Miss Laura had a son, once, but he became an Esquire man and was lost to her. His father was an Esquire man, so it shouldn’t have come as a big surprise. He always smelled like tobacco and ordered highballs and was certain he was able to speak to dogs, though the same neighbor’s Corgi bit him twice in the year before he vanished.
Miss Laura has always had a soft spot for men like these. Sometimes, she’ll visit Chicago or New York or London and think she sees her son walking through the financial district, or up on a billboard, and her heart will pull. But when she grabs his arm, or looks again, it’s just another Esquire man, his cheekbones casting deep shadows in his lightly stubbled face, and she longs to be home again.
Miss Laura runs a school for Esquire men. Some days, though, it seems more like a camp—the men piled around the table, clattering dishes and swapping bowties, is like the mess halls from the camps of her youth. The men sleep in twin beds that line the walls of the many bedrooms. They arrive on her front stoop with letters from their spouses or mothers and purposefully-worn leather bags at their sides.
Here is one of the problems Miss Laura faces when it comes to her Esquire men: they cut down her trees without asking. The first time this happened, she dragged that particular man, by the name of James, away from the tree. He went limp. The red axe fell into the grass.
“What are you doing?” she cried.
“Felling!” he howled, heavier than a sack of oatmeal.
This began a trend, and soon Miss Laura’s yard, once a shaded glen fit for lounging, was bright and open.
Other problems: they break cologne bottles in the room and pretend like they don’t know the smell is leaking through the heating ducts like tear gas. They take apart her car engine and never put it back together correctly. They hammer galvanized nails into the drywall for no particular reason. They sell Miss Laura’s tchotchkes and use the proceeds buy the forbidden magazines from the corner store.
Miss Laura has a rule about the magazines. The rule is: no. In the early years, she thought the men could be trusted, but she eventually learned. Now, she tosses the mattresses during the day, when they are doing their lessons, and confiscates the magazines and burns them in her wood stove. Sometimes, she goes through them, to see what she’s up against.
75 Things You Don’t Know About Women. 1,000 Things You Don’t Know About Women. 175 Things a Man Should Do Before He Dies. The 75 Things Every Man Should Do. 25 Skills Every Man Should Know. The 75 Skills Every Man Should Master. What Is a Man?
Miss Laura makes notes to herself. Sometimes, the task feels too huge, and she cries. The men have been known to come in and offer her clean handkerchiefs, folded into squares. This is one of the few Esquire skills she considers useful to all humans, and that she never strives to undo.
The Esquire men turn their nose up at white wine. Miss Laura tells them they will not leave the table until they drink the sauvignon blanc. She breaks up the boxing matches in the basement.
There is a man at Miss Laura’s who was sent there after he lost the family fortune. At night, he sits in the dining room, tapping at a calculator with a yellow legal pad full of figures in front of him. He taps and writes and contemplates and then taps some more, and when Miss Laura asks him how it’s going, he swivels his shoulder around his notes like they are state secrets. She makes him a cup of tea and lets him stay, as long as the tapping doesn’t disturb the others.
They can be so good. They write thank-you notes for their gifts. They sew their own popped buttons back onto their clothes. They can make fires without any prompting. “Real men can make a fire,” they say. Miss Laura loves the opportunity for a lesson. “People should learn how to make a fire,” she corrects gently. They frown. They request marshmallows.
At night, Miss Laura patrols the halls every hour, listening in the darkness for the inevitable weeping. She usually finds the culprit, his waxed hair standing straight up behind his head, rubbing his eyes in the light of the open door. She sits with him in the chaise downstairs near the foyer.
“I understand,” she says. “I understand.” And she does. The world is dark. She holds on to her own myths also. She sings Tracy Chapman to him, low in the stillness. He lays his head in her lap, and she rubs the velvety nape of his neck until he falls asleep.
The men do not so much graduate as wander away. Miss Laura can hammer a lot of things out of them, but the desire to strike out without warning seems to be wired into their DNA. From her bed, she can hear them leaving—the clunk of the shoe polish tin, the hiss of a zipper—and she watches them from her bedroom window, walking down the street and dragging a duffel behind them.
She wishes they would consult a map or perhaps a passerby, but they have been instructed by many years of magazines to listen to the direction of their hearts, or inquire after the moss on the trees, and they do, even if it sends them away from the train station, and on the road that leads to the woods. She always presses her hand to the glass pane, their tiny shapes vanishing beneath her palm, and utters a small prayer—may they always be good, may the trees fall away from them, may they never have any daughters, amen.
Carmen Maria Machado is a fiction writer and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, The American Reader, Five Chapters, Best Women’s Erotica 2012, VICE, The Paris Review Daily, The Hairpin, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop.