Although I’ve lived in Virginia for well over 20 years, I haven’t set much fiction here–just The Orphan’s Tent (1996), a young adult novel, one section of Dugan Under Ground (2001), and the short story “Playing with DaBlonde” that I contributed to Richmond Noir (2010). So I decided, some years back, to write a book of three linked novellas and set each of the stories in or around Richmond, but just as I started to work on that, I got the opportunity to write a novel about Superman, which I grabbed, and that took me over three years to complete. As soon as I’d finished, I went back to my notebook and refamiliarized myself with the ideas that I’d had for the novellas and started drafting them all, working on all three simultaneously. But then I got another opportunity, this time an invitation from Yale Univesity Press to write a non-fiction book about Superman for its Icons of America series, and since I’d always wanted to see if I could do a book-length essay, I accepted the offer, and once again put aside my Richmond novellas for another three years. But since around 2009 I’ve been working on them again fairly regularly, though I’ve also been working on a long historical novel tentatively titled Patsy Touey. Finally I finished first drafts of the three novellas, and ever since have been revising, revising, revising. The one that’s closest to being “finished,” is called “Standard Six” (which is also my title for the trilogy of novellas), and here are its first six chapters.
From: “Standard Six”
Jim Brincker is talking…
She met him at the gym—a Czech about 40 years old named Imray, but you were supposed to call him Ray. They both were trudging on side-by-side stair climbers when he asked Ilene could he flip the channel on the TV hanging canted there. My wife said go ahead and he switched from a “Will & Grace” rerun to a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement. Because she’d expected him to put on ESPN (guys always did), she laughed, he smiled, and they started talking. Ray sounded like the Bosnian doctor on E.R. Ilene knew it was crazy to do this but also that she wanted to. It was just a drink.
They had a couple. Several. Grey Goose Cosmos for Ilene, Makers Mark for Imray. For Ray. Makers Mark, rocks, for Mr. Ray Slansky. It was a week night and the bar at Pizza Uno was uncrowded. So was the whole place. And how would I know this? Ilene told me.
Something else she eventually told me: when she discovered that Ray wrote code for a German-owned software company, she was just the tiniest bit disappointed. With his ponytail, he’d seemed the sort of guy who might own his own roofing business, you’d see him in the hot sun tearing off shingles, hanging gutters, power washing a house, never not smoking. Oh well.
He rented a one-bedroom townhouse apartment and planned on staying in the United States indefinitely—he’d been living here, though not always in Virginia, for going on seven years. Divorced. No children. And it turned out he’d spent a year and a half in Baldwin, on Long Island. What a coincidence! Ilene grew up near there in the fifties and sixties, Hempstead mostly. She was a month away from turning 55. She never told him her age. He never asked.
But he did touch her arm and make a pass: he openly admired her breasts. Good instincts there, Ray! She’s always been proud of those. Rightly so. They’re not large or anything, just shapely. As is my wife. Ilene is a very shapely mid-size American woman.
Later, standing by her car in the parking lot, Ray kissed her and felt her up. Before she knew it they’d made a quarter-turn and Ilene had her back to the driver’s door. He was pressing up against her. And that, incredibly, was his dick she’d just felt poke her! She wasn’t ready for this. Placing a hand flat on his chest, Ilene gently pushed. No. She was married. That’s all right, said Ray. No, no, he didn’t understand. She was really married. For a very long time, she said. Like forever. And she’d never dated other men. (When I asked her if she’d actually used the word “dated,” Ilene said no, what she’d actually said was “fooled around”—she’d never fooled around with other men.) But Ray said that was all right, too.
He kissed her again, now with tongue, then she gave him her Hotmail address before climbing into her almost-new Chevy—her third Cavalier, her third white Cavalier—and driving home. He wrote her that night. She’d known he would. Ilene wrote him back, being jokey but standoffish, and deleted his email. He persisted. They had lunch two days later at Applebee’s. Day after that, Bonefish Grill. It just happened.
The first time she actually took off her clothes and got laid at his place, Ilene came home around one in the morning wearing her black Calvin Klein underpants inside out. The satiny off-white tag was now on the outside. While she was undressing and I was watching from bed, I pointed that out. Her face turned bright red. She confessed on the spot. “I won’t make any excuses,” she said. “I can’t.” Her expression became serene. One second it was anguished, the next, serene. “But it’s not important and it was nobody you know.”
The crazy part was I’d just thought it was funny. I mean about the underpants. But I also thought she’d put them on like that at home, dressing in our bedroom before she went out to “meet some friends from work for a late movie.” It never crossed my mind until Ilene blurted everything that she might’ve removed her underpants some time during the evening and then put them back on again, only inside out. My stomach turned over. She continued to apologize. I barely listened. “Wait a second,” I said. “Would you just…Ilene, will you stop? Thank you.”
More surprising than her confession, at least to me, was my improbable reaction to it. Reactions, plural. First I got an erection. It’s embarrassing to admit, and I can’t account for it, but that’s what happened. I hoped Ilene wouldn’t notice. Then I hoped she would. It was the strangest damn thing.
So first that happened. Next I asked questions. But not responsible questions, nothing adult, nothing like Does this mean our marriage is over? Or: What made you think you needed to do this? No, I asked the kind her best and most trusted girlfriend might’ve asked, the trashy kind: was he a good kisser, was it different, did you come? I felt no emotional turmoil, no anger, no fury, nothing like that. Surprised? Of course. But stunned? Distressed? Humiliated? No. I asked—I remember asking Ilene if she thought she’d see him again. “I don’t know,” she said. “Would it be okay? Because I won’t if you don’t want me to.”
I said, “Do whatever feels right.” So long as it made her happy, what the hell. Ilene had been through a rough couple of years—her father with the alcoholism, the Alzheimer’s, then all that scary dragged-out business with her thyroid, those radioactive pellets and shit, really took it out of her. Took its toll. Plus I’d been no help, being such a mope when I wasn’t acting so fucking manic. So go for it, Ilene. Have fun. Just don’t fall in love, all right? And don’t get hurt. And make sure the guy wears a condom. “Otherwise,” I told her, “do whatever you want.”
I amazed myself, saying all of that, meaning it, but Ilene seemed grateful. A little suspicious, obviously bewildered, but very grateful. If I’d had a different reaction, blown my stack and divorced her—well. Forget alimony and forget about any equitable division of property. This was Virginia, where they still could stone you for committing adultery, she’d’ve been screwed. I’m exaggerating, but she would’ve been royally screwed. Thirty years Ilene had invested in our marriage but very easily she could have ended up alone (or worse, with roommates!) living on a fraction of the income we lived on together. And our kid, what would Deputy Sam have thought? Said? Done? So of course Ilene was grateful. Thank you, Jim, thank you. But honestly? It was no big deal—it didn’t cost me anything. What did it cost me? Besides, as I came to realize over time, in a weird sort of a way it happened at the best possible time: the 2004 presidential campaign was in its last ugly weeks and I was feeling shittier every day about Kerry’s chances. I was drinking a lot—fixing vodka Martinis home alone. I was embarrassed by the world’s sweeping contempt. It broke my heart. America couldn’t survive another four years of George Bush and his predator cronies, there’d be nothing left. So as far as I was concerned, and I know this sounds crazy, but so far as I was concerned, Ilene’s astonishing fling (her first, she swore) was a not-unwelcome distraction, some relief from the half-assed war on terrorism, the fucking debacle in Iraq, and all the independent voter polls showing that born-again Texas dickwad solidly ahead. Who says you have to go berserk when your wife fucks another guy? There are real problems in the world.
Ilene’s regular dates with Imray (Wednesday evenings and either Friday or Saturday nights; action movies, scary movies, sports bars) never bothered me. Nor did it bother me that she referred to him as her boyfriend. Or that she let Ray know that I knew, so he no doubt imagined that I was some kind of wimpy cuckold. None of it bothered me. Okay, once. It did once. One time I snapped at her, complaining that–“perhaps, just perhaps”–I was receiving too little attention. Getting the short end of the stick. It was funny, though, funny-unsettling, how that just sneaked up on me. Not to excuse myself but to put my stupid outburst into some context, let me say this: it happened barely a week after the election. I was still in shock and more than ever feeling like a resident alien. That’s what I mostly blame for my one and only tantrum. It wasn’t about jealousy, not really. It was more, I don’t know–more about the contempt I felt for the American electorate. I’m not joking. More than from anything else it sprang from that. I had to vent and Ilene happened to be there. But except for that single lapse I was good with her affair. Very goddamn supportive.
Ilene saw Ray Slansky for eight months. September, October, November, December, January two thousand and five, February, March, April. She’d go out and I’d stay home, maybe listen to some old Leonard Cohen albums or Django Reinhardt music, or read a crime novel. I’d been hooked for some time already on Michael Connelly, and George Pelecanos was pretty good too. Occasionally I’d work a little bit revising my screenplay, which I’d first drafted during the first year of the second Clinton administration. (A hopeless piece of junk. Forget I ever mentioned it.) I never waited up for her. I’d go to bed and fall asleep, but instantly be awake when she got home. Her car pulling into the driveway, her key turning in the front door. Her footsteps on the stairs, in the hall, in the bedroom. “Hey, how was your evening?” “Good.” Whispering. She’d turn on a lamp and we’d talk in regular voices for maybe ten minutes, then have sex. I wanted to and Ilene obliged me. I believe it was more that than mutual.
At any rate she let me.
Things were different after Ray, or didn’t happen, or happened differently in our daily life. When we were in the house together, Ilene talked about him like she talked about people at work. He had a sister in Holland who was married to a drug addict; he was using the patch to quit smoking, he called Ilene his Long-uh Island Girl. She couldn’t not mention him, she told me, and I said, “Of course not.” I asked her about his politics, but she said they didn’t talk about that. Besides, he wasn’t an American citizen. But she kind of got the impression he despised the United States, like most Europeans did by then. I didn’t know how I felt about that. Automatically you defend your country whenever some foreigner expresses disdain, but how could I possibly defend the United States in the twenty-first century? I couldn’t. Even so, he rankled me as a typical European snotnose. The kind of guy who’d make a big production of denouncing American society the minute he spotted a bag of “gourmet” cat food in a health-food store. You know what I mean? Fuck him.
Ray showed her how to make a Facebook page and she started checking it last thing before bed every night. He was one of those annoying people who forwards jokes and short videos, and Ilene would open everything he sent; I’d hear her laughing at her computer and find her watching something Ray had forwarded from YouTube. He seemed partial to embarrassing clips, an interview with a man who’d accidentally been castrated, an actor’s string of farts on “The David Letterman Show.” Ilene found that stuff hilarious and it was a revelation to me.
We rarely talked about the news and Republican infamy the way we used to, and the only times it seemed we ever groaned together anymore were in the mornings when we both glanced, often simultaneously, at the same headlines in the paper. We both still felt the same way about everything going on in the country—if anything, Ilene became bolder politically during this period, slapping two new stickers, one pro-choice, the other anti-Bush, on her car’s rear bumper—we both felt the same way, we just weren’t up to being cranky about it. I went to the doctor’s and my blood pressure was lower than it had been the previous four visits, significantly lower.
By the middle of April, though, April 2005, Ilene had come to believe she’d made a mistake, not a terrible one, nothing she regretted, but still a mistake. Ray was cheap, he could be thoughtless, and he drank too much. “And I don’t know if I’m really cut out for this.” She called it quits by email, which I considered cowardly but it wasn’t my place, I felt, to advise my wife how best to break up with her boyfriend. I certainly disapproved of her method. I also disapproved of the decision, but kept that to myself. I personally thought it was hasty. What did she mean “not cut out for this”? He wrote her back, his male pride wounded, and asked to see her. She put a block on further emails. He kept calling her on her cell, then came around to the coffee shop. (Ilene managed, still does, a Starbucks in Richmond’s West End.) Finally he showed up at our house. A Saturday morning—peaceful and quiet, still too early in the year for gas mowers.
That was the first time I saw Ray (I’d never even seen a photograph!) and it was fascinating to discover what kind of man your wife found attractive enough physically to have sex with. Baffling, too. The guy didn’t sound like Dr. Kovach—what was she, nuts? Ray Slansky sounded like Bela Lugosi. But his jeans fit him like Dwight Youkam’s, like they’d been sprayed on. You have to know that was intimidating to a 56-year old guy who wore loose-fits.
Ray looked as scruffy as a drifter, and was a lot fairer than I’d expected. He was a blonde. He had thick and lanky paintbrush hair like Brad Pitt, but all of his teeth were crooked and crowded and yellow and, like, grouted with plaque. Very bad teeth and that surprised me. Ilene was practically a fanatic about teeth, always flossing, brushing after meals, going to the dentist every six months. I never would have imagined that her first lover, and only the second guy she’d ever gone to bed with in her life–I just never imagined he’d have bad teeth. That’s all. But he did. Ray Slansky had bad teeth and a bad temper and he wouldn’t leave our front porch and the cops had to come. Reluctantly I called them. Ray got the message at last and drove off never to bother Ilene again.
Right afterwards, our life together, Ilene’s and mine, seemed strained and we were suddenly at loose ends. I know—well, I think she’d had feelings for Ray, after eight months how could she not? Whatever she felt, she had to get past it. But that would take time so I gave her a wide berth. We never, and I literally mean never, mentioned Ray’s name in each other’s presence again. Or referred to, you know. What had happened. It simply never came up. I started to worry that Ilene would reassess everything and blame me for not stopping it when I could have. The affair. Blame me for not bringing the affair to an abrupt halt when I’d first found out. Maybe she wouldn’t only blame me, she might come to despise me, even hold me in ridicule. But it didn’t seem like she was mad.
That spring and early summer we spent more time in each other’s company than we had in ten years. We cleaned out the garage. Cleaned out the attic. Got rid of a lot of junk, twenty years’ worth. Old banking statements, student loan papers. Stashes of Christmas and birthday and anniversary cards from the 80s and 90s, paperbacks I’d had since college. We planted a garden—annuals, perennials, herbs and fancy grasses—and maintained it together, going out there after supper to weed and water and check on the growth. And we started buying complete seasons of TV shows on DVD, boxed sets, watching them in hoggish bouts of three and four episodes at a sitting. We went out to dinner less often, quarreled regularly but not viciously, and slacked off sex, got it down to maybe twice a month, even just once. We started grousing about Iraq again, Afghanistan, and giving into outbursts, the both of us, about Cheney as the Devil Incarnate. You’ll think I’m completely insane, but I missed Ray. Ilene, on the other hand, didn’t seem to at all. It was like she’d never had a lover–never first talked to him from a stair climber, never gone with him to Pizza Uno, never come home with her underpants on inside-out. “They’re going to fuck over Social Security just when we’re gonna need it!” she said one night vehemently slapping down The Week in Review from the Sunday New York Times. “God, I miss our country!” From old habit, I said that I did too, but really I didn’t give a shit. I didn’t miss our country, I missed Ray–at least I missed the routine, I might even say the bubble, he’d created. The erotic component had been fun, and the novelty, and I’d liked the way it made our marriage interesting, complicated, complex, but it was the peacefulness, the soundproofing that came with her affair that I missed now that it was over.
That was the situation, the state of our marriage and my state of mind, in May and June of oh-five.
Then in July, our son surprised us with a visit, bringing along someone named Brenda that he introduced to us as his “best friend and fiancée.” Quite a shock since his mother and I hadn’t known he was even dating anyone. Sam was a parole officer in Spotsylvania county—half an hour, 45 minutes away. Yet we’d see him only two, three times a year. That’s a whole other story, though, Sam’s difficult relationship with his parents, and with his dad especially—and it’s a story I have no intention of telling.
But I was saying how we met the love of our son’s life. Brenda. Who seemed like a nice enough girl. “Girl.” She was four years older than Sam, which pushed her right over 30, and I hate to say it but she looked older. Those lines around her eyes, the tiny crinkles. She was pretty enough, I suppose. Not to my taste, but I wasn’t marrying her. She was a little beefy, no waistline, but that’s the style these days. It’s not considered sloppy or a turn-off. Every young woman’s got a belly now, the beautiful and the plain. Well, it’s all that junk food.
We had a nice visit with Sam and Brenda, even if they did stay for only a few hours. Of course we invited them to stay overnight, there was plenty of room, but—well, they wanted to get back to their own beds. Or bed. I didn’t know if they were living together or not. That was July.
Also in July, mid-July, my dad had a heart attack. I took some personal days at the paper and drove up to New Jersey by myself. West Long Branch. I stood around and watched my dad eat Jell-O and tried to gauge how scared he was: not very, it seemed. He was 86—no, 87. The damage to his heart turned out to be minor. My sisters got on my nerves, as usual. One twin had become extremely religious, a super-Catholic. The other was bouncing around shore bars like she was still 20, and 45 was looking pretty distant already in her rearview. They both made me crazy. I was glad to get back home.
Then in late July, Karen Mothersole passed away after a short illness. Ovarian cancer. From being diagnosed to being pronounced dead it couldn’t have been two months. She was 64.
Doc and Karen Mothersole lived at 14103 Autumn Leaf Trace, we lived at 14107. (Diane and Phil Nelson’s house—the only contemporary on a cul-du-sac otherwise composed entirely of classic colonials—was 14105.) Even though we’d lived two houses away from them for going on ten years, we hadn’t known the Mothersoles well. Mostly we’d see them maybe twice a week and wave. The way it usually is in any subdivision. We were friendly, though. We talked from time to time, but not really.
Doc–his real name was Peter, but nobody ever called him that–was a veteran entrepreneur, he’d owned several video stores, a comic-book shop, a computer-repair service, a game store, and during the dot-com boom he’d thrown up a website and marketed things like patio misters and mosquito lures, Ott-lamps and blood-pressure cuffs, all kinds of different stuff. I’d walk by their house and if the garage was open I’d see it filled sometimes with large crates and cardboard boxes covered with stenciled graphics and bristling with pastel shipping and trucking labels; a week later they’d be gone and in their place would be three or four rows deep of smaller boxes. In recent years Doc, who was at least 65, had been telling people that he was semi-retired. A strapping big guy with kinky steel-gray hair. I don’t think he went to college. Dressed usually in khakis and a solid-color or dazzling white golf shirt.
He could fix things, he was good that way, handy, competent, sure of himself. He fixed my shitty lawnmower more than once, I can tell you. When he bought that sports car, the maroon Jag, I went over and properly admired it. You know. We’d shoot the breeze. He’d kid me about my work–“That’s a real job with a salary?”–or tell me how wrong I was about some crock of shit action movie I’d recently panned in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He’d joke that I didn’t seem especially well-suited to the position, since I hated everything I saw. “I like movies,” I told him, “I love movies–I just want to see some good ones.” And then I’d reel off a few titles of movies I’d liked recently and of course he’d never heard of them. “Any in English?” he’d ask. He’d try to get a rise from me, but he was funny too. I liked him even though he was obviously a Republican.
I had less contact with Karen–she was always out and about in her black Cadillac Escalade. A realtor for ReMax. We’d occasionally meet taking in the mail from our boxes at the foot of our driveways. Seemed like a very nice lady. Originally from Dallas and still sounded it. Always sporting high heels. Lot of makeup. And of course the hair. That great big Dolly Parton pile of bright-yellow hair. Voluptuous too, bordering on fat, but sexy. Great legs. It was a shame about Karen. It really was.
For a long while Ilene and I thought the Mothersoles had a grown son because two or three times a month a tall, good-looking man would arrive at their house in either a silver Lexus or a spangled-blue Ford pickup truck and spend the night or stay for several days. Eventually we learned that he wasn’t their son, just a good friend who had regular business in Richmond and stayed over with the Mothersoles whenever he was in town. This was Chip. Chip Coffey.
We didn’t know Chip at all–he might wave or nod from the driveway, and we’d do likewise, but we never talked to him. Doc mentioned him to me once or twice, explained the situation. Chip spent most of his time out near Roanoke. Doc never gave me the first clue about what kind of business Chip was in, and, depending on his vehicle, he could be dressed as often in a well-cut suit as in jeans, T-shirt and a bill cap.
We first met Chip to speak to after Karen’s memorial service at the funeral home. With his hands clasped loosely in front of him, Chip stood alone but never more than a few steps from Doc. He was directly flanking Doc when Ilene and I finally got a chance to offer our condolences. Close-up, Chip looked several years older than he did from a distance of two driveways. Mid-40s, at least. (He was actually 52.) His forehead came to an overhang, hooding his small and deep-set eyes. If not conventionally handsome, he was still a very good-looking man–a long, tapering, wedge-shaped face, thick black hair, bony cheeks, bony chin. The cleft there looked professionally chiseled.
He maintained a neutral expression that briefly allowed for a white smile, just the nick of one, as Doc made the introductions. “From a couple houses down,” said Chip. “Oh sure. Nice to see you.” He shook hands with both of us, then asked us how long we’d lived in Bel Grove. Pleasant enough guy, but he instantly hovered over Ilene in a way that made me a little bit uncomfortable. He was perfectly nice, don’t get me wrong, he didn’t ogle her or anything–well, maybe he did, a little bit–but he definitely made chitchat into a two-person huddle. After another minute I expressed our condolences again to Doc, and Ilene and I quickly moved on.
“What do you think about Chip?” I asked her on the way back to our car.
“I don’t know what I think about Chip” she answered immediately and I had the impression she’d been thinking about him right along with me.
“He’s a little creepy,” I said.
“He’s gorgeous,” said Ilene. “He’s not exactly George Clooney, but close.”
“Oh get out of here,” I said, remembering how she’d seen a resemblance between Imray and the guy who’d played the Bosnian doctor on E.R. “And he’s definitely a little creepy.”
“He noticed my tattoo.”
“He did? On your ankle?”
“I have another one?”
“What’d he say?”
“He said he liked it.”
Going out and getting that tattoo–a tea rose, when she was 35–had been one of Ilene’s boldest adult adventures; she’d vacillated for months, but finally went and got it: small, discrete, nicely inked. And it hadn’t faded much, hardly at all.
“What made him notice that, I wonder?”
“Maybe he was looking at my shoes.”
“Guys don’t notice women’s shoes. He was looking at your legs.”
When we got in the car, and despite just having come from a viewing and memorial service, we both felt in good spirits and instead of driving straight home I stopped for soft ice cream.
During the first weeks after Karen died, Doc and I became actual friends. I walked over to his house every day after work, checking was there anything I could do. Occasionally there’d be another neighbor visiting, or an older couple I didn’t know or recognize. But I never ran into Chip. Doc would always offer me a cup of coffee or a beer. A Sinatra CD was usually playing, or if it wasn’t Sinatra it was The Platters or Peggy Lee. Dean Martin. He loved Dean Martin. So did I. There were framed pictures of Doc and Karen everywhere. There was also a very handsome, even dashing oil painting of her in a blue gown hanging in a gilt frame in the dining room In the living room was a signed photograph of George W. Bush, which I never mentioned or let Doc catch me looking at it. He seemed to be holding up fairly well. He said he didn’t know where anything was, he said the house got so quiet at night. But he was cooking for himself, so that was good.
Toward the end of summer, once a week I started running Doc to the cemetery—or I should say, the “chapel mausoleum.” He’d changed blood-pressure medicines and didn’t trust himself driving. At least not till he was sure of the new stuff. I was surprised he’d asked me to take him, but glad to do it. Two or three Sundays he asked if I’d run him to church, and I did. He said I was welcome–it was the Battlefield Baptist Church, a hardcore Pentecostal congregation–but I said that was okay and waited in the car. It was funny, being friends with a Republican and also with a guy who went to church. Not that we were close friends or anything. But still. It was funny.
That October the big pin oak on our front lawn, and naturally my favorite tree on the property (we have three-quarters of an acre), was blown down in freakish gale winds. Fucker crashed through the roofs of both our cars, the Cavalier and my BMW, which let me assure you I bought used with almost a hundred thousand miles on it so don’t think I’m rich or anything.
So that happened, which was a major pain, what with the tree removal, the car rentals, the insurance companies, the whole big inconvenience. Then something like two days later, our boy Sam was suspended for supposedly taking money from parolees to let them skip mandated drug testing. He’s out of his job, he’s going to be indicted, his picture’s in the Times–Dispatch, the dying newspaper that employed me! Ilene is crying her eyes out all day long. And Sam won’t answer our calls. Beautiful.
But then to really cap it off, maybe a week after that, the T-D canned all of its columnists and reviewers and most of its beat reporters, and suddenly I was being offered a heartless severance package (four weeks salary, health care for three lousy months) and escorted from the Media General building by an armed security guard. I’d always hated working for such a politically reactionary newspaper but fuck. Now what? I could just see it: 30 hours a week mixing paint at Lowes or Home Depot, or maybe decked out in a red vest at Costco striking a Sharpie across every customer’s receipt as they leave the warehouse.
While all of this was happening, New Orleans flooded and we got the pathetic spectacle of watching that FEMA halfwit with the prep school name mismanage a major disaster. Heck of a job there, Brownie! It was disgusting. The whole thing was disgusting. The whole spectacle. Between that and my own personal crises, there weren’t a lot of laughs in October.
Consumer video equipment, I read somewhere, I forget where exactly, is bought and used far more often for home-porn than it is for middle-school graduations, birthday parties, softball games, all that family stuff. I remember thinking when I read it—do people ever look at that stuff after the marriage has ended, or illness or old age has wrecked them physically, or one of the partners dies? I would’ve bet money people didn’t. Did not. Then what happens? Then what happens, I walk into Doc Mothersole’s house and find him watching a home-made video of his late wife Karen banging Chip Coffey.
I don’t know what made me go over to check on him that night. I wasn’t in the habit. I don’t think I’d ever gone there without calling Doc first. Plus it was 9 o’clock already, Doc could’ve been in bed. I didn’t know his schedule. Besides, I’d intended to pay some bills online and then Ilene had rented a documentary about Robert McNamara that I wanted to see again. So it made no sense, really, for me to wander over to Doc’s house like that. And it was pretty chilly out. Cold even. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? How can you explain why I just popped out of my chair suddenly and told Ilene I’d be right back, put on an old barn jacket of Sam’s (he used to groom horses when he was in high school) and grabbed a bunch of New Yorkers. I’d recently started passing those along to Doc. He liked the cartoons, he’d told me. But he called them “jokes.” “I like the jokes in that highfalutin piece of shit liberal magazine of yours,” he’d say. If this was a movie? That would be the inciting incident. Going over to Doc’s house. Or maybe it would be the first-act turning point, the first big plot point. Those who can, write movies; those who can’t, write movie reviews. But what I was saying–if this was a movie? There’d be no motivation, no reason for me to go over there, the inciting incident would seem arbitrary. Or the first act turning point. Out of the blue. As a movie reviewer, I’d be critical. Which is what I’m saying, it was. Totally unmotivated. Totally arbitrary.Very strange.
I left the house and crossed my lawn to the road and hiked up the road past the Nelsons’ to Doc’s. I rang the bell and opened the door, stuck my head inside and called him. He’d told me a hundred times I should just come on in and then holler. He never locked his door. Hardly anyone did out there, except me and Ilene.
But the video. I was saying how I just walked into Doc’s house, into the living room and there was Karen Mothersole on TV having sex with Chip Coffey. She looked younger, somewhere in her late 50s, the tape was several years old: they were doing it dog style right on the living room floor, the Mothersoles’ living room floor, the same room I was standing in, but the walls were painted a different color. Chip looked exactly the same as he’d looked at Karen’s memorial service, except of course he was naked. Karen was looking straight into the camera, her smile both ecstatic and bashful, smiling the way a small child will from a lacquered pony on a merry-go-round.
I was poleaxed, of course, and so was poor Doc. I’d knocked him for a loop walking in on him like that. At any rate, he hadn’t been, you know–jerking off or anything. Doc’s dog, the old yorkie, Annette, was curled up asleep in his lap. He flinched, then flailed almost comically, bellowed, “Jesus!” and looked mortified.
Doc swept the dog away, snatched up the remote and turned off both the VHS player and the big plasma TV. Now he was glaring at me. I raised my arm just a little, till the New Yorkers I’d brought registered with him, then I slid them on the coffee table, where there were low stacks, three or four issues per stack, of Guns and Ammo and The American Spectator. When I looked back at Doc, he asked did I want something to drink. The man had class, you have to admit. Class and balls. Can I get you something to drink? I didn’t exactly answer, just followed him to the kitchen.
He filled a carafe with Brita water from the refrigerator. I sat down at the table. It was 9:10 by the clock on the stove, 9:14 according to the one on the wall. The ceramic salt and pepper shakers looked antique and were in the shape of pigs, cartoon pigs with long eyelashes, their hand-painted pink color faded to a pale salmon. Was there anything else I could look at? My fingers, my lap—the ceramic floor tile?
Surely he wasn’t going to offer me coffee at 9 o’clock at night, but he did. Doc carefully spooned out the Folger’s, started up the drip and took down two mugs (“Myrtle Beach, Va.” and the “Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, N.Y.”) from a cabinet above his microwave. He put two small plates on the table, then a trivet (“National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.”), then an Entenmann’s box. I leaned over and checked. Crumb cake. Well, I could pass. I could always pass on a crumb cake. They’re so fucking dry—even fresh they’re stale, what’s the appeal? “Help yourself,” said Doc.
So I did, and I cut a piece for him as well.
He set out a milk pitcher, he set out a sugar bowl, he sat down and folded his arms on the edge of the table. One end of Doc’s mouth twitched and his sagging cheek on the opposite side of his face was pulled tight. He looked both amused and mocking when he said, “It’s complicated.”
“No kidding,” I said and he smiled. “How long, if you don’t mind my asking, were they, you know…?”
“Lovers? About eight years.” He raised his coffee mug, realized it was empty and got up to grab the carafe.
“How’d it start?”
“The regular way,” said Doc starting to pour. “We talked it over and answered his ad.”
That McNamara documentary, Fog of War? After I came home I watched the whole thing with Ilene, but all I kept seeing was big buxom Karen Mothersole down on all fours coming like gangbusters while Chip Coffey knelt behind her going at it like he’d never stop. I remembered catching a glimpse of a slightly younger Doc fully dressed and with the camcorder held to his face and panning across a mirror, making the video. He grinned so openly you could see both rows of front teeth and his gums. He seemed like a man filled with great transcendent bliss. He’d also looked wolfish. By contrast, the Doc I’d barged in on watching that video had been wearing a much different expression. Pensive. What thoughts were shooting through his mind before he realized that I was standing there I couldn’t begin to imagine. Maybe I’d ask him. Before I’d left, he said we should talk some more about all of this, but some other time. He was tired. And Ilene was waiting for me. So yeah, later. Definitely. We’d definitely talk some more. But some other time.
I decided to let a few days pass, though, before I saw Doc again. Let things percolate. (Ad? What kind of ad? Where?) I was pretty tied up anyhow, filling out forms, spending hours on the phone, mostly waiting on hold, with the benefits people at Media General, trying to get all of my ducks in a row vis a vis their so-called severance package. I’d definitely have to find another job. And it wasn’t likely I’d find another movie/dance/concert reviewer’s gig, either. Ilene still had her Starbucks job and it was important she hold on to it even though it didn’t pay so great. I wondered about picking up some adjunct teaching work at one of the colleges. There’s a bunch in the area. I could teach a course about horror movies or musicals, or Martin Scorsese or the Hollywood Studio System, something fun and junky like that. I could even teach screenwriting. I was sure I could do it, they’d love to have me, but it wouldn’t bring in much money. Maybe it wasn’t even too late to line up something for the spring semester, but probably it was. I never checked.
Thanksgiving 2005 began strange and kept getting stranger. Sam had not been in our house on Thanksgiving since his first year at Virginia Tech. After that, either he stayed up in the boonies over the short break or went home with a dorm friend (not his roommate, they hated each other); after he graduated he’d tell us he had to work. A parole officer? Why would a parole officer have to work on Thanksgiving? But we never pressed the issue. It hurt, it was meant to, but what the fuck, it wasn’t worth feeling really bad about. So then of course that year Sam calls Ilene and asks if he can come for dinner. She says sure—him and Brenda? And he almost acts insulted, why wouldn’t Brenda come? But Ilene didn’t mean anything, she was just checking, and says she’s just so happy they’ll both be here on Thanksgiving.
So what happened? One guess. Brenda didn’t come—exactly. Brenda didn’t come, but Sam did, saying she’d decided at the last minute she should probably go see her mom, who was just home from the hospital or would soon be going into the hospital, or something like that. Obviously a crock. They’d had a fight. We said it was a shame, then dropped the subject completely. And to be honest with you, it was nice to be just the three of us again. We weren’t such a bad family. Sam didn’t have such a terrible childhood. Guitar lessons, tickets to see Hank Williams Jr., his first car, his second car. He had a fine childhood, we’d all enjoyed it. So it just infuriated me whenever he started ranting on and on about—but no. I won’t go there. He’s our son and I love him.
And I see I’ve fucked up this part of the story completely. So let me go back and start over. Thanksgiving. Ilene was planning dinner for two o’clock, we’d told Sam to come by with Brenda any time after one. So of course the big goose shows up at noon with a bloody nose and no fiancé.
Backtracking again. Sam and Brenda were still expected, the two of them, we still expected them both to come, and it’s maybe quarter of twelve on turkey day and Ilene suddenly wonders out loud if we should’ve asked Doc Mothersole to join us. His first Thanksgiving without Karen. Or was he going out with friends? I said I really didn’t know Doc’s plans and it was kind of late to invite him now. Didn’t she think? Ilene considered that and then replied, “Well, not really. Would you mind if I called him? Or why don’t you call him and let me get all this celery diced.” Since Ray Slansky went out of our lives, that exchange might well have ticked me off enough to make some ill-considered crack that could have led either to a freeze-out or an argument. But instead of becoming testy about having to call up Doc when it was her idea, I just did it. And gave myself a mental pat on the back.
As soon as Doc answered, though, I knew something was the matter; he sounded groggy, mush mouthed, and then of course alarm bells went off when he said thanks for the invitation but that he and Karen had other plans for dinner. Then he broke into a hacking cough. Ilene was standing right there chopping that celery, but stopped when she heard Doc on the phone coughing and spitting. He just hung up.
“I think he’s delirious,” I told Ilene. “Or maybe he had a stroke.”
“When was the last time you talked to him?”
“Couple of weeks. I’m going over there, you don’t mind.” I grabbed a jacket and, out of habit, my wallet and keys. “I won’t be long.” Now, there’s a laugh. I didn’t set foot inside my own house again for another three and a half hours. It was going on four o’clock when I finally got back from the hospital.
I left by the front door and practically ran into my wreck of a son, tubby at 27 and dressed like a redneck in dungaree jeans and a black-white-and-red-checked shirt not tucked in: he was coming up the walk an hour early, holding in one hand a carrier with six bottles of expensive micro-brewery beer and blotting a handkerchief to his bloody nose with the other. I asked him what the hell happened. A reasonable question. But no, of course Sam takes it as sarcasm and criticism, and flares up at me, all defensive: “I get nose bleeds, Dad. High blood pressure? Since ninth grade? Remember?”
“Yeah, well,” I said, “high blood pressure doesn’t normally give you two black eyes.”
“Happy Thanksgiving, Dad.”
“Same to you, Deputy Sam.” I would’ve hugged and kissed him but we didn’t do that in our family. And I’d been calling him Deputy Sam or Sheriff Sammy since he was a little kid and said he wanted to grow up to be a policeman. It was affectionate, it wasn’t a put-down. I asked could I give him a hand, meaning could I grab his six-pack. His chin was streaked with blood and he needed to find another handkerchief or Kleenex or something pretty quick, the one he had was sodden.
“Brenda’s not coming,” he says. Then instantly he said, “What’d you say?”
“I didn’t say anything, son.” And I hadn’t. Maybe he’d seen a tremble of aggravation on my lips. If he had, it was only a tremble. I’d learned not to badger this guy. “But I’m sorry to hear she’s not.”
He didn’t look like he believed me. “At the last minute she thought she should spend Thanksgiving with her mother.” He passed me walking up the front steps while I was coming down. “You going someplace?”
“Just running over to the Mothersoles’ house for a second. I’ll be right back. Hey Sammy? Clean up a little before you go see Mom, okay? Go straight upstairs and wash your face, will you do that for me? Thank you.” A simple request, but you’d think I’d asked him to drive home and put on some nicer clothes! The glare—30 seconds with my kid and already I was getting the glare, the death ray.
I watched as Sam clumsily transferred the bloody handkerchief from his left fist to his right hand holding the beer carrier. He went inside the house and shut the door and I resisted a temptation to check if he’d left bloody fingerprints on the knob. But it would have been just like my son to be standing there waiting to catch me doing just that. Oh Sam, my only son. You are such a fucking disappointment. I hurried over to Doc Mothersole’s house.
When he answered the door Doc looked like he’d dropped ten pounds since I’d seen him. There were dark circles around his eyes, not just under, the kind of discoloration you see on men dying of lung cancer. He had a bathrobe on and he clutched at my sleeve when he answered the door and drew me inside, all agitated
By the time he’d pulled me into the den Doc was short of breath. He plopped down on the sofa. Then he shook his head, exactly as it’s done in the movies when someone who’s been drugged or knocked out “comes to.” He looked at me, bewildered. “Jim? What’s the matter? What are you doing here?”
I was dialing 9-1-1, that’s what I was doing there, using Doc’s phone, and then I was telling him to lie down, put his feet up, and he was easy to convince, admitting that he didn’t feel so good, not so good at all. He was burning up. Hot to the touch. “Why didn’t you call me when you got sick?” I asked him. My feelings were hurt. “How long’ve you been sick like this? Doc?” Forget it, he was zoned out, maybe asleep.
Ilene was edging down the right-hand side of our street, angling off toward Doc’s driveway when the ambulance pulled out of there with Doc in the back and drove away with flashing top lights. I met her and told her about Doc and wondered if I should follow the ambulance to the hospital. Ilene thought that was a good idea. Behind us, Doc’s front door had been left wide open by the paramedics, so I asked Ilene to close it but to make sure it wasn’t locked, otherwise we might not be able to get back inside later to feed Annette if Doc couldn’t come home tonight. I started walking back to our house to get my car and drive over to the hospital. Ilene called after me, “Did you pass Sam coming in?”
“I did, yes.”
“And he has a bloody nose and two black eyes.”
“I think Brenda hit him.”
“Did he tell you that?”
“Kind of. I didn’t get all the details.”
We just left it there and I went to the hospital. It wasn’t a stroke, as I’d first thought, or pneumonia, which is what I figured when I’d seen him, Doc was just—“just,” he was dangerously— dehydrated by a nasty flu, which accounted for his dementia, and they were admitting him for observation. They’d keep him overnight and possibly longer. I saw him for just a minute, he was already on IV fluids and not very talkative. I asked him was there anybody he wanted me to call but he brushed away my question.
Ilene had held dinner for me, and the three of us sat down to eat almost as soon as I got in.
As much as I’d been looking forward to it, Thanksgiving wasn’t our finest hour as a family. By ten o’clock I was exhausted and feeling hopeless. And I wanted to wring Sam’s neck! He’d ruined everything with his relentless negativity—a beautiful dinner, a nice holiday meal, and all he could talk about was how his life was a mess, Brenda was a mess, his job was a mess, his legal bills were a mess, everything was a big stupid fucking mess, and did we realize that he could actually end up in prison? He went to pieces and then lashed out when we tried to help him. We offered him money, we’d give him whatever we could, and instead of thanking us, he chewed our heads off, blaming us for always trying to give him money, money which Sam seemed to believe came with intolerable and humiliating stipulations. Like what, for instance—gratitude? Affection? I guess so, then. But finally I was done with Sam’s high drama. Take our money, don’t take it, do whatever you want. And I hope you don’t end up in prison, son. Keep us posted. Now go home. This is what I was thinking, I didn’t say any of it. Just tried to deflect and defend. “Oh Sam, come on, how can you believe that? We never made you feel any such thing, you’re dreaming.”
Ilene looked crestfallen for most of the evening, then just fed up. Sam drank himself to sleep barely a quarter of the way through Braveheart. He just dozed off and started snoring. Our own kid snoring like a wino! After I turned off the movie Ilene and I looked at each other in the jangly quiet.
I said, “Shall we kick him out?”
“Jimmy, we are not letting Sam drive home. He can stay here and sleep it off.” I’d seen that coming. Well, it was better than driving him home myself in his car with Ilene following in hers to take me back. So we lugged him up to his old bedroom and dropped him on his old bed, then met up again on the living-room sectional, just like old times, Mom and Dad, except the kid we’d just tucked in was 27, a lout and a drunk and probably soon to be a felon, and I was pushing 60, and Ilene had had a Czech boyfriend for more than half a year.
Finally she gave my kneecap a light tap and stood up, extending her hand to take mine. “Come help me with the dishes.”
The clean-up took us about an hour. We didn’t talk much. As we went around afterwards turning off the lights downstairs, Ilene suddenly remembered Annette. I would’ve completely forgotten. I said I’d go over to Doc’s and let her out, feed her. Ilene should just go on up and get ready for bed. “Sam’s a heartbreaker,” she said to me at the foot of the front stairs. He was, but I hoped he was sound asleep by then and hadn’t heard her say that. Because if he had, we’d be upbraided for it eventually.
I let myself into Doc’s house, turned on some lights. The house smelled of several yorkie accidents but I wasn’t about to go looking for them, I just located the dog’s leash, and finally the dog. Annette—she was about 12, scruffy and with poor eyesight—wasn’t too glad to see me come in and I wasn’t crazy about how she kept nipping at my fingers as I was clipping the leash to her collar. When she finished doing her business, I fed her—kibble was in the garage, first place I looked, a big bag of Iams, and as I suspected I would, I found some already-opened wet dog food in the refrigerator.
I turned out the lights everywhere but in the foyer, where I remained standing, considering. Then, like a shot, and surprising myself at my sudden decisiveness, I went back into the living room and looked around for videocassette boxes. I didn’t see any on the built-in bookshelves (filled with a blue-spined set of the Annals of America, Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization and Carl Hiassan paperbacks). But then I opened the doors on an end table and found a dozen of them lined up inside, six to a shelf. I looked at my watch and gave myself five minutes. That was if I could find the whatchamacallits, the remotes. They were right there under some newspapers. The cassette that I picked randomly was in a yellow Kodak box, identified by a date—12-25-99—printed on a label in black indelible marker.
I honestly expected something lame and family-related to start playing—Doc stringing lights on an artificial Christmas tree, Annette running in circles around his feet with a red bow on her head. That’s not what came on.
After several seconds of blue screen Karen appeared performing piston-like fellatio on Chip Coffey’s frighteningly large penis. No, I’m not kidding. It was a ridiculous, gigantic ceremonial–looking thing! The camera was close on the action and nobody made a sound. There was just that chuggling saliva noise of a steady blowjob. Chip might have been fast asleep, he was that quiet, stretched out on his back. As I stood and watched I kept knowing that Karen was dead and that I regularly drove Doc to visit her ashes, but it made no difference. I also knew the scene I was watching was headed toward an ejaculation and wondered if I dared wait around for it. I could end up waiting quite a while so then I wondered if I could bring the cassette home with me, sneak it into the house, and watch the rest of it later. But no, I wasn’t that far gone. Not yet. I looked at my watch, and already it was ten minutes since I’d decided I could only stay five. So I ejected the tape, turned off the television and the VHS player, put the tape back in its box, the box back into the pentagonal end table, and turned off the lights. I was out of breath, like I’d chain-smoked for the last hour.
“What’re we going to do?” Ilene asked when I crawled into bed beside her. I’d known she wasn’t sleeping, I could always tell.
“What’re we going to do about what?”
“Yeah, right,” she said. “Take your pick.” It felt good that I’d made her laugh a little. “But I was speaking specifically about our son.”
“I know you were. And I can’t think of a single thing. Can you?”
“No.” She put her hand on my chest, then laid her head down there, nuzzling with an ear. What could we do to help Sam, besides help with his legal bills? And there was a limit to how much we could help with there. But I didn’t want to think about Sam anymore. And then I wasn’t, because suddenly I was remembering Karen Mothersole’s face, her expression, the look in her eyes when she glanced up from Chip’s penis to smile directly at the camera. At Chip. And me. Finally I drifted off, but almost immediately there was a knock on the bedroom door. “You locked your door? What’re you, afraid I’ll kill you in your sleep?”
“What’s up there, deputy?”
“I’m going home. I just talked to Brenda and I’m going to meet her at home.” He kept rattling the doorknob, like it was suddenly going to open. What can you do with a guy like that?
“Good luck, honey,” said Ilene. She’d already jumped up and put on her robe. She unlocked the door, opened it and gave Sam a hug. “It was so good to see you. And please don’t worry, everything’ll be okay.”
“See you, Dad.” He waved and I waved back from bed. “Thanks for Thanksgiving. You too, Mom.”
“Honey, are you sure you’re okay to drive?”
Finally the sneer appeared. “I’m fine, Mom.”
Ilene got back under the covers and we listened while he started his car and backed out of our driveway.
“Why’d you lock the bedroom door?” she said.
“I didn’t think I had.”
I propped myself on an elbow to see the time: it was only twenty past 11. I reported that to Ilene who was huddled under blankets like a shrimp, facing away from me, and then I announced that I wasn’t tired.
“We could have sex,” she said.
I waited for her to turn around and face me and I guess she was waiting for me to start something, do something, and since neither of us moved we eventually both fell asleep. Some time after first light Ilene thrashed around and settled again by spooning me. Her body felt like a furnace.
We slept in the next morning; Ilene had taken the day off (she’d hear about it from “Corporate,” but one of her assistant managers had a real money crisis and was desperate for extra hours) and we weren’t the type to go roaring out at half past five to line up for Black Friday specials. Although the big thing that year was Cyber Monday, still yet to come; it was all you heard about on TV ads. Cyber Monday, Cyber Monday. No thank you, we’ll pass.
Finally we got up around ten and while Ilene took a shower I put Pillsbury sweet rolls into the oven and went out–it was nice clear, cold, late-November day–and brought in the New York Times. We’d discontinued the T-D, fuck that rag, but not until after I’d gloated reading their begrudging reportage on Tim Kaine’s victory over Jerry Kilgore in the gubernatorial election earlier in the month. At least Virginia would still have a Democratic governor, although the legislature would still be made up of bigoted moral crackpots and evil rural millionaires. After Kaine’s victory I’d taken great pleasure in calling up and canceling home delivery of the paper. But we’d kept the Times, although most days it was just too dispiriting to read much beyond the front page headlines. That morning I didn’t bother even taking it from its blue plastic sleeve, I didn’t want to see. Just more bad news. And I didn’t want to see the picture, either, on the front page. Every day, pissed off guys in turbans. Turbans and holding rifles. Or American soldiers in Fallujah. I’d seen it all before. Besides, I’d woke up vaguely horny and wanted to prolong the feeling.
Ilene came into the kitchen with wet hair, dressed in a loose pink button-up blouse and crummy old jeans, and without any makeup. In daylight pouring through the sink window her skin tone looked faded, washed out, and there were deep curving lines at the ends of her eyes, lines that curved down her cheeks. This business with Sam was taking its toll. I’m betting I didn’t look young and virile in that light, either.
“You have anything on the agenda for today?” I asked her and she looked at me like I was the man in the moon. “What? Did I say something wrong?”
“No, don’t be silly. First I’m going to call Sam and make sure he got home all right and then–I don’t know what I’m going to do.” She looked chagrinned that I’d made her admit it. “Are you going to let the dog out?”
“Ah Jesus, the fucking dog. Yeah. Rolls have five more minutes, maybe I should just go do it now.”
“I’ll get the rolls, you take care of Annette,” said Ilene. She’d sat down at the table and slid the Times out of its wrapper to glance over the headlines. No turbans or foot soldiers today–I peeked, shoot me–just a picture of Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, Lewis Libby; at least that’s who I thought it was at a casual glance from six feet away. As if he wasn’t taking the fall for his fucking boss. But I was not interested. Reading something terrible, Ilene squinted suddenly, her eyes closing tightly, firmly, and it was, I saw instantly, the same expression, exactly the same one, she got when she was coming, when it was especially good. I liked being vaguely horny. I could take more of it. And more than just vaguely.
“Be right back” I said before Ilene could quote the troubling headline or respond to it.
As it turned out, and much to my surprise, a dark blue Jeep Tundra sat parked in Doc Mothersole’s driveway, the grill practically touching the garage doors; the rear bumper was plastered with stickers for Bush/Cheney and the NRA. I don’t know what, or who, I expected to find when I rang the bell and let myself in.
First thing I found was Doc himself, home already from the hospital. He was ensconced on the sofa in the rear of the first floor, I guess it was his family room–where I’d walked in on him already almost a month ago. Every light was on and a late-career Sinatra song was playing from the nice Bose on a built-in bookcase; I didn’t recognize the song but it was definitely from when his range was pretty seriously diminished. Doc was stretched out regally under a dark-blue comforter, Annette in a snug fold at his feet. And Chip Coffy, fork in hand, was seated on the front edge of an upholstered chair, poised over a plate of scrambled eggs on a snack table. There was another, but untouched, plate of eggs on the coffee table alongside of Doc. Both Chip and Doc were looking toward the hall, straight at me, when I walked in. “So you’re home.” A brilliant remark. “When did you get in?”
“About half an hour ago, I guess,” said Chip. “Good to see you again. It’s Jim, right?”
“That’s right. Nice to see you as well.” I turned to Doc. “And what about you, you feeling better?”
“I’m feeling better, yeah. Stupid of me. I knew I felt like shit, but I’m old, I’m supposed to feel like shit. I let it go. Have a seat.” He gestured toward his eggs. “You hungry?”
“No. Thanks. I should get back, Ilene and I are having breakfast. I was going to walk the dog, but I’ll let Chip handle that now if he doesn’t mind.” I didn’t immediately leave, though, for some reason. I just had to ask Doc, “How’d Chip end up taking you home?” It sounded like my feelings were hurt, and maybe they were, a little.
“His was the only phone number I could remember.”
“Chip came all the way from Roanoke? Doc, you should’ve called me.”
“No, I was just in Norfolk,” said Chip, “it was no problem.”
“And I was so fucked up–I was just telling Chip, I was so fucked up I couldn’t remember your last name, Jim.”
“I know it’s Brincker, my point is I couldn’t remember it this morning when I decided I needed to get out of there. It’s a holiday weekend. There’s no doctors, I’m supposed to just lie around racking up medical bills? I just need to take antibiotics and drink plenty of fluids. I know your name is Brincker, Jesus Christ, like the boy with the silver skates.”
“But it’s spelled different.” It was, look it up: Hans Brinker, no c before the k. “Well, I should get going,” I said.
“Tell your wife I said hello,” said Chip, and instead of looking over at him, I looked back at Doc who was lifting an eyebrow in a very stagy ohhh-well-now-what-have-we-here? sort of way. My stomach clenched and something dark fizzed–it’s the only word that fits, that works–fizzed through the back of my mind.
“I’ll do that,” I said.”See you.” I’d quickly recovered, but it was all very strange, I thought walking home. All very definitely strange.
“Everything okay over there?” Ilene asked me when I came back in.
“Doc’s home, he checked himself out of the hospital. Chip Coffy drove him.”
“That we talked to at the funeral home?”
“Yeah, same Chip. Doc couldn’t remember our last name and called him. But Chip was in Norfolk.”
“I didn’t know whether you wanted me to put the icing on these, or not,” said Ilene setting down a dinner plate arranged with cinnamon sweet rolls in a circle. “Since we mostly don’t.”
“No, no icing,” said. I poured us both coffee and sat at the table.
“What?” she said after she’d sat down opposite me. I hadn’t taken my vitamins, I hadn’t picked up a sweet roll, or put milk in my coffee, I hadn’t touched the newspaper. “Something on your mind?”
I looked at her, and I blurted–to me, it felt like blurting, but I hope it didn’t sound like that to Ilene–“Do you want to go back to bed after we finish breakfast?”
“After we finish breakfast. If you don’t–”
“No, that’s okay. What put you in the mood?”
“Well, we were going to last night.”
“Yeah. What happened?”
“I fell asleep.”
“We both did.” She picked up one of her two prescription pills, put it in her mouth and took a swig of orange juice. “Yeah, okay. But you have to let me put on some makeup first.”
It’s funny having sex with the same woman for about the four thousandth time–I did the math once, and I think a typical marriage as long as ours (three times a week the first year, twice a week the next twenty, then once a week for every year after that) would come out to be about four thousand times, somewhere between four thousand and forty-five-hundred, but I suck at math so it could be way off); and by funny I mean how familiar it is, doing it with, to, being aroused by and arousing the same woman’s body–changed, sure, over time, same as my own body had changed, but still the same body, the same body parts and places, the same textures, the same muscle memory, the same memory, period. Everything the same, especially the patterns. Oh! the patterns.
Ilene, for example, dispensed with her clothing promptly and without ceremony or intent. She never did a strip tease or let me undress her. Briskly unbuttoned her blouse, pulled it off, reached behind her and unclasped her bra (shiny tan with a bit of a sparkle in the fabric, from Victoria’s, nothing fancy just good support) and tossed it away. Such familiar tits! Their bulk and their sway, the fine marbling of blue veins, the rosy tips. I watched as Ilene bent and removed her jeans, one leg at a time, hopping a little, hardly graceful, then shucked down her not-even-close-to-being-new and fairly baggy pale blue underpants; she owned a dozen of the same ones, she kept getting them free with coupons.
And there she was, there was my wife of so many years, still shapely, fully naked and climbing onto the bed, planting first one red knee on the mattress, then the other. I liked how that little crawl she always did made her long buttocks shiver. I’d always waited for her to be naked before I got undressed myself. More ritual, more tradition, more sameness. I wondered if she ever thought about Imray, and realized I was thinking about him as I undressed, and wondered if she’d looked at him in the same semi-humorous way she was looking at me now, locking eyes with mine, avoiding even a glance at my penis, and then I was thinking about Chip Coffey, both the Chip from the two videos I’d briefly watched and the Chip I’d seen in person only a short while ago.
Ilene and I always started with a long kiss, open mouthed and with tongue, and while it was still in progress my hand would find its way to one of her breasts. True to form, that day we started with a kiss, my right hand going almost immediately to her soft left breast, and when I broke the kiss I moved my hand over her stomach (I knew she wanted me to get quickly past there, she was angry at her body and herself for developing a belly after she’d turned 50), lightly moving it down her groin, down the slope covered with thick and wiry pubic hair, and lightly touching a fingertip to the cervix of her pussy. “Chip Coffey,” I said, “told me to tell you hello.”
“Oh he did, did he?”
“Yes, he did.”
And so it was, and went on predictably, that day after Thanksgiving 2005. I remembered in the midst of it that I hadn’t asked Ilene if she’d called Sam, if she’d reached him and talked to him, but that was okay. It could wait. After I’d inserted two fingers, she finally got around to touching my dick. I’d known I’d have to wait that long. But it was pleasant when it finally happened. It was all pleasant, actually, every part of it, and afterwards we took an early afternoon nap together.
The end of the month, the rest of it after Thanksgiving, was pretty uneventful and quiet, which was good because once December started it was like being on the rack; every day, just about, was torture. My tendonitis returned and we both got the flu, and this was just in the first week. Then my dad passed away on the ninth and we were up in Jersey for three long miserable days; even before Dad was buried, my sisters started fighting about the house and the furniture and Dad’s shitty investment portfolios. I didn’t want any part of it, I just handled the funeral arrangements, but Ilene finally mixed it up with one of the twins over a cigar box full of letters, hers to me from back when were just dating and Ilene was in Europe; she found them in the bottom drawer of the dresser in my old bedroom and she was taking them out to put in the trunk of our car when Deborah, the super-Catholic, told her to put them right back where she’d found them. Oh Jesus, you know? Why do these things happen? Why do people behave like this? Etcetera. As soon as I saw the cigar box I wanted those letters, no way they were going into my father’s estate, and so I joined the loud disagreement on the sidewalk in front of the house, and the upshot was, we lammed out of south Jersey like bank robbers with the cigar box of old letters and nothing else.
Back home in Virginia we discovered that our lout of a son was now living in our house, the place was a sty, it looked like a dorm room, and Sam was a nervous wreck; after we got over the initial shock of seeing him there, we told him to help us unload the car–we made it clear we didn’t want to hear anything from him till we’d unpacked the car and could settle on comfortable chairs in our own living room with glasses of wine. Being aging parents had its privileges, and so did being the famous last resort of unconditional love. The fucking lummox, what now?
What now? What now was our boy Sam had agreed to accept a plea deal that would save him from going to state prison for three years, but he’d have to spend every weekend for a year in jail, plus pay a five thousand dollar fine. He was both terrified and sorely put out by the every-weekend-in-jail-for-a-year part. “Couldn’t you just pay a couple more thousand dollars and not do any jail time?” I said. No, apparently not. So he would be going before a judge in a few days to plead guilty and take the deal–I got that part, but why was he living at our house? Because the fiancée had kicked him out. She’d believed him when he’d lied to her and said he hadn’t done anything wrong, that the charges were all a horrible mistake, and now Brenda was pissed, he’d lied to her, and a pissed-off Brenda apparently was not a pretty sight.
So now we had Sam living with us. And the weird thing was, he seemed pissed off at us, at the two of us, at Ilene and me, for not being there when he was offered this shitty plea bargain. To give him advice or something, I don’t know. Can you imagine? My father just died, I had every right in the world to be angry and disappointed that my only son hadn’t seen fit to come to his grandfather’s funeral, but instead I had to confront a pissed off man-child who still expected his parents to be there for him automatically. Sure, when everything sucked. Otherwise, the little shit didn’t want to know us. Ilene, not surprisingly, developed colitis.
So that takes me to Christmas week and the rv in Doc’s driveway. R. V. Recreational vehicle. The yellow rv parked in Doc Mothersole’s driveway. I first saw it when I went out to get the mail one day. It was late afternoon, sleet had been coming down steadily since early that morning, and it was a shoe-and-foot-drenching slog to the mailbox. While I was scooping out the statements and bills and magazines, something caught my eye, smeary colors, strings of twinkling-but-smeared-by-the-weather holiday lights draped inside the rear and side windows of a 30-foot-long yellow rv parked over at Doc’s house. I walked down the street so I could see it a little better. A Coachmen. Of course I wondered who it belonged to, but standing in front of Doc’s house, and a little bit mesmerized by the sentimental twinkling lights, I suddenly wanted to get a Christmas tree and decorate it. Ilene and I had decided not to put one up that year, for the first time in our marriage, considering how completely non-Christmassy we both felt. But all of a sudden I wanted a tree, and when I went back into my house with the mail I told Ilene about the rv and then I told her I’d had a change of heart about putting up a Christmas tree–what did she think? It wasn’t too late, I said, there were still several days left till Christmas and I’d seen a whole bunch of trees already discounted outside the Winn-Dixie. She made a face. “All the ornaments are packed away, I don’t feel like traipsing up to the attic. Come on, Jim, we already decided.”
“Sam and I’ll get down the ornaments. We’ll even buy the tree.” I don’t know why I was all of a sudden so damn sanguine about Sam doing that with me, but I was.
“What brought all this on?”
“I don’t know, I just–never mind.”
“Do what you like. If you want to get a Christmas tree, get a Christmas tree, knock yourself out.”
I said, “Nah, that’s all right,” and never mentioned it again.
Christmas. I don’t remember very much about Christmas day—the early part of the day, I mean. I remember the later part of it very well. No, we got up before 11, but not too much before. I probably gave Ilene CDs and books, got the same from her in return, and we both got a gift certificate that we’d never use for some chain restaurant, from Sam. We gave him a check for $200 inside a card. Ilene made a nice meal, a midday meal, after which we watched a video. Sam went out in the early evening to meet a friend from high school who still lived nearby. That brings me up to about 8 o’clock. Eight o’clock Christmas night.
After the movie, which I also can’t recall, probably a comedy though, it was Christmas and Ilene was blue; I certainly wouldn’t have put on anything serious; after the movie I went upstairs to my office (about what you’d expect for an office belonging to a a movie critic; reviewer, ex-movie reviewer slash critic: a lot of movie posters) and logged on to my check email, not that I expected to find any on Christmas, but it was a habit. I found one anyway, the only new one since yesterday, and the message line read: Season’s Greetings to The Brinckers-with-a-“C”/from Doc. I clicked and there was an email. Why didn’t we stop by this evening and meet his house guests? I looked and he’d sent it just an hour ago. It was—8:09 PM, by the time at the lower right-hand corner of my computer screen. So I went downstairs and asked Ilene if she felt like going over there, over to Doc’s, and she said why not, and we got our coats and walked there.
A girl—well, she was about 20, I’d guess, but a very skinny young girl in a holiday reindeer knit sweater and tight jeans answered the door. She welcomed us with a big smile behind the storm door, then when she opened it, she opened it all the way, to let us come right in. “Hi,” she said, “I’m Jeannie, this is my boyfriend Rob,” and there was Rob, as if by magic, welcoming us as we came into the foyer. He was nerdy looking guy in his mid-20s with a rumple of black hair and black square glasses, a little on the short and pudgy side. He beamed at us too. “Jim?” he said. “Ilene? Doc’ll be so glad you came.”
He was exactly where I’d seen him last, Doc, stretched out under an afghan, but a different one, on the sectional in the family room, and he didn’t get up that time, either. He looked more robust, though, healthier, and like he’d even gained a few pounds. “I see you’ve all met. Hello, sweetheart,” he said to Ilene when she went around the coffee table to bend over and give him a kiss on the side of his mouth. “Do you want anything to drink? I think there’s still chicken wings, Jeannie made them.”
“No, we’re good,” I said.
“Actually, I wouldn’t mind a chicken wing,” said Ilene, and Jeannie said they had special barbecue sauce and she’d bring some in and that called for a beer as well. “Twist my arm,” said Ilene. She sat down and asked Doc how was he feeling, and while he told her the same thing he’d told me, that he’d basically let himself get dehydrated, I turned my attention and a smile to Rob, who gave me a strangely knowing but at the same time dopey smile in return, followed by a slight nod toward the kitchen. He made me uncomfortable and I sat down next to Ilene, in time to catch Doc’s question, “How is it all working out with your son? Has it been settled yet?”
That caught us both off guard, and I plunged right in, embarrassed for Ilene to find out that I’d talked to Doc about our son, which I had, a few times. He’d been sympathetic. I said, “Sam still has to go to court.”
Ilene added, “After the holidays.” She shot me a look I couldn’t read, not exactly. Was she warning me not to take this any further, or was she handing the mike back? I decided to let it drop. Jeannie returned with an oven rack of chicken wings that she slid on top of two stacks of my New Yorkers. She had no hips, was straight up and down, and a small bust. Stovepipe legs. But a very pretty girl—with her long shiny brown hair she looked like a Sixties hippie, except for the corny suburban Christmas sweater. She had a nice butt. Ilene reached for a wing, dipped it in ranch dressing and then before taking a bite, she said, “You’re from Arizona, I see, that’s a long way.”
The license plates, of course, and I hadn’t even noticed.
“Actually from Santa Fe, most recently,” said Rob. “But Jeannie’s parents live in Tempe, or near it, and that’s where we picked up the rv. It’s theirs.” He nodded, as if to himself, and his hands moved awkwardly in the air. “But it’s a long way, you’re right. But we share the driving.”
Naturally I was curious how they knew Doc Mothersole, but I didn’t ask, I thought it might come up naturally in the conversation, but then the conversation, such as it was, stalled. It went on for a long time, silence, and there wasn’t any music playing, and the TV was off, so it felt really long. Finally Doc said, “You remember my friend Chip Coffey?” He wasn’t talking to me, he was addressing Ilene.
“Yes, we met at Karen’s wake.”
“You should talk to him.”
Well, you can imagine how that hit me! You should talk to him! Right, and then what? You should fuck him. That was the vibe I got. I was so startled I was speechless, which was good because right away Doc followed up his bombshell by saying, “Chip’s dad is on the county Board of Supervisors up there.”
Ilene sat up. “And that should interest me why?”
“Maybe his dad could pull a string or two.”
“Why would he do that?” Ilene was like a bulldog—she was on Doc and not letting go. “I don’t even know your friend Chip Coffey, why would he help Sam? Why would this Chip I don’t really know ask his father to help Sam?”
“Because I asked him to?” Doc looked peeved, like he was sorry he’d said anything. “And if you talked to him, you would know him. It was just a suggestion.”
“I guess I’m not comfortable with string pulling,” said Ilene. “Sam has a good lawyer, and he’s already agreed to a deal, not formally but agreed to it. He hasn’t signed anything.”
“Maybe there’s a better deal,” said Doc. “Is there any jail time that’s part of this deal?”
Jeannie broke in, it was pretty clumsy but I was grateful. “You know what, guys? I think we’re gonna head off to the rv and let you guys talk.”
“No, please don’t,” said Ilene rising to her feet, “we need to get back, you stay right where you are.” She directed Rob to remain in his chair, then said, “It’s been very nice meeting you both,” and while they were all saying goodnight, Ilene and Jeannie and Rob, Doc tapped my knee and whispered, “Come back later, if you can. Just you.”
“Just you. If you can. I want to talk to you about something. Don’t worry, it’s good.” Then he said in a normal voice, “I didn’t mean to send you people packing. I’m sorry. I’m a fixer by nature, I apologize, Ilene, it’s none of my business.”
Other, more gracious women than Ilene would’ve told Doc it was all right, that she appreciated his concern, but my wife only said good night, and did so frostily. I followed her out and as we went up Doc’s driveway, we didn’t talk. Not a word. We walked in single file along the side of the road, but there was no traffic, it was dead quiet, it was Christmas night. Finally, crossing our own lawn, which was a little bit crunchy with frost, and then clumping up the front porch steps, I decided to risk a big fight and said, “Are you mad? Why are you so mad?”
“I’m not mad,” said Ilene. “But I’d just like to know what old Doc was suggesting.”
“I don’t think he was ‘suggesting’ anything, Ilene. I think he was just offering assistance. Who knows, maybe you should call Chip, maybe he can make it so our kid doesn’t have to spend weekends in jail for a year. I got the door key.”
Once we’d stowed away our coats, Ilene went into the living room, sprawled out on the couch and picked up the remote, the Weather Channel, our politically neutral default setting, came on, the local Doppler report said continuing cold for the rest of the year straight through New Year’s Day, when we could get snow. She clicked it off. “Why don’t you call Chip Coffey?”
“I might. Ilene, Doc was looking at you, maybe, when he said that, but it was for the both of us.”
“So call the man.”
“I will. You kind of embarrassed me over there.”
“So go back and apologize. I’m going to bed anyway. I’ve had enough of this Christmas day fun,” she said and of course I recognized the paraphrased quotation, it was from a Berenstein Bear’s Christmas story we both used to read to Sam. “Go back to Doc’s house and get Chip Coffey’s number,” said Ilene. “It’s all right with me.” She went upstairs
Who’d said anything about going back to Doc’s house? Man. Talk about the telepathy of the long-term married. Uncanny.
On the walk over there, I thought I’d been pretty smart, that I’d handled that pretty well, but I have to tell you, there definitely had been a lascivious under meaning, or at least an undertone, to what Doc said about getting in touch with Chip Coffey and through him with his dad on the county supervisors; a blowjob in exchange for a more lenient deal for Deputy Sam, it couldn’t be denied that the implication had been there. But maybe not. Maybe it was just me. Something felt exciting but I didn’t know what.