Excerpt: 100 pages into The Perfect Man

This section is in the perspective of Ruth Winters, a woman who, against her own will, is left with twelve-year-old Raj after the suspected suicide of Raj’s uncle, Ruth’s partner, Oliver.  She has written something cruel about Raj, which he mistakenly read, regrets it deeply, and is waiting for him to return to the farm.  (Fifty-Three is a hunting hound.)

         Ruth took a seat on the back porch.  The sun had almost set.  Fifty-Three lay at her feet and began a loud liquid licking of his body.
         What was wrong with her?  Why couldn’t she open herself up to others?  She thought of poor Goldwin, who had courted her briefly before she met Oliver.  Goldwin was the first man she had dated in almost four years.  She knew immediately that it was absurd - a 46-year-old lifelong bachelor.  She wasn’t in the least attracted to him, with his fleshy, hangdog features, and his obsessive fussing with those thin strands of dyed black hair, greased and swept so carefully over his bald crown.  It was as if he considered his scalp something so obscene that the possibility of its exposure were the stuff of nightmare, his thick blind fingers constantly reaching up to make sure he was decent.  (She tried to resist that snaky cruelty uncoiling itself inside her).  He was sweet, really, bought her flowers and chocolates.  On their fourth date, he gave her a polished granite brooch that had belonged to his mother, which she politely refused.  Why hadn’t she told him then that it wasn’t going to work out?  She was lonely, that was part of it, frightened of becoming nothing.  And curious to have herself mirrored in a man again as something desirable, to try to catch glimpses in his surface of a woman who had once been able to give and receive pleasure.  What was she now, spending so much time here on this porch, taking in the sky, the barn against the sky, the sky behind the trees?  Little more than a crude receptor - a coarsely articulated spine - to conduct, vaguely, the soft trembling of a deeper life.  The alternative - ingestion, excretion, sex, reproduction, age, sickness, dying - she found horrifying, absurd; summed up in the sound of Fifty-Three licking his genitals.  But she loved Fifty-Three.  And for all her ascetic posturing, it required so little - Haig’s letter - for her to produce that foul language, the squid-shot of ink.
         The one mirror she had in her home had become a reproach.  A personal ghost, created from all she had improperly felt, haunted her reflection.  And did so more and more as age made her face increasingly tenable.  At one time she had no face, nothing to haunt, because she had been, if not beautiful exactly, flawlessly attractive.  One former boyfriend, whenever she entered a room of people, would exclaim, “Ah, the main course has arrived.”  And her face would be devoured, one of the few consistently emptied plates in the great potluck of society.  What was she now?  Ruth smiled.  No longer the fried chicken, she was the raw broccoli and mayonnaise salad, the mysterious fish dip.  She could bring her face home untouched each time, and freeze it for the next gathering.
         But Goldwin seemed very happy with the fish dip.  On their last date, he took her to a fancy restaurant in St. Louis.  He had memorized dozens of the “Did you know?” sections from The Jackson and Pisgah Herald.  Why were there so many who knew nothing about how to converse, how to listen, how to tell the simplest of stories, to remember and reflect?  How was it that so many people, born sensitive and intelligent, turned into Calibans, becoming increasingly eccentric and isolated?  After his “Did you knows?” ran dry, things became awkward until she mentioned Fifty-Three.  On the subject of his own hunting hounds, he came to life, telling wonderful and hilarious stories, impressing her with his arcane knowledge of breeding, training, and canine physiology.  When the check came, he paid with all the crumpled, small bills from his barber business.  It made her feel almost tearful, the way he cleared his throat and frowned as he counted out the notes, as if this were important, though slightly unpleasant, male business he was sorry she had to witness.  When they got back into town, he asked if she wanted to see his hounds.  Agreeing, she experienced him in his medium.  Those hounds were his body, his senses, his history and mythology.  Firm but benevolent, he was the apotheosis of anus and olfaction, the true north of all those whining, whipping bodies.  (Her cruel snake uncoiling).  Needing to use his bathroom, she entered his little cabin: stacks of The Jackson and Pisgah Herald funnies; socks drying over the footboard of his bed; piles of pennies and bottle caps; two enormous freezers, filled, no doubt, with butchered meat; and a bathroom so unimaginably filthy it was as if she had walked straight into his bowels.  But it was a life no less singular and contracted than her own, which set off that old and echoing shudder in the place of her emptiness.  When he dropped her off, he got out of his truck.  She knew he would try to kiss her now, this shy man.  Before he even shut his door behind him, she broke it off, said she was done with relationships, a hopeless case, and apologized.  As she watched his taillights recede on the blacktop, she felt deeply for him: things might have worked fine if he had always been driving away.
         That night she had dreamed he was butchering her with an almost crazed intensity and tenderness, conducting her out of her skin before an audience of hounds.
         The next day she had taken the train to New York City for no reason but to cleanse herself of herself.  She never expected a handsome, young Englishman to begin a conversation with her about one of the Vermeers in the Met.  Wasn’t prepared for the way he touched her, with exquisite propriety, his manner that of a skilled physician.  Four days later Oliver returned with her.  Two weeks after that, Goldwin’s letter arrived.  The thought of it made her wince to this day.
         Now her gentle physician, her ever-approaching Oliver was gone.  He had brought his death with him: mistress, compulsion, and final infidelity.
         And she had been left with this boy.  An intelligent child, watchful, but not defended.  He was nice to look at, with those strong features and long eyelashes, which shone bronze in the sun.  He seemed happy, despite everything, had a gift for joy.  He would hum and rock his body as he ate, seemed intensely - if a little indiscriminately - alive to the pleasures of this world.  He was sensitive also, especially to her need for solitude, moved stealthily around the house, trying to make himself invisible, and kept mostly to his room.  One time, when she complained of a sore shoulder, he began to massage her, but she asked him to stop, sensing he would have behaved like a servant if she had let him.  In forgetful moments he would take on her gestures and use her expressions.  She would often notice that he was mirroring her posture.  In the same way, when he was with Lewis, he took on Lewis’s otherworldliness, the two boys like sylvan creatures, with their long bodies and soft, fragmentary language.  With Annie, his eyes devoured every gesture.  Ruth had laughed out loud one time when Annie was telling one of her animated stories and Ruth had noticed Raj opening and rounding his lips, as if his eyes and ears weren’t enough and he were trying, like an infant, to get her - the whole of her - into his mouth.  She understood this: she kept Oliver’s work gloves in the cabinet beside her bed and still put them on each night to have her hands in his, and to look at his hands, which had shaped the old leather.
         Ruth took a seat on the back porch.  The sun had almost set.  Fifty-Three lay at her feet and began a loud liquid licking of his body.
         What was wrong with her?  Why couldn’t she open herself up to others?  She thought of poor Goldwin, who had courted her briefly before she met Oliver.  Goldwin was the first man she had dated in almost four years.  She knew immediately that it was absurd - a 46-year-old lifelong bachelor.  She wasn’t in the least attracted to him, with his fleshy, hangdog features, and his obsessive fussing with those thin strands of dyed black hair, greased and swept so carefully over his bald crown.  It was as if he considered his scalp something so obscene that the possibility of its exposure were the stuff of nightmare, his thick blind fingers constantly reaching up to make sure he was decent.  (She tried to resist that snaky cruelty uncoiling itself inside her).  He was sweet, really, bought her flowers and chocolates.  On their fourth date, he gave her a polished granite brooch that had belonged to his mother, which she politely refused.  Why hadn’t she told him then that it wasn’t going to work out?  She was lonely, that was part of it, frightened of becoming nothing.  And curious to have herself mirrored in a man again as something desirable, to try to catch glimpses in his surface of a woman who had once been able to give and receive pleasure.  What was she now, spending so much time here on this porch, taking in the sky, the barn against the sky, the sky behind the trees?  Little more than a crude receptor - a coarsely articulated spine - to conduct, vaguely, the soft trembling of a deeper life.  The alternative - ingestion, excretion, sex, reproduction, age, sickness, dying - she found horrifying, absurd; summed up in the sound of Fifty-Three licking his genitals.  But she loved Fifty-Three.  And for all her ascetic posturing, it required so little - Haig’s letter - for her to produce that foul language, the squid-shot of ink.
         The one mirror she had in her home had become a reproach.  A personal ghost, created from all she had improperly felt, haunted her reflection.  And did so more and more as age made her face increasingly tenable.  At one time she had no face, nothing to haunt, because she had been, if not beautiful exactly, flawlessly attractive.  One former boyfriend, whenever she entered a room of people, would exclaim, “Ah, the main course has arrived.”  And her face would be devoured, one of the few consistently emptied plates in the great potluck of society.  What was she now?  Ruth smiled.  No longer the fried chicken, she was the raw broccoli and mayonnaise salad, the mysterious fish dip.  She could bring her face home untouched each time, and freeze it for the next gathering.
         But Goldwin seemed very happy with the fish dip.  On their last date, he took her to a fancy restaurant in St. Louis.  He had memorized dozens of the “Did you know?” sections from The Jackson and Pisgah Herald.  Why were there so many who knew nothing about how to converse, how to listen, how to tell the simplest of stories, to remember and reflect?  How was it that so many people, born sensitive and intelligent, turned into Calibans, becoming increasingly eccentric and isolated?  After his “Did you knows?” ran dry, things became awkward until she mentioned Fifty-Three.  On the subject of his own hunting hounds, he came to life, telling wonderful and hilarious stories, impressing her with his arcane knowledge of breeding, training, and canine physiology.  When the check came, he paid with all the crumpled, small bills from his barber business.  It made her feel almost tearful, the way he cleared his throat and frowned as he counted out the notes, as if this were important, though slightly unpleasant, male business he was sorry she had to witness.  When they got back into town, he asked if she wanted to see his hounds.  Agreeing, she experienced him in his medium.  Those hounds were his body, his senses, his history and mythology.  Firm but benevolent, he was the apotheosis of anus and olfaction, the true north of all those whining, whipping bodies.  (Her cruel snake uncoiling).  Needing to use his bathroom, she entered his little cabin: stacks of The Jackson and Pisgah Herald funnies; socks drying over the footboard of his bed; piles of pennies and bottle caps; two enormous freezers, filled, no doubt, with butchered meat; and a bathroom so unimaginably filthy it was as if she had walked straight into his bowels.  But it was a life no less singular and contracted than her own, which set off that old and echoing shudder in the place of her emptiness.  When he dropped her off, he got out of his truck.  She knew he would try to kiss her now, this shy man.  Before he even shut his door behind him, she broke it off, said she was done with relationships, a hopeless case, and apologized.  As she watched his taillights recede on the blacktop, she felt deeply for him: things might have worked fine if he had always been driving away.
         That night she had dreamed he was butchering her with an almost crazed intensity and tenderness, conducting her out of her skin before an audience of hounds.
         The next day she had taken the train to New York City for no reason but to cleanse herself of herself.  She never expected a handsome, young Englishman to begin a conversation with her about one of the Vermeers in the Met.  Wasn’t prepared for the way he touched her, with exquisite propriety, his manner that of a skilled physician.  Four days later Oliver returned with her.  Two weeks after that, Goldwin’s letter arrived.  The thought of it made her wince to this day.
         Now her gentle physician, her ever-approaching Oliver was gone.  He had brought his death with him: mistress, compulsion, and final infidelity.
         And she had been left with this boy.  An intelligent child, watchful, but not defended.  He was nice to look at, with those strong features and long eyelashes, which shone bronze in the sun.  He seemed happy, despite everything, had a gift for joy.  He would hum and rock his body as he ate, seemed intensely - if a little indiscriminately - alive to the pleasures of this world.  He was sensitive also, especially to her need for solitude, moved stealthily around the house, trying to make himself invisible, and kept mostly to his room.  One time, when she complained of a sore shoulder, he began to massage her, but she asked him to stop, sensing he would have behaved like a servant if she had let him.  In forgetful moments he would take on her gestures and use her expressions.  She would often notice that he was mirroring her posture.  In the same way, when he was with Lewis, he took on Lewis’s otherworldliness, the two boys like sylvan creatures, with their long bodies and soft, fragmentary language.  With Annie, his eyes devoured every gesture.  Ruth had laughed out loud one time when Annie was telling one of her animated stories and Ruth had noticed Raj opening and rounding his lips, as if his eyes and ears weren’t enough and he were trying, like an infant, to get her - the whole of her - into his mouth.  She understood this: she kept Oliver’s work gloves in the cabinet beside her bed and still put them on each night to have her hands in his, and to look at his hands, which had shaped the old leather.