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Everything began to go wrong for Janice Wilder in the late summer of 1960. And the worst part, she always said afterwards, the awful part, was that it seemed to happen without warning.
She was thirty-four and the mother of a ten-year-old son. The fading of her youth didn’t bother her–it hadn’t been a very carefree or adventurous youth anyway–and if her marriage was more an arrangement than a romance, that was all right too. Nobody’s life was perfect. She enjoyed the orderly rotation of her days; she enjoyed books, of which she owned a great many; and she enjoyed her high, bright apartment with its view of midtown Manhattan towers. It was neither a rich nor an elegant apartment, but it was comfortable–and “comfortable” was one of Janice Wilder’s favorite words. She was fond of the word “civilized,” too, and of “reasonable” and “adjustment” and “relationship.” Hardly anything upset or frightened her: the only things that did–sometimes to the point of making her blood run cold–were things she didn’t understand.
“I don’t understand,” she said to her husband on the telephone. “What do you mean, you ‘can’t’ come home?” And she glanced uneasily at their boy, who sat on the carpet eating an apple and absorbed in the CBS Evening News.
“What?” she said. “I can’t hear you. You’re what?
. . . Wait; I’ll take this in the bedroom.”
When she was alone at the extension phone, behind two closed doors, she said “All right, John. Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you? At LaGuardia?”
“No, thank God; I finally got out of that son of a bitch. Must’ve spent at least two hours walking around and around out there before I figured out how to get a cab; then I got one of these damn talky cab drivers, and he–”
“You’re drunk, aren’t you?”
“Will you let me finish? No, I’m not drunk. I’ve been drinking but I’m not drunk. Listen: you know how much sleep I got in Chicago? The whole week? Almost none. One, two hours a night, and last night I didn’t sleep at all. You don’t believe me, do you? You never believe the truth.”
“Just tell me where you’re calling from.”
“I don’t know; some kind of stand-up phone booth, and my legs are about to–Grand Central. The Biltmore. No, wait: the Commodore. I’m having a drink at the Commodore.”
“Well, dear, that’s practically around the corner. All you have to do is–”
“God damn it, aren’t you listening? I just got through telling you I can’t come home.”
She hunched forward on the edge of the double bed with her elbows on her slacks, holding the phone tightly to both hands. “Why?” she said.
“Jesus. Hundreds of reasons. More reasons than I could possibly begin to–possibly begin to enumerate. One thing, I forgot to get a present for Tommy.”
“Oh, John, that’s absurd. He’s ten now; he doesn’t expect a present every time you–”
“Okay, here’s another thing. There was a girl in Chicago, little PR girl for one of the distilleries. I screwed her five times in the Palmer House. Whaddya think of that?”
It wasn’t the first news of its kind–there had been a good many girls–but it was the first time he’d ever flung it at her this way, like an adolescent braggart trying to shock his mother. She thought of saying What would you like me to think? But didn’t trust her voice: it might sound wounded, which would be a mistake, or it might sound dry and tolerant and that would be worse. Luckily he didn’t wait long for an answer.
“And whaddya think of this? All the way back on the plane I kept looking at my sweet little Air Transportation Credit Card. Know what I could do with that card anytime I feel like it? I could say the hell with everything. Climb into a big silver bird and take off to someplace like Rio; lie around in the sun and drink and do absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing until–”
“John, I’m not listening to any more of this. Tell me why you can’t come home.”
“You really want to know, sweetheart? Because I’m afraid I might kill you, that’s why. Both of you.”
Paul Borg, like the Wilders’ son, was watching the CBS News. He said “Damn” when the phone rang because Eric Sevareid had just reached a summing-up about Senator Kennedy’s chances of defeating Vice President Nixon.
“I’ll get it,” his wife called from the steaming kitchen.
“No, no; that’s all right. I’ll get it.” His legal clients sometimes called him at home and they wanted to hear his voice right away, with no fooling around. But this was no client. “Oh,” he said. “Hi, Janice.”
“Paul, I hate to bother you at dinnertime but I’m terribly concerned about John . . .”
He listened, interrupting her with questions, and the questions were enough to bring his own wife slowly out of the kitchen, enough to make her turn off the television set and stand as close as possible beside him at the phone, her eyes round with fascination. When he said “… afraid he might kill you?” her cheeks turned pink and the fingers of one unsteady hand crept into her mouth.
“… Well, of course I’ll do whatever I can, Janice. I’ll run up there now and–you know–have a talk with him, try to find out what the problem is. You just take it easy and don’t worry, okay? I’ll get back to you soon as I can. . . . Okay, Janice.”
“My God!” his wife said when he’d hung up.
“Where’s my tie?”
She found it and pulled his coat from the hall closet with such urgency that the wire hanger clattered to the floor. “Did he really threaten to kill her?” She looked radiant.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Natalie. No, of course he didn’t ‘threaten’; apparently he’s just going through some kind of nervous or emotional–I’ll tell you when I get back.”
He let the door slam behind him but she opened it and followed him halfway to the elevator. “Paul, what about dinner?”
“You go ahead and eat; I’ll get something uptown. And listen, I don’t want you calling Janice. I want her phone to be free so I can call her. Okay?”
They lived in one of the new, tall buildings of the northwest Village; Borg figured it would take him no more than ten minutes to get to the Commodore, and as he eased out of his parking space and headed uptown on Hudson he was pleased with the efficiency of his car and the fluid skill of his driving. He was pleased too at the way Janice’s voice had gone from desperation to a renewal of strength and hope, pleased that she’d called him in the first place. Once at a crosstown stoplight he leaned over for a quick look in the rearview mirror, to make sure his hair and tie were straight and to admire the sober maturity of his face. Not only a horn blared behind him did he see the light was green.
He spotted his man as soon as he walked into the downstairs bar. John Wilder sat alone at a table against the far wall, staring into a drink with his forehead resting on his hand. But it was important to make this seem a chance encounter, which shouldn’t be hard: they both worked in offices not far away; they’d often met here for a drink on their way home. To dispel any notion of conspiracy he slid one buttock onto a barstool and ordered a Scotch and soda–“make it light”–and silently counted to a hundred before he risked another glance at Wilder. No change. His hair had been raked awry by nervous fingers (that alone was odd because he was usually careful to the point of vanity about his hair), and with his face in shadow it was impossible to guess at whether he was drunk or exhausted or–well, whatever. From the head down, though, he was the same as ever: a short, composed, well-proportioned man in a well-cut business suit, fresh shirt and dark tie, with an expensive suitcase on the floor beside his knee.
Borg turned back to the bar, hoping Wilder might see him first; then he counted to a hundred again, carried his drink across the room in what he hoped was a casual stroll and said “Hey, John. Thought you were in Chicago.”
Wilder looked up, and he looked terrible: very pale, beaded with sweat, and his eyes seemed out of focus.
“Just get back?” Borg said, pulling out a chair to sit down with him.
“While ago. What’re you doing out so late?” At least he seemed to know what time it was.
“Didn’t get out of the office till seven. Hell of a day. Meetings, phone calls; sometimes everything happens at once. You know.”
But Wilder wasn’t listening. He finished his drink greedily and said “How old’re you now, Paul? Forty?”
“Son of a bitch. I’m not even thirty-six and I feel old as God. Waiter! Where the hell’s that waiter?” When his eyes turned back they were clear and keen. “Tell me something else. Why do you suppose we both married homely women?”
Borg felt a welling of blood from his collar to his scalp.
“Come on,” he said. “You know that’s a stupid thing to say.”
“True, though. Hell, it’s understandable in my case because I’ve always been a shrimp. Everybody said I looked like Mickey Rooney when I was a kid, and I mean it’s no cinch to get good-looking girls with a handicap like that. I guess I settled on Janice because she had these wonderful big tits when she was younger; figured I could forget the rest of it, the short legs and the fullback shoulders and the face: I’d just bury myself in those tits forever and shut out the world. Jesus. But that’s my story; what’s yours? I mean you’re tall. How come you wound up with an alligator like Natalie?”
“All right, cut it out now, John. You’ve had too much to drink.”
“Hell I have. How do you know how much I’ve had to drink? Need sleep, is all. Absolutely no sleep, the whole week in Chicago. Thrashed around in that bed at the Palmer House with my nerves screaming and my mind going in circles like some crazy–I don’t know. Had a nice little girl thrashing around with me part of the time and even that didn’t help. But you know something? I learned a lot about myself. Sometimes when you can’t sleep you figure things out; I did, anyway. Hell of a lot of things. Then coming in from the airport I got one of these damn talky cab drivers and you know what he said? He said–Oh Jesus, you’re sore at me now, aren’t you, Paul? You’re sore because I called Natalie an alligator.”
“I’m not sore; I’m concerned about you. You don’t look well and you’re not talking sensibly. Frankly, I don’t think you’re in any shape to go home tonight.”
And Wilder gave a heavy sigh of relief. “Neither do I, old friend. No shape at all. Tried to tell Janice that and she didn’t understand. Listen, you call her, okay? You explain it.”
“Sure, John. I’ll call her later.”
“Because I mean she’ll understand anything if you explain it. She thinks you’re Abraham fucking Lincoln.”
“All right, John.”
“You’re a lucky bastard, you know that, Paul? I mean a lawyer’s a professional man, like a doctor or a priest: people listen when you talk. You’re not some turd under everybody’s feet like me. Cab drivers, waiters, all my life I’ve been victimized by slobs. Tyrannized by slobs.”
“What did the cab driver say, John?”
“Ah, that smartass. He was driving like a maniac and I kept telling him to slow down, you see, and I was kind of jumping and squirming around in the back seat, and he said ‘You better see a psychiatrist, buddy, you’re a nervous wreck.’”
“Another thing: you’re lucky you don’t have any kids. My God, if it weren’t for Tommy I’d take my sweet little Air Transportation Credit Card, climb into a big silver bird and take off to someplace like Rio: lie around in the sun till my money’s gone and then blow my brains out. I mean it.”
“No you don’t. Let’s try to be reasonable, John. Nobody can go without sleep for a week. I think you need medical care; you need sedation and rest. Let me run you down to St. Vincent’s.”
“Listen, Borg. You’re a nice guy and you’ve had a hard day at the office and I’m sorry I called your wife an alligator because she’s nice too and she’s probably got a dandy little chicken-noodle casserole waiting for you downtown, but I’ll be a son of a bitch if you’re gonna lock me up in any hospital.”
“Nobody’s going to lock you up. You’ll check into St. Vincent’s for exhaustion: they’ll put you to sleep and you’ll come out tomorrow or the next day like a new man. Like your old self. It’s the only thing to do.”
There was a pause. “Let me think about it.” And thinking about it meant calling for another drink, half of which he finished in a swallow. “I got a better idea,” he said then. “Take me down to Varick Street.”
And Borg winced because he’d been afraid of that suggestion from the start. Several years ago the two of them had joined in renting a dirt-cheap basement apartment on Varick Street (a cellar apartment, really, the kind supposed to be condemned by the city) as a secret retreat from their married lives. They’d had it cleaned up and painted white, they’d equipped it with a double bed and a well-stocked liquor cabinet, a second-hand stove and refrigerator and enough other stuff to make it “nice,” and an unlisted phone: the idea was that when either of them came across what Wilder called a windfall–an available, willing girl–he could disappear into the place for an afternoon or even a couple of nights, feigning out-of-town business, and be a happy if somewhat nervous bachelor again. But it had sounded better than it was: there’d never really been all that many windfalls.
“You don’t want to go to Varick Street, John.”
“Who says I don’t? What’s the matter, you going there yourself?”
”No. I haven’t been down there for months. But if the girl in Chicago couldn’t help you sleep, what makes you think some other girl could?”
“Might be worth a try. You ever met Rita? Research girl up at Time and Life? Course, it’s probably too late to call her. Or the sort of heavy one? What’s her name? Married to the doctor? No, wait; she moved to Boston.”
“Come on, John. Let’s be realistic.”
And Wilder gave up. “Realistic; right. That’s my trouble. All my life, I’ve never been realistic. I ever tell you how I wanted to make movies? Jesus Christ.” He finished his drink. “Okay, Borg; you’re on. One more drink and I’ll be realistic as hell. Waiter!” He thrust his glass as far into the aisle as his arm would allow and might have fallen out of the chair if he hadn’t clung to the table with his free hand.
“No need to shout, sir,” the waiter said.
“No need to be a little wise guy, either.”
“Look, mister: I don’t have to serve you.”
“Yeah? Well then how’d you like to kiss my ass, greaseball?”
“It’s all right,” Borg said, laying many dollar bills on the table. “It’s all right; we’re leaving. Here, John, I’ll take your suitcase.”
“Whaddya maen, I can’t carry my own bag? You think I’m a cripple?”
But the bag did give him trouble: he got it wedged in one of the plate-glass doors and said “Son of a bitch,” causing people to turn and look at him; then as they walked the passageway to Lexington Avenue he stopped and put it down several times, once nearly tripping a woman, because he said it was killing his hand and breaking the hell out of his leg.