Work in Progress: Hgwellls Goes Dowsing
If a misanthrope is someone who scorns most people most of the time, Harold Nelson was one, even if he did look like Santa Claus.
“I don’t even particularly like the woman,” he said to his grandson Gabe. He adjusted his headset. It was a Tuesday night and they were waiting—Gabe patiently in his room in Seattle and Harold peevishly in his house 300 miles away in Waitsburg—for the group to get online so they could start the raid. Harold was debriefing Gabe on his first online date, coffee with Enologist1—real name Ellen Day. Gabe had set him up with the online profile, just as he’d set him up on the massively multiplayer online game they played together four nights a week.
“No matter,” said Gabe. “If you can play this game, you can date women you don’t like. You should be inserting the probe by Friday.”
“You’re a jackass,” said Harold.
What modern fool had made this rule—sex on the third date? For that matter, what young idiot had invented online dating? And what reckless version of God or fate would send an old fart like him careening down a week-long, steep slope toward intercourse with a sharp, rich, fine-looking woman like Ellen Day? Not for decades had wet dreams and erections disturbed Harold Nelson’s sleep.
The next evening at seven, Harold parked his prized ’65 Chevy pickup way out in the dirt of the Seven Cows Tasting Room. He wanted to protect its original aqua paintjob from the drunken city tasters, who were crawling out of a house-sized golden SUV, a blur of purple eyeglasses, off-kilter haircuts, billowing scarves, khaki pants, and fresh loafers. They’d read about the winery on Pretentious-assholes.com, Harold figured, and they planned to snag discounts on a case of the rare cabernet, but Ellen Day would not be selling her vintner’s reserve wine cheap, not today, not ever. On their first date at the Coffee Klatch downtown, she’d overwhelmed him with her confidence. She’d leaned forward and showed him the tops of her compact breasts while reciting her degree: Viticulture and Enology from the University of California at Davis. She’d told him she felt only contempt for red blends, and believed, against conventional wisdom, that Riesling grapes could be grown near Waitsburg if the correct sunny slope could be found in the Blue Mountains.
Harold turned on the radio to the Columbia Basin’s Home for Great Country and listened to a corny song about a hot little number in a pickup truck. When the drunken tasters filed out with their boxes and bags, he wandered in. There she was in a tight white blouse unbuttoned to show lacy underclothes. Her skin was smooth and tanned. She wore her brown unruly hair tied back in a loose knot. In this environment, it occurred to him that her appearance—full lips, smooth forehead, sleek neck—couldn’t be as simple as it looked. It was a naturalness carefully constructed, like her place—distressed wood, dyed concrete, gauze curtains, burlap bags, cast-iron lamps. He appreciated the thought behind it but not the artifice. He looked at his hands. Borax hadn’t gotten the grime out of his calluses or cuticles.
“I thought you were going to be later,” she said.
“I got done sooner than I thought. The sheep cooperated.”
He’d gotten all the eggs, candled them, rounded up the sheep and corralled them for the night, picked the ripe berries and beans, showered. Date number 2. The mid-way point.
As he handed her up into the truck cab she paused and let her small round ass rest against his thigh. She looked over her shoulder through curly tendrils and smiled. If he hadn’t been sure before, he was sure then—Gabe had been right and the whole world now aimed for sex on the third date. So all he had to do, then, was perform passably on the second date, dinner at the Tamarind, the peculiar “international” restaurant across from the courthouse.
He preferred steak and potatoes to any kind of noodle, but Ellen knew the owners, so he’d agreed to take her there if she’d let him pay.
He putted through Waitsburg’s one stoplight, turned left onto Main Street, and drove past the courthouse. Then he pulled a U-turn and parked in front of the Tamarind. Thai food supplemented by brick-oven pizza. What a strange combination. But then Joseph and Richard were a strange combination. Two men, one a burly white guy—a retired Chicago cop—and one a slender brown fellow. They lived together in a settler’s cabin on the Touchet River and ran this strange restaurant frequented by the wine tourists, the newcomers, the winery people, and the bed and breakfast proprietors, and mostly shunned by the natives—the farmers, cannery workers, and ex-loggers.
“I guess there are a lot of noodles,” Harold said, as they climbed out of the truck.
“There are yummy noodles,” Ellen said.
She leaned forward again, thrusting her sweet-smelling face right at him. “You know what I liked about your profile? I liked the way you looked straight into the camera. I also liked your chest. You have the kind of chest I like.”
“I’m barrel-chested. That’s what we used to call it. Not really a compliment,” he said.
“Maybe it means you have a big heart,” she said.
He thought of his various estrangements and felt an impulse to chastise her, but he could imagine she’d take that about as well as his daughter Meta, or Bella, the former raid runner. Bella had once told him, over guild chat so everyone could hear, that he didn’t play well enough for her to put up with his patronizing bullshit much longer.
The restaurant was not pleasing to Harold. You couldn’t turn around in the place for all the decorations and rattan furniture crammed into the small space. Too many cement statues of snarling animal-type things, too many carved wooden screens precariously propped. Plants with leaves as big as sheets of newspaper filled the corners and reached into narrow aisles.
That boy met them at the door. Well, not a boy. Richard, the co-owner, a dark man with a soft face. He threw his arms around Ellen Day and cried “Ellen, Ellen! Will you sing Saturday? Will you sing?”
“Sure. I’ll sing.”
“You sing?” Harold said.
Richard’s mouth flew open and his eyes popped out and he placed both his hands on Harold’s chest. “Oh, you didn’t know? She sings like Janis Joplin, baby! Who are you? You have not been here to our place before.”
“No.” Harold wasn’t used to being touched by strangers.
“You will like it. Joseph will make you something hot. Something spicy.” He squeezed Harold’s bicep. Harold looked at Joseph’s fingers, which were delicate and bony.
Eight was late for dinner in Dayton, and they were the only patrons.
Ellen tilted forward as she settled in the chair. Harold looked down her blouse and glimpsed part of a nipple.
“Harold’s never had Pad Thai and so I think we should have that. With the shrimp,” she said.
“Mild?” Richard said.
“Let’s be reckless. Two stars.”
“What is Pad Thai?” Harold said.
“Noodles,” said Ellen. “And ground peanuts, and cilantro, and bean sprouts.”
In the kitchen, Joseph, cooked amid steam and grease.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” he said. “I’m a throwback. I’ve never had this type of food.”
“I like you.”
“Stop it,” he growled. He smiled, trying not to draw his lips past the missing molar. He needed to get that implant done but he hated the dentist more than he hated most people.
“I love the way you say what you mean and mean what you say,” she said, and she touched his knee under the table and squeezed.
He mentally ordered his organ, which was thickening, to stop. She was wrong. He didn’t say what he meant and mean what he said. If he did, right now he’d be telling Ellen Day he didn’t know her very well and he probably wouldn’t like her when he did get to know her because he disliked most people for being stupid, weak, lazy, morally defective, or chronically tardy; however, since he hadn’t had sex in two years, he couldn’t wait to screw her purple.
Richard brought a plate piled high with unfamiliar food.
Harold ate the slimy noodles with a fork and examined the shrimp, which he always distrusted and which tonight appeared to be undercooked. There were foreign morsels in the dish—green things and brown things—and too many red pepper flakes that set his tongue on fire, along with something sour. He hardly ever drank these days, but he drank one strong beer and then another.
While she matched him beer for beer, Ellen Day chattered on about her past. She talked about what she called her family of origin. She’d been the oldest of four. Her dad was some muckety-muck for the state government. One brother was a naval officer. One was a doctor. Her sister was the family screw-up. She lived in a trailer in Pasco with a “Mexican gangster” and smoked drugs and got beat up and was treated with “tough love” by the family. If this had been his kid, Harold thought, he would have gone and gotten her. You could do things to discourage men like that, and they all involved shotguns. Ellen went on to talk about her one son, a kid named Aaron who had been born three weeks before she’d married the kid’s father. The word “bastard” kept poking into Harold’s thoughts but he shooed it away as if it was a yellow jacket circling his meat.
Every now and then she’d stop her monologue to ask him questions. How long had he been married? Almost 40 years. Did he miss his wife? Every day, but time does heal. At this tears filled her eyes and she blinked them away. Had he gone to college? Not that she cared about that. “But you’re really smart, aren’t you?” she said. “I mean, you’re the type of guy who reads physics textbooks for fun.” He had done that, as a matter of fact, and he’d read geology textbooks and statistics textbooks too, but he wasn’t about to admit to it.
“People learn in various ways and college is not for everyone,” she said.
“I would be one of those,” he said, and raised his beer bottle.
Richard must have thought he wanted another, because he came trotting over with an open one.
Harold raised his palm, but Richard squeezed his shoulder and said “It’s open, sweetie, enjoy it!”
“How’s Wendy?” Richard said to Ellen.
“She’s good. She and Marce are coming for a visit in another week.”
“Oh, good! Joseph and I will cook at the house.”
“Wendy is an old friend,” Ellen said to Harold.
“An old friend!” Richard said. He giggled behind his hand like a girl. More secrets.
“Excuse me,” Harold said. “Where’s the men’s room?
“There’s no men’s room here, honey, but there’s a unisex bathroom behind that screen,” Richard said. They both heehawed some more. Harold was odd man out on his own second date. He felt the acid reflux kick in. He pushed back from the table and struggled to push up out of the cushioned, none-too-sturdy chair.
“Whoa,” Richard said. “Let me show you.”
Harold wanted to shake Richard off, but he let himself be steered thirty feet to the bathroom door. Richard turned on the light.
The bathroom was as big as his living room and it was painted lemon yellow. There were tall vases full of pink peonies and more wooden screens and a rattan chair and a footstool. Harold ran for the toilet and discovered he had the burning runs. He wanted to go home but he was too foggy to form a plan.
When he came out, Richard was waiting for him. He said something Harold couldn’t really hear—something about being sorry—and then Richard kissed him on the corner of his mouth. His lips were moist and he smelled spicy and sweet like a woman. Harold spit and sputtered and pushed at Richard, and Richard tumbled back against the screen, which fell over on a table. Richard let out a little scream. Ellen ran over, and Joseph ambled out from the kitchen.
“What happened?” Ellen said.
“I don’t feel good,” Harold said. He took fifty dollars out of his pocket and slapped it on the nearest table and said “Can you get yourself home?”
His voice came out like a growl, even to his ear.
“He shouldn’t drive,” Richard said.
But Harold made for the door. It was ten to nine and if he hurried he could make it home in time for raid. It never got started on time anyhow.
Harold didn’t get on right at nine but spent twenty minutes in the bathroom shitting and throwing up. After that, he got himself a glass of milk, let his Irish Wolfhound Duffy in and gave him water, chewed some antacids, and sat down at the computer.
Gabe immediately whispered him in text.
[Dionysus] I thought you were on a date.
[Hgwellls] I was. It ended early.
[Dionysus] How come?
[Hgwellls] Never minf.
[Dionysus] OMG what did you do?
[Dionysus] Have you been drinking? Mom says you shouldn’t drink.
[Hgwellls] 2 beers.
[Dionysus] That’s nothing.
[Hgwellls] Your mother’s probly right.
[Dionysus] What happened?
[Hgwellls] I got interogated, and then the waiter made a pass at me.
[Dionysus] Your spelling’s terrible and you never make mistakes on spelling.
Harold took a deep breath and took his time typing.
[Hgwellls] Shouldn’t this raid be starting?
[Dionysus] You can see that Bella’s not here yet, Grandpa. You want to take on Ragnaros without Bella?
[Hgwellls] She’s always late.
[Dionysus] What am I supposed to do? Kick her? She’s an officer and our best DPS.
[Hgwellls] She was never very nice to me.
[Dionysus] She’s not nice to anyone. What happened on the date?
[Hgwellls] I don’t want to talk about it.
[Dionysus] Harold. What happened?
[Hgwellls] The sissy waiter got too close to me and I reacted and he knocked something over in the restaurant. Nothing got broke. No one got hurt. And don’t call me Harold.
[Dionysus] Mom always said you can’t get along with anybody.
Harold watched the words scroll down, the pink letters forming themselves into knives that stabbed him in the guts. And he needed to shit again. That food had given him such a case of the runs. Yet in the midst of the gut pain, the physical cramping and the feeling of being both crushed and empty at the same time, he knew he had to keep typing.
[Hgwellls] I got along with your grandmother We were together for 40 years.
[Dionysus] You’re back. I thought you’d run away.
[Hgwellls] The guy kissed me on the lips and he tripped over some furniture and fell down.
[Dionysus] You should apologize.
[Hgwellls] Not sure I want to.
[Dionysus] Do you know what homophobia is?
[Hgwellls] I’m not stupid, just old. I’m not homophobic.
[Dionysus] I know you’re not stupid. I can tell that by your gear. But you are afraid of at least one gay waiter. Otherwise you wouldn’t have shoved the guy. And the word “sissy” is out of bounds.
[Dionysus] Okay, I’m going to assume you’re still there, reading this. When you react like that to a gay person, it means you’re afraid of your own homosexual tendencies.
[Dionysus] Are you there?
[Hgwellls] I don’t have those.
[Dionysus] We all have those, Grandpa. That’s the point.
[Hgwellls] I DON’T.
[Hgwellls] WHERE IS BELLA?
[Dionysus] Caps lock off please? I’ve got Mom’s version and I’d like to hear yours. She said you threw Uncle John out because he was gay
[Hgwellls] That’s not how I remember it.
[Dionysus] She said he was still in high school and you told him to get out.
[Hgwellls] I probably did. I don’t really remember. But if I did, it wasn’t because he was gay.
[Dionysus] Why then?
[Hgwellls] He was drugged up all the time. Your mom maybe didn’t know about that. She wasn’t living at home then either.
[Dionysus] She didn’t say anything about that.
[Hgwellls] And then after that, I tried to track him down, to ask him to come back. But every time we’d get into a fight. Until your grandmother asked me to stop. And I did. I quit trying. And then your Mom quit talking to me too.
[Dionysus] When Uncle John disappeared.
Harold wanted to throw up again. John had disappeared right before Karen had been diagnosed with MS. She’d been trying to save him, to talk to him, to get him checked into a rehab, and he’d just disappeared. They’d been unable to find him for twenty years. Karen had blamed herself, not him. Never him.
[Dionysus] Are you there? Let’s change the subject. Can’t you go back to the restaurant tonight or tomorrow? Can’t you take some berries from your garden or some flowers? You can make amends.
Harold was tired. There wasn’t going to be a raid, obviously. He’d take more medicine and go to bed.
[Hgwellls] I’m here. I’ve got to log. I don’t feel good.
[Dionysus] OK. Sorry.
[Hgwellls] I’m tired.
[Dionysus] Sorry. Will you be on tomorrow?
[Hgwellls] Yes. Okay.
Harold went to bed but he couldn’t sleep. That version of the estrangement, the one he’d told to Gabe, had been true if you listed all the facts in order, but what mattered was where you started. Did you start with the drugs, or did you start before that—with the earlier incidents—the arguments about everything from his clothes to the way he talked to how he spent his time? Or did you start before that, with Harold’s refusal to send the kid, who always suffered from rages and crying jags—to a counselor? Or did you start before that, with Karen’s pregnancy, which had been unplanned and unwanted and had sent him into a black mood and months of silent brooding? Or did you start before that, with an egg and sperm destined to make a kid like John—a different kid, an angry kid—a kid Harold had never been able to get along with? The rooster crowed. It couldn’t be morning yet, could it? Fucking male bird. What was he doing making noise? Not a hint of dawn, everything dark, quiet, no stars, no moon.
Harold sat in front of the disconnected game. Harold relied on the game, on finding his grandson waiting for him there. He liked the routine of raiding four nights a week, with all the downtime and waiting time in between, before and after runs, time for private conversations. He was afraid of losing all that. But he didn’t know if he could tolerate Gabe’s questions. He’d survived his life so far by blotting out the awful experiences. And tonight: the slimy food, the waiter’s wet lips on the corner of his mouth, the wet sex with Ellen Day receding from the realm of possibility and disappearing on the wet horizon.
That fucking rooster crowed again outside the window. He yelled at the bird to shut up. Duffy whined. Duffy was the only creature on earth who thought he was important anymore.
There had been a time. He thought of the kid who had taught him to smoke cigarettes. He had been twelve or thirteen—he remembered feeling like he was setting off on a great adventure. Had he wanted to fuck that boy who taught him to smoke cigarettes? He pictured the kid in his striped shirt and dungarees. Maybe a little bit. But he’d wanted to fuck every girl in the world too. He’d wanted to fuck the world itself, to put his cock into the molten core of the earth and pump away.
Now he couldn’t fuck anything or anyone anymore. Soon enough, he thought.
Brown sissies, mannish women, estranged daughters, and know-it-all grandsons, he thought, listen up! Get ready. Soon, very soon, soon enough, I will have fucked and ruined the world and myself about as much as I can, and it’ll be your turn. And he grabbed his shotgun from the closet just inside the back door and he hurried back and waited for the next long windup, the cock-a-doodle-doo that would be that rooster’s last.