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by Jon Sindell

Listen to Jon Sindell read 'Truby'

When Michael Truby quit his job, he strode into the clean white light of Indian summer, drew deeply the fragrance of French bread and coffee, and received with glad ears the urban cacophony of boombox and car horn, chatter and rant. Truby slung his blazer over his shoulder, caught a sideways glimpse of his newly-freed self in the smoked glass window of a café, and smiled with approval at a new man he saw. His gaze penetrated the window, he froze: A woman a few years younger than himself was throwing her head back in unrestrained laughter. The briefcase dangling from Truby's hand anchored him to the pavement, his dress shoes seemed to have melded with the concrete. The woman was not pretty by TV standards or magazine standards, or any standard that had influenced Truby. Her face was long and blocky, her nose was a knob, but her hair was long, wavy and black like a celluloid gypsy's, her lips were bright red, and the surplus vitality that animated her movements enchanted Truby as they disturbed him greatly. So Truby stood there gazing at the woman, sick with the fear that she might glance abruptly into a stare imbued with naked longing like that of a Dickensian orphan gaping into a toy store for rich kids.
    The woman's companion, Truby only then noticed, was a tall, lean, long-haired young man in black biking shorts, the kind of guy who bounded up to Truby's office all day to accept correspondence from the cute girl at the desk with a smug familiarity Truby considered uncouth and unearned. The guy smiled suavely as the woman rocked with laughter, and a current flowed between the two that jolted Truby and snapped his head back. Truby opened his mouth without meaning to do so, imagined the guy burying his long nose in the woman's black tresses, breathing in dusky scents of neck and nape and the smoky nook beneath her jaw, and sweet fragrances daubed on her skin for him only; he imagined the guy smiling in bliss as the woman's soft body flowed around his hard torso like soft dough enfolding a rolling pin.
    Did Truby have a zit? The thought took him aback, for his acne attacks had ceased ten years before. He considered the thinness of straight sandy hair and laughed a deep, ironic, inward laugh. His gaze retreated to the window's reflection, to shoulders rounded from the weight of the briefcase. He made a half effort to straighten his back, vowed to join a gym, and to spend more time out of doors to deepen the hue of milky skin. The woman glanced over, and Truby vanished.
    "The Trubster." A bloodless toast from soft-handed Friend One–it was Martini Night at The Lizard Lounge.
    "The Trubster," drawled Friend Two, allowing his glass to ascend languidly.
    Michael Truby disliked martinis. The bitter taste, the acrid-scent of doctors' offices–he'd seen too many of these as a boy. Friend Two raised an acerbic eyebrow when Truby hesitated to drink. Truby sheepishly lowered his lips to the glass.
    "I wish I had your...shall we say, endowment," said Friend Two, now mollified. He grinned at the tension his word choice had created. "You know, your ... well, your male glands, shall we say." Truby's confused face drew him all the way out. "Oh fergawdsake, Gertrude! Your gonads, boy–for quitting your job." He celebrated his wit with a long slow sip.
    "Where to now, Truby?" inquired Friend One, looking about to see who might be checking him out in his thrift shop fedora.
    "I–" Truby's hesitation surprised even himself, and brought Friend Two to the edge of his seat to hear a delicious secret–or witness a personal crisis up close.
    "You're what?" said Friend Two, luring Truby in with gleaming blue eyes.
    "I'm feeling sick," replied Truby, a thoroughly anticlimactic answer which produced a philosophical sigh from Friend Two, who popped an olive and scanned the bar for better company, his wry gaze alighting on a couple dancing well to Sinatra.
    Michael Truby had never danced. He'd had girlfriends before and they'd never danced, they were non-dancing types who valued Truby for his compliant manner and attentiveness, his baby smile and sensitive eyes, women who were content to hold hands and talk their hearts out to Truby through half the night, then to fall asleep on his chest on the couch, and awaken beneath a tucked-in comforter to fresh-squeezed orange juice and the "World's Greatest Coffee." Then the season would change and they'd puff him away like a dandelion seed.
    One girlfriend was the dancing type. She took Truby to a dance club on Cuban Night, took his hand, told him: "Put this here, step like that, now step back, hold me here." Truby's feet would not move, which is not to say would not move to the beat, but would not move at all, any more than a toddler's feet at the pool's edge. So she raised Truby's hand and danced around him like a maypole, smiling as his mother had done when she'd dressed him up in his sister's clothing and photographed him for a wallet-sized to support her claim that he was "lovely as the prettiest girl!" Truby turned his baby smile back over his shoulder, but his girlfriend's gaze flew past him to a man in black slacks and a dress shirt with some buttons undone, a bronzed man with eyes that were shiny and black, with lips soft and full. Truby couldn't quite blame her, and she was the last.
    Truby used a thick slice of his savings to go on a cruise down to Mexico. There was step aerobics and he went to that, smiling as he sweated in the back row while watching young women go up, down before him in tight lycra pants that strained against glutes as hard and round as coconuts. The women were too tanned, too feral for Truby, the men too intent on the women to return Truby's shy smile with more than a tight grin and a dismissive nod. Anyway the pace was too fast, the music too loud and too headache-insistent, so Truby slipped out on rubbery legs to the notice of no one. In the intimacy of his cabin he sponged his face and his hairless torso as soft as kidskin, applied talcum powder, then ventured anew out onto the deck with a literary classic he'd been saving for years for a moment like this. He fought through the thick text and worked on his tan, though he disliked the heat and the idea of tanning. The reading was too hard, and he gazed up and considered whether he had disserved himself by studying finance for so many years. Then a blonde strolled by like an advertisement for whiteness itself: bright white shorts, polo shirt of bright white, and teeth artificially bleached whitest white. Truby blanched with disdain for the blonde and her squire, a muscular man with an undeserved smile, but as they came abreast of him he let his head droop like a flower wilting in the browbeating sun.
    The words on the page shimmered out of focus. Truby wrestled them still and soldiered on to the end of the third chapter, thus achieving his goal for the day. The next day he remained in his cabin with squiggles of white ointment adorning the sunburned spots on his face like birthday-cake frosting, writing to his mother, his sister, his journal, sucking the eraser on the tip of his pencil and feeling quite international–which he was, for the ship had just entered Mexican waters. Truby celebrated with a siesta in the sultry afternoon heat: "When in Rome," he mused. He laid back and placed the journal atop his chest beneath interlaced hands, closed his eyes and rolled to sleep to the yaw of the ship as the rollicking woman from the café swirled a velvet black cloak in the air and settled it over Truby's face and body, shrouding him in cool darkness.
    Truby as a boy had loved a black cat, a stray who retained some residual wildness. The cat slept on his chest; one time during an electrical storm, he sprang at Truby and tore his cheek open. The memory of the attack invaded Truby's dream, shot him upright in bed, made his heart palpitate. He dressed carelessly, shambled out of the room and up onto the deck where he leaned on a rail and gazed into a sky saturated with purple/black blotches that dripped like watercolors; electromagnet impulses drew him up into the sky where he fell in line with a flight of black birds beating heavily northward. Truby fumbled for his journal but it slipped overboard, so he pulled out the memo pad in which he tracked his meds and scribbled: "Van Gogh–Wheatfield with Crows." This act somehow purged him, and he stared out into the gathering darkness thoughtfully biting the tip of his thumb. Finally when a black curtain had fallen, he strolled to his cabin peacefully drained, relapsed into a deathly still slumber until dawn.
    It was the day of the first port of call. Truby walked down the gangplank with the gabbling herd, at peace with the decision he had just made to eschew any effort at making a friend. The port town breathed its life's breath from these quick-stop tourists. The vendors in their stalls, the donkey drivers, the photographers, the tour guides, the old man with the green parrot, the picturesque beggars–all came to life like Hollywood extras as the tourist swarm descended. It was to his credit, Truby told himself, that he saw through the charade. The sprightly beggar-girl skipping up the cobblestoned path in a swirling dress the color of cocoa could not really be poor–her teeth were too white, her hair was too clean, her toffee-colored skin too smooth and lustrous, her playfulness too real for that. Truby gave her five dollars and a wry grin. The old man's parrot must be phony, too: true, he spoke, but his words were for show, they were all tourist words: "Como estas, amigo!" the bird squawked, and Truby suppressed a superior grin as he handed the man a one-dollar bill, then suppressed another as the man bowed with elaborate dignity. Thus Truby maneuvered his way through the zocalo, threading a gauntlet of street people seeking his coin, reaching the end of a long line of stalls stuffed with belts and leather handbags, fedoras, clay figures, weird, colorful faces crafted out of gourds, to a narrow path that curved up a hill and out of sight like the line of a thigh beneath a short skirt. He stopped, for he'd reached the limit of his world, like Columbus at the edge of waters in which sea serpents lurked to swallow ships whole.
    He breathed in deeply and followed the curve. There were shops and stalls but not as many and not fresh and shiny, and the vendors were moles content with their shady holes, and they regarded him as if he were a fly, even though he was a Gringo, which meant Gringo money. He gazed at the wares and the vendors alike as if they were part of a museum exhibit installed for his pleasure, and he erred in this reverie by looking directly into one vendor's eyes. The woman was composed of angles and bones, with a sharp hawk nose and assertive cheekbones, and she would have seemed old but for the absence of lines in a burnished-copper face, and hair that was as full, black, and wild as that of the overly-gay beggar girl. The gaze that held Truby was hard, and some fancied conception of Third World etiquette informed Truby that he would insult the woman were he to look away, so he held her hard gaze and observed peripherally that she held a huge black cat in her lap. His gaze broke before the woman's forthrightness and fled down to her lap, where he saw no cat but the stature of a raven that was shockingly large, and so real he figured it must have been stuffed. A beguiling smile cracked the woman's visage as she held the bird out for Truby to hold. Truby hefted the bird, felt his own heart jump at the electric impression that the bird had a heart, and that it was beating. This caused him nearly to fumble the bird, and he smiled at the woman with urbane self-deprecation. She did not smile back, so Truby began to examine the bird. Its heft suggested solid hardwood. The bird was painted black, and it wore a proud coat of real bird feathers that bore the sheen of black lacquer. Its head was upright, its sharp beak pointed straight out like a weapon. Truby cupped the bird from behind by its breast, and distinctly felt its heart pulsating.
    Back home Truby placed the bird on his dresser. Every night for two weeks he considered his plan. A large mirror sat atop the dresser, and every morning he'd check his appearance before venturing back out into the world. At first he tried to amuse himself by chatting with the bird as if it were a wisecracking sidekick–the teenaged witch's cat, Aladdin's pal Iago–but the bird was too hard and its eyes too unblinking for any such nonsense. Instead it told him to seek out the woman. So he donned a black t-shirt, and smiled to see how well it looked on him. Then he sought out the woman. She was not there at the cafe the first day, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, or the sixth; but on the seventh day Truby glimpsed her through the smoked glass window, in relaxed conversation with another young woman, looking approachable, amiable, even. That was a Friday. She was there the next Friday. The following Friday Truby donned the black tee, grasped the bird with both hands like a bomb squad technician, carried it like a football to the bus stop, boarded the bus and cradled the bird like a morbid bouquet.
    The girl was there, alone, jotting in a journal, looking pensively upward, sighing, frowning, more vulnerable-seeming than before, soft and voluptuous, Truby felt he would disappear in her abundance, would spiral with her up into the sky, swirl of smoke, fade to black. The bird pointed through the doorway with its beak–the bird wanted her, too, which fact confirmed for Truby the brilliance of his plan, the inspired nature of his love offering.
    Shoulders sag, heart skips. The bird's weight bears down on Truby's arm. Truby lowers the bird. Its beak points uselessly at the ground.
    Truby never discarded the souvenir of his Mexican journey. The bird remained at first on his dresser, but at night its beak drilled into Truby's chest and tore tender chunks and strings from his heart till Truby bolted upright drenched in cold sweat. Yet he still would not banish the bird from his room, but worked up his nerve, approached from the side, and covered the bird with a bath towel. Then he slept soundly.
    The bird lodged on the dresser, beneath the bath towel, as months turned to years, as sandy hair thinned, as eyes dully gleamed with money from the reclaimed finance job, and soft lips stiffened with jagged disdain. One night Truby uncovered the bird and brought it out into his dining room for an hors d'oeuvre party celebrating a promotion, the bird standing centerpiece on Truby's dining table, the little tongs for Swedish meatballs hanging from its beak, a tiny black top hat secured to its head with an elastic band.
    "Gawd, he's priceless," Friend Two drawled.
    "I practically stole him," bragged Truby.

About the author:
Jon Sindell is a San Francisco-based writer/tutor/inactive lawyer whose work has recently appeared in or is coming soon to
New South, Hobart, Many Mountains Moving, and Word Catalyst. Writing third-person bio's makes him feel like a sports superstar!

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