The Pleasure of My Company

BOOK: The Pleasure of My Company
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the pleasure of my company

Steve Martin

 

 

 

 

 

 

To
my mother and father

 

 

 

If
I can get from here to the pillar box

If
I can get from here to the lamp-post

If
I can get from here to the front gate

before
a car comes round the corner…

Carolyn
Murray will come to tea

Carolyn
Murray will love me too

Carolyn
Murray will marry me

But
only if I get from here to there

before
a car comes round the corner.
.

 

— MICK
GOWAR, FROM
OXFORD’S ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF POETRY FOR CHILDREN

 

 

 

 

 

 

This all started because of
a clerical error.

Without
the clerical error, I wouldn’t have been thinking this way at all; I wouldn’t
have had time. I would have been too preoccupied with the new friends I was
planning to make at Mensa, the international society of geniuses. I’d taken
their IQ test, but my score came back missing a digit. Where was the 1 that
should have been in front of the 90? I fell short of genius category by a full
fifty points, barely enough to qualify me to sharpen their pencils. Thus I was
rejected from membership and facing a hopeless pile of red tape to correct the
mistake.

This
clerical error changed my plans for a while and left me with a few idle hours I
hadn’t counted on. My window to the street consumed a lot of them. Nice view: I
can see the Pacific Ocean, though I have to lean out pretty far, almost to my
heels. Across the street is a row of exotically named apartment buildings,
which provide me with an unending parade of human vignettes. My building, the
Chrysanthemum, houses mostly young people, who don’t appear to be out of work
but are. People in their forties seem to prefer the Rose Crest. Couples whose
children are grown gravitate toward the Tudor Gardens, and the elderly flock to
the Ocean Point. In other words, a person can live his entire life here and
never move from the block.

I saw
Elizabeth the other day. What a pleasure! She didn’t see me, though; she doesn’t
know me. But there was a time when Liz Taylor and Richard Burton had never met,
yet it doesn’t mean they weren’t, in some metaphysical place, already in love.
Elizabeth was pounding a FOR LEASE sign into the flower bed of the Rose Crest.
Her phone number was written right below her name, Elizabeth Warner. I copied
it down and went to the gas station to call her, but the recorded voice told me
to push so many buttons I just gave up. Not that I couldn’t have done it, it
was just a complication I didn’t need. I waved to Elizabeth once from my
window, but maybe there was a reflection or something, because she didn’t respond.
I went out the next day at the same hour and looked at my apartment, and sure
enough, I couldn’t see a thing inside, even though I had dressed a standing
lamp in one of my shirts and posed it in front of the window.

I was
able to cross the street because just a few yards down from my apartment, two
scooped-out driveways sit opposite each other. I find it difficult—okay,
impossible—to cross the street at the corners. The symmetry of two scooped-out
driveways facing each other makes a lot of sense to me. I see other people
crossing the street at the curb and I don’t know how they can do it. Isn’t a
curb forbidding? An illogical elevation imposing itself between the street and
the sidewalk? Crosswalks make so much sense, but laid between two ominous curbs
they might as well be at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Who designed this? Daffy
Duck?

You are
now thinking I’m either brilliant or a murder suspect. Why not both? I’m
teasing you. I am a murder suspect, but in a very relaxed way and definitely
not guilty. I was cleared way early, but I’m still a suspect. Head spinning?
Let me explain. Eight months ago a neighbour downstairs, Bob the appliance
repairman, was knifed dead. Police came to interview me—it was just routine—and
Officer Ken saw a bloodstained parka on my coatrack. Subsequently the lab found
fibres from my parka on the corpse. Can you figure out my alibi? Take a minute.

Here it
is: One night a naked woman burst out of Bob the appliance repairman’s
apartment, hysterical. I grabbed my parka and threw it around her. Bob came and
got her, but he was so polite he made me suspicious. Too bad I didn’t get fully
suspicious until a week later, just after naked woman had penetrated his liver
with a kitchen knife. One day, the naked woman, now dressed, returned my parka,
unaware that blood and other damning evidence stained the backside. I was
unaware too until savvy cop spotted the bloodstain when the parka was hanging
on a coat hook near the kitchen. The cops checked out my story and it made
sense; Amanda, hysterical woman, was arrested. End of story.

Almost.
I’m still a suspect, though not in the conventional sense. My few moments of
infamy are currently being re-enacted because the producers of
Crime Show,
a
TV documentary program that recreates actual murders, love the bloodstained
parka angle, so I’m being thrown in as a red herring. They told me to just “act
like myself.” When I said, “How do I do that?” they said to just have fun with
it, but I’m not sure what they meant.

I’m
hoping that my status as a murder suspect will enhance my first meeting with
Elizabeth. It could jazz things up a bit. Of course, in the same breath I will
tell her that I was cleared long ago, but I’ll wait just that extra second
before I do in order to make sure I’ve enchanted her.

The
larger issue, the one that sends me to the dictionary of philosophy, if I had
one, is the idea of acting like myself. Where do my hands go when I’m myself?
Are they in my pockets? I frankly can’t remember. I have a tough time just
being
myself, you know, at parties and such. I start talking to someone and
suddenly I know I am no longer myself, that some other self has taken over.

The
less active the body, the more active the mind. I had been sitting for days,
and my mind made this curious excursion into a tangential problem: Let’s say my
shopping list consists of two items: Soy sauce and talcum powder. Soy sauce and
talcum powder could not be more dissimilar. Soy: tart and salty. Talc: smooth
and silky. Yet soy sauce and talcum powder are both available at the same store,
the grocery store. Airplanes and automobiles, however, are similar. Yet if you
went to a car lot and said, “These are nice, but do you have any airplanes?”
they would look at you like you’re crazy.

So here’s
my point. This question I’m flipping around—what it means to act like myself—is
related to the soy sauce issue. Soy and talc are mutually exclusive. Soy is not
talc and vice versa. I am not someone else, someone else is not me. Yet we’re
available in the same store. The store of Existence. This is how I think, which
vividly illustrates Mensa’s loss.

Thinking
too much also creates the illusion of causal connections between unrelated
events. Like the morning the toaster popped up just as a car drove by with
Arizona plates. Connection? Or coincidence? Must the toaster be engaged in
order for a car with Arizona plates to come by? The problem, of course, is that
I tend to behave as if these connections were real, and if a car drives by with
plates from, say, Nebraska, I immediately eyeball the refrigerator to see if
its door has swung open.

I stay
home a lot because I’m flush with cash right now ($600 in the bank, next month’s
rent already paid), so there’s no real need to seek work. Anyway, seeking work
is a tad difficult given the poor design of the streets with their prohibitive
curbs and driveways that don’t quite line up. To get to the Rite Aid, the
impressively well-stocked drugstore that is an arsenal of everything from
candies to camping tents, I must walk a circuitous maze discovered one summer
after several weeks of trial and error. More about the Rite Aid later (Oh God, Zandy—so
cute! And what a pharmacist!).

My
grandmother (my angel and saviour) sends me envelopes periodically from her
homestead with cash or cash equivalents that make my life possible. And quite a
homestead she has. Think
Tara
squashed and elongated and dipped in
adobe. I would love to see her, but a trip to Helmut, Texas, would require me
to travel by mass transportation, which is on my list of no-no’s. Crowds of
four or more are just not manageable for me, unless I can create a matrix that
links one individual to another by connecting similar shirt patterns. And
airplanes, trains, buses, and cars … well, please. I arrived in California
twelve years ago when my travel options were still open, but they were quickly
closed down due to a series of personal discoveries about enclosed spaces,
rubber wheels, and the logic of packing, and there was just no damn way for me
to get back home.

You
might think not going out would make me lonely, but it doesn’t. The natural
disorder of an apartment building means that sooner or later everyone, guided
by principles of entropy, will inadvertently knock on everyone else’s door. Which
is how I became the Wheatgrass guy. After the murder, gossip whipped through
our hallways like a Fury, and pretty soon everyone was talking to everyone
else. Philipa, the smart and perky actress who lives one flight up, gabbed with
me while I was half in and half out of my open doorway (she was a suspect too
for about a split second because the soon-to-be-dead guy had once offended her
in a three-second unwelcome embrace by letting his hand slip lower than it
properly should have, and she let everyone know she was upset about it). Philipa
told me she was nervous about an upcoming TV audition. I said let me make you a
wheatgrass juice. I wanted to calm her down so she could do her best. She came
into my apartment and I blended a few herbs in a tall glass. Then, as a
helpful afterthought, I broke an Inderal in half, which I carried in my pocket
pillbox, and mixed it into the drink. Inderal is a heart medication, intended
to straighten out harmless arrhythmias, which I sometimes get, but has a side
effect of levelling out stage fright, too. Well, Philipa reported later that
she gave the best audition of her life and got two call-backs. Probably no
connection to the Inderal laced drink, but maybe. The point is she wanted to
believe in the wheatgrass juice, and she started coming back for more at
regular intervals. She would stop by and take a swig, sit a while and talk
about her actress-y things, and then leave for her next audition with a tiny
dose of a drug that was blocking her betas.

 

If the moon is out of
orbit one inch a year, eventually, somewhere in a future too distant to
imagine, it will spin out of control and smash into, say, India. So
comparatively speaking, a half an Inderal in a wheatgrass juice once or twice a
week for Philipa is not really a problem, but if I’m to stay in orbit with Philipa,
my own prescription count needs to be upped. Easy for me, as all I have to do
is exaggerate my condition to the doctor at the Free Clinic and more pills are
on the way. My real dilemma began one afternoon when Philipa complained that
she was not sleeping well. Did I have a juice drink that might help? she asked.
I couldn’t say no to her because she had grown on me. Not in the way of Elizabeth
the Realtor, who had become an object of desire, but in the way of a nice girl
up the stairs whose adventures kept me tuned in like a soap opera.

Philipa
couldn’t see that she was in the charmed part of her life when hope woke her up
every day and put her feet into her shoes. She lived with a solid, but in my
view, dimwit guy, who would no doubt soon disappear and be replaced by a
sharper banana. I went to the kitchen and blended some orange juice, protein
powder, a plum, and a squirt of liquid St. John’s Wort from the Rite Aid, and
then, confidently motivated by poor judgment, I dropped in one-quarter of a
Quaalude.

These
Quaaludes were left over from a college party and had hung out in my kitchen
drawer ever since, still in their original package. I didn’t even know if they
were still potent, but they seemed to work for Philipa, because about ten
minutes after she drank my elixir, a dreamy smile came over her face and she
relaxed into my easy chair and told me her entire history with the current
boyfriend, whose name was Brian. She commented on his hulking, glorious penis,
which was at first phrased as “… great dick…”— Philipa had begun to
slur—and then later, when she began to slur more poetically, was described as a
“uniform shaft with a slight parenthetical bend.” Evidently it had captivated
her for months until one day it stopped captivating her. Brian still assumed it
was the centre of their relationship, and Philipa felt obligated to continue
with him because her fixation on his fail-safe penis had drawn him into her
nest in the first place. But now this weighty thing remained to be dealt with,
though Philipa’s interest had begun to flag.

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