Excerpt

From “Nerves”

How could a grown man with any self-respect sit in the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory at eleven o’clock in the morning and eat a hot fudge sundae with mint chip ice cream, hold the nuts? It was Charlie’s own question; his answer was that he wasn’t a grown man, he was a grown boy, or maybe an ungrown man, pre-grown, never-to-be grown. He was in the process of honing his self-pity into a kind of artifact, an arrowhead he could keep in his pocket, its point ever ready. He spooned pure hot fudge into his mouth and told himself it was Linda’s fault he was doing this—if he’d had someone to account to he’d never have indulged himself in this way—but it gave him no satisfaction to blame her. Linda was his wife, and fifteen days earlier she’d taken a suitcase full of clothes and gone to stay with her friend Cynthia “for a little while,” leaving Charlie lower than a dead man, as she would say. Maybethat was what had gone wrong: she no longer said things like “lower than a dead man” or “Nice play, Shakespeare.” Where was that girl? Not, Charlie felt sure, in San Francisco, this meanly cold, this coldly mean city to which they’d moved five months before, from his beloved New York, at her request. Whereupon she’d left him.

Charlie looked at his watch. It was now twelve minutes past eleven, and although that left him thirty-three minutes to walk the ten blocks to his doctor’s appointment, he was stricken by a fear of being late—a lifelong fear, one of his many crippling lifelong fears. He forced down the last of his sundae as quickly as he could and stood up. He put on his jacket, but as he was wrapping his scarf around his neck he felt a sharp pain scorching the surface of his upper arm, and he groaned and sat down again. He rubbed at the sore spot with his other hand, a futile gesture, he knew: the pain was too fast for him, disappearing so quickly he sometimes wondered whether it existed at all. It was the other pain, the one in his elbow, that he could count on. More of a dull ache, he would tell the doctor, a consistent dull ache. He stood up again, and as he headed out of the Chocolate Factory he patted his back pocket to make sure his notebook was still there—it contained a list of all the symptoms he’d had, back to the first radiating heat from his armpit to his fingers in June of 1988. A few months ago Linda had joked that he had a sore arm the way other people had a hobby. Sore? he’d wanted to say. I’m in pain. He knew it was a bad sign that he no longer saw any humor in his situation.

Walking along Beach Street toward the Cannery he saw a cable car filling with tourists. Last to board was an elderly couple, and Charlie watched as the conductor gently helped them up. The conductor wore a dark uniform and a peaked cap, and for a moment Charlie thought, What a great job! Then he thought, a conductor? He was regressing—first the sundae and now this. And what do you want to be when you grow up, little boy? Charlie worked thirty hours a week at a frame shop on Chestnut, a few blocks from the apartment, and he liked it—he got a discount on framing materials. Linda said she knew it was a good job; she wanted him to have a career, but Charlie put careers in a group with pets and lawns—people were always talking about them and tending to them, but they just weren’t that interesting.