THE BEST WRITTEN WORDS FOR DEALING WITH SHITTY DAYS: Short Story "How Was It To Be Dead?"
How Was It To Be Dead? by Richard Ford
The exact status of my marriage to Sally Caldwell requires, I believe, some amplification. It is still a marriage that’s officially going on, yet by any accounting has become strange—in fact, the strangest I know, and within whose unusual circumstances I myself have acted very strangely.
Seven months ago, in April of this millennial year, I took a journey down memory lane to an old cadets’ reunion at the brown stucco, pantile-roof campus of my former military school—Gulf Pines, on the Mississippi coast. Lonesome Pines, we all called it. The campus and its shabby buildings, like apparently everything else in that world, had devolved over time to become an all-white Christian Identity school, which had itself, by defaulting on its debts, been sold to a corporate entity—the ancient palms, wooden goalposts, dusty parade grounds, dormitories, and classroom installments soon to be cleared as a parking structure for the floating casino across Route 90.
During this visit, I happened to hear from Dudley Phelps, who’s retired out of the laminated-door business up in Little Rock, that Wally Caldwell, once our Lonesome Pines classmate, but more significantly once my wife’s husband, until he got himself shell-shocked in Vietnam and wandered off seemingly forever, causing Sally to have him declared dead (no easy trick without a body or other evidence of death’s likelihood)—this Wally Caldwell was reported by people in the know to have appeared again. Alive. Upon the earth. And—I was sure when I heard it—eager to stir up emotional dust none of us had seen the likes of.
Nobody knew much. We all stood around the breezy, hot parade ground in short-sleeve pastel shirts and chinos, talking committedly, chins tucked into our necks, the pale, wispy grass smelling of shrimp, ammonia, and diesel, trying to unearth good concrete memories—the deaf-school team we played in football that hilariously beat the shit out of us—anything that we could feel positive about and that could make adolescence seem to have been worthwhile, though agreeing darkly that we were all of us pretty hard cases when we arrived. (Actually, I was not a hard case at all.)
We had a keg of beer somebody’d brought. The Gulf was just as the Atlantic is in summer: brownish, sluggish, a dingy aqueous apron stretching to nowhere—though warm as bathwater instead of dick-shrinkingly cold. We all solemnly stood and drank the warm beer, ate weenies in stale buns, and did our best not to feel dispirited and on-in-years. We chatted disapprovingly about how the Coast had changed, how the South had traded its tarnished soul for a more debased graven image of gambling loot, how the upcoming election would probably be won by the wrong dope. Surprisingly, many of my old classmates had gone to Nam like Wally and come back Democrats.
And then, around 2 P.M., when the sun sat straight over our sweating heads like a dentist’s lamp and we’d all begun to laugh about what a shithole this place had really been, how we didn’t mind seeing it disappear, how we’d all cried ourselves to sleep in our metal bunks on so many breathless, mosquito-tortured nights on account of cruel loneliness and youth and deep hatred for the other cadets, we all, by no signal given, just began to stray back toward our rental cars, or across the highway to the casino for some stolen fun, or back to motels or Winnebagos or the airport in New Orleans or Mobile, or just back, as if we could go back far enough to where it would all be forgotten and gone forever, the way it already should’ve been. Why were we there? By the end, none of us could’ve said.
How, though, do you contemplate such news as this possible Wally sighting? I had no personal memories of Cadet W. Caldwell, only pictures Sally kept (and kept hidden): color snapshots on the beach with their kids, in Saugatuck; a shirtless, dog-tagged Wally squinting into the summer sun like J.F.K., holding a copy of “Origin of Species” with a look of mock puzzlement on his young face; a few tuxedoed wedding photos from 1969, where Wally looked lumpy and wise and scared to death of what lay before him; a yearbook portrait from Illinois State, showing Walter “the Wall” Caldwell, Class of ’67, Plant Biology, where he was deemed (sadly, I felt) to be “Trustworthy, a friend to all.” “Solid where it counts” (which he wasn’t). “Call me Mr. Wall.”
These ancient, moistened relics did not, to me, a real husband make. Though once they had to Sally—a tall, blond, blue-eyed beauty with small breasts, thin fingers, smooth legs, and a small limp from a tennis mishap—a college cheerleader who fell for the shy, heavy-legged, curiously-gazing rich boy in her genetics class, and who smiled when she talked because so much made her happy, who didn’t have problems with physical things and so introduced the trusting “Wall” to bed and to cheap motels out Highway 9, so captivating him that by spring break “they were pregnant.” And pregnant again and married by the time Wally got called by the Army and joined the Navy instead, in 1969, and went off to a war.
From which, in a sense, he never returned. Though he tried for a couple of weeks in 1971, but just one day walked off from their little apartment in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, never to return with a sound or a glimpse. Kids, wife, parents, a few friends. A future. Boop. Over.
This was the extent of my knowledge of Wally the uxorious. He was already legally “dead” when I came on the scene in ’87 and tried to rent Sally some expandable office space in Manasquan. She’d identified me from a bogus reminiscence I wrote for the Gulf Pines Pine Boughs newsletter, though I had no actual memory of Wally and was merely on the Casualties Committee, responsible for “personal” anecdotes about classmates nobody remembered, but whose loved ones didn’t want them seeming like complete ciphers or lost souls, even if they were.
The thought that mystery man Walter B. Caldwell might still be alive was, as you can imagine, unwieldy personal cargo to be carrying home, Mississippi to New Jersey. There could probably be stranger turns of events. But if so I’d like you to name one. And, while you’re at it, name one you’d find easy to keep as your little secret, something you’d rather not have spread around.
On arriving back to Sea-Clift, I decided that rogue rumors were always shooting around like paper airplanes in everybody’s life, and that this was likely just one more. Some old Lonesome Pines alum, deep in his cups and reeling through the red-light district of Amsterdam or Bangkok, suddenly spies a pathetic homeless man weaving on a corner, a large, fleshy, unshaven “American-looking” clod, filthy in a tattered, greasy overcoat and duct-taped shoes, yet who has a particularly arresting, sweet smile animating tiny haunted eyes and who seems to stare back knowingly. After a pause, there’s a second cadged look, then a long unformed thought about it, followed by a decision to leave well enough alone (where well enough’s always happiest). But, then, in memory’s narrow eye comes a fixifying certainty, an absolute recognition—a sighting. And kerplunk: Wally lives! (And will be in your house eating dinner by next Tuesday.)
In eight years of what I thought was much more than satisfying-fulfilling marriage, not to mention thirty since Wally walked away and didn’t come back, Sally had made positive adjustments to what might’ve driven most people bat-shit crazy with anger and not-knowing, and with anxiety over the anger and not-knowing. Therefore to drop this little hand grenade of uncertainty into her life, I concluded, would actually be unfriendly. (I’d decided by then that it wasn’t true, so it really wasn’t a hand grenade in my life.) What was either of us supposed to do with the news, short of a full-bore “Have You Seen This Man” campaign (I didn’t want to see him), “aged” photos of Wally stapled to bulletin boards and splintery telephone poles beside aromatherapy flyers and lost-cat posters, with appeals made to “Live at 5”?
After which he still wouldn’t show up. Because—of course—he’d long ago climbed over a bridge rail or slipped off a boat transom or a rockface in the remotest Arizona canyon and said goodbye to this world of woes.
Case closed. R.I.P., Mr. Wall. My dream, instead of my nightmare, come true.
To which fickle fate says: Dream on, dream on, dream on.
Because, sometime in early May, Sally caught the United shuttle out to Chicago to visit the former in-laws in Lake Forest. I’m always officially invited to these events, but have never gone, for obvious reasons—although this might’ve been the time. The occasion was the aged Caldwells’ (Warner and Constance) sixtieth wedding anniversary. A party was planned at the formerly no-Jews-or-blacks-allowed Wik-O-Mek Country Club. Sally’s two grim, grown but disenchanted children, Shelby and Chloë, were supposedly coming from northern Idaho. They’d long ago fallen out with their mom over having their dad declared a croaker—prematurely, they felt. You can only imagine how they loathe me. Both kids are neck high in charismatic Mormon doings (likewise whites-only) out in Spirit Lake, where for all I know they practice cannibalism. They never send a Christmas card, though they plan to be in the “where’s mine” line when the grandparents shuffle off. When I first met Sally, she was still making piteous efforts to include them in her new life in New Jersey—all of which they rebuffed like cruel suitors, until she was compelled to close the door on both of them, which thrilled me. Too much unredeemed loss can be fatal. At some point—and its arrival may not be obvious, so you have to be on the lookout for it—you have to let life please you if it will, and consign the past to its midden (easier said than done, of course, as we all know).
When Sally drove her renter from O’Hare to Lake Forest and up to the winding-drive, many-winged, moss-and-ivy-fronted fieldstone Caldwell manse, which sits on a bluff of the lake, she entered the long, drafty, monarchical drawing room with her folding suitcase—she was considered a beloved family member and didn’t need to knock. And there, seated on the rolled-and-pleated, overstuffed Victorian leather settee, looking for all the world like the Caldwells’ gardener asked in to review next season’s perennial-planning strategies (Did we do the jonquils right? Is there a reason to keep the wisteria, since it’s really not their climate?), there was a man she thought she’d never seen before but queerly felt she knew. (It was the beady, piggy eyes.) There was “the Wall.” Wally Caldwell. Her husband. Back from oblivion, at home in Lake Forest.
I don’t know what went on that weekend. Pensive, hands-behind-the-back walks along the palliative Lake Michigan beach. Angry recrimination sessions out of earshot of the old folks. (Her kids blessedly didn’t show.) Moaning-crying jags, shouting, nights spent sweating, heart-battering, fists balled in fury, frustration, denial, and a crass inability to take it all in, to believe, to stare truth in the beezer. (Think how you’d feel!) And no doubt then the rueful, poisoned thoughts of why? And why now? Why not just last on to the end on Mull? (The craggy, windswept isle off Scotland’s coast where Wally’d moled away for decades.) Mull life over till nothing’s left of it, soldier the remaining yards alone, instead of fucking everything up for everybody—again. TV’s much better at these kinds of stories, since the imponderableness of it all is conveniently swept away when the commercials for drain openers, stool softeners, and talking potato chips pop on, and all’s electronically “forgotten,” during which time the aggrieved principals can make adjustments to life’s weird wreckage, get ready to come back and sort things out for the better, so that after many tears are shed, fists clenched, hearts broken but declared mendable, everyone’s again declared “all set,” as they say in New Jersey. All set? Ha! I say. Ha-ha, ha! Ha, ha-ha-ha! All set, my ass.
Sally flew home on Monday—having said nothing of Johnny-jump-up Wally during our weekend phone calls. I drove to Newark to get her and on the ride back could tell she was plainly altered—by something—but said nothing. It is a well-learned lesson of second marriages never to insist on what you don’t absolutely have to insist on, since your feelings are probably about nothing but yourself and your own pitiable needs and are not appropriately sympathetic to the needs of the insistee in question. Second marriages, especially good ones like ours, could fill three doorstop-size reference books with black-letter do’s and don’ts. And you’d have to be studious if you hoped to get past Volume I.
When we reached our house, No. 7 Poincinet Road, the sky was already resolving upon sunset. The western heavens were their brightest possible faultless blue. Pre-Memorial Day beach enthusiasts were packing up their books and blankets and transistors and sun reflectors, and heading off for a cocktail or a shrimp plate at the Surfcaster or a snuggle at the Conquistador Suites, as the air cooled and softened ahead of night’s fall.
I put on my favorite Ben Webster, made a pair of Salty Dogs, thought about a drive later on up to Ortley Beach for a grilled bluefish at Neptune’s Daily Catch Bistro and conceivably a snuggle of our own to the accompaniment of nature’s sift and sigh and the muttered voices of the striper fishermen who haunt our beach after the tide’s turn.
And then she simply told me, just as I was walking into the living room, ready for a full debriefing.
Something there is in humans that wants to make sure you’re doing something busying at the exact instant of hearing unwelcome news—as though if your hands are full you’ll just rumble right on through the whole thing, unfazed. “Wally? Alive? Really? Here, try a sip of this, see if I put in too much Donald Duck. Happy to add more Gilbey’s. Well, ole Wall—whaddaya know? How’d the Wall seem? Don’t you just love how Ben gets that breathy tremolo into ‘Georgia on My Mind’? Hoagy’d love it. Give Wally my best. How was it to be dead?”
I should say straight out: never tell anyone that you know how she or he feels unless you happen to be, just at that second, stabbing yourself with the very same knife in the very same place in the very same heart that she or he is stabbing. Because, if you’re not, then you don’t know how that person feels. I can barely tell you how I felt when Sally said, “Frank, when I got to Lake Forest, Wally was there.” (Use of my name, Frank, as always, a harbinger of things unpopular. I should change my name to Al.)
I know for a fact that I said nothing when I heard these words. I managed to put my Salty Dog down on the glass coffee table and lower myself onto the brown suède couch beside her, to put both my hands on top of my knees and gaze out at the darkening Atlantic, where the ghostly figures of high-booted fishermen faced the surf and, far out to sea, the sky still showed a brilliant reflected sliver of azure. Sally sat as I did and may have felt as I did—surprised.
Sometimes simple words are the best, better than images of the world cracking open; or of how much everything’s like a sitcom and what a pity William Bendix isn’t still around to play Wally—or me. Or the ethical-culture response: that catastrophe’s “a good thing for everybody,” since it dramatizes life’s great mystery and reveals how much all is artifice. “Surprised” is good enough. When I heard that Wally Caldwell, age fifty-five, missing for thirty years, during which time many things had happened and substantial adjustments had been made to the nature of existence on earth—when I heard that Wally was alive in Lake Forest and had spent the weekend doing God knows what with my wife, I was surprised.
Sally’d had three days with Wally already. She had gotten over the shock of a bearded, avuncular, and strange Wally hiding out in his parents’ house like some scary older brother with a terrible wound, whom you see only flickeringly behind shadowy chintz curtains in an upstairs dormer window, but who may be heard to moan. Her attitude was—and I liked it, since it was typical of her get-up-and-fix-things positivism—that while, yes, Wally’s reappearance had caused some tricky issues to pop up, needing to be resolved, and that while she understood how “this whole business” maybe put me in an awkward position (vis-à-vis, say, the past, the present, and the future), this was still a “human situation,” no one was a culprit (of course not), no one had bad will (except me), and we would all address this situation as a threesome, so that as little damage as possible would be done to as few innocent souls and lives.
Wally’s story, she told me, sitting on the suède couch that faced out to the springtime Atlantic, as our Salty Dogs turned watery and dark descended, was “one of those stories” fashioned by war and trauma, by sadness, fear, and resentment, and by the chaotic urge to escape all the other causes, aided by (what else?) “some kind of schizoid detachment” that induced amnesia, so that for years Wally couldn’t remember big portions of his prior life, although certain portions were crystal clear.
Wally, it seems, couldn’t put everything together, though he admitted he hadn’t just gone out to pick up the Trib thirty years ago, bumped his head getting into his Beetle, and suffered a curtain to close. It had to have been—this he’d no doubt admitted on one of their cozy Lake Michigan beach tête-à-têtes—that “something unconscious was working on him,” some failure to face the world he confronted as a Viet vet with a (minor) head wound and a family and a future as a horticulturist looming, the whole undifferentiated world just flooding in on him like a dam bursting with cows and trees and cars and church steeples swirling away in the gully wash, and him in with them. (There are good strategies for coping with this kind of thing, of course, but you have to want to.)
Cutting (blessedly) to the chase, Wally’s trauma, fear, resentment, and elective amnesia had carried him as far away from the Chicago suburbs, from his wife and two kids, as Glasgow, in Scotland, where for a time he became “caught up” in “the subculture” that lived communally, practiced good feeling for everything, experimented with cannabis and other mind-rousing drugs, fucked like bunny rabbits, made jewelry by hand and sold it on damp streets, practiced subsistence-farming techniques, made their own clothes and set their communal sights on spiritual-but-not-mainstream-religious revelation. In other words, the Manson Family, led by Ozzie and Harriet.
Eventually, Wally said, the “petrol” had run out of the communal subculture, and he had migrated up to the “wilds” of Scotland, first to the Isle of Skye, then to Harris, then to Muck, and finally to Mull, where he’d found employment in the “Scottish blackface” industry (sheep) and finally—more to his talents and likings—as a gardener on the laird’s estate and, as time went on, as head gardener and arborist (the laird was wild for planting spruce trees), and eventually as the estate manager for the entire shitaree. A complete existence was there, Wally said, a long way from Lake Forest “and that whole life” (again, meaning wife and kids), from the Cubs, the Wrigley Building, the Sears Tower, the river dyed green—again, the whole deluging, undifferentiated crash-in of modern existence, American style, whose sudsy, brown-tree-trunk-littered surface most of us somehow manage to keep our heads above so we can see our duty and do it. I’m not impartial in these matters. Why should I be?
In due time, Wally got used to living semi-officially in the stone manager’s cottage, scrubbing the loo, restocking the fridge with haggis, smoking fish, burning peat, reading the Herald, listening to Radio 4, snapping on the telly, sipping his cuppa, keeping his Wellies dry and his Barbour waxed during the long Mull winters. This was the wee life, the one he was suited for and entitled to and where he expected his days to end among the cold stones and rills and crags and moors and cairns and gorse and windblown cedars of his own dull nature—there in his half-chosen, half-fated, half-fucked-up-and-escaped-to destination resort from life gone kaflooey.
Enter then the Internet—in the form of the old laird’s young son, Morgil, who’d taken the reins of the property (having been to college at Florida State) and who’d begun to suspect that this lumpy American in the manager’s accommodation was probably other than he’d declared himself, was possibly an old draft dodger or a fugitive from some abysmal crime in his own country—some guy who dressed up in clown suits and ate little boys for lunch. The standard idea of America, viewed from abroad.
What young Morgil found when he checked—and who’d be shocked—was a “Wally Caldwell” Web site that the old Lake Forest parents had erected as a last hope, or whatever inspires Web sites. No outstanding warrants, Interpol alerts, or Scotland Yard red flags were attached to the site, only several sequentially aged photos of Wally (one actually in a Barbour) that looked exactly like the Wally out planting spruce sprigs and pruning other ones like a character in D. H. Lawrence.
Young Morgil didn’t feel it would be right to send a blind message out of the blue, so he tacked a note to Wally’s door the next morning—a color printout of the Caldwell home page, the computerized middle-aged face side by side with the yearbook photo from Illinois State (“Call me Mr. Wall”). No mention was made of Sally, Shelby, and Chloë, or of the fact that he’d been declared expired. The only words it contained were his parents’ tender entreaties: “Come home, Wally, wherever you are, if you are. We’re not mad at you. We’re still here in Lake Forest, Mom and Dad. We can’t last forever.”
And so he did. Wally crossed the sea to home and the welcome arms of his mom and dad. A changed bloke, but nonetheless their moody, slow-thinking son. Which was the strange tableau my unsuspecting wife walked in on, carrying her suitcase and lost memories.
At the conclusion of Sally’s long recitation of the missing-Wally saga, a chronicle I wasn’t that riveted by, since I didn’t think it could foretell any good for me (I was right), she announced that she needed to take a nap. Events had pretty well wrung her out. She knew that I was not exactly a grinning cheerleader to these matters, that I was possibly as “mixed up” as she was (not true), and she needed just to lie in the dark alone for a while and let things—her word—“settle.” She smiled at me, went around the room turning on lamps, suffusing the dark space she was abandoning me to with a bronze funeral-parlor light. She came around to where I’d stood up in front of the couch and kissed me on my cheek (oh, Lord) in a pallbearerish, buck-up-bud sort of way, then ceremoniously mounted the stairs not to our room, not to the marriage bower, the conjugal sanctum of sweet intimacies and blissful nod. But to the guest room!
I might’ve gone crazy right then. I should’ve let her mount the stairs (I heard the guest-room floorboards squeezing), waited for her to get her shoes shucked and herself plopped wearily onto the cold counterpane, then roared upstairs, proclaiming and defaming, vilifying and contumelating, snatching knobs off doors, kicking table legs to splinters, cracking mirrors with my voice—laying down the law as I saw it and as it should be and as it served and protected. Let everybody on Poincinet Road and up the seaboard and all the ships at sea know that I’d sniffed out what was being served and wasn’t having it and neither was anybody else inside my walls. One party left alone to his heartless devices, in his own heartless living room, while another heartless party skulks away to dreamland to revise fate and providence, ought to produce some ornate effects. No fucking way, José. This shit doesn’t wash. My way or the highway. Irish (or Scots) need not apply. Members only. Don’t even think of parking here.
But I didn’t. And why I didn’t was: I felt secure. Even though I could sense something approaching, like those elephants who feel the stealthy footfalls of Pygmy spear-toters far across savannas and flooded rivers. I felt at liberty to take an interest, to put on the white lab coat of objective investigator, to be Sally’s partner with a magnifying glass, curious to find out what these old bones, relics, and potsherds of lost love have to tell. These stationary moments are the very ones, of course, when large decisions get decided. Great literature routinely skips them in favor of seismic shifts, hysterical laughter, and worlds cracking open, and in that way does us all a grave disservice.
What I did while Sally slept in the guest room was make myself a fresh Salty Dog, open a can of cocktail peanuts, and eat half of them, since bluefish at Neptune’s Daily Catch had become a dead letter. I switched off the lights, sat awhile in the leather director’s chair, hunkered forward over my knees in the chilly living room, and watched phosphorescent water lap the moonlit alabaster beach till way past high tide. Then I went upstairs to my “home office” and read the Asbury Park Press—stories about Elián González being preënrolled at Yale, a plan to make postmodern sculpture out of Y2K preventive gear and place it on the statehouse lawn in Trenton, a C.I.A. warning about a planned attack on our shores by Iran, and a lawsuit over a Circuit City in Bradley Beach being turned down by the local planning board, with the headline reading “HOW’S THE DOWNTICK AFFECTING HOLIDAY SHOPPING?”
I rechecked my rental inventory. (Memorial Day was three weeks away.) I took note that the N.J. Real Estate Cold Call reported that four million of our citizens were working, while only 4.1 per cent of our population was not—the longest economic boom in our history (now giving hissing sounds around the edges). Finally, I went back down, turned on the TV, watched the Nets lose to the Pistons, and went to sleep on the couch in my clothes.
This isn’t to suggest that Wally’s reëmergence hadn’t caught my notice and didn’t burn my ass and didn’t cause me to think that discomforting, messy, troublesome readjustments would need to take place and soon. Readjustments requiring Wally’s being declared un-dead, requiring divorcing, estate replanning, and updated survivorship provisos, all while recriminations cut the air like steak knives, and all lasting a long time and raking everybody’s patience, politeness, and complex sense of themselves over the hot coals like spareribs. That was going to happen. I may also have felt vulnerable to the accusation of marital Johnny-come-lately-ism. Though I’d never have met Sally Caldwell, never have married her (though I might still have romanced her), had it not been that Wally was gone—we all thought—for good.
What I, in fact, felt was: on my guard—but safe. The way you’d feel if crime statistics spiked in your neighborhood but you’d just rescued a two-hundred-pound Rottweiler from the shelter who saw you as his only friend whereas the wide world was his enemy.
Sally’s and my marriage seemed as contingency-proof as we could construct it, using the human materials we’re all equipped with. The other thing about second marriages—unlike first ones, which require only hot impulse and drag-strip hormones—is that they need good reasons to exist, reasons you’re smart to pore over and get straight well beforehand. Sally and I had both conducted independent inquiries back when we met, and had each made a clear decision that marriage—to each other—promised more than anything else we could think of that would probably make us both “happy,” and that neither of us harbored a single misgiving that wasn’t appropriate to life anyway (illness we’d share; death we’d expect; depression we’d treat), and that any more time spent deciding was time we could spend having the time of our lives. Which as far as I’m concerned—and I know that Sally felt the same—we did.
Which is to say, we practiced the sweet legerdemain of adulthood shared. We formally renounced our unmarried personalities. We generalized the past on behalf of a sleek second-act mentality that viewed the leading edge of life to be all life was. We acknowledged that strong feelings were superior to original happiness, and promised never to ask the other if she or he really, really, really loved him or her, in the faith that affinity was love, and we had affinity. We stressed nuance and advocated that however we seemed was how we were. We declared that we were good in bed, and that lack of intimacy was usually self-imposed. We kept our kids at a wary but (at least in my case) positive distance. We deëmphasized becoming on behalf of being. We permanently renounced melancholy and nostalgia. We performed intentionally pointless acts like flying to Moline or Flint and back the same day because we were “archeologists.” We ate Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at named exits on the New Jersey Turnpike. We considered buying a pet refuge in Nyack, a B. & B. in New Hampshire.
In other words, we put in practice what the great novelist said about marriage (though he never quite had the genome for it himself). “If I should ever marry,” he wrote, “I should pretend to think just a little better of life than I do.” In Sally’s case and mine, we thought a lot better of life than we’d ever thought we could. We were happy. We really, really loved each other. We lived. Together. And we didn’t do a lot of looking right or left.
When Sally came down later that night and found me asleep on the couch beside the can of Planters with the TV playing “The Third Man” (the scene where Joseph Cotten gets bitten by the parrot), she wasn’t unhappy with me—though she certainly wasn’t happy. I understood that she’d just come unexpectedly face to face with big contingency—the thing we’d schemed against and almost beaten, and probably the only contingency that could’ve risen to eye level and stared us down: the reënlivening of Wally. And she didn’t know what to do about it—though I did.
All marriages—all everythings—tote around contingencies whether we acknowledge them or don’t. In all things good and giddy, there’s always one measly eventuality that no one’s thought about, or that hasn’t been thought about in so long it almost doesn’t exist. Only it does. Which is the one potentially fatal chink in the body armor of intimacy, in the unconditional this ’n’ that, in the sacred vows, the pledging of troths, in the forever anythings. And that is: there’s a back door somewhere to every deal, and there a draft can enter. All promises to be in love and “true to you forever” are premised on the iron contingency (unlikely or otherwise) that says: unless, of course, I fall in love “forever” with someone else. This is true even if we don’t like it, which means that it isn’t cynical to think it, but also means that someone else—someone we love and whom we’d rather have not know it—is as likely to know it as we are. Which acknowledgment may finally be as close to absolute intimacy as any of us can stand. Anything closer to the absolute than this is either death or as good as death. And death’s where I draw the line. Realtors, of course, know all this better than anyone, since there’s a silent Wally Caldwell in every deal, right down to the act of sale (which is like death) and sometimes even beyond it. In every agreement to buy or sell, there’s also the proviso, acknowledged or not, that says “unless, of course, I don’t want to anymore,” or “that is, unless I change my mind,” or “assuming my yoga instructor doesn’t advise against it.” The hallowed concept of character was invented to seal off these contingencies. But in this wan millennial election year are we really going to say that this concept is worth a nickel or a nacho? Or, for that matter, ever was?
Sally stood at the darkened thermal-glass window that gave upon the lightless Atlantic. She’d slept in her clothes, too, and was barefoot and had a green L. L. Bean blanket around her shoulders. I’d opened the door to the deck, and inside it was fifty degrees. I came awake studying her inky back without realizing that it was her inky back, or that it was even her—wondering if I was hallucinating or was it an optical trick of waking in darkness, or had a stranger or a ghost entered my house for shelter and not noticed me snoozing. I realized it was Sally only when I thought of Wally and of the despondency his renewed life might promise me.
“Do you feel a little better?” I wanted to let her know that I was here still among the living and that we’d been having a conversation earlier that I considered to be still going on.
“No.” Hers was a mournful, husky, elderly-seeming voice. She pinched her Bean’s blanket around her shoulders and coughed. “I feel terrible. But I feel exhilarated, too. My stomach’s got butterflies and knots at the same time. Isn’t that peculiar?”
“No, I wouldn’t say that was necessarily so peculiar.” I was trying my investigator’s white lab coat on for size.
“A part of me wants to feel like my life’s a total ruin and a fuckup, that there’s a right way to do things and I’ve made a disaster out of it. That’s how it feels.” She wasn’t facing me. I didn’t really feel like I was talking to her. But, if not to her, then to who?
“That’s not true,” I said. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You just flew to Chicago.”
“There’s no sense to spool everything back to sources, but I might’ve been a better wife to Wally.”
“You’re a good wife. You’re a good wife to me.” And then I didn’t say this but thought it: And fuck Wally. He’s an asshole. I’ll gladly have him big-K killed and his body Hoffa’d out for birdseed. “What do you feel exhilarated about?” I said instead. Mr. Empathy.
“I’m not sure.” She flashed a look around, her blond hair catching light from somewhere, her face tired and marked with shadowy lines from too sound sleep and the fatigue of travel.
“Well,” I said, “exhilaration doesn’t hurt anything. Maybe you were glad to see him. You always wondered where he went.” I put a single cocktail peanut into my dry mouth and crunched it down. She turned back to the cold window, which was probably making her cold. “What’s he going to do now,” I said, “have himself reincarnated, or whatever you do?”
“It’s pretty simple.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. What about the being-married-to-you part? Does he get to do that again? Or do I get you as salvage?”
“You get me as salvage.” She turned and walked slowly to where I sat staring up at her, slightly dazzled, as if she were the ghost I’d mistaken her for. Her limp was pronounced because she was beat. She sat on the couch and leaned into me so I could smell the sweated, unwashed dankness of her hair. She put her hand limply on my knee and sighed as if she’d been holding her breath and hadn’t realized it till now. Her coarse blanket prickled through my shirt. “He’d like to meet you,” she said. “Or maybe I want him to meet you.”
“Absolutely,” I said, and could identify a privileged sarcasm. “We’ll invite some people over. Maybe I’ll interest him in a summer rental.”
“That’s not really necessary, is it?”
“Yes. I’m in command of my necessaries. You be in command of yours.”
“Don’t be bad to me about this. It flabbergasts me as much as it does you.”
“That isn’t true. I’m not exhilarated. Why are you exhilarated? I answered that for you, but I don’t like my answer.”
“Mmm. I think it’s just so strange, and so familiar. I’m not mad at him anymore. I was for years. I was when I first saw him. It was like meeting the President or some famous person. I know him so well and then there he is and, of course, I don’t know him. There was something exciting about that.” She looked at me, put her hands atop each other on my cold knee, and smiled a sweet, tired, imploring, mercy-hoping smile. And then we didn’t speak for a little while, just sat breathing in the cold air, each of us fancifully, forcefully seeking a context in which our separate views could join forces and fashion an acceptable and unified response. I was further from the middle of events and had some perspective, so the heavier burden fell on me. I’d already started suiting up in the raiments of patient understander. Oh, woe. Oh, why?
“Something has to happen,” Sally said with unwanted certainty. “Something had to happen when Wally left. Something has to happen now that he’s back. Nothing can’t happen. That’s my feeling.”
“Me,” she said sadly. “I do.”
“What has to happen?”
“I have to spend some time with him.” Sally spoke reluctantly. “You’d want to do the same thing, Frank.” She wrinkled her chin and slightly puffed her compressed lips. She often took on this look when she was sitting at her desk composing a letter.
“No, I wouldn’t. I’d buy him a first-class ticket to any place he wanted to go in Micronesia and never think about him again. Where’re you planning to spend time with him? The Catskills? The Lower Atlas? Am I supposed to be there, too, so I can get closer to my needs? I’m close enough to them now. I’m sitting beside you. I’m married to you.”
“You are married to me.” She actually gasped then and sobbed, then gasped again and squeezed my hand harder than anybody’d ever squeezed it, and shook her head from side to side so that tears dashed onto my cheek. It was as if we were both crying. Though why I would’ve been crying, I don’t know. I should’ve been howling.
I’ll make the rest short, though it’s not sweet.
I buttoned the buttons on my moral investigator’s lab coat and got busy with the program. Sally said she’d be willing to invite Wally down to Sea-Clift—either to a rental she would arrange for him (using who as agent?) or to our house, where he could put up in one of the two guest rooms for the short time he’d be here. The oddest things can be made to seem plausible if you insist they are. Remember Huxley on Einstein. Remember the Trojan Horse. Or else, Sally said, she and he could “go away somewhere” (the Rif, the Pampas, the Silk Road to Cathay). They wouldn’t be “together,” of course, more like brother and sister having a wander, during which crucial period they’d perform what few in their situation (how many are in that situation?) could hope to perform: a putting to rest, an airing, a reëxamination of old love allowed to wither and die, saying the unsayable, feeling the unpermitted, reconciling paths not taken and those taken. Cleanse and heal, come back stronger. Come back to me. Yes, there might be some crying, some shouting, some laughter, some hugging, some crisp slappings across the face. But they would be “within a context,” and in “real time,” or some such nonsense, and all those decades would be drained of their sour water, rolled up, and put away like a late-autumn garden hose, never to leave the garage again. In other words, all this turmoil was a “good thing” (if not for everybody)—life’s mystery dramatized, all is artifice, connected boxes, etc., etc., etc.
The Silk Road strategy didn’t appeal to me, for obvious reasons. I suggested (these things do happen) that we invite the Wall down for a week (or less). He could bivouac upstairs, set out all his toilet articles in the guest bath. I had nothing to fear from an ex-dead man. I’d tin his ears about the real-estate business, talk over the election, the Cubs, the polar ice cap, the Middle East. Though mostly I’d just stay the hell away from him, fish the Hendrickson hatch at the Red Man Club, test-drive new Lexuses, sell a house or two—whatever it took, while the two of them did what they needed to do to get that moldy old hose put away on the garage nail of the past tense.
On the twenty-third of May, Wally “the Weasel,” as he was known in military school, my wife’s quasi husband, father of her two maniac children, Viet vet, combat casualty, freelance amnesiac, cut-and-run artist par excellence, heir to a sizable North Shore fortune, meek arborist, unmourned former dead man, and big-time agent of misrule—my enemy—this Wally Caldwell entered my peaceful house on the Jersey Shore to work his particular dark magic on us all.
Sally became convulsively nervous, oversensitive and irritable, as the hour of Wally’s arrival neared. (I affected calm to show I didn’t care.) She smoked several cigarettes (the first time in twenty years), drank a double Martini at ten o’clock in the morning, changed her clothes three times, then stood out on the deck sporting stiff white sailcloth trousers, new blue French espadrilles, a blue-and-white middy blouse, and extremely dark sunglasses. All was a calculated livery betokening casual, welcoming resolution and sunny invulnerability, depicting a life so happy, invested, entitled, entrenched, comprehended, spiritual, and history-laden that Wally would take a quick peek at the whole polished array, then hop back in the cab and start the long journey back to Mull.
I will concede that the real Wally, the portly, thin-lipped, timidly smiling, gray-toothed, small-eyed, thick-fingered, suitcase-carrying bullock who struggled out of the Newark yellow cab didn’t seem a vast challenge to my or anyone’s sense of permanence. I had perfect no-recollection of him from forty years ago and felt strangely, warmly (wrongly) welcoming toward him, the way you’d feel about a big, softhearted pfc. in a fifties war movie who you know is going to be picked off by a Kraut sniper in the first thirty minutes. Wally had on his green, worn-smooth corduroys—though it was already summery and he was sweltering—a faded, earthy-smelling, purple cardy over a green-and-ginger rugger shirt under which his hod-carrier belly tussled for freedom. He wore heavy gray woollen socks, no hat, and the previously mentioned smelly but not mud-spackled Barbour from his days nerdling about the gorse and rank topsoil of his adopted island paradise.
He brought with him a bottle of twenty-year-old Glen Matoon and a box of Cohiba Robustos—for me. I still have them at the office and occasionally consider smoking one as a joke, though it’d probably explode. He also brought—for Sally—a strange assortment of Scottish cooking herbs he’d obviously bought for his parents at the Glasgow airport, plus a tin of shortcakes “for the house.” He was at least six feet two, newly beardless, nearly bald, weighed a fair seventeen stone, and spoke English in a halting, swallowing, slightly high-pitched semi-brogue with a vocabulary straight out of the seventies U.S. He said “Chicagoland,” as in “We left Chicagoland at the crack of dawn.” And he said “super,” as in “We had some super tickets to Wrigley.” And he said “z’s,” as in “I copped some righteous z’s on the plane.” And he said “g-b,” as in “I banged down a g-b”—a gut-bomb—“before we left Chicagoland, and it tasted super.”
He was, this once-dead Wally, not the strangest concoction of Homo sapiens genetic material ever presented to me, but he was certainly the most complexly pathetic and ill-starred—a wide-eyed, positive-outlook type, ill at ease and conspicuous in his lumpy flesh, but also strangely serene and on occasion pompous and ribald, like the downstate S.A.E. he was back when life was simpler. How he made it on Mull is a mystery.
Needless to say, I loathed him (warm feelings aside), couldn’t comprehend how anybody who could love me could ever have loved Wally, and wanted him out of the house the second he was in it. We shook hands limply, in the manner of a cold prisoner exchange on the Potsdam ridge. I spoke tersely, idiotically: “Welcome to Sea-Clift, and to our home,” which I didn’t mean. He said something about how “… whole layout’s . . . super,” and he was “chuffed” to be here.
Wally was in my house in Sea-Clift for five uncomfortable days. I tried to go about my diurnal duties, spending time early to late in the office, where I had summer renters arriving, plumbers and carpenters and cleaning crews and yard-maintenance personnel to dispatch and lightly supervise. I sold a house on the bay side of Sea-Clift, took a bid on but failed to sell another. Normally I’d have been home for lunch, but in grudging deference to what was going on in my house I ate glutinous woodsman’s casserole, Welsh rarebit, and ham and green beans at the Commodore’s table at the Yacht Club, where I’m a “non-boating” member.
Each evening I went home, tired and ready for a rewarding cocktail and supper and an early-to-bed. Wally was most times in the living room reading Time magazine, or on the deck with my binoculars, or in the kitchen loading up a Dagwood, or outside having a disapproving look at the arborvitae and hydrangeas or staring up at the shorebirds. Sally was almost never in sight when Wally was, leaving the impression that whatever they were carrying on between them during the day and my absence—hugging, face-slapping, laughing that ended in tears—was all pretty trying, and I wouldn’t have liked seeing her face then, and in any case she needed to recover from it.
I certainly didn’t know what the hell any of us were doing—though who would? If you’d told me that the two of them never so much as spoke, or that they went for polka lessons, or read the I Ching together, or shot heroin, I’d have had to believe it. Was it, I wondered, that everything was just too awkward, too revealing, too anxious-making, too upsetting, too embarrassing, too intimidating, too intrusive, or just too private to exhibit in front of me—the husband, the patient householder, the rate-payer, the sandwich-bread buyer? And also now a stranger?
In bed each night, with Sally returned, though asleep when her head hit the pillow, I lay awake and listened to Wally’s human noises across the hall in “his” room. He played the radio—not loud—tuned to an all-news station that occasionally made him chuckle. He took long forceful pisses into his toilet to let off the lager he drank at dinner. He produced a cannonade of burps, followed by a word of demure apology to no one: “Oh, goodness, who let that go?” He walked around heavily in his sock feet, yawned with a high-pitched keening sound that only a man used to living alone ever makes. He did some sort of brief grunting calisthenics, presumably on the floor, then plopped into bed and set up an amazing lion’s den of snarfling-snoring that forced me to flatten my head between pillows, so that I woke up in the morning with both hands numb as death, my eyes smarting, and my neck sore.
During the five days of Wally’s visit, I twice asked Sally how things were going. The first time—this was two seconds before she fell into sleep, leaving me in bed listening to stertorous Wally—she said, “Fine. I’m glad I’m doing this. You’re magnificent to put up with it. I’m sorry I’m cranky … zzzzzzz.” Magnificent. She had never before referred to me as magnificent, even in my best early days.
The other time, we were seated, facing across the circular glass-topped breakfast table. Wally was still upstairs sawing logs. I was heading off to the Realty-Wise office. It was Day Three. We hadn’t said much about anything in the daylight. To freshen the air, I said, “You’re not going to leave me for Wally, are you?” I gave her a big, smirking grin and stood up, napkin in hand. To which she answered, looking up, plainly dismayed, “I don’t think so.” Then she looked out at the ocean, on which a white boat full of day fishermen sat anchored a quarter mile offshore, their short poles bristling off one side, their boat tipped, all happy anglers, hearts set on a flounder or a shark. They were probably Japanese. Something she noticed when she saw them may have offered solace.
But. I don’t think so? No grateful smile, no wink, no rum mouth pulled to signal no worries, no way, no dice. I don’t think so was not an answer Ann Landers would’ve considered insignificant. “Dear Franky in the Garden State, I’d lock up the silverware if I were you, boy-o. You’ve got a rough intruder in your midst. You need to do some nighttime sentry duty on your marriage bed. Condition red, Fred.”
Wally gave no evidence of thinking himself a rough intruder or a devious conniver after my happiness. In spite of his strange splintered, half North Shore-fatty, half earnest-blinking-Scots-gardener persona (a veteran stage actor playing Falstaff with an Alabama accent), Wally did his seeming best to spend his days in a manner that did least harm. He always smiled when he saw me. He occasionally wanted to talk about beach erosion. He advised me to put more aluminum sulfate on my hydrangeas to make the color last. Otherwise, he stayed out of sight much of the time. And I now believe, though no one’s told me, that Sally had actually forced him to come: to make him suffer penance, to show him that abandonment had worked out well for her, to embarrass the shit out of him, to confuse him, to make him miss her miserably, make me seem his superior, plus darker reasons that I assume are involved in almost everything we do and that there’s no use thinking about.
But what else was she supposed to do? How else to address the past and loss? Was there an approved mechanism for redressing such an affront besides blunt instinct? What other kind of synergy reconciles a loss so great—and so weird? It’s true I might’ve approached it differently. But sometimes you just have to wing it.
Wally and I never talked about “the absence” (which Sally said was his name for being gone for thirty years) or anything related to their kids, his parents, his other life and lives (though, of course, he and Sally might’ve). We never talked about when he might be leaving or how he was experiencing life in my house. Never talked about the future—his or Sally’s or mine. We never talked about the Presidential election, since that had a root system that could lead to sensitive subjects—morality, dubious ethics, uncertain outcomes, and also plainly bad outcomes. I wanted to keep it clear that he was never for one instant welcome in my house, and that I pervasively did not like him. I don’t know what he thought or how he truly felt; I only know how he was in his conduct, which wasn’t that bad and, in fact, evidenced a small, unformed nobility, although heavy-bellied and gooberish. I did my best. And maybe he did his.
Wally departed on the morning of Day Five. Sally said that he was going, and I made it my business to get the hell out of the house at daybreak. I hung around the office the rest of the morning, catching cold calls and running credit checks on new rental clients.
Then I drove home, where Sally kissed me and hugged me when I walked in the door as if I’d been away on a long journey. She looked pale and drained—not like somebody who’d been crying but like somebody who might’ve been on a roadside when two speeding cars or two train engines or two jet airplanes collided in front of her. She said that she was sorry about the whole week, that she knew it had taken a toll on all of us, but probably mostly me (which wasn’t true), that Wally would never again come into the house, even though he’d asked her to thank me for letting him “visit,” and even though having him here, as awful as it was, had served some “very positive purposes” that would never have gotten served any other way. She said that she loved me and that she wanted to make love right then, in the living room on the suède couch where this had all started. But because the meter reader knocked at the front door and the neighbor’s dog started barking at him out in the road, we moved—naked as two bushmen—up to the bedroom.
Next day, I assumed—believed—matters would begin shifting back toward normal. I wanted us to drive over to the Red Man Club for an outing of fishing and fiddlehead hunting, and a trek along the Pequest to seek out the Sampson’s-warbler pairs that nest in our woods and nowhere else in New Jersey. I intended to put in an order for a new Lexus at Sea Girt Imports—a surprise for Sally’s birthday, in three weeks. I’d already made a trip up to consult color charts and take a test-drive.
Sally, however, stayed in bed all day, as if she herself had been on a long and arduous journey. While she rested, I drove myself over to the movie theatre at the Ocean County Mall and saw “Charlie’s Angels,” then bought lobsters on the way home and cooked them for dinner—though Sally barely rallied to work on hers, while I demolished mine.
She went to bed early again—after I asked if maybe she should call Dr. Blumberg on Monday and schedule a workup. Maybe she was anemic. She said she would, then went to sleep at nine and slept twelve hours, emerging downstairs into the kitchen Sunday morning, weak-eyed, sallow, and sunk-shouldered—where I was eating a pink grapefruit—to tell me that she was leaving me to live with Wally on Mull, and that she’d decided it was worse to let someone you love be alone forever than to be with someone (me!) who didn’t need her all that much, even though she knew I loved her and she loved me. To this day I don’t understand this calculus, though it has a lot in common with other things people do.
She was wearing an old-fashioned lilac sateen peignoir set with pink ribbonry stitched around the jacket collar. She was thin-armed, bare-legged, her skin wan and blotchy from sleep, her eyes colorless in their glacial blue. She was barefoot, a sign of primal resolution. She blinked at me as if sending me a message in Morse code: goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
Oh, I protested. May it not be said that I failed of ardor at that crucial moment. (The past, critics have attested, seems settled and melancholy, but I was boisterous in that present.) I was by turns disbelieving, shocked, angry, tricked-feeling, humiliated, gullible, and stupid. I became analytical, accusatory, revisionist, self-justifying, self-abnegating, and inventive of better scenarios than being abandoned. Patiently (I wasn’t truly patient; I wanted to slit Wally open like a bulgy feed sack) and lovingly (which I surely was), I testified that I needed her the way hydrogen needs oxygen—she should know that, had known it for years. If she needed time—with Wally, on Mull—I could understand. She should go there and do that. Hang out. Plant little trees in little holes. Go native. Act married. Talk, slap, hug, giggle, groan, cry.
But come home!
I’d tear down conventional boundaries if we could just keep an understanding alive. Did I say beg? I begged. I already said I cried. To which Sally said, shoulders slack, eyes lowered, slender hands clasped on the tabletop, her little finger lightly touching the covered Quimper butter dish she at one time had felt great affection for, and that I subsequently winged across the room to death by smithereens, “I think I have to make this permanent, sweetheart. Even if I regret it and later come crying to you, and you’re with some other woman, and won’t talk to me, and my life is lost. I have to.”
Strange grasp on “permanent,” I thought, though my eyes burbled with tears. “It’s not like we’re dealing with hard kernels of truth here,” I said pitiably. “This is all pretty discretionary, if you ask me.”
“No,” she said, which is when she took her wedding ring off and laid it on the glass pane of the tabletop, causing a hard little tap I’ll never, ever forget, even if she comes back.
“This is so terrible,” I said, in full cry. I wanted to howl like a dog.
“Do you love Wally more than you love me?”
She shook her head in a way that made her face appear famished and exhausted, though she couldn’t look at me, just at the ring she’d a moment before relinquished. “I don’t know that I love him at all.”
“Then what the fuck!” I shouted. “Can you just do this?”
“I don’t think I can’t do it,” Sally—my wife—said.
And essentially that was that. Double negative makes a positive.
She was gone by cocktail hour, which I observed alone.
Somewhere once I read that harsh words are all alike. You can make them up and be right. The same is true of explanations. I never caught them smooching. Probably they didn’t smooch. Neither did they stop midsentence in an intimate moment just when I strode through a door. (I never strode through any without whistling a happy tune first.) Sally and I never visited a counsellor to hash out problems, or endured any serious arguments. There wasn’t time before she left. Apart from when I first knew Sally, Wally had never been a feature of our daily converse. Everybody has their casualties; we get used to them like old photographs we glance at but keep in a trunk.
My personal view is that Sally got caught unawares in the great, deep, and confusing eddy of contingency, which has other contingency streams running into it, some visible, some too deep-coursing for us to know about. That she began, in spite of what she might’ve said, to fear permanence, to fear no longer becoming, to dread a life that couldn’t be trashed and squandered. Put simply, she was unprepared to be like me—which is a natural state that marriage ought to accommodate and make survivable. Heavy-footed, unnuanced, burping, yerping Wally may have reminded Sally that she had unfinished business in the last century and couldn’t reason it away in the jolly manner in which I’d reasoned myself into a late-in-life marriage and lived happily by its easy-does-it house rules. First marriages have too much past clanking along behind them; but second ones may have too little, and thus lack ballast. And so it’s good odds that Sally had no choice but to hand me her wedding ring like a layaway clerk at Zales and push herself out of the eddy of our life and take the current wherever it led.
I’ll admit that I’m no longer so blue about Sally’s absence as once I was. I don’t feature myself living alone forever, just as I wouldn’t concede to staying a Realtor forever, and mostly tend to think of life itself as a made-up thing composed of today, maybe tomorrow, and probably not the next day, with as little of the past added in as possible. I feel, in fact, a goodly tincture of regret for Sally. Because even though I believe that her sojourn on Mull will not last so long, by rechoosing Wally she has embraced the impossible, inaccessible past, and by doing so has risked or even exhausted an extremely useful longing—possibly her most important one, the one she’s made good use of all these years to fuel her present, where I found a place. This is why the dead should stay dead and why in time the land lies smooth all around them.
The above text is reproduced from the original article published on The New Yorker Magazine in their August 28, 2006 issue. Credit where its due.
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