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And One Makes Three
I had never been in the New Haven Court House before. There were small black signs on chromed stanchions directing you to all the different departments but I couldn’t find one telling me where to pay a speeding ticket. I noticed a door marked “Clerk of the Court” and went in. Seated behind an old wooden desk, tapping the keys of a computer, was an attractive dark haired woman, somewhere in her late forties. As I was recently divorced I was keenly aware of the ring finger on almost all attractive women I came across. Her finger was absent a ring.
“Excuse me,” I said, “can you tell me where I go to pay a ticket?”
She turned away from her monitor and looked over at me. She had olive skin, sparkling white teeth and dark brown eyes. “Go out the door to the right, take a right at the end of the corridor and it’s the second door on your left,” she said
“Right out the door, right at the end of the corridor and second door on my left?”
“You’ve got it.”
“And what about coffee?”
“Coffee. Where would I go to get a cup of coffee?”
“Just walk down Elm Street, there are plenty of places.”
“Think they would serve two”
“You think they would have enough coffee for the two of us?”
“Two of us?”
“You do drink coffee, don’t you?”
She stared, didn’t answer for a few seconds, then a hint of a smile crossed her face. She dropped her head in an innocent yet coy fashion, as if she just got the joke, looked back up at me, the smile broader, and said, “Yes, as a matter of fact I do drink coffee.”
“Well, wouldn’t a good cup of coffee and some interesting conversation strike you as a better plan than what you what you had going when you got off work?”
I shrugged my shoulders, “Sure…I think it’s a splendid idea.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m a guy about to pay a speeding ticket…the first I’ve gotten in quite a while mind you…who hopes to have a cup of coffee with this really good looking gal he just met in the…” I turned and re-read the sign on the door, “Clerk of the Court’s office.”
The smile stayed on her face and she shook her head slowly in disbelief. “You are serious, aren’t you?” she said.
“Like I said, I think it’s a splendid idea. Sure as hell will take the edge off paying a speeding ticket, I can tell you that.”
“Well, I appreciate the offer, but I…”
“Wait,” I interrupted, “before you turn me down, think about it. I’ll go pay the ticket and stop back in. Keep in mind that I can carry on a fairly decent conversation on practically any given topic.”
“I see modesty is one of your strong suits.”
“False modesty is a sin. Truth sometimes appears boastful. Give it some thought, OK? I’ll come back after your judicial system takes its pound of flesh.”
She laughed softly and went back to her computer. I turned to leave, looked back over my shoulder and said, “I’ll see you in a bit.” She gave a brief wave. I felt good about this.
Speeding tickets were divided into two rooms, those pleading guilty and those pleading not guilty. I was guilty as sin so I got in line, cash in hand. After about twenty minutes of shuffling from one foot to the next I stood in front of a grossly overweight man in a white, shortsleeved shirt and a tie sporting a history of recent meals he had eaten. He took the ticket from me, never looked up and said, “Two hunded thirty five dollars.”
“Do you take checks?”
He looked up at me, his gray clay face showing absolute disdain. “You being funny?”
“No, just figuring out how the system works.”
“Cash…two hundred and thirty five dollars in cash. That help?”
“Sure does, amigo. Here you go.” I counted out the two hundred and thirty five dollars that I knew it would cost me before I got there. “How’s that look?”
He didn’t say a word, just recounted the money, twice, then handed me a receipt. “Next!”
“Good talking with you.” I walked away and headed back down to the Clerk of the Court’s office. When I walked in she was still at the computer and looked up at me with a good deal of surprise.
“You came back,” she said.
“I told you I would.”
“I didn’t think you were serious.”
“I told you I was. I’m a serious kind of guy.
She smiled slightly and shook her head in disagreement. “No,” she said, “I don’t think you’re a serious kind of guy, in fact I think you’re a player.”
“What’s a player?”
“The glib, have an answer…and a smart one at that…for everything kind of guy. What our parents used to call a “lady’s man.””
“You got all that out of the three minutes we spent together?”
“Your antenna’s busted.”
“Yeah, I want to have some coffee and talk…you seem like a smart gal, and you’re definitely easy on the eye…what’s to be glib about?”
She gave me the eye…checked me up and down and said, “I shouldn’t, but OK…a cup of coffee. I’m off at 4:30, if you want to come back then I’ll have one cup with you.”
“Fair enough…I’ll be here at 4:15 and pace the hall.”
She laughed, a good sign and turned back to her computer. I headed for the door, turned around, looked at that olive skin, the black hair, the white teeth and knew that it was going to be a good day. I left the building, prowled the streets of New Haven looking for a bookstore…always a great time killing venue. I found myself on Chapel Street outside the Atticus Bookstore. Stepping inside I headed right for the poetry section. When I want to get lost for a bit of time nothing works better for me than the poems of Robert Frost. I grabbed a hard bound version of his collected works, sat down in a comfortable arm chair and immediately thumbed to “A Servant to Servants.” I had read this particular poem countless times and it always completely absorbed me.
“The cottages Len built, sometimes we rent them
Sometimes we don’t. We’ve a good piece of shore
That ought to be worth something, and may yet.”
I began to get lost. I was traveling to one of Len’s cottages. I wanted to spend time there. From there it was a short journey to madness.
“My father’s brother wasn’t right. The kept him
Locked up for years back there at the old farm.
I’ve been away once—yes, I’ve been been away.
The State Asylum. I was prejudiced;
I wouldn’t have sent anyone of mine there;
You know the old idea – the only asylum
Was the poorhouse, and those who could afford,
Rather than send their folks to such a place,
Kept them at home; and it does seem more human.”
Frost…America’s poet, pondering madness. This wasn’t our National Uncle. These weren’t words to be read at Christmas, creating images of snow blanketed fields and crisp, silent woods. This was the underbelly of humanity trapped beneath the weight of a society that hid what it was ashamed of. This was the Frost that sucked me in. I read line after line and continued on with other poems. “The Death of a Hired Man,” “The Code,” “Home Burial.” I would be captured by a single line and read it over and over. I finished a verse and looked around to find a clock…I had no idea how long I had been reading. Bookstores are like casinos, they don’t have clocks, they don’t want you to be aware of the passing of time. The longer you linger the greater the chances that they’ll make money off you. I went up to one of the clerks and asked the time.
“It’s 4:03,” he said.
I thanked him, handed him the Frost book and left the store headed back to the court house. At 4:15 I began to pace in front of the door to her office. I had on a pair of Wesco boots and their heels echoed in the marble hallway. Every few moments I glanced in to see if she noticed me but she never took her eyes off the computer screen. It was an act, she knew I was there and she enjoyed it. The Seth Thomas wall clock in the hallway said 4:30 so I stepped into the office.
“Oh,” she said, ‘you’re here.”
“You didn’t see me pacing?”
“Pacing? No, I hadn’t noticed.”
“Didn’t hear me?”
“I get wrapped up in my work.”
“Ah ha…how about I unwrap you and we go sit on some stools and drink some coffee?”
“Well, I said I would and I always keep my word.”
She walked around from behind her desk, it was the first time I had seen her standing up. She was about 5’5”, slender and graceful. She had on a yellow sundress that draped every part of her body as if there was only one dress in the world made for that body and she had it on.
“I’m not quite certain having coffee with you is the best idea…but I’ll go.”
“I’m not sure it’s the best idea either, but it’s the best idea I could come up with at the time. I’m glad you’re going to go. Lead the way…this is your neighborhood.”
Ten minutes later, after a short walk down Elm Street, we were seated in a booth in one of the myriad of coffee shops/diners in the area. She still had that half smile on her face as she straightened her skirt and made herself comfortable. The waitress came by and I ordered two cups of coffee. “That was the deal,” I said, “two cups of coffee, right?”
“Right you are. So, who are you?”
I gave her my name and extended my hand across the table to shake hers. She grasped my hand and it felt as if a bird hand just landed in my palm. Soft and fragile.
“And what do you do, beside speeding?”
“Really? What do you write?”
“Anything that people will pay me for. Ad copy, promotional copy, short stories, novels, broadsides, poetry. I’m a business man, not an artist.”
“An interesting view of literature.”
“Well, there’s that whole truth thing again. Most writing is a business. Why do you think popular authors, even the “great” ones, have business managers and attorneys?”
“To protect them.”
“From unscrupulous business people.”
“Why do they need protection from unscrupulous business people if they’re not in a business?”
She thought for a moment, pondering the point. “Interesting,” she said, “very interesting.”
“I’m just up front about it. I can write fairly well so I sell it. I don’t care who buys it, neither does the electric company when I pay my bills with the money. They don’t care if I consider myself an artist or a business man.”
“So, have I read anything you’ve written…the name sounds familiar?”
“Probably. Between ad copy and two novels I would expect you’ve seen some of my words somewhere…possibly even thought they had some merit.”
“What were the titles?”
“The Ride From Boston to Berkeley,” and “Deaf, Dumb and Dead.”
“Deaf, Dumb and Dead,” she yelped, “that was you?”
“I read that years ago…it was fantastic. Did all of that really happen?”
“Really happen? Your guess is as good as mine. I had quite a bit of difficulty at the time discerning what was real and what wasn’t. Sometimes life experiences do that”
She nodded her head in silent agreement.
“What about you?” I asked, “what does a Clerk of the Court do?”
“I’m in charge of most documentation and all scheduling for all the judges in New Haven County.”
“You like it?”
“The electric company doesn’t ask me if I like it when I pay the bill.”
“Good point. How come someone who looks like you, with a brain like yours isn’t married?”
“Who said I wasn’t?”
A bit shocked, I said, “No ring,” nodding to her finger.
“Is there a legal requirement that all married women wear rings?”
“So, you’re married?”
“So, I’m married.”
“But you’re having coffee with me?”
“Once again, is there a legal requirement precluding married women from having coffee with men other than their husbands?”
“None that I know of.”
She shrugged her shoulders in a “no big deal” gesture.
“Would your husband mind?”
“Mind me having coffee with you? No, not at all.”
“Really? Broad minded fellow.”
“You think so? Isn’t that what life’s about? New experiences? As a writer you certainly must be in touch with the adventurer in you.”
“I never considered having coffee and adventure.”
“Neither did I. We’re two people sitting on opposite sides of a table drinking coffee. I’ve gotten to meet the author of “Deaf, Dumb and Dead,” which is a totally unexpected pleasure. I think it’s an adventure.”
“Broad minded. If I had a woman like you I wouldn’t truck any adventures…whether there’s coffee involved or not.”
“I take it you’re not married.”
“Was once. If I were married now I wouldn’t be sitting here with you having coffee.”
“You would have just paid your ticket and left?”
“I would have paid my ticket and left.”
“Not very adventurous.”
“I guess it depends on one’s definition of adventure.”
She sat back, the ever present half smile became a full smile. There was something in the air, something that had not been there a few minutes earlier. A thickness, a sensuality, a slight sense of danger. This woman was not a mere Clerk of the Court, she was more than that. What it was, I hadn’t yet discovered. She sipped her coffee without taking her eyes off me. She wasn’t simply drinking from the cup, she was kissing the rim, inhaling the moisture. There was something in the air and I liked it.
“Why did you and your wife divorce, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I lost all our money and I lied to her about it.”
“Why did you lie?”
“It was easier than telling the truth. I took the easy way out.”
“Do you have children?”
“Do you see them often?”
“Not often, from time to time.”
There was a pause, she nodded her head as if she were processing all the information.
“What about you?” I asked.
“What about me?”
“Why are you having coffee with me?”
Another pause…she leaned forward on her elbows, studying me. The smile remained but her eyes narrowed as she seemed to be searching for some sort of clue. An indication of who I was. She sat back, folded her hands in her lap.
“I came here because I was attracted to you.”
Now I was the one who sat back. I didn’t squint, I didn’t attempt to figure her out. I learned long ago that attempts to figure out the actions and reactions of women was a long and fruitless process. You either went along for the ride or you got off.
“So you didn’t just come for the coffee?” I asked.
“I didn’t just come for the coffee.”
…To be continued.
The driver of the orange pickup is back. I can’t quite remember when he first showed up—time is hard to gauge here—but the surveyors brought him here with their work. We measure time by getting dates from new arrivals and Julie was the only one since the survey crew. She was gone before we got any information from her. Usually new people can at least remember a recent date, but one guy told us it was 1935, so we have to take everything with a grain of salt.
There is something ugly about this man. Dark. He doesn’t read the headstones. He’s preoccupied with the placement of the flags. He’s old. I’d say seventy-five.
“He’s not that old,” Teresa says.
“He could be,” Marcus interjects.
“What difference does it make?” Walter asks.
I’m getting used to Walter. At least his voice doesn’t startle me anymore. I hate, for his sake, that he’s here to stay. He was quiet a long time after he arrived, just answering questions. Now he joins conversations and comments on things he hears. He sings sweet little songs to Jilly and makes her laughs. If I didn’t know better I would swear that he can tickle her.
The man steps out of his truck and limps along the ditch between the road and the edge of the cemetery, weaving his way around the flags. He’s got a bad knee or hip or something. The uneven ground makes him falter and grimace. He pauses, pulls off his cap and scratches his head, then looks around again before wandering farther down the slope. He stops near Jilly’s grave, where he seems to be assessing the trees on the opposite hillside. He’s confused. Alzheimer’s, I bet. You wouldn’t believe how many mentally unstable people visit the cemetery.
I expect Marcus to insult me with that one, but he’s consumed with our visitor.
The man continues down to the bottom of the hill and looks back up the ditch. Has he lost something here?
Kim and I follow him, now too curious to pretend we don’t care. We scan the grass at his feet, but our eyes can’t discern the fine details, and we’d never find anything valuable like a ring or a coin. A wallet perhaps, but not jewelry unless it glinted at us.
“What do you think he’s looking for?” Kim asks, but he’s not talking to me; he’s talking to Walter.
“Does this guy give you a weird vibe?” Walter asks.
“Yes.” We all answer. Marcus, too.
The man pauses again in the lower middle section, scrutinizing the road and the house on the other side. Jilly whimpers. She’s sensitive to changes in our moods, in the group atmosphere.
I work to soften my suspicion, as I know the others do, too. I laugh out loud and call the man a dork.
“He’s after something,” Marcus says.
“His brains,” Kim adds.
“Or he’s just confused,” Walter says. He’s not as practiced at masking his tone. I can hear the distrust in his voice.
He could be anyone. A lot of people visit the cemetery, but not specifically the dead. This morning a pretty blonde woman in a yellow sports car showed up. Kim liked her—he’s a womanizer. He sat in the grass with the woman while she cried. If he could’ve wiped her tears he would have. We all know she wasn’t talking to a loved one because she moved with the sun, following the warmth. They come here to sort out their personal problems. Where else can you laugh or cry or curse and no one is compelled to offer assistance or even look at you funny?
When the man returns to his pickup he sits perched in the driver’s seat looking out at us and seeing no one.
Walter enters the cab to look at the dash and the seat, the floor.
“He’s looking for clues, I guess,” Marcus says. We’re all gathered in the parking lot. This man is the most excitement we’ve had since the surveying. “Or, having been a trucker, maybe it’s the vehicle that he’s interested in. Leaving the daily tasks of the work-a-day world was the hardest part for me. Maybe it is for him, too. I liked the routine. The predictability of it. And I loved programming.”
No one has asked Walter to describe himself, so I picture him as stocky with a round belly. A bit on the short side, with little or no neck. I imagine him in a stained tee shirt tucked into jeans. A leather belt with a monogrammed silver buckle and cowboy boots. Mine is a sketch of the stereotypical truck driver. I realized that the first time I considered what he looked like, but I cannot deconstruct my image of him, even if he told us what he had really looked like. Why we care at all about this is the question we ought to ask ourselves. Perhaps it distracts us from thinking of what our bodies actually look like now. Walter was burned alive.
Marcus and Walter once lived just ten miles apart, but they didn’t run in the same circle. Aside from the fact that the Portland area has nearly a million residents, Marcus’s friends were professionals. I call them “haves,” not to be mistaken for most of us who were “have nots.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Marcus says. “I just don’t know how to talk to truckers and stone masons. And especially people like you.”
As if sensing my curiosity about him, Walter leaves the cab and joins us at the top of the parking lot. The day is brighter than most, a clear sky and a sharp breeze that animates the trees in a fluid ballet of sway and flutter.
“What did you find?” Marcus asks as he works to make out the license plate number.
“A pile of shit.”
Marcus grunts. The course language is not necessary.
“BVK 269,” Walter says.
“The license. That’s what you were after, wasn’t it?”
Marcus turns and gazes into Walter’s shimmering particles. “Can you see me?”
Walter doesn’t answer.
“What can you see?”
“I’m practically blind.” Sadness is threaded through his words like a tightly woven rug. “I can hardly see a goddamn thing.”
Marcus contemplates the license plate again. Is my already-poor sight fading? Will I lose it completely? “My wife once told me that she feared going blind more than anything else.”
When Marcus talks about his wife, it’s like a fairytale. And he thinks I’m the one who tells stories.
“She reasoned that other tragedies would be tolerable—waking up deaf, becoming a quadriplegic, even disfigurement. But if she couldn’t look out over the lawn in spring when her azaleas were blooming, turning the border hedge into a wall of magenta, or take a drive into the valley to marvel at the way the coastal mountains shrugged up off the horizon like an army of fading blue elephants, what pleasure would remain for her?”
“I’d rather go blind than be paralyzed,” Kim says.
“I listened to her describe the Oregon landscape,” Marcus continues. “From its jutting coastline to the scablands dotted with sage and bunchgrass out to the east. We were on the back deck, sharing tomatoes and basil from the garden with fresh mozzarella cheese. She painted her descriptions in amazing detail. She overlooked nothing. Colors I had never noticed came alive for the first time. And I thought her life was overly simple. She didn’t have the demands of a job. She didn’t need to worry about making enough money to cover our retirement, or whether the gutters needed to be cleaned. How spoiled she was that she had only to worry about taking in a beautiful landscape.”
Marcus is quiet for a long moment, then returns to the license plate. BVK 269.BVK 269.BVK 269.
Bob, Andy and I were inseparable in those days, and we made an odd trio. All in our early twenties we looked like a poster for a U.N. Organization. One a Jew, one Black and one Chinese. Andy was Chinese, lived with his mother in a small apartment on 110th Street and First Avenue. His dad had left many years before and his mother kept things together through odd jobs and family connections. Andy was about as lovable a human being as you could find. Kind, gentle, always smiling, seeming to be the perfect example of the man/child. He could get drunk on two bottles of beer and only got sweeter with the booze. He eventually went into the Army, applied to OCS, was accepted, spent his time at Fort Knox, shipped out to Vietnam with the rank of First Lieutenant and was killed on May 30th, 1968, at 0230 hours in Kontum. His body was shipped to to the Walter B. Cooke Funeral Home on West 72nd Street. He always told me that he was just average at everything he did in life, but he excelled in the Army. He was proud of that and when he graduated OCS he sent me an announcement and signed it “Lt. Butterballs.”
Bob lived lived in one of the projects on 123rd Street off Seventh Avenue with his mother, father and two sisters. Whenever I went to visit him I was looked at as an oddity by the neighborhood people but greeted like a member of the family when I entered his apartment. There were many nights when I had no place to stay and not a dime in my pocket when Bob and his family would share their supper with me and allow me to sleep on their couch. Bob was a student at NYU, wore glasses, was quite the intellect and found me undyingly amusing. Why, I was never quite certain.
The three of us would get together almost every evening, hit some bars and attempt to find women. Andy was never successful at this, Bob could get all sorts of women to chat with him endlessly, but he never seemed interested in taking it any further. I looked for any female who was willing to share a pallet on my floor. I wasn’t discreet or selective. Short, tall, skinny, fat, Black, White, Yellow, Brown…it didn’t matter. I drew the line at bad breath, but other than that all else was within my ring of desire. I loved the passion of fucking. I wasn’t a gentle, caring lover…I was animal like. I didn’t even have to come, just the sexual act was sometimes enough. I rarely wanted to see the woman again after we had fucked and that feeling was usually reciprocal. I had nothing to offer them but another fuck so they moved on to greener pastures.
One evening Bob told Andy and I that a friend of his from NYU was throwing a party in his upper west side apartment. It wasn’t actually his apartment, it served as an art gallery and the owner had Bob’s friend live there to keep an eye on the artwork. There was to be an opening for a new artist and the promise of free booze and finger food was too good to pass up.
We climbed the stairs of the brownstone, passing all sorts of pretty people on their way in and on their way out. Andy Warhol wannabes. Lanky blondes wearing Courreges boots, micro-mini skirts, tons of eye makeup and bored expressions. Guys with acceptably long hair, Carnaby Street suits and Beatle boots, ushering the gals about with soft hands grasping deadly thin elbows. Andy and Bob walked ahead of me as we made our way up to the apartment. The place was packed with bloodsuckers, most of them there for the wine, eats and to be seen. I felt vaguely superior as I was there for the wine and eats but I didn’t give a fuck if I was seen. The walls were hung with a series of white canvases, all with a single round dot of varying color positioned in a different space on each piece. I grabbed a glass of red wine, threw it down and grabbed another. The second went down as easy as the first and I picked up a third from a table covered with fruit and finger sandwiches. I began to drink it and noticed a peculiar taste. I looked at the glass and saw a lipstick stain on the rim, shrugged my shoulders and downed it like the first two. I noticed Bob approaching with one of the Carnaby Street suited young guys.
“I want you to meet Steve,” he says, “he lives here…it’s his pad.”
Steve extends his hand and I shook it…warm, soft, smooth. He’s smiling at me and I have no goddamn idea why.
“What do you think of the show?”
“Not much? What do you mean? You don’t like it?”
“What’s to like? Dots on canvases…I can’t get hard over dots on canvases.”
He looks a bit shocked.
“Art is not necessarily meant to get you hard.”
“Art is definitely meant to get you hard. One way or another art should get you hard.”
He turns to Bob and says, “You’re friend has a problem confusing sex and art.”
Bob laughs, “My friend has a problem confusing sex with everything.”
“No, I think it’s horseshit, but who the fuck cares what I think. These jerkoffs will fall all over themselves finding meaning in this crap. There’s no such thing as “art” in these fucking galleries, there’s just product. Shit to sell. Some asshole writes a column in the New York Times and shit like this,” I said, motioning to the walls, “it becomes art. Bullshit.”
With that a dark haired darling comes walking up to the three of us. Attractive but some would say a bit on the heavy side. She had on a black dress, high heels and was showing a good amount of cleavage. Steve leans over and kisses her on the cheek.
“This is Laura,” he says, sliding his arm around her waist and pulling her up against him, letting me know that she was with him. “You know Bob, “ he says, and this is Bob’s friend,” nodding at me, “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”
“No, you didn’t.”
I reach out and shake her hand, giving it a firm squeeze. Forget that old chestnut that says you can tell a lot about a man by his handshake…you can tell a hell of a lot more about a woman. This woman loved sex and I had a feeling that Steve was not even close to keeping up with her.
“What do you think of the show?” she asked.
“Hell, I love it,” I answered, causing Steve to look at me in a puzzled fashion.,
“Dots,” I went on, “dots really speak to me.”
“Really…I was just telling Bob and old Steve here how dots on a negative field work on so many levels.”
She cocked her head to the side and gave me a cute little smile. Steve releases his grip on her waist, shakes his head and says, “Jesus, what a sudden change of heart.”
“Change of heart? Waddaya mean, change of heart. Minimalist art has always been way up there on my “get it hard” list.
“You’ve full of shit, you know that?”
“Yes, yes, I do, but what does that have to do with my taste in art?”
Steve walks away in a huff and I’m left there with Bob and Laura. Bob turns to her and says, “It’s good seeing you, Laura, we’ll talk later, OK?
“Sure, I’ll see you later.” She turns to me. “So, you really like the show?
“No, not really, but I do like the wine…and I like you.”
She cocked her head in the manner that women do that men cannot replicate. It’s totally disarming and sexy. I don’t care if the woman is 300 pounds with bad teeth, if she cocks her head in that manner, for those few seconds she’s damned coquettish. She had a wonderful smile.
“Did you see the whole exhibit?”
“As much as I could bear.”
“That’s not very fair. Ira…Ira Weinstein, the artist, worked a full year on this show.?
“Wasted a fucking year as far as I can see.”
She studied me for a few moments, taking a step back.
“Look,” I said, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but this is advertising, not art. This is a fucking newspaper ad to buy this guy’s product. All these people,” I said, making a sweeping gesture indicating the entire room, “ are just potential buyers of what the media tells them is good. Are you really going to stand there and tell me that you think a collection of circles on canvas is art? Something that touches your soul? Something that gets you hard?” I reached over and grabbed another red wine. She folded her arms across her marvelous breasts.
“So you feel this is all a waste?”
“Hell no, I’m getting some decent Beaujolais out of this evening, I’m getting a fairly decent buzz on, and I’m standing here talking with a gorgeous woman. Waste? Fuck no, this is one of the most productive evenings I’ve spent in a long time.”
“And what is it that you do?”
“Yes, how do you keep body and soul together.”
“Well, I haven’t quite figured that out yet.”
“How do you eat? Where do you live? How do you pay your bills?”
“Wow, if I knew it was going to be this tough just to get some wine and sandwiches I might have thought twice about it.”
“You don’t work?”
“Sure I work.”
“Really? What do you write?’
“Short stories, poems, those little instruction sheets that they include in the unfinished furniture boxes.”
She smiled, gave a little laugh and reached out and touched my arm. I knew right then that we would be fucking before the night was over. Not only can you tell a lot by a woman’s handshake, you can also tell a whole hell of a lot by the way she touches your arm. We spoke for a while, her smiling and laughing, me getting more and more drunk.
“You earn enough to keep body and soul together?”
“I have no idea about my soul. As far as my body goes, so far I’ve managed to keep it functioning. No telling what tomorrow will bring.”
“Would I have read anything you’ve written?”
“I don’t know, would you?”
“Have you been published?”
“You mean has someone paid me for my work?”
“Has it appeared in print?”
“Why so evasive?”
“I’m not being evasive. What the fuck difference does it make where it appeared?”
“It’s just a question.”
“And I gave you an answer.”
“I just wanted to know if I was familiar with anything you’ve written”
I began to recite:
“One misty evening, one another’s guide,
“We two were groping down a Malvern side
The last wet fields and dripping hedges home.
There came a moment of confusing lights,
Such as according to belief in Rome
Were seen of old at Memphis on the heights
Before the fragments of a former sun
Could concentrate anew and rise as one.”
“That’s beautiful,” she said, one hand placed over her heart.
“I think so,” I said.
“When did you write that…and for who?”
I smiled and grabbed another red wine. “I didn’t write it…Robert Frost did, and he wrote it for Iris.”
“What do you say we take a walk,” I asked her.
“To wherever these people aren’t.”
She thought for a few seconds and said, “Well, I know the people that Steven works for maintain an apartment one floor up that they use for storage. I suppose that “these people” wouldn’t be there.”
She checked around for Steven and then walked towards the door with me following. We slowly exited the party, climbed a flight of stairs, our feet echoing on the old marble steps, and stopped in front of an apartment with two giant doors, each pained black and decorated with large, brass hardware. She reached up, felt along the molding on top of one of the doors and came down with a key. Smiling, she looked over at me, unlocked the door, walked inside and turned on the lights. I follow her in and looked around. The place was loaded with canvases of all sizes. Photographs, paintings, lithographs, you name it and it was there. There was also not a stick of furniture in the entire goddamn apartment. She turned to me with a smile and I wasted no time, grabbing her and pulling her close to me. We kissed, hard and wet, my tongue running over her teeth and tasting the wine she had been drinking. I pulled her down onto the floor and she shrugged away from my grasp.
“Here?” she asked.
“Where else,” I replied, looking around the place. “Is there a bed somewhere?”
“Then here it is.” I pulled her down and rolled on top of her. Our mouths glued together our breath coming in short gasps. The newspapers under her crinkled with our movements. I pulled her dress up and rolled her towards me so I could lower her panties. As I propped myself up on one elbow and glanced past her ass I could see the New York Times front page under her cheek. Malcom X had been shot dead.
The surgeon burst into the hospital room where Eva had spent the last days of her life. The Bontragers were huddled with their minister, praying through the first moments of the operation that would bring Eva’s prolonged death to a close. At their feet her things had been collected into a box that seemed to Peggy too small to represent their time here and the compounding bad news that they suffered through. Peggy looked up, her skin puffy and red, her eyes bloodshot, and her hair pulled into a dirty ponytail. Trent appeared scarcely better, his eyes rimmed in black circles. Three generations peered up at the breathless doctor, dull expressions on their faces, warning him to tread lightly for they had endured all that they were able.
“It’s—it’s…” he stuttered for words, dragging his surgical cap off his head and crumpling it in his hands. “A miracle. Nothing short of the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever witnessed.”
Peggy Bontrager was on her feet, instantly angry. How dare he crash in here during this sacred moment?
“She’s alive!” he said. “She’s—she’s alive.”
Peggy fell to her knees and slapped her hands against the cool linoleum floor. She wailed. It can’t be true, she thought. It’s a cruel joke.
Trent rushed to the doctor’s side. “Are you sure? You wouldn’t lie about something like this?”
“Lie?” The doctor stared incredulous, then laughed. “Oh my God, of course not. She’s alive.”
“You didn’t cut her open, did you?” Ethan said, terrified that his sister will come home without her heart now.
“No.” The doctor went quiet and everyone waited. He didn’t say a word, and they realized that he was stilling his emotion. Tears welled in his eyes, and he gasped for breath. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I’ve just never witnessed anything like it.”
I like to imagine that Kim came here to rescue me. Teresa can’t find the words to describe that moment when Kim and I met because she doesn’t understand it. He loves me; he’s loved me from the second he got here. It might be because Kim and I are so much alike. Sometimes we stare into each other, but all we see is ourselves.
I don’t think Kim ever made it longer than three years with any one woman in life, and that one was his wife. I doubt he was faithful to her during that time, either, but he won’t say.
Admit to nothing, he chants in his own mind as he listens to my thoughts.
We stand at the ditch along the road and gaze at the old house.
“Imagine we’re alive,” he says, “and we live in that house.”
I listen, but I don’t imagine.
“Maybe we have babies. Lots of them.”
The thought of Jilly tugs at me. If that is what it’s like to be a mother—constant worry with no way to truly protect her—I’m not up for it. I suffer a rare spark of admiration for Teresa.
“I’d come home,” he says, “after a long day working. And you’d be there in your apron, your hair all messy, with a baby on your hip.” I wonder where this mirage of his hails from. It’s a 1950s vision, told by a 1980s man.
“Was that how your mother was?”
He moves a step away, and I know I’ve touched a nerve.
“Let’s cross,” he says.
We stand at the boundary, fully aware that everyone is watching us. Jilly whines, but no one comforts her. They are waiting.
“Don’t,” Teresa says in a barely audible whisper. “Don’t do it.”
“Nothing will happen,” I tell him.
“You don’t know, you weren’t here,” she says. “He was just like you; tired of being here. No different than you.”
“It’s a lie,” I say to Kim.
“It is not a lie!” she shouts. “He was angry and frustrated. He cursed God and walked out into the field heading west. Out toward the ocean.”
The cemetery is silent as we listen to her tale. There is something about it that makes us uncertain. I don’t believe it’s true, but what if it is?
“He changed his mind,” she said. “But he couldn’t get back in. He screamed and called and begged. It was awful. No one could help him. For years we heard him weeping, begging to just get back to his grave.”
Kim has stepped away from the boundary.
“For decades he wandered around the fence on the west side, calling,” she says. “Begging.”
“What was his name?” I ask.
She is too long answering. “Burt,” she says at last.
Kim imagines the man’s plight, wondering if it will be ours as well.
“We’ll be together,” I say. “Just us.”
“Don’t,” she hisses.
All I can hear now is a few birds and the breeze in my big oak tree. Dogs on the carpet, the old one in a shaft of sunlight, barely stir. It’s peaceful here. Inside me, too, there is peace. The feeling can be fleeting. This morning it feels as though it might last.
My daughter and (de facto) son-in-law visited yesterday and we went to the county fair. She held chicks and ducklings. They rode the ferris wheel. I drank a fresh squeezed lemonade. It was beastly exhaustingly hot. Kids in long-sleeved white shirts, helmets and new blue jeans demonstrated their horsemanship.
Stop. Back up. Turn 270 degrees and ride a perfect circle in the dirt. Stop. Await the judge’s nod. Pre-adolescents and enormous beasts, dancing in the heat, more and less well, having practiced this at the barre.
I made them supper, my kids. Grilled pork loin chops, fresh green beans, new potatoes. We discussed an impending divorce: mine. Ours.
One of the lawyers is inclined toward business as usual. We are not adversaries, my wife and I. He frightens her with all the things I might do, that others have done, attempting to leave former spouses penniless, abandoned, homeless in this strange land.
We are equally vulnerable to one another though, as we have always been. The legal currency is the least of it.
My not quite son-in-law says “you two aren’t like that.” Naturally, as though we were born this way. I love this guy. The way he looks at my daughter. The belief he has in us.
We were not born like this. We have become this way. We are still becoming. What’s at stake is not money, not debt, not obligation.
What’s at stake is the look of trust in our children’s eyes, clear as the Iowa sky this morning.
Serene as my heart.
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