Plain and Normal: A Novel

Plain and Normal: A Novel

by James Wilcox

Paperback(1st Back Bay Paperback Edition)

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Overview

Lloyd Norris is slouching towards middle age. Recently out of the closet, he knows it's time to devote himself to finding the love & companionship that have long eluded him. But his search is complicated & the result is a dizzyingly funny book about the awesome power of our need for connection.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316941358
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 09/16/1999
Edition description: 1st Back Bay Paperback Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.66(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Any minute the volunteer might arrive, and Dr. Bennet was still in the shirt he had worn three days in a row. Joe Pollock, his roommate, had ironed a clean shirt for him, but Dr. Bennet was too upset to put it on. Using that starched, formal tone of voice he reserved for special occasions, such as when a cigarette had somehow burned a hole in his sofa, Dr. Bennet had informed Joe Pollock that he would not permit any species of volunteer into his apartment. He was not a charity case.

    Joe Pollock, in fact, hated the word "charity" just as much as Dr. Bennet. Never in his life had Joe accepted a handout from anyone. Even during the depression, he had managed to stay afloat without once setting foot inside a soup kitchen. As for today, all you had to do was ask Dr. Bennet's doorman and you'd find out that Joe Pollock never borrowed a cigarette without paying back, two bits each, as soon as his Social Security arrived.

    Maybe it was because he was straight about these little things that Joe Pollock got along so well with folks like Nicky, the doorman from Estonia. Not a day passed without Nicky learning something useful from Joe, maybe a new expression in English (Cat got your tongue?) or the reason why this country was going to hell in a handbasket (the Democrats). Now, the Korean who sold those measly plum tomatoes on 181st Street, this was a tougher nut to crack. But Joe Pollock had so many other pals in the neighborhood that he didn't mind the brush-off from the Korean so much. The cops, they knew Joe. He gave them tips about lunch, where they could find the best bargain. And the guy who sold pretzels, he was a pal, too--even let Joe watch the cart once when nature called.

    In his own way, Dr. Bennet was a little like that Korean, Joe figured, polite but remote, wrapped up in his own world. The Doc's problem was too much education. You couldn't blame a Yale man for not wanting to hobnob with a doorman who had never heard of Old Faithful, thought it might be a horse. That was why Joe Pollock had called up the agency. He was hoping they might be able to send someone with a college education up to Washington Heights, someone to help the Doc snap out of his funk. It was wearing Joe down, living with a man who did nothing all day, wouldn't go out for a walk, much less for a movie or a good square meal. Just stared at the TV all day--and not even a decent TV. Black-and-white, that's all it was, no color, and it fuzzed up everything but Channel 2, the one station Joe Pollock couldn't stand, what with that 60 Minutes.

    It was the counterman at Dunkin' Donuts over on Broadway who had told Joe about Manhattan Cares, how they had sent a chica for free to visit his mother-in-law once a week. Joe Pollock had got the number from Diego and made the call to the agency. He specified right up front that he didn't want just anyone. It would have to be someone really on her toes to satisfy Dr. Bennet's requirements, a Phi Beta-type female, not too young, but definitely not over forty-one--say, forty-two max, And she should have some meat on her bones, someone more like Jane Russell or Ava Gardner than these scarecrows who pass themselves off as women nowadays.

    When the intake woman at the agency insisted on interviewing Dr. Bennet himself, Joe Pollock resorted to a tactic he had learned in basic training--camouflage. Since Dr. Bennet would never submit to an interview, Joe shouldered the burden himself. He pretended he was the one who wanted a visitor.

    And so, after Joe Pollock had taken the subway down to the Village for a meeting with the intake woman, it was arranged that a volunteer would be sent to Washington Heights on Saturday at 2:00 P.M. Joe might have been a little miffed at first that the volunteer the agency came up with was sixty-two and of unknown weight. (No snapshot was provided in advance for Joe's perusal, and they absolutely refused to tell him how much she weighed.) But when he reminded himself that the visitor was for Dr. Bennet, Joe felt better. The Doc didn't seem to care how a dame looked. In fact, he had made Joe take down a Penthouse calendar from their bedroom wall.

    "You are not to open that door," Dr. Bennet insisted with remarkable vigor after the volunteer's arrival was announced over the intercom. "She is not allowed in this apartment, understand?"

    Joe Pollock was pleased to note that already, even before her entrance, the volunteer was having a good effect. Dr. Bennet had never seemed more alive, so full of spunk. It was the first time in the six or seven weeks since Joe had moved in that the man seemed to really care about anything.

    "Just say hi to her, Doc. You might find she's quite a gal. If you don't cotton to her, no one says you have to keep her. Just toss her back, and they'll fish out a new one for you."

    With an injured look, Dr. Bennet retreated to the bedroom. "You have no right to do this to me, Joe."

    From the very beginning Dr. Bennet had suffered misgivings about allowing Joe Pollock to move in. Yes, the man had a heart of gold, solid as a rock, but then again, the same could be said for his head. Try to discuss anything serious with him--Dr. Bennet had once attempted to explain evolution--and he would fidget and squirm like a three-year-old, then start spouting some nonsense about how Mozart proved there was no such thing as evolution. Everything had gone downhill since Mozart, Joe claimed--not only music, but art, manners, morals, even looks. People just looked dumber these days.

    Of course, if Dr. Bennet had not taken him in, Joe Pollock would have been homeless, out on the streets. After years of legal red tape, Joe's landlord had finally managed to raise the rent on his West Eleventh Street apartment from the $77 a month Joe had been paying to $845, totally beyond Joe's means. To be fair, despite the fact that Joe was only paying a hundred a month now for room and board, Dr. Bennet did not think of himself as his benefactor. Ever since his wife had died, Dr. Bennet had suffered from an unrelenting anxiety, which he supposed could be called a broken heart if the words didn't sound so trite and tame. Joe's very presence in the apartment was somehow comforting, particularly at night when his doglike snuffling in the other twin bed--Hermione's--would give Dr. Bennet something to be irritated about. After so much angst, irritation seemed almost welcome, a cozy, housebroken emotion. And then, too, Joe made the best pancakes in the world, when he was in the mood.

"He's in the bedroom, won't come out," Joe Pollock said, as he ushered the volunteer into the living room.

    The sixty-two-year-old dame Joe had been expecting turned out to be bald, a man. Standing out there in the hall, the guy had apologized for not being Mrs. Lucille Wheeler. The agency had tried to phone this morning about the last-minute change--Mrs. Wheeler's husband did not like the idea of her traveling so far uptown by herself--but no one had answered. So the guy--S. Lloyd Norris was his name--decided to keep the appointment anyway. He hoped Mr. Pollock didn't mind that he just showed up like this, without a proper introduction from the agency.

    "You don't mind?" Mr. Norris repeated, since Joe Pollock had only shrugged when he let him in. "You can call them if you like, to verify I'm, you know ..." The muted elegance of the living room distracted Mr. Norris from attending to what Joe Pollock muttered in reply. Mr. Norris thought he was supposed to be visiting a needy old man. That was the whole point of signing up with the agency, to help the poor. Yet that picture on the wall, a stick figure in red crayon, looked inept and childish enough to hang in the Whitney.

    "... and like I said, won't come out. Thanks to Yale, turned out stubborn as a mule, that man."

    "What man?"

    "You hard of hearing? The Doc."

    Mr. Norris ignored the slur. He was adept at not taking things personally. And besides, he was indeed a little hard of hearing today. From cleaning too conscientiously with a cotton swab, Mr. Norris had impacted the wax in his left ear, which was scheduled to be removed, the wax, by an otorhinolaryngologist a week from Tuesday.

    "I'm sorry, are you ill?" Mr. Norris asked somewhat hopefully. Ill would help make up for rich. "Is your physician in the--"

    "Fifty push-ups every morning and a hundred sit-ups," Joe Pollock said, his annoyance at such a stupid question giving him a license to exaggerate, "and you ask if I'm ill." Slapping a crumb from the damask sofa he had lowered himself onto with a groan, he added, "I'll have you know, fella, you're looking at a man who's never had a cold, not once in his eighty-eight years."

    Eyes on high beam, Joe Pollock waited for the volunteer's astonishment--No, you can't be eighty-eight! Actually, Joe was only seventy-nine, which was astonishing enough for most folks. Joe himself could hardly believe it, he Looked so young and fit. But this S. Lloyd Are-You-Ill needed some help, the large-print version.

    "Did you hear? Eighty-eight, can you believe?"

    "No."

    "You calling me a liar?"

    "No, no, I meant you look so young."

    Gratified, Joe Pollock motioned for him to sit. Mr. Norris descended upon the faint unicorn woven into an ottoman.

    "I would say you were eighty-three, -four at most."

    "What's that?" Joe Pollock cocked a hand behind his ear. "Anyway, want to know my secret? I'm going to tell you my secret. See, I never wear a tie. That thing you got on"--he gestured toward Mr. Norris's tie--"it makes you look a good ten years older. Same goes for that suit. Me, I wouldn't be caught dead in a suit tike that, brings out all that gray in your hair, see. So what's with the suit today, anyway? It's Saturday!"

    "We had a meeting this morning at the office and--"

    "Never mind. See this here?" Joe Pollock leaned closer, holding out a wiry arm. "Go ahead, feel."

    "Feel?"

    "Go on," he prompted, and Mr. Norris, with an inward sigh of resignation, touched a protruding vein on the wrist.

    "The shirt, you numbskull!"

    "Oh." The sheepish grin on Mr. Norris's face was a fitting accompaniment to the older man's curious barks of glee. But then when these turned into a coughing fit, the grin faded. "You OK, Mr. Pollock?"

    Joe Pollock hacked into the starched, three-pointed handkerchief offered to him, then wiped his mouth. "He feels me up, can you believe?"

    Mr. Norris shrugged. "I thought--"

    "You're a character, you know? Now go ahead, feel."

    Between thumb and forefinger Mr. Norris tested the baggy short sleeve that reached to the man's forearm. "Very nice."

    "Hundred percent silk. You want to know something? I'm going to tell you something. Can't wash this baby in no machine. I got twelve of them, one for every type of social occasion, and I do them all by hand. A female visitor, see, that means I wear chartreuse."

    Mr. Norris blinked. "But isn't that sort of flesh-colored?"

    Indeed, from even a moderate distance, Joe Pollock seemed half naked.

    "What?"

    "Your shirt."

    Joe Pollock looked down at himself. "Yeah, well, the chartreuse has got this button missing, and you know as well as the man upstairs"--his twenty-five-cent cigarette jabbed the air for emphasis--"that you got to match. I've been looking all over hell and high water for a chartreuse button."

    Mr. Norris tried to wave away some greenish smoke that lingered in his vicinity. "Could I ask you a favor, Mr. Pollock? The cigarette ..."

    "Want a drag?"

    "No, the smoke. See, at my office, it's smoke-free. That's the rule."

    "And you bow down to it?"

    "Actually, it was my suggestion." The ottoman squeaked as Mr. Norris crossed his legs. "My secretary makes it a habit to go out on the sidewalk to smoke."

    The cigarette dangled from Joe Pollock's thin, leathery lips as he said, "Yeah, and what if it's raining?"

    "Well, it's the rule."

    "Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, huh? Nothing stops you, out they go to catch their death of cold. Well, excuse me, mister, but for some reason I thought this was America, the land of the free."

    "I just thought I'd ask." Mr. Norris's smile was wan. "It's OK, I guess."

    Joe Pollock had heard enough. With a grunt he heaved himself to his feet. This S. Lloyd Boss had some nerve telling him it was OK-I-guess to smoke in his own home. As soon as he got this volunteer out the door he was going to call the agency and give them a piece of his mind. And if they didn't come up with a female forty-two max, they'd better plan on explaining themselves to the Better Business Bureau.

[CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES ...]

What People are Saying About This

Roy Blount

Wilcox's novels are so subtle that I need to read them twice, and so funny that I want to. Plain and Normal is no exception.

Robert Penn Warren

There is no writer exactly like [Wilcox]. He is an original.

Brendan Gill

James Wilcox joins the large and unruly family of dark-minded outcasts -- Twain, Faulkner, O'Connor, Capote, Welty.

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