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Free-Standing
John Fulmer 

 

We were on the couch watching TV, and Rose, surfing through the channels, landed on a Bill Bixby biography. Rose is from England and calls cable a “smorgasbord” in a way that means she can’t believe she loves eating that much. And that it’s sinful to eat that much.

I’d just gotten off work--it was late, 2 a.m.--and was running my fingers through her long, thick, curly hair, starting near her ear, and slowly, gently pushing upward, separating the strands. Sometimes I’d snag and have to tug my way through.

I wasn’t thinking about much. Combing her hair relaxed me and I was watching Bixby and thinking: When do you know when something won’t work out? When’s the exact time? And what things--large or small--hold us together? Or make everything fall apart?

I was thinking about that because Bixby’s third or fourth wife came on. I’d lost track. Fourth wife, I thought. Jesus Christ! He looked like a man with no worries. But that’s a dream, I thought. That’s Hollywood. That’s far away.

Or is everything much closer now? I drew Rose’s hair to my face. It smelled of cigarettes. She smokes but only when drinking. With Rose, I try not to think too much and any kind of junk we watch on TV is fine. I tried to remember Bixby’s third series--besides “The Incredible Hulk” and “My Favorite Martian--but came up blank.

Bixby’s wife explained that, during their marriage, he’d contracted prostate cancer. 

Bixby had suffered. Prior to meeting her, he’d lost a young son and fell into a deep depression, holing up in his beach house, seeing no one, barely moving. He’d sat on the deck and watched the ocean for weeks. Then he’d rallied, thrown himself into his work, shrugged off the blues. He’d met her at a nearby restaurant--she was a waitress--and they’d married. She became a production assistant on “Hulk,” which he produced and often directed. His life was full again. Then came the cancer.

“Baby,” Rose said. “You’re always teasing my hair.”

My fingers hung in mid-snag. “I thought you liked it.”

“Baby, I do. Just not right now. If it’s teased, I’ll have to wash it in the morning.”

“You should anyway. It smells awful.” But I stopped. She has lots of  hair to wash. It’s an ordeal.

Anyway, she’s tired, I’m tired and it’s late. I’m night editor at the newspaper, and at work, I wonder where she is. Rose teaches during the day, then goes to bars with friends or out to eat. Am I supposed to tell her to wait for me at home? She’s young, not even 30. I tell myself that men will leave her alone, won’t find her immediately attractive. I didn’t. That took time. I used to see her in a bar downtown. Then one time she turned and, perhaps her hair was parted differently, who knows? She looked like a movie star from the ‘40s, an English import, Myrna Loy, maybe. 

We don’t know each other that well but say “I love you” all the time, as though repeating it makes things more real. And she likes to call me “baby” and “darling.” I was wondering if Myrna Loy was from England when it hit me.

“‘The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.’”

“What?”

“Bixby’s third series.”

“Oh,” Rose said. “Was that from the ‘60s?”

“Can’t remember.” My arm was looped over her shoulder and my hand--the one that’d teased her hair--hung awkwardly, as if unsure of what to do with itself. “Maybe.”

I watched her face--serious, absorbed with Bixby--and thought perhaps she studies me, too. I’m too old for her. I’m divorced and my teen-aged son lives nearby with my ex-wife, both of whom Rose hasn’t met. I know pickings are slim around here but Rose says I’m fine. She teaches contemporary American literature at the college--her first real job--and wants to stay a couple years, do some resume-building. She likes me, she says, because the men at school are too “prissy.”

But she wants to go back home. The college is excellent, but I know, first-hand, this place is boring. Newspaper work’s boring in a university town. Drunken frat boys on a tear, an occasional drug bust, weekly city council meetings--that’s about it. We both know I’m not going anywhere, and it’s best not to think too much, but sometimes we talk about leaving together. Show me around Paris, I’d told her when we met, trying to make it a joke. She’d laughed and said, I’d love to. She’d asked if I’d been abroad. Does Tijuana count? I’d answered and she’d laughed again. She probably wouldn’t laugh today.

Bixby’s wife explained how much she’d loved him and they cut away to wedding videotape. We live far from the ocean, but I could tell she and Bixby were near. They danced together, while behind them, palms trees swayed in the wind. She wore a wreath of tropical flowers and a red shawl. Bixby, in his white tux, mouthed the words to “Lady in Red.”

“Kinda treacly.”

Rose laughed. “Treacly,” she corrected me, prouncing it with an “eek” sound. “Not like ‘Star Trek.’”

“I’ve seen that word a thousand times,” I mumbled, embarrassed. “Never heard it pronounced.”

“In England, treacle is molasses. Very sweet.”

“Then why not call it molasses?” I tried to sound like John Wayne. “Like we do.”

Rose ignored me. She was listening to Bixby’s wife tell how they’d met, courted. Her eyes were open in a frightening way, like those of a china doll. “Look at her eyes. They’re kinda crazy.”

“My God!” Rose said. “I was going to say the same thing.”

Bixby’s wife used California-speak--wellness, holistic--to describe his illness. She didn’t blink and her eyes were large, wide and blue, the color of sky or ocean. You believe the sky and ocean are deep, mysterious, I was thinking, but you look and look and find they’re not; they’re transparent. 

“She never blinks. Look at her.”

“It’s disturbing,” Rose said. “She’s got that deer in the headlights look.” 

“You mean that waitress in the headlights look.”

Rose laughed. Then I laughed at Rose laughing. Then she laughed at me. We laughed back and forth like that, in a way that’s hard to end, even though both parties are afraid the joke’s used up. Then we stopped and I sat there, afraid she might keep the joke going and felt myself stiffen, afraid I’d be unable to laugh. She must’ve felt the same because we were too quiet for too long--bad timing because Bixby’s wife said she’d had to leave him. Dealing with his cancer had “reprioritized her emotions.”

“Till death do us part,” I said.

Rose didn’t say anything. Bixby’s wife said that “dialoging” her decision--in interviews such as these--had helped “heal” her. She never blinked. Occasionally, she’d sweep back her hair, which was straight and straw-like, brittle, as though over-exposed to the sun. Then a commercial came on.

“Her hair’s cursed or something,” I said. My voice sounded funny, even to me. “I couldn’t touch her hair.” 

Rose looked at me curiously. “How do you mean?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

She stretched, leaned into me. “I told my mother about you.”

“You called all the way to London to talk about me?” I said, far too pleased. Of course, I’d never met her mother.

“That and other things.” Rose yawned. “I told her you baked me a quiche.”

“You didn’t.”

“Yes. She asked if you’d made the crust.”

I laughed. I’d been proud of that crust. The first I’d ever made. I’d called my mother for the recipe and it’d come out well. I’d expected it to fail.

“Know what she asked? She wanted to know if it was a free-standing crust.”

I looked at her. “I’m not sure what that is but I can guess.”

“It’s one of our specialties. You make the crust without a pie tin.”

“Like I said, I could’ve guessed.”

“I think she was jealous. Can you imagine?”

“Hmmph.” I sounded disapproving, like some old fart. “I don’t think I’d be crazy about meeting her. Does she always play one-upmanship?”

“Darling, if you could’ve heard her. It was innocuous.”

“Hmmph.” I’d done it again. I couldn’t stop myself. “It’s kinda like asking how much a present costs.”

“She didn’t mean anything by it.”

We watched the commercial in silence, waiting for more of Bixby’s life. I couldn’t tell what they were selling. People ran smiling through a field of wild flowers--purple, yellow, red--and tall, waving grass. I’d never been in a field of wild flowers. It must’ve been about allergies. 

“How do you make one?”

“A free-standing crust?” Rose said. “I learned in boarding school.” It’s elaborate, she said. It has to be molded, prebaked in a tin using parchment paper and a mock filling of dried kidney or lima beans. And when the crust looks solid enough to stand on its own, when it looks like it can hold whatever filling you’ve chosen, it’s taken from the oven and the tin is removed.

“It’s tricky. There’s a point at which you must take a chance. You pour in everything and hope it doesn’t leak.”

I wasn’t listening. I’d started thinking about her in the club tonight, sitting with a secretary from work, a young blonde with long, slim legs. Men hovering around them. That’s why people go to bars. I’d been fooling myself earlier, thinking she’d be left alone. Temptation knocks and knocks and finally you answer.

The commercial seemed endless. A dog joined in, romping through the field. Was it a dog food commercial? I wished Bixby’s wife would return, weird stare and all. I kept thinking about them in the club. I wouldn’t have bothered with the blonde. Not my type, out of my league, ditzy. Something. Some excuse to not give it a shot. Rose with her long, curly hair would’ve been the one for me. But hadn’t I thought she was out of my league, too? The minute she’d turned to me, looking like Myrna Loy or Greer Garson? The commercial ended. A medicine bottle flashed on the screen, disappeared. Allergies.

I snorted. It was supposed to be a fake but came out too forcefully; a fool could’ve spotted it as a lie. “You let me go on and on about that quiche.”

Rose smiled. “You were preening, darling.”

“That’s the last time I cook for you,” I said in a too-serious, mock-serious voice. “You’ve been making these crusts since you were what? Eight years old? And here I am trying to impress you.”

“It was lovely. Very impressive.”

“Prissy, you mean.”

“Darling.”

The biography came back on but Bixby’s wife was gone. After the divorce, he’d again thrown himself into his work, concentrating this time on directing. 

“Wonder if she’s still his ‘production assistant,’” Rose said. 

“Hmmph.” Jesus, I hated myself! “Tell me one thing. Why go through the trouble to make this crust? Wasn’t mine good enough? It was flaky. You said so yourself.”

“That’s just it. I don’t care anymore.” Rose smiled, as though remembering something. “It was a big deal in school. We all worried that ours might leak. So much pressure!”

“Well, you do the cooking from now on.”

“Darling, please.”

“Can you call me by my first name just once? Just one time.”

She glanced at the clock, sighed, draped her bare leg across my lap. “I told everyone about that quiche, Richard.” My name slithered from her mouth, sounding ugly, like someone else’s name. “Everyone at work.”

“Great.” I stroked her leg hair. “They’ll think I’m a fag.”

“Sorry.” Rose picked up the remote, started surfing. “Haven’t shaved.”

I kept stroking. “On some women, when it grows out, it’s sexy. Lots of women in the ‘60s didn’t shave.”

“Not mine.” She kept surfing. “Mine gets coarser, more dark.”

I kept stroking her hard little leg hairs. “That quiche was a joke anyway.”

“How’s that?”

I kept stroking; her hairs felt like bristles. “‘Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.’”

She looked at me, perplexed.

“It was a book, a reaction to Alan Alda.” She still looked puzzled. This time, I sighed. “It’s too hard to explain.”

She smiled, teasing. “Was that in the ‘60s?”

“No, later.”

“Alan Alda,” she said, punching the remote. “Isn’t he that awful man on ‘M*A*S*H?’” 
 


John Fulmer is an editor at a newspaper in Lynchburg, Virginia.