The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards
By Robert Boswell
Graywolf Press Copyright © 2009 Robert Boswell
All rights reserved.
NO RIVER WIDE
Both things first: Greta Steno is two places at once and walking. She is in a Chicago neighborhood in the early fall on a sidewalk made ramshackle by tree roots, and she is barefoot in Florida on a warm winter evening, the broad leaves of a banana tree swiping at her hair. She is thirty-nine and forty-two years old.
In Chicago, she wears paint-spattered clothes and walks with her husband to the house of Ellen Riley, who is her closest friend and who is about to move to Florida. In Florida, she is in a tight black dress and walks beside Ellen, whose last name is no longer Riley, and they are on their way to a party. In Chicago, the late-morning air still conjures the façade of summer, and Greta's husband stumbles on the ragged sidewalk, falling to his knees. In Florida, Greta and Ellen drink scotch from transparent disposable cups, the winter dusk as warm as spring, Greta's husband two years in the ground.
"A good thing we're wearing our nasties," her husband says, examining the tear in the knee of his slacks. Duncan is slow finding his feet. The weight of middle age has settled in his trunk and limbs. He's been awkward lately, wooden in his expressions. He'd been a lanky boy in a rock band when Greta met him in college. Now their son has the gangly build, while Duncan's body has become thick and ponderous. Their daughter, thankfully, looks like Greta.
"It feels like they're doing this to us," he says, getting up. "I know that's silly." He's talking about the move. Ellen's husband, Theo, has accepted a transfer. He has gone to Florida this weekend to look for a house.
At the intersection, they can see the top of the great white oak, a landmark tree in a Chicago burg known for its trees. Ellen and Theo's house was built in the 1920s, and the architect designed a notch in one corner to accommodate the oak, which even then was enormous. Today, its upper limbs tremble, and though neither Greta nor Duncan mentions it, they understand the destruction has begun.
In Florida, Greta talks about Duncan's quick decline and death. Either she's drunk or acting drunk to hold Ellen's attention. Ellen's neighborhood is the kind of leafy habitat that encourages intoxication — tropical trees leaking oxygen like bad tires, houses rising out of the green abundance like pastel mushrooms. The banana tree that flounces its wide leaves over the sidewalk forces Greta to step to the curb. In one hand she holds her shoes — black mules with outrageous heels — and in the other, her plastic cup of scotch.
"I got through it," Greta is saying. She thinks perhaps she has gone on too long. "The kids got through it."
They're not young women, Greta and Ellen, and neither are they old, beyond the childbearing pale but clinging bravely to the sheen of ripe sexuality. Ellen has changed her appearance since moving to Florida. Except for her long midwestern gait, everything about her has changed. She's severely tan and so thin as to teeter on that precipice of chic that overlooks serious illness. Her short hair stands in pointy reptilian barbs and is the blond of taco chips. She doesn't look her age. She doesn't look any age.
Greta's appearance has changed less. A wardrobe update and a smart new do that snakes about her head. She has dyed her hair but only a lighter shade of the same brown. She's prettier than Ellen, something that's always been a factor in their friendship. Now that they're single, it plays a larger part: it is her job tonight to get a specific man to Ellen's house.
Would she do such a thing for anyone but Ellen? She can't quite believe she's doing it at all, but Ellen wants them to be conspirators again, as they'd once been when they had to wedge their husbands from the golf course or convince the children to visit a museum. They're substituting men — single, sexual males — for their families, but their roles are the same: conspirators, intimates, sisters. Greta is willing to do anything to get past this awkwardness. She mentions again the class she took.
"The Greeks put friendship ahead of romantic love. They thought it a worthier topic." She wants them to talk as they used to, and she's pressing. "Whatever happened to those guys? When was the last time somebody brought up Plato or Sophocles?"
"There's a rapper in Miami who calls himself Euripides," Ellen replies. "He spells it with a capital U. U-Rippa-Deese."
"You can't possibly listen to rap."
"You're reading the Greeks, of all things. Why can't I listen to rap?"
"I took a class."
It was actually Duncan who signed up for the course. Greta was there to operate the wheelchair and tape recorder. He hadn't finished the semester, which meant she'd had to quit, too. But she has kept the tapes.
"I only read an article about that singer," Ellen confesses.
It's finally dark, but a weightless sort of dark, as if they're walking in the shadow of a transparency. Their destination is a house with a huge picture window. The room is brightly lit and people skulk about in the light, drinking and displaying their clothes. A flagstone path warms Greta's feet, even though the sun has set and it's supposed to be winter. Her feet like Florida. The remainder of her has qualms. Nothing about the landscape seems consequential: anorectic palm trees, golf carts driven on city streets, grown men in shorts and Pooh shirts. It's hard for her to imagine anyone taking the place seriously. When Ellen met her at the airport, she whisked her off to a squat pink building where they rode stationary bicycles and performed aerobics before an unrelenting wall of mirrors. The trip to the gym irked Greta and left her with sore legs. She sips the last of her scotch considering this window of well-dressed strangers.
She says, "You know all these people?"
"Put your shoes on," Ellen replies. "I have lip liner." She pats her purse. "Your mouth could use some definition."
"It's that big hole in the middle of my face," Greta says. "What more definition could it need?"
She sets the mules on the walk and steps into them. A couple of houses away, a sexy kind of fog — pleasant and billowy like a giant's gentle exhale — makes moving shapes on the lawn.
"There's the hostess." Ellen points. "She's the consummate bitch."
A woman in a black dress spins away from a dark little man, a velvet V cutting her backside. She crosses the room with careful strides, as if she's stepping on bodies.
"I used to love drive-in movies," Ellen goes on, indicating the window with her chin. "Hard to believe they're gone. Half the women I know lost their virginity at the drive-in."
"The kids still seem to manage," Greta says.
Unlike everything else she has seen in Florida, this show on the glass screen seems to have substance: adults dressed to the nines and drinking liquor from crystal tumblers, smoke churning from their mouths like the exhaust of internal combustion.
"People here call me Elle," Ellen says. "You don't have to."
"You changed your name?"
Ellen snatches the plastic cup from Greta's hand. "New last name, new first name." She tosses the cups in the shrubs. "She's got a gardener. We're not littering."
She doesn't knock on the door but throws it open.
The crane extends its black frame far above the great oak. Greta will not openly question Ellen's character, but secretly she wonders whether this had to happen. The destruction of the tree has about it the feeling of expedience. Ellen is practical, and old trees have root systems that burrow into sewer lines and rupture foundations. A tree specialist found a crack in the vast trunk, and the buyer withdrew his offer. The connection to the sale of the house troubles Greta. One crack hardly seems reason enough to fell this tree. The crane takes up most of the street and a good portion of the sky.
"Wait here for me," she says.
"I know what you're doing," Duncan tells her. "They wouldn't cut it down if they didn't have to."
"I just want a minute."
The young man standing at the base of the tree sees her coming. He's blond, thin, and vaguely unsettled. He's a boy who never liked school but had relied on its routine. Without it, he's at loose ends, restless and lethargic at the same time. Today he'll trim small limbs from the tree's highest branches. "Watch for snakes," his boss told him. The boy thought he was kidding. Snakes in Chicago? They were only a few blocks beyond the city's margin. "Believe it," his boss said. "They go after bird nests and they sun on the limbs." What would his boss say about this woman approaching him? Watch out for older women. She's decades older than he is, but she's pretty and he likes the way she dresses — old clothes that don't go together, in an interesting way. He decides he'll have sex with her, given the chance, even if it costs him his job. This thought pleases him. He has now this decision, this solid thing around which to build his adult life.
"Are you one of the tree men?" she asks.
The boy nods. He likes being called a man. He lifts a chainsaw to add to his manliness. He's had the job all of three days and he overslept this morning. He can't imagine doing something like this (work, he means) for the rest of his life.
"Does it really have to come down?" she asks. "I know what they're saying, but is it dangerous or is that just an excuse?"
"I don't in reality know trees." He offers an uncommitted shrug. "I'm not afraid of heights or a chainsaw. That's how I got this job."
"I'm not trying to interfere," she assures him. Her hand touches his arm, a reassuring and flirtatious pressure. "I'm just curious."
The touch makes him bold. "You don't look old enough to own a tree like this."
She smiles at him, the hand on his arm suddenly warmer. "No one is old enough to own this tree," she says. "That's my point. But I'm plenty old."
"A person wouldn't think so," he says. "I'm Aaron Jack. Friends call me AJ."
"I'm Greta." She starts to say more but his boss calls for him.
Actually he yells, Where's that jackass kid?
"I've got to go," AJ says. He tips the chainsaw as a gesture of farewell.
Where her hand held his arm remains warm, as if she's passed on a fever. Once he's strapped into the harness and among the high branches, he considers unbuttoning his shirt to examine the spot, see if it's swollen. He's clumsy in the harness, which is like a child's swing with a seat belt. Just lifting the chainsaw makes him twist in the air. Every time he thrusts the blade against a branch, he's pushed backward. His tools, tethered by cords to the harness, knock against his feet. Hours pass, yet he's still near the top of the tree when he spots Greta on the street. He wants to see where she goes. "A little higher," he calls to the crane operator. She turns on Roosevelt Avenue and disappears, but he feels he can track her right through the obstructing houses. He's wrong, of course, but he does find her the next block over. The house she enters has a red tile roof.
Greta, he repeats in his head. Red tile roof.
Over the summer, AJ went with his father to Disney World. The trip was sponsored by his father's employer in recognition of twenty years of custodial work. AJ and his father flew to Florida together. When they went to pick up the rental car, the agent asked for a credit card. His father did not have one and reminded her that the car was covered by the firm. But the agency required a damage deposit: five hundred dollars. His father counted out the cash. The hotel room was paid for, as were the passes for the amusement park, but they were left with little money for food and no money for anything else. They stuffed rolls from the complimentary breakfast into their pockets and snacked on them in Fantasyland.
A few days after they returned, a breezy afternoon when his parents were away at work, AJ came across his mother's sleeping pills and swallowed a handful. He went to the back porch and waited to die. Instead of perishing, he threw up in his father's rose bushes.
Dangling from a wire on another breezy afternoon — this one filled with the noise of the chainsaw — AJ doesn't know why he'd felt he had to die. Something about the huge heads of the cartoon figures that had walked among them at Disney World, something about the crumbs he could not get out of his pockets, the way his father nodded to the woman at the car rental as if he could dole out hundreds of dollars without thinking about it.
AJ is wondering about his feeble stab at suicide when he encounters the snake. By this time he has worked halfway down one side of the tree, clearing the branches for the more experienced men. He is aware of his fatigue, but only feels it when he sits still in his harness. The snake makes him still. The chainsaw idles in his hand. The snake is as thick as his arm. Its body doesn't wrap around the limb but curlicues over it. Its head is close to the trunk, and it twists back to stare at him. Its eyes are black and seem to be made of metal.
He has the idea that the snake knows things he doesn't, and that frightens him. Yet there are things he knows that a snake can't. Such as the purpose of a chainsaw. He revs it and takes a swipe at the snake's body. It leaps at him. It seems to fly right off the branch. Only the circulating blades of the saw keep it from reaching him. A part of the snake falls, smacking into the branches below. AJ doesn't think to yell, and the men on the ground make noises.
He is splattered with blood and doesn't know what he ought to do. On the branch, the severed half of the snake lies crookedly. The ruptured end lifts and pauses in midair, as if considering him. It screams. It seems to be screaming. He hears a scream. Then it peels off the branch and falls through the network of limbs.
Entering the party house, Greta thinks, Now I'm one of the char acters on the big screen. She is "the wild friend from out of town." This is the role she and Ellen settled on. Greta's mother is watching her daughter for the weekend, her son is safely off to college, and Greta is a thousand miles from home — she may as well cut a wide swath.
"My friend from the old country," Ellen says, introducing her.
The Temptations flare up in the next room: "Can't Get Next to You." Hidden among the glamorous throng are a few unattached middle-aged men. One by one they make their way across the floor to Greta. These are men who have been without women too long. Loneliness rounds their shoulders. Their shoes make swamp noises. Men without women wear ugly shoes, she has noticed. They are the opposite of the Temptations — the Repellents, the Resistibles. They're like towels too often laundered: dull and soft, transparent in places, of no use but to buff a car. Little wonder women are so often attracted to the husbands of friends.
The Supremes take over the stereo, arguing that love's a game of give and take. Greta uses it in her chat. "Aren't you sick of these oldies?" She touches the bulging shirt of the man she's talking to, the soft expansion of his gut. "Diana Ross has a sweet voice, but she isn't Sylvia Plath or Zora Hurston or, I don't know ... Euripides." She laughs. The man follows her lead — his laughter a gurgling chortle, as if he's choking. She keeps going. "Her work doesn't hold up to forty years of listening, do you think?"
The man's head wobbles, unable to consider the question for the feminine hand pressing against his fabric. She moves her fingers over his belly to heighten the effect. What she likes about dating as an adult is the same thing she liked as a girl: it's pleasing to have power over someone.
Ellen signals with a jerk of her head. Andrew Holzman, the man she has targeted, has emerged from the adjoining room to get a drink at a bar set up in the corner. A young woman with a ponytail — hired help, evidently — cocks an ear in his direction.
Andrew Holzman does not impress from a distance. Ordinary face, graying hair, pale eyes that might be made of ash. He's missed a loop with his belt. But his shoes are presentable. That means something, Greta supposes. He has a cast over his wrist and thumb and up to the elbow of his right arm. It's her task to invite him to Ellen's house on one pretext or another. She can provoke a group to skinny-dip in Ellen's pool. She can see if a handful want to smoke pot. Ellen simply wishes for him to visit. Nothing has to happen. The cast, she realizes, rules out a swim. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards by Robert Boswell. Copyright © 2009 Robert Boswell. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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