We were on the couch watching
TV, and Rose, surfing through the channels, landed on a Bill Bixby biography.
Rose is from England and calls cable a “smorgasbord” in a way that means
she can’t believe she loves eating that much. And that it’s sinful to eat
I’d just gotten off work--it
was late, 2 a.m.--and was running my fingers through her long, thick, curly
hair, starting near her ear, and slowly, gently pushing upward, separating
the strands. Sometimes I’d snag and have to tug my way through.
I wasn’t thinking about much.
Combing her hair relaxed me and I was watching Bixby and thinking: When
do you know when something won’t work out? When’s the exact time? And what
things--large or small--hold us together? Or make everything fall apart?
I was thinking about that
because Bixby’s third or fourth wife came on. I’d lost track. Fourth wife,
I thought. Jesus Christ! He looked like a man with no worries. But that’s
a dream, I thought. That’s Hollywood. That’s far away.
Or is everything much closer
now? I drew Rose’s hair to my face. It smelled of cigarettes. She smokes
but only when drinking. With Rose, I try not to think too much and any
kind of junk we watch on TV is fine. I tried to remember Bixby’s third
series--besides “The Incredible Hulk” and “My Favorite Martian--but came
Bixby’s wife explained that,
during their marriage, he’d contracted prostate cancer.
Bixby had suffered. Prior
to meeting her, he’d lost a young son and fell into a deep depression,
holing up in his beach house, seeing no one, barely moving. He’d sat on
the deck and watched the ocean for weeks. Then he’d rallied, thrown himself
into his work, shrugged off the blues. He’d met her at a nearby restaurant--she
was a waitress--and they’d married. She became a production assistant on
“Hulk,” which he produced and often directed. His life was full again.
Then came the cancer.
“Baby,” Rose said. “You’re
always teasing my hair.”
My fingers hung in mid-snag.
“I thought you liked it.”
“Baby, I do. Just not right
now. If it’s teased, I’ll have to wash it in the morning.”
“You should anyway. It smells
awful.” But I stopped. She has lots of hair to wash. It’s an ordeal.
Anyway, she’s tired, I’m
tired and it’s late. I’m night editor at the newspaper, and at work, I
wonder where she is. Rose teaches during the day, then goes to bars with
friends or out to eat. Am I supposed to tell her to wait for me at home?
She’s young, not even 30. I tell myself that men will leave her alone,
won’t find her immediately attractive. I didn’t. That took time. I used
to see her in a bar downtown. Then one time she turned and, perhaps her
hair was parted differently, who knows? She looked like a movie star from
the ‘40s, an English import, Myrna Loy, maybe.
We don’t know each other
that well but say “I love you” all the time, as though repeating it makes
things more real. And she likes to call me “baby” and “darling.” I was
wondering if Myrna Loy was from England when it hit me.
“‘The Courtship of Eddie’s
“Bixby’s third series.”
“Oh,” Rose said. “Was that
from the ‘60s?”
“Can’t remember.” My arm
was looped over her shoulder and my hand--the one that’d teased her hair--hung
awkwardly, as if unsure of what to do with itself. “Maybe.”
I watched her face--serious,
absorbed with Bixby--and thought perhaps she studies me, too. I’m too old
for her. I’m divorced and my teen-aged son lives nearby with my ex-wife,
both of whom Rose hasn’t met. I know pickings are slim around here but
Rose says I’m fine. She teaches contemporary American literature at the
college--her first real job--and wants to stay a couple years, do some
resume-building. She likes me, she says, because the men at school are
But she wants to go back
home. The college is excellent, but I know, first-hand, this place is boring.
Newspaper work’s boring in a university town. Drunken frat boys on a tear,
an occasional drug bust, weekly city council meetings--that’s about it.
We both know I’m not going anywhere, and it’s best not to think too much,
but sometimes we talk about leaving together. Show me around Paris, I’d
told her when we met, trying to make it a joke. She’d laughed and said,
I’d love to. She’d asked if I’d been abroad. Does Tijuana count? I’d answered
and she’d laughed again. She probably wouldn’t laugh today.
Bixby’s wife explained how
much she’d loved him and they cut away to wedding videotape. We live far
from the ocean, but I could tell she and Bixby were near. They danced together,
while behind them, palms trees swayed in the wind. She wore a wreath of
tropical flowers and a red shawl. Bixby, in his white tux, mouthed the
words to “Lady in Red.”
Rose laughed. “Treacly,”
she corrected me, prouncing it with an “eek” sound. “Not like ‘Star Trek.’”
“I’ve seen that word a thousand
times,” I mumbled, embarrassed. “Never heard it pronounced.”
“In England, treacle is molasses.
“Then why not call it molasses?”
I tried to sound like John Wayne. “Like we do.”
Rose ignored me. She was
listening to Bixby’s wife tell how they’d met, courted. Her eyes were open
in a frightening way, like those of a china doll. “Look at her eyes. They’re
“My God!” Rose said. “I was
going to say the same thing.”
Bixby’s wife used California-speak--wellness,
holistic--to describe his illness. She didn’t blink and her eyes were large,
wide and blue, the color of sky or ocean. You believe the sky and ocean
are deep, mysterious, I was thinking, but you look and look and find they’re
not; they’re transparent.
“She never blinks. Look at
“It’s disturbing,” Rose said.
“She’s got that deer in the headlights look.”
“You mean that waitress in
the headlights look.”
Rose laughed. Then I laughed
at Rose laughing. Then she laughed at me. We laughed back and forth like
that, in a way that’s hard to end, even though both parties are afraid
the joke’s used up. Then we stopped and I sat there, afraid she might keep
the joke going and felt myself stiffen, afraid I’d be unable to laugh.
She must’ve felt the same because we were too quiet for too long--bad timing
because Bixby’s wife said she’d had to leave him. Dealing with his cancer
had “reprioritized her emotions.”
“Till death do us part,”
Rose didn’t say anything.
Bixby’s wife said that “dialoging” her decision--in interviews such as
these--had helped “heal” her. She never blinked. Occasionally, she’d sweep
back her hair, which was straight and straw-like, brittle, as though over-exposed
to the sun. Then a commercial came on.
“Her hair’s cursed or something,”
I said. My voice sounded funny, even to me. “I couldn’t touch her hair.”
Rose looked at me curiously.
“How do you mean?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
She stretched, leaned into
me. “I told my mother about you.”
“You called all the way to
London to talk about me?” I said, far too pleased. Of course, I’d never
met her mother.
“That and other things.”
Rose yawned. “I told her you baked me a quiche.”
“Yes. She asked if you’d
made the crust.”
I laughed. I’d been proud
of that crust. The first I’d ever made. I’d called my mother for the recipe
and it’d come out well. I’d expected it to fail.
“Know what she asked? She
wanted to know if it was a free-standing crust.”
I looked at her. “I’m not
sure what that is but I can guess.”
“It’s one of our specialties.
You make the crust without a pie tin.”
“Like I said, I could’ve
“I think she was jealous.
Can you imagine?”
“Hmmph.” I sounded disapproving,
like some old fart. “I don’t think I’d be crazy about meeting her. Does
she always play one-upmanship?”
“Darling, if you could’ve
heard her. It was innocuous.”
“Hmmph.” I’d done it again.
I couldn’t stop myself. “It’s kinda like asking how much a present costs.”
“She didn’t mean anything
We watched the commercial
in silence, waiting for more of Bixby’s life. I couldn’t tell what they
were selling. People ran smiling through a field of wild flowers--purple,
yellow, red--and tall, waving grass. I’d never been in a field of wild
flowers. It must’ve been about allergies.
“How do you make one?”
“A free-standing crust?”
Rose said. “I learned in boarding school.” It’s elaborate, she said. It
has to be molded, prebaked in a tin using parchment paper and a mock filling
of dried kidney or lima beans. And when the crust looks solid enough to
stand on its own, when it looks like it can hold whatever filling you’ve
chosen, it’s taken from the oven and the tin is removed.
“It’s tricky. There’s a point
at which you must take a chance. You pour in everything and hope it doesn’t
I wasn’t listening. I’d started
thinking about her in the club tonight, sitting with a secretary from work,
a young blonde with long, slim legs. Men hovering around them. That’s why
people go to bars. I’d been fooling myself earlier, thinking she’d be left
alone. Temptation knocks and knocks and finally you answer.
The commercial seemed endless.
A dog joined in, romping through the field. Was it a dog food commercial?
I wished Bixby’s wife would return, weird stare and all. I kept thinking
about them in the club. I wouldn’t have bothered with the blonde. Not my
type, out of my league, ditzy. Something. Some excuse to not give it a
shot. Rose with her long, curly hair would’ve been the one for me. But
hadn’t I thought she was out of my league, too? The minute she’d turned
to me, looking like Myrna Loy or Greer Garson? The commercial ended. A
medicine bottle flashed on the screen, disappeared. Allergies.
I snorted. It was supposed
to be a fake but came out too forcefully; a fool could’ve spotted it as
a lie. “You let me go on and on about that quiche.”
Rose smiled. “You were preening,
“That’s the last time I cook
for you,” I said in a too-serious, mock-serious voice. “You’ve been making
these crusts since you were what? Eight years old? And here I am trying
to impress you.”
“It was lovely. Very impressive.”
“Prissy, you mean.”
The biography came back on
but Bixby’s wife was gone. After the divorce, he’d again thrown himself
into his work, concentrating this time on directing.
“Wonder if she’s still his
‘production assistant,’” Rose said.
“Hmmph.” Jesus, I hated myself!
“Tell me one thing. Why go through the trouble to make this crust? Wasn’t
mine good enough? It was flaky. You said so yourself.”
“That’s just it. I don’t
care anymore.” Rose smiled, as though remembering something. “It was a
big deal in school. We all worried that ours might leak. So much pressure!”
“Well, you do the cooking
from now on.”
“Can you call me by my first
name just once? Just one time.”
She glanced at the clock,
sighed, draped her bare leg across my lap. “I told everyone about that
quiche, Richard.” My name slithered from her mouth, sounding ugly, like
someone else’s name. “Everyone at work.”
“Great.” I stroked her leg
hair. “They’ll think I’m a fag.”
“Sorry.” Rose picked up the
remote, started surfing. “Haven’t shaved.”
I kept stroking. “On some
women, when it grows out, it’s sexy. Lots of women in the ‘60s didn’t shave.”
“Not mine.” She kept surfing.
“Mine gets coarser, more dark.”
I kept stroking her hard
little leg hairs. “That quiche was a joke anyway.”
I kept stroking; her hairs
felt like bristles. “‘Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.’”
She looked at me, perplexed.
“It was a book, a reaction
to Alan Alda.” She still looked puzzled. This time, I sighed. “It’s too
hard to explain.”
She smiled, teasing. “Was
that in the ‘60s?”
“Alan Alda,” she said, punching
the remote. “Isn’t he that awful man on ‘M*A*S*H?’”
John Fulmer is an editor
at a newspaper in Lynchburg, Virginia.