Don Giovanni

Garrison Keillor
from The Book of Guys

Marriage takes too much out of a man, says the old seducer through a cloud of smoke. Marriage is an enormous drain on a man's time and energy, it produces continual deficits, it reduces him to silliness and servility, it is the deathbed of romance. Figaro, my friend, a man owes it to himself to stop and consider the three advantages of the single life.

One, if you're single, you can think. Two, you can act. Three, you can feel. Probably there are other advantages, but those three surely are important, yes?

Think about it. There is no substitute for freedom, and there is no prison so deadly as a life of unnecessities, which is what marriage is. A woman takes over a man's life and turns it to her own ends. She heaps up his plate with stones, she fills his bed with anxiety, she destroys his peace so that he hardly remembers it.

But even a married man knows what he should have done. You should find a cheap place to live- who needs a mansion? You put your money in the bank and you furnish your place as you please, with your own junk and great bargains from auctions. You come and go, you eat when you're hungry, you stay up late, you get drunk as it pleases you, and you have two or three terrific lovers who visit when you invite them and stay about the right length of time.

Enjoy yourself. That's what we're here for.

Some men should have two lovers, some three, it depends on the man, said the Don. Never limit yourself to one: monogamy leads to matrimony, and marriage, my boy, is pure struggle. Of course the single life has problems- having two lovers is a scheduling problem, and three is a real test of a man's organizational abilities, and yet those are the very problems a man hopes for, Figaro. Living alone in a cushy old apartment with your friendly Jamaican housekeeper coming on Fridays to put a shine on things, the corner laundry delivering clean clothes on Wednesdays, and your girlfriends dropping in on various evenings, each of them crazy about you, anxious to please- you know how accommodating young women can be when they want to be. Think of having three like that at once, their eyes alight at the sight of you, their lips moist, the flush of desire on their cheeks? Sound good? My, yes. The Don smiled at the thought.

"No woman would accept such an arrangement. You would have to lie to her," said Figaro.

Yes, certainly, said the Don.

"To lie to three women at once? To keep inventing stories about where you went? Is that nice?"

The girls who share my bed want to share my life, said the Don, and that would leave me no life at all.

"But to be so selfish- what if everyone were? What if your parents had been?"

I am selfish, Figaro, because I have a larger capacity for pleasure than other people do. Pleasure is only a hobby to them and to me it is a true vocation: the joy of eating a sumptuous meal in the company of a sharp-tongued woman who secretly adores me- who argues with me and ridicules my politics and my ideas, the things I don't care about, and who, in a couple hours, will lie happily next to me, damp and drowsy, smiling, this to me is the beauty of the male existence. As for my parents, what they did wasn't my responsibility.

Figaro had dropped in to see his old friend at the Sportsman's Bar in Fargo, where the Don was engaged for three weeks to play the piano. Figaro had moved to Fargo with Susanna shortly after their marriage, and he had not laid eyes on the Don since he had attempted to seduce Susanna on their wedding night- one of those cases of mistaken identity in dimly lit places, so Figaro bore no grudge.

The Sportsman was an old dive near the Great Northern yards where the switching crews liked to duck in for a bump of whiskey on their coffee breaks. It was not a place you would bring a woman, Figaro thought, and any woman you might find in there you wouldn't want to know better. The little marquee out front said, "BBQ Beef S'Wich $1.95 Happy Hour 4-6 Two Drinks for Price of One D G'vanni in Hunters Lounge Nitely." When Figaro stepped into the gloom, the cloud of beer and smoke and grease, he heard someone playing "Glow Worm," and recognized the Don's florid glissandos, the tremors and trills, the quavers and dips, the big purple chords rising, the mists, the Spanish moss, the grape arbors in the moonlight, the sighs, the throbbing of the thrush. The Don sat all big and glittery at the keyboard in the rear of the deserted room, in an iridescent silver jacket that picked up every speck of light from the sixty-watt spotlight overhead. The silver threads went nicely with the Don's flowing bleached-blond hair and the gaudy rings on his fingers, chosen for maximum sparkle. Six rings and six chunks of diamond, a ruby-studded bolero tie, a silver satin shirt with pearl buttons, and silver-and-turquoise earrings.

He looked much the worse for wear, Figaro thought, as if he had been living in these clothes for a number of days, including some rainy ones, but he was full of beans, as always. He told Figaro he would soon be back in New York, where a big recording contract was in the offing, a major label, large sums of cash that he was not at liberty to disclose- he rubbed his fingers together to suggest the heavy dough involved- the people were secretive types, you understand, said the Don.

"And you? How are you? Have you found a wife yet?" asked Figaro.

The Don laughed. It was their old joke.

Marriage looks very appealing until you are in the company of married people and then the horrors of the institution cry out to you, said the Don. Marriage is for women, Figaro, ugly women. It makes no sense for men. It never did.

The married guy has to have an airtight explanation for everything he does by himself. If he wants to go for a walk around the block alone, he has to invent an excuse for not taking his beloved with him. To get up out of his chair and go into the kitchen and run a glass of tap water, he has to announce to his wife, like a child in the third grade, or else she will say, "Where are you going? To the kitchen? For a glass of tap water? Fine. Why can't you say so? Why do you always just wander away without saying a word? You wouldn't treat anybody else that way. How do I know if you're going to the kitchen or going to New Orleans for a week? And it would've been nice if you'd offered to bring me something from the kitchen. But no. You just get up and walk away. I could be sitting here dying and you'd never notice." Then she bursts into tears, grieving for herself and her future death. This is marriage, Figaro.

A single guy can walk around without explaining it to anyone. He can also go to New Orleans. This gives a man a dignified feeling, knowing that you could, if you wanted to, drive somewhere. Or drive nowhere, just cruise around with the top down soaking up rays and laying down rubber. Married guys can't go nowhere. There always has to be a plan, a list of errands, a system, a destination. Alone, your life is intuitive, like poetry. With a woman, it's a form of bookkeeping.

"So- how long are you in town?" asked Figaro, trying to change the subject, but the Don had more to say.

A home belongs to the oldest woman inhabitant, no matter what. Every day, a man has to get her permission to come in, to use the toilet, to draw oxygen from the air, to keep his things in the closet. The permission is always conditional, and some of her rules are never explained: some secret rules (No Loitering, No Unnecessary Conversation, No Putting Things There, No Whistling, No Guests, We Reserve the Right to Change the Terms of This Agreement) are kept for emergencies.

And a married guy is responsible for everything, no matter what. Women, thanks to having been oppressed all these years, are blameless, free as birds, and all the dirt they do is the result of premenstrual syndrome or postmenstrual stress or menopause or emotional disempowerment by their fathers or low expectations by their teachers or latent unspoken sexual harassment in the workplace, or some other airy excuse. The guy alone is responsible for every day of marriage that is less than marvelous and meaningful.

"Why don't we ever make love anymore?" That is the No. 2 all-time woman's question in the world. No. 1 is: "Why don't we ever talk to each other?" Now there's a great conversational opener. You're ensconced on the couch, perusing the funny papers, sipping your hot toddy, feeling mellow and beloved, and she plops down full of anger and premenstrual uproar, and says "Why don't we ever talk to each other? Why do you treat me as if I don't exist?"

You take her hand. "What do you want to talk about, my beloved?"

"You and your utter lack of interest in communicating with me, that's what," she snaps, yanking her hand back.

"My love, light of my life, my interest in you is as vast as the Great Plains. Share with me what is in your heart so that we may draw close in the great duet of matrimony."

But she didn't want to converse, of course, she only meant to strike a blow. "Humph," she says, standing up. "I know you. You are only saying that."

That is marriage, Figaro. A boy's constant struggle to maintain his buoyancy.

"Some of what you say, I suppose, is true," said Figaro, "but a guy needs a wife, someone who cares if you've collapsed in the shower with your leg broken."

Well, your chances of collapsing in the shower are sharply improved by being married, the Don said. Helpless rage is a major cause of falls in the home.

No, marriage is a disaster for a man, it cuts him up and broils his spirit piece by piece, until there is nothing left of him but the hair and the harness.

An unhappy man with heavy eyelids appeared in the doorway to the Lounge, hands on hips, chewing a mouthful of peanuts. He appeared to be an owner or manager of some sort. "You on a break right now, Giovanni? Or is the piano busted?"

The Don turned with the greatest disdain and said, "Oh. Cy. I thought it was you."

"I hired you as a piano player, Giovanni, not a philosopher. I'd like to hear less thinking and more tinkling. A word to the wise." The man turned and disappeared.

The Don looked down at the keyboard, plunked a couple of notes, got up from the bench, and motioned to a table in the corner. "We can sit there," he said.

"A life without a woman is the lonesomest life I can imagine," said Figaro with a sigh. "I would be miserable without Susanna."

Life is lonesome, said the Don, and lonesome isn't bad, compared to desperate. But of course a man should not live without women. Luckily, marriage is not a requirement. Nobody needs monogamy except the unenterprising. Hungry women are everywhere! Lonely housewives who advertise on recipe cards pinned to a bulletin board in the Piggly-Wiggly- wistful ladies at the copier, putting flesh to glass, faxing themselves to faroff officedom- fervid women sending out E-mail invites- hearty gals working out on the weight machine who drop a note in your street shoes- cocktail joints along the freeway, wall-to-wall with women whose lights are on and motors are running!- Figaro, they're out there! Free. No legal contract required. What could be better?

Figaro shook is head. "The life of a libertine ends badly," he said. "You get old, your teeth turn yellow, you smell like a mutt, and you have to pay women to look at you. Much better to marry, to be faithful, to build a deeper partnership that will hold together through the terrible storms of old age."

My dear Figaro, seduction is an art, to be learned, practiced, adopted, and improvised according to the situation, and, like other arts, it will not desert you late in life.

"Seduction is a lie, and as we get older, we get tired of lies," said Figaro. "We know them all and they're not amusing anymore."

Seduction is a sweet story, and if the listener wants so much to hear it, then it is no lie. Seduction is a mutual endeavor in which I conspire with a woman to giver her an opening to do what she wants to do without reminding her that this goes against her principles. A woman's principles and her desires are constantly at war, and if there were no one to seduce a woman, she would have to figure out how to do it herself. Her principles call for her to remain aloof and uninterested until she meets a man who makes her faint. Her desires are otherwise. She wants to say, "That man, there. Unwrap him and send him over here so he can love me." She cannot say this. So I try to help her. I say, Zerlina, I would like to hold your hand for two minutes and then you could shoot me and I will die a happy man.

She laughs, but she does not turn away. She rolls her eyes. She says, "Oh, phoo." She gives me her hand.

I say: The greatest tragedy is to be cut off from intimacy, from touch, which is the most human of languages, Zerlina, and the most honest. There is no lie in a touch, a caress, never. The language of the body is the language of the purest truth.

She is amused. I put my other hand on her shoulder. She turns and leans against me. "You're something," she says.

Zerlina, I say, there's a bottle of champagne waiting on ice at the Olympia Hotel, and a couple of dozen oysters. When we get there, we'll order up a big salad in a wooden bowl, with basil and spinach and fennel and cilantro and radicchio, and we'll have it with olive oil and vinegar and pepper and garlic. Then a steak tartare, with chopped onions and an egg yolk. And then we'll undress quickly without shame, as adults, and jump into the big bed and amuse each other as only adults can do. And afterward, we'll eat an omelet. And then do it again.

Her hand twitches in mine, and I guess that I have touched a chord- "This is the best time of year for oysters," I say in a low voice, "and one should never eat them without erotic plans for later."

She tells me to be real, but even so, she is reaching for her purse, putting on her coat, checking her lipstick. "You're outrageous," she says, and now we are almost to the hotel, and then in the room, she says, "I can't believe I'm actually doing this." But she is. She is. A wonderful occasion, Figaro. The sort of evening that someday, as you lie dying, you will remember and it will bring a smile to your lips.

"You slept with her? Zerlina? But she is married to Maseppo," said Figaro, "I can't believe this!"

I may have slept with her, I may not have slept with her, I only mention her as an example. Zerlina, Marilyn, Marlene- what's the difference? A woman.

"Having an affair is not the same as marital happiness," said Figaro.

You are right. Marital happiness is briefer and it has a sword hanging over its head. The happiness in marriage is fitful, occasional. It is the pleasure one gets from the absence of the pain of not conforming exactly to the wishes of your wife. A married man walks into a room and his wife looks up and smiles- he is dressed and groomed exactly as she has trained him, his gait is perfect, his personality is champion quality, and he is prepared to converse on topics of her liking, a neat trick it took her years to teach him- and for the duration of her smile, he is happy. But her smile is brief. She spots the flaw: the spiritual emptiness in his eye. She has warned him against emptiness, but there it is. "Why are you looking at me like that?" she hisses. "You look as dim as a dodo." And his happiness is now over for a while. He must think of a way to fill up his spirit.

The man with the heavy eyelids reappeared in the door, an envelope in his hand. "Time to go, Giovanni," he said, setting his big hand on the table. "Yer outta here. You broke the deal. Yer history. The job's over. Move it."

The Don sneered. What a relief to be out of this mausoleum, he said. I am, he said, the greatest romantic pianist of all time. But a romantic pianist in Fargo is like an All- Star shortstop in Paris. Not a priority item.

"Go to hell," said the man, and he stamped his foot on the floor. Figaro looked down. The man had hooves instead of shoes.

The Don stood up. Gladly, he said, it would be better than looking at your ugly face.

The man strode to the back door by the piano and opened it, and Figaro saw the orange glow of flames in the basement, fingers of flame licking the doorsill.

"Stop!" he cried. "No! Giovanni! Repent!" He took the Don by the arm. "It's not too late. Repent!"

The Don put a hand on Figaro's shoulder. "Believe me," he said, "it's easier simply to go. And compared to marriage, it isn't that bad. Farewell, mon ami." And he took off his great silver jacket and gave it to Figaro and walked to the stairs, put his hands on the door frame, and then, with a mighty cry, plunged down into the fiery abyss.

"Your hair smells of smoke, " Susanna said to Figaro when he arrived home. "Where were you? In a bar? You stopped in a bar on your way home? I thought you had outgrown that, darling. And what are you going to do with that hideous jacket? My gosh. You can put it in the garage. It reeks of shellfish. I don't want it in the house. Go on. Take it out of here."

So he did. He put the silver jacket on a hanger and hung it on a nail next to the rakes and shovels, and it stayed there for years. Twice she threw it in the trash and twice he retrieved it.

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