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Review of “El Libro de los Americanos Desconocidos,” by Christina Henriquez

I’ve been reading Spanish language novels recently and this is my third. This book was simultaneously published in English (the original language) and Spanish. Thus, my review should be taken as applicable to either version. However, this book is best read in Spanish because all of the characters are Hispanic and almost every word in it should be understood in Spanish. I read it to improve my reading comprehension. Nevertheless, it is a good exploration of the way many Americans (some of the characters are naturalized citizens) live.

The main story is about a Mexican family who came to the U.S. to seek special education for their daughter who had suffered a brain injury in an accident. All of the characters find themselves in a run-down apartment complex in Delaware, where they interact around the central theme. The author does a very good job presenting this disparate group of immigrants, so much in fact that I didn’t like any of them. I should add that many of them are only introduced in short chapters that summarize their stories, but I don’t see how she could have avoided that problem. Nevertheless, there was a sense of abruptness to their stories, which had very little to do with the main story. It probably should have been longer.

I especially appreciated how the author thoughtfully revealed the mental anguish (and personal behavior) of the central character, who I found myself disliking as I learned more about her. Don’t get me wrong. Creating and developing a character who isn’t evil and does nothing unethical that a reader learns to dislike is very difficult. Still, this woman is responsible, through what I would call her fundamental stupidity, for everything bad that happens to her family. This part, which is key to the entire story, is very well written.

The ending seemed a little contrived but it works because of the focus on the main character; however, I would have enjoyed some follow-through on the secondary romantic story line. It didn’t happen. I think the author didn’t want (or know how) to bring all of these separate themes together. Had she done that, it would have been a great book. As it is, it’s a good book and I would recommend it to anyone who wants an inside look into the fate of immigrants from Latin America.

John’s Downfall

John Norton was enjoying this vacation more than any other he’d ever taken his family on. He’d already taken a hundred photos on the ride up the steep road that led to Machu Picchu. Marilyn and the children were on a narrow strip of grass with a breathtaking view of the main site and he wanted a picture of them together, so they posed as he backed up for the right shot.

“Be careful,” Marilyn warned.

“No problem. This isn’t nearly as dangerous as the Grand Canyon,” he replied as he got started taking photos, capturing their expressions.

“A dozen people fall into the Grand Canyon every year,” she responded with concern.

He took a small step backward and felt the cord that was strung around the site a foot above the ground against his left calf. Not wanting to lose the shot, he squatted and took a couple more images, but he lost his balance and had to throw his left foot further back until it caught on the rope and, without thinking, he deftly threw his right foot back to catch himself. Too late, he realized what he’d done.

John felt his body fall backward but, unworried, he continued taking photos. He would fall on the ground and look foolish. He’d done that before.

That’s not what happened.

There was no ground.

Time came to a stop for John as he saw Marilyn and the children recede from view, but he kept taking pictures. However, he would have to throw those out because all their faces were twisted in fear.

He had thirteen seconds to make his peace with God and whatever else he considered important because he was falling 1400 feet with nothing to stop him.

“What have I done?” was his first thought.

“You are a moron,” was his second.

His mind had thoughts of its own, like flapping his arms and legs like a fish out of water. He got control of his innate urges after five seconds and stopped trying to fly. He became calm and focused on the surreal sensation of freefall. He closed his eyes and watched his life flash before him.

He was in first grade, sitting on a bench next to a cute girl who wanted to share his bologna sandwich, so they ate together. He had part of her peanut butter sandwich and they became good friends. He thought he’d forgotten her name; it was Pamela. They had become more than best friends by the time they got to third grade, where they played doctor. He smiled at the memory of examining her anatomy closely and letting her examine his. By the time they entered puberty together, they were ready to do more than play.

“Yes,” he thought. “I learned about sex from Pamela and we did it a lot.” Those were fond and long-forgotten memories.

Then, memories of all the girls he’d known after Pamela flooded into his super-attenuated consciousness. He had never thought of himself as a womanizer, but it was plain to him now that he had been and still was. His mind was flooded with all the women he’d had sex with, telling them that he loved them, each and every one. And he had, or so he’d thought at the time. But now he knew he had just wanted to be a stud, someone who dominated every woman he met, and it had been fun. With his eyes closed tightly, he imagined their ample breasts in his hands and their bodies writhing in pleasure under his sexual assault.

That word brought another set of images, ones he would have preferred not to recall during his last moments. Still, he couldn’t help spending a few seconds recalling the women he’d forced himself on; he even remembered their names alphabetically: Adrienne, Cynthia, Elizabeth, Francine, Marilyn (yes, he had married a woman he had assaulted), Nona, Pamela (he had forced himself on her in high school), Tricia, Vanessa, and Zahra. He smiled at remembering raping Nona in his own house after a party. She had fought him at first but, as he’d suspected, she wanted it as badly as he and was moaning by the time he finished. None of them had accused him of rape, so they obviously had all wanted him as much he’d wanted them; they just needed encouragement.

After eight seconds, John’s thoughts got around to Marilyn. He had forced himself on her and she had turned out to be the woman who thought she could control him, and she’d tried; she’d let him assault her continuously until the previous night, when he’d taken her with as much prejudice as the first time they’d met. Another smile crept over his face as he recalled how many women he’d had since marrying Pamela. He’d always assumed that someone like her, a buxom blonde with a healthy libido, was having as much extramarital sex as himself. However, now, with death looming only seconds away, he admitted to himself that she had never cheated on him. He was the cheater. That had been a narrative he’d used to avoid controlling his wanton ways.

With time slipping out of his hands, he thought of the men he’d known. That didn’t take long because he had no friends, only acquaintances. He didn’t like men because he wasn’t gay; why spend social time with people you couldn’t have sex with?

John’s casual review of his life finally centered on his family. He didn’t love his wife, his children, his parents or his siblings. In fact, they were all a nuisance that got in the way of his real interest. He suddenly realized that recalling memories of his past life had aroused him as the end neared. His last seconds were spent in sexual bliss as he had the best orgasm of his life.

Fourteen-hundred feet above, Marilyn stared at the spot where, thirteen seconds before, John had been standing and took her children’s hands and pulled them close.

Then, a smile slowly crept over her face, before it spread into a grin.

The Great Gatsby: A Review

I’ve read three of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels and more than a dozen of his short stories. This novel has more adventure than the other two (This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned) but isn’t written as well. It almost seemed cut and pasted, some of the scenes were so out of place. In fact, my impression is that he started out writing a novel along his usual slowly developing line and then got in a hurry and wrapped it up (it is really more like a novella with about 60K words by my estimate). The editor notes at the back revealed that he had rewritten major parts after receiving an author’s proof from the publisher.

I liked the way the story was told by a somewhat disinterested man (the only likable person in the story) who met Jay Gatsby as a neighbor. However, everything we learned about Gatsby and his long-lasting love for Daisy was through this narrator retelling what he had been told by Gatsby. I didn’t really get a feel for it and in fact it was so briefly presented that it seemed unimportant to me as I was reading. It was only by reading the extremely long preface, which talked about this as if it was a generational divide, that I realized it was a major theme of the story. It’s worth repeating that the interesting scenes were obviously contrived to fit them into the story. None of it made sense, not even for super-wealthy people with nothing to do with their time.

As with everything else by Fitzgerald that I’ve read, he has a problem with punctuation; specifically, he doesn’t use commas very much, even though he writes long, descriptive sentences with plenty of prepositional phrases. I guess some authors get excited and don’t notice that the pauses that are in their head aren’t indicated in the punctuation. Oh well. This is very common.

Overall, I can’t recommend this book, unless you’re reading anything and everything you get your hands on like I am.

The Workaholic

George Levy didn’t think of himself as retired. It didn’t matter that he’d failed to obtain financial support for his attempt to acquire a local home improvement store in the Dallas area, so that he could improve their supply chain and make them competitive with the national outfits like Home Depot. This was simply one of many such failed efforts over the years. He had been involved with practically every kind of wholesale and retail venture over the last forty years and setbacks like this were nothing new. He already had several alternative business plans ready, from purchasing a financially imperiled commercial furniture company to buying a fast food franchise. He would have used his savings to complete the transaction, but he’d taken a serious loss on an apartment building he’d purchased just before a private equity firm had built a high-rise building within a mile of his, but theirs was targeted to affluent tenants. They had unlimited amounts of money and no interest in sustainable real estate development and he didn’t have the capital to withstand the initial attraction of what they were promising.

The banks didn’t seem willing to invest in realistic projects like those he had proposed over the last few years. If he were honest with himself, he would have recognized that the heyday of small entrepreneurs like himself was past, at least in large cities like Dallas. But George had always nurtured a dream of rebuilding America in a sustainable way, which to him meant remodeling everything, from apartment buildings to the local hardware store, rather than tearing everything down every few decades and building something flashy and expensive in its place. He was convinced that America was pricing itself out of a sustainable future. Despite his recent setbacks, his children would inherit a substantial fortune when he died because he had always been aware of the need to elevate his family into the upper rungs of American society, especially as a black man. He would leave more than three-million-dollars to his family when he died, which reminded him that he was going to meet his son at White Rock Lake for a walk along the lakeshore.

After checking the time, he went to the garage and got into his twenty-year-old Lexus, which still ran perfectly, and started the engine before realizing that he hadn’t opened the garage door yet. He had read about people dying of carbon monoxide poisoning in their garages. It didn’t sound painful but he didn’t want to die that way. Besides, it took hours and more often than not it didn’t work—someone often wandered by and discovered the unconscious but still alive victim in their car. Sometimes the victims had permanent brain damage, which had made their lives worse than before. He opened the garage door with the remote and, after making certain it was closed, drove sedately through the modest subdivision where he had lived for more than thirty years.

After a short drive, George pulled into the small lot near the water and parked next to Lewis’s new Lexus and found his son waiting impatiently, checking his watch and using his smartphone in ways George couldn’t imagine. He had grown accustomed to minor displays of annoyance from his family and friends ever since he’d been diagnosed as suffering from Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. He hadn’t shared this information with anyone except his wife, which had contributed to their misunderstanding his rapidly increasing forgetfulness as indifference. Were it not for the disease and his obstinate personality, George would have known that this was the reason for his recent series of failed business endeavors. Lewis ended his on-line activity and greeted George warmly.

“He there, Pop. I was just checking with Mom if you had forgotten we were meeting today. How’s it going?”

George was very proud of Lewis, who had gone to college and gotten a degree in finance, which meant he would be prepared to take care of the family’s financial security in the future. He hugged his son and said, “Everything’s going great. I think we’re all in good shape. By the way, how’s your wife…” He paused because he’d forgotten Lewis’s wife’s name.

“Janine is great and so are the kids.” He put his hand on George’s shoulder and led him toward the trail that followed the lake shore as he continued, “Sharla is turning out to be a very good swimmer, although I’m not buying tickets for the next Summer Olympics yet, and Ethan is starting to look like a bookworm…like his grandfather. He does math problems for fun, if you can believe that!”

George chuckled because he remembered how much fun math had been when he was a child, before he’d learned that there was no money in math, at least not when he was a child. But times had changed. He had an idea, which he expressed as they strolled along the quiet water.

“Maybe I should get his help on my next project? I think my financial projections were off a little and that’s why the bank didn’t support my business plan. Still, they’ve made so much money from my past projects that they should have trusted me…”

Lewis interrupted his thoughts as he said, “I’ll get you two in touch, Pop. That’s a great idea. Of course, I’m here to help too. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I do have some experience in commercial financing.”

George scoffed. “I know that, Lewis. That’s why I trusted you with my accounts. You’re a good man, Lewis, and I hope that someday you will take responsibility for the legacy I’ll be leaving you and your sister. I’m counting on you.”

Lewis, being a good son, didn’t want to tell his father what the state of his legacy was because it would serve no purpose. His mother had told him about George’s diagnosis, and it broke his heart to see a man with a vision, and the will to act on it throughout his life, being destroyed by a disease he hadn’t brought on himself. He was trying to think of a response when his father continued.

“Of course, the inheritance tax will take almost half, which will leave you with less than two-million dollars; however, I know that you’ll put it to good use. You’re smarter than me and you went to college.” He laughed and Lewis joined him while holding back his tears.

Since learning of his father’s illness, Lewis had done a lot of research, spoken to George’s doctor with his mother present, and read several books about Alzheimer’s disease. He should be honest with his father when it was necessary, which he didn’t think was the case, until George continued.

“I’ve been thinking that it might be a good idea to let you take over the family fortune.” George waved his hands dismissively and added, “I know I’m not old enough to retire but you’ve a better mind for finance than me and the whole world is about the latest fad in derivatives and other exotic financial instruments. Don’t argue with me because I’ve made up my mind. I want you to take over.”

Lewis hated himself for what he was about to say. He waited until they had passed a young couple with their toddler daughter before saying, “Pop, I know that you have Alzheimer’s. Mom couldn’t keep it a secret because it’s too much for her to bear alone. I want you to know that we’ll all be with you every step of the way. You’ve been a great father and provider and you will always be an inspiration to all of us. You’re not alone in this.”

George wanted to walk away and leave Lewis standing there but he didn’t. Instead he stopped walking and turned to his son. “Don’t treat me like a moron, boy! I raised you and put bread on the table and I’ve set aside a nice legacy for you, which I just now said you should take responsibility for, so don’t patronize me, or I might change my mind!”

Lewis nodded and grimaced as he did what the experts had recommended. He nodded apologetically and said, “I’m sorry for offending you, Pop, but there’s something you need to understand. Things aren’t the same as they were. It’s different now…”

George retorted before his son had finished speaking. “Maybe I was premature in trusting you with my savings. Maybe you aren’t ready to take on such a responsibility.”

Lewis faced his father and, after rubbing his forehead with his hand, took a deep breath and said, “Pop, that’s what I’m talking about. There is no Levy family legacy. You emptied your reserve when you invested in the stock market last year. That was before you gave me access to your accounts. I speak for Joseph and Nadine when I say that you’ve already given us more than most young people could expect, and we appreciate it and love you for putting our futures first. Thank you for being such a thoughtful and loving father.”

George struggled to comprehend what Lewis had said for a minute. Finally, he stammered, “Did I blow your inheritance? Is that what you’re saying? I had meant to leave you with a nice nest egg…I mean, Goddamnit! I’m only sixty-four. How could I have done that?!”

Lewis put his around his father’s shoulders, feeling somehow empty inside as he replied, “None of that matters. We’re all in good financial shape thanks to your teaching us the importance of planning ahead. You’ve done a good job, Pop, and no one would dispute that.”

George nodded numbly. “Thanks, son. Let’s get going because I’m working up an appetite with all this walking. I’m going to be hungry by the time we go to lunch…and I think you said it was your treat?”

Lewis grinned and patted George on his shoulders as he replied, “Me too. I always get hungry when I go for a walk with you, Pop.”

They made their way back to the parking lot, where they got in their cars and drove to a barbecue restaurant where they found a table near the front, which faced the street through large windows. George always liked to have plenty of light when he ate because he had tasted too many hairs in his mouth over the years and he preferred seeing them on his plate rather than finding them with his tongue. This remarkable ability, which he had demonstrated repeatedly, was demonstrated when their salads arrived.

George held up the hair he had seen in his salad to the window and said, “See what I mean?”

Lewis didn’t laugh, which was what the family always did when eating with George as a group, and seriously responded, “It’s a good thing we got a table near the window.”

Instead of wiping the hair onto his napkin, George examined it closely and finally pronounced, “It’s from one of those Mexicans they hire, probably illegal; those people have no understanding of simple hygiene. They’re just a bunch of barbarians, not much more than animals.”

Lewis nodded and changed the subject with his response. “So, Pop, do you think you’re ready to retire?”

Recalling that he was dying of Alzheimer’s disease, George filled his mouth with his Caesar salad and made his son wait before he answered, “Apparently, I retired several years ago but I was too proud to admit it. All I’ve been doing is entertaining my dying brain at the expense of my family.”

Lewis was aghast at this statement. “What are you talking about? You’ve been doing the same thing that took care of us all our lives. Sure…maybe it is time to retire and enjoy the fruits of your lifetime of hard work.”

George nodded as their entrees arrived; he was having a half-rack of ribs and Lewis had pan-fried snapper with a hollandaise sauce. As they ate their meals, he was reminded of the progress of all of his grandchildren, whose names he was having difficulty remembering, by Lewis. But the thing that was foremost in his mind was that he had been living in a fantasy world, where he had millions of dollars to bequeath to his children. He had lost it all and didn’t even remember it. That was too much for George.

When the check came and Lewis paid it, George knew that his children were going to be okay, despite his failure to carry through on his original desire to take care of them. He knew that his son was patronizing him as they left the restaurant and stopped for a last hug before going to their cars.

“Take care of yourself, Pop, and don’t be a stranger. The kids really love it when you and Mom come to visit. I mean it. They love you more than I do, which I hadn’t thought was possible.”

Reaching in his jacket pocket for his car keys, George felt a stiff piece of paper, which he removed and examined in confusion. It was a Powerball lottery ticket that he didn’t remember buying. Lewis noticed his confusion and asked what was up.

“I must have bought a lottery ticket.” He went to Lewis and offered it to him. “Maybe this will make up for my having squandered your inheritance.”

“No, Pop, you keep it. Maybe you felt lucky that day and it would ruin the karma if I took it.”

George shook his head. “No. I remember now. I meant to give it to you. I had just been looking at my financial records and realized that I was broke and went to the store for bag of chips and it struck me. This is all I have to leave you but promise me that you’ll share the money with the rest of the family.”

Lewis reluctantly accepted the ticket and made George promise that he would come to visit that weekend.

When he got home, George received a phone call from an old friend he had gone duck hunting with many times over the years. Tom didn’t waste much time in getting to the reason for his call.

“I was just sitting here, looking at all these shotguns I’ve collected over the years, and I thought of you. Do you recall that time my favorite birddog, Patsy, ran off and we spent the day trying to find a dog rather than shooting ducks?”

George remembered that day as if it were yesterday. “Daisy. The dog’s name was Daisy,” he corrected, proud of his good memory.

“Oh yeh! That’s it. Patsy didn’t sound right. At any rate, you still have that old Remington 870, don’t you?”

“Sure, but I haven’t used it in five years. It’s well-oiled and stored properly. What do you have in mind?”

“Get it out and clean it up because we’re going to brush up on our shooting. Don’t even try and wiggle out of it, George, because I’ve already made a reservation at the hunting club to shoot some skeet.”

Tom had always been like that. It was impossible to say no to him because he expressed so much anticipation of whatever activity he was proposing. George reluctantly agreed and, after a few more minutes of recalling previous hunting adventures, Tom hung up and left George thinking about his thirty-year-old shotgun. It took a while for him to find the key to the gun cabinet; actually, it required his wife’s assistance to recall where he might have left it several years before, which was the last time he’d opened the cabinet. She expressed surprise at his sudden renewed interest until he explained that he was going skeet shooting with Tom that weekend. She had always liked Tom and had shot her fair share of skeet and even ducks, often with him and his wife, but not in the last twenty years.

His wife went back to the kitchen to make dinner while George began to clean his shotgun, in the middle of which he forgot why he was cleaning it. Confused, he went to ask his wife with the weapon in his hand. When he appeared in the kitchen with a shotgun held in his hands, she was startled.

“What the hell are you doing in here with that smelly old gun, George?”

He looked at her helplessly and responded, “I was going to ask you the same question. Why am I cleaning it?” He shrugged and she understood the cause of his confusion.

She rushed to him and pushed the gun aside so that she could hug him before responding. “We’re going skeet shooting with Tom this weekend and you need to clean it and make sure it isn’t rusty from sitting in the cabinet for so many years. Don’t you remember?”

He shook his head, but now he had a purpose, so he thanked her and went back to the study with the shotgun dangling from one hand. He cleaned it thoroughly and checked its operation, which he convinced himself of after dozens of times operating the pump and trigger. However, he didn’t have any ammunition so he couldn’t check if it would jam or not. Sitting there with his freshly cleaned shotgun on the table in front of him, he forgot why he was in this position; and then he recalled that he was going to put the firearm to one last use. He had already forgotten about his skeet-shooting plans with Tom. At any rate, he would have to get a box of ammo because he needed at least one shell for what he intended to do.

By the time he had gotten a box of ammo the next day, George was having second thoughts about his original plan. It would be traumatic for his wife (he couldn’t remember her name) to enter the study and find the mess he imagined would have been produced by his planned action, so he went skeet shooting with his wife and met Tom at the hunting club. His eyesight and reflexes were undiminished, and he got a better score than Tom at the end of the course. They had lunch at the clubhouse, where they were joined by Tom’s wife, Hailey, whose name George remembered for some reason. During the course of the meal, which consisted of a barbecue pork sandwich for George, the topic of the opioid epidemic came up and how many people were dying of overdoses. He listened carefully as Hailey described how easy it was to get these drugs, especially in Houston which had more than twelve-hundred overdose deaths the previous year. George didn’t think these victims of the drug crisis had died in pain or left a mess for someone to clean up. Had they been his age, their deaths could easily have been mistaken as a heart attack.

George had a new plan. It wasn’t actually a plan but a painless and less-traumatic way of accomplishing his objective. However, he didn’t know any drug dealers and couldn’t imagine himself in Sunnyside, looking to buy opioids from a drug dealer. This was a problem because he had no medical conditions that required pain medication and his doctor had expressed his opinion about other doctors who had been tempted by the big pharmaceutical companies to over-prescribe drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin many times.

With what remained of his conscious mind focused on this problem, George stumbled (literally) into a solution. His wife had just finished mopping the kitchen floor when he ran in to share something with her, which he had forgotten by the time of the event. She warned him about the wet floor just as he lost his footing and fell against the countertop, his right temporal lobe taking the brunt of the impact while his right wrist snapped as he hit the floor, whereupon his head had a second impact, this time with the tile floor. He didn’t pass out, but he lay on the kitchen floor like a pile of rags as his wife (her name is Shirley) called nine-one-one.

George had broken his wrist and fractured his pelvis in his fall, and his conservative doctor prescribed Vicodin for the pain, which George had reported as being much greater than what he actually felt. He was in a good mood as he left the hospital in a wheelchair pushed by Lewis, with a bottle of pain relief in his pocket. He would not have to suffer losing his personality and sense of being as so many others like himself. He had a painless escape plan. Shirley watched him closely for the first few days after his homecoming and then it settled down. He could walk with his fractured pelvis and so, one evening when she was reading a book, he emptied the entire bottle of Vicodin into a glass and filled it with his favorite Scotch. After creeping silently back to his bed after this painful effort, he put on his headphones and started a playlist he had recently compiled for this purpose on his smartphone, before taking several minutes to down the Scotch and the Vicodin. He was very happy and died with a smile on his face as Michael Bolton crooned When a Man Loves a Woman.

Addicted to Love

We’ve all met someone like the protagonist of this story, and we never know if we should feel sympathy for them or envy them for their willingness to take chances, again and again. Those who’ve never experienced the thrill of falling in love repeatedly will have difficulty comprehending what it’s like to feel the pulse quicken and the lightness in the head that indicates the onset of a delusional romance. For those who are blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with this recurring ability, it is very enjoyable and much better than watching television. However, they will also admit, if they are being honest, that it is an expensive and emotionally exhausting hobby. That is what Lionel Watson has learned during his sixty-four years on earth.

It would be easy for someone who has never felt the way Lionel does to mistake him for a narcissist because of the concern he’s always felt about his appearance but, in fact, he dresses exactly appropriately, with his hair cut to exacting standards, and speaking correctly to fit into whatever social group he wants to join; and he always liked to join groups with lots of girls. He has a deep-seated need to be accepted by anyone he likes, especially girls. That’s why he had learned to play the clarinet in high school, to meet the girls in the band, and why he had joined the drama club, even though he couldn’t act any way except as Lionel Watson. It had worked out because apparently, he had a popular set of personality traits. He’d even gotten the lead role in the high school performance of Guys and Dolls his senior year.

It wasn’t until he started college at Georgia Tech that he had to make some adjustments to his lifestyle because he was studying electrical engineering. He had compromised and modified his original plan to study English literature or perhaps psychology because he was good at math and engineering. Thus, it took a couple of years to get his bearings and find the college girls.

I

The live oaks had shed last year’s leaves and were covered in pubescent bright-green foliage as Lionel strolled along the walkway to meet his girlfriend, Mary Jane Henning, in front of the library. It was his last semester in college, and he had great news to share with the love of his life, who was graduating at the same time as him. It was fate. They were meant to be together forever, and his heart was racing in anticipation of their future. He stopped in front of the steps that led to the red-brick edifice containing more than two-million books and periodicals of higher learning. He was gazing upward and imagining all that knowledge when he was startled by a hand on his arm. His heart skipped a beat when he turned to see Mary Jane smiling at him, displaying her perfect teeth. Seeing her always made his day; she was medium height with auburn hair and hazel eyes, set in a brooding face defined by her aquiline nose and wide mouth, defined by thick lips that begged to be kissed.

Without thinking, that’s exactly what he did, and she responded as he’d hoped she would. They went to a nearby bench and sat down, where they kissed again, before Lionel shared his news.

“I got a job offer from Boeing to design jets and spacecraft and stuff like that. I want you to come with me.” He took a deep breath and added, “Will you marry me and make a life together?” He held his breath awaiting her answer.

She was surprised at this sudden proposal because they hadn’t talked about it before, but she loved Lionel and wanted to marry him. She nodded emphatically and responded, “Of course I’ll marry you and go wherever we have to, but what will I do there…I mean, for a job? I don’t know anything about Boeing, or even where it’s located.”

He finally breathed and said, “It’s in Seattle, Washington, which is right on the Pacific Ocean. Seattle’s a big city with half-a-million people, and universities and restaurants and everything. It’s bigger than Atlanta. And the climate isn’t so hot in the summer and it never snows. The winters are mild. They call it a maritime climate. There will be plenty of jobs for someone as smart as you, Mary Jane, but you don’t have to work if you don’t want to because I’ll be making a lot of money.”

She liked the sound of that. She had been dreading looking for a job and now Lionel had found one that could support both of them. She was quickly becoming as excited as him as she exclaimed, “That sounds great! We have to get married here in Georgia so that both our families can make it. It’ll be a great big wedding and my mom is going to be so excited. I can’t wait to tell her!”

They were both caught up in the surge of hormones accompanying such a momentous decision and neither of them could think of anything else for the rest of the semester. They planned and talked about it, and discussed everything with their families, and finally decided on getting married in the United Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, where Mary Jane had attended services all her life.

They were married the day after graduation, which was attended by both families as was the wedding. Mary Jane was very happy because Lionel had worked out the schedule without her having to think about it. She had been free to concentrate on her wedding dress and who should be her bride’s maids, and other important things like that. The weather was perfect for a spring wedding and the reception which was to be held in the large field next to the church, and she knew this was the beginning of a wonderful life.

Lionel was even more excited than Mary Jane because his entire family had driven up from Macon, but he hoped that nobody would start a fight during the reception when there would be plenty of liquor to fuel any hidden animosity between his family, who weren’t very well off, and Mary Jane’s, who were among the aristocracy of Atlanta (according to his mother).

As expected, the wedding and reception were glorious affairs with the cooperation of the weather, and the only ruckus was between two of Lionel’s cousins, who had brought some moonshine and imbibed a little too much, finally having a pushing contest over whose car was faster. It was adjudicated by their father when he suggested they should race home, a suggestion that caused Lionel to roll his eyes and stay out of it. At a relatively early hour (nine o’clock), Lionel and Mary Jane took their leave of the wedding guests and rode in a limousine to a motel where they would spend their wedding night, before taking off for Seattle in the morning on the train, which would serve as their honeymoon. They were going to see the country together for the first time while the wedding gifts would be sent to them by freight.

II

The first three years in Seattle were marital bliss for both of them as Lionel worked hard, while avoiding being a workaholic and neglecting his bride, and Mary Jane got them settled in to the ranch-style house they had bought and made acquaintances among their neighbors. With Lionel’s full support, she attended classes at the University of Washington to earn a master’s degree in library science. Their daughter, Annabelle, was born within a few days of their second anniversary and she looked just like her mother, to Lionel’s delight. Everything was going just the way both of them wanted.

Mary Jane didn’t like spending time with the engineers from Boeing because she thought they talked about work all the time, which they did; and Lionel was often dragged into their conversations against his better judgement while their wives would do something else in another room with the kids. Lionel desperately wanted to join the women and children, but he didn’t want to insult his work colleagues; however, he always apologized to Mary Jane when they were alone.

One evening, after Annabelle had been put to bed, and Mary Jane had come out of the shower wrapped in a bath towel, she said, “Aren’t you tired of bringing work home with you whenever we get together with your friends from Boeing?”

Lionel should have taken notice of her wording and her tone, but he didn’t because he couldn’t take his mind off the towel draped over her breasts, and what they were going to do in the bed. Thus distracted, he replied, with a slight wobbling of his head, “Sure, but I don’t want to offend them, and they seem to want to talk about work all the time. I’d rather spend time with you and the other wives and the kids but I’m kind of stuck.”

She nodded thoughtfully as she brushed her long, auburn hair while directing a blast of hot air on it with the hairdryer. “I have friends too, you know, and I’d like us to get together with them sometime. I think you’d enjoy their company as much as I do.” The towel was slipping down and Lionel was getting excited, so he answered without thinking.

“That’s a great idea. Maybe they can all meet and become friends.”

She finished blow-drying her hair as the towel fell to the floor, causing Lionel to instinctively rush to her and wrap his arms around her narrow waist, feeling her soft skin, and kissing her passionately. She returned his feelings as strongly and, when their lips had separated, she said, “Why don’t you take a shower now so that we can go to bed. I’ll set something up for you to meet the gang.”

He reluctantly released her and practically ran to the bathroom, removing his clothes as he went. As he closed the door, he heard her add, “You’re going to love them.”

Thus began a different period in their marriage, one which caused Lionel a great deal of distress because Mary Jane’s friends were from a completely different social group than his coworkers. The men had longer hair and wore colorful clothing, nothing like the suits the engineers wore, and the women dressed provocatively, with low necklines and short skirts and tight jeans. He tried to fit into this group of people, but it was difficult to do because they talked about music, art, and moves, and other stuff like that. None of them were married and the women flirted with him all the time, which made him feel very insecure because he would never cheat on Mary Jane, even if they were naked in front of him, which one girl, Debra, managed to accomplish one evening when he went to their master bathroom and found her undressed and in the shower. He apologized for barging in on her and backed out the door as she said that she didn’t mind if he used the toilet while she showered. It took weeks to get the image of her standing naked in front of him out of his mind because she was a natural blonde. He had never seen a blond undressed before.

Taking all things into account, however, he liked being with Mary Jane’s friends at parties more than his work colleagues because they didn’t talk about electrical systems on aircraft or missiles, which he heard enough about at work. However, he liked the engineers he worked with and their families, so he had to come up with a way to keep the conversation from becoming an extension of the Boeing offices. Then, he had an idea which he shared with Mary Jane one evening before bed (bedtime was the best time to talk seriously because Annabelle was in bed and they weren’t distracted by TV or friends). He waited until she had come out of the shower wrapped in a towel before sharing his idea.

He focused on his words rather than her body casually wrapped in a towel as he began. “I’ve been thinking about how we could change the tenor of our entertaining our friends. Right now, we either have my friends from work come over or we have your friends, but never at the same time. Why don’t we have a dinner party and invite some engineers and several of your friends? I don’t mean like we have to choose our best friends or anything like that. It could be random. I think it would make for a more stimulating conversation and, in case you’re thinking that my colleagues only talk about work, I can assure you that they don’t, not even at work. It’s just that they naturally tend towards it when there are too many of them in the room.” He smiled hopefully as she seemed to think about his proposal.

She turned off the hairdryer and looked at him uncertainly before saying, “Why do you refer to Tanya, George, and the others as my friends? Don’t you like them?”

Lionel hadn’t expected to be asked that question, but he was prepared to answer honestly, “I don’t get phone calls from them or invitations to join them for happy hour. They always call you. I don’t even know any of their phone numbers or last names. I like them very much and I enjoy the time we spend together, but…” Then he remembered an incident that would prove his point.

“For example, last month I suggested that Tanya and Gloria should join us in visiting the art museum and Tanya said she would talk to you about it. I never heard back, and we went to the museum by ourselves. I think it would have been fun to have their insights because they’re more aware of pop culture then me.” She was thinking again.

The result of her cogitation was not what he had expected. “George said that you made a snide comment about his being a hairdresser and he was offended. They don’t think you like them and you treat them with disdain…and I can see their point. You are aloof with them and never add anything to the conversations. You don’t seem to care what they think.”

Lionel almost fell off the bed at her words. He had been attempting to fit in with Mary Jane’s friend and had convinced himself that he was making progress. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a psychologist and neither was she, so he didn’t understand that they used language differently; he was an engineer and they were artists and creative people like that. Thus, he stammered in response, “If I insulted George, I’m sorry and I’ll apologize although I don’t know what I said that he found offensive.” He paused a moment and continued, “I’m not sure what disdain means but isn’t it like thinking someone is not as good as me? How would they get that impression?”

She faced him and retorted, “I’ve noticed it too, Lionel. You aren’t making any effort to understand our conversations and you aren’t even trying.”

“Wait a minute,” he objected. “No one can read my mind, not even me, much less George or Tanya or any of them. Not even you, Mary Jane. I may not be linguistically gifted like Tanya or you, but I have some idea of what I’m thinking, and I’ve never felt disdain for anyone in my life. This is a good reason for our mixed friends to meet because then you would see that engineers talk differently—that’s all.” He nodded with finality and waited for her response.

She held her towel up as she said, “You should take a shower. You have to get up early in the morning.”

For the first time since their marriage, Lionel went to bed without making love to his wife. However, being a man with a mission, he persisted until she agreed, after a week, to arrange a dinner party with several of her friends. He did the same, but made a point of inviting only unmarried Democrats, who would at least not have a conservative point of view or a spouse waiting at home to deal with, which he was certain wouldn’t have worked at all.

On the appointed evening, everyone arrived on time and the evening’s conversation went as he had hoped. His coworkers, being engineers, kept insisting on clear definitions of ambiguous words, and Mary Jane’s friends seemed uncomfortable being put on the spot semantically. There were several heated debates but no name calling and, by the time they took seats in the living room to listen to some music which Gloria had brought in the form of several albums Lionel was unfamiliar with, accompanied by light conversation. As it turned out, Bob (a good-looking guy with blonde hair) was familiar with all of Gloria’s choices and they hit it off, which kept things under control for a while.

However, apparently feeling snubbed by not being invited to dinner, a couple whose names Lionel could not remember showed up at ten o’clock, apparently under the influence of alcohol or maybe cocaine (which he knew they used casually). Raphael and Nikita were in a hot-blooded mood, just like Lionel’s cousins at the wedding, and they insisted on joining the party. Lionel could see that the guests Mary Jane had invited were more than a little annoyed at such boorish behavior as the uninvited guests began verbally assaulting Lionel’s guests. To his surprise, however, they were not defensive or disdainful of the interlopers and the evening ended at eleven o’clock with everyone leaving on speaking terms.

Despite the success of the evening, and many more such mixed group events over the next couple of years (including the marriage of Bob and Gloria, who had been the blonde in the bathroom encounter with Lionel), arguments between Lionel and Mary Jane became more frequent; sometimes over the subject of another child but, more often, over what a psychologist would have called her social insecurity as her friends slowly began to accept Lionel as worthy of their attention. Mary Jane got her master’s degree and found a job at Seattle University, where she met a new group of friends, but this time she didn’t bring them home, so Lionel never met them. This, of course, increased his insecurity about her new friends and what she was doing completely outside his observation.

As fate would have it, it was Gloria (now pregnant) who explained how life worked to Lionel’s shock. He had been invited to her and Bob’s new house just a few houses down the street from Lionel because Mary Jane was going to a concert with some of her new friends that evening and would be dining out with them. Lionel had just finished his chicken cacciatore when she dropped a bombshell.

Her eyes were laughing as she looked at Bob, who apparently knew what was coming, before she said, “Do you remember when I tried to seduce you, Lionel?”

He had gotten the image of her lithe and perfectly blonde body out of his mind until that moment, when the image flooded in. He looked helplessly at Bob and muttered, “I’m sorry…it was an accident…”

Bob was grinning as Gloria continued, “It wasn’t an accident. Mary Jane suggested I should refresh myself in your private bathroom and I understood exactly what she was talking about. I was single and not in a romantic relationship and so I figured, what the hell? If she was okay with our having sex in her own bed, I was because she had told me intimate details about your sexual relationship. You could have had me right there…in the bathroom if you’d wanted to.” She paused and sipped her wine before continuing, “But you’re a nice guy who doesn’t do shit like that. I saw you in a completely different light after that night. I realized that I wanted to marry someone like you…and then you introduced me to Bob.”

Lionel’s mind wasn’t spinning. He was numb as he stammered, “What are you saying?”

She put her hand on his arm and gently replied, “Mary Jane had an affair with George from the beginning. The rest of us—Tanya, Sylvia, and the others—were a coverup for their relationship. They stopped seeing each other when she got her new job. He told me this himself. Do you understand?”

“Maybe I can fix whatever I did wrong that made her look for other men? I can fix this.” He didn’t believe his own words.

Bob was shaking his head as Gloria replied, “No, Lionel, you can’t. Mary Jane told me that you were indifferent to her and how you never had sex and then suggested that I should seduce you to invigorate your sex life, but I knew she wasn’t telling the truth because she had mentioned several times how great your sex had been the previous night. She lied to me and she’s lying to you.”

“Maybe we need marriage counseling,” he stammered.

They were both shaking their heads, but it was Bob who responded to Lionel’s desperate statement. “You got married straight out of college and it seemed that it would last forever, but it didn’t work out. Mary Jane isn’t a slut and you’re not a wooden soldier, but you guys just never had time to discover who you really were. One would think that finishing college would clear our minds, but it doesn’t seem that way.”

Lionel, to his great displeasure, divorced Mary Jane and didn’t have to pay alimony but he gladly paid child support for Annabelle, who he would be allowed to see, by court order, every weekend. Mary Jane wouldn’t look him in the eyes when they left the courtroom, probably because she had been demonstrated to be an adulterous, thanks to the depositions of Gloria and George and the rest of her previous group of friends.

Time heals all wounds the saying goes, and so it was for Lionel. He thought about what he had done wrong in his marriage to Mary Jane and came to the conclusion that she had been overly influenced by friends he didn’t know (forgetting that she had started her affair with George within months of their meeting), his own insecurity at her having friends he wasn’t familiar with, a fallacy proven false by Gloria’s becoming one of his best friends, and their having arguments before going to bed. He wouldn’t let any of this happen again.

III

Being unable to get the image of Gloria in the shower out of his mind now that he was divorced, Lionel began looking for someone like her; he would have gone after he except that she had married his friend and coworker, Bob, so he had to look elsewhere. Of course, not being able to communicate directly with his subconscious, our protagonist didn’t know he was looking for a natural blonde, but he focused with laser precision on just that objective. He had remained in his house after buying out Mary Jane’s half, which she got in the divorce settlement, and so he saw Bob and Gloria several times a week and, as fate would have it, he met the next love of his life because of her.

Gloria had always been a good tennis play, having played competitively in college and she and Bob went every week to a tennis club not far from their house. She had been trying to get Lionel to join them because he had played some tennis in college as well (he had learned that it was popular with women) although not competitively; but he didn’t have a partner to play doubles with his friends. She solved that problem by setting him up with a woman she had played with until getting Bob to take it up. Her ex-opponent, and sometimes partner, was thus available sometimes because she hadn’t found a permanent replacement for Gloria.

Cathy Miller could have been Gloria’s sister, they were so much alike, even though they hadn’t met before becoming friends at the tennis club. She was a much better player than Lionel and they lost the match miserably to Bob and Gloria, but she didn’t seem to mind as they stopped for coffee after the humiliation of his first setting foot on a tennis court in six years.

Cathy slapped Lionel’s shoulder in a way that got his attention and shared her perspective of the game. “I can’t believe you did so well after so many years. It was mostly your bad serves that cost us a victory, so I guess I’ll have to work with you on that.” She was smiling at him and he felt the same excitement he’d experienced when he’d met Mary Jane.

He grinned sheepishly and replied, “I think it was a lot more than my tendency to drive the ball into the net, but thanks for the support. However, be careful what you say because Gloria is likely to insist that I take you up on your implicit offer of assistance.” He wasn’t sure if he’d gone too far, but Cathy’s response reassured him.

“I think you need a lot of work, so why don’t we make a date for every weekend? And, if Bob and Gloria are willing to play against us, we can measure our performance as a team against our rivals.” She placed her long fingers on his arm and added, “What do you think? Are you up to the effort?”

He was definitely ready to spend a couple of hours every weekend with Cathy, with fantasies of more than weekends already filling his imagination, as he responded, “Okay. You’re on but don’t feel obligated. If something comes up or you just don’t want to deal with me, tell me openly. It won’t hurt my feelings.”

Gloria and Bob were both grinning as she interjected, “I can’t wait to play you guys again. Bob and I may have to pick up our game too because I know that Lionel takes any challenge seriously.” She gave Bob a glance that told him she was thinking the same thing he was. Lionel had finally gotten over his difficult break-up with Mary Jane, so he threw his support behind the proposal.

“Let’s make a wager, since you two appear to be committed to a serious training program. We’ll play again in a month and the losing team has to buy dinner for the winner, who gets to choose the restaurant. Are you game?”

Before Lionel could think of a response, Cathy confidently answered, “We accept your challenge, but I’ll warn you that I have expensive taste in restaurants.”

They toasted the wager with their coffee cups, but Lionel didn’t think they had a chance because, even though Bob had only been playing for a year, Gloria was a very good player and in excellent condition. This reminded him that he knew first-hand what kind of shape she was in; then, he looked at Cathy, who was smiling at him, and imagined her in the shower and wondered if she was a natural blonde too.

By the date of the challenge match, Lionel and Cathy had fallen in love, and he knew it wasn’t just him because she was calling him all the time and sharing details about her private life. They hadn’t slept together, or even kissed, which made their relationship even more special because he got as much pleasure from how she made him feel as he would from sleeping with her. The tennis match was another thing entirely. As he had suspected, Gloria could have played them by herself, and Cathy and he lost, although they had won a set. As it turned out, Gloria also had expensive taste in restaurants because she was an assistant editor for an entertainment magazine in the Seattle area. Lionel and Cathy constantly talked on the phone and had several private dinner dates after the match, and he was sure of what his next move should be when they finally kissed as he dropped her off at her apartment the day before their dinner with Bob and Gloria.

The kiss became enthusiastic and his heart was pounding as their lips parted. “Cathy,” he stammered, “I love you. I’ll understand if you don’t feel the same…”

She interrupted by kissing him even more passionately and then gave her response. “I know you do, and I love you even more, if that’s even possible.” Then she blushed and shyly continued, “I would invite you in, but I don’t think we’re ready for that yet…” Suddenly, she shook her head and added, “That’s not what I mean. I want to make love to you in the worst way, but it doesn’t seem like the right time, if that makes sense?”

He nodded quickly and replied with his pulse pounding, “I know what you mean. It isn’t time yet. We aren’t in a hurry. We have all the time in the world, but I love you so much that I think my heart is going to explode every minute I’m away from you.”

She smiled shyly and said, “Me too.” Then she opened the door and, before going inside, rushed back over and kissed him even more intensely; then, she blew him a kiss as she closed the door. He knew what he had to do to make everything perfect.

They met Gloria and Bob at a quiet Italian restaurant away from the noise of the city, after a hectic drive through city traffic with Cathy constantly caressing Lionel’s arm and smiling at him expectantly. They were led to a cozy table near a window that looked out on Puget Sound with the full moon reflecting off the quiet waters. After ordering a bottle of very expensive cabernet, Bob’s gaze shifted between Lionel and Cathy as Gloria expressed the anticipation in the air.

“You two are awfully happy to be paying what will probably be a very expensive wager. What’s going on?” She imagined they had finally slept together but her assumption was incorrect.

Cathy could barely control her excitement at being in love with Lionel as she giggled and responded. “Lionel and I are I love, if you can believe that. Who would have guessed? I mean, I was just giving him refresher tennis lessons…but there you have it…we’re in love.” She looked at Lionel with the same gaze that had caused him to recognize how much she loved him, so he nodded emphatically.

“I think it was love at first sight,” he said with certainty.

It was Cathy’s turn to nod emphatically. “Absolutely. Otherwise, why would I have insisted on helping him? Every moment since we met, I’ve thought only about him.”

Lionel was still nodding as the wine arrived and was poured into their glasses by the server. When the young man had departed, he knew it was time to make his move, to turn this into the most perfect night of his life. He raised his wine glass and made a toast.

“I’d like to publicly admit that Bob and Gloria are a better tennis team than Cathy and I and add that, in all seriousness, it was Gloria’s amazing talent and physical stamina that made your well-deserved victory possible.”

Gloria blushed as Bob nodded his agreement and they touched their glasses, which meant it was time for Lionel to do something that would make his life perfect.

He turned to Cathy and added, “I’d like to offer a consolation prize to Cathy for being such a great instructor, whose efforts weren’t enough to make me a tennis champion.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small box with a bow on top, which he slid across the table to her.

Everyone’s eyebrows arched in surprise, but it was Cathy who picked up the gift box and gently removed the bow, before opening it and removing the small diamond ring it contained. As she held it up to the light for everyone to see, Lionel got up and knelt on one knee in front of her and all the people seated in the dining room and expressed his heartfelt desire.

“Will you marry me, Cathy Miller?”

Instead of answering immediately, she handed the ring to Lionel and held out her ring finger and, as he slipped the token onto her digit, replied, “Of course, Lionel. I love you and I would like nothing more than to be your wife.”

Bob and Gloria’s jaws dropped in shock at this sudden event but could think of nothing to say. During the silence, Lionel got up and kissed Cathy gently and lovingly and the incessant pounding of his pulse, which had been unrelenting ever since he’d first met his fiancée, stopped and he felt fulfilled. He was whole again.

IV

Lionel and Cathy were married in a park next to a lake with all of their friends and most of her family in attendance. His parents had declined to join them even after he offered to pay their airfare. He understood, but Cathy hadn’t been married before, so her family was very excited, and she was from the Seattle area. He had declined her father’s offer to share the expenses of the wedding but, not wanting to offend his future in laws, had suggested that they could pay for the reception. He was floating in the clouds the entire day and, to his relief, there were no altercations during the reception, not even when Mary Jane attended with her new husband, George, with whom she’d had the affair which led to her and Lionel’s divorce; and Annabelle, who was only three, was a flower girl. He felt no animosity toward either George or Mary Jane, so there were no awkward moments. The newlyweds were scooted away in a limousine for a week-long honeymoon in Hawaii, which further solidified the closeness of their relationship.

Naturally, Lionel had no applicable memories from his first marriage, so his second marriage was everything he had ever dreamed of. He felt closer to Cathy than he had to anyone in his life. His good friends, Bob and Gloria, had their doubts but they couldn’t help but share the obvious joy the newlyweds were feeling. They were inseparable and they never argued or even disagreed about anything. And Bob noticed that Lionel became more creative at work and even got promoted to a management position, all because of finding the woman of his dreams. He and Gloria discussed this a lot in bed before turning the lights off. It was an enigma.

The marriage of Lionel and Cathy was indeed the picture of matrimonial bliss for six years, during which time she gave birth to two boys separated by only a year, his tennis had improved sufficiently that they sometimes beat Bob and Gloria in a doubles match, and Cathy stopped working at minimum-wage jobs and got a college degree in political science from the University of Washington. During all of this, Gloria saw no signs of conflict between her friends, who she had decided were the picture of marital bliss. She discussed this often with Bob, who expressed an ambivalent view that they were happy, so why was she so concerned about it? She couldn’t answer that question although she knew she was not attracted to Lionel, but only to Bob, who had proven to be exactly what she had needed—he was as open-minded as Lionel and fun to be with and intellectually stimulating and she loved him. Still, she was bothered by Lionel and Cathy’s seemingly perfect marriage, which subconsciously reminded her of his apparently idyllic marriage to Mary Jane.

Gloria’s worst fears were realized when Cathy, with Lionel’s wholehearted support, started law school. Cathy had a sharp mind which had been lying fallow until awakened by her marriage to a man whose support for those he loved bewildered Gloria. She saw the first evidence of a problem appeared when they met for lunch one day when Cathy had a break from law school.

Cathy didn’t speak much as they both ordered spinach salads but when the server had left she looked at Gloria intensely and said, “I know that you and Bob are Lionel’s and my best friends, but I don’t know if I can speak to you openly because you’re our friend, not just mine. Since I married Lionel, I don’t have personal friends and I’ve never wanted any because we’ve always shared our lives, so I’m stuck, Gloria, not knowing who I can speak to about my marriage…”

Gloria immediately replied, “I’m a woman, Cathy, and I’m not going to share what you say to me in confidence with anyone, not even Bob. You should know that. I’m always here for you and Lionel, and I’m not stupid enough to think you are the same person.”

Cathy nodded and sighed with relief as she said, “Thank you, Gloria. You’re my best friend just as you are Lionel’s…you know that don’t you?”

Gloria nodded and Cathy continued, “I’m very happy in my marriage but…Lionel hasn’t stopped being a newlywed and it’s starting to bother me. He is so loving and affectionate that I feel like an asshole even speaking about it…”

Gloria thought this was a good time to tell her best friend about Lionel’s marriage to Mary Jane, so she did in detail, even mentioning her own part in what had happened. She finished with her personal interpretation of the cause of Cathy’s discomfort.

“So, after that ordeal, he’s trying to be the perfect husband, and he’s doing a very good job from what you’ve told me; however, he loves you so much that he’s still acting like you just fell in love. Some women would see that as a very good thing…I suppose you don’t?” She tried not to grimace at her question.

Cathy thought for several moments, before she found the words to express her feelings. “I am very happy with him. He is the perfect husband…something has changed, probably me, but now I feel like he’s choking me. I’m probably overreacting but it’s very real to me. What should I do?”

“Haven’t you talked about it?”

“I have tried to do just that, but he won’t talk about it, Gloria. We’ve been married five years and we’ve never had an argument about anything. I admit that we didn’t disagree about much, but he wouldn’t even argue with me about the boys when they were so much trouble. He simply does whatever I ask, no matter how outrageous my demands are. Sometimes I think he’s my personal slave, who feeds me and our children and takes care of us and even pays for my education, but who doesn’t see me as a person. Does that make any sense, or should I seek psychiatric help?”

This was more than Gloria had expected to hear but she tried to answer honestly. “It sounds like a pretty good deal to me, to be honest. Lionel is a loving husband who makes certain everyone has everything they need, doesn’t neglect your children, and supports your desire to improve yourself. I don’t understand why you are becoming unhappy. Maybe you should talk to a marriage counselor.”

“Yes. That’s it,” Cathy said with relief. “I don’t think he will understand why we need to do it, any more than you do…I’m not sure why myself, but we’ll do that. Thanks.”

V

Cathy convinced Lionel to talk to a marriage counselor and they spoke to strangers about their marriage, at first with a psychologist and then later in group sessions with other couples, for six months. He was as honest as he could be during all of these sessions, but he actually had nothing to complain about. He loved Cathy and their boys and was very proud of her in wanting to become a lawyer. And it didn’t seem that she had any complaints either, other than that he loved her, which made him even more confused than before. In fact, the other couples they had spoken to during the group sessions had asked them why they were even in the meeting. Lionel had shrugged but Cathy had shaken her head uncertainly.

Cathy didn’t understand herself why she had humiliated Lionel as she had, making him speak in public about their marriage, but she left the program as uncertain about what was bothering her as before. The reason for her personal turmoil suddenly became clear to her when Lionel and their boys attended her graduation from law school. They were standing up and cheering as she walked across the stage and accepted her diploma from the dean of the law school, and she saw them there, so proud of her, and she hated them. When she had left the stage, she realized that she hated herself because she hated people who loved her.

They celebrated her graduation with Bob and Gloria and their children, James, who was five and Stephanie, who was three, and she should have enjoyed it, but Cathy was distracted the entire night, even when her sons gave her a home-made card with her face pasted on top of a picture of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Lionel was as loving and supportive as she had expected, and it was a good day. She had graduated from law school and she knew that he would throw his full support, which she knew was substantial, behind her as she studied for the bar exam.

The only awkward moment in the entire evening came when Bob asked her what her plans were now. She hesitated for almost a minute before answering, “I plan to get on with my life…and that will include all of you.” After saying this, she realized that she hadn’t looked at Lionel or their children. She felt like an asshole, but no one commented and thus the evening ended just as every day did with Lionel—no argument or raised voices.

Cathy spent two months studying for the bar exam while Lionel supported her by taking care of everything so that she could focus on her studies. He shopped, cooked, cleaned, took the boys to their day-care center, and didn’t interrupt her when she was in the office working. And he never complained even once, not even when she said she was too tired to make love; that fact surprised her because they hadn’t failed to have sex every day for their entire marriage (when she wasn’t menstruating). The day she got the results of her exam was a replay of graduation, but this time Lionel had arranged to have a party at their house, and she didn’t have to do anything because he was having it catered.

Bob and Gloria were the first guests to arrive with a gift for Cathy, which turned out to be a daily calendar with lawyer jokes. She didn’t know lawyers were so humorous until she looked at some of the pages. As other guests began to arrive and were met by Lionel, Cathy had an opportunity to speak to Gloria alone.

She was fighting a feeling of sadness as she admitted what was bothering her to her long-time friend. “Gloria, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I should be the happiest person in the world, but I feel terribly depressed. Not about the bar exam or getting a job; in fact, I don’t know what’s going on.”

Gloria could tell from Cathy’s distraught look that she wasn’t exaggerating. She hugged her and tried to comfort her. “You’ve been working very hard for several months and, even if you don’t know it, that kind of intense effort has an impact on mental health. It was like a finals week that didn’t end, but it’s over now. It may take a few days to get back to normal.”

Cathy nodded absentmindedly and sighed, “I hope you’re right, but I feel the same way I did before Lionel and I went to marriage counseling. I never told him about it because…you know how he is…”

Gloria knew how he was, and she thought she knew what was bothering Cathy, and it wasn’t studying for the bar. It was the same thing that she had complained about before; Lionel was smothering her with love and attention, and she didn’t need that anymore. She had learned to think independently and, even though Lionel would readily accept the new reality if anyone told him, he would never recognize it on his own. She had thought that marriage counseling would have brought it into the open but she hadn’t wanted to ask about it unless they brought it up. She avoided shaking her head in frustration as she changed the subject.

“Have you heard back on any of your job interviews?”

A smile appeared on Cathy’s face as she answered, “Yes, in fact I have three job offers. I could join a large law firm, go to work for the state, working in the Department of Financial Institutions, or directly for Amazon. I don’t know what to do!”

“Maybe that’s why you feel so worried. Which job appeals most to you?”

Cathy grimaced before saying, “I already know that I would be traveling a lot with Amazon but it’s the best position in terms of building a career. I would also have the opportunity to travel with the Burns and Weatherford because their international, whereas working for the state would be a very stable position. I’m worried about being away from the boys.”

Gloria scoffed. “Lionel will always be here for them. Boeing isn’t going anywhere, and neither is he. You don’t have to worry about that.”

Cathy smiled painfully and put her palm to her forehead as if she had a headache but, before she could respond, they were interrupted by Lionel and several of her friends from law school, who had also passed the bar exam. She was distracted from her physical and emotional discomfort for the rest of the evening once the party got going, but she knew she would be asked about her future career many times. She had already made her decision but didn’t know it yet and her anxiety was caused by this disjunction.

Lionel was so proud of what Cathy had accomplished that he couldn’t help sharing his feelings with everyone at the party. She hadn’t told him about her job offers so he was as surprised as the others to learn that she had an offer from Amazon, which seemed to him to be what she had dreamed of from their conversations while she was studying law and specializing in international law. They were talking to a fellow lawyer, a black man named Franklin who was several years younger than Cathy, when she made her decision clear.

Franklin got the ball rolling when he casually said, “I think we both applied for the same positions, Cathy, but Amazon didn’t call me back. I’ve got my fingers crossed that you don’t want to work for the state.”

Lionel interjected, “That would be a great position but I think that Cathy wants to travel.” He put his arm around her waist and kissed her hair before continuing, “Which would be fine because she could focus on her career while I become the stay-in-Seattle dad and take care of the boys.” He was grinning as he finished.

Cathy turned to him and, with a serious expression, asked, “Really, Lionel? You wouldn’t mind my traveling all the time and maybe spending years away from home?”

Lionel wasn’t going to say what he really thought because he didn’t want to have an argument in front of their party guests and, besides, he wanted Cathy to be happy more than anything else. He shook his head and, controlling his inner feelings, answered, “No because I know that for us to be happy, we have to pursue our professional goals, even if they keep us apart now and then.” Those last words had been difficult to voice but he’d gotten through them, and everybody was looking at him approvingly. He liked that.

Cathy’s mind unified one of the issues that had been the cause of her headaches and depression, but there was one more to address. Still, this small step forward immediately eliminated the dull pounding in her temporal lobes and she was able to smile at Lionel and say, “In that case, you don’t have to worry, Franklin, because I’m going to become the junior attorney in Amazon’s legal department.”

VI

Lionel and Cathy’s marriage ended on friendly terms, with his acceptance of her new career and how much it meant to her, and her accepting that he loved her and the children and would always be her best friend. Thus, the boys spent as much time with him as with their mother because of her frequent travel. They didn’t even need a court-ordered visitation plan but instead worked everything out on their own, and he was pleased with the situation overall. But he missed her because he had no one to be in love with; after all, he couldn’t be in love with his ex-wife even if he did still love her. It might sound confusing to the reader but it wasn’t to Lionel. Nevertheless, he felt as if he was a two-time loser at marriage and wanted nothing more to do with it.

Seeing the mental torment Lionel was suffering, Bob and Gloria were frequent welcome guests at his house, which he had retained after his second failed marriage. Cathy hadn’t asked for any part of the house because she saw it as her children’s home when she was away, and she knew that Lionel would be a good father to them. As she had explained her decision to him, he had paid for her to get a law degree, which was worth half the value of the house.

To get back to the story, one day Bob and Gloria were at Lionel’s house for a barbeque on a hot August afternoon, which was the opportunity they had determined was the best time to get him back on track. Gloria knew him better than he knew himself, even if she couldn’t tell him so directly; thus, she used a less-direct approach. She and Bob had decided to help him unleash his inner self, the man who had to be in love to be himself and at his best.

Bob took a sip from his bottle of beer and, watching Lionel closely for any sign of suspicion, casually said that he and Gloria had started playing bridge, waiting for Lionel’s response to continue.

“Bridge?” he asked as he flipped the steaks. “Who plays bridge, except old people in retirement homes?”

Bob scoffed and retorted, “People who enjoy a complex game that’s incomplete, which means that it can’t be played by a computer. It separates humans from machines.”

This got Lionel’s attention because he had been managing a program to increase the automation of control systems in Boeing’s next aircraft, and how the computers would be integrated with human pilots.

“So, do you guys play at the senior center or on line with people from Russia or someplace like that?”

Gloria interjected, “Bridge is a lot more fun to play with people over a bottle of wine so that we can try to read their body language and expressions. It’s like regulated gossiping, if you know what I mean.”

Lionel understood and he was intrigued but then he recalled playing tennis against Gloria, which he and Cathy had done until their divorce. “Oh, I get it. One of you is a bridge master and you want someone to practice on, just like tennis. Right?”

Gloria could see that they had his attention so she scoffed nonchalantly and replied, “No, Lionel, we only just learned by accident when Bob stumbled on a bridge tournament on YouTube. We watched it for several hours and became fascinated and now we love it.”

Lionel was certain that this was another blind date, like when he’d met Cathy, so he declined. “I guess you have a friend, Gloria, who needs a partner?” He smiled sarcastically, hoping that would end the topic.

Instead, Bob answered, “Not at all,” before taking a drink from his beer and continuing, “We thought you might find the idea of an intellectual card game played with friends over drinks and snacks interesting.” He sneaked a glance at his wife and added, “You could find your own partner, and it wouldn’t need to be a woman. Bridge isn’t a dating game…”

Lionel’s gaze switched between Bob and Gloria as he said suspiciously, “So, Tom (his oldest son) could be my partner?”

Bob nodded uncertainly and said, “Sure, if he enjoys playing card games but I’m not sure a preschooler would understand the complexities of the game very well.” He shrugged and let Lionel think about it. The seed had been planted.

VII

Lionel was sitting on the bench for parents, watching his sons, Tom and Seth, play in the fort and ride repeatedly down the slide at a public park near his house, when an attractive young black woman sat down next to him. He tried not to pay attention to her, but she was so close that her fragrance—the cumulative result of her hairspray, perfume, and even her deodorant combining in an olfactory symphony—was overwhelming his senses. Despite this distraction, he paid no attention to her until she spoke to him.

“Excuse me, sir, but I think I’ve seen you here before. Do you come to the park often?”

Now he had to look at her, and he was immediately struck by her appearance, which reminded him of several black actresses he had seen in movies, but she was sitting on the bench next to him. He had never spoken to a black woman before, other than to sales clerks in grocery stores and places like that, and he didn’t know how to respond. It took a few moments before he could stammer, “Yes, ma’am, I do.” He waved his hands in the general direction of his house and added, “We just live a couple of blocks away. I bring my boys, Tom and Seth, down here several times a week to let them blow off steam. Otherwise, they can get a little rambunctious, if you know what I mean.”

She laughed in a delightful way and said, “I wish I didn’t because my daughter is the same way.” She pointed towards a young girl with dark skin who was showing Tom how to slide faster and continued, “Tanya acts like a boy most of the time. Whatever the boys are doing, she has to do it better, whether at home or at school, she’s always showing off.”

Lionel laughed and replied, “Maybe she’ll grow up to be an Olympic athlete. From the way she’s running circles around Tom, I think she could be a marathoner.”

Instead of responding to his comment, his park-bench neighbor sat up and said, “I think we should be properly introduced. I’m Jasmine Ramirez and yes, my father was Hispanic—Peruvian actually.” She was smiling and Lionel had forgotten where he was as he looked into her dark and laughing eyes. Eventually he responded.

“I’m Lionel Watson. I’m very glad to have met you, Jasmine. Do you think we could meet again?”

Before he could correct his inappropriate words, she said, “I’d like that very much. When can I find you here in the park with your boys? I wouldn’t want to miss you.” Lost as he was in his growing infatuation with Jasmine, he didn’t notice that she was even more forward than him, so he answered openly.

“Anytime you like.”

Thus, Lionel and Jasmine dated in the park for a month, all the time with his heart feeling as if it would burst from his chest, and they fell in love. Of course, in the meantime she had met Bob and Gloria, who loved her as much as he did, and they learned to play bridge with his best friends. Lionel was ready to propose after two weeks, but he had learned to keep his strong feelings to himself after two marriages. It wasn’t until Jasmine, who he could tell had reservations about their relationship, invited him to her apartment for dinner that they got engaged.

She had never given him her address until the day of their dinner engagement and he felt as if it were a test of his commitment when he parked his car in front of her home, which was located in a public housing complex he had never seen in all his years living in Seattle, and it wasn’t even very far from his suburban neighborhood. He went up the stairs to the third floor and knocked on the door while holding onto the small box he was carrying in his jacket pocket. He was met by Tanya, who jumped on him and hugged him as if he were her father. And then the woman of his dreams appeared, attired in a very short and tight-fitting dress that made his eyes pop. Dinner consisted of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans, which reminded Lionel of Georgia and made him love Jasmine even more, if that were possible.

While she cleaned up from the meal, she sent him to get Tanya into bed, which he was glad to do. She was such a sweet girl who reminded him of Annabelle, who he didn’t see as much as he would have liked. He told her a story he made up for the occasion and tucked her in before joining Jasmine in the living room.

“Well,” she asked. “What do you think?”

He understood her question and wanted to do nothing more than propose right then, but he was trying to be more patient, so he responded, “I love you and Tanya. If you’re trying to impress me with your living arrangements, it didn’t work because I grew up in a shack with no heat or electricity. I didn’t know what a toilet was until I started school. And,” he added proudly, “I love fried chicken and mashed potatoes. That was what we had for Sunday dinner once a month.” He stared at her until she blinked.

“I love you too, Lionel, and I want to be with you…”

When her words trailed off he started to reach for the small box in his pocket but he was interrupted when she pulled him to her and began undressing him, with his blind assistance, and then herself, and then she pulled him to the bedroom, where Tanya was sleeping in her small bed in one corner. He had forgotten about the box in his discarded jacket by the time she pulled him onto the bed and slipped out of her underclothes. As they began to make love, he briefly thought that he had never had premarital sex before but then swiftly realized that this was the same thing as a wedding night. It was nothing more than a time lag.

He woke up early and, carefully disengaging from her limbs which were intertwined with his, found his jacket in the dark and retrieved the box from its left pocket, before returning to the bed to finish what he’d come to her apartment to do. He was distracted for a little while when she awoke and immediately wanted to make love again, which was fine by him. It was at this time that he saw the problem with one-night-stands; the awkwardness of leaving someone’s bed and home with no intention of ever seeing them again had been discussed many times among the engineers at Boeing. That wasn’t a problem for Lionel because, as soon as they had both recovered from the ecstasy they had shared, he pulled the box out from under the pillow and, opening it to reveal its contents, presented it to Jasmine.

Her eyes opened wide but before she could say anything, he said, “I was going to ask you to marry me last night but we got carried away, so I’m giving this to you this morning, hoping that you love me as much as I love you. I want to marry you, Jasmine…”

She snatched the box from him and put the ring on her finger in no time, before holding it up to the morning sun filtered through the shades and exclaiming, “Yes! I can’t believe it…are you kidding?”

He shook his head. “No ma’am. I love you and I don’t think I can live without you, to be honest.”

She sat up and threw herself at Lionel as she responded, “Oh god, I love you, Lionel. I love you. I love you so much, and Tanya loves you and I love your friends and I love everything about you. This can’t be real…you can’t really love me…”

Lionel had never fallen in love with someone who didn’t think that he would love them before. He nodded and reassured her. “It’s real, Jasmine, if you really want to marry me. I mean…I’m just a guy you met in the park and you would be right to wonder about all that, if you know what I mean.”

She laughed skeptically and looked at the ring on her finger and then at Tanya, who was starting to stir from all the commotion, and then her demeanor became serious as she said, “I’m overwhelmed, Lionel, and I would be honored to marry you and be your wife for the rest of our lives. I won’t be like your first two wives and desert you, but I’ll always be there for you. My only desire is to be with you and have a family with you, hopefully even another child for Tom, Seth, and Tanya to boss around, if that’s what you really want.”

That was what he wanted more than anything, so they were married within a month, this time in the small church her family attended. It didn’t take long for Lionel to realize that he would remain married to Jasmine for the rest of his life because she quickly straightened him out on proper marriage behavior. Apparently, being married twice hadn’t taught him everything he needed to know: he was not to meet his second wife, Cathy, without Jasmine present; he had better not take Tanya for granted; he’d have to listen to her opinion and be ready to express his own; and several other miscellaneous violations that had probably contributed to his failed marriages. The rule that was most difficult for him to follow was the one about not being afraid to argue, and Jasmine was willing to have heated discussions, although she never called him names. Bearing all of these regulations in mind and following them, they were very happy. Lionel officially adopted Tanya, and Jasmine gave birth to a daughter who was christened Felicia after her mother.

Thanks to Jasmine’s rules, they were married ten years before the unthinkable happened. Jasmine was only thirty-eight when she was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma and she never saw her thirty-ninth birthday. Her funeral was held in the same church where they had been married and Lionel wept openly throughout the ceremony and even through the burial at a small cemetery nearby. Jasmine was laid to rest next to her mother, who had died of cancer too.

Lionel was devastated and the only reason he kept going was that he had promised Jasmine before she died that he would carry on because, as she put it, the children needed a strong father, not a self-absorbed fool who was lost in self-pity. He had laughed when she’d pointed out that she was the one who was dying, not him. He tried for months to be strong but wasn’t very convincing, not even to himself; however, one day he was confronted by Tanya, who was by now a strong-willed and beautiful fourteen-year-old.

They were having pancakes for breakfast with Felicia, who was now eight, and Jasmine had steadily watching Lionel for several minutes, until finally he had to say, “Why are you staring at me? Do I have something on my face?” Felicia laughed but her sister scrunched up her mouth before replying.

“I know what’s wrong with you, Dad, and I know how to make you better, but you’re not going to like what I say because you loved Mom so much that you can’t imagine life going on without her.”

He put his fork down and returned her gaze as he said, “Really? Where did you get your psychology degree?”

She pursed her lips and rolled her eyes before retorting, “You promised Mom that you would be strong and you’re not keeping your word. All you do is mope around the house and go through the motions of being our dad. Well…it’s time for it to stop.” Felicia was nodding emphatically and smiling.

He tried to look at the two young faces watching him as sternly as he could, but it was impossible. He managed to keep from smiling as he asked, “Have you two been talking behind my back?”

Two grinning heads, topped with long black hair (braided in Felicia’s case) nodded and Tanya answered, “Someone has to think about the future and you’re sure not doing it. You act as if Mom is going to come back from the dead…”

Lionel shook his head slowly as he thought of a response. Finally, he said, “I’m entitled to a year of mourning after the death of my wife. That’s a rule I read somewhere. Don’t worry about me because I’ll be fine.”

“No, you won’t, Dad. I’ve been looking through the photo albums and I can see a pattern. Do you want to hear my theory?”

He hadn’t known that Tanya had been going through memorabilia or that she had a theory about post-trauma rehabilitation. He nodded slowly, not knowing what she was going to say.

She cleared her throat in an officious manner that made him smile and began, “You are so happy in every photograph when you were with your wife, and I’m referring to all of your wives, but in the pictures when you weren’t married—which aren’t very many—you look really bored and indifferent, even when you had just marched in a parade with the band or graduated from high school.”

“That’s not a theory; it’s an observation,” he scoffed.

“I’m not finished. I remember when you and Mom first met. You were with Seth and Tom in the park and you had that look of ambivalence on your face until you had been talking to her a while. I have never seen it again, until now. Felicia and I know how much you loved Mom and we know you feel like you owe her memory something, which is the right thing for you to do; however, we also know that you can’t be happy unless you are in love, and I don’t mean with a memory. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

He knew what she was getting at and she was right, he didn’t like it, but he wanted to hear it from her mouth. He had learned to live with a woman who expressed herself and it was obvious that his daughters were just like their mother.

“You’re going to have to be clearer with an old man like me,” he retorted.

Felicia giggled and Jasmine continued, “Fine. You need to get married, Dad, for yourself and for us. Is that clear enough for your?” She was staring at him stubbornly and he lost the battle of wills.

Lionel was astounded to hear this from a girl whose mother had only died six months previously. He shook his head in exasperation and finished his pancake, making the girls wait for his response. Finally, a response came to him. They hadn’t thought it through, that was all. It was like a game to them. He stood up and took his plate to the sink as he pointed out the fatal flaw in Tanya’s theory.

“Many studies have shown that young women, like you two, resent step-mothers who they see as replacing their real mother. You would be miserable and hate me and whoever you imagine setting me up with if I were stupid enough to get remarried. I’m glad you got this off your chest but now we need to get back to reality, the reality where I am a widower and will remain so for the rest of my life. No one can replace Jasmine…no one!” He turned and stared at them, but they didn’t back down.

“We’ll see about that,” Tanya firmly stated as she brought her plate to the sink, followed by Felicia, who wore a determined look as she hugged him.

VIII

Tanya had planted a seed in Lionel’s fertile imagination and it didn’t take long for it to germinate. Of course, he consciously dismissed his daughters’ theory and its attendant solution to what they saw as a problem in their young and overactive minds. He shared his insight with Bob and Gloria and, after they had all laughed at the girls’ imagination, Gloria had startled him.

“You know, Lionel, I’ve known you for twenty years and I think there’s something in what Tanya said, although she was a little forward in her speaking to you so openly. They are so much like Jasmine that it amazes me.”

He was shaking his head in disbelief as he said, “I’m old enough to know what’s best for me and that is to enjoy the rest of my life with the two daughters over whose lives I have some influence, and to participate in the lives of my two sons and other daughter, Annabelle, who is starting college this year. I am a very happy man.” He looked at them and nodded his head once in affirmation of his permanent widower status.

Bob knew that his friend would not be himself until he had followed Tanya’s advice. Nevertheless, he understood how hard Jasmine’s death had been on Lionel and so he restricted his response to confirmatory nodding and a cliché. “Time heals al wounds.” Understanding his meaning, Gloria nodded her agreement.

Tanya and Felicia weren’t as patient as Lionel’s best friends and so they implemented their own plan, which involved insisting that they wanted to learn how to sail because of all the open water around Seattle. Having succeeded in coercing their father into buying a twenty-foot sloop, they demanded that he take them sailing every weekend until their plan could move to the next phase. They became proficient at sailing and Tanya even joined the sailing club in high school. After taking note of the other sailboats (and their occupants) with whom they were sharing the open sea, their plan succeeded beyond their expectations.

One beautiful July day they were sailing with Lionel at the helm and approaching a specific vessel which Tanya had identified on previous outings, she swung the boom the wrong way while Felicia gave the spinnaker more slack; the combined effect of these two actions caused their vessel to collide with their target. The sails became entangled, thus assuring a lengthy interaction with the woman and her children who didn’t know they were being boarded by pirates. The reader should know that the pirates (Tanya and Felicia) had singled them out from many trips to the marina and even knew their post-sailing routine of having lunch at the marina’s restaurant.

Lionel didn’t have time to confront his daughters about their sudden lapse in handling the boat because he was immediately facing an irate woman in her early thirties, who demanded to know why he let children who were obviously incompetent sail his vessel. Between effusively apologizing and directing Tanya and Felicia, who were grinning through the entire encounter, to get the sails disentangled, he realized that he was fascinated by this woman. As her son, who was Tanya’s age, and her daughter who was twelve, worked with his misbehaving daughters to get the rigging free, he promised to pay for any damages. It was obvious that this negotiation should take place in the restaurant so, after the boats were separated, they sailed back together as a small flotilla to the marina to discuss the terms of his surrender.

Tanya was very proud of herself over the next few weeks as she watched her father became the man he had been before her mother’s untimely death. She had done her homework and knew that Isabella Rodriguez was divorced and was devoted to her children, just like Lionel. Fortunately, the two unwitting victims of this act of piracy didn’t discover the truth until many years later when, after consuming too much wine at Lionel’s sixtieth birthday party, Tanya, who was by then a senior software engineer with Microsoft, had told the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and she swore to God. Her testimony was verified by Felicia who was by then a psychologist with her own successful practice.

IX

Lionel couldn’t believe that he had been married to Isabella for twenty years and nothing had gone wrong and they had even had a daughter, Julia, together, who was as beautiful as her mother and just as smart. They’d had their ups and downs but, thanks to Jasmine’s marriage rules and the constant counseling of Tanya and Felicia, he had made it this far, but he was bothered by something he couldn’t put his finger on. He couldn’t talk to his daughters about it because they were obviously biased as they had demonstrated repeatedly over the years, so he turned to his old friends, Bob and Gloria. He joined them for dinner one evening when Isabella had gone to a concert of the Seattle philharmonic orchestra with Felicia and Isabella’s son, Jonathan, who Lionel had not adopted because of his age and familiarity with his biological father.

Lionel had learned to talk about things that mattered while eating from both Jasmine and Isabella, so he shared his discomfort as soon as he had filled his plate with salmon, Italian green beans and rice pilaf.

“I feel like there’s something wrong in my life but I can’t put my finger on it,” he complained as he tried cut a piece of salmon and dipped it in a butter sauce Gloria had invented.

She scoffed as she did the same with her entrée and said, “We’ve heard that before, Lionel.” Suddenly becoming serious, she added, “Do you think Isabella is being unfaithful?”

Bob interjected, “You’ve had so many trials and tribulations that you are expecting something bad to happen without warning. This trait is what has helped you at Boeing; it’s why you’re a division manager and I’m only a senior engineer. You worry about the unexpected, and I don’t blame you. Of course, you’re worried about what’s going to fall on your head next, but the past is not a good predictor of the future.” He sampled his green beans and waited for a response.

Lionel had to think about what they’d both said before saying, “No, I don’t think Isabella is having an affair or even that she has ever cheated on me. But you have a good point, Bob, and I don’t know how to respond to that.” He laughed out loud and, after trying the green beans himself, added, “My daughters had to introduce me to Isabella in what could only be called bizarre circumstances. Maybe I’m incapable of dealing with life’s ups and downs in a regular way…I mean, I seem to drift along in whatever state I happen to be in until something dramatic occurs. Then, I suddenly go into overdrive with only one thing on my mind…”

Gloria replied in a comforting tone, “I think you are disillusioned, Lionel, not from any one event, although any one of your previous marriages would have been enough to do that. You are resilient and you haven’t had a catastrophe in twenty years, so you’re expecting something bad to happen. It isn’t always like that.” She turned to Bob and, taking his hand in hers, added, “You’ve finally run out of bad luck and you can be like us.” Bob was nodding solemnly at her words.

Lionel contemplated that idea as he finished his salmon and scooped the last of his green beans and rice into his mouth. Finally, after rinsing his mouth with the sweet Riesling wine Gloria had served with dinner, he started to understand.

“Neither of you knows how hard that is to change who we are. I understood why Cathy suddenly wanted to leave me because she had expanded her world and she couldn’t see me as a part of it, other than spending time with our sons. I’m no better than her. I’d be a hypocrite to pretend otherwise. We’re all the same and you two are the lucky ones, whose individual dreams and goals were the same.”

Gloria and Bob were shaking their heads in unison as she exclaimed, “You have it all wrong, Lionel! Bob and I have seen our expectations diverge over the years and it was only by a substantial effort that we’ve remained married. We’ve had to compromise continuously and it has bruised our egos, but we made it, just like you and Isabelle have.”

Bob added, “It’s worth the effort to know that you’re with someone who will be there at the end, and vice versa.”

Lionel had always thought he had found someone to be there at the end of his life in all of his previous marriages but it had never worked out. Of course, being himself, he had forgotten that he had done just that at the end of Jasmine’s life—he was still an egotist, but now he had friends and family to explain things to him. He laughed quietly and, holding his half-full wine glass up, offered a toast.

“To friends and family who keep us from being our primitive selves!”

Bob and Gloria held their glasses up and tapped them together with his as they voiced in unison,

“Cheers!”

Conflicting Illusions

This is another story about disillusionment but this time from the viewpoint of someone who thinks they have everything they’d ever wanted. This story isn’t quite finished and it has some inconsistencies, but this is a first draft…whatever that means in the days of Word…LOL

 

 

Carolyn Kendrick always made a point of arriving early to partners meetings of Hascomb, Broecker, Kendrick and Sandon, LLP, so that she would be able to observe the other partners’ demeanors as they arrived. They were meeting in Bill Hascomb’s office so she couldn’t technically arrive before him, although he wasn’t present in the meeting room when she was led in by his assistant; he was in his inner office, so Carolyn took the opportunity to make herself a scotch and soda from his well-stocked bar. She took a moment to reflect on why her name was third in their firm’s name; she was bringing in more money than Bill, who was the managing partner, and Hans Broecker had compartmentalized himself into his environmental cubicle, where he brought in a decent amount of income but lost too many cases, in her opinion. He simply was not well grounded in legal theory; his successful litigation history, which was second only to Carolyn’s, was due to his knowing the legal mindset of the courts he most often appeared before.

She sipped her drink and looked out the window on the Manhattan skyline until Bill Hascomb appeared from his inner sanctum. He was the senior partner in the firm, literally, because he was seventy-five. He was dressed in his usual grey pin-striped Brioni suit and calfskin Amadeo Testoni shoes; he always said that he was willing to pay for the best work clothes because he spent a lot of time wearing them. Knowing him for thirty years, she knew he was speaking the truth. He had removed his tie for the occasion, however, but his face wore the serious façade that came from being a successful litigator and the managing partner. Perhaps that was why his thick, receding hair was white. He acknowledged her presence with a nod as he went to the bar and made the same drink Carolyn was sipping.

“Early as usual, Carolyn, so what disturbing proposal are you going to share with us today?” He took a drink from his glass and gazed down at her from his six-foot-three height with dark eyes.

She scoffed and said, “No more than usual, Bill, but I’d rather not discuss our immediate business without the other partners present.” She paused and added, as if it were an afterthought, “There have been some changes in the Southern District of New York, and I can’t help but wonder how that will affect our trial strategy going forward. Judge Smith is a well-known textualist, but he’s also known for being activist—he’s going to become a judicial legislator…”

Bill nodded curtly and said, “Hans and I have discussed this at length and how it will impact our decisions on which cases to take in the future. He doesn’t see it as a problem, however, and I’m inclined to agree with him.” He avoided meeting her gaze and she knew he didn’t have a ready solution.

Bill Hascomb and Hans Broecker had created the firm from nothing thirty years before and they had a personal bond of loyalty that she could never break, even if she had wanted to; and she had no desire to turn the two old friends against each other. She understood the importance of friends and family. She would let them figure it out.

She cleared her throat and said, “We could hedge our bet by having a litigator who was an even stauncher originalist than Judge Smith himself; someone who would have already seen what the court was waiting to be shown in court documents.” She stopped, not wanting to say too much.

Bill ignored her comment and said, “I understand. You want to become the managing partner…” He looked at her askance and added, “Don’t push your luck, Carolyn.” He was smiling as he finished because he knew that she had never counted on luck in any aspect of her life.

She thought a moment and then replied, “It’s not a matter of luck, Bill; you know I’m right on this issue. Despite whatever bullshit Hans has been feeding you, I want nothing more than for this law firm to represent its clients ethically and transparently in a constantly changing judiciary environment so that we can hold our heads up at the end of the day and pronounce that we have always been for the people.”

Bill waved his hand dismissively as he took a long drink from his glass, before saying, “You will become the managing director, Carolyn, because you have the spirit of a real partner. Hans and I have argued about your future ever since you became a partner. He doesn’t like your realist approach to the law, but he admits that you understand both positivist and consequentialist perspectives equally well.” He took a seat in one of the leather armchairs and finished, “There’s no one more qualified than you to make certain that the partnership of Hascomb, Broecker, Kendrick and Sandon, maintains the same ethical standards upon which it was built.”

They were interrupted when a medium-height balding man of seventy-one, wearing a black suit with thin lapels entered. Hans had always resisted wearing contact lenses because he insisted the black-rimmed glasses he wore made him look smarter than he was. Carolyn knew better; Hans Broecker had very dry eyes and had tried wearing contact lenses decades ago and almost gone blind seeking relief from a water cooler. He didn’t like wearing bifocals, so he had integrated changing glasses into his courtroom performance, which worked because he had a disjointed way of speaking that gave the appearance of confusion. But he was never confused, especially on matters of the law.

He went straight to the bar and, picking up the half-empty bottle of twelve-year-old scotch, said, “We may have to make these meetings BYOB.” He then looked uncertainly at Carolyn and, holding up his free hand to ward off what he thought she was going to say, headed towards his favorite armchair as he added, “Don’t even start, Carolyn, because I’ve found our guy in some backwoods country courthouse in Tennessee. He actually got himself elected a circuit court judge on the Republican ticket; I’ve been examining his decisions and he makes Judge Smith look like a consequentialist. Strict originalist interpretation of the state constitution but not a big believer in common law.”

Carolyn’s mouth fell open in amazement. She had known Hans for thirty years and she knew that he was brilliant and an expert in his field, but she had never shown such an ability to accept change before. Before she could respond, he continued.

“I’m going down there for a couple of days. You know, meet him where he feels empowered…” He waved his drink around and continued, “I looked up some of his early work, which was published in the University of Missouri Law Review and he looks like our man; he’s definitely not destined for greatness on the bench, but he argues well and does his homework.” His proud look made Carolyn smile.

Before anyone could respond, the door opened again and in stepped the youngest partner, Donna Vaughn, wearing the same dark blue business suit as Carolyn, her blonde hair (she was only fifty-three) looking unkempt, in keeping with her desire to be as misunderstood as Hans. She had built an impressive career by misleading opposing attorneys and judges into thinking she was a blonde bimbo. Hiring her had been one of Carolyn’s first suggestions as an associate in the law firm; she had felt that Hascomb and Broecker needed to expand into high-profile civil and criminal cases involving celebrities, who would pay well for expert advice regarding their often legally questionable endeavors, and trial defense when they went too far. She had become the newest partner when her clerks outnumbered Bill’s and even Carolyn’s. Like Carolyn, she had never lost a case, mostly because she knew which ones to accept.

Donna went straight to the bar without saying a word and poured herself a full glass of chardonnay, before plopping down in an armchair next to Hans with a triumphant expression.

Bill looked at her steadily and said in a deadpan voice, “Let’s her it, Donna. Why are you queen for a day?”

She sipped her chardonnay and, with a look of pride, said, “My son is going to law school. Actually, he was accepted to Harvard and, even though it will cost me a lot, I’ll die knowing that my last will and testament will be executed properly.”

Everyone congratulated her and refilled their drinks before they got down to the regular business of a partners’ meeting. Carolyn’s suggested that they offer non-equity partnerships to some of the most promising associates, which initiated a lengthy argument about what such a plan would mean to the full partners’ remuneration.

The discussion was ended when Bill, as the person with the most stake in the firm, said, “I have more money than I ever thought I’d see. My children all went to good universities and I have a nice apartment here in New York and a vacation home in Belize. My family will inherit several million dollars when I die, which will probably be caused by arguing about just such nonsense as this. If I’d wanted to become rich and famous, I wouldn’t have become a lawyer.” His patriarchal gaze, which was directed at everyone, made his meaning clear.

It was decided that Carolyn would write up a preliminary draft of the plan and they would discuss it at their next meeting. With business out of the way, their conversation turned to their families. They already knew about each other’s professional lives.

Bill and Hans’s disappointment that none of their children had gone into law was well known, so Donna naturally asked Carolyn about her children’s careers; this was a topic that she had always avoided. She would summarize what she knew.

“My daughter, Janine, has finished her residency and has joined a medical partnership in Phoenix as an anesthesiologist. She works with a lot of elderly patients and she’s very busy, so we don’t hear a lot from her. My son, Peter, has started a business designing and installing solar panels…it’s actually more than that; his company builds custom solar power systems for small companies. He’s in Atlanta.” She had gotten through it without misspeaking, but she wondered why she felt so nervous when talking about her children.

Bill surprised her when he said, “What about marriage? As I recall, Janine was living with a guy who was also a doctor. Do you have any grandchildren yet?”

Carolyn didn’t know the answer to that question, so she lied. “Not yet. She’s pretty busy, just like her brother. I think they’ll have families later in life, which is becoming more common these days.”

She saw skeptic looks on all of her colleagues faces but they were polite enough not to press her further; they had their own issues to deal with and no lawyer wants to set a precedent with unforeseeable consequences. They took the elevator together and parted ways in the garage, where Carolyn sat behind the wheel of her Mercedes and breathed a sigh of relief, for reasons she didn’t understand herself.

The drive home on Park Avenue wasn’t too bad at eight o’clock on a Tuesday evening and she parked in her reserved space only fifteen minutes after leaving the World Trade Center, where the law office was located. She noticed that her husband’s car was sitting in its space next to hers. As she entered the elevator, she hoped he hadn’t eaten yet because she was in the mood to cook; ceteris paribus, she would make a curry chili while she told him about her day. As she glided up to the fortieth floor, the thought occurred to her that they hadn’t had a vacation in several years. She would also suggest that they spend a week at their beach house in Costa Rica since she didn’t have a pressing schedule for a couple of weeks. She could work from wherever she happened to be, although she was always more comfortable being close to her staff during pretrial motion preparation.

Carolyn exited the elevator and appreciated the recently remodeled hallway that led to her apartment; the decorator had fortunately retained the nicer prints and interspersed some modern art, and the bright new paint was so much better than the mauve it had replaced. She entered the code in the lock and pushed the solid oak door open, expecting to find Darrell siting on the sofa watching the business news.

Darrell Filbert (she hadn’t changed her name when they were married) was a mid-level account executive with Goldman-Sachs and, after thirty years of marriage to a lawyer, he still took no interest in legal affairs, instead focusing on the financial markets. His unwavering attention to his field had turned out to be an asset for Carolyn and him because he had diversified their portfolio so well that the financial crisis of 2008 had barely affected them. She had given him all her excess income to invest, in addition to his own, smaller, salary; in fact, she had been earning twice as much as him for more than ten years. Their earnings discrepancy didn’t matter because of his careful investments, which amounted to more than she was getting from her lucrative law practice. He was worth keeping.

Instead of seeing Darrell reclining on the sofa, Carolyn found his large roller suitcase sitting in front of the door, with her husband nowhere to be seen. She walked around the obstacle and set her briefcase on the coffee table, stopping to admire the view of Central Park at night, before heading to his bedroom, which was at the opposite end of the apartment from her own. Her high heels tapping on the wood floor must have gotten his attention because he appeared from his room with a frustrated look on his face.

“What are you doing home? I mean…you usually don’t get off work until ten or so…” he stammered.

Not being particularly sensitive to other people or their behavior, unless it was relevant to a case or her status in the law firm, Carolyn responded, “We got off early today. In fact, I was thinking that we might take a week and go to Costa Rica. It’s been more than a year since we walked on the beach and watched the sun set together.”

Darrell looked at her a moment and then went back into his bedroom without saying a word. Oblivious of what was occurring, she followed him as she continued her monologue.

“Is someone ill? I noticed your suitcase in the living room, and I can’t imagine why you would be leaving without notifying me unless it was a family emergency. Is it your father?” She was genuinely perplexed.

He went to the bathroom and returned with his electric shaver and its cord as he shook his head and responded, “My father is fine. There is no family emergency…at least not involving anyone but us.” He was very distraught by this time and, had she been more observant, Carolyn would have noticed his demeanor—he was acting as if he had to get out of the apartment at that instant, as if the building were on fire.

“I guess this is a business trip, then, but why didn’t you text me? I was planning to make that curry chili you like so much for dinner, if you had been home.” Then, without thinking, she added, “You should try and think about others more often.”

Darrell shoved his toiletries into the carryon bag in a haphazard manner, while grimacing painfully, before closing the small suitcase and walking around Carolyn to get some fresh air in the living room, only a few feet from the front door. Having reached his objective intact, he turned to her and visibly relaxed as he said, “Let’s have a glass of wine.”

Without waiting for a response, he went to the kitchen and opened a bottle of Bordeaux, before taking two wine glasses from the cupboard and filling them. He pushed one across the granite countertop in their luxury kitchen and looked at her expectantly.

Carolyn was finding his behavior quite unusual, but she accepted the proffered glass and offered a toast. “To us and many more years of happiness.” She held her glass up but, instead of matching her toast, Darrell shook his head and, after taking a swig of wine, responded.

“I’m moving out, Carolyn.”

“Whaaaat…what are you saying, Darrell?” she stammered.

He took another drink and said, “This isn’t something new. I have not fallen in love with another woman and, in fact, I have been faithful throughout our marriage; I am simply tired of living with someone like you. I don’t want to say anything else because you have been a good spouse and I won’t say anything bad about you, not even to my friends. I just have to get away from you for my sanity.” He looked so distraught that Carolyn felt pity for him, to have become so depressed by his low income that he felt a need to act out in such an irrational way.

She drank some wine and, looking at him condescendingly, replied, “Why didn’t you tell me that you were suffering from depression? We can afford professional help. Everything will be okay as long as we work together. As a team.”

Darrell emptied his glass and immediately refilled it without looking at Carolyn, before he took another gulp and responded. “Do you know where our children live? Do you know what they have done with their lives? Do you know anything about the people you brought into this world?”

Her mind went blank and she couldn’t remember her children’s names. She recalled that the oldest was a girl and she had gone to medical school and the boy was an engineer. Before she could offer these tidbits, Darrell prodded her poor memory.

“Where do you think Janine is right now?”

Carolyn knew that. “Phoenix, where she’s an anesthesiologist in a medical firm, but I don’t know if she’s on vacation or not…I don’t know her address…why is that?” She took a drink as large as his and looked at him blankly.

“Janine lives in Philadelphia with her husband, Kyle, and their two daughters, Renee and Cynthia. She finished medical school and is now a pediatrician, working with disadvantaged families.”

Carolyn felt her jaw drop. Her daughter had given up a lucrative medical practice to help poor people. Why would her gifted daughter have done that? Before she could voice a reply, Darrell continued.

“In case you have any more memory gaps, caused by your children not wanting to tell you anything about their lives, our son, Peter, is installing solar panels for small businesses in New Mexico. Does any of this ring a bell?”

Carolyn took another drink and said, “I thought he was in Atlanta. When did he move? Does he have a family too?”

Darrell shook his head in disgust and replied, “Peter asked me to not tell you where he was living after Christmas five years ago; when both of our children flew to New York to spend the holidays and you were never seen, not even on Christmas day. You didn’t meet your granddaughters or Peter’s fiancée because your obsessive-compulsive dedication to your precious law firm precluded spending the holidays with your family. Sure, I knew you would be busy and miss a birthday now and then, but you’ve missed a lot more than an occasional celebration, Carolyn, and apparently you decided that you could spend even less time with your family as you got older.”

Carolyn took another drink, emptying her glass, and immediately refilled it while collecting her thoughts. Sitting at her dining table across from her husband, hearing him describe his feelings about her, she realized that he had never said anything to her about how he felt. Neither had the children.

“I don’t recall your ever complaining, especially when we had the money to send the children to good schools, live close to work in Manhattan, and go on family vacations wherever we wanted. Did you forget all of that?”

He retorted, “And you worked every free minute. We never saw you until it was time for dinner.” That was a blatant lie and he knew it, as was revealed in his avoiding eye contact.

She had kept track of her time because it was all billable, so she had the facts to back up her response. “I never worked more than four hours a day during our vacations and, in case you’re about to say that’s a lot of work, I restricted it to times when everyone else was watching TV or playing on their phones. Besides which, you worked as much as me on several trips. I can’t believe that any of this bothered you and yet you never spoke up; I think you’re using selective recall to justify something you want to do. Are you having an affair?” That wouldn’t surprise her because he had plenty of time to carry on if he wanted to.

He got up and angrily set his empty wine glass on the table before responding. “That is so like you! You always go on the offensive when confronted with an unpleasant truth. I guess it works in the courtroom, but it doesn’t work here. Never has!”

Carolyn couldn’t help having been born with a mind that always looked for inconsistencies in the words people used; and it was working overtime in this conversation. He had just done what he accused her of doing in the same breath. She didn’t doubt that he resented her and that her children did as well, or that she had spent more time than most people working. That was how it was in a career where the schedule was set by the courts and there was no room for error, if you wanted to be successful. One thing she wasn’t was passive-aggressive, which she already knew Darrell was. She would have to talk to him as if she were deposing him.

“You didn’t answer my question. Are you having an affair?”

His mouth turned down in frustration and he looked at the table a moment before facing her and saying, “That’s none of your business. However, since I don’t have to worry about losing anything in a divorce settlement, what with your making so much more than me and never having been a homemaker, I’m glad to share the news with you.” He took a drink from his glass and, with a triumphant look, as if he were having the last laugh, said, “I met someone who doesn’t spend all her time working and, in case you’re wondering, the kids know about her.”

He mentioned divorce, which had never crossed her mind. Then she remembered that he was in the middle of moving out when she interrupted him.

“How long has this been going on?” she asked, her chest feeling as if there was a gorilla sitting on her.

He appeared to be quite proud of his infidelity as he responded, “Two years, not that you would notice. She tells me that you two have met on several occasions, when she was leaving when you finally came home. We weren’t very careful because I knew our marriage was over five years ago.”

Carolyn recalled meeting a younger blonde several times in the hallway, who she’d assumed was a neighbor. They had even spoken. She needed confirmation.

“Is she a tall blonde woman in her mid-thirties?”

He nodded. “Jennifer. That’s her name. She works in the same building as me. We met in the elevator and had lunch a couple of times before I realized I loved her the way I never loved you. You and I have a business arrangement whereas she and I actually love each other. It’s completely different.” He didn’t seem embarrassed any more.

Carolyn realized that she didn’t know Darrell at all, even after thirty years of marriage. She probably had never known him. He had been putting on an act the entire time. Then, she recalled when the children had become distant, not responding to her calls and text messages about ten years before. Was it possible that he had been working against her for so long? She had to know.

She smiled sadly and tried to get him to admit what she suspected with her next words. “I guess it was inevitable once the children were grown. I’m not angry but I am disappointed. How long have you felt this way? Did it begin when you met Jennifer?” She had to be careful now.

He shook his head in disgust, no doubt feeling quite proud of himself, and said, “I could see that you were a narcissist within a few years of our marriage, but I accepted your egotism as your personality and tried to work with you. It got harder to play along after the children were born and you hired a nanny to stay with them because you were unwilling to take time away from your precious law firm. Finally, when they were both in that private high school you insisted that they attend, I realized that you had never wanted a family. We were all just props in your life’s play, and they recognized it as well.” He looked at her boldly and added, “You don’t give a damn about anyone but yourself, Carolyn, and we all knew it.”

She was well aware that she had a strong ego, but no one had ever called her a narcissist to her face before; apparently, Darrell had thought that for years and had probably acted on his belief. She was pretty sure the kids had help from him in coming to the same conclusion he had. She didn’t see any purpose in defending herself to Darrell because this wasn’t a recent revelation for him. It was a conspiracy. Still, she wanted to know how deeply his plot against her went. Thus, she began innocently enough.

“Are you saying that the children, on their own, came to the same conclusion as you? That sounds a little farfetched, Darrell; I mean, they hadn’t expressed any dissatisfaction with their lives to me, and I saw them every day. When they were in high school, they exhibited no more antipathy towards me than do most adolescents. How do you know they agree with your diagnosis?” She couldn’t help releasing some of the anger rising in her chest like the gases from a volcano about to erupt.

He refilled his glass and took a sip before answering, apparently not having noticed that he was being interrogated. “They expressed their growing concern to me, and I naturally explained the situation to them, that you were too busy working to care about them, and always had been. Children notice things like their mother never being home and paying someone to make their dinner.” He shrugged as if that gesture released him of responsibility for what he had done to turn the children against her.

Carolyn was dumbstruck by this confession. Darrell had repeatedly made sweeping statements not supported by the facts and expressing more certainty than a psychologist would in diagnosing her personality; made conclusory claims against her; and purported to understand her motivations for acts that had been necessary to maintain her career and family. Instead of her children resenting the intrusion of her work in their personal lives, which would have been understandable, they thought she had never loved them. No wonder they didn’t return her calls. Their adolescent minds had been poisoned by Darrell’s persistent undermining of her role as their mother, all because he had avoided confrontation until he had been caught sneaking off; and his passive-aggressive streak a mile wide.

Carolyn was so angry she would have killed Darrell at that moment, but she decided instead to correct what apparently had been a failed marriage from the beginning. She emptied the bottle of wine into her glass and announced, “We can get a divorce based on irreconcilable differences. I won’t contest it and I’m certain we can come up with an equitable division of assets. You have done a good job with our finances and, whether you know it or not, I’ve always respected you and loved you.” She took a long drink as he sat there stunned and staring at her, and added, “It seems that we’ve both been fooled by the illusions of our marriage: I thought I was happily married, with two children who loved me as much as I do them; whereas you thought you were being marginalized and dominated by your wife, a situation which you obviously found unacceptable.” Her hands were trembling with anger as she finished speaking.

Darrell pointed his finger at her as he retorted, “I almost wish you would contest our divorce because I would enjoy nothing more than showing the world what a bad mother and wife you have been for thirty years!”

The volcano erupted.

“Goddamn you, Darrell!” she shouted as she stood up. “You reneged on our marriage contract, you son-of-a-bitch! And not because you met a younger woman and had an affair; you have created and maintained a conspiratorial atmosphere to alienate the affection of my son and daughter. You should be kicked out on the street penniless for what you’ve done.” She fought back tears as she stared into his eyes.

He couldn’t meet her burning glare, so he gulped the last of his wine and got up unsteadily after drinking a half-bottle of wine. He picked up the small bag he had hastily packed and took the handle of his roller suitcase and, opening the door to their apartment, with his teeth clenched, responded.

“I’ll see you in court, Carolyn!”

As the door was closing, she retorted, “That is the one place you don’t want to see me, you fucking asshole!”

Carolyn sat back down and sipped what was left of her wine. She had loved Darrell in her own way, and she’d thought he understood her and accepted that she couldn’t be a stay-at-home mother. There was one thing she wasn’t confused about however; she had lived with someone who had spoken ill of her constantly and done everything he could to isolate her from her children. She would reach out to Janine and Peter and make amends for acts she hadn’t intentionally committed. She didn’t think Darrell’s future would be as clear.

She picked up her phone and found Peter’s cellphone number. It was two hours earlier in New Mexico. She pushed the call icon and tried to think of a way to undo the damage done to her relationship with her children by ten years of being fed an illusion.

Linking everything together.

I’ve upgraded my home page so that any of the Reading Monkey titles can be directly accessed on Amazon from my home page.

The American Dream

This is a short story about unrecognized disillusionment and the influence of others on how we see ourselves…

Marcia Gilmore took the keys to her fifteen-year-old Ford Focus from the hook next to the front door of the studio apartment she shared with her granddaughter and turned to see Alicia coming out of the bathroom dressed as if she were a teen-age prostitute. Her too-small t-shirt, decorated with a picture of something that looked like a giant mouth eating a spider, revealed far too much of her feminine figure for Marcia’s taste. And her shorts displayed a ridiculous amount of her legs. She held her tongue because Alicia had just moved in the previous week and they weren’t used to each other yet. Alicia had graduated from high school in the spring and, after several physical altercations with her mother, who was Marcia’s oldest daughter, had been convinced to move in with Marca while she attended Los Angeles City College. So far it had seemed more like meeting a new prisoner who would share her cell than inviting her granddaughter into her home.

Alicia fluffed her bobbed blonde hair, which was the same straw-color Marcia’s had been when she was younger and the same length, but flaying randomly about her head, and said, “I don’t know why you want to drive me to school, like I was a child going to my first day of kindergarten. I could have taken the bus.”

They had discussed this several times leading up to this momentous event and Marcia had gotten the upper hand with her antiauthoritarian granddaughter only because Alicia liked her, whatever that meant to an eighteen-year-old girl in Los Angeles.

“As I’ve said before, you are the first person in our family to go to college and I’m excited to share this moment with you. In fact, I may be more excited than you.”

Alicia rolled her blue eyes in a way Marcia couldn’t imagine doing and said, “Okay, Marcia, just try not to get in an accident. The buses are very safe, you know.”

“Why do you insist on calling me Marcia?”

“I’m not going to call you grandmother and since we don’t have a unique ethnic vocabulary with great words like Ouma, Nainai, or Tutu, you’re stuck with your real name. I’m not going to speak to you as if I were a child; you are not Lala, Abba, or any of those other stupid names that people use these days. We’re roommates. Besides, don’t you like your name, Marcia?”

“Yes. I do, but I’m not accustomed to being called that by my children or grandchildren.” She tried to roll her eyes as she added, “I guess I’ll get used to it. Let’s go now.”

Alicia led the way out the door as Marcia locked it and followed her granddaughter down the concrete stairs to the parking lot behind the apartment building. She couldn’t help watching Alicia, who walked as if she were on top of the world, a feeling Marcia had lost a long time ago.

They found Marcia’s Ford still in the parking lot and headed out to introduce Alicia to her new world. After driving a couple of miles on the 101 freeway, Marcia noticed the engine temperature rising alarmingly. She was accustomed to minor inconveniences and immediately turned on her emergency flashers and looked for a safe place to pull over. Before the car had come to a complete stop on the wider pavement at the entrance to an offramp, she had called the tow company and the garage, where she was a regular customer. Alicia had been watching her do all of this with amazement on her face but, when they had come to a stop on the busy freeway, she expressed her concern.

“Why are we stopping, Marcia? Do you feel sick or old or something like that?”

Marica turned to her distraught granddaughter and said, “No. The car is overheating, and the mechanic told me that I should always pull over when that happens to avoid expensive repairs, which I can’t afford. The tow truck will be here in a few minutes. Don’t worry, sweetheart. We’ll get you to school on time.”

Alicia shook her head in disbelief as Marica added, “We should exit the vehicle and wait on the side of the highway until the tow truck arrives. Some idiot texting on their cellphone might run into us.” She smiled in a reassuring way and opened her door, after making certain there were no idiots approaching.

They got out of the car and stood along the guardrail, where they had a good view of oncoming traffic, before Alicia said, “Has this happened before?”

Marcia nodded and casually replied, “My car has a minor problem every couple of months. I can’t afford to have all the hoses and other small parts replaced at one time, so I pay my roadside assistance insurance and wait for the next breakdown. My mechanic said that my engine and transmission are good, and this baby will last many years, as long as I don’t push it too hard.” She patted the top of her Ford confidently.

Steam was rising from the front of the sedan as Alicia exclaimed, “You have got to be kidding! You’ve been driving this piece of shit for years, and then you got me into it for my first day of college! What were you thinking? You’re just as bad as mom…I’ll probably end up a failure…just like you and her.” She was practically crying with frustration as she finished.

Marcia patted her arm and said, “This is life, Alicia. Things don’t always go the way we planned. That’s why we have to be prepared for the unexpected.” She paused to think about Alicia’s statement before adding, “I don’t feel like a failure and I certainly don’t think your mother is one either. Why did you say that?”

Alicia stared at the disabled car as she answered. “You were born in the golden age of America and yet here you are living in a studio apartment and driving a piece of shit car. Mom and Dad aren’t doing much better, in case you haven’t noticed. I was accepted to UCLA and even USC, but mom and dad couldn’t afford the tuition. That’s why I’m going to LACC.” She turned to Marcia with tears in her eyes and added, “What the hell went wrong? My entire family is a bunch of losers.”

Marcia had stopped thinking about that years ago, so she didn’t have an answer for Alicia’s simple question; instead of addressing the economics of working class people, she responded to her granddaughter’s original statement.

“What are you talking about, Alicia? What golden age are you referring to?”

Alicia looked at her uncertainly and replied, “That’s what we learned in school. Baby Boomers like you had it made and you screwed it all up, with your greed and hedonistic behavior…”

Marcia watched the traffic going by and timed her response for when it was a little quieter. “That was the sixties, Alicia. I was your age in the seventies. Things had changed a lot by then.”

Alicia stared at the concrete beneath their feet for a minute before looking at Marcia and asking, “What was it like when you graduated from high school?”

Marcia had to think, to put herself in Alicia’s shoes. It wasn’t a very pleasant memory. When she had gotten a rough image of being eighteen in her mind, she responded. “I worked at a boutique selling flowers, framed photos, and stuff like that. It was a part-time job, which I loved as a high school student. I had no plans to go to college and, in fact, I had no real plans at all. I thought I would get a permanent job with my high school diploma…”

Alicia looked at her steadfastly and said, “What happened after you graduated?”

Marcia didn’t like remembering that. “I couldn’t find a job. In fact, I saw storefronts closing everywhere but I was too young to understand what was happening.” She breathed heavily and continued, “I stayed at my part-time job until the store went out of business…”

“What happened?” Alicia asked incredulously.

Marcia didn’t like sounding as if she were complaining about her life, but Alicia had asked, and they weren’t going anywhere for a few minutes. She looked at her granddaughter uncertainly and shrugged before hesitantly responding.

“Well…I don’t know exactly but, looking back, it seems that the whole world fell apart. It wasn’t a depression or anything like that, but it was a very bad time, at least for me and most of the people I went to high school with. It was the end of the Vietnam war, which we were losing, and there was the whole Watergate thing with Nixon—”

“I learned about that in my Civics class. All the President’s Men was a movie about Nixon and his cronies who spied on the Democrats. He even had people break into a psychiatrist’s office to get medical records showing that a whistle blower was crazy, or something like that.”

Marcia suddenly remembered the name. “Daniel Ellsberg. That was his name, but he wasn’t a whistleblower. People who reported wrongdoing weren’t protected by law back then, so he leaked secret Pentagon documents about the Vietnam war to the press but, because of illegal actions taken against him by Nixon and others, his trial for espionage was dismissed.”

Alicia’s response was partly drowned out by a passing tractor-trailer rig. “…compared it to the whole Trump impeachment thing, but he concluded that Nixon’s behavior was much worse than President Trump’s. What do you think?”

Marcia was certain that Alicia had been paraphrasing her Civics teacher, so she reluctantly shared her memories. “I think he’s right about that. I mean…Nixon wasn’t even impeached because the evidence against him was so strong, after Justice Department and public congressional hearings, that he resigned. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives were dominated by the Democratic party, but it was the Republican leader of the Senate that convinced Nixon to resign before the impeachment could begin. His own party had abandoned him.”

Alicia nodded thoughtfully and said, “Mr. Brandywine said that the political situation has become more divisive since then and that no Republican would convict Trump, no matter what. He had a really bad opinion of politics in general.”

Marcia hadn’t realized that Alicia was so politically aware. They hadn’t talked about these things much. She was about to comment on how mature her granddaughter was when Alicia continued, “But being involved in a bad war that America was losing and discovering that we had a criminal in the White House shouldn’t have impacted your personal life. What’s the rest of the story?” She was gazing at Marcia expectantly.

Marcia shook her head quickly. “You don’t understand, Alicia. I didn’t plan to be waiting on tables when I was sixty-four. I guess I thought I would work in an office, like your mother does, or maybe in a factory making something…”

“So?” was the skeptical response from her granddaughter.

Marcia struggled to remember what she had thought and done forty-six years earlier. She would patch it together and convince Alicia, and herself, that she wasn’t a loser. “When I started driving, which was limited to occasional use of my parents’ car, gasoline cost thirty-eight-cents a gallon and it was everywhere. Before you say how cheap that is, I was earning less than two-dollars an hour and only working twenty hours per week. My senior year in high school, the Arab oil embargo occurred, and the price jumped to fifty-five-cents per gallon and there wasn’t enough to go around. Gas was rationed—”

Alicia interjected, “Oh sure, I remember reading about that. There were long lines at the gas stations and a national speed limit of 55 mph was enacted in 1974. Still, I don’t know how that would have affected you; after all, I was working for minimum wage in high school, which was eleven-dollars per hour, and paying four-dollars per gallon for gas. I drove mom’s car just like you did, but I paid a lot more of my income for fuel than you…” She glared at Marcia triumphantly.

Marcia was waiting for the implications of her statement to dawn on Alicia, and they did. Suddenly, she grimaced and exclaimed, “Oh my god, Marcia! How can you live on less than two-thousand dollars per month?”

“I get tips too, although those are shared with other workers.” She smiled at Alicia and said, “You know how I get by, sweetheart. I live in a studio apartment and drive a piece of shit car and I don’t go to the movies or to restaurants or on vacations.”

The young woman nodded understandingly as several big rigs in a row passed them, making conversation impossible. Just as Alicia was about to respond, a Styrofoam cup was thrown from a passing truck, which looked as old as Marcia’s Ford, and struck her car, sending ice cubes flying through the air to hit the two women.

“Goddamnit!” exclaimed Alicia as she jumped and swiped at her tight-fitting t-shirt.

Marcia wiped the caramel-colored ice from her own blouse and calmly said, “People can be such jerks sometimes.”

Alicia wasn’t going to be deterred from her interrogation of Marcia. Her countenance hardened, probably from realizing that the sticky residue now staining her t-shirt would make her look like white trash on her first day of college, as she faced her grandmother and continued, “You didn’t answer my question, Marcia.”

“What question? In all the excitement, I forgot what you asked me.” She hoped that would change the subject of their conversation. It didn’t.

“How did you manage to make your financial situation worse at your age than it was when you were my age?”

That was the question Marcia didn’t want to answer because she didn’t understand it herself. Where had she gone wrong? She couldn’t put her finger on a single event that had led to her current situation. It must have been her marriage to Ronald Gilmore, who had seemed like a reliable young man when they had dated, which led to an unplanned pregnancy, a seemingly happy marriage, and three children, before he had abandoned her and their children and moved to Ohio, or someplace like that. At any rate, she had never gotten alimony or child support from him. She had recently learned that she couldn’t even get social security from their marriage because it had only lasted eight years, which was two-years short of the minimum to get benefits for having been a homemaker. She didn’t want to share the unavoidable conclusion from this tragedy with her granddaughter. Her reflection was interrupted by Alicia’s impatient voice.

“Didn’t you even try and get a better job?”

Marcia didn’t want to deceive Alicia, who she felt was old enough to understand how complex real life was, so she scrunched up her mouth and looked into her granddaughter’s sky-blue eyes and said, “You need to understand that I am very happy with my life, sweetheart, and, if I could do it all over, I wouldn’t do anything differently because I have you and your brother, and your cousins. I love you all so much.”

Alicia looked at her questioningly until Marcia continued, “As I said, I couldn’t find a job when I graduated high school. You must know that an average unemployment rate of eight percent, which is what it was soon after I left home, means that young people with no skills, people like me then and you now, have very little chance of finding a career job. And inflation was more than twelve percent and my meager salary couldn’t keep up.”

Then, she remembered something else. “President Nixon had imposed wage and price controls a couple of years before I graduated, which led to a further decrease in job opportunities and no chance of wage increases. I was close to becoming homeless when I met your grandfather. We dated a while and I married him because I was pregnant, and he seemed like a very stable provider at the time, which he was for eight years. We don’t talk about it in the family because it was a long time ago, but you should know since we’re…roommates.”

Alicia stared at Marcia for several moments before responding. “Are you saying that my existence is the result of a choice you made when you were my age, at a time in your life when you had no options and saw no future for yourself, other than marrying someone who had a good job? Did you at least love him?”

Marcia nodded. “Of course. I wouldn’t have married Ronald Gilmore if I hadn’t been in love with him, but I learned that romantic love is a temporary thing. Our love didn’t grow into fondness, however, at least not for him.” She shrugged to indicate her uncertainty about what comes after romantic love. She had never remarried.

Alicia started to answer, but then a flatbed tow truck slowed down and pulled over in front of the stricken car. Marcia checked the time on her wristwatch and sighed with relief because it had only been twenty minutes. She could still get Alicia to school on time for her first class.

The driver was a big man who looked older than her, with a bald head and a beard and wearing jeans and a blue shirt with his name on it. His name was Jerry, and she could see that he was competent because it only took five minutes for him to get her car on his truck and, after Alicia and she had climbed into the cab, with Alicia sitting in the middle, they were on their way. Jerry never took his eyes off the road and seemed unaware of their presence in the truck’s tight cab, so Alicia quickly relaxed enough to continue their conversation.

“I think I understand, Marcia. Even though you had no personal dreams of the future, you discovered that you didn’t have control of your life and you had a sense of disappointment at how things turned out. This feeling of loss has haunted you all your life and prevented you from getting over Ronald Gilmore’s abandoning you with three young children. Why didn’t you—”

“Disillusionment.”

Alicia turned quickly to Jerry and said, “What did you say?”

Without taking his eyes off the road, Jerry, who had probably had this conversation many times with a captive audience, was more than happy to continue, “When I graduated from high school in 1971, I had no plans at all, just like Marcia, but then I got a letter from the draft board informing me that I was to report for active duty in the U.S. Army. I was as young as you, Miss, when I found myself sitting in the wide-open door of a helicopter with a thirty-caliber machine gun and a fifty-pound cast-iron plate strapped to my chest, and Charlie trying their best to kill me and everyone else on board.”

Marcia gasped at his words and stammered, for no particular reason, “Were you ever shot?”

Traffic came to a standstill at the exit that led to the garage as he answered, “I got scratched half a dozen times, in my arms, head, and legs, but I never got no Purple Heart medal.” He paused and laughed, never taking his eyes off traffic, and continued, “But you ought to see that cast-iron plate. I have it hanging on the wall in my living room. It’s got more than a dozen dents and a couple of Russian AK-47 rounds still stuck in it. My wife treats it as if it were a religious symbol.”

He laughed and added, “I became disillusioned after my tour in Vietnam.”

Marcia was aghast. She had thought her life had been difficult, but Jerry’s story sounded supernatural.

Alicia had taken an interest and now she shared her thoughts with Jerry. “Did you become disillusioned with war?”

Jerry put the truck in gear and crept forward fifty feet before answering. “I never believed in war to begin with, Miss. I was drafted to serve my country and I did the best I could…no…I became disillusioned with life. I had faced death and seen men die around me so many times that I had some serious behavioral problems when I got home. The psychologists at the VA hospital told me that disillusionment is part of the process of recognizing that our dreams, whether we are aware of them or not, don’t usually turn out the way we expect. They warned me about sinking into cynicism or, worse yet, nihilism, which is not believing in anything and…well, it’s like anarchy of the mind. Those VA doctors were telling me the truth, and I don’t feel angry or abused by the government anymore and I accept life at face value. It is what it is. That’s what they told me.”

Traffic surged forward and Jerry kept up his monologue as he inched towards the garage, only a couple hundred yards ahead. “I’m not driving this tow truck because I couldn’t find a better job. No ma’am. I like helping people like you ladies, getting you out of a jam and putting your lives back on track. I know what it’s like to be left stranded—that’s another story from when my chopper went down—and I enjoy getting people out of a bad situation, and LA freeways are always dangerous.”

Jerry seemed to have nothing else to say, and Alicia and Marcia were speechless after his story, and so they drove in silence to the garage. Marcia didn’t think she would ever get his evocative description of dead men and their blood and body parts scattered about his helicopter out of her mind, but she understood his story. She wished she could have spoken to the VA psychologists, as they arrived and climbed down from the cab of the tow truck at the garage.

When Jerry had unloaded Marcia’s broken Ford and was about to leave, Alicia suddenly hugged him and said, “Thank you for picking us up and sharing your story with us. I’ll never forget you, Jerry.”

Suddenly embarrassed at her rash words, she pulled back from him and started to apologize, but he cut her off.

“It was my pleasure, Miss, but you should remember what the VA doctors told me. Disillusionment is the door that leads to understanding, which leads to acceptance, and therein lies salvation.”

With those last words, he got back into his tow truck and left them, never to be seen again.

The mechanic didn’t spend very long finding the problem with Marcia’s car. A radiator hose had split and lost the coolant; he could replace all of the original hoses for a minimal cost above replacing only the one that had failed. She agreed and they were on their way in only fifteen minutes. They wouldn’t have time to stop for coffee, but Alicia would get to school in time for her first class.

Marcia was about to call a taxi on her phone when Alicia announced that she had called Uber and their driver would arrive in ten minutes.

The wait for the driver wasn’t spent in silence because Alicia immediately continued the conversation they’d had with Jerry. “Have you ever felt disillusioned about life, Marcia? I mean the way Jerry described it, after his visits to the VA psychologists.”

Marcia had never thought about it that way. In fact, she’d never thought about disillusionment as applicable to her. That was something that happened to people who were homeless, drug addicts, or ex-soldiers like Jerry but, after hearing about his experiences in Vietnam immediately after graduating from high school, she wasn’t so certain. He may have been making it all up, but she didn’t think so because he’d hadn’t sounded like someone looking for sympathy, but more like a man who knew his place in the scheme of things. Jerry had spoken like the person Marcia would like to be, even though she couldn’t relate his story of combat and facing death to her own life; they seemed to be worlds apart, but were they really? It was too much to try and understand in such a short time.

“Well?” her granddaughter asked impatiently.

It caused Marcia a great deal of discomfort to answer, “I’m not as smart as you and Jerry. I’ve never thought about any of the things that he spoke of and I don’t know that my life is like his; after all, he was in a war whereas I was just a naïve young woman who married the first man who was willing to support her. I feel so stupid, Alicia, when I meet people like him…or you.”

Alicia put her arm around Marcia’s waist and leaned against her as she replied, “You aren’t stupid. If you were, you would be homeless and not in a position to have a roommate. You are a caring person, which is why I love you more than my own parents. You make decisions based on feelings rather than cost-benefit analyses, and your approach to life has created the life you wanted, even if without the financial security you would have liked. You have a family that loves you and a granddaughter for a roommate; I can’t believe that I have his opportunity to be living with someone like you.”

Marcia didn’t know how to respond to such an outflowing of sentiment from her granddaughter. She had never suspected that Alicia cared for her so much because her mother, who was Marcia’s oldest daughter, had always treated Marcia as an embarrassment to the family. Her son, the eldest of her three children, never returned her calls except on holidays, and her youngest daughter only asked if she needed anything, probably thinking that Marcia couldn’t get to the store to buy food. She sometimes felt as if her children had abandoned her and, now, she had found a granddaughter who accepted her and loved her openly. She couldn’t think of anything to say.

She was spared from appearing stupid when a red Nissan drove up with an “Uber” sign on the windshield. After checking the license plate number, Alicia took Marcia’s hand and led her to the car before opening the passenger door for her and getting in the back seat for the next leg of their journey to Los Angeles City College.

The driver began talking before they were out of the parking lot. “I’m Janine. How are you ladies doing this morning? Another glorious L.A. day.”

Marcia had never ridden with an Uber driver before, but she had taken taxis several times. There must be something about sitting in a car all day that made people want to talk, like Jerry. She had recovered from her disturbing conversation with Alicia and was her normal cheerful self as she responded.

“I’m Marcia and this is my granddaughter, Alicia. We had a little car trouble, but I don’t think it ruined our day—”

Alicia interrupted from the back seat, “Not at all, Marcia. In fact, this is turning into a wonderful day. How about you, Janine?”

“Couldn’t be better, but my day is about to end. I’ve been working since midnight. You wouldn’t believe how many people need a ride in the early morning hours, and they’re not just party goers. Los Angeles is a city that runs twenty-four hours a day.”

Marcia nodded her agreement because she had worked the night shift several times over the years and had never seen the streets empty or a lack of customers in the diners and bakeries where she’d worked. She noticed that Janine looked to be about forty, which prompted her to ask, “Is this a part-time job, Janine? I’ve worked the night shift before, and it isn’t something I’d want to do permanently…” She stopped, realizing she’d was probably prying into Janine’s private life.

Janine was the opposite of Jerry. She turned to Marcia as she maneuvered her way through heavy traffic and said, “I’m divorced but my kids are in high school, so I don’t need to be there at night. I see them every afternoon when they get home from school, which is when I get up. I have black-out curtains on the window in my room and so I sleep very well. We have dinner together and that’s plenty of time to talk to teenagers, if you know what I mean.” She laughed and Alicia joined her from the back seat. Marcia wasn’t sure if Janine was laughing with sincerity or because she was used to it.

Alicia spoke up from the back seat. “Marcia raised my mom and her brother and sister by herself after she got divorced. She’s a great grandmother, but she doesn’t have much money. She has to wait on tables to earn a living because she got screwed by her ex-husband and social security. Are you saving a lot for your retirement?”

Marcia was appalled and wanted to apologize for Alicia’s forward behavior, but Janine didn’t give her a chance. She looked into the mirror to see Alicia as she responded.

“I got lucky because I was married fifteen years, so those years when I stayed at home and took care of the household and raised our children weren’t wasted, with respect to social security. However, my husband left the state and I don’t get any child support or alimony, so Marcia and I share that problem. That’s why I drive for Uber. I had no skills and the only thing I could have done at my age was do exactly what Marcia did, until Uber came along and offered me a chance to make money from driving and meeting people. It’s not great but it’s a living, and I really like what I do, even if I have to work at night. There’s a lot of money to be made on the night shift and most people don’t want to do it.”

She shifted her gaze to Marcia and continued, “Still, I don’t have any extra money for retirement although, as a private contractor, I do pay my social security tax, so I’ll have that in addition to whatever I’ll get from my homemaker years.” She didn’t seem disappointed by her situation, which surprised Marcia.

Marcia cleared her throat and garnered the temerity to ask, “Do you think you’re disillusioned, Janine? What I mean is…we spoke to the tow-truck driver about this and he said he was disillusioned with life after the time he spent in Viet Nam, but he seemed proud of having faced uncertainty and disappointment. He even went to psychologists to deal with…” She ran out of steam and sat silently, waiting to be corrected by both of her companions.

Alicia interjected, “Jerry said that he learned that disillusionment could lead to nihilism, which is like ultimate defeatism, but he found a way to understand and accept the uncertainty of life and now he feels like he has found salvation.”

Janine laughed nervously as she stopped suddenly when a shopping cart rolled into the street in front of them, followed without warning by a homeless man dressed in a dark blue overcoat and dirty tan pants. When the vagabond had recovered his possessions, never looking up to see the red car or its passengers, had gotten back onto the sidewalk, Janine turned to Marcia and, with a serious countenance, responded.

“My husband and I were both devout Christians when we met. We were going to live the life Jesus wanted us to live, and we did for ten years. We went to church twice a week; in fact, we spent all Sunday in church activities besides Wednesday bible study, and we raised our children to walk in Christ’s footsteps. But temptation was too great for Howard and he had an affair with a gorgeous blonde with a killer figure who sang in the choir. She left the church, which was probably no more than a passing fancy for her, but he confessed his transgression before the congregation and asked for forgiveness for his sin of adultery. I thought everything was fine for a while, but he had simply become better at hiding his innate behavior, so it took another four years for me to finally face reality. My husband was an unrepentant adulterer.”

Marcia was taken aback at Janine’s openness, but she managed to stammer, “Did you become disillusioned with the church after that?”

Swerving in and out of traffic, Janine answered, “No. I became disillusioned with life, just like the tow-truck driver Jerry said. I blamed myself, my brothers and sisters in Christ, and even God for doing this to me. However, I found the same path to salvation as Jerry but, rather than being helped by psychologists, I was shown how to see God’s plan for me by my pastor and congregation, who were nothing like my husband. Now I’m a deacon in my church and my faith in God is undiminished.” She was smiling proudly as she finished.

Marcia had been impressed by Janine’s story. She had to search for the words to express her feelings and finally found them. “That’s an inspirational story, Janine, and I won’t forget it. Thank you for sharing it with us.”

They pulled up to the main entrance of Los Angelos City College as Janine said, “It was my pleasure, Marcia. God’s will can be revealed to us in many ways. We only have to listen to hear his voice through the words of those we trust, just as Jerry listened to the psychologists and I took counsel from my congregation. That is the path to living together in harmony according to God’s plan.” She was beaming.

They exited the car and waved as Janine drove away to share her spiritual message with another captive audience, just like Jerry. They were both driving around Los Angelos spreading a message of hope, even if from vastly different perspectives.

Marcia insisted on accompanying Alicia to her first class because she had never been on a college campus before. Her granddaughter’s attitude had completely changed from earlier and she gladly took Marcia’s hand and led her through the labyrinth of hallways and courtyards to her first class as she expressed her concern about how Marcia might interpret the morning’s events.

“You aren’t going to become religious are you, Marcia?” she asked with uncertainty written on her face, as they approached the door of her first class.

“No. Even if I’m not very smart, I’m old enough to read between the lines. Jerry and Janine were telling the same story: They both found a way to follow the path from understanding the vagaries of life to moving on. Actually, I favor Jerry’s psychologists more than a random collection of people and a religious leader. It could easily have worked out differently for Janine. She was lucky, even though she remains committed to the same belief that got her in trouble to begin with.” She paused and giggled before adding, “I guess that applies to me too.”

Alicia kissed her cheek and opened the door to her future as she said, “I’ll see you in the morning, Marcia. I love you.” And then she was gone into the world of knowledge, leaving Marcia to contemplate what had happened that morning as she found her way home.

She made her way back through the tiled hallways lined with pictures of things she would never understand until she got to where she had begun her brief foray into the halls of learning. She went to the bus stop across the street and studied the map to find her way home from this unfamiliar terrain. Finally discovering the buses that would take her to her destination, she waited as her mind pored over the idea of disillusionment. She sat down on the bench to wait for her bus and then a man her age, dressed in cargo pants and a t-shirt took a seat next to her. Marcia felt emboldened after the conversations she’d had that morning, so she turned to the stranger to ask his opinion.

She cleared her throat to get his attention, which was focused on his smart phone, and said, “Excuse me sir, but have you ever been disillusioned with life?”

He slowly turned to her and, with a confused expression, replied, “What the hell are you talking about lady?”

She drew a deep breath and continued, “You know what I mean…at your age, you must have been disillusioned with something at some time. Have you ever wondered what it’s all about?” She motioned with her arms to make her point.

She had his attention now. His gaze followed her waving limbs and then he scoffed, “Are you one of those Beverly Hills matrons who got lost while slumming it with the rest of us?”

“No, sir. I’m a waitress at a restaurant. I’ve had an enlightening morning with my granddaughter, and I thought I’d try and find out what other people thought…I’m sorry for interrupting your wait for the bus.”

He put his phone down and turned to her, his attention entirely focused on her presence on the bench next to him. He studied her for a few moments before responding.

“I had it all before the tech bubble burst in 2000. I was a multimillionaire, but then I lost most of it, and then I learned to accept that I’d had my shot and had to live with the consequences of my decisions. Yeah. You could say I’ve faced disillusionment in my life. I was fortunate, although not as lucky as those who got out of the market before me; I even contemplated suicide at one time, when my wife left me because she saw me as a failure.”

Marcia gulped and said, “What got you through that difficult time in your life?”

The stranger thought a moment before answering. “I’m not a quitter. I didn’t go back to trading because I had made enough to live a new life, even if I wasn’t a multimillionaire anymore.” He glanced down at his casual dress and continued, “Don’t let the informal attire fool you, lady. I’m very comfortable financially, but I don’t care what anyone thinks about me these days. I keep myself busy with my family and charities, which took on a new appeal after I retired from a life of taking advantage of everyone. Now, I’m giving back a little of what I took.” He grinned at her and added, “By the way, my name is Leon.”

She shook her head to clear her mind and replied, “I’m Marcia. It’s good to meet you, Leon. Thank you for being so honest.” She shook her head again and added, “I think I’ve been disillusioned all my life and was too stupid to recognize it. I never made a million dollars, and I don’t think I would know what to do with that much money.”

He looked at her thoughtfully before saying, “No one does; that’s why we have the wealthy starting wars and fomenting discontent around the world. It’s like a hobby with them. They’re as disillusioned as you and me, but they’re too rich to see life for what it is. Life is a day-to-day experience until we die; nothing more and nothing less.”

Marcia had to ask, “Do you think it’s possible to be disillusioned with life and not know it?”

Leon thought a moment and then said, “You’re living proof of that, Marcia. By our age, if we are wise, we’ve learned to accept the unknown and some of us, like you, don’t even have to think about it. I envy you for your ability to take life a day at a time without resorting to complicated explanations.” He smiled at her as the bus that would take her on the first leg of her journey home pulled up to the bus stop.

She stood up and he did too. They shook hands and then, as she started towards the bus, he took a business card out of his pocket and offered it to her. “I just got off the night shift at the homeless shelter.” He shrugged uncertainly and continued, “I’m kind of like the night watchman, to keep the drug addicts in line and prevent the riffraff from stealing from people who have nothing of value. Maybe you would like to come down and check it out some time.”

Marcia turned he card over and saw his name, Leon Blanton, hand-written on the back in a tight printed script. She nodded quickly as she stepped onto the bus and said, “I’ll do that, Leon, because I’ve learned a lot today. And, by the way, it was very nice to meet you. I hope to see you again.” She quickly stepped onto the bus as she smiled at him. He was smiling back.

Misunderstanding Life

 

I

It was a cool fall day and Ohio State was a two-touchdown favorite over Illinois, but the game wasn’t working out as planned. With only five minutes left on the clock, they were behind by ten points to a has-been team that shouldn’t have been allowed to play Division I football. Despite the gloom falling over all Ohio State fans that Saturday afternoon, Gary Collins was convinced they would pull it off with what he called their two-minute offense. His son, David wasn’t so sure, so he went to the kitchen to get another round of beers; he didn’t personally like Pabst, but his dad was paying so—what the hell. He returned just as Ohio State fumbled at midfield, which set his father into a rage.

“Goddamnit!” Gary exclaimed as he opened the beer and swigged it as if this act would change the course of NCAA football history. David didn’t think it was a good idea for his dad to get so excited at his age; he was sixty-four and had high blood pressure, which he took pills for. He tried to keep Gary from having a heart attack until the end of the game, not that it helped much.

When the clock wound down and Ohio State lost by ten points, Gary downed what was left of his bear and exclaimed, “Those pussy motherfuckers must be using steroids. There’s no way in hell that piece-of-shit team could beat us without cheating!”

David played along with his father’s latest conspiracy theory and tried to sound upbeat as he replied, “You’re probably right, Dad, but no one will ever prove it because the whole college football industry is corrupt.” He shrugged helplessly as Gary turned to him and nodded as if his suspicions had been confirmed by David’s words.

“Goddamn right,” he said as he went to the kitchen for another cheap beer.

By the time Gary returned, David had thought of a way to bring up the reason for his visit to watch a football game—he didn’t like college football much. He imagined putting himself in Gary’s shoes as he said, “Sometimes I wished I’d gone to college; then I wouldn’t be laid off from the plant and unable to find a job. There are lots of jobs for store clerks and for college-educated people, but nothing as a machinist…” He let his words hang in the air, hoping his dad would understand his predicament.

Gary knew that his son was looking for financial help but there was nothing he could do so, instead of admitting the truth, he retorted, “I told you to apply where I work. They just hired a guy last week.”

“You’re right. They did hire a guy last week, which filled the only position they had available; besides, the job was for a layout man—he sets up the robots that do the heavy work. I’m a machinist. They’re not looking for machinists and neither is anyone else.”

Gary knew this was the case and he was lucky to have a steady job himself. Where had all the manufacturing jobs gone? He knew the answer: the goddamn Chinese took them all, working for a fraction of the pay of a hard-working American. He hated the Chinese.

To console his son, and himself, Gary got a joint from the wooden box he kept on the coffee table and lit it up, sharing it with David, until his wife entered the living room. She was aghast for a reason he didn’t understand.

“What the hell are you doing, Gary?” she exclaimed. “Didn’t you read the letter they sent you from work? They do random drug tests now and anyone who fails will be fired and lose their retirement. It’s illegal in Ohio.”

Gary scoffed. “That’s bullshit. They’re too cheap to waste money on drug testing. It’s nothing more than a scare tactic.”

His wife shook her head skeptically and said, “Dinner’s ready.”

II

The letter about drug testing wasn’t a scare tactic, partly due to Gary’s contribution to the problem of drug use in the workplace. He thought of his job as fabricating and constructing steel frames for special applications, which is what his company did for its business, but it had never occurred to him that he wasn’t just a freelance fabricator. Over the ten years he’d worked at Brinkman Manufacturing, he had forgotten key elements of the designs he was tasked to fabricate because he was under the influence at work, thus creating beautiful structures that didn’t match the technical specifications of the customer. Unable to prove his negligence, or link it to his suspected marijuana use, the foreman had progressively relegated Gary to less-critical positions. In fact, when the letter arrived, he worked outside, away from the main building and in all weather, doing routine plant upgrades.  Gary assumed this was because the foreman didn’t like him, and it was a constant source of stress at work and at home, which caused him to get high even more often.

The Monday after the humiliation of Ohio State at the hands of Illinois was just another workweek to Gary, until he was met by his foreman and told to report to Human Resources for drug testing. He wasn’t concerned because he hadn’t smoked any marijuana since Saturday, so he complied with that asshole’s instructions, knowing that the marijuana would have been flushed out of his system by now—just like alcohol.

Unknown to Gary, his foreman actually appreciated his fabrication skills; thus, it was difficult for him to call Gary to his office two days later and face him with a sad look on his tired face. Gary took a seat across the metal desk, thinking he was going to be given meaningful work again, and looked at the red stapler sitting next to a framed picture, which Gary couldn’t see from his vantage point.

“Gary,” the foreman began in his usual voice, which sounded as if he has something important to say but didn’t know quite how to word it. “Did you get the letter from HR about the drug-testing program?”

“Sure.”

The hated foreman pursed his lips and nodded incredulously before saying, “You failed the drug test. The letter was sent out a month ago so that anyone who had been using marijuana for recreational purposes would have plenty of time to stop using it and pass the drug screening. Why didn’t you do that?”

Gary was confused by this question, so he gave his well-rehearsed response. “I don’t use drugs. It’s a mistake, probably by that Chinese woman who labelled my urine sample. You know how they are. They can’t read English.” He was certain this disclaimer would work, even though it had never worked in the past.

“It’s not a mistake, at least not by the lab technician. It takes several weeks for THC to clear out of your bloodstream; unfortunately, because of this constraint on the testing procedure, we don’t know if someone is getting high on the weekend or just before coming to work, even though no one is under the influence twelve hours after using marijuana. You’ve made a number of errors over the last few years that weren’t caused by a lack of skill. You have misread the technical drawings and produced worthless steel structures that didn’t meet the customers’ specifications.”

“Weeks?” was the weak reply. Gary hadn’t heard anything after that sentence had been uttered.

The foreman shook his thin head and said, “THC isn’t like alcohol. It’s a completely different drug. You were clean on alcohol, amphetamines, opioids, and crystal meth, as well as half a dozen other illegal substances that affect job performance.”

It began to dawn on Gary that his job might be at stake. “I still think it’s a mistake, but I’ll go through a rehab program and take the test again.” He shrugged dismissively, certain that it would all work out. He’d been through alcohol and drug abuse programs before.

The foreman’s response caused Gary’s head and chest to merge into a single organ, which sent a wave of mind-numbing pain to course through his bloodstream.

“Brinkman Manufacturing has no obligation to offer a drug-rehab program to employees who fail the drug test and we couldn’t afford it anyway. You’re only one of four employees who failed, and you were given ample opportunity to meet the standardized criteria. You chose not to take advantage of this opportunity to get your career back on track.” The foreman disliked this part of his job, especially with someone as skilled as Gary Collins.

Gary’s mind was numb, and he couldn’t think of a response.

The foreman continued, “Brinkman Manufacturing is a small enterprise that cannot afford the costs of correcting poor work performance caused of drug use—”

Gary head exploded. “You son-of-bitch! You always wanted to get rid of me because I had better ways of doing things than you. This is nothing more than jealousy. I’ll sue your sorry ass, and Brinkman Manufacturing too, for age discrimination…” He ran out of words after this brief outburst, which gave his foreman an opportunity to respond.

Rubbing his forehead as if he had a headache, the man Gary hated more than anyone said, “I have enjoyed working with you most of the time, Gary, but I have been given the unpleasant task of telling you that you can no longer work for Brinkman. I fought to get you a month’s severance pay and a man with your skill should have no problem finding a position suited to your talent and social preferences in the current job market.”

Still without thinking, Gary had no difficulty acting out his frustration. He lunged toward his foreman with his hands ready to choke this asshole but was prevented from executing such action by the bulk of the desk that separated them, which he half-climbed on as he expressed his frustration, which was rapidly becoming uncontrollable anger.

“You fucking asshole!” he shouted as his momentum was stopped by the effort required to climb over the desk and reach his prey, who had backed up and gotten to his feet.

“Don’t make me call the police, Gary. Everything that has happened was of your own doing. Why do you think you’re working on facility maintenance?”

Gary backed off the desk and, feeling nothing more than a desire to kill this man who was his enemy, answered, “Because of you, you fucking asshole!”

The foreman was slowly shaking his head as he calmly responded, while keeping the desk between him and Gary, “We all have to accept responsibility for our actions, Gary, even if we have difficulty making decisions. Like I said, with your skills you can find suitable employment, and you can count on me for an honest reference for any future employers; you are very skilled at your work and I wish you could have remained with Brinkman, but my hands are tied. I’m only a foreman.”

The fury in Gary’s eyes decreased before he turned towards the door and left slowly with his head held low. It really bothered his foreman to see a man with so much talent fired over something as mundane as marijuana use; Gary was the best fabricator he’d ever worked with and it was a shame to fire him. But policy was made at a level of management above the foreman and it didn’t include drug rehabilitation programs.

III

Gary received a month’s severance pay, just like his asshole foreman had promised, but it wasn’t enough to pay for his wife’s medication for her thyroid condition, much less his doctor’s visits for his circulatory problems because they had lost their health insurance. He asked around for jobs but there was no way in hell he was going to use his ex-foreman as a reference because he was certain that son-of-a-bitch had gotten him fired. He knew he was in trouble when his wife made their predicament clear one day during dinner.

“What are we going to do, Gary?” she asked with a distraught look. “Your severance pay will take care of things for a little while, until your unemployment starts, but you have to find a job. From what I see on TV, unemployment is so low that it should be no problem for you to find a new job.”

He felt the same overpowering sensation of drowning he had felt when his foreman at Brinkman Manufacturing had fired him as he replied, as calmly as he could, “Are you ready to move to North Dakota? I could make a hundred-thousand a year there.” His weak but functional prefrontal cortex was trying to help him.

She shook her head.

“How about West Texas? It’s not as much money but the work would last longer.”

She shook her head again.

“I could join the union and go to work in either Virginia or Mississippi, working on warships for the Navy. Those jobs would last several years.”

She shook her head again and replied, “I can’t leave my family, Gary, and you know it. Mom is suffering from Alzheimer’s and dad isn’t much better off. I have to take care of them.”

The pressure in his head increased until he thought it would explode as he had a thought. “How about if I take a job in Houston for eighty-thousand, working on oil platforms, and we bring your parents down to join us? You could care for them and we’d be set because this oil rig maintenance is a long-term contract.” He looked at her hopefully but was disappointed with her response.

“I don’t think we should move them. They’ve lived in Dayton all their lives. What would that do to them?” She was shaking her head emphatically as she spoke.

Gary’s head was now in the process of exploding, but it was a slow and painful process, which reduced his already limited ability to think. He stood up and exclaimed, “They’re old people and they are in the process of dying. Goddamn! They can die anywhere, and we’ll bury them here in Dayton and, in the meantime, we can take care of them. We can’t take care of them if we remain here because there are no jobs other than minimum wage, which would barely pay our mortgage. Don’t you understand?”

His wife, who had kept him from becoming homeless for thirty years, shook her head even more strongly as she replied in a calm voice, “They have a right to live out their days where they grew up. I won’t drag them to North Dakota or Texas just because it’s convenient.”

Slowly, neurons in Gary’s prefrontal cortex, which hadn’t done much work throughout his life, began to fire in unison. He had an idea.

“Why don’t I go to North Dakota and work as much overtime as they’ll let me? I’ll be making more than a hundred-thousand a year, which will allow us to pay off the house, and you can stay here and take care of your parents. And there will even be enough money to help David out until he finds another job.” He was certain this was the solution to all of their problems.

Her head shook even more emphatically than before as she answered, “No, Gary, because that would be equivalent to giving up. This is our home and it’s where we should be living. We’ll figure it out. Don’t worry.”

Gary was unable to transform his suggestion into a plan of action that would save his family from annihilation, so he nodded as his entire body burned with a flame that he was unable to comprehend. To alleviate his anguish, he smoked an entire joint by himself and waited until his wife had gone to bed before going outside to the garage and checking on his car, a 1995 Mustang he drag-raced in NHRA’s Super Gas class.

IV

Gary had been out of work for two weeks and was getting half of his previous pay from unemployment, which would last six months, when he realized he didn’t have health insurance any more. That was a problem because, even though he was in excellent shape after spending two hours every day at the gym lifting weights and jogging on the treadmill for twenty years, he had high blood pressure and a problem with his thyroid gland. And he had a doctor’s appointment coming up. He didn’t know how he could afford it; and then there was his wife’s diabetes, which required frequent visits to her doctor and expensive medication. He didn’t know what to do until he got a call from a friend who had retired to Florida.

He answered reluctantly and, after exchanging greetings, Ralph pressed Gary to admit that he had been fired and couldn’t find a job. Gary could feel the tension building as he explained, in answer to Ralph’s query about his employment opportunities, that his wife didn’t want to move or even for him to leave Dayton for an extended period of time. When Ralph insisted that Gary should take one of those out-of-state jobs over his wife’s objections, he felt the pressure in his head building until he couldn’t think, so he didn’t, instead lashing out.

“Why don’t you mind your own business, Ralph! I can take care of myself and my family without your help. Just back off!”

“Okay, Gary, but I’ve been unemployed before and I know what it’s like, especially with medical conditions like you and Nancy have. Did you at least keep your medical insurance?”

“No. I got it through my employer,” Gary mumbled.

Ralph’s tone turned upbeat as he replied, “No problem. Just go to the ACA website and sign up for health insurance.”

Gary was confused. “What’s the ACA?” He didn’t like the sound of it.

“The Affordable Care Act; it makes affordable health insurance available to everyone, especially people like you.”

“I never heard of it.”

Ralph scoffed and replied, “Obama care. Does that ring a bell?”

Gary had heard about that on the radio. It was a socialist program implemented by that communist, Obama, and his libtard pals in congress. Still, it was worth looking into, especially since the Democrats had increased his taxes to pay for it. He reluctantly went to his computer and, with Ralph’s assistance, tried to join; but it was too confusing, so Ralph had to walk him through the entire procedure, which took two hours. By the end of the ordeal, Gary’s head was about to explode, but he had insurance for only a dollar a month.

Two weeks later, Gary was able to go to his doctor and get his prescriptions refilled; and all at no cost, so maybe Obama care wasn’t so bad after all. It worked for his wife as well. Everything was fine until his unemployment benefits ran out and he had to live on Social Security, which Ralph had helped him figure out in time for the benefits to start within a few weeks of unemployment ending. Why was everything the government did so goddamn complicated? He knew why because he’d heard about the communist plot to undermine America by liberals like Obama, even if he had benefited from their conspiracy. That was what he had been warned about by Rush Limbaugh: they were trying to weaken the resolve of Americans to be strong by handing out small favors in a time of need—Gary knew firsthand that this was true. He convinced himself that he was taking advantage of the socialists, but he would never support them. At any rate, he had to live on thirteen-hundred dollars per month; he didn’t see any way he could pull that off. His mortgage was six-hundred dollars.

He had to get some relief from all this bullshit, so he went out to the garage and smoked half a joint; then, he had the bright idea of taking his race car for a short spin before he would be forced to sell it. It seemed like a good idea because it had a stock body and looked like a regular car, even if it had a highly modified engine with nine-inch-wide slicks. Who cared if it wasn’t registered? He wasn’t driving to the grocery store and no one would see him in his quiet suburban neighborhood. And, even if it had no mufflers, it wasn’t much louder than the pieces of shit that punks were driving every day.

He turned the ignition key and the seven-hundred-horsepower motor jumped to life, rattling the walls of the garage. He hadn’t recalled the exhaust sounding so loud before, but it didn’t matter because he was only going for a short drive to blow off steam. He crept forward into the bright September day and pulled onto the narrow street in front of his house, before laying a little rubber down just to heat up the racing slicks. The tension drained from his shoulders and his head stopped pounding as he drove to a country road less than a mile from his house, where they used to race at night when he was young—it felt like yesterday, although it had been forty years since those days.

With the engine idling at a fifteen-hundred rpm, Gary looked down the straight two-lane road, surrounded by corn fields ready to be harvested, and decided that it was a fine day to do a quick run. He hadn’t done that in years, since he’d gotten a ticket from an asshole state trooper, instead limiting his testing to the race track on weekends. He looked past the bulging hood scoop that covered the supercharger to see a clear road, at least for the quarter mile he would need. Then, he did his burn out, heating the tires up by letting them spin on the asphalt for only a second before lining up with a telephone pole. He imagined the staging light coming on and waited for the amber lights to flash simultaneously. Visualizing these events, he timed his start for the imaginary green light, and hit it.

The sensation of being pushed back in his seat erased the anxiety of the last six months, as the Mustang launched down the road in a blue haze of burning rubber. When the odometer indicated he had travelled a quarter-mile, Gary let up on the throttle and started braking, at more than one-hundred-thirty mph, less than ten seconds after burning out. He pulled onto the shoulder and prepared to turn around and head home, feeling like his old self when he saw blue lights heading toward him from behind. He shut off the engine and removed his license from his wallet in preparation for one more bad thing. It seemed that everyone was out to get him.

Gary wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or concerned when the sheriff deputy approached his car. It was Howard Handel, who was ten years younger than Gary, but a fan of drag racing. In fact, he had joined his older brother when they guys would all go racing on this very road back in the seventies. Howie, as he was called back then, had loved it and he was still a racing fan, coming to see how Gary was doing in the pits many times over the years. He hoped Howard’s memory was as good as his as the short, wiry man stopped at the driver’s window.

Howard displayed no sign of recognition as he said, “I know you don’t street race anymore, Gary, so can you tell me a believable story that will give me an excuse not to write you up for excessive speed, operating an unregistered and uninsured vehicle on a public highway, with illegal tires and no exhaust system?”

Gary turned to face the deputy and, with his voice shaking from frustration, answered, “I have to sell this car because I can’t find a job here in Dayton. I wanted to feel the acceleration one more time and I can’t afford to go to the track.”

Howard stood up suddenly. “Shit! What happened?”

Gary shrugged and said, “I got fired. They didn’t need my services anymore. I would go out of state to work but my wife doesn’t want me to leave because of her health. I’m too old to find a job in town except sweeping floors or some shit like that. And I won’t do that kind of work. I’m too old for that.”

They talked for a couple of minutes and Howard showed no sign of taking out his ticket pad. After a couple of minutes, he slapped his hand against the top of the door and said, “I’m not going to add to your misfortune by writing you up; for one thing, I can’t even write a repair order for a missing muffler for an unregistered vehicle without impounding it and arresting the driver. And there’s no way in hell I’m going to do that. Just take it easy going home…and don’t forget how this last run felt.” He pulled out his phone and, grinning, added, “I got a picture, and, by the way, you were doing one-forty-two through the traps. I’ll email you the photo and the radar result, before I delete it from the system.”

“Thanks, Howard, for understanding. I know it was a stupid thing to do and it won’t happen again. I promise.”

Gary turned around and headed home at a sedate speed, thinking that he had gotten a break for once, before pulling into his garage for the last time.

V

The Mustang sold for half what Gary had wanted but at least it was enough to pay their mortgage for a while. It was looking like they would have to sell the house unless he got a job, so he started doing specialty welding work in his now-empty garage—repairing trailers and commercial trucks, and even bicycles and appliances. The extra money it brought in helped but it wasn’t going to be enough. They were going to have to sell the house and find someplace cheaper to live, but his wife refused to talk about selling the house, insisting that God would take care of them. He didn’t recall her ever being particularly religious, but he figured that everybody had their own way of coping with trouble. Without realizing it, Gary’s way was to blame others for his problems and thus get angry. And he became angrier with every passing day, especially when he took a part-time job in a warehouse.

Between social security, his minimum wage job, and welding on the side, they could stay in their house but there was no extra money. He was living paycheck to paycheck, something he’d never done in his life, and it bothered him.

One day in spring, when the grass had started to recover from the relatively mild winter, he was cutting his grass and trying to think about everything that had happened to him. All his life, people had been holding him back by either getting in the way or plotting against him.

If Gary had been more perspicacious, he would have realized that his current dilemma was because he didn’t take a high-paying job and pay-off his debts while saving for retirement; his problem was that he took any advice anyone gave him (including his wife’s not wanting him to work out of state) because it prevented him from figuring things out on his own. His plight isn’t that uncommon among people his age, who had assumed all their lives that they would have good jobs until they retired to Florida. It wasn’t that someone had intentionally misled him, but more that he didn’t think about the future. This is all redundant of course because he hadn’t followed the analysis even to the point of realizing he might have been sold a fantasy—any problems he had were due to the actions of his neighbors, family, friends, coworkers, and politicians in recent months. There was no long-term in his world. Thus, instead of contemplating these factors, Gary was glaring periodically at his neighbor’s unkempt yard as he pushed his mower.

Cutting the grass was turning out to be more work than it should have been because he had to stop constantly and remove tin cans, balls, and other debris from his lawn, all of which had been tossed there by his wetback neighbor and his three kids. The guy had been living there ten years and still spoke broken English and his wife couldn’t speak at all. Their yard was like a junk yard, with an old car sitting on cinder blocks and a couch in the front yard. Gary had thought of calling INS several times over the years, but his wife had talked him out of it. He had complained to the city many times, but nothing had ever been done about it, other than his neighbor hauling an abandoned car away once and cutting the grass a few times. By the time he finished the front yard, there was a pile of debris just across the property line. He shook his head in disgust and started cutting the grass around his garage. On his first pass, he stopped in shock.

The side of his garage was covered with graffiti. It looked like one of those railroad cars you see with different signs overlapping, as if painted by several different gangs fighting a long-distance turf war with the boxcars serving as message carriers. If it had been nice picture or even recognizable, he probably wouldn’t have reacted as he did, but it was just gibberish. And it was the last straw.

As one might have gathered, Gary’s neighbor had even more difficulty than he in dealing with the world. He also had a poor sense of timing and as little control of his thoughts as Gary himself. As Gary was staring at the side of his garage, he heard a too-familiar voice rattle something off in Spanish before switching to the language of America.

“What the fuck is all this shit?! I’ll kick that puto gringo’s ass for throwing this shit in our yard!”

A female voice said something in a calmer voice, but in Spanish so Gary didn’t know what she’d said, but he was ready to address Miguel’s challenge with violence if needed. He made his way past the dilapidated travel trailer sitting in the grass next to his garage to take his neighbor up on his offer. Before he made it, he stumbled on something in the grass and bent over to pick it up. It was lucky for him his mower had cleared the heavy piece of steel, which looked like an alternator bracket, because it certainly would have ruined his mower blade.

He stepped out from behind the trailer with the bracket in his hands but, before he could speak, Miguel exclaimed, “Hey! You fucking asshole! What’s all this shit in my yard?”

Gary prevented him from continuing by tossing the heavy bracket so that it struck Miguel in the chest, causing him to stumble backward a step.

Gary wasn’t smiling as he said as calmly as he could under the circumstances, “I was going to ask you the same question. Your kids have apparently been playing spic baseball in my yard all winter. But they don’t clean up after themselves any more than their goddamn parents.” He paused to wave his arms at the garbage and abandoned appliances in the yard before continuing, “I’ve tried to get the city to force you to clean up this mess but, apparently, there’s a hands-off policy towards illegal immigrants in Dayton, and you can’t be touched, at least not by those libtards in city hall.”

He advanced a step towards Miguel, whose wife was pulling at his arm. He pushed her away and stood his ground, as if remaining in his yard defended him from the anger of someone who hated him and his family, but he didn’t say anything.

Gary was willing to accept his challenge. “You said you were going to kick my puto gringo ass. This is your chance, you little wetback motherfucker.” His teeth were clenched as were his fists.

His unintentional ploy worked because Miguel crossed into Gary’s yard as he said something in Spanish that sounded threatening to Gary. Miguel picked up a length of pipe and approached him warily, causing Gary to laugh out loud.

“Trust a spic to bring a weapon to a fist fight. That’s why your people are nothing more than shit! You’re are an uncivilized animal and that’s why everything you touch turns to shit. You fucked up your country and now you want to come and fuck up mine.”

Suddenly, Miguel lunged with the pipe held high. Unknown to his assailant, Gary had a black-belt in Tatami Karate, but he wasn’t going to unleash his skills on Miguel; even as angry as he was, he remembered what he had learned: it was illegal to use his training unless in a life-threatening situation. Miguel was not threatening his life, not with a two-foot section of pipe. Gary stepped aside as he deflected Miguel’s arm and hit his opponent hard in the lumbar with his left fist.

Miguel didn’t go down or let go of the pipe, but he was hurting as he swung again at Gary, this time from down low. Had Gary not been expecting just this response, he would have been caught off-guard and probably had his jaw broken. Instead, he stepped back and then moved in and punched Miguel in the jaw with a right uppercut, sending him sprawling to the ground as the pipe took a separate path under the influence of gravity. Miguel didn’t move because he was unconscious.

When the police arrived, called by Miguel’s wife who couldn’t speak English—apparently the police spoke Spanish, even in Ohio, far from the border—Gary was confronted by a Hispanic male officer and a black female officer, all while the woman was screaming in Spanish. Apparently, the police understood her because they immediately approached Gary in a confrontational manner as the Hispanic officer addressed him.

“She says you assaulted her husband for no reason. What happened here?”

Gary told them the truth, but they didn’t believe him because he was a white guy who disliked illegal immigrants, and they expressed no interest in taking the pipe to check for fingerprints. It was like he had always known: Everyone was out to get him, sooner or later, and there was nothing he could do about it. He was handcuffed and pushed into the rear seat of the police car and taken to jail, where he was fingerprinted, photographed, treated like a criminal, and put in a cell with a couple of black men and another spic like Miguel. He spent the night wondering what had become of America.

The Illusionist

In this post, I’m sharing a short story I’ve written on the subject of disillusionment. Disillusionment takes many forms but, on its own merits, it is a very worthwhile endeavor. It is only when the process of recognizing that reality can be very different than our perceptions (i.e., illusions) fails for a variety of reasons that our minds lead us into the dark regions, which are entirely of our own construction. This story is about a boy who grows into a man, never realizing that he is constructing new illusions as fast as old ones are demonstrated as being false. It is not an autobiography, although I freely admit, as do all authors, that my own experiences are a natural part of the writing process.

The Illusionist

THE EMPTY SLATE

The skinny four-year-old boy played with some cans and pieces of metal his brother (who was four years older) and he had found in the trash cans and enjoyed the solitude—and quiet. His brother and two sisters, all of whom were older than him, were at school and there was no one to bully him and, since his father was at work, there were no voices raised in anger or jealousy; or maybe his parents just liked to shout at each other. To him, his parents’ arguments sounded like the fights he had with his siblings, but they were louder and lasted longer, until his father would leave the house and drive away in the car. He didn’t really like his mother or, for that matter, his father but, at least when it was just her and him, she left him alone. Sometimes his father would go away for a month or more and another man would move in. But these visitors didn’t fight with his mother and they left him alone, barely acknowledging his existence. He was used to that as the youngest child.

Sometimes, after a lunch of mayonnaise or margarine on a slice of white bread, she took him for rides in their car and he could play someplace besides the yard in front of the dilapidated two-bedroom duplex they lived in. He enjoyed those trips because she would leave him outside in the car while she visited with some friends inside the same whitewashed building she always went to, and she didn’t get mad when she would come outside to bring him a glass of water and find that he’d gotten out of the car and was playing with the toys he was allowed to bring. She was always in a good mood after a few hours visiting with her friends, and sometimes one of her boyfriends would come out and say hello to him and kiss her before she got in the car. His mother had a lot of acquaintances, and they were all friendly, even to her youngest child, James Walsh, although everyone called him Jimmy—he didn’t like that name, but no one cared what he thought.

Inevitably, the rest of the family would return in the afternoon and his life returned to misery, at least for a few hours. First would be the insults and punches from his brother, then taunts and pushing from his sisters, and then his father would return from work. Sometimes his parents would wait until after dinner to start their daily routine but, as often as not, his father would enter the apartment cursing about something Jim didn’t understand. But he sure did get angry. Jim’s brother and sisters would have released their pent-up energy from sitting in class all day by the time dinner was over and they would play board games together while their parents’ ongoing feud would simmer for a little while, with brief flare-ups in response to an angry glance or ill-chosen word. Bed time was usually quiet but he could hear his parents starting up again, once they thought they were alone. Jim accepted that this was how life was and didn’t give it much thought and he never thought about the future.

Jim Walsh started first grade at only five-years old without having attended kindergarten, after his mother confronted the principal, and insisted that he was capable of keeping up with the other children. His birthday fell after the start of the school year and she persuaded the meek, middle-age man that it would be a shame to prevent him from getting an education on a technicality. Apparently, she was as excited as Jim at the idea of his getting out of the house and beginning his education. He soon discovered that the other students were no different from his siblings except that they weren’t as physical; the teachers discouraged fights among the boys, which occurred anyway, but Jim was never involved in those.

Sometime during the second grade, his family moved a couple of hundred yards and into a different world. They now lived in a house with three bedrooms—he shared one with his brother—and a back yard, and some of the kids he went to school with were his neighbors; in fact, his best friend from the second grade lived only a couple of houses away and they played together every day. Part of his enjoyment of this new life resulted from his siblings getting older; his sisters now fought with each other and his older brother, who was eleven, was no longer interested in pushing Jim around. He also learned that not every family lived in the same style as his, with the parents constantly fighting and arguing. He wasn’t allowed to bring friends home to play but he could go to their houses, which he did as often as possible, and thus Jim learned that his friends’ families were often very different from his, usually in a positive way.

During this formative period, Jim Walsh had a couple of ideas growing in his young mind, like seeds that had just germinated, nourished by his growing awareness of a world which now included more than his family. He had already realized that he disliked his parents and wanted nothing to do with them; furthermore, he felt a growing sense of alienation from his siblings, who had always treated him poorly. He wanted nothing to do with any of them but, lacking an ability to see the future, he accepted that this was his lot in life; and he would bear the burden as well as he could. Another concept that was taking root in the deepest parts of his brain was that he had an obligation to his parents and siblings, although he didn’t know what that meant—it was too soon to identify the source of this sensation, and he didn’t have the vocabulary to allow him to express this feeling, even to himself. Still, having the inability of children his age to be concerned about the future, he trudged along the path he could not diverge from.

It was during this interval that something extraordinary occurred, which changed Jim Walsh’s life forever, in ways no one could have foreseen, although he had no inkling of its impact on his future at the time. And it was all caused by the interaction of factors beyond the elucidation of science or even religion. It was in the realm of metaphysics—perhaps astrology.

By this time, Jim Walsh, at the age of ten, was disillusioned with his family, of that there could be no doubt, but his young mind lacked the tools to grasp the meaning of this subconscious condition; nevertheless, he had devised a coping mechanism—self-delusion, as a temporary state reflecting his incomprehension of reality. He would accept whatever happened and play his part, even if ineptly, in the unfolding drama.

A STRANGE INTERLUDE

Jim’s siblings and he were introduced to a new board game, which was designed for older children, those with strong imaginations and good eye-hand coordination, by their mother. The Ouija Board game was a lot of fun, but he wasn’t very good at it, not nearly as good as his oldest sister who seemed to have a talent for moving the plastic pointer between the letters. In fact, in the hands of his sister, the game took on a personality of its own and began to speak as if it were a mysterious person who claimed to be an angel of God.

His family had been halfheartedly religious but, at the insistence of his mother, they had attended Sunday worship services and even Sunday school at a local Southern Baptist church for several years. Jim was even baptized there, submerged in a pool of water built into the altar on the dais where the pastor gave his boring Sunday sermons, even though he had no idea what baptism meant. He had been born again.

Apparently, his family’s shallow but sincere religiosity was why God had decided to contact them through an angel and send them on a mission to spread His word to the forsaken of the world, but He had failed to say which heathens were to be saved. Jim accepted this mission along with his parents and siblings, except his brother, who expressed skepticism about the entire enterprise. His father was convinced by a coincidental revelation, involving the illness of his oldest daughter, and reluctantly went along with the program. Jim accepted whatever he was told by the Ouija Board, which had by now declared itself as being God Himself. Jim accepted this proclamation as well because he didn’t care anymore.

Jim Walsh found himself in Kabul, Afghanistan, with his siblings, his mother, and a mongrel dog that God, speaking through the Ouija Board, had insisted they should adopt. His father had declined to join them on their quest to save the heathen of the world, a sentiment shared by his brother who, for reasons that were never disclosed to Jim, had joined them on their international voyage of discovery despite his open disbelief; probably because he wanted to get out of the northern California city where they had moved temporarily before continuing their journey. He’d had a difficult time in high school there because he tended to express his opinions whether they were asked for or not.

It should have occurred to Jim, even if he were only twelve years of age, that this voyage had nothing to do with God, but it didn’t; he had suspended disbelief to the point that he felt as if he were living in a science fiction story, which was becoming one of his favorite literary genres. The fantasy underlying their journey to the other side of the world was revealed to the light of day when they discovered, upon arriving in Kabul (the capital of Afghanistan), that there was a church and missionaries already on the scene. God must have overlooked that fact. Jim didn’t care because he had buried himself in reading and drawing, interests that were encouraged by the private schools he attended in what turned out to be a hub of international diplomats and business people. He had lost interest in what his family did with themselves.

Despite the melodrama playing out with his mother and oldest sister, young Jim Walsh learned something during the year he spent in Afghanistan that reinforced what he had discovered when his family had moved out of the ghetto they had lived in: There were people who didn’t live like his family, and he wanted to become like them. He actually went to the home of the United States Ambassador to Afghanistan and watched a movie with his friend in a home theater and met people who had been to college—this was a phrase that had only been used as a pejorative by his father, who had never attended high school. Despite such pleasant diversions, his family had failed to disappear as he’d come to wish for although, apparently, they thought he had, even while he was living with them.

During the one summer he spent in Kabul, he was left with his mother several times, while his older siblings did things with their friends. On one particular day, his mother was oblivious to his presence in the room when she had a conversation with a beautiful woman with slightly dark skin. Jim was reading a science fiction book as his mother’s guest described her bout with schizophrenia, as if it were a cold she had recovered from. Oblivious to his presence in the room, sitting in an armchair, his mother told of her experiences with hearing voices and having visions. The two women were practically hugging as they shared stories about a behavior pattern Jim would later learn was called schizotypal personality disorder while he listened without showing an interest. The encounter had no immediate impact on him because he had learned not to pay attention to what his family said or did, but he would never forget that conversation.

Jim’s sojourn in Afghanistan ended as he would have predicted it, had he not been young and uninterested in the peculiar behavior of his family. And he had buried his disillusionment so deep in his mind, in fact turning it into an illusion, that he couldn’t find the right string to pull on to retrieve it, as if it were a fish on a hook. So many illusions were floating around in there, along with the truths he only partly glimpsed, that it was hopeless; so, he played along with the game again, and watched disinterestedly when the demon was exorcised from his oldest sister, but he couldn’t keep from crying when the dog he had sometimes hated and sometimes loved was gassed by the exhaust from a car, to remove the evil that lurked within it from the face of the earth. All in God’s name.

As anyone wiser than young Jim Walsh would have predicted, his mother and siblings left Afghanistan in ignominy, traveling on tickets paid for by the U.S. Department of State. But, deep within his mind a seed had been planted, which would require many more years to mature into a shrub, or perhaps even a tree, that would nourish him through a lifetime of disillusionment.

TRANSITION

Upon returning to northern California to rejoin Jim’s father, there was a season of peace within the one-bedroom apartment he had remained in for the year they were absent. His mother remained contrite and agreeable for as long as she could and began attending a large evangelical church not far from home. As his home life returned to its normal, contentious routine, Jim turned to God for escape and became devout, reading the bible and praying several times every day. Church was also fun because they had a big choir with a top-forty hit and the pastor, whose excitement infused the congregation without fail, didn’t talk about Old Testament sins but instead walking in Jesus’ shoes and loving each other, which apparently meant tolerating people who were different and even getting along with his own family. Jim enjoyed it and continued attending church with his mother after they returned to the small town in Arizona where he had grown up, but this time they lived in an apartment.

Jim Walsh started high school where his journey of discovery had begun, but now he was a born-again Christian who carried a bible with him to school every day. He appeared to be the only evangelical in his school, however, and it wasn’t much fun being the only devout Christian in an entire high school. This situation only exacerbated his growing sense of being lost, common to that period of time in one’s life called adolescence; and since he had only become religious out of inertia and the momentary pleasure of emotion-laden church services, he stopped being an evangelical practically overnight. Actually, it took a week of finding no one who wanted to talk about Jesus, even though, curiously, no one ridiculed him. In fact, when he showed up at school without his bible or the attendant religious conversation, there seemed to be no response from his fellow students, other than talking about things of interest to an adolescent.

With God now tossed on the scrap heap of useless concepts, along with family and respect for adults, which had joined his growing pile of refuse after he saw the actions of men and women he had assumed to be rational in Afghanistan, he was ready to concentrate on what he soon learned was the number one objective of high school: surviving academically while not being consumed and destroyed by the harsh reality of spending six hours a day with hundreds of other teenagers. However, Jim never grasped what he was supposed to be doing in high school. He couldn’t get excited about the classes he was taking any more than he had in junior high. His ambivalent attitude seemed to be shared by almost everyone, including the teachers, whose primary concern seemed to be taking attendance.

After quietly and thoroughly renouncing his religious beliefs, Jim found that he had no desire to replace them with a new moral or ethical paradigm. More disturbing, at least to a more perceptive mind, was that he had no interest in making friends in high school. It wasn’t intentional but more like a natural phenomenon, like bears choosing a solitary lifestyle rather than forming packs like wolves. It was the most natural thing he had yet experienced in his life. He was a loner and he liked it; however, he also liked group activities because they didn’t require too much personal interaction.

It was natural for him to become interested in the military; the majority of his relatives descended from either of his parents’ lineages (he had five step brothers) served in different branches of the armed forces. Thus, he joined ROTC his freshman year. He liked marching and wearing his uniform on Friday and learning about aircraft and the physics of flight (his school had an Air Force ROTC program) but, most of all, he liked learning how to march in complicated patterns with the drill team. He imagined himself as a fighter pilot when he graduated from high school, until the teacher, a retired Lieutenant Colonel who had been a fighter pilot himself, informed him that two factors made it highly unlikely he would ever sit in the cockpit of an F-4 Phantom: Jim had poor vision; and there was very little chance he would ever go to college.

Having had his fantasy of a life flying through the clouds and disseminating them with the turbulence created by the jet wash of his F-104 Starfighter crushed, he didn’t become disillusioned but did as he had with every other disappointment he had experienced in his life: he tossed it on the scrap heap, forgot about it, and moved on to his next fantasy. Unaware of what life and his own physiology had in store for him, young Jim Walsh determined that he would work on jet aircraft engines or electrical systems. He had seen military aircraft on ROTC field trips to local air fields and at air shows. There was an Air Force base near where he had grown up.

NO WAY OUT

His fantasy took a detour when his parents moved to Phoenix and he started his junior year in a brand-new high school that had been populated with students from two other area high schools. No one knew anyone and Jim felt at home with the anonymity that comes from being lost in a crowd of strangers. Later in his life, he would have very few memories from Trevor G. Brown High School, except that he met John Holmes, who had moved to Phoenix from Chicago that same year.

They were both in the ROTC program and took the first-year class, which allowed the students to field strip and reassemble an M14 rifle. They even went to a firing range and fired a real M14 at targets. This was a lot more fun than Air Force ROTC had been, especially when Jim qualified to join the drill team, which gave him the opportunity to perform the M14 manual of arms, as well as advanced maneuvers like the Queen Anne Salute, with the heavy weapon in parades and during halftime at football games. John Holmes didn’t join the drill team, but he and Jim had a lot in common, like skipping class because they didn’t like school.

One day they took Jim’s car to a nearby park to waste time until they both went to work and had the same conversation they had every time they took a break from the boring school routine. John was staring into the bright, cloudless sky as he started the dialogue.

“I’m going in the Army when I graduate. I’ve got to get the fuck away from my dad before we kill each other.” He paused a moment before adding, “I hate his guts.”

Jim nodded absentmindedly and responded, “I don’t hate my parents because I didn’t get a beating several times a week like you. No…instead, they make me sick to my stomach the way they carry on, with their constant quarreling. You’d think they would just stop after being married for decades, but they’re too goddamn stupid to learn. I’m going into either the Navy or the Air Force as soon as I can after graduating from high school. I’ve got to get away from them…”

John turned his gaze to the brown grass in front of them and said, “Your brother went in the Air Force, didn’t he? How’s he doing?”

Jim scoffed and retorted, “The idiot got kicked out for using drugs. Now he’s in Viet Nam working for some company doing the same thing he did for the Air Force but for five times the pay. My sisters are even bigger losers; the oldest married a drug dealer and had a baby, and the younger had a baby and dropped out of college. She thought she was smarter than the rest of us. What a joke!”

“At least you know what they’re doing. My family was split up and I don’t know where my sister and brother are.”

Jim had to think a moment before answering, “You’re lucky. I couldn’t care less about my brother and sisters and especially my parents. All families do is drag you into their shit, which is hard to get out of…you, like, have a responsibility that you didn’t know about. I wish I didn’t have a family.”

John looked at him and said, “I see what you mean. I hate my dad.”

Jim shrugged and turned his gaze back to the dead grass and leafless trees and wondered why so many snow birds flocked to Phoenix, where the winter was too cold for him. He assumed it must be a lot worse in places like Chicago or New York.

After a lackluster performance his senior year, caused equally by his disdain for learning and a part-time job he had gotten, washing dishes in a cafeteria, Jim barely graduated after concocting, with other failing students, an ill-conceived and even more poorly executed scheme to cheat on an algebra final exam. This ignoble end to his education didn’t bother him because he had already signed the papers to join the Air Force, on the day he turned seventeen years and six months, which was the minimum age for enlistment with parental approval.

He did learn something that year, however, when he went to a large amphitheater downtown, along with all the other potential enlistees in the armed forces, for his physical examination. He had flat feet and would have been disqualified for entrance in the Army, but the Air Force didn’t care since they apparently didn’t go on ten-mile hikes. He also learned that he had difficulty seeing colored dots that revealed the presence of numbers in a background of other colored dots. He didn’t see any of the hidden numbers. But he could tell green from red. The doctor called it color confusion, whatever that was; one thing it meant was that he couldn’t work on anything complicated. He was disappointed to discover that about the only thing he would be allowed to do was work on the airframe or be a cook, but he wasn’t excluded from working on jet fighters. Nevertheless, his future career had deteriorated from flying to airframe repair, whatever that was.

Probably the greatest pleasure in his life, up until getting on the plane that would take him to San Antonio, Texas, for Air Force Basic Training was quitting his dish-washing job with no notice and leaving that asshole manager in the lurch. He would never have the opportunity to quit a job again in his life, and it was a very uplifting experience.

ACTIVE DUTY

There were still quite a few experiences in life that hadn’t disappointed Jim Walsh yet when he got off the bus at Lackland Air Force Base to begin his basic training in how to be an airman. It didn’t take long for the military to make the list. The six weeks he spent in Texas weren’t as challenging as he had expected from the movies he’d seen, however, with most of the recruits’ time spent in classrooms being shown how to fold their underwear and behave like airmen, which meant saying “Yes sir” to anyone wearing cheap metal insignia on their cap or uniform. And he only got to fire a plastic M16 rifle once during his entire time in basic training.

Technical school was a major disappointment. He spent a couple of months building an aluminum box with a door in it, which apparently demonstrated all the skills required to repair the airframe of a modern aircraft. They didn’t even take the time to explain what the pieces were that comprised the airframe but kept referring to the on-the-job training he and the other trainees would receive when they got to their permanent duty stations.

After flying back to Phoenix, he drove his car to Beale Air Force Base, fifty miles north of Sacramento, California, in the middle of nowhere, to a place with town names like Grass Valley, Yuba City, and Wheatland. The rolling hills were covered with grass and, apparently ICBM silos; Beale AFB was a Strategic Air Command facility, but Jim didn’t learn what that meant until he reported for work at a windowless building next to the runway. He could see the B-52 bombers parked in rows near large hangars and a half-dozen smaller shelters right on the taxiway, probably for some kind of small aircraft. He was certain he would be working on the big boys, which would be almost as much fun as fighters; curiously, the Air Force had never taken even a day to introduce any of the recruits to the U.S. military aircraft, so he had no idea what kind of planes he would be working on. They seemed to have a serious communication problem, or maybe they didn’t care.

As it turned out, Jim didn’t go to the big hangars where the bombers were parked and, in fact, he wouldn’t go near an airplane until he had completed his OJT period, which was self-paced.

He and the other new guy, a proud and obnoxiously loud Italian-American from Ohio, spent their time studying thick three-ring binders filled with detailed instructions about aluminum annealing procedures, aluminum alloy strength characteristics, rivet patterns and such, sweeping and mopping the painted floor of the sheet metal shop, and taking turns cleaning the toilets, which were called latrines. Jim worked as hard as he could to get through the binder and the tests required to pass each section so that he could work on an aircraft.

At first, Jim was awestruck by the black aircraft that looked like something from a sci-fi movie sitting in their individual shelters next to the main runway. The SR-71 was an impressive aircraft, until he learned that it was constructed of titanium; there hadn’t been one word about that particular metal in the binder filled with useless information he had spent months studying. However, that wasn’t a real problem because Jim and his coworkers in the airframe repair shop spent most of their time replacing fasteners used to secure dozens of panels, which held the avionics equipment. Jim visited a friend who worked in the avionics shop, where they set up and installed instruments that could take photo-quality images through clouds and other things. The avionics guys had gone to technical school for over a year because they weren’t color confused; never mind that all of the wires were white with tiny numbers stamped on them. He could read tiny print. After seeing how much more interesting other jobs were, Jim hated his job and he hated Beale AFB in Bumfuck, Egypt, and after visiting a friend at a Tactical Air Command base, in Sacramento, where they worked on fighters, he hated SAC.

There was another airman in the shop, who Jim immediately took a liking to; Lucian Lange was a tall, blonde, blue-eyed, antiauthoritarian guy with a Nordic build from southern California, who had actually been a surfer until joining the Air Force. Lucian was a year older than Jim and had been at Beale AFB for six months before they met, and he was married to the most beautiful woman Jim had ever seen. Rebecca was a blonde bombshell; there was no other way to describe her, from her golden blonde hair and perfect face to her figure, and even her feet. Jim didn’t understand why she wasn’t a model, until he spoke to her; she wasn’t able to carry on a conversation for more than a minute. It soon became apparent that Lucian was struggling to keep his wife from wandering, a fact that was made painfully clear to Jim one day, when he dropped by unannounced, while Lucian was overseas for two months on temporary duty (everyone in the maintenance squadron spent two months overseas every year to support the war effort in Vietnam), and found a handsome and well-built man visiting Lucian’s wife.

Jim was appalled at the similarity of Lucian’s situation to his father’s. He didn’t know what to do but, by the time his friend had returned from his temporary assignment, he’d decided to share what he’d learned. They stopped by the Airman’s club, where low-alcohol beer was served to airmen under the California minimum age of twenty-one, and Jim said the words he didn’t want to utter.

“I don’t know how to say this, Lucian, so…here goes. I saw a guy at your apartment while you were TDY (temporary duty) and he wasn’t delivering a package. I thought you should know…”

Lucian nodded and grinned toothily and said, “Yep, I’m not surprised. We got married just before I joined the Air Force and when I got back from tech school, I heard the same story from my friends in Los Angeles.” He chuckled and added, “Becky has a short attention span and she really likes the attention guys give her, even when she’s with me.”

Jim nodded as if he understood and replied, trying to compliment Lucian in his choice of wife, “She’s very good looking, that’s for sure.”

Lucian continued, “We probably shouldn’t have gotten married, but I didn’t want to go off for a couple of months and leave her thinking I’d abandoned her…” Lucian had a way of sloughing off unpleasant news with a grin and a toss of his head.”

Years later, when Jim saw Lucian after they had both been discharged from active duty, he found Lucian divorced and in a new romantic relationship.

Sometimes, disappointment in a misguided long-term objective—like making a career of the Air Force—could be a blessing in disguise. That was the lesson Jim Walsh learned when the Viet Nam war ended suddenly, to no one’s surprise except his; however, as with previous lessons he had learned, this one was assimilated in a convoluted manner.

One Friday afternoon, about an hour before the swing shift would come on duty, he was sent to do a routine job, so he took one of the toolboxes sitting near the shop door and headed out. It is worth noting that the Air Force (or at least the SAC) has a protocol for the upkeep of the toolboxes: They are to be checked for missing equipment after each use, before each use, and by the shop chief or his designate to make certain everyone else is following the protocol. Our somewhat hurried young protagonist had failed to check the toolbox he took because it was Friday afternoon (never mind that he had no place to go). However, a simple piece of bent aluminum tubing with an air fitting attachment, known as an air-vac because it was used to clean up small debris (jet engines don’t like metal debris entering their intakes), was missing from the toolbox. Not having the required equipment, and not wanting to go all the way back to the shop to report the problem and acquire a replacement, he asked the aircraft’s ground crew chief if he would be able to clean up the affected area, which showed him in person. Interpreting assent as an assurance that a ground crewman would get right on it, Jim returned to the shop, where he reported the missing equipment to a disinterested shop chief.

Needless to say, the offending FOD (Foreign Object Damage material) was discovered by the quality control inspector and Jim was found culpable of failure to follow protocol. He foolishly complained about the comedy of errors surrounding his violation, but it didn’t help, and he was given Article Fifteen punishment, which included a reduction in grade, and a fine of fifty dollars. He accepted that it was ultimately his fault and thus he learned two lessons. The first was the most important and he would not forget it for the rest of his life: Do not trust anyone to do something that they could not be held liable for if they didn’t do it—never, no matter how sincere they are. The second lesson was that the easiest way to get out of any bureaucratic organization when they want to cut costs is to give them a reason to want you to leave in the most efficient manner possible. This second lesson would turn out to be very useful more than forty years later.

Jim Walsh received an honorable discharge with full benefits and was free to pursue a civilian life within two weeks, while his coworkers were filling out forms and trying to transfer to the Air National Guard. You never know.

There was an aside to this interval in Jim Walsh’s life however; he was at first determined to remain in the Air Force and finish his enlistment because he had no place to go. He was only convinced to take the discharge by his shop chief, an affable middle-aged E-6 who told him that the Branch Chief (who was an E-9) had taken a dislike to him and pushed what should have been no more than a Letter of Reprimand to an Article 15; and he would find a way to kick Jim out dishonorably, no matter what it took. When Jim expressed confusion at this, Sgt. Hamm told him that this was how the world worked and there was nothing he could do to change it. After expressing his genuine abhorrence to quitting the Air Force and not fulfilling his obligation, Jim reluctantly accepted an honorable discharge, having served two years of a six-year sentence.

CLIMBING THE LADDER

Unemployment had reached more than eight percent during the two years Jim Walsh had been in the Air Force, so jobs were not easy to find when he got out. However, he had been fortunate because he beat the rush of ex-military aircraft technicians who flooded the job market within six months of his discharge. Thus, he found a good job rebuilding derelict helicopters just like the ones used by the Army in Viet Nam, but these had been used by the Peruvian military to transport cattle or something like that. It was far more interesting and fun than replacing broken fasteners.

There was a downside to Jim’s short tenure with the Air Force. He had never had a drink of alcohol in his life nor smoked anything, especially not marijuana, until he was thrown into a potluck of people of every walk of life; it turned out that, in the post-draft military era, in the middle of an unpopular war, the military had turned to the judicial system for recruits. A substantial number of the airmen he’d met had been coerced into joining as an alternative to jail or prison, depending on the jurisdiction; thus, there were a lot of guys from the southern states. The result was that Jim, with his mindless way of getting along and trying to have fun, had been introduced to beer, wine, distilled liquor, marijuana, heroin, cocaine and speed before his twentieth birthday.

Lacking either internal or external moral guidance, Jim passed a couple of years spending his waking hours working, drinking, looking for adventure (e.g. seeking female companionship), and suffering from hangovers. His only high school friend, John Holmes, had disappeared into the Army to follow his own path, which he later learned was about the same routine.

It was during this period that Jim found the job that justified his becoming an airframe repair specialist instead of a jet engine technician or an avionics expert. In a small hanger, sized for general aviation aircraft, he was shown four seriously damaged and disassembled airplanes; and he was hired to reconstruct them into working order. This wasn’t replacing fasteners or body panels, but making something fly again, against all the odds. It was like the emotional scene in a movie, when the hero realizes his purpose in life; the building was filled to capacity with parts, trash, the shop equipment necessary to make the repairs, and inspiration. He took the job and kept it as long as it lasted. During the ensuing six months, Jim reconstructed two airframes and saw the aircraft fly, straight and true he was told, to the amazement of their pilots and his employer.

Jim was living with his brother—who had become a real person named Mike rather than a cut-out character—by this time because his job was only a few miles from Mike’s house in west Phoenix. In fact, Jim had only recently noticed that Mike was as tall as him (just over six-feet-one-inch) but weighed thirty pounds less. He was thin. John Holmes showed up one day, having recently ended his two-year enlistment with the Army, and moved in and slept on the couch while he figured out what he was going to do next. They sat around and drank and talked about things every evening. One such conversation stood out in Jim’s memory years later.

Mike was slumped down on the sofa as he asked John, “So, what did the Army teach you to do? Anything useful?”

John shook his head. “I was working in a listening post in Thailand. I know how to scan a lot of frequencies but not how to repair the equipment. I guess I could go to work for the National Security Agency, but I think I was already doing that.”

They all laughed.

John then turned to Jim and asked, “How’s college going? I’ve heard from several guys that they take basket-weaving and keep the GI Bill checks coming in for years.”

Jim laughed and responded, “That’s bullshit! The VA counselor won’t sign off on any class that doesn’t push me towards an Associate of Arts degree. In fact, I’m taking a geology class this semester, which is kind of interesting. We’re going on a field trip to pan for gold in Prescott.”

Mike interjected, “What happened to your interest in technical drawing?”

“It was interesting for a semester, but it doesn’t pay any better than what I’m doing now. I talked to a couple of students who were doing it. To be honest, I have no real interest; I just want the monthly check from the VA like John said…”

Mike continued, “I used the GI Bill to go to computer programming school, but I didn’t like it. I dropped out. But now I’m getting tired of rewinding industrial motors. I plan to become a salesman.”

Jim chuckled. “A salesman? It’s hard to imagine you as selling anything; you don’t like most people any more than I do.”

John added, “Why don’t you just go into politics? I’d love to see you kissing a baby as its mother looks on in disgust.”

Mike laughed with them and explained. “I’d be selling our services to commercial enterprises, like mining companies and power generation facilities. In case you two morons didn’t know it, electric motors use the same technology as generators.”

It was silent a moment while everyone got another beer. When they had retaken their assigned places, Jim turned to John and asked, “What about you? Do you think you can get a job in broadcasting or something like that?”

John shook his head thoughtfully and said, “I’m going back in the Army. They’ve already told me I would be posted to Europe, probably Germany, to monitor radio communications in East Germany and the Baltic region. The Viet Nam War may have ended but the Cold War is in full swing; in fact, intelligence gathering is more important than ever.”

John stayed until his new enlistment came up and he went to Europe to eavesdrop on the Communists.

Jim’s fantasy job ended when he was told that Lloyd Townes was going out of business because he didn’t have enough paying customers. Jim took it stoically and went back to repairing small aircraft and helicopters at his previous employer, who’d been offering him a larger salary for months. He tossed his dream of making the world a better place by getting abandoned aircraft back into the air onto the growing pile of unfulfilled illusions.

Answering a rare ad in the newspaper for aircraft mechanics, Jim got his next break. After a comprehensive and very technical interview, he was hired by Hughes Airwest, a regional airline in the southwest. Overnight, his salary trebled, and he went to work in a real hangar. This was much better than the Air Force, where he’d worked on thirty-four-million-dollar aircraft in an open shed. They hadn’t even had doors but, to be honest, that had been a field maintenance organization; Hughes Airwest did both field and depot maintenance in one facility, and he would be doing both. He was excited, and the job didn’t disappoint him, at least not at first.

It was a great job and the work was challenging because these were not titanium airframes, but good old-fashioned aluminum, and they wore out, cracked, and even broke. Several years passed in the ecstasy of knowing he was part of a community with a single purpose, five-hundred men (there were no female mechanics) keeping forty-eight aircraft flying on a tight schedule and making a profit while getting people where they needed to be on time. There was a brief period of unemployment when another union went on strike, and there were compromises when deregulation bit into the company’s profit margin. None of that bothered Jim because he was part of the American Dream, until two events happened within six months.

Hughes Airwest merged with a couple of other regional airlines and, naturally, they couldn’t have three maintenance facilities. They had to make money. Thus, in the coin toss, or perhaps poker game, played out in a smoke-filled room somewhere luxurious, it was decided to close the facility in Phoenix that had been operated by Hughes Airwest. They were munificent in their offer to buy any employee’s home in Phoenix at market value if they agreed to move to the facilities in either Atlanta or Minneapolis. This would have been an easy decision a couple of years earlier, but his life had become more complicated recently.

One day, he was on the roof of the hangar, smoking a joint with his friend from the fiberglass shop, Brad Goodwell, and the shift lead man, Terry Lambert, when the subject of the imminent closing of the Phoenix facility came up. Terry took a long drag on the joint and got the ball rolling.

“I’m going to Minneapolis. I’ve been talking to Jack (the shop foreman) and he says that the money is in the north and North Central Airlines (one of the three regional carriers which had merged to form Republic Airlines) is in the best position. We’re all going to be speaking with a German accent before the dust settles.” He passed the joint to Jim as Brad responded.

“No company with the word ‘Republic’ in its name has ever done well in the long run. This is a temporary situation. Republic is going to be bought out or merge with an even larger air carrier in a few years. I’m putting my money on Delta Airlines, and their maintenance headquarters are in Atlanta. There are no major carriers centered in Minneapolis and so it’s a dead end just like Phoenix.” He accepted the joint from Jim, took a long drag, and continued.

“We’ll all be wearing Delta insignia within a few years.”

Jim had to interject, “I think you’re both right, but at different time scales. I disagree with your short-term prediction, Brad, and, if I were to stay on, I’d go to Minneapolis with Terry because that is the official headquarters of Republic Airlines. However, having no more than intuition to go on, with the unpredictable effects of deregulation, I think we’re going to see a lot of mergers in the years ahead. I think that Republic and Northwest will merge in a few years, but eventually Brad’s prediction will come true. It all comes down to the international market.”

They both looked at Jim uncertainly as Brad handed the joint to him. Finally, Terry said, “I’ve met guys like you before in my ten years in the business. There was one guy who was fixated on carburetors and he quit and went on to make a million dollars designing them for race cars. What’s your thing, Jim?”

Jim exhaled and handed the roach to Terry as he answered, “I love working here, but I became fascinated with geology while taking college courses, so that I could collect my GI Bill benefits. I don’t think I’ll make any more money than you guys, but it’s what I want to do. It’s become an obsession.” He shrugged as Terry and Brad nodded knowingly.

RISKY BEHAVIOR

Jim took the biggest risk of his life and remained behind as many of his friends and colleagues moved to either Atlanta or Minneapolis. In the end, he accepted a layoff because he had found something in himself to believe in, which had been laying fallow for years in the deep recesses of his mind. Somewhere in his cerebral cortex was the seed, planted years before, which had now grown into a seedling, unknown to his conscious mind; he could think beyond the day that lay before him. His life didn’t have to be limited to what he saw when he awoke every morning. He had some control over how his future life might be manifested. Thus emboldened, he wholeheartedly pursued the dream he had only expressed to a few people.

Then the unthinkable happened. His older brother, Mike, with whom he had gone through several crazy years while they’d both searched blindly for the meaning of life, died in an automobile accident in Texas, where he’d recently gotten a new start as a salesman, just as Jim had in deciding to finish college and give up his career with Republic Airlines. He attended the funeral with no remorse or sorrow; he was still too surprised at the tragedy to feel emotions. After watching his brother’s ashes spread over the mountains west of Phoenix in accordance with his wishes, he thought about what Mike had become to him. There had been no sibling affection because of how an older brother invariably treated a younger, and thus their early relationship had been relegated to the dust heap of illusions Jim had gradually given up over the years. If Mike wasn’t a lost loved one, perhaps he had become a newly gained friend, someone whose company Jim enjoyed and had looked forward to sharing for many years, possibly for eternity because Jim still couldn’t imagine the specter of death; at least, not until this event had made him painfully aware of his own mortality. When the ordeal was over and he had returned to his ephemeral life which probably had no meaning, he realized that he would miss his brother for the rest of his life, even if he had been a part of the family Jim was irrevocably alienated from; after all, it hadn’t been Mike who had caused the rift in Jim’s mind.

Someone more contemplative than Jim Walsh would have foreseen that relationships with women were bound to end up on the dust pile of disillusionment, after a sufficiently painful learning experience of course, but he tentatively explored these unknown waters against his better judgement. He had discovered that he wasn’t looking for someone to marry after meeting several very nice and even attractive women during the decade he spent attending college. In fact, he had invariably failed to call them after a couple of dates in every instance. There were two exceptions worth mentioning, however; not so much because he wanted to marry them, but because the break-ups had been ambiguous.

The first example, which should have set off alarms for Jim, occurred when he was attending a community college. He dated a girl his age for several months and they spent much of their free time together. He wasn’t in love and neither was she, but it was a lot of fun being with her—until she disappeared. She had expressed no change in behavior that he had noticed in the weeks before her disappearance, so he thought something had happened. He went to her house and spoke to her parents, who informed him that she had joined the Coast Guard. Needless to say, this was a surprise; but one that he got over until, a year later, she called him to say that she was in town and wanted to see him. Thinking that their romance could be rekindled, he took her out to a nice restaurant and hinted that their relationship still had potential. When she informed him that she had a boyfriend in Alaska, where she had been stationed after finishing the Coast Guard boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey, he came to the immediate and probably biased opinion that she was crazy. She should have disappeared from his life forever, never to be seen again. Decades later, he would realize that she was even more schizoid than him.

Jim dismissed this romantic disappointment as a fluke and, not letting his illusions on such an important matter as romance get in the way of his fantasies about life, went on to date a graduate student when he was approaching graduation from Arizona State University. They dated for six months and she even moved in with him and his roommates, and then it was time for him to graduate and move to Florida to attend graduate school himself. There was no talk of breaking up, nor were any tears shed when he loaded his paltry belongings into a trailer for his trip east. After all, they both understood that graduate school was a temporary and necessary stage in building a career. Apparently not; because it wasn’t a month until Jim learned that his girlfriend had taken over his room in the house that he’d shared with three other men and had a new boyfriend. He never even got a “Dear John” letter. If there was one thing in life worth being optimistic about, despite any setbacks, it was the chance of falling in love and sharing one’s life with someone. Nevertheless, Jim threw pieces of this romantic fantasy onto the scrap heap with the other illusions he had apparently been born with.

HIGHER EDUCATION

Graduate school proceeded without further disruption of Jim Walsh’s illusions about the world; to the contrary, he found that working on research wasn’t just interesting but a way to construct even more complex illusions about the world; however, he didn’t realize what he was actually doing at the time. He sailed through a Master of Science program at Florida State University with his few remaining fantasies intact and several new ones under construction; and moved on to Penn State to work on a Ph.D., having had no more difficulty than constantly repairing his aging car, which was something he was accustomed to. He was working hard to create a set of personal illusions to join his scientific ones, and there would be no need to toss any more onto the trash heap. Or so he thought.

He had met a graduate student at Florida State University named Tom Laughlin, who was working on a Master of Science degree like Jim, having started a year before him. They spent a lot of time together, often going to the sinkholes which permeated the land throughout Florida. One day they were at one such swimming hole, called Turtle Lake, and Tom expressed his intent to quit graduate school.

“What the fuck are you talking about!” Jim exclaimed.

Tom shook his head in a desultory way and responded, “My thesis would smell like beer. I can’t do this, Jim.” He shrugged.

Jim couldn’t believe that someone who had spent weeks in a small boat collecting water samples would think he had been wasting his time. “I drink more than you! You’ve collected a lot of data and then you analyzed it in a lab, whereas all I did was process some sand from a beach. You have never gone to the lab after drinking so much as one beer, so I don’t get it—your thesis would smell like beer?! What the fuck!”

Tom looked at him forlornly and replied, “You’re right about the data collection and processing, but I can’t put it together. I think I’m more impacted by drinking beer than you are, Jim. I’ve tried to start writing my thesis, motivated by your sitting in the cubicle next to me and furiously writing with a pencil on that used z-fold paper you get from the computer center. I don’t have any ideas.” He looked so distraught that Jim wanted to hug him, but he didn’t like personal contact.

Instead, he said, “So, drink a couple of beers and write the worst first-draft of a thesis anyone has ever seen. Then, give it to your committee members for comment. That’s their job. And revise it while having a beer; who gives a fuck, Tom, as long as your field and laboratory efforts don’t go to waste. Do whatever it takes for Christ’s sake.”

Tom looked steadily at Jim as he replied, “That’s easy for you to say, Jim, but you’re not me. It isn’t so easy for me.”

Jim shook his head in disgust and retorted, “What a cop out. You’re as smart as me any day. What does it matter if you don’t like to write—who does? You don’t even need a plan, Tom, because your years of work will support your theses, no matter how badly written. We’re not doing ground-breaking research here but only advancing scientific understanding of the world one step at a time. Nothing more and nothing less.”

Tom shook his head emphatically and avoided Jim’s eyes as he said, “I’ve already accepted a job with the Navy. They don’t care if I have a Master of Science degree. I’m leaving at the end of the semester and going to work. That’s all there is to it.”

Jim nodded dumbly, realizing that the conversation had been nothing more than an exercise in futility. He hadn’t thought that someone would go to the effort of spending several years of their life in a difficult endeavor and then just give up.

FAMILY LIFE

Jim’s fantasy became reality, so long as one didn’t look too closely, and he certainly didn’t; he fought his way through the intellectual struggles one would expect pursuing a Ph.D. It was during his last year at Penn State that he faced the one aspect of life which he hadn’t thrown onto the pile of useless illusions. He fell in love, although he couldn’t define what that was; at any rate, he was excited when he met Ellen Grover during happy hour, when the graduate students from the Geosciences Department got together once a week. Within a few months they were planning their marriage and their future together and Jim didn’t mind because he was getting the whole story ahead of time. There would be no surprises. To avoid anything like the ending of his last college romance, he insisted they should get married before he graduated and moved to another state; they both understood that their life would be tumultuous for a few years, so she agreed and their wedding was attended by most of the graduate students in the Geosciences Department.

Over the next twenty years, Jim became convinced that his fantasies were all coming true. Ellen and he raised a son and a daughter together and they never fought and seldom argued, and it was just what Jim had imagined. There was nothing to disagree about because Ellen and he were so much alike; eventually, that became the problem because, after the children went to college, their independent personalities took center stage. Everything came to a head when Jim retired at only fifty-seven from the oil company in Houston where he had worked for twenty years. He felt as if he were watching someone else’s life unfold when Ellen confronted him about his plans.

“What are you going to do now? You’re too young to retire, even if Shell doesn’t require your services anymore.”

Jim had to think a moment before answering. He’d given that a lot of thought, and even inquired about employment opportunities in the area, but none of the options looked like he could remain in Houston and be employed. He couldn’t very well move to another city, leaving Ellen alone in their large house, just to keep his career going. Finally, he answered.

“I have a pretty good retirement plan and we’re not going to be financially pressed. In fact, with the house paid for and the kids in college, we’re in great shape. I’ve never been unemployed before—actually I’m retired—and I thought I would take some time to get used to my new status.”

She looked at him doubtfully before responding. “I suppose that’s true…” Something else was bothering her, but he would wait for her to tell him on her own; Ellen didn’t like being asked questions.

Jim cleared his throat and tried to talk around what was on her mind. “I’m very fortunate to have had a job that allowed me to retire early; just imagine if I were ten years younger? It’s hard for petroleum geologists to find work when they’re approaching sixty…” That did it. She was ready to speak openly.

Ellen looked at him uncertainly and said, “It isn’t much easier for oil exploration managers, even when they’re only approaching fifty.” She paused and bit her lip before continuing, “I’ve been offered a position with Global Energy in Malaysia, coordinating regional operations in the South China Sea…”

Jim interjected his words of support because he knew she had already made her decision. “That sounds like a great opportunity. Is this a promotion?”

She relaxed visibly, probably having expected him to voice opposition to her plans, but he’d learned never to disagree with her pronouncements. Open confrontations always worked in her favor and against his best interests; he hated confrontation.

“Yes, but not like moving into senior management. As I see it, going overseas is a back-door to a corner office. Besides, if I didn’t take this position, I would probably be joining you in your retirement, except that I would be unemployed rather than retired.” She sighed and Jim knew the risk of sudden hostility had passed, so long as he watched what he said.

Before he could respond, she continued, “We should have a lot of fun there, even though I’ll be traveling a lot and very busy. Still, we can travel around southeast Asia when I’m free and the kids can join us.”

Jim refrained from responding immediately. There was no way he was moving to Malaysia to spend his time surrounded by people he couldn’t talk to. He didn’t even know what language they spoke but he recalled that they spoke several. His mind was working overtime until he came up with what he thought was a counter-proposal Ellen would accept.

“That would be fun but, since it’s only for a couple of years, it might be best if I stayed here and took care of things. For example, the kids are living in that townhouse we bought while going to college; and we may as well sell this house since I doubt that you’ll find a corner office waiting here in Houston when you return from this posting.” He hoped that wasn’t too much because he had one more item to add—when the time was appropriate.

She stared at him for several moments as if trying to figure out what he was up to before replying, “Don’t you want to go to an exotic country and live with me?” She was ready to explode, so Jim chose his words carefully.

“It will be exciting when the kids and I visit you at a convenient time, considering the busy schedule you’ll have. Nevertheless, we can’t just walk away from everything…” He paused and waved his arms around the living room before continuing, “This is going to be a turbulent period for the whole family and someone who’s not busy with work responsibilities will need to keep an eye on things.”

Jim could tell that he’d walked the tightrope without falling when Ellen gazed at the ceiling fan, as if imagining herself as the CEO of a major corporation, and said, “That’s true. I will be very busy with work and you can all come and visit, and someone does have to deal with things here.” Jim could tell that she wasn’t finished, so he waited for her to add, “And you have nothing else to do, so it makes sense…but where will you live after we’ve sold the house?”

Jim refrained from clinching his fists in victory but instead tried to look thoughtful before responding with carefully chosen words. “We’re probably going to get four-hundred-thousand for our house, tax free. We could use that money to pay off the townhouse where the kids are living, which would get us out of debt. We could get a small motorhome for me to live in; that would give us flexibility and I could travel around the country when I wasn’t taking care of the kids and everything else that will come up with this change in lifestyle.” He didn’t think he had gone too far but you could never tell when dealing with Ellen.

His disingenuous justification for getting a motorhome worked because she only cared if her own independence was threatened, just like Jim.

Ellen seemed as pleased as him when she said, “That’s a great idea. Let’s go look at motorhomes tomorrow.”

He kept his grin to himself. He had been doing just that since his retirement and he knew exactly which RV he wanted to get.

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Jim watched his old and mostly unhealthy neighbors, who were invariably walking their little dogs, in disgust and realized that he was tired of the lifestyle he had pursued since Ellen had transferred to Malaysia. However, he had no home to return to, not that he wanted a house and a yard, not even the townhouse the kids had been occupying for three years. He just didn’t want to be around old people anymore and he felt the same about college students. Both were insufferable although for different reasons. The elderly struck Jim as being in a death spiral, kept alive by vast quantities of medication, and living each week exactly like the previous; their weekly life cycle specified that certain activities were to be completed each day of the week. He knew that he didn’t even have a weekly cycle himself, but he was at least writing and creating new stories which people were finally reading. These old people told the same ones every week; one story for Monday, one for Tuesday…

College students were just as bad because their lives were locked to the university’s class schedule, and they were so busy trying to learn old knowledge, being spoon-fed to them by bored and incompetent instructors, that they had no time for original ideas. It seemed that the weekly cycle was fundamental to human activity at all ages, which made sense biologically. The upshot for him was that he didn’t want to live in RV parks anymore, even though he loved his motorhome (when the weather was warm), and he didn’t want to move into the townhouse with his college-student children.

He exchanged meaningless greetings with his octogenarian neighbor who was shuttling by and looked at the clock—noon and time to begin writing and drinking. He knew he had become a functioning alcoholic, but he didn’t care because he was doing what he loved.

Jim’s cell phone dinged as he poured a light beer into a plastic cup. It was a text message from John Holmes, who had retired a year after Jim and moved to northern Germany. He pressed the Accept icon and went outside to take his seat in a twenty-year-old canvas chair he hadn’t gotten around to throwing out yet, despite its stretched and threadbare condition. As he waited for John to rearrange himself in his tool shed and get situated, Jim realized that he was no different from anyone else; he looked forward to talking to John, even though their conversations were meaningless.

John’s image appeared on the small screen as he said, “How’s it going?”

After a noncommittal response from Jim, John launched into his usual thirty-minute tirade about his wife and his in-laws. She didn’t appreciate everything he had done for her for thirty years of marriage and tried to start fights over every little thing, and the in-laws were ignorant barbarians living in the hinterland of a thoroughly modern and advanced Germany. When this phase was completed, he then described all the (apparently) enjoyable activities they had done together. When John finished his family update, which could have been a recording of any of their previous conversations, he gave Jim a chance to speak; however, Jim no longer had anything to say after listening to John for half an hour.

Understanding why some people contemplated suicide, Jim reluctantly began, “Do you remember that movie, Forest Gump?”

“I love that movie. I think I’m just like him,” John responded immediately.

“Do you recall when he ran back and forth across the country until, one day, he just stopped and said that he was kind of tired?”

“Hell yeh, I do. All those people had been following him and they looked at him as if was Jesus or the Buddha and all he said was, ‘I think I’ll go home now.’ That was great.” There was a brief pause before John added, “Is that how you feel?”

“Yes, it is, but not because I’m tired. I can’t stand these old people. They’re sucking the life out of me.”

There was a long pause before John responded, “Take a break and spend time with the kids in the townhouse until you get tired of them. You just gotta go back and forth. Find a balance.”

Jim shook his head. “No, John, that’s not the solution. I hate the townhouse and living with the kids. They’re okay but the situation is mind numbing, almost as bad as the RV parks have become. I need a change of pace.”

John thought a moment before saying, “Isn’t Ellen about to come back from Indonesia—”

“Malaysia,” Jim interjected.

“Oh yeh, that’s it. You’re about to have your change of pace when she returns. You guys will get a place in Atlanta or Dallas, or some other big city where you can join an intellectual club like you’ve been talking about. It looks pretty good to me.”

“She’s not coming stateside, John; instead, she’s being transferred to the Middle East. I don’t want to live in that part of the world, despite the interesting geology and history of the region. Unless you’re traveling with an armed guard, you could find yourself a hostage to some extreme religious group. I won’t do it…”

John grinned and retorted, “That’s not why you don’t want to go to the Middle East, or why you didn’t go to Malaysia. I’ve been married ten years longer than you, so I know what I’m talking about. You and Ellen don’t have anything in common, now that the kids are in college. I understand. I would get divorced except that I can’t afford it; I would get ass-fucked if we divorced because my wife would be seen as dependent on me, especially here in Germany. It’s different for you and Ellen because she makes more money than you ever did and you’re doing okay with book sales. Your situation is completely different from mine.”

Jim grimaced at the idea of his last remaining illusion being shattered. He wouldn’t do it.

“No. I’m not going there. I have no desire to get divorced and I think that Ellen and I will find common ground when she retires. She’s just really busy with her career, a possibility we were aware of when we got married. We don’t fight or have long-lasting arguments or name calling like what you’ve described.”

John shrugged. “Okay. As I understand it, you think your marriage will be solid after another couple of years living in different hemispheres. And then you’re going to enter some kind of heavenly state of retired marital bliss and go to the opera and book signings together…shit like that. Is that what you imagine?”

Jim had to nod his agreement. “Something like that. I know it sounds stupid but there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with our marriage. We don’t hate each other nor has either of us found a new romantic interest, as far as I know.”

John rolled his eyes as he answered, “Okay. What the fuck. Let’s go with your fantasy. In the remote possibility that you and Ellen are rejoined in the hereafter—when she retires in seven years—you, Jim, have to live with reality in the interim, in which case you either learn to live with old people or young people, neither of whom you have any appreciation of. What’s it gonna be, Jim?”

Jim knew that John was correct, but he wasn’t ready to face it; at least not yet. He offered a compromise.

“What if I park the motorhome for a few months and live someplace with people who are neither too old nor too young?”

John scoffed. “Okay Goldilocks, but what do you have in mind? I haven’t come across a web site offering to find the perfect retirement place for any taste; and you certainly have very specific requirements.”

Jim had an idea that would allow him to keep at least one of his illusions alive. “I need to live in a city…more than that, I need to find a place where recent college graduates are struggling to survive, but where the weather is warm. I learned that, unlike you, I don’t like cold or even cool weather.” He nodded triumphantly at John.

“I guess you’re moving to Los Angeles.” John was shaking his head in disgust at his own words.