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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“What about you, Bud?”
“Wrong,” Dexter said.
“It’s Dexter,” I said. “Or Dex.”
“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.
- Freedom from Sameness (everybody can’t be the same)
- Freedom of Religion (there’s a lot of them)
- Freedom from Religion (I am free from religion)
- Freedom from Tyranny
- Never get a wife who thinks she’s 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.
“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:
- 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 Yorker, Oxford American, and other publications. He co-directs the Creative Writing Program at Georgia State University.