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John Holman

Vacation

I got to Dexterís house about 6:00 on a warm Saturday October evening. His wife Olivia opened the door wearing red Capri pants that looked new, and a white T-shirt and red sandals. She looked like summer and Christmas at the same time, but as I said, it was fall. She carried two shopping bags and clutched her keys in the hand that held her red purse. I couldnít tell if she was coming or going.

"Hey, whatís up?" I said.

"Hey, Ray. Looks like Dexterís here." I kissed her lovely brown forehead and followed her to the den where Dexter sat on a sofa watching TV. He was watching Fran. Olivia tossed her purse on a sky-blue chair and took the shopping bags out of the room, so probably sheíd just gotten in. I stood behind the sofa and looked at the TV screen. Dexter was drinking a tall cornered glass of orange juice, the juice thinned to pale yellow, by vodka I guessed. "Whatís up, Dexter?" I said.

"Home," he said.

There were big stuffed toys positioned on the chairs and on the sofaóa monkey, a bear, a lion, and a big crazy squirrel, sitting up like people. I liked the furniture, large old pieces reupholstered in crosshatched pastel corduroy. Olivia returned in fluffy leopard-print slippers. She said to Dexter, "Why are you watching that?"

I was wondering that, too. It was a big TV, about 35 inches.

Dexter shrugged, the ice moving in his glass. "I donít know what Iím supposed to watch," he said, rather helplessly.

"Well," Olivia said, "I guess thereís no official statement about what to watch, Dexter."

He shrugged again. This was a little funny because sometimes Iíd see Olivia on TV reading government announcements or interviewing someone of local importance in her role as a public relations officer for the state. This would be on the government channel, and sheíd be wearing a dress in a studio while either she or her guest made official statements. So I chuckled.

I sat on the cushion beside Dexter and next to the stuffed bear. The bear was dark brown and had a white ribbon around its neck. I put the bear between us. I had seen some Fran before and I knew it was a stilted show, sketched and loud with canned noise. "Is it good?" I asked. The show had been cancelled, I thought. Anyway, it had to be a rerun, in syndication, to be on at that hour. It was news time on most other channels. Dexter usually liked the news. He wrote a column for an alternative local paper, wry and sometimes mordant observations about politics and race.

"Itís sort of a cartoon, isnít it?" he said.

Olivia went into the kitchen and began bustling about in there. I heard pots clanking and glass clinking. She passed by the doorway a couple of times, pretty. Iíd always liked the way Olivia looked, sturdy and straight with a happy-to-see-you smile, hair that flounced. She didnít look like a grandmother but she was. Their son, Lee, had baby twins. Everybody had all seemed to settle into it now, but at first there was a problem with the boy being so young and with the girl, also, who was even younger and whiteóa skinny, quiet girl who had somehow attracted the boy away from the overprotective Dexter and Olivia. It was so disappointing because Lee dropped out of college during his freshman year to work for the pregnant girl, who herself dropped out of high school to have the babies. They got married. It was tawdry and sad, too. The girlís parents were non-communicative, the father in jail for fraud of some kind, and the mother not too happy about a daughter in love with a black boy. Plus, it seems that Lee had first been dating the girlís older sister. But of course, everybody loved the babies, at least Dexter and Olivia did, and the girl had turned out to be a competent mother. Lee had earned admiration for doting on the girl and the babies, working, and taking a class or two at night. Olivia and Dexter babysat a lot, which explained the plush toys.

Absolutely, the whole thing reminded me of myself, how Iíd freaked out my folks when I got married out of high school. I was envious of Dexterís boy, who looked like he would get to stay married, whose wife really wanted himóthought he was the sun, the rain, and the stars, as Dexter put it onceóbut who nevertheless had ruined a possible football career by ditching the scholarship.

"So, we are going to this game?" Dexter asked.

"Thatís what I heard."

A lawyer who often ate lunch at the hotel where I worked had promised me tickets to the Duke-Northwestern game. Luckily it was a night gameólucky for me but not for the lawyer, who had another commitment, as he put it. I didnít have to work. Actually, I was starting a weeklong vacation. In two days Iíd be off to St. John, V.I., courtesy of one of my waiters, Ella, whose husband worked at a travel agency. They got me a plane ticket for next to nothing and a good rate at a villa. It was a group rate, really, with Ella and her sister and their husbands and two of their friends and me. But Iíd be essentially traveling alone since I couldnít get a date. My girlfriend, sort ofóAlmaóbacked out when she realized it conflicted with her cousinís wedding in Florida. Then I offered to take my cousin Barbara who I thought might like the treat, but she didnít want her daughter to miss school if she came with us, as if missing a week of sixth grade would damage something, and she didnít want to leave Selena with anybody else, not even her father, who still lived in town. Today I figured if my so-called girlfriend wouldnít go to the Caribbean with me, Iíd not waste an effort to invite her to the game. Meanwhile, my cousin Barbara despised football so much that she said any woman who claimed to like it was lying.

From work, Iíd reached Dexter on his cell phone in late afternoon. By coincidence, heíd just gotten in from Chicago where heíd attended a reunion of his Northwestern journalism school class, and was waiting at the airport baggage claim. He didnít really care about the schoolís football team, and I didnít care about Duke, either. But we had tickets, and we hadnít hung out in a while, especially since the babies were born. He told me, "Iím glad you called. Thereís a guy with red mutton chops holding a sign that says ĎGoddamn Motherfucker.í I was getting ready to hop in his limo."

Now, Dexter raised his glass. "Want a drink?" I said no, later. He drank down a lot of the screwdriver and then got up to take the glass into the kitchen. He drank some more and then put the glass in the sink. He didnít say anything to Olivia, but I couldnít see her so I thought maybe she had gone to another room. Then she came into view holding a large yellow onion, and they moved around each other, in and out of view, as if the other wasnít there. Dexter had on his Tina Turner T-shirt, a picture of Tina Turner in a short black beaded dress doing the shimmy on his chest.

I thought that if Olivia was just getting in, maybe she didnít know why I was there. I said, "Hey, O, I only have two tickets, otherwise Iíd have asked you to the game, too." I loved Oliviaís name. It was so beautiful I liked to ugly it up as a joke. I liked to make up alternative O names, like Octagon, Ottoman, Oslo. Occasionally, I stumbled upon another beauty, like Oswego. When I couldnít think of one fast I just called her O.

"Why didnít you ask me first, anyway?"

"Really?" I said.

"What game?" she said.

Then Dexter told her, and she put her hand on his waist as he spoke, and he lifted her hand and kissed it. I turned off the TV and waited outside.

He came out in a little while and offered to drive since I was providing the tickets. I was supposed to meet the lawyer at a sports bar near the campus to pick up the tickets, so I directed Dexter there. In the car, I said, "Iím in an expansive frame of mind." I guess I meant that I was willing to try to be an extrovert that Saturday night, to get out and have some fun.

After a pause, Dexter said, "Thatís a peculiar sentence."

"It is?" I asked.

"Yeah. Expansive yet framed. Out there but with limits. As though you want to be free, but not."

"I get it."

"I know thatís not what you meant, though."

"I donít know." I thought for awhile. Then I asked, "So how was the class reunion?"

"Iím OK," Dexter said. "Iím bald, though. That was sort of clear at the reunion."

"That was clear before the reunion."

"Not to them. They hadnít seen me since I started losing hair. Iíd tried to tell a few of them over the years, in letters and on the phone and what not, making jokes about it, but they werenít used to the sight of me. I kept catching them looking at my head funny, which made me want to put on a hat."

So now I looked at his head. Walnut-colored crown, sparsely gray cropped sides. Heíd started getting his hair cut short a few years ago when the hair was thinning. I guess he could pass for a grandfather now. I was grayer than he was though a few years younger. I was gray in high school. Premature.

"How are Lee and his family?" I asked. Saying that sounded odd to me, since I wasnít yet used to Leeís having a family other than Dexter and Olivia. I was used to Lee being little and playing in the yard with a stick. But Dexter didnít say anything about that peculiar sentence. I didnít think Lee was over twenty yet. In fact, I was thinking it was just about a year ago that the twins were born.

"Fine," Dexter said. "Great. You should see them." He had a big grin on his face. "I bought them insurance. The babies are smart."

The sports bar was a rustic open space with wide scuffed floorboards and wooden tables and chairs, and some booths against the wall opposite the bar. TV screens were unavoidable, mounted on the walls, and they showed an old college basketball game on ESPN Sports Classics, womenís golf, and a pre-game show for the Duke game. I didnít see the lawyer, so Dexter and I took a middle table and ordered beer. Lighted beer signs spaced along the walls blazed color brighter than that on the TVs, brighter than the three old pinball machines dinging in a corner beside the bar. In the back room, people played pool.

"Dexter said, "I come here for lunch sometimes. I think some nights they have a wet pants contest."

We looked around the place for contest announcements. On the table, against the ketchup bottle, was a purple and red plastic card folded and propped up like a tent. It said that Trivia night was Tuesday. A yellow square of paper under the salt and pepper shakers recruited for a tough man competition in a month; $500 prize money.

"You mean wet T-shirt," I said.

"No. Wet pants. Itís their trademark, I think."

"Whatócontestants drink a lot of beer and get locked out of the bathroom?"

Dexter laughed. "Maybe. Or they sit in a bucket."

I laughed then. "Letís ask the waitress," I said.

The waitress had dark maroon hair and dark blue eyes. She wore a tight pink top with a picture of a babyís pacifier on the chest, and frayed wide-legged jeans. She slid about in green rubber flip-flops. When she set the cardboard coasters advertising an expensive foreign beer on the table, and then placed our cheap domestic brands on them, I watched her thin arms and hands and then her eyes and long black lashes. She was beautiful. Pink lips. There was a space of creamy skin showing at the waist where the top and jeans separated.

"Anything else, guys?" she asked.

"Nope," Dexter said.

"Nope. Thanks," I said.

When she was gone, Dexter said, "You didnít ask her."

"Why didnít you?"

"You wanted to know," he chuckled.

I looked to the waitress, who went to the end of the bar by the pinball machines. She picked up a burning cigarette from the black plastic ashtray on the bar top and took a puff. It didnít look like she knew how to smoke.

"I couldnít say Ďwet buttí to that girl."

"Itís wet pants. I think I could say it to her. I think she drinks a lot of milk."

"She certainly has calcium-rich lashes. Her bones look good."

"And her skin," Dexter said.

We drank some beer and watched people come into the room, take seats at tables and at the bar. Pretty soon the place was noisy, people eating and drinking, looking up at the big TV screens, shouting. The lawyer wasnít among them.

"What does the lawyer look like," Dexter asked.

"Male, white, blond," I said. "Round. He has a yellow beard."

Everybody in the place was white, or appeared to be, except us and one of the waitresses, an extra cute young brown-skinned woman with straight red-dyed hair and an amber eyebrow stud. Most looked like college students. Most were male. One guy was standing in a corner taking pictures, wearing a many-pocketed khaki vest and his Duke cap backward. Another guy, really short, went around to tables trying to sell flowers, of all things, spooking the women. The TVs all flicked to the same channel now, the football game.

After a while longer, when the place seemed all sound and light, and we were asked if we wanted more beer, it was clear that the lawyer wasnít coming, or that heíd be so late it wouldnít matter. So we ordered a pitcher and some wings. The waitress seemed happy about that order. "Wings are our specialty," she said.

Dexter said, "What about those wet pants?"

She looked alarmed and glanced down at her jeans, touching her thighs and her butt. "Whoa. Thank goodness not again. Donít tease me, man."

She brought the beer right away, cleared away our empties and set down fresh mugs, all without comment or eye contact. "Enjoy," she said finally.

"You made her scared," I told Dexter.

"Yeah, right. You canít scare girls today. Weíre harmless to them. Which is a problem, because theyíre the only ones I want. Goddamn, what is it about young women, Ray?"

He seemed actually puzzled. Iíd forgotten about the earlier screwdriver, and now, after a couple of beers, young women were a bother to him. I said, "Theyíre pretty, Dexter. Thatís all."

"I still like the women I liked thirty years ago," he said, "when I first got interested. The thing is, women our age, over-forty women, I donít even know how to hold their bodies."

"You been holding a lot of those bodies?"

"I have to hug them sometimes. At church. I try to imagine something more with them, but I canít."

"Olivia see you hugging at church?"

"Olivia. You love Olivia, donít you? I got a skinny women fetish. Thatís recently clear to me. Olivia used to be skinny, remember? Skinnier, anyway. I donít like to hold her so much as I used to." He glanced away from me.

I didnít know the best response. I was very fond of Olivia, all right. I thought she was sexy, but not necessarily because of her size and shape. But not despite it either. Still, the woman I was seeing happened to be young and thin. So I guess I wasnít too interested in hugging church women either.

The wings were served by another person, a guy wearing a knit grass green shirt and with a dull brass bullet in each earlobe. The wings came with giant celery sticks in a boat-shaped white paper bowl, drenched in red sauce, so they were messy to eat. We made a pile of bones anyway.

I felt embarrassed to hear Dexter say what he had said about Olivia. He and I had been friends since high school when he moved to our street with his parents. Weíd become better friends over the years, because he was no longer quite the older boy, and we had in common local college education and not-bad jobs. Other schoolmates had gotten into other things, like the military or crime, or out of town schools and excellent jobs. We liked to talk about sports and politics and point out pretty girls, but the most intimate talk was usually about Lee. Thatís as truly personal as we got, him not being shy about his love for his son, whether he was angry, frightened or proud.

Dexter had brought Olivia home from grad school in Evanston, and I coveted her right away. Of course, I never told him that. And I never told him much about my girlfriends, if I had any. Back when I was married we werenít so close. And really, in all the years since my divorce I seldom brought anybody around him unless she was particularly pleasant, pleasant enough for Olivia. And we never discussed anything really personal about him and Olivia other than his stress at gift-giving times, wanting the sure thing to make her happy.

The noise of the bar rose suddenly as somebody scored a touchdown. Folks in Duke gear and a few in Northwestern shirts whooped and groaned. We watched the end zone celebration, and for a little while I imagined my upcoming trip to the islands, and what it might be like there with Olivia. I didnít imagine much. It would be a one-bedroom villa; I could sleep on the couch. We could go to the beach and restaurants, and drink the rum and dance. It was an unsatisfactory fantasy, fueled by guilt and desire.

"Iíll tell you what bothers me a lot," Dexter said. "Fat women with little breasts."

"Damn, Dexter."

"That doesnít bother you?"

"No," I said, "it doesnít exactly bother me. Itís funny, though."

"How about skinny women with fat legs?"

"Come on, Dexter."

"What? You have to admit thereís something wrong with that."

Whenever Dexter started getting crude, I tried to steer the conversation away. Thankfully, even Dexter considered some comments over the top. We knew a guy who worked at a shoe store and the things he had to say about the female customers made us cringe, forget blush. He made us laugh, too, at him mostly.

I pointed to the TV screen where a Duke player was running long along the sideline. More shouts from the bar patrons. Then the teams traded interceptions. I looked around for the lawyer again, just in case. Then I saw him. He was sitting at a small table against the wall on the other side of the room, several tables ahead of us. He seemed to be scraping his tongue with a long white tool. I didnít tell Dexter because I didnít want to talk to the lawyer now, anyway. Besides, it was hard to believe he hadnít seen us whenever he came in, sitting in the middle of the room as we were. Really, the guy liked to talk too much and assumed a familiarity we didnít actually have. He liked to tell me about his black clientsóyoung car thieves and drug offenders, mostly. He liked to mimic their speech. Once I asked him if he ever had any white clients. He said he did. I asked, "Why donít you ever mimic them?" He laughed and said, "Iím doing that right now."

I glanced over at him again. He was scraping his tongue, hunched over the table, and writing something on a yellow legal pad.

Dexter said, "That could be Lee out there trying to pick off those passes."

"Lee didnít go to Duke, or Northwestern," I said, looking up at the screen. I didnít mean that to sound cutting. Lee had dropped out of decent school, A&T. But it was unlikely that he would have played on TV in college.

"Hell, I know that," Dexter said. "Donít be so literal. Heís such a stupid kid, to be so gifted."

I remembered then the day a few years back when Dexter came over to my house cursing and laughing about Leeís alleged stupidity. He had with him a video heíd found in Leeís room, an unlabeled red cassette that Dexter was afraid to watch, especially at home. He suspected it was porn because heíd found it under Leeís mattress while Lee was at school, when they had bought him a new bed. Yet Lee knew theyíd be switching out the bed that day and he hadnít bothered to tidy up. Could the boy be that mindless, Dexter wondered? So Dexter hid the tape from Olivia and brought it to me for viewing.

It was called Cake Eaters and featured four white couples lounging in an elegant living room after a birthday party, the large white cake partially eaten in the center of the coffee table, and party hats and streamers on the table and floor. A black waiter in a bowtie comes in with a tray of champagne, and then when each person takes a turn describing a fantasy of the perfect birthday, the scene shifts to an enactment of the fantasy, some sexual tableau, including a dominatrix controlling two men. And then two women and a man in a waterfall. Two women in a department store changing room. A dentist and his nurse. A guy in football shoulder pads and a cheerleader. The finale showed the naked party guests smearing cake on each other. The most memorable scene was a womanís jungle fantasy, a blonde asleep on a canopied bed, draped with mosquito netting in a rainforest. A naked black man, the waiter with paint marking his face, shows up and rubs against her through the netting. She puts various parts of herself against him, but thereís always the net barrier, and he finally convulses and then slinks back into the jungle. We watched all of it, sitting on opposite ends of my couch, drinking Cokes and eating popcorn I made when we stopped the tape once. When we were done, Dexter stashed the tape at my house until Lee finally asked for it, said he had to give it back to the kid heíd borrowed it from.

Since then, Dexter and I joked about that mosquito net scene. We called it "romancing the veil," "the veil of love." It became a catch-all reference anytime we perceived some obstacle to somebodyís desire. Later, when Lee revealed that his high school girl was pregnant, we said he had gone beyond the veil. Still, veils are everywhere. That I would have to go on vacation alone, the first real vacation Iíd had ever, a vacation practically given to meówell, that was a veil. That Olivia had met and married Dexter, lovely Olivia who was just my type, perfectly suited to me, that was a veil. That my young wife had left me after two years while I had imagined a happy old-age death with her, that was a veil. I looked to the TV and couldnít focus on who had the ball. The beer was making me morose.

I got up to go to the bathroom, beyond the pool tables. Thatís where I saw the Wet Pants Contest signs, posted on the walls outside the "Gods" and "Goddettes" doors, and next to a framed basketball jersey. Field hockey sticks were mounted crisscrossed on the hallway wall. Women only for the contest, it seemed. $500 to the winner of that one, too. The signs still did not explain how the pants got wet. I wondered were they wet pants or wet underpants that people competed with. On my way back, I was thinking that a dry underpants contest would be just as good, when I saw our waitress delivering another pitcher of beer to our table.

I knew, finally, that Dexter didnít need more to drink. In high school and college weíd survived three wrecks and a street fight caused by his drinking, and each time Iíd started out trusting him to know what he was doing. But in twenty years Iíd rarely seen him drink too much, not since Lee was born. Now I considered that it wasnít Dexterís drinking that was ever so much the problem as it was my trusting him. So, fine, we could get a cab. We could have another pitcher.

I sat down and he said, "You want to meet some friendlier women?"

"Sure," I said. I remembered quickly that I was on vacation, that I was in an expansive frame of mind, and that I didnít really have much of a girlfriend if she wouldnít go to an all-expense-paid Caribbean party with me. I was feeling buzzed with beer, sad and mad. I said, "Hell yeah," although it didnít sound like me saying it.

Then Dexter told me that I had to go to Chicago, that he had found a house there where the women were young and pretty and thin. All races. And they treated you like they loved you. He said that you go in a living room with a cream-colored carpet, and this smiling girl comes out and talks to you, gives you a drink, massages your shoulders, kisses your ear, takes you into a nice bedroom with rose-colored sheets and makes love to you.

I was shocked that Dexter had gone to a whorehouse in Chicago. I had thought maybe he knew somebody from his paper that I could meet. Somewhere nearby.

"She acts like she wants nothing more than to please you, and likes you to please her. She clings to you when itís time for you to leave," Dexter said.

"Whatís her name?" I asked.

"Hell, Ray, you wonít believe it. This girl said her name was Olive."

"Jesus."

"Yeah. That was a problem for about five minutes. After that, I figured it was fine, fitting. She had pretty olive skin. I just wish she were Olivia. I wish Olivia were she. I wish I could really be loved like that."

I poured beer in each glass. I said, "But you are loved, man. Better." Neither of us sounded quite familiar now.

"Just not like that," he said.

Who was, I wondered? It wasnít even love, compared to what Dexter did have. Even I knew thatóI, as the old song says, who have nothing. I drank some beer and considered for a minute why I had nothing. What did I have? A small business, a few friends, a cousin and a niece, a house, a kind of girlfriend, money in my pocket and a little bit in the bank, an ability to want intensely and then to stop. Not bad. Iíd learned about the latter when my wife divorced me. The problem was that I could stop and then start again, too.

The redheaded brown-skinned waitress came through with a big tray of food and bottles, and I had to scoot my chair up for her to get by. She had good form with the tray, a languid, confident quality. She left a delicate flower scent, totally unexpected for a girl in desert camouflage. I watched her with her arms raised, walking loose-hipped in the low-slung pants, watched her bend to dispense the bottles and plates. I went from imagining her working for me to imagining her long arms around me. It was as dumb a desire as any, to want something I couldnít have, given the likelihood that she couldnít want an old guy like me. I wondered why I wanted what was so difficult to have. I wondered if I preferred romancing the veil.

"Romancing the veil," I said.

"Not me," said Dexter. He laughed. "Not in Chicago anyway."

I said, "Yeah, thatís sort of hard to know what to do with."

"Believe me," he winked, "youíd know what to do with it."

"Iím talking about your wife," I said. "And your old self."

"My old self? Ray, I have been this old for fifteen years. For the last five Olivia has been sick of me and I have been sick of that. We have been hanging around for Lee, basically. Now that heís all fucked, and weíre baby-addled grandparents, Iím just living with the postponement of heartbreak. And Chicago hasnít changed any of that. Understand that if Olivia, if she knew, would merely have more reason not to want me."

He slouched down in his chair and turned his gaze back to the TV. A commercial was on. "Are you guys breaking up? Are you talking divorce or something?" I asked.

"Probably. Maybe." He looked at me quickly, then the TV again.

I felt a sudden emptiness, a struggle to breathe. People were up and moving about, bumping into me. Our table seemed the one in the way of all traffic. Out of the shifting appeared the lawyer, who scraped back a chair and sat down. He plopped his legal pad on the table beside the pitcher of beer.

"So," he said. "Been waiting long?" He laughed a long time, so that I started to think the whole thing was a practical joke, involving the game tickets and Dexterís confessions. "Sorry. I know I was supposed to be here, but guess what. I got busy. I lost the tickets. My ex came over with some nonsense about you donít want to know." He stopped. He threw up his hands and said, "Actually, my father-in-law died. Thatís why I offered you the tickets in the first place, but I left them at my ex-wifeís house and I donít want to go back there for them." He looked at Dexter and at me. "Your friend?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "Dexter, this is James Jabowaski, the guy we were supposed to meet."

"Jab," he said. He thrust out his hand to shake with Dexter. "My apologies. Things happen. The gameís not that good anyway, Iíll bet."

"Itís tied," Dexter said.

"The worst kind," the lawyer said.

"James," I said. "Where have you really been?"

"Jab," he said.

"Since when are you Jab? Didnít you see us when you came in, what, thirty minutes ago?"

"Today is my birthday. Iím thirty-fizzle, my nizzle, and Iíve decided that Iím Jab for the rest of my dizzles."

"The rest of your dinners?" Dexter asked. He sat up and squinted at James, but slid back into his slouch, his hands cupped around his beer glass.

"Why are you saying nizzle James? Are you still among the sane?"

"Has he ever been?" Dexter asked.

"I donít know," I said. James was always a bit nutty, someone who liked to laugh and kid about everything and himself. Iíd never seen him away from the hotel when he came to eat, often alone, usually reading or writing something. He always wore a suit and tie, and his professional garb tended to mitigate his jokes. Now he wore a suit but no tie, and he was stranger than ever. The yellow hair hanging over his forehead was twisted into four ratty dreadlock-like strands. He had gray circles under his eyes, which were blood-shot and electric blue behind rimless glasses. Maybe he was drunk.

"Schnizzle, then," he said. "Ray, youíre not married, right?"

"Right."

"What about you, Bud?"

"Wrong," Dexter said.

"Itís Dexter," I said. "Or Dex."

Dexter smiled.

"Todayís my birthday," James said again, and paused expectantly. But we were waiting for him to explain why he had repeated it. Finally we said happy birthday. James said, "My father-in-law died on my birthday. He was my enemy in life, and now in death he hassles me. I was going to the game in celebration of my birthday, but I thought, no, Iíll spend it with my mother. I was gonna surprise her on my birthday. But when I got there my ex-wife was already sitting down talking to her, and that surprised me. They gave me a going over, saying to me, ĎLook at yourself,í which was no celebration at all. Mama asked me to take her to my father-in-lawís house, to visit the family there. All right, I do, and all the while my ex keeps telling me I owe her money. Hell, she makes more than me, and half the debtís in her name. I emptied my pockets. I had $43.27, some salt water taffy, and the tickets. I left everything there on the kitchen table next to pies and potato salad people had brought over. I kept my wallet, though." He slid over his legal pad. "I been jotting down a few notes that come to me since that visit, a draft of my midlife thoughts. What do you think?"

The page was written on with a fat-tipped black pen, the letters printed and square. The heading read: The 4 Freedoms. But it had been amended from three freedoms. There were actually seven items on the list.

  1. Freedom from Sameness (everybody canít be the same)
  2. Freedom of Religion (thereís a lot of them)
  3. Freedom from Religion (I am free from religion)
  4. Freedom from Tyranny
  5. Never get a wife who thinks sheís better than you
  6. Never, never have anything to do with her family
  7. Do not allow women to rearrange your apartment

"What is this, Jab?" Dexter asked.

"Itís what Iíve learned reinforced by todayís lectures and indictments against me for not being Ďright.í" He made finger quotes by his ears. "My mama and my wife, my ex-wife I wish she would understand, and without rights to fuck with me anymore, are in a loose cahoots. I donít know why. My mama still has rights, canít help that, but them together need an injunction in the form of what Iíve produced on this paper."

"What about numbers 5 through 7?" I asked.

"Itís not parallel, I know that. Itís just a draft."

Dexter said, "I take it you lost the desire to hug your wife."

"And my mama, too, now," James said.

"Thatís too bad," I said. "Iím sorry."

"Yeah, it has put me in a bind. Especially on my birthday. They told me my

breath stinks. They told me Iím bound for hell. But the real sonofabitch is my father-in-law who died today. He always makes me feel like shit."

"My marriage is dissolving," Dexter said.

James and I stared at him. He was down in the mouth. Then James laughed.

He said, "Man, marriages donít dissolve. I wish to hell they did."

Our maroon-haired waitress came back, smiling. A young Audrey Hepburn, I decided. Dexter and I refused more beer and gave her money. During that transaction, James gaped at her, but then went back to work on his list.

I said, "James, weíre leaving. Thanks for offering the tickets. It got us out of the house, at least, if not to the game."

"Youíre welcome," he said. "Yíall think that shortyís tight, right?" He

nodded toward our waitress who was tending another table. "You think she beautiful. Well, she just make herself look beautiful. Those silky bangs, smoky eyes, all made to be cute like that. Look critically, playboys. It ainít all all."

He wrote down another freedom:

8. Freedom from fakes.

We left him at our table, polishing his list, finishing our beer. Outside was windy. Rows of cars gleamed under the yellowish parking lot lamps. For a moment I was disoriented. I forgot who drove, and was a little stunned to be away from the inside noise and into the warm, gray, illuminated night.

"Ah, hell," Dexter said. He pointed across a row of cars to his silver station wagon, the chrome luggage rack gleaming. A few guys were leaning against the car as if it belonged to them.

When we got there, Dexter said, "Excuse us, fellows," and they slowly moved aside, barely giving us room to get in and pull out of the space. There were three of them, white guys in hip-hop outfitsóbasketball jerseys, big jackets, big pants, jewelry. As Dexter put it in drive and rolled forward, we heard a knock on the back panel of the car. It wasnít loud, more like a hard pat youíd give a horseís rump, to make it go or to praise it, a good old horse. But Dexter stopped the car and got out. I got out, too, wishing Dexter hadnít, and walked around to check for damage. There wasnít any that I could see.

These were big boys, tall and heavy, their bulky coats open over jerseys and big T-shirts. Their big clean workboots were unlaced. We were tinted red by the wagonís taillights. Dexter said, "Guys, was that necessary?"

"What?" they said, almost together.

"You know, if you had dented my car, you could have been arrested for vandalism."

One, in a purple and gold Lakers jersey and a light, loosely knit skullcap, laughed, turning to the others. "Fuck you, man. Nobody touched your punk-ass car."

"Hey, asshole," I said, but couldnít form a finish, my anger was so sudden. It confused me. I felt my face burning and my heart galloping. I couldnít understand these white boys, acting black, giving us a hard time. First James, and now these jerks. Or maybe it wasnít about race, just younger guys flexing power. Whatever, it caused me to suck in an extremely deep breath and blow it out. It was like Popeye getting steamed before a fight, the fiery ash erupting from his corncob pipe, a ship on his bicep shooting out smoke. I was shaking.

Yet Dexter was calm. He said, "Fellows, all Iím trying to say is that you should be more careful, think before you do stupid stuff. You donít need to ruin your lives." His speech was a little slurred. "Especially harassing people you donít even know."

The boys stared at us, flexing their many-ringed fingers, nodding threateningly.

"Shit," one of them said, a sparkly K hanging from a thick silver chain around his neck. It looked encrusted with rubies in the red taillight from Dexterís car.

"Shit," another one said, in almost a whisper. He kept touching his mustache, a carefully trimmed little line that streaked down to his preened goatee.

"All right," Dexter said. "Weíre out."

As we got back into the station wagon, the first one said, "Iíll ruin your life, man. My motherís the fucking D.A.!"

I looked back at him. He was smacking his heart with his fist, his chin raised.

Behind the wheel, Dexter said, "Jesus. Kids."

"His mamaís the D.A.?" I asked.

"Thatís what he said. Poor woman."

"Man, didnít you want to kick him in the nuts?"

"Hell, weíd have lost some teeth, Ray. Our bones would be broken. Besides, weíre grownups."

"Yeah, youíre right about all that, I guess."

Dexter drove well. We got to his house and I couldnít find my keys. They werenít in my pockets, they werenít in my ignition, and they werenít behind the cushions in Dexterís den. So I took Dexterís car to get home, thinking of the spare housekey taped under my mailbox on my porch. But on the way I came upon a roadblock. When I saw the cop lights ahead, I pulled into somebodyís driveway, cut my lights, waited a few minutes, and then turned around. I suspected Iíd be drunk enough to be in trouble. One of the cop cars caught up to me pretty quickly. Things got worse when I couldnít find Derekís registration and insurance cards in the glove box or over the visor, the only places I knew to look.

"Itís not my car," I told him.

He suspected Iíd stolen it. He thought I was drunk when I couldnít say the ABCs backward. I stumbled when I couldnít remember where Q was, the order of M and N. I thought I was going to jail. Look, I thought, where an expansive frame of mind had gotten me.

The policeman put me in the backseat of the patrol car. I sat behind his partner

who occupied the passenger seat. They didnít have a Breathalyzer kit in the car. They got on the radio and called for one. Meanwhile, as they ran a computer search of my driverís license, I explained again whose car Iíd been driving, why I was in it, where Dexter lived, where my car was. I was polite, nervous, trying to seem innocent and perfectly reasonable. I told them Iíd just started my vacation, the first in forever. I told him about my jobómy businessóoperating the wait staff at the hotel. I thought but did not say, Iím no criminal, occifer; Iím a respectable bidnessman.

"Thatís a lot of information," the first one said. "Why donít you know your alphabet?"

The second one snickered.

I listened to them talk about their kidsí fundraising efforts for their elementary schoolís Harvest Festival. They talked about the Duke game, too, and I tried to figure out who had won. I wanted to join their conversation, to say Iíd watched some of the game. But I was all but ignored. They didnít care about me. My pleas and politeness were nothing to them. They were merely working, like fishermen with tonightís catch gasping in the backseat. There were not controls for the windows and no handles for the doors back there. I listened to them through the opened slot in the Plexiglass barrier between the front seat and the back.

I got mad again. I wanted to curse out the cops. Some vacation. I thought about my girlfriend, who never offered me the least bit of emotional comfort. And I thought, whatís the difference, really, between a vacation alone in the Caribbean and one alone in jail? Iíd be lonesome and hangdog either way, just glancing at different scenery through the barred or palmed veil. Outside the hazy back window now was a half moon. The carís bright blue lights swept rhythmically against the pine trees at the side of the road.

Then I thought about Dexter at home with Olivia, asleep beside her pleasant body. Suddenly I felt sad for their sadness, that they were no longer in love, that even what looked good finally wasnít. The temperature was dropping. The vinyl upholstery felt cool to my fingers. I put my hands in my lap. I took deep breaths to steady myself against the anger, the sadness, the fear of being jailed for DUI. Alma, my cousin Barbara, people at work, everybody who knew me would take a different view now. My business could suffer. I knew, though, that if I went to jail tonight Iíd be out in a day. Thereíd be court and attorney fees. I guessed I could call James. I shuddered to think of that.

Iíd been in the car a long time. The cops had checked the stateís computers about Dexterís plates. I felt fine, except still scared. I wondered if I could pass a breathalyzer test now. I doubted I could pass a lie detector test. The driver turned back to me and asked again why I was driving that car. I told again about losing my keys. I explained again who Dexter was, the local columnist, where exactly he lived, not far from here, behind the mall. "You could call him," I said. The second cop thought he had read Dexterís columns. He told me to say the ABCs again, and I did better. They told me I seemed sober enough, that I was to drive Dexterís car straight back to where it belonged, and that the reason theyíd stopped me was because the station wagon had a taillight out.

A taillight. They were both on at the sports bar parking lot during the confrontation with those irritating boys. I didnít tell the policemen about that. I asked if I could just drive home. I was almost there. "No," they said.

So I drove back to Dexterís. I thought Iíd just sleep on the couch, with the bear. I knocked, rang the bell, pounded, but nobody answered. Dexter was probably passed out, but Olivia should have heard. Maybe she slept with earplugs. Maybe they both did. Maybe she was passed out, too.

I looked back at the station wagon ticking in the driveway, bordered by the low white landscape lights and blooming yellow chrysanthemums. I could sleep in there, pull down the seat. Shiver through the slumbering morning. Then I looked in on Oliviaís car in the garage. I raised the door, found her key on Dexterís key ring, and drove her Subaru to my house. I avoided the roadblock, didnít see another cop.

The next morning I called and said I had Oliviaís car. I tried to explain, but they were slow to process it, busy on another phone call, and getting breakfast and getting dressed for church. Olivia told me to come after church for dinner and I could clear it up then. Meanwhile, theyíd drive the station wagon as usual.

ē

I pulled up about two. Dexter opened the door. He still had on his suit pants and necktie, his shirt cuffs unbuttoned and turned. I got a whiff of his cologne, and he made me think of my father, who loved Sundays, used to wake up singing hymns.

"Howíre they hugging?" I asked.

"Thickly. What happened to you last night?" He led me through the foyer into the den.

"I got detained, thatís what. Cops. Threat and intimidation. Pinned me for a drunk and a thief."

"No shit? But what are you doing with Oliviaís car?"

Dexterís granddaughters sat on the beige rug, pale little girls playing with toy horses. They had on red plaid dresses and had cherry barrettes in their braided light hair. They were tiny. That was disconcerting because I thought they were at least a year old, but they looked about eight or nine months.

"Hey, little girls," I said.

One of them stood up and walked to Dexter, who picked her up. The other stared

up at me with wide-open eyes, looking to see what would happen next, if I would do something funny or scary, maybe. The one in Dexterís arms pointed at the keys in my hand. "That?" she asked. "Thatís PaPaís keys," Dexter answered. He took them from me and jangled them for the baby. The other one got up and walked into the kitchen. She came back holding Oliviaís hand. I couldnít believe they could walk and talk, small as they were. They were like midget babies, or genius babies.

Olivia said, "Dexter, canít you keep them in here?"

He pointed to me, then set the baby down with the other one. Olivia said, "Hey, Ray."

"Ola," I said. She laughed.

Dexter grabbed a colorful advertisement from the Sunday paper on the coffee table, balled it up and tossed it on the floor between the girls. They fell upon it giggling.

"Like kittens," he said, and tossed another one. "Theyíre having a wet pants contest right now," he said.

I asked, "Is Lee here?" I hadnít seen Lee in a long time. Iíd met his wife once.

"They went to get DVDs. You seen the paper?" he asked.

"I called you and I went back to sleep."

He thrust the front page at me. In the center above the fold was a color photo of us at the sports bar gazing off at a TV screen, me with a chicken wing paused at my lips.

"Good gracious," I said. I laughed. Iíd never had my picture in the paper before.

The caption read, "Fans Cheer Duke to Victory."

"Itís a chicken commercial." Dexter chuckled.

"The press makes the place look integrated."

"You canít believe what you see in the paper."

"Thatís a bona fide fact."

"Hereís something else you canít believe." He retrieved another section of the paper, the obituaries. I recognized a picture of James Jabowski, without the dreadlocked bangs, posed and serious in his eyeglasses and tie. But the obituary was for his father-in-law.

"Man, he must be freaking out over this," I said. "How could that happen? You think his wife did this? Is she as evil as James thinks she is?"

"She couldnít be. This is her fatherís obit, after all. Probably the mortuaryís screw up. Cosmic wrongness."

I sat beside Dexter and put the paper back on the table. Things were wrong, all right. This house, for instance, felt nothing but harmonious. Things with Dexter and Olivia seemed fine, despite what Dexter had said last night. From the windows, white sunlight fell where the girls played on the floor.

I thought of Jamesís manifesto. I wondered what he would add to it after he saw the obituary. As for my embarrassing picture in the paper, there was nothing I could do about that. At least, I assumed, there was no back page mention of my run-in with the cops. So I looked at the baby girls. They were making the horses prance on the balled-up flyers from the paper. A cartoon was on TV, low-volume loopy clarinet music with leaping garden tools.

The house smelled great, like something succulent roasting in the oven, something sweet just baked, like spicy tea brewing. I wished my girlfriend, Alma, were here. I thought about asking Olivia if I could bring her to dinner. Sheíd say yes, of course. But I just sat there, listening to the sophisticated baby talk, and I thought about tomorrow. I tried to conjure the Caribbean, the turquoise sea, the white sand, the pink hibiscus and warm sun. Iíd be on vacation, somewhere completely different, as if thatís where I wanted to be.


John Holman is the author of Squabble and Other Stories, and Luminous Mysteries. He directs the creative writing program at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

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