Authors: Suzanne Berne
George e-mailed back:
Neither do I
What we're seeing is essentially a domestic fear campaign
I think town officials have their heads in the sand
He said he intended to speak about the effect of the poisonings on the community at the upcoming hearing. In a brief reply that took her almost an hour to compose, Margaret said she agreed with him. She offered to listen to his speech if he wanted to stop by before the hearing, and sent him her street address; but he had not e-mailed her back after this invitation. The hearing was scheduled for that evening at seven o'clock. In spite of telling herself that George was not going to stop byâthat it wasn't even a real invitation, her e-mail to George, only something she'd offered because like everyone else she was disturbed by what was happening at the park, and of course he'd probably forgottenâshe had made a special trip to Whole Foods to pick up wine and a wedge of cheese, and mixed olives, taking so long to decide between Brie and Camembert that she'd had to hurry home, arriving just before Julia's bus dropped her at the corner. Had even gone upstairs to brush her hair after slicing an apple for Julia's afternoon snack, put on eyeliner and lipstick, and changed into her black cashmere sweater.
So she was surprised, but not as surprised as she pretended to be, when her doorbell rang at six o'clock, sending Binx into paroxysms of barking, and there was George, in jeans, a denim shirt, and a brown tweed jacket with suede elbow patches, and his cowboy boots.
Now he was sitting on a stool at her kitchen island, eating olives from a blue Andalusian bowl and dropping pits into a smaller matching bowl, a wedding-present set, and sipping a glass of pinot noir.
“The problem is,” she was saying, running a hand through her hair, “they have no idea how they look to other people.”
“My boys have given up trick-or-treating,” George said. “Though they're pretty much in costume every day, baggy pants and baseball caps on sideways. Pretending to be âgangstas.'â”
Margaret had also sent George an e-mail after reading his novel,
about a blind yeshiva student in Brooklyn who dreams of being the Yankees' designated hitter and spends every weekend in a batting cage in Red Hook teaching himself to hear the difference between a ball and a strike coming over the plate. She'd found the novel sad and funny, genuinely moving, if at the end maybe a little predictable, with everything figured out. She had so many questions for George. When you're writing do you live in two worlds? Have you ever met one of your own characters? She'd always thought of writers as reserved, serious. Possessed by their stories, carrying with them small black notebooks, in which they might suddenly stop to write a few words even in the middle of an ordinary conversation. Were they more or less lonely than other people?
Not that she put any of this in her e-mail.
“So, hubby at work?” George was looking now around the kitchen as if Bill might emerge from one of the cabinets.
“Yes,” she said, straightening up. “He works downtown.”
Dr. Vogel had suggested that Bill and Margaret each keep a journal about their feelings and then once a week exchange them. In Margaret's journal, a blank book with a nineteenth-century painting of swans on the cover, she had written:
This is a confusing and difficult time, but in times of emotional intensity there are new possibilities for intimacy
More than ever I realize that marriage is a joint adventure, with its own deep mysteries
. Bill had not written much in his journal, which he kept in an old spiral notebook he found in Julia's room. The first few pages were full of math problems, which he did not bother to tear out.
I don't feel anything,
he wrote on one page.
“Some kind of money guy?” George was asking.
George smiled and sat back, hooking his boot heels on the rungs of his stool. “That can't be much fun right now.”
“His office is going through some turmoil, with the new government regulations.”
“About time there were some regulations.”
What an ass, she thought, relieved and disappointed to find that she wasn't attracted to George after all. Those cowboy boots were laughable, for instance. So was his puffed-out chest. And yet it had been a distraction, these past few weeks, to have George to think about. She wondered what his wife looked like.
“So, you were saying your sons are gangsters?”
“Well, no, hard as they try. Just nice boys taking too many AP courses. Though one of their friends got in trouble last week for carrying a plastic pencil sharpener shaped like a pistol into math class. Practically sent the high school into lockdown.”
“Well, people are trying to be careful these days.”
“There's careful and there's crazy.” He ate another olive.
After their walk in the woods, Margaret had spent considerable time picturing their next encounter as somehow heightened, sympathetic. His warm hand again on her shoulder. Herself explaining that she was in the middle of a difficult and confusing time. But now she realized that George had not been entertaining similar fantasies, had most likely shown up at her house because he did, actually, want to practice his speech before the hearing.
“Speaking of crazy”âshe twisted the top button of her cashmere sweaterâ“I keep thinking I see your dog.”
“Me too,” said George. “Every time I open the front door.”
Julia's oboe squawked from upstairs. Binx was looking hopefully at the olives.
Margaret stopped twisting the button and cleared her throat. “I mean, I really think I see him. Every so often I'll be looking out the window or taking a walk, thinking of something else, and then I'll see something that looks like him.”
George drummed his oily fingers on the island's granite surface, leaving small, dark prints.
Margaret waited another moment. Sighing, she poured herself some wine. Together they stared at the bowl of olive pits. A few low notes sounded again from Julia's oboe.
“So,” he said, “an oboe concert.”
“Well, a band concert. Julia's not very musical,” admitted Margaret. “But I wanted her to play an instrument and she won't go near my piano. I played all through college. Chamber groups, mostly. Do you play an instrument?”
“Air guitar,” said George.
Margaret looked at the clock over the stove and saw that it was not even six thirty. She asked if he would like more wine.
“Maybe half a glass. Loosen my tongue for my big speech about striking back against fear and paranoia.”
“Do you have notes?”
“I thought I'd warm the crowd up first with a few jokes. Mention that dogs and humans have a lot in common and we should try for some sort of bipartisan agreement. Reach across the aisle.” George selected a large Greek olive.
“No, really.” She was smiling at his forehead, which was high and broad, capped by short reddish curls. “How are dogs and humans similar?”
Instead of answering, he said, “Did you read that study in the
yesterday? Asking married women if they could cheat one time on their husbands without them ever finding out, would they do it? Seventy-three percent said yes.”
She felt her face get hot.
George himself was looking mystified at this turn in the conversation, but he forged ahead. “Even the women who say they love their husbands. Seventy-three percent. If they had one free pass to sleep with someone else, they'd take it.”
“Now why is that?” she asked unwillingly.
“Because,” he said, “nobody ever has enough of anything.”
To give herself time to recover from the blush scalding her face, she fetched a package of rosemary crackers and set them out on a plate with the wedge of Brie cheese, which she had left by the sink.
From their glass bowl on the windowsill the two goldfish floated above their ceramic castle, regarding her emptily, opening and closing their mouths.
Perhaps it was only the
wine, but now that George had begun talking he became unstoppable, moving on from his speculations about married women to baseball, and then on to the main character of his second novel, a baseball player who had come back from the dead to help his old team win the pennant, while Margaret sat with her hands folded in her lap, wondering what had happened between George and his wife, and Binx lay snoring on the wide honey-colored floorboards by the stove.
The baseball player in his novel was named Moses Finkle. A minor league outfielder who'd had a single season with Kansas City in 1962 before running his Pontiac into a tree. In the draft George was working on now, Moses Finkle is summoned from the grave by a kid who owns a signed Moses Finkle baseball card, given to him by his grandfather, who always said the world needed more Jewish baseball players. The grandfather dies, and a year later, while saying Kaddish at his Kansas City temple, the kid finds the baseball card in his jacket pocket, takes it out, and instead of the mourner's prayer starts chanting,
Moses Finkle, Moses Finkleâ
“Oh no,” said Margaret.
“Yeah, so Moses returns and he's a zombie, but he's now an amazing outfielderâshoestring catches, one-handed grabs, dives into the stands and comes up with the ball. Hits walk-off home runs in every tied game. But the thing is”âGeorge paused to eat another oliveâ“other stuff's got to happen. I can't just write a novel about a dead Jewish baseball player making clutch plays.”
Then he said, “I'm eating all your olives.”
“That's okay. They're just for us. Bill hates olives.”
Just for us.
Had she really said that?
A low, quavering note trembled from above.
Margaret poured more wine for George and a second glass for herself, struck by the situation, which had become heightened after all. Sitting in her kitchen drinking wine with a man she hardly knew. Talking about adultery and zombies, surrounded by her blender, her blue enamel Le Creuset pots arranged on a shelf in descending order of size, her stoneware canisters on the counter labeled
FLOUR, SUGAR, TEA
, all of which now seemed to be watching her. Especially watching from the refrigerator door were magnetized photographs of Julia in a bathing suit on the beach at Wellfleet; Julia on a pony in Wyoming; Julia with Bill in front of the Statue of Liberty, both holding ice cream cones aloft.
George was finally talking about his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Tina. A personal injury lawyer. Tina was a partner at Weitz, Wilberding. Margaret must have seen their ads on the backs of telephone books. No?
We Want Your Auto Accidents, Brain Injuries, Nursing Home Negligence! When You Need Us, We're There for You!
“That's quite an offer,” said Margaret.
In April, Tina had left George for a massage therapist. Told him that for the first time in her life her needs were being met. At last someone was really there for her.
“I mean, could the joke get worse?” he demanded.
Tina was balking at the amount of alimony George's lawyer had requested, though George was the one with the house and the boys. She was living with her mother until she could find an apartment near her office; the boys spent almost all their time with him. When they were home, that is. Even when they were home, they were slovenly and distracted and practically mute.
“We don't talk at dinner. We masticate.”
He chose another Greek olive and squinted at it. “She took me completely by surprise, I'll tell you that. I thought we had a pretty good marriage. I mean, we talked. We still had sex. We've got two kids who aren't in jail or rehab. What did she want? Whose needs are ever met? If your needs are being met”âhe was pouring both of them the last of the wineâ“you're probably dead.”
He set the bottle on the counter and then leaned closer to Margaret, close enough that she could smell him. Ever since her pregnancy days, she'd remained very sensitive to smells, and George had a dense odor compounded of perspiration, soap, the oil of his hair, wine, olives, the wool of his jacket, and something warm and moist and faintly mineral, like a whiff of blood.
It was quarter to seven.
Julia had quit practicing her oboe. As Margaret put on her coat she called up the stairs to tell Julia she'd be back by eight thirty. “Your dad will be home soon. He's bringing a pizza. Don't let anyone in, okay? And don't go outside. Promise?”
A long oboe-ish groan from above.
“Binx,” said Margaret, looking down at the panting dog, “you're in charge.”
Outside, a scimitar-shaped moon hung in the sky. The air was raw and the wind had picked up, scuffling dry leaves across the dark driveway and making the plastic skeleton sway in its tree. It grinned at Margaret as she locked the front door.
George was talking again about money. Despite winning a prize, his first novel had not sold well. He was broke; Tina was going to kill him on alimony; he was borrowing from his father, who was eighty-six and living in a retirement village in Bayonne, New Jersey. It was too expensive for a regular person to live in this town. Did she have any idea how expensive it was? With his second book he was selling his soul and going commercial.
While she listened, Margaret looked into the shadowy plumage of the oak trees above her. It seemed the woman walking down the driveway with George Wechsler was not her but someone else. She was still in the kitchen, rinsing the wineglasses and setting the bottle in the recycling bin. Now she was sitting down again at the counter, waiting for Bill to come home so she could ask about his day at the office and then, when he was done talking, reach across the counter for his hand and tell him how much she appreciated him and everything he did for his family. Whatever needs he had, she would try to meet them. Though whose needs are ever really met?