The Pain Of Wilson W. Wilson
I cannot believe I wrote Home Improvement fanfic, but here we are.
My dear readers. I would like to explain myself.
I have been noodling a series of essays about masculinity, with one being about Home Improvement — the 1990s ABC sitcom about Tim Allen grunting and using power tools (and also getting repeatedly owned by flannel dreamboat Al Borland).
And so I sat down to rewatch the show for the first time since my childhood, and I started writing.
What popped out was not an essay. Instead, it was…the short story that follows.
I swear that this newsletter is not going to become 1990s sitcom fanfic. But being isolated from other people for nearly two years has turned my brain to pudding and amped up my weird to 11.
So anyway. The essays will be coming in due time.
A short story
January 14, 1992
I can't help but feel that this is a one-sided relationship.
Tonight, Tim's tribulations were about a college friend who had come to town -- a man named Stu.
I had heard Stu in Tim's garage. There was a performative, guttural scream; a crunch; howls of laughter from the boys. I surmise that Stu was crushing beer cans on his head, and I doubt that I'm wrong.
I was in my workshop gathering my horseshoes for a brisk evening of practice-tosses. And that vulgar man's voice was so loud that even through the Taylors' windows and across my backyard, I heard Stu call that he was heading out to get more beer.
It was then that I heard Tim's back door close, followed by the slow, meditative footsteps as he shuffled across his lawn. The door-and-footsteps pairing has become a regular prelude, a signal that I'm needed.
I will give Tim some credit. He himself seemed ambivalent about Stu. Through his explanations -- Stu's a great guy, a friend since forever -- I heard the truth, that this was, sadly, a friendship that had dried on the vine...sweet, perhaps, but desiccated.
Tim really only needed a small nudge this time.
I told Tim that maybe, maybe, he had outgrown Stu. That perhaps, as Saint Paul said, it is time to put away childish things.
And then, just minutes later, I heard Stu return. I timed my horseshoe tosses to allow me to hear the conversation -- Stu trying to lure Tim into a night out at a bar with some other ne'er-do-wells.
Tim easily batted this suggestion down. Soon enough, I peeked over the fence to spy him and his family in a jumble on their couch, watching a movie.
This is how it is with him: Tim is a good man at heart. He's always receptive to advice.
But my goodness, it never, ever seems to stick. He will always be back.
January 15, 1992
Jill comes by my house every so often, for what we call the Pine Street Book Club.
A month ago was the last time we stopped by. She returned my copy of the Bhagavad Gita. I returned Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem.
Every single book she has ever brought me is one that I have for years been meaning to read. It's a small relief, or perhaps release, every time she hands me one -- ah, yes, there it is, says my brain.
Sometimes, she comes in for a cup of tea. And that was what we did last month. We talked about spiritual warfare and India and California and journalism, with a light smattering of current events, weather.
Before she left, I gave her Cat's Cradle, by Vonnegut.
"Looks heady, Wilson!" She said this with a chuckle -- everything from Jill comes with a good-natured chuckle.
"Oh, you always say that."
She gave me her latest pick -- One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Ah, there it is.
Kathryn, I really wish you could have met her. You would have become friends, drinking shiraz on the porch long into the night. I am sure of it.
I finished the Marquez last night, having savored it twice. I wonder now when Jill will come back for it.
It is always Jill who comes over to my home, not the other way around. We decided years ago that this is how book club would be. She is simply busier than I am, mothering three children while her husband teaches greater Detroit how to use power tools. I am simply a retired minister, my days filled with puttering.
Plus, I get the sense that she is happy to get out of the testosterone maelstrom of that house every so often.
January 18, 1992
Did I bring all of this on myself?
I remember the first time I counseled Tim, just over a decade ago. It was a fresh-smelling spring night, and I was in my backyard tying flies -- the only pastime that took me out of my grief.
It was a week after Kathryn's burial. I was folded in on myself, too indisposed to have even noticed the moving vans and the young couple moving in next door. Had I looked out my window, I would have seen a handsome man and a woman waddling behind a bulbous belly, both of them carrying boxes.
And then that spring night, I heard a crash and a howl.
"You okay over there, neighbor?" I called.
"Yep! Yep!" he yelled, and I heard him coming closer, out of the garage and into the backyard.
When I looked over my fence, i saw a man effervescent with youth. He was smiling and clutching his left forearm with his right hand.
"Ah, I got myself with an orbital sander," he said, smiling. "Making a crib for our first kid. A boy. A boy!"
I was briefly charmed at this father-to-be, so remarkably un-sheepish about his clumsiness -- he was practically vibrating with the joy of building things.
But then I saw the patch on his arm -- much bigger than his hand could cover, clearly raw and bleeding.
"That … must be one heck of an orbital sander," I said.
"Yeah, well, I souped it up. Wanted to get the job done faster," he said, noting that he had the Binford some-number-or-other but had added somesuch additional "HP" to it.
"I gave it more power," he grinned, tightening his grip on his arm.
"I see," I said.
"There's always something to say," I added, hesitating about how welcome my guidance might be, "for taking it slow with new projects. Might be true about fatherhood, as well as woodworking."
He briefly considered this, then grunted his assent and started walking away.
"You're good with advice, you know that?" he called, cheerfully. "Nice to meet you, Wilson!"
If I have a main failing in life, it is that I am too quick with advice. Unable to contain myself, always bubbling over with wisdom.
Sure, Tim asks for it now -- even depends on it -- but I offered it in the first place.
Kathryn did not abide my advice. Through the decades, I’d throw out what I thought were helpful tips — the best way to cook rice, how to keep rabbits out of her garden, folding shirts efficiently.
She would not have it: “Wilson, you’re not the only one who knows how to live life.”
She saw me.
It grated on me.
I have never loved someone so much.
I also now recognize that Tim and I have a structural problem: the fence.
A foot shorter, and we would talk face to face, and he would see me as an equal, not a faceless priest figure on the other side of a confession screen.
He tells me his troubles through the apertures, and I gently nudge him onto a better path.
Had I made the fence a foot taller, we would have to wait for truly important moments to talk -- moments that compel a person to go to the front door, knock, and be let in. Sit down and exchange ideas.
As it is, I see his face, and he sees one-third of mine.
Through the fence, I help Tim peel off his rigidity, his posturing, his grunting, and for a short while after, he acts more like a human to the other humans around him.
January 17, 1992
Jill came over today. We traded books again -- this time, I gave her a slim volume of Rilke ("Looks heady!").
In return, she handed me a Nabokov -- Pale Fire.
Jill is always surprising.
"I always worry that I'm giving you things you've read before," she said, for the twenty-ninth time.
"Oh, nonsense, Jill. You always manage to give me exactly what I didn't know I wanted," I said.
I caught myself -- this could be taken the wrong way.
But she hadn't hesitated. She strode in, pulled a bottle of Perrier from the fridge.
I felt an ember in my stomach -- joy at this familiarity.
"Now, that book -- that'll knock your socks off," she said. "I read it in college, and I never got it out of my head. I'm excited to have someone to talk about it with, after all these years."
She took an aggressive swig.
"Oh -- college! Did noise from our house bother you the other night?" she said.
Usually, it's as if she's talking through me. So these openings, when she lets on about her world, are a rare gift.
"I think I heard that you had a houseguest?" I ventured.
"Yeah. Stu," she said, "guy from college." She sighed. "Blech, just a jackass who never quite grew up. But fortunately, Tim saw the light eventually and sent him on his way."
"Ah, yes, that's good of him," I said, not wanting to let on that I knew too many of the details. "Never grew up how?"
"Oh, just only wants to talk about beer and women's boobs," she said. "Turns Tim into a 19-year-old. For a while, I took a break from cooking and went into the bathroom and put my head between my knees."
Jill unfolded her arms, sat her bottle on the table.
"I just sat there a while," she added. Her sharp Midwestern-mom register had disappeared. It was as if she had abruptly switched instruments, from trombone to violin, between sentences. "That man, honestly, I just didn't like him. Never did. And I didn't like him intruding on my family. Kept putting his arm around me like we were friends. I was damn near visibly shuddering. But no one noticed!" Her breathing had quickened. "I kept wondering, 'Does anyone here see me? Am I even here?'"
She paused. I knew better than to pierce the delicate silence.
"I can't help but think," she finally continued, "that if you asked Tim what happened, he'd say I was good-natured, that I cracked a few jokes, that the night went on until he got Stu to leave, and the whole thing was just moderately humorous or something.”
She looked at me, startled. I looked down and saw that I had put my hand on hers. And that she had clasped onto mine.
Her palm was cool, slightly rough, in the way hands get from household chores, and I realized to my own surprise that I had long wondered how that skin might feel on mine.
"Well," she said, and the Mom-register was back. She pushed back from the table. "You always pick the best books. I canNOT wait."
The front screen door banged shut. I was still at the table.
It's not that I didn't know there were boundaries. There are. I tread carefully.
Once, I gave Jill a copy of The Feminine Mystique.
She didn't return for a whole three months. When she did, she handed it to me with a tight, "Was good!"
I hastily handed her an Agatha Christie before she left, not even checking the title first. Anything to restore things.
January 20, 1992
I heard cackles from the Taylor house today -- two women's voices. This was new.
Over in their family room, Jill and a blonde woman, roughly her age, were sitting at the dining table, heads thrown back with abandon, hooting at the ceiling.
Next to them, there was Tim.
Tim, with a thick, messily-cut rectangle of wood stuck to his forehead. Stuck how? Some sort of glue, I imagined, but...how?
Honestly, it looked heavy. I stared, in spite of myself, imagining the skin tugging and stretching behind the board.
Jill came by later. I could tell even from the tight, rapid knock that something was wrong.
When I opened the door, she thrust the Rilke at me.
"What a book! I tore through it!" she said.
"You finished!" I said. "So soon!"
"I did! Ugh, the poetry!" The book, still held at arm's length, hung between us. I plucked it from her hand.
"It is beautiful," I responded. "The clarity of-"
And then she was laughing -- doubled over, nearly limp with it.
This was also new.
"Tim glued his forehead to a table today," she said between gasps.
I managed a few laughs myself, if only to partake with her. "How?" I asked, incredulous.
She straightened slightly,
"Some...Binford ... super-duper laminate...oh, Christ, I don't know." She was guffawing between words, a hand now on my shoulder, still unable to hold herself up. "He was making some damn ... POINT ... to his audience, about men, about building things."
She breathed. "I guess my friend and I upset him by laughing at him." She dropped her head and laughed harder.
"Jill?" Her laughter had taken a left turn, from delighted to half-crazed.
"I," she sniffed, wiped at her eyes. “Ohhhhhh.” The laughter had subsided, and she exhaled. "I married a nitwit."
"A nitwit," she muttered, replacing her hand on my shoulder with her forehead. "A fucking imbecile."
I hugged her. "I'm sorry, Jill."
But sorry about what?
I'm still trying to answer that one.
She sniffled more deeply. I felt a tear or two dampen my shoulder.
"The Rilke," she said, trying to affect a normal, if quiet, tone of voice. "I really did love it. What's your favorite line?"
I spoke it into her hair, my voice barely above a whisper, "What we choose to fight is so small. What fights us is so great."
I felt her exhale — a small puff.
It all felt so correct, and yet so obviously against the order of things.
She had to know this.
"Jill, doesn't Tim always straighten up? See the light?"
She stopped sniffling, inhaled deeply, backed away from me.
"He does," she said, looking me squarely in the face.
She nodded with an air of finality. "He does. Always."
Later night, I heard the Taylors' back door, the footsteps.
There was Tim with a raw, purplish patch on his forehead. I succeeded in not-laughing.
"Jill seems to think our marriage isn't equal," he said.
My response was rambling, incoherent, my most half-hearted to date. A word-stew about partnership, leaning on each other, how men are imperfect leaders, but perhaps women are as well.
But Tim seemed satisfied -- "Thanks, Wilson."
And ten minutes later, I looked over the fence to see their lights dimmed, the two of them slow-dancing. Clumsily, gracelessly, but lovingly.
I went back into my workshop.
And so I will carry on because I have to carry on. What else, after all, does one do?
Perhaps I am destined to be Tim's fly-tying Cyrano, forever wooing my Midwestern Roxane.
And in the grand scheme of things, I do know I am blessed -- I have my books, my hobbies, my memories.
Kathryn, how I miss you.
And so tonight, I will repeat my nightly prayer:
God, make me of service.
Kathryn, stiffen my backbone.
Together, please make me stolid enough to withstand temptation and despair and frustration.
Give me wisdom.
Give me strength.
Give me more power.
ANYway my dear readers, I have a nice long web feature coming out soon, and a piece on All Things Considered today about diversity and SCOTUS picks. What does that have to do with a forlorn, vaguely horny 90s sitcom character, you ask?
What DOESN’T it?
Have a lovely Friday.
I regret nothing.