“Cafe Misfit” by Dave Zoby
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. The TMR staff wishes you a happy week. Dave Zoby’s 2013 Jeffrey E. Smith Prize-winning essay “Cafe Misfit” is today’s piece, which evokes the insular community of workplace relationships with more than a touch of humor.
By Dave Zoby
Beauty is the sole ambition, the exclusive goal of Taste.
Suddenly one summer Joe and Oscar appeared in the Fan neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with the idea that they could open a bistro on the ground floor of the old Windsor Building, an aged apartment building situated mere yards from the humanities compound at Virginia Commonwealth University. Oscar and Joe believed they could attract wealthy academics, administrators with refined palates and deep pockets, visiting professors of modern art. They hired a fleet of waitresses and released colored balloons for their grand opening. They hired a chef of reputation and a passable sommelier fluent in Portuguese. They had thought of almost everything. But what they didn’t know was that professors are the worst kind of customers in the world, the very bottom. They don’t tip for squat, and they don’t socialize as much as you think.
They called their bistro Old Virginia Café. (Oscar, already betraying a vision conflicting with Joe’s, campaigned for Black Stocking Café, or Zingers.) But Joe had more money invested, and he insisted on the understated Old Virginia. They were Italians from Philly; there was no hiding it. They drove imposing black sedans with tinted windows. They wore the tight mustaches of card dealers and circus barkers. Even their shirts, silk and buttoned low enough to let their wiry chest hair escape, told a story of strange migration. One of the first things they did was to stroll with their lady friends along Monument Avenue to take pictures of the old Southern generals. I saw them halted under the gaze of Jefferson Davis, snapping photos like mad of a statue aged by passing traffic.
No one knew how they had decided on Richmond. They had run several lucrative businesses up north. There was mention of a limousine service, a dry cleaning supply business. Joe owned a Cessna and taught private lessons. Oscar co-owned a concrete outfit. Out of thin air, with no prior experience, they had decided to open a restaurant. Ripening in their late fifties, they said they had always wanted to have their own place. They loved to cook and drink, so the obvious next step was to open a restaurant. But they didn’t need a restaurant, and that would prove to be a problem. The only good restaurateur is a desperate one.
I kept my eye on Old Virginia for a year without going in. I locked my bike up to the rack across the street on my way to literature classes. Frequently, I spotted Joe placing menu boards on the sidewalk, advertising the daily specials: fried shad roe, calamari salad, ribeye sandwiches. His café was empty save for a few pairs of lunching ladies and a disquieting number of ferns he had spread around the windows for charm. Ferns like that, they won’t survive the winter, I wanted to say. And your prices are too high. No one is going to pay $10.95 for a stuffed flounder.
But I didn’t say anything; I just watched, expecting any day to see him close down like the ones before him.
The Fan, in 1993, was in ruins. Bricks were loose and falling from buildings. Roots buckled the sidewalks from underneath. Warehouses were shuttered. Over on Grace Street, where I lived, roofs were water-damaged and leavened. There was a handful of underemployed prostitutes who worked the corner of Broad Street and Boulevard. Rude bands played in some of the old bars that still thrummed with life. But on most nights, as I pedaled my bike back toward my rented room, the Fan seemed permanently vacant, a failed experiment, an apology.
How Joe and Oscar thought they could waltz down South and take our money I never fully grasped. I was infuriated to see Joe emerge one spring with his menu board: Virginia ham with peanut gravy; beer-battered rockfish nuggets, braised split quail and spring greens. I’d thought the last ice storm had cleared him out. I had not spied Oscar’s black Cadillac for months. I had just received the overwhelming good news that I had won a teaching assistantship. My tuition would be waived. And I would earn over three thousand dollars a semester, a staggering amount of money at the time. I swaggered into the café and sat at the huge horseshoe bar. Joe came out and offered me a menu. I ordered a German beer off the tap and settled on the burger, which was “hand-shaped” and came with fresh-cut “Virginia fries.”
Nearly thirty minutes later, Joe returned with my burger. He had spared no expense or labor. The roll it rested on had come from one of the local bakeries. He had even pounded out his own homemade horseradish as a bonus. The burger bled weakly on my plate while Joe poured himself a beer, leaned back against his beer coolers and asked me why I was studying literature.
“I love all of those guys—Shakespeare, Keats, Byron—but I don’t see how you can make a career of it,” he said.
“This is the best fucking burger I have ever eaten,” I said.
“I know it,” he said. “But how much does a professor make, anyways?”
My mind was elsewhere. I noticed that Joe’s dishwasher, Scott Black, had stepped onto the back porch, apparently, to smoke. But what he was really doing was looking for his dealer, Ramon. Joe’s chef, Freddy Macintyre, came in as I was finishing my meal. I had seen him many, many times in the grottoes of the Village Café, where he ran an all-men’s AA meeting. Freddy, a former chef for D.C. ambassadors and various diplomats, had lived the tumultuous life of a celebrity cook. These days he was clean, but he shook uncontrollably at the slightest crisis. He was distraught already because he had ordered crayfish and they had not been delivered. He was fretting and looking out the window for the deliveryman. I noticed things. And, most importantly, I noticed a gaping absence at the corner of the bar where Oscar used to lean.
Joe gave me my bill and went back to work on a cheesecake. He took a beer with him. With the bill in my hand, I rounded the horseshoe bar and looked into the kitchen through the tiny pane of glass. Joe stood at a huge stainless steel prep table. I pushed open the door and entered a cathedral of sunlight on metal. There was a nearly new Hobart dishwasher that belched and hummed through a cycle, its gills rows of fresh white plates. It breathed the sweet breath of bleach and steam. There was a rotisserie with ceramic bricks, two convection ovens, fryers large enough to bathe in, various pestles and their corresponding mortars and a grill to keep two chefs busy. Steel mixing bowls, iron stock pots, milky white ramekins, room-sized walk-in coolers, refrigerators that reflected my image like a fun house mirror: it was as if Joe and Oscar had imagined the most expensive kitchen they could think of and decided to improve upon it. Joe must be terribly underwater. Or, it occurred to me, he must have been rich to begin with.
Joe looked up from a dozen yolks he was whipping. He grinned.
“Do you need a bar manager?” I said.
We agreed on a small salary. I would work Thursday through Saturday nights and order the liquor for the restaurant. He gave me a key—I wouldn’t have given me a key. And then he said there would be no W2s; we would “work something else out.” Before I left, I refilled his beer and brought it to him.
“You’ll like it here,” he said. “We have all kinds of things planned for the menu.”
As I was leaving I bumped into his waitress, hurrying to make her shift. She had fresh bruises on the nape of her neck. Her blue eyes were wrecked with signs of alcohol poisoning. She had short red hair and deep charcoal stains on her fingertips: the telltale signs of an art student. “Joe is going to kill me,” she said—to me?—in a rough voice. But I had never spoken to her in my life, so she must have been talking to herself or to that arbitrator we all talk to when we are ashamed.
Why offer fried cod on your menu when you can go to pains to acquire blue catfish from a dealer near Yorktown and then drive out there to pick it up yourself, the white flesh in loaves, still smelling definitely of the river, of brackishness, a wet copy of The Richmond Times-Dispatch serving as a cover? Or maybe you don’t drive out there yourself, but you send one of your lackeys or Chef Freddy himself, with orders to stop by LaPrell Nursery for several trays of fresh herbs, chives and cilantro specifically. Freddy, if you forget the goddamn cilantro don’t even bother coming back. Just keep driving to Utah, Joe might say. And Freddy would fall apart with the shakes, not knowing whether it was a joke or not. Why serve your shad roe on toast when you can spend the morning driving around Richmond to the various bakeries until you settle on the white baguettes from Mechlers? And for God’s sake, don’t use store-bought bacon with your roe; call a farmer in Culpeper and have him slaughter a young hog for that purpose specifically. Go there and stand in the smokehouse, ruining your clothes forever. And your sauces: Are you going to make them all at once like some hack, or are you going to take down the copper saucepans which came from the French countryside of Flaubert and make each sauce upon order? Why would you do it any other way? These were some of the questions Joe sought to answer about the Old Virginia. The customers, confused by the length of time it took to get their orders of lamb meatloaf (he ground it himself) served in a red wine and rosemary reduction, looked at Joe with something related to pity. I served them a glass of wine on the house to apologize for the forty-five minutes they had sat there by the windows overlooking the skateboarders enjoying a session on the nearly vacant campus across the street. In June, I was giving away more booze than I was selling. Scott Black, the implacable dishwasher, would come out and sit at the bar and stare. He didn’t cringe at the long spans of time it took Joe and Freddy to serve a meal. Scott Black would ask for his shift drink—usually an expensive whiskey he liked to order just to say the name. The customers, meanwhile, looked at their watches and sighed.
“Joe,” I said one night as he was unwinding from a burst of late orders of cheese fries (a dish he loathed, a remnant of Oscar’s uninspired vision) “People are calling your place the ‘the old vagina.’ The food takes too long.”
He sighed heavily.
“I didn’t want to tell you, but it’s the truth. And Annie said she’s not coming back. She’s gone back to dancing.”
“Who is Annie?”
Joe got up from his chair and came behind the bar where I was refilling the sink with hot, sudsy water. He poured himself a shot of Basil Hayden and dropped in an ice cube. There was a thunderstorm swaying the trees along the avenue. He seemed dazed by the rain coming in sheets.
“Why don’t the professors come over? I always thought we’d get more business from those fucks. I don’t understand it.”
Joe sat and began to tell me some of the challenges he was facing with the restaurant. “Oscar’s loopy. He’s crazy as hell,” said Joe. “To tell you the truth, I am glad he’s gone. All he did was drive the waitresses away.” Then there was a problem, in Joe’s mind, with getting quality meat in Virginia. He wanted to age it himself, and nothing he could find was quite right. He had been flying his Cessna back and forth between Philly and Richmond with loads of prime beef, sausages, pork butts, which Freddy would drape obscenely in the walk-in. He was outraged at what passed for charcuterie in Richmond. And there was another issue: the Cessna needed an inspection, and no one out at Byrd Airport could do it. He didn’t want to fly it down to Atlanta just for an inspection, but he would if push came to shove. And good help was hard to get in Richmond, Joe complained. But what vexed Joe the most was the cold shoulder he was getting from the faculty at VCU.
“Is there some way I could get my place reviewed? Could you get someone from the English Department to come over?” he whined.
“Joe, you don’t want that.”
He poured another drink.
“I went to a place in South Richmond called Red’s this weekend, and they were eating goddamn gravy with coffee in it. The blueberries were artificial. The syrup was fake. And the place was full, packed with well-dressed people, the kind of people I want in here.”
Finally, Joe was learning something about the South.
My tenure as the bar manager at the Old Virginia Café was an innocent one. Perhaps I was not experienced enough to face the world. I was shocked when one of the waitresses took me to her apartment and popped in a sex tape before she poured me a glass of wine. Money was always a problem for me, even with the teaching position. I worked nights while my fellow students went to readings and art shows. I reveled in the unfairness of it all. Depressed for days when I learned the dean of Humanities was sleeping with one of my fellow grad students, I went into the Carriage House Book Store and approached the clerk with a copy of Baudelaire. “Kid, you don’t really want that,” he said. And it was true. So I put it back on the shelves. Riding my bike along Monument Avenue, the odor of hot pavement thick in the air, I marveled at the white statues of Civil War generals and a culture that revered their swords, their bad shoulders, their bladders cast in stone. I would often sit on the stoop beside the restaurant reading my graduate-school texts, and between the scurrying pigeons and the strolling pairs of academics, I would be approached by the same drug dealer day after day. He wore a navy blue skullcap through the blaze of summer.
“Need anything?” he’d say.
Was it that obvious?
“Get yourself laid,” Joe would hiss, and he’d give me a fifty under the table. But that was the problem with Joe: he was too invested in the visceral pleasures, the petty venalities of the world. He roared too much about “free-market capitalism.” He had no intellectual ambitions, as I had, unless you counted his desire to impress college faculty with his tricky cuisine. He went on and on about making love to various women. Dipping his Cessna over the fall foliage, he once told me, was like an extended orgasm. He never invited me along. He took waitresses up for short flights, and they would come back red-faced, giddy, as if they had witnessed a rare bird. He took them all up as a sort of application process.
Meanwhile, I plodded along with my bar rag in my pocket and a poem in my head. Late nights, I would try to tell Joe about the existential pitfalls of being midtwenties and studying literature. He didn’t want to hear it. “You’re doing it all wrong,” he’d say when he discovered me reading Leaves of Grass. “Why don’t you go out and fuck someone?” When I told him I wanted to write, he frowned a bit, shook his head. “Jesus Christ, can’t you do both?” Then he went back into the kitchen to check on his cheesecakes.
Joe, over the late summer, spent a great deal of time with his friends at the bar. Buzzed, they wandered down to the farmer’s market. Outside of town, the crops were ripening and the outdoor markets were resplendent with obscene eggplants, carrots the hue of sunsets, huge heads of white cauliflower and broad-leaved cabbages stacked like cannon balls. Joe, stumbling along the stalls of sweet corn, stood no chance. He bought everything in reach and let his lackeys tote it along, especially bags of sweet onions with clods of Spotsylvania County dirt still clinging to the roots. Fish mongers offered fat flounders from Knott’s Island. Tilefish? Littlenecks? Are you serious? The oystermen shucked their huge shellfish into Joe’s cupped hands, allowing great flows of milt to overflow and spill upon the ground. Joe stood no chance. When he returned to the restaurant, he was woozy, accompanied by a troop of new friends, each carrying a sack of food. They would all enter the kitchen, a dozen men, and within minutes, Chef Freddy, pissed off and intruded upon, would clock out and leave. Patrons at the bar would take note of the incredible volumes of beer and liquor and, always, laughter flowing from the kitchen and the outbursts that rose up from there. I discouraged paying customers from wandering back there, for once they met Joe, they became one of his friends and never paid for another drink, though their lives improved radically.
Around this same time Joe traded in his black sedan for a pickup. He bought one with an extended cab, so he could sleep there when he came back from his adventures in the countryside. I often saw him silhouetted in the truck, his neck cranked back, his mouth sadly agape, and I would feel sorry for him. I brought him cups of water and aspirin. But he was out of it, unable to say much. Hours later he would startle awake, start the truck, allow it to idle for twenty minutes while he regained his bearings and drive away, back into the Virginia countryside in search of adventure, or something related to it.
Joe kept land notices around the bar, and I often found him reading about upcoming auctions. He and the beer distributor would go out on Smith Mountain Lake to fish a bass tournament, or he would go to the cheese monger’s Blue Ridge cabin to throw hatchets and drink homemade whiskey that landed him in the hospital for three days. He’d flirt with the true nature of Southernness, then scare himself and buzz back to his wife and daughter in Pennsylvania. And the more he left, the more I found myself running the Old Virginia Café. The key burned in my hand, and I sometimes found myself there in the dark restaurant with nothing but the ferns to keep me company and the sound of the walk-in freezer doing its thing.
On one of Joe’s prolonged absences I fired Scott Black. He was two hours late and stoned. I said, “My only regret is that I can’t fire you twice.”
“Joe will hire me back,” said Scott, and he shook off his apron and flung it at me. It was incredibly clean, dry, hardly used. He pounded the Hobart with his small fists on his way out; the dishwashing machine seemed his only friend, yet he had punched it in the face.
With one phone call I hired a fellow poet and grad student supreme, John Venable, and within hours he was pumping the Hobart, steaming his hair into a pile of fibers. His skin turned pink, and I could see by his expression that he would not last long. He brought with him a radio/tape player, and he played rude Lou Reed concerts, bootlegged editions no one else could get or wanted. Immediately, he asked about vacations and sick leave. “I do bring a lot of experience to this position,” he said. He even had the nerve to ask about his shift drink, this within hours of being hired. I wanted to fire him, too, but I was already shorthanded. And in the restaurant business no one fucks with the dishwasher, or at least they begin with a certain patina of holiness, and it erodes from there. Besides, Chef Freddy was in another one of his moods, complaining about late orders and trying to close the kitchen at 9:00 PM.
“Freddy, goddamn it, you know we serve a late menu.”
But with Joe gone, the chef felt he could do as he wanted. He walked out. Luckily, one of Joe’s new friends, Gary, was seated at the bar. He was pretending to read a three-day-old copy of the Times-Dispatch, a crumpled pane of it in one hand. His bar tab was already becoming symbolic in nature.
“Sheeeet, I could do that man’s job twice as well,” said Gary. I was slightly disappointed that Joe was missing this display of outward Southern confidence, a fault of ours. Joe could learn a lot from Gary.
“Gary, tell me what do you know about cooking,” I said, playing along.
“After Vietnam I lived in Paris for five years, walking distance to the Bastille. I worked them tiny kitchens. I can cook like a motherfucker, stocks, breads, cassoulets. Shit, man, I can show you some stuff round here,” he said, and he stood, wobbly. I saw this as a grand opportunity to recover some of his outstanding debts. He was hired on the spot. But I had to pay him cash out of the register, one hundred bucks a night, because he didn’t want his old lady to know he had a job.
Gary fell into his duties and began to crank out homestyle Southern food with a touch of French. He baked Cornish hens and served them with a bed of mustard greens and collards. He made little pizzas christened with dollops of barbecued beef. He made a cassoulet of white beans and pork butt. He said, “People don’t want to be confused by the food they eat; the world is confusing enough for damn sure,” and he drank prodigious amounts of beer. You must remember that this was back in the early ’90s, before the proliferation of food shows—whole channels devoted to people stuffing their pie holes and making culinary postulations, before the widespread celebrity of Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck and the rest of them. One day, as I was wiping the bar, I heard Gary order a new keg of Miller. “That German stuff ain’t selling for shit,” he said to Arnie, the distributor. He poured himself an inaugural glass of Miller and took it in like smoke; here was a doer, a leader, the assistant manager I had longed for. I had a key made for him immediately, and when Scott Black came around looking for Joe, I told him to talk to Gary.
“This place still owes me a shift drink,” he said on his way out.
Of course Joe, upon returning with a crate of Maine lobsters and cases of white burgundy, immediately undid all my moves. Freddy came back, sanguine and aloof as always. He had discovered photography in his brief romance with unemployment and asked Joe for an eight-hundred-dollar cash advance to buy a lens. And Scott Black, in the dusty, wee hours of the previous night, had snuck in and regained his old position at the Hobart. There were not enough dishes for one dishwasher on most nights, but both John and Scott stood around in the steam and took frequent breaks where they drank Miller on the stoop and spoke with the drug dealers and history professors who wandered by. They began to drink so much keg beer that I offered to run a line back to the kitchen so they could pour it themselves. Joe, not knowing I was joking, said he would call Arnie and look into it.
Freddy was smug when I tried to apologize. I found him one September afternoon playing with two live river eels he was going to cook in a strawberry and champagne sauce, Joe’s dinner. He was tormenting the pair of fish, grabbing them so that they panicked and wrapped their jade-colored bodies around his forearm like bracelets. I told him that I had only fired him because he had done the unforgivable—walked out on a shift. This is the rule in restaurants from Baltimore to Shanghai: if you walk out on a shift, keep walking, man, and don’t even look back.
“It’s the rules,” I said to Freddy. He held a cleaver in his hand, and he cudgeled the first eel but only stunned it.
“I’ve been in kitchens longer than you’ve been alive,” he said. He struck again. This time he killed the eel, and it spewed a shock of orange roe onto the cutting table. “Don’t tell me about rules.”
A flat of soft-shelled crabs arrived the next morning, alive and weakly protesting. They were in neat rows like soldiers, and they were strung with wet seaweed to keep them alive. Gary breaded one and fried it for Joe’s breakfast. The two men were terribly hung over. Seafood seemed to pick them up some. Venable wandered in with love bruises on his neck. Gary fried him a crab too, its legs kicking as it went into the butter.
“Joe, why don’t you just fire Freddy?” I asked.
“Fire Freddy? Have you ever tasted his bouillabaisse? The man’s a genius, a saint!”
“Well, seems like people like what Gary cooks—”
Gary seemed embarrassed.
“So I will keep them both. What’s it to you?”
“Well you gave him eight hundred bucks for a lens. I don’t see how he’ll ever pay you back.”
“When you get your own place, you can do whatever you goddamn well please.”
I was hurt by Joe’s directness. He was right; the Old Virginia was his place, not mine. I went back out to the bar and wiped the bottles down, the odd liquors that nobody ever orders, the Pernod, the Drambuie, the Galliano. A few minutes later, Scott Black came in and punched his time card. And why did I care? In one year I was going to graduate and move to Colorado or some other mountain state.
But I was hurt. I avoided Joe for weeks. Finally one night, he sat at the bar as I closed the place. He told me that he trusted me.
“Well, you should back me up when I get rid of these folks.”
“But where would they go? Freddy is a mess. Scott—he’s a child.”
“Even if they cost you money?”
“It’s all they have,” he said. He finished his drink and went back into the office to count the drawers.
I had never thought about it before, but it was true. The Old Virginia was not a restaurant but a place for lost souls who needed the dignity of a job, even a symbolic job, to tether them to the world. I pedaled my bike over wet leaves toward my apartment on Grace Street and thought about this revelation. There was a new waitress, Stephanie, a single mother, who told her customers all the details of her ugly divorce. There was Venable, who was so distraught over a recent breakup that I wondered if one day he would not show up at all and I would have to go downtown to identify his body. And the men who sat around the horseshoe bar, they were all destroyed and broken in various ways: window salesmen, realtors, plumbers with six-pack-an-hour habits. They were cheats and scoundrels, braggarts and bastards. And what about me? If Joe was in the business of collecting the truly miserable and giving them jobs, wasn’t I cast among them? Joe had come to Virginia to gather and study us losers.
Recently, I had been snooping in the books. I had discovered that there were names of people on the payroll who did not exist, folks I had never met. Oscar was still being paid a ridiculous sum. There were inflated salaries (47K for Freddy and 45K for Gary). I saw lists of cases of wine and booze that never arrived at the café. Fuel costs and maintenance for the Cessna were included in Joe’s accounting. And there, in the bottom columns of the ledger, I saw that the expenses far exceeded the profits. The Old Virginia Café, I realized, was meant to lose money. Sometime, I am not sure when, the restaurant had become something intended to fail. I had a suspicion that there was a twin restaurant in Philly where the cases of wine and liquor were going. There were parties there that I would never attend. The Old Virginia was a ruse and always had been, an illusion like Joe’s oddball reflection in the refrigerator doors, like my kiss-ass overtures toward high-minded literature and the balding, old professors of English who seemed permanently out of breath.
I pedaled down Grace Street and stopped at Annie’s apartment. She was home, fresh from a shift at the Red Light. She was washing the ridiculous makeup from her face. One of her roommates was watching movies, so we went into Annie’s room. It was cluttered with canvasses and frames, squirts of paint on her bureau. She said she was disappointed with her portfolio, that she was thinking of moving back to Virginia Beach and working at her father’s car dealership. She asked about the café, if things had gotten better for me there. We crawled into bed with little fanfare. She said to be careful with her knees because they were bruised.
“You know,” she said afterward, “those same guys who come into the Old Virginia also come into the Red Light. Joe tips like a fool.”
She showed me some of her charcoal drawings. There was Chef Freddy with a venison sauerbraten, Gary smoking one of his cigarillos, Joe standing by his Cessna (I realized he must have taken her for a flight, which probably meant she had screwed him.) and a few of me behind the bar. I was dark, brooding, and she had captured something about me that was unsettling. There were too many of me.
“I look so unhappy,” I said.
For a few weeks after our rendezvous, Annie came in and sat at the bar by herself. She drank the same thing, expensive tequila on the rocks. I never charged her. “She’s a good girl,” Joe said, “you should go with her.” I stayed as far away from her as possible and spent my time cleaning bottle necks and scooping buckets of ice. And after her one drink she’d say, “Stop by after work,” but I never did because I was working feverishly on a backpacking memoir, a real piece of shit that would never see the light of day. Joe and Gary were out looking at land. They had been AWOL for weeks, and the spring was becoming possible, and after that, graduation, and the rest of my life, whatever that meant. The old professors loved my latest work and said it was “illuminating and moving.” They told me that I was at the height of my power. Gary bought me a book about Colorado from the Carriage House and left it behind the bar wrapped in simple brown paper.
One day, just as Annie was leaving, John Venable came out of the kitchen and watched her go. He poured himself his shift drink and popped a cigarette in his mouth. I was days away from leaving Virginia forever. I asked him if all the dishes were done and the silverware sorted. He looked at me in surprise.
“What happened to you, man?” he said, and he kept looking at me until I had to turn away. See, John had bought the Baudelaire.
I have lost all of them. Only John takes it upon himself to call me and inform me of the relevant tragedies. He called recently from Pittsburgh to tell me that Joe was dead, that the Old Virginia had become academic offices. Stomach cancer is what got Joe. When they buried him, Venable says, there was virtually no one from the café there, none of the old buddies, and the food at the reception was nothing Joe would have accepted. But Oscar was there, tall and gray-headed, stoic in a long black jacket.
We cried on the phone for a few minutes. Then we hung up.
And all I could think about was that time in the spring when Joe had asked me to come and look at some land. He had never taken me along before. I drove Gary’s truck with a john boat in the bed. I drove all night through southern Virginia, past battlefields and bights of dark, abandoned land and arrived just in time to pick up Joe and Gary at a rural airstrip. We drove through stands of timber to a small lake where Gary sculled us along all day and we caught tremendous large-mouthed bass.
“I think I will buy this place,” said Joe, threading a fish on the stringer, “Or I won’t. What’s the fucking difference?”
Joe and I left in the Cessna. Gary waved to us from the tarmac. And then we were up above the blue tree line, and I could soon see Richmond rising in the distant haze, the Blue Ridge to the west. As we flew over the city, I could see the Fan, water trapped on the tops of apartment buildings in pools, the James River brown with spring rains. It was too loud to talk in the cockpit. Still, I tried to get Joe’s attention to show him the huge amount of water tumbling over the falls. But he had something else on his mind. He drove the throttle down and pointed the small plane toward the trees. The Cessna began to tremble, and the trees were roaring up at us, blurring from the vibration. Papers began to stir and float around our faces. The bass slid around at my feet. We were seconds from death. We both smiled wickedly as the plane fell from the sky. But I wasn’t afraid. I had a shift that night. There were bottles of white wine specifically for this occasion, and the sea salt and spices stood in cones, ready for the touch of a chef’s hands.
Dave Zoby was born in Norfolk, Virginia. At VCU he earned an MFA in poetry. Dave has published poems in 64 Magazine, the Southern Poetry Review, Georgia State Review, Blackbird, the South Dakota Review and others. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Ninth Letter, the Sun Magazine, Gray’s and the Missouri Review. Fire on the Beach (2001) was published by Scribner. This work of nonfiction tells the previously untold story of Richard Etheridge, an African-American coastal hero who led daring rescues of shipwrecked mariners along North Carolina’s storm-swept coast. His latest book is an essay collection, Fish Like You Mean It.
“Exit Seekers” by Tamara Titus
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Our staff here at TMR hope that you are all having a good start to the new week. We are kicking off this Tuesday with the 2018 Editors’ Prize winner in fiction, “Exit Seekers” by Tamara Titus. In this piece, Titus’s clever characters learn lessons on friendship and forgiveness, and the struggles of aging.
by Tamara Titus
Even before I open my eyes, I smell smoke. At first I think I’m still dreaming—too many memories of my time under the stars, when everyone smelled like smoke or sweat—but then I see Cecil’s outline over by the open window. He’s sitting in his wheelchair with a blanket over his legs, and I can hear the oxygen machine chugging even as the haze from his cigarette settles around us.
“Cecil,” I whisper. The digital clock on my nightstand reads 2:13, and the hallway outside is quiet.
His head is bowed, and he doesn’t answer. While I watch, the orange tip of his cigarette falls into his lap.
“Cecil!” I hiss, and his head jerks. He mumbles, and I pull my chair over to the bed. When I’m fully awake, I can transfer without assistance, but even then I like to know there’s someone within shouting distance, just in case. I set the brakes and hoist my ass into the seat. Then I settle my left stump onto the pad. It only takes five seconds, but it’s too long. When I look back at Cecil, his nightshirt is already on fire.
Cecil screams, and I press the call button clipped to the bedrail and wheel over to the door in nothing but my undershorts. The corridor outside is empty.
I yell Fire! twice before rolling back into the room and grabbing a couple of hand towels at the sink. Cecil flails with his good hand while I soak the towels. I’m wrapping them around my fists when the bedspread catches, and I have just enough sense to switch off the oxygen before I grab the blanket from Cecil’s lap and press my arms against him.
At some point there is noise behind me—people yelling over the fire alarm. The light comes on, and someone blasts us with a portable fire extinguisher. Cecil howls. I hold up my right hand and squint. My skin is splotchy, and pain moves like lightning across my synapses. “Don’t let them take us to Grady,” I say to the nurse closest to me, but she’s not listening. She wraps a clean towel around my hand and wheels me out the door.
When the ambulance pulls up at Grady Hospital, all I can think is it’s a good thing they’ve already shot me full of morphine. Before I moved into Cedar Grove, I spent my share of nights in the ER here. Winter nights, mostly. I lost my foot to frostbite, and they tried hard to talk me into going to a nursing home. But I knew I’d have to clean up, dry out. And I wasn’t ready for that. Not then.
Once we get inside, I can hear the EMTs bringing the staff up to speed. Cecil’s next door in room seven, and I know they’ll work him up first cause he’s bad off. I close my eyes and see the blue print of the dressing gown seared into his flesh. Then my brain misfires, and pain licks me in places I no longer possess. I’m drifting when I hear the one voice I do not want to hear tonight.
“Ben Gibson. I thought you were done being a frequent flyer.”
It’s been almost four years since I broke Dr. Loflin’s nose. I was high on a little bit of everything that night, and I had a seizure in the middle of Briarcliff Road. Apparently, when I woke up in the ER, I woke up swinging. I don’t remember any of it, but I’m sure she does. “A little bird told me you’d been missing me,” I say.
Dr. Loflin pulls up one of those rolling stools and takes a seat beside the gurney. “And a little bird told me you were smoking in bed.”
I’d like to pinch her, grab the tender flesh on the back of her triceps and squeeze like my sister Angie used to do. But I know what that’ll get me, so instead I flip the blanket down and point to my stumps. “I’m a diabetic, not a dumbass.”
“In your case, Mr. Gibson, one diagnosis does not necessarily preclude the other. But I’ll make sure your objection is noted in your chart.” She touches my wrist with one gloved finger. “In the meantime, why don’t you tell me what happened.”
“Cecil set himself on fire, and I was trying to put him out.”
When she lifts the dressing from my hand, I hear her suck in a breath. She scoots closer, and I examine her face while she examines my hand. Whoever fixed her nose did a good job; you can’t even tell it was broken. She’s changed her hairstyle, too. There’s silver at her temples now, fine hairs that almost disappear into her blond bob.
“Are you burned anywhere else?” she asks.
“I don’t think so.”
“Okay,” she says as she rotates my hand. “Okay.”
I can tell by the lack of ill will in her voice that it’s not okay, and for the first time in weeks, I feel a panic attack coming on. It only happens when I’m in close quarters.
“On a scale of one to ten, how bad is your hand hurting now?”
My palm is puckered, all bright red and weeping. “At least an eight.”
She stands and presses a button on the wall. “Not for long,” she says. Then a nurse steps in and hands her a syringe, and it’s Dr. Loflin’s turn to make my world go black.
When I get back to Cedar Grove the next afternoon, I notice right away that Cecil’s things are gone. The big picture frame that said family. His wall calendar, his clothes. I’m lying in bed staring at my hand, which is wrapped so thick it looks like an oven mitt, when Marianne taps on the open door.
“Knock, knock,” she says, and she waits.
Marianne looks a little like Liv Tyler, only with brown eyes, and she’s wearing a dress that falls to the floor. It suits her frame—it softens her elbows and hips—but I withhold the compliment. Her smile is too tense.
I nod at the chair by the bed. “Is Cecil dead?” I ask as soon as she sits down.
“No.” She glances at the empty side of the closet. “But they’re going to keep him at Grady for a while. He needs skin grafts.”
“I take it I’m in for a new roommate?”
Marianne pulls the tray table over to her and sets a folder on it. Normally we discuss my care in her office, which is really just a windowless closet at the end of the West Unit hallway. The folder is bad news.
“Cecil’s daughters have filed a grievance with the state licensing agency. They want to know how their father, who is wheelchair-bound and partially paralyzed, could have gained access to cigarettes that they did not provide.” She folds her hands in her lap, and I wonder for the thousandth time how she can do this. How she can come to work, day after day, with people who are batshit crazy, and not wind up that way herself?
“Maybe he lifted them,” I say.
“Ben.” She peers at me over her glasses. A strand of hair slips across her shoulder and rests against the side of her breast.
“I shared a smoke with him twice out in the courtyard. That’s it. Both times I gave him one, and he smoked the whole thing outside.”
Marianne opens the folder. “We’re instituting a new smoking policy.”
I don’t move, but the room does. It shrinks around us like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
“From now on, your cigarettes will stay in my office. You can smoke three times a day, but only with supervision. I need you to pick one time in the morning and a couple in the afternoon.” She pulls a form from the folder and turns it around so I can see it. “On the weekends, you’ll have to get the shift supervisor,” she says as she sets a pen on the table.
“I’m grandfathered,” I say. Smoking is the one vice they let me keep. I had to give up booze and drugs, but they promised I could keep smoking as long as I lived at Cedar Grove. It’s written in my resident contract.
“That hasn’t changed,” Marianne says.
“Right. I’m just restricted to three a day, with you as a babysitter.”
She pulls something else from the folder. “Maybe you could tell me what this is,” she says, and as soon as I see the handwriting, I feel my sugar spike. She’s got my list. Normally I keep it on me at all times, but at night I stick it in the Bible in my nightstand.
She points to Rose Green’s name and reads aloud: “Wears Mardi Gras beads and a bad wig. Always has lipstick on her teeth. BSC.” Marianne looks at me. “What’s BSC?”
Keeping tabs on the people here is how I stay sane. It’s how I stay separate from them. I pick up the pen with my good hand. “Batshit crazy,” I say.
“That’s not how we refer to our residents with dementia.”
“Tell that to the CNAs.” Cedar Grove has a politically correct term for everything. When somebody falls out of his chair and busts his head it’s a bad outcome. And the nut jobs who try to escape are exit seekers.
I push the release form away and turn to the last page of my list, to the newest admissions. Under Cecil Carter it says Emphysema. Stroke. I add the word moron in all caps.
Marianne closes the folder and leaves the form on the table between us. “I’m sorry about your hand, Ben. Angie said she’d be in tomorrow to check on you.” She delivers that bomb so smoothly, it’s like she’s opening the cargo doors of a C-130 from an altitude of twenty-five thousand feet.
I tuck my list into my shirt pocket and press the nurse call button. “Do me a favor, Marianne. Come back when you have good news.”
Cecil’s departure means I have a room to myself until they get another male admission. There’s a lot to be said for privacy, especially in this place, and I briefly consider masturbating. But I’m right-handed, and the pain is stronger than my desire to get off. That night, my hand wakes me up at three am, and I watch National Geographic and Pawn Stars until I can’t stand it anymore. Then I hit the call button and ask the nurse for more pain meds.
“You’re not due for another dose until seven. I can bring you a couple of ibuprofen,” she says.
I rest my burned hand against my stomach and imagine the night sky. Orion in winter, Centaurus in spring.
“How about a smoke break?” I say. “A quick one.”
“I’m sorry, Ben. You know I can’t.” A minute later she brings the ibuprofen in a tiny white paper cup. She watches me swallow it before she steps back into the hall, and when I’m sure she’s gone, I roll over and stare at the empty bed.
Cecil was a good roommate; he just got desperate. Right now he’s probably alone in a third-floor room at Grady, staring at a window he can’t see out of. I tuck my hand to my chest and wonder if he hurts as bad as I do. And if there’s a part of him that would jump from that window if he could.
I’m still dozing the next morning when I hear someone settle into the armchair beside me.
“I brought coffee,” Angie says. Waking up to my sister’s voice is a little like waking up naked under a streetlight. When it happens, you know some seriously bad shit has gone down. Angie’s thighs press against the seams of her slacks. Now that she’s pushing fifty, she’s starting to pack on the pounds. She sets the Starbucks cup on the tray table between us.
I take a sip of the coffee, and it’s almost as good as the drugs they’re giving me. She even put real sugar in it.
“Marianne said you had second-degree burns.” She tugs on her earring, a nervous tic she developed when we got sent to foster care. Angie protected me back then.
“That’s what they tell me.”
“She also said your roommate’s daughters are pretty upset.”
I close my eyes and count to ten. I know what she’s thinking. She’s worried somehow she’ll get sued. Angie’s never screwed up in her entire life, and even now, even after I’ve been clean for two years, she still keeps me at arm’s length. “He’s not my roommate anymore.”
“Did you give that man cigarettes, Ben?”
I didn’t, but she won’t believe me. Angie hasn’t believed me since I took her Honda and totaled it when I was fifteen.
“I should have,” I say, and I hold up my bandaged hand. “I’m paying for it anyway, aren’t I?”
The West Unit corridor feels a thousand miles long now that I’ve only got one good hand. I tried to talk the physical therapy department into giving me a motorized chair, a hot rod to cruise around in till I heal up, but they said it would allow my upper body strength to degrade.
I pass Ella on the main hall. She’s got one hand on the rail and one hand on the collar of her nightgown. “Bring me a drink of whiskey,” she says, and for the first time in months, an ache comes over me, a need so strong it nearly blisters me inside.
Marcus is loading the vending machines when I get there, and he hands me a 3 Musketeers. “Your friend’s back,” he says.
“I try not to make friends in this place,” I tell him as I hand him my dollar. “Everybody’s got one foot in the grave already.”
Marcus laughs. “Not you.”
We both look down at my stumps. “No, not me.”
“Seriously, though,” Marcus says. “He’s back.”
“Who?” I ask.
“Your roommate. Sparky.”
I’m pretty sure Marcus is the one who bought cigarettes for Cecil, and I’d like nothing more than to lay him out. Unfortunately, I can’t even reach his head. “Where did they put him?”
“Over on South. Right next to the nurses’ station.”
I look down the corridor to my right. South is the dementia ward, a hellhole full of old women who scream and cry at all hours. Rose Green, of the Mardi Gras beads and the bad wig, lives on South. Cecil will never sleep again.
“The Dr Pepper’s been empty for two weeks,” I tell Marcus. “I’m about ready to call the ombudsman.”
He laughs, and when I don’t join in, he quits stocking the drink machine.
“What crawled up your ass?”
“Nothing. Open that door for me,” I tell him, nodding toward the courtyard. When it slams shut behind me, I wheel myself along among the flowers: salvia and snapdragons, bergamot and butterfly bush. Plants I know only because Angie teaches me their names on Sundays when she visits. She could take me out of here if she wanted to, but she’s never offered. She just brings plants and talks to me while she sets them in the dirt.
I stop when I get to the gazebo and tear open the 3 Musketeers bar. That’s when I notice Cecil at the far end of the courtyard, on the patio, where I’m still allowed to smoke. He doesn’t look too bad, considering. His face is swollen, and he’s got bandages on both arms. I take a bite of the candy. The sweetness is excruciating; it reminds me of the phantom pain in my feet. When Cecil sees me, I wheel over to the patio and turn my chair so we’re parallel to each other.
“You know you fucked us both pretty good,” I say. I glance at him, but he’s staring at his hands. They’re wrapped in gauze all the way to his fingertips. “Marianne’s got my cigarettes now. I can only have three a day, and she has to sit with me while I smoke.”
“I’m sorry, Ben,” he says, but on his tongue the words have too many syllables.
“Yeah? Well, at least they didn’t move me to South.” I turn my chair around and tap on the window until one of the CNAs opens the door. Inside, Marcus is closing the drink machine, and when I roll by, I give him the finger.
The next morning, Marianne is late. I’ve been sitting on the patio for ten minutes, watching Marcus drill holes in the brick wall, when she finally shows up with her hair still damp. “Morning,” she says, and she hands me a giant gray bib.
She puts on her sunglasses and pulls one of the rocking chairs off about ten feet so she won’t catch the brunt of my smoke. “Part of the new regulations,” she says. “It’s fire retardant.”
The bib is heavy. Not as heavy as a flak jacket, but I know I’ll be sweating before I can take two drags. Marianne pulls my Camels and my lighter from the pocket of her dress. “We’re admitting a new resident this afternoon. His name is Gus.”
I take my time lighting up. This is her backassward way of telling me I’m getting a roommate. “Is he a lifer?”
“I hope not. His family wants him home before Thanksgiving.”
I pull smoke into my lungs while Marcus hangs a bright red bag that says Emergency Fire Blanket on the hooks he’s just installed. It’s got a black strap at the bottom that you can pull to release the blanket. I exhale toward the sky. “When are the state inspectors coming?”
Smoke drifts Marianne’s way, and she makes a face. “They won’t tell us. But I’m sure they’ll want to talk with you when they get here.”
I turn the lighter over in my hand. “If you bump me up to four a day, I’ll sing your praises.”
Marianne’s perfectly sculpted eyebrows rise above the top of her sunglasses. “I’ve heard you in choir practice, Ben.” She holds out an ashtray. “Let’s leave the singing to someone else.”
After lunch, I figure I’ll take a quick nap before the new guy comes in, but when I get to the end of the hall I hear people talking in my room. They’re not speaking English, and I notice the nameplate by the door says Konstantinos Papadopoulos.
I start to back up in the hallway, but it’s too late. One of the women sitting on the bed has spotted me. “Come in. Please,” she calls. Inside, there’s a kid—seven, maybe eight years old—using my bed as a trampoline, and an old guy in a wheelchair over by the sink. His English isn’t any better than my Greek, so his daughters and granddaughter fill me in. They talk over each other, and the granddaughter keeps grabbing her son by the collar, saying, “Park it, Nick!” It’s all I can do to get out of the room before I hyperventilate.
“Leave the door open,” I tell Marianne when I get to her office.
“Okay.” She smiles calmly, like a veteran teacher on the first day of class.
“There’s seven people in my room right now,” I say. “That’s got to be a code violation.”
“It’s his first day, Ben. Give him time to get settled.”
“I won’t even be able to turn around with all those people in there. Much less take a piss in private. And you know how I feel about tight spaces.”
Marianne folds her hands together. “Yes, I do.”
“It’ll never work. I already need a Klonopin.”
“Well, there’s a private room available,” she says. “Do you want me to talk to Angie about it?”
We both know it’s an extra thirty dollars a day for a private room, and Medicaid won’t pay for it. Angie can afford it, but I’d rather eat broken glass than ask her. “I’ll get someone to pick me up a Powerball ticket,” I say. “But thanks anyway.”
Marianne opens the file cabinet and takes out my cigarettes. “How about we go sit in the courtyard awhile,” she says, “and I’ll walk you back to your room when you’re ready?”
Outside, I chain-smoke three Camels, and Marianne sits by the herb garden, running her hand over the rosemary. She brings her palm up and inhales, and when she sees me watching her, she looks away. “Catnip,” she says, embarrassed. “For people.”
“Careful,” I say. “That stuff will make you crazy.”
“Batshit crazy?” Her smile takes her from pretty to knockout, and just for a second, I imagine touching her nipples. Feeling them harden under my hands.
I want to stay pissed at her. I really do. But I stub out my cigarette and grin.
The only time I see Cecil is at dinner. He sits on the other side of the dining hall, and it takes him forever to eat. I nod at him on my way out each night and hold up my bandaged hand in solidarity. But Cecil is no longer my problem.
I’ve got new stressors thanks to Gus and the Greek chorus. People from his church come in and out all day, and his granddaughter shows up every morning to supervise his physical therapy. She brings her son, and while she’s in PT with Gus, the kid wreaks havoc. He’s supposed to stay in the activities room, but the minute she walks out, he’s off climbing the medication carts and pushing buttons on the photocopier behind the nurses’ station. Marcus even busts him eating Klondike bars from the freezer in the staff lounge. “And they think I’m trouble,” I say when he tells me. “That kid’s a Tasmanian devil. On speed.”
On Tuesday I catch Gus’s grandson on his knees in front of the vending machine. He’s got one arm up inside the plastic door, angling for a pack of Oreos, and his face is beet red from the effort.
“It’s a long road to juvie, kid, but you’re off to a great start.”
He pulls his arm out of the machine and walks over to me. “What happened to your legs?” He stares at my stumps.
“Same thing that will happen to your arm if you don’t keep it out of there.”
Cecil rolls out of the therapy room, inching along with his good foot, and I meet him halfway. The kid follows me.
“First you leave,” I tell Cecil, “and now I have to put up with this hellion.” I gesture beside me, but I’m pointing into space. The kid is over by the fire extinguisher, sizing up the glass cabinet.
“Nick!” his mother yells from the door to the PT room. “Don’t touch that.”
“Gus’s grandson,” I tell Cecil.
The kid takes off down the hall, and I follow as fast as I can. When I get to my room, he’s going through Gus’s dresser. “Find anything good?” I ask.
The kid squeezes past my wheelchair, sizing me up as he slinks out the door. He’s wondering if I’ll tell on him. And I’m wondering if I’ll ever have a moment’s peace. I pull the top drawer out of Gus’s nightstand and flip it over on the bed. Taped to the bottom is Cecil’s pack of Marlboros. Right where he left them. I bet Marianne never even thought to look. I tuck the cigarettes into my fanny pack and take out my list. At the bottom, I’ve written Gus Papadopoulos. Fought with Greek resistance in WWII. Hip fracture. Has night terrors.
When I pass the therapy room a few minutes later, I stop and watch Gus through the window. He’s doing weight-bearing exercises while his granddaughter takes notes. The kid is in the corner, pedaling the little device they use for diabetics with foot ulcers. Gus waves, and I give him a thumbs-up. At Cedar Grove, half of the admissions with hip fractures are dead within a year. If nobody tells him that, he’ll be home eating baklava before Christmas.
Gus’s family takes him out early on Sunday. I feel like I’ve won the lottery, and I spend the morning watching American Pickers and reading a Carl Hiaasen novel. Angie shows up after church, bearing the Atlanta newspaper. “Coupons,” I say. “Just what I need.”
“You want me to take it back?”
I roll my eyes. “It’s a joke, Angie.”
She sits down on the edge of my bed. “How’s your hand?”
I rotate it for her inspection. “Not bad,” I say. “Another week and I’ll be back to popping wheelies in my chair.”
She shakes her head, but I can tell she’s trying not to smile. “And how’s your roommate?”
I look over at Gus’s wall of pictures. “He’s great, actually. It’s his family I can do without.”
Angie picks at a spot on the bedspread. “Some people actually like their families, Ben.” Her expression is part hurt, part anger. It’s a look she’s perfected: she’s been wearing it since we were kids. “And I meant your old roommate,” she says. “Cecil Carter.”
I’m about to say “He’s alive” when Angie reaches for her earring and presses her thumb to the back, checking it.
“I didn’t give him the cigarettes, Angie.”
“I know you didn’t,” she says softly. “He told Marianne he got them from one of the maintenance guys.”
It’s as close as she’s ever come to saying she’s sorry.
I busy myself with the newspaper, flipping through the sections like I’m looking for something. I want to beg her to take me out of here. Anywhere, even if it’s just around the block. As long as we’re moving and the windows are down.
I set the brake on my chair and slide into it. “Let’s go outside,” I say. “The lantana looks terrible. Maybe you can tell them what to do about it.”
I take my last smoke break after dinner, and when I get to my room, Gus is back. With his entire family. There are four people sitting on my bed, and there’s a Dr Pepper and a 3 Musketeers on my tray table. “Who left that?” I ask.
Gus’s granddaughter hands me the candy and soda. “The man with the bandages.”
I back out of the room and head toward South. This time of night it’s deserted, and for once, it’s quiet. Cecil’s got a private room, and I’m thinking he’s a lucky bastard when I find him half out of his chair, clutching the bathroom doorknob. “Cecil?”
The look on his face is pure anguish, and there’s a broad stain across his lap. “Hang on. I’ll get somebody.”
At first I think there’s no one at the nurses’ station, but then I see the guy sitting behind the desk. It’s the second-shift supervisor. The one Marianne has a crush on. “How long has that call light been blinking?” I ask.
He glances at Cecil’s door. “I have no idea.”
Saliva floods my mouth. “Christ on a fucking cracker. Cecil’s pissed himself because y’all just let him sit there.”
“Language, pal,” the man says. He pages a CNA, and a minute later, an aide comes around the corner, swinging her hips slow and easy. “Twenty-two needs attention,” he tells her.
I’m trying to decide if I should wait for Cecil to get cleaned up when I notice Rose Green at the end of the hall. She’s wearing two strands of Mardi Gras beads—one red, one purple—and when she stops by the door to the parking lot, I hear it click, locking in response to her ankle monitor. “Let me out,” she says, leaning over her walker to push the door handle. She’ll be at it all night.
“Could you have someone bring Cecil down to the main hall?” I ask the supervisor.
“Tell him I’ve got something for him,” I say, and I pat my fanny pack just to be certain.
When the big-hipped girl rolls up with Cecil, I’m finishing off the 3 Musketeers. “Thanks for the present,” I say, and he nods. Then we both go quiet. Cecil stares out the window, and I watch Gus’s grandson ricochet like a pinball from one doorway to another, looking for entertainment. He stops in front of the fire alarm, rocking heel to toe while he reads the instructions.
“Hey, Nick!” I yell, and he jumps like I’ve popped him with a pellet gun. “Come here.” I tell him to push Cecil to the courtyard door, and he licks his lips, considering it. His tongue is purple. “Help us and I won’t tell your mom you’ve been trying to rob the vending machine.”
That gets him. He pushes Cecil and comes back for me. “Now hold the door open. It’s heavy.” Cecil inches his way through, and the kid makes a face when I reach the threshold, his purple tongue snaking out to touch his chin. I put a hand on his shoulder. “You ever pull the fire alarm at school?”
He squirms away. “Nope.”
“I did.” I make a show out of glancing up and down the hall, like I’m about to divulge classified information. “The firemen let me sit in the truck while we waited for my mom to come. I got to work the siren and the electric ladder.”
Outside, the air smells like ozone and scorched concrete. I pull Cecil’s Marlboros from my fanny pack. “I believe these belong to you,” I say.
Cecil looks at me like we’re seventeen and I’ve just handed him the keys to my Camaro. Then his head overrides his heart. “They’ll catch us,” he says.
“And do what? Take away our bingo privileges?” I turn off his oxygen and roll over to the red bag that Marcus screwed into the wall. When I yank the black Velcro strap, a blanket falls into my arms. It feels like steel wool against my skin.
“What’s that?” Cecil asks when I hand it to him.
“A smoking jacket.”
Cecil takes off his nasal cannula. “This is a bad idea,” he says, huffing, as I unfold the blanket and tuck it around him.
“You got a better one?”
Cecil shakes his head.
“Me neither. We can smoke one before they miss us. And I have a feeling they’re about to have their hands full,” I say, pointing inside at Nick. I light two cigarettes, and we smoke, and watch, as the kid swoops up and down the hall with both arms out like an airplane. With each pass, he gets a little closer to the alarm.
“You think he’ll pull it?” Cecil asks.
“God, I hope so.”
The wind kicks up, and everything green bends and bows around us as Cecil takes a drag and taps his cigarette carefully into a plastic ashtray. “Not much left without this,” he says, laboring over each word. He stares at the Marlboro between his bandaged fingers. “What do you miss?”
Bourbon. Barbeque at Fat Matt’s. Lullwater Park in winter. My vision blurs, and I tell myself it’s just a sugar spike. I nod at the long wall of windows. Inside Cedar Grove, Gus’s grandson steps up to the fire alarm.
“Being him,” I say, and we both lift bandaged hands to our ears as the kid reaches out and pulls the lever.
Tamara Titus’s short fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Sou’wester, Emrys Journal, and other publications. She is the recipient of a Regional Artist Project Grant from the Arts & Science Council of Charlotte–Mecklenburg, as well as a North Carolina Arts Council fellowship in fiction. She co-edited This is the Way We Say Goodbye (the Feminist Press, 2011), an anthology of women’s essays on caregiving, and in 2013 she received an Honorable Mention from the James Jones Fellowship Contest for her novel-in-progress, Lovely in the Eye. Currently, Tamara spends her time writing and editing, caregiving, and serving on the Charlotte Historic District Commission.
“Rachel’s Wedding” by Rose Smith
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. “Rachel’s Wedding” by Rose Smith won the 2017 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for essay. Through recounting her longtime friendship with the titular Rachel, Rose Smith examines female friendship, as well growing past societal labels such as “outcast” or “misfit.”
by Rose Smith
The early September light on the lake is unreliable. It’s late afternoon; clouds race on the wind and the water laps the shore. Flashes of sunlight glint off restless waves in quick succession. The surface of the water changes from gray to bright blue as the clouds pass over the sun. I am looking out the window over one of the small lakes near our home in upstate New York. This is after I get married but before I get pregnant. I’ve spent the summer waiting for a baby to quicken: a baby I know is close but elusive. Beyond the lake is a cornfield, stretched out across the hills. The tips are turning brown. The corn gathers sweetness, waiting to be cut.
Standing here in the “Perla Suite” of the Glass Lake Inn, I feel a cool breeze coming off the water. I am wearing a white strapless top with boning in the bodice. My white pants stretch snug across my hips. Draped over it all is a sheer white sheath that I made yesterday. My friend Rachel is wearing a white wedding gown with a train and bell sleeves. The cut of the bodice shows off her long, straight neck and pale shoulders. Her golden hair is swept up into an elaborate twist. Behind me, gathered around the bride, are the two Megs and Rachel’s college roommate, Nazeera, who flew in from Prague to be here. I took the train up from the city, where I had been working. Rachel wanted us all to wear white: something breezy, flowing, and all white at her wedding. Nazeera is wearing an ankle-length peasant dress. It’s perfect.
One of the Megs calls me back from the window. “Did you design your dress?” she asks me.
“Yes,” I tell her, even though it’s really just two rectangles of fabric sewn together. “But it’s pretty simple.”
“I wish I could sew.” Her name is Meg. Her best friend since first grade is named Meg too. We are almost thirty, and the two Megs still look alike: short and pear-shaped; blond, close-cropped wavy hair; intelligent glasses. In fact, they both look just like they did in high school. Rachel and I, on the other hand, are unrecognizable from our teenage selves.
Rachel’s mom comes into the room, and a jolt of electricity runs through our little group. It’s time. We follow her out of the inn and onto the lawn leading down to the shore. The groom, fifteen or so years older than we are and born and raised in the city, waits for us on the other side of the lake. Rachel’s mom hands each of us a large silk scarf. The Megs get royal blue and emerald green, Nazeera a deep gold; mine is peach. We drape them over our shoulders so they hang long in the back, flapping in the wind behind us as we walk. Rachel’s mom kisses her on the lips and hurries off to her car. She’s driving around the lake to the other side, where the wedding tent is set up. The “gaggle of girls,” as Rachel calls us, will be traveling by barge, called like sirens across the water by the groom’s saxophone. Rachel is marrying a Jewish jazz musician named Saul. She even converted for him. A chupa and a glass to break and a rabbi all wait for her in her new life on the other side of this water.
I am sure we are a beautiful sight from the shore, but the wind is rough, and the barge is really just a raft with a motor that some teenage boy is steering from a crouch behind us. My hair stands straight up, and my eyes water from the cold. Our scarves whip frantically as the raft motors through the water. I watch as a long ribbon of golden silk lifts high into the air. It hangs suspended, almost still, in the chaos of wind and mist. The setting sun rests in its folds, a kind of floating origami light box. I think of my husband, standing near the shore with the other guests. I can’t make him out yet in the distant crowd. The scarf lands on the surface of the lake and is subsumed in an instant. Nazeera turns and lunges as it disappears. She almost falls overboard, and we scream and cling to each other, laughing and holding each other up, until Rachel’s dignity gets the best of her; she straightens up and faces the music.
I can see Saul standing on the shore now. He stands erect in his black suit, blowing on his horn. Snatches of the music carry on the wind, and the disjointed song is haunting and sad to me. Rachel’s jaw is set, and her back is straight, as always. Her eyes are wide with her smile, and her beautiful hairdo is a mess.
I’m in my new bedroom, with the new yellow bedroom set we bought when we first moved here. Two twin beds, for if I have a sleepover, and a matching dresser and vanity. I lie in my bed, reading Little Women again. Lots of the pages I already know by heart. The other yellow bed sits there all made up. There haven’t been any sleepovers. No one has even sat there. I’ve thought about messing up the covers just so I won’t feel so bad when I see it.
My mom pokes her head around the doorway. “Go outside,” she orders me.
“Quit reading and go outside. Enough is enough.”
“I don’t want to go outside.”
I look at her.
I put my book down and pull on my shoes. This new town couldn’t be more different than home. First of all, it’s mostly forests here, and so quiet. At home there were sidewalks and streetlights and always, at night, the noise from the go-go bar on the corner. Our new house is at the top of a steep hill, on a curving street lined with wooden houses. It’s the summer before I start sixth grade at a new school. I’ve been here almost two months, and I still don’t know a soul. I’m getting pretty nervous.
I walk down the impossible hill, feeling the rubber soles of my running shoes grip the slanted asphalt. There are no sidewalks here. A few miles down the highway are the 4 Corners Market and a post office and a dance school. At the bottom of the hill is another cornfield. Viewed from above, it looks like a giant patchwork quilt. The corn is so tall it is like a forever forest of waxy green stalks, millions of them, standing in a row. There’s a patch of grass before the first rows of corn and a big shade tree. I sit under the tree and lean my back against the trunk. I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself. I imagine I am Jo in Little Women, when Amy sets off for Europe. I don’t have any hope at all of going to Europe. Two girls come out of the house across the street and start toward me. I stand up when they step on the grass.
“You moved into my grandma’s house at the top of the hill,” says one of the girls.
“The blue one?” I ask.
“Yep. That’s my grandma’s. You didn’t buy it, you’re just renting.” She’s a pretty girl with blond hair that curls around her shoulders. She has boobs, too. I can see the outline of her bra under her T-shirt.
“OK,” I say. The other girl is hanging back. Her hair is long and straight like mine, but hers is golden and shines like silk. She has a straight nose that makes her face look as though it belongs to a woman, not a girl. Her body is like mine: skinny and childish.
“I’m Kristie,” says the pretty girl. “And this is Rachel.”
The room is mostly dark, our faces pale and luminous in the moonlight. Rachel’s house is far from town, an old farmhouse at the end of a long lane, and the stars out here are always the brightest they’ll ever be on earth. The Megs are here, and me and Rachel. We’re sprawled out on pillows and blankets in the downstairs living room. Her parents are asleep upstairs.
“Have you seen Kristie since graduation?” Rachel asks me.
“No. Not a word. She doesn’t call back or write. I even stopped by yesterday, and her mom told me she wasn’t home yet. But I think she was there.”
“I never understood why you were friends with her,” says Meg.
“She was so mean,” says the other Meg.
“She was my fiercest defender.” I say it with bravado, to make everyone laugh, but really I feel bereft and confused.
“Well, maybe she’s disappeared because you don’t need her anymore.” Rachel says it in her mom voice, but her tone is also kind of sad for me. I look at her white hands as she gestures in the faint light. She stretches her neck back and forth, popping the bones into place, crack-crack-crack. Rachel’s hair is cut. After we graduated from high school, she cut all her hair off, short like a boy’s. I can’t stop reaching over to touch the back of her neck. As ever, Rachel sits erect, back rod-straight, among the rest of us with our slumping, curled frames wrapped around pillows. She has grown into her woman’s face, and she is beautiful like a runway model, gaunt and rare.
“Ok . . . boyfriends,” I say. We are home for the holidays after our first semester of college. I still don’t recognize myself in the mirror, but my confidence is growing.
“I have important information for you girls,” Rachel starts. I am alarmed by her instructive tone. She definitely did not know anything about boyfriends three months ago. She went to school in Montreal. We visited the college together during the fall of our senior year. We wandered around that campus with her dad all day, and I left feeling inadequate and out of place, but Rachel seemed galvanized. In the car, I sat in the back, leaned my head against the seat, and stared out the side window while Rachel and her dad talked all the way home.
“I’m telling you right now not to do anal.”
“What?” squeaks Meg, sitting up.
“You know, sex in the butt.”
Oh, my god, I didn’t even know that was an option. “I thought only gays did that.”
“No,” says Rachel. “My roommate and her boyfriend decided to try it, and she started bleeding everywhere and I had to take her to the emergency room and she had to get stitches. Stitches. Up there!”
I breathe a small sigh of relief that she is only talking about her roommate. As far as I know, Rachel has never even had a boyfriend. She went to the prom with the Flemish foreign exchange student who was like twenty or something. Of course I didn’t go at all.
“Oh, my god, Rachel. That sounds horrible.”
“Consider yourself warned.”
“OK. OK.” We all look horrified for a few moments, and then I start to laugh. And then we are all shrieking and laughing and falling in a pile and clutching at each other to keep from rolling off the mountain of pillows.
When we can breathe again, I say, “Chip and I never even thought of that.”
“Oh, maybe Chip did,” Rachel suggests. She raises her eyebrows at me. We have a suspicion that the nice boyfriend I got at the end of our senior year is really gay.
“Oh, shut up,” I tell her. “And anyway, it was enough for us the regular way.”
“You and Chip had sex?” Rachel.
“Oh.” Other Meg.
“Yeah,” I answer. I surprise even myself that I admit this.
Everyone is silent for a moment. I feel intensely embarrassed.
“Oh, honey. I didn’t realize that you were going through that back then.” It’s her mom voice again, and she’s so full of love for me, and caring, that she suddenly even looks like my mom. I hate it when she does that.
We want to ride down the impossible hill. We go through the options, eliminating the ones that seem too dangerous or dumb. Bikes? Too out of control. Tire? No one wants to be upside down. Roller-skates? Only Kristie has them. I have a red wagon that belongs to my brother. The pinstriping is peeling up in places, and there is a dent in the front corner, but if we put a blanket in the bottom to make it soft and cushiony and hold the handle so we can steer, it seems like the best choice.
Rachel and I climb into the wagon at the top of the hill and stare down the asphalt incline. I’m in front, and she’s wedged in behind me. The cornfield below is brown and dry; the stalks have all been chopped low to the ground, and the rows of brown dirt make stripes in the land that stretch far into the distance. The air is cold, but it hasn’t started snowing yet. Soon, the snow will cover everything, as far as I can see. Soon, this will be the best sledding hill in town, and everyone will be here on snow days. We’ll have to wait our turn to slide down our own hill. For now, though, Rachel and I are about to drop. This is when Rachel still thought of her body as reliable and strong. Before she had to be careful.
Rachel steps off the barge and gingerly places her satin shoes on the wet, sandy bank. The Megs hold her train up away from the water. Nazeera and I climb gracelessly down into the spongy grass. I hold her arm as she hops down, and I realize: Nazeera is the roommate. With the stitches. I am wearing my new heels, a fancy designer pair that I bought in London when I was working there. They look more like art than shoes. The photographer snaps, snaps, snaps.
Once we are away from the water, the evening feels calm and familiar. Early fall in upstate New York. The sky goes from a cool blue to a pale pink and settles finally into a charcoal. I keep getting the sensation that there is someone nearby, watchful and waiting to join me. The stand of weeping willows by the shore is black in silhouette, a group of old women bent over their work: veiled, gnarled, intent, immobile. It’s a waxing moon; the stars are stealing the show, and it feels like home.
I move through the crowd, looking for my husband. He’s a big, gregarious type, tall and broad shouldered, with a heavy brow and dark eyes. I spot him talking to Rachel’s dad. He’s gesturing wildly, telling a story. Rachel’s dad is jumping up and down, switching feet, bobbing his head. He’s a lanky man with a long beard and graying hair that curls around his ears. He’s wearing a tie and a vest. When her dad sees me, he puts his arms around me in a big bear hug. As he lets me go, he pokes me in the ribs and says, “Quite a man you’ve got here.”
My husband winks at me. Rachel’s dad is pleasantly stoned. The three of us stand peacefully, looking out over the party.
The guests are a mix of old hippies (Rachel’s parents’ friends), hip jazz cats and intellectuals (Saul’s friends), a few upstate farmer types (neighbors), old Jewish New Yorkers (Saul’s family), and us (Rachel’s high school friends). Rachel’s Aunt Helen walks over to us. She’s wearing a pillbox hat trimmed with pearls. She looks smaller than the last time I saw her and so frail my breath catches as I say her name. She pulls me in and puts her palm on my cheek. “Oh, look at you,” she says. “You take my breath away.”
“This is my husband,” I tell her. She laughs as she pats his arm and gives me a told-you-so look. In a way, I love her like she’s my own.
Rachel’s mom comes by to tell us to find our seats for dinner. My husband pulls me to him as we walk, his hand firm around my waist. He fits his fingers into the shape of my rib cage. He likes the sharpness of my bones. How close to the surface my frame is. He likes to feel the elemental structure that holds me together. Once we find our table, I tell him I’m going to find the bathroom. “Be careful in those shoes,” he tells me, his lips close to my ear.
Near the bathrooms, I run into two guys from high school. Jonathan is about five foot three, and Sev must reach six foot five. They were the tallest guy in the school and the shortest. And they were inseparable. Jonathan married one of the Megs last year. I’m happy to see them.
“He looks like a guy you would marry,” says Jonathan.
“Your husband. He looks like a guy you would marry.” An awkward moment ticks by while I try to figure out what he means by that, and what I should say.
Sev steps in, “You look beautiful. You really do.”
“Thanks, Sev. I’ll see you guys after dinner.”
Rachel put us at a table with some of Saul’s friends from the city. The guy on my right is telling us about his job as a puppeteer on Sesame Street. I start to tell him about the dream I’ve had a thousand times, where Big Bird takes me flying over the red cliffs of southern Utah, but someone is beginning a toast, and we all turn in our seats.
It’s one of the hip jazz cats, and he speaks almost as if he is singing:
“O Saul, you lucky, lucky man.
O Rachel, you happy, happy girl.”
The school nurse opens her door again to let the next kid into her office. Rachel’s last name begins with G and mine with H, so we are always next to each other. Lines, lockers, assigned seats. The Heffner twins are making fart noises, and Kelly Ferraro is giggling stupidly at them. I roll my eyes, and Rachel tosses back her hair. We thought about wearing makeup today, but I decided against it. I don’t like to draw attention to my face. Makeup certainly won’t make it better. I told Rachel on the phone last night that she doesn’t need it anyway. She said maybe we’ll try it for the seventh grade dance on Friday.
The door opens, and Kelly goes in. We are all wearing undershirts today, so the nurse can do her tests and not embarrass anyone who doesn’t need a bra. Like me. Like Rachel. Kelly definitely wears a bra. The Heffners stop farting when the door closes. The lights on the ceiling of the hallway drone like summer insects. When Kelly comes out and Rachel goes in, I stand alone and try to appear disinterested. The twins lean against the wall, yawning and blowing spit bubbles. Rachel comes out with her hair shining and her shirt all rumpled. I want to smooth it for her as she passes, but the nurse is calling me in. The nurse’s office is small with beige walls and a metal desk. There are a couple of cots and some curtains for when you have a headache during class. I pull off my shirt. I’ve been through this before. I fold at the waist and put my forehead against my knees. The nurse puts her hands on my back and feels up and down my spine. I know why they do this in ballet auditions, but I can’t imagine what this has to do with school. She tells me to put my shirt on and go back to class. The Heffner twins look bored as I walk by.
The first day Rachel wears her back brace to school I am surprised. Not by the fact of it. I knew it was coming. It’s the metal and hard plastic that throw me. There are metal rods on the front and back of her body rising up her spine, straight and cold and ending in a plastic rest to hold her chin up, to pull her neck long and erect. The molded plastic that encases her waist and hips is vaguely pelvis-shaped. She is wearing her sister’s clothes because they are a size larger and button over the brace.
We stand at the mirror in the girls’ bathroom. It’s time for PE, and we are hiding out. Not for the whole class. Just to get our bearings. I look at Rachel. She’s brushing her hair, letting it hang like a waterfall down her back. From behind, with her hair down, you can’t tell she is wearing a brace. I catch a glimpse of my own face. It’s getting worse as I grow. I was only three when we had our car accident. Riding along the dusty road, windows down, dry air blowing our hair, sitting in my mother’s lap: that is the moment I am thinking of when I look in the mirror. The moment before. Next came the moment after.
Here’s what happened in the space between: My mother’s arm slammed into my ribs as she pulled me tight to her body. We were both hurled forward. Her face hit the glass of the windshield. Shattered. Shards finding purchase in her left cheek. Body arced into a grotesque shape. No arm thrown up in fear, hands still firmly wrapped around me. Below, as the shards fell, was my face. Smashed. Between the metal dash, and her stomach: blouse, skin, muscle ribs tendons uterus placenta amniotic, my brother, his beating heart.
There was blood everywhere. My mother lifted me out of the seat and set me beside her on the road beside the truck. The car in front of us was folded in on itself. The driver stood by, her tongue worrying at a cut on her lip. Her hands were at her sides like caught fish.
My mother was wailing. What she was saying didn’t make sense but it got under my skin and into my flesh and stayed there like a warning.
“Just live, she screamed. Just live!”
At the hospital her cheek was sewn up, a five-inch seam from jaw to temple. I was taken into surgery. The bones in my face were broken. Shattered. The university surgeon contemplated mending the bridge of my nose, my destroyed cheekbones, my broken jaw, my caved in sinuses. He had the skin pulled back to assess the damage. Defeated, he carefully sewed up my flesh, covering the chaotic mess with neat, loving stitches. That night, speaking softly to my mother, he attempted to explain: complex craniomaxillofacial trauma . . . soft-tissue injuries as well as multiple fractures to the underlying skeleton . . . growth will lead to secondary deformities needing surgical intervention. “You’ll have to wait until she’s grown,” he said.
“For what?” she asked.
“To fix her face.”
From behind, with my hair down, I just look like a little kid. In art club I am learning to make stop-motion animations after school. Rachel and the Megs are working on self-portraits. They sit at tables with mirrors in front of them and sketch in the lines of their features. Mrs. Reed tries to get me to start on a self-portrait, but I won’t relinquish the 8mm camera. I love the world it contains inside its glass lens.
After months of phone calls with the insurance company, my mom has made an appointment with a surgeon in the city. She says it is time we find our doctor. The operation to fix my face is still many years away, but the process is beginning. The long wait until I am “done growing” is almost over. Looking at myself in the bathroom mirror—the concave center where it was smashed in the accident, the flat nose, the hollow cheeks—I suddenly feel close to Rachel. We are like sisters now. Odd. Separate. Undesirable. Then, as she spins around to go change out for gym, I realize that she may not want to stay friends with me now. Before, we just ignored the fact of my face and instead complained about our flat chests and skinny legs. With me as a friend, she becomes half of a pair of misfits. I’m not even sure I should stay friends with her.
She walks through the door ahead of me, stiff and erect, her neck pulled long by the silver rods. I think of her like that while I am in dance class in the afternoon. My own neck is long and straight, but free. As I step out onto my new toe shoes, I balance there: my back arches, my leg rises in a high arabesque behind my head. I no longer take for granted the way my body curves and bends at will.
It is a May weekend, and we are in my mom’s baby-blue Bonneville. I’m at the wheel. Rachel is shotgun. The Megs are in the back. They are singing the harmonies of some show tune. One of the Megs is the lead in the high school play. I roll the window down all the way and look over at Rachel. Her hair whips around her face until she catches it in her hand and twists it all into a golden knot on top of her head. The seat belt stretches across the metal bars of her brace. I wish for her straight nose and fine high cheekbones, her perfect jaw. The sounds of the wind and road drown out the warblers in the backseat. I am wearing a white button-down shirt and black pants. So is Rachel. The Megs have their clothes with them. They’ll change when we get there. Where we are going is Aunt Helen’s wedding. She has asked us to be the waiters at her “dinner under the stars.”
“My Aunt Helen is getting married,” Rachel says to no one in particular. We are all a little shocked by this fact. Aunt Helen always seemed like one of us. A grown-up version, but still one of us: a woman too strange for anyone to love.
When we get to Rachel’s house, her mom puts us straight to work setting the long wooden tables out in the garden. There are lanterns hanging from tree branches. Cut flowers stand in canning jars. They’ve rented folding chairs, and someone has already placed them at the tables. Meg and I lay the plates out while Rachel and the other Meg arrange silverware.
“Fork on the left,” calls her mom. Rachel rolls her eyes. I pretend to stab myself in the chest with a butter knife. Rachel holds up a fork and pretends to throw it at her mom’s back. “Stop laughing and get back to work, girls! The guests will be here any minute.”
I need to pee, so I sneak inside the house. It’s a farmhouse like ours. At least a hundred years old, two stories, wood siding, steep eaves. Everyone enters through the mudroom on the side of the house. I don’t even know where the front door is. The downstairs bathroom is occupied, so I go upstairs. Helen is standing on the landing. Her ivory dress is trimmed with antique lace at the collar, cuffs, and hem. It’s fitted at the waist, and the narrow skirt falls just below the knee. Her ivory leather shoes button across the instep. Her hair is gold, like Rachel’s, but short and shaped into finger waves around her head. A small piece curls in front of her ear into a spiral on her cheek. She takes my face in her hands and cups my cheeks in her palms. Her hands are warm and dry. “I hear from Rachel that you’re having your operation this summer,” she says.
I feel the heat and color rise under her palms. No one else ever mentions this to me. Other than my mom, only Helen is willing to talk about it directly.
“What will they do?” she asks.
I move her hands so I can show her. I hold my finger up to my lower jaw, “They’ll cut bone out of here,” I move my finger to point at my upper jaw, “and then insert bone up here. Then they’ll put in cheekbones carved from my hip. They’re still deciding what to use for the bridge of my nose. Maybe a rib,” I tell her.
“Oh, it is amazing what doctors can do, isn’t it? I can’t wait to see how beautiful you are. And just when Rachel gets to take off her brace. What a pair you will be then!” She’s feeling romantic. I’m starting to get embarrassed. She looks around us at the narrow wooden staircase and runs her hand over the smooth, dark banister. She’s just remembered what we are doing here.
“It is my wedding,” she says. “I better put on some lipstick.” She has Rachel’s face, just thinner and older. Her skin is so white, it is almost translucent. Her trademark red lipstick always seems too much to me on her pale lips.
“I’m so happy for you, Aunt Helen,” I tell her. “Congratulations.”
My husband holds me close on the dance floor. Rachel and her new husband dance by. I do a little hop to avoid stepping on her train. Our eyes meet, and she raises her eyebrows at me. I know she’s as surprised as I am that we are here. With husbands. Rachel’s parents dance up and grin at us. They are happy. Soon they will fade into the dark outside the tent’s glow to get high, but for now they are present and accounted for, dancing the first dance. The next run around the dance floor, Saul is dancing with Rachel’s mom and Rachel’s dad has Rachel spinning and laughing.
The band, full of famous jazz musicians I’ve never heard of but that my husband is impressed by, ends the song with a bang. There’s an expectant pause, and then I see Aunt Helen walk slowly across the riser. Her husband has his hand on her arm as she takes her place at the microphone. She’s thin; her dress drapes over bony shoulders, blade-like forearms, jutting clavicles. Her bald head is pale in the twinkling lights of the tent. She has left the pillbox hat behind. Earlier she told me, “I just don’t have the energy for wigs anymore.” She moves carefully, and she is so fragile that I expect her to whisper.
We breathe a collective sigh as she begins to sing, a cappella. Her voice is strong and clear, “Like a bird, on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be free.” At that, the band strikes up, and she swings the tune, just a bit, while we all smile up at her. In her hands, the song loses its ponderous tone and skips lightly, hopefully, toward freedom. She has been in remission before, but the news about her lately has been pretty bad.
My husband gets called to shoulder the chairs, and as the Hava Nagila builds, Rachel and Saul are lifted above the crowd. Rachel’s mom grabs my hand and pulls me into the circle. Her sister fits in on my other side, and we begin the spinning, circling dance that gets wilder and more frantic as it goes on. We are singing and stomping and kicking our legs in the air. Rachel is laughing. Saul has his hand on her arm across the gap between their chairs. My husband is holding the leg of her chair high in the air, but his other hand is on her waist, holding her firmly in place. I feel the heel of my shoe clip off the back of the dance floor, and the whole scene tips backward. And then I am on my back in the grass, just outside the reach of the tent’s light. Rachel’s mom and sister clasp hands to close the gap I’ve left behind, and I watch them spin away.
I try to stand, but my foot gives way in a burst of sharp pain and heat. I crawl over to a chair nearby and pull myself into it. The tent is glowing and pulsing with energy. The song is reaching its crescendo, and Rachel’s cheeks are flushed bright pink as she drifts past, lifted high above the crowd of dancers. The band transitions smoothly, and it doesn’t take long for my husband to find me sitting on a folding chair with my bare foot propped up on a table. “Do you have a broken wing, tender bird?” he asks me. He calls for a doctor. Two psychiatrists and an ophthalmologist tell me that my foot is definitely not broken. Their wives all disagree. My husband says we are going to the hospital for an x-ray.
“Just let me sit a moment,” I tell him. Out here on the lawn, it is dark and peaceful. Inside the tent, children slide across the floor in their socks, and old aunts dance arm in arm. We sit together watching Rachel’s dad: his tie is loose, his waistcoat unbuttoned. He’s got both of his daughters, one in each hand, dancing with him. He’s grinning like mad and hopping from foot to foot, waving his arms in the air. The girls are laughing as he spins them away from him and back in again.
“Look how happy he is,” my husband says. “So happy with his daughters. So much joy he can’t stop dancing and smiling. It’s utterly goofy. Totally free. That’s me out there someday,” he says. “That’s me, so happy.”
The lake sends a breeze over the lawn. A cloud moves, and moonlight flashes over us, illuminating the trees all around. There it is again. That feeling that someone is watching, waiting. We’re ready, I think. Come on.
Rose Smith was born in Utah and raised in Arizona and upstate New York. She is the winner of The Missouri Review’s 27th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Her story, Idaho, was named a finalist for Narrative Magazine’s 2018 Story Contest. Rose lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and their two children. She is currently at work on a novel.
“Ronaldo” by Andrew D. Cohen
Welcome to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Andrew D. Cohen’s essay “Ronaldo”, which won the 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in nonfiction, is today’s selection. In this piece, Cohen profiles his relationship with his eccentric father-in-law, exploring the complicated endeavor of loving the “black sheep” of the family.
By Andrew D. Cohen
My wife and I have this running joke about my father-in-law, Ron, a blind-in-one-eye, seventy-nine-year-old retired golf pro with a penchant for canines, Carl Jung and awful stock picks—about how he might have survived the Holocaust if he’d been there. In one version he’s waiting in line for the gas chamber, working on his golf swing, shifting his hips, talking to himself as he tends to, when he draws the attention of an SS guard and his trusty German shepherd. “Vat do you sink you are doink, vermin?” screams the guard, who happens to be a long-suffering golf fanatic, over the barking, lunging dog. Before long, Ron is critiquing his swing (“No legs! You gotta move the legs!”), analyzing his psyche (“You’re afraid. That’s why you’re not bringing the club head back.”), even offering up a casual analysis of the Führer himself (“A few issues there, wouldn’t you say?”), all the while cozying up to Oskar, his new favorite dog.
In another version, “Ronaldo,” as I’ve called him for years, is standing naked in the showers, everyone around him dropping dead from the Zyklon B pumping in through the vents, enjoying the warm steam, when he realizes that his perennially clogged sinuses are miraculously clearing out. When the Nazis finally open the door, he walks out, breathes deeply and shakes his head in disbelief. “First decent breath I’ve taken in forty years,” he announces, making a mental note to find out the stock symbol for the company that makes the stuff. “It’s going to be big,” he tells the dumbfounded guard.
In yet another version, Ronaldo, whose remaining teeth look like they’ve been through a stump grinder, gets brought in by none other than the Angel of Death, Joseph Mengele, who immediately gets to work, pulling, prying, ripping up his gums and teeth, causing Ronaldo, famously stoic, to groan as his head is yanked to and fro. When the procedure is over, Ronaldo slowly stands, turns his head right then left, works his tongue around his mouth, puckers his lips a few times and shrugs. “You did for me in five minutes what those crooks in Beverly Hills couldn’t do in fifty years,” he says, shaking Mengele’s hand. “And for free!”
They’re tasteless jokes, I know, especially because Ronaldo actually lost some of his family in the Holocaust. But they make my wife and me absolutely keel over with laughter, partly because of just how over-the-top they are and, too, because, as my Polish grandmother, who sustained her own losses in the Holocaust, would say, “Every joke has a little truth.” But mostly, I suspect, we laugh because, as the Yiddish proverb notes, “Better to laugh than to cry.”
Which is to say, if we weren’t laughing so hard, we’d probably weep.
The story of Ronald Irving Weiner begins in an apartment in Northwest Chicago in 1934, but the first time I met him, the place our story begins, is West Los Angeles in 1991, when, as a college sophomore, I ventured across the country with my first-ever girlfriend to meet her parents over spring break. Back then Ronaldo was still head pro at the city’s largest public course, giving lessons, overseeing the other pros, managing the driving range, organizing fundraisers and running the shop; for a while he also ran the restaurant, but after a few months of real chaos, with employees doing drugs in the kitchen and cooks sending out burgers without meat on the buns, he wisely called it quits. The shop’s handwritten posterboard sale signs and florescent lights reminded me of those stuffed bargain-basement stores on the Lower East Side my mother schlepped us to as kids. Only instead of gray and navy Bar Mitzvah suits and winter coats, it was crammed with boldly patterned Polo shirts (“Two For One This Week!”); obscenely colored pants and shorts; sweaters, pullovers; caps etched with logos for Dunlop, Titleist, Ashworth, Ping; racks of Foot Joy socks; stacked boxes of spiked shoes (“20% off Last Year’s Styles!”) in an array of hideous color combinations; display cases filled with balls, tees, gloves, grips; and, of course, lots of clubs, club-head covers and bags. In the back, past the register and repair counter, where you could have your club regripped for a few bucks, down a hallway and beside a gated emergency exit, stood a beige, windowless cell with two wooden desks scarcely visible beneath the cascade of receipts, invoices, newspapers—any filing cabinet in that office surely stood as some sort of ironic statement—as well as a money counter, several leather briefcases, half-a-dozen adding machines and a warehouse worth of office supplies that Ronaldo shared with his mother, Mildred, an irascible septuagenarian who’d managed his books for twenty-five years.
All of this was both disorienting and a little exhilarating for a young man from New York City who’d never set foot on a golf course or, for that matter, been to Los Angeles—a young man accustomed to visiting his own father in a polished office high above Wall Street. Also disorienting was the small, tunnel-like building out front, just past a busted fountain, where the automated ball-dispensing and washing machines that had replaced Ronaldo’s father after his heart attack during the 1978 Sunstar Classic clinked and clattered like something out of an old sci-fi movie. And, just beyond, the range itself, a bustling double-decker affair with forty-six stalls teetering over a few hundred yards of mesh-enclosed grass across which a white, caged ball cart rumbled.
But what you really had to see was the cast of characters: the outcasts, misfits, perverts, criminals, ex-criminals, future criminals, schemers, crackpots, Hollywood castoffs, depressives, loonies, loners, oddballs, drunks and recovering drunks and miscellaneous hangers-on milling about, teeing off, ducking in and out of the shop, making small talk, fast talk, any kind of talk, virtually all of whom would eventually borrow and/or steal money or other material goods from Ronaldo (if they hadn’t already), including Saul, an addled Jewish man who wore a wide-brimmed hat on which someone had stuck a “Chief Advisor” pin as a prank too many years ago to remember; Tito, the shop manager, for whom Ronaldo had recently posted bail after he’d been caught “carrying a huge gun”; pros like Rich Johnson, who wanted to take over the place and to that end had secretly gotten the city to audit Ronaldo; Bill Knoll, a chronic gambler whom Ronaldo twice caught stealing gloves from him and who would eventually kill himself because of all the money he owed the syndicate; and Ed Roberts, AKA “the lover,” who slept with the older ladies at the local Jewish club until the husband of one saw Ed driving his own Mercedes down Wilshire Boulevard. There were also a few families of Hispanic gang bangers who worked in various capacities when they weren’t serving jail time. Did I mention the homeless guy living under the range? I mean, there should have been a sign over the front door that read, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses . . . The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. . . .” For a while I figured that harboring the “huddled masses” was just a function of a public course in a city teeming with personality.
Only later did I realize it was mostly because Ronaldo always loved a loser.
Ronaldo’s populist roots were established in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, a Jewish enclave where his German forbears started arriving back in the 1880s. A small, handsome, coordinated kid who allegedly didn’t talk till he was five, he lived with Mildred, widely known for her temper (“They heard her screaming down the block.”); his father Jacob, or Jules, an overweight, semipro ball player-turned-insurance salesman, a gambler who was the primary object of his wife’s fury; and his sister Joane. Much of his extended, lower-middle-class, very unobservant (they kept a Christmas tree) Jewish family lived on the same street. They organized informal get-togethers involving music and cards—gin rummy for the women, poker for the men—and “official” family meetings where they’d decide, among other things, which charities to donate money to (“Five bucks here, five there. We were broke.”) For the adults, there were golf outings at the public course, where Ronaldo showed up after his baseball game was canceled one Sunday in his sixteenth year.
Even now Ronaldo can’t say what he liked about the game, though it was more than the fact that, a natural athlete, he “could hit the ball pretty good.” There was something else, something “interesting,” something that in its very elusiveness compelled him. And over the following months, while his friends were going to parties, Ronaldo spent his evenings sneaking into Edgewater Country Club, a goyish club six blocks from the apartment, where the fence had a tear wide enough for him to squeeze through with a shag-bag and some clubs. But he admits that had it not been for Jules winning a few hundred bucks on a game show that spring and Millie giving an executive decree that they were moving to Los Angeles, nothing might have come of it. “It was probably the worst thing she ever did,” Ronaldo says about his mother’s decision. “If we’d stayed, I might have had friends, maybe gone to college. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t have had the golf.”
That winter, with no friends, no direction at school (“No one encouraged me.”) and no rain or snow to interfere, Ronaldo would sneak into Wilshire Country Club, where the lights from the parking lot cast enough light to see one of the greens, and hit balls. Though he joined the track team in the spring, once he realized that the coach only showed up for Friday meets, he’d skip practice and take the bus to the public course to make a few bucks caddying and practice his game. Two years later he enrolled at L.A. City College, where he played on the team for five terms before realizing that academically he “didn’t know what the hell he was doing.” To avoid the draft, he enlisted in the army and was sent to Fort Lewis in Washington. A few days before he shipped out to Alaska, his sergeant set him up to play a round of golf with the general. He came up one stroke shy of the course record. “You’re not going to Alaska,” said the general, who kept Ronaldo around for two years as his teacher.
Ronaldo still likes to talk about how the general would pull up with his chauffer in his Cadillac each morning, flags blowing, everyone standing at attention except Ronaldo, who would be leaning against a jeep smoking a cigarette. “Let’s get to work,” he’d tell the general.
Ronaldo is the rarest of rarities: a Jewish golf professional with a blue-collar sensibility. He has the sort of deep faith in work of people who have worked since they were old enough to earn money. And not just any work, but hard, physical work. Ronaldo prides himself on his ability to get his hands dirty, do the heavy lifting. To listen to him talk about his postmilitary life—taking the bus seven days a week from his parents’ apartment to caddy and, once he turned pro, to teach; and later, after winning the contract for the range and golf shop from the city in 1965, not just teaching and managing the shop but cleaning machinery, unloading inventory, digging up the range—is to listen to someone who understands his experiences first and foremost as a laborer. In his telling, the reason he quit drinking in the ’70s was not, God forbid, because it was affecting his home life with his wife and young children but because he couldn’t function at work. Even when I came to know him in his late fifties, Ronaldo was on the range at 5 AM after a storm, ankle deep in mud, digging out balls.
It’s not that Ronaldo has anything against having money or, for that matter, being a successful businessman. He just can’t stand the pretense and entitlement that usually come with it. You should see him walking around the country club that he and his wife joined a year before I arrived, a concession to his desire to play somewhere people wouldn’t hock him for lessons. All these well-heeled men approach him, saying, “Ron, so nice to see you” and, “Hey, how ya doing, Ron?” and Ronaldo shakes their hand and mutters, “Prick.” “Jerk.” “Cheat.” “Fake.” “Phony.”
I mean, if there’s one thing Ronaldo hates it’s the know-it-alls, the self-satisfied, the smug, the neat or otherwise put-together. “Ego,” he’ll say about such people. “All ego.” When Ronaldo says this about you, you might as well have been condemned to the lowest level of hell.
Nor is it just successful people he doesn’t like. The only companies Ronaldo will even consider investing in are those so beaten down by the markets, so inundated by lawsuits, that it will be a genuine miracle if they ever recover. And while he has by most counts a deep, even profound love of all things canine, the truth is, his feelings for them only extend to mutts, mongrels and crossbreeds: the scrappy, the abused, the borderline demented. He’d sooner let a purebred walk off a cliff than let it into his embrace.
In many ways, I was just the type of person Ronaldo loves to hate. My parents were lawyers. I’d gone to private schools; I’d hardly worked a job in my life. And I could tell he was studying me when he took me to hit balls soon after we arrived—that it was a test, not about whether I was good enough for his daughter but about whether I was good enough period. But he must have sensed my own distaste for pretense because later that evening, his wife, Pat, told me, “Ron says you have a high level of being.”
I didn’t know what the hell he meant. But we got along pretty well after that.
Ronaldo has always been a befuddling conglomeration of Eastern philosophy, mysticism New-Age hucksterism and psychobabble, most of which he’s picked up over the years from the frantic, peripatetic reading of someone trying to make up for a missed education. I mean, his bookshelves are filled with psychological texts, philosophical tracts, spiritual and metaphysical manuscripts, most of which are so dense, so impervious, that my eyes glaze over any time I attempt to read them. And while his mastery of the ideas in them might be considered a work-in-progress, his assimilation of their language is complete. You can’t get through a conversation with Ronaldo without being peppered with words like “psyche,” “being,” “awareness,” “soul,” “unconscious,” “persona” “spirit,” “false self” and “human potential.” And it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about a Caesar salad, or the Lakers, or the latest scandal in Washington, either. He’s a sort of maddening mosaic of ideas whose pieces at first glance seem orderly, comprehensible, even appealing, yet, upon closer inspection, don’t quite come together.
The closest thing to an anchor in this raucously fluid universe of his knowledge is the work of Carl Jung, which he stumbled upon not long after he sobered up, a few years after my wife was born. He was by then already knee-deep in the ideas of Krishnamurti, whose skepticism of knowledge confirmed Ronaldo’s distrust of know-it-alls, and Gurdjieff, whose faith in the power of work to transform the individual more or less approximated his own. But it was Jung’s idea of “the shadow”—that beneath our egos lies this dark, insidious underbelly—that really struck a nerve, not just validating something Ronaldo had long sensed about the world but also giving him the language to speak to it. Moreover, Jung wasn’t some highflying academic: bullied as a kid, depressed as an adult, he’d dived into the mess of his psyche, battled his demons and come out, the archetypal hero, transformed.
It’s difficult to overstate how profoundly Jung’s ideas have influenced Ronaldo: they’re the closest thing to a belief system, a personal mythology, he’s ever had. They inform every aspect of his life, and he is constantly analyzing people in their context. And while he seems open to the possibility that people can, like the Swiss psychiatrist, transform themselves, he takes palpable pleasure in their missteps and failings, those moments when they reveal just how fucked up they really are. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” he will intone at these moments in an ironic nod to the radio show of his youth.
And then he’ll growl, with something approaching glee, “The Shadow knows.”
There’s always been something of the cave man about Ronaldo, and by that I don’t mean he’s barbaric, violent or emotionally primitive, let alone crudely shaped or unattractive—he’s a very handsome guy. Rather, it’s his way of moving through the world. He grunts and he groans and doesn’t always speak in coherent sentences. He’s disinclined to wash his hands after using the bathroom. His jaw, chronically clenched, has reasonably been compared to a pit bull’s, and his shoulders and back are a tangle of muscles that befuddles the most experienced masseuse. His physical strength is as remarkable as it is unassuming—his handshake can bring a large man to his knees—and he is capable of startling bursts of athleticism. And then there is what I want to call his stunning tolerance for pain, though to refer to it that way suggests he actually feels.
I mean, there’s something quite literally sense-less about Ronaldo: he can’t register smells or, thanks to a botched root canal, feel his chin or bottom lip, let alone taste much of anything. He won’t hear you unless you shout, and a minor stroke has left him all but blind in his left eye. On those occasions when he does feel something, he feels in the extreme: a debilitating reaction to dust, a feverish reaction to beef, a frantic fear of the cold. Even his attempts at self-care have a distinctly prehistoric flavor: he dutifully takes vitamins but swallows them by the handful; he eats a healthy, high-fiber cereal each morning but devours half a box per sitting; his first course of action for a boil on his abdomen is to grab the closest needle; and his daily fitness routine consists of limping around the block after his dog, intermittently pedaling his stationary bike while reading the paper, doing a dozen sitting-arm push-ups on the diving board, pumping a couple of rusted dumbbells, and squeezing those hand-grips that came of age in the’60s.
Then there was the incident years ago when his daughter had a fledgling skin-care line and she walked in on him dipping his morning bagel in a bottle of her hand cream.
When she told him, he shrugged and kept right on chewing.
That year the city put out a formal request for proposals for the golf range and shop concession.The winner would be awarded a new five-year contract. This wasn’t the first time Ronaldo had faced this situation since he and his then partner, Jimmy “the Scotsman” Fairburn, beat out thirty-five other bidders in 1963. But for most of the previous decade, Ronaldo had had a steady if informal month-to-month arrangement with the city, so the announcement caught him off guard. Still, he was successful and, to his knowledge, well-liked among the powers-that-be, and he had no reason to think this was anything but a formality.
So he put in his bid and did what he usually did: grunted and got back to work.
I’d be putting it mildly if I told you Ronaldo has a long history of atrocious investments. If there were some kind of lifetime record or Olympic event for bad investments, he’d have won it ages ago. It’s always the same, too: he becomes infatuated with some oddball company; he studies its reports, talks to its reps, listens to conference calls; he does a thorough psychological analysis of its senior officers—and then he invests every last penny he can find. Over the following weeks, he watches the stock’s every tick, devours every headline and message-board posting; he becomes nearly prophetic in his conviction about the company’s future. Even when the stock falters, he maintains it’s just the “shorts” screwing around, and when allegations emerge against the CEO, causing the price to tumble, he insists they’re baseless. Just to prove his point, he doubles-down on his investment. Only when the company files for bankruptcy and the CEO is safely behind bars—only when he’s lost everything—does he entertain the possibility that he made a mistake.
I shiver to think about the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of dollars Ronaldo has lost in stocks over the years. Which is to say nothing of the money he’s poured into pockets of corrupt consultants, fink lawyers, shady contractors, crooked handymen, fast-talking salesmen, scheming employees or former-employees, freeloading relations, losing causes of one sort or another. “They all want my money,” Ronaldo will say. To which a fair reply would be: “That’s because they know you’ll give it to them.”
I mean, for someone who considers himself such an expert on the human psyche, Ronaldo has exercised some exceptionally poor judgment when choosing whom or what to get involved with. So when he hired a flamboyant civil rights lawyer, radio personality and aspiring golfer—let’s call him Calvin—to help sue the city for underhandedly awarding the previously mentioned contract to a large, Asian corporation, we braced for the worst.
By then I’d known Ronaldo for a decade. I was engaged to his daughter but liked him in his own right. Though I didn’t want him to lose the range, I was concerned: “He’s a civil rights lawyer, Ronaldo: What does he know about this?” But Ronaldo insisted he was “sharp” and had “no ego,” and they got to work, filing motions, subpoenaing files, generally gumming up the works at City Hall. They talked constantly, plotting their next moves but also wading into personal matters. Calvin, with no family of his own, became a de facto life coach for Ronaldo. “Buy your wife flowers,” he’d say. They also played golf, at Calvin’s insistence, for money, which, due to Ronaldo’s huge skill advantage and Calvin’s huge personality, resulted in more than one flare-up. Before long, however, they’d patch things up and pick up where they’d left off.
It was by most standards a curious relationship—more so, I suspect, because no one could remember the last time Ronaldo had had a friend. More than once I worried aloud to my soon-to-be-wife about where it might lead. But Ronaldo really seemed to like Calvin, in whom he had found something of a kindred spirit, a partner in fighting the world’s “evils.” And whatever they were doing vis-à-vis the city seemed to be working: that spring the courts made the city throw out the contract and restart the process, giving Ronaldo at least a couple of more years on the job.
Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think it would end badly.
One of the many lost souls who showed up at the range over the years was an eighteen-year-old kid I’ll call Jeff, who came in looking for a job in the early ’70s. Handsome, just out of high school, he seemed honest and eager to work, so Ronaldo hired him, first as a range worker, later as a salesman and, eventually, as store manager, a position Jeff kept for several years before heading off, with Ronaldo’s blessings, to find his fortune. Now and then Ronaldo would hear about some new business Jeff was trying and failing at until the day, five years later, when Jeff called to say he was opening a massage parlor and needed fifty grand to complete construction.
This was 1984, when for most people the words “massage parlor” still brought to mind AIDS, prostitutes, seedy affairs of one kind or another. But Jeff said it would be high-end, nothing illegal, and Ronaldo liked him, had practically raised him, so he gave him the money. “I didn’t think about it,” Ronaldo recalls. “He needed the money. I had it.” He figured he’d never see it again.
As it turned out, the business took off. There was nothing like it at the time. The economy was great, and the locals had plenty of disposable income. Over the next decade, Jeff expanded services, hired more people, opened half-a-dozen more locations. Somewhere along the line, thankful for Ronaldo’s support, he made him a general partner.
After a lifetime of disastrous investments, Ronaldo had finally picked a winner.
And this softened the blow when, after three years of court appearances and who knows how much paperwork, Ronaldo, just shy of his seventieth birthday, learned that he and Calvin had lost the fight to the city. Sure, he was being screwed by a bunch of money-grubbing politicians. Sure, his life’s work was being co-opted by a multinational corporation. Sure, he’d been given thirty days to pack his stuff and leave. But at least he wouldn’t be broke.
So he did what he had to: he sold off the carts, the ball cleaners, the buckets, all the tools and machines and as much inventory—pants, shirts, sweaters, shoes, caps, bags, clubs, grips, socks—as he could; he stuffed the rest, along with the vast contents of his office, into his three-car garage. He attended a surprise party at which every living misfit, loony and hanger-on who’d ever showed his face at the range appeared to give their thanks and make an impromptu speech. He gave who knows how much money to his now former employees. And then, forty years after he’d started, he walked out.
And for a while it went okay. I worried he might fall into a depression or even keel over like his father, but whenever I called, he was in his office watching television, screwing around in the market, seemingly unperturbed. Each day he’d meet old Saul and his former manager, Tito, for lunch and then visit Millie in the nursing home; afternoons he played golf with Calvin who, out of a love of irony or out of sheer idiocy, invited Ronaldo to be the “Stock Guru” on his radio show. One night, while out walking old Zaharias, he even found and took in an abandoned mutt he named “Lucky.”
For a guy who’d just lost the organizing principle of his life, it could have been worse.
What went wrong with Jeff is hard to say. Maybe he started skimming off the top or doctoring the books. Maybe he felt sick of sharing his profits with someone who didn’t do the work. Whatever the case, soon after our wedding, Ronaldo concluded that Jeff was stealing from him and, with Calvin’s help, sued him. A protracted legal battle ensued, which in the short term deprived Ronaldo of most of his income and in the long term ruined his peace of mind. Occasionally, because I hated to see him spending his retirement like this, I suggested he try and talk things out with Jeff. “No, no, I’ll get him,” he’d say. “You’ll see.”
By then Millie was dead, Saul was in a nursing home and blind Zaharias had walked into the pool and drowned. Ronaldo’s sister, Joane, was dying of emphysema, and Tito was smoking crack again. Ronaldo was spending his time studying legal documents, devising ways to reduce his household budget and generally counting the days till justice would be served. To add insult to injury, it became readily apparent that the Asian corporation that had taken over the range had no plans to do what it had promised in its bid. “They’re so bad,” he’d say when the subject came up, though to be honest I was beginning to wonder who “they” referred to.
Then one day Calvin borrowed fifty grand and promptly stopped answering his phone.
It wasn’t the money that upset Ronaldo; he’d lost plenty of that before. It was the shame, the disappointment, the deep sense of betrayal. He’d trusted Calvin, given himself over to him, not just financially but emotionally and psychologically. And the betrayal, along with everything else he’d recently been through, seemed to confirm what he’d always believed about the world: it was a bad place filled with fucked-up people, and he was a fool for believing otherwise. “It was my fault,” he said. “I misjudged him. I was dumb.”
My eight-year-old son, Ezra, who, in addition to being crazy for his grandfather, is an astute observer of human behavior, once noted, “Grandpoppy just sits wherever you put him.”
It’s true: set Ronaldo down in a coffee shop, on a park bench or living room couch, and he’ll usually keep sitting there until someone tells him to get up. On those occasions when he moves of his own accord, it’s not at all clear why. Watching him is a bit like watching my dog, who, after hours of lying around, will for no obvious reason get up and move to another room.
This has always been the case. Ronaldo’s wife, Pat, admits they’d never have started dating (she approached him in the elevator of their building), gotten married (she got pregnant) or bought a house (Pat insisted he put in an offer, so Ronaldo lowballed it, assuming the offer would never be accepted) had his hand not been forced. It’s reasonable to assume he’d never have put in a bid for the range in 1963 had his mentor, Jimmy Fairburn, not taken the lead. And it’s a safe bet that had the city not screwed him, Ronaldo would have died running his shop.
Sometimes you really have to wonder how Ronaldo has accomplished anything in his life. To say he is a creature of habit is a gross understatement: left to his own, he’d keep doing whatever he is doing for all time to come. He has an almost pathological fear of change and quickly becomes enraged in the face of new or unforeseen situations. And I’m not exaggerating much when I say he hasn’t thrown anything away in fifty years. If you don’t believe me, check his office, packed with yellowed golf magazines, decaying files and dust-covered, broken desk supplies. Or his garage, still filled with everything—hundreds of used clubs, balls, rusted tools, shoes, shirts, caps—that he couldn’t sell from the shop; or his medicine cabinet, a recent inventory of which revealed a dozen tubes of Ben Gay, half-a-dozen bottles of Bayer, ten tubes of Preparation H, a split, leaking tube of Prell, several bottles of St. Joseph’s baby aspirin, too many tubes of toothpaste to count, four bottles of Pepto Bismol, God knows how many packages of single-blade razors, five canisters of Colgate shaving cream, half-used and rusting, an array of partially used Dr. Scholl’s products, hundreds of golf tees, piles of discolored change.
I didn’t realize just how stuck Ronaldo was until a few summers ago when my wife and I spent several days trying to clean out his clutter. By then Ronaldo had found another lawyer, a young Jewish guy (“Very bright,” Ronaldo said, which meant he didn’t charge too much), who helped him negotiate a staged though pitiful buyout—thanks to the recession—from Jeff. He insisted he never thought about Calvin anymore. But you could tell it was all still eating him up: the mere mention of Jeff or Calvin or the golf course was invariably followed by a rant about the “evils” of the world and wild vows to expose their corruption. “The things I’ve got on Jeff,” he’d say, shaking his head. “I’ll sue him again when he’s done paying me.”
Sometimes, I confess, I felt embarrassed listening to him. He sounded like a crazy man. I even began wondering whether he’d somehow concocted all this “corruption,” whether the dramas with the City, Jeff, Calvin, were just the paranoid fabrications of his fucked-up psyche—whether on some level he wanted to lose, to be betrayed, stolen from, left alone. “Ever wonder why you’ve been ripped off so often?” I asked him once. “I mean, don’t you think it’s strange?”
Ronaldo, predictably tone-deaf, shrugged: “Maybe they know a dummy when they see one.”
Which might explain my reaction that summer when, after spending the better part of two days loading up his driveway with junk from his garage, we returned from lunch to find him moving it back inside. “What the hell are you doing, Ronaldo?” I said to him.
“Good stuff,” he said. “I’ll use it.”
“Use it?” I said. “You haven’t used it in forty years!”
As I watched him heave a busted dresser back into the garage, I wanted to scream at him, tell him how stubborn, small-minded, pathetic he was—how he deserved everything he got and worse. But I knew I’d regret it. So I just said, “You’re fucked up, you know that, Ronaldo?”
He didn’t object. He just kept dragging stuff back inside as though he hadn’t heard a thing.
The case against Ronaldo as reliable father, trustworthy husband, responsible member of the adult community, is both long and well-documented. Catch a family member for a moment and he or she will tell you about his irresponsible investments, his emotional absence, his inability to remember family milestones, his habit of turning on people, his stubborn attempts to negotiate by himself situations he’s ill-equipped for, his generally messed-up priorities. With more time, they’ll regale you with colorful tales of how he once dropped his oldest son off at the wrong preschool, or how he had his teenage son welding without eye protection, almost blinding him in the process, or how he used to send his sons out to collect balls on the range with mattresses tied to their backs while the golfers used them for target practice. And while everyone agrees that Ronaldo isn’t so bad anymore, no one is rushing to put anything of value into his hands.
Over the years I have had ample opportunity to observe his shortcomings and to develop my own case against him—for leaving my eight-year-old at a public putting green in L.A. while he went to browse the local Jung Library; for playing chase with my sons with no regard for the street; for clomping around our house in his muddy shoes and knocking up the walls with his suitcase; for convincing me to invest in a biotech company that promptly went bankrupt. Yet no matter how compelling the evidence seems, no matter how furious I get, something about all the criticisms and judgments feels misguided. Even, at times, dishonest.
I mean, in a lot of ways, Ronaldo is as reliable as they come: he ran a successful business for forty years; he put his kids through private schools; and his irresponsible investing notwithstanding, he’s paid all his bills on time, all the while bailing out many people who needed help because they couldn’t put their lives in order. And while he can turn on people abruptly, he’s shown the ability to come around to a more considered perspective over time.
Even on the domestic front, Ronaldo has, in his own, idiosyncratic way, proven himself to be quite capable. As, for instance, when he set my wife straight when she was depressed back in college and thought she was losing her mind. “Nothing wrong with you,” he said. “I feel like that all the time.” Or when he showed up at the last minute to extricate his younger son from a doomed wedding; or when he walked in on his forty-fifth wedding anniversary with flowers for his wife and a card in which he’d scrawled, “It’s been wonderful”; or when, after lots of hemming and hawing and only because the baby was asleep, my wife left him in charge while she ran errands. Predictably, the baby awoke and Ronaldo, unable to find baby food, took out a jar of jelly, tied the baby in the booster seat (he couldn’t figure out the clips) and fed him.
Sometimes I think the reason Ronaldo gets such a bad rap is because he just won’t stand up for himself. On the contrary, he seems perfectly willing to absorb all the judgments, accusations and rebukes anyone wants to heap on him. “Go ahead,” he seems to say. “I don’t mind. I’ll bear my failures and disappointments and all yours too.” He’s up to the task: hang around with Ronaldo long enough, and you get the sense he’ll endure just about anything. And rather than diminishing him, it seems to be a source of real strength—a well-spring of patience, even compassion that those around him actually rely on even as we continue to dump on him. “The truth is, I wouldn’t know what to do without him,” his wife confesses. “I’m the one who needs him. He’d be fine without me.”
Ronaldo hangs on to his stuff and we hang on to him.
A few years ago, tired of stuffing my younger son into a bike seat he’d mostly outgrown, I rigged him up a piece of wood on the rack on the back of my bike. At one point as we were out cruising along, the bike hitched and slowed, and then my son screamed. When I looked down, I saw his foot wrenched in the spokes of my wheel.
I went into a sort of shock: I couldn’t believe what I’d done. How stupid! How reckless! How completely irresponsible! Even after I learned it was a relatively “good” fracture, that he’d fully recover, I couldn’t talk to anyone, not even my wife. Then I remembered Ronaldo and picked up the phone: “I really fucked up, Ronaldo,” I told him, gushing with shame.
“We’ve all done that,” he said. Then he laughed. “Some of us more than others.”
I took the first decent breath I’d had in days.
Four or five days a week I call Ronaldo on my way to work. I talk to him more than I talk to anyone except my wife. He’s always in his office, his dog Lucky at his side, watching his stocks, reading the news, “organizing” his stacks of files and papers and magazines. One day he comes across Millie’s love letters to his father; another day he finds the minutes to the family meetings in Chicago; still another day he stumbles on an article about him nearly breaking the course record at Fort Lewis. We talk briefly about my sons, two uncommonly bright rays of light in his world (“They are good!”), before digging into the latest scandal in Washington (“Bunch of egomaniacs.”), the opera his wife dragged him to (“Makes her feel rich to go.”), the Jung book he recently dusted off (“Very deep.”), the old range worker who called him recently (“Needs money.”), the theories of his old mentor, Gene Andrews (“Lost the 1959 North/South Tournament to the Jack Nicklaus.”). For a guy who seems so completely out of touch—for a guy who starts singing Purim songs during Hanukah—Ronaldo has an uncanny ability to recall miscellaneous information; sometimes, just for fun, I’ll quiz him: “Who starred in the 1932 All Quiet on the Western Front?”
“Who won the first Masters Tournament?”
“Probably Horton Smith.”
“What’s the speed of light?”
“One hundred eighty-nine—no, 186,000 miles per second.”
“Who was the twenty-fifth president?”
“McKinley? Not sure.”
At moments like these, I realize Ronaldo’s mind is a lot like his office: everything is in there; it’s just a matter of finding it.
Invariably he tells me about his latest stock—a two-dollar Chinese coal stock that was trading at sixteen a few years ago. “You’re going to lose your shirt again, Ronaldo,” I say.
“No,” he says. “Not this time.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“This one is different,” he says without irony. “You’ll see. A little more time.”
“A little more time,” he says about organizing his office.
“A little more time,” he says about figuring out his psyche.
“A little more time,” Ronaldo says about nailing Jeff to the wall.
In this regard you could say Ronaldo is one of the great optimists: he really seems to believe that, given enough time, he’ll eventually get everything sorted out, fixed up, organized, accounted for. Yet I can’t help wondering how much of this is fueled by a fundamental sense of failure—a basic refusal to accept himself for who he really is.
Sometimes I want to tell him: “Ronaldo, you did good, you know that? You really did.” But I have the sense he wouldn’t quite believe it, that to acknowledge as much would be to undermine most of what he understands himself to be.
It’s as though he’s dedicated himself to a lifetime in the land of failure.
It’s a beautiful summer evening in Los Angeles, and I’m standing with Ronaldo at the local pitch-and-putt where he hits balls when he doesn’t feel like putting up with the schmucks at the club. He hardly plays anymore—he just hits balls, two, three hundred a day, as many as his stiff legs will allow. Whenever we’re down for a visit, I go along, not because I have aspirations as a golfer but because I enjoy the time with Ronaldo.
For the better part of an hour he puts in a determined effort, giving me pointers (“Your wrists! You broke ‘em!”), psychological insights (“You think too much.”), and mostly unmerited encouragement (“You could be a player.”). Before long, however, my back begins to ache, my hands blister, and I find my way to the nearby bench.
“I’m working on something new,” Ronaldo calls, tossing a few balls onto the grass. “Something I never quite thought about and very few teachers even know about, and if they do, it’s unconscious, so they don’t teach it.”
As I watch him loft one ball after another into the air, I realize it’s been almost twenty-five years since I first went out with him during my spring break. His hair is white now; he’s smaller, somehow, but in his cap and khakis and collared shirt, he cuts much the same figure he did all those years ago.
“Nice shot, Ronaldo,” I call as a ball rolls just past the pin.
“Still going left,” he mutters like he can’t figure it out.
The park lights snap on; we’re the only ones out here now. But Ronaldo continues to talk to himself, debating, grunting, moving his weight like he’s banging up against life’s great mysteries. Then he shrugs, lines up his next shot, and swings again.
Andrew D. Cohen teaches English at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and two sons. His essays have appeared in Confrontation, Under the Sun, the Saint Ann’s Review and elsewhere. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of Michigan, he received the 2007 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Award.