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New California Fiction : ANYTHING BUT A GENTLEMAN

July 17, 1994|DANIEL HAYES | Daniel Hayes grew up in Southern California, studied at UC Berkeley and now teaches writing at UCLA. "Anything but a Gentleman" is an excerpt from a recently completed novel of the same name, which comprises 112 vignettes that are aggressively non-linear. "That's the way my mind works," he says, "and so that's how I write. And isn't that the way people present themselves to us--a little at a time? We don't know their whole story, but we begin piecing it together." Hayes' fiction has appeared in TriQuarterly, Story, Massachusetts Review and other magazines, and he won a Pushcart Prize in 1991

ACCOMPLICE

Another woman entered his life. Like a long night at the theater, and you think you've seen all of the characters in the play, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, a woman walks onto the stage. A woman from a world you hadn't known about, hadn't even suspected. She's a Frieda or a Julie or an Elizabeth who's really a Liz or a Beth. Another face, another mind, another worry, another dupe, another potential instigator of pain. You welcome her into your heart, allow your mutual needs to collide, the intimacy building as secret lives unravel, and soon there's this ball of string at your feet, and you're standing above the mess, looking down, until finally you look up and see her--her eyes--and then there's nothing else to do but embrace, explore protrusions, cavities, or just keep staring into each other's eyes as if eyes could speak, and sometimes it seems they can. He felt obliged to answer her when she looked at him, as though a stare were a pressing question; and he responded not by staring back but by making a shocking proposition or, more often than not, a series of admissions. He had plenty of those, a whole stockpile of admissions, some of them old enough to no longer qualify. And so he'd pick one up like an old book, blow off the dust, crack open the spine and invite her to look over his shoulder as he jabbed with his finger to indicate the most revealing, potentially damaging parts. Get it over and done with, like opening your mouth and pointing to the tooth you want the dentist to extract. She was to be an accomplice in his downfall, giving evidence against him in a mad, circuitous attempt to gain the sympathy of the jury--a larger collection of women who would later add up his deficits and, if he were lucky, give the miracle of a decision in his favor. To redeem himself, he needed the attention of women, one after another, to listen and finally touch him with a grace he didn't deserve, a forgiveness he hadn't ever gotten close to earning.

ANSWER

The cafe was on the bus route, and he would always meet her there after crossing the city to spend the night at her place. Years later, on a trip to that city where he'd once lived, he found the same cafe. He'd been searching for it and gotten lost, and he was annoyed with himself for not being able to retrace his steps. But then he turned a corner and the neighborhood was suddenly familiar. A minute later he found the cafe, ordered coffee, sat down and slowly looked around. The cafe held memories just beyond his reach; he spent more time trying to remember than actually remembering. The cafe looked the same as before but the people had changed. Or, on second thought, he realized that the people hadn't changed, nor had the cafe, nor had the music that was coming out of the loudspeakers hanging from the ceiling. In any case, he felt out of place, the same way the past is perpetually out of place. He wanted to think of her again, to bring her back, to think it possible for her to walk through the door and stop and smile at him, her head cocked to one side as though to say, Well, well. Sunglasses on top of her head, her black hair cut short, a long skirt that went swish-swish as she came toward him. But he wasn't any good at imagining it, or he couldn't keep hold of the image, because he knew that she would be different now, and he didn't know if she even lived here anymore. He was sure she wouldn't like this place, that she had moved on, changed her tastes in cafes as well as in men. She had a habit of doing that. She'd always been quick to judge, which was one of the things he had liked about her. She saw everything in the world--people, books, cities, movies, even cafes--as attempts to please her, as court jesters come to entertain and earn their keep. She nodded her head yes, or she shook her head no--rarely any hesitation. He'd asked her, back then, why she was with him, why she wanted to be with him, and she never gave him an answer that convinced him. She'd said yes to the person he was, but that wasn't enough. No one had ever convinced him, but she'd been the least convincing. She'd scared him, and that was almost worth it--the thrill of not knowing, or of being unworthy and somehow getting away with it--but that was also what led him to distrust her, to suspect that eventually she would come to dislike him and make him feel stupid. She'd make him feel like a book you wouldn't want to read twice. He'd finally left her to avoid that feeling--he'd seen it coming--and now, sitting in this cafe, wishing to get just a glimpse of her, it came to him, in spite of all his precautions, that exact feeling of swimming in his own stupidity. There was no stopping it.

BOY

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