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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer


                 When the mancave at Sterling’s new house was finally ready to show off, the first person he wanted it to show it off to was Steve, of course. Steve was the man who had first turned Sterling on to the very idea of mancaves, the first man Sterling knew of his generation who actually had a real, thought-out mancave and not just some sports memorabilia and a TV in the same room as, like, a sewing machine and an unused treadmill. Sterling wanted to show Steve that, sure, it had taken him a few years to catch up – quite a few years, actually – but now he had caught up because he had a mancave of his own.

                “We haven’t done anything with Steve and Arianna in years,” said Sylvia, Sterling’s wife.

                “It hasn’t been years,” said Sterling. “Maybe a year.”

                “Years,” said Sylvia. “I promise. And I haven’t missed them. And I’m sure they haven’t missed us. We have nothing in common with each other.” She played a game on her phone as she spoke, half-way down the stairs, leaning on the bannister.

                Sterling stood at the foot of the stairs looking up at his wife. “Steve and I have stuff in common. We do now, anyway.”

                “Like what?” asked Sylvia, sliding her phone into the pocket of her sweatpants without turning it off or anything. Sterling could still hear the game’s tinny song coming from the general area of Sylvia’s right thigh.

                “Well,” said Sterling. “We both have mancaves.”

                “So Arianna and I have to spend two hours struggling to make conversation so that you can spend ten minutes showing Steve your mancave? Just invite him over to see your mancave by himself.”

                “Can I do that?” asked Sterling. “Is that done?”

                “Sure,” said Sylvia. “Yes. That’s well within the bounds of mancave etiquette.”

                Sterling knew she was being sarcastic. He could tell because of her tone, the expression on her face, and the actual content of what she was saying.


                Sterling stood out on the patio in the cold to make the call to Steve because he didn’t want Sylvia to hear his side of the conversation. Knowing that she was listening to what he said would make him too self-conscious. Sterling wanted to feel free to express his enthusiasm for his new mancave and to express his enthusiasm for sharing his new mancave with Steve.

                “Steve,” said Sterling. “It’s Sterling. Sterling Braymer.” He paced laps around the patio table as he spoke. There were only three chairs set at the table. Where was the fourth? What had happened to it?

                “Hey, Sterling,” said Steve. “Haven’t heard from you in a while. How’s it going? How’s Sylvia?”

                “She’s great,” said Sterling. “We’re doing great. Just moved into our new house a couple months ago.”

                “Congratulations,” said Steve. “Still in the area?”

                “Oh yeah, still in Multioak,” said Sterling.

                “Well, it was nice to catch up,” said Steve. “But I’m on my way out the door to see Arianna’s cello recital.”

                “I didn’t know she played,” said Sterling.

                “She’s a beginner. The recital is her and a bunch of kids.”

                “Well, good for her,” said Sterling. “But Steve, real quick, the reason I called…” He paused for affirmation.

                “Yeah?” said Steve, affirming with audible reluctance.

                “I’ve got a mancave at my new place,” said Sterling. He was surprised at how hard his heart was pounding. “And since, well, honestly, you were the big inspiration for my mancave. When we were looking for places, that was my main stipulation: that the house have a room I could turn into a mancave as good as yours. Or almost as good, anyway. And I’m sure you’ve updated yours since I last saw it, I know I’ll probably never catch up, but I just wanted, you know, I wanted to see if you had some time to come over and take a look at mine, tell me what you think, maybe give me some ideas of how to improve it. Unless you want to keep all your mancave ideas for your own mancave. But maybe you’ve got some rejected ideas that weren’t good enough for yours, but maybe they’d work for mine. Ha ha.”

                Steve was silent for a few moments. Sterling stopped lapping the patio table. He looked across the yard toward the back fence where he saw the legs of the fourth patio chair protruding from within an evergreen bush. How had it gotten there?

                “I appreciate the offer,” Steve finally said. “But I don’t do mancaves anymore, Sterling.”

                “What do you mean by that?” asked Sterling. “You don’t ‘do’ them? What does that mean?”

                “It means I have no interest in them,” said Steve.

                “Not even your own?” asked Sterling.

                “I don’t have one anymore,” said Steve. “We converted my mancave to a minimalist office. Look, Sterling, I’m just gonna be honest with you. I don’t want to see your mancave.”

                “But,” said Sterling, searching for a word to follow that “but.” He settled on a plaintive “why?”

                “Because,” said Steve. “Antlers, giant TVs, autographed jerseys, mounted fish, fridges stocked with beer, band posters, mismatched recliners, entire shelves dedicated to physical copies of video games, neon signs you have to unplug every time you leave, and so on and so on. I’m just done with all that, Sterling. Not individually, of course, but I’m done with those things as the elements of a mancave. I mean, it’s just embarrassing, isn’t it? Don’t you feel embarrassed when you go into your mancave? I’ll never go into another mancave as long as I live. I can’t take it anymore. It’s too embarrassing.”

                “Well,” said Sterling, struggling to get the words out, “I don’t want you to miss Arianna’s recital.”

                “Oh, she doesn’t really have one tonight,” said Steve. “That was a lie. I guess I had a presentiment that you might tell me something like this and I was trying to avoid it. You persisted, though, so here we are.”

                “Ah,” said Sterling. “OK, sorry to bother you. Have a good night.”

                “Think about what I said, though,” said Steve.

                “I like my mancave,” said Sterling. “It’s comfortable, it’s fun. Maybe I’ll get tired of it someday and convert it to a minimalist office or whatever, but for now, I think it’s great.”

                “But what is it doing to you?” asked Steve. “That’s what you have to ask yourself. What will it turn you into? Do you want to be a mancaveman?”

                “What’s the alternative?” asked Sterling. “Just a man without a mancave? I was one of those for years. It didn’t feel that special.”

                “I know we don’t get along, really,” said Steve. “We don’t have much in common. But come over to my place tomorrow afternoon. Can you?”

                “I think so,” said Sterling. “What for?”

                “I’m going to show you an alternative to being a mancaveman,” said Steve.

                When the conversation was over, Sterling almost went to retrieve the patio chair from the bush, but he was too emotionally fragile, so he gave himself permission to not retrieve the chair and went inside. He knew where the chair was. He could get it when he was in a sturdier mood.


                “What’s this?” asked Sterling. Surrounded by dormant trees and dead, frosted weeds, he shivered. He and Steve had driven twenty minutes from Steve’s house, parked, and walked another fifteen minutes out into the woods.

                “It’s a cave,” said Steve. He walked over to a wooden chest resting on the ground against a fallen log and brushed a skiff of snow off of its lid.

                Sterling looked at the dark, roundish hole in the side of the hill, big enough for a man to enter while crouching, but not walking upright. He turned back to Steve, who was taking his coat off, then his sweater, unbuckling his belt, removing his boots. “So your mancave is an actual cave now?”

                “No,” said Steve. “It’s not my mancave. It’s just a cave.”

                “Why are you taking your clothes off?”

                “I’m changing,” said Steve. “Come over here. I’ve got skins for you too.”

                “Skins?” said Sterling.

                “Animal skins. Rabbit and squirrel hides that I stitched together. I killed the rabbits and squirrels myself.”

                “What is this about?” asked Sterling. “I don’t want to do this.”

                Steve, down to his boxer shorts, turned to face Sterling. “This is the alternative I was talking about. This is what I’m showing you.” He reached into the wooden chest and pulled out a hideous fur garment which he pulled on over his head. It hung down to his knees like a lopsided poncho. Then he reached up inside of it and pulled off his boxer shorts, tossing them into the chest with the rest of his regular clothes. Steve’s modern haircut was at odds with his outfit.

                “I’m freezing as it is,” said Sterling. “I can see what you’ve got in the cave without wearing skins.”

                “Cavemen don’t wear modern clothes,” said Steve. “But mancavemen do.”

                “That’s what this is about?” asked Sterling. “Being a caveman?”

                “A real cave wasn’t built specifically to accommodate you!” said Steve. “It wasn’t designed to cater to your tastes and interests! It wasn’t designed to baby you!” Even with the incongruous haircut, wearing the skins made Steve’s outburst more intimidating than it would have otherwise been.

                “So what are we going to do once I change into the skins?” asked Sterling. “If I even do it.”

                “We’ll make a fire and sit in the cave,” said Steve.

                “So there’s nothing to do,” said Sterling. “That’s what I thought.”

                “You don’t have a mancave because it gives you something to do,” said Steve. “You could watch basketball games on a TV in a regular living room, a regular basement. You don’t need to have a special team-mascot-themed light fixture overhead in order to fall asleep in a recliner. A mancave exists to give you a specific atmosphere in which to do the same stuff you’ve already been doing for your whole life.”

                “And what does the cave offer?” asked Sterling.

                “Shelter,” said Steve. “Unless the wind is blowing from the east. But I’m not driving back until I’ve been a caveman for a few hours and you can’t come into the cave unless you’re wearing the skins, so you can either start walking back to the house, stand out here and wait for me, or you can be a caveman with me for a few hours. It’s up to you.”

                “Fine,” said Sterling. “I’ll give it a try.”


                Sterling and Steve sat on opposite sides of a sad fire near the mouth of the cave. Sterling did not like how the skins felt against his skin. They were heavy, oily, not particularly warm, and they smelled bad. The fire produced a lot of smoke, which lingered in the cave, but not much heat. Sterling, seated on a rock, hunched toward the flames and rubbed his hands together. Steve, seated on another rock, stared into the fire and occasionally fed it pieces of wood to keep it going. There had not been a single thing about the experience so far that Sterling found in any way preferable to any experience he’d ever had in any mancave. He even preferred mancave experiences wherein he had watched his favorite basketball team lose on TV. He wondered for how long he and Steve would need to continue being cavemen before Steve would be willing to go home. Neither man had spoken for a long time, and with nothing to divert his attention, all Sterling could think about was how cold he felt.

                “So the point is to be miserable?” asked Sterling.

                “No,” said Steve. “I’m not miserable. You’re miserable because you’re still thinking like a mancaveman. To a caveman, this is great, considering the time of year.”

                “But what are you getting out of this?” asked Sterling. “I mean really.”

                “Look,” said Steve. “We live in a world where everything is built to our specifications. Not us specifically, but people like us. Normal people. People in general. Every structure we enter is built for people. Roads are made for cars and cars are made for people. Pop cans are designed to fit comfortably in the human hand. Everything you consume, everything you see, it was all made with people in mind. But that’s still not good enough for us. We have to try to change our environments to make them even more perfectly suited for us. For us as individuals. So just having a lamp designed to fit on an end table which was designed to fit in a living room which was designed as part of a house built for creatures like us isn’t enough. We also have to go a step further and make sure that lamp matches the other lamps, that it appeals to the sensibilities of everyone who interacts with it on a daily basis. But then there are people like you and people like who I used to be who say, ‘No, I need an entire room that caters directly to my conception of who I am, or who I aspire to be, as a man.’ So we purchase another lamp. And this lamp is, like, shaped like a whiskey bottle. And the lampshade is camouflage. And at some point, you realize how pathetic that is. You realize how weak that makes you look and feel. But a real cave wasn’t designed to accommodate you or anyone else. It formed naturally without any consideration for human beings. Anything that it provides for you is purely coincidental, which makes you appreciate it and admire it that much more. You have to meet it more than half way. Sometimes much more than half way, depending on the cave.”

                “How many caves have you done this in?” asked Sterling.

                “Uh, just this one,” said Steve. “But there aren’t many caves around here. We don’t really live in cave country.” It was the first time he’d sounded anything less than supremely confident.

                “I remember that lamp from your mancave,” said Sterling.

                “Which one?”

                “The one shaped like a whiskey bottle,” said Sterling. “With the camo lampshade. Do you still have it?”

                “No,” said Steve. “I threw it out.”

                Sterling didn’t believe him. “Well, if you did still have it, I’d give you twenty bucks for it.”

                “I paid eighty for it,” said Steve.

                “But there aren’t any outlets here in the cave,” said Sterling, smirking at Steve through the smoke. “How would you plug it in?”

                “I threw it out,” said Steve. He wasn’t very talkative after that. Fifteen minutes later, he got up, walked out of the cave to the wooden chest, and changed back into his regular clothes. Sterling, relieved, did the same.


                That night, sitting in one of the recliners in his mancave and eating chips and dip while watching his favorite basketball team dominate an inferior opponent, Sterling felt the first twinge of dissatisfaction. He looked around his mancave. He imagined that he was someone else walking past the mancave’s open door and looking in at him. He imagined how he would look to that person. This imagined view of himself embarrassed Sterling. He considered the many kitschy items that he had bought in good humor mere weeks before. When he had purchased them, he had felt like he was in on the joke. Now, sitting among them, he felt like he was the joke. The totems of stereotypical masculinity adorning the walls and shelves of his mancave mocked Sterling. He felt his skin prickling, growing hot. He turned off the TV, set the chips and dip aside, and pretended to wander out to the living room to see what Sylvia was doing. She was sitting on the couch and playing that game on her phone again. Sterling recognized the song, the merry sound effects.

                “Is the basketball game over?” asked Sylvia.

                “For all practical purposes,” said Sterling. “What’s that game you’re always playing called?” He sat down on the couch next to Sylvia, very casually.

                “Cupcake Canyon Catastrophe,” said Sylvia.

                “Is it free?” asked Sterling. “Is it available for my phone?”


                The cave had collapsed. “Caved in,” as they say. Where there had once been a dark hole in the side of a hill, there was now a pile of rock and dirt. Steve’s car was still parked back where he’d parked it when he’d brought Sterling out to the cave, but maybe he’d made it out of the cave in time. Maybe Sterling had just missed crossing paths with him in the woods, somehow. His heart beating dread and doom, Sterling walked over to the wooden chest against the fallen log. He opened the lid. Steve’s regular clothes were inside. One of the garments made from animal skins was there, but one was missing. Sterling looked at the pile of rubble for any sign of a limb sticking out. A hand, a foot, even a single finger. He saw nothing. The cave had swallowed the caveman whole.


                Back at his house, Sterling stood in the middle of his mancave wearing the same skins he’d worn in Steve’s cave. The outfit still felt oily and heavy and it still smelled bad. And in Sterling’s heated house, the skins were too hot, not too cold. Sterling knew he needed to call the police. Or at least Arianna, Steve’s wife. Instead, he walked over to one of the walls of his mancave and knocked a framed poster of a movie he sort of liked called Gunwork out of his way. It landed on the floor and the frame cracked. Then Sterling used the charcoal briquette he’d taken from a half-used bag he found in the basement to draw crude figures on the wall. Figures of men bearing spears in hot pursuit of a wounded buffalo, more spears protruding from its great flank.

                Sterling felt a shudder through his feet. He heard a creak, a rumble. He looked around, then up. His final thought was that he was somehow rising up off of the floor toward the ceiling, but that was incorrect.


                After the funerals of their husbands, Sylvia and Arianna found some comfort in spending time with each other. Although they still had almost nothing in common, the one thing they did have in common drew them together: both of their husbands had been crushed in freak collapses. One in a cave and one in a mancave, true, but Sylvia and Arianna didn’t make that distinction. To them, the difference wasn’t worth noting.

Discussion Questions

  • What’s your best guess as to how that fourth patio chair got into that bush out by the fence?

  • Could Steve have achieved a feeling similar to what he was aiming for by spending a night in a dog bed? Why or why not?

  • List as many differences between a mancave and a cave as you can think of in one minute. Please do not exceed the specified time limit. Please.

  • Should “mancave” be written as “man cave?”

  • Is it a mark of a poor character if you can spend extended periods of time in a mancave without feeling embarrassed?

  • Is the concept of the mancave irredeemable?