Right before my second wife left me I pretended to read this biography, an autobiography, actually, about Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin. The autobiography I was pretending to read was called “How to French Kiss Like a Sonofabitch,” and in it, Whitney says that his favorite novel is Russian playwright and author Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita.” This is in chapter four or five. He was an Evangelical Christian, Whitney was; he owned slaves. He was considering a run for the United States Senate until his untimely death from bronchial pneumonia or something at the age of thirty-seven or forty-seven. These are facts, this happened, you could look it up. This was back then.
I tell my wife this as she walks up the stairs to go to sleep.
She does not answer.
She is not a history buff, I tell myself.
She is busy, I tell myself.
She is not listening, I tell myself, and this is why she isn’t answering me. This makes sense and this is reassuring to me. It makes sense that there is a reason why she’s not answering me and that I can define that reason. The reason, I tell myself, could be any of those things I just mentioned. Another reason could be because I haven’t said anything. This is more likely, I think, because I haven’t said any of this, not about French kissing or pneumonia or sonsofbitches. Sometimes I don’t say anything and this whole scene, the one I’ve just described, is troubling for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that I may have made the whole thing up.
It’s a possibility, it is.
It’s come to this, it has.
This whole thing is troubling, is disturbing, the fact that I don’t appear to know what I am saying anymore is.
I am not married, I don’t think. Maybe I was before.
I am not married, there are no stairs where I live, and I have no idea when Eli Whitney died, what his political aspirations were, or if there is such a thing as bronchial pneumonia. I bet there is, it sounds like there would be, like there should be, but am not sure.
I also don’t know what it means to French-kiss like a sonofabitch, but it sounds like something I’d say, and we should concentrate on facts, now.
* * * *
Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. This is true, this is was in that book from before, and in real life. My grandmother and I used to play gin rummy. Gin rummy is a card game and I am kind of card myself. Look at what I am doing right now. This is me winking at you; this is as close as I can get, because I can’t wink. What I am doing right now is clever. Clever and amusing, so clever that my pretend wife married me because of it. She was blind in one eye and almost blind in the other, my grandmother was, and I have written about this before. It was in a story about space, and rockets, and Alabama football. One time I tried to write a story in another story. It was going to be told in the form of a memo, a memo from a meeting, this story I was going to write was, but in it there would be another story, a person talking to you. I never wrote that story. It would be too hard, I think.
* * * *
She would watch a lot of television with her blind eyes. Sometimes she would wink at the tv, wink her blind eye and look out her almost blind eye, I think to try and see better. I always got a kick out of that, if that was a thing that actually happened. My grandmother called jazz “toodling.” I told my wife this once, back when I was pretending she existed, back when we were pretending to be married. I told her my grandmother called jazz “toodling”; I said it just like that because I had just remembered it for some reason. I do not remember if she answered or not but do remember that it wouldn’t matter even if she did.
If she did or didn’t. How could it?
If jazz music ever came on the tv, my grandmother would say “I’m not listening to any of that toodling,” and then she’d turn the tv off. She did the same thing when tampon ads came on the TV. She’d turn it down and say, “I’m not listening to those filthy women.”
* * * *
I don’t know what Mikhail Bulgakov thought about his grandmother, but I loved mine very much. I loved my last pretend wife, too. She is dead now. She died of cancer, I think. I am talking about my grandmother. Settle down. This is all part of the story. I used to write stories about cancer, back when I had a wife or pretended to. I would talk about the different kinds of cancer I have. Bone cancer, brain cancer, face and neck cancer. I don’t do this anymore, I don’t think. I have never had cancer, even though I was born on the Fourth of July. That is a joke, a clever thing, a thing that if I had a wife, would not ever get tired of. This wife would never leave, ever. I don’t have a wife, though. I don’t have a wife who is leaving me, I couldn’t have. None of this could be happening. I have written this so many times, it has to be true.
* * * *
I don’t have cancer, I don’t have wives. I don’t have any real diseases and never have. I don’t mean that women are diseases; that is not what I mean. My last pretend wife almost killed me, though. That’s a joke, that’s me being clever. That’s something my wife used to like until she didn’t.
This particular style of mine has not been well received, what I am doing right now, what I have been doing this whole time, apparently. None of this has been received well, ever, if at all.
And yet I keep at it. I keep making up books and pretending and being clever, being clever. None of my wives seem to like it anymore, nobody does, but I keep doing it and am doing it right now. Some would call this behavior “irrational.” some, like the therapist I saw earlier this afternoon. He made it sound like I had some disease, which I clearly don’t.
* * * *
I do have something called horseshoe kidneys, though. That is a congenital deformity where the bottoms of your kidneys are fused together. This actually sounds like real disease. Maybe it is.
Mel Gibson has horseshoe kidneys, too. He and I do. We are alike in this respect, in this aspect, in this fused kidney aspect or respect. There are a lot of ways in which we are not alike. One time Mel Gibson got drunk and called a female police officer “sugar tits.” I have never done that, and I hope that me having the same kind of kidneys that Mel Gibson does doesn’t mean that someday I might. The idea of this scares me for a lot of reasons, none of which are discussed in my pretend autobiography.
* * * *
In my pretend autobiography “How To Blink One Eye,” I don’t insult any police officers, but I do reveal the fact that I can’t wink, and I said that earlier, but this isn’t about that. This is a little bit about me, this is something my wife would tell you about me if she existed and didn’t leave. She would love this about me. It would be endearing. This is something my pretend wife would love about me if she existed, that I can’t do it, I can’t wink. A simple thing, something everybody can do that I’ve never been able to. People always get a grandmother-sized kick out of this. My last wife did. She did until she didn’t.
* * * *
When I tell people that I can’t wink, they always say the same thing. They say “just blink one eye,” like the reason I can’t wink is just because I don’t understand how to do it, like I don’t understand the mechanics involved. They say just blink one eye, like I don’t know how, like if I knew that all it took was just blinking one eye, that I’d be winking like a sonofabitch.
Ben Slotky’s novel, An Evening of Romantic Lovemaking, will be published by Dalkey Archive in 2020. His first collection/novel, Red Hot Dogs, White Gravy, was published by Chiasmus in 2010 and republished by Widow & Orphan in 2017. His work has been featured in Santa Monica Review, Numero Cinq, Golden Handcuffs Review, Hobart, Barrelhouse, and many other publications. He lives in Bloomington, IL with his wife and six sons.