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Ken Poyner

The Sympathetic Exchange

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Jill lives next door. I have known her since she was a bottled circus fourteen, when she, her parents and her then eight year old seismically stable brother moved in. Jill is studying to be a hydraulic engineer. She goes to the local university, and pays in-state tuition, but it is still raving pockets expensive. I know. I receive and eggishly pay the bills.

I own a small plumbing company. I do mostly repair and remodeling, a side of the business that limps along but does better than most in this carnivore up and down economy. I call our situation 'the troubles', like the Irish have named their religious wars in the North. As with that conflict, the years of sputtering has eaten an entire generation: Jill's generation. I did well with my shoe box eighth grade education. I don't know how today's kids are going to do with their college degrees, facebook pages, hand held electronic devices, and unfisted belief in entitlement.

What I get out of the deal is sex. Jill drops by several times a week. The wife does not mind. She does not miss my once or twice a week clumsy but entertaining attempts to climb aboard before she lapses washing machine deep into sleep. Jill tries to stop by when the wife is out: but, if she drops by and finds the wife home, she will smile, wave that half-effective chest high wave, and say, "Oh, hi Mrs. B. I'll be out in just a while." And my wife busies herself like a manikin downstairs.

Jill is a new exercise for me. I love my wife, but thirty years leads to repetition. No matter how good they might have been, reruns are reruns, and everyone understands the theory. Jill is an experiment in social engineering. Jill is the reset key. Jill swallows. Jill understands being handcuffed behind the back, gagged, ankles strapped to the bed's foot railing. To her, this is a video with a limited number of Internet hits. This is the movie her brother smuggled home to watch one air blasting night when the parents were loblolly out and he could scatter his confusion about the floor like Christmas ornaments that will not go back into the box. This is not real. It is the blueprint for next week's feature. It is a set of schematics, that is all it is.

The one thing she does not like is anal sex. At least once a week I toss her over one of the kitchen chairs and storm in through the out door as furiously as a man digging for unwounded air. Afterwards, she will say, "You know, Mr. B., I have never liked that." And I will grab her by the breakable back of her neck and kiss her so hard I can feel her spirit pure teeth resisting. We have our code.

Sometimes we talk about her towering grades and her labyrinthine class schedule. I am a fan of her future. I recommend the more challenging classes. She has to face the Minotaur, I tell her. She not only wants to graduate, I pound into her, but she wants to be the predator that can kill and eat the pristinely good job. She has to convince any prospective employer that she can do whatever it takes to move his company intrinsically forward, to be the cotter pin that holds the wheels in place. She must be the girl who pops naked out of the oversized cake of this quarter's profits. She has to weave herself into the capitalist clan's carpet values of ordinary expectations, a thread in their every vital day operations that, if pulled, would be seen as having the power to unravel the entire tapestry.

We sometimes talk about her boyfriend Kevin, a knockabout of winter wind in a fireplace. He lives with is parents, too, and works part time at a shoe store in the mall. A few times a year he takes courses at the local community college: "English 101", "Introduction to Sociology", "Patterns of Western Thought". He seems a boy with the ambitions of an aquarium fish. I tell her he has to focus, to map out his trench against the glass cleaning future; that she needs to push him, drive him to be like a wild carrot chasing its freedom, drive him into an industrial pursuit of his own unseasonable survival interests.

It is a theme I keep constantly pushing at her, twisting it into the soft spot between her shoulders blades like the blunt end of my elbow's better sense. I do this both for her own fragile planning and for Kevin's. I want these young people to do crackerjack well. I want them to weather ably. I want them to succeed like sharks, to have all the things they now only assume they will have. They must soon be their own landscape, their own fable of the chase and the capture and the killing. One day, husks like these will be the people who pay my pension, the people who will have a Sargasso plain of problems herding their own children past the salt and sweet of their personal decline. I stand for them as an example of what anyone can do if they have a stunningly mud flat will, a sight for the rough and the vulnerable, and will thrash with the boldness to claim a victory where any can be found. I am their best copper welded plumb model. I am what they must hope to be.

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