Jan/Feb 2019  •   Fiction

Hanged Man

by Don Stoll

Image salvaged from public domain

Tom's first time, with Lucy, ten years older than him and a barmaid in a dive in Lawrence that was loose about checking ID's, wasn't really a time.

"That was like a clam geyser," she laughed.

She reminded him of a movie star, but he couldn't figure out which one.

She told him not to be embarrassed since his overexcitement excited her.

"It's not such a bad thing," she said, "since nobody can get pregnant that way. Think of the trouble we'd avoid."

Lucy sometimes thought nobody ever getting pregnant would make her happy. But with this boy beside her, life seemed good. She stroked his face and realized he probably never shaved.

"What's a clam geyser?" he said.

She explained clams shoot geysers of sea water into the air after filtering out food particles. He was so fascinated, suddenly he thought about majoring in marine biology even though KU probably didn't offer it.

"I've seen clam geysers in my hometown above San Francisco," she said. "Bodega Bay."

That was it: she looked like Tippi Hedren.

Tom thought he would do better to study marine biology in California. But he knew his parents, bedrock Kansas Republicans, wouldn't let California ruin their son.

Lucy never explained her presence in the Midwest. She didn't belong there. She loved occult practices, which Tom associated with California. But she was silent about her life before Kansas, including the part that had brought her there. Maybe she'd fallen for a touring musician and followed him until he abandoned her in Lawrence. That couldn't explain why she had stayed, but she would sidetrack his attempts to find answers by doing Tarot readings. Though he was ignorant of Tarot, it struck him as odd that in her readings the Death and Hanged Man cards always outweighed the other cards. For Lucy the Death card signified rebirth and the Hanged Man card suspension: hanging in midair, one had time to make new plans.

She broke up with him after a month. "You belong with a girl your own age who's got a real future," she said to ameliorate his pain. "You've been in limbo with me, but now you're free to look for her."

"Like your Tarot cards say," he told her just to say something.

He felt no pain. The occultism had gotten on his nerves.

He forgot about Tarot until, a decade later in Oman, he found a pack in one of the closets in the apartment he moved into with Ruth. She sneered at Tarot but reserved her harshest criticism for the Hanged Man card.

"I don't get the halo. Being hanged upside-down like that was shameful but not fatal. He doesn't deserve a halo since he's neither an angel nor a corpse."

Tom didn't care about Tarot's symbolism. But he wondered if Lucy had read the Death and Hanged Man cards as she did to prepare for their breakup. Maybe she wanted a new life and new plans but couldn't tell him. Maybe he'd kept her in limbo.

Many people would have said Oman looked like a good place for Tom and Ruth to mark time. By their third month they'd stopped preparing for their classes, so they were able to spend all their time outside the classroom in the warm water of the Gulf.

"Why pretend to teach if they won't pretend to study?" Ruth asked of the Arab teenagers who were, nominally, studying English.

She wondered if she ought to fill a little of her time with something besides swimming and snorkeling, as Tom was doing. Tom was writing a book, or planning to.

They'd befriended some Arab neighbors. Mustafa taught chemistry at the technical college where Tom and Ruth taught English and his wife, Khadija, taught physics.

They were curious about Tom's book.

"You must write a book Oprah will choose," Khadija said.

Tom had drafted only half of his first chapter. He was relieved that on this occasion Khadija's quick mind was a little too quick when she dropped the subject of his book and explained that Sarah Ferguson had told Oprah she had only herself to blame for not having received an invitation to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Tom tried to think of a question to ask about the wedding, which he thought was probably going to occur within the next few days. But Khadija was too quick for him again.

"Is your book true?" she said.

Tom looked to Ruth for help. She knew more about his book than he did.

"It's about an Egyptian man born the day Sadat was killed: October 6, 1981. Tom's own birthday. The man isn't important, but the history around him gives him meaning."

The faces of Mustafa and Khadija betrayed their incomprehension.

"Who is this man?" Khadija said. "You have met him?"

"It's a novel," Tom said, and he saw they understood.

"When you imagine him," Mustafa said, "you can make happen anything you want. It is the same when a child pretends."

"In this way you can give entertainment," Khadija said.

Ruth and Tom exchanged a glance.

"Well—" she said.

"But Tom," Khadija said, "aren't you afraid it will seem too false?"

Mustafa looked at her sternly.

"Pardon me," she said. "I only mean that, if you want to give entertainment, isn't it better if the man is American? Then you can use your own experiences."

"Tom has already his reasons to imagine the Egyptian man," Mustafa said.

Khadija bowed her head and lowered her voice. But she had a point to make.

"I have observed some children when they tell a story that is only pretend. I think the other children listen more closely when there is not all falsehood."

She paused.

"This is what I see. The others can make a different observation."

"It is your opinion," Mustafa said. "Tom can listen and say yes or no."

"But perhaps also is about the place," Khadija said. "You have stronger feelings if you write about America. And maybe to write you need the strong feelings?"

She had raised her head to look Tom in the eye.

"This is not permanent for you," she said. "America is your permanent place."

Tom shifted in his chair.

"Writers should have strong feelings," Tom said. "But I'm not sure I have strong feelings about my home. It seems abstract to me."

The way he'd expressed that didn't satisfy him. Kansas didn't seem abstract. He simply had no interest in it.

"How can you say abstract?" Khadija said.

She looked at Mustafa.

"I think my husband does not feel in an abstract way about his home."

"Or about the loss of it," Mustafa added.

Khadija was Egyptian and he was Palestinian. Ruth wasn't a believer but she was Jewish, which she and Tom had taken care not to mention in front of the Arabs.

Tom had two secret thoughts about Mustafa and Khadija. The one he kept secret from everybody was that he would have been willing to do anything to sleep with Khadija. Her attractions included hair that Ruth, who had once been admitted to Khadija's apartment when she was unveiled, compared to polished ebony.

Ruth had taken a moment to think before correcting herself.

"Like obsidian. I wouldn't mind cutting myself on it if I were a lesbian."

Tom believed in the injustice of the double standard but thought in this instance it worked in the woman's favor. He would never have felt free to make such a comment.

Ruth's guessing at what Khadija looked like under her abaya irritated him, too.

"Curves everywhere, I bet, but that damned abaya straightens everything out."

Tom knew better than to fall into the trap of commenting on Khadija's body.

"I'm happy with the economical body I have right here," he said.

"Economical" was Ruth's own word for her body.

The thought about Mustafa and Khadija that Tom was able to share with Ruth was he envied the difficulties of their neighbors' lives.

"He's passionate about wanting his home back and she's passionate about supporting him," he'd told Ruth. "I don't have anything like that."

He could have added that Khadija was also passionate about the education of her sons. She seemed to spend half the time away from her physics classroom at her sons' school, complaining about the quality of their education. She hoped to get them out of the Middle East, which she regarded as no place to raise sons.

"It is a great magnet of violence pulling the boys," she told Tom and Ruth in the courtyard of their apartment building on the same evening they discussed Tom's book.

"Are you thinking about emigrating?" Ruth said. "To America?"

"Your country doesn't want us," Khadija murmured. "Perhaps Canada."

"How old are they?" Tom whispered to Ruth.

"Nine and eleven. How many times have you been told?"

"Right. And the younger one was born on nine-eleven."

Khadija had been reluctant to mention that.

Tom also envied the countries roiled by the Arab Spring. In Oman it seemed to have produced only a mild surface agitation.

"Land of the Lotus-Eaters," Tom would complain.

Ruth thought Tom permitted his environment to influence him too much. She was content in the Land of the Lotus-Eaters, but she thought she might also be able to handle Egypt. Sometimes she thought she might even be able to handle Libya. There were people like that, and Ruth saw no reason why she couldn't be one of them. But she had ended up in the Land of the Lotus-Eaters, so she would make the best of it.

On the other hand, if she would be fine anywhere and Tom would do better somewhere else, then they ought to look for a place that would suit him.

"I'm thinking of Egypt," she said. "Khadija could tell us what to avoid."

"Is this a good time?"

"It's always a good time to teach students who want to learn. Egypt is poor, so they'll be ambitious."

She'd asked the question in the water, at a beach on the point of Oman's sharply bent elbow. Along the forearm down to the fingertips it wasn't the Gulf anymore, and the Gulf's lake-like serenity was swallowed by the turbulence of the Indian Ocean. They could see the turbulence beyond the reef, which sheltered them.

Tom ducked under the water to give himself time to think.

"We could think about Egypt," he said once he'd resurfaced, "but first let's travel for a while. The teaching would be better there, but harder, and I'd have less time to write."

Ruth wanted to understand.

"You don't have enough time to write here? And you've only got half a chapter."

He'd anticipated the question. He had an answer ready.

"There's no inspiration here. If I can find that without being overworked. . ."

Ruth didn't argue. If she would be fine anywhere she would be fine with traveling.

She thought they ought to finish the school year and not abandon their students.

"They'll be thrilled if the rest of our classes are canceled," he said.

"But they have the qualifying exams coming up. Who's going to prepare them?"

"You think we've been preparing them?"

She said an obligation was an obligation, but he went into a dark mood. She gave in.

She couldn't easily release her grip on principle. It took his excitement about their forthcoming trip to get her to let go. They would head east and make their first stop India. After that, who could know? They would be free.

Their departure in the middle of the school year would be complicated, though. The details are tedious. But the essence of their problem was they would need within the span of a few hours to move out of their apartment, collect their pay from the college, return the car they'd rented for three months and retrieve their deposit, and board their flight. The businesses serving expats in the little coastal town were so inbred that for several days Tom and Ruth worried their pay would be blocked or, worse, that their passports would be confiscated and they would be trapped.

Their mood changed the day before their scheduled departure. They would fly to the nearest Indian state, Kerala, so Ruth had bought a guidebook to Kerala.

"In India you go to temples, right?" she said. "And look what they say is the best temple in Kerala to visit."

She pointed to the place.

"Mannarasala Sree Nagaraja?"

"For devotees of serpent gods," she said. "It's a snake temple."

She started laughing.

"That's us," she said. "A couple of sneaks, slithering away."

"That's what the devotees of serpent gods believe about snakes?"

"It's what I believe," she shrugged. "We'll be fine."

Her optimism infected him.

"Why've we been afraid?" he said. "We only need to collect money from the college and the car rental place, and we can split up to cover them."

"And warn each other about problems with our cell phones."

"Like Romeo and Juliet without getting screwed by Friar Laurence's messenger."

"Lovers," she said, "but not star-crossed."

Tom had left the college with their pay and grabbed a taxi to the airport. She had their deposit from the hotel that rented the cars. She was in the lobby waiting for her cab.

They were talking on their phones about how smoothly things had gone when Tom heard a loud noise from Ruth's end. The call dropped. A few minutes later the cab driver translated a news bulletin for him: the worst of the Arab Spring had arrived in Oman in the form of a bomb detonated in the lobby of a hotel popular with expatriates, presumably with the intention of embarrassing the Sultan, Qaboos bin Said Al Said. Fortunately, the lobby was quiet at the moment of the explosion and only two people had died, including a young woman with a US passport in her possession. The names of the victims would be withheld pending notification of their families.

He had the cab take him to the hotel so he could confirm the dead woman was Ruth. Tom had of course not told the college he was leaving. Vacating the apartment had meant leaving the key in the door, so getting in was easy.

Tom finished the school year, as Ruth had wanted. He thought he didn't deserve the college's offer of a contract for another year. Perhaps the administration pitied him. He accepted the offer to remain in the Land of the Lotus-Eaters in order to give himself time to decide his next move.