The Syntax of Things
a short story by John Michael

He’s going to walk off something tall. Or drown somewhere shallow. Maybe his wrists will bleed.

He has suicide in his eyes.

I do not want to be here.

“With true love, you don’t feel weaker or less complete when they’re not around. When it’s love, you’ve been changed. You’re not better in their presence, you’re simply better. As long as the relationship is whole, you’re complete.”

I do not find him interesting. He’s not as deep as he believes. He has his father’s eyes, and they won’t shut up. I don’t want to know what they want to tell me, but I’ll never look away.

“…and when I realized that it was true love, I quit saying ‘I need you.’ She never understood that. I had needed her. Need is a precursor of love. It’s something …”

I want to break my champagne glass on the table and put the sharpest jag in his eye. I imagine that not blood, but something more along the lines of ooze or a thick gel would flood out. I could well be wrong, though. I know nothing of such matters.

“I saw Lucinda in a dream again last night. She was in the center of a room, and I stood in the corner. I was cold. I was too cold to go to her. She looked at me and the word “desolate” popped into my mind. First in my own voice, then hers. I just knew it was her voice. It was the sweetest sound ever. But I remained frozen there. I wondered why she wasn’t cold.”

Despite everything, I still want to hug him sometimes. He has his father’s eyes but his mother’s heart. He is more beautiful than he realizes, and more beautiful than I want to give him credit for. I put my champagne glass down. I place my hands on his shoulder. I squeeze.

He doesn’t want to see what my eyes don’t want to tell him, but he’ll never look away.


“You became too interested in the theory of love. Why you loved. How it effected you. ‘Because feeling is first, he who pays attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you’.”

“Just don’t hang up on me.”

“You said that twice already.”

“And don’t quote Cummings to me. You know I think him a fool.”

“Well …”

“When did you stop loving me really?”

“I loved you until you began to “love” me. Which is infinitely sad, no? And a great and wonderful foible on the part of one of us.”

“Foible tends to connote a small fault; viz, a peccadillo. I don’t think you meant that really.”

“I don’t miss arguments on semantics, Ted. I didn’t call for that. Did I somehow bereave you of everything visceral? I feel guilty sometimes about how I left you, compared to how I found you. I don’t know what else I could have done though.”

“Don’t hang up.”

“Give me a reason not to.”


“We’re not discussing her now. I told you that goddammit.”

“Listen to me…”

“Marie … are you there? Please don’t hang up. Marie?”


Tonight is to be his night. The champagne is on me.

There’s an opening in some gallery with a very pretentious name that will display his sculpture. He’s my son and I don’t love him. I can’t relate to him through any sort of filial bond. The only time I can feel touched by his words are when he talks of Lucinda. Sometimes I wish he had been taken away from me as a baby; I could romanticize him that way, the way he does Lucinda. I could imagine a son of mine out in the world who I can’t touch and can’t know, but who must be almost perfect. I could swell my heart with pathos and unknown love never to be requited. Instead, I have a son who was mildly amusing as a child but of poor character and little consequence as a human being now. I don’t understand his art. His works are abstract and have one word titles: “Silence”, “Desolation”, “Unrequited”, “Syntax.” I have studied art and art history and believe that I am smarter than my only child. I believe he is a sham.

Right now his mother is telling him how proud we are of him. Soon a colleague or a friend or borderline relative will come to me and tell me how proud I must certainly be. I will not disagree.

When I look at him I see him at 14, on the night when he had a friend sleep over and they camped out in the back yard in a tent leftover from my youth. I came out with flashlight intending to tell them ghost stories. When I pushed open the flap and shone my light into the tent I saw my son giving his friend a handjob. His eyes glowed with the reflection of the flashlight. And for a second he looked into my eyes, with another boy's cock still in his hand for Christ’s sake; and the very first thought that popped into my mind was, “At least he didn’t have it in his mouth.” It was also the first time I saw my own eyes looking back at me from the depths of my son’s rather striking face.

I simply stood up and walked away from him. In my dreams, I keep walking and never look back.

I give him a year to go ahead and kill himself. If not, I’ll eat my pills and leave him to deal with the shit. One of us will have to stick around for my wife’s sake. But there’s no need for both of us to be here.

The sad professor and the tortured artist ... playing chicken.


“A loveless coupling is the most unnatural thing in the world. You can’t tell me I should have stayed, and mean that in your heart.”


“I don’t think ‘loveless’ is the wrong word, because Ted couldn’t love me.”


“I don’t want to argue what love means. Everyone knows what it means to them. Everyone but Ted.”


“He was supposed to be a fucking artist, Jesus Christ, and in lieu of love poems he would write me theoretical frameworks explaining why he was sure that he loved me, and how that love effected him.”


“I won’t apologize for my language; it’s a policy I have. It’s not that I don’t respect you, but ‘fuck’ is a word, just like ‘love’ is a word. A word can’t hurt you. I ask you please not to be offended, but I tell you sincerely that I can’t apologize.”


“Ted and I will discuss Lucinda. I’ll send pictures soon. This is not a permanent arrangement. I do know that he has rights.”


“I know you’re her grandmother and I know that you have rights too. She is a beautiful person; I know that you would love her.”


“No, I’m not sure Ted loves her. He feels obligated to feel like he’s missing something with her gone. So he does that. He’s analyzed it and decided sadness is the optimum experience at this point.”


“I don’t think he’s a monster. I know he’d never hurt someone. The night I brought Lucinda home from the hospital, he kissed us both and told us how much he loved us. He explained the reactions that assured him he really did. He went out that night and worked on his sculpture and slept in the garage. That’s when it was really over. All he would have had to have done was hold me. To fall asleep with us. The two weeks I was with him after that were just to plan logistics.”


“I could have told him to sleep with me that night, and yeah, he would have, but I need a man who wants to, who loves me of his own volition. Someone who can’t help it. That’s what I need. I don’t know what Ted needs. God knows, I wish I could figure it out.”


“I don’t think he’ll do something “desperate.” Your son is too cold inside for that Ms. Lewin. I’m sorry. He is.”


“What if you’re right? I don’t know what then. 'What then' is a good question.”


“I don’t think it’ll help. I think it might make things worse.”




“Okay. You have a pen? 817-555-6565.”


“Hello, this is Marie. I can’t come to the phone right now, but you can leave me a message. And if you have something to ask, just remember: ‘Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.’”




It was interesting growing up near an airport. Sometimes I’d catch the planes not long after they had taken off, when they hung low and stately above me—true sculptures those airplanes are, real art with a one word title.

I would see them looming there, gaining speed in a low sky. Placed directly above me, they seemed to me almost to be hanging static for a moment. And I would imagine that I could keep pace with this slow giant. That I could run in its shadow wherever it was going. I knew that I could never reach its destination though, for eventually I’d reach an impasse. A desert maybe; more likely an ocean. Something too vast for me to span on my own.

And that became the central illusion in my life: The myth that I could keep up. But in the end, everything flew high above me; faster than I thought, farther than I wished. Once, for a moment, I truly did keep pace; until I stopped to ponder why and to try to enjoy it. It all flies away from me.

My dearest Marie, a better poet than your precious Cummings once told his child: “I can offer you only: this world like a knife.” I wrote a letter for Lucinda, and it began and ended with those words. It is ashes in my fireplace. She does not need to know of me. That will be my gift. I have something to offer at least.

But I stand now, at the edge of my ocean that I cannot span alone. And I have no will to try. I could wait for another sculpture in the sky and try to follow it back, but walking in shadows leaves me cold.

I apologize to the few who knew me. I only hurt those who I let in. And to those who thought they knew me, I send a bittersweet goodbye. Consider yourself lucky that I didn’t get closer. I can’t say my work is done, but I can say I’ve done enough.

I am tired.


©1999 John Michael

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