The New York Times
Fun with Problemsby Robert Stone
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In Fun with Problems, Robert Stone demonstrates once again that he is “one of our greatest living writers” (Los Angeles Times). The stories in this new collection share the signature blend of longing, violence, and black humor with which Stone illuminates the dark corners of the human soul. Entire lives are laid bare with remarkable precision, in captivating prose: a screenwriter carries on a decades-long affair with a beautiful actress, whose descent into addiction he can neither turn from nor share; a bored husband picks up a mysterious woman only to find that his ego has led him woefully astray; a world-beating Silicon Valley executive receives an unwelcome guest at his mansion in the hills; a scuba dive takes uneasy newlyweds to a point of no return. Fun with Problems showcases Stone’s great gift: to pinpoint and make real the impulses—by turns violently coercive and quietly seductive—that cause us to conceal, reveal, and betray our truest selves.
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Fun with Problems
Hampton County locked them down in a nineteenth-century brick fortress of a jail, a penitential fantasy of red brick keeps and crenellations. The sight of it had twisted many a cocky smile. Citizens waiting at its marble stoop could contemplate the solipsisms of razor wire and the verse of all-weather civic poetry on the rosy keystone: learn to labor and to wait.
Most of the time, Peter Matthews, an aging attorney with the public defender's office, liked the place for its spooky melodrama. On the days his presence was required there, he had a six-mile country drive to town. In summer or fall, when the weather was nice, it could be very pleasant. The unimproved road followed a high wooded ridge that enfolded the oxbows of a wide, slow-moving river. Corn and shade tobacco grew along the banks, and two of the switchbacks had preserved wooden bridges. In ice or wintry weather, the drive was work.
One Monday, toward the end of the football season, Matthews took a call from a young Cape Cod burglar called Georgie Laplace. Laplace, who was heedless and unlucky, had involved himself in the theft and disposal of some turquoise Hopi jewelry. To clear their books, the police on the Cape had constructed a useful narrative around him. Then they had transported Georgie clear across the state to Hampton's monster jail, where, it was hoped, he would succumb to homesickness and fear and endorse their version in court.
It was an outrage. In spite of the weather, Matthews decided to drive in.
On television, they were advertising the game later that night with file footage from Miami. Matthews lingered at the tube just long enough to glimpse the sunny margin of the field and get a blimp's-eye view of the shoreline. Since his divorce, he had been renting two rooms in a former bed-and-breakfast, a big farmhouse secured from the road by an absentee farmer's cornfields. It was a quiet place, comfortable enough when his mood was right. His fellow tenants were a couple of retired New York schoolteachers who lived upstairs and a tall man named Stokely, a locksmith on salary from a local hardware store who drove the company car. Everyone got on well. Nodded greetings and agreeable observations were exchanged. The owners of the property, Mr. and Mrs. Esquivel, lived in another farmhouse, fifty yards off: they had fled Colombia in the grip of La Violencia and had little tolerance for conflict.
On his way to the carport, Matthews noticed Mrs. Esquivel's cold, experienced eye on him. Little escaped her.
He eased the car over the wet double track to the paved road and started on his way to town. The ride was faster and easier by interstate, but Matthews had his ritual commitment to the two-lane road. That wet afternoon, it gave him little pleasure. The horizon had closed around him, and he moved in the face of an icy rain that thickened on his windshield wipers. At the first stop sign, he skidded, ending up at a crazy angle to the yellow line. After that, he turned up the radio for company, but there were only call-ins. Whiners, know-it-alls, Christers. An alienated lot.
In the depths of his soul, Matthews hated Hampton County. The local press sometimes idealized the place as the Happy Valley. Matthews liked to amuse his friends by calling it the Unhappy Valley, and he had a repertory of cruel, funny anecdotes about it. At the same time, the Valley was a particularly easy jurisdiction in which to make a living. His ambitions had faded, and life could be various and perversely satisfying in Hampton. When Matthews launched into his Unhappy Valley routine it was his own life and fortunes he was describing, and most days he could tolerate those well enough.
In fact, the Valley was his native place, and he had been watching it all his life: its preachifying and its secret horrors. The recently arrived professionals, academics and technologists, had brought to Hampton a self-conscious blessed assurance, unaware of the beatings, arson and murder that thrived in the hills around their white-trim shutters. Matthews knew the place's black heart. It was his living. Where the road descended to the river, a mile short of the first covered bridge, there stood a lone wooden tenement, the survivor of a company street of mill houses dating from the industrial age. All its companion houses had burned to the ground years before. Nearly every time Matthews passed the house, he saw children, a squadron of little whitey towheads who, in the time he had lived at the Esquivels', seemed never to change in age or approximate numbers. The house was unpainted and usually had one of its windows glazed in plastic.
Through the sleet, he saw one of the children standing in an open doorway, dressed for a summer afternoon. It was a girl of about ten, in baggy jeans and a yellowing, ragged hand-me-down T-shirt. She stood absolutely still, indifferent to the stings of the weather, unblinking. She wore a necklace of glass stones and shiny metal. Her stare was profound and uneasy-making.
He waved to her, and she was gone. When he pulled out to cross the intersection, it was as though she had not been there.
He thought perhaps the solitude was finally getting to him, leaving him impulsive and eccentric, even on his sober days. Especially on his sober days, each one marked with small errors of judgment. The sight of children sometimes made him homesick for his married past, getting his son to school, drinking a beer with his wife.
During the seventies, everyone had said it was a tough time to bring up children; in fact, it went on being that way. The eighties and the nineties were no better. He and his wife had been lucky. Their only boy was sensible and decent, partaking of his mother's rectitude and perhaps a little too much of his own “pessimism.” So there was that at least. He called the thing he had pessimism.
Halfway up a hillside, a turn-of-the-century Volvo passed him with cheery disregard. Its bumper sticker read “We Are One Family,” the town motto - the reference was to the imagined relationship between Hampton's inhabitants and those of the great globe itself, which was displayed in congenial artsy abstract, a smiley-face Planet Earth complete with latitudes and longitudes. Was it more frightening to raise children in the place Hampton had become? He could hardly say; his perspective was that of a criminal lawyer who knew the annals of wickedness.
A couple of miles farther on, Matthews came in sight of town. The famous jail, the red brick rat-house minarets attached to a new wing of frosted Martian glass, stood beside the river between a pair of old paper mills, whose lofts were now mainly occupied by artists in flight from the city. There were also a few shabby offices, headquarters to some social-services organizations. These were relics of the age of concern, grown decadent with underfunding, long on ideology and short on practical solutions. One scarred band specialized in raiding the migrant-pickers' cockfights. A crazy poet did children's theater the children dreaded.
Matthews parked his car in the sheriff's lot and eased up the marble steps to the old entrance. In a worn canvas case he had the recorded life and works of George Edgar Laplace. Settled in the lawyers' area, Matthews checked his records. At his previous arrest, the kid had been still too young for Hampton; the conditions of his sentencing specified some form of juvenile detention. This time they could keep him there.
As a child, George had been incorrectly diagnosed as retarded and spent years in the State School, equipped with all too much of the self-awareness he was supposed to have been spared. Some of the more dedicated teachers there had befriended him. But the school was run not by its staff but by inmate youths of perfectly adequate intelligence, eccentric only in their cruelty and unwanted at home. George inclined to drugs for self-medication. The drugs placed him in a criminal milieu, a quarter badly suited for such an unadventurous, asthmatic, overimaginative person.
Of course, Matthews thought, the system required Georgies. It might be that justice itself required Georgies.
He became a punk, a snitch, a white rat, the man never to be used honorably, since he respected only the threat of violence, who could, for the good vainly done him, return only treachery. Fear was his only friend and master. The wise hard-hearted English politician had correctly foretold Georgie Laplace - his soul was a slave's.
Poor Georgie, thought Matthews, fishing through the young man's paper. The guy's worst affliction was his sharp comprehension. He scudded around the state's jail system with his intelligence soldered to his back like a bottle rocket pinned by a State School sadist to a frog. He even had the wit not to ask why. It made him interesting company. It made him worth fighting for sometimes.
Matthews and his client conferred in a chapel in the jail's old wing, a relic of gentler days. The chapel had been temporarily divided by partitions of wallboard and Plexiglas that reached a third of the way to the ceiling and were being slowly vandalized.
There were a couple of conferences in progress that afternoon, and quarters were close. The two guards, whom the inmates called “hacks,” could hear every conversation from their station. Matthews's young client, across the misted plastic and dirty wallboard, looked frightened out of his wits.
Thirty-five feet away, at another partition, a maniac called Brand was in what looked like flirtatious conversation with a tall toothy red-headed woman. It was of Brand that Georgie Laplace was particularly frightened.
“He's gonna break my fingers, man,” Georgie told his lawyer. “He said that. He told me he was gonna break my fingers at lunch.”
Georgie's half-whispered, stuttering terror was distracting to Matthews, who was trying to extract Georgie's particulars from a welter of false and misleading documents.
Matthews put his glasses on to look at Brand, a kind of local character, though quite a dangerous one. Matthews had seen him before: a man about thirty, powerfully built. He had curly blond hair that cascaded over his brows with cavalier deviltry. In spite of his silly fair mustache, girls, often to their subsequent regret, found him wicked cute.
Brand, without question, was destined for the hospital. The word on the block was that to get into the hospital you had to do something queer enough to make the tabloids. If you pulled weird shit, maimed some fuck, you might get hospital time. Matthews was also taken with the man's visitor, who seemed to represent the educated classes.
“Brand's gonna break my fingers, no shit,” Georgie was saying.
Brand's visitor had laid out a set of tarot cards on the surface provided on her side of the barrier. She seemed to be charting her patient's destiny.
“Did he tell you he'd break your fingers?” Matthews asked.
“Fuckin'-A right he told me! He says, 'What you bet I can break your fingers? Not everybody could do it,' he says. 'Most wouldn't do it,' he says.”
“So what did you say to that?” Matthews asked.
“What did I say? What would you say?”
“Keep your voice down,” Matthews said.
The young woman sat very tall. She wore an ankle-length suede skirt and boots and a turtleneck top that favored, in Matthews's view, the swell of her small breasts and firm shoulders.
Matthews watched them. The woman was laughing at something Brand had said, and Matthews felt a rush of what he thought might be a very basic form of sexual jealousy. Here, safely confined, we had self-selected alpha man, recognizable by his readiness to snap off your digits on a whim, exchanging a few sexual signifiers with the condescending female of the species. It wasn't pretty, but it was the real thing.
“Hey, counselor,” Georgie wailed. Instinctively, he lowered his voice. “How about gettin' me out of this tank?”
“Lay low for a while,” Matthews whispered. They both watched Brand. “You know how it's done. Hey, who's the broad with him? Not his wife?”
Georgie almost smiled. “She's a shrink, man. She's his shrink.”
“With tarot cards?”
“She's, like, telling his fortune,” Georgie explained.
“Okay,” Matthews told him. “Just stay away from him. Try not to attract his attention.”
“Oh, yeah,” Georgie said. “Good fuckin' luck.”
“I'll have a word with the administration tomorrow. We'll get you moved. Trust me.”
Georgie's face fell. “Tomorrow? I thought today. You got my hopes up.”
“You're too much of an optimist. Some things can't be done in a day. Make it through the night,” Matthews said. “You'll be okay tomorrow.”
Matthews watched his client walk out of the chapel. And sure enough, the man called Brand, ignoring his pretty adviser, turned predatory eyes on Georgie Laplace.
The prison-rights people called the place a “zoo,” but it was worse, Matthews thought; it was a fish tank, a vivarium. The men in it had been reduced beyond apes; they were devolving into the stuff under the pine needles on the forest floor. Some of them bit. The big ones ate the little ones.
So Matthews had to picture Brand and Laplace back there in the supposedly secure new wing. Jeopardy! on the box, Georgie Laplace sitting on his hands, ignoring his baloney sandwich, watching for his enemy. On one side, Brand, precognitive superman; on the other, Georgie Laplace, Baconian villain.
Matthews stuffed his papers in the case and started out. He felt depressed and edgy; angry, too. It was the wretched, dangerous time of day, and he was all the things the program said you should not be. Hungry. Angry. Alone.
The pretty counselor still had her tarot cards spread out on the surface of the barrier. She called after her client.
“Don't forget to take your meds, Mr. Brand.”
Brand turned and laughed at her, possessor of a beautiful secret. Matthews shuddered. He stopped in the chapel doorway for a moment and felt something move against his foot. One of the jailhouse cats, a huge gray eunuch, wrapping itself against his calf and ankle. Part Persian, with a fluffy neck and huge stupid eyes, the cat was a survivor of milder, homelier days at the jail. The old main section had looked like the Big House in a Cagney movie, but had been in fact a reasonable place where the sheriff and his family lived with their cats. There were no family accommodations now, and the surviving cats simply made trouble.
Matthews pulled his foot away.
“Beat it,” he told the thing. On the whole, he liked cats. “Scram.”
A broad-breasted, tough-looking, gray-haired woman came through the door and took the cat in her arms.
“Jackie,” she said to it. “Hey, Jackie, watcha doin' in the chapel?” She was wearing a ski outfit and a New England Patriots watch cap. “Watcha doin', huh?”
A hack beside the chapel door said, “Hi, Sister.”
“Hiya, Charlie.” She stroked the cat under its chin and looked at Matthews. “Hiya, bub. Lawyer, are ya?”
“That's me,” Matthews said. The woman was called Sister Sophia. She was a nun or an ex-nun; Matthews had never got it quite clear. She functioned as a social worker, employed by one of the neighboring service agencies, and as the prison's Catholic chaplain. For her part, she seemed a jolly soul. She had seen him many times before but seemed never to be able to distinguish one lawyer from another.
With the cat slung across her forearm, she looked over the chapel, where the young psychologist was carefully wrapping her tarot deck in a beige silk handkerchief.
“I see something I don't like,” the nun said. She carried the cat out through an open metal door, released it into the office area and came back. “I see a lot of superstitious - I don't want to use the S-word!”
“Are you talking to me?” the red-headed therapist asked.
“Yeah. I'm talking to you,” the nun said. “What do you think you're doing, missy? Think you're playing cosmic Monopoly there?”
“Do you mean my Tarot Oracle?” the psychologist asked.
“That's right. I don't go for that kind of stuff.”
“It's a therapeutic device,” the young woman said. “The cards help them to talk about themselves.” She turned for support to Matthews, who had been observing her. “It relaxes them.”
Matthews thought her voice sounded local; her background was probably fairly humble, otherwise her family would have invested in some improving orthodontics for such a basically pretty girl.
“Maybe she's got something there,” he told Sister Sophia, although he saw little point in making Brand crazier than he already was.
The lippy nun looked at Matthews for a moment and turned back to the psychologist.
“That stuff is diabolical superstition,” she declared. “It stands between the soul and Higher Power.” The gray cat came back through the metal door to listen like a familiar. Unchallenged, the nun grew triumphalist. “Ha! Here she is,” she said, nodding toward the psychologist, “supposed to be helping these kids!” She looked up and down the visiting area as though in search of a larger audience. “Tarot cards!” she cried. “Phooey!”
An elderly prisoner with a push broom came out behind the cat.
“We're fucking entitled,” the old man said.
“You just watch your language, Bobby,” a passing guard told him.
The young woman blushed. “They are entitled,” she said.
“They're entitled to any kind of therapy. And it does not interfere with Higher Power. Insight promotes it.” The psychologist was pointing at the crucifix that still stood on the edge of the altar at the near end of the room. “What if I say that's superstition?” Addressing Matthews now, she startled the cat. “I bet it's unconstitutional. I mean, where's the wall of separation?”
“Well,” Sister said, outraged and gesturing at the psychologist's cards, “I better not find any of these magic doozies around the plant, because I'll get 'em lifted.”
“I'm sure you can do that, Sister,” the red-headed psychologist said. “You serve the county instead of the inmates. You're a snitch.”
Everyone was horrified.
“Did you hear her?” Sister Sophia asked the men. “Did you hear what she called me?”
In fact, it was generally believed that Sister Sophia - though a good enough egg in her own way - had her own interpretations of the unwritten laws. And that there were certain things better left uncommitted to her discretion.
“Maybe you should apologize to Sister Sophia,” the hack said. “Ya went too far there.”
“Heat of argument,” Matthews said.
Sister Sophia gathered up the cat and fixed them each in turn with a dreadful wounded stare. She was a person completely of the jail, and the accusation was a mortal one. Matthews wondered how well the psychologist understood this. She seemed not to have been around for very long. Lights flashed. The amplified voice of the administration declared visitations concluded. The hack urged them out.
“Let's go home, folks.”
Sister Sophia and Jackie, padding underfoot, retreated up the stone passageway.
“After thirty years!” Sister Sophia said, following the big neutered tom up the dank stone hallway. “Thirty years in this crummy joint!”
“Just a misunderstanding,” Matthews said to the young woman. He extended a hand. “Pete Matthews.” Her name was Amy Littlefield.
They lingered in the severe dark-wood reception room.
“You know,” Matthews said, “your guy is threatening my client.”
“Oh,” she said. “He's always boasting. He told me the test of a tough guy was to break someone's fingers.” A guilty smile appeared on her face and faded immediately. “He's trying in his way to impress me.”
On Water Street, outside the jail, it was cold and cheerless. Fine hail rattled against the streetlights and the steps of the jail.
“He needs to take his antipsychotics. He doesn't belong in there. I mean,” she said, “what can you do?”
“I was wondering that. I'm worried about Georgie.”
“Really? Your client looks tough.”
“No,” Matthews explained. “No. The last time he was in there,” Matthews said, “he was underage. I got him out on habeas corpus. Now he thinks I'm a miracle worker.”
“Good luck,” she said.
They parted ways in the gathering sleet. Matthews took the river sidewalk with his shoulder to the force of the storm off the river. He followed the embankment to the edge of the downtown mill buildings. Then he suddenly turned back and went in the direction that Amy had gone. When she heard him coming up behind her, she stopped and moved back from the sidewalk.
“What did you mean,” Matthews asked, “he doesn't belong in there?”
She laughed. “What did I mean? I meant he was crazy. He should be in a hospital.”
“Did you think I was taking his side? That I thought he was a nice guy?”
“I wasn't sure. You're a social worker.”
She shook her head.
He looked up and down the street and she watched. He thought she was about to ask him if he was looking for something.
“So, Amy,” he said, “would you like a drink?”
She laughed in a strangely embarrassed way. The quality of her embarrassment was somehow familiar to him.
“I don't drink,” she said gaily. As though the statement did not necessarily foreclose sociability.
“Well,” he said, “have an Apfel-schorle!”
“I don't know what that is.”
“You've fallen into the right hands,” Matthews said. The young psychologist stopped in her tracks. She shielded the lenses of her glasses from the icy rain with one hand and pulled her plaid scarf over her bright hair. Little hailstones clung to the russet strands like coral clusters, not melting.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “I haven't fallen into your hands.”
“No,” Matthews said. “Of course not.” He was wondering whether she thought him too old for her. She did not seem much over thirty-five.
“Oh,” she said. There was another slightly embarrassed laugh. Like the first, it made him hopeful.
“I'm not surprised you're a psychologist, Amy.”
“Really?” she asked, as they hurried out of the weather.
He had only been mocking her. Matthews's life had become so solitary he had almost stopped caring what he said, or to whom.
They went to the restaurant where, sober, Matthews had discovered Apfel-schorle, mixed apple juice and soda. The place was run by a German hippie who cooked and his American graduate-student wife. Its ambience was not at all gemu_tlich, but gray-black Euro-slick. The waitress was a stylish, somber German exchange student.
“Funny,” Amy said when they had ordered a schorle for her and a Scotch for Matthews, “that they'd still serve such a summer drink in the winter.”
Matthews agreed that it was funny.
“Aren't you hungry?” he asked her. She cast the question off with her peculiar gaiety. Matthews tried to inspect her further without being spotted. Her red hair seemed natural: she had the right watery-blue eyes and freckled skin. In her strong lean face, the long-lashed, achromatic eyes looked wonderfully dramatic. Effects combined to make her seem sensitive, innocent and touchingly plain. Vulnerable.
Across the table, he indulged in some brief speculation about her character and inner life. Her facing down fatuous Sister Sophia was admirable in a way, but it was also self-righteous and overwrought. Pretty ruthless, really, calling the poor woman a snitch. And Amy herself seemed not much smarter than the nun, all fiery bread and roses, the blushing champion of free thought with her fucking wall of separation.
In fact, at that moment Matthews did not want to care what Amy was like. His life was lonely enough, but he was not shopping for a friend or a comrade in the service of the poor. His attraction to her was sensual, sexual and mean, which was how he wanted it. Spite had taught him detachment. The trick was to carry on indifferent to his own feelings and without pity for things like Amy's ditsy vagueness or the neediness she was beginning to display.
“Sure you won't have something stronger?”
She shook her head. Now, he observed, she was all reticence and demurrals - no drink, no dinner, no nothing. Yet, on a certain level, he thought, she acted like someone who wanted to play.
“I liked your standing up to Sister Sophia,” Matthews told her when he had his second drink in hand. She did not seem entirely pleased by his compliment. For a few seconds, she only looked at him without speaking.
“I felt kind of sorry afterward. I shouldn't have called her a snitch.”
“I wouldn't worry about it. She's a bully.” He watched her fidget unhappily on her big wooden chair. To make any progress it would be necessary to cheer her up. Win her over. “And she really is a snitch.”
“Oh, God,” said Amy. “That makes it worse.”
“Yes, it does,” Matthews said. He laughed at her in spite of himself. “Sorry.”
“So,” she said, “I was being stupid.”
“No, no. I admired what you did.” He felt a little ashamed of the contrived flattery. He had underestimated her.
“I was being pompous pious.”
“You were fine,” he said. “I don't think you did anything inappropriate.”
“Inappropriate” had become such a useful word, he thought, so redolent of the spirit of the times. Everyone had dumb, disastrous moments and behaved inappropriately. Inappropriate anger led to attacks of bad judgment. Misplaced idealism was also inappropriate. And almost everyone had a little no matter how clean they were.
“Really?” she asked.
“Really,” he told her. “Have a drink.” Somehow the suggestion turned her around this time. Her state of agitated regret seemed to visibly depart. The look he saw in her pale eyes was suddenly challenging and flirtatious.
“No, I don't think so,” she said firmly. The firmness had a pretended note.
The mournful fräulein desired them to stop fiddle-fucking, order dinner or go away. Matthews set her pouting with another drinks order. Apfel-schorle for the little lady, another Scotch for himself. Amy went to the Ladies.
When the drinks came, Matthews was reminded of the celebrations at a wedding he had attended the previous weekend. Someone had proposed the toast “l'chaim” - “to life.” There and then Matthews had decided it was a toast he would never, ever, willingly drink again. Not, of course, that he would make a scene about it. Returned, Amy thoughtfully considered her glass of juice.
“I've quit drinking for a while,” she announced. Matthews thought she might be getting admirable again. In fact, he realized, she was offering him a wedge. How much might he pry?
“I think you should make an exception this evening. Really,” he said. “You've been fighting the good fight.” The words were ill chosen, he knew that. It was hard to stop making fun of her. The devil drove him. He labored to recoup. “I mean, you want to forget all that, right?”
“Well,” she said, in the manner of one about to explain thoroughly, “see, I've been doing a play.”
Amy told him about her second career. “I went to New York for a year,” she said. “I did some off-off-Broadway. I almost got Shakespeare in the Park.”
“No kidding. It would have been fun.”
“Shakespeare in the Park? Sounds like fun.”
“But it was almost, right? No cigar.”
A different Amy. Animation. Still, though, tinged with regret. “Anyway,” Amy said, “I did some great stuff. Odets. Do you know Clifford Odets?”
“Sure. Waiting for Lefty.”
“We didn't do that. We did two minor short plays. And we did a dramatic reading of John Brown's Body.”
“Really? Who were you?”
“Don't tease me,” she said. “Don't tease me about my year in New York.”
“I wouldn't,” Matthews said, because he had not been. “I think it's great.”
“Well, not so great,” she said, “because it's over and I have to make a living. And clinical psych is what I do.”
“You do it very effectively.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said. It turned out she was not drinking because she thought alcohol interfered with remembering her lines. “I blank. I go up. You know, forget the cue and the line.”
“Drinking gives you these glitches,” she said. For a moment, she put the tip of her tongue to her upper lip and looked around the place. There was one other occupied table. Two youngish faculty couples were finishing their chocolate cake. “I don't know, maybe it's just a superstition.”
“I bet it is. What play are you doing?”
“Cymbeline. It's Shakespeare.”
“I'm not very familiar with it.”
“No, it's not often performed. It's kind of ridiculous on the level of plot. But it has its moments.”
“Why don't you join me,” Matthews said. “Have a drink. And we'll have something to eat.”
“Do I have to?” she asked. Afterward, he would have to ask himself why he had pressed her so hard. As though it were the senior prom and she were a high school virgin he wanted to addle with fruit wine. Asking him that way, she had seemed so gravely passive, supine, absurd. Asking for it. She would drink if he made her. So he did.
“And what shall I drink?”
“What do you like?”
“I like margaritas,” she said.
So they ordered her Teutonic margaritas, of which she consumed quite a few, straight up with salt, and a weight fell, finally, from her pretty shoulders. She told him about Cymbeline, which, on the level of plot, did sound ridiculous. They laughed about that. But when she professed to discover the other levels, they grew properly serious. She had plainly thought a lot about it, and about her character, named Imogen, an apparently ridiculous figure.
“And what's strange,” she said, “is to come from rehearsal, to come from Shakespeare to the life of all these young community males in the jail.”
For a moment, he did not know what she was talking about. “Don't say things like 'young community males,'” he told her. “Don't
use jargon.” She got huffy, blushed, and withdrew for a while. Ironic, because it was one thing said to her in friendship.
She lived in Hampton's old downtown, in what had been an office building but was now living space for a variety of the place's ambiguously connected people. “Nontraditional households” was how she would have put it.
“There's nothing to drink,” she told him. “I don't keep it.”
So they made a detour to the package store in the square to get Scotch, tequila and cheap margarita mix.
Her apartment had high ceilings and many windows adorned with plants. He thought that in the daytime it must have lots of light. On one wall there were theater posters and a few photographs of Amy in costume. He inspected them while, staggering ever so slightly, she went to change clothes.
In the kitchen, he worked loose her ice trays and made sloppy, overboozy drinks. She came back in gray-green tights with a sort of short, hooded burnous a shade lighter. Her glasses had lightly tinted lenses; she had let her hair down. They sat one cushion apart on an outsized brown leather sofa that looked as though it had come from some dean's office at the local college.
Settled on the sofa, she did a little snug wiggle.
“Oh, I like leather.” She leaned her head back happily, then turned to him. “But it makes you sweat.”
That should have been the moment, but he was distracted by drink. He got anecdotal, told some favorite jailhouse horror stories at which they could laugh comradely progressive laughter. Not too many. The subject was too depressing, and he did not want to spoil things. Amy began to tell stories about some other place, a place she did not identify. A hospital? He paid closer attention.
“So there was a woman at this place where I was.”
“A woman at this place,” Amy went on, “but it wasn't a woman at this place.”
“No,” Amy said. “It was me. It was” - she corrected herself with a humorous theatrical flourish. “It was I. It was a spa, right? A really expensive health spa. Ever been to one?” she asked him.
She laughed at him, in the bag, unstoppable.
“I'm not talking about a drunk farm. Although I've been to those too, I have to tell you.”
“I have to tell you,” he said, “I have too.”
“But this,” Amy said, “the setting of our story, was a very fancy desert health spa.” She stopped and looked at him as if making sure she was among friends. Matthews did his best.
“I was going to tell this as somebody else's story. But it was me.”
“Well,” Amy said, “at this really expensive health spa there was a clairvoyant? The clairvoyant picked me. Me, right? He read my thoughts - that was the number.”
His instinct was to stop her. A lawyerly impulse. A human one? He didn't.
“And the clairvoyant revealed to me, and to everybody in the fancy spa, around the beautiful fire in the evening, the clairvoyant revealed to me that there were two men in my life. And that was right. It was God's truth. I had a husband who was not a very nice man. And I had a lover who, it turned out, was not so absolutely great either. As it turned out.”
Her free hand, the one not holding the drink, began to tremble a little. As much as he wanted to, Matthews did not put out his own hand to steady it.
“So, when I went home, the spa gave me a record of my session with the clairvoyant. A recording - a tape, a CD, I don't know. And would you believe I forgot all about it? I forgot it utterly. Until -”
It was Amy's guessing game. She teased, grinning, tears beginning.
“Until your old man found it,” Matthews said.
She pointed her index finger, bingo, at him.
“Until he found it. The prick. Excuse me. Until he found it. Whereupon he divorced me.”
“And in fact I began to drink. And in fact I later went to . . . the other sort of place you mean.” She looked closely at him again. “I might have known you there.”
“Yes, you might,” he said, “but actually no.”
“By then, my friend -” She stopped herself. “Ah, we're talking me, aren't we? Not my made-up friend.”
We're talking first-person.”
“After the divorce, I needed a hospital, not a health spa. Get it?”
“Yes,” he said. “I understand. I've been there.”
“Of course,” she said, “you've been there.”
“Twice,” Matthews said. “For varying lengths of stay.”
“You and me,” Amy said. “It might even have been the same place.”
“That it might.” Amy stood up and leaned on the arm of her leather sofa.
“Drinking makes me want to smoke,” she said. He looked up at her; leaning, she had cocked a hip in a kind of Attic stance, lifting the hem of the top she wore, turned away from him, searching for all the cigarettes in the world to smoke at once. Turned away but, as it were, presenting.
He put it all together very quickly, an instinct for the logic of events. The presenting stance, the abasement.
So he stood silently beside her. How easily he might have kissed her and held her. The impulse was there. He drew his hand back and whacked her, as hard as she might reasonably require.
The hit stunned her. She put a hand to her bottom, flushing nicely and trembling very slightly with the sting of it. Then they stood in the moment, on the brink of it. Poised between what? Absurdity and death, eros and thanatos, the screech of lust and Cymbeline? What the boys in the jail called “down-low shit.”
But she did not call him vulgar names or question his sanity or turn in anger and astonishment. She said quietly, “I guess I deserved that.”
“I guess you did,” Matthews told her. His voice was stern and cold, though he took her by the hand. So they went to bed and there was some down-low shit. Had he not been distracted by his pleasure, Matthews would have congratulated himself on the soundness of his observations and his quick reaction time.
He was drunk but so inflamed there was no question of his flunking it. He let her guide him to what she liked; experience told him this was best. You let her guide you to what she liked and sometimes what she liked was a drag but often what she liked was delightful, an unsuspected turn, a novelty, warm and silky if not always very clean. So it was with Amy. Absolutely no rougher than she wanted it, he thought. Long-lasting and thorough.
All of that, but in the morning, when he came back from the bathroom, she was quietly crying. He had forced her to drink. Why had he done it? Well. He leaned his arm against the lintel of the bedroom door and rested his forehead on it in a posture like grief. Some remorse. Too bad.
After he had dressed in silence, he stood by her bed. Certainly he would have liked to reach out. Really, to reach out, to say, “I've been there, Amy, love. See how like you I am?” To lay a hand softly on the shoulder of which he had become fond. But she stayed where she was, and he went and left her alone with the first day of the rest of her life. Easy does it. Walking out to tears. So dispiriting.
He wrote his brief in sobriety the next day and called the deputy master of the jail about his client and Brand.
“The guy's dangerous. I was talking to his shrink.”
“Tell me about it,” said the deputy master.
He did all the things that duty required, but his first drink came not very late in the day. Happy hour at the Chinese restaurant in the strip mall that observed it early. Not-so-happy hour with the same Scotch he had been drinking. So anyone could see him take the same cup that late last night had killed his love. Atonement, the least he could do.
He did not call her that day or the next. But he did attend a performance of Cymbeline at the Community Theater. Cymbeline's plot seemed ridiculous on every level he could imagine and he found its serious side impenetrable. The point of the production seemed to be the costumes and sets, which were inspired by Celtic art; there had been an exhibition of ancient Celtic artifacts at the college. The actors' gowns were clasped by torques like daggers, the cloth inset with disks that made them shimmer handsomely. The show had gone in for aromatherapy, perfuming the stage to enhance the sort of altered state it was after.
Amy as Imogen looked tired and a little blowzy beneath her makeup. He sat a few rows from the stage so as to be able to see her. He felt ashamed of what had happened, and he had to keep reminding himself that she probably could not see him in the darkness. She did apparently forget her lines at several points and fell back on mock Shakespeare. It was hard to tell. But when it came time for Imogen to die or pretend to die or whatever fateful thing it was the disguised Imogen did, Amy was very convincing.
The play had a few lines that reached him, impressed him enough to occasion a trip to the library.
'Twas but a bolt of nothing, shot at nothing,
Which the brain makes of fumes: our very eyes
Are like our judgments blind.
It occurred to him that her flustered reaction to Sister Sophia's prattle about higher powers should have clued him early on. It was the program speaking; the diction of addiction. Himself and Amy and Sister Sophia, all rummies together.
In a better world, he thought, he might have been her friend. They might well have found themselves together in the place she talked about. On those grim rehab days that passed between hard, clear black lines, they might have had some fun. They might have formed a kind of madhouse friendship. Maybe more than friendship.
And it was not even impossible for him to imagine them, out in the world, soldiering together toward sobriety's sparkling horizon. They would be serving humanity and their higher power. Holding each other upright in Hampton jail, talking about walls of separation and the Rights of Man. The rights of humankind, to be sure. Talking Cymbeline.
But as Sister Sophia might have put it, he was her lower power. How could it be otherwise? He was the man whose ex-wife had once said of him, “You don't care whether you even get laid, as long as you can make some woman unhappy.” In that capacity he had the goodness not to call her.
He did see Amy once again before the winter was over.
It was a small place. She was in a bar, still on the sauce, in the company of a man somewhat older than herself. Naturally, Matthews recognized the boyfriend as a sadistic creep.
She did not seem to hold anything against Matthews. Of course they were both loaded. Amy and the Community Theater had agreed to forgive each other's limitations. She would be appearing again in the spring. Not Shakespeare this time. Chekhov.
He wished her well. Seeing her again provided him a rush from a pump, a hit from the daily drip of regret and loss. It was time for a drink.
There was a toast for everything. It fell to him, buying the round, to propose it. Here's to a shot at nothing? Here's to love in all its infinite variety? Not life - he was not doing that one.
He touched her glass merrily and said, “Break a leg, Amy.”
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Meet the Author
ROBERT STONE (1937-2015) was the acclaimed author of eight novels and two story collections, including Dog Soldiers, winner of the National Book Award, and Bear and His Daughter, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His memoir, Prime Green, was published in 2007.
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