Classical Studies 100 by Mark Williams

Patrick's lack of ambition means he ends up as a furniture salesman, with a pig, being played like a pawn by the women in his life; by Mark Williams.

All the gods, all the Heavens, all the Hells are within you.

- from The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell

I was napping in my Lazy World with Helen, my fingers laced across her bristles, when I heard the sound of crickets down the hall. "Text," Mel yelled, as if I couldn't hear the chirping or I didn't recognize my text tone. Or she feared I might think that we had crickets.

"Text," Mel insisted above the chirping and the hum of my Lazy World ZenX Vibrating Power Recliner. Did I feel like switching the vibrations off, powering my footrest down, lifting Helen from my lap, walking down the hall and back, lifting Helen to my lap, powering my footrest up, and switching the vibrations on? Plus, it took six seconds for my footrest to power either way. The text could wait.

"Patrick, text."

"Go ahead, read it," I shouted.

Then, a few seconds later, "Pat-rick!"

In the course of our six-year marriage, I had learned that when Mel stressed my second syllable, nothing good was portended. No chance of Pat-rick relaxing.

"Who's Charli?" Mel asked, placing my phone on Helen's neck. Or what passed for a neck.

Helen was our teacup pig. Tri-colored. "Chocolate, caramel, and cream," Mel had said three years ago, smiling as she carried Helen, the size of a tea kettle, into our house.

"Sounds good enough to eat," I said from the ZenX Vibrating Power Recliner I had recently bought at Lazy World. More like ee-eat, what with the vibrations.

People do strange things when their marriages lose steam. Kids, Labradoodles, recliners. Mel adopted Helen, so named by her previous person, a college girl who tried to hide the little squealer in her Indiana University dorm.

"Her name is Helen," Mel said, lowering the piglet to our carpet.

"Helen? Like the woman they fought the Trojan War over?"

"Yes. Isn't she beautiful?"

"In a pig's eye. H e r e, Helen," I called from my chair. And with a snort, trotting to my Lazy World, she came. How could we rename her?

The mini-pig rescue woman told Mel that Helen would top out at thirty pounds. A lap-pig? Why not? I thought, lifting her ten or so pounds into my lap. After that, every time she heard my footrest hum its ascent, Helen waddled over, looked up at me, and squealed. With each heft, she grew heftier.

Sixty pounds, three years later, Helen lay in my lap with a mystery text propped against her right ear. "The only Charlie I knew died while playing squash with my dad," I told Mel. "Charlie Umbach."

"Right. How do you know her?"

"Her? I don't know her. And how do you know it's a woman?"

"Charlie with no e? It's a woman."

"He could have mistyped."

"Then who's he?"

"Not Charlie Umbach."

By this time even Helen had had enough. To say she jumped from my lap would be misleading. More of a drop. But either way, my phone dropped, too. Face up on the carpet.

Hi, Patrick! See you at the Firelight at 7:00! Charli, read my phone from the loom.

I met Mel our junior year at Southwest Indiana State in Classical Studies 100. Our adjunct had written a two-person rap dialogue called "The Zeus that Laid the Golden Alcmene," and Mel and I were chosen to perform it in class. Alcmene was the mother of Zeus's illegitimate son Hercules. I played Zeus. Mel, Melanie then, played Zeus's angry wife, Hera, Goddess of Marriage, who rapped, I spied your bastard Hercules, I hope your Godroot atrophies! and so on.

It seems to me the Greeks got it. Life is tragic with some comedy mixed in. And if you looked around, you could see things coming. A vulture meant bad news. Lightning on the right, good news. Mostly, they saw vultures.

Lounging in a blue beanbag chair at our semester-ending toga party, Bacchus to the Future, Mel said, "I've wanted to become a lawyer since I was ten," she in a mid-thigh, bare-shouldered, white silk wraparound with a purple midriff sash to match her hair, me in my bed sheet and an inverted Burger King crown. "How about you?" she asked, lifting a plastic goblet to her merlot-stained lips.

"What do I want to do, or what am I going to do?" I asked from my beanbag.

"What do you want to do?"

I want to taste the wine on your lips and move down from there, I thought, slurping from my goblet. "No clue," I said.

"What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to work in my dad's accounting firm in Indianapolis, according to him. What kind of law do you want to practice?"

"Family law. My father took my mother to the cleaners," she said with her eyes shut. A quirk of Mel's, I'd learn.

The blinking center of the brain is called the globus pallidus. I Googled it. Most blinks last two or three milliseconds. A blink that lasts longer than a second is called a micro-sleep. Whenever Mel got worked up, she took a nap. "Cheers," she said when she woke up, aiming her goblet at me.

In other words, a divorce attorney with a grudge. Talk about portent.

With my phone staring up from the carpet and Mel standing over my chair, she said, "Let's call Charli and find out who she is."

"Or who he is," I said, powering my footrest down. Eight seconds later, I scooted forward in my chair, picked up my phone, tapped on the text, hit open, then call. But after the first ring, Mel grabbed my phone and hung up. "Now what?" I asked.

"I want to see her first."

"You've got to be kidding."

"I'm not. And if you don't know Charli why should you care? Besides, we could use a little excitement."

Mel's word, excitement, as in: "We could use a little..." or "We never do anything exciting" or "Whatever, Mr. E." The fact that I owned Lazy World didn't help.

"Is this your way of getting me to The Firelight?" I asked. Fancy place, The Firelight. "We'll never get in on a Friday. Give me my phone, I'll call ahead." But before Mel gave my phone to me, she cleared my texts. Afraid that I'd warn Charli, I guessed. Whoever Charli was.

"It's almost six o'clock," said Mel. "We have forty-five minutes to get ready." Time enough for me to watch Pit Bulls and Parolees on Animal Planet, I thought as Mel left the room and called, Helen." Helen looked first to me, then to Mel. But as I powered my footrest up, she came running, hooves tapping on the carpet. Insisting that I lift her, she squealed.

Forty minutes later, we were backing out of our driveway in my Prius. "We'll never get in without reservations," I said.

"I bet you already made them," said Mel, fastening her seatbelt with a vengeance. "What were you planning to say when you left tonight?"

"I wasn't planning to say anything, because I wasn't planning to leave. Unless Charli made reservations, you and I won't be eating there. I doubt she'd want to eat with us."

I'd just signaled a turn into the restaurant when Mel said, "So, you admit she's a she." The Firelight's neon sign was flashing on our left as we turned in.

Mel and I got married the summer after graduation. The plan was for her to get her law degree at IU in Bloomington, where, with my dad's help, we'd buy a small house. I'd study for the CPA exam, and when Mel got her degree, we'd sell the house and move to Indianapolis.

As I studied for my test, I got a job at Lazy World selling furniture. My boss, Mack "The Price is Right" Price, paid me in cash every Friday, straight from the near-empty register. To keep me off his empty books. I didn't need to pass my exam to understand the tax benefits, to him and to me. And social security was the furthest thing from my mind. Unfortunately, the knowledge required to pass my exam was no closer. In the span of three years, of the four parts to the test, I passed one.

Lazy World lived up to its name. A lot of sitting around in sofas and chairs - for me, Mack, and his daughter, a senior at IU who filled in for Mack from six until closing. If not for the rat tattoo on her neck and a gold ring through her septum, she could have passed for Emma Stone in Zombieland. Dark hair, and eyes that matched the green sofa in our showroom. A sofa we often shared.

She was a drama major, happy to talk about the parts she'd played: Abigail in The Crucible, Elektra in Elektra. "My dad runs the third largest accounting firm in Indy," I boasted.

As she sat cross-legged on the sofa, both knees staring at me through torn jeans, we played Crazy Eights and Slap Jack. When I slapped Jack, she slapped the back of my hand. And vice versa. "That hurt," she'd say with an Emma Stone smile. With each Jack, our red hands lingered.

I was twenty-five years old. Despite the Lazy World culture, age and gravity had not set in. "You have nice eyes," she said to me one night, following a Jack of Hearts.

"Your eyes are green," I said.

Then, as Mel was finishing law school, Mack accused me of breaking in a love seat with his daughter.

She had come into the store the week before with the play, Lysistrata, in her hands. "I read that in Classical Studies," I said.

"What's it about?" she asked.

"It's about a bunch of guys who get erections and beg their wives to have sex," I should not have said - grinning, no less, and Mack within eye and earshot. "The horny, old-men chorus is funny," I added.

A week later, we had just closed the store for the night, when she asked me to read her essay on the play. "Let's get comfortable," she said, again with that smile, pointing to a power loveseat near the break room.

We sat. We powered up our footrests, and I read two pages of A bunch of guys get erections and beg their wives to have sex; the horny, old-men chorus is funny, paraphrased.

"You might want to expand," I said.

"Or maybe you'd like to, Pat-rick," she said, scooting to my side and lowering her eyes to my expansion.

Mel and I had been married three years, long enough for Mel to realize I had given up on Dad's dream - and her dream as well: to practice law in Indianapolis. That, coupled with me being an ambitionless salesman at Lazy World, meant that we rarely coupled. How many sex-starved twenty-five-year-olds sitting thigh-to-thigh with Emma Stone could resist, especially when she brought my hand to her rat and kissed me?

And to be faithful to you alone, sang a chorus of Mel and me in my head. I powered my footrest down. But before I could stand, with an angry look behind her nose ring, she slapped my cheek and ran out.

The next day Mack accused me of, if not fully breaking in the loveseat, giving it a non-consensual shot. Seizing on the opportunity, he called my father and threatened to file suit unless Dad paid Mack the right price for his store.

Dad bought Lazy World. He gave me fifty-one percent ownership. And just like that, Mel and I were sentenced to Doomington, as she called it. By way of consolation, Mel adopted Helen, and I bought my recliner at cost.

The furniture business is tough. You've seen the ads. Guy comes on TV, sets a couch on fire or drops it off a building. I took the opposite approach. The cameraman would pan the store and find me asleep in a bed. I'd open one eye and say, "Welcome to Lazy World. Make me an offer, so I can get some sleep."

People made offers. I wore pajamas to work. Everywhere Mel and I went, people recognized me. "Hey, it's the Lazy World guy" or "Forget your pajamas, dude?" One time a man asked Mel, "How is he in your bed, darling?" A regular Damocles sword, Lazy World.

By this time, Mel had opened her own practice. Bloomington is a small town. Word got around that Mel was married to the Lazy World guy. People in Mel's league didn't want to hire a lawyer married to someone like me. It didn't help when I started bringing Helen to work. Wrapped in her blanket, she slept on the green sofa I once shared.

Mel and I parked. Stepping into separate front door panels, we revolved into The Firelight bar, where Mel grabbed a stool and spun around to face the dining room. "I'll be watching from here," she said.

The restaurant was packed. "May I help you, sir," said the hostess, who looked to be about twelve.

"I'm looking for a Charli, no e."

"The woman who's waving, sir?"

Walking toward the waving young woman, I could see that she was ripped. Her bare shoulders had shoulders. The flesh on her arm wasn't waving. The rat on her neck had bulked up.

When I was in college, I shot pool for The Southwest Indiana State Corner Pockets. If Indiana was a pool table, that's where our school sat - the southwest pocket. Think of a nine ball, minding its business. Cue hits the cue ball. Cue ball smacks the nine. Nine banks off a cushion and rolls into a pocket. Mel was the cue, Charlotte the cue ball. I was the nine. My future, the pocket.

"Long time!" said Charlotte, nudging a grinning waiter away from the table, then heading open-armed for me.

If I had known that Mel wasn't watching, would I have turned away? Considering the past three years of our marriage and memories of Slap Jack, good question. But I knew Mel was watching, if she wasn't blinking. I took two steps away from Charlotte, looked into the bar, and saw Mel leaning forward on her barstool. Eyes open. Then I turned to Charlotte, sans nose ring.

"It's good to see you," she said, pausing an arm-length away - as if admiring me.

It's good to see you, too, I thought, admiring her. More of a blonde, hard-bodied Emma Stone in The Amazing Spider-Man now. "So, you go by Charli."

"I do," she said, standing beside the waiter she'd nudged. "Let's eat. I'm starving." Then she took a step forward, grabbed my hands, put them on her cheeks, and kissed me.

Beside me, sitting at a four-top, a guy looked up, smiled, and said, "Next."

I expected Mel's arrival in a heartbeat. Mine. And it was doing a good ninety. But when I looked into the bar, no Mel. Turning back to the restaurant, I saw Charli hand the waiter a ten in exchange for her phone.

When the Greeks left the Trojan horse outside the gate, my guess was that the decision to pull it inside wasn't easy. Inside? Outside? the Trojans must have wondered. I ran outside. Finding our parking place empty, I called Mel on my cell. "How was I supposed to know that Charli is Charlotte?" - I would have asked Mel if she'd answered. "She kissed me," I would have said. But Mel didn't answer, so I banked off the curb and rolled back inside The Firelight.

"I'll have the Kalamata Pork Tenderloin with Rosemary," Charli told the waiter.

"Would you mind ordering something else?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah. Sorry. I've seen your commercials," said Charli. "What's your pig's name?" Then, turning to the waiter, "I'll have the Maple Soy-Glazed Salmon."

"Make that two," I said, "and a bottle of your best Moscato." Why not? "Her name is Helen."

Before we'd finished our first glass of wine, I learned that Charli and her dad had conspired against me at Lazy World, which Mel and I had suspected. Hearing my explanation of Lysistrata had given them the idea, specifically my "hornball grin," as Charli called it. And by boasting of my dad's success, I'd presented Mack with the chance to bail out of his store.

The night I read Charli's essay, Mack was hiding in the break room, ready to cancel his daughter's performance if I had joined in. In the meantime, he was snapping pictures for insurance. The Kiss, Her Slap.

Mack demanded a price for his struggling store that would pay Charli's way through IU's School of Drama. As if she needed instruction. "It was the only way we could afford it," said Charli. "Besides, you got the store for free."

Halfway through the first bottle, I learned that Mel and I were splitting up. Mel had planned this whole Charli-text-thing to gain an advantage. Charli was recently divorced, and Mel had been her lawyer. When it came time to settle up, Charli came up short. Mel remembered her from Lazy World. If Charli would take the leading role in this, the sequel, they'd be square. "It would be easy. I always had a thing for you," said Charli. "Remember Slap Jack?"

After the waiter uncorked another bottle, I learned that my books would show that I took thousands from the business. Dollars I had spent on Charli. "We spent a week in Chicago," she said. "And I'm prepared to say we had a great time. I did, actually. I stayed at The Palmer House."

Did I mention that Mel kept Lazy World's books?

"You really went to Chicago?" I asked.

"In the Mini Cooper you bought me."

"I bought a Mini Cooper?"

"Technically, Lazy World did. And you bought this emerald ring to go with my eyes. My Mini is red. Mel said I have to give it to her after your divorce. But I can keep the ring."

"Sweet. Why are you telling me this? More wine?"

The answer to the former was, in so many words, why not? Not only was Charli willing to testify on Mel's behalf, she was prepared to deny everything she told me, other than I'd paid for a Mini Cooper, a weekend in Chicago, and an emerald ring. Her answer to the wine: "Sure."

Charli explained that she could drive me back to my house, but I'd find the locks had been changed. Or she could take me to the motel of my choice. "I won't be coming in," she said. "Tonight, at least."

After finishing off the wine, I said, "You can take me to the Travel Lodge on Third Street. We sold them all of their beds. They'll give me a deal. Would you like some dessert first?"

Charli said that on Monday I'd be delivered a petition for divorce. Since Indiana is a no-fault state, normally the court would rule an even split. But since Mel would be able to prove that Lazy World dollars went to Charli, it would get messy. Bottom line, give Mel what she'll get anyway: half our savings, half our home equity, and - to pay back Mel for the car, the ring, and the week in Chicago - all of my interest in the store. In the meantime, enjoy the evening.

"I recommend the Key Lime Pie with Roasted Pecan Crust," said the waiter.

"One piece, two forks," said Charli. "And maybe some Sambuca. This is nice, Pat-rick. Hey, check this out," she said, showing me a picture of our restaurant kiss on her phone.

"Let me guess, your signal to the waiter was starving."

It was nice, dinner with Charli, so much so that she came into my Travel Lodge room after all. Would you believe that someone had left a deck of cards beside the Gideon Bible? Yes, we played Slap Jack, before discovering the bed had held up nicely.

Mel used the cash settlement to buy out Dad's forty-nine percent ownership in Lazy World. She sold the store to Paulo Barbosa, a Brazilian businessman whose son Luiz plays soccer for IU. Defensive midfielder. I'm taking Charli to watch him play tonight. Hoosiers-Spartans. Good people, the Barbosas. Luiz and I shoot bumper pool on a table in the break room. I get one week off for Carnival.

Mel left me with my chair, a mortgage, a property tax bill, and no hard feelings. Face it, people like Mel have ambitions. People like me, we have no idea what's in store. For me, a furniture store. Mel deserves better. But in moments like this, lap empty, alone in my recliner, I miss Helen. She moved to Indianapolis with Mel.

One night, before the divorce, Helen and I were watching an Animal Planet show where a pig was digging under an oak tree in Germany. "She's digging for truffles," I told Helen. "They're worth a fortune." Darned if Helen didn't stand. With all four hooves poking into my thighs, she turned her snout to me, looked back at the TV, and with a snort, started digging in my lap.

Even Helen had ambitions.

Sipping our Sambuca, I learned that when Charli was in Chicago, I'd paid for center section, tenth row seats at the CIBC. She saw Hamilton. Now she wants us to move to Chicago and "absorb the theatre there." Me, absorb theatre? I made TV commercials with a pig.

I've been seeing Charli for about two months. Two months, and she wants me to give up my job, move to Lincoln Park, and walk to plays downtown.

"At night?" I asked.

In the meantime, she's got me working out at Planet Fitness. She says I'm at the point in life where I could go either way, meaning to my chest or to my gut. But I think she's talking about something else, too. Charli sees lightning on my right and Chicago in our future. When I look to the right, I see a bare wall. Mel took all of our pictures. And now as I recline, I see a fan, circling above.


  1. Thank you, Charlie with an “e.”

  2. Thanks for letting Charliee share this with us, Mark. I loved it. I'm a huge fan of the way the story flowed from one hilarious twist or situation to the next...sort of a flow of consciousness style. It worked wonderfully.
    My biggest concern is that I see just a little bit too much of myself in Patrick. Though, I must say, he is a likable character . . . a good man, just not overly ambitious. Pretty sure, his days of being manipulated by the women in his life are far from over.
    Thanks again for entertaining me this morning.

    1. You are most welcome, James. Though happily married, I’ve been known to spend some time in my recliner, too. Right now, in fact! Thank you for reading my story. And for your comments.

  3. Poor guy has an unusually large target on his back, I guess the women must sense his inability to fight back. A fun take on the "lovable loser" concept.

    1. Thank you for reading, Ron. I received a similar text message one night. MISADDRESSED, let me add! My wife and I stayed home. Though we don’t have a pig, we have enough animals for seven laps.

  4. This is a wonderfully funny and well-written piece, Mark. I love the braiding of the past and the present. Well structured. An your dry wit is wonderful. Pat-rick must be handsome to have all these women after him even in his PJs with a pig in his lap...

    1. Thank you, Kim. This was a fun story to write. I’m happy to know that you enjoyed Patrick’s tragic tale. Or, considering Helen, tragic tail.