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
"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
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
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
"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
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
She brought the beer right away, cleared away our empties and set
down fresh mugs, all without comment or eye contact. "Enjoy," she
"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
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
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."
"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
"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
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
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.
"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
"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
"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
"Why are you saying nizzle James? Are you still among the
"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,
"What about you, Bud?"
"Wrong," Dexter said.
"Itís Dexter," I said. "Or Dex."
"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.
- Freedom from Sameness (everybody canít be the same)
- Freedom of Religion (thereís a lot of them)
- Freedom from Religion (I am free from religion)
- Freedom from Tyranny
- Never get a wife who thinks sheís better than you
- Never, never have anything to do with her family
- 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
He said, "Man, marriages donít dissolve. I wish to hell they
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,
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
"What?" they said, almost together.
"You know, if you had dented my car, you could have been arrested
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
"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.
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
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 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.