John Holman ~ Vacation

I got to Dexter’s 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 couldn’t tell if she was com­ing or going.

Hey, what’s up?” I said.

Hey, Ray.  Looks like Dexter’s 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 she’d 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.  “What’s up, Dexter?” I said.

Home,” he said.

There were big stuffed toys posi­tioned on the chairs and on the sofa—a 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 40 inch­es.

Dexter shrugged, the ice mov­ing in his glass.  “I don’t know what I’m sup­posed to watch,” he said, rather help­less­ly.

Well,” Olivia said, “I guess there’s no offi­cial state­ment about what to watch, Dexter.”

He shrugged again.  This was a lit­tle fun­ny because some­times I’d 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 she’d 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.

It’s sort of a car­toon, isn’t it?” he said.

Olivia went into the kitchen and began bustling about it there.  I heard pots clank­ing and glass clink­ing.  She passed by the door­way a cou­ple of time, pret­ty.  I’d always liked the way Olivia looked, stur­dy and straight with a hap­py-to-see-you smile, hair that flounced.  She didn’t 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 white—a 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 girl’s 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 girl’s 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 I’d freaked out my folks when I got mar­ried out of high school.  I was envi­ous of Dexter’s boy, who looked like he would get to stay mar­ried, whose wife real­ly want­ed him—thought he was the sun, the rain, and the stars, as Dexter put it once—but who nev­er­the­less had ruined a pos­si­ble foot­ball career by ditch­ing the schol­ar­ship.

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

That’s 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 game—lucky for me but not for the lawyer, who had anoth­er com­mit­ment, as he put it.  I didn’t have to work.  Actually, I was start­ing a week­long vaca­tion.  In two days, I’d 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 I’d be essen­tial­ly trav­el­ing alone since I couldn’t get a date.  My girl­friend, sort of—Alma—backed out when she real­ized it con­flict­ed with her cousin’s wed­ding in Florida.  Then I offered to take my cous­in Barbara who I thought might like the treat, but she didn’t want her daugh­ter to miss school if she came with us, as if miss­ing a week of six­th grade would dam­age some­thing, and she didn’t want to leave Selena with any­body else, not even her father, who still lived in town.  Today I fig­ured if my so-called girl­friend wouldn’t go to the Caribbean with me, I’d 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, I’d reached Dexter on his cell phone in late after­noon.  By coin­ci­dence, he’d just got­ten in from Chicago where he’d attend­ed a reunion of his Northwestern jour­nal­ism school class, and was wait­ing at the air­port bag­gage claim.  He didn’t real­ly care about the school’s foot­ball team, and I didn’t care about Duke, either.  But we had tick­ets, and we hadn’t hung out in a while, espe­cial­ly since the babies were born.  He told me, “I’m glad you called.  There’s a guy with red mut­ton­chops hold­ing a sign that says ‘Goddamn Motherfucker.’  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 didn’t say any­thing to Olivia, but I couldn’t 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t know why I was there.  I said, “Hey, O, I only have two tick­ets, oth­er­wise I’d have asked you to the game, too.”  I loved Olivia’s 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 couldn’t think of one fast I just called her O.

Why didn’t 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, “I’m 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, “That’s 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 that’s not what you meant, though.”

I don’t know.”  I thought for a while.  Then I asked, “So how was the class reunion?”

I’m OK,” Dexter said.  “I’m bald, though.  That was sort of clear at the reunion.”

That was clear before the reunion.”

Not to them.  They hadn’t seen me since I start­ed los­ing hair.  I’d 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 weren’t 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.  He’d 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 wasn’t yet used to Lee’s 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 didn’t say any­thing about that pecu­liar sen­tence.  I didn’t 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, women’s golf, and a pre-game show for the Duke game.  I didn’t 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.  It’s their trade­mark, I think.”

What—contestants drink a lot of beer and get locked out of the bath­room?”

Dexter laughed.  “Maybe.  Or they sit in a buck­et.”

I laughed then.  “Let’s 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 baby’s 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 didn’t ask her.”

Why didn’t 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 didn’t look like she knew how to smoke.

I couldn’t say ‘wet butt’ to that girl.”

It’s 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 wasn’t among them.

What 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 wasn’t com­ing, or that he’d be so late it wouldn’t 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.  Don’t 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 can’t scare girls today.  We’re harm­less to them.  Which is a prob­lem, because they’re the only ones I want.  Goddamn, what is it about young wom­en, Ray?”

He seemed actu­al­ly puz­zled.  I’d for­got­ten about the ear­lier screw­driver, and now, after a cou­ple of beers, young wom­en were a both­er to him.  I said, “They’re pret­ty, Dexter.  That’s 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 don’t even know how to hold their bod­ies.”

You been hold­ing a lot those bod­ies?”

I have to hug them some­times.  At church.  I try to imag­ine some­thing more with them, but I can’t.”

Olivia see you hug­ging at church?”

Olivia.  You love Olivia, don’t you?  I got a skin­ny wom­en fetish.  That’s recent­ly clear to me.  Olivia used to be skin­ny, remem­ber?  Skinnier, any­way.  I don’t like to hold her so much as I used to.”  He glanced away from me.

I didn’t 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 wasn’t 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.  We’d 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.  That’s as tru­ly per­son­al as we got, him not being shy about his love for his son, whether he was angry, fright­ened or proud.

Derek 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 weren’t 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 didn’t 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.

I’ll tell you what both­ers me a lot,” Dexter said.  “Fat wom­en with lit­tle breasts.”

Damn, Dexter.”

That doesn’t both­er you?”

No,” I said, “it doesn’t exact­ly both­er me.  It’s fun­ny, though.”

How about skin­ny wom­en with fat legs?”

Come on, Dexter.”

What?  You have to admit there’s 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 didn’t tell Dexter because I didn’t want to talk to the lawyer now, any­way.  Besides, it was hard to believe he hadn’t 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 didn’t actu­al­ly have.  He liked to tell me about his black clients—young 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 don’t you ever mim­ic them?”  He laughed and said, “I’m 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 didn’t go to Duke, or Northwestern,” I said, look­ing up at the screen.  I didn’t 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.  “Don’t be so lit­er­al.  He’s 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 Lee’s alleged stu­pid­i­ty.  He had with him a video he’d found in Lee’s room, an unla­beled red cas­set­te that Dexter was afraid to watch, espe­cial­ly at home.  He sus­pect­ed it was porn because he’d found it under Lee’s mat­tress while Lee was at school, when they had bought him a new bed.  Yet Lee knew they’d be switch­ing out the bed that day and he hadn’t 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 woman’s 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 there’s 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 he’d 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 somebody’s 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 I’d had ever, a vaca­tion prac­ti­cal­ly given to me—well, 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 couldn’t focus on who had the ball.  The beer was mak­ing me morose.

I got up to go to the bath­room, beyond the pool tables.  That’s 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 con­text, 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 didn’t need more to drink.  In high school and col­lege we’d sur­vived three wrecks and a street fight caused by his drink­ing, and each time I’d start­ed out trust­ing him to know what he was doing.  But in twen­ty years I’d rarely seen him drink too much, not since Lee was born.  Now I con­sid­ered that it wasn’t Dexter’s 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 didn’t real­ly have much of a girl­friend if she wouldn’t 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 didn’t 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 like you please her.  She clings to you when it’s time for you to leave,” Dexter said.

What’s her name?” I asked.

Hell, Ray, you won’t 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 wasn’t even love, com­pared to what Dexter did have.  Even I knew that—I, 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.  I’d 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 couldn’t have, given the like­li­hood that she wouldn’t 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, that’s sort of hard to know what to do with.”

Believe me,” he winked, “you’d know what to do with it.”

I’m 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 he’s all fucked, and we’re baby-addled grand­par­ents, I’m just liv­ing with the post­pone­ment of heart­break.  And Chicago hasn’t 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 Dexter’s 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 don’t want to know.”  He stopped.  He threw up his hands and said, “Actually, my father-in-law died.  That’s why I offered you the tick­ets in the first place, but I left them at my ex-wife’s house and I don’t 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 game’s not that good any­way, I’ll bet.”

It’s 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?  Didn’t you see us when you came in, what, thir­ty min­utes ago?”

Today is my birth­day.  I’m thir­ty-fiz­zle, my niz­zle, and I’ve decid­ed that I’m 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 still among the sane?”

Has he ever been?”  Dexter asked.

I don’t know,” I said.  James was always a bit nut­ty, some­one who liked to laugh and kid about every­thing and him­self.  I’d 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, you’re not mar­ried, right?”

Right.”

What about you, Bud?”

Wrong,” Dexter said.

It’s Dexter,” I said.  “Or Dex.”

Dexter smiled.

Today’s 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, I’ll 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, ‘Look at your­self,’ which was no cel­e­bra­tion at all.  Mama asked me to take her to my father-in-law’s 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 debt’s 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 can’t be the same)
  2. Freedom of Religion (there’s a lot of them)
  3. Freedom from Religion (I am free from reli­gion)
  4. Freedom from Tyranny
  5. Never get a wife who thinks she’s 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.

It’s what I’ve learned rein­forced by today’s lec­tures and indict­ments again­st me for not being ‘right.’”  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 don’t know why.  My mama still has rights, can’t help that, but them togeth­er need an injunc­tion in the form of what I’ve pro­duced on this paper.”

What about num­bers 5 through 7?” I asked.

It’s not par­al­lel, I know that.  It’s just a draft.”

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

And my mama, too, now,” James said.

That’s too bad,” I said.  “I’m sor­ry.”

Yeah, it has put me in a bind.  Especially on my birth­day.  They told me my breath stinks.  They told me I’m bound for hell.  But the real sono­fabith 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 don’t dis­solve.  I wish to hell they did.”

Our maroon-haired wait­ress came back, smil­ing.  A young Audrey Hepburn, 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, we’re leav­ing.  Thanks for offer­ing the tick­ets.  It got us out of the house, at least, if not to the game.”

You’re wel­come,” he said.  “Y’all think that shorty’s 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 ain’t all all.”

He wrote down anoth­er free­dom:

  1. 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 outfits—basketball 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 wasn’t loud, more like a hard pat you’d give a horse’s 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 hadn’t, and walked around to check for dam­age.  There wasn’t 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 wagon’s 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 couldn’t form a fin­ish, my anger was so sud­den.  It con­fused me.  I felt my face burn­ing and my heart gal­lop­ing.  I couldn’t under­stand the­se white boys, act­ing black, giv­ing us a hard time.  First James, and now the­se jerks.  Or may­be it wasn’t 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 firey 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 I’m try­ing to say is that you should be more care­ful, think before you do stu­pid stuff.  You don’t need to ruin your lives.”  His speech was a lit­tle slurred.  “Especially harass­ing peo­ple you don’t 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 Dexter’s 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.  “We’re out.”

As we got back into the sta­tion wag­on, the first one said, “I’ll ruin your life, man. My mother’s 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 mama’s the D.A.?” I asked.

That’s what he said.  Poor wom­an.”

Man, didn’t you want to kick him in the nuts?”

Hell, we’d have lost some teeth, Ray.  Our bones would be bro­ken.  Besides, we’re grownups.”

Yeah, you’re right about all that, I guess.”

Dexter drove well.  We got to his house, and I couldn’t find my keys.  They weren’t in my pock­ets, they weren’t in my igni­tion, and they weren’t behind the cush­ions in Dexter’s den.  So I took Dexter’s 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 somebody’s dri­ve­way, cut my lights, wait­ed a few min­utes, and then turned around.  I sus­pect­ed I’d drunk enough to be in trou­ble.  One of the cop cars caught up to me pret­ty quick­ly.  Things got worse when I couldn’t find Derek’s reg­is­tra­tion and insur­ance cards in the glove box or over the visor, the only places I knew to look.

It’s not my car,” I told him.

He sus­pect­ed I’d stolen it.  He thought I was drunk when I couldn’t say the ABCs back­ward.  I stum­bled when I couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 driver’s license, I explained again whose car I’d 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 I’d just start­ed my vaca­tion, the first in forever.  I told him about my job—my business—operating the wait staff at the hotel.  I thought but did not say, I’m no crim­i­nal, occifer; I’m a respectable bid­ness­man.

That’s a lot of infor­ma­tion,” the first one said.  “Why don’t you know your alpha­bet?”

The sec­ond one snick­ered.

I lis­tened to them talk about their kids’ fundrais­ing efforts for their ele­men­tary school’s 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 I’d watched some of the game.  But I was all but ignored.  They didn’t care about me.  My pleas and polite­ness were noth­ing to them.  They were mere­ly work­ing, like fish­er­men with tonight’s 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, what’s the dif­fer­ence, real­ly, between a vaca­tion alone in the Carribean and one alone in jail?  I’d 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 car’s bright blue lights swept rhyth­mi­cal­ly again­st the pine trees at the side of the road.

Then I thought about Derek 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 wasn’t.  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 I’d be out in a day.  There’d be court and attor­ney fees.  I guessed I could call James.  I shud­dered to think of that.

I’d been in the car a long time.  The cops had checked the state’s com­put­ers about Derek’s 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 Derek 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 Derek’s 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 Derek’s car straight back to where it belonged, and that the rea­son they’d 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 didn’t 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 Derek’s.  I thought I’d just sleep on the couch, with the bear.  I knocked, rang the bell, pound­ed, but nobody answered.  Derek 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 Olivia’s car in the garage.  I raised the door, found her key on Derek’s key ring, and drove her Subaru to my house.  I avoid­ed the road­block, didn’t see anoth­er cop.

The next morn­ing I called and said I had Olivia’s 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, they’d dri­ve the sta­tion wag­on as usu­al.

#

I pulled up about two.  Derek 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.

How’re they hug­ging?” I asked.

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

I got detained, that’s what.  Cops.  Threat and intim­i­da­tion.  Pinned me for a drunk and a thief.”

No shit?  But what are you doing with Olivia’ car?”

Derek’s 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 Derek, 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 Derek’s arms point­ed at the keys in my hand.  “That?” she asked.  “That’s PaPa’s keys,” Derek 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 Olivia’s hand.  I couldn’t believe they could walk and talk, small as they were.  They were like midget babies, or genius babies.

Olivia said, “Derek, can’t 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.

Derek 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.  “They’re hav­ing a wet pants con­test right now,” he said.

I asked, “Is Lee here?”  I hadn’t seen Lee in a long time.  I’d 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.  I’d nev­er had my pic­ture in the paper before.

The cap­tion read, “Fans Cheer Duke To Victory.”

It’s a chick­en com­mer­cial.”  Derek chuck­led.

The press makes the place look inte­grat­ed.”

You can’t believe what you see in the paper.”

That’s a fact.”

Here’s some­thing else you can’t 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 couldn’t be.  This is her father’s obit, after all.  Probably the mortuary’s screw up.  Cosmic wrong­ness.”

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

I thought of James’s 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.  She’d 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.  I’d be on vaca­tion, some­where com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent, as if that’s where I want­ed to be.

~

John Holman is the author of Squabble and Other Stories (1990), the nov­el Luminous Mysteries (1998), recent­ly cho­sen as one of the 25 Books All Georgians Should Read by the Georgia Center for the Book, and Triangle Ray (Dzanc 2016, avail­able at Amazon), from which this excerpt is tak­en. His fic­tion has appeared in the New YorkerOxford American, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He co-directs the Creative Writing Program at Georgia State University.