Joseph Murphy

 

Joseph Murphy lives in Pennsylvania. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prick of the Spindle, Everyday Genius, and The Northville Review. Letters to the Famous and Dead Composed at Work is an ongoing project that can be found at letterstofamousdead.blogspot.com.

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Women of the World (October 20, 2009. Issue 10.)

Years after graduation, the 2 men went abroad together. They had been good friends; it was something they had at 1 time always talked about and, recently, had talked about again on 1 of their yearly calls—though there were a few years missing before this last time. It doesn't matter where we go, 1 said to the other over the phone as he turned his friend’s newly published book over in his hands; that was what had made him think to call, having seen it displayed at the bookstore by work, $24.95 in hardcover, right by the check-out lanes. He examined the friend’s photograph on the book’s backside as he spoke with him, alternately covering and uncovering it with his thumbnail—see him & now you don’t. It was strange to hear his graveled voice. The photo was out-dated, he suspected. At the airport a month later, 1 waiting and the other arriving like it always had been, they shook hands and laughed at the gray hair they each had achieved. They stood by their luggage, 3 modest bags gathered at their angled feet; neither of them had brought much, needed very much more, much of anything really—it’d taken years for that to happen. They walked quickly to their connection, which was leaving soon enough. They talked along the way and, on occasion, left a hand on the other's shoulder while smiling for sake of something they remembered from school. A departing flow of people fought against them, causing 1 to lose the other, causing 1 to have to take 5 quick steps to catch up or bring the other to a near-stop in order to fall behind, back into conversation and step. It’s been a long time, they agreed. She’s 4 now, can you believe it? And her mother? Oh, well. In college, they had shared a small space, and that was where they lived. And they were happy to live in that small space because, after studying, they populated it with conversation—conversation that accumulated what they called great things, and those things never changed; they would always be great: epiphanies that struck them during class, a poet’s epitaph, an obscure fact gleaned from mild streams of lecture, a glimpse of rare beauty—he was still plagued with a memory of a woman he saw, on his way to class, as she leaned over a stack of books, 2 hands parted around the pile, lip bitten, and hair falling around her face, which, even without seeing it, he knew had that unknowing beauty that only unaware beauties can have, lest they know and lose it by some terrible fate, of the world but not quite just yet, unspoiled—the constant question (are we men or boys or what?), the war, the protests, the idea of civil living, and his Catholic upbringing. Over the 4 years they spent there, they had gathered all that they would need, as far as they knew, to be ready for the world, from experiential morals to leather gloves for winter. He had sex with a girl; he did not. He listened to him on the phone with her that week, before she left school, but didn’t ask him if he was okay when he left that night, after dark, and borrowed his car. She came over once, he remembered, before that, so he waited outside while they talked, whatever there was to talk about he didn’t know—never asked; how could he? She came out crying, her hands pushing past him blindly. He saw the rivulets catch the hall light; that was enough. There was a car accident in the Fall, and he almost died; his parents flew in from Omaha. They were both in the car, and he’d pulled his hurt friend from it, the car upturned in the corn field; that felt good, and, sometimes, he thought of that feeling even then, passing through security, and smiled. Occasionally, in the snow, they'd walk together across campus, drudging to the library to find a book to read or bring back to the room to end a debate they were having—usually about the validity of this thought of that thought—their leather gloves roaming the pages for the exact spot, not even waiting for their room but cracking it open right there, on the frosted front steps of the place, some bell tower looming over them, clanging. But, now, the world was too small. How had that happened? one wondered. The other said without laughing, How can the world be smaller than campus, a dorm room with 1 window? At the bars in other countries, they spoke with women because, last year, his wife died from a cerebral hemorrhage in the shower 1 Thursday morning in the summer while she got ready for work, she is—was, was sorry—a technician at PharmCo, and, 3 years ago, his wife left him because he didn’t know a good thing when he had it, didn’t know how to treat her the way she deserved to be treated, didn’t know much of anything at all—not this time—and she took the kids, 2 of them, Caitlin and Brian, sweet kids, sure, 6 and 4 now. They spoke in the women's languages and made them laugh. He had studied German for a semester; he had studied Spanish and held an Italian phrase book. They all had a different way of laughing, the women of the world: 1 touched his knee, stifling the quiet gasp; another laughed through her nose; another down her nose; another didn't laugh but exhaled loudly; 1 laughed explosively and spilled her drink—the golden liquor ran down the length of the bar, they watched, and trickled off the edge, making a puddle beneath the other man's stool, upon which he rested. They spoke broken English with a pair of young students, both of them very attractive, about the orchestration of what were commonly known as classics, the real heavy-hitters of music, the true essence of the thing. And the 1 with the spilt liquor beneath him said in whispered English to his friend, He had never thought about it much, studying philosophy or music—which was what the girls had claimed to study and which induced their hard-to-translate conversation—but, yes, indeed, it was an interesting thought they—I forget their names—had. Both women had shared their insights on the matter, both rather foolhardy about it, making light of it, laughing their laughs—a truncated snuff and a busting giggle. Those, he said, but stopped there. The woman to his left laughed. Later, alone and agreeing, the 2 old friends said they had only wanted to touch the women, as though to say, Yes, very, very good, and leave them alone at the bar to think about their conversation and let the women wonder if they might ever see them again, those 2 men. Rather than, he said, have to tell them they were very wrong in their ways. That what they had said was stupid. It was dumb, wasn’t it? Before it was too late at night, the men, very old friends, fell asleep in their hotel beds, their few things spread about the dressers in all the different cities they saw, their coats and television on.