“The Trouble With Money,” LITRO Literary Magazine, No. 98, September 2010, P. 9.
THE TROUBLE WITH MONEY
By L. Breneman
Rupert Jones—though quite brilliant and certainly a legal adult at the age of 25—has never bothered to grow up. He gets his hair cut twice a year, shaves once a week, and wears ratty jeans and t-shirts every day. Aside from a surfeit of electronics, he lives simply in a cluttered and mildewed rented room. In these ways he isn’t much different from masses of modern American Peter Pans. But in one way Rupert Jones is unusual: his net worth exceeds twenty million dollars, and hardly anyone—including his parents—knows it. This isn’t a problem, at least not for Rupert, until the day his parents tell him they’re facing foreclosure on the family home.
They don’t blurt the news; they let it dribble out. First, Rupert’s mother Nancy leaves a message on his cell: “Rupert, we need you.”
This rare and vague declaration spurs Rupert to leave his room, jump in his nondescript ’99 Toyota, and motor across the city in rainy rush-hour traffic.
Nancy meets Rupert at the door with a cry of delight. She eats carefully and teaches yoga; she’s a young sixty-five. Her skin, though wrinkled, is bright, and her compact body is lithe.
John, Rupert’s dad, looks like a shaggy Sigmund Freud. He glances up from his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Because he had opposed calling Rupert in the first place and because he dislikes being reminded of looming disaster, he is not as pleased to see Rupert as Nancy is.
“Why is it so cold in here?” Rupert says.
In the early spring in Seattle, most people heat their houses, if only to reduce the dampness. But it’s chilled and clammy. Six dripping candles shed a meager trickle of light.
“And why isn’t the phone ringing?”
The Joneses normally field scores of calls from friends, colleagues, students, and activists checking in.
“We are community people…” Nancy says automatically.
Rupert hates this phrase. He isn’t conscious of the reason, but a visit to a capable shrink would uncover an image of dozens of busybodies watching him perform private bodily functions.
“…But we had to put the phones on Silent because of the collectors.” Nancy’s eyelid twitches.
John shifts in his chair and squints up at Rupert. “Shall we get right to it?” he says. “Like thousands of unfortunate souls these days, son, we are facing foreclosure. Did you know foreclosure rates are up eighty percent in this great nation of ours?”
Rupert slaps his palm against his forehead. “But you guys bought the place for, what? A hundred thousand in 1982? I’m surprised you even have a mortgage.”
“We did refinance once or twice,” Nancy says.
John straightens his papers. “There were the refugees we helped. And some fines from the tax protests.”
“And this and that,” Nancy says.
In fact, they don’t comprehend how the crisis happened. Although Nancy and John consider themselves soul mates (they are as devoted to one another as they’ve ever been), their partnership lacks complementariness. They are equally lax and preoccupied with their own pursuits.
“We were hoping you might be able to loan us some money,” Nancy says quietly. John picks up The New York Times and pretends to read it.
“How much money?” Rupert says.
“Three thousand dollars would help a lot,” Nancy says. They need ten times that to be all right. But, while Nancy knows Rupert has been working on some high-tech projects, she doesn’t think he is working now. Three thousand seems like a lot to ask for.
No, Rupert thinks. No way. They’ve got to be exaggerating, and his whole way of life is at stake here. “I don’t know where I’d get three thousand dollars.” he lies.
John’s pink face blushes fuchsia. “Never mind, son,” he says. “Your mother is not herself.”
“Maybe I could sell a computer or something…” Rupert says.
“No, son. We’re fine,” John says.
When the front door clicks shut, John stands and wraps his arms around Nancy. She shivers and cries a little.
“See? I was right. We shouldn’t have asked,” John says. “We face ‘innumerable detriments,’ as the Venerable Bede would say. Rupert’s obviously busted too.”
“I’ll bet you’re right,” Nancy says. “I wish we could help him. He seems so tentative these days.”
“At least we didn’t tell him everything. He’d only worry,” John says.
Parents worry about their young adult sons; that emotional river rarely flows upstream.
Back in his room, without a thought to the fear or the lack of juice he’s just witnessed at his parent’s house, Rupert turns on an assortment of devices: a laptop, a desktop, a television, and a game console.
Despite all this, he’s inundated with childhood memories of himself and his mother and his father in the house—his mother helping him with his homework at the kitchen table (she’d once been a math teacher), his father reading The Lord of the Rings to him at his bedside. He feels as if pieces of himself are breaking off and floating away. He’s so agitated, in fact, that he ends up outside, in the rain, on a panic walk west through the U-District. The scenery reminds him of a younger, more carefree Rupert and some congenial times in a dive near the freeway called the Blue Moon. As he enters through the neon-embellished door, he runs straight into Paul Liddell, M-Soft’s famous chief technologist. Liddell, a bearish and forthright man, had mentored Rupert as a student intern. He grabs Rupert by the arm and drags him down the sidewalk.
“Hey, Rupert,” he says. “Walk me to my car and tell me what’s going on with you.”
Rupert doesn’t think; he blabs. “My parents are losing their house, man,” he says. “They’re bad with money.”
“But, Rupert, I heard about you,” Liddell says. “After you left school you wrote that huge game. What was it?”
“You must have made twenty million on that thing.”
“Fifteen.” Rupert doesn’t explain how he subsequently worked on a couple of other successful games, ballooning the initial fifteen to almost twenty-three.
“Fifteen. That’s pretty good for a first effort.” Paul Liddell is not easily impressed; he is worth more than two billion dollars.
“So what did you do? Spend it all on Porsches or Italian villas or trips to Vegas?”
“No, man. I haven’t spent any of it.”
“And what are you doing now?”
“You know—this and that.”
“Ah. Not working at all, then?”
Here Liddell squints at Rupert for a long moment. In the last several decades, M-Soft has spawned 10,000 millionaires, and Paul Liddell has mentored many of them. He’s seen a range—some good stewards, some spendthrifts, some excessive givers—and some few who, like Rupert, attempt to ignore it.
Liddell removes his wire-rimmed glasses, digs a special cloth from his pocket, wipes the lenses clean, replaces the glasses, and adjusts them. “So you’ve become one of those idle, closeted rich guys? That makes me mad.”
Rupert looks down at the glass shards and cigarette butts on the sidewalk. “I don’t like to talk about it.”
“And you’re going to let your parents lose their house?”
Rupert shrugs. “You don’t understand. You don’t know what they’re like.”
“You’re a coward.” Liddell wants to smile, but he keeps his face neutral. He was like Rupert once. The kid needs a nudge. Or maybe a shove.
“Come on, man,” Rupert says.
“No, I mean it. What a waste.” And with that, Liddell continues on his way, shaking his head for effect. At the corner, he turns around and yells, “Think about it, and then text me if you want to.”
Rupert shrivels. He can’t remember ever being called a coward in person. In the game forums, of course, he’s been called worse, but that doesn’t count. Anonymity transforms regular people into fiends.
The next day after John goes to work, Nancy decides Rupert has a right to know all the facts. She calls him. “I have to talk to you.”
The urgency in his mother’s voice makes Rupert’s knees dissolve.
Nancy is watching for Rupert and again meets him at the front door. She is nervous about telling her secret, but she’s decided it’s the right thing to do. “We soft-pedaled things a bit yesterday.”
“How much do you really need?” Rupert says. “A hundred thousand?”
“With the mortgages and the credit cards, three.”
“We’re being evicted. We wouldn’t have asked you for help, otherwise, honey.”
“Evicted, Mom? Already? How long has this been going on?”
Nancy shrugs. “I know your place is small, but maybe we could stay with you for a while. Plus, there is another thing. I had some bad health news.”
“What kind of bad health news? What do you mean, bad health news? What?”
“I had a little seizure.” She smoothes her hair back. “And the clinic says I need an MRI. To rule out a brain tumor, I guess. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“Seizures are not nothing, Mom.”
“But we don’t have health insurance anymore for me. Not since your father turned 65 and the university cut him back to part-time.”
Rupert ticks off the facts on his fingers. “So you’re getting evicted any day, you might have a brain tumor, and you’re completely broke.”
“Yes, that’s about right.”
“And what’s the minimum to keep the law away?”
“To stop the foreclosure, pay down the credit cards a little, turn on the water so we can flush…? I’m not sure.”
Rupert looks at the squat refrigerator and the battered stove and the scuffed linoleum. A broken window casing in the nook has been leaking for a decade; black mildew is spreading down the cracked and blistered wainscoting.
Nancy is attempting to make tea. She pours water out of a plastic jug into a pan and tries to light a propane camp stove with some soggy paper matches. It isn’t going well.
In the future, Rupert will remember this moment—his mother’s distress—with terrible regret. But right now, watching her fumble, Rupert thinks about how his parents are only going to get older and feebler. He feels squeezed and breathless. Completely doomed.
Rupert retreats to his room. He knows he needs counsel, but he is afraid to call Paul Liddell. Instead, he does the easy thing and goes online, to a forum that dispenses general advice, and types the question “I have millions of dollars. Some people I know need hundreds of thousands to save their house, but I am afraid to let them know I am rich. Should I give them the money?” At two in the morning, although he feels as hopeless as a skeptic consulting a psychic, he scans the responses: I don’t believe you should give away your money if you worked really hard only if you won the lotterie…Yes, you have the responsability of giving but only to those who are true believers in Jesus Christ Our Lord and Saviour…Paris Hilton should give because she only inherits and dances in nightclubs but if you are not Paris Hilton then you should keep your money….Stupid rich person….You should give your money to me and I will make sure your money is returned to you a hundred fold, follow this link…Why do you think the rich are rich? Becoz they do not give their money to anyone. Duh… If instead you buy a 300 foot megayacht and use it to sail past shanty towns and watch people starve while you feast on foie gras and veal you are a f***er and you should kill yourself and die….This is socialism if not communism and that is bad…Money is worthless if just sets there collecting dust but yet you might encourage dependancies…Paris Hilton gets paid millions of dollars just for showing her hoohoo and so I am more deserving for I do not show my hoohoo… Read “Atlas Shrugged” and then you will know how stupid you are….If you had a TV worth a thousand dollars and your friend had a TV worth a hundred dollars, would you give them your TV? Would you?!… Of course there are Genetic Predisposes and so the wealthy deserve, the poor deserve, it is simple dont be a simpelton…Do these people need the money because they are sick and can’t work or are they lazy asses?….If you want to be amonst people of your own, pathetic intellect, I suggest you go back to where you came from…. I dont care but please do not give to the likes of bankers…Who are these people to you and who are you?
Rupert groans and texts Paul Liddell. “My parents are hosed. What should I do?”
It was nearly three in the morning, but Liddell calls him right back. “Rupert, you need a plan and you need to execute it. It’s certainly easier than writing a first-person shooter.”
“Aggravated Assault is not a first-person shooter. It’s an action game. With elements of adventure and role-playing. But action, mostly. And I tried going to a financial planner once. It sucked.”
“Lame excuses all, Rupert,” Liddell says. “Think about who you want to be and stop being a punk.”
At eight Liddell picks Rupert up in his tiny electric car and they make their silent way to a skyscraper near the Convention Center. The elevator shoots them to the fifty-third floor, and they spill out into an expansive lobby with glass-enclosed conference rooms, glass sculptures, and two busty young receptionists. There’s a 180-degree view of Mount Rainier, Elliot Bay, the Space Needle, and Bainbridge Island. This is Questos, the firm Liddell retains to control his vast wealth. Liddell explains that Questos accepts only clients who have a net worth over $50 million; the only reason they agreed to see Rupert is that Liddell insisted.
Ashley Ramamurti, Rupert’s consultant, is a junior exec. She’s exactly Rupert’s age. Her glossy dark hair is cut in a chin-length asymmetric style, framing her dramatic and beautiful face. She is dressed in beige suit with a Bangladeshi silk scarf tied around her long neck.
While her brusque manner intimidates Rupert, he feels reassured about her competence.
“Is there a way to pay off my parents’ house anonymously?” he says.
“In theory,” she says. “But first you have to get your house in order..”
Ms. Ramamurti clicks a button on a remote. “Account name and password?” she says. Within seconds, she accesses his accounts and feeds the data into modeling software. Rupert fidgets and drums his feet on the floor. He wants to go home.
Ms. Ramamurti calls for coffee and cookies and then she conducts her tutorial: trusts, tax strategies, hedge funds, mutual funds, bond funds, offshore tactics, estate planning, tax planning, risk planning. Rupert’s dearest passions and heartfelt values are to be mapped onto a risk profile, from which stochastic modeling will generate optimum allocations, budgets, and burn rates.
And then Rupert slides into a small revelation. He isn’t the richest person Ms. Ramamurti has ever met, by far. He’s just another gamer. And the meeting begins to feel playable, even fair.
The next day, while Rupert is sitting in his room worrying, Liddell calls.
“I know someone who just bought a house at a foreclosure auction. You stand on the courthouse steps and bid. If you’ve got cash, you can buy the house.”
“But my parents will know,” he says.
“Not if you retain an agent. According to the law the agent can’t tell anyone who you are.”
“Wouldn’t my parents assume it was me, though? And they could look up the title and tax records.”
Rupert thinks about it. A letter from Ms. Ramamurti saying an anonymous benefactor had bought their house and wanted them to live there rent-free in recognition of their lifetime of service to the less fortunate? It could work.
“You’re welcome. And, by the way, as a trustee of United Food Banks, I’m on the hook to bring in three new Grand Platinum Circle donors. You’re one of them.”
“I am a what? A who?”
“A Grand Platinum Circle member. Very prestigious. All it takes is a stock transfer form, which I have just now emailed to Ms. Ramamurti. Tell her to arrange a transfer worth twenty-five grand.”
“What if I don’t want to be a Grand Platinum Circle member?”
“At this level, Rupert, you get to make your own label. If you do it right away I’ll let you be anonymous. You’ve got till Friday.”
And so Rupert never has to tell his parents his secret. You may say, then, that he does not grow up. But he doesn’t have to grow up. He can prolong his adolescence because he doesn’t have to suffer much real hardship.
Don’t be too disappointed, though. At least Rupert keeps in regular touch with Paul Liddell. Eventually, he will have to step up and take care of his parents, whose health problems will worsen over time.
And in a few months, Rupert will start working again. He has an idea for a new game that’s better than anything he’s ever produced before. It has a harmonious field of vision, great replayability, and clever tests of flexibility, dexterity, and speed: planning complex campaigns, carrying comrades across rugged terrain, and keeping the hordes appeased.
The trick now is for him to keep it in his head long enough to design it all out. He’s been in this state of mind before, but it’s never felt this fragile or fraught with promise. ###
“Daredevil,” Descant, Vol.37, No.2 (Summer 2006), Descant Arts & Letters Foundation, 52-63.
By Linda Breneman
Gil Favor Barger, a stuntman in space operas, horror flicks, cop movies, spy series, and gangster romps, was my Holy Grail ex-boyfriend. All middle-aged divorcees have one. Maybe the man you married gambled all your money away on real estate schemes or drank all your money away in dive bars or gave all your money away to young flight attendants, but the one you didn’t marry—the one who never had any of your money in the first place—lived an exciting but blameless life these thirty years.
The wonder and the tragedy of modern life is that on a whim you can go on the internet and find your frozen-in-time ex-boyfriend. I went on the internet because I was depressed. In a two-year period, I’d suffered through a divorce, a bankruptcy, two relocations, a surgery, a job search, two Christmases, and an irate teenaged daughter with a serious boyfriend. I felt wrecked, fragmented, and sick, as if I were trapped in the Klimt poster on my wall—a swirling soup of ash-colored faces and flattened breasts and helpless limbs.
I put cartons of yogurt and milk in the fridge and apples, grapes, and pears on the counter and told Chelsea that if she let her boyfriend within a thousand feet of the house while I took a much-needed weekend away, she would be grounded forever, her allowance would be docked for many years, her room would be stripped of all electronic devices that ever existed or ever would be invented, and her car privileges would be permanently revoked before they had ever been given in the first place. She screamed insults at me. She knows how to get to me.
I alerted our neighborhood busybody.
I ignored a flood of guilt and worry.
I climbed into my elderly Dodge minivan. My overnight bag contained new lipsticks and lingerie.
I drove north from my home inSeattleto the Anacortes exit, which is just south of the Canadian border. Anacortes is a bleak ribbon of highway that extends from I-5 west toPuget Soundthrough wholesale marts, warehouse stores, lumber yards, and fast food joints. At the ferry dock I waited in line for an hour. It was2 o’clockon a November Friday afternoon. The sky was smoke gray and the light was thin and slanted, as if the sun had already given up on the day. Drizzle soaked the cars, soaked the ferry workers, soaked the walk-ons in their waterproof hoods and hiking boots. I wanted to admit my life was over, and then it was time to board.
The ferry crossing was rough. The MV Yakima is 400 feet long. It can hold 160 cars and 2500 passengers and can reach speeds of 17 knots, but it shuddered and rocked in the storm. I was queasy when we arrived at Orcas, the horseshoe-shaped island where I’d grown up. My queasiness was not entirely due to seasickness. I drove off the ferry and followed the two-lane highway in an inverted U from the south end of the western point around to the south end of the eastern point. Fourteen Columbian black-tailed deer grazed in wet grassy fields and blackberry thickets and Madrona groves. Olga, where Gil lives, consists of a crossroads and a café and a small grocery store. Past Olga, when I saw the Barger mailbox, I squished up a muddy lane to Gil’s home.
He’d built a substantial cabin on his mother’s acreage. It was long and narrow and constructed of yellow cedar with a hunter green metal roof. Douglas firs and vine maples and purple-stocked camas plants and ferns surrounded it, and I could see the choppy waters of Obstruction Pass through the trees.
Gil came to the door. His mother Betty, whom I’d known since I was a child on the island, had named Gil after Gil Favor because she loved the actor who played him on television in “Rawhide,” Eric Fleming, and because Gil’s father, John Barger, had worked as Fleming’s stunt double from time to time. Fleming is best known as the trail boss on “Rawhide,” but Betty had liked him in a 1959 horror flick called “Curse of the Undead” and a 1954 camp classic called “Queen of Outer Space” in which Zsa Zsa Gabor plays the scientist.
Gil was rangy and tall and fine-looking like I remembered him. His dark hair was now gray-streaked and receding around his temples, and he had perfect teeth—not the teeth I remembered from high school, but veneered facsimiles. His large hands had thick ropy scars. The ring finger of his left hand was bent and useless. He wore a black European-style dress shirt (tighter than the fuller-cut American type), pressed khakis, and expensive athletic shoes—the kind with plastic stilts in the soles. He was also wearing a gold Rolex. I don’t know if it was real. He wore no jewelry but the watch, not even a wedding ring, even though I knew he’d been married for five years to a much younger Scottish woman named Blair.
When he leaned down to kiss me on the cheek, he smelled like plain soap and sunscreen. I knew right then that I’d found what I was looking for. His scent picked me up and knocked me back thirty years. I was nineteen and full of anticipation, sexuality, assurance, and oomph. In short, for a moment, I was up for anything.
Blair came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on a white dishtowel. She was petite and lithe, with shrewd black eyes, a straight nose, and thin lips. Gil had written that she was from a small village nearGlasgow,Scotland, a no-nonsense place, and I could tell from her tone that she raised their two children, Mary, who is seven, and Sebastian, who is two, in a no-nonsense manner. She raised them by herself, mostly, since Gil was away from home about 40 weeks a year.
Mary and Sebastian were called in and introduced, and they extended their hands, unprompted, for me to shake. Mary was small for her age with dark curly hair and eyebrows that drew up and in toward the bridge of her nose as if she was perpetually focused on making a sincere apology. Sebastian looked like Mary except that he was chubby and doing a jig in place.
Gil Barger held his son upside down and swung him around by his feet. Mary tugged on Gil’s pants and asked to be swung around too, but Gil wouldn’t comply. Blair explained that Mary gets her time with Daddy every morning, when Gil sits in the passenger seat of his red Porsche 911, which is parked in his carport, and reads the Wall Street Journal and drinks his coffee, while Mary, who is obsessed with cars, pretends to drive.
Gil Barger’s living room was immaculate—the children were not allowed in it unless their father invited them. Glass-topped tables, giant ficus trees, and butter-colored leather sofas looked too fancy next to the log walls. An elk-skin rug lay in front of the pellet stove. The sliding glass door that fronted on the sea was open a crack, and the freezing wind whistled through. Gil didn’t seem to feel the cold. I shivered in my wool coat.
We got settled on the sofa closest to the stove and Blair bustled through with tea and crumpets and then disappeared again into the kitchen. We started with small talk, but we’d already caught up on the basics over e-mail, so it wasn’t long before we slipped into more intimate territory.
“I’ve been depressed,” I said. “You know, the divorce and everything.”
Gil leaned toward me and lowered his voice. “I’ve been depressed my whole life, on and off. Once I was hospitalized because I couldn’t get out of bed, and I decided I was never going to let that happen again. So when I’m not doing a movie I work out two hours a day with weights and run six miles. If I feel myself going down, I sit in my recliner and shame myself into feeling better. If that doesn’t work I go to the Brown Lantern in Anacortes and pick a fight with the biggest, drunkest welder in there, get myself beat up, and then get back on the ferry and go home.”
I wondered how Blair felt about that. I had a feeling she had coping skills similar to mine—sit tight and wait—which as it turns out is fine for getting through the day or the week, but it isn’t always the best long-term plan. I would have explained all this to her if she’d been willing to listen, but she didn’t exactly seem approachable.
Gil fixed himself a scotch. I was feeling queasy again. I tried to imagine how a man could get so lost that getting the crap beat out of him seems like a good option, but I came up empty. I declined the offer of a drink. I said, “I’m thinking I might go on pills.”
“I never saw a woman so alone,” Gil said.
I felt my face get hot, but I decided to wait and listen. I was struggling with my ancient attraction to Gil, which seemed stronger than it should have been, and my shock at the way he lived now, in a marriage that came off as tense and claustrophobic, in this remote and lonely place that we’d sworn to escape. I heard the children chattering and clattering toys in another room. Blair banged pots and plates in the kitchen, the wind whistled around window casings, the waves broke on the low bank, the tree branches clacked together, and a raven cawed. The rain started again and it drummed on the metal roof.
“That’s Jim Morrison, right?” I said. “‘I never saw a woman so alone?’ You always were a Morrison nut.”
“Yes, but I mean it.”
I wasn’t alone. I hadChelsea, a good job in the PR department at the university, and friends. But when my husband left, I felt like a different person, someone I’d never met—someone I’d glimpsed in a dream or watched in a movie. It was as if I’d been blown to pieces on a battlefield and I was crawling on the ground, feeling around for my lost arm, my lost leg, my lost head. Maybe I hoped Gil could help me find some of the missing pieces.
“You’re another lost angel is what I thought when I read your e-mail, and seeing you confirms it.”
I squirmed. “I think I’ll take that scotch after all.”
“It’ll be okay, Ellie,” he said. He poured a cup full of scotch, and plopped in one small cube of ice. “Look. I’ve jumped off buildings and wrecked cars and gotten shot up.” He laughed. “And I’m not even talking about the movies. God is dead, Ellen. All a man’s got is himself, and he’s got to be tough. You should find yourself a strong man and move on. You should find someone like me.” He slid closer and put his arm around me and kissed my hair.
Blair appeared in the room. I hadn’t seen her come in, but I realized the pot-clattering had been quiet for some time.
“What’s going on here?” she said.
“Nothing,” Gil said. He didn’t remove his arm from my shoulders.
“I told you, Gil, this is the last time,” Blair said evenly. “I’m not putting up with any more of your goings-on.”
“I didn’t mean to make trouble,” I said.
“What are you doing here, then?” Blair said.
“That’s it. Now you’ve insulted my friend.”
“Don’t you have something better to do?” she said, “than put your old girlfriend on display in front of the children?”
The air around Gil seemed to tick to flame. I had only been in the house a few minutes, but I felt like I’d stumbled into the middle of the final hostilities in a vast and active combat zone.
“I’m out of here.” Gil smashed his crystal glass on the glass table and it broke with a crash that sounded like a body crashing through a window.
“Come on, Ellen. Let’s swim to the moon,” Gil said, and he pulled me toward the door.
I went along with him. I can’t really explain why, except that opposing him while he was in that state seemed imprudent. My plan was to get outside, slow things down, and take off alone in my van. I thought I’d splurge on a room atRosarioand use the hot tub and leave on the early ferry in the morning. But outside, he took my purse off my shoulder and went through it until he found the keys to the van. With Blair standing on the porch screaming Scottish insults, Gil threw the van sideways and spun it around, and we were on the road.
“Did you know,” Gil said, “that when I was nine years old, my mother killed my father with a fireplace poker?”
“Betty?” I remembered Betty as a model citizen, a member of the Island Council and the PTA. I knew Gil’s dad had died when he was young, but I’d always thought it was a heart attack or an accident on the job. “No. That can’t be right.”
“I was there. I saw it,” he said. His veneered teeth flashed in oncoming headlights. The yellow curve sign said 30 m.p.h., and he was going 65. He threw the car into a power slide and we were on the straightaway again. I rolled down the window and breathed rain and evergreen and wood smoke. Two small deer stood frozen on the side of the road, waiting to cross.
“They were always fighting. Whenever Dad was home from a shoot, the two of them would drink, and they would fight, and the fights would escalate until somebody got hurt. The police had been to the house a dozen times. They weren’t surprised when it ended that way. They believed her when she said it was self-defense, but I knew better.”
I held on to the seat. “Can you slow down?” I knew he was a professional stunt driver (hadn’t that danger and excitement been the real enticement for my trip, after all?), but now the whole thing—the man, the car, the plan—seemed utterly brainless.
“I know what I’m doing. Stunt driver, remember?” He flashed his teeth at me and poked his right index finger at his chest, and then he pulled a 360 in the middle of the road and kept going. My heart beat in my ears and I felt dizzy. I braced my feet against the floor and my hands against the dash.
“Betty knew that I knew what she did. He was coming toward her when she killed him, but he wouldn’t have hurt her. She said she did it for me, that he would have come after me eventually, and she wanted to protect me. That’s what I grew up knowing.”
We passedMoranState Park, the parking lot where Gil and I had made love in his panel truck after the football game in which he had scored three touchdowns. We were inseparable for months, until I went away to school at theUniversityofWashingtonand met the man I married, Jonathan Marcum, a placid, quiet philosophy major who unfortunately went on to become an airline pilot. AfterChelseawas born I had my life as a working mother and he had his flight schedule, and I saw less and less of him. I never really understood what Jonathan was doing, and why he had to do it so much, and I missed him, but I didn’t know how to slow things down. He ended up leaving me for a young reservation agent at the airline.
Gil continued to drive as if he was racing a chariot in Ben Hur. I tried to slow down my breathing and wondered if what he said about Betty was true. If the incident had happened when he was nine, could he have misunderstood it, or even fantasized it?
“I always wished my father could have been the one to teach me how to drive. I miss him,” Gil said. “I want to show you something.”
I thought aboutOrcasIsland, my escape from it, and my inauspicious return, as Gil rolled through Eastsound, the only real town on the island. Orcas has changed since I left, but one thing is the same: there are factions, and they don’t get along. Nowadays the factions encompass six basic groups: New Age zealots; artists and writers; environmentalists; developers, builders and real estate agents; wealthySeattleandCaliforniaretirees; and locals—farmers, fishermen, and tourism workers.
They all resent each other. The locals especially resent everybody else (the retirees for driving up real estate prices and taxes, the environmentalists for imposing building restrictions, and the artists and New Agers for being peculiar).
My parents had gotten impatient with the whole scene and moved off the island when I went to college. They hadn’t been back since. What was I doing here?
“We’re going to see Betty.” Gil said, turning into a dark parking lot. “Get out of the car.”
“She’s here?” I said.
“She’s been dying here for months.”
The nursing home was a new one-story structure with vinyl siding, a shake roof, aluminum windows, hideous mint-green shutters, and a thirty-foot flagpole out front. A searchlight was trained on Old Glory, which was being so severely buffeted in the wind that it made a sound like the crack of distant gunfire. No one was at the front counter, and we walked unchallenged down the one long hallway, quiet except for a television that flashed blue light and canned laughter. It smelled like rose deodorizer with an undercurrent of urine and something sweet—ancient bodies or death? I touched the stainless steel bars bolted halfway up the walls and walked on tiptoe so my boot heels wouldn’t clack and echo.
I was wearing a pair ofChelsea’s thong underwear, and that was all I could think about as I navigated the hall. The narrow back band expanded over the fissure between my buttocks like a bungee cord approaching the limit of its downward stretch. I had taken the thong out ofChelsea’s drawer on impulse. I’d had to put on my bifocals in order to identify the waistband and distinguish the front from the back.
“I want to check on her,” he said. “I want you to say hello.”
In her room, there was a nightlight shaped like a race car. “From Mary,” Gil said.
What was left of Betty Barger was lying in a narrow white room in a narrow white bed. Her head was tilted back and her mouth gaped open, as if she was being made ready for artificial respiration. It was hot in the room. Betty’s knees were drawn up and looked sharp and fleshless under the thin white sheet and knit blanket.
“Her legs don’t straighten out anymore,” he said. “She used to dance. Remember how she danced?” He wiped his eyes with his scarred fists. “I’m going to the bathroom. Be right back.” And then he disappeared into the hallway murk.
I did remember how Betty danced. The Grange Hall, Betty dancing foxtrots, polkas, waltzes, and jitterbugs. She wore pointed patent leather pumps, a full-skirted purple organza dress, a pink cashmere cardigan. Her 1960s hair was swirled and teased into a magnificent Marie Antoinette dome. She wore black eyeliner that extended Twiggy-style from the outside corner of each azure-shadowed eye.
Now she was tiny and shriveled, and her skin was ashen and transparent. Her hair was white and wispy like dandelion blossoms long gone to seed. I thought of dandelions’ hollow stems, how they leaked a clear fluid when you pierced them with your fingernail.
Betty’s chest rose and fell in irregular bursts. She seemed deeply asleep, deeply at peace. I didn’t want to wake her up. But her eyes flew open.
She looked into my eyes and I knew she knew me. Her lips formed my name, but no sound came out. Her bent hands shook.
“That’s right, Betty, it’s Ellen,” I said. “How do you feel?”
“Not very good,” she said. It was as if her tongue was three sizes too big for her mouth. Her voice sounded thick and slurred.
She began to cough, but it was a pitiful effort, a chortling, wet exertion that yielded a bead of thin, clear liquid on her lips.
“Can I help? Do you need water?”
She pointed her forehead at a putty-colored covered cup with a straw. I slid my arm under her shoulders and put the straw to her lips.
“Do you have a cigarette?” she said.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to smoke in here.”
“I can smoke,” she said. She stared at me with a fierceness I remembered from her younger days.
I took out a cigarette, put it in her mouth, and struck a match. The cigarette wouldn’t light because she didn’t have much ability to inhale.
“You light it,” she whispered.
“Okay.” I lit it and put it to her lips. She managed one short drag.
My back was to the door and I felt rather than heard Gil enter the room. “It’s okay to go,” he said. “Tell her, Ellen.”
“Tell her what?”
“Tell her it’s okay to go.”
Betty turned her face slightly away and looked at her son with one green, watery eye.
I wished I didn’t know what I knew.
“Tell her,” he said again.
“Betty, do you want to see a priest?” I said.
“He comes here every week. Every week he gives me the Last Rites.” She turned her head and looked at Gil. “I told him that already. He never listens.”
Gil crossed his arms and waited.
“It’s okay to go if you want to,” I said. I said it because I wanted the scene to be over. I wanted out of there.
On the way out I said, “Why did you do that?”
“I need a brand new friend who doesn’t trouble me,” he said.
“Enough with the Morrison,” I said.
“The doctors say she’s suffering. She can’t even cough. You saw her try. It’s pathetic. She has congestive heart failure, Parkinson’s, and osteoporosis. She’s too mean to die.”
“I think she’s afraid,” I said. “You said yourself that God is dead.”
“She needs to saw through all her bars,” he said.
I thought he needed her to saw through all his bars, but I didn’t say that. I wondered how he’d feel when she was actually gone.
We climbed in the van again and ended up at the Lower Tavern in Eastsound. The Friday night crowd was making the usual din—bellowed conversations, oldies on the juke box, the jangle and thump of glasses. It was the same as it had been when I’d been there as a teenager with fake ID. A long crowded bar made of Honduran mahogany. On tap, Miller and Molson’s Canadian. Black plastic ashtrays and the smell of stale beer and butts. Two pool tables with grimy balls and beat-up cue sticks and piles of quarters on the rails. Three dart boards and middle-aged locals in jeans and flannel shirts waiting to play.
Gil shoved quarters in the juke box and in a couple of minutes it blasted forth “American Woman,” by The Doors. The song played, and then it played again. And again.
Every time I moved I felt the back of the thong rub against my ass. How does a person hold a conversation about old times or walk from the bar to the table while a band of microfiber is pressing against her rectum, reminding her that she has a rectum?
This line of thought led to thoughts about the foot-long scar on my abdomen, and visible veins on my legs, and wrinkles, of course, on my face, but also on my wrists, and spots on the backs of my hands, and bunions on my feet. And I wondered how I could have donned the thong in the first place. How I could have contacted Gil and how I could have driven to his house and how I could have told his mother that it was okay to die and how I could be engaged in a game of pool with him (when his wife was thirteen miles away with his two young children) and how I could be waggling my nearly fifty-year-old, thonged, be-jeaned ass in the air as I reached for a bank shot (the red four ball in the corner pocket), and how he could place his hand on my ass just as I slid the cue through slightly beer-numbed fingers. And how, at the moment I knew I would miss the shot, the blue smudges on the cue ball could resemble bruises.
“I need to get home,” I said.
“Not tonight. You’ve missed the last ferry.”
“If I leave now I can make the10:50.”
“You don’t want to do that.”
I was physically exhausted and as tired of Gil as I was of myself. He could no longer remember that he was not the Lizard King, or that there was no such thing in the world. Jim Morrison is long dead and buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery inParis. I wanted to crawl into my bed at home after I’d made sureChelseawas safe in the next room. I wanted to turn out the light and sleep.
I recognized some of the people in the tavern. There were two men in overalls on the barstools who had been there, perched on those same stools, thirty years before. There was Earlene Smith, the woman who owned the beauty shop down the street. There was Joey Morgan, a party girl who’d been a few years ahead of me in school. She looked trapped in the seventies in her denim miniskirt and poofy white peasant blouse, but her hands were big-knuckled with arthritis and she walked like an old lady.
I remembered bringing Jonathan into this tavern when we were seniors in college. My parents had moved off the island, but I’d wanted to show him where I’d grown up. We sat at a table by the door and Jonathan told me, in his sweet, sincere way, about his class in Epistemology, and his own theories on the nature of knowledge—I didn’t understand much. What I got out of it was that he knew he loved me. We made love in a dilapidated room in the Outlook Inn, overlooking theSalishSea. Later, when Jonathan was traveling all the time and I felt like I was raising our child alone, I had an affair with a man I met at work, a professor in the Astronomy Department. He taught me the names of the constellations, and for a while that was what I needed. We, Jonathan and I, got back together—Chelseawas just turning ten—but nothing was the same after that. The knowledge that betrayal is possible meant the end of us.
“Strange days have found us, Ellie,” Gil said. “And you’re a stranger to yourself.”
“Your quarter’s up,” I said.
“You need somebody. You need somebody to tell you who you really are. We could be so good together.”
Because Gil wasn’t claiming his quarter, Earlene and Joey were teaming up with a couple of tourists. The big Nordic-looking tourist in a yellow polo shirt with steroid arms was pouring balls into the rack when Gil took his jacket off and draped it over the chair and then grabbed the tourist’s bulging bicep, swung him around, and cold cocked him. He staggered back into a table and knocked over a pitcher of beer.
While Gil braced himself for the response, I caught sight of him without his Hollywood-style façade—the little kid who’d feared his dad’s fist—and the last traces of obsession dissipated like smoke on the sea, to be replaced by nothing but richly deserved regret and its mid-life companion: deep, universal, and comfortable sorrow. As the infuriated tourist picked himself up off the floor, I took my car keys out of Gil’s jacket pocket and slid out the door without saying goodbye.
My van was the second to last car on the MV Yakima’s final Friday evening sailing to Anacortes. The storm had blown itself out, and the stars shined in the sky above the aft deck. I waited for the crossing to end and wondered what I knew. I knew I wished Betty a better death than she probably deserved. I thought Gil would go back to Blair and they’d fight, but fighting was what kept them afloat and alive.
After a while the seasickness eased, I lost myself in the Milky Way, and then, with some effort, I located the North Star and began to recall the names of the constellations.
“Queen of the Nile,” Signs of Life 2007, Facere Jewelry Art Gallery, Seattle, Washington, May 2007, p. 16.