:: Article

The Wrong Things List

By Greg Gerke.

The following story comes from the collection Especially the Bad Things, which Splice will publish in September. 

There were many things he did wrong in the relationship, though calling her cold-hearted slag and ripping the picture of them at Niagara Falls were not part of the many, but more an assertion of his masculinity—through admittedly feminine means. Yet if some people knew how she behaved, they would applaud him for his assertion, as some weeks she bordered on psychotic and she needed to see the image of them torn to activate the reverse-traumatization effect he’d read about in a men’s magazine. The slag wasn’t planned, but he’d thought for a good week about dubbing her cold-hearted—even writing a paper weighing the advantages and disadvantages of such a coronation. Unlike his other documents, he single-spaced and justified the lines of the paper to make the arguments and ideas more uniform and official-looking, concluding he should add slag to demystify the cold-hearted breach and keep her somewhat attracted to him because of the smart words he used.

The wrong things list did exist, though he’d spent little time with it. Written on a grocery receipt in ballpoint pen, it remained inside a chemistry textbook he kept in a storage compartment on the outskirts of town. Some Saturdays he went into this poorly lit, chicken-wired den and sat on a box, working his mind around the points he’d made in a more fragile and delicate moment, a moment that perplexed him far more than the many things enumerated. He considered himself aloof, but not aloof from his real wants and desires; yet, if he was so in touch with himself, why didn’t more fragile and delicate moments occur in his life? These thoughts often led him into less promising territory and wrecked his brow, making it look like he’d had frontal brain surgery at a hospital where they didn’t care about pretty.

All he could remember about writing the wrong things list was that he’d needed to drink a large glass of orange juice before starting. The panacea of citrus, pulp, and vitamin C bucked his huddled mind, prompting a brief recap of his short existence—the swinging boyhood legs which, once he began a career in non-fiction, lay stinking on various couches like strangled pythons.

In the list itself, he referred to her as P, though her name began with L. Why the subterfuge? His father had been big into precaution too. A rustic but dispirited man who carried two green eyes that stayed alert against any unwholesomeness at his expense. Sitting in the storage compartment, he waved to his father in heaven, but smarting at the memory of how much money his father had left his second wife, his wave became the finger.

P was mentioned in many entries on the wrong things list and this worried him. Did he think she caused many of the wrong things he eventually carried out? If so, this list was actually P’s wrong things list—she had authored the compendium. No. This was his wrong things list, and the overwhelming amount of P minutiae only typified her dominant nature when it came to him, though what else could she be when they’d lived greatly intertwined for five years, including a month in Peru, out of each other’s sight only on bathroom breaks. Did Peru make an appearance on the wrong things list? Yes. Toward the end of their vacation she insisted on hiking one more mile, and during that mile he broke his leg and they stayed a week longer than they wanted and missed the National Book Awards ceremony he’d strategically intended to attend with a wonderful tan and a wonderfully tanned woman. But this Peruvian moment was written as P gives into J’s (again an alias, his name began with T) demands for another mile.

He wanted to puzzle out the truth, but first dealt with his annoyance at the use of present tense. Most of the list was in past tense except this episode and a few others. Did this mean the follies lived on eternally? That they were the more important wrong things? The next present tense entry stated: J gives P the Brahms Requiem CD. How the hell did that get on the list? It wasn’t even in the same neighborhood as breaking a leg in Peru. And she’d said she loved Brahms—he remembered that very clearly. They’d just come out of the performing arts center and she’d said, I really love Brahms. She had this unmatchable smile on her face, like she was happy for all people, not just herself. They kissed and, though it was late, walked near the dangerous park because the experience of all that music and all those instruments played at the right time had ignited a fire in them.

As they walked into their apartment, she said again, I really love Brahms, though she reveled in symbols and malapropism, often saying one thing when she meant another and sometimes he understood her, and that night he did surmise he was who she really loved, even though Brahms added a good deal to the feeling—what else was classical music good for if not seduction?

Then they made love in the hallway. It had been a while since they’d made love in the hallway, and he remarked to himself he should sweep more often so their skin wouldn’t get punctured by the small street pebbles their shoes sometimes brought in. The presentation of the Brahms Requiem CD came later in the week, maybe Thursday, almost four full days after the concert and hallway love. What happened in almost four full days? They went to work. They came home at night. Hot June weather. J gives P the Brahms Requiem CD, meaning the wrong thing was a result of the giving. The gift generated the wrong thing, but that ripe, orange-juice-filled authorial body declaimed the giving as the wrong thing, not, seemingly, anything in its aftermath. Did the creation called J have orange juice running through his blood at the time of gift-giving too? Yet, J was much more T as he composed the wrong things list and P was much more L when she said she really loved Brahms, because sometimes that was as close as L came to her heart, at least according to J and T. So J gives P the Brahms Requiem CD is clearly on the wrong list, the wrong wrong things list. Is that acceptable? How many other mistakes are there? But what about orange juice consciousness? Could he really succeed in fighting such an overwhelming force on a cold, rainy, mysterious Saturday? The giving was an attempt at something, however fearful and misguided the giver was at the time. So J gave P the wrong Brahms. P wanted T. Shouldn’t T have seen that? Hadn’t being next to her smell so long made an impression?

Why should he answer these questions? Why should he find himself alone as Saturday becomes Sunday? He’s been alone before—after being born his mother had to leave the room at some point. If one day he isn’t happy, the next could be different. He carries the same identity into each. He had the same identity when living with L—has he changed so much now that he only lives with memories of her?

Will he edit this list to come off as more favorable, as less paranoid? Possibly. Who is watching him here? No-one. Who cares about what he is doing? No-one. Then why is he doing this?

Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, LA Review of Books, and other publications. In addition to Especially the Bad Things, Splice will publish See What I See, a book of essays, this autumn.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019.