“You looking for a woman?”

“No, I’m just driving around.”

He shook his head. “Jesus, you need to get a life, son. Get yourself a woman. Find some friends, get drunk, whatever.”

I just shrugged.

“Well, I have to get going now,” he said, almost regretfully. “Do me a favor. Get in your car and take off. I should take you in for trespassing, but hey, you seem to have enough problems, I don’t need to add to them.”

I nodded, and might have even smiled.

“Take care, pal.”

He rolled his window up and pulled away, driving back through the parking lot with the same leisurely crawl.

Where the hell to go now?

He had given me an ominous feeling I couldn’t shake. I wanted the living room, the bedroom of my apartment. But the park was just down the street, and it was too early to go home in any case. I’d be watching infomercials on Hair Restoration and Finding Long Lost Loves Through Mental Enhancement.

Not good. Not by a long shot.


The park was behind a local high school and separated from the school grounds by a thin stretch of woods. It wasn’t really much of a park. Just a decrepit playground and some battered picnic tables. A placid, unremarkable place that was probably all too easy to waste time at. Except at this time, when the cold night and dead trees were rather eerie and it was impossible to see anyone else until your headlights were directly upon them.

Had it really been four years? It seemed like just the night before, when Steve and the girls and I had come up here.

I got out of the car, breathing cold vapor into the air.

It was dark, almost impossible to see. The faintest light of the moon was shining on the merry-go-round, and I directed myself towards that. I smiled to myself. Stupid, silly, pathetic, I was all of those things to come here, but it was nice to revisit a place that for years had only existed in my memory. I’d have to visit more places from the good times. I’d write a list of them in my notebook, and save them for the nights that were especially dull.

There it was, in front of me, the merry-go-round. I reached out, touching the cold metal bars with my fingertips.

Amanda and Steve had sat on this merry-go-round, cross-legged and holding hands, while Cathy and I were in the car.

The two of us had sat there in the front seat, smoking, staring straightforward, silent for long minutes. I didn’t have any idea of what to do; I knew nothing about girls. I thought about asking her questions, any kind of stupid question, just to break the silence. Then I thought: shit, she probably doesn’t like me anyway. She’d have said something by now if she did. I’ll just listen to the radio, smoke, sip on the beer, wait for the night to be over…..and that was when she leaned across the gearshift and put her head on my shoulder. I had stared down at her for a long moment, feeling her breath, and then I had kissed her.

I remembered that backseat, the chilly air, the music, her in underwear, me kissing her neck and ears and nipples----

And sobbing.

Sobbing? I hadn’t cried. Neither had she. No one had cried. We were fucking, not breaking up.

Had I cried afterwards? Leaping for joy, more like it.


Then I heard it, carrying on the wind. Someone was sobbing. It wasn’t a memory; someone was sobbing right in this park, right now.

I tossed my cigarette and looked around, uneasy.

Another sound, altogether different. A series of electronic beeps, like phone numbers being pressed.

Ten seconds, fifteen seconds went by.

The sobbing sound again, groaning, almost hoarse. I strained to pinpoint where it was coming from……there, another groan, from a thick clump of trees that surrounded a few of the picnic tables. Feeling a bit apprehensive, I moved towards them slowly with my ear cocked. Silence for thirty seconds or so. Then I heard it again, slow and choking, the sound of a man crying. I felt an unreal urge to run back to my car and take off as fast as I could.

But I kept moving towards the trees, and the sound of sobbing grew louder, until I could more or less see a huddled human shape lying on its side across the picnic table. It looked dead.

I didn’t know what to do.

“Oh, goddamn!” the voice moaned. “Goddamn!

The voice didn’t sound altogether right. I couldn’t say why or how, but it didn’t. I looked around nervously, wondering how I could backtrack my way to the car without making any noise…..

The electronic beeps again, hyper-fast. Then silence.

“Jesus Christ!” the voice suddenly shouted. “Oh, Jesus! Why did you do this to me, you punk fucker! You lousy sonofabitch!”

The voice was rising and rising but the shape hardly stirred.

I was walking backwards, slowly, afraid of tripping but feeling that turning my back on that voice was not the greatest idea.


What did Jesus have to do with it? I wondered absently, and just as I did I bumped into a trash can, knocking it over. The sound of the aluminum hitting the curb echoed all across the park and back.

Fuck it, I’d run.

Just as I was turning to rush madly to the car, the voice said, calmly, “Is anyone there? Someone there?”

“Eh,” I said.

“Someone there? Who’re you?”

“Hey, I’m leaving, don’t sweat it….”

But there was a rush of leaves being kicked and suddenly the shape was bounding out of the trees and towards me, clutching something in its right hand that swung wildly at its side.

I threw my hands up, karate style. I knew next to nothing about karate but suggesting that I did know something had always worked in high school.

The shape stopped five feet away from me. I still couldn’t see well, but he seemed about the same height and weight as myself.

“Hello,” he said in a sad cracking voice.


“Sorry if I scared you.”

“It’s okay. I’m leaving, you know, leaving.”

“Oh,” he said simply.

I began backing away. “What are you doing out here anyway?”

“Oh,” he said, slow and miserably, “nothing really.”

He held his right hand up to his mouth. The electronic beeps sounded again. It was a cell phone, of all things.

He listened for a minute, then clicked off.

“Goddamn,” he moaned. “Listen, I’m sorry.”


“I’m just fucking upset, man. I mean like really fucking upset. I had something bad happen to me today.”

“Uh huh.”

I was still backing away, my hands still poised to chop, but his tone of utter hopelessness made me stop and lower my arms.

“What happened?” I asked. “Someone die?”

“I wish, I wish it was just that……”

“What is it then?”

“It’s this girl. I love her, you know? I wish I never met the stinking bitch, but Jesus do I love her and there’s nothing I can do about it. She’s got a boyfriend, some goddamn fucking loser who’s like the worst person in the world for her and doesn’t care about what she has to say and doesn’t like any of the things that she likes, but me, I like the things that she likes and man, every word out of her mouth is like fascinating to me, you know, but of course she doesn’t love me, she loves him, and I can’t do anything about it……”

His voice trailed off into a horrifying groan.

He punched the autodial again. “Jesus,” he said, sounding hysterical, “she’s still not answering, where’s she at? If she’d just answer the fucking phone….”

“That sucks,” I said.


“Uh, calm down, dude, I was just----“

But he was crying in his hands again, exhausted from the effort of screaming.

What does a person say? I wondered. I looked down at him, scratching my head, puzzled and thinking of a gambit. Maybe a question would work.

“How did you two meet?” I asked.

“We worked at Burger King together. I never noticed her for the longest time, I thought she was just a cold bitch to be honest. Then, one day----you know, I already had a girlfriend who loved the shit out of me. That’s what kills me, I already had a nice girl, I dropped her and broke her heart for all of this----anyway, one day me and this girl, we were at work, and the manager told us, hey, you two go in the back and open up a bucket of pickles. So we did, she came with me to open the pickles, and we just started talking, you know, she said she liked poetry and plays and I quoted a line from The Tempest to her and she got all smiling. I don’t even think I quoted it right, cause I ain’t into that English shit, but man, I was glad I said it because we just made eye contact right then and there and I was instantly into her, man, you know?”


“So we started seeing each other. I knew she had a boyfriend and she knew I had a girlfriend, but we were just hanging out, no harm, no fucking around. Just enjoying each other’s company, like the way things should be. We went to the lake and fed bread to the ducks and sometimes we went over to her house and watched movies, but I didn’t fucking care man, because I liked her, I was deep into her, and we could have just sat on the curb doing nothing as far as I cared. The bitch knew it, too. She’d always been looking at me with that shitty knowing look, out of the corner of her eye, while she thought I wasn’t looking, and whenever I caught her looking at me like that she’d just smile this little fucked up smile. But I didn’t know what it meant at the time. I thought she was just, you know, smiling.”


“But we spent a lot of time together, every day almost, for a couple of hours anyway before she had to meet her boyfriend. Dave. That bitch thought he was the best thing since canned soup or something.” He looked up at me. “Hey, you got a cigarette or something, man? I really need it. Thanks.”

The light of the flame illuminated his face. He looked about eighteen.

“Feels good to talk to someone,” he said.


“You don’t mind listening, do you? You don’t have to. I know I’m just a big fucking pussy.”

“Nah,” I said, thinking of the theme, “I don’t mind.”

He grunted, puffing on his cigarette slowly.

“You ever have a time with a woman that’s totally perfect and you’re just totally happy with her and everything that she says and does? That’s how I was. And we kept going on and on and feeding the ducks and watching movies at her house and that’s all it ever was cause I always had to get out by six cause Dave got there at six-thirty. But after awhile, I just couldn’t take it. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t stand to be away from her for more than a day at a time or I’d just go nuts.”

He sobbed, clenching his fists compulsively.


“Eh, calm down, man….”

“You don’t know what it’s like! You don’t know! I’m fucking eaten up inside, man, I can’t tell if I’m up or down or left or right.” He paused, sniffing furiously. “Cause of that bitch, because of what she said, BECAUSE OF WHAT SHE SAID, WHAT SHE FUCKING SAID!”

“What’d she say?”

“Oh, God,” he moaned, sniffing back snot. “I had to tell her. I wasn’t sleeping, wasn’t eating. I called her up one night and told her that I loved her and I wanted her to break up with Dave and go out with me. He wasn’t even a good person for her. He didn’t give a shit about her. He wouldn’t even go to poetry readings with her. They fought all the fucking time over the dumbest shit, I was always the one there for her and he was always playing guitar at the Grateful Dead jam. I always wanted to go to the poetry readings with her, but she said it wasn’t right cause I wasn’t her man. I told her I wanted to be her man. I told her she was the most incredible person I ever met and that I wanted to be with her and be with her and hold her and love her until forever, I wanted to be with her for life caused I loved her.”

“What happened?”

“She said uh huh and she had to think about it and she’d call me back in twenty minutes. So we hung up and I waited.”

He stopped, rubbing the tears away from his eyes, an exasperated, almost terminal sigh escaping from him.

“So?” I asked.

“She called back. And----“ he broke off, laughing strangely, “---you know what she said? She said that she thought of the two of us as lifelong friends, that we had a bond between us that couldn’t be broken by anyone else. She said that I was important to her. But she loved Dave and wanted to marry him, his flaws didn’t matter, he wasn’t nice to her but he understood her more than anyone else. She had spent so much time with him and she didn’t want to waste her investment, that’s what she called it.”

He slumped down on the merry-go-round.

“I love her, man,” he sobbed.

He punched the autodial again.

“Answer the phone, answer the phone, answer the fucking phone!”

He hung up and punched the button again.

“Please talk to me! I know you’re listening, just pick up, please!”

He hung up, slammed the phone against his forehead, punched it again.

“I love you!”

And he hung up, pressing the phone against his face.

“How many times have you called tonight?”

“I don’t know….like a hundred…..”

“Maybe she’s not home,” I offered.

“She’s home, she’s there with Dave right now, fucking Dave, that’s why she’s not answering…..”


He called again. “I was the one who would go to the poetry readings with you! You remember that, bitch! I would do anything you wanted, remember that! Cause when you’re old and fucking lonely you’re going to be hating life!”

He hung up, moaning insanely.

“I have to get out of here,” I said. “It’s late.”

“Well, thanks for listening!” he said hopelessly.

“No problem.”

“What’s your deal, man? Why are you even here?”

“Well….” I said, shrugging, “I’m listening.”

He laughed, sort of. “Isn’t that fucking weird, man?”

“Ah, you know, whatever…..last week I was talking to everyone, but that didn’t work, so now I’m listening.”

He looked up at me with a strange expression. It meant something, but I didn’t know what that something was, and he probably didn’t know either.

“What should I do, man? Tell me! What should I do?”

I thought about it.

“I don’t really know,” I said apologetically.

But he didn’t reply as I walked away, weaving through the darkness and the leaf-strewn ground to find my car. He was on the phone again, shrieking: “I WISH WE HAD NEVER OPENED THOSE PICKLES! I WISH YOU HAD DIED BEFORE I MET YOU! FUCK JESUS AND FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKIN POETRY WRITING AND FUCKIN OIL PAINTING BITCH! YOU CAN TAKE JESUS AND NAIL HIM ALL OVER AGAIN, YOU HEAR ME, BITCH?”


It was a good distance away before I pulled over and opened my notebook.

I crossed out listening.

It had worked fairly well, somewhat better than the others, but it still wasn’t something I’d want to do too often.

It hardly seemed worth the effort.

But I still had a long list to go though, and I’d probably think of a few others eventually. Between those, and those trips to old sites I’d promised myself, I figured I’d do relatively well for the next month or so. So I felt generally okay, if not exactly happy, and drove all the way home to Annapolis thinking of my soft unmade bed.

On the way home I thought about Cathy, wondering where her life had dropped her at this point.

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