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The Humongous Fungus Among Us Issue

Okay

Paul Maliszewski is one of the strangest, most original people we know and one of just a few living real writers. "Okay" is a short story about a husband whose wife suggests that she have sex with strange men while he watches.

Paul Maliszewski

Illustrations by Uli Knörzer

Paul Maliszewski is one of the strangest, most original people we know. He is extremely funny. He probably doesn’t want us to talk about it anymore, but when he was just out of writing school, he worked at a business paper, and he spent several months creating “contributors” to the paper. They had names, voices, and agendas, and they were published straight. Paul’s bosses had no idea that he was writing half their content. Anyway, one thing led to another, and then the New York State Attorney General’s office got involved, and two men sat Paul down in a room and told him his life was over. In response, he defined satire. He is stubborn, and when he gets angry—Jesus, you don’t want to be around. But this all gets missed sometimes, if you aren’t paying attention, because he hides it. He goes around in khaki pants and button-up shirts, all innocent, all good credit, but then he writes a story like this.

"Okay" is about a husband whose wife suggests that she have sex with strange men while he watches. Paul applies all his intelligence and creative energy to an idea that an inferior writer (1) wouldn't think up or (2) would think was enough in and of itself to carry the story and would just kind of mess with for 20 pages and then add an up note or a down note and call it done.

Paul is one of just a few living real writers. His fiction has been published in Harper’s, the Paris Review, and Apology. He is the author of two collections: Fakers and Prayer and Parable. He also is one of the only fiction writers alive who dare occasionally to say something negative about another fiction writer’s work. Which… if you haven’t dipped your toes in that whole area, of knowing who says to be nice and who says not to be nice, and whether reviews should be nice, and all that stuff, well. We hear Stanley Kubrick had just one physical gesture: It was sort of a sweeping motion.

                                                                                        

***

My wife liked the idea of me watching. That’s what she said. One moment we were talking about making dinner and what did we even have that we could make and did I need to run out and get something or should we just order in again, and then she was saying how she wanted to pick up random guys and bring them back to our house, and she wanted me there to, I guess, see what transpired. It was as if I’d just turned on some movie, except I was in it and my wife was in it and we were speaking about stuff we’d never spoken of before. I asked her where she got such an idea, and she shrugged. “It just came to me,” she said. “You know, necessity. Mother of invention and all that.” Wasn’t that what people said about the lightbulb? “Exactly,” my wife said. After much discussion, we went to a restaurant she liked. It had a big bar that wrapped around the inside. The place looked like a ski chalet. Stone fireplaces and heavy furniture and so forth. We took a table, and our waiter bounded right over. He was wearing ski pants and a black T-shirt that said “Eat.” My wife asked him to please just give us a few, and then he was gone. She put her hand on top of mine and said, “I’m going now, all right?” She indicated the bar, and I nodded. “And you’re sure you’re okay with this?” she said. I told her that I guessed I was. What else was I going to say? “I want to be clear,” she said. “I’m not asking for your permission, Thom. But I do want to make sure you’re okay. I care about you, you know. Very much.” I was okay. I told her not to worry. “You’re going to keep an eye on me, right?” she said. “Like you promised?” I said sure. “The whole time,” she said. I agreed, the whole time. She stood then and held on to the edge of the table. “Don’t you want to kiss me or something?” she said. I looked at her. Did she want me to kiss her? She shrugged, like whatever, so I wished her good luck instead, and then she walked away. She limped slightly, how she always does, favoring that left leg. I was thinking about getting a steak. I hadn’t had any steak that month. I’m supposed to eat red meat only very occasionally. My wife had been at the bar for maybe a few minutes when this guy in a suit sent her a drink and waved from across the room. She is not an unattractive woman. She’s also petite but big in the bosom, which I knew wouldn’t hurt her chances. I’ve seen how men look at her, like when we’re out shopping, and some guy’s walking by and I’m looking at him, assessing the threat level, and he’s just looking at her the whole time, like I’m not even there. Anyway, the two of them got to talking or whatever, and the guy looked like he was getting pretty fresh, and I saw my wife doing that thing where when she laughed she showed a lot of throat, and she must have said something about me, because the guy turned around and looked at me. I was having my steak, chewing on a French fry. I nodded in his direction, and he got to talking again with my wife and then he came over. “Is this some kind of game?” he said. He seemed agitated. I sawed a small bite off my steak, just like my doctor told me I’d better do. I told the guy if my wife said it was a game, then it was a game. Basically, it was whatever she said it was. What had she said? I sort of wanted to know and sort of didn’t at the same time. The guy said something that sounded about right, and I said he seemed like an okay guy, clean and all. I’d figured my wife and I would ride home together, in our car, but she wanted me to follow them. She was quite clear about that. The guy opened the car door for her and then did this little jog around his vehicle. He had one of those sporty Honda Civics. I flashed my high beams to let him know I was ready. We took the usual roads, how I would’ve gone, if I were doing it. I liked how the guy drove. Not too fast and not too slow. It meant something to me that he wasn’t a shitty driver. We turned down our street, and then he proceeded to pull into our garage and park his car. I was fixing to honk, I was this close to laying on the horn, but then I suspected my wife had just told him to do it. She probably insisted. That time of night, I could usually find a spot on the street somewhere, maybe on the other side of the park. When I got back to the house, I went straight upstairs to our bedroom. That’s what my wife had told me to do. The two of them were in the kitchen, getting into some wine, it sounded like. Our bedroom overlooks the living room. There’s half a wall and some decorative iron railing that looks like it was removed from the outside of a house in Italy or Spain or somewhere like that. Anyway, that’s where I was supposed to station myself, by the railing. My wife and the guy—his name was Terry—got pretty chummy on the sofa. He was telling this joke that sounded like what some comic he saw said on TV, and my wife was sitting there absolutely rapt, like she was hearing about the time he saved a blind family from a burning building. She had one leg tucked under her kind of girlishly, and she was doing that thing where she stretched her other foot out and bounced her shoe on the end of it. The guy touched the back of my wife’s neck, smiled, and I thought, Here we go. They got a pretty kissy thing going then, and my wife started pawing at the guy’s pants, and next thing she removed his member, which didn’t look like anything special, as far as I was concerned. The guy leaned back into the sofa and loosened his tie. Then my wife inserted his member into her mouth and started going up and down like a piston, making these just ridiculous sounds. I really could not get over the sounds. That’s when the guy—Terry—saw me, I think, upstairs, peering through the railing. “I’m sorry,” he said. He pushed my wife away. Not roughly. It wasn’t excessive force he used. He just kind of moved her off him. “This is too weird,” he said. He stood then and tugged at his pants. “You folks have a nice night or whatever.” When he was gone, my wife looked up at me. “You don’t have to be so fucking creepy about it,” she said.

Dozens of unmanned aerial vehicles circled above the city. I had one under my command and another being readied for takeoff; Ohd was piloting three. We were watching for subjects believed to be holed up at various locations. That was what they told us to say if anybody asked. Ohd was eating a roast-beef sandwich and going from monitor to monitor, checking levels and whatnot. He looked away for a second, glanced around the control room, and then pointed one end of his sandwich at me. “What you should do is follow your wife,” he said. He took a bite and then nodded, agreeing with himself. “Get a follow-and-record up on her,” he said. “That’s what I’d do. If I were you.” The control room was kept cold and dimly lit. It was for the computers, they said. I surveyed my lunch, the usual: a baggie of thinly sliced carrots and another of diced celery. Celery was rough on my system, so the pieces had to be smaller, doctor’s orders. I wasn’t sure following my wife was called for. After all, hadn’t she been honest about her desires? “That’s just it,” Ohd said. “It never seems called for until you find out after the fact that it actually was, but by then it’s too late, you’re screwed, game over, tubby.” Ohd indicated the vehicle on the ground, waiting. It was all green now. “Use that bad boy,” he said. I felt sick to my stomach. I often did while eating. All my wife had done was tell me what she wanted, and I said okay, basically. I went along with it. Hadn’t I? Ohd hung his head like he’d just learned his favorite TV show had been canceled. “You’re confusing what you know with what you don’t,” he said. “That’s really dangerous.” He reached over to my keyboard and punched the new vehicle up. “Let’s find out what your wife’s up to,” he said.

When I got home from work, my wife was all set to go out. She was applying eyeliner, putting on lipstick. “If you want to sit, sit,” she said. “I’m sure you’ve had a long day or whatever.” I did want to sit, sort of, but I felt bad, so I followed her into the living room. “It’s trivia night,” she told me. “I need to get a good table.” I was glad not to have to go, relieved. Eating out could wreak havoc on my body for days. I lay down on the sofa and listened to her moving about the house, finding her keys, transferring stuff from one purse to another. Then she was standing there, and I looked up at her, imagining that she actually towered over me, that I was this tiny person and she was huge. It was funny, the times I loved her, the moments when that sentiment came to mind. Was she, perhaps, going to be bringing anyone home tonight? After trivia, I meant. The last guy, the guy after Terry, had hung around all weekend, until late Sunday, and then he left with my bathrobe. I couldn’t find it anywhere. My wife frowned. She was tired of hearing about the bathrobe. “Time will tell,” she said. “I need to run.” I told her I’d be in the usual place. I glanced upstairs. “Just try and be friendly,” she said. “That’s all I ask.” I made myself get up and cook dinner: plain wheat pasta with no sauce. While waiting for the noodles to soften, I got into a box of crackers and next I found a jar of peanut butter. I spread some on a cracker and ate it, and it was pretty good, but then that one led to a second and a third and so forth, and pretty soon I was putting peanut butter on the crackers as fast as I could eat them, and my pasta was done, but I was too full of crackers to eat much. I knew I’d pay for it—the peanut butter, that was a big no-no—but I didn’t care. Tracking my wife had taken it out of me. The woman never stopped. First the grocery store, then the dry cleaner’s to pick up my shirts and slacks, then over to the pharmacy for my stomach medicine. There was a period, however, after the dry cleaner’s, when she was doing a lot of driving around. Ohd said it seemed aimless, and that the aimlessness concerned him, because who just drives around aimless like that? I wasn’t sure. I thought I might, sometimes. Ohd pointed out this was for over an hour, an hour-plus of driving around with no discernible pattern to it, none. Ohd thought that plenty weird, but maybe it was just him, though he didn’t honestly think so. I wondered whether she’d been on the phone. “Okay, but with who?” Ohd said. “Who’s she talking to for over an hour? You?” He looked at me, fighting back his grin. Of course, she hadn’t called.

The next day, Ohd wanted the gory details. “So your wife and Mr. Trivia kick you out of the bedroom,” he said. That was about right. Really, it had been my wife’s doing. But it wasn’t as if she actually kicked me out. She just signaled for me to leave. We had pre-arranged a signal. It had to do with her hair. She was supposed to push her hair back behind her left ear. I thought I saw her push it behind her right ear and then her left ear, and so I wasn’t sure if that was the signal or if she was just doing it to do it, but then she did it again, more emphatically, with just the one ear. So I exited. I went downstairs. They’d made a pretty colossal mess of the living room, with the underwear and the wineglasses, so I picked up and I put the guy’s things into a bag for him, but then I thought that maybe that might be too forward, actually. Or just not friendly. I could hear my wife asking what exactly was I trying to say by putting his things into a bag. Why not set the bag by the door, or put it out, like the trash? In fact, why not just leave the door wide-open with a big flashing neon sign saying, “Please get out,” or whatever? I ended up folding his things but not putting them away. That seemed best. Later, I was boiling some water for tea when the guy came into the kitchen. “Oh, sorry,” he said. He pointed behind him. “I can go,” he said. I told him to stay, it was no problem. Did he want some tea? I was having chamomile mixed with peppermint. It was for my stomach. “Beer’d be great,” he said. I got him a beer and even let him use one of my frosted mugs from the freezer. Was he hungry? He must be hungry. The guy looked at me suspiciously. “I guess so,” he said. So I made him some eggs—over easy, how he liked them—and some bacon and wheat toast with just a little bit of butter, and we had this half of a grapefruit left over from the morning, so I gave him that too, and I set a place at the table and got him a cloth napkin. I started to feel sick, like I was too full, except the thing was, I hadn’t eaten in hours. I just threw up in the sink, though, and then I felt better. I told the guy I used to love having breakfast food at night, when I could eat that way. Sometimes it was just the thing. It was like watching a movie in the daytime. The guy nodded. “You have a great house,” he said. I thanked him. “Great furniture too.” I didn’t have much to do, personally, with the furniture selection, but I thanked him again. It was a nice thing to say. I noticed that my wife was standing by the railing. She was gesturing for me to get out already. Had I done something wrong? I held my hands palms up, as if I were waiting for her to drop something. I was only trying to be friendly. I asked the guy if he’d be needing anything else, and he shook his head. Didn’t look up from his eggs. I guessed I’d be going then. Thought I’d take my tea and go sit somewhere. Outside perhaps, I wasn’t sure. The guy stood. He wiped his mouth on the napkin and extended his hand. “Really nice meeting you,” he said. “And thanks too,” he said. He pointed at the food. “For this.”

Ohd stared at his primary monitor, shaking his head. One of his vehicles had identified a woman in a yellow tankini, sunbathing on top of a building. “If I were you,” he said, “and believe me, it’s increasingly hard for me to imagine being you, but if I were, I think I’d have to draw a bright line at the door to the bedroom.” Ohd traced a border in front of his keyboard. “A man’s got to impose some limits,” he said. “Limits are healthy.” The way I saw it, though, I didn’t want her going off anywhere else. At least I knew where she was, right? Because, I mean, if she couldn’t use the bedroom, where would she go? I pictured her inside some grubby car, parked behind a restaurant or down a dark alley, fast-food containers and straws poking her in the back. Or maybe she’d end up on the roof of some building; I could picture that. Ohd did a frame capture of Yellow Tankini. He had a collection of such images, women sunbathing in high-res, some of them topless. Many were on rooftops, with all that gravel and the bent antennas nearby, the exhaust vents and crumbling chimneys. “The nudity up there,” Ohd said, “is just so casual.” He brought up another image of the same woman. “Light’s really good today,” he said. “I mean, that is just perfect fucking light.”

I was looking at my stomach spread out on a screen. The doctor said something about my scan, the upper GI series, something about irregularities in the duodenum and then something else in the stomach, not irregularities. It wasn’t a hole, but it was like a hole. The doctor indicated a dark spot with his pinkie finger. We should keep an eye on this guy, he said. He tapped some keys on the computer, opening another image and then a third. He flipped between them quickly, not saying much, the mouse pointer darting around. I couldn’t follow it all, what he said. I knew it was important, but it all ran together. He zoomed in on my stomach. There was a tube, it looked like, a thing with bumps and two bright areas. I wondered if the bright areas were a concern. “That’s normal,” he said, surprised by the question. I saw ridged hoses and gray masses, orbs, blobs like ghosts giving off gray smoke. I don’t believe in ghosts, but that’s what I thought of, ghosts inside me, floating. The doctor scooted back in his chair and turned to face me. He smiled. He looked healthy. Expensive teeth. “I have some ideas,” he said. “Things we might try as our next step.” I looked over at my stomach, still on the screen. It sounded like more guesswork. I’d had the lower GI series a few months before, so I’d heard a lot of these guesses. I tried eating smaller portions, and I tried eating at different times. I kept a rigid schedule. I slept on my side and then on my stomach. I tried these new pillows they have. I even tried elevating the head of our bed, but then my wife said she couldn’t sleep with it that way, that nobody could, so I moved my pillows and stuff into the guestroom and elevated that bed. It didn’t really work. At first I thought it had, but then I decided that it actually hadn’t. I was just being hopeful. I was going to move my stuff back, but my wife suggested I stick it out a bit longer. “Let’s see if things don’t turn around,” she said. I didn’t blame her. It wasn’t her fault. If anyone was to blame, it was me. All the instructions. There were a lot of instructions just leading up to the procedure. Starting the day before, and then what to do that night and the day of. I’d fasted. I drank their barium shakes. I showed up in the morning, drove myself. A nurse gave me paper booties and a paper slip, and I changed out of my clothes in their little closet. It was like a stall with an accordion door that wouldn’t lock. They had a row of them. I heard grunting coming from one of the other units. I fell into the door while taking off my pants. The nurse was right there. “Are you okay, sir?” she said. I’m fine, I told her. And then I apologized. My wife used to say I apologized too much, but I did feel sorry. I always felt sorry. When I was done I slid the door back and then I sat, waiting. Someone would come for me. I heard voices, laughter, talk about the weekend, what had gone on with people I didn’t know. After a few minutes, another nurse was by, smiling like what a day it was, and she took me around a corner, to the back of the office. I shuffled behind her, my booties going shush on the carpet. My butt was cold, hanging out, I guess. They must see it all the time, people like me with butts like mine. I was to sit in a chair by a window. The nurse covered the seat with a square of paper and then stood back, letting me get situated. Then she gave me more barium and told me to drink it and she said she knew it was going to be hard to get it down—“That’s what everyone says,” she said—but I had to drink every drop. “No cheating,” she said. I nodded, looked at the shake and brought it to my mouth. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she said. The room seemed like it was for storage originally, but then someone decided they needed more space and so they made it into whatever it was now. There were reams of paper in the corner and a box of latex gloves on top. The window looked out on another building. Some man was there, in an office across the way, his light the only light in the building that I could see. He was just sitting at his desk, rubbing the short hairs on the back of his neck. A nervous thing, I guessed. I took a sip of my shake and then another. It was heavy, like drinking metal. The man picked up his phone and started in about something. He swiveled his chair around and looked out his window. That’s when he noticed me. I turned my body in the seat and pretended to be reading the label on my shake. I didn’t want to be too sudden or obvious about it. The paper crinkled under me, and I tried to drink more barium. It wasn’t going down except in sips. After a while, I hazarded a glance out the window. The man was still facing me, still looking my way. Not doing anything, just staring.

“Strange day,” Ohd said. I stood next to my desk. “You all right?” he asked. I told him I was A-okay. “You’ve been standing there for a while,” he said. It was nothing. I just felt like I might need to go to the men’s room. Wasn’t sure I should sit down. “Well,” he said, “our subject was at home most of the morning.” Ohd had taken to referring to my wife as our subject. I already knew she was going to be at home. She’d told me. Ohd frowned, like I was missing some point. “Around 10:17,” he said, checking his file, “the lights in the house started going off.” Ohd scrolled down. So she was walking around, turning them off. This didn’t seem odd. It was nice to picture her doing that, actually. How ordinary it was. Then, at ten minutes after 11, Ohd said the subject got a call on her phone. “There was no one there,” he said. “Or no one said anything, anyway. Subject said hello, of course, but that was it.” Where was the strange part in all this? “Be patient,” Ohd said. “She stayed on, the subject did, for a minute—a full minute, 16 seconds, according to call records—not saying anything.” Ohd played the call for me then. It certainly sounded like nothing. “I’ve listened to this I don’t know how many times,” he said. “Did some work on the recording too: enhancements, boosted levels. I slowed it down and played it back at one-eighth speed through my headset, then fed it back through my phone, so I could hear it that way, just seeing if there was anything there, some signal or something, but there’s nothing. Just ordinary line noise. What you’d expect with that make and model of phone.” Perhaps the subject set the phone down, though, but forgot to hang up. Is it still called hanging up? Do people say that? I was just thinking. My point was, maybe she believed she’d hung up but actually hadn’t. Ohd gave me this look like I was a monkey trying to solve simultaneous equations. “Thermal and electromagnetic profiles of the room, when you overlay them, and I’d be happy to show you this,” he said, “are consistent with an individual, the subject, holding the phone for the duration of the call.” But that didn’t mean anything. I wasn’t trying to be difficult, but why couldn’t the subject have been holding the phone at her side? Or maybe she had a pocket and she stuck the phone in her pocket, thinking all the while she’d hung up. “I suppose,” Ohd said. “Also suppose she could’ve got the phone tangled in her hair. That must happen almost never. In any case, it doesn’t matter. Because when the call did finally end, the subject left.” Ohd looked at me, gauging my reaction. I had none. “She’s never left like that,” Ohd said. “Not at that time. But suddenly she’s in the car, tear-assing out of the driveway. And a few minutes later, she pulls into this other development. Willow-something Estates.” Ohd was paging down through his notes. “Have it here someplace,” he said. “Anyway, I’m still running checks on ownership, recent sales and purchases, whatever.” Ohd went back to the notes. “It’s 2.9 miles from your house,” he said. “It’s this place, here, near the end of the street.” He poked at his monitor with a pen. “Only finished house on the block,” he said. “It’s one of those developments where I guess they ran into money trouble. Bankruptcy or something.” Ohd paused then, but I had nothing to say. “Anyway,” he said, “do you know the house?” He sat back in his chair, rocking slightly. “I’m assuming you don’t, but guess I should’ve asked if you recognized it.” I didn’t. I’d never even been to that development. Ohd nodded. “All right,” he said. “So the subject arrived at this house and went in through the garage. Parked outside, on the street, but entered through the garage, walking. The garage door was open, left open, by who we don’t know. She closed it. And that’s where she’s been, inside. Still there. No lights either. Total electrical draw on that place reads zero-point-zero. No cell use. No laptop. No signals whatsoever.” Ohd leaned in toward the monitor and rested his chin on his hand. On the screen, a car drove by. Blue sedan, by the looks of it. “She’s not even running the AC,” he said, “and you know how hot it is down there.”

I was sick. I was in the bathroom, and I was throwing up, and this guy walked in. My wife’s new friend, I guessed. Maybe I hadn’t closed the door all the way. I was inclined to believe I was at fault somehow. I often thought that. “You mind?” the guy asked. He gestured at the sink. I shook my head. How could I mind? He washed his hands and splashed some water on his face and then examined himself in the mirror, turning from side to side. Then he came over to where I was huddled and looked at the towels hanging on the wall. “Okay if I use this one?” he said. I didn’t care, just told him sure. “You sick or something?” he said. I was sitting beside the toilet, leaning against the wall. The wall was cold. The floor was cold. I felt sick pretty much all the time, to one degree or another. “Is it up here with you?” he said. He was pointing at his head. I told him nobody was sure. “Ever try acupuncture?” he asked. I had, actually, once or twice. It didn’t really help. I didn’t dislike it. It just made me sleepy. “I swear by it,” the guy said. “Helps with my back pain. Lower back, mostly. Also my ankles. I got weak ankles. They’re like little bird ankles,” he said. He raised the cuffs of his pants so I could see. I said okay. I just wanted to be alone. “Oh, hey,” the guy said, “almost forgot to pay you.” He reached for his wallet, and I asked him what for. “What for,” he said. “That’s a good one.” He pulled a wad of bills out and started counting, then he stopped and looked up. “How much she say again?” I had no idea. I told him my wife set the price. “That’s smart thinking,” the guy said. “Let her handle the money side, right?” I nodded, not really following him. “Here,” he said. He held the money out for me to take. When I didn’t move, he set it on the counter and then turned to go. “Nice talking with you,” he said. “Hope you feel better.” I nodded and slid closer to the toilet. I could feel a new wave of sick coming on.

My wife lay in the middle of the bed, her bum leg propped up on a pillow. She was paging through some catalog. Every few days, we got a stack of them. “There you are,” she said. She was real chipper. I had her money in my pocket. I’d been deliberating what to do with it, whether to give it to her or just not mention it. I didn’t want to do the wrong thing. I told her that her new friend had left this—I wasn’t sure what to call it. I took the money out and showed it to her. I supposed it was a kind of contribution. She laughed. “What an ignoramus,” she said. She was shaking her head. “Jesus Christ.” I laughed too, a little, and then I handed her the money. I was standing near enough that I could smell her hair. It smelled like it needed washing, but it was a nice smell. Nicer than the shampoo smell, which was so overpowering that it filled the house and then I could smell nothing else. I told her I wasn’t sure what to tell the guy, her new friend. We’d never talked about money, she and I. If that was even part of this, I said. What she was doing. I didn’t know if money was part of it for her. “Relax, Thom,” she said. She patted the bed, the side I used to sleep on. “Are you okay?” she said. I motioned in the general direction of my stomach. Just the usual complaints. She knew. I climbed into bed then and got under the sheets. I was sorry to be so boring. “You’re not boring,” she said. “You’re consistent.” I told her I felt boring and then—I don’t know why or what possessed me, but I asked her if she maybe wanted to stay up with me. That was how we used to refer to lovemaking, when we did that. She smiled. “Maybe,” she said. “We’ll see.” I put my hand on her leg, on her thigh, and just held it there, like we were attached. I could see us just then, in bed, as we were. I saw how we would look from above, as if I were up near the ceiling, floating, looking back down, as if I were a camera and I was “on.” Her lying there beside me, us both with pillows tucked behind our heads. My hand was still on her leg. “I’m pretty tired,” she said. “But maybe you can persuade me to stay awake a little while.”