Do you remember that late-’80s/early ’90s TV series called thirty-something? If you do, you’re what I like to call “a certain age.” And that’s the title of my collection of short stories about aging: A Certain Age. There are ten stories altogether, and they’re about what it’s like to be fifty-something, or sixty-something. Some of the stories are humorous; some are dark; some are hopeful–just like the aging process. Here are four excerpts from A Certain Age, and one complete story, “Mama’s Day,” which was published some years ago in The Dead Mule. If you like what you see, please leave a comment.
Excerpt from “The Way Home”
The Way Home
He’d put in a jazz CD as soon as they cleared the city, and it was turned up to a volume that indicated he didn’t care for conversation. Susan Bates needed no interpretation. After twenty-three years of marriage, Susan knew that if she tried to talk to Seth now, he’d just shut down. So she sat in silence, her mind running in circles from angry scenes between them ten years ago to the way he’d looked this afternoon, staring after Angela when she’d walked away. What was going through his mind? As well as Susan thought she knew him, she couldn’t say.
With bag and briefcase in hand, Susan had come around a corner in the lobby of the Reno hotel where she and Seth had been staying, to see him engrossed in conversation with a woman she recognized on sight but had never actually met. They were standing together at the central fountain, but before Susan could reach them, the woman walked away. Susan thought neither Seth nor the woman had seen her approach.
“What is she doing here?” Susan had asked abruptly. Startled, Seth looked away from the woman’s retreating figure.
“I saw her–what’s her name–the two of you, heads together.” Susan was aware that her voice was brittle, but she hadn’t the self-control at the moment to moderate it.
“Angela? She attended the conference. She’s teaching at a community college in Lake Tahoe now. She saw me and stopped to say hello.”
“It looked like more than hello,” Susan said, acerbically.
“I didn’t know she would be here,” Seth said. He sounded weary, discouraged, but not at all defensive, as she might have expected.
Susan wasn’t sure she believed him, but she let it drop. Such things did happen. “Did you check out?”
“Hmmm? . . . yes. I asked for the car to be brought around. It should be here momentarily.”
Aware of his distraction, Susan followed Seth out to the front of the hotel, where the car was indeed waiting. She supposed she couldn’t blame him; it must seem strange to see the woman you’d almost left your wife for, ten years later.
Seth, driving Susan’s new Prius, had negotiated the Saturday traffic through Reno’s work-in-progress interstate exchange and merged onto Interstate 80 east. They’d stay on the interstate until Winnemucca, where they’d veer north to Boise on U.S. 95. Sometimes it annoyed Susan that Seth always wanted to drive, whether they were using his old Forester or her car, but this time, Susan had been indifferent. She had too much to think about to keep her mind on the road.
Susan had not forgotten Seth’s affair ten years ago with a student, but it had happened so long ago, and there had been other drama and trauma subsequently, so that the pain of the affair had receded into the background of her memory. Seeing Angela today had dredged up that emotion. Angela had been a single mother in her early thirties raising two children alone. She’d engaged Seth’s sympathies, and then she’d tried to get him to leave Susan. When Susan found out about the affair, she’d been angry at first, and then she’d tried to see the thing rationally. Seth was having a mid-life crisis. That was all it was, and if she forgave him, he would stay with her, and their life together would resume its comfortable groove. So she had forgiven him, and he had broken it off with the other woman. Then had come her cancer diagnosis. It was easy to let the memory of the affair go quietly to sleep. But seeing Angela today had awakened all that anger and hurt. And the worst of it was that Susan could tell the encounter had disturbed Seth as well. He hadn’t spoken since they left Reno.
Memories of the time of the affair, when Seth had become distant, furtive, then angry in his guilt and shame for hurting her, came despite her unwillingness to entertain them. She remembered when he’d told her he was leaving her, and that he wanted a divorce. She had told him he was foolish, that he was allowing himself to become a stereotype, leaving his wife for a younger woman. She couldn’t recall everything they’d said to each other, but it had been painful. In end, he hadn’t left. He had moved briefly into the guest bedroom, but eventually reason prevailed, and Seth had ended the affair.
With a sigh, Susan pulled out the clip that held her salt-and-pepper shoulder-length hair out of her face, laid her head back against the head rest, and closed her eyes. When she became aware again of her surroundings, it was dark, and they were close to the Highway 95 turnoff.
“There’s a rest area about two miles further,” Susan said. “I need to stop.”
Seth nodded. As if he had been waiting for her to speak, he brought up a topic they’d discussed on the way down to the literature conference in Reno.
“You need to consider the benefits of moving to Florida,” Seth said. “Of course there’s the weather—no more nasty Idaho winters to contend with—but it would be a whole lifestyle change as well. All the beach time we want, sailing, fishing—we’d have much more time together if we both retired now.”
It was the same argument he’d been repeating for six months. Susan was tired of hearing it, but civility must prevail. “All compelling reasons to retire,” she said, “except for one thing. I don’t want to retire yet.”
“Why?” Seth asked as he always did. Then he added a new argument. “Think how much time you’d have to read and write. You could write that book about feminist literature you’ve been talking about for years.”
Susan did not want to talk about her book idea. After her last six-month sabbatical, during which she’d planned to research and write an outline for her book, and instead had only produced an article, which satisfied the terms of her sabbatical project but which was a major failure in her own eyes, the topic of her book provoked some considerable discomfort in her psyche. She was accustomed to finishing what she started, and now she was wondering if she had it in her to write a book.
“I’m just not ready,” she said finally, as she’d been saying for the past six months. Instead of letting the matter drop as he usually did, Seth persisted. “I would think that after what we went through with your cancer, you would be eager to retire.”
Susan had been diagnosed with breast cancer only a few weeks after the end of Seth’s relationship with Angela. Seth had been the most supportive husband imaginable. He’d faced the threat of double mastectomy without flinching. He’d stood by her through the lumpectomy which was ultimately performed instead, and the chemotherapy and radiation treatment that followed. He’d held her hand and her head while she vomited after each chemo treatment; he’d bought an electric razor and shaved her head himself when her hair fell out. Then he’d shaved his own balding pate. He’d bought her scarves and hats and a wig; he’d scouted out new restaurants and brought home tasty delicacies to tempt her lethargic appetite. For eighteen months, until her complete course of treatment ended, he’d been her rock, her anchor, her mainstay.
Despite this history, Susan was irritated. “What we went through? You didn’t have cancer. I did.”
“I was right beside you the whole time,” Seth returned. He sounded wounded.
“Yes,” Susan said, “you were.” Because you felt guilty for the affair, she thought but did not say. As soon as the idea was fully formed in her mind, she felt ashamed. Seeing Angela had definitely unsettled her. “I’m sorry.”
He said nothing more but she thought she detected some hint of sulkiness in his silence.
Seth had decided to retire at the end of the term, and since he’d filed all his paperwork with Human Resources at the beginning of the instructional year last fall, he’d been pressuring Susan to retire as well. He’d been teaching at Boise State for 25 years, Susan for 28. They had decent retirement plans and had made safe, solid investments over the years. They would be able to sell their home in Boise and buy a new home in Florida, smaller but near the beach, and live comfortably for the rest of their lives. It all sounded carefree and easy and the right thing to do, and everything in Susan rebelled. She had no desire to give up her position. Not that she was so terribly passionate about teaching after all these years, but a job was independence. A job gave a life some definition; at least, that was how Susan thought of her job. She was a professor. That was who she was. She was a 62- year-old American literature professor with dozens of articles in academic journals under her belt; she was an ardent feminist who had lived the principles of feminism all her life, steeped in the writings of the second-wave movement in the 60s and 70s. She’d fought for women’s studies and feminist literature classes at her university, had established degree programs and written curriculum. She wasn’t ready to give up all she had worked for, and she wasn’t sure she would ever be ready; whereas, Seth seemed eager to move on to a brand new life of leisure. She wasn’t sure how they would reach a compromise that suited them both.
Seth flicked on the turn signal for the right turn into the rest area. They’d stopped here on their way to Reno, but that had been in the daytime. Now, at night, the parking lot sized for semi trucks and RVs seemed dim and forbidding under the amber pole lights. The restrooms were set back away from the parking lot, with a large dark plaza in between. The first row of spaces was blocked off with cones and signs warning of surface disrepair, so Seth parked farther out in the lot. There was another car sitting off to the side, a darkened van.
“I don’t like this,” Seth said as he looked around. “It’s too dark. Places like this always make me nervous. Can’t you wait until we get to Winnemucca? It’s only *ten miles away.”
“No, I can’t,” Susan said. Menopause had wreaked its usual havoc on her bladder, and it had gone the way of all flesh. She got out of the car, shrugging into her blazer but leaving her purse inside. “Are you coming?”
Reluctantly, Seth got out and locked the car, then followed Susan across the parking lot and the plaza to the restrooms, which were fairly well-lit with yellow bug bulbs over the doors. The men’s and women’s restrooms stood opposite each other. Susan shivered. Spring nights were cold in the high desert, around 30 degrees, and there were still patches of snow under the *sagebrush that surrounded the rest area. “Brrr,” she said over her shoulder as she headed for the women’s door. “Let’s hurry.”
Inside the restroom, she did indeed hurry. It was so cold, she considered not washing her hands in what she knew would be freezing water, but sanitary concerns prevailed. She was rubbing her hands briskly under the cold air of the hand dryer when she heard odd noises. It sounded like shouting, but she couldn’t be sure. Rubbing her half-dry hands on her trousers, she shouldered out of the door. Outside, she could indeed hear shouting. It was coming from the men’s room. She stepped closer, but all she could hear was a confused sort of rant, and Seth’s voice saying in a panicky way, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t do anything to you.”
“Seth?” she called. “Is everything okay?”
He didn’t reply, and she heard scuffling sounds, and a grunt.
Susan didn’t stop to think. She flung open the door so hard it bounced back onto the wall. “What’s going on here?” she said in the deep, authoritative schoolteacher’s voice she’d used so effectively for 30 years to deal with unruly teenagers who were just figuring out that college was different than high school.
A big, shaggy, burly man in his thirties, dressed in a ragged blue sweater and grimy jeans, spun around. The man had backed Seth up against the sink, but in the shock of the door banging open, and hearing Susan’s voice, he let go of Seth’s shoulder, his mouth hanging open, his eyes frightened. Seth dodged around the big man, shouting “Run! Call 911!”
Excerpt from “The Gift”
I’ve never learned how to flirt. Maybe that’s where the whole thing went wrong.
I reached the elevator bay just after the man did. My mind was on the rain, and my leaky leather shoes, and how cold it would be in the classroom today, and I didn’t notice anything about the man other than the fact that he was male and had pushed the “up” button. I wrestled my rolling briefcase behind me and reached out to push the “down” button.
“I say up, and you say down,” the man said with a chuckle riding in his deep voice. The hint of an accent caught me. Australian, I thought. I smiled, turned to look at him, and my brain clicked right off. I swear I heard that sneaky little snick. The man was utterly gorgeous—tanned, his streaky blonde-brown hair curling around his ears and neck under the damp bush hat he wore. He stood about six feet tall, with a strong build packed into faded blue jeans, work boots, and a rough jacket. Of course, the fact that my brain had disengaged did not stop my mouth from opening and committing folly.
“I say tomato, and you say tomahto.” As soon the words were out I wanted them back.
But he smiled and said, “Probably that too.” The accent was stronger, and I was dying. His face was to die for: high cheekbones, straight nose, strong jaw, warm blue eyes crinkled at the corners from sun and laughter. My knees went weak.
“Actually,” I stuttered, “it’s a line from an old song. I’m not sure why it popped into my head.”
“Ah.” He nodded in comprehension. “Louis Armstrong? Ella Fitzgerald?”
“I really have no idea who sang it,” I said with customary honesty. “But I think it’s from a musical.” Just then the elevator doors opened.
Completely flustered, I started to get in the car, but when I looked up at the indicator lights, I saw that the elevator was going up. “Oops! This one’s yours,” I said as I got out of his way.
He stepped into the car, then held his finger on the “door open” button. “You could always ride this one up and then back down,” he said.
This was perfectly true. There were only four floors in the building, and we were already on the third. “I suppose I could,” I said slowly, while he stood there holding the button. But I didn’t move.
“You’ll probably just catch this one going down anyway,” he pointed out reasonably.
“Probably,” I said. But I just stood there. Not only had brain disengaged, body was paralyzed by the realization that this man might actually be flirting with me. Me! Divorced, a bit too plump, middle-aged, soon-to-be grandmother me. I’m no hag, mind you, but still. The very idea was unfathomable. My overtaxed brain said, wrong, wrong, WRONG! but my body knew better. I was tingling in every nerve, a reaction to something coming from him and sparking in me. You know that feeling. It’s communication on a basic level that never lies. But I couldn’t have put all that into words at that moment. I was too caught up in whatever was happening, and too baffled by it to even react.
When it became clear that I wasn’t going to get into the elevator, the man released the button. He smiled at me one last time as the doors slid shut, as I stood there kicking my own ass as hard as I could, something I’d learned in my thrice-weekly exercise class. I was still swinging away, first the right leg, then the left, when the elevator came back down. I half-hoped he’d be in it, but of course, he wasn’t. I got in and could smell him, clean soap and a hint of wood shavings, perhaps? It was a distinctly male smell which I drew deep into my lungs as I rode the car down to the first floor and went on to class.
I was unusually distracted in English 101 that day, but my students took it well. They are a good group—a mixed bag of eighteen-to-twenty-year-olds and a few older women returning to school after mid-life crises of one sort or another. Normally, I share bits and pieces of my life with them to build rapport, but this time I hugged the elevator incident to myself like some prize secret. Of course, I did have to email an account of the encounter, replete with self-recrimination for my idiocy, to my best friend as soon as I got back to my office. “Let’s have lunch,” she wrote back. “We need to talk!”
Anna and I became friends when I took the job at the college six years ago. Anna teaches history at the same school, but we met by chance in a poetry workshop at a local library. I started writing poetry after my divorce as a way to purge all the emotional overload I was trying to deal with, and Anna writes historical poetry. We hit it off immediately. She’s younger than I am by about six years, and she’s beautiful. She has long, wavy dark hair and deep brown eyes. She’s short, and she complains about her figure, but men seem to like her generous, heart-shaped butt well enough. She broke up with her long-time lover about a year ago, and she hasn’t lacked for male companionship since.
I met Anna at the little café off campus where we usually lunched once or twice a week, depending on our schedules. We both had a two-hour break between classes at 1 o’clock on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so it was convenient for both of us to get away from campus. We ordered soup and salad, were served, and then Anna got straight to it.
“Laura, it’s time you took yourself out of mothballs and started dating again. It’s been six years since the divorce. You need to get yourself out there.”
I swallowed the mouthful of salad I was chewing and put down my fork. I had known exactly what Anna was going to say. She’s been saying the same thing for at least two years. And I always said the same thing in response: I’m not ready yet. But today, something was different. “I know,” I told her, and watched her eyes widen. “I think—I think I finally want to.”
“Yes!” Anna pumped her fist in the air like a quarterback who’d just thrown a touchdown pass. “That elevator guy really woke you up, didn’t he?”
I’d been thinking of him as “The Australian,” like a character from a bad romance novel. But I found that preferable to “elevator guy,” which came nowhere near describing the impact he’d had on me. Still, I didn’t quibble with Anna. “Yeah,” I said, “he did. He really did. But . . . .”
Anna rolled her eyes. “Oh boy, here it comes. I knew this new attitude was too good to be true.”
“Hear me out,” I said, willing her to be the sympathetic friend I knew she could be. I knew that Anna really loved me, and I also knew just how frustrated she’d been over my behavior the last few years. She’d tried coaxing me out of my shell (suggesting coffee dates with this or that single professor at school); then she’d tried forcible prying (a disastrous blind date with a friend of her man’s); then she’d started giving me self-help books: Diving Back Into the Pool: Dating after Divorce in the New Millennium was one memorable title. And finally, when none of that had had the desired effect, she’d subsided to silent disapproval of my solitary life. I don’t mean to imply that Anna was in any way unsupportive, but I’d known that she thought I was taking too long to recover from a bad divorce.
“I do want to start dating again, but Anna, it’s been so long. I’m pudgy and frumpy and who would want to go out with me, let alone . . . .” I lowered my voice. “I haven’t had sex in so long, I’m not sure I remember how. And the thought of getting naked with a man again–” I shook my head, unable to continue.
“Hold on,” Anna said. “Let’s take one fear at a time. First, you aren’t pudgy. I don’t think you’ve looked at yourself in the mirror in a long time, I mean, really looked. You’re looking pretty damn good, girlfriend. You’re toned, and you’re not overweight anymore. And it’s like you’re always telling me, men like curves. You’ve got ‘em. So don’t use that as an excuse. As for frumpy,” she mused, narrowing her eyes at me, “that’s just wardrobe. That pants and shirt and jacket are fine for school; you look exactly like what you are, a diligent professorial type, but for dating, you do need some new clothes. We can take care of that this weekend. Saturday afternoon?”
I nodded. I had nothing else to do except grade papers. I knew she was right, at least about the clothes. As for the curves, well, the proof would be in the pudding, to use a tired cliché, something I always told my students to avoid, but which seemed appropriate here. I wouldn’t know if men found me attractive unless I put myself in a position to see. And at least one man had found me attractive, I thought. The Australian. Unless I had completely misread the signals and my own body’s response, he’d liked what he’d seen. I’d gotten the feeling that he liked me, and that’s what I was looking for, ultimately. Not a one-night stand, but a man who liked me, who liked my company and wanted to spend time with me. At some point, I wanted happy-ever-after, but I cautioned myself not to expect too much, especially at first.
Anna had been entering our shopping trip into her smart phone’s calendar. She put the phone back into her bag, and reached out to lay a hand over mine. “As for sex, Laura, it’s like riding a bicycle. You know that saying, once you learn how, you never forget. If the connection is there, and you’re feeling it, sex will be easy, I promise you. Just wait for it to be the right guy. Don’t push yourself into sex because you think it’s time.”
I raised my eyebrows at her, surprised. “I thought you’d be telling me to jump the first guy that would have me! You know, like when you fall off a horse, you’ve got to get back up and ride.”
She smiled but shook her head. “For you, I think it’s got to be a guy who makes you feel like you just have to have it, with him, or die. If it’s not like that, I’m afraid you might just give up altogether on making a new life for yourself.”
I thought of Jane, my department’s administrative assistant. She was in her early sixties, only a decade older than me, but she seemed almost elderly. A widow for fifteen years, she had never had another man in her life. When her husband had died suddenly, she’d put on widowhood and worn it unceasingly until it ultimately defined who she was. I’d heard Jane’s story, had felt sorry for her, and definitely didn’t want to become her.
I shuddered involuntarily. These waters were filled with hazards. I couldn’t see beyond the next wave, but I thought that if I could just take each one as it came, maybe I’d be okay.
That night, I called my daughter. Katy had married a year previously, and she was expecting her first child, my first grandchild, in a couple of months. We kept in close touch by phone because Katy and David had moved to Denver, a hundred miles away from me in Cheyenne, about a month before. We chatted about how she was feeling, how her new job as a dental hygienist was going, how David was doing in his internship at Denver Health. When she asked what was new with me, I told her about My Australian. Yes, I’d begun thinking of him in those terms, embarrassing as it is to recount this.
But I’d been having some doubts about my assessment of the incident. He probably flirted with everyone estrogenic. Why would he have been interested in me? When I posed this question to my twenty-two-year-old daughter, she said, “Because you’re cute and funny, Mom.” Sure, those are good reasons. I told her what Anna had planned, the shopping trip to outfit me for dating.
Katy thought this was a good idea. “Anna will see that you buy some things with style,” she said. “What’s the next step?”
Anna and I hadn’t gone beyond the shopping trip in our planning, but if I knew Anna, she already had something up her sleeve.
“I’m not sure, honey. I have no idea how to go about meeting men. Maybe I’ll try one of those online dating services.”
“Okay . . . .” She sounded doubtful. “What about the old-fashioned way, meeting men at clubs?”
I laughed. “Oh no, I don’t think so. I’ve never been much for clubs and bars. You know that. That’s your father’s scene.” And as soon as I said it, I knew I shouldn’t have. Katy loved her father and was still in contact with him. She didn’t approve of what her father had done to me, but he was still her dad.
I tried to smooth over the awkward silence. “How is your dad? Everything okay with him?” I asked nonchalantly. I hadn’t spoken to Stewart in four years and didn’t care to. I wasn’t sure I could ever forgive what he had done to me, trading me in for a younger model, literally, after I’d supported him through med school, a protracted residency program, and finally the establishment of his own plastic surgery practice in Las Vegas. After seventeen years of what I’d thought was a good marriage, he’d met a model-slash-aspiring actress in a Vegas nightclub and dumped me like a hot potato. I should have known better than to marry a plastic surgeon, but we’d been young and in love, I with a brand-new K-12 teaching certificate and he just starting medical school. I still blamed him for Katy’s hasty marriage at twenty-one, believing that our divorce had sent her looking for the stability that had been jerked out from under her when her dad left me. But David seemed like a good man, and thank God, he was interested in trauma, not plastics.
“Dad’s fine.” Katy hesitated. “Christie’s pregnant, Mom. I thought I should tell you.”
I was silent for a moment, thinking about how this news made me feel. I’d wanted another child, very much, but Stewart hadn’t. Katy had been an accident, conceived despite diaphram, and Stewart had seen the pregnancy as an inconvenience. He loved Katy when she was born, but her presence had intruded into his concentration on his studies and work. He was adamant that another child would put too much strain on his time and the family finances while he was in school and residency and trying to establish a practice. And I gave up what I wanted to make him happy, as I usually did. Katy was a wonderful, bright, loving child whose presence in my life was nothing but joy. Now Stewart was having a child with his beautiful new wife, and it was too late for me to have another baby, even if I found a man who wanted to commit to a long-term relationship with me. My child-bearing years were over.
But contrary to what I expected, I wasn’t angry with Stewart. I didn’t feel jealous of his happiness. I didn’t really care what he did now, one way or the other. My resentment toward Stewart seemed to have dwindled away when I wasn’t paying attention. Maybe it was because I felt on the cusp of a new life myself, or maybe I had finally gotten past the feeling of utter betrayal, but whatever the reason, I wished Stewart and Christie and their new baby well. I told Katy this.
“I’m glad, Mom. I feel a little weird about it. My baby is going to be just a little older than my new half-brother or sister. He’ll have an aunt or uncle younger than himself.”
“So you think it’s a boy?” I asked, leaving the subject of Stewart’s baby behind. The rest of our conversation was pleasurably centered around Katy’s expectations and plans for her own child. As we said goodbye, she asked me to let her know how the dating project went. I thought that was a good way to look at it, as a project. Maybe then I wouldn’t feel so frightened inside every time I thought of trying to meet the right man and establish a relationship.
When I went to bed that night, I had sexy dreams in which My Australian figured prominently. I woke up feeling aroused, actually turned over in bed and reached out my hand to the man I was sure was sleeping beside me, only to find the other side of my queen-sized bed cold and empty. When I parked my car in the college lot that morning, when I left my office for my first class, when I approached the elevator, all the time, I was looking for My Australian. I had not even a glimpse of a bush hat in the distance. I emailed Anna to tell her about my search.
“Maybe you should consider elevator guy a gift from the universe on a rainy day,” she wrote back. “Maybe the universe knew you needed a wake-up call.” Anna was a new-age gal, full of wisdom from the universe, but I could see that she had a point. The man had sort of dropped into my life, shaken me awake, and then disappeared, almost as if some beneficent ruling deity had planned it so. But that didn’t stop me from dreaming about My Australian every night, and looking for him every day at work.
I kept up the lookout for several days, but when by the end of the week I hadn’t seen him, I decided that I’d missed my chance for glory, whatever that might have been, and tried to take the loss philosophically. He wasn’t for me. He wasn’t The Right Man. He was probably a womanizer. He was too good-looking not to be. He probably had a wife and six children. He probably kept women on the side. He was probably a bigamist! At that point, I knew I was sucking on sour grapes and made myself stop.
I couldn’t help wondering about him, however. Why was he on the third floor, which was largely given to faculty offices and a few departmental headquarters. The International Students office was on the third floor, but despite the accent, I didn’t think he was a student. And what business did he have on the fourth floor, amidst the offices of the college administrators and the human resources department? I knew he was neither an administrator nor human resources personnel. Then I remembered that Construction Management was also housed on the fourth floor. The college was in a construction phase, throwing up one new building after the other. The idea that My Australian might be in construction fit with his clothing and that hint of raw wood that had lingered in the elevator after he’d departed.
I started parking out by the new building, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, even though it meant walking twice as far to my office in the morning. I saw a few burly workmen now and again, but no one I could identify as the Australian man.
And so I gave it up, deciding that the gift of the universe had been sufficient unto itself, that anything more would have been anti-climactic. On Saturday, Anna and I went shopping. Katy had been right; Anna wouldn’t let me buy anything safe, dull, ordinary, or beige. She made me try on pretty, thin, floaty tops in blues and greens which she said flattered my auburn hair and green eyes, and which revealed the curves of my breasts with each flutter of breeze. She made me buy shorter skirts and a couple of flirty dresses with V-necks low enough to show just the top of my cleavage and fitted waists which showed off my newly-toned abs. And she insisted on a pair of heels, “fuck-me shoes,” she called them, which I absolutely had to wear, according to Anna, to dinner on The Big Date, which would be when I would surrender my long celibacy to some handsome, fascinating Mr. Right.
I was correct in my assumptions: Anna had more plans for me. She had lined up a double-date for Sunday. She and I and her new guy, Mario, and Mario’s friend Gavin, were all driving out to Vedauwoo Recreation Area in the Medicine Bow National Forest for hiking and a picnic lunch, and if things went well, maybe a casual dinner on the way back. I was to wear a cute little fitted turquoise tee she picked out, and a snug pair of new jeans. Over this, she said I could wear a zip-up hooded sweatshirt jacket if it was chilly, but I had to make sure I took it off before I met Gavin, so he could see my charms. Not that she said “charms,” but you get the idea. “We’ll meet at my house at 10 a.m. tomorrow, so make sure you get plenty of sleep. Don’t fuss with your hair—it looks sexy when you leave it curly and messy. Gavin’s going to think you’re hot.”
I really didn’t think many women in their early fifties would be considered hot, but I appreciated the pep talk. Anna had told me that Gavin had been divorced about a year before. He was about my age; Anna wasn’t sure exactly, but she said it wouldn’t matter if he was a year or two younger, because I didn’t look my age at all. Having friends like Anna is a comfort, but one wonders if they really see clearly through the lens of close friendship. But I had determined to take this course of action, and while I had trepidations, I was bound to see it through.
Gavin turned out to be a good-looking man, with thick, dark hair and blue eyes, but with a hard edge to his features, a long thin nose and a wide thin mouth. He had a big smile full of very straight, white teeth. He’d probably had orthodontia as a child, and obviously some recent teeth-whitening treatments. I thought the color of his teeth was amazing considering that he was a smoker. Strike one. But he was considerate about not smoking in the car. Of course, he lit up as soon as we arrived at Vedauwoo, but he made sure the smoke drifted downwind from the rest of us.
During the trip, I’d learned a bit more about Gavin. Anna had told me that he was an engineer who worked for the city planning department. I tried to engage him in a discussion of his work and projects, but all he wanted to do was talk about his ex-wife. What a “slag” she was; how she’d taken him for all he was worth, how she’d talked so bad about him to all her friends. They didn’t have any children; I got that much out of him before he went back to slamming poor Donna again, like a pioneer child ringing the schoolhouse bell. That’s how I came to think of Gavin’s ex during that forty-minute drive up to Vedauwoo: Poor Donna. What she must have put up with for the ten years of her marriage to Gavin. I couldn’t honestly blame her for leaving him and taking whatever she could get. Strike two.
“Anna!” I wailed. We’d escaped to the restroom as soon as we got out of the car at the picnic area.
“I know,” she said, hugging me. “I’m sorry. He’s never like this when he comes to the house with Mario. I didn’t think he was perfect, but I thought he’d do as a starter guy.”
“Starter guy? He’s a real non-starter, as far as I’m concerned. What the hell is a starter guy?”
“You know, the whole starter-wife concept. Isn’t that what you were? Well, I thought Gavin could be a start-to-get-over-the-divorce guy for you, somebody to get your feet wet with, get you over the hump.”
We stared at each other, neither of us quite believing she had actually said “over the hump,” then we both collapsed in giggles. “Right,” Anna said, delicately patting the tears from beneath her eyes so as not to smear her mascara. “No dinner. Lunch, a quick hike, then back to town.”
We spent three hours or so at Vedauwoo, eating the picnic lunch Anna had packed, then hiking a trail around Central Vedauwoo. I asked if the Vertical Dance Performance would be held this year. Anna didn’t know, but we both wanted to see it if there was going to be a performance this summer. We had loved the 2009 and 2011 concerts. Gavin had heard of the Vertical Dance Performance but had never attended. He thought it was ridiculous for aerial performers to dangle off rocks in Wyoming. “This isn’t Vegas,” he said. Then he launched into a story about a trip he and Donna had taken to Las Vegas shortly before their break-up. I tuned him out. As far as I was concerned, anyone who couldn’t enjoy the artistry of the Vertical Dance wasn’t somebody I’d want to spend time with. Strike three.
When we got back to Anna’s house, I pleaded papers to grade and made a hasty exit, aided and abetted by Anna. Gavin didn’t look disappointed to see me go. For my part, never would be too soon to see him again . . . .
* * *
Excerpt from “The Blind”
“Nice day,” Lester said as he stretched his big body, cramped from sitting for hours in a flimsy folding chair. He and his buddy, Tate, had been out at the duck blind on the south shore of Muddy Lake since early that morning. When the weather had warmed up the day before, heralding a storm on the way, they’d decided to try to get in one last day at the blind before winter shut them down completely.
Tate surveyed the overcast sky, an inverted bowl that arced from pine-clad mountains on the west side of the valley to brushy, dry hills on the other, and agreed. He shoved his hands into his pockets and pulled out his HotHands handwarmers. “Guess I don’t need these today.” He tucked them away in the backpack with the Toasti Toes and the hi-tech thermal underwear his wife had given him for his birthday that year. “Think we’ll get any snow outta this one?”
Lester shuffled the cards and pondered. It had been bone-dry that fall, following a fearsome summer fire season. The lake was shrinking, and as a result, the blind was farther from the water than it had been when waterfowl season had opened in October. “Might snow. Might be it’ll rain instead though. Good either way. Reach me another beer, would you?”
Tate opened the cooler and pulled out two cans. Lester dealt the cards.
“How long’s it been since you checked those lines?” Tate asked as he made his first play.
“A while. I’ll take a look after this round.” Lester played his cards. A few minutes later, Tate said, “Gin,” and Lester totaled up their points in disgust. “You’re killing me here, Tater.” He heaved himself up out of the folding chair.
“Might as well go with you,” Tate said. “Can’t deal without you. Come on, Buster.” He snapped his fingers at the big yellow lab who lay curled up at their feet under the table.
Lester led the way around the blind. Constructed of scrub willow brush and camouflage netting, it concealed the card table and folding chairs from any ducks or geese that might happen to land on the lake in front of them. Neither Tate nor Lester was an especially energetic bird-hunter. Their usual method of hunting was to sit up behind the blind, playing cards and shooting at any birds that chanced to fly over. So they wouldn’t get skunked and have to endure the ridicule of their wives, they also threw a couple of catfish lines in the water and shared out whatever they caught or shot.
“Amanda was going to your house today,” Lester said as they picked up their poles and reeled in.
“I guess they’re making doo-dads for the church bazaar. Cindy’s Aunt Matilda was coming over too.”
“That old battleaxe,” Lester snorted. He’d had a recent run-in with Matilda and didn’t relish the memory. “Mandy’s trying to drag me to the Christmas social.”
Tate shrugged. “Might.”
“Yeah.” Lester figured he didn’t have to tell his friend he’d already given in. “My bait’s fine. The extra cornmeal and flour seems to be holding the rotten fish guts and moldy cheese together pretty good.” All the past year, Lester had been conducting a running experiment on the best baits for catfish. He cast out and hooked his pole into the aluminum holder stabbed into the dry, cracked mud of the lake’s shoreline. “Women,” he said, shaking his head as he lumbered back up the slight rise to the blind. “You just can’t figure ’em.”
Tate groaned ruefully as he followed. “That’s a fact, B. L. T. You wouldn’t believe how hot Cindy got her water the other day, just because I gave her a Mrs. Tea for her birthday.” He picked up the cards and shuffled.
“Yes, I would, buddy. I got Amanda a crockpot last Christmas, because the old one gave out on her, and she damn near pitched it at my head after she unwrapped it. She’s already spittin’ mad at me about the day after her operation. If I don’t think of something good this year, I might as well start practicing my John Henry for the divorce papers.” Lester studied the cards in his hand as if they held the answer to his problem.
Tate avoided the subject of Amanda’s operation and his buddy’s lapse, and just shook his head. “What the hell do they want, is what I’d like to know.” He popped another beer, chugged half of it, and craned his neck to look down at the dog. “You got any ideas, Buster?”
Buster whined softly and laid his head on Tate’s knee. “See, even the dog doesn’t know, and I swear to God, B. L. T., this is the smartest damn dog I ever had.”
Lester shrugged as Tate dealt. “According to Danny, they want lingerie.” Lester shuddered as he spit the word out in three separate syllables, as if it were a slug of skunked beer. Danny was Lester and Amanda’s second son, who’d just gotten married that summer. Lester couldn’t imagine anything worse than having to buy lon-jer-ay for a woman, and couldn’t believe the son he’d raised would actually do such a thing. The very idea of it stuck in his craw and made him feel queasy. But the memory of his wife’s pale face in the hospital bed, the way she’d turned it away when he’d crept shamefacedly into her room three days after her hysterectomy some eight weeks ago, made him feel worse. Without being able to put it into words, Lester knew he’d lost something of his wife that day. He’d do anything, well, almost anything, to put things right with Mandy.
“What does Danny know? He’s only been married five months,” Tate said scornfully. Then there was a whirring sound, and Lester sang out, “Geese off the water!” Both men dropped their cards and reached for their shotguns.
* * * * *
“I’m sorry we have to do this in the kitchen,” Cindy apologized. “I went out to the shed last night, but I couldn’t find my card table anywhere.”
“Don’t worry over it, honey.” Matilda settled her long, spare body onto a kitchen chair. “The light’s probably better in here than in the living room anyway.”
Amanda picked up the scissors and began to cut red felt. “You might ask Tate if he took the table to the blind. That’s where Lester took my old folding chairs.”
Cindy rolled her eyes in exasperation. “I should have thought of that myself. I swear I’m glad waterfowl season doesn’t last any longer. Seems like Tate and Lester spend all their spare time out there in that blind, calling each other silly nicknames. What grown man would want to be known as ‘Tater,’ for heaven’s sake!”
“‘Tater’ isn’t any worse than ‘B. L. T.’ You know, if they didn’t come back with muddy boots and some fish or ducks once in a while, I’d think they were sneaking around on us.” Amanda kept her eyes on her scissors, carefully turning them around the points of the star.
Matilda shook her gray head. “Honey, those two would no more fool around on you girls than the moon would decide to stay full a month. They just need some man time.”
Cindy flashed a smile at Amanda, amused at being called girls at their age, but Amanda didn’t look up from her work. Of course, to Matilda, Cindy’s aunt, fifty was young. Matilda was an energetic, seventy-year-old widow, but a senior citizen just the same. Matilda and Ben Foster had been married nearly fifty years when he’d passed on.
Cindy said, “Aunt Matilda, how’d you handle it when Uncle Ben wanted to go fishing or hunting all the time?”
“Well, honey, a friend of my dear departed mama took me under her wing right after I married my Ben. She told me that the way to a man’s heart wasn’t through his stomach, as the old saying goes, because most of them will eat about anything if they don’t have to cook it themselves. It was through his hobbies. If I wanted a happy marriage, I had to give my husband some time to himself once in a while, and act like I liked it. She also said that sooner or later, I would like it when he took off by his lonesome. She was right.”
Cindy chuckled, but noticed that Amanda didn’t respond. “I guess she was.” Cindy snipped off a length of silver rickrack. “If the men weren’t out at the blind, we wouldn’t be here, enjoying ourselves without them.”
“But what can they find to do out there for hours at a time in the cold?” Amanda wanted to know.
“Tate said he won five bucks off Lester last time they went out. From what I can gather, they play cards, drink a six-pack, watch the dog retrieve sticks if there’s nothing else to fetch.” Cindy shrugged, losing interest in the topic. “Just guess what Tate got me for my birthday last week.”
“I get to go first,” Amanda said, looking up for the first time. “A sexy new nightie.”
Cindy chuckled. “Not even close,” she said, shaking her head. “Your turn, Aunt Matilda.”
“All right, let’s see. Tate’s a smart-enough man, but he’s not real woman-wise. I’ll say he got you something for the house, because that’s always what they think of first, but what?” She glanced around the kitchen with sharp blue eyes. Her gaze alighted on the countertop that was crowded with small appliances. “That teapot contraption over there. That’s new. I’m guessing that’s what Tate got you for your birthday.”
Cindy groaned. “Can you believe it? All I needed was something else to clutter up this kitchen. Last year, he got me an Iced Teapot; the year before, it was a Mr. Coffee with a timer. I think the year before that, it was the food dehydrator I’ve never used. Tate likes it for his venison jerky.”
Amanda sighed. “Lester got me a new crockpot last Christmas. That was bad enough, but what made it worse was that I’d told him if I got another crockpot, I wanted one with a removable crock, because they’re easier to clean. Did he listen? He got me exactly the same kind I’d had before. I was so mad. And he’s always falling for those TV ads. He ordered a static duster set for me last week, because the commercial said, ‘But wait! There’s more! You can get all three for just $13.95!’ You wouldn’t believe what they charged for shipping and handling.”
After they’d shared a good laugh, Amanda confessed, “I still haven’t decided what to get Lester this Christmas. I’ve been so mad at him; I haven’t even been thinking about Christmas.”
“What is it, honey?” Matilda laid her gnarled, work-worn hand with its surprisingly beautifully-long fingers over Amanda’s. “Are you still upset about Lester’s snoot-full after your surgery?”
Amanda nodded, tears in her eyes. “I was just so hurt that he’d go out and get drunk afterwards and not even show up the next day. I was pretty much out of it that second day because of all the drugs they had to give me for the pain and the unexpected bleeding, but still . . . he could have at least been there to hold my hand.”
“I gave him a piece of my mind about that the day after it happened,” Matilda said. “You never saw a more hangdog look on a man’s face. I believe he was scared to death he was going to lose you, honey, and he just had to blow off some steam. He didn’t mean to hurt you that way.”
Cindy got up to make a pot of tea in her Mrs. Tea maker. “I think Aunt Matilda’s right, Mandy. Tate said when he found Lester at the bar, he was practically sobbing in his beer. But he could have at least apologized, and tried to make it up to you with some flowers, or something. I told Tate he should have suggested it.”
Amanda sighed. “That’s just not Lester’s way. And that’s not really the worst of it. I’ve been thinking lately that since the surgery, he’s stopped seeing me as a woman. He’ll hardly look at me any more. I don’t know what to do.”
Matilda gave Mandy’s hand a final squeeze and picked her scissors up again. “Don’t you worry, honey. That man loves you. He’s just got to deal with his shame, and that’s a big pill for a man, any man, to swallow.”
* * *
Excerpt from “Just Drive On By”
“Goddamn it, Charlie!”
Loretta marched across the line of gas pumps where her man was refueling his new pickup truck. The heels of her red, kick-ass cowboy boots clicked like claws on the asphalt.
Charlie winced a little. She was supremely pissed this time. He knew he wouldn’t have to ask what was wrong when Loretta was on a tear.
“What damn good is this thing if you’re going to drive so fucking fast you’re out of range?” She shook the walkie-talkie at him like a fist. “What if I’d broke down? You’d never know—barreling on like I wasn’t even back there somewhere. Why the hell did you even give me the radio if you’re going to get that far ahead?”
Charlie knew he’d gotten carried away, wanting to see how his new truck performed on the wide-open road. “Was the Mustang giving you problems?”
“Problems? I’ve been trying to call you for the last hour to tell you I had to stop and pee!” If the air had been colder, Charlie was sure he’d be able to see steam pouring out of Loretta’s ears.
Charlie sighed. Loretta’s temper wasn’t exactly hair-trigger, but she did tend to smoke a while once she’d fired. He was sorry his enthusiasm for his new truck had put a damper on the trip. They’d been having a good time, and Charlie had reason to believe Loretta would welcome the change he was about to propose in their relationship. They’d driven down to Vegas together from Reno two days ago in Loretta’s ’75 Ford Mustang. Charlie had promised his old truck to his son, Chuck, who had shopped around on the internet for his dad to find the best price on a new Chevrolet. It so happened the best cash deal in two states was in Vegas, so Charlie and Loretta had come down to pick up a brand-spanking-new, shiny, black Chevy. He’d treated Loretta to a nice weekend in her old stomping grounds. They’d stayed at the Gold Coast Casino, taken in a show–one of the better Elvis impersonators–ate every dinner at the buffet, and played the slots until the wee hours two nights running. He’d bankrolled the whole deal and done it up right, he thought. The way Loretta had kissed him when they picked up the new truck that morning, the way she’d pressed her ripe body up against him to whisper her thanks for the weekend when the car salesman had gone in to get the truck keys, had his blood heating and his imagination drifting to home and bed and Loretta in one of those sheer baby-doll things she liked to wear sometimes when she gave him a private lap dance.
Still, a man couldn’t just up and admit he was wrong every time he made an innocent mistake. Charlie topped off his tank and turned away. “We said we’d stop in Beatty for gas. There’s no place to stop before that anyway.”
“I would’ve stopped by the side of the road and used the backside of a Joshua tree if I could’ve let you know. But I was doing eighty, and I couldn’t even catch sight of your tailgate. You said yourself this old car can’t handle that kind of stress.”
Charlie knew it was true—he was always telling Loretta she drove too fast, that her Mustang was a vintage machine and should be babied. And he had probably had been pushing eighty-five on the wide-open highway. It was a Monday afternoon in mid-March, and traffic in the desert was pretty much non-existent. But Charlie was a graduate of the School of Man whose cardinal rule was brief and to the point: Never apologize. So he tried a joke instead.
“Aw, babe. I was just trying to get far enough ahead of you to stop in for a quickie at the Wild Kat Ranch.”
He knew immediately it was the wrong thing to say. In her mid-forties, Loretta was holding up fairly well with the aid of girdle-tight jeans, underwire bras, and Clairol, but Charlie knew she was getting just a bit worried about her sex appeal. He tried on a shit-eatin’ grin, which sometimes worked with Loretta. Not this time.
She threw the hand-held radio at him. He barely caught it before it broke his nose. “Go on. Take off. See if I care if you stop off at a brothel. But if you break down in the desert, Charlie, watch me just drive on by.”
She turned and marched off across the asphalt, headed for the bathroom inside the station.
“Fine! I’ll be watching from the Wild Kat Ranch,” he yelled at her backside. In spite of himself, Charlie admired the angry swing of her fine ass in those tight jeans. Then he noticed the amused glance of the biker chick in black leathers refueling her Harley and the shocked looks from pop filling up the minivan and mom shepherding their brood of Mormon offspring around the parking lot. Damn it, when Loretta got him going, he lost all sense. Squaring his shoulders, he walked over to refuel the Mustang for her. Maybe it would soften her up when she found her tank full and the bill paid.
He had to put down the walkie-talkie to open the cap on her gas tank. He set it down on her bumper and reminded himself not to forget to pick it up again when the tank was full. Then he decided to leave the walkie-talkie inside on the front seat, because no matter how mad she was at him, he didn’t want to leave her stranded in the desert if anything were to go wrong with the Mustang. He’d be careful not to outpace her this time. They had a four-hundred-mile run to Charlie’s ranch outside of Reno. Charlie figured that would be time enough for even Loretta to simmer down.
He climbed back in his new Chevy and pulled out of the station just as Loretta exited the building. She was hard to miss in her tight red sweater and those flashy boots, her blond hair shining in the spring sun. He’d just get up ahead a bit—not too far, he reminded himself—let her cool off some before he buzzed her on the radio. He had a surprise for Loretta, and it was a whopper he thought would get him out of the doghouse better than six dozen red roses. He planned to spring it on her at dinner.
It was a beautiful spring day in the desert—blue sky, light breeze. He needed some music. Loretta had tried to convince him to get a CD player in his new truck, but he’d resisted. He didn’t need a CD player when he had a radio. Charlie found a station that played classic country, and although it faded in and out some, it didn’t matter much since he knew all the words anyway. Loretta liked the newer stuff that tried to pass as country music, but it wasn’t country to Charlie. All those pretty boys and girls with their big hair and nasal voices couldn’t hold a candle to Patsy and Hank and good ol’ George Jones. He hummed along with Johnny Cash and June Carter singing “Jackson,” and without realizing it, began to gain speed.
* * *
Loretta was steamed all over again when she saw Charlie’s new truck pulling out of the station. Finding her gas tank full mollified her only slightly. After all, it was Charlie’s responsibility to pay the freight on this trip. That was their deal. Finding the radio on the front seat just pissed her off more. Damned if she’d use it, or answer if he called. She settled her Diet Coke between her thighs and inserted another Shania Twain CD into the portable player resting on the passenger seat beside her.
To hell with Charlie, anyway, Loretta thought. For the first fifty miles or so of the homeward trip, he’d driven her nuts, beeping her on the hand-held every few seconds to tell her something about his new truck. “Hey, hon, you know what the temperature is outside? My rearview mirror thermometer says it’s seventy degrees!” Or “I don’t know if I like this lumbar support doohickey you talked me into. I can’t quite get it adjusted to suit me. If I turn it that way . . . no, it’s poking me in the back now. But if I turn it back the other way . . . nah, I can’t even feel it now.” Meaningless shit like that. She hadn’t been able to enjoy the drive or her music. She wouldn’t have tried to contact him on the damned walkie-talkie at all if it hadn’t been for the pressure in her bladder. As she pulled out onto the highway, she reached over and turned the little radio off. Fuck Charlie. She’d take her time, drive as fast or as slow as she wanted to, and enjoy herself.
Loretta wasn’t one for looking back. She didn’t regret her first marriage, although The Bastard had banged her around a bit before she’d finally left him. She’d learned how to take care of herself because of him. She didn’t regret not having children. From what she could see, Charlie’s kids were mostly a giant pain in the ass, like a hemorrhoid that never healed. She’d never wanted the responsibility of a family. She didn’t regret her ten-year career as an exotic dancer, though it hadn’t been her first choice. She’d once thought she might like to be a nurse, but then she’d married The Bastard right out of high school, and that had been the end of that idea. But she didn’t look back. She’d made some money, had some fun, and dancing had, in a roundabout way, given her Charlie.
Shania was singing about being a woman, and the bouncy melody and lyrics began to lift Loretta’s mood. Still, as she passed Angel’s Ladies a couple of miles outside of Beatty, a collection of ratty trailer houses set back from the road with an old, non-functional airplane out front for an attention-getter, she couldn’t stop herself from looking to see if Charlie’s truck was parked outside the brothel with the big semis. Shania was singing a different tune now: “Any man of mine better walk the line.” Damn right, Loretta thought as she slowed down and craned her neck.
When she didn’t spot Charlie’s truck, she hated the relief she felt. She’d sworn never again to be dependent on a man, never again to let one become too important. She and Charlie had lived together for five years, but she’d kept her own bank account, her own things, her own life. She ran a neighborhood bar in Reno, made a decent living. She stayed out at Charlie’s ranch, but she’d kept the small apartment over the bar that came with the job, just in case. She’d always kept an escape route, a holdover from the bad days of her first marriage. Even though Charlie wasn’t the kind of man she’d ever have to escape from, the habit was just too strong to deny.
Loretta had met Charlie in Vegas nearly ten years before, when she’d still been dancing. A widowed rancher on holiday–older than she by a decade–he’d wandered into the gentleman’s club where she worked. They’d hit it off, heated up the sheets a few times before he’d gone home. Loretta didn’t normally sleep with customers—she made her living letting men look at her body, but she’d never sold sex. That was a point of pride with her. But there was a sweetness about Charlie that tugged at her—something about his shyness as he’d offered her a twenty (not shoved it down her g-string) the first time she’d danced for him had hooked her. “Could I buy you dinner?” he’d asked softly, his weathered face red as he tried to keep his eyes above her pasties. She’d gone with him to a late supper in the neighborhood casino down the street from her apartment. In the next few years, she’d seen Charlie again, twice, when he’d spent long weekends in Vegas. Then, five years ago, when she’d decided that her dancing days were over and she’d moved up to Reno, she’d looked him up. He was still unattached, and they’d moved gradually into a steady relationship that neither of them seemed anxious to formalize. At least until now.
Loretta eased back a bit on the gas and hummed along with Shania, who was telling some guy that there was no way she was letting him go now that she’d found him. Loretta couldn’t help thinking of Charlie. When she’d kissed him that morning at the Chevy dealership, she’d felt the unmistakable outlines of an erection in his jeans and a small square box in his shirt pocket. She had a feeling she knew what that little box meant. Charlie was the traditional sort, and a box like that could only lead to one thing. Marriage. Loretta wasn’t quite sure yet how she felt about that.
Despite his jackass sense of humor, Charlie was a good man. Steady, responsible. A gentleman in a rough-hewn sort of way. The kind of man who’d stand up for his woman but never push her around. The kind who kept his word. The kind who’d fill your gas tank for you, even when you’d just chewed him out. She’d never told him she loved him, but she guessed maybe she did, after all. At any rate, she didn’t want to lose him. “I’m keeping you forever and for always,” Loretta wailed right along with Shania. She reached over and turned the walkie-talkie back on. Just in case he called.
* * *
Charlie passed Angel’s Ladies, the first brothel outside of Beatty, sedately. He wondered, as he always had, why the hell somebody would park an old plane in front of a brothel. Maybe it signified lift-off, Charlie thought with some chagrin. He’d once visited the Kit Kat Ranch in Mound House, outside of Carson City, about five years after his wife had died. But he’d felt awkward, like an old man, and he still shuddered at the memory of his lukewarm response to the whore.
Charlie shook off that humiliating memory and picked up some speed, surveying the cattle in the green, spring-fed pastures lining the highway north of Beatty. But even calf-counting couldn’t slow him down for long. The road curled before him like a beckoning finger. He stopped noticing the flat plains of sagebrush and the occasional boney bump of hill rising out of the desert. He saw the second brothel with its bright yellow sign and buildings, the Shady Lady, some time later, but whizzed on by it without slowing. He hadn’t meant what he’d said to Loretta. He didn’t play around, even though there were no formal ties between them. He really cared about Loretta, even admired her in a lot of ways. She’d had a tough row to hoe, but she’d made something of herself. Maybe a lot of people wouldn’t think much of an exotic dancer, but Loretta had taken care of herself just fine. She stood—well, make that danced—on her own two feet. And she was smart enough to know when to move on to something else. She ran her bar the way he ran his ranch. She rewarded good help and kept troublemakers out of her place. That mouth of hers made a bouncer unnecessary most of the time. She could usually move a drunk along before he got troublesome, but when push came to shove, she stood up. Charlie liked the way she wouldn’t take shit off of anybody, not even him. She was as different from his first wife as a woman could be.
Alice had been sweet as cotton candy and about as soft. She’d never talked to him like Loretta did. She’d died over ten years ago, and there were times he missed her still, but a man had needs, and Loretta satisfied his. Charlie’s son said he was pussy-whipped, and maybe he was. He didn’t really care, and figured some of his son’s feeling about Loretta was sour grapes. Chuck had never had much luck with the girls. Loretta was a fine couple handfuls of woman, and she suited Charlie right down to the ground.
Charlie knew Loretta’s temper, knew she’d settle down after a bit. As he climbed the south side of the pass that topped out in Tonopah, he thought about giving Loretta a buzz on the radio to see if she needed to stop, but then he reconsidered. She’d been pretty cheesed at him. He’d just give her a while longer, then he’d call her and see if she’d be ready for a bite to eat in Hawthorne.
The radio signal came back strong, and he was listening to Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” as he neared the Wild Kat Ranch with its white-columned front, a vain attempt to hide the fact that it was a trailer. He thought briefly about yanking Loretta’s chain by stopping—just pulling into the brothel’s driveway until he saw Loretta’s car appear and then pulling out in front of her. But he knew she wouldn’t appreciate the joke. She’d get pissed all over again, and he didn’t want to eat dinner alone. He drove on by.
* * *
Excerpt from “The Philosopher’s Stone”
He had everything to live for, and nothing left to lose. Not literally, of course, for in actuality, Dr. Henry Matthews had plenty to be lost. The problem was not that Dr. Matthews had lost everything he’d worked for in a lifetime of intellectual toil. The problem was that he’d lost himself.
He’d been on the faculty of his small college in Las Vegas for over thirty years, had been chair of the philosophy department for the past five. He had a loving and devoted wife in his Mary. They’d married, against all sage advice, when he’d been in graduate school in Kansas, pursuing his doctoral degree. Family, friends, colleagues, all had said the couple should wait until Henry had finished his degree. But Henry knew he’d found the one for him, and Mary felt the same. They’d had some hard times in the early years when full-time teaching jobs had seemed scarce as hen’s teeth, but they’d managed to survive. Mary had a liberal arts degree but found work as a secretary at one of the colleges where Henry taught night school part-time. With their first child on the way, Henry had accepted a full-time position at the College of Las Vegas, even though neither he nor Mary had particularly wanted to settle in the city then known for its connection with the mob. They thought at the time that they’d move on when they’d saved a little money and had better prospects, but before they knew it, they’d had two more children, and Mary had settled in with her church groups, her part-time work in the office at the children’s school, and her friends. Henry liked his situation at the college well enough to apply for tenure, and so they decided to stay. He’d bought a big lot in the now-desirable Northwest quadrant of the city when the land was dirt cheap and had had his large house built on cheap labor as well. Now, twenty years later, he was sitting on a real estate gold mine.
Henry and Mary’s three children, two girls and a boy, had married happily, and the couple now had six grandchildren and another on the way, with thirty-eight years of a mostly good marriage to their credit. Few of Henry’s colleagues could match his record for domestic tranquility, and his professional career was at its peak. As chair of his department, he was ripe for a post in upper administration, a deanship or even the upcoming vacancy as provost. The majority of his students seemed to like his classes, and he had the respect of his colleagues. He knew all of this, felt none of it. He knew that he had once loved Mary passionately, his children tenderly, but he couldn’t remember how that had felt. He couldn’t say why, when asked by his psychotherapist, he felt none of the satisfactions of his comfortable life. He only knew that, so gradually he had not realized what was happening, his life had lost all meaning.
He thought seriously about suicide. He lived in the suicide capital of the country. He could do as so many others did; he could rent a room in a hotel and blow his brains out there so Mary would be spared the mess. But that plan would require a gun. A lifelong pacifist, a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, a vocal proponent of stronger handgun laws in Nevada, he simply could not see himself even buying a gun, let alone loading it and pulling the trigger.
He thought about throwing himself off a tall building, but the tallest buildings in Vegas were casinos, and they carefully protected their rooftops, even the hotel windows purposefully did not open. He considered jumping off a cliff, but the only place he could think of that would be high enough to insure death was Cathedral Rock on Mt. Charleston, and he wasn’t in good enough shape to make the mile-and-a half climb at 9,000 feet of altitude to reach the top of the rock. Dying of a heart attack or stroke on the climb would work, but what if he didn’t die? What if he only managed to incapacitate himself so that Mary would be stuck caring for him for the next twenty years? He thought of a drug overdose, but the same problem applied. What if he didn’t calculate the proper mix and dosage of drugs, and he was left to linger in a vegetative state for years, a constant burden and reminder to poor Mary of his failure.
When he confessed these thoughts to Dr. Stiegman, his psychotherapist, the doctor adjusted his medications. Henry lost his suicidal thoughts, but he also lost all ability to feel anything, to do anything but move like a zombie through his days. He had to resign as department chair—he simply couldn’t keep up with the demands of the job, the complaints of faculty about their schedules and their students, the complaints of students about their instructors, the pressure from his dean to slash his department’s budget, to get everything done faster, to keep up for God’s sake. Henry couldn’t cope with any of it.
When the college, in some financially heavy weather, offered Dr. Henry Matthews a golden handshake and a brass plaque on a piece of fake wood for thirty-five years of service, he took it.
Within three months, he had signed all the retirement paperwork, sat through the obligatory retirement party, sold his Las Vegas house for a small fortune, and he and Mary had bought a cottage on a bluff overlooking the ocean in southern Oregon, near the California border. Mary and Henry’s son, David, handled the details of the sale and purchase of the new home. David, with his wife, Joan, and their three children, lived nearby, and David taught English at a branch campus of a large community college just over the state line in California. Henry and Mary had always discussed retiring to the coast, but when the time came, Henry didn’t care enough to make decisions about anything. He simply went along with what Mary and David arranged. “Whatever you want,” and “I don’t know,” were his responses when asked what he thought.
His long-suffering Mary had finally lost patience with him. “Fine,” she’d said. “I’ll make all the arrangements myself, and if you don’t like something, you’ll just have to live with it.” Henry said nothing. He had never told Mary how little he wanted to live at all.
It was August when they moved into the Oregon cottage, and the coast was locked in an unrelenting gray fog that Henry found perfectly comfortable and familiar.
The new house was small in comparison to their Vegas home, but adequate for their needs. Windows overlooked the sea in every room, and there was an attic artist’s studio which Mary turned into a library for Henry so that he could do the reading and writing he had never had time for while teaching. When he looked into that room on their first day of occupancy and saw the tall oak bookcases lining the walls, filled with the books from his campus office and his home study, he felt only the weight of Mary’s expectations. He sat in the library and looked through the sliding glass doors at the sea below, a pale gray-green that reflected the foggy air. The ocean was quiet, rocking gently. He got up and opened the door, walked out onto the small upper deck and down the stairs that led to the terrace below and the steel steps fastened to the rock of the bluff that exited onto the beach. He took the beach stairs carefully, for fog had slicked them with moisture. Here and there, the heavy metal steps and hand rails were twisted and bent, battered by waves and the logs they tossed onto the beach in the winter. The beach was a ten-mile-long curve of sand that began in California and ended in Oregon. He didn’t know what it was called and didn’t care. He only knew that he could walk for miles, hearing nothing but the sound of the surf and the cries of sea birds, and occasionally, the voice of a fisherman or the barking of a dog let off the leash. He could walk for hours and speak to no one, and no one would speak to him.
He considered wading into the water until it took him out beyond his depth, where he could just let go of breath and life. It would be simple, clean, no mess for Mary, and might even be perceived as an accident, which would spare her the pain he knew his suicide would cause. He pondered all this passively, as if he were considering whether or not to buy apples or oranges, a decision he cared nothing about. He took off his shoes and walked knee-deep into the surf, but the sea was cold, and the tugging of the sand under his bare feet as the water ran back to the breakers was too much like the feeling he’d had before he retired, trying to hold the philosophy department together, the sensation of being sucked into something that would smother him. As he hesitated, off-balance, a larger wave rolled in and soaked him from the thighs down, nearly knocking him off his feet. He retreated up the beach, scrambling away from the powerful waves. He walked away from the sea, back toward the cottage, knowing himself a coward and a failure.
But still the sea drew him back each day. It was like some huge beast, breathing and sighing and calling and moaning and roaring. The ocean reminded him that he was a small speck in a vast universe, an oddly comforting thought. Somehow, the great body spoke to him, and perhaps for him. He didn’t understand why he felt this way, except that he thought maybe it was comforting to feel insignificant, as if his actions did not matter, and yet he was not alone.
One day, walking aimlessly on the beach as he had done for some weeks, Henry saw a woman sitting in a drift of small rocks, stones smoothed by the tumbling of the waves and deposited in shallow heaps here and there along the beach. He’d seen drifts like this before without being aware of it, just as he knew that the beach was not flat, that it had hills and valleys, without being curious about how it got that way. Now the woman’s actions caught his interest, and he stopped for a moment, observing her. She was small and round, with dark blonde hair pulled back tightly under a floppy sun hat that shaded her features. She had a burlap bag, like an old-fashioned potato sack with a drawstring neck, by her side, and she repeatedly ran her hands over the drift of stones, pushing them away and pulling them back toward her. Occasionally she would pick up a pebble, sometimes holding it up to the light of the weak sun trying to burn through the fog. Sometimes she would put the stone in her sack, sometimes she would toss it away, out onto the crusty sand of the tide-line in front of her. Henry wanted to know why. He approached her.
“I beg your pardon?” he said politely in professorial tones.
She looked up, although something told him she’d been aware of him all along. She whistled, a piercing shriek, and the two massive German shepherds he’d seen cavorting in the shallow surf bulleted toward them. Henry took two steps back. The dogs halted beside the woman and growled. Their teeth were long and sharp and very white.
“Conan, Mako, sit,” she said. “Guard.”
Henry was completely taken aback. “I—I beg your pardon, madam,” he said again, his voice shaking with fear and indignation. “I only wondered what you were looking for.”
* * *
When dawn grayed the edges of the windows around the curtains, she knew it was time. She hadn’t slept, lying nearly motionless in the uncomfortable double bed where she’d been conceived forty years ago. Her husband, at a loss, had touched her shoulder the night before as they climbed between chilly, musty sheets.
“I’m sorry, honey. I don’t know how to comfort you.”
She’d shivered. “Hold me,” she whispered. “Just hold me.” And he had, all night.
But now it was time to wake her younger sister, sleeping in the living room with her own husband.
She lifted Evan’s arm and slid from his embrace without awakening him. The faded linoleum in the spare room was frigid against her bare feet. She tugged on socks and pulled Evan’s flannel shirt over her long nightgown. Avoiding the creaky places in the floor, she crept from the room, leaving the door open so the groaning hinges wouldn’t betray her. Evan wouldn’t like what she was going to do, but she wouldn’t let that stop her. She couldn’t.
In the living room on the hide-a-bed, her sister slept curled against the broad, bare back of her husband, Fred. Fred snored lightly while she gently shook her sister awake.
“Kid. Wake up. It’s time.”
Kid rolled over and groaned, opening her eyes and then shutting them again. “Sis? Go back to bed. It’s still dark outside.”
“No, it’s not. It’s time, Kid.”
It was Kid, younger by three years than Sis, who’d known what to do. Sis had resisted the idea when Kid first broached it, but then, finally, she’d accepted that this was the best way to pay their tribute to Mama. They would stand united at the funeral service today. Everyone would know how proud they were to be Mama’s children. All three of them, although there was no need for John for to participate in the ritual they had planned. Now that Sis had seen the light, she didn’t want to wait any longer. It was time to get started.
Kid’s breathing had taken on a deep regularity again. Sis shook her shoulder mercilessly. Kid sighed and threw back the covers. She sat up and swung her legs to the side of the bed. Sis averted her eyes from her sister’s plump nakedness.
“Jesus, Kid, put some clothes on.”
Kid yawned, then grinned her sleepy smile. “Mama would be rolling over in her grave right now to hear you talk so stuffy. If she was in it yet.”
Sis winced. “That’s not funny,” she whispered.
The three of them had come close to an argument about the burial, and it still stung. Sis had wanted a gravesite in commemoration of Mama’s life. John had insisted cremation would be easier. To Kid it didn’t matter either way.
“You can stare at the urn and remember her just as well as if you were staring at a plot and a hunk of granite,” their younger sister had pointed out. But then Kid had remembered a chance remark Mama had made years ago, back before her mind and memory left her. Kid had gone rooting in the cupboard where Mama kept her important papers, and sure enough, there it was, a funeral policy Mama had bought before she’d had her bladder tucked, just in case the anesthesiologist made a mistake or the surgeon’s knife slipped. Mama wanted a plot.
“Lighten up, Sis,” Kid whispered as she pulled on a ragged pair of hot pink sweats. “Stop acting like you’re going to a funeral.” She giggled at her own wit, and then frowned when her older sister turned away. Slinging her arm across Sis’s shoulders, she gave her a quick hug. “I’m sorry. I know you’re taking this hard. Come on.”
When they were safely ensconced in the second bathroom at the back of the house, the one their father had finally been persuaded to put in when he had to hire a housekeeper to help him take care of their mother in the final stages of Alzheimer’s, Sis faced her younger sister.
“I just don’t see how you can joke about this, Kid.”
When Kid flipped on the light, Sis flinched. In the glare from the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, her sister’s hair sparked like flame. “You look so much like her.”
Kid shrugged. “So will you when we’re done.”
Unembarrassed, Kid sat and used the toilet while her sister turned her back.
“Sis, I know you don’t like my attitude, but you weren’t here at the last. You didn’t see how weak she got. She just faded away, like her hair and eyes faded. All the color leached out. Her personality, her soul. That body was just a shell, Sis. Her spirit left a long time ago. I can’t mourn the loss of the shell, and I’ve already mourned the loss of her spirit.”
Sis turned when she heard the toilet flush. “But you don’t have to treat her death as if it were a relief to you.”
“But it is.” Kid gave her sister a smile and reached up to touch Sis’s cheek.
“For me, for Dad, for John, it is a relief. You’re the only one still hanging on to what’s gone. The rest of us see Mama’s death as a release from her suffering. For her, and for us. Today is a day to celebrate because she’s at peace now. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Sis shook her dark head. She wasn’t celebrating anything. This was about giving honor where honor was due. But the reminder brought her back to the task at hand. “Do you have everything we need?”
Kid nodded. “I got it yesterday at the drug store when Fred was buying ice cream for the kids. It was hot as blazes here yesterday, and it’s probably going to get hotter today.” Kid stretched her arms and shoulders, cracked her knuckles. “Okay, let’s get started.”
Kid gave her older sister instructions and watched to see that they were carried out carefully. Then she went to work with Sis sitting on the lid of the toilet. Her motions were practiced, swift, efficient.
Sis picked up the conversation where they’d left off. “It will be cool in the church. It’s always like that in summer.”
“Mmmhmm . . . .” Kid’s attention was on Sis’s hair and not her words. Sis closed her eyes and let herself relax.
“Remember how it was in the summers when we were kids, and we’d sit in church with Mama and fidget until she’d pull a head down on each of her shoulders, and then we’d doze off? Me on one side, John on the other, and you in her lap. She wore those nylon jersey dresses, remember? There was a purple one, a blue one, and a brown one. But never pink, even though it was her favorite color. She always said she couldn’t wear pink because it clashed with her hair. That’s why you and I were always in pink dresses.”
Kid laughed. “She wore those jersey dresses for years. I used to ask her why she didn’t buy new ones. ‘I like these,’ she’d say.” Kid shook her head. “I wonder if she really did, or if it was just the thrifty side of her nature. Remember how we used to tease her for washing tin foil, and she’d say she was part Scotch and couldn’t stand waste?”
Sis tried to swallow down her emotions. “She didn’t wear those dresses for ten years because she liked them so much, Kid. She wore them because she didn’t feel right spending money on herself. Daddy got new jeans whenever he needed them, and you and John and I had clothes for school, but she never had anything new for herself. Daddy always had some place else to spend what little money there was.”
They both knew that some place else was the tavern in town. That’s where you’d find J. D. Willis nearly any time he wasn’t working his fields. He always said a man who worked as hard as he did deserved a little relaxation. Sis had wondered for years what a woman who worked as hard as Mama did deserved.
“He paid for her new dress for the funeral,” Kid offered.
The irony of it was so bitter that for a moment, Sis couldn’t speak.
When she could, she thought it safer to change the subject. “How’s John taking it?”
Kid smiled, her hands moving deftly. Sis’s scalp was beginning to burn a little, and she hoped it wouldn’t be much longer.
“He’s doing okay. He told me something yesterday, before you got here, when I asked how he was. It almost made me cry, coming from him.”
“What did he say?”
“He said he gave Mama up three years ago, when he realized she was never going to get any better. You know, we all thought that there was some hope for a while, that if we worked with her enough, tried to keep her mind active and stimulate her memory, that she’d begin to remember things. But she didn’t, and when she got to where she didn’t know where she was most of the time, and didn’t recognize either of us a lot of the time, John said he gave her up. He said he’d been here visiting one afternoon, like he did nearly every day, and she didn’t know him. She talked, but he couldn’t make any sense of it. He said he realized his mother was gone. He said he went out in the yard, under the willow tree she planted, and had a good cry. And that was when he grieved for her.”
Sis was quiet, hardly able to imagine her brother weeping for any reason. The middle child of the three, John was so self-contained, so independent, so sure of himself. Sis had always imagined that Mama as a young woman had been a lot like John. That was before she finally decided to give up her independence at the age of thirty-one to marry J. D. Willis and start a family.
John looked like Mama, as did Kid, although Kid had certainly given the process a boost since Sis had seen her last. Kid had been born a blonde; John was a redhead, and both of them had inherited their mother’s body type. Short, comfortably plump, sturdy. Sis was dark with long, thin bones. She favored their father in looks. Never had she resented that fact more than she did today. But Kid was going to fix it for her. Kid knew what to do.
“Is this going to be done in time?” Sis couldn’t help worrying. It was her nature. “The service starts at ten.”
“Relax. I’ll have you fixed up bright as a new penny in plenty of time. Did you bring the dress?”
Sis picked at the dry skin on her lower lip. “I brought it. But I brought a black one just in case we changed our minds–”
“We’re not going to change our minds.”
“But what will people think?”
Kid shrugged. “What do we care? Mama would have gotten a huge kick out of it. That’s why we’re doing it. Okay, we can rinse you now and start on me.”
Sis followed Kid’s directions to the letter. At nine o’clock, there was a knock on the door.
“It’s Fred. I thought you girls could use something to eat.”
Sis opened the door cautiously to her brother-in-law and took the plate of toast he held in one hand, then the two cups of coffee. Fred’s gaze was mild.
“Thanks, honey,” Kid said around Sis’s shoulder. “We’ll be ready for our dresses in a little while.”
Fred, sweet, slow Fred, who had always reminded Sis of molasses, just smiled, nodded, and shut the door.
“What does he think of this?” Sis wondered.
Kid chuckled. “He’s used to my wild ideas. He just rolls along with me, slow and easy, like he does everything. That’s the best kind of man, the kind that takes everything slow and easy, you know?” Kid sent her sister a lusty wink.
Sis blushed. “You’re outrageous, Kid.”
“So are you, Sis. Take a look.”
Sis caught her breath when she saw her reflection in the mirror Kid had carefully kept her away from. “Oh my God. Oh, my sweet Lord, Kid. What have you done to me?”
“Made you look like Mama. That was the whole idea, wasn’t it?” Kid said cheerfully, vigorously toweling her own hair.
“But . . . but . . . .” Sis was nearly speechless.
“It looks good, Sis. It will just take you a while to get used to it, and remember, if you don’t like it, the color will wash out eventually. But that tone suits you.”
As Sis opened her mouth, Kid rolled right over her.
“Don’t argue with me now, I’m the expert. I’ll touch up your ends with the curling iron as soon as I get my hair dry. Then we’ll call Fred.”
Sis just stared at herself in the mirror while Kid calmly went about styling her own hair with the blow dryer. The uncanny thing was, she did look like Mama. The color Kid had added to her dark hair brought out hints of green in her hazel eyes that reminded her of the color of Mama’s eyes. The way Kid had parted and curved her hair around her face drew attention to her cheekbones and lips, features that she’d never noticed resembled Mama’s. When Kid turned off the hair dryer and stood beside her, Sis smiled. For the first time, she saw that she and Kid looked like sisters. They both looked like Mama.
Kid called Fred, and he brought their clothes to the door. Kid took them from him. Sis was still looking at herself in the mirror, trying to see all the differences changing her hair color had made.
“Evan’s going to have a conniption fit,” she said, shaking her head, and then she turned and looked at the dresses Kid had hung on the bathroom wall.
“No, he won’t. He might even like it. If he doesn’t, just tell him why you did it. He might not understand, but he’ll accept it. He loves you, Sis.”
Sis thought of Evan’s night-long embrace. “I know.”
“Here you go.” Kid moved to her sister’s side and handed over Sis’s dress. They stood shoulder to shoulder and stared at the effects of wild rose pink against deep flaming red and dark auburn.
For a moment, there was complete silence. Sis swallowed. She should be horrified; she should see this as irreverent to Mama’s memory, but she couldn’t. She had a sudden flash, a picture of Mama clothed in a ratty old housedress, astride the bicycle she’d had a neighbor put together for her children out of parts scavenged from the dump, demonstrating to Kid how to balance the thing. Her dress had hiked up to her knees, showing short, plump, white legs pumping rapidly. Her hair had shone like flame in the sun.
Sis couldn’t help it. A giggle escaped her, and then another, and then she and Kid were roaring with laughter, clutching each other while tears streamed down their cheeks. When they finally calmed, Sis drew ragged breaths.
“What is Daddy going to say?”
“Do you care?” As usual, Kid was completely candid.
Sis shook her red head. “No. But you know he’ll be more upset about the other than this.”
“He’ll have a shit fit,” Kid said easily. “The funeral home director thought I was crazy, but I told him that’s what we wanted. Dad was too drunk to know what was going on anyway.”
“So you found a dress?”
Kid nodded to the mirror. “Just like these.”
“And her hair?”
“Done. I saw it yesterday.”
Sis took a deep breath, feeling something inside her lighten and lift. She smiled and began to draw on her dress. “Let’s go celebrate, Kid.”
A few minutes later, John knocked on the door.
“Hey, it’s time to go to the church. Evan and Fred already took Dad and the kids.”
“We’ll be out in a minute. You can wait for us on the porch,” Kid called.
When Sis opened the front door, John just stared for a moment.
“You two are nuts,” he said finally, but he said it with affection. He held out an arm to each of his sisters, and the three of them stepped into the fierce summer sunshine, red heads blazing.