Table of Contents
Dance Party 5
Hal: Talk 10
What You Really Mean Is 11
Gatsbys Last Dive 15
Chain of Fools 17
Bird Blinding 25
Someone To Crawl Back To 41
Home Wrecker 63
Still Doing Time 74
Which Way You Going 101
Dead Heat 127
Inhabited Space 133
Hal: Rehab 143
The first year we were married we called each other by the name of sexual parts or acts. She was Blowjob or Tuna. She called me Hosebag. Her vagina was Lucy, and my penis was Ricky. And sometimes at restaurants she'd say, What's Ricky having, and I'd say, What's on the menu for Lucy.
We bought a house in an old neighborhood in a town in Sorth Carolina where people still wanted to live at the country club. We got it for what we'd been paying in rent. Upstairs there was a large room that we figured had once been for a live-in housekeeper. The paint was gray from time and from a chimney fire. But underneath, it was old white pine with a rich grain that comes from slow growing. I began sanding away the paint, and later on, when I'd nearly finished and was living alone, my friends would show up on Wednesday nights and let themselves in and come upstairs without knocking. We began calling the upstairs room The Bar None.
The only other place where we'd lived was an apartment on the Texas gulf. She taught only in the mornings. But I wouldn't get home until late afternoon. The sun would be bright, and even after wearing sunglasses I'd have to give myself a minute for my eyes to adjust to the cool dim light inside. I'd take off my shoes and socks. The cool parquet floor soothed the soles of my feet and worked up my ankles. Sometimes I would fill a glass with ice and bourbon and sit in a low chair in the dark apartment and just look through the sliding glass doors at her beside the tall brick wall that separated us from the rest of the world. She would be lying on her stomach on a lounge chair with a towel under her. She was already Texas brown, and in the small of her back I could see two small oval pools and the bright trails that led down to them. She'd be reading some Milton scholarship through hair that hung straight down and nearly covered her glasses. Her nipples would just barely be touching the damp towel under her. She didn't know I was watching, and sometimes she wouldn't hear the doors sliding open.
"How are things in Paradise?" I said.
She smiled up at me. "How's it hanging, Hosebag?"
"Anything new from Uncle Milty?"
"You won't believe it," she said suddenly animated. Her intelligence only made her more beautiful. She sat up, covering her breasts with her left arm. "Guess where I found this? In the lost and found. Can you believe it? Is that mystical, or what?" Her eyes made tiny wrinkles when she laughed. "I don't know who's teaching this edition, but it's a shitty piece of work."
Almost every evening I would cook something outside on the grill and drink and smoke while she bathed and later broke cold heads of lettuce into wooden bowls. After dinner she would sometimes beg me to take her dancing. But I am no dancer.
Soon after Rene left me, some of us got up the Wednesday Night Supper Club. It's what we had in the place of other things. I don't know who named it the Wednesday Night Supper Club. I suppose one or two of the guys who didn't want their kids to know referred to it euphemistically when they said goodbye to their wives. One Christmas Eve George and Tom, who didn't have wives anymore, showed up wearing reindeer horns. George had a stuffed and mounted deer's head under one arm. He announced the grand opening of a new lodge, a new order he called it. The Alc's Club. Until about a week after New Year's it was the Alc's Club, but by Valentines it was again the Wednesday Night Supper Club at The Bar None.
Before Rene left me I knew something was up. I knew it for a couple of months. I kept after her about it until finally she said, "I don't love you, Hal."
"I don't understand," I said.
"Which word gives you trouble?" she said.
One day I came home and George's truck was backed up to the front steps. I helped him and Tom with the sofa. Rene was at her new apartment putting up our wedding china. Later the three of us sat down on the steps and had a few beers. I waved at the neighbors. Tom went to the Piggly Wiggly and bought another twelve pack of beer. George and Tom and I waved at the neighbors. By the time we'd finished most of the beer, it was getting dark and George said they'd better go. There were no more neighbors to salute. That sofa was a bitch, he said. I offered to follow them over and give them a hand, but Tom said there was help at the other end and handed me the last beer. I went inside and sat on the floor where the sofa had been with my back against the radiator and watched TV and ate a whole bag of potato chips. I saved the beer until I was done.
There was a PBS special on the Pharaohs, and for a time I understood about them and the rational explanations for their mummification. It all made sense to me as it was being explained. And a lot of the mumbo jumbo about the pyramids was straightened out and they didn't seem quite so mysterious. When I woke up I ran my hands down the cool ribs of the radiator. I put the potato chip bag and the beer can in the trash and went to bed. But I was still so drunk I couldn't remember which side I was supposed to sleep on.
In this state, twelve is the magic number. That's the number of points the Department of Motor Vehicles allows before you lose your driving priviledges. Tom and George and I had been playing the subtracting game for months. Barry, reigning king of The Bar None, had been reduced to two wheels before the bar's first anniversary. It didn't seem to matter that he was an attorney; Mothers Against Drunk Driving have a lot of pull in this town. I've never seen a man who could drink so much and still stay up on two wheels. Picture a circus bear on a bicycle and you'll be close.
One warm Wednesday night we heard the sound of bent spokes and fenders on the sidewalk below. Barry arrived with swollen, bloody knuckles. Tom slipped downstairs and phoned Barry's home number to make sure there was a voice at the other end. There was, and Tom hung up. Barry was pretty drunk. He tried to talk George into driving them to Zorkas or The Thunderbird for a little action. George said they were both too drunk. They played pool. Somehow the upstairs had gotten a pool table and two pinball machines and a real bar.
Later, Barry forgot that the old toilet didn't work and was about to empty his bladder when Tom reminded him. When he came back to the pool table, Barry's fly was down. George glanced up from a straight in shot on the nine ball, and without hesitation said, I'd be ashamed to let everybody know my old lady had a hole that big in her ass.
Then the two of them went round and round the table. Barry held his cue up high. He had tears in his eyes. You can't talk that way about my wife, he kept shouting. I tried to head off Barry, but he had that suicidal valentine look in his eye. Tom was no help. He just kept shouting, They'll turn into butter, they'll turn into butter! George made for the stairs. Barry tripped, did sommersaults down the steps, and broke his leg. That's when he quit drinking permanently. It was a hard fall.
When you really fall in love with someone, you don't think about all the reasons why it might not work out. Or at least you shouldn't. You just have a feeling and you want to go on having that feeling and you think that you will. You count on that. You just belong together. That's all. When Rene and I first met it was at The Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta. At first I thought she was another pharmaceutical salesman. I sell hospital supplies, make my money in bandages and wraps. I sat beside her at the bar and said, You here for the convention? She said, Yeah. We went on for a few minutes; then she said hers was the MLA convention. I read the black print on the name tag above her left breast.
"Modern Language Association?"
She looked up at me and smiled so that little wrinkles formed and said, "Malaise," then hooked her arm around mine and I ordered another round. Later she asked me to take her dancing, but we did something else. I forget what.
As it turned out, almost everything in the house belonged to Rene. When it was all moved out, the house looked twice as big. I sold the TV and bought a second-hand industrial floor buffer. Every Saturday morning I waxed the hardwood floors with good wax and buffed them until they looked like swirls of light. That way it seemed okay that there was no furniture. I sort of liked it that way.
I left all sorts of messages on Rene's machine. Some were serious. I'd write out what I wanted to say and read it so that I would sound intelligent and not waste time. Once, I wrote a twenty page letter to her. I would read until the second beep, and then call again and pick up where I left off. She didn't return my call. Then sometimes after a bourbon or two I'd be witty. I'd call and say I was a student and had a question about English. Once I said, Could you explain the difference between screeching to a grinding halt and grinding to a screeching halt? Then I laughed out loud like a fool. I couldn't help it. That didn't work either. Then once I tried being profound. After the beep I asked, Had you rather walk to school or carry your lunch?
Sometime in early Spring while I was buffing the floors, Barry got his license back. He showed up at our house one morning with the other guys and told me he was holding a special ceremony at the bridge over Black Creek. I unplugged the buffer and wrapped the cord around the electric motor and put the buffing pad away.
It was about a mile walk, but nobody was in a hurry. There were a couple of bottles going around. Barry pushed the bike and formed the center of our troop. The sun was bright, and we walked in the shadow of blooming dogwoods down the long slope to Black Creek. The walk down was easy.
Barry's bike looked funny lying on its side on the bridge railing. It looked like a dead animal maybe. Certainly not like a bicycle. The wheels of time go round and round, Barry began. And the time to say goodbye is always the hardest. I'm glad you can all be here to share in this final goodbye. Then he lifted the bike over his head, pirouetted, and heaved it over the side of the bridge. We all applauded and then took a narrow trail down to the water's edge and sat in the shade.
It took the combined strength of Tom, George, and me to get Barry back up the trail. The uphill walk home was hot and over bright. Even the air seemed dull and heavy.
Back at the house I took off my shoes and socks and walked on the cool waxed floors. I walked through every empty room. Then I took off my shirt and lay on my back on the wooden floor in the living room. I looked up at the high ceiling. When I woke up it was dark outside. I'd been dreaming but I didn't know what about. I didn't know what time it was.
I didn't have any trouble finding the trail back down to the water under the bridge. The moon was full and the dogwood blooms were tiny night lights. The water was really cold and faster than you'd think, but I found the bicycle easily enough. My trousers must have held forty pounds of water and mud. I took them off and tied them to the handlebars to balance my sample case of wraps and bandages. I just wore my boxers.
Rene's apartment was at the bottom of a hill. I could see the lights upstairs from pretty far away. I put my feet up on the handlebars and leaned back. The pedals went round and round on their own. The wind rushed past my ears. I laid the bike over easily on the wet grass and went to her door. There was music inside.
Funny, when she opened the door, the whole place smelled of Rene. Maybe it was the flowers. It was her place. She was wearing her housecoat and held a finger in her book. She leaned forward and squinted into the shadows. She flicked on the porch light and looked down at my boxers. I looked down at my boxers.
"Big Al and the Twins would like to know if you'd like to come out and play," I said.
"I have to make a telephone call," she said, and closed the door.
I stood outside and watched the newly hatched insects form spinning moons around the porch light. After a time she opened the door again. She'd pushed her glasses up on her head. She smiled. She hooked her arm around mine. I offered her my sample case of wraps and bandages.
When I was a kid, I shared a small bedroom with my two brothers. I slept on the top bunk. At night my older brother would play the radio beside his bed. I'd lie there in the dark on my back and listen to the low music. I could lift my arm and touch the coarse ceiling. Every night we listened to Dance Party. The DJ read dedications from people as far way as Memphis and Alexandria. He'd begin with This number goes out to and then he'd read the names of couples who were couples at the time. Sometimes it would take him several minutes to read all of them. Or it seemed that way to me. Some of the requests would be in code, like This song goes out to H- and the girl in fifth period study hall with special eyes.
And now when I think about those dedications, I envision some of them being written in hieroglyphics, and the DJ at home rising from his sleep and gliding his numb fingers over miles and miles of carved stone until he discovers the etched pictures that save love, there to stand forever.
There are some conversations you can't have. To have them is to ruin everything. Either/Or conversations are one example. There is no such thing as an Either/Or conversation. There are only OR conversations.
There are some others you can't have. If you have them everything is over. And if everything is over you die inside. Not all at once, but you die; it's a sure thing.
There are conversations you have to have, no matter what. Because you must have them, they always end in a matterless world of talk, followed by a matterless world. There are things you have to say because if you don't say them you have no chance of stopping the thing that has to be stoppedbefore it does damage that can't be undone. These are all conversations you must have.
You can't have conversations about lost passion. Passion is a thing that can only be discussed when it is present. If you have it, or if two people share it, they can spend hours in delicious conversation. Such is the nature of passion. To talk about the absence of passion is to ruin any chance of regaining it, to doom it to purgatory. Of course the only reason to have that conversation is in order to somehow save it, so you can't have it. There is nothing to be gained and everything to be lost. Maybe to not talk about it is to keep it alive, or to keep alive the chance that it may return. Some people who are clinically dead come back. They come back stronger, too.
Words can do almost anything, repair almost any pain. But they can do nothing for lost passion. So it is pointless to have a conversation about its loss. The person who no longer possesses that feeling can't be held responsible, not really. Nobody chooses to give up those feelings. Nobody is to blame, not really. Sometimes people get tired or distracted, sometimes they get bored, sometimes they are mysteriously attracted to other lovers. It's not a thing they choose. If they could go on feeling that feeling with someone, they would. It's not a thing to blame someone for, the loss of passion I mean. It's not a thing people choose. So there is really no reason to think that talking will do any good.
If you say to someone, You have lost the feeling for me, what can she say? You can't restore good feelings by making her feel bad, guilty for something that isn't her fault. That would eliminate all possibility for restoring the thing you most want to save. You don't want to do that. That would be cruel, because even as you said, Please love me you would be making it all impossible. Sometimes it makes you want to cry, but that does no good; that is a conversation with yourself and does nothing to restore the passion that, in its absence, makes you want to cry.
So if you love somebody, it is essential to say the things you have to say and to avoid the things you must never say.
What You Really Mean Is
At some indecipherable point in the conversation, she hung up on him. And after a dozen phone calls and as many messages on her machine, Brice couldn't stand it. He drove from his Myrtle Beach hotel through the night to Florence, seventy miles away, to Rene's apartment. When he reached the city limits, he lowered his window, and the salty air trapped in the car's interior mingled with the night and was gone. The wipers peeled away the foggy film that materialized on the windshield. At red lights, he looked both ways, then drove on. The dark voice of the tires gripping the pavement rose from the street. It was two-thirty in the morning.
He found her note tacked neatly at each corner, as perfectly centered as a painting on the new white door.
"Please do not come in. Call the police, but please don't be the one. Call the police, but don't come inside. Rene."
He tried the door. It was unlocked, and after pushing it open he did take one step. Then called her name. He took one more step and called again.
Brice heard the sound of the shower upstairs, and he knew.
This is how it began. The university's film series had presented Carnal Knowledge. The truest scene, they agreed over coffee later, was the scene when Jack Nicholson and Candice Bergen first meet.
Rene and Brice were beginning their teaching assistantships that year at Duke. Coincidentally, they had each required their students to see the film. When they ran into one another in the lobby, it seemed only collegial to have coffee and talk. It was, they would say a year later, their first date.
In the scene, Nicholson and Bergen are in a cafe, and they talk about how men and women communicate. Nicholson says that men and women talk like spies who speak in code. Everything means something else. And Bergen says something like, "Yes, and when you say that you mean something else." Then Nicholson says something like, "But when you say that what you really mean is . . . ." Rene and Brice agreed that the scene supported current theory that questioned the validity of language in the rendering of human relations. He quoted Fish and she quoted Derrida and then they motioned for more coffee.
Rene, who had come to Duke to study Milton, said she was having her freshman see the film because they were studying "Failed Feminine Models and the New Woman." Brice, who had come because of Reynolds Price, said his students were reading from Robert Bly and would discuss Nicholson and Garfunkel as two incomplete sides of the male psyche.
"Just look at the women in the film," Rene said. "Count them. You have The Girl Next Door, Bergen. Big Boobs, Ann-Margret. The Cold Ball Buster, the Woman-Child hippy, and The Prostitute. All of them, they are all stereotypes. There are no other choices represented."
"Bergen is the one women in the audience are supposed to identify with," Brice said, pouring them more coffee, "because she has small breasts and gets to sleep with both guys, and yet remains a 'good girl'."
"That's just Mr. Hollywood selling tickets," Rene said, reaching for her cup.
"But what you mean when you say that," Brice said, smiling, "is that the idea that a good girl would want to sleep with a man, two men even, is a male, not a female fantasy."
"And what you mean when you say that," Rene waited until he stopped smiling. "What you mean is you'd rather talk about sex than the movie."
"Meaning, really, that you are grateful I brought up the subject of sex, because you are a good girl who has fantasies of sleeping with two men as different as Nicholson and Garfunkelhas in fact slept with men very much like thembut you could never be the one to initiate the conversation. Because you are a good girl."
"Meaning, in fact, thatby omission I might addI have small breasts, but you wouldn't kick me out of bed." They both laughed.
"And what you mean when you say that is that it is time for me to say whether I would kick you out of bed before you reveal more of yourself in this conversation."
"But what you really mean is that you are not sure you can recapture the erection you had when Ann-Margret's tits filled the screen, and you'd rather I didn't sleep with you than experience failure again in bed."
"Which is another way of saying that if you threaten me with sexual failure, you won't have to experience the guilt of making love with me while fantasizing that I am alternately Nicholson and Garfunkel. When I'm on top it's Nicholson; when you're on top it's Garfunkel.
"Face it, Brice. You're a boob man."
They were both laughing now. "You're right. You got me." They were both laughing hard now. "And yet what you really mean when you say that is that if you did have really big boobs, you'd take a picture and send it to Jack Nicholson."
"God, yes," she said.
That had been their first conversation. The next morning in the shower, they talked deconstruction. Before they were done, Rene had named his penis Derri and her breasts the Dadas. At parties, when the conversation turned to gender issues, Rene and Brice changed the topic, spinning off one another's ideas until the whole room was laughing. They became famous among graduate students for a series of myths about a seventy year old one-armed albino woman blues singer who'd finagled a humanities grant to support her post-punk radical feminist trio, Derri and the Dadas. They were a hit. Someone suggested they begin renting themselves out for parties. That was in the winter of 1990.
At the beach that summer, they ate strawberries and cheese and cold shrimp, sliced apples and boiled eggs. They drank Chablis when it was eye-achingly cold. They took their meals on the bed.
Later, the evening sky was blue-black with heat and energy. The surf, the color of cracked slate, churned into whiteness at the shore. The bitter smell of salt brine blowing over her in a misty fog, Rene held her hat with both hands against the sand and wind. He tossed chunks of bread that raced like meteors and brought the black-throated gulls' vicious dives so close to his head that she begged him to stop it. Huddled under the eaves a few feet away, she shouted through the wind and surf for him to stop it, running finally, pleading with him to kiss her. To kiss her now.
During the night, the rain poured from the roof onto the deck outside their window, soothing them as they lay breathless from their lovemaking. The light from the lamp in the other room defined lips, illuminated nipples.
Then, before the summer had quite folded upon itself, she stood in the black surf crying as he swam with all his strength toward the low, parched moon, hoping it would swallow him, pulling hard against the slanted current until it slammed him against the bits of shell that stretched like broken constellations at the frothy water's edge near the pier late in the night.
And neither of them could say how it had happened. They couldn't say how it had come to that.
They didn't speak for five years.
Brice had applied all the charm and political energy he could muster and fake to selling his first novel. Still, when it was well received, he was so surprised that he couldn't mask feeling that he was an imposter. The book had been just good enough to become briefly popular. At signings or publisher-sponsored events he sensed that every bookstore cashier, stockboy, and janitor was pulling up stakes, impatiently watching the clock and tapping their toes, waiting to switch off the lights as he closed his bag and buttoned his jacket. When he couldn't write the second book, he gutted it, reformatted it and called it a screenplay. He made the rounds of writing conferences, vanity presses.
Waiting for a flight in the Dallas airport, he'd looked up from his newspaper and glimpsed the spitting image of her forty yards away. He'd run to catch the woman, never thinking for a moment that it wasn't Rene.
Then in the spring, she'd sent a birthday card, which finally caught up with him two weeks later and was delivered to his table tucked in the cleavage of a Hyatt cocktail waitress, whom he vaguely remembered sleeping with once.
The next month at a bookstore in Charlotte, he'd run into an old Duke alumnus. Rene, the friend said, was teaching at a college in South Carolina and was married to a pharmaceutical salesman. Another year passed. Then he'd received a second card. There was no mention of her separation from her husband, Hal, but a postscript noted that the she could soon be reached at the return address, her new apartment. He ran his fingers over the carefully formed letters on the card, folded it and tucked it inside his jacket.
Brice had called the police from his car phone, then waited, watching the digital minutes pass. He met the officer at the apartment door but didn't go inside again. He pointed to his car, said he'd wait there if that were all right. Arriving without blue lights or sirens, other cars parked out front. Officers smoked outside the door and talked in low voices. The neighbors slept.
At four o'clock, Brice watched as a policeman and a man in a dark suit and tie helped Rene's husband out of the apartment, supporting him at his elbows. The man had his hands over his eyes. He bent forward like a very old man with his hands covering his face. His legs had buckled, as if he might fold up like an accordion.
Brice wanted to drive away as soon as the officer had taken his name and told him he was free to leave. But his body was lifeless. He didn't know if he could lift his arms just now. He knew what would be coming out the door next, knew that he had to hold to the covenant of not looking. Still he could not drive away. He looked down from his window, down at the new, bright yellow paint that cleanly marked each parking space on the wet, black asphalt, and he thought of the men who painted them, men who spent their lives painting clean, straight lines.
When he parked outside his hotel, it was nearly morning, the sky a bruised pink wash. The gulls flew low over the smooth, calm water. Inside, the doorman, a young man who wore an earring and kept his long red hair tucked under his cap, recognized him. "Morning, sir," he said, giving Brice a conspiritorial wink. "Vampire's life is hell, ain't it?" he said, grinning in collusion.
Brice had sat through four bourbons at the Dallas airport that night long ago, thinking of calling and not calling. Then calling, only to get the machine. Then hanging up when Hal answered. Then after another bourbon, he called again.
She and Hal had just come in from dinner at a cafeteria, she told him. "There was this woman with her son," Rene said. "They were in front of us in the line. And the boy put his arm around the woman and said, 'I love you, Mamma.' The woman pushed him away, saying, 'Can't you see we're in public.' And the boy put his hand up to the woman's face, and she rapped him hard on his head. I couldn't watch it."
Rene took a deep breath. "And then you could tell that the boy was retarded. He put his arms around his mother, holding her, and she couldn't step forward in the line to get their food. She pushed him away, but he just kept pawing at her, and you knew that he just never stopped, and the whole time he kept saying in this small voice, 'I love you. I love you.' And he did. And she had to live with that every day. He really did love her. You could see it. I'm not saying this right."
In the silence, Brice realized how long it had been since he'd heard her voice.
"Just as she got the trays, the boy said, 'I have to go to the bathroom, Mamma.' The woman had tears in her eyes. She started back past us. And you could just tell that was her life. The boy put his arms around her, stopping her. He hugged her tight and smiled up at her. 'Happy Halloween, Mamma,' he said. 'Happy Halloween, Arnie,' his mother said."
For a time neither of them spoke. Brice remembered the silence, the tears. Soon he could hear her quietly sobbing. And he knew, holding the booth to steady himself, that he wouldn't find the words to ask her, or to tell her. And it was in that way that it ended.