Sippican Cottage

Close this search box.
Picture of sippicancottage


A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

I Must Not Do It


From the forthcoming book: The Regular
By: Sippican Cottage

I couldn’t buy her a birthday present. I have no money. That is to say: there is no money. Money can’t be had.

I have seen money. Felt it in my hand. I have wasted it one day and built temples to my fellow man the next with money, with no good reason to do either. I have watched it slumber in a bank book with my name on it waiting for nothing more than a notion and a signature. All gone. Gone for good, I think but must not say. She hears everything I say. I utter the sounds but I don’t listen to what I’m saying. What is the line? I must remember the line. Strut and fret upon the stage, I think. Strut and fret his hour, it goes. Yes, that’s it. I strut and fret though my hour is long over. Oh, I’m full of sound and fury.

The fury is nothing, just like in the play. I say these extravagant things and they roll off my tongue but they signify nothing to me or the rest of the world, except for her. That is why I must not say them. I must not, I must not. She hears them and they burrow deep and make a nest in her heart. She takes them in like a stray cat or a rain dog and gives them the home they don’t deserve. Same as she did for me, I guess. But my words are born hunchbacked. They foul their new nest and they break her heart.

It’s her birthday and I needed to find something. I chant it in my heart like a monk murmuring over his beads. I know why the monks chant. They chant to keep themselves from thinking about the topic at hand. They say words they can’t bring themselves to believe, over and over again, to keep from thinking about what’s coming out of their mouths. They have committed the great sin of being born, and they can’t handle it. They whisper some dread god’s name time and again hoping it will ease the expected blow if they bow and scrape. They never learn that dread comes with earplugs. Deafness comes with the job description. Gods or devils, it makes no never mind. What difference does it make if they brain you with a scepter by accident or poke you with a trident with a purpose? Either way, we’re just the front pins in their game of skittles, whether we’re good or bad. Sorry, I had to install a pillar of salt somewhere, and you’re in the way. Nothing personal.

Nothing is ever personal anymore. A man with eyes like a rat in the starlight put us in the street and said it was nothing personal. Something about having the sheriff tagging along made me suspect he was worried that there might be something personal in it for me. Our little boys looked dazed, and they naturally fear a man in a uniform. My wife never says much of anything but I could read it in her eyes – do not do what I was thinking of doing. I would have made it very, very personal right up until someone brought in the cosh, and she knew it. I yielded to her eyes, like I always have, and I began my new life of living by my wits.

I wasn’t trained to live by my wits, because I am educated. There aren’t any wits required in an office. There’s just a steady drip of nothing personal written in the ledgers and you tend them like a gentleman farmer. In a ledger, people are like carrots in a field. There’s a little bit of green showing to keep track of, but it’s the part you don’t see, the part that’s hidden from view, that defines what you are. Our ledgers were the turnrows that looked down the long winding field of useless green that a man waves over his head to prove to the world that he’s still there. When you grab that green and pull it out of the ledger, when you pull that carrot of a man out of the ground, that’s when you see what he’s really made of. The green was nothing. The green is separated, chop, chop, and the part that’s always kept below stairs is consumed. That’s why it’s a rare man that can afford to be pulled from the ledger.

I farmed men in ledgers all the livelong day without a care in the world until the man I worked for said stop. It was all I was good for, to keep track of the little useless tuft of green that testified that there was a man under there. I was pulled from the ledger like any other man and set in the street where a man lives by his wits or perishes. I’m not allowed the luxury of perishing, not with three other faces arranged around my kitchen table, and I have no wits. That is a hard place to find yourself.

I told her not to worry, that I would reason it out. That’s what I’m good for, reasoning it out. I said it like I say everything. Only she heard it. What could I figure out? The clocks ran backwards now, the sun rose in the west, and there were no ledgers to lord over anymore. I might as well have told her not to worry because tomorrow I’d teach myself to be left-handed. I don’t know what to do. How can I learn how to do it?

I took our little all and squandered it on men that said they had the answer. They said they’d let me in on it for a few pennies. These were men that knew how to live by their wits, I thought. I thought correctly, as it turned out. The only way for a man to live by his wits in this world is to find other men that don’t have any. They found me.

She never complained. Never. Sometimes I’d see her linger over the dishes in the sink, her back turned, her head hung down. There was a pause. She’d lean on the sink for a long moment and perhaps you’d hear the plosh of a drop of water that didn’t come from the tap. Then it would pass and she’d wash the dishes again. I never tried to conjure what was passing by the window of her mind. I’m ashamed to admit it but it’s true. I was afraid to think about it. I sat stock still like a coward until the moment passed, every time. There are some fears a man cannot face.

It was her birthday and I had to find something. I had to. I picked over the winter field of our possibilities one more time like a crow. Could I pawn a present from years gone by, when money leapt into my pocket? No, they were pawned already. I couldn’t steal. I could steal for myself, commit murder, even, if not for money, then for spite at least. But I could not steal for her. It would be like taking the washing from the line behind an angel’s house. She must never touch a stolen thing. It was a disease she must not catch from me without knowing.

I laid in the bed like the undertaker put me there, and turned it over in my head. Tomorrow was the very day and I couldn’t pick the lock of my mind to find what I needed. She was on her side, facing the far wall, and I didn’t know if she was asleep or not. Out of nowhere, she spoke like a whisper in a confessional.

“I know your mind. You must not do it. You must not try it. I know what is in your heart. You will want to make a big show of it but I can’t have it. If you robbed a train and bought me a tiara I’d wear it like a crown of thorns. No matter what gimcrack you bought I would have to ooh and aah over it, and keep it where you could see it. The money buried in it would haunt me every day. It would be a shrine to one more meal that the children would never get to eat, shown to me daily like a penance for a sin I did not commit. You must not do it.”

Just like that, the whisper stopped, and I was left to examine the ceiling again.

I would take my own life, you know, put an end to it, and gladly. One big thing, finally, that was more than just talk. Linger below the chin while shaving. Nothing to it. But I can’t leave her alone in this world. I must not do it.

Copyright 2015 Sippican Cottage. All Rights Reserved 

[Update: Many thanks to Chasmatic for his generous contribution to our tip jar. It is much appreciated] 
[Update: Many thanks to Bill O from Tejas for his friendship and generous contribution to our tip jar. It is much appreciated] 
[Update: Thanks to Gerard, Bird Dog, the AVI , and the Execupundit for linking to this essay. It is much appreciated]

13 Responses

  1. The Sunny has set on the Sippican Empire.
    That's good, it was getting in the way of some fine writing.

    Put me on the list for a copy of your forthcoming book and thank you for the preview.

  2. Hereby committing to purchase the upcoming book and thereby to increase the size of my Sippican library (which resides in the same room as my vintage Sippican Cottage endtables) by 100%.

    In the meantime, in the words of someone much wiser and more articulate than I'll ever be, "You must not do it."

  3. Casey, I see a guy in a tiara, and I wonder about him. A crown, sure, no problem, but a tiara seems to be an "I lost a bet" thing, and what that bet was, and why he took it. I see Mr. Sippi's friendship as a crowning achievement of good fortune.

  4. Sam, them artists are an odd lot. Liable to wear anything. You cut 'em any slack and they lose sight of shore. Next thing he'll be talking about jewels in the diadem of a monarch.
    Artists, writers, they get paid for their product, not their looks. Just like musicians in the radio days. Sing like an angel, look like a barge.

  5. chas, I'm guessing Mr. Sippi doesn't get paid as much as his writing is worth. One of the hazards of the writing biz.

  6. Gregory gets nowhere near his worth for the writing. Killer words sent downrange without quarter. I have told him before that I quote him when I teach, although I am teaching about art process. Makes perfect sense in the context.

    My comment is Montmartesque, but topical, n'est-ce pas?

  7. Casey wrote, "My comment is Montmartesque, but topical, n'est-ce pas?" and I do not understand the "Montmartesque, but topical" bit.

  8. Good. I love that. I read a great Miles Davis quote (Sippi will steal it but who am I?) that goes: "If you understood everything I said, you'd be me."

  9. Wasn't there this story about a girl that sold her hair to buy her husband a watch fob and the guy hocked his watch to but her some hair combs?
    Life musta been simpler back then, fobbed watches and all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Thanks for commenting! Everyone's first comment is held for moderation.