Only two days after Brian met her at a cocktail party, he walked out the front door of his home on Cape Cod, left it all behind: the ocean view, the bank account, the credit card, the mortgage, the car payments, the wife, the three kids, the kit, the caboodle. With nothing more than the clothes he wore, he strolled down his street, a condemned man who’d slipped through the noose. At the corner he got in the passenger side of her Jaguar, she peeled away from the curb and they left prim New England; sailed Midwest cornfields and prairies like a speed boat; went up and then down the Rockies.
When they hit the far end of California, she took a sharp north, barreling up 101 to Canada, the Pacific on their left. It took his breath away: the Pacific, and the whole damn thing. He’d done it. He had balls.
This woman was everything his wife wasn’t: gorgeous, smart, and rich – an heiress!
On their way west, they drove on two-lane blacktop, slept in rundown motels, ate at roadhouses, honky-tonks, taverns and diners: real America. At forty he felt like fourteen, everything was new. He was in love!
He’d fallen for her, he now realized, the very instant he saw her at the McKyvers. He marveled at how he’d been expecting another dull affair, then – bolt out of the blue! – he was having the affair of the century.
“So, what do you do? Or more to the point, what would you like to do?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I teach. English Lit. Here at the community college. But I always wanted to write, really write. Real stuff, novels. The Great American Novel. But, I don’t know…” Scratching his head, he took a quick swallow of the gin and tonic in his sweaty paw. Suddenly, the September’s heat and humidity became oppressive. He loosened his tie, ran a palm over his damp forehead, removed his fogging glasses.
“It’s never too late,” she said, winking. “Provided one has balls.” His gaze traveled from her to Joan across the crowded living room, yammering about recipes, no doubt, then back to this tall woman looking straight into his eyes with a stare that zinged his heart. Brian had never heard a woman say “balls” before. He liked it. “What’s your name? You must be new around here.”
“Louise Alverada, I’m a friend of the Baxters, visiting for a few days, we’re old college chums, Yale.”
“Harvard,” he said. raising his drink, “I’m Harvard. Rah.” She smiled. He dug her smile. Like the wink, it wasn’t innocent. Something latent stirred.
He looked back at Joan, and behind her, framed by a large picture window, the Atlantic Ocean: broad and briny, deep and always stormy somewhere. Wheels turned in his head, rusty wheels. As it turned out, they needed only a drop of oil.
The next day, Brian met Louise on the beach as they’d surreptitiously arranged. That’s when he knew he had to start anew, to live forever in her hazel eyes, her raven hair, her raspy and wise cigarette voice. He could listen to that voice forever. They made plans, right there, sitting on the beach, waves washing across their legs. He kissed her under the orange sun more passionately then he’d imagined possible. An hour later, he scurried home after cooling off in the sea, up the back steps, into the kitchen, the screen door snapping behind him. Joan was making a pot roast. “Oh God,” he thought. “Not one of her heavy pot roasts on a hot day like this. Is she an idiot or what?”
“How was the beach, honey.”
“Is everything okay? You sound funny.”
“Nope. I mean yep. I mean, everything’s fine. Couldn’t be better!”
Joan waddled a few steps to the sink, breaking wind on her way there.
“Ugh,” he thought. “What a pig…”
The next day, before noon, he was on the road, gone like a breeze.
Good fucking riddance to Joan and her ideas. It was her idea to marry right out of college; her idea to leave Boston for her hometown on quaint Cape Cod; her idea to have children; her nagging that forced him to forsake literary aspirations, to get serious, to provide for a family. He hated Joan and he hated his kids.
The three boys were precisely the sort of kids he’d despised when he was their age: jocks. All year ’round it went: baseball, football, basketball, wrestling, weight lifting. A fortune spent on equipment and stupid uniforms that they outgrew in two months. And games to attend, surrounded in bleachers by insane parents screaming themselves into a purple lather.
The boys were, at best, C and D students who never opened a book, opting for Cliff Notes. Stan, Mick and Dick were 100% Joan’s side of the equation, exactly like her shanty-Irish brothers.
My boys, he stewed: noisy, head-butting, brawling buffoons. Their idea of fun is punching each other out, seeing just how hard a blow one could withstand to the stomach, the head, the kidneys without yelping. Every so often while he was reading, really absorbed in a book, he’d hear an OW! Followed by, “You lose, dickhead!” He wished they were old enough for the draft, could get shipped off to Vietnam to step on a booby-trap or intercept a bullet. Friendly fire would suffice, just glad to see you go, don’t let the door hit your ass on your way to the void.
As a teen, Brian was a bookworm, an egghead: Brian the Brain, the butt of jokes, taunts and pranks played by boys just like his boys. My three sons? Fuck ’em!
Brian dreaded the obligatory Sundays with Joan’s family. Her four brothers, all middle-aged, still lived with their parents in the same ramshackle house they grew up in, two to a bedroom; the front lawn trampled to packed dirt by their tackle football games. Brian’s first visit to the Delaney’s floored him. Prior, he’d never witnessed a home devoid of books. In their bleak home, TVs were the coin of the realm: two in the living room (so they could watch two games at once if need be), one in the kitchen and one upstairs in the pennant festooned “den” created from Joan’s bedroom when she shipped out to college, and one in the bathroom. Pop Delaney and his “boys” never missed a game, even on the crapper. If it were possible, they’d have TVs installed in their Chevys.
The male Delaney brains, however feeble, somehow had the capacity to memorize acres upon acres of sports trivia (stats, scores, winning plays, all-time award winners, disqualifications, etc. They’d recite it with an odd mix of pride and a shrug, a sort of victory lap with head bowed, one fist in the air, not two. Naturally, they looked down their sweaty noses at the pantywaist college-boy brother-in-law who had no interest in games.
Raised a Unitarian and currently a devout nothing, Brian was further shunned by the Catholic clan. Rolling with the punch of a wedding Mass, and paying for parochial school wasn’t enough, especially for Ma Delaney. According to her, Brian was speeding toward an eternity in hell unless he joined the Church. And as Ma pointed out, eternity is an awful long time to burn. “A billion years ain’t even a scratch on eternity’s keister!” She dared him to hold his hand over a lit burner for one minute to see how that felt. “Just go and try it. And that’s only your hand and only for a minute. Imagine that pain all over your entire body – for eternity!” One afternoon, Joan’s oldest brother, Joe, took Brian aside at a family barbecue and said, “Why don’t you just get with it? It won’t kill you. Don’t be a douche, join the Church. Heck, you’ll go to heaven, for cripes sake. And it’d make Ma happy.” He punched Brian on the shoulder and walked away, ending their man-to-man talk before baffled Brian could utter a word.
There was another time Joe attempted to relate to Brian, while a Bruins game blared on TV. Joe said, “I sorta see football like ballet, only not for ladies or homos.” On one hand, Brian appreciated this clumsy attempt at bridging the Grand Canyon with a single two-by-four. But on the other, he was flummoxed, could only respond with a grunt before Pop Delaney shushed them.
And that morning Ma broke the customary distance she placed between the two of them, took Brian aside, and said through tight, dry, bloodless lips, “You know, me and the mister don’t think we’re all high and mighty ’cause we ain’t got no degree. Hiram had to quit school to work. And I mean work. In a factory, not pushing a pencil. His father died when Hiram was sixteen, crushed by that machine! And all them kids! They needed food on the table. Hiram was the oldest. A degree don’t make the good Lord love ya! We’re fine! At least we don’t walk around actin’ like our you-know-what don’t stink.” With that she snorted and scooted away.
The first time Brian and Joan stayed at the Delaney’s, shortly after their honeymoon, but before they’d bought their own house, they slept in the den, on the pullout couch, after brushing away stray peanuts and Frito bits. Still tossing and turning at 2:00, Brian turned on the lamp and tip-toed downstairs trying to find something, anything, to read. That meant The Boston Herald. He brought it upstairs and tried to make a meal out of this stale crumb. Disgusted, he tossed the rag aside, knowing the only reason that Joan’s family got a paper at all was for sports, cartoons, and the advice column.
Jesus fucking Christ, how did a Wellesley gal emerge from this primordial ooze!?
Pop Delaney, Hiram, was the thick bottom layer of that ooze, the lord occupying his throne, a worn Barcalounger, in front of the twin TVs, pouring peppermint schnapps from a gallon bottle into a shot glass. His twisted and angry mouth swallowed the sweet swill while he pontificated about Joe McCarthy. “He rousted them DC Reds, busted him some State Department ass, that’s why them bastards cut him off at the knees, ’cause he gave them commies hell! If you ask me, we should’ve made him the goddamn president! Hell, we should’ve crowned him the king of this once-fine land and called it a goddamn day!”
Why, Brian wondered, does the old turd bother with the formality of a glass? Why doesn’t he just guzzle the vile slop straight out of the bottle? Or use a straw? Brian loathed that furious pink face, grotesquely wizened by decades of alcohol consumption and the eternal flame of a Pall Mall between his right index and middle fingers, his digits stained deep-ochre to the knuckles. Hiram would hack and wheeze, then light another cig, and prattle on about the great god, McCarthy. Or Nixon. Or Agnew. Or, oddly, JFK and RFK.
Once, trying to crack Hiram’s armor, searching for a chink, desperate for some sort of entry point, Brian mentioned his own avid admiration for Bobby Kennedy. The old man simply stared at, or through, or past, or around Brian, said nothing for a full minute, before asking Brian which team he favored in the World Series. Dismissed!
There wasn’t anything about Hiram that Brian didn’t despise, from the top of Hiram’s wiry red and white flattop to the soles of his scuffed black work-shoes to the whistle when he pronounced an S.
“If Tailgunner Joe was president today, we wouldn’t have them looters and rioters running loose in the streets – or on the campuses! Burns my biscuits! We give them black bastards everything, hand it to ’em on a silver platter, and what do they do? They thank us, the hardworking taxpayers, by burning everything to the goddamn ground, that’s what! Worse is these so-called students. I can understand the jungle-bunnies doing what they do. That’s what they do. But these stinking rich candy-ass students is what really fries my ass! Send in the National Guard to bust some heads, goddamn! Shoot to kill, goddamn! Show ’em who’s boss, goddamn!”
Often, at some point in the monologue, Brian winced to a CRASH from upstairs, his teenage lunkheads horsing around with the Delaney men, all in that sporting fun unique to muscle-bound morons and rabid hyenas. Ma Delaney, bunion-distorted feet propped up on an ottoman, would raise her Bud tall-boy, smile and quip, “Didn’t need that vahz!” Or, “Win-der busted? We could use some fresh air in this jernt!”
How could she be such a doormat? She in her drab and ill-fitting dress, her home trashed by these apes? And she makes light of it? Looking at at Ma, Brian could see what Joan was going to look like in time, his stomach souring.
Sunday dinner at the Delaney’s was boiled hot dogs in Wonder Bread buns highlighted with taxi-yellow mustard, served on paper plates, eaten around the game (or games) on TV, Hiram breaking wind often and loudly, each time Ma Delaney, smiling an idiot’s grin, holding up her beer can, shouting, “Yeah!” To which Hiram raised his glass in her direction, eyes still pinpointed on the TV, yet gentlemanly enough to acknowledge her admiration of his prowess in effluvia. The dinner vegetable was a big bowl of Stateline potato chips, dessert an open box of Oreos. Help yourself!
He washes down hot dogs, boiled hot dogs, with peppermint schnapps. How? How can he do that?
In better weather, Brian would sneak out to the backyard and smoke a Tareyton, or go for an aimless walk around the weary neighborhood of clapboard houses in need of paint, maybe meander down to the shore, looking across the Atlantic, wondering if he should attempt swimming to Spain. The worst that could happen would be death by drowning. Or sharks. Not too shabby, considering. And if he made it? A lifetime of Mediterranean siestas, fiestas, and a female flamenco dancer in knee-high black boots, high-flung hands click-clacking castanets, breasts thrust forward, dark eyes closed, a crimson rose clenched in sharp white teeth, a haughty curl to her fulsome lips. A thought. Then he tossed his cig to the sand, trudged back to the Delaney dump, hoping Joan and the brood would be ready to leave.
Why did I marry Joan? Because no one else would ever have me. Me, Brian, the eccentric wallflower.
The pre-marital sexual life with Joan was limited, no “going all the way” permitted. Before her, he had managed to, at least, lose his virginity.
Athens, in the service, drunk, dragged along from the packed and noisy bar to a side-street cat house with his army buddies, he was a piece of debris in their tow. In all honesty, he couldn’t claim to have enjoyed the experience. In fact, it was a sweaty, clumsy, confusing, if mercifully quick, bout. Yet the deed was done. He was, technically speaking, a man. And the Greek pro-girl, a few bucks the richer.
Joan. She was the best I could do. And early on, there was a magic, of a sort, a hint of romance, a fighter jet skirting the lower ionosphere of… love. (Or an intense like.) But if I had any idea of where it would ultimately lead, I would’ve remained a bachelor, turned gay, joined a Tibetan monastery. Or the French Foreign Legion. Anything but waking each day to her dull, insipid, kewpie doll face, and the incessant racket of our lousy offspring.
It was in a motel in Sioux Falls, Iowa, around one in the morning, Brian and Louise in bed, drinking red wine, sharing a joint, that he declared he was going to do it, he was going to write The Great American Novel. He smiled, “I have balls!”
Louise said, “You know what? Tomorrow morning let’s go out and get my guy a brand new portable typewriter, a ream of paper, some carbons and a few spare ribbons. Then you can get to work! You’ll be famous! I just know it, darling!”
By noon, while Louise lounged poolside, Brian twisted a fresh piece of paper into a red Olivetti and said to himself, “Go! Do it, man! Spill! Ding-ding!” He commenced typing, loving the clickity-clack rhythm, like castanets in the hands of his mythical Spanish beauty, of the metal letters punching black into white paper. Let it flow, tell it! He would create a portrait of a man, a good man, not a saint by any means, but a good man, married to a flabby shrew, living in a sterile seaside New England town with their little monsters: a tale that would, although specific to its time and place, operate as a metaphor for the human condition, and slap a j’accuse to the face of the establishment. The shrew’s name? Jean. The protagonist’s name? Ben. No, too close. Well, just go with those names for now, this is the first draft. There’s plenty of time to fussbudget later. For now, just write it, man! Tell your story!
He drank some good, strong, black coffee and took a toke.
He became both jangled and dreamy. He stretched, attempting to get his elbows to touch behind his back. Then he thought, “Go for it, man! Go for a thousand fucking pages! Go!”
A dust jacket swam before his eyes, something serious and abstract, maybe a type treatment, no corny illustration. Then he drifted into a daydream about his author photo. He’d glare at the lens, frown slightly, fist chucked under chin, maybe a pipe in his mouth, tweed jacket, paisley tie and of course, his trusty horn-rims. Actually, no pipe. Too cliché. And he’d hold the glasses, the end of a stem in his mouth, while he scanned the distance. And skip the tie, just a dress shirt with the sport coat. Or, better yet, a long-sleeve safari shirt, no jacket…
A title sprang to mind, “Repent, Said The Jester.” Not bad, not bad at all… We’re off to the races! Where do these ideas come from?
He took another toke, stood up, paced about the room and envisioned “Repent, Said The Jester” by Brian Stanton reviewed in The New York Times, The Partisan Review and The New York Review, backcover copy by a renowned author trumpeting it as the most important novel in a generation, the book that blows the lid off all the stinking suburban American hypocrisy and the meatheads in big chrome-mobiles who populate it while peasants around the globe struggle and starve and dodge our napalm…
Then he thought about his faculty pals back on the Cape. Boy-o, if those milquetoasts could see me now! He rubbed his hands together, then sat down and typed away, Cheshire cat grin plastered on his face.
Thinking about Louise and his intense feeling for her, he wondered if he loved her just because she was so beautiful. Then he thought, if she lost an arm, I’d still love her! In fact, she could lose all four limbs and, still, I’d love her! I’d stick with her, I’d prop her up, make her comfy with pillows, feed her, tend to her! Somehow, someway, I’d find the words to make her forget the pain, to make her laugh again. I’d kiss her and adore her!
For the first time in Brian’s life, death was something to dread, and not his own mortality. A world without Louise would be like the Milky Way doused, as if the third pillar of the cosmos were yanked, infinity collapsing into itself. He’d known death. Both his parents were dead, and a good faculty friend, John Farrah, keeled over one day in class, smacking the linoleum with his face, dead before impact, the victim of a massive coronary. Those deaths left Brian sad and shaken, but life marched on. A world without Louise, however, was unimaginable. He planned to dedicate his first novel, all his novels to her. Each time it would read the same: “To Louise Alverada, with my profound and eternal love and gratitude.” Why not? A kiss from this princess had turned the toad into a man, an author.
In a few hours he had five pages. He looked them over. Maybe it was due to his hangover, but the paragraphs lacked sparkle. They were okay, but… He crumpled them into a wad and tossed it in the waste basket just as Louise returned. She stood behind him while he sat before the typewriter, first kneading his shoulders, then running her fingertips through his thinning hair. “How’s it going, my little Updike?”
“Great! Fine, just getting focused, the juices are starting to flow. Back in the saddle again!”
Brian loved the sex with Louise. It was wild, the other end of the spectrum from Catholic Joan and her rules about what the Church would, and mostly would not, allow. With Joan, sex was something tidy and tedious, ruled by centuries of decrepit Vatican City male virgins. In bed he could practically see black-robed priests in the room with them, peering through the dark with infra-red eyes, voyeuristic vultures. Louise, thank God, was an urban sophisticate from a long line of radicals and freethinkers. And she was raised in Frisco, not on Cape Cod! Most importantly though, she dug his jokes. The sort of sardonic humor Joan tsked or rolled her eyes at, made Louise bellow. He lived for that hearty lioness roar.
One afternoon, when she was out running an errand, he wept with joy sitting in front of his little typewriter.
They rolled into Laredo as the sun was setting, the sky vulgar with streaks of orange and purple, pink and chartreuse. Strolling the streets of the Old West, they marveled at just how gaudy Mother Nature can be. In a saloon they bellied up to the bar, ordered shots of whiskey and tossed them back like cowboys. He hugged her to him, close. They made out like teenagers.
Later, in their room, in the wee hours, Louise sleeping, Brian got up and crept out the door, walking the black streets of Laredo. Coming upon a park he went in and, in the deep empty shadows, found a spot and lay down, his face buried in grass. He inhaled deeply, intoxicated by the alcohol still coursing through his veins, his love of Louise, the clean smell of the earth, and the fact that he was here, so far from Cape Cod and Cape Codders, by himself, in a park, at night, precious Louise a short walk away, sleeping.
They spent a week nestled in Laredo, at the Sunnyside Hotel, and he’d managed to write nearly two-hundred really good solid pages, the first six chapters. It was inspired and trenchant stuff. He was delighted. The novel seemed to be writing itself, he was merely a conduit who sat at Mr Olivetti’s magic machine translating the universe into something a 20th century intellectual could devour with joy. It was there, in Laredo, that he finally felt both confidant and eager for Louise to read “Repent, Said The Jester.”
On the bed, lying on her stomach, feet pointed ceiling-ward, her first remark was, “Are we wed to this title?”
“I was also considering, ‘Waiting For The Men To Die’.”
The next evening, while he was brushing his teeth, he overheard her sigh, “Well, a good editor can work miracles…”
In bed, the lights out, she said, “Sometimes one needs to look at everything from an entirely different perspective, like a 45 on 33. You know, like when you play a 45 RPM record at 33, a song like Rosie and The Originals’ ‘Angel Baby,’ and, in the flick of a switch, that high lonesome voice becomes a world-weary basso profundo. And that odd hesitation in the instrumental break? It transforms into this vast gulf where you’re suspended like some sort of trapeze artist without a net, the crowd holding its breath in fear and anticipation. Sure, they’ll cheer if you make it to the end, safe and sound, but what they really crave, in the pit of their nasty little cobwebbed hearts, is to see you fall. They’d share a collective orgasm at your gruesome splat. Anyway, an entirely different perspective, Alice’s looking-glass. The I Ching. You know…”
Brian didn’t know. Not from 45s or rock ‘n’ roll combos or the I Ching. So he paused, a little too long, then said, “Well, I have been looking at everything – everything – afresh since I first saw you. What is it you mean, exactly?”
“Oh, nothing. Come here, you…”
It happened a week later, their first morning in Vancouver, around eleven.
Brian had gone out to get a paper and was loving the day. The sun, a dab of butterscotch, set high contrasts; a crisp breeze encouraged his step as he admired this city. All the buildings were so tasteful, whether modern or antique. The entire city looked as if it’d been art directed for a movie titled, “The Perfect-In-Every-Way Town.” Canada! You won’t find Canadians invading countries! Quite the contrary, they’re only too happy to accept our true heroes, those boys who are brave and smart enough to bail on an illegal and immoral war. Canada! Our good twin!
Louise and I should settle here, an apartment in Vancouver and a place in the country, maybe get some horses, cats, and a golden retriever. I’ll get in touch with Joan. And a lawyer, get the ol’ divorce ball a-rolling. If nothing else, I should get my ID stuff. She can have the house, the bank account. Fuck it, I’ve got my freedom! I’ve got my balls!
He returned to the Barclay, humming as he took the stairs two at a time to their third floor room, a folded copy of The Sun in hand. He unlocked their door to find the white envelope staring at him from the ox-blood bedspread. Something was odd, he’d sensed it immediately, even as he shouted, “I’m back, darling, dearest darling!” There was no evidence of her except a lingering scent. He opened the envelope. Inside were ten one-hundred dollar bills, nice and crisp, and a note that read, “I’m off! It’s been swell, but I may have misjudged? I find good-byes an unpleasant chore for all concerned. Here’s a little something to tide you over until you find your footing. Cheers, Louise.”
He drew back the drape and looked out the window, down on the parking lot. Her Jag was gone. He closed his eyes, shook his head, and looked again. But still no car.
That butterscotch dab was swallowed a big gray cloud as he sat on a corner of the bed, rubbing the envelope between a thumb and index finger.
–J. D. King