The young woman was seated on a ragged couch holding a sheaf of papers. “The afternoon was portentous,” she read aloud.
“Huh?” he said, “Let’s stop right there. Portentous? How can an afternoon be portentous? Is that what you really want to say?” The man was in an armchair catty corner to the couch. End tables on either side were piled high with books and magazines and stapled manuscripts. The man had a wide face and gray beard that gave him a vague resemblance to Ernest Hemingway in his later life.
“Yes. The afternoon felt portentous.”
“An afternoon can’t feel portentous. Do you know what portentous means?”
“Don’t be supercilious; I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t know what it meant. It was portentous out there that afternoon.”
“Sorry. How can it be portentous out there? It isn’t like weather. We don’t hear the weatherman say ‘there is a 50% chance of portentousness…’”
“Weather people aren’t in tune with important things. Some days are full of portents; they are bursting with portents. And when that happens the day is portentous and, if you are even halfway attuned, you will realize that the day is portentous.”
“And I take it you are attuned.”
“Yep.” The woman was in her late twenties. Her black hair had been cut very short and what was left was spiky and uneven.
“Okay. I hadn’t realized I was talking to an expert on portents.” The man paused and settled back into the back of his armchair. “Tell me what makes a day feel portentous?”
“I am not sure why it feels that way, it just does.”
“Fine. Just describe how portentousness feels. Can you do that? That’s what writers do.”
The woman squinted and gave the man a long look. After she finished the long look, she slightly shook her head, but went on. “When it’s portentous the hair on the back of my arms stands up.”
“Lyles,” he said, “I don’t know how to break this to you, but you don’t have any hair on the back of your arms.”
“I do.” Lyles unbuttoned the sleeve of the flannel shirt she was wearing and pulled it up above her elbow. Awkwardly she lifted her elbow to show off the pale skin. “See?”
The man reached out to touch the patch of skin just above her elbow, but she moved her arm away.
He said, “as I was saying. It’s as bare a baby’s butt. And just as smooth.”
“They are there. And when they stand up I get a little tickle that runs right up from there, up my back, into my neck…”
“Sounds like sciatica.”
“Ha ha. You are the one who asked how it feels. I am just telling you. Do you want me to stop?”
“No No. Don’t stop. I am enthralled.”
“I doubt it. Anyway, when it’s portentous there is a weird sound thing that goes on. You are going to think it’s all mystical and that it’s bullshit but I am going to say it anyway.”
“So you know when there is a big thunderstorm and there is a huge crack of thunder.”
“So it’s like what it sounds like just after the thunder finishes.”
“There is no sound when it is finished.”
“Exactly! There is no sound…
“That’s how come we know it has finished.”
“…but the absence of sound has its own presence.”
“Okay?” He drew out the “kay” in “Okay” as if it was a separate word and such a questionable one that he wanted to make sure that the listener knew that he knew it was questionable.
“I knew you’d be that way. But trust me. When the thunder is over, there is a space that follows which is a sounding kind of space but all the sound has been scooped out of it. There is just the vibration and the crackling of the energy left in the space after the boom. That’s how portentous sounds, but it isn’t just for an instant, it goes on and on and it gets louder and louder even though you can’t hear it.”
“You’re becoming a hippie, Lyles, you know you don’t have to be a hippie to be a writer.”
She ignored him. “And its not only the sound, there is something physical in the air…”
“Let me guess, its physical but you can’t feel it.”
“Oh no, you can definitely feel it. There is weight to it. Not a lot but the air definitely gets heavier and you can feel it press down on your eyes.”
“How does it do that?”
“I don’t know. The whole thing is mysterious.”
“Don’t condescend on me. You asked.”
“I did. And I am glad I did. I am learning something new. I can see the picture: We have got the no hairs standing up, the sound that doesn’t make any sound, and the weight that pushes down on your eyes. Anything else?”
She didn’t say anything. She gave him a level look, evaluating, judging. “You done with the mockery?”
“Mockery? You wound me, damsel. Mockery this is not.”
“Oh its mockery, all right. And I ‘m done. You may be a writer but you are also a dick.”
“No no. Carry on. I won’t say a word. I won’t move a muscle. I am dying to hear the end of this. I want to know – I need to know – how a portent feels.”
The man made a show of drawing his pinched thumb and forefinger across his lips, as if he were zippering his mouth. Then he used his right hand to mime handcuffing his left arm to the chair.
“And I am supposed to believe you’ll sit there and shut up and let me finish?”
He pointed at his lips with his forefinger and made the zipper gesture again. Then he bounced his left arm as if it were shackled to the chair.
She did not look convinced but she started back up. “The other thing that always happens – and maybe this is the biggest thing – is I get a little catch in my thinking. Kind of a stumble in the middle of whatever thought I am working on. Not enough to make me go really off track but definitely enough to notice.”
She paused to see if he was following along. He was attentive though he didn’t say anything.
“Wow. I like this.” She said. “I am amazed. I never thought you could keep your mouth shut so long. Maybe you could learn something. ”
The man smiled and shook his arm again: a captive audience.
She looked at the man for a minute, “yes, maybe you can.” Then she said, slowly, seductively. “And sometimes when it is really strong I get a sexual thing.”
The man startled. His mouth opened and it seemed for an instant as if he was going to say something, but then he did the zipper gesture again.
‘It can be really powerful. The more portentous it is, the more powerful the feeling. Sometimes its so strong that I start to squirm.” She squirmed for a minute on the couch where she was sitting and then she ran her hands up and down her arms. She didn’t look directly at him while she was squirming but when she stopped she gave him a long direct look and then she began slowly to unbutton the buttons on her flannel shirt. She took her time, one button at a time, and she let the shirt gap open more and more as the buttons were unbuttoned.
The man did not move but his eyes widened and he had shed his look of casual interest to bore in on what was happening on the couch.
“Yeah, sometimes, when it is feeling really portentous, I start to feel like I can’t do anything about it. Like I am in the will of something bigger, something so powerful that all I can do is relax and go with it, there is no way to resist.” She finished unbuttoning the shirt. She wasn’t wearing anything underneath and there was a long straight patch of skin visible from her neck to her waist between the two halves of the unbuttoned shirt.
The man was following every move. His mouth, though still zippered, had fallen slightly open. She unbuttoned the top of her jeans. She rose up slightly on the couch and in one move pulled them far enough down so that when she sat back they weren’t caught beneath her. Then she raised one leg and then the other and pushed the fabric of her jeans down all the way down her ankles. She was wearing a striped pair of red and white socks that came nearly to her knees.
For a long moment she sat there. Not moving. Not saying a word. Looking straight into the man’s face.
His mouth opened wider and he stirred forward in his chair. But as he did she held up her hand. Palm forward. Stop. “No moving. I am not done.”
She stood up from the couch and as she did she kicked the jeans across the room. She arched up on her toes and spun a pirouette for him. Then she walked across the room and through the door to the bedroom. His eyes followed her every step of the way but he remained in the chair.
“So,” she called from the other room, “can you feel it?”
He said, “Am I allowed to talk?”
“Yes. But don’t move. Can you feel it?”
“Yes. Yes I can.”
“You are thinking to yourself that it’s a portentous afternoon, aren’t you?”
“Yes I am.”
“You are thinking that the portents are good, aren’t you?”
“These are my kind of portents,” he said. He half rose from the chair. “Can I come in?”
“Hold your horses. There are good portents and bad portents.” There was a rustling of clothing from behind the door.
“You are getting good portents?”
“But you could be mistaken?”
“Oh I sure hope not.”
The man stood up and made a step toward the bedroom. But as he did, she emerged. She was wearing a tailored suit and a silk blouse. She had a long coat and a purple scarf around her neck.
“Got to run,” she said, heading for the front door of the apartment. “I will give you a ring later.”
“Damn. Are you kidding?”
“Nope. Time to get to work.”
“You’re kidding. What a waste.”
“Its not a waste,” she said.
“It’s a total waste.”
“It is not; now you know how a portent feels.” She closed the door behind her with a click.