A Dirty Job Chapter 4
THE BETA MALE IN HIS NATURAL ENVIRONMENT
Jane,” said Charlie, “I am convinced by the events of the last few weeks that nefarious forces or people – unidentified but no less real – are threatening life as we know it, and in fact, may be bent on unraveling the very fabric of our existence.”
“And that’s why I have to eat yellow mustard?” Jane was sitting at Charlie’s breakfast counter eating Little Smokies cocktail sausages out of the package, dipping them in a ramekin of French’s yellow. Baby Sophie was sitting on the counter in her car-seat/bassinet/imperial-storm-trooper-helmet thingy.
Charlie paced the kitchen, marking off his evidentiary points in the air with a sausage as he went. “First, there was the guy in Rachel’s room that mysteriously disappeared from the security tapes.”
“Because he was never there. Look, Sophie likes yellow mustard like you.”
“Second,” Charlie continued, despite his sister’s persistent indifference, “all the stuff in the shop was glowing like it was radioactive. Don’t put that in her mouth.”
“Oh my God, Charlie, Sophie’s straight. Look at her go after that Lil’ Smokie.”
“And third, that Creek guy, got hit by a bus up on Columbus yesterday, I knew his name and he had an umbrella that was glowing red.”
“I’m so disappointed,” said Jane. “I was looking forward to raising her on the all-girls team – giving her the advantages I never had, but look at her work that sausage. This kid is a natural.”
“Get that out of her mouth!”
“Relax, she can’t eat it. She doesn’t even have teeth. And it’s not like there’s a moaning Teletubby on the other end of it. Oh, jeez, it’s going to take major tequila to get that picture out of my head.”
“She can’t have pork, Jane. She’s Jewish! Are you trying to turn my daughter into a shiksa?”
Jane snatched the cocktail sausage out of Sophie’s mouth, and examined it, even as the fiber-optic strand of drool stayed connected to the tiny kid. “I don’t think I can eat these things ever again,” Jane said. “They’ll always conjure visions of my niece blowing a terry-cloth puppet person.”
“Jane!” Charlie grabbed the sausage from her and flung it into the sink.
“Are you listening at all?”
“Yes, yes, you saw some guy get hit by a bus so your fabric is unraveling. So?”
“So, someone is fucking with me?”
“And why is that news, Charlie? You’ve thought someone was fucking with you since you were eight.”
“They have been. Probably. But this time it’s real. It could be real.”
“Hey, these are all-beef Lil’ Smokies. Sophie’s not a shikster after all.”
“Jane, you’re not helping with my problem.”
“What problem? You have a problem?”
Charlie’s problem was that the trailing edge of his Beta Male imagination was digging at him like bamboo splinters under the fingernails. While Alpha Males are often gifted with superior physical attributes – size, strength, speed, good looks – selected by evolution over the eons by the strongest surviving and, essentially, getting all the girls, the Beta Male gene has survived not by meeting and overcoming adversity, but by anticipating and avoiding it. That is, when the Alpha Males were out charging after mastodons, the Beta Males could imagine in advance that attacking what was essentially an angry, woolly bulldozer with a pointy stick might be a losing proposition, so they hung back at camp to console the grieving widows. When Alpha Males set out to conquer neighboring tribes, to count coups and take heads, Beta Males could see in advance that in the event of a victory, the influx of female slaves was going to leave a surplus of mateless women cast out for younger trophy models, with nothing to do but salt down the heads and file the uncounted coups, and some would find solace in the arms of any Beta Male smart enough to survive. In the case of defeat, well, there was that widows thing again. The Beta Male is seldom the strongest or the fastest, but because he can anticipate danger, he far outnumbers his Alpha Male competition. The world is led by Alpha Males, but the machinery of the world turns on the bearings of the Beta Male.
The problem (Charlie’s problem) is that the Beta Male imagination has become superfluous in the face of modern society. Like the saber-toothed tiger’s fangs, or the Alpha Male’s testosterone, there’s just more Beta Male imagination than can really be put to good use. Consequently, a lot of Beta Males become hypochondriacs, neurotics, paranoids, or develop an addiction to porn or video games.
Because, while the Beta Male imagination evolved to help him avoid danger, as a side effect it also allows him fantasy-only access to power, money, and leggy, model-type females who, in reality, wouldn’t kick him in the kidneys to get a bug off their shoe. The rich fantasy life of the Beta Male may often spill over into reality, manifesting in near-genius levels of self-delusion. In fact, many Beta Males, contrary to any empirical evidence, actually believe that they are Alpha Males, and have been endowed by their creator with advanced stealth charisma, which, although awesome in concept, is totally undetectable by women not constructed from carbon fiber. Every time a supermodel divorces her rock-star husband, the Beta Male secretly rejoices (or more accurately, feels great waves of unjustified hope), and every time a beautiful movie star marries, the Beta Male experiences a sense of lost opportunity. The entire city of Las Vegas – plastic opulence, treasure for the taking, vulgar towers, and cocktail waitresses with improbable breasts – is built on the self-delusion of the Beta Male.
And Beta Male self-delusion played no small part in Charlie first approaching Rachel, that rainy day in February, five years before, when he had ducked into A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books to get out of the storm, and Rachel granted him a shy smile over a stack of Carson McCullers she was shelving. He quickly convinced himself that it was because he was dripping with boyish charm, when it was, in fact, simply because he was dripping.
“You’re dripping,” she said. She had blue eyes, fair skin, and dark loose curls that fell around her face. She gave him a sideways glance – just enough consideration to spur his Beta Male ego.
“Yeah, thanks,” Charlie said, taking a step closer.
“Can I get you a towel or something?”
“Nah, I’m used to it.”
“You’re dripping on Cormac McCarthy.”
“Sorry.” Charlie wiped All the Pretty Horses with his sleeve while he tried to see if she had a nice figure under the floppy sweater and cargo pants. “Do you come here often?”
Rachel took a second before responding. She was wearing a name tag, working inventory from a metal cart, and she was pretty sure she’d seen this guy in the store before. So he wasn’t being stupid, he was being clever. Sort of. She couldn’t help it, she laughed.
Charlie shrugged damply and smiled. “I’m Charlie Asher.”
“Rachel,” Rachel said. They shook hands.
“Rachel, would you like to get a cup of coffee or something sometime?”
“That sort of depends, Charlie. I’d need you to answer a few questions first.”
“Of course,” Charlie said. “If you don’t mind, I have some questions, too.” He was thinking, What do you look like naked? and How long before I can check?
“Fine, then.” Rachel put down The Ballad of the Sad Caf?? and counted on her fingers.
“Do you have a job, a car, and a place to live? And are the last two things the same thing?” She was twenty-five and had been single for a while. She’d learned to screen her applicants.
“Uh, yes, yes, yes, and no.”
“Excellent. Are you gay?” She’d been single for a while in San Francisco.
“I asked you out.”
“That means nothing. I’ve had guys not realize they were gay until we’d gone out a few times. Turns out that’s my specialty.”
“Wow, you’re kidding.” He looked her up and down and decided that she probably had a great figure under the baggy clothes. “I could see it going the other way, but…”
“Right answer. Okay, I’ll have coffee with you.”
“Not so fast, what about my questions?”
Rachel threw out a hip and rolled her eyes, sighed. “Okay, shoot.”
“I don’t really have any, I just didn’t want you to think I was easy.”
“You asked me out thirty seconds after we met.”
“Can you blame me? There you were, eyes and teeth – hair, dry, holding good books – “
“Do you think that there’s any chance, you know, after we get to know each other, that you’ll like me? I mean, can you see it happening?”
It didn’t matter that he was pushing it – whether he was sly or just awkward, she was defenseless against his Beta Male charm sans charisma, and she had her answer. “Not a chance,” she lied.
“I miss her,” Charlie said, and he looked away from his sister as if there was something in the sink that really, really needed studying. His shoulders shook with a sob and Jane went to him and held him as he slumped to his knees.
“I really miss her.”
“I know you do.”
“I hate this kitchen.”
“Right there with you, kid.”
The good sister, she was.
“I see this kitchen and I see her face and I can’t handle it.”
“Yes, you can. You will. It will get better.”
“Maybe I should move or something.”
“You do what you think you need to, but pain travels pretty well.” Jane rubbed his shoulders and his neck, as if his grief was a knot in a muscle that could be worked out under direct pressure.
After a few minutes he was back, functioning, sitting at the counter between Sophie and Jane, drinking a cup of coffee. “You think I’m just imagining all this, then?”
Jane sighed. “Charlie, Rachel was the center of your universe. Anyone who saw you guys together knew that. Your life revolved around her. With Rachel gone, it’s like you have no center, nothing to ground you, you’re all wobbly and unstable, so things seem unreal. But you do have a center.”
“It’s you. I don’t have a Rachel, or anyone like her on the horizon, but I’m not spinning out of control.”
“So you’re saying I need to be self-centered, like you?”
“I guess I am. Do you think that makes me a bad person?”
“Do you care?”
“Good point. Are you going to be okay? I need to go buy some yoga DVDs. I’m starting a class tomorrow.”
“If you’re going to take a class, then why do you need DVDs?”
“I have to look like I know what I’m doing or no one will go out with me. You going to be okay?”
“I’ll be okay. I just can’t go in the kitchen, or look at anything in the apartment, or listen to music, or watch TV.”
“Okay then, have fun,” Jane said, tweaking the baby’s nose on the way out the door.
When she was gone, Charlie sat at the counter for a while looking at baby Sophie. Strangely enough, she was the only thing in the apartment that didn’t remind him of Rachel. She was a stranger. She looked at him – those wide blue eyes – with sort of an odd, glazed look. Not with the adoration or wonder that you might expect, more like she’d been drinking and would be leaving as soon as she found her car keys.
“Sorry,” Charlie said, averting his gaze to a stack of unpaid bills by the phone. He could feel the kid watching him, wondering, he thought, how many terry-cloth puppet people she’d have to blow to get a decent father over here. Still, he checked that she was securely strapped in her chair, then went off to grab the undone laundry, because he was, in fact, going to be a very good father.
Beta Males almost always make good fathers. They tend to be steady and responsible, the kind of guys a girl (if she was resolved to do without the seven-figure salary or the thirty-six-inch vertical leap) would want as a father for her children. Of course, she’d rather not have to sleep with him for that to happen, but after you’ve been kicked to the curb by a few Alpha Males, the idea of waking up in the arms of a guy who will adore you, if for no other reason than gratitude for sex, and will always be there, even past the point where you can stand to have him around, is a comfortable compromise.
For the Beta Male, if nothing else, is loyal. He makes a great husband as well as a great best friend. He will help you move and bring you soup when you are sick. Always considerate, the Beta Male thanks a woman after sex, and is often quick with an apology as well. He makes a great house sitter, especially if you aren’t especially attached to your house pets. A Beta Male is trustworthy: your girlfriend is generally in safe hands with a Beta Male friend, unless, of course, she is a complete slut. (In fact, the complete slut through history may be exclusively responsible for the survival of the Beta Male gene, for loyal as he may be, the Beta Male is helpless in the face of charging, unimaginary bosoms.)
And while the Beta Male has the potential to be a great husband and father, the skills still need to be learned. So, for the next few weeks, Charlie did little but care for the tiny stranger in his house. She was an alien, really – a sort of eating, pooping, tantrum machine – and he didn’t understand anything about her species. But as he tended to her, talked to her, lost a lot of sleep over her, bathed her, watched her nap, and admonished her for the disgusting substances that oozed and urped out of her, he started to fall in love. One morning, after a particularly active night of the feed-and-change parade, he awoke to find her staring goofily at the mobile over her crib, and when she saw him, she smiled. That did it. Like her mother before her, she set the course of his life with a smile. And as it had with Rachel, that wet morning in the bookstore, his soul lit up. The weirdness, the bizarre circumstances of Rachel’s death, the red glowing items in the shop, the dark, winged thing above the street, all of it took a backseat to the new light of his life.
He didn’t understand that she loved him unconditionally – so when he got up in the middle of the night to feed her, he put on a shirt and combed his hair and tested to see that his breath was free of funk. Within minutes of getting poleaxed with affection for his daughter, he started to develop a deep fear for her safety, which, over the course of a few days, blossomed into a whole new garden of paranoia.
“It looks like Nerf world in here,” Jane said, one afternoon when she brought in the bills from the store and the checks for Charlie to sign. Charlie had padded every sharp corner or edge in the apartment with foam rubber and duct tape, put plastic covers on all of the electrical outlets, childproofed locks on all cabinets, installed new smoke, carbon monoxide, and radon detectors, and activated the V?CChip on the TV so that now he was incapable of watching anything that didn’t feature baby animals or learning the alphabet.
“Accidents are the number one cause of death among children in America,” Charlie said.
“But she can’t even roll over on her stomach yet.”
“I want to be ready. Everything I read says that one day you’re breast-feeding them and the next day you wake up and they’re dropping out of college.” He was changing the baby on the coffee table and had used ten baby wipes so far, if Jane had the count right.
“I think that might be a metaphor. You know, for how fast they grow up.”
“Well, it’s done when she’s ready to crawl.”
“Why don’t you just make a big foam-rubber suit for her, it’s easier than padding the world. Charlie, it’s scary-looking in here. You can’t bring a woman here, she’d think you’re nuts.”
Charlie looked at his sister for a long second without saying anything, just frozen there, holding a disposable diaper in one hand and his daughter’s ankles scissored between the fingers of the other.
“When you’re ready,” Jane stumbled on. “I mean, I’m not saying that you’d bring a woman here.”
“Okay, because I’m not.”
“Of course not. I’m not saying that. But you have to leave the apartment. For one thing, you need to go downstairs to the store. Ray has turned the point-of-sale computer into some kind of dating service and the truant officer has stopped by three times looking for Lily. And I can’t keep doing the accounts and trying to run things and do my job, too, Charlie. Dad left you the business for a reason.”
“But there’s no one to watch Sophie.”
“You have Mrs. Korjev and Mrs. Ling right here in the building, let one of them watch her. Hell, I’ll watch her for a few hours in the evening, if that will help.”
“I’m not going down there in the evening. That’s when things are radioactive.”
Jane set the stack of papers on the coffee table next to Sophie’s head and backed away with her arms crossed. “Play what you just said back in your head, would you.”
Charlie did, then shrugged. “Okay, that sounds a little crazy.”
“Go make an appearance at the shop, Charlie. Just a few minutes to get your feet wet and put the fear of God in Ray and Lily, okay? I’ll finish changing her.”
Jane slid in between the couch and the coffee table, nudging her brother out of the way. In the process she knocked the dirty diaper to the floor, where it fell open.
“Oh my God!” She gagged and turned her head.
“Another reason not to eat brown mustard, huh?” Charlie said.
He backed away. “Okay, I’m going downstairs. You’re sure you got this?”
“Go!” Jane said, waving him out of the room with one hand while holding her nose with the other.