Ode to Tobias Wolff
And to men troubled by more women than they can handle
By Dell Franklin
Around eight on a Tuesday evening two girls came out of a bluesy, upscale bar near city hall. Dressed in jeans, sweaters and tennis shoes, they were headed for the Performing Arts Center on the Cal Poly campus where humor essayist David Sedaris was performing.
“David Sedaris the writer?” I asked, as they settled in the back seat.
“Yes. He’s supposed to be a humorist. He’s supposed to be a modern-day, poor man’s Mark Twain.”
“He’s pretty clever. He writes a lot for the New Yorker. Are you English majors?”
“Yes,” they said in unison.
“Are you interested in writing?”
They both nodded, told me they were in a writing class. I asked if they studied and wrote short stories. Yes! Well, had they heard of Raymond Carver? Yes, but they had not yet read him. I could not believe this.
“Raymond Carver is an American Chekhov,” I said. “He’s passed away, you know. He was a very good friend of Tobias Wolff. Surely you’ve heard of Tobias Wolff.”
No, they had not. I explained that with Raymond Carver gone, Tobias Wolff might be our greatest living short story writer.
“Yes. Who the hell teaches you? Every short story Wolff writes is a lesson, a moral, and a disturbing truth alien to most of us, unless we decide to really put on our thinking caps and enter into the darkness of our situations, and our souls.”
“My God, are YOU a writer?”
I dropped them off at the Performing Arts Center and urged them to be sure to secure a book of short stories by Wolff — “The Night In Question.” They thanked me and said they’d enjoyed talking about writers because they loved writing and hoped I picked them up another time in my cab. I gave them my card.
It was a cold, slow, dead night, so I headed downtown and parked next to the Wells Fargo Bank which provided good lighting under which to read. I did part of a crossword puzzle and read a Richard Ford short story and yawned, an hour killed. Though I knew the main drag, Higuera, would be slow, I decided to cruise around just to be doing something. Much to my surprise, I was flagged down from the sidewalk by a man named Jason, a chef at a new local bistro that was busy every night, taking SLO town by storm. I usually picked Jason up at a nearby bar around one o’clock when he was very drunk, and drove him a couple miles out toward Foothill where he shared an apartment with two other cooks. But tonight was different.
“It’s my day off,” he told me, getting in. “I’ve worked six days a week, thirteen hours a day, for four months. I’ m exhausted. Man, I finally got laid last night. I had this forty-six-year-old woman. I’m thirty. I was so horny, I screwed her six times! So what happens? This thirty-two-year-old, a real fox, wants me tonight. I’m supposed to meet her at a motel here in town. But man, you know, my libido is way down.
“Dammit! Why does it always have to come in bunches? When I’m on a cold streak, the women, they smell it, man, and run from you like you’re the plague. But when I’m getting it, they’re all over you. What am I supposed to do, man? I need your advice.”
“You say she’s thirty-two years old?”
“Yeh. Pull over at the 7/11. I’m gonna find me a good porno magazine. Maybe that’ll help.”
I did so. On the way in, a couple homeless kids hit him up, and he gave them cash. Coming out, another kid hit him up, and he gave him cash, too, then settled in the back seat.
“I need to go home and shower,” Jason told me. “So dude, what am I gonna do about this thirty-two-year-old fox who wants to rock and roll?”
“I don’t know, man. A thirty-two-year-old woman is at the very peak of her sexual hormonal drive. A horny thirty-two-year-old woman in heat has no business with anybody but a twenty-year-old, preferably a GI who hasn’t been laid in a month.”
“Man, I know. This woman, she could kill me. Pull over at that liquor store. I’m gonna get me some tequila. You want anything?”
“Nah. I’m fine.”
“A sandwich or something?”
“I’m fine, Jason, but thanks anyway.”
He went in and came back with a fifth of tequila in a brown bag, nipping from it, a troubled man with big problems. Now he handed me a hundred dollar bill and told me to keep the change after I dropped him off for good, though he wasn’t yet sure where that would be. He said he needed to stop off at his apartment for a change of clothing to take to the motel where he planned to meet his thirty-two-year-old fox. I dropped him off and waited in my cab, reworking the crossword. Jason returned in about ten minutes. I felt good. I was going to make a lot of money off this guy, whom I liked. I wanted to help him, but what could I do? Or say? I had, in my past, gone through cold spells with women as a confirmed bachelor. As a bartender down south, I had also enjoyed streaks where I slept with a variety of women of all ages over a long period of time, always drunk while wallowing in delicious, lascivious, loveless sport-fucking, and I cannot remember ever having had such a deliriously wonderful time since, and would not trade the experience for anything.
The thing is, after a while, even that kind of hedonistic life got old. I yearned for a companionable woman to go to a movie with, enjoy a quiet dinner, just hang out together and do nothing. It seemed, as an American male, I was indoctrinated early on into this frenzied ob-session to get laid as much as possible, like my compatriots. It was all crazy. Sometimes long periods of celibacy were more peaceful, though waking up in the morning without a woman was always lonely, and sometimes miserable. Is there ever a balance?
Anyway, Jason was still expressing his uncertainty of what to do about the fox as we headed back downtown, to Motel Row on Monterey.
“Man,” he said, sagging in the back seat, yawning. “I’m beat. That forty-six-year -old kept me up all night. I got about an hour sleep, max. Then I worked all morning on the books and had a meeting this afternoon with my cooks, and then I started boozing. This woman, she wants me bad. So I got the tequila, I got the porno magazine, I got plenty of cash, but I got a libido of a ninety-year-old. What am I gonna do?”
“Why don’t you give that thirty-two-year-old fox to me, man. I haven’t been laid in ages. Nobody wants me anymore, because I’m old.”
“How about that porno place in Atascadero? Diamond’s? Maybe, you know, I can give this woman some action until my libido comes back. I can use one of them dildos to replace my poor chewed up dick.”
“That’s a round-trip of nearly a hundred dollars, Jason. You’ll have to get another big bill out for that.”
“I don’t care, man. Right now, if I go with that woman, she might kill me. I’m in pain. I over-did it with that forty-six-year -old.”
“Well, there’s other things you can do, without a dildo, Jason — and without your dick. Every man knows that.”
“Man, if I can’t perform, she’ll get rid of me, though.”
“Well, as a last resort, why don’t you try talking to her. I know a motel room isn’t the perfect place for it, but why don’t you try and get to know this woman as a real, live human, and maybe let her get to know you the same way. Maybe she’ll have mercy, Jason. That may be your only hope.”
“Pull over at that gas station, please,” Jason said. “I’ve got to eat something. This tequila is going right to my head. I haven’t eaten a thing all day. I won’t be able to do much of anything if I don’t get some food in me.”
“Right. Fuel for the grind.”
Jason seemed to be delaying the situation in the gas station mini-mart on Monterey, on Motel Row. He browsed through some more magazines, then talked a little with the guy manning the counter, and then he purchased one of those synthetic, awful smelling corn dogs and a big hotdog, which he brought back to the cab along with a six-pack of Lite Beer.
He asked me what kind of hotel he should go to: A fancy one, like the Holiday Inn? Or one of the low-rent places? I advised him to take one that was not too expensive, but respectable. He accepted my expert advice and I dropped him off at a motel where I might take a girl. Fat chance. So Jason toted his porno magazine, change of clothes, tequila, cell phone, gizzard-curdling chow, and stood outside the office, looking like a lost soul while I counted my tip — $76. He was still standing outside the office, using his cell phone, when I took off.
My cell phone rang, and the dispatcher sent me back to the Per-forming Arts Center on campus. It was just around the corner, and, amid the mob spilling out of the plush auditorium, the two English major girls waited for me.
“It's YOU!” they cheered in unison, getting in the back.
“Hey! How was David Sedaris?”
“Fabulous! And guess what?” said the chunkier of the two, who sat up to tell me the good news. “David Sedaris was talking about how he gets depressed from time to time, and even considers suicide, and he said one of the reasons he will never commit suicide is because he might miss out on the next short story by guess who? Tobias Wolff! He loves Tobias Wolff. He must really be good.”
“So now you gotta read him, honey. You got two people recommending him — David Sedaris, world famous author and lecturer, and your local cabbie.” §
Dell Franklin is the publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.