This bed is a wreck. I've been lying here all day watching CNN.
Frankie shut down the vet office where she works part time and jumped in
bed just in time for a special edition of Crossfire, a stinking
screaming madcap mess of a show. Our two kids are somewhere in the
house, doing God knows what. It's early December, the night of the
Supreme Court's Florida recount decision in the case of Bush v. Gore. A
decision is at hand, we are told.
I surf over a few channels and punch the contrast button on my new
universal remote until Ashleigh Banfield's cheekbones have more
definition. Ashleigh is all about eyewear. Her sleek frames look
dramatic. She's the perfect combination of sex, faux intelligence, and
unavailability. I like the shadowy way she looks in this new light, the
upward thrust of her savage chin. When MSNBC goes to commercial I mute
the TV, flip over to Fox, and follow the crawlers.
On her left hip Frankie sports an Animal Planet tattoo, her latest
work. In bed with us are some red fruit roll ups Frankie filched from
Charles' private lunch stock, a box of cheddar Goldfish, two half eaten
strawberry Pop Tarts, an empty quart of Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey,
Frankie's black Wonder Bra, my white boxers, and asleep at the foot of
the bed, our miniature Schnauzer, Sadistic. We've got our legs tangled
up on the bed, over, under, over, in that way that couples sometimes do
to keep warm. The black and white sheets are long since gone, twisted
and hanging from the sides of the bed like capsized pirate ship sails.
Frankie reaches over and grabs a bottle of Rolling Rock from the
nightstand. She balances on her bare stomach a bowl of buttered popcorn,
just above the diamond stud and silver hoop in her navel, gifts from our
drop out daughter Jade. Jade is nineteen. She dropped out of the
community college down the road—Harvard on the Hudson, she calls it—last
month when she made some serious money setting up a web site for a band
called Nappy Hair. She didn't get me anything. She thinks I have too
many opinions on her life, opinions I am not entitled to. This view is
shared by her ten year old brother, Charles, though for different
reasons. Charles lives in the basement, in an unpainted room I made him
last year next to the furnace, where he runs a neighborhood electronic
boutique bigger than the one at the mall, from which he IMs me when he
needs the latest computer upgrades. Lately I've stopped buying. Jade
hasn't spoken to me for weeks, unless you count some flaming emails.
A reporter waves frantically, a copy of the Court's ruling in his
"Did you know that all of our affairs have taken place during
Republican administrations?" Frankie says. "Yours and mine, Jake. Do the
math since Reagan."
"I am not unaware of that."
"Capital T true. But no foreign affairs," she continues. "We behave
ourselves overseas. Don't we, Jake? We walk the walk."
This is technically true. But I am not paying attention. I'm watching
the action ping pong between the reporter at the Supreme Court, and the
anchor room. I flip over to CNN to see if they have a speedier legal
"Hey, leave it there," Frankie says. She bumps me with the beer
bottle, catching me on the kneecap, and pours the rest of her beer into
a Styrofoam cup. I flashback to MSNBC and rub my knee. We're in the
It all seems so wonderfully wacky. It's crucial and momentous and
absurd all at the same time. But I dread what comes after the show is
over, the old assurances that don't assure anyone, and the updated lies.
Everyone has seemed so confused and uncertain the past few weeks that
it's made me feel better about my own life, like I'm not the only one
who is lost. Before the election I had felt exhausted, like I'd been
heaving around an entire evil empire of my own. But ever since Katherine
Harris and her scare 'em makeup, the butterfly ballot, swinging chads,
dueling lawyers, and the Bush brothers I've lightened up and been able
to laugh again, letting things go at work and at home and not worrying
about what comes next. If the big boys in Washington and Tallahassee
were making it all up as they went along, I featured, that might work
for the rest of us.
But now that the end is in sight I feel anxious, like the balance is
tipping away from the unknown back to the known and I don't like the
known one damn bit. I'm tired of Frankie, tired of her increasingly
manic ways of getting my attention. I'm tired of me being tired with
Frankie. I'm tired of our kids never missing an opportunity to point out
to us our parental failures. I'm tired of the smallness of our dreams,
what we've settled for, tired of our house, our cars, our things, our
safe little domestic nut, tired of the lies and the viciousness at work
required to keep this sick enterprise going. I feel shot. Business as
usual begins again on Monday, and business as usual is stupid no matter
how you dress it up. At work my job is to make people money, and people
with more money just get more stupid. I wanted something to distract me
from the smallness and stupidity of my life and the election comedy had
provided it. I'm guessing that Frankie is feeling this too because the
past few weeks she's been as restless as me.
When they finally figure out that it's Bush—and it's clear that he's
really going to get the house, the cufflinks, the plane, the whole
enchilada—Frankie goes jihad. She throws her beer at the TV, missing it
by a foot and a half but waking Sadistic, who growls loudly at me, then
jumps off the bed and laps at the beer where it has puddled on the
floor. Frankie then turns to me and tells me the following three things:
she's had enough with this country; she's thinking of doing the bag boy
at the grocery; and maybe we should ice the marriage.
Before she beats me to it I volunteer to leave.
I quit my job at the brokerage and book a flight to Denver to see my
friend Henry with the idea of staying out there until something,
somewhere, begins to make sense. Things didn't go the way I had hoped at
the brokerage, where I am regarded as an ex-college professor too smart
to make any real money and a wise ass to boot—a pretty accurate
assessment. Jade and Sam have been sending me hate filled emails for
months, and I need some time away from them too. Seeing Henry is perhaps
not the best idea in the world, since he's had problems of his own in
the marital department, and pretty much every other department, enough
to drive him to drink. But it's time for my annual early season
Telluride ski trip with Henry and I like the idea of staying on schedule
even as things are slipping their moorings. So I call Henry, pay the
bills for Frankie, sell 5,000 shares of Cisco, and get a room in the
city for the night. In the morning I take a taxi to LaGuaurdia.
The plane is packed. I have an aisle seat. My fellow citizens are
stuffing bags, coats, hats, cameras, guitars, tennis racquets, books,
briefcases, and backpacks into the overhead compartments. I get bumped
on the shoulder three times by late passengers on their way to the rear
seats, even though I am leaning over as far to the right as I can. The
woman next to me asks if I would mind if she puts her laptop on the
floor under my seat, as she has no more room under hers. Just till we
get airborne, she says. I oblige. A slim flight attendant whose name
plate says Julian asks me to kindly put my legs under my seat. I place
my feet carefully on top of the laptop. Just before takeoff another
flight attendant, a large woman with flaming red hair who appears to be
able to channel the voice of Ethel Merman, slams the bin above my head,
shoots me an aggressive smile, and asks me to fasten my seat belt,
please. I take that opportunity to order four vodka tonics. It is nine
o'clock in the morning.
An hour later, Ethel and Julian come rolling up the aisle with the
beverage cart. My drink order apparently is the talk of the plane. I
peel a fifty off my clip and order up rounds for everyone who wants one.
I get plenty of looks and one taker, the laptop lady next to me who's on
her way to rescue her sister Georgia from a bad marriage.
"Married five times, my sister."
"What's her secret?" I ask.
"Oh, you're bad," Ethel sings. "You're soooo bad."
"I'm waiting for Mr. Right, too," Julian says. He breaks into song.
"I'll know when my love comes along." Ethel harmonizing at the chorus,
her voice low and supportive. There is scattered applause. Julian does a
supermodel pout with his exquisitely tanned, elastic face.
"He'll come along, honey," Ethel says. "Soon as you ditch Mr. Wrong."
"I'd settle for Mr. Wrong," Georgia's sister says. "Long as I get the
house and the dog."
"I got the dog, honey," Ethel says, "My husband Harry. Took me years
to housebreak him, but I got him right where I want him now, believe you
"Oh, no," Julian says, but it's too late. She breaks into an
impromptu and very un-Ethel Merman like rap, bobbing and weaving and
using a can of diet Coke as a mic. "Yessiree, I said I'm over here and
I'm fifty three, and since nineteen hundred and seventy three, he's
chained there to the Tee-Vee, I said you know it's true, I'm free to be
me, but my righteous bitch can't get up but to pee."
"Oops," Ethel says, suddenly self-conscious. "Sorry, got kind of
carried away there, folks."
"That's a big amen," Georgia's sister says. "But I know what you
mean. Mister Sofa, I had one of those units. Horizontal Jerry used to
keep me in coins. He was more reliable than the Denver mint. That man
lost a small fortune in coinage. He had all denominations. He was all
the time wearing these Dockers, you know the ones made specifically for
the big butted man?" Julian breaks up, starts braying uncontrollably,
and then covers his mouth. Ethel reaches over to high five Julian. She
clips the fifty to her name plate. I watch them roll down the aisle in
tandem, a tag team on wheels.
"I'm serious. I used to fill a jar after every Monday Night football
game. How do you think I raised this plane fare?"
I nod sympathetically to Georgia's sister, and mix her another drink.
The laptop lady's name is Lucinda. She has some advanced views on TV
which she feels compelled to share. I'm only too willing to listen. It
is a long flight, and Ethel is keeping us in tiny bottles of vodka.
Lucinda's favorite daytime TV is Jerry Springer, the one with Mini Me
and the midget sluts.
"I don't watch it much," I say, "but I do like the way they put those
captions at the bottom of the screen, you know how they do that? It's
the new Tolstoy. 'Happy kids who eat dirt.' 'Says his brother's sister
is a slut.' 'Slept with his mother's analyst.' Who writes those things,
anyway? I love those. They're like little truth pistols."
"Well, cap guns."
"I know what you mean," Lucinda says. "Springer does the whole
trailer trash encyclopedia, A to B. His staff must be filled with
geniuses. I think that's where Tarentino got his start. Or maybe it was
James Carville, the cue ball headed guy who got Clinton elected and
dissed Paula Jones."
"Uh huh. So, did you see that new cop show?"
"You mean the one with whatshismug? God, I love that show! Who would
have thought that guy could act? I mean, I thought he was funny in that
shitcom, what was it called?"
"Married But Slutty?"
Lucinda punches me. "Yeah, that's the one, the one with the baby
sitter slut girl. Used to watch it all the time. But Jake, this guy is
unbelievable in this new show, I swear. He's the Big Irish. He's making
the old New York cop thing new all over again. The writing is perfect,
and it's got this slick, tricked up editing, so fast your head is
spinning, and if you blink you've missed the good lines, the throwaway
asides, but they keep coming up with more, faster and faster. It's like
roller coaster TV."
"It's the light. That's what makes the show. They've got this
bleached out, blistered, flash bulb light with the deep shadows, it's
light like we've never before seen on TV. I mean, in a previous life I
used to make movies and I played around with light forever, out in L.A.
where God created light. But this overexposed look they've got going in
this show, it makes New York look like Miami Beach except with
character, and when they do an inside shoot it makes it look like the
characters crawl right off the screen into your room. It's just
"Did you see that scene he did with his brother that's dying, and he
arranges to take him to the museum?"
"The planetarium. Yeah, I saw that one, when he's telling the brother
about how good and decent cops can be, how this one partner he rode with
for just two weeks fourteen years ago set all this up at the
planetarium, a special showing just for the brother, who's in a
wheelchair, and they have the motorcade procession down Central Park
West, and it's snowing, and the whole scene looks like it's taking place
inside one of those snow globes that kids play with at Christmas."
Lucinda freshens her lipstick with a pocket mirror she digs out of
her purse. Her hands are small and plump, like the rest of her, and seem
friendly to me for some reason, like they're an extension of her brain,
the visible part.
"NYPD's gotta love this show," she says. "If anyone's watching. Helps
their image. Redeems New York's finest."
"Yeah, no broomsticks in rectums, no one shot 41 times. Complete
absolution for Rudy and the boys."
"Not quite. But the big Irish cop this guy plays is just
astonishing," Lucinda says. "He looks dumber than his lunch pail, but
he's smart as a whip, and cagey. He's about four steps ahead of the FBI
and the street scum, the wacky Russian bad guys, everybody. But the most
startling thing is his ability to feel, to be intimate. I mean, it's
shocking for a guy who looks like that and who does his kind of work,
and it catches you off guard. He's just a quivering mess of pure
feeling. It's the way he connects with people. When this guy loves you,
you know you've been loved."
"Exactly. That's why that scene with the dying brother is so
powerful. It takes balls just to put a scene like that up there, it is
so cliché after all the hospital shows, but this scene is truer and
cleaner emotionally than all of them put together. It's just so weird to
be able to use the words truth and honesty about a TV show, but it's all
there. You can see that he's just raw with grief and sadness but he's
willing himself to go on, to keep things in their place."
"Well, he wants to keep everything in place, maybe," Lucinda says.
"He wants to keep the status quo like we all want, but he knows he's
losing, it's all slipping away from him, and he's fighting for all he's
worth. It's a fierce fight he's putting up, and he's ferocious and
dedicated to his brother and at the same time trying to deal with the
raft of shit he knows this latest loss will bring."
When she says this I just look at her. I take the compact out of her
hands and hold it up to my face. My eyes look red and I can see the
lines of my face hardening around my mouth and eyes and chin, going
deeper than I remember them. I hadn't looked for a while. I want to get
up and use the airplane bathroom mirror. The mirrors in those places are
always the best. The times in my life when I looked the best were always
in airplane bathrooms. It's the light, soft and recessed behind the
mirror. It almost seems like your face is lit from behind, an old trick
of the movies, to show you what you want to see, a less distressed
version of you. It must be the FAA's way of keeping everyone calm and
Lucinda stirs her drink and looks carefully at me. She looks to be
about 50. Someone has streaked blonde highlights in the front of her
frizzy brown hair, which has short bristles in back, like a boy's crew
cut. Angry hair.
"So, tell me Jake, what do you do? Do you live in New York?"
"Hard to say. I mean, I used to. I sort of checked out today."
"That a good thing?"
"Not sure. Feels good so far. It's only been about half a day."
"Are you married?"
Lucinda does the Jim Carrey elastic face routine, then says, "Well,
alrighty then! Bartend!" She goes sleepy eyed and bobbles her
head back and forth, then raises her glass in mock Dean Martin style.
"No, I mean it in a good way. I have this thing where you have to
tell me stuff first, then I figure out how much to tell you, OK?"
"Look, Jake, we can drop the subject if you want. How about that
Warren Christopher, isn't he a hunk of burning manhood."
"Do not make fun of your elders, Luc."
"How'd you know I'm called Luc?"
"Wild guess. The thing about Warren Christopher is he moves well for
"His suits are well tailored but uninhabited."
"He got his clock cleaned by Jim Baker."
"They did a show on that."
"I saw it. I've been watching a lot of TV. I have this thing for
"You and the entire middle aged male population. My ex-husband
"Your ex-husband likes Ashleigh Banfield? Geez, now I'm getting
"Of course he does. He's still breathing. You men are all alike. He
says it's the way her mouth twists up when she's trying hard to
pronounce something right, that high seriousness she has under all that
fashion eyewear and capes and shit."
"It's the way the wind blows her hair on the live shoots. She's
always got this wispy strand of hair perfectly escaping from her scalp,
always brushing it back with her one hand while with the other she holds
her notes and still maintains eye contact with the camera. She's the
perfect blend of soft news and hard body."
"She's the Edward R. Murrow of our day."
"I'll drink to that," I say. Then I do.
"Ethel," we sing out together. Ethel is making the rounds picking up
peanut wrappers, twenty feet in front of us. She walks up and wags her
finger at us. Then leans over and whispers that we are officially cut
off. We do a mock pout together, and then raise the peace sign. She
slips us another mini bottle like it's a covert op.
"My husband had difficulty speaking. To me, I mean. He was okay on
the phone with his clients and he did real well when addressing the
idiot anchor people at Fox news, but there wasn't a lot left over. He
cited some study that said that men have only 10,000 words a day to use,
and women have 200,000, and he had already given at the office. For him
it was a science thing. He was always watching the Discovery channel or
Nova, remember when that was on? Poor Carl Sagan. He died of a full
self. But my ex, Jerry, he liked the idea of empty space and black
holes. He left me for a woman named Brenda at the office who is a deaf
"Yep. That's one version of the story. I felt bad at first, but then
I started to like it with him not around. I got a lawyer from the local
firm of Dewey Cheatum & Howe who killed his lawyer, and for the past
three years I've felt much better."
"Do you work?"
"I used to teach history at a community college. This one day I just
walked out. It was not long after the settlement with Jerry, I remember,
and I had just got sick of teaching, you know? I started to hate the
dumb little fucks. I had some sweet kids, don't get me wrong, some that
I knew were grateful to be there, and I knew that they tried. They
looked so hopeful and so unbelievably young with their new skin still
tight on their faces. It made me feel kind of sorry for them that they
were there, that they couldn't do any better than us. We were failing
them, it seemed to me. We had some major assholes in that department.
Don't get me started. But the older students that we got were the worst.
These adult learners, as they were called, would sit there defiantly,
daring you to say something they didn't already know, like I was a jerk
and a no account for being at this podunk school trying to teach them. I
had this one guy who thought of himself as the king of all real estate,
but he had never earned a college degree and it irked him. He thought he
was the stuff. He had a buddy in the class and the two of them would get
the tee hees whenever I tried to talk about anything I cared about, and
it got so that I couldn't care either."
The woman across the aisle from me has a dog in her purse. It's a big
straw purse with flowers on it, like the kind you see in Cancun or
Aruba, one of those places, and a very small dog. This dog is stuck deep
inside the purse so that all you can see is his little brown furless
head. He looks like Dr. Evil's cat. She strokes the dog between his ears
with her fingers and every so often feeds it from a zip lock bag she's
got there in her lap. She introduces herself to us as Florence Best.
"How do you do, Florence," Lucinda says. "This here is Jake. Nice
"His name is Ralph. I take him everywhere with me. He has stomach
trouble occasionally, but if he lets one go, don't worry, I've got some
cleaning stuff in here." She pats her bag proudly. "I got it under
control. Listen, I couldn't help overhearing that you teach."
"That's right," Lucinda says. "Used to."
"Well, I used to teach too. But I gave away all my books. I boxed
them all up and took them to the Goodwill."
"What'd you do that for?"
"Damned if I know. But I don't miss them. I don't have a goddamn book
in the house now, it's a book free zone. At the time I remember thinking
that it bothered me that I hadn't read some of them. They were just
sitting there on the shelf unread, mocking me, and the ones I had read I
couldn't even remember a damn thing in them. I figured, what's the
point? I didn't like the look of those books on the shelves, looking
down on my stupid life, making me feel guilty, so I got rid of them."
"That's the spirit."
"I think TV is the thing. I like TV. I don't know why we need books
anymore. Teaching is dead. So is self improvement, it's way overrated,
especially in New York. That's the worst place on earth for the
self-improvement dildos. But back to books, see, this is where I think
Oprah is jacked, and I love Oprah. But it's just so dumb, you ever see
one of those shows? It's just so precious, the way these women sit there
in this phony living room and talk about these books as if we should
give a flying fuck. The whole self-improvement thing, what's the point?
Improve yourself for what, the milk man? The gynecologist? These women
in the audience, their lives are as fucked up as anyone else's, but they
sit there pretending that because they read this book with Oprah it's
all going to be OK, they'll be model citizens tomorrow, they will have
felt the correct things and said the correct things, and their husbands
and boyfriends will in time come to say and feel the correct things. Get
real. I wanna puke."
"Oprah does her best," I say.
"Well, yes, but she's billion dollar product," Lucinda says. "That
makes her different."
"Give me Springer any day. Like I said, I couldn't help overhearing.
It's a much more original show, Springer. Plus it's funny. It's your
number one rated show. Oprah is not funny."
"She can be," Lucinda says. "But she has the furrowed brow syndrome.
She inherited it maybe from Donahoe, but she does it better. She cares
for America and its denizens. And about the many fat people in our
midst. She's the wounded healer. Whatever has been done to you, it was
done to Oprah first, only more so, and she survived to help us on our
"As if I care. Ralph hates her. He tosses one every time he sees her.
And this Doctor Phil guy, where'd they scare him up, he's a freaking
moron! That phony accent and the way he does his hands, chopping the air
while women swoon. He's pathetic. He gets my panties all in a bunch. I
don't let Ralph watch." She tosses the dog another Bonz, which he
catches mid air, before it hits the handle of the purse.
"So, what's going to happen with you and Georgia when you get there?"
"I'm going to take her out to a strip show."
"That ought to help," Florence says, nodding her head thoughtfully.
Lucinda rolls her eyes at me when Florence isn't looking and makes
the universal sign for crazy, circling her pointer finger in the air
around her ear.
Florence gets up from her seat and makes the long walk down the aisle
to the bathroom, tucking Ralph into her bag and zipping it shut.
"But you, hon, I like you," she calls back to me. "We can work on
"I'm with her," I say, grabbing Lucinda by the shoulders and pulling
We watch her walk down the aisle to the toilet, holding the flowered
Ralph bag high as she twists out of the way of Julian, who's coming down
the aisle with more pretzels.
"When we get to the gate we radio the asylum for help," Lucinda says.
"That's a big amen."
"So where did you meet your wife?"
"How do you know I have a wife?"
"Please, Jake. Be serious. It's obvious that you are a man who likes
women. Not all men do, you know. Men who like women get married, sooner
or later. Nine times out of ten. You can look it up. Besides, you're on
the run, and men on the run are running from women, nine times out of
"What's the tenth time?"
"The tenth time is you don't want to know. Jimmy Hoffa country. The
tenth time is the witness protection program. So, what's her name?"
"Her name is Frankie."
"Frankie and Johnny! I love that song!"
"They made a movie out of it."
"Of course, they had to! Too good a song to pass up. Pacino,
Pfeiffer, and the ode to the VCR."
"I met her in L.A. I taught film there and she was a student in the
"She wasn't in any of my classes."
"Who cares. But go on."
"She had the look. The first time I saw her she was slouched against
a wall outside the dressing room of the university's theater, playing
with the ends of her hair. She was in between scenes in a play that one
of her friends had written, some experimental thing the students were
doing as a class assignment. She was still in costume but you could tell
she was bored. She had on a black halter top and a long black skirt that
was slit on both sides. Her legs had makeup on them to catch the light
on stage, and she had the middle panel of the skirt all bunched up in
her lap, so all you saw were these long white legs curled out sideways
under all that black. She'd kicked off her heels, which had long straps
attached to them, and they were lying next to her, one on top of the
other, like snakes."
Lucinda nods her head in an encouraging way. "Yep, you see that all
the time nowadays," she says. "Mostly in the Hamptons, but sometimes in
Prague. So then what happened?"
"I asked her what she was up to and she said about five nine. Then
she said that she was bored beyond belief. I asked could I help and she
said that depends. I said, 'Depends on what?' and she shot me. Right
there, from the floor, she made her fingers into a pistol and pulled the
trigger, then turned the gun on herself and pulled it again. Her tongue
came out of her mouth and she lurched back in convulsions against the
wall, smacking her head hard against the wall when she did that, and
then she rubbed her head for about a minute. She wasn't dead, just
wounded. I watched her for a while, and she watched the way I was
looking at her, and then she said, 'Torment and misery.' I said, 'What
did you say?' And then she said it again, 'Torment and misery, that's
what I'm going to cause you. You might as well know. That's what I bring
all my boyfriends. You can stop now if you want.' I said I'd take my
chances and she said, 'Suit yourself. But don't say you weren't
"Wow. She's a mindfreak."
"A real pisser."
I've known Henry Luce for twenty-three years. We met at a bible
school in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Graduating from high
school we had both lacked direction and were made to believe by our
concerned parents—his in Dakota, mine in Vermont—that a year of bible
school was just the ticket. He was a tall skinny kid with freckles,
chiseled cheekbones, blue-gray eyes, and hair darker than mine. The
combination amused me. I liked him right off. Times have been better for
both of us.
The rest of the year we're guys—we don't call or write or email. But
once a year we meet in Colorado to ski and to get caught up.
I find Henry seated at a table in the rear of the hotel's restaurant.
Beside him is his four year old daughter, Kylie. They sit against a
floor to ceiling plate glass window, looking out over the mountain. The
big cats are already crawling up the front side of the mountain, three
at a time, grooming the intermediate trails. In the morning they'll look
like white corrugated cardboard. The light from the cats bounces
nervously into the trees on the sides of the slope. It is a cold, clear
night, and the stars are shining.
The three of us hug, kiss, and order dinner.
A giant spider plant, menacing in its gigantic clay pot, sways above
Henry's head. A long tendril from the spider is in orbit around Henry,
propelled by a ceiling fan. Sometimes it lands directly in front of him,
so that he looks like he's grown a third striped eye. Every few minutes
it bats him in the head, and he swats it into a new orbit.
Ten minutes into our meal, Henry says he doesn't feel anything.
"Try to understand this, Jake," Henry says. "It's like trying to
tickle yourself. Or jacking off with mittens. It doesn't work. You see
what I'm saying here?"
"I hear what you're saying, Henry."
"I'm not sure you do. My so-called life, what is it, Jake? It's like
the white queen stuck forever on the black square. It's like a search
for the right word in a language you don't quite understand. That, plus
"Jake, my wife left me for another woman. The one before that took
off with a traffic cop."
"I remember that guy. Basic bowling pin build? Head like a cue tip?
Wasn't he the one out there doing Main and Broadway," I say, trying to
lighten Henry up.
"He was the one doing Janice," Henry says.
"Another public service. To serve and protect, that's our men in
I remembered Janice. She taught a course at the university called
"The Future of Women." She had a wide, cruel mouth, turned down at the
corners. She had that way of talking women sometimes get where
everything is a question you don't know the answer to, and a slight
stutter. Whenever I saw her she seemed to have a glisten of cold cream
in the corner of her eye.
"Look Henry, maybe women are not your calling. Maybe you should join
the other team?"
Henry takes my hand across the table, knocking over the salt. He
flutters his eyes and puckers up.
"I thought you'd never ask," he says.
"Glad you're feeling better," I say, jerking my hand away and
straightening the salt. "Look, Henry, I'm sorry, I wish I had better
news. But you have to keep this all in context. I mean, the whole world
has problems, right? We're not that special. Look at the U.N. lady.
Excuse me, Secretary of State. Remember her? Oh, yeah, wait a minute, we
dumped those guys, I forgot. Anyway, think about her daily shit. Arafat
today. Whatshisface tomorrow, the killjoy guy in Jerusalem. All that,
plus the French. You think you've got problems. And now the shrub,
little Bush, a heart beat away from the Presidency."
"Forget all that. Listen to me, to what I'm saying here. Do we
actually know anyone with lives we admire, Jake? Whatever happened to
Troy was another guy we knew from the bible school. Women adored him.
He was from Sydney, Australia. He had the accent, the deep tan, good
bones. The whole time we were there he seemed above it all. He prayed to
the trees, befriended small animals and children, improvised imitation
Saint Francis prayers at dinner, was a cool dresser, and generally fit
in wherever he went. This was not the case with us. The last I heard he
was an investment banker living in New York.
"Troy is Standard Issue," I say. "He has an account with a prominent
L.A. plastic surgeon. He's cheating on his mistress. His assets are
frozen, like his smile. Forget Troy."
"Easy for you to say."
"He's Industrial Strength, an Infomercial. He's not real, Henry."
"So maybe I'm tired of real," he says.
"What are your choices here, Henry?"
"What's happened to us, Jake? I mean, we were these religious kids.
We grew up loving Jesus. We were the original Honk If You Love Jesus
"We skipped Woodstock for God."
"Exactly. We knew where we were headed. Now we don't know shit. How
could this happen to us?"
"It's not so bad," I say. "We've just turned into the people we were
"So who prays for us now?"
"Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. The wrinkled and the dead. The
never lovely and the newly dead. The scourge of the world. How the hell
should I know? I don't do theology anymore."
"My point, exactly. Maybe we need to get back into it, Jake. Go into
religious recovery. Get those sunbeams beaming back our way. Our lives
were charmed back then."
"Come on, Henry, everyone's life seems charmed at eighteen.Youth is
wasted on the young. This is widely known. Besides, what do you think,
we drive up to Schroon Lake, sign back up with God, and everything is
going to be restored to us? You get back your wife, I get my kids to
stop hating me? Be serious. It doesn't work that way. Those people up
there hate us now. We're traitors to the cause. They see us as the
enemy. We'd scare the hell out of them, the way we are now. We're
failures to them. They'd hold us up as examples for them all. We'd make
all the summer camp sermon illustrations, examples of what Jesus meant
by a wasted life. We'd be fodder for the altar call. It's over, Henry.
You can't go back again. We're on our own now. God's not interested in
us. We killed all that, or they did, or someone did. No one's going to
save us now, Henry. We have to save ourselves."
"Then we're in big trouble, pal."
"I know it."
Henry bats the spider plant again, harder this time, so that it
swings out over the table, then says, "It's like we're a bad idea of
God's, a dream of his that went south."
"She woke up and shuddered, that the idea?"
"Yeah, pretty much."
"Then how do you account for Kylie here?" I ask. Kylie is Henry's
four year old daughter from his second marriage. Her ponytail has come
loose, and her long brown hair dangles dangerously close to her uneaten
soup. She sleeps in one of the restaurant's wooden high chairs, her food
untouched on the plate next to her head. Kylie is with us this weekend
because Fran changed her mind at the last minute and made Henry take
her. Something about Nancy's parents coming in from Connecticut. Nancy
is Fran's new love, a conceptual artist from the coast that specializes
in Latino religious kitsch and butter.
"She's part of the dream before it went nuts. She's a reminder of
what could have been. Jesus, Jake, how should I know? Every time I look
at her I see Fran, and weep. One of God's cruel jests."
"I thought we agreed, no theology?"
I liked Fran the best of all Henry's women. A six footer and
naturally athletic, she played first base in a fast pitch softball
league. She liked to hang out with us on our ski trips. She was a brave
liar, but Henry was mad for her. We broke the male-bonding rules for
her, against Henry's better judgment. One year Henry couldn't get off
work and Fran and I drove up to Vail for the day. There was a Billy
Kidd-wear revival going on and we wore the big hats and told the big
lies all day, getting high on grass in the lifts and doing lines of coke
in the restaurant afterwards, with shots of Jack Daniels. We wound up on
Fran's couch at her Denver apartment. This was before she and Henry were
married. One of us came to our senses, I can't remember who, and a sort
of boozy sanity broke out. We didn't officially do it. But it remained,
the sexual tension between us, for four or five years after the two of
them were married. It's a sore point with Henry, and each year we work
harder at trying not to bring it up.
So I'm relieved when an argument breaks out at the table across from
us. Two girls, still dressed in their ski board gear, are waving their
arms a lot and slapping the table. One of them has a safety pin clipped
to her right eyebrow and white pancake makeup that makes her look like
she just walked off the page of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Her
friend, a strawberry blonde with the chest and hoarse voice of a
cheerleader, is a foot shorter but no less lovely. About seven other
girls are watching these two, groaning or applauding as necessary. Every
time the Dracula girl, who is seated closet to us, slaps the table,
Kylie gives a soft moan and appears ready to wake up. Henry looks like
he's getting pissed. The girl gets up from the table and comes over to
"I apologize for that. They're giving me shit over my choice in men."
"In that case, they're gonna love this," I say.
"Ignore them. They're twats. My mother has socks smarter than them.
My name's Anna, by the way. That's me. Anna-the-moi. But you can call me
"Well hello, Clarice," I purr, in my best Hannibal Lecter voice.
"This is my friend Henry."
"How you do, Henry," Anna says, sticking out her long arm in front of
my face and squeezing Henry's hand.
"So, what's the deal," Henry asks. "You girls going to mud wrestle
"You wish," Anna says.
"What's with her," I say, nodding in the direction of the blonde, who
shoots me a disgusting old geezer look.
"Well, it appears that Tiffany's in a snit today," she says. She
looks at Tiffany, then at me, and starts twirling like a ballerina.
Tiffany rolls her eyes.
"What's with the Clarice thing," I ask.
"I'm in love with her. I feel that I am her. That's the whole
thing right there. They can't accept that I love Hannibal."
"The man or the movie," Henry asks.
Anna shoots Henry from point blank. Makes her fist into a gun and
blows the barrel to cool it off.
"Both, silly," she says.
"Uh huh," Henry says.
"I knew someone who used to do that gun thing," I say. "She is no
longer with us. I mean, she is, but not here."
"Whatever," Anna says.
"So what is it that does it for you in the movie," I ask.
"I dunno, I mean, I'm almost seventeen for God's sake, so I ought to
know, but the movie just speaks to me on some inner, unexplainable
level, and I adore it. I've seen it eight times already, once here,
tonight. Before I hooked up with Frog-go." She leers at her friend, does
the tongue, which I see now is studded. Around her shapely neck she's
wearing a choker made from plastic yellow and black police tape. "It
upsets me every time someone criticizes it!"
"They give you major shit, eh?" I ask.
"Exactly. They'll say, 'Oh, it's so gory!' Or, 'It makes no sense,
Anna!' But I don't know, it makes perfect sense to me. I went to see
Silence of the Lambs for the first time in the beginning of January,
so I would be ready to see Hannibal, and I was just so
immediately in love with him. With Lecter, I mean. Dr. Lecter. He's
charming, chivalrous, and, at the same time, daring, precise, more or
"Sure, what's not to like," Henry says.
Anna frowns and gestures to her friends. "You wanna go join 'em pal,
you're more than welcome."
She hooks her arm through mine.
"What's your name," she asks me.
"Jake," I say.
"Jake, when Dr. Lecter's letter to Clarice was read, you remember
that part? Well, my hands were clasped right here in front of me, just
She grabs my hands and holds them in hers so close to her chest that
the hairs on the back of my hand brush her sweater. I do a good job
pretending not to notice. Instead I let my eyes take in the jut of her
mouth, the provocation in her clear blue eyes, her blooming and ghostly
sexuality. Her fingers are long and tapered, with black and silver half
moon nail polish . She is creamy with depraved promise.
"I am just in so in awe of him. In so many ways, you can tell he
loves Starling. Even the way he speaks and writes to her, almost
teasingly. In the museum, on the carousel, I was dazzled. It's
startling, you know? Just him, the way he is, the way he carries
himself, the way he knows her, what's in her heart. And then she tries
to pin his location, you know, to be the good FBI agent, and he brushed
her hair, and then when he kissed her in the kitchen, and she slapped
the handcuffs on, I cried with Clarice. At the end, she lost her love
because of her stupid morals that were programmed into her by herself
and her parents. I was in tears."
Kylie stirs herself awake, finally. Anna smiles widely at her, as
Henry reaches to lift her out of the high chair. Kylie rests her head on
her father's shoulder and closes her eyes again. Henry closes his eyes
and hums a lullaby softly into her tiny ear. I want to lean in to
listen, but Anna reels me back in.
"Jake? Earth to Jake! I mean, I comment constantly on how I adore
this movie, how romantic it is, and how much I wish I could be Clarice
Starling. And now all my friends think I either have serious issues, or
think I'm just weird. 'He's a cannibal! He's old!' They don't see the
movie as it was meant to be seen, a romantic story. No, romance is too
small a word. Whatever. The only part I found frightening was when they
showed the tape of Hannibal attacking that nurse. His ferocity is
"Yeah, that part got me too," I say. "Came out of nowhere."
"Yep," Anna says, getting up now and loosening her grip on my hand,
finally. "That's love alright."
It's awkward with my hand still on her chest. I look at Henry still
humming gently to Kylie, to take my mind off it. But then Anna pulls
away, so suddenly that I fall forward into the table, spilling my wine.
"Sorry. Well, gotta go," she says, and sticks out her hand to shake.
"See ya! Bye Henry!"
"So long," Henry says. Then he says, deadpan, "Hey, Anna? I'm giving
serious thought to eating your friend."
But she's gone, off to the restroom. Henry looks at me with the look
he meant for her. Then he gets up, throws some money on the table, and
puts on his jacket and gloves.
"I'm going to an AA meeting," he says to me. "Will you get Kylie to
The streets are filled with college kids out clubbing. Here and there
couples walk arm in arm, talking in whispers, the women shivering, the
men protective. The town has changed since we first started coming here
sixteen years ago, pre-Nicole and Tom, pre-Darryl Hannah, pre-everyone
with money. It's not Aspen but it's in range. I saw Hannah on the back
side of the mountain once, years ago. She carved her turns earnestly, a
big girl all in white skiing alone on the left edge of one of the more
difficult black diamond runs, blonde hair loose and streaming behind her
in the wind. I waved, then whistled. She smiled and angled off into the
trees, to a huge house hidden in the woods.
I ask Kylie what she wants to do. She shrugs her shoulders and lifts
her palms to the sky. "OK, up you go," I say, stooping to lift her onto
my shoulders. She squeals with delight, and hangs on to my head,
knocking off my Knicks cap.
I'm thinking about Henry, wondering how he'll get us launched into
the Fran discussion tonight, all the possible angles he could take into
a talk I don't want to have. He's not getting his wife back, I'm
thinking. And my kids are probably a lost cause, too. Jade can't forgive
me for an affair I had eight years ago with an English teacher from her
middle school. Ruined for life, she says.
On the edge of town we turn into one of the shops to get warm. I tell
Kylie to duck so she doesn't hit her head, and she giggles as I swing
her down and land her gently on the carpeted floor. It's a perfume and
pottery store, called simply "Telluride." The woman at the counter
smiles, and hands Kylie an oatmeal and raisin cookie. The shop is empty
except for the three of us. Kylie looks at me, then at her, and takes
the cookie with her tiny starfish hands, nibbling on it gracefully.
"She's lovely," the woman says.
"Wish I could take credit," I say. "I've already screwed up a pair of
my own. This one belongs to my friend Henry. I'm just the babysitter."
"Henry is a lucky man."
"You'd have to tell him that. He's lost in grief for his many
failures. But I'll tell him you said so."
"Are you looking for something in particular?" she asks. For some
reason, her question startles me. I pick up a ceramic lamp from the
counter, running my hands down its smooth cool surface.
"Did you make this?" I ask the woman.
"Yes," she says.
I lift Kylie back onto my shoulders. She giggles and grabs my head
again, rocking back and forth like a cowgirl on her favorite horse.
"Would you like me to wrap this one," the woman says, reaching across
the counter to take the lamp out of my hands. This is the second time a
woman has touched my hands tonight, I realize. The wine at dinner is
doing its work. I feel sleepy, and strangely calm. It is so quiet in the
shop I can hear Kylie's breathing above me, can hear the fan creaking
overhead. I don't know what I'm saying.
"Can you ever get them back," I ask.
She looks at me, this woman. She is all in black, a petite woman with
streaked gray hair and very tan skin. I realize she doesn't know what
I'm talking about.
"Kids, I mean. You know, when they grow up, become teenagers, they
learn to hate you, and you just figure that's normal, right? But I've
done some stuff. I behaved badly. I look at Kylie here and I don't
remember it ever being this easy. When Frankie and I were together it
was never easy. We just ran out of things to say to each other. And the
kids never forgave us."
The woman doesn't say anything. Kylie is reaching her hands for the
fan, stretching out as far as her little body can reach. I feel her
spine straighten, sense her muscles straining.
I watch her hands. She has wrapped the lamp in tissue paper, packed
it into a box, and sealed the box with masking tape. Her hands are small
and lined deeply, the nails clipped and clear.
"These lamps are re-creations of lamps from antiquity. It is a simple
design. They have been burning ceaselessly somewhere in the world since
before the days of Moses. You'll need some liquid paraffin, like this."
She takes another lamp from the counter and pours in the paraffin
until it is three quarters full, then snakes the fiberglass wick around
with a small wire, until it sticks out an inch from the top. The lamp is
midnight blue. With a small whoosh she strikes a wooden match and the
lamp lights. She dims the lights in the shop, sealing us in darkness.
Kylie's warm damp breath is on my neck, her baby powder scent in the
small space between us. The only sound we hear is the human noise we
make, three accidental strangers. Outside, on the street, nothing moves.
Silently, the three of us we watch the dancing flame for what appears
like hours. My whole life seems to pass right through me into them, into
this lamp which now lights our faces as at Halloween.
The woman takes my hand in hers and squeezes lightly. "There is
always time," she says. "We are made of time."
We stop back at the restaurant to retrieve my keys. A waitress hands
them to me with a smile for Kylie, still on my shoulders. On the way out
the door Kylie whispers to me that she has to use the bathroom. We
retrace our steps. I stop in the hallway, pondering my choices. It's
been a while since I had to do this. Kylie points to the sign with a
picture of a woman, and I push open the door.
Inside, facing the sink is Anna. She is hunched over, sobbing. I let
Kylie down. Kylie looks over at Anna, who manages a weak smile. Kylie
walks up to Anna and, reaching up to her waist, gives her a child's hug.
The she walks to the last stall and pulls the door closed.
Anna looks straight ahead into the mirror above the sink,
acknowledging me with a nod of her head. Standing close behind her now,
I see the blonde roots of her jet black hair. She talks to the mirror.
"They left me here. Can you fuckin' believe that? Like I'm bad
I rest my hand on her shoulder. "Sometimes people are just cruel.
It's pretty brutal, your age. I hated it. Anyway, I couldn't name you a
person from high school whose name I even remember."
"Why am I like this," Anna says. She turns and faces me. She has
wiped her lipstick off. Her eyes are filled with tears, streaking black
lines into her makeup and tracking her lovely face. The yellow police
tape lies in pieces on the floor next to her boots. She looks like a
cross between a clown and Edward Scissorhands.
"You're worth three dozen of them. Trust me on this."
I open my arms, and she moves into them. We are the same height. Her
forehead gently taps my own. She reaches down and squeezes my hands,
gently at first, then harder. She lets go and pulls at the pockets of my
jacket, hard. I feel her reaching through the pockets with her long
fingers, trying to encircle my waist with the span of her hands. Just
then Kylie appears, reaching up her arms to me. Anna bends down to kiss
her. We do a group hug.
When we reach the hotel Henry is already in bed, snoring. I reach
down and turn him over onto his side. Carefully, I dress Kylie in her
pajamas. Blue and yellow giraffes now cover her little body. I lift her
to my lips and kiss her gently on the forehead. She sleeps on a cot next
to her father.
I undress. Emptying the pockets of my jacket I find a small envelope
from the hotel. Inside is a key card, identical to the one I received
from the reception clerk when I checked in, but with a different room
number scrawled at the bottom of the envelope. Anna's key. I carefully
place the card back into its envelope, and toss it into the trash. Then
I think better of it, retrieve it from the trash and place it on the
nightstand next to my keys.
I brush my teeth, pull on a T shirt and fall into the other double
In the morning what I will recall from my dream is this: A woman is
standing in the corner of the room, watching. It is a woman I have never
known but have seen frequently. She seems within reach of my
outstretched hands, but does not move toward me. When she opens her
mouth to speak, the words are captured by something dark in the room,
and fail to reach my hands, groping for them blindly in the dim light. I
watch her mouth for hours. Just before I wake, she is still rehearsing
Gary Percesepe is at work on a novel. You've just read an excerpt.