Excerpt

Do Not be a Gentleman When You Say Goodnight

Mitch Sisskind

December 6, 2016 
The following is from Mitch Sisskind’s collection, Do Not be a Gentleman When You Say Goodnight. Sisskind grew up in Chicago, attended Columbia University, and now lives in Los Angeles. Two books of his short fiction have been published: Visitations (1984) and Dog Man Stories (1993.) His poems were included in The Best American Poetry anthologies for 2009 and 2013.

Then All Hell Breaks Loose: Thirteen Films of Tokyo Lipscomb

DEAD AS A DORMOUSE

Tokyo Lipscomb, a third-year student at Penn, and a few other girls move into a new apartment and find themselves next door to a burned-out ex-ballplayer named George Henry. Neighbors insist that George Henry vanished ten years earlier—but remember, Tokyo Lipscomb and the other girls are living next door to him. At the end we find out that Tokyo Lipscomb and the other girls are actually dead. They died in a car accident. But they come back to life with the help of George Henry. But he was also dead and stays dead. Then all hell breaks loose.

THE KEY

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George Henry is a burned-out ex-ballplayer whose own face gets stuck after warning his daughters that their faces might get stuck if they make chipmunk faces. Tokyo Lipscomb, a third-year student at Penn, is assigned to write a paper about George Henry after seeing a news report about him but now more and more people’s faces are getting stuck—all except Tokyo Lipscomb’s face. So she holds the key. Then all hell breaks loose.

HOIST ON HER OWN PETARD

Tokyo Lipscomb, a third-year student at Penn who is athletic but also somewhat of a nerd, is mistaken for her “perfect” identical twin when her identical twin dies suddenly. So Tokyo Lipscomb seizes the chance to masquerade as her “perfect” identical twin. But when she falls in love with her identical twin’s next door neighbor, a burned out ex-ballplayer named George Henry, Tokyo Lipscomb gets hoist on her own petard. Then all hell breaks loose.

I TOAD YOU SO

Tokyo Lipscomb, a third-year student at Penn, finds a toad during her morning run around the campus. When she kisses the toad it turns into George Henry, a washed-up ex-ballplayer. Then all hell breaks loose.

IN AND OUT OF THE MONEY

Tokyo Lipscomb, a third-year student at Penn, learns that her rich uncle has died and bequeathed his fortune to her—but only if she agrees to have dinner with George Henry, a washed-up ex-ballplayer. It seems simple enough but Tokyo Lipscomb falls for George Henry and when the dust settles they’ve both been transported back to prehistoric times. They have to get back to modern times using only their cell phones. Then all hell breaks loose.

GROUNDHOG NIGHT

Tokyo Lipscomb, a third-year student at Penn, gets a fatal illness and joins a support group where she meets a washed-up ex-ball-player named George Henry. Their sex life is hot at first because they’re facing their mortality but gradually it deteriorates into monotony until George Henry actually dies. But somehow they start having great sex again. Or is Tokyo Lipscomb just imagining it? Then all hell breaks loose.

MY FATHER, THE DEVIL

Tokyo Lipscomb, a third-year student at Penn, comes home for summer vacation and her father throws out her math books because he says numbers are tools of the devil. But then, by using math, Tokyo Lipscomb figures out that her “father” actually is the devil and her real father is George Henry, a washed-up ex-ballplayer. Then all hell breaks loose.

MAIL ORDER ALLIGATOR

An army of alligators comes out of the sewers, which is explained by a flashback to 1959. People could send away for live baby alligators advertised on the back of comic books, but then they flushed the alligators down their toilets and the alligators multiplied. Back to the present: at the last moment the army of alligators is stopped in its tracks by a humane method discovered by the unlikely couple of Tokyo Lipscomb, a third-year student at Penn, and George Henry, a washed-up ex-ballplayer. Then all hell breaks loose.

THE GRAIL GIRLS

Tokyo Lipscomb, a third-year student at Penn, gets permission to do a special field work project for an anthropology class where she and two other girls go to the Colorado Mountains in search of a ghost town that vanished off the face of the earth during a gold rush 150 years ago. George Henry, a washed-up ex-ball-player, becomes their guide, but instead of finding the town and its gold they find the Holy Grail. Then all hell breaks loose.

BABE IN THE WOODS

Tokyo Lipscomb, a third-year student at Penn, can’t get rid of a bee hive outside the window of her dorm room. We see her Google “bees” and “bee hives” but she gets nowhere until she meets George Henry, a washed-up ex-ballplayer. He is a bee expert like the guy in Jaws who was a shark expert. Then all hell breaks loose.

SHUT YOUR TRAP DOOR

Tokyo Lipscomb, a third-year student at Penn, finds the perfect off-campus apartment. But she begins to lose her grip on reality when she finds herself battling the building’s ghosts. Then she puts her trust in George Henry, a washed-up ex-ballplayer who talks her into building a trap door—but the door connects to the netherworld. Then all hell breaks loose.

SORRY, RIGHT NUMBER

Tokyo Lipscomb, a third-year student at Penn, mistakenly dials the wrong number on her cell phone and finds herself involved with a subculture with a trail that leads all the way to the White House. Then the President’s cell phone explodes. Fortunately he was not talking on it at the time, but he had just been talking to George Henry, a washed-up ex-ballplayer. Then all hell breaks loose.

THE GRADUATE

George Henry is a washed-up ex-ballplayer now working as an assistant baseball coach at the University of Pennsylvania. When he meets Tokyo Lipscomb, a third-year student at Penn, it comes out that George Henry never learned to read and is embarrassed about it. Then there are montages of George Henry and Tokyo Lipscomb making love intercut with scenes of George Henry learning to read. At first he’s reading children’s books, then young adult, and finally Ulysses. Meanwhile their lovemaking is also growing more elaborate. Finally we see him graduating from college. Then all hell breaks loose.

2012

Possum

At night occasionally a possum

Passes by peering in the window.

It represents my sexuality. Prehistoric,

Very slow moving, and the children

Would be repulsed by it were

They awake, which they are not.

 

Over time I begin to wait for it.

Was it attracted by the room’s light

Or the murmuring television—

Who knows? No way to tell

What a possum is thinking or

At least that gift is not given to me.

 

I watch “Survivor.” But the skittish

Marsupial now owns my waking thoughts

And later, brazenly, my dreams:

I climb a tall tree with it, we read

Comic books together: Donald Duck,

Scrooge McDuck, Daffy Duck, all the rest.

2009

 

Proposal and Disposal

God saw that Lauren had been living with Frank for almost two years. He wanted them to get married, but when Frank proposed, Lauren hesitated. God decided to give her some encouragement using the telephone and the telephone answering machine; the power of the written word; Fawn Nisner, who had once been Lauren’s roommate; and Harry duCrowe, who had preceded Frank as Lauren’s boyfriend. God hoped that this would solve the problem. He also knew that, if it didn’t, He certainly had other means at His disposal.

* * * *

When the telephone rang, Lauren, who was working, decided to let the machine take it. With the volume turned all the way up on the machine in the bedroom, she could hear who was calling even in the little room that served as her studio. In a moment Harry’s amplified voice sounded through the apartment. Lauren stopped putting finishing touches on her cat painting and stared gloomily out the window, where a fog covered the suburban landscape. “Hi, Laur, it’s Harry. I’m in town for a day or so and I’d really like to see you, but the problem is that I don’t have a car, so I’m completely dependent on Ralph. But I’m actually going to be near you in an hour or so, so if you’re going to be there maybe I could just drop by, providing it wouldn’t cause any sturm und drang. I’ll give you a call in about an hour. Hope you’re around. ‘Bye.”

Lauren chewed a strand of her hair and felt her palms begin to sweat. Suddenly she felt trapped in this town, in this country, even in this world, knowing that Harry was back. On the other hand, it was kind of good to hear his voice after so long. Sometimes when Lauren was nervous she threw up. She walked to the bathroom, but nothing happened. Then the doorbell rang.

As Vegetable, Frank’s dog, barked furiously, Lauren reasoned that it couldn’t be Harry at the door, based on what he’d said to the answering machine. But she also knew that years of studying such insects as the ant lion had taught Harry something about deviousness. Finally she walked quietly to the door and looked through the peephole. It was not Harry, it was Fawn. Lauren opened the door.

Vegetable jumped happily at Fawn, but the young woman brushed him aside. Fawn, who often seemed miserable, now appeared even more depressed than usual. Her head was cocked sideways above a mouse-colored dress as she pleaded, “Mind if I come in?” She and Lauren kissed and hugged.

Though concerned about the Harry situation, Lauren said, “Believe it or not, I’ve just been trying to get some work done. But I’d love your company.” She led Fawn through the apartment to the studio.

There the visitor smiled in admiration of the painting and declared, “I love what you’re doing with that feline shape.” She traced the outline of a cat in the air.

Lauren sighed, “Maybe in another life I can be a really talented person.”

“You are a really talented person, and you know it,” Fawn said.

“I’m not.”

“Well, isn’t being beautiful enough?”

Lauren was silent. She dropped a paintbrush in a jar of turpentine and said, “I’m going to make some tea. We can sit and talk.”

“I didn’t mean to interrupt your painting. It’s just that. . .”

“You didn’t interrupt it. I’m finished for today. Let’s have some tea.”

“I didn’t mean anything by . . . it’s just that . . .”

“Let’s have some tea.”

“Okay.”

Then, as Lauren put things away, Fawn, who worked as a grade-school art teacher, bent close to the painting, pointed to a tiny figure in the corner, and asked, “What’s that?”

“It’s supposed to be Vegetable. I’m doing this picture for Janice and Jim because he chased their cat up a tree. The cat is big and the dog is small. It’s a cat’s idea of a better world.”

“But you can hardly make out that it’s a dog,” Fawn half-giggled, half-whined. Turning, she remarked, “I understand Harry is in Cambridge,” but Lauren had already gone out of the studio.

* * * *

Sitting at the dining room table, Fawn looked hard at her friend and declared, “You’re wondering why I’m not in school.”

“I thought it must be a holiday.”

“It’s no holiday, babe. I did something Tuesday that I guess I’m not proud of, but it was to survive in that jungle they call an art room. I scotch-taped a couple of kids’ mouths shut and one of them blabbed to mommy. Some sort of administrative procedure has been started against me and meanwhile I’ve been banished from the classroom.”

“How awful!” Lauren said, but Fawn raised a hand for silence. “Some good may come of it,” she intoned. “I’ve made a decision that I want to tell you about. I want to preface it, though, with a few admissions that may come as a surprise to you.”

At that moment the telephone rang. Fawn’s face showed annoyance as Lauren stood up from the table and said, “Maybe I’d better get that.”

“Can’t the machine do it?” In fact, Lauren’s recorded voice could already be heard from the bedroom, apologizing, hoping for a message, and so on and so forth.

But the live Lauren only assured Fawn, “Believe me, I really want to hear about this. I really do. It’s just that I’m expecting a call.” Then she disappeared into the bedroom and closed the door behind her.

* * * *

“Laur? Laur? Oh, hi again,” said Harry, as she picked up the receiver just after the beep. His cheerful tone surprised Lauren, even disappointed her. From their last conversation, now almost three years ago, she recalled the desperate strength of his pleas, accusations, promises, and excuses, like a drowning man’s. But Lauren’s own voice surprised her as well.

“Hi, stranger. Where are you?”

“Well, I’ve got some tough news. Ralph’s car broke down so we’re stuck here, and I’m seeing Wilson at one. I really wanted to talk to you, though, if only telephonically,” Harry laughed. “I’m at a pay phone so we’ve only got three minutes.”

Lauren looked at the clock beside the bed. “Let me call you back, then.”

“It’s no good, Laur. Time is short.”

As Harry took a deep breath, and exhaled into the receiver, Lauren tried to imagine him standing at the payphone. Even that seemed almost adulterous here in the room she shared with Frank, where a kind of whimsical domesticity had been cultivated. A plush rhinoceros, three feet long, lay upside down on the foot of the bed.

“Well, it’s been a long time,” Lauren said. “How have things been going?”

“You mean what have I been working on? I feel really funny about it, but I’m obsessed with the sphex.”

“The sphex?”

“Yeah. And I know what you’re thinking. I like to say that the sphex flies in the face of all my principles. Ho, ho, ho, right? I mean, I guess I’ve gotten away from the whole political thing that attracted me to entomology in the first place, the notion of materialist struggle taking place in the insect world with an analysis to be drawn from it. Remember when roaches used to be my thing?”

“I suppose we’ve all changed,” Lauren said, feeling funny. “Remember when you used to love me for it?”

“Well, not really for that.”

“For what, then?”

Lauren hesitated. What was a sphex? And what had she loved about Harry? It seemed impossible to remember now in the middle of this conversation, which seemed close to taking an unpleasant turn. Perhaps it had been the way he threw perfect spirals with the Nerf football, when they used to play catch in the park. Once, Lauren remembered, she had praised him for that, and he’d looked so pleased.

For what, then?

“Harry . . .”

“Okay, sorry. Didn’t mean to put you on the witness stand.” But, suddenly, his cheerfulness was gone. In an urgent voice Harry said, “Listen, and there’s something I want to say. A man and a woman living together out of wedlock is wrong. I don’t know much about Frank, but I believe you should get married to him, that you should bear his children, and that you should raise them up straight and tall. Anything else is a cop-out, Lauren. Let me put it this way: you can’t keep a promise you never made.”

Even if she’d had something to say, Lauren could not have replied to this. The connection was suddenly broken. The time was up. Frowning, puzzled, she took a moment to compose herself before facing Fawn again.

But Fawn was not there. Where she had been sitting, a note lay on the table:

 

Lauren—

Obviously you had something very important to talk about with someone, but since I had something very important to talk about with you my feelings were hurt and I just decided to leave. You see, I’m tired of being the jolly slob that everybody likes (except herself ) and my leaving will show you that I’m going to change. Oh yes, you’re probably wondering what I was going to tell you, which happens to be that I am going to have my jaws wired shut for as long—although I’m not overweight—as it takes to acquire an absolutely beautiful body. Yes, one that may be even more beautiful than yours, Lauren, because I too want to have long nights of sex such as I’m sure you’ve had many of in your life, but such as I’ve had none of because I’ve always been me. One other thing. I think you should get married to Frank if he has asked you, which would not surprise me, and that you are asking for trouble if you don’t. Just living together seems oh so easy, and marriage is difficult, I’m sure, but isn’t there an old saying that she who bears the greatest burden shall know the greatest truth? I still consider you my friend.

Fawn

Lauren dropped the note. She felt hurt, as if she wanted to cry, but angry, too. She felt angry with the collection of misfits from her past. She touched the teapot, found that it was still warm, and started to fill her cup. But then she turned and walked back into the bedroom.

Lying on the bed, Lauren rested her feet on the rhinoceros. She stared at the ceiling with its thousands of little stucco points, which now disgusted her. Closing her eyes, she tried to think of Colorado, where she and Frank had walked along a beautiful trail holding hands, and how they had seen a coyote. Lauren had been wearing her new red t-shirt, and Frank had a beard then. He only had it for a couple of weeks. Frank, Colorado, the t-shirt, the coyote, these are on one side, Lauren thought. Harry and Fawn, they’re on the other side—but perhaps they were right about just one thing. Lauren knew that if Frank walked into the apartment at that very moment she would agree to marry him. It was what God had been waiting for. He rearranged things so that Frank had actually left work forty-five minutes earlier. Just then Vegetable barked excitedly as Frank’s key unlocked the door.

Yet sometimes God feels worse than ever after He’s gotten His way. Now He said, “I’ve been unbelievably slack about things for a long time. But it all seems like such a vicious circle, such a never-ending cycle.”

1981

 

 

From DO NOT BE A GENTLEMEN WHEN YOU SAY GOODNIGHT. Used with permission of Song Cave. Copyright © 2016 by Mitch Sisskind.

 




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