When Benjamin’s wife kicks him out of their house, he returns to his childhood home in Connecticut to live with his widowed father. Lost, lonely, and doubting everything he felt he knew about marriage and love—even as his eighty-year-old father begins to date again—Benjamin is trying to put his life back together when he recognizes someone down the street: his high school crush, the untouchable Audrey Martin. Audrey has just moved to the neighborhood with her high-powered lawyer husband and their rebellious teenager, Emily. As it turns out, Audrey isn’t so untouchable anymore, and she and Benjamin begin to discover, in each other’s company, answers to many of their own deepest longings. Meanwhile, as the neighborhood is wracked by a mysterious series of robberies, Audrey seems to be hiding a tragic secret, and her husband, Andrew, becomes involved in a dangerous professional game he can never win. And, by the way, who is paying attention to Emily?
Powerful, provocative, and psychologically gripping, Housebreaking explores the ways that two families—and four lives—can all too easily veer off track, losing sight of everyone, and everything, they once held dear. Like the best from Tom Perrotta and Rick Moody, who capture the darker truths of modern suburban life, this literary triumph from an immensely talented writer offers an insightful and funny, yet terrifyingly authentic portrait of modern suburban life that reveals, hauntingly, how little we know of one another’s lives.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)|
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The last day of summer, 2007
THE NIGHT his wife kicked him out, Benjamin Mandelbaum took the dog and a bag of clothes and drove to his father’s house in Wintonbury. It was 10:00 P.M. on a Saturday, the suburban street as quiet as a graveyard. He got out of his car and felt the wind rise, stirring the leaves of the apple tree he’d climbed as a boy. He took the spare key from under the flowerpot and let the dog in ahead of him. The house smelled like mothballs and stale cologne, an old man’s lair.
A few minutes later Leonard appeared in his bathrobe at the top of the stairs. “Who’s there?”
“It’s me, Dad.”
“Benjamin? What’s going on?”
Yukon rushed up the stairs and sniffed at a stain on Leonard’s robe. Benjamin realized that, in all the commotion, he had forgotten to feed the dog its dinner. “I’ll be staying over, if that’s okay.”
“That’s fine. That’s fine.” His father had a habit of saying things twice. “Where’s Judy?”
His father’s eyes were bloodshot, his face puffy from sleep.
“Go back to bed,” said Benjamin. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“There’s some tuna salad in the fridge.”
In the kitchen, Benjamin filled a bowl with water while the dog went from room to room, inspecting. The refrigerator was practically empty: the bowl of dry tuna, a few brown eggs, mustard and ketchup on the side shelves, lemons and wilted lettuce in the crisper. His father had lost weight since Mom’s death, and now Benjamin could see why. In the cold-cuts drawer he found an unopened can of corn. In the freezer, among the frozen vegetables and meats, he found something even odder: a pack of Marlboros with only two cigarettes left. His father didn’t smoke. Had he started now, at eighty-four? And why keep them in the freezer?
After Myra’s funeral, Benjamin and his sister had tried to convince their father to sell the house and move into a retirement community. They thought it would be good for him: Leonard had always been a social creature; part of his job at the car dealership was going to restaurants and functions, handing out his business card. But Leonard wouldn’t hear of it. He kept up the house as if Myra were still alive. It became a shrine of sorts: her clothes still hanging in the closet, her prescription bottles in the medicine cabinet, framed photographs of her in every room. His sole occupation was maintaining everything as she had liked it. He hired landscapers, gardeners, and handymen. It all made Benjamin wonder if he would end up the same way: old, alone, going to bed early, living with the ghosts of his past.
He went into the den and stood before the wet bar. His father always had a fine selection of single malt—not Benjamin’s intoxicant of choice, but he’d left his stash of pot in the glove compartment. He poured a Glenlivet and added two ice cubes. His father had excellent taste in the good things—liquor, clothes, shoes. The old man had style, even if he now wore his pants cinched over his navel, shuffling around the house in his slippers. Benjamin eased onto the sofa and found himself exhaling after each sip of scotch, happy to be home.
Home. The word gave him some comfort. Sure, Leonard was eighty-four. But his father would take care of him, even if Benjamin didn’t need taking care of. He felt a luxurious heat rising from the liquor, and for the first time in a while he felt like he could breathe easily. Judy’s presence had weighed on him for so long. He’d been held accountable for nearly every moment; his cell phone rang ten times a day, a phantom chaperone. Where was he? Did he remember to pick up the dry cleaning? Her prescription? He sighed. Years ago, he’d found it endearing that she wanted their lives so intertwined.
Yukon came into the den and stood before him, panting. “Lie down,” Benjamin said. “We’re not going anywhere.” The dog obeyed, but was up again after a few minutes, padding out to the kitchen, roaming the first floor. Benjamin intended to walk the dog—their nightly ritual—but he dozed off after his third glass of scotch, and Yukon lay in the doorway, head between his paws, watching him. The dog slept, but not deeply. He whimpered throughout the night, unaccustomed to this strange house and its old man’s smell.
Outside on the front lawn, a mob of deer nibbled at the arborvitae, silent as ghosts, watchful as criminals. Somewhere deep in the woods, an owl warbled.
* * *
THE NEXT MORNING Leonard Mandelbaum came downstairs to find his son snoring on the couch, his hair covering his face. He had a fine head of curly black hair, Benjamin did. Leonard stood for a moment, admiring his son, who looked childlike curled in sleep, his hands tucked under his chin. Leonard saw Benjamin regularly at the office, but it had been a long time since he’d been able to watch his son sleep. Leonard noticed the bottle of scotch and the empty glass on the coffee table. Benjamin had been a beer drinker ever since high school, when his pals would come to the house to play Ping-Pong in the basement. To take up the hard liquor meant something was bothering him. More trouble with Judy, no doubt. It was a shame that they argued so often. Leonard had always liked Judy. She’d helped out with Myra during her illness, staying up nights when the late nurse didn’t show. You could always depend on Judy. A fine, sturdy woman. A good mother to the children. And she’d converted too, mainly to please him and Myra. How many gals would do that for their in-laws?
Leonard went into the kitchen to start the coffee and opened the Hartford Courant to the obituaries. Each day, it seemed, he knew one of the deceased, usually someone who’d bought a car from him. Leonard Mandelbaum never forgot the name of a good customer.
Today it was Manny Silverman. Above the obituary was a thumb-size photo taken in the 1950s, around the time Leonard had put Manny into his first DeVille. In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Cancer, then. Poor Manny. Leonard had sold him another five Cadillacs over the next fifty years, most recently a top-of-the-line XLR. That had been when? Last year? No, longer than that. He recalled telling Myra about it—dapper old Manny in his seersucker suit, zooming off the lot in a seventy-thousand-dollar convertible.
Leonard went into the front hallway and sat at the mahogany desk, where he made his phone calls and wrote his personal notes and letters to the editor. When his grandchildren visited they treated his black rotary phone like some Ice Age fossil. Fingering the dial, David had once asked, Does this actually work, Grandpa?
Leonard took a sheet of his personal stationery from the desk drawer and wrote, In Memory of Manny Silverman. He checked the date on his calendar—September 23, 2007—and wrote a hundred-dollar check to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. On another sheet of paper, he composed a letter to the editors of the Wintonbury Gazette.
Manny Silverman, who died recently, served this community for more than forty years as a dentist of great skill. He filled two pages with remembrances, then concluded: When we lose a man like Manny Silverman, we lose a small part of the qualities that he stood for: integrity, wisdom, professionalism. We will miss you, Manny.
He addressed the envelopes, pasted on the stamps, and brought them to the front porch. He checked his watch: not yet 8 A.M. As he put the letters in the mailbox, Benjamin’s dog appeared in the doorway, tail slashing.
“Stay,” said Leonard, trying to conjure the dog’s name. “Stay right there.” The dog wanted to go outside and run around, like all dogs, but he was well trained and would not disobey. Benjamin always trained his pets well. So many dogs and cats had come and gone, Leonard could not remember this animal’s name. “Good boy,” he said. “That’s a good boy. Now go sit.”
Benjamin would be up soon, and hungry. His son liked raspberry Danish from the Crown Market. He complained that he couldn’t find anything as good in Granby. Leonard picked up his keys and his wallet, got into his Escalade, and accelerated out of the driveway.
At the bottom of the street he noticed a few pickup trucks parked outside Eleanor Hufnagle’s place, with workmen milling around the yard. The farmhouse had been unoccupied for years, ever since Eleanor collapsed at her ironing board and the postman found her four days later. The woman had lived to ninety-nine alone in that house. He had one of her oil paintings hanging in his den. Loss of a great artist, Leonard had written, then, to the Wintonbury Gazette.
At the supermarket, he clipped the curb pulling into the handicap space. His physician had gotten him the permit for his arthritic knees. All those years of running—on the track team at City College, in boot camp in the Navy, then later on the tennis courts at Tumble Brook Country Club—had taken their toll. You’re rubbing bone on bone, the doctor had told him, and that was exactly what it felt like these mornings, worse in wintertime.
At this hour he had his pick at the bakery. Most days the challah went before noon, no matter how many times he complained to the manager about the shortage. He often had to go without challah or marbled rye if he got there late. And Benjamin was absolutely correct about the quality of the baked goods. You’d have to go to New York City to find a better challah. He picked out a couple of loaves, a few Danish, and a coffee cake. Orange juice, he remembered, which Benjamin drank like water. He examined the cartons in the cooler, feeling the chill of the refrigeration. Was it Tropicana or Minute Maid that Benjamin liked? Pulp or no pulp? There were so many different brands now, so many choices. Reaching for one of the cartons, he lost his grip on the challah, and it fell, followed by the marbled rye. “Dammit,” he hissed.
“Let me help you, Mr. Mandelbaum.”
Leonard turned to see a middle-aged man, dressed in sweat clothes and a baseball cap like a high school kid. He gathered Leonard’s items from the floor and rose to his full height. “It’s Dick Funkhouser,” he said, smiling.
Leonard took his hand. “I knew your father. A wizard with a nine iron. How’s your mother? I haven’t seen her at the club lately.” Terri Funkhouser, originally from Newark; she’d never lost the accent. Myra hadn’t liked her. Said she smelled like cheap perfume.
“She’s not a member anymore. Ever since Dad passed.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
The man carried Leonard’s goods to the checkout line and placed them on the conveyor belt. Leonard began fishing in his wallet for some cash.
“She doesn’t get out of the house very often,” said Dick Funkhouser. “She always speaks fondly of you.” He produced a pen and scribbled something onto a scrap of paper. Leonard pulled his reading glasses out of his breast pocket and examined the note: a phone number.
“She’d love to have dinner or see a show. You should call her.”
Leonard tucked the slip of paper into his pocket. Why would he call Terri Funkhouser? He hardly knew her. The woman hadn’t been a regular presence at the country club or synagogue. Dick Senior had once complained that his wife would rather stay home with a bottle of sherry than go to the Met. She has low tastes, he had confided.
“Are you a member of the club?” asked Leonard.
“I’m not much of an athlete,” said Dick Funkhouser.
“I see.” Leonard remembered now. The son had resigned from the club following the scandal at Funkhouser’s Dry Cleaning. After Dick Senior died, the son had ruined the business on bad loans, second mortgages, tax evasions. A shame, that sort of financial mismanagement. Dick Senior had put his life into dry cleaning.
“Let me take the groceries out to your car.”
Leonard shook his head. “I’m fine. I’m fine.”
Back at the house, he carried the brown bags up the front steps. Benjamin met him at the door. He looked puffy-eyed but otherwise his same boyish self, curly-haired, fit, more handsome than his dad ever was. The girls had always gone wild for Benjamin, as far back as junior high school. Fonzie, some of the gals called him then, on account of the resemblance.
“I’ve got Danish,” he told his son.
* * *
AFTER BREAKFAST a car horn blared from the street. Benjamin looked out the kitchen window and saw the familiar red pickup truck pull into the driveway; MARIANI LANDSCAPING, read the faded letters on the side. Two men got out, slamming the doors.
“Who’s that?” said Leonard, peering over Benjamin’s shoulder.
“Are those Judy’s brothers? Why are they honking the horn? It’s a Sunday morning, for goodness’ sake.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
Benjamin went out the front door in his socks. “What’s up, guys?”
Anthony, the youngest of the three brothers, glanced at him and went around to the back of the truck and pulled down the tailgate. There was a third brother, currently under house arrest on a DUI charge. In the winter they did snowplowing, and sometimes Lou worked maintenance for a guitar factory in New Hartford.
Anthony pulled a set of golf clubs from the bed of the truck and dumped the bag onto the lawn. A couple of yellow Titleists rolled out of the bag toward his dad’s Japanese maple.
“Here’s all your shit. Special delivery.”
The truck smelled of gasoline and grass clippings. Benjamin peered into the back, seeing a jumble of clothes, luggage, skis, books, DVDs, Rollerblades. Actually, those were his son’s Rollerblades. Judy must have gotten confused in her frenzy. He could picture her rifling through the closets in the basement and attic, plucking his possessions from the wreckage of their marriage. How exhilarated she must have felt, purifying herself of him. She’d always liked throwing things out. He noticed random clutter as well. Board games. A black-and-white TV with a broken antenna. Even some of her old clothes. He recognized a French maid’s costume, a Valentine’s gift from years ago. The brothers tossed it all onto the lawn, a showering of his worldly possessions, old and new. His Matrix trilogy hit the grass, and one of the DVDs slipped out of its case and rolled toward the street.
So this was payback.
He had played nice with the brothers all these years, sharing beers at family gatherings, listening to their inane opinions about Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, their crass jokes. He shouldn’t have tried so hard. They’d turned against him openly ten years ago, after the blowout with Judy over the Dutch au pair. But they’d never liked him. They were Italians; he was a Jew, and their sister had converted to marry him. Sometimes they’d even called him that to his face as a sort of joke: “the Jew.”
Anthony was wearing his usual ripped jeans and T-shirt. He had a closely cropped head with a long, thin string of hair growing from the nape of his neck, like a rat’s tail. He was the talker in the family; the other two rarely said a word.
“Twenty years you jerked my sister around,” he said.
“You’ve never been married,” said Benjamin. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No?” He flicked away his cigarette and pulled a pile of clothes on hangers out of the bed of the truck and tossed them onto the driveway. Benjamin noticed his navy blue Brioni on the top of the pile, his best suit. He’d worn it to weddings and parties, never to work. On sale it had cost him eight hundred bucks.
“You ruined her life,” said Anthony, stepping close to Benjamin. “That’s what she told me this morning. Her exact words.”
Benjamin held his gaze, feeling vulnerable in his socks. Both brothers were wearing heavy boots flecked with cut grass. “Yeah, well. She had some things to say about you over the years, believe me.”
“Fuck you,” said Anthony.
Lou quickly stepped between them. “Cut the high school stuff.” He shoved his brother back. “Look,” he said to Benjamin. “You got no reason to go back to the house. This is all your junk right here. Judy doesn’t want to see you anymore.”
“That’s the way it’s going to be,” said Anthony. “Got it?”
Benjamin didn’t answer.
The brothers got into the truck and backed out, running over his suit.
Leonard joined Benjamin in the driveway, squinting into the sun. “A shame, throwing around private belongings like garbagemen. You should tell Judy what they did.”
Benjamin picked up his suit. There was a tire tread on the front lapel. Maybe the dry cleaner could get it out.
“Judy sent them.”
“Not Judy. She wouldn’t do that.”
“Well, she did.”
“She’ll cool off. She’s a fine woman. A good mother.”
Maybe she would cool off, but Benjamin doubted it. Temper, temper, he used to lecture, like a schoolmarm, whenever she lost it and started yelling at some slowpoke driver or snippy salesclerk. Maybe she hadn’t told her brothers to trash his stuff, but she certainly had packed it up and told them to take it away. Take him out of her life.
Benjamin gathered the rest of his clothes, his hands trembling with adrenaline. He was conscious of Franky DiLorenzo, watching from his front lawn next door, a water hose in his hand. Benjamin rubbed the tears from his eyes. It always happened when he felt angry or threatened, ever since he was a child, this sudden welling. He never cried when he was sad, not even when his mother died—not at her funeral, not even the night before her death when she’d told him in a moment of lucidity, You’re my love, Benjamin. You always were.
A car pulled up on the street. A man in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt got out and strolled up the driveway, pursing his lips. “How much for the skis?” he said.
“The skis. What are you asking?”
Leonard and Benjamin stood staring at the man.
“This a tag sale, isn’t it?” the man asked.
Benjamin sighed. “Sure.” He hadn’t gone skiing for five or six years, not since the kids rebelled against weekends in the woods near Okemo with nothing to do, so far from their friends. “Twenty bucks.”
The man scratched the back of his neck. “Would you take ten?”
* * *
THAT AFTERNOON was the first day of autumn, technically, but it felt more like mid-July, the sky an endless canvas of pale blue, the temperature well into the eighties. After a few trips up and down the stairs, Benjamin felt the sweat dripping down his face and back.
“That’s a lousy delivery job.”
Benjamin looked up to see Franky DiLorenzo coming across the lawn. Benjamin forced a laugh. “I’ll say.”
They shook hands. In the silence that followed he became aware of Franky DiLorenzo eyeing his wrinkled slacks and button-down shirt, which he’d worn to work the day before. “A bit of trouble on the home front,” Benjamin explained. “I’ll be sticking around for a while.”
Franky’s eyes flashed with interest. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Part of life, I guess.”
Franky DiLorenzo was wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. He wore this same garb into November, sometimes December. He was horseshoe-bald, a bit stooped in the shoulders, and thin as a marathoner, yet he seemed impervious to the elements and he never tired of physical labor. He’d worked as a mechanic for thirty years at a garage in town. Now he spent his days in his yard, mowing, trimming, repairing. He also did chores for Leonard and Betty Amato and other elderly people in the neighborhood—taking out their garbage, fixing what needed to be fixed—and he refused to accept any payment in return. Benjamin considered him a godsend, the way he helped out his father.
“Did you see what’s going on at the Hufnagle place?”
“No.” Benjamin looked toward the bottom of the street, shading his eyes. He saw a couple of trucks parked in front of the old farmhouse.
“It finally sold,” said Franky. “Court-ordered, I heard.”
“That house has been empty for a long time.”
“Five years almost,” Franky said and nodded. “A lawyer bought it, a guy named Andrew Murray. He’s about forty-five. He gutted the place—kitchen, bathrooms, wooden floors, central air. A hundred grand in upgrades, minimum.”
“Is he going to flip it?”
“No, they just moved in. I met him and his wife a few weeks ago in the yard. She goes by her own name, Audrey Martin. A real pretty lady. They mentioned a seventeen-year-old daughter, but I haven’t seen her yet.”
“Audrey Martin?” It had been many years, but the name clicked instantly.
“Do you know her?”
“I went to high school with an Audrey Martin. She was in the class ahead of me at Goodwin.”
Franky shrugged. “It might be her. She’s about your age. They’re moving up here from Greenwich. He took a job at a firm in Hartford.”
“You’re amazing, Franky. Nothing gets by you.”
Franky smiled. “Well, I like to keep an eye on the neighborhood, with all the break-ins lately.”
“I told your dad, but I guess he forgot to mention it. Somebody’s been smashing car windows, stealing things out of garages and toolsheds.”
“When did this happen?”
Franky DiLorenzo leaned in close and lowered his voice. “The trouble started last year, about the same time this family moved into a ranch on Lostwood Drive. They’re from Texas. The mother’s divorced with two teenage boys on her hands. The oldest is seventeen. Billy Stacks. That’s the punk. He assaulted some girl in Texas when he was fourteen, I heard. Too young to do jail time. You’ll see him riding around the neighborhood on a motor scooter. He’s got a shaved head, tattoos all over his arms, wears his pants down below his waist. I got my eye on that kid.”
“You think he’s the one causing trouble?”
“I can’t prove it, but I got my suspicions.”
Franky loved conversation, and with time on his hands, he was in no hurry to get back to watering his lawn. He was nearly fifty years old, retired early. He lived in a bedroom above the garage in his mother’s house, had lived there his entire life, a room Benjamin had never entered. All the kids Benjamin had known growing up—Mike Cosgrove, Diana Estabrook, Tony Papadakis, Timmy and Albert Amato—had moved away long ago; only Franky DiLorenzo remained, the mainstay, the keeper of the vineyard. Benjamin found it ironic that Franky would be concerned about this neighborhood troublemaker because, in his teen years, Franky himself had been the local delinquent, driving hot rods around town and raising hell at the bowling alley. But after Franky’s sister went off to college (rarely to be seen again) and his dad died, Franky had evolved, instantly, as far as Benjamin could recall, into the person they all knew—Franky the dependable, the squire of Apple Hill Road. He went back and forth to work at the garage, year after year. There had been girlfriends, but Franky had never married. Every night he and his mother had sat down to dinner, all those years, and when she died, a decade ago, Franky had remained alone in the house, unchanged, unchangeable.
“How’s Len?” asked Franky.
“Same.” Benjamin didn’t mention the unopened can of corn in the fridge or the pack of cigarettes in the freezer. Sure, Leonard was eighty-four, but he was still living on his own, taking care of himself. He got along fine. “Thanks for everything you’ve done for him lately.”
Franky waved away any credit. “I’m happy to help,” he said. “If he needs anything, you just let me know.”
“That means a lot to me.”
They shook hands, as if finalizing a contract.
* * *
BY LATE AFTERNOON Benjamin had hauled the last of his belongings up to his bedroom. Although he’d moved out of his parents’ house after high school, his mother and father had never encroached upon his childhood territory; they’d left the bedroom as it had always been—same furniture, same turntable and eight-track player on the desk, same posters thumbtacked to the wall (Elton John in six-inch platform shoes; Farrah Fawcett in her red one-piece). In the past, whenever he came back to visit, it had always pleased him to step into this time capsule, but now, unpacking his clothes and folding them into the dresser and closet, he felt unsettled and anxious. What was he doing back in his single bed, surrounded by these totems of his teenage self?—the baseball cards and field day trophies, the blue ribbons from forty-yard dashes he didn’t remember running, the stamp albums, LPs, and textbooks he hadn’t touched since high school.
From the bookshelf he pulled down one of his high school yearbooks. The Goodwin Academy was a prep school located on the grounds of a nineteenth-century estate in the woods along the rise of Avon Mountain, less than a mile away. There were seventy-five students in his graduating class, most of them boarders. Benjamin had been one of a handful of day students. Every afternoon he’d taken the bus home after sports period, feeling left out of the rituals and shenanigans that took place in the woods and dorm rooms during the evenings. He had been popular and athletic, a standout on the soccer and lacrosse teams, but he remembered Goodwin primarily as a place of loneliness and longing and missing out.
He turned to the page he was looking for: Audrey Martin’s senior photo. She had been one of the senior prefects, the editor of the school newspaper, and cocaptain of the gymnastics team. Her senior photo displayed her sparkly blue eyes and auburn hair, but she had been most revered for an attribute the photographer hadn’t captured: the best ass at Goodwin, full, round, and deep, but not wide. From the front, you would not suspect. But when she turned in profile, her bottom bulged into a perfect C. Often the guys would stand outside the gym, gawking as she did splits and backflips in her blue leotard.
He couldn’t claim they had been friends in high school. She probably had never noticed him, a pimply underclassman. She’d regularly passed him in the hallway without saying hello. He’d never spoken more than two sentences to her, but along with every male in his class he had admired her from afar all those years of high school, had lain awake at night thinking about her smile, her ass, imagining silly scenarios to gain her affection—saving her from thugs in a dark alleyway, or rescuing her from drowning. Back then, he’d studied the pretty senior girls as if they were exam questions. He used to make lists: who had the best legs (Gretchen Peters), best hair (Diana Castenda), best boobs (a tie, Wendy Brewster and Wendy Yelton). The two Wendys had been inseparable, one blond, one dark-haired, often walking arm in arm, hugging or leaning against each other; you could practically hear the boys groan when the two ran up and down the soccer field. Their particular shapes, and the shapes of the other girls of his school, remained fixed in Benjamin’s consciousness like graven images, as clear in memory as if they were standing in the room with him now, his first exemplars of the contours of womanhood, and he’d lusted after them with a teenage ferocity, wholly disproportionate to anything the girls had done to inspire it, driven close to madness by a whiff of their shampoo or the sway of their hips.
Benjamin had dated only one girl in high school, a day student like himself. Their romance had lasted a few months during his senior spring. She was a tall, green-eyed sophomore named Maureen O’Geary who favored gray corduroy pants. At night Benjamin would pick her up in his father’s Cadillac at her house in Farmington and they would drive to the public library to study. Afterward they would park at the mall or behind the town hall until eleven, her curfew; she had only one rule during these make-out sessions—that her corduroys remain buttoned. Despite his best efforts he’d never succeeded in violating this decree, although after three months those gray cords were loose around the waist. She’d broken up with him suddenly and vehemently for reasons he didn’t understand, and afterward she refused to speak to him.
From downstairs came the sound of his father clanging pots and pans. The old man was making dinner. Benjamin checked his watch: not yet 5:00 P.M. Leonard was getting to be an early diner in his old age. Although he wasn’t hungry yet, Benjamin put away the yearbook and went down to the table. Leonard had made hamburgers, mashed potatoes, and peas.
For dessert he served coffee cake. “You want another piece?”
“Sure. I’ll get it.”
“No. You did enough today, carrying all that stuff.” His father got up from the table and shuffled to the counter, his slippers scratching against the linoleum. “It’s a fine coffee cake. Look how it crumbles.”
Benjamin asked, “Have you started smoking, Dad?”
“No. Never. I never smoked a cigarette in my life. You know that.”
“I noticed a pack in the freezer.”
“Your mother’s,” he said without lifting his head. “Her last pack.”
Of course, Benjamin thought. He should have guessed. His father wasn’t getting senile, just more sentimental. This fact made Benjamin feel even worse about the information he had to impart.
“I have some bad news, Dad. Judy and I are getting a divorce.”
“She asked for a divorce? Judy did?”
“And you can’t work it out like before?”
“I don’t think so. Not this time.”
Leonard exhaled, nodding slowly. “Have you told the kids?”
“No.” Benjamin had been putting off that task all day, dreading the inevitable, like a schoolboy before the first day of classes. He knew what would happen. Sarah would cry. David would take the news stoically, with barely a word.
“And this is final? This is your mutual decision?”
“I’ll give Brendan McGowan a call. He’s the best. You’ll need the best.”
McGowan had been his father’s lawyer since the sixties, when Leonard had first opened Mandelbaum Motors. “You need to act quickly on something like this,” said Leonard. “Freeze bank accounts. Put liens on property. There’s no going back once you take that step.”
Benjamin paused, feeling the weight of the decision. Once lawyers got involved, things became permanent. But this had been building for a while, he knew. The way Judy had ranted, she would never take him back anyway. “Yeah, okay,” he told his father. “Maybe you’re right.”
His father went off toward the front hallway, and a moment later Benjamin heard him dialing the rotary phone. Calling his lawyer already. That had always been his nature, to look out for his family above himself. At each whir of the rotary dial, Benjamin felt the weight of his own failure.
You’re just not equipped, Judy had screamed at him during their blowout the night before. She’d found a hotel receipt in his pants while doing the laundry. You’re never going to change, Benjamin. Ironically, this time he was blameless. He’d gotten drunk at an early business dinner in New Haven and had checked into the hotel across the street for five or six hours to sober up, before making the long drive back to Granby. She called him a liar. She said she didn’t believe a word of it. She said he was back to his old ways. She accused him of lacking some basic gene inherent in good husbands like Leonard. She said she was done. Finished with him. He raised his voice, calling her paranoid, and so on, the same long annoying rigmarole, the same petty complaints.
They first met in 1983. She had been hired as a secretary at Mandelbaum Motors, her first job out of high school: Judy Mariani, eighteen years old, in her short denim skirt, answering the phone at the front desk, tapping away at an IBM Selectric with her long, painted nails. She was tall, nearly his height, with a wealth of black hair, teased up to the height of eighties fashion. She was large in the chest and the behind, sticking out in both directions like the Vargas girls in his father’s Esquire. She had big, soft brown eyes. He didn’t know, then, what he was getting into—the extent of her ambition, the plan she had for her life and the role she needed him to play. She’d grown up in a two-family house east of the river, her three brothers living in the same bedroom, the whole family sharing a single bathroom, and she wanted something different for herself, something closer to the beautiful lives she saw on Dallas and Dynasty.
He was twenty-two when they married, she two years younger. He loved her with a sort of mania. He couldn’t get enough of her, her beautiful body, open to him. He found her seventh- and eighth-grade diaries and read them with fascination. He wanted to know everything: her first kiss, her first boyfriend, her first love. It was like pulling teeth, but he extracted from her a detailed history of her sexual life, and with that knowledge came jealousy. How could it bother him? she asked. Things that happened before he even knew her? She’d had a few boyfriends, so what? He couldn’t explain it, but it bothered him. It obsessed and enraged him. Which was odd, because he’d never been a jealous person and he was not jealous of the present Judy, his wife, Judy. He trusted her completely; he didn’t even mind when other men admired her in public, as long as they weren’t rude; he was proud to be seen with her. But the past Judy—that was another story.
What really burned him, and what Judy couldn’t dismiss as ridiculous, was her final boyfriend, an East Hartford fireman named Robert. The overlap burned him. That’s what Judy called it. He called it betrayal. At the start she had wavered between him and the fireman, going on dates with them on different nights. Without explanation she would disappear for a weekend. Later she would admit that, yes, she had been with Robert—at his house or away at some country inn in Massachusetts. Benjamin once found a photograph of the man in her wallet, a mustachioed guy in his thirties. It upset him to the point that he couldn’t say the other’s name; instead he said it backwards: Trebor. Were you with Trebor? Is that why you didn’t call me? He would drive by the fireman’s house in the middle of the night, sometimes spying Judy’s secondhand Volvo in the driveway. This went on for two or three months. It wrenched Benjamin’s heart, a pain wholly beyond anything he’d experienced during his teenage crushes, something close to unbearable. He would drink a six-pack to numb himself, just to be able to get to sleep. Then came his triumph over Trebor: Judy standing beside him at their wedding, him stomping on the glass in celebration. She belonged to him now.
As the years passed, they settled into their routines. He worked at the dealership. She stayed home. The kids came a year apart. They had their television shows. He had his beer, she her wine. When the kids left for college, a silence came between them. She nursed a list of complaints, which seemed to intensify over the years: He lied to her; he made her feel insecure; he watched porno movies after she went to bed; he disliked her family; he didn’t listen to her; he was passive-aggressive; he chastised her for spending money even though she rarely bought anything but necessary household items. In Benjamin’s view they fought about nothing; when there was no reason to be unhappy, they found a reason. I’m missing something, he thought. I’m living someone else’s life.
Maybe she was right; maybe he just wasn’t equipped to be a happy husband, or maybe he hadn’t tried hard enough. Judy, to be sure, was not an easy woman to get along with, with her temper, her longing for nice things, her compulsion to be someone altogether different from her mother. Or maybe they had simply started out too young, with too much responsibility too soon. Still, the end felt wrong to him: wrong and too sudden, and for a nonreason; he was innocent; he hadn’t done a thing. But the result was the same: his marriage finished, his family broken.
At least this hadn’t happened while the kids were still living at home. David was a junior at the University of Tampa, quick and wiry, like his dad. Sarah was a sophomore at BU. They hadn’t had to witness the last couple of months of wordless dinners and door slammings, and they’d avoided the final drama of Judy screaming her head off in the driveway in her black panties and T-shirt, the same clothes she’d been wearing when she found the hotel receipt: “I never want to see your face again! Go! Get out!” She could keep the house in Granby—the Vulcan range and Sub-Zero refrigerator, all the Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware furniture she’d stuffed into the place, the Williams-Sonoma kitchen gadgets, all of it—but not his dog. Yukon was the only thing he wanted from that house. She’d need a sheriff to get that dog away from him.
Benjamin went into the den and poured a scotch to stiffen his resolve. He would call David first, he decided. He might even put Sarah off until tomorrow. She was eighteen, as pretty as her mother, the same thick black hair, the same deep brown eyes. A beautiful girl. She’d always had boyfriends; they’d been coming around since she was in the seventh grade. He didn’t want to ruin her night. But before he finished adding ice cubes to his scotch, his cell phone was ringing. Speak of the devil.
“Daddy, is it true?” She was crying, her voice shaking. So Judy had already told them. At that moment Benjamin could see his daughter, her eyeliner running, her face contorted. Sarah hadn’t called him Daddy in years. Now it was Dad or Ben. Sometimes David called him Benji to be funny.
“Everything’s going to be okay, honey.”
“No, everything is not okay. Don’t tell me it’s going to be okay.”
Nothing was settled, they still might work it out, he told her weakly, not even convincing himself. What else could he offer his daughter but assurances? And if his wife did go through with it, as he knew she would, what then? Well, so be it, Benjamin decided. Look on the bright side. He would get his freedom, a chance to be himself again. Judy would find someone else; she was forty-two, fit and beautiful as always. But for Sarah and David, there would be no benefit; they would carry the rupture with them, their childhoods abruptly reconfigured, their sense of security shattered.
“We’re still a family. Nothing will change. You’ll see, honey.” But he wasn’t even sure she could hear him over her own sobs. His daughter had always come to him for consolation, not Judy. When playmates betrayed her, when boyfriends didn’t return her phone calls, he’d always been the one to calm her fears and heartbreak.
As his daughter cried, he refilled his glass.
* * *
A WEEK LATER a state marshal knocked at the front door. “Benjamin Mandelbaum?”
He handed over some papers. “You’ve been served,” the man said.
He phoned her that night and at least ten times over the coming weeks, but she refused to answer. He told her answering machine:
It’s all a mistake, Judy. I didn’t cheat on you.
Look, I know we have issues, but we should at least get the facts straight.
Come on, Judy. Pick up the phone. We don’t need lawyers. We can be reasonable about this. We can go to a mediator. Lawyer bills are gong to cost us both a fortune. Let’s talk about this.
Talk he did, until her machine beeped and cut him off. Instead of calling back, she sent legal letters by certified mail. He even received a letter about Yukon, seeking return of the dog: Defendant has removed the family animal without permission to a new and unknown environment, causing emotional distress to Spouse, her lawyer had written.
That was the nature of divorce, he realized after a month of such frustration: You didn’t get to talk to your wife anymore. You didn’t get to justify or rationalize or talk your way out of trouble. You got served, and then the lawyers did the talking for you.
* * *
LEONARD MANDELBAUM usually said the same thing whenever his son asked for advice about some problem: Always go with the best. Leonard had learned that lesson from his own father, a haberdasher: You can never go wrong with the best. This was the credo he lived by. Back in the sixties, when Leonard opened the dealership with his life savings and loans from the bank, the best meant Cadillac. He had the sole franchise in East Hartford. If you wanted a Cadillac, you came to Mandelbaum Motors. Customers drove off the lot happy, and they were happy when they came back for oil changes and tire rotations—happy because Cadillacs worked; when you got behind the wheel and turned the key, the car started.
Over the years Leonard had many opportunities to expand. He could have acquired the Jaguar franchise in the early seventies, but he’d passed without giving it a second thought. Why? Because Jaguars broke down, because Jaguars meant trouble, and trouble cars—Saabs (“sob stories,” Leonard called them), Mercedes, BMWs—meant unhappy customers. Back then European cars were trouble, Japanese cars were junk. It had all changed since then, of course, and when it did, Leonard had branched out.
Mandelbaum Motors didn’t sell. That was Leonard’s other rule of business. Never use the hard sell. Customers didn’t trust car salesmen who chased them around the showroom, barking like carnival hucksters. Leonard purposefully kept the lot understaffed; he didn’t want his boys charging out the door with their hands out whenever some poor sap drove onto the premises. Just the opposite. You had difficulties finding a salesman at Mandelbaum Motors. You had to wait until someone had a moment to hand out a brochure, hop in for a test drive, quote you a price. Because Leonard Mandelbaum was no pitchman. You came into his office, he gave you his best price, you signed the papers, or not.
For thirty-odd years Leonard had been the first to arrive on the lot every morning, newspaper in hand. Days off didn’t sit well with him. He’d find himself restless and fidgety, even at the country club sitting by the swimming pool with Myra and the kids. “Go already,” Myra would tell him. “You’re making everyone crazy.” So he would drive out to East Hartford, get behind his desk, work the phone.
This went on into his golden years, even after Benjamin had taken the reins. His son knew the business from the ground up; he’d started in the car wash when he was thirteen. College hadn’t appealed to Benjamin. After two years in Pennsylvania he’d dropped out. His grades were so-so, even in economics classes, and Benjamin had always excelled in mathematics; his heart just wasn’t in it. He started full-time when he was twenty, and he’d married Judy a couple of years later. And ever since, father and son had worked side by side, through the difficult eighties, the roaring nineties. Afternoons they would lunch at Shelly’s Deli down the block, then return to their offices across the hall from each other. With his door open, Leonard could see Benjamin, feet up on his desk, fingers flying on the computer. Benjamin worked magic on that computer, bringing in out-of-state customers; once he even sold a fleet of Eldorados to Arabia.
But it all ended when Myra got ill. Leonard nursed her himself and left the house only when she insisted. “Get out of my sight, Leonard,” she would say. “Stop hanging over me like a vulture.” Four years she battled the cancer, holding on long past the time any doctor thought possible. Six months to a year, they’d given her. But they didn’t know Myra Mandelbaum. A stubborn woman, his wife. When it was over, finally, when she called it quits, the fight was gone from Leonard too. He hadn’t considered the possibility of outliving her. It had been a sticking point back when he’d courted her, their ten-year age difference. Her parents hadn’t liked the idea of her marrying an old man—he was thirty-seven at the time; they didn’t want Myra being left to fend for herself in her old age. They needn’t have worried. Leonard had planned well: life insurance, disability insurance, stocks and bonds. All that was irrelevant now. He’d cashed in the insurance policies and transferred the securities to Benjamin and Sissi. He hadn’t planned to survive Myra, and after she was gone he didn’t know what to do with himself.
In time, he returned to the lot. But five years had passed and almost everything had changed. His first day back, he wandered the showroom, bewildered, looking for his office, which had been relocated when Benjamin renovated the building. His own familiar secretary had retired; new employees roamed the aisles, watching him with curiosity those first few days. Was he a customer? Someone’s uncle? There were new makes and models, new technology. But the biggest change was within Leonard himself: He had lost the desire to sell. What was the point? Benjamin had everything under control; the business was making more money than ever. His son assured him that they needed him—untrue, of course—but Leonard found it difficult to summon the energy to get dressed every morning and make the long drive across the river. To please his son, he came into the office on Friday afternoons, mostly just to have lunch with Benjamin like old times. But he didn’t sell, and people asked for him less and less. He’d outlived his customers, and the ones who were still breathing had no need for cars in their nursing homes and retirement communities. Leonard was a museum piece, like the 1955 red Coupe DeVille they kept in the front showroom. In some ways it was a relief not to be needed.
So he was surprised to find three pink Post-its on his desk waiting for him one Friday afternoon that October. Leonard got out his reading glasses, examined the notes one by one. They all said the same thing:
Dick Funkhouser called.
* * *
WHEN THE WAITRESS delivered the bottle of wine, Leonard examined the label with his glasses perched halfway down his nose. A red wine from Orvieto. The waitress filled a glass and passed it across the table to Terri Funkhouser. Leonard waited for her to take a sip. She gulped. “Well?” he said. “Do you like it?”
She shrugged. “What’s not to like? It’s a forty-dollar bottle of wine. Of course I like it. Do you expect me to send it back?”
Terri Funkhouser was husky-voiced, a lifelong smoker like Myra. Her dyed blond hair was pompadoured high above her head; gold baubles dangled from her ears. A handful, Dick Senior used to call her. Leonard was never sure if he meant her ample figure, her disposition, or both.
The restaurant was called the First and Last Tavern, and Leonard thought that apropos: This would be his first and last evening with Terri Funkhouser. The whole thing had been a trick. Dick Junior had tricked him. When Leonard had returned his calls earlier that day, Dick Junior had proposed a dinner meeting to discuss buying a new car for his mother. I’m off to sell a Cadillac, he’d told Benjamin proudly. (“Drive safely, Dad, okay? Your night vision’s not so great these days.”) But when Leonard arrived at the Funkhouser house to pick them up, Dick Junior claimed an emergency and begged off, saying, You can get Mom home okay, right?
“What kind of car are you interested in?” asked Leonard.
Terri Funkhouser reached into the breadbasket and picked through the rolls. “They’re cold,” she said. She ripped one in half and took a bite. “I’m not interested in cars. That’s Dickie’s idea. He thinks I should have a new one, something with an air bag. He doesn’t trust the Cutlass anymore. He says I drive like a blind person.”
“What year is the Cutlass?”
“You’re asking me dates? You expect me to know the make and model?”
“They stopped making them in the nineties.”
She shrugged. “I’m used to it.”
“You have to keep up with the times. You can never be too safe.”
Her nails were long, painted a bright red. “Who can afford a new car?”
“New, used. You’d be surprised at the deals you can get these days. Dick Junior wants the best for you.”
“Forget it, Leonard. Dickie’s a dreamer. He can’t afford a lawn mower, let alone a new car, and neither can I. Let’s not talk about cars anymore.”
“Fine. That’s fine.”
“Dickie’s been after me to call you for a month. He thinks we should be friends.” She emptied her wineglass and held it toward him. Leonard refilled the glass, which was smeared around the rim with lipstick.
“He wants you to be happy.”
She laughed, a short raspy sound. “He wants me off his hands.” Again, she gulped the wine, dripping some out of the side of her mouth, and quickly lapped it with her tongue. “He wants me out of my house so he can sell it and take the money and go to Florida with his shiksa.”
“He’s a good boy,” said Leonard, trying to calm her. Her voice traveled; a couple at the next table turned their way. When Leonard had parked outside the restaurant, she’d grabbed his arm to steady herself as they walked toward the entrance. A bit tipsy already, he’d thought then. “He means well, I’m sure.”
“You think it’s a good idea we become friends? You like that idea, Leonard Mandelbaum, do you?”
“Most of my friends are dead.”
“You’re an old man, Leonard.”
“You outlived them. Myra, Dick Senior. Everyone.”
“I always liked Dick Senior.”
“Oh, Dick was a prince. A real prince.” She offered her wineglass. “To Dick Funkhouser, wherever he may be.” Leonard clinked her glass with his own, and she drank off a few ounces. “I need a real drink. Order me one.”
When the waitress arrived with their dinner, Leonard told her, “A sidecar for the lady and a scotch on the rocks for me.”
“How did you know?” She had her head down, sawing her chicken cutlet with a serrated knife.
“You always asked for it at parties.”
“It’s been thirty years since I’ve been to a party at your house.”
“Part of my job. I never forget a drink or the name of a spouse. People like to be remembered.”
“What a salesman. You and your Cadillacs.”
“Staci and Gary. Your grandkids.”
“For God’s sake, don’t you forget anything?”
“Seems like all I do is forget these days, or try to.”
“Don’t be maudlin.” She wore a white sweater with gold sequins, and Leonard noticed a fresh splotch of spaghetti sauce on her chest. The woman had a healthy appetite. Half the cutlet was gone already. Her plump fingers worked diligently, cutting and forking the meat into her bright red mouth. “Dick Senior was a maudlin man. He cried during television commercials. Tears streaming down his face during an Alpo ad.”
“I always liked Dick Senior.”
“You said that already, Leonard. Please stop saying things twice.”
“Fine,” he said. “Fine.”
“Dick Senior got me pregnant on a cot in his dry-cleaning shop. I came in to pick up a blouse for my mother and I ended up in the back room with my skirt up. I was married at seventeen. I didn’t even finish high school. Did you know that?”
“Did I know what?”
“The man was twenty years older and hung like a horse. I never knew men could be small until I found out the hard way. No pun intended.”
Leonard glanced at the neighboring tables to see if anyone could hear her. “Keep your voice down.”
“Am I embarrassing you?”
“I might know someone here.”
“All your friends are dead, Leonard. You said so yourself. Who’s going to care if you’re seen cavorting with a drunken woman? Who’s left to notice?”
“Eat your shells,” he said.
“Fine. I’ll eat my shells. You talk. I’ll eat.”
“I didn’t know Dick was that much older.”
“You mean you didn’t know I was so young. You mean I look older.”
“No, no. You look fine.”
“I don’t look fine, Len. I’m a wreck. I’m sixty-nine years old and I can’t afford a car and my son feels he has to pimp me out to an old devil like you.”
This made Leonard smile. He was enjoying himself, he realized, in spite of the commotion she was causing, in spite of the spectacle of her spilling gravy onto her sweater. She was a disaster, but in her presence he did feel somewhat devilish—the way she’d hung on his arm when they’d entered the restaurant, the movement of her large hips and breasts. The woman was lively conversation, you had to give it to her. You never knew what might come out of her mouth next.
“You don’t look a day over sixty,” he said.
“Sixty-nine,” she stressed. “That’s a dirty number, you know.”
“A dirty number. ‘My favorite number,’ Dick Senior used to say.”
Leonard’s face must have betrayed his bewilderment.
“Never mind, Len,” she said, patting his hand. “You play your cards right, maybe I’ll show you sometime.” She winked lasciviously. Something sexual, then. He would ask Benjamin or one of the salesmen. They knew all the dirty jokes.
“You do have those little blue pills, Len? All the old men have them these days.”
His Halcion were blue. He couldn’t sleep without them, ever since Myra died. Alone in the big bed, the sheets drawn tightly. She’d always run hot, Myra had. Better than an electric blanket, he used to say. “Sure,” he said. “I can’t get to sleep without them.”
Terri snorted so loudly that he flinched; a small piece of food projected out of her mouth and landed in his salad. “Viagra, Len,” she blurted. “I’m talking about Viagra. For your you-know-what. For your putz. Not for sleeping.”
“For God’s sake, Terri. They’ll throw us out.”
And indeed, he looked up to see the waiter approaching, looking stern. But the man was only delivering their cocktails. Leonard bit into his meatball; he’d barely touched his dinner.
“Go to your doctor,” she said. “They give them out like vitamins these days.” She forked the final piece of chicken into her mouth and began wiping up the sauce with a roll. “More bread, Len,” she rasped.
Myra too used to get boisterous in restaurants. Once she’d asked the maître d’ at Scoler’s to dance, and when he politely declined, she called him fancy pants. You’d dance with me if I were a man, wouldn’t you, fancy pants?
“To little blue pills,” Terri Funkhouser was saying, her sidecar raised. She drank it down in a few swigs. But that was her final toast. The sidecar finished her. She became quiet, then unresponsive. Finally she announced that she felt sick. “Take me home, Leonard.”
He and the maître d’, a heavyset Italian man, got her out to the Cadillac, Leonard holding on to one arm, feeling the fleshy weight of her against him. They managed to strap her into the passenger seat. On the drive back to her house, her mouth fell open and she began snoring. In the close confines of the car Leonard began to feel light-headed from the scent of her; he opened the driver’s-side window to get some air; her perfume, as Myra had always said, could stop a bull.
When Leonard pulled into her driveway and honked the horn, Dick Junior came out immediately, striding purposefully toward the passenger side, as if he’d been expecting them.
* * *
THE NEXT MORNING Leonard got the photo albums out of the den closet. He was looking for a picture he’d taken of Terri Funkhouser, many years ago. He could summon the image in his mind: young Terri standing ramrod straight, chest thrust forward, a cocktail glass in her hand. One of his grandkids, combing through the photo albums, had once said, Who’s the pretty lady in the red dress?
As Leonard searched, Benjamin suddenly bounded down the hallway, calling out, “I’ll be right back.” Where are you going, he wanted to ask, but the door had already closed behind his son. Leonard smiled. That was Benjamin, always in a hurry. He talked fast, typed fast, drove fast. It was nice having his son back in the house, despite the marital concerns. They had dinner together most evenings and TV time afterward in the den. Benjamin even watched television fast, flipping through the channels in a blur.
Leonard turned past the countless photographs of dogs and cats, the pets that had kept Benjamin and Sissi happy in their youth. The two of them had taken the photos with their Instamatic cameras. “Take pictures of people,” he’d lectured his children, but they hadn’t listened. One of the albums had a psychedelic purple plastic cover with a typewritten title page: Winter Sojourn by Benjamin Steven Mandelbaum. This was his son’s junior high photography project, an album of black-and-white pictures of clouds and trees in winter. His son had developed these pictures himself in the darkroom he’d jury-rigged in the basement, with his potions and trays and red safelight. Leonard could detect, even now, a lingering whiff of the chemical solutions. Photography had been a phase of Benjamin’s, like his interest in baseball cards and the electric guitar, hobbies that got boxed up once he turned sixteen, when he discovered beer and girls.
As he thumbed through the albums, Leonard lingered over pictures of Myra, so vivid in her prime: Myra in her tennis whites at the club, racket in hand; Myra on the beach in Sarasota, reclining on a lounge chair; Myra in ski pants at the foot of the mountain in Stowe, leaning on her ski poles.
He pulled another stack of photo albums from the bottom shelf, breathing heavily, pushing aside board games and poker chips, coughing on the dust. He opened their honeymoon album, covered in white leather: Bermuda, Summer of 1959. He’d taken these pictures with his Hasselblad 1600f with its eighty-millimeter lens, a camera he’d bought in Paris a few years after the war. The photographs were three-inch squares. The negatives, nearly as big, were contained in an envelope, taped to the back cover of the album. Leonard had always been well organized with his hobbies.
There was Myra, twenty-seven years old in a white bathing suit outside the cottage they’d rented on the grounds of the Black Angus Hotel, posing Hollywood-style, one hand behind her head, hip cocked. Every night they dined at the same small corner table in the hotel restaurant. “We’ll have the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding,” she would tell the waiter. “We’re hungry people.”
His beautiful Myra, so young, so full of life. How proud he’d been, walking arm in arm with her through the hotel dining room. “You’re a lucky man,” the waiter had confided to him one night. Lucky, indeed. Leonard could see the joy in his face in the final photo in the honeymoon album, slightly out of focus: Leonard grinning, his eyes narrowed to slits against the sun. He had the woman of his dreams, with a lifetime ahead of them.
His eyes watered. The loss was nearly unbearable. How could he express it in words? When his neighbor Betty Amato called to check on him, when she asked how he was doing, he would always say the same thing: Not very well without Myra. Not very well at all. He missed her every hour, every day. I know, Leonard, Betty would say, I miss her too. I miss her so much. That would start him crying again, and Betty would say, But you can’t dwell on it. You have to move on or you’ll make yourself sick with grief. Move on? How could he tell her that there was no possibility of moving on? That there was nothing left for him, no life without Myra? She couldn’t understand. Neither could Benjamin or Sissi. For them, life was about looking ahead, about what would happen next.
There was one final photo album. Leonard flipped absentmindedly through the pages, and there it was, the shot of Terri Funkhouser. He’d almost forgotten he was looking for it. In the picture, she was posed exactly as he’d remembered—standing tall and proud in a flashy red dress, cocktail glass in hand—but she was younger than he’d thought (barely into her twenties, by the look of her), and Leonard had forgotten the other person in the photograph, with her arm curled around Terri Funkhouser’s waist: Myra herself, wearing a short black cocktail dress and pearls. How young they seemed, the two women staring into the lens, unsmiling. He removed the photograph from its cellophane sheath and turned it over: Summer solstice party 1963, Myra had written on the back.
Leonard carried the photograph to his desk in the hallway and dialed Terri Funkhouser’s number. Benjamin had gone outside; Leonard could see him through the front window, standing on the lawn, talking to some woman—the new neighbor, he guessed, who’d moved into Eleanor Hufnagle’s house. Just as well, Leonard figured. He wouldn’t need to keep his voice down. He hadn’t told Benjamin about his outing with Terri Funkhouser. Benjamin might find it disloyal of him, calling another woman. But Leonard only wanted to tell her about the photograph and offer to send her a copy. It would be a quick phone call, before his son came back inside.
She answered immediately.
“I’ve got a picture of you,” he said.
“Not from last night, I hope.”
“From 1963. It’s you and Myra at a cocktail party on the patio in my backyard. You’re wearing a red dress.”
“Dick bought that dress for me at Saks. I told him it made me look like a streetwalker, but he insisted.”
“Myra has her arm around your waist.”
“Myra was lovely. I always envied her those almond eyes and her figure—so trim, not falling out everywhere like you-know-who. You had the pick of the litter, Len.”
“I did. I did.” This started him crying again, though he tried to hide it by clearing his throat.
“Don’t get weepy on me. I told you last night, I can’t stand that sort of thing.”
“I’m surprised you can remember last night.”
“Of course I remember. Did you do what I asked? Did you call your doctor?”
“Viagra, Len. The little blue pills.”
“For goodness’ sake, Terri. You’re not serious.”
“Of course I’m serious. It’ll be a nice change for you. Don’t underestimate the benefits of a good lay. You’ll feel twenty years younger.”
“Don’t talk like that. Dickie will hear you.”
“Dickie’s out with his shiksa. And he wouldn’t care anyway. He wants us to be friends, remember. This whole thing was his idea.”
“You and Myra.” He sighed, holding the photograph a few inches from his face. He’d left his reading glasses in the den. Somehow it made him feel closer to Myra, seeing her together with Terri. “The two of you. You look like movie stars. I’ll show it to you.”
“Get the pills first. But you have to be able to do five push-ups.”
“Push-ups? What are you talking about?”
“The doctors won’t give you the pills if they’re worried about your heart. They don’t want you jumping into bed and having a coronary, which is what happens sometimes with old devils like yourself. So they’ll ask you to do five push-ups before they’ll write a prescription.”
“Trust me, Len. I’ve been through this before. You did push-ups in the Army, right?”
“Then it’ll be no problem for you.”
She fumbled the phone, and a moment later the line went dead. Leonard shook his head. Barely past noon and she was drunk again. The way she talked, she had to be drunk. Or maybe just teasing. Didn’t she know that he hadn’t been with a woman for twenty years? And a woman other than Myra for how long—fifty years?
He went back to the den and slid the picture of Myra and Terri Funkhouser into its cellophane holder. Then he gathered the photo albums, got to his hands and knees, and stacked them on the bottom shelf in the closet. He sat on the rug, resting for a few moments.
Five push-ups! Could she possibly be serious? He hadn’t done push-ups since his Navy days, but back then they’d performed marathon sessions, one hundred at a time, more. Leonard was fit. A bit hunched, the years weighing on his back, but not overweight; he’d never been overweight, never smoked, never drank as much as the others—Terri Funkhouser, Myra, Bob Amato; they’d poured it down like water. He had always been the one to drive them home. He’d played golf every Sunday at the country club during the season, competing in tournaments well into his sixties, until at last he’d torn his rotator cuff to shreds slicing a three wood.
Leonard stretched out on the rug. Good thing Benjamin couldn’t see him now. How could he explain these gymnastics? He took a deep breath and pushed himself off the floor.
“One,” he said aloud. “Two. Three—”
He felt it coming, a welling up, like a storm rising.
He never reached five.
* * *
SOME MINUTES EARLIER, sitting at the kitchen table with the newspaper, Benjamin had glanced up to see the dog through the kitchen window—an odd sight in suburbia: a malamute trotting up the street without leash, without master.
He’d seen the dog before, tied to a tree outside the old farmhouse, roaming the lawn on a thirty-foot line: her dog.
Immediately, he jumped to his feet. Like any good salesman, Benjamin Mandelbaum knew when to seize an opportunity. He grabbed a turkey leg out of the refrigerator, picked Yukon’s old leash off the hook by the kitchen door, and hurried outside.
He whistled. The dog turned toward him, both ears raised. When Benjamin tossed the turkey leg onto the lawn, the dog ambled over to inspect the offering, and Benjamin reached out and snapped the latch onto its collar.
* * *
FOR THE PAST MONTH, since he’d moved back into his father’s house, Benjamin had kept a sort of vigil. Each morning on his way to work he would linger at the stop sign at the bottom of the street to inspect the farmhouse. Most days there would be a workman’s truck or van parked in the driveway, sometimes a whole fleet—plumbers, landscapers, carpenters, painters. On his way home, he would examine what they’d accomplished during the day. The row of tall pines along Mountain Road was cleared, the logs and stumps cut up and removed, the brush fed into a wood chipper. A fresh coat of paint was applied, the house a soft gray, the shutters barn red. The split-rail fence rose up from where it had fallen.
Finally, a couple of weeks ago, he’d gotten his first glimpse of her, walking her dog up the street. He’d squinted. There was the red hair, down to her shoulders. Yes, it was her, it was his Audrey Martin, he knew in the first instant. That night he’d pulled out the yearbook again. In addition to her senior picture, there were three other shots of Audrey Martin: a candid of her lying on a blanket on the senior green; the group photo of the gymnastics team with her kneeling in the front row; and the cast picture from the spring musical, with Audrey dressed in leather pants as Sandy in Grease, wearing too much makeup. He wondered where her life had taken her since Goodwin, and how she had ended up living on his childhood street. They had expected so much of her; she had everything—talent, beauty, intelligence, athletic grace. (Not to mention that fine ass.)
He closed the yearbook, distracted. A Pavlovian reaction of sorts had occurred, almost against his wishes, the same thrill that had seized him every June in high school on the day they handed out the new yearbooks, smelling of ink and glossy paper. He had a hard-on. Did the other boys do as he did, race home and flip from one page to the next, gorging on images of Wendy Brewster and Wendy Yelton, the girls’ soccer team photo? Back then, it had offered more excitement than Playboy or Penthouse, the intimacy of knowing the girls in the photos, even if they weren’t naked on a hay bale. He’d turned on his laptop and lowered the volume so as not to wake his father in the next room. He hadn’t had sex in more than a month, the longest period of abstinence of his adult life. Maybe abstinence was the wrong word—did abstinence include jerking off every other night, a forty-four-year-old man tiptoeing downstairs to do the laundry so his father wouldn’t find his soiled boxer briefs? It was pathetic, he knew. Likewise, this infatuation with Audrey Martin. She was someone’s wife now, his high school dream girl long gone.
So far being single wasn’t what Benjamin had expected. Since Judy kicked him out, he hadn’t gone on a single date. His social life amounted to a stop at Starbucks on his way home from work, where he’d smile at the young woman who handed over his decaf latte. “Would you like your receipt, sir?” To her, he was another middle-aged man, an automaton in a blue suit. Once in a while the pretty barista would come out from behind the counter to sweep the floor or refill the condiments, wearing low-cut jeans under her green apron, a black thong peeking out. The vision caused a hollow in his gut, a desperate longing as sharp as an ulcer. Was this pain going to last indefinitely? Would he be a seventy-year-old codger, alone and unhappy? How could he meet someone new in this town? No matter where he looked, his attentions were inappropriate. He lived in a town populated by married people and their minor children. The trio of schoolgirls studying at the big table in their uniform of blue jeans and Uggs: They were younger than his daughter. The woman with the Coach bag, waiting impatiently in line: Her ring finger sported a hefty diamond.
During all the years of his marriage it had seemed that single women were everywhere, in stores, restaurants, on the streets. Where had they gone, all those possibilities? At the dealership, an accountant came into the office twice a week to do the books. She was in her late thirties, her hair pulled back, usually dressed in a skirt and a silky blouse. Her arrival in the morning—the click of her heels on the tile floor of the showroom—caused a sort of primordial explosion in his brain, obliterating the possibility of higher thought. But she was off-limits, like the secretaries and saleswomen. He’d learned that lesson ten years earlier, when one of the senior salesmen got the company involved in a sexual harassment lawsuit, costing their insurance carrier a $200,000 settlement. (The fool had been obsessed with one of the female mechanics. He’d left obscene notes in her locker and messages on her home answering machine for six months.) Two hundred thousand dollars! The figure had sent Leonard into paroxysms. “She had to sue? She couldn’t say to him, ‘Go fly a kite’?”
During his marriage, Benjamin had engaged in two affairs, and both times Judy had caught him. The first was Annika, nineteen and free-spirited, the Dutch au pair. She’d arrived at their doorstep, barely proficient in English, impossibly beautiful. This had been Judy’s idea, hiring an au pair, something she thought rich people did. One afternoon she walked in on the two of them in the guest room, smoking pot naked, with a Swedish pop song that was big that summer playing on the tape player. (Later, whenever the band’s sole hit played on the radio, Judy skewered him with an “Oh listen, they’re playing your song.”) She sent the girl back to the agency and relegated Benjamin to the very same guest room for the next six months. A trial basis, she called it, contingent on his attendance at couples’ therapy twice a week. He went along with it—six months of regret and desperation, anxiety and self-recrimination—until he finally won Judy’s forgiveness. Deep down, he saw the fault as partly hers, for her betrayal with the fireman, although he hadn’t justified his actions that way to Judy. Still, he’d had his mulligan with the au pair; and so they were even.
But a few years later, he met Rachel Rosenberg, and it happened again. She was his daughter’s ninth-grade Spanish teacher. He met her at the annual parent-teacher get-together. She was freshly divorced, with a rose tattooed on her right shoulder blade, and she never wore panties, not around him at least. In their Cancún hotel room she drank tequila from the bottle and danced to flamenco music. “I used to buy into all that AA crap,” she told him, “before I decided to lighten up.” He couldn’t stop, even after Judy found out, even after she threatened to take the kids and go. Eventually Rachel herself called it off. She refused to see him. “Recess is over,” she told him. “I need a serious man in my life.” The next year she moved to Boca Raton with a bank president.
It had been love, he’d thought, stupidly. But Rachel had discarded him like an old newspaper. And he had not even missed her. He found himself relieved to be free from her craziness and self-absorption and drunken drama. This time, Judy let him come back with a simple dictum: That was your last chance. Next time, it’s over. He agreed, elated to win her reprieve. What a fool he had been, to risk his marriage, and for what? His two extramarital affairs had been about sex. Sex, alone. He knew that, in retrospect. He’d had a couple of drunken one-night flings during his four semesters at college, but Judy had been his first real sexual partner, and he had married her. He’d had to get that urge out of his system. After Rachel, he vowed never to cheat again, and he hadn’t, no matter what Judy suspected. In the seven years since Rachel Rosenberg he’d been as chaste as Jimmy Carter, lusting in his heart but nothing more than that.
Still, he and Judy grew apart. A phantom unease entered into their marriage during that time of fidelity, a slow-growing silence, which got worse after the kids left for college. That silence had done more damage to his marriage than any affair.
So now, here he was, single: This was what he’d contemplated over the past few years like some tropical vacation, a release from marital servitude, a return to the world of women. Long ago, the summer after his first year of college, Benjamin had rented a cottage on Martha’s Vineyard with some buddies. They would sit on the front porch, the raucous five of them, calling out to the girls who passed by on their way to the public beach. Often a few of the girls would come up on the porch, have a beer from the cooler, join them for a swim or meet them later at the bars. That’s how he’d always imagined being single would be: a procession of women in the summer sun.
Now, sitting on the front stoop with the leash in his hand, Benjamin waited for Audrey Martin to appear. Her malamute lay on its stomach, picking away at the turkey bone. She would show up before long, he figured. If she didn’t come looking, he would deliver the dog to her. He would play dumb. You look familiar, he would say. Did you go to Goodwin by any chance?
* * *
FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER she appeared, alone, calling out, “Sheba.” When she saw the dog, she came striding across his lawn. “You found her,” she said. That same sparkly smile, only slightly dimmed by the twenty-five years in between. She took the leash from him. “You’re a lifesaver.”
“Actually, I’m a car salesman. Benjamin,” he said, extending his hand.
Audrey. A thrill went through him at the sound of her name, even though he’d known it was her. He shook her hand—soft skin, wedding ring, no watch or other jewelry. Her face showed no recognition. She didn’t remember him.
“Do you live nearby?” he asked, playing his part.
“We just moved into the house at the bottom of the street, my husband, daughter, and me.”
“Ah, the new neighbors. You’re doing a terrific job with the renovations.”
There was a pause, and she patted her dog, looking down. Before she could try to get away, he went into his act, affecting an expression of concentration. “Hey, you look really familiar. Did you go to Goodwin by any chance?”
Her mouth fell open. “How on earth did you know that?”
“Your name is Audrey Martin, right?”
“Wow. You’ve got a good memory. What was your name again?”
He told her.
She narrowed her eyes. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember you. Did we have the same homeroom?”
“No. I was a year beneath you, a lowly underclassman with a serious crush. But that’s not very original. All the guys had crushes on you.”
She blushed, he was pleased to notice. “Hardly,” she said.
“Well, it’s true.”
“How long have you lived here?” she asked.
“I don’t. This is my dad’s house. I’m visiting, sort of.”
“Well, I’m waiting.”
She laughed. “Waiting for what? The rapture?”
“For my divorce to become final.” He hadn’t planned to volunteer that information, but her question had thrown him off-balance. “There’s a ninety-day waiting period,” he informed her. “I’ve got—let’s see, what is this, October twentieth?”
“A little more than two months to go.”
“Is that all it takes?”
“Ninety days to freedom, yes.”
“Lucky you,” she said with a mysterious smile.
Benjamin had no idea how to answer that. “What happened after Goodwin?” he asked, trying to keep the conversation going. “Give me the CliffsNotes version.”
“I was a drama major at Wesleyan,” she said. “Then grad school at Yale, English literature.”
“I never finished college,” he said. “I didn’t like it all that much.”
“You must think I’m a terrible snob,” she said, “giving you my résumé like that.”
“Not at all,” he said, happy to throw her off-balance. “You were never snobby, it was one of the things we all liked about you. Not like Skippy Brooks and Ginny Hunter and that gang.”
“Skippy was actually really nice.”
They talked about former classmates, teachers and class reunions. (She hadn’t gone to any.) He settled into his easy salesman’s style, feeling the awkwardness fade—she had thrown him with that “Lucky you” response. What was she trying to tell him? That her marriage was in trouble? That she wanted out? He rattled off all the gossip he could recall from the last issue of the Goodwin Alumni News. “Do you remember Mr. Dorfman?” he heard himself saying. Their old gym teacher had won the state lottery. “Three million dollars, but he kept his job at the school. He works for a dollar a year now.”
“You really keep up,” she said, patting her dog. She told him that Gretchen Peters had moved to Paris and married a famous artist, but otherwise she hadn’t kept in touch with anyone.
They reached a lull. He took a deep breath, not wanting to force the conversation further. He’d made contact. He’d gotten her attention. That was enough for now.
In the silence that followed, she pulled a leash out of her pocket. “Here, let me,” said Benjamin. He bent down to unsnap his old leash from the dog’s collar. His head was level with her waist, just inches away, so close he could smell the fresh-laundry scent of her jeans. The clasp was stuck. As he fiddled with it, he felt her fingers graze the nape of his neck. He lowered his head, and she ran her fingers through his hair. Her touch surprised him, shocked him, but at the same time felt completely natural, so soothing that he wondered if he were imagining it.
“You have beautiful hair,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said, without looking up.
At last he detached the clasp and stood.
“Thanks for rescuing her.” She smiled, snapping on her leash.
“Glad to help.”
He watched her as she walked away. The dog turned back to look at him, but Audrey didn’t.
* * *
HE WENT INTO the kitchen through the garage door. Yukon jumped up and rushed to sniff at his legs, then ran to his water bowl, lapping furiously—a good sound, that hectic splashing and the pushing of the bowl across the linoleum. Sometimes Yukon would plant his foot inside the bowl to keep it steady, a sight that always made Benjamin smile. A moment later the dog padded out of the room.
Benjamin could still feel her touch on his neck. Yes, she was married, but there were always consequences in getting involved, he had learned; it was the cost of personal interaction. Like the cost of doing business: unavoidable. In the past he’d fallen into entanglements without really meaning to. With Judy, he hadn’t expected anything more than a few dates. With Rachel Rosenberg, he’d expected a single night, not a full-fledged affair. The bill always came at the end—often in some wholly unexpected form—but that was no reason not to play.
His thoughts were interrupted by Yukon, whining and whimpering from the hallway. “Hey,” he yelled. “Stop that!” He expected the dog to come running toward him, but instead the whining intensified. Annoyed, Benjamin went down the hall, to where Yukon stood in the den doorway. He pushed past the dog and looked into the room. For a moment he didn’t comprehend what he was seeing.
His father was splayed facefirst on the rug.
“Dad, what are you doing?”
Leonard twitched. He seemed to be trying to speak, but only garbled sounds emerged, like those of a person choking. Benjamin bent beside him and rolled him onto his back. Leonard stared blindly at the ceiling, his tongue rolling.
The dog barked, and the noise roused Benjamin. He rushed to the kitchen, grabbed the wall phone, and dialed 911.
“I need an ambulance,” he yelled. “Something’s wrong with my father.”
* * *
AT ST. FRANCIS HOSPITAL, Benjamin waited for two hours in the emergency room for the doctor to return. He was a middle-aged Indian man, barely five feet tall, with shiny black hair slicked across his forehead.
“Shall we have a word outside?”
Benjamin followed the doctor into the hallway. The intercom blared. An orderly pushed a cart loaded with dinner trays. Benjamin had not eaten all day, but the smell of the food made his stomach knot tighter. An old lady was sitting in a wheelchair against the wall, her legs spotted with dark bruises.
“We moved your father into the intensive care unit,” the doctor said. “He’s stable but his condition remains serious. He’s had a stroke. A blood vessel to the brain was blocked by a clot. When this happens, that part of the brain cannot get oxygen and begins to die.”
From one of the emergency room cubicles came the cries of an old man. Help me, he yelled. Please someone help me. The man had been screaming for most of the afternoon, and at first the screams had shocked Benjamin. But now the man’s voice was dry and hoarse; no one seemed to notice.
“Shouldn’t someone sedate that guy?” Benjamin said.
The doctor continued as if he had not spoken. “One way we treat the stroke is with drugs that break the clots. These drugs are most effective when administered within a three-hour window from the onset of symptoms. A very small percentage of stroke victims reach the hospital within that time. But your father is one of the lucky ones. You got him here quickly.”
In the back of the ambulance, Benjamin had held Leonard’s hand as the EMTs worked above him on the stretcher: the siren blaring, the sickening smell of diesel fumes, the bursts of amplified voices on the two-way radio. It’s okay, Dad, he’d repeated, averting his gaze from his father’s stricken, uncomprehending face. Everything’s going to be okay. The same thing he’d told his daughter not so long ago, he realized now. Would these reassurances prove to be just as empty? He pushed away the thought, trying to concentrate on the doctor’s words.
“He has a partial paralysis on the right side. This means that the left side of his brain was damaged. And his speech has been affected.”
“Will he be able to talk again?”
The doctor consulted the chart. “We’re giving him Coumadin to prevent further clotting. Many stroke victims are able to regain capabilities, but of course we can’t be certain. Your father is how old?”
The doctor nodded. “A lot depends on his will to improve. The rehabilitation process can be taxing.”
“How long will he have to stay in the hospital?”
“One week, at the very least. If all goes well, at that point we can transfer him to a rehabilitation clinic.”
“May I see him now?”
From the hallway Benjamin heard the old man start up again, screaming for help, and then just screaming. Benjamin took the elevator to the ICU. In the room, the bright fluorescent light spilled across his father’s pale and blotched face. Leonard lay on his back with tubes coming out of his nose and arms. His feet, protruding from the blankets, were sheathed in hospital stockings, like women’s nylons. “That’s to prevent clotting,” the nurse told him. Benjamin stood by the hospital bed, holding his father’s hand.
* * *
THAT NIGHT he came home to a darkened house. He went from room to room turning on lamps, trying to dispel the sense of dread, while Yukon followed him, panting. Benjamin scooped some brown pellets from the bag of dog food into the bowl. He sat at the kitchen table watching Yukon gobble the food. Thirty seconds later the dog was finished.
He needed to talk to someone, but could think of no one to call. He certainly wasn’t going to worry his kids about it yet, if he could help it. He’d already called his sister in San Diego, to give her the news. She had wanted to come on the next flight, but he told her to stay with her husband and kids. There was nothing she could do, he told her. They just had to wait to see how Leonard responded. And besides, he said, it was only a “minor stroke.”
In truth, the doctor had said no such thing. Benjamin had wanted to put Sissi’s mind at ease. But now who would reassure him? What if Leonard didn’t get better? Or if he got worse? His father, his business partner, the one person he trusted above all others: What would he do without him?
As a child, Benjamin had always worried that Leonard might suddenly drop dead: a heart attack while driving his Cadillac or cooking hamburgers on the grill. He couldn’t recall what prompted this fear. Leonard had always been healthy. But he had been older than most of the other fathers in the neighborhood. If Benjamin woke in the night he would listen to the sound of his father snoring in the next room, awaiting the next percussive outburst, fearing that it might not come. In the morning, at the breakfast table, he would imitate the snoring, making his mother and sister laugh. That’s not me, Leonard would joke. That’s your mother. She snores like a stevedore.
Feeling an onset of panic, Benjamin decided to call Judy to tell her the news. To his surprise, she answered: “What do you want?”
“I’m sick of you clogging up my machine.”
He tried to ignore that. “I have something to tell you.” He paused. “It’s not good news.”
“Nothing is good news where you’re concerned. How dare you call this late?”
He felt himself falling into the familiar fighting stance. “You didn’t have to pick up. You could have let it go to the machine, like usual.”
“I should have. God, I can’t stand the sound of your voice. It makes my skin crawl.”
Benjamin took a deep breath, trying to stay calm. “Judy, we should be able to communicate. For the kids’ sake, at least.”
“They’re better off without you. You’re poison. I don’t want you seeing them.”
“What about Thanksgiving? The kids will be home—”
“Forget about Thanksgiving. I’m having a peaceful dinner with my children. You’re not invited. You’re no longer part of this family.”
“Come on, Judy. Don’t be a pain in the ass. This is hard enough—”
“Talk to my lawyer if you don’t like it.”
She hung up. “Damn,” he hissed, angry with himself for getting drawn into a shouting match. Only Judy could get him going like that. When he redialed he got the answering machine; he heard his own voice announce: This is the Mandelbaums. Please leave a message for Benjamin, Judy, David, or Sarah.
“Very mature, Judy,” he said after the beep. He considered going on, telling her about Leonard—but he hung up instead. She had always been fond of his father; the two had been close ever since she’d started working at Mandelbaum Motors, all those summers ago. No matter how nasty she was being, telling her about Leonard’s stroke on the answering machine would be a lousy thing to do.
This is the Mandelbaums.
He felt the weight of what he’d lost. He’d had everything: a family, a home, and all the warmth that came with it—the pleasant chaos of the kitchen, Judy cooking pasta, David and Sarah making the salad, their friends coming and going, the house alive with the familiar presences. A full life. How had he let that slip away?
Benjamin went into the den and turned on the TV. Sometime later he drifted into a dream of a snowy field. He and Yukon were walking toward a line of trees. Something was rustling behind the branches. Was it a deer? A raccoon? Pine needles fell and the wind rose like a chorus of voices.
* * *
LEONARD MANDELBAUM woke to a rumbling outside the window. He felt numb all along the right side of his body. A tube was attached to his wrist. He wanted to remove it but found that he couldn’t raise his hand. With great effort, he managed to move his fingers, hardly more than a twitch.
This was not his bed. He was not at home, but at that moment he could not remember where his home was. The rumbling clouded his mind. He could not summon the word for the sound—for when water fell from the sky. It happened during storms. The clouds opened up and the thing happened. It made you wet. Your clothes would get soaked if you stood outside. A simple word. But he could not find it, and searching for the word made his head throb.
He opened his mouth to speak, but the sounds that came forth made no sense, like a record played on slow speed. The effort at speech tired him immensely, and he let himself fall back into darkness, not sleep, not waking.
* * *
“WAKEY, WAKEY, LEN.”
Some time had passed, he could not say how long. He blinked, trying to focus. A face was peering down at him, not three inches away: enormous features, a grotesque painted mouth. Who are you? he tried to say, but only a slurred syllable emerged.
“Don’t strain yourself, Len. You just take it easy. That’s why they got you in this dark room, to reduce stimulation.”
He fell into the blackness, tumbling backward. Where was this place? He thought he heard Myra’s voice, and then he was pulled away, someone tugging at his arm.
“You probably don’t even know who I am. Your mind’s all muddled right now. It’s Terri. Do you remember? Think, Len. You’ve got to start using your noggin again.”
He felt ashamed that he didn’t know the woman. “I’m fine,” he managed.
“I called the house looking for you and your son told me what happened. You must feel terrible, you poor man. I went through the same thing with Dick Senior. He had a stroke in ’ninety-nine. He was a clotter just like you. We were driving home from the China Palace and he started swerving all over the road, and the leftover chicken teriyaki fell into my lap. I called him an idiot. ‘Look what you did to my suede skirt!’ Then Dick stopped the car and put his forehead on the steering wheel and started foaming at the mouth. I got out of the car and lit a cigarette. I was in shock. There was a pay phone there and I dialed Dick Junior. ‘Dickie,’ I said, ‘your father just dropped dead.’ By the time the ambulance showed up Dick Senior was speaking in tongues. ‘Ooga booga booga,’ he was saying.”
Someone knocked on the door. There was another visitor coming to see him. Leonard felt that he should stand to greet the person, but he could not move his legs.
“Come on in, honey. Don’t be shy.”
She was a tall woman dressed all in white, like a saint. “Time for your sponge bath, Mr. Mandelbaum.”
Leonard was in motion, being turned onto his side. Something cold and wet was running down his back.
“Doesn’t that feel nice, Len? What a lucky man you are, to have such a pretty gal sponge your bottom. You got the legs of a showgirl, honey. You ever dance?”
“Some ballet when I was a kid. But I was too tall to be any good.”
“How tall is that?”
“You hear that, Len? A regular model, this one. Where you from anyway?”
“I knew it the moment you walked in. That lovely skin, like cocoa.”
The nurse pulled the sheet up to his chest.
“Say thank you to the pretty lady, Len.”
Thank you, pretty lady.
“Look at his face. Look how hard he’s trying. He’s an old-fashioned gentleman. If he had his wits about him he’d be kissing your hand.”
“He looks very distinguished.”
“You hear that, Len. Very distinguished.”
“How long have you been married?”
“Oh, we’re not married, hon. Just pals.”
“Well, you make a lovely couple.”
“Thanks, dear. What’s that you’re giving him now?”
“Stool softener. He should avoid bearing down, if possible. Try not to let him blow his nose, cough, or sneeze.”
“You got another one of those stool softeners, honey? I could bring one home for my son’s shiksa. She looks like she needs one. I’m joking. You run along. I’ll make sure he stays relaxed. You got that, Len? No coughing, no sneezing.”
A smell of something clean. Myra always used it in the kitchen. The word eluded him, but the scent lingered in his lungs. He heard a rhythmic beeping and the sound of a loudspeaker in the distance. Was he at the airport? Was he going on a trip?
“Dick Senior came home from the hospital as blind as a bat. For two months all he did was dribble and drool. Then one day he said, ‘I can see. Terri, I can see.’ He could barely hold his head up. One minute he’d be sitting there, next minute his chin was on his chest. The doctor wouldn’t give him a cane, said if he started with one he’d be using it for the rest of his life. I tell you, that man had to learn how to walk again, how to use a fork—everything. He tried to comb his hair with a toothbrush. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. And Dick Senior was a proud man. They gave him exercises to work his mind, a stack of cards with pictures on them, even a first grader could do it. I showed him a picture of a refrigerator and a picture of a car and asked, ‘Now, Dick, which one is the car?’ and he got it wrong. ‘No, Dick. That’s a refrigerator.’ So I asked again, and he got it wrong again. I’d give him a pencil and paper and say, ‘Spell frog,’ and he would write fog. One day he wanted to help with dinner. I told him to boil the water. A minute later, he was on fire. He lit his sweater on the burner and didn’t even know it. He couldn’t feel a thing in his right arm. I realized something was wrong when I smelled the burning wool. ‘You’re on fire, Dick,’ I said and threw a glass of water on him.
“But each day he got a little better. He’d go out for a walk and pull his right leg along like it was a piece of wood. ‘Come on, leg,’ Dick would say. ‘Keep up with me, you prick.’ Then one morning he woke up, with tears streaming down his face, saying that his leg hurt. ‘Let me get the heating pad,’ I said. ‘No, Terri. You don’t understand. I can feel my leg again. I can feel my leg.’ A few weeks later he was back on the golf course.
“This doesn’t mean anything to you now, Len. You probably don’t even know your own name. And you won’t remember any of this later. You’re like a newborn baby in your diaper. The important thing is not to worry. You just stay calm. Listen to old Terri. Everything’s going to be just fine.”
He felt a hand, stroking his hair.
“Oh look, Len. It’s Oprah. Last week she had a show on sex addiction. One gal said she’d had relations with twenty-five men. Everyone oohed and aahed and clucked their tongues. I’m thinking, Twenty-five? Is that all? Shush, Len, stop that gibbering. Let’s listen to Oprah.”
* * *
BENJAMIN MET HER on Leonard’s fifth day in the hospital. A friend of your mom and dad from the old days, she called herself. She’d phoned the house a couple of days earlier, asking for Leonard. Benjamin recognized her last name—the dry-cleaning franchise. Dick Funkhouser had been one of Leonard’s cronies. (Benjamin remembered the dry-cleaning man from childhood. When his father would take him into the shop to pick up his weekly supply of starched white shirts, the man would come out from behind the counter and tousle Benjamin’s hair and hand him stacks of shirt cardboards, which Benjamin liked to draw on.)
He didn’t remember Terri, though. She said she’d reconnected with Leonard the week before, over dinner. “Did he try to sell you a Cadillac?” Benjamin asked, putting it together. “That was Dickie’s idea. My son Dickie. He thinks I should have a new car. Fat chance.” The woman didn’t seem like Leonard’s type—she wore enormous gold hoop earrings and exuded a powerful perfume—but Benjamin found her to be comforting, in a way. “He’s much better today,” she told him, patting his arm. “I was here yesterday too, and his color is coming back.” Benjamin himself could discern no difference in Leonard’s condition—his father lay there in a frozen-face stupor, unable to drink water, now and then barking out a few sudden, slurred syllables. “He’s going to be fine,” Terri reassured him.
After leaving the hospital Benjamin drove to Wintonbury Center for a slice of pizza. He sat alone at a windowseat, looking over sales figures on his laptop. Business was booming. With six days left in October, they’d already met the Cadillac sales goal, which would give them a bonus worth—he did the figures quickly—about seventy-five grand. Sure, he made his dealer holdback on every car they sold, but with overhead, that manufacturer bonus often meant the difference between the dealership being in the black for the month or being in the red. The bonus number changed every month—and if they fell just one car short the dealership got nothing—but his salesmen hadn’t missed their numbers in a year. They’d even hit September, a rarity, because the first week of school was always lousy for sales in the suburbs.
He put away his laptop and called his son. No answer, as usual. He could picture David, as he’d seen him do so many times, fishing the phone out of his pocket, glancing at the number, and then putting the phone away until it rang itself out. David wasn’t like Sarah. He didn’t want to discuss the breakup; he wouldn’t even let Benjamin raise the subject. “It’s fine, Dad. Whatever” was the most David cared to comment on his parents’ divorce. Benjamin didn’t leave a message. This was another thing he’d learned about his son’s phone etiquette; he never listened to messages, and apparently it wasn’t good form to leave one, at least in David’s social universe. The number appeared on the screen; that was all he needed to know.
Next, Benjamin called his sister and updated her on their father’s condition, all the while gazing across the street at the Thursday-night crowd at Max Baxter’s Fish Bar. Benjamin could see the well-dressed men and women through the plate-glass window, pressed together in the small bar area, everyone drinking and talking. He felt the urge to walk over for a cocktail and join the conversation. He wanted some company, even a drunken crowd—anything but another night in front of the television. But Yukon needed to go out; there was no way to avoid his responsibility to the dog.
When he got home he found a card in his mailbox.
Thanks for rescuing my dog.
Beneath her name she’d written her phone number. He went into the house—he’d forgotten to leave any lights on, again. It was a bad time to call, six-thirty on a weekday, dinnertime. Her husband would probably be home, maybe in the same room with her. But she didn’t have to answer the phone, did she? She could simply let the call go to voice mail. He cleared his throat and dialed, and she answered immediately.
“This is Benjamin Mandelbaum,” he stammered, feeling much like the high school version of himself. “I got your note.”
“My thank-you note?”
“Yes.” He paused. “Thank you for that.”
She laughed. “You’re not required to thank someone for a thank-you note.”
“No. It could go on and on.”
“Like pi,” he said.
There was a silence. Finally he said, “I was just about to take the dog for his evening stroll, and I was wondering if you’d like to come along.” He braced himself for her rejection, but she agreed without a pause, suggesting they meet at the bottom of the street in ten minutes.
He felt his pulse beginning to quicken. Even if dog walking was all it would amount to, that would be okay. He welcomed the company. Dog walks could be a lonesome business this time of year. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder if she wanted more than companionship from him. He certainly hoped so.
He brushed his teeth, rolled on some deodorant, and changed into a pair of khakis. Five minutes later he was tugging Yukon down the street, breathing in the crisp night air. He found Audrey waiting by the mailbox, her malamute wagging its tail. Yukon leapt at the sight of the other dog, howling and straining at the leash. Then, getting close, he quieted and politely inspected the other dog’s rear.
Audrey greeted him with a hug, surprising him with the press of her body. “Let’s go down to the grammar school,” she proposed. “Sheba likes to dig in the sandbox.”
“Fine by me,” he said.
They crossed the intersection, Audrey leading the way. He studied her backside, a reflex whenever any woman walked ahead of him. (Judy called this his “biological necessity.” She would roll her eyes and tell him to stop ogling.)
“I’m glad you called,” said Audrey. “I’ve been sitting alone in that house all day. My daughter has a ten o’clock curfew and she uses every minute of it.”
“How old is she?”
“Mine was the same way at that age. Social butterfly.”
“When we first moved here, she wouldn’t leave the house. Now she won’t come home. I guess I’m happy she’s made some friends. I just wish I knew who they were.”
He said, “This is Wintonbury, Audrey. She’d have to look pretty hard to find trouble in this town.”
“If there’s trouble, she’ll find it. That’s Emily. She would stay out all night if I let her.”
Audrey smelled wonderful, some perfume that went directly to his groin. Had she put on the scent for his benefit? If so, it had worked. His cock strained against his pants, giving him an awkward gait. His laptop just didn’t satisfy the desire. Biological necessity, indeed.
They turned up the path toward the grammar school. The dogs ran back and forth on their leashes between the rows of tall pines at the edge of the property, sniffing at the bases of the trees. Smoke from someone’s fireplace rose into the night air. The grammar school was brightly lit, every classroom illuminated, although the parking lot was empty. Behind the building, the asphalt playground was grass-eaten and potholed, splattered with chalk marks. At the far end of the school property was the sandbox and, beside it, an ancient metal swing set and a new contraption made of large red plastic tubes that looked like an enormous caterpillar.
They stood side by side, both holding long leashes, as the dogs busied themselves, sniffing and searching for some unknowable spot. Like most salesmen, Benjamin felt uncomfortable with lapses in conversation. He wondered if Audrey were cold. Judy was always freezing; she’d turn the thermometer to seventy-five degrees during winter. She called him cold-blooded, like a lizard, which didn’t even make sense.
“We can go back if you’re cold,” he suggested.
“No, this is fine.”
“There’s no rush.”
A sudden growling came from the dogs, and he turned to see Yukon trying to mount the malamute, bucking and grasping from behind. He yanked the leash and pulled Yukon away. “Sorry about that,” he said. “He’s fixed but still interested. I’m not sure why.”
“You could say the same thing about my husband.”
Benjamin laughed uncomfortably, not knowing what she meant, exactly. Married people were always mentioning their spouses without thinking, so maybe this was accidental. He often caught himself doing the same thing—Judy this, Judy that. Even at the end, when they could barely tolerate each other’s company, he would hear himself dropping her name at the office, a symptom of living too long with the same person. He spouted her opinions, assumed her likes and dislikes. Now, separated for five weeks, he still caught himself using words like sketchy and basically—her words, which he didn’t even like.
Benjamin decided to push the issue. “Aren’t you getting along?”
“Andrew and I are way past not getting along. Something’s up, ever since we moved to Wintonbury. He doesn’t come home until eleven o’clock most nights. I hardly see him.”
“Do you think he’s having an affair?”
“No. I’m pretty sure Andrew’s incapable of that sort of thing. But there’s always a chance, I suppose.”
Benjamin couldn’t think of anything to say, so he just made a sympathetic “hmm.”
After a moment Audrey went on. “I think he’s making some sort of power play at the office. He’s a partner at a big law firm. He worked out of their Stamford office for the past fifteen years, but moved us up here to take over the employment litigation division—Wait, is this boring?”
“No,” said Benjamin. It wasn’t boring in the least. He enjoyed hearing her speak and being close to her, and he especially enjoyed knowing she didn’t get along with her husband, which opened up room for him. This woman had occupied a pedestal in his mind for so long, and yet he knew very little about her. “Do you think he’s doing something illegal?”
“God, no. Not Andrew. He’s too smart for that. But unethical, or borderline unethical—who knows.”
“Well,” said Benjamin, “he’s a lawyer, right?”
She offered a forced smile—and he winced, telling himself, She’s Wesleyan, Yale, you douche bag. The car lot humor won’t work on her. Up your game! She’s smarter than you and everyone you know—
“Andrew keeps mentioning one of his junior associates, without seeming to realize it. They play tennis together. I’ve heard him calling him and leaving messages—”
“And that’s unusual?”
“For Andrew, yes. Most of the people who work for him, he can’t even remember their names. He’ll socialize with the other partners, but only if it’s necessary. So, I think he’s using this new associate to do his dirty work.”
“I see . . .”
She turned to him, shrugging. “Sorry, this is boring. I don’t want to talk about Andrew. I’m past that stage.”
“First of all,” he said, “you couldn’t bore me if you tried. Second, what stage?”
This time, her smile seemed genuine. “The complaining stage,” she explained. “Back in Cos Cob, that was the theme at book club, no matter what we read: Let’s complain about our husbands!”
“What does that sound like?”
She affected an exasperated tone—and he remembered what a terrific actress she’d been in high school. “ ‘He never asks about my day. All he does is talk about work. He leaves dishes in the sink as if I’m the maid. He forgets our anniversary. He forgets the kids’ baseball games. He drinks too much, golfs too much, wants sex too often, or not often enough. His feet smell like rotten cheese.’ That’s the theme and variation. Our stinky, rotten husbands.”
“And you’re past that stage?”
“For the most part. Although it does feel good to vent now and then.”
He said, “Did anyone ever tell you how terrific you were in Guys and Dolls—as Sarah Brown?”
“I can’t believe you remember that. The character’s name, even.”
Of course he remembered the character’s name; he’d read the photo caption not so long ago. The yearbook was still open on the desk in his room. “I’m good with names,” he explained. “Trick of the trade.”
“Right. Car salesman.”
“Well, the book club ladies don’t seem so strange. My wife certainly enjoyed venting. But to me, mostly.”
“That’s not venting. That’s bitching.”
“I suppose so.”
“But now you’re free, right?”
“Sixty days and counting.” He gestured vaguely to the north, toward Granby and the turn-of-the-century Victorian she’d bought and renovated with their savings. “All that stuff she crammed into the house. I’m glad to be free of it.” He felt himself playing the part of the carefree divorcé, but for the most part, he realized, it was true, at least in that moment.
“I envy you,” she said. “But if I got rid of Andrew, who would cut the grass?”
He laughed. “That’s exactly what my wife said. Who’s going to mow the lawn? Who’s going to shovel the goddamn snow?”
“I understand her perfectly.”
He paused, pleased with the direction of the conversation. “So, which was your husband?”
She glanced at him, her brow creased. “Hmm?”
“Too often or not often enough?”
She sighed. “The latter, unquestionably. We haven’t done anything in that department for a long time.”
She turned to him with a half smile. “You’re pretty direct, aren’t you?”
“Have I mentioned, I’m a car salesman?”
“You don’t look like one, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“What do I look like?”
She examined him with mock concentration, narrowing her eyes in a way he found endearing. “Rare book dealer.”
He laughed. “Now you’re making fun of me.”
“Not in the least. You have a rumpled sort of eclecticism about you.”
He laughed extravagantly, although uncertain what the word meant. Her Wesleyan Yale vocabulary. “Don’t try to change the subject,” he said, changing the subject away from thesaurus territory before he betrayed his ignorance.
“Fine, but you tell me first.”
“Me?” He laughed. “That’s easy. Five weeks. A day or two before Judy kicked me out. You?”
“A year and a half.”
“Really? That long?”
“I can give you the exact date . . .” Her smile faded and she fell silent. The dogs seemed to register the lack of their voices, and both animals turned to look at them—tongues hanging out, panting. Idling, Benjamin called that, when the dog just stood there with a blank look on its face.
“Do you like wine?” she asked brightly. “I’d love a glass right now.”
He glanced at his watch. “It’s only seven-thirty. We could go somewhere.” Stupid suggestion, he realized immediately. She was married; how could they go anywhere in a town as small as Wintonbury?
“I don’t feel like going out,” she said.
“I have a bottle at my place, if you prefer.”
“Don’t you live with your father?”
He didn’t want to ruin the mood by telling her about Leonard’s stroke, so he simply said, “He’s away for a while.”
“Is it a red?”
“Now you know my weakness. Red wine.”
He tugged on the leash, and the dog bounded away from the sandbox. They started back toward Apple Hill Road. He could hardly believe that she was coming to his house. To distract her, so she wouldn’t change her mind, he babbled about people who lived in the houses they passed—as if this were all perfectly normal, something they’d done a hundred times before.
At his house, when he opened the front door, the dogs ran down the hallway with their leashes trailing after them. She opened her jacket, revealing a tight T-shirt with glittery red letters across the front.
“Have a seat in the den. I’ll get the wine.”
He didn’t realize that his hands were trembling until he fumbled the corkscrew. It took him a minute to get the cork out of the bottle. He hoped the wine hadn’t gone bad; he’d found it in a low kitchen cabinet, behind the garbage bags, the sale tag still pasted to the bottle ($8.99 SPECIAL!).
He handed her a glass, and she took a long sip, looking around at the framed family photos. It felt strange being alone with a woman in his dad’s den, among his fusty old-man possessions. Benjamin tried not to think about Leonard now, drugged up in his hospital bed.
She examined his black-and-white high school graduation photo on the wall, an 8 x 12 shot of young Benjamin accepting his diploma from the Goodwin headmaster. She said, “Did you really have a crush on me back then?”
“Of course. You were the most beautiful girl in the entire school. I thought about kissing you all the time.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what? That I wanted to kiss you? I’m sure that would have gone over well.”
“Do you still want to kiss me?” She finished her wine with a long drink, put the glass down on the coffee table, and turned toward him. “I’d like that.”
He swallowed involuntarily. “Are you sure?”
He kissed her gently on the lips. When he pulled away, she put her hand behind his head and brought him back. As they embraced, he ran his hands over her arms, lightly grazing the sides of her breasts. After a few minutes, she leaned back and yelped in surprise and said, “What the heck?” She reached behind and pulled Leonard’s hot-water bottle from between the couch cushions: a bright red bladder, still filled with water, like an organ. She said, “Maybe we should go to your bedroom.”
“Right.” His voice felt thick. “It’s upstairs.”
“That’s where they usually are.”
He led her by the hand, past the sleeping dogs and up the staircase. She went into the room ahead of him and looked around. “It smells like you in here.”
“I hope that’s a good thing.” Audrey Martin is in my bedroom. This simple fact seemed to paralyze him. He grinned dumbly and followed her gaze around the room. “I’ve been meaning to change the decor.”
“I like the Farrah poster. Very retro.”
She saw the yearbook on the desk and flipped through a few pages. “Been catching up on your reading?”
“Only the parts that have to do with you.”
“You really did have a crush on me, then?”
She closed the book and kissed him, more urgently now. She reached down and fumbled with his belt buckle. She got that open, then unbuttoned his khakis and eased them down, together with his boxer briefs. His hard-on sprang out. She stroked him, her hands warm and soft. This snapped him out of his daze, and he bent to help her take off her jeans. His face was down at her thighs, and she ran her hand through his hair, just like she did that first day. He felt down her legs: smooth, freshly shaved. Maybe that’s what she’d done in those minutes before they met with the dogs.
“Take off your shirt,” he said.
She did what he asked, then unfastened her bra. Her breasts emerged, bigger than he would have imagined. The sudden nakedness of a stranger, so shocking. He felt calm and oddly removed, like an observer at a tennis match. He took her in his arms and they fell onto the bed.
* * *
TWO DAYS LATER, Leonard Mandelbaum came to. He found himself on a couch, watching TV. Benjamin was sitting next to him, eating potato chips from a bag.
“Where am I?” He had to concentrate on his words; they felt like cotton balls in his mouth.
Benjamin turned to him with a dawning smile. “Are you feeling okay, Dad?”
“I feel strange. Where am I?”
Benjamin told him the whole story: how he found him in the den, the ride to the hospital, the three days he’d spent in the ICU, oblivious. Leonard remembered his collapse, the eruption inside his head like a great wind blowing. But after that, there were only flashes—the expressionless faces of nurses, people coming into his room at night, someone screaming in the hallway, intercoms and alarms, and all that time, a feeling of shame for losing control, for not being able to think straight.
“Seven days,” Leonard repeated. It could have been a long night, a month, a year. “What’s the date today?”
“Saturday. The twenty-seventh of October.”
Leonard got to his feet. He could barely feel his right leg. His whole right side was numb.
“Pins and needles,” he gasped, grabbing his son’s arm.
“The doctor wants you to walk as much as possible.”
Leonard pointed toward the hallway and shuffled forward. “Okay then,” he said, leaning on Benjamin. “Let’s go.”
* * *
WHEN THEY got back to his room, Leonard saw the woman sitting in the corner by the window, a ball of yarn bouncing at her feet as she clicked the needles.
Benjamin said, “Hi, Mrs. Funkhouser,” and Leonard gestured at her and said, “It’s Terri Funkhouser. From Newark.”
She looked up at him above her bifocals. “Is that the Leonard Mandelbaum I used to know?”
“I’m fine,” said Leonard. He eased into bed.
“Dad’s feeling much better,” said Benjamin. “We went up and down the hallway three times and took the elevator to the gift shop.” He set the magazines on the table, and she examined them.
“Newsweek. The New York Times. You were always so well informed, Len. Would you like me to read to you?”
“You do your sewing.”
“Not sewing. Knitting. Guess what I’m making.”
Leonard squinted at the wool in her lap. “Blanket.”
Benjamin adjusted the sheets, covering his father’s legs. “A carpet, Dad? Why would you say that?”
“Joking,” said Leonard, exhaling heavily. He felt a sudden physical exhaustion.
“It’s a sweater for my favorite patient. You.”
Benjamin patted his arm. “I’m going to head home, Dad. Mrs. Funkhouser will keep you company. She’s been coming to see you every day. You remember that, right?”
“I’m happy to visit. Gives me something to do with myself.”
After Benjamin left, Leonard closed his eyes. But it would be rude to fall asleep with the woman visiting him. “I’m awake,” he said.
“Go ahead, nap if you want. You got an hour before dinner. I’m happy to see you back to your old self. You’re not all glazed over like before. The same thing happened with Dick Senior after his stroke. One afternoon he got out of his armchair, wiped the drool off his mouth, and said, ‘Terri, where am I?’”
“What was that, Len? Say again.”
He sighed and closed his eyes. The clicking of the knitting needles, like Morse code.
* * *
WHEN HE OPENED his eyes again, it was dark, the curtains were drawn. The TV flashed without sound. In the corner the woman was sprawled in the chair, head back, mouth open, her chest rising and falling. Her blouse had come untucked and he could see some of her stomach, pale and rippled, spilling over her hip. As he raised himself up in bed, Leonard grabbed at his right leg, yelping in pain. Terri Funkhouser stirred and picked her glasses off her chest, attached to a thin gold chain that went around her neck. “What’s wrong, Len? You’re not having another stroke, are you?”
“Cramps,” said Leonard.
“That’s the paralysis,” she said, rising heavily from the chair. “A little rubdown will do you wonders.”
She pulled the blankets away, exposing his legs in the tight hospital stockings. Her hands, warm and strong, gripped his right thigh and squeezed.
“Don’t be a baby, Len. We gotta get the blood flowing. You can’t just lie in bed all the time like a cripple. You don’t want to get bedsores. Dick Senior used to beg for massages. He would pay me by the hour, like a hooker. Said I had million-dollar hands.”
Leonard pulled his gown over his groin, trying to cover the diaper and his hairless thighs. Myra had once complained that, as he’d gotten older, he’d grown as smooth as a baby while she’d gotten hairy.
“Don’t be shy,” Terri said. “You’ve got nothing down there I haven’t seen before.” Her hands moved toward his stomach, making him laugh involuntarily. “My son Dickie’s been hell to get along with lately.”
“Dickie’s a good boy,” Len managed.
“He never had a head for business, but after Dick Senior died, he just went to pot. He lost the dry-cleaner business on bum stocks, thousands and thousands of shares, and the whole thing went poof overnight, like throwing money into the wind. His wife left him when they foreclosed on their house. Now he’s back living with me, a fifty-year-old man. He’s got a shiksa girlfriend and they want to sell my house out from under me and take the money and go to Florida. I hear them scheming in the next room, as if I were already dead. They even had the house appraised. After all I’ve done for him, this is the way he treats me, my only son.”
“Oww.” Her hands were digging into his kidneys, making him wriggle.
“Dickie’s dead broke, and that shiksa twists his head all around. ‘Wouldn’t you be happier in a nice little condo in Sarasota, Terri? It would be so much easier for you at your age.’ This she says to my face. ‘You’re sitting on a gold mine. The Realtor told us it’s worth four fifty, maybe more. Think of what you could do with all that money in Florida!’ You can practically see the dollar signs in her eyes. Stefanie is her name. ‘Stefanie with an f,’ she likes to say, as if anyone cares. Voice like a chipmunk. How does that feel, Len? Good?”
“Stop.” He tried to turn away, but she pushed him back, her hands gripping his ribs.
“Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like living in that big house all alone. I’m glad to have the company. And I like Florida as much as the next person, but who wants to live there all year round in some concrete tower built in the sand? Who wants to get pushed out by some shiksa with a boob job? Well, I shouldn’t mention the boob job because she had a mastectomy due to cancer and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, so forget I said that. Dickie never knew how to handle the ladies, and this one has her claws into him deep and she’s not going to let go. I never begrudged Dickie anything. I spoiled him rotten. I’d give him the deed to the house tomorrow if he asked. I just don’t like her asking. What’s wrong, Len?”
Her face appeared just inches above him, peering down through her spectacles. Leonard felt his lungs clog with her perfume, pungent and stupefying.
“Can’t breathe,” he said.
She tucked the blankets around him like a straitjacket. “Dickie met her at the post office. She runs some sort of half-assed business out of her apartment, selling calligraphy—personalized invitations, wedding announcements, that sort of crap. Every day she schleps her packages to the PO. No wonder she’s got her meat hooks into poor Dickie. Anything looks good compared to that type of life.”
She went back to her chair and picked up her knitting needles. Her voice went on, but he tuned out the words, feeling a calm come over him. Myra would do the same thing—talk and talk, the words turning into a sort of music. He closed his eyes and let the voice draw him into a comfortable oblivion.
* * *
ON THE DRIVE home from the hospital that night Benjamin couldn’t stop thinking about her. Her taut body, that lovely ass, raised for him. A silly refrain had gone through his mind for the first few minutes—I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I’m fucking Audrey Martin—as if he were his sixteen-year-old self, amazed at his good fortune.
For the past two days he’d wanted to call her, but—she was married. Better to let her make the next move, he figured. But now he couldn’t stop himself. He got out his cell and dialed. “I was just thinking about you,” he told her.
“That’s nice,” she said.
Her voice sounded flat, so he tried to bring her out. The direct route, always the best. “I enjoyed our little adventure the other night,” he said, “in case you couldn’t tell.”
“Me too,” she offered.
He checked the time: a few minutes past 6:00 P.M. on a Saturday evening. “I’ve got another bottle of wine, if you’re interested.”
“Is that an invitation?”
“Hmmm,” she said, drawing out the word in a teasing tone, which made his heart race. Teasing was good. Teasing meant it wasn’t a one-time thing. She said, finally, “May I bring the dog? She hasn’t had her walk yet and she’s getting excited.”
“That makes two of us.”
They arranged to meet at his house in a half hour.
At home, he changed into a pair of jeans and a fresh pair of boxer briefs. He piled some kindling and a few logs in the fireplace and lit the newspaper to get it going. What woman could resist a fire? He opened the bottle of wine and readied the glasses. He got a blanket from his father’s closet. What else? Condoms, of course. The half hour passed, then another ten minutes. He paced from the den to the kitchen, Yukon following him. Every few minutes he pushed aside the drapes and peered out at the dark street. What was keeping her? Had she changed her mind? Had her husband gotten in the way?
Finally, the doorbell rang. When he opened the door, her malamute raced past him, the leash slipping from her hand. Yukon pounced, and both dogs charged into the kitchen and began barking.
“The rain started,” said Audrey. “I’m soaked.”
“Come into the den. Warm up.”
She stood before the fireplace in sweatpants and a sweatshirt. She pulled off the hood and let her hair down, shaking it out.
“You look terrific,” he said.
“You haven’t seen what I’m wearing yet.”
She shook her head. “Turn around.”
He did as she asked, staring into the darkness in the backyard. In the window he followed her reflection. She shimmied out of her clothes and bent to retrieve something out of her bag. Outside the window, the bushes trembled in the night breeze.
“Okay,” she said. “You can look.”
He turned to her. She was wearing black mesh panties, a pair of high heels, nothing else.
“Well? What do you think?”
“I’m speechless,” he said.
* * *
AFTERWARD his cell phone buzzed. He fished it out of his pants and checked the caller ID.
“It’s my son,” he explained. “I’ll call him later.”
He turned off the ringer. He felt bad, but David had picked a lousy time to return his calls. Benjamin had been trying to reach him for a few days. He wanted to talk to him about Thanksgiving, just a few weeks away. Maybe his son could convince Judy to allow him to come to the house for dinner. He had called Judy three or four times since their last talk, but she wouldn’t answer or respond to his messages. He still hadn’t told her about Leonard’s stroke. But now that his dad looked so much better, it didn’t seem as urgent.
He tried to sweep his wife out of his mind as he rubbed Audrey’s back. They were naked, lying side by side on the rug, on top of Leonard’s Hudson’s Bay wool blanket. Her dark red hair fell across her shoulders.
“You’re good at that,” she said, her voice raspy. She cleared her throat. “Really good.”
“Thanks.” He grinned. He had to admit, he’d been on his game. He hadn’t rushed it. He’d taken his time, the way Judy always told him to, particularly at the start. Audrey had a beautiful body. It was blissful to run his hands over her soft skin, her breasts, the insides of her thighs. She was forty-five, but she looked a decade younger, easily, and he saw only the high school girl of his past. After some time with her on top of him, he’d switched positions, fucking her from behind, squeezing and slapping and caressing her ass, the way he’d always wanted to. He’d picked up speed as he went along, and her voice had gone hoarse with her cries of pleasure.
“Have you done this before?” he asked.
“What, had sex in someone’s father’s den?”
He laughed. “You know what I mean.”
“This is a first.”
“I’m your first affair?”
“Because you’re irresistible. Now stop fishing for compliments and let me enjoy the glow.”
He laughed. “So you weren’t faking?”
“Very funny, mister.”
After a minute or two, with the logs cracking and hissing, he grew uncomfortable with the silence. “So what are your plans for Thanksgiving?” he asked, making his salesman’s small talk.
“We’re staying put this year,” she answered. “We usually go to Andrew’s parents’ house in Longmeadow, but they already canceled. His father’s not feeling well, apparently. It would have been awkward anyway.”
“Why? Your husband still acting weird?”
“There’s that. But I’ve got other trouble now: my daughter. She’s giving me the silent treatment.”
She sighed. “Yesterday she disappeared after school. She didn’t even bother to call to say where she was. I waited up all night. She showed up in a taxi at six o’clock this morning, stoned out of her mind. This afternoon I found a stash of prescription pills in her closet. God knows where she gets them.”
“What did you do?”
“I flushed the pills down the toilet. That’s why she’s mad at me, if you can believe it. I invaded her privacy, she says. I don’t know what to do with her.”
“Try grounding her. That always worked with mine. She hated being trapped in the house.”
“What would she want with OxyContin?”
“We smoked grass. Nowadays kids like the designer stuff.”
“I never should have let her go to school in New York City. She always had a wild streak and that certainly didn’t help. All those years, all those lessons—and she gets away from home for ten minutes and forgets everything.”
He shrugged. “They have to learn it for themselves. Otherwise, it’s like doing their homework for them. It just doesn’t sink in.”
“How old is your son?”
“David? He’s twenty.”
“Tell me about him,” she said, her gaze lost in the fire.
“He’s a great kid. Athletic, smart. He looks a lot like me, actually. He and I haven’t talked much lately either, ever since Judy and I announced the divorce. But that’s normal for David. He’s always been quiet. When something’s bothering him, he keeps it bottled up.”
She was silent.
“You’re not falling asleep, are you?”
She shook her head. A moment later, he felt her body trembling.
“Is something wrong?”
The tears flowed down her cheeks.
“Hey. What is it?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Was it something I said?”
“It has nothing to do with you.”
Between sobs, she said, “Just leave it alone.”
He raised up on his elbow. “No, tell me. I want to know.”
He felt her body tense. Finally she said, “Something bad happened, a year and a half ago. I’m not over it. I’ll never be over it.”
“Were you . . . raped?”
She wiped her eyes. “No, nothing like that,” she said, her voice changing. “Why would you think that?”
“I was just asking—”
“This isn’t Twenty Questions, okay?” She exhaled derisively. “Jesus, Benjamin. Were you raped?”
She got up suddenly and began searching for her clothes.
“I’m sorry if I said the wrong thing.”
She shook her head. “I told you, I don’t want to talk about it. I can’t talk about it. So please don’t ask stupid questions. Don’t try to find out—” She pulled on her sweatpants and stuffed her bra and underwear into the pockets. She whirled around, looking for her sweatshirt. “I was raped in college, if you must know. I know what that feels like, okay? And I wish—I wish—that was it. I’d take that any day. I would pray for that.”
She called for her dog. The malamute appeared almost immediately, pulling the leash after her. “I’m happy to talk about that. I can tell you all about the senior guy who got me drunk and locked me in his dorm room. There’s a story for you. Very original, right? We can have coffee and I’ll tell you what it felt like.”
She turned, and he said, “Audrey.”
She stopped in the doorway, her back to him. She rubbed her brow for a few long seconds and finally turned. “It’s past eight. I have to go. I have to get back to my family.”
“Okay. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. Being with you, fucking you, that’s all I want, okay? That’s what I want from you. I don’t want a fucking therapist, okay? Are you good with that?”
She went out the front door, the dog trailing her. After she left he stared at the fire in a sort of daze.
* * *
HIS SON called back later that night. Benjamin roused himself off the couch, where he’d fallen asleep. The fire had gone out; a few embers were glowing a faint pink.
Yukon raised his head off the rug and gave Benjamin a look that seemed to say, Why are you disturbing me? The dog was not accustomed to being awake so late at night, and neither was Benjamin. He shifted on the couch, wincing. His groin felt sore; he hadn’t used those muscles in a while.
“Is something wrong?”
“No,” Benjamin said. This didn’t seem like the right time to tell him about Leonard’s stroke. “Why do you ask?”
“You called so many times.”
“You’re not very easy to get ahold of.” On the other end of the phone, Benjamin heard car horns, loud voices. “Where are you?”
“Heading back to the dorm.”
This was his son’s habit, when he did deign to call—to talk during his walk across campus between classes or, like now, after leaving some party late at night. Their conversations lasted the time it took David to reach his destination, usually no more than a few minutes.
“Has your mother mentioned anything about Thanksgiving?”
His son didn’t answer. The silence went on for so long that Benjamin thought he’d lost the connection. “Are you there, David?”
“Look, I don’t want to be referee between you and Mom anymore. I’d rather stay down here in the dorm over Thanksgiving if it’s going to be like that. The weather’s better anyway. I don’t need this shit.”
“Whoa. Where did that come from?” Benjamin had assumed his son had accepted his and Judy’s separation with his usual apathy toward all things parental. It’s fine, Dad. Whatever. “What’s your mother been telling you?”
“God, Dad. Did you hear what I just said? I don’t want to be the fucking Ping-Pong ball.”
“Watch your language.”
“Listen to me for a change and maybe I will.”
“I’d like to see you kids over Thanksgiving, like a family.”
“A family. That’s a joke. We’re not a family. You took care of that.”
“I did? Did your mother say that? That I was the one who asked for a divorce? Well, that’s a lie—”
“Will you stop already? Are you even halfway listening?”
His son slurred the last few words, and Benjamin realized he must be drunk. “Look, David. I know it must be rough on you and Sarah—”
“Yeah, thanks for thinking of us. That’s really awesome of you.”
“I’d like to talk to you about this stuff in person. You are coming home for Thanksgiving, right?”
“Yeah, sure. Can’t wait.”
“Good. We’ll—” he began, but his son had hung up.
* * *
THE NEXT DAY Benjamin got up late. It was a cold, gray Sunday, a few days before Halloween. He felt sluggish, as if hungover. Perhaps he was—a sex hangover, all that ecstatic effort expended on Audrey Martin, and her sudden meltdown afterward. It didn’t help waking to an empty house, with no sounds of life but the boiler growling in the basement. There had been a certain comfort in coming down to a warm kitchen, even if it was only his father, making toast and eggs.
True, Leonard had seemed more like himself yesterday. But he’d grown tired so quickly, his face assuming that stricken, baffled expression. Without his false teeth, his cheeks seemed sunken. Benjamin hadn’t even realized his father had false teeth, not until he saw him lying in the hospital bed, this aged, toothless version of Leonard.
Cruel, how the body changed, failed, the inexorable march toward deterioration. He’d had a vision of his father in his mind for so long—his golden self, a man in his forties, tossing Benjamin footballs. How had he failed to notice his father’s changing face? His mother was gone nearly two years now, and his father was going, it seemed. Benjamin himself had been lucky to avoid illness, to reach forty-four without a hitch. A few of his friends had already succumbed to cancer and other diseases in their prime, victims of some cruel cosmic crapshoot. Was that all he could expect of life, a falling away of everything that had once made up happiness? A slow decline? Putting loved ones in the ground, watching children drift away? The Greeks had a saying, Benjamin had learned from the History Channel: Count no man happy until his death, for no one knows what the gods have in store for him.
He headed out into the morning with Yukon, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head. Somewhere on the next street, someone was bouncing a basketball in a driveway; there was the solitary sound of the ball and the occasional thud against the backboard. A wonderful, lonely sound. Otherwise the street was quiet, the houses still, a ghostly morning.
Back when he was young, there had been packs of boys and girls running around the neighborhood—playing kickball in summertime, touch football in autumn, sledding in winter. Then, an only child had been rare, a condition worthy of pity and suspicion. Now it seemed like almost all the kids who lived on Apple Hill Road were only children. What joy was there in shooting baskets by yourself?
Yukon veered on the Pearlmans’ lawn, sniffing and marking their rhododendrons. Well, Benjamin still thought of the house as the Pearlmans’, but the place had been bought and sold twice since they’d lived there. Benjamin knew none of the “new” families on the street: nameless couples glimpsed now and then in their driveways, unloading baby seats from the backs of vans or SUVs. A generation had passed since his boyhood, like an ocean liner making slow distance into the horizon.
The white-brick house at the top of the street had once been, some 150 years ago, the house of the orchard keeper, who oversaw the terraced rows of apple trees rising up the hillside toward the mountain beyond, green, lush in season, inviolate. The farmhouse at the bottom of the hill had been the only other dwelling, then, before the tractors came to plow and dig for the coming subdivision, sometime in the early 1950s. If Benjamin closed his eyes he could summon the street the way it had been in his youth.
From those days, only Betty Amato and Franky DiLorenzo remained. Everyone else had moved away or died. Betty Amato kept Benjamin up-to-date with the news of her kids. His old friend Timmy was a bachelor who taught literature at a community college in New Jersey. He’d published a thin collection of short stories, available in paperback only, which Benjamin had seen selling online for ten cents. Benjamin and Timmy had been inseparable as kids, but they’d gone to different high schools and grown apart. Now, for some reason, Benjamin always felt awkward around Timmy when he saw him over holidays, even if they only spoke for a moment. Odd, that awkwardness. He didn’t know where it came from, because as kids, he and Timmy had spent nearly every day together, usually just the two of them, playing basketball in the driveway or listening to records in his room, as silent as monks.
He wondered what his old-time neighbors might say about him. How did Benjamin Mandelbaum appear to the local gossips? They would say that he’d screwed up his marriage, that he’d moved back home with his dad because he had no place else to go, that he was selling his father’s Cadillacs, as they’d always known he would. Everyone had known how Benjamin Mandelbaum would turn out—everyone but himself. Photographer, he’d said in high school whenever anyone asked what he wanted to do with his life or, more embarrassingly, deep-sea diver, even though he’d only taken a single course one spring holiday in Florida. Deep-sea diver! How absurd that notion seemed to him now, when Mandelbaum Motors had been his destiny from the beginning. Was it foolish to fight against the course of his life, now that it was half-gone, to break from the inevitabilities he had come to accept as his own?
He headed back inside. All those images from his childhood were as clear in his mind as the afternoon sky, but they were nothing. Shades and specters, misremembered, half-forgotten. His youth was gone, the people who had meant everything to him then had been usurped, replaced, removed. He’d known this, of course; he’d kept track of the passing years, registering the comings and goings of the calendar, like anyone else. But somehow it hadn’t sunk in. He’d made a mistake, he felt now, moving back into his childhood home, unearthing these memories. The past, like a grave, was better left undisturbed. Here he was, forty-four years old, back in the house where he’d grown up, alone on the spinning earth.
* * *
THE NEXT MORNING, while driving down his street, Benjamin saw Audrey Martin in her driveway, getting into her car. A girl stood by the passenger side with a backpack slung over her shoulder, waiting for Audrey to unlock the door. As he drove past, the girl turned and squinted at him. Then she raised her right hand and gave him the finger. Benjamin glanced away from her, shocked. Did she do that to every passing car?
The girl was beautiful, like her mother, but in a wholly different way: tall, dark hair, full in the chest. She was how old—seventeen? If he didn’t know better, he would have guessed she was in college, or older still. She had large, dark eyes, a wildness in her expression.
At the stop sign, he glanced in the rearview mirror and saw her, still, hand raised, pointing her middle finger at him like a knife as he drove off.
* * *
THAT EVENING he stopped for dinner at Max Baxter’s Fish Bar. He sat at the bar, eating a cheeseburger and watching football highlights: the New York Giants and some blue and red team he didn’t recognize. At one time he could name every starting backfield in the NFL. Now he didn’t even know who coached the Giants. The NFL had gone on without him, like everything else, although the old Giants players remained in his mind as vivid as the screen above the bar: Spider Lockhart, as nimble as a thief; Pete Athas, with his long hair flowing from the back of his helmet; Ron Johnson, exploding out of the backfield, knees pumping high; and most of all, Fran Tarkenton, scrambling away from lumbering defensive ends, changing directions as quick as a dog. Recently Benjamin had seen the man on a late-night infomercial hawking rug cleaner, the great Tarkenton, looking like a retired accountant.
Before long the bar started to fill up with the evening crowd—stylish women in their thirties or forties, traveling in packs of two or three, eyes scanning the room. Hair in supermarket shades of brown, red, and blond, streaked and straw-like. Was this the type of place Judy would come to now, in search of his replacement?
“Brian, dear,” one of the women said to the bartender, “an appletini, please.”
“Check, please,” Benjamin said to the bartender.
He felt off-kilter, after the way Audrey had left that night. He didn’t know if he was supposed to wait for her to summon him, or if she expected him to make the next move. On the way home he decided, What the hell, and got out his phone. He wanted to see her; he might as well tell her so.
She answered in a formal voice he hadn’t heard before: “Hold on a second, please.”
Was her husband sitting next to her, chomping a steak? Benjamin had never had an affair with a married woman, never had to worry about these things. But he was half-drunk and not overly concerned with discretion.
“Sorry about that,” she said.
“Is this a bad time?”
“Sort of. I grounded my daughter, like you suggested. So now I have to deal with her. She’s always been something of a spy. A watcher and a listener.”
“Where are you?”
“In my bathroom.”
He got out a cigarette and lit up, something he did only when he drank. Judy used to complain about the smell. She would throw out his cigarettes whenever she found a pack and make him shower and wash his clothes before getting into bed. “I want to see you,” he said.
“After the other night, you still want to see me?”
“That was my fault. I said the wrong thing—”
“Let’s not talk about that anymore, okay?”
“Yes. It’s settled. Good.”
“Good,” she said.
He took a long drag on his cigarette. He said, “I believe I’m a little bit addicted to you, Audrey Martin.”
“To having sex with me, you mean?”
“Yes,” he agreed, although he hadn’t meant that—not only that.
“Why do you always call me Audrey Martin?”
“Because that’s your name.”
“Most people just use the first.”
“I’d never think of using only the first. Audrey Martin is a totality. A concept that existed before it was given a title.”
“You sound like Michel Foucault tonight.”
“What’s so funny?”
“You are,” she said. “So you want to see me?”
“Yes. How about tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow isn’t possible.”
“What about the day after?”
“That’s Halloween,” she said. “Little goblins everywhere. Maybe the day after that.”
He had trouble sleeping, thinking about her. On Halloween, every time some kid rang the doorbell, he jumped, thinking it might be her.
The following morning at the dealership, he found it difficult to concentrate. Pussy brain, the salesmen called it. When you can think of nothing else. He phoned her in the afternoon to see if they were on. Yes, she said, they were.
At home he lit the fireplace and poured the wine and prowled the empty rooms. She was late again. Did she do this to torture him? Or had he scared her away? His understanding had always been that women wanted to be wanted, but if you wanted them too badly you became creepy or a stalker. (Judy’s words, again.) You had to express the proper amount of desire, but not too much. A game for daters. At forty-four, he didn’t know how to play, or rather, he couldn’t be bothered. He didn’t want to dance around; he’d thought he and Audrey were on the same page there.
But maybe, he figured, she wasn’t toying with him. Maybe she was having problems getting out of the house. Finally, he couldn’t wait any longer and called her.
“Where are you?”
“You always keep me waiting.”
“We said eight.”
“Did we? I thought seven.” He checked the clock. It was a quarter of. “Come now.”
“Patience . . .”
Ten minutes later the doorbell rang.
“Where’s your dog?” he said.
In response she tugged him down the hallway by his belt buckle. Later, this was the night he would remember most clearly, the way she’d stepped out of her dress to reveal the fishnet stockings and garter belt. They started on the rug in front of the fireplace. He was aware of Yukon in the doorway, watching with his head cocked to one side, like a ruffian at the ballet. Go away, Benjamin gestured with his hand. Instead, the dog padded into the room and stood beside them, panting.
“Just what I always wanted,” said Audrey. “A threesome.”
* * *
AFTER, they stared at the flames, both of them naked and glistening with sweat. They sipped at the wine until it was gone.
“More?” he asked.
“I’m perfect,” she said sleepily, snuggling back against him.
“I saw you and your daughter on my way to work the other day,” he said.
“In your driveway. She sort of glared at me.”
“The patented Emily look.”
“Then she flipped me off.”
“What’s funny about that?”
“It’s so Emily.”
“Why would she do that?”
“I have no idea. You can’t explain Emily. She takes sudden likes or dislikes to people and things. She doesn’t like the word lugubrious, she told me once. She said it doesn’t sound like what it means.”
He forced a laugh. Then he realized he was feeling too good—his arm wrapped around her, his face buried in her hair—to play the phony. “Actually,” he began, “I don’t know what that means.”
“Lugubrious? Oh, sorry. It means gloomy, but in an over-the-top way, like Dark Shadows.”
“I can’t believe you remember Dark Shadows.”
“I saw it in reruns when I was a kid. I always loved the name Barnabas Collins.”
“That other word, too, you called me.”
“You said I was . . . ecclesiastic? No. Not that.” He laughed at himself. “Something like that.”
She turned and kissed him. “I think I said eclectic. Someone who knows a lot of different things.”
“Compared to you, I know nothing.”
She moved onto her elbows and stretched, a yoga-like movement. “You know how to make a woman feel good. That’s something, believe me.”
“Why wouldn’t she like me?”
“Stop obsessing about that. It was your car, probably. She hates SUVs, because of the carbon footprint. With Hummers, she goes berserk. She even threw a tennis ball at one once.”
“You drive an SUV.”
The flames rose from the fire, the wood crackling. It made him sleepy and slow-witted. “Is she still giving you the silent treatment?”
“Yes. She’s really good at holding a grudge. It’s as quiet as a tomb in that house.”
“She’s a beautiful girl. That can complicate things. It certainly did for my daughter. Boys and all.”
“Emily’s always been complicated. This is just her latest phase,” she said, finishing her stretch and settling onto her stomach.
He said, “Maybe it’s normal, in a way. Kids don’t consider us as anything but parents. We’re these people who live with them and provide things for them—money, a place to sleep, stuff they want. They don’t really think about us until something goes wrong.”
“It was the opposite with Emily.”
Audrey didn’t answer.
He leaned over to admire her. “God, I love your ass. Did I ever tell you that?”
In this light she looked like a woman in her late twenties. Petite girls like Audrey had the advantage in the long run, he decided, over the bombshells, the showstoppers at sixteen. He’d seen one of the Wendys at the dealership some years ago when she came in to buy a station wagon, and even then, in her mid-thirties, she was overweight, her high school face barely recognizable amid the jowly cheeks and garish makeup.
He squeezed her thighs. “Do you work out?”
“Yoga,” she said. “Years and years of yoga. Before that, aerobics, Pilates, Nautilus. Push-ups to start the day, crunches in front of the TV at night. The great accomplishment of my life. All my education and ambition, and here you have it.”
“Hey, don’t be sarcastic. You look amazing. You’ve got the body of a twenty-something. Plus, you’re smarter than anyone I know. You’re talented. You’re—”
“Okay, enough,” she said. “You’ll give me a complex.”
Complex, too, he almost added, but he figured he better stay away from her complexity, after the other night.
In the silence that followed he felt himself starting to doze. He heard her gather her clothes, felt her brush against his leg. He intended to get up and show her out, but the next thing he knew he was asleep, the dog curled up against him where Audrey had been.
* * *
LEONARD COULDN’T GET the remote control to work. He could change the channels, but there was no sound. Terri Funkhouser knew how to work the thing, but she hadn’t come. She usually showed up after breakfast, but today lunch had come and gone and still no sign of her.
He pressed the buzzer for the nurse, as he’d done many times already, without luck. They came on their own time when they were good and ready, and they did their poking and prodding, taking his blood pressure, twisting and turning him. If he asked a question or made a complaint, they smiled at him as if he were a simpleton. Even the nice nurse, the heavyset gal with the curly red hair, even she didn’t answer his questions. He could understand why, with all the senile folks wandering the halls, talking to themselves, but shouldn’t they be able to tell the difference between them and him?
When the door opened, Leonard pushed himself up in bed. “Terri, where have you been?”
“I had some errands. Did you miss me?”
“Miss you? I’ve been buzzing for two hours.”
She set her handbag on the table and placed a large shopping bag on the floor. “What’s wrong? You’re not ill, are you?” She put her hand to his forehead. “Cool as a cucumber.”
“I can’t get the TV to work.” He held out the remote control. She took it, and a moment later the sound came blaring at full volume.
“You had the mute on, Len. This little button here.”
“Something to drink.”
“How about a ginger ale?”
He was too upset to answer. She ducked into the hallway and almost immediately returned with the nurse.
“He’s all discombobulated today,” Terri Funkhouser explained.
The nurse said, “Maybe you’d like your ginger ale in the community room, Mr. Mandelbaum.”
“I’m fine right where I am.”
“No, Len. That’s a good idea. A little exercise will do you good.”
The nurse winked at Terri Funkhouser and went away.
“What’s that winking business?” said Leonard.
Terri Funkhouser shrugged. “Sometimes people wink.” She bent and helped him with his slippers.
“If you’re not here they treat me like an imbecile,” he said, grasping her arm for support.
She picked up her handbag and shopping bag. “Well, you can’t blame them. I just passed a fellow in the hall dancing with himself.”
“He should be locked up.”
“He is locked up, Len.”
Leonard couldn’t find the word for the way the hallway smelled—a common word, having to do with cleaning. Mr. Clean, Myra always used in the kitchen, with the bald man on the bottle with biceps like a gym coach. That smell—the clean smell—masked another smell, impossible to name but relating to rot and death and wasting away. That smell came from the rooms, from the patients themselves, something the orderlies couldn’t wash away.
“It’s all old people,” he said.
“This is the geriatric wing. They put the young people in a different place.”
“Must be costing a fortune.”
“Medicare, Len. It’s all taken care of. We talked about this already, remember?”
“Somebody’s paying for it, I know that much. They’ll want their money back sooner or later.”
“Stop worrying. Here,” she said, opening the door to the lounge, “let’s go in here and sit down.”
He stepped inside the room, and there came a burst of voices.
Too many faces all at once. Who were they? He struggled to understand. These were people he knew. There was Abe Fish coming toward him with his cane, wearing a black-and-white checkered blazer. He held out his hand. “Health, Leonard,” he said. “What else is there? What else matters?”
Poor Abe Fish. He’d become obsessed with health matters ever since his son dropped dead of a brain aneurysm playing pickup basketball at the Jewish Community Center. Forty-one years old. Never sick a day in his life before then. Looked like Paul Newman.
“How are you feeling?”
“That’s what’s important. Getting back your sense of well-being.”
Next came Paul Pomerantz, his eyes bulging behind thick glasses. He took Leonard’s hand in both of his, pumping. “Congratulations,” he yelled. Paul Pomerantz was hard of hearing, even with the device in his ear. “You made it! You turned the corner!”
“Thank you. I appreciate you coming to visit.”
“What? What was that?”
“Thank you,” Leonard repeated, turning to Paul’s good ear. “Thank you very much.”
“It’s my pleasure!” At last he stopped pumping Leonard’s arm. He was two years older than Leonard, but still as strong as a defensive end. Paul Pomerantz had played football for a year at Syracuse University before joining the Marines. A sergeant, he’d fought at Iwo Jima, Okinawa, all the big battles in the Pacific. At parties he used to lower his pants and show off the shrapnel in his buttocks.
“And look, Len, look at the lovely ladies.”
Betty Amato had done her hair, curled and set, colored a bright orange. She and Myra used to go to the beauty salon every Friday afternoon. They’d sit with their heads in the dryers, side by side, reading movie magazines.
“You look wonderful, Leonard. A little rest has done you a world of good.”
Betty Amato had become something of a worrywart ever since Bob died. Her husband had left a fifty-thousand-dollar MasterCard debt. Where the money went, God only knew. Bob Amato had always been a big spender, like most Italians. Leonard had hired Brendan McGowan to take care of Betty’s legal problems. Send her a bill for a hundred dollars, he’d told McGowan, and charge the rest to me. McGowan had wiped away the credit card debt and got the house deeded over to her free and clear. A wizard, that McGowan. But Betty still agonized about creditors, still thought she was responsible.
“Don’t worry, Betty.”
“I’m not worried,” she said. “One look at you sets my mind at ease. They must feed you very well, you look so vigorous.”
Leonard assumed it was a birthday party. His birthday. But was that correct? Was it the right time of year for his birthday? Before he could decide, another woman came forward and wrapped her arms around him. “How are you, Leonard? How are you, really?”
It was his daughter-in-law, he realized. What was her name? Barbara, he wanted to say, but that was wrong.
“The kids asked me to give you this. They’re away at college but they told me what to write.” She handed him a bright pink envelope. Leonard opened it with a trembling hand. Get well soon, Grandpa! We love you, Grandpa!
“They’re fine grandchildren,” said Leonard, wiping away the tears.
“Cut that out,” said Terri Funkhouser, slapping him on the back as if he had digestion trouble. “We’re here to celebrate, not pout.” She opened her arms wide. “The doctor gave you a release date. Do you hear me, Len? Do you understand? They’re moving you to a rehab clinic tomorrow. You’ll spend a few weeks there to get your strength back. And after that, home sweet home. You’ll be back in your own bed in no time!”
“Home? Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. Isn’t that wonderful?”
The tears flowed, distorting his vision.
* * *
WHEN HE GOT to the hospital Benjamin found his father’s room empty. Where was he? Was he . . . gone? When he asked the nurse, she grinned and directed him to the lounge at the end of the hall. “Go see for yourself,” the woman told him.
He could hear voices as he approached, all talking at once. Standing outside the glass partition, he saw Terri Funkhouser and Betty Amato, seated across from two of his father’s cronies from the country club. By the window, startlingly, stood Judy, a paper plate in her hand. She’d straightened her hair and trimmed it to shoulder length, which made her look younger. She had a casual way of standing—one hand on her hip, chest thrust forward—which always turned him on. He stopped short, unsure what to do, and at that moment, Judy looked up and saw him and gestured him into the room.
“There he is, the prodigal son,” screeched Terri Funkhouser. “Don’t you answer the phone, buster? I called ten times. Ring, ring, ring.”
He frowned momentarily, then realized she meant his father’s landline. There was no answering machine; his father didn’t like them. Too many buttons, he said.
“Who’s he?” yelled Paul Pomerantz.
“The son,” Abe Fish blurted into the other man’s ear.
Benjamin glanced at Judy. He’d lived with this woman for most of his life, but now he felt nervous being in the same room with her. He hadn’t seen her since the night she’d thrown him out. There had been conference calls with lawyers and legal correspondence, but all the arguing, threats, and negotiations seemed pointless now, somehow. She had come to see Leonard. He didn’t know how she’d found out about his father’s stroke, but she had come to support him, as she always had in the past. Benjamin offered her a smile, but before Judy could react, Betty Amato patted his forearm and said, “Timothy and Albert are coming home for Christmas. Maybe you boys could go for pizza like old times. The boys were always so close,” she explained to Mr. Pomerantz, who was leaning forward, straining to follow the conversation.
“Who?” the old man boomed.
“My Eldorado’s got a rattle in the front end,” announced Abe Fish. “Sounds like a baseball card in the spokes.”
“Bring it into the shop, Mr. Fish. I’ll make sure they fix it.”
Mr. Pomerantz leaned forward and bellowed, “He turned the corner!” He shot his hand out like a salute, surprising Betty, who put her hand to her heart. “He’s on the upswing!”
“Have some pie, handsome,” said Terri, pushing a paper plate toward Benjamin. “Lemon meringue from the Crown Market. You too,” she said to Judy. “You’re so trim. I’d kill for a figure like yours. How do you do it?”
“I’m on the divorce diet,” said Judy. “Stress and ice cream.”
“I tried Atkins once,” said Terri Funkhouser. “I like a steak as much as anyone, but who could eat meat ten times a day? And then they tell you it’s no good for you. First it is, then it’s not.”
“Moderation,” said Mr. Fish in a lowered voice, as if divulging a secret.
“Margarine?” yelled Mr. Pomerantz.
Betty Amato smiled helplessly. “The rest has done you wonders, Leonard. You’ve got such lovely color in your cheeks.”
“That’s the medication,” said Terri Funkhouser. “The first week he was as red as a lobster.”
“How’s your health, young man?”
“Good, Mr. Fish,” said Benjamin. He glanced at Judy and found her studying him with a calm, unhurried gaze. He couldn’t tell what, exactly, but something had changed. She looked disinterested, as impassive as a judge. He couldn’t remember the last time she’d looked at him like that. With Judy, there was anger and passion, delight and disgust, but rarely, if ever, indifference. It confused him.
“Because that’s what’s important. That’s what matters. Look at your father.”
They all turned toward Leonard, who said, “I’m fine. I’m fine.”
“Take Manny Silverman,” Mr. Fish continued. “Lovely wife. Fourteen grandchildren, one of them a judge. One day his neck puffs up like a pelican. Doctor says pancreatic cancer, you have three months to live.”
“Poor Manny,” said Leonard.
“Manny Silverman chased everything in a skirt,” said Terri Funkhouser. “He gave me gas once for an abscessed molar and I had body pains for three days afterward. He was like an octopus with those hands.”
“He certainly had a twinkle in his eye,” said Betty Amato.
“The man was a pervert, plain and simple.”
“I always liked Manny,” said Leonard. “A fine dentist.”
“The cancer spread through his body like wildfire,” said Abe Fish. “They had to amputate both legs. Two weeks later he died. What’s the point of amputating a man’s legs who has two weeks to live?”
“I’d rather die than have no legs,” said Terri Funkhouser.
“You say that now,” said Mr. Fish, shrugging, “but when the time comes?”
“A lot of young men are coming home from Iraq without legs,” said Betty Amato. “It’s enough to break your heart.”
“Lambs to the slaughter,” said Judy. “But we voted for him. This great country of ours.”
“I didn’t vote for him,” said Terri Funkhouser. “I haven’t voted for thirty years, not since Jimmy Carter. They’re all a bunch of charlatans.”
“Joe Lieberman is a fine man. I’ve known him since high school,” said Mr. Fish.
“He’s Jewish, Abe, is why you like him,” said Terri Funkhouser.
“Should I not like him because he’s Jewish?”
“He’s a millionaire,” said Judy, “like everybody else in the Senate.”
“Do you hold that against him? A man who made a success of himself?”
“I like this new fellow, Barack Obama,” said Betty Amato.
“Back problems?” yelled Paul Pomeranz.
“Politics, schmolitics,” said Terri Funkhouser. “We’re here to celebrate Leonard’s good news. Let’s not argue.”
“Who’s arguing?” said Mr. Fish, holding up his enormous, liver-spotted hands. “This isn’t arguing. This is intelligent discussion.”
“What news?” said Benjamin.
“Haven’t you heard? Your father got his walking papers. Tomorrow they’re sending him to the rehab center.”
“Really? They’re letting you go, Dad?”
“Allegedly,” said Leonard, frowning.
Benjamin excused himself and went down the hallway, looking for a doctor. There was no one at the nurses’ station. He rang the bell, without result. A moment later he turned to see Judy approaching.
“How can they let him go? He can’t even walk. Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“You know how it is with insurance companies,” she said. “Anything to save a buck.”
“Who’s going to take care of him? I have to be at the dealership—”
“He’s going to a rehab center. It’s an inpatient facility.”
“Yeah, but for how long?”
“A couple of weeks, probably. In the meantime, you hire a home aide. Remember that Polish woman I hired when my mother broke her hip? She’ll bathe him, clean, cook. Everything.”
He felt a rush of affection for Judy. She could always ease his anxiety. He’d nearly forgotten that. At night, when some worry kept him from sleep, she used to go down to the kitchen and make him an amaretto with milk.
“Right. Good idea.” He smiled, but she stared back with that same impassive expression. “What’s going on with you?”
She wrinkled her brow. “What do you mean?”
“You look, I don’t know, unconcerned.”
“Unconcerned? Why would you say that? I’m very concerned about Leonard.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I came here because of your father, Benjamin.”
“Right, right,” he said quickly. He tried another approach. “Judy, about Thanksgiving—”
“I don’t want to fight about that. You can come. It’ll be good for the kids.”
She sighed. “Seeing Leonard like this, it puts things into perspective. You know how much I respect your father. He’s the man you could have been. Still could be, if you could ever get your shit together.”
“Thanks, I guess.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? Is this your idea of payback? Keeping me out of the picture? You know how much I care for Leonard—”
He held up his hands defensively. “I tried, Judy, about ten times. It’s not exactly easy getting you on the phone lately, you know.”
“You could have tried a little harder.”
“If you say so.”
Judy smiled mysteriously. “So, how long has this little love affair been going on?”
“What affair?” He wondered how Judy could possibly know about Audrey. Had she followed him? Had she hired a private eye to investigate him? That was the kind of thing divorce lawyers did—
“Terri what’s-her-name,” Judy explained.
“Oh that,” Benjamin said, breathing easier. “Pretty funny, eh?”
“She’s not exactly Leonard’s type, if you ask me.”
“She grows on you. She visits every day, watches over him like a hawk.”
“Well, there’s something to be said for loyalty.”
He looked down. The words stung, even if she hadn’t meant to dig at him. You’re just not equipped, Benjamin. Had he been a better man, she was saying, a man like his father, they would still be together. Leonard was loyal above all else. For him, there was family, friends, and his people (the Jews of the world). He would never betray those close to him or speak poorly of others, not even when he felt wronged.
“She called the house, looking for you,” said Judy. “That’s how I found out.”
“Well, I’m glad she told you. Did you tell the kids?”
“No. I figured you would want to do that.”
Benjamin nodded. “I’ll tell them at Thanksgiving.”
Judy looked at her watch. “I have to get going.”
“Yeah. I should get back to the party.”
“Don’t you want to talk to the nurse?”
“No. You’re right,” said Benjamin. “I’ll hire a Polish girl.”
“Don’t forget to ask for one over eighteen.”
“I’m joking,” said Judy quickly. “Don’t make that face. You’re too old for au pairs anyway.”
“You look like the Italian soccer players when they hold their arms out after a penalty flag. Why me?”
She was right; he’d seen himself with that very look in photographs. She’d spent more time looking at him than anyone else. Who else knew him as well as Judy?
She went off toward the elevator. He waited for her to turn and wave. But the bell rang, the doors opened, and she was gone.
* * *
BENJAMIN HEADED HOME with the taste of lemon meringue pie on his lips. Turning in to his driveway, he noticed Franky DiLorenzo coming toward him, waving to get his attention.
Benjamin rolled down the window.
“Did you hear about Juniper Lane?”
“No,” said Benjamin. “What happened?”
Franky DiLorenzo was what the salesmen called a space invader; he got very close to you in conversation. “Somebody broke into half the cars and garages on the street. Took everything that wasn’t nailed down. They kicked in Syd Goldman’s back door and set off his alarm.”
“Did they catch him?”
Franky shook his head. “You gotta keep everything locked up around here, ever since that Stacks kid moved into the neighborhood.”
“You really think he’s the one?”
“I got no proof. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. I hope he tries something at my house. I really do.”
“Thanks for letting me know.”
“How’s your dad?”
“Much better. They’re moving him to a rehab place.”
“That’s good news.”
A long silence followed with Franky DiLorenzo standing by the driver’s door, his eyes passing over the front yard. What did he see with those intense dark eyes? Things Benjamin wouldn’t notice—something out of place or needful of repair: a lack of mulch, a patch of uncut shrubs, a dog turd left by some negligent neighbor to stink and harden.
“Well—” said Benjamin, and at the same moment Franky said, “You said you went to high school with Audrey Martin?”
“Yes, the same.”
Franky lowered his voice. “She came by with her dog when you weren’t here.”
“When was this?”
“A few hours ago.”
“We’re old friends,” Benjamin blurted.
Franky nodded, but Benjamin suspected he wasn’t convinced. Would Franky mention this tidbit to anyone? It made for good gossip, something Franky might find hard to resist. Franky’s eyes were still on him, so Benjamin added, “I’ve been trying to patch things up with Judy.”
Franky seemed satisfied. “Say hi to your dad for me.”
“Will do,” said Benjamin.
Benjamin pulled into his garage. He wondered if it was true: Was he trying to get back together with Judy? Was such a thing possible, even if he wanted to? Seeing her at the hospital had rekindled a desire for her, had alleviated a weight that had been creeping over him. In her presence he had felt his old sense of equilibrium. Yes, he’d fucked up his marriage with his behaviors (as their therapist had put it), which had caused marital stressors, so in theory he should be able to win her back with some good behaviors. But did he even want to? True, he missed his kids, his house, his life. But did he miss Judy or the idea of her—the idea of their family? If he wanted her back, he’d have to work. He wondered if he had the energy for all that. That, and he’d lose his freedom, and everything that came with it. Audrey Martin, for one.
Inside the house he picked up the phone.
“Are you free?”
* * *
THEY ARRANGED TO meet at Starbucks in Wintonbury Center.
He got there first and ordered a coffee and settled at one of the tables in the back. A minute later she came through the door. Benjamin folded the newspaper and pushed it aside. “You look incredible.”
She wore a clingy tan dress and heels. “No panties, as requested.”
He grinned. “I guess it’s true, what they say: You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops.”
Audrey took the chair beside him with a little sexy frown. “You don’t think I’m a nice girl?”
“That’s a line from a song,” he explained. “Tom Waits.”
A man wearing a Red Sox cap passed by their table, barking into his cell phone: “I don’t need anyone to tell me that. I know that all by myself, amigo.”
She rolled her eyes and said, “Hell is other people with cell phones.”
“Another song lyric?”
“A line from a play, sort of.”
“We know different stuff.”
“You know the good things.”
“Manners, for one. You put down your newspaper when I came in. My husband hasn’t done that for twenty years.”
He smiled. “What else?”
“How to look at a woman.”
“How do I look at you?”
“With a sort of reverence. Like I’m still eighteen, still perfect.”
“You are perfect.”
“Hardly.” She moved closer to him. “If you had such a crush on me back then, why didn’t you ask me out?”
“I couldn’t muster the courage. But you talked to me on two different occasions.”
He nodded. “I remember it like yesterday. The first time I was sitting on the stone wall behind the chapel, playing ‘Hotel California’ on my Gibson. It was springtime. You walked by and hesitated for a half second and said, ‘That sounds really good.’ I nearly fumbled my pick, I was so nervous.”
“I always liked the Eagles. What about the other time?”
“Well, that’s a sadder story,” he said. “It was winter. I was waiting for my mom to pick me up in the courtyard after school, freezing my ass off. You came out of the entrance and looked around and asked me, ‘Have you seen Hal Nance? Did he come out here?’ You didn’t have a coat on. You were crying and wiping your nose. I shook my head and asked, ‘Is everything okay?’ and you said, ‘No, everything is definitely not okay.’ Then you turned around and went back into the building.”
“Hal Nance,” she sighed. “He broke my heart so many times.”
“All the girls liked him. Although I have no idea why. He seemed pretty obnoxious to me.”
“But he looked so good in his lacrosse uniform. There’s something about a man wearing short shorts and a funny helmet.”
“I was always a baseball cap sort of guy.”
“Could I have been any dumber? And there you were, right under my nose, playing your Gibson.” She reached under the table and felt for his crotch. She rubbed until his cock got hard. “Should we go to your place?”
“Well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” he said.
“Is your dad back?”
“No. But my next-door neighbor—”
“The skinny guy?”
“Yes, Franky DiLorenzo. He saw you come to the house—”
“He’s always watching! Every time I step outside he waves to me.” She glanced out the window at the people passing on the sidewalk. Wintonbury had a busy downtown, particularly during the early evening hours: couples going into restaurants, young professionals tromping from bar to bar, husbands and wives strolling with their kids, window-shoppers, the stray loner. “What did he say?”
“Nothing specific, but I think he suspects something’s going on between us.”
She searched his eyes. “Are you keeping something from me?”
“Of course not. I just thought you should know. This is a pretty small town. It might seem bigger than it really is.”
“I see.” She seemed lost in thought for a few moments. “Thanks for telling me. For looking out for me.” She shrugged. “I suppose I should care, but I don’t. I don’t know anyone here. I haven’t met a single soul besides you.”
“What about your husband?”
“Andrew?” She laughed. “That’s the last thing I’m concerned about.”
“Past that stage?”
“Exactly.” She smiled. “Where are we going?” she asked, rubbing his cock through his pants again. “A sleazy motel would be nice.”
“Somewhere closer, I think. It’s getting to be a bit urgent.”
“I can tell,” she said.
From the bathroom came the sound of the toilet flushing, then the door opening and the cell phone guy coming down the hall, his voice growing louder. “Tomorrow’s no good,” he said. “I got a two-thirty tomorrow.”
After he passed, Audrey got up. “I’m going to the ladies’,” she whispered into his ear. “Give me one minute.”
She left, not looking back. He heard her go inside the bathroom. The coffee shop was crowded, every chair filled—the high school girls bunched together at their table, the servers at their stations, the customers lining up to order. Reggae music pulsed, bass-heavy and repetitious. No one seemed to be watching him.
He got up and went down the back hallway and took a sip of water at the fountain. When he knocked, she opened the door immediately and pulled him inside and locked the door behind. The bathroom was bright, smelling of ammonia. He opened his zipper and took out his cock, the head bulging.
“Bend over,” he said.
She raised her dress and grabbed the handicap bar with both hands, her legs spread.
Halfway through someone rattled the door handle. She covered her mouth, trying to stifle a giggle.
“Shhh,” whispered Benjamin.
A minute later there came a knock at the door.
Audrey called out, “Diarrhea. Sorry.”
Whoever it was went away.
* * *
BACK AT their table, he said, “I really needed that.”
“I could tell.” She straightened her dress and wriggled a bit in her seat. “What’s next,” she asked. “Dunkin’ Donuts?”
He could feel his face taking on a vacant after-sex expression. “Maybe a motel next time. What do you think?”
“Don’t worry about me. Your place is fine. If you don’t mind, that is.”
“It’s fine for now. But my dad will be coming back soon.” Before the idea fully formed he said, “I could rent an apartment in town.”
“Sure,” she said. “Whatever works best for you.”
He smiled, the thought growing on him. “And you could still bring the dog, of course. I’ll find a place that allows pets.”
Her eyes widened and she straightened in her chair, looking past him toward the street. “Oh, shit.”
“What?” He turned to follow her gaze. “What’s the matter?”
“I can’t believe it.”
“What? Tell me.”
“Andrew just walked by.”
Benjamin tensed. “Your husband? You’re kidding, right?”
She laughed. “No.”
“Did he see you?”
“No. He was with some guy I’ve never seen before.”
“Maybe he followed you.”
She shook her head. “He was at the office when I left home. He called to say he’d be working late.” She started giggling again.
“Why are you laughing?”
“It just seems funny, him walking by, looking so serious. And you just fucked the daylights out of me. I’m still tingling all over.”
“Seriously. Should we go?”
She scoffed. “We’re fine. Even if he came in here and ordered a decaf, he wouldn’t notice me.”
“I doubt that.”
“If he did notice, I’d tell him you’re my vehicular adviser. But he’s not coming in, so stop worrying. Even though you look kind of sexy with that furrow.”
He sat back in his chair, his heart beginning to calm. “You’re pretty terrific, Audrey Martin.”
“So you tell me.”
* * *
SHE CAME BACK to his house later that evening, so that he could make love to her properly, and he saw her the next night and the night after that and nearly every night over the next two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. They dropped most of the formalities: the den, the fire, the red wine, the small talk. Instead, they went straight to his bedroom, undressing on the way up the stairs. Sometimes she would stay for only ten or fifteen minutes, leaving him naked and out of breath on his twin bed, the sound of her footsteps trailing down the stairs. Always, she brought the malamute. She rejected the motel idea. For now, it was easier for her, she said, to make the little detour up his driveway on her nightly walk. He enjoyed the secrecy and the anticipation. It came to seem almost routine—this stretch of days that would later seem so manic and vital and extraordinary to him—racing from work to the rehab center to home, taking a quick shower, turning off the exterior lights so no one could see her heading up the driveway, keeping a lookout for her from the front window. The moment she stepped onto the porch, he would swing open the door and pull her into his embrace, the same way she’d pulled him into the Starbucks restroom. He knew it couldn’t go on like this. His father would be home soon, and he needed to make arrangements, but he couldn’t seem to concentrate on anything outside of the moment, this Audrey moment. After making love, if they had time, he would run his hands over her—caressing, massaging, kneading; he loved the feel of her—but if he tried to tell her how much he cared for her, or direct the conversation away from the commonplace, she would stiffen and cut him off. And after her first meltdown, he didn’t want to risk another by provoking her. Besides, it was enough having her beside him nearly every night, possessing her, even if only for a short time.
* * *
ON THANKSGIVING AFTERNOON he tied a big red bow around Yukon’s neck and drove out to his old house in Granby. “Say hello to my date,” he said, presenting Yukon. The dog jumped all over Judy, then searched the kitchen and den and raced up the stairs with one of his old rawhide dog bones in his chops.
Judy asked, “Did you play football with your old pals this morning?”
“Gosh, no. We quit that for good.” It had been an annual tradition, he and a group of his high school buddies, getting together for a game of two-hand touch, rain or shine. Once it had been a crowded, heated, well-played affair. Over the years, the Thanksgiving-morning game had dwindled to a handful of diehards, some of whom brought along their teenage kids toward the end, along with their own tender hamstrings, delicate ankles, and bad backs. A couple of years ago, when one of the diehards ripped his Achilles tendon on the opening kickoff, they’d finally come to their senses and called off the game.
“I’m glad,” said Judy. “You used to come home hobbling for a week.”
“You don’t forget much.”
“I was your wife. I don’t forget anything.”
She led him through the house like a museum docent. Her three brothers were seated in the living room, Budweiser bottles in hand. Lou sat on the couch next to Chris, who had his feet up on the coffee table, without any ankle-bracelet gizmo, Benjamin noticed, his house arrest apparently served. They nodded at him, while Anthony toasted him from the love seat, with his arm around a peroxide blonde with a long, razor-thin nose. He introduced her as Linda, his latest girlfriend, apparently. Benjamin was surprised to see the brothers. In his excitement, he’d forgotten that Judy always invited them for holidays; sometimes they showed up, in part or in whole. This year they had come out in force, probably to give him a hard time, he figured.
Judy reappeared with a glass of wine and said, “Sit,” depositing him in an overstuffed armchair he hadn’t seen before. The living room—the whole house, in fact—was looking more and more like a Restoration Hardware showroom. He wondered what she’d done with his old furniture, like his leather reading chair. He loved that chair, and he guessed he’d never see it again. She’d always liked throwing things out, a sort of recreation for her.
“Linda and I just got back from New Smyrna,” Anthony was saying. “The shark attack capital of America. The bastards like it warm and shallow. They’ll tear you to pieces ten feet from shore. If not them, the jellyfish will get you. Best thing to do is stay out of the water.”
Sharks, college football, asbestos removal—Anthony had inexhaustible expertise about every topic he introduced into conversation. The other brothers sat across from him, raising their Budweisers and nodding their agreement. On his way to the bathroom, Lou paused by Benjamin’s chair. “Sorry for dropping off your gear like that,” he mumbled. “Heat of the moment and all.”
“It’s forgotten,” said Benjamin, taking the man’s hand. He wondered if Judy had put him up to the apology. It certainly seemed that way, as the brothers were excellent at holding grudges. He’d never heard any of them admit to being sorry about anything. So, was Judy just ensuring that things went along smoothly? Or was she trying in some way to apologize herself, to signal that all was forgiven? He couldn’t get a read on her as she rattled around the kitchen, refusing all offers of assistance.
When she came to refill his wineglass, she asked, “How’s Leonard?”
“He’s doing good. I stopped by the rehab center to see him a couple of hours ago. He and his lady friend were having turkey in the lounge.”
Judy rolled her eyes. “You sure she’s not a gold digger?”
“Just lonely, I think. Where are the kids?” He felt almost nervous to face them; he hadn’t seen David or Sarah since the end of August—before the blowout.
“In their rooms. Go say hi.”
At the top of the staircase, he glanced into his and Judy’s old bedroom. The comforter was new, green and billowy. Judy’s smell wafted into the hallway, and he felt his gut tighten with longing or nostalgia, probably a little of both.
He opened David’s door and peeked in. His son was sitting at his computer, speaking into his cell phone. He looked up. “Not now, Dad.”
Benjamin said, “Sorry,” and backed out.
When he knocked on Sarah’s door she called, “Come in!” But she too was talking on the phone, lying in bed with Yukon sprawled beside her. She held the phone away from her ear for a moment and said, “Is dinner ready yet, Daddy?”
“Call me when it is, please.”
He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, exactly—forgiveness, anger, or some combination of both—but mostly he was ignored by Judy, her brothers, and his children. His son endured the meal as if it were a sentence to be served, bored and monosyllabic. He fiddled with his cell phone under the table, texting, paying no attention to Benjamin’s instructions to put it away. He and Sarah seemed to perk up only when he related the story of Leonard’s illness. Sarah wanted to go visit him right now, and David kept saying, “But he’s okay, right?” When Benjamin assured them that Leonard was fine, that they could visit him over Christmas break, they both returned to their gadgets. Meanwhile Judy occupied herself with cooking, serving, and cleaning up, not standing still long enough to utter a full sentence.
As the brothers argued about the war in Iraq, Benjamin found himself wondering what Audrey Martin might be doing at this moment. Would she have finished with the meal already? Would she and her husband and daughter be sitting in the old farmhouse den, flipping stations? Or would each have retired to a separate room, separate laptop, separate screen? Either way, the vision seemed lonely, and he felt strangely glad to be sitting at this noisy table, back in his old home, the head of the family again. Well, he wanted it to be another family Thanksgiving, like nothing had changed, but everything felt off-kilter, his kids distracted, his wife aloof, his brothers-in-law overly polite. Even the dog acted like a stranger. “Come, boy,” he said, but the dog backed away as if sensing a trap and sat next to the ex-con on the other side of the table.
During dessert, the kitchen phone rang and Judy rushed to answer. As they listened to her lowered voice in the next room, Anthony announced, “That would be the new one.”
“New one?” said Benjamin, glancing up. “New what?”
“The new Jew, and this one’s got more money than you even.”
“What does he do?” Benjamin tried to keep his expression unchanged.
Anthony took a gulp of beer and wiped his lips before answering, evidently enjoying the moment: “Divorce lawyer.”
So that was it. A boyfriend. This explained her lack of anger, her new tolerance of him.
After dessert, Judy produced a camera and said, “Okay, smile, everyone,” but Anthony’s girlfriend turned around.
“No fucking way,” she said.
Benjamin realized it was the first time he’d heard her voice the entire night. He was surprised—first by her crudeness, and then because she looked like she’d spent hours in front of the mirror with her makeup. One of the brothers started to laugh, but it was clear by her expression that she wasn’t kidding.
“You look great, babe,” Anthony assured her, but she shook her head.
“They used to photograph me when I was a kid,” she said. “I don’t like it. I never liked it.”
In the long silence that followed. Judy lowered the camera and said, “I’m sorry.”
She said those same words to Benjamin an hour or two later when he was putting on his sports coat to leave. For what? he nearly asked. For tonight? For her brothers’ boorishness? For his children’s apathy toward him? Or for her own newfound happiness?
“Yeah,” he mumbled. “Me too.”
* * *
BACK AT his father’s house he clicked the garage door remote, sending its ancient gears groaning. It hadn’t worked properly for months, and he’d meant to call the repairman. He still had so many things to do to prepare for his father’s return from the rehab center. He hadn’t yet arranged for a home aide, or cleaned out the clutter from the guest room, where the aide would sleep; nor had he looked for an apartment in Wintonbury Center for himself.
The garage felt bare without Leonard’s Cadillac. A few days earlier, Benjamin had taken the car to the dealership for maintenance—at least he’d gotten that task done—but the empty space, like the dark house, depressed him. Why couldn’t he remember to leave on a light or two?
He released Yukon from the backseat, and the dog rushed past him, nose to the kitchen door, fur bristling. “Take it easy, boy,” Benjamin said, thumping the dog’s side. The visit had put Yukon out of sorts. All that attention—David and Sarah hugging and kissing him, feeding him turkey and potatoes under the table—was a rare indulgence.
As Benjamin opened the door, the dog raced ahead of him into the kitchen. The house was drafty and ice cold. He flipped the light switch and saw that the back door was wide open. His mind whirled. Had he left it open? No. He hadn’t been in the backyard in a month, not since the last warm days of October.
Someone’s home, he thought.
He had the odd sensation that he had entered the wrong house. The dog’s bowl was overturned, water pooling across the linoleum floor. A half-empty beer bottle was perched atop the counter, one of his Coronas, but Benjamin hadn’t left it there.
“Who’s there?” he called out. His voice reverberated in the kitchen, sounding awkward and rehearsed.
Yukon inspected his upside-down bowl and licked the water off the floor. Then he ran from room to room, sniffing and whining. When he reappeared in the kitchen, he darted toward the back door, but Benjamin grabbed his collar before he could get away. “Stay here,” he told Yukon, but the dog was too agitated to sit.
Benjamin examined the back door. The latch was torn from the wall, the wood splintered. He had been robbed. This fact didn’t seem to register until he touched the broken door with his fingertips.
“Shit,” he said aloud.
* * *
THE PATROL CAR roared into the driveway. The cop—a squat man with a crew cut—scribbled on his pad with his head lowered, listening to Benjamin. “Okay,” he said. “Wait by the cruiser. I’m not going to call for backup because I’m pretty sure he’s long gone by now. But stay here anyway, just in case.” The man went around to the backyard, pointing a short black flashlight that emitted a bright beacon. A few minutes later he reappeared and went into the kitchen through the garage door. From the driveway, Benjamin watched the lights go on inside, room by room. He stood next to Yukon, starting to shiver in the cold night air.
Finally the cop opened the front door and gestured to Benjamin. “No sign of the perp,” he said. “Did you see anyone?”
The officer scribbled in his well-worn pad. “All right,” he said, tucking the pad into his jacket pocket. “Let’s go through the house. See if we can figure out what he took.”
The den and dining room had been ransacked: pulled-out and overturned drawers, the empty silverware box on the rug, broken crystal figurines on the den floor.
“There’s more upstairs,” said the cop.
Benjamin’s bedroom was untouched, as far as he could tell, but his dad’s room had been trashed. His mother’s jewelry box lay on the floor. Benjamin noticed a white duffel bag by the bedside, filled to bulging.
“That’s not mine,” said Benjamin, pointing.
“That’s not your laundry bag?”
The cop hoisted the bag and emptied it onto the bedspread. Myra’s jewelry tumbled out, as well as her silverware, and a pile of DVDs. “Do these items belong to you?”
“Do you notice anything missing?”
“I have no idea,” said Benjamin.
The cop nodded. “If you do notice anything, just make a list, after you have a chance to go through the house. You can give me a call anytime,” he said, passing over his card, “or ask for the detective if I’m not there.”
While the cop looked out the window, shining his flashlight around the backyard, Benjamin wondered what would have happened if his father had been home. The robber might have frightened him into another stroke, and for what? A bunch of junk.
Benjamin followed the cop out the back door and across the yard, where the man pointed out muddy footprints. At the far end of the yard, the tracks led to the fence and off toward Juniper Lane. “He was on foot.”
Benjamin told the cop what he’d heard from Franky DiLorenzo—that a kid with a police record had moved into the neighborhood. “Apparently he’s some sort of delinquent.”
The officer nodded, his expression blank. “But you didn’t see anyone, is that correct?”
“And you don’t know this individual personally?”
“Like I said, I heard it from my neighbor. He knows all the details. You should talk to him. He lives right next door,” said Benjamin, nodding toward the house.
The cop scribbled a word or two on his pad, and Benjamin suffered an odd sense of guilt, as if he himself were under suspicion. Perhaps he was. Perhaps some homeowners staged robberies to collect insurance premiums. Was that why the police officer eyed him so coldly? Or was it just the way this man looked at the world after spending years listening to lies, seeing the domestic disturbances, the bloodstained rugs and rifled closets?
“Well, that’s it, then,” said the cop, opening the cruiser door.
“Aren’t you going to take fingerprints?”
“I’ll put a call out for an evidence tech. It’s a good burglary. Looks like he ran off pretty quick. I’d bet he heard you drive in, or maybe something else spooked him.”
“You’ll call him now? The tech guy?”
“He’s not on duty 24/7. He comes in at eight tomorrow morning. In the meantime, you’ve got some printable surfaces there. The beer bottle, jewelry boxes, glass figurines, the dresser drawers, the door. He’ll want to print the POE—point of entry. Don’t disturb those areas. But you can clean up the rest. He’ll also want to check those muddy footprints.”
“To make a mold?”
The cop laughed. “You’ve been watching too many cop shows. No, to photograph the footprint with a ruler next to it, to get an idea of shoe size. Then we can check your delinquent pal, get a look at his feet.”
“So you’re going to talk to my neighbor?”
The cop checked his watch. “It’s a little late tonight. His house looks dark. But I’ll have a chat with him tomorrow. And I’ll canvas the neighborhood now, to see if anyone’s out and about.”
“I see,” said Benjamin. “Well, thanks for all the help. I’ll be expecting this tech guy tomorrow morning?”
“Yeah. He’ll be here first thing.”
After the cop left, Benjamin began cleaning up.
* * *
HE SLEPT POORLY, plagued by nightmares.
It was the day after Thanksgiving, “Black Friday,” which meant a busy day at the dealership—they’d been gearing up for this sale for weeks. But he had to wait around for the tech cop. By 10:00 A.M. there was still no sign of him. Benjamin grabbed the bedside phone and called the number the cop had left him but got his voice mail. Then he called his secretary to tell her he wouldn’t be coming in for a while.
After that, he dialed Judy. She answered, sounding tired: “I’ve been cleaning the kitchen all morning. You ever try scrubbing turkey grease? No, you haven’t.”
“Actually, I have. And it was a terrific meal.”
“Isn’t this your big sale day?”
“I didn’t go in yet.”
“I had a lousy night.”
She had that flat tone, again, unconcerned. Her new-boyfriend voice. It annoyed him. “Why didn’t you tell me you were dating your divorce lawyer? Your brother had to tell me? And I’m not sure that’s even kosher. Legally, I mean.”
“You call at ten in the morning to interrogate me? I thought we’d gotten past—”
“Hey, take it easy. It surprised me, that’s all. We’re still married, technically. And ten o’clock’s really not all that early.”
She sighed. “I assumed you wouldn’t want to know about my love life.”
“We’re grown-ups.” He heard a commotion in the background—the dishes clattering in the sink. “We should be able to discuss things.”
“In that case, yes, I’m seeing a man,” she said. “He’s not my divorce lawyer, but they work together. And yes, I’m sleeping with him.”
He winced, imagining them together, the man’s hairy back. “How old is he?”
“He’s your age, maybe a little older.”
“How much older?”
“Never mind. I can see where this is going.”
“I simply asked the man’s age.”
“And next you’ll want to know his name, his income, the size of his dick, and whether he’s good in bed.”
She didn’t respond.
“I just need a little time to get used to the idea of you sleeping with someone else,” he said.
“Fine,” she said. “Get used to it. I won’t ask what you’re up to. I can only imagine.”
“I’m not up to anything.” It was an old habit, avoiding any mention of women to Judy.
“Oh, right. While we’re married you chase everything in a skirt. But now that you’re single, you’re a monk.” There came the slamming of pans, more water splashing.
“Can you leave the dishes for a minute?”
“I know when you’re lying, Benjamin. Your voice goes up a half octave. It’s your squeaky little liar’s voice. So, no, I don’t want to leave the dishes if you’re going to feed me a load of horseshit.”
Benjamin sighed. “I’ve had a few dates, if you must know.”
“Dates? With the same woman, or different women?”
“Who is she?”
“She’s no one.”
“What’s her name?”
“Does it matter?”
“If it doesn’t matter, then tell me.”
He paused. “Her name is Audrey.”
Judy said, “Didn’t you know an Audrey in high school? Audrey so-and-so with the terrific ass.”
“How do you remember that? That’s really weird.”
“What’s weird is a married man going around for years talking about some high school girl’s ass. I can’t believe there are that many Audreys floating around. Jesus—is this the same one?”
Before he could respond, Judy uttered a noise of disgust—something between a bark and a cough. “What did you do? Call her the minute you left me? God, that’s so pathetic.”
He had forgotten how well she knew him. “It’s Aubrey,” he said.
“The woman I’m dating. Her name is Aubrey. With a b.”
“What kind of name is Aubrey?”
“Like the song. Her parents named her after the song. It was their wedding song.”
“The song by Bread. Don’t you remember?” He sang the verse for her: “And Aubrey was her name. A not so very ordinary girl or name. Et cetera.”
“That song came out when, 1975?”
“ ’Seventy-seven.” In truth, he had no idea.
“So that makes her, what, thirty years old?”
“Twenty-nine,” he said, trying to keep his voice low.
“You’re dating a twenty-nine-year-old?”
“Not dating. We went out a few times.” Somehow it always happened like this with Judy. He would tell one lie, then another, trying to get out of trouble but just ending up deeper, the whole thing a house of cards. “It’s no big deal.”
“Right,” she said. “Let me decipher that for you. Let me tell you what you just told me. It means you’re fucking this woman Aubrey and couldn’t care less about her.”
“Did I say that?”
“In so many words, yes, you did. Maybe she doesn’t spoil you like I did. Maybe she doesn’t drop to her knees every time you ask. Maybe now you can appreciate what I did for you—”
“Listen, Judy, I don’t know how we got started on this—”
“We got started on this because you have the nerve to persecute me for moving on with my life. You’re trying to suck me back in, in your own stupid way, and I’m not falling for it, okay? It would just turn out the same way. Besides, you don’t want to come back, not really. You’re just sick of living alone in Leonard’s house and making yourself peanut butter sandwiches for dinner.”
“That’s not it at all.” Actually, Benjamin thought, that’s pretty much it exactly. Judy always knew when he was lying to her, to himself. Yes, he lied to her. But was there any other way to sustain a marriage? Wasn’t lying to someone you loved sometimes the right thing to do? Who could bear to know the truth of what went on, day in, day out, in the other’s mind? You’ve gained weight. You say the same things over and over. You’re looking older. No, you didn’t say those things. But Judy always knew, somehow, what he was hiding. Or maybe he gave her reason to know. He would lead her toward the place where she would find his secret. To enrage her, to punish her, but for what? Why had he always pushed her, prodded her, beat her with his own failings?
“Listen to me for two seconds, will you? I called to tell you that someone broke into the house last night.”
“What?” she screeched. “Are you serious?”
“Yes, I’m serious.”
“Did the cops catch him? What did he take? Wait. Start over. What happened?”
He told her. She didn’t interrupt. She had always been a good listener, at least up until the last couple of years. “Franky DiLorenzo thinks it’s some kid who moved into the neighborhood,” he said. “The kid’s been arrested before.”
“Franky should know. He watches that neighborhood like a hawk. You should get an alarm system before Leonard comes home.”
“I probably should.” It felt good to be agreeing with her.
“Speaking of Leonard, did you call the Polish ladies?”
“Typical. Always waiting until the last minute. You’ll never change, Benjamin. But it’s not my problem anymore.”
She hung up, and Benjamin remained in bed. He didn’t know what to do with himself. He tried the police department. He was transferred twice and put on hold for ten minutes before getting the tech guy, who said he’d be there at noon. Benjamin hung up and stared at the ceiling. It was a Friday morning, but because of the holiday, it felt like a Sunday. Sundays were for hanging around the bedroom, reading the Times. His lazy day. It was a tradition of Judy and his, since the early part of their marriage: Saturday night was hers—to choose a restaurant or movie or anything she wanted to do, or issue instructions for any servile tasks she could think up for him to do—and Sunday mornings were his. Judy used to bring him a tray in the bedroom—waffles, bacon, a glass of orange juice—and, yes, she would spoil him in bed, whatever he asked. That indulgence was gone too. Gone for good. That fact seemed inarguable now. For some reason their divorce had not felt definite to him, even after the meetings with lawyers, the negotiations, the signing of documents. But his wife fucking another man—now that was divorce.
* * *
THE TECH GUY was a civilian, dressed in a utility-type outfit, dark blue coveralls, same color as a police uniform, but no gun. He snapped on some latex gloves like a doctor and took photographs of the back door. Then he followed the route of the burglar through the house—kitchen, den, living room, Leonard’s bedroom. He used a brush—like a woman’s makeup brush, only larger—to paint a fine black powder, like soot, over small patches throughout the house—doorknobs, drawers, light switches. Each time he powdered an area, he would study the result with his head cocked at an angle, using a flashlight. As he moved through the house he jotted notes. “For my report,” he explained to Benjamin.
All for nothing.
“He might have been wearing gloves,” the guy explained. “But maybe not. It’s not so easy to leave a latent. It takes a firm press without any slip. Doorknobs rarely leave a good print because the hand slips when turning the knob.”
The tech took a few photos of the footprints in the backyard. “Sneakers. Looks like a size nine.” He glanced up at the sky and exhaled deeply. “Nice working out here,” he said. “A nice change of pace.”
Benjamin followed him to his car. “Do we clean up now?”
The guy cleared his throat. “Oh, sure. I’m all done. If you have any problems with that powder, try Scrubbing Bubbles and 409.”
It took Benjamin the rest of the day, battling the soot. He spent an hour in his dad’s bedroom alone, trying to get a dark splotch out of the carpet. He nearly called the department to complain, but he figured the tech guy was just doing his job, even if he could have been a little neater.
That day and the next day, he expected the cop to get back to him, or Franky DiLorenzo to call, but he heard from no one.
By Sunday, he decided to put the incident out of his mind.
* * *
THAT DAY he found himself missing Audrey Martin. He hadn’t seen her since the day before Thanksgiving. He left a couple of messages and texted her, without response. Finally, that evening, she got back to him. He could tell immediately that something was bothering her.
“It’s good to hear your voice,” he said, trying to sound cheery.
“Yeah,” she said. “Sorry I’ve been out of touch. It’s been a rough weekend.”
“The holidays can be brutal.”
She was silent for a while, so he said, “Maybe a walk with the dog might help your mood. A real walk, that is. I’ve got an interesting story for you—”
“No, not tonight. I can’t. Thanks for offering but—”
“I understand. It’s getting late.”
“It’s not that. Just give me a couple more days,” she said, and the line went dead.
He sat there for a while with the phone in his hand, his head lowered. Five days since he’d seen her, and she’d hung up on him. He felt morally wronged—his Italian soccer player expression, as Judy called it. He nearly called Audrey back to hash it out with her, but no. He wasn’t supposed to pry, not after that meltdown of hers. What had she said that night? Don’t try to find out.
He got on the Internet and did a search for “Audrey Martin.” A series of newspaper articles came up—the Hartford Courant, Greenwich Citizen, New Haven Register. Even The New York Times had followed the story and its aftermath. He raced through the articles, switching from one to the next.
Daniel Martin-Murray, a seventeen-year-old senior at Greenwich High School, was driving home after school on a Wednesday in May 2006. He was alone in the car, a Toyota Celica, with his seat belt fastened, heading north on Wolf’s Den Road in Cos Cob. The other driver, a landscaper operating his employer’s truck, ran a stoplight at the Mulberry Avenue intersection and collided with the passenger door of the Celica. The impact of the crash hurled the Celica over the curb and against a brick retaining wall, causing the air bag to inflate and pushing the metal frame two feet into the driver’s compartment. Emergency personnel were unable to free the victim from the wreckage until firefighters arrived with special equipment. The landscaper was not harmed in the accident. He admitted to police that he had been talking on his cell phone and had failed to keep a proper lookout, and he was issued a summons at the scene for reckless driving.
Police informed the boy’s mother, Audrey Martin, that her son had been involved in an automobile accident and that he was en route to the hospital. At the emergency room, the duty nurse told her that her son had broken his left femur. When she saw her son, Audrey Martin reported that he was alert and communicative, but he complained of pain in his back.
Tests were ordered. At 5:22 P.M. X-ray technicians took images of Daniel’s neck, chest, leg, pelvis, and abdomen. The patient was examined by the admitting physician, a trauma surgeon, and an orthopedist. A CT scan of his head was performed at 6:05.
At 7:18, the resident neurologist first examined the CT scan and was concerned with the image. He ordered an MRI, which showed extra-axial fluid collection in the fronto-parietal region.
At 7:25, the orthopedist, who had been waiting two hours to set the patient’s broken leg, complained about the delay.
At 7:34, a neurosurgeon was summoned. Ms. Martin heard the call over the intercom and inquired what that meant. All this time, since her arrival at the ER, she had been sitting with her son and the duty nurse, Vera Kovalenko, chatting and laughing with him. He was worried that he would miss his summer tennis league. Suddenly, Daniel Martin-Murray complained of a terrible headache and blurry vision. He began gasping for air. He called his mother’s name repeatedly. He heaved off the bed. Alarms sounded. Nurses and doctors ran in and out of the room, appearing frantic. The duty nurse tried to pull Ms. Martin away, but she refused to leave the room. “What’s happening?” she asked. “What’s wrong with him?”
The duty nurse answered: “Come with me. We will pray together.”
Daniel Martin-Murray was pronounced dead at 8:54 from an epidural hematoma. In layman’s terms, he’d bled inside his skull, crushing his brain and causing respiratory failure. Blunt injuries to the head often result from traffic accidents. Individuals who undergo immediate surgery to relieve the pressure inside the skull have a good chance of survival, but the chances decrease with each minute that the injury remains untreated or unnoticed.
Twelve months after the accident, Daniel Martin-Murray’s family recovered an undisclosed settlement from the hospital for negligent treatment of their son. The state Department of Public Health ordered an investigation of the incident. A 105-page report was issued, identifying numerous protocol lapses at the hospital, most significantly, the failure to read CT scans in a timely fashion.
Andrew Murray stated publicly that the lawsuit filed on behalf of his deceased son was intended to make hospitals accountable and institute policy changes to prevent similar delays in reading and interpreting imaging scans. Audrey Martin was unable to speak to reporters about her son without sobbing. She revealed that she’d had trouble sleeping ever since that terrible day.
Sixteen months after the accident, the hospital posted a framed photograph of Daniel Martin-Murray in the emergency room waiting area. The hospital spokesman said that gesture was intended to make amends for its role in the Martin-Murray family loss. “It’s healing for them,” said the spokesman, “and it’s healing for us.” The Martin-Murray family did not attend the ceremony.
Benjamin turned off the computer.
* * *
AFTER A few minutes he picked up the phone and called his son.
“I thought I’d get your voice mail, like usual.”
“That’s because you usually call when I’m in class.”
Benjamin could hear background noise—some music and voices. “Where are you?”
“How was your flight back?”
“Fine. I just got in. What’s up?”
“I just wanted to hear your voice.”
“Did Grandpa die?”
“God, no. He’s fine. He’s better. He’s coming home from the rehab center in a few days. Why did you think that?”
“Because you sound stressed. What’s going on?”
Benjamin took a deep breath and wiped his eyes. “Listen, David, I’m sorry about everything. All those arguments with your mom. I’m sorry for screwing things up. It was my fault, all of it. Not your mom’s. The whole thing was my fault.” There was a silence on the other end. “You still there?”
“I don’t want to lose you. You and Sarah mean everything to me. You know that, right?”
“Dad, I’m eating a tuna sandwich.”
“I’m serious. I want you to know, I love you, David. Whenever you need me, I’m here. I don’t care what time—”
“Okay, Dad. I hear you.” His son lowered his voice, the phone close to his mouth. “I’m sorry too. I can be a dick sometimes.”
Benjamin laughed. “No, you’re not. You’re the best son anyone could have. I mean that.”
“Listen, Dad. This is pretty weird.”
“I know. Don’t mind me.”
“I should probably get back—”
“Your tuna sandwich, right. I’ll give you a ring tomorrow.”
“But I appreciate the call, Dad.”
Benjamin recalled what Audrey had said that night. I’m not over it. I’ll never be over it. Of course not. How could she get over the death of a child? How could she forget the last hours of his life, her sitting beside him, helplessly? He couldn’t imagine the loss, a life without his son. The emptiness, so immense. Poor Audrey. How could he possibly help her? He couldn’t even tell her he knew, since she’d asked him not to find out. How could he unknow? How could he look at her now without this terrible knowledge showing in his eyes?
* * *
MONDAY WAS the big outing. Leonard Mandelbaum had been looking forward to it. It was about time he got out of this place, if only for the afternoon. But he didn’t like this wheelchair business. He didn’t like looking like an invalid. The doctors had told him to walk as much as possible, hadn’t they? So why not let him use his own two feet?
“They have their rules, Len,” said Terri Funkhouser. “Who knows why? Once we get outside, we can do as we please.”
“If we get out.”
Getting past the front desk was an ordeal. The nurse behind the counter where they kept the controls couldn’t be reasoned with. He would approach her and say, “Excuse me, Nurse, I’d like to step outside for a breath of fresh air,” and she would stare at him as if he’d babbled in Chinese. He had no rights in this place. But if Terri Funkhouser talked to her and signed her clipboard, then they would let him out; they’d press the buzzer and the front door would open. Thank God for Terri Funkhouser. Otherwise, Leonard was a prisoner.
Outside, he squinted into the sky, his hand blocking the sun. He wasn’t used to such bright sunlight. Terri Funkhouser pushed his wheelchair down the front ramp and along the sidewalk.
“Upsy-daisy, Len,” she said when they came to her car.
“Gladly,” he said, throwing the blanket from his lap, rising stiffly. He stamped his right leg to get the blood going again.
“Stand back.” She folded up his wheelchair and hoisted it like a man, stowing it in the trunk of her car. “I packed a picnic basket. Egg salad sandwiches and yogurt. We’ll take a drive to the park. Get in.”
“Is that allowed?”
“Of course it’s allowed.”
Her car, the Cutlass, smelled of cigarette smoke and gasoline. She must have a leak in the fuel line. Her perfume didn’t bother him anymore; he barely noticed it, except when she arrived each day, that first aromatic blast.
“Put your seat belt on,” she said, starting the motor.
The whole sedan shook, like one of those old-time hotel beds where you put in a quarter. No wonder Dickie wanted a new car for her. This one was ten years old, at least. It had engine knock. It needed a tune-up and bodywork; every panel looked dented.
“Knocking,” said Leonard.
She wheeled out of the parking lot, hitting a pothole. A pair of sunglasses dropped from the dashboard into his lap.
He frowned. “The car’s knocking.”
“Okay.” She turned to him, grinning. “The car, who?”
“This car. The car you’re driving.”
She laughed loudly, he didn’t know why. “I’m playing fun, Len. You know, like ‘Who’s on first?’”
What was she talking about? “You got engine knock. You need a new car, is what you need.”
“Don’t get all worked up. I’m just ribbing you.”
“Where are we going?”
“I already told you. Picnic in the park.”
It sounded like a song: picnic in the park. “MacArthur Park” was Myra’s favorite song. She would listen to the forty-five rpm over and over, playing it five times in a row. He would find her in the den, a drink in her hand, tears streaming down her cheeks, makeup ruined. That Irish actor, the drunkard. What was his name? Not Richard Burton, the other one, the redhead. He sang it. The song touched something deep inside her, some wanting unfulfilled, something Leonard couldn’t reach. What is it, Myra? What’s wrong? But she would turn on him, defiantly, her brown eyes aflame. Go away! Just leave me alone! A complicated woman, his Myra. He’d done his best to make her happy.
“Did you bring a cake?”
“I brought egg salad sandwiches, like I told you.”
Someone left the cake out in the rain. Did that make sense? Why would anyone leave a cake outside? Because it was a picnic. Picnics were held outside.
“Is it raining?”
“No, Len. It’s a beautiful day. Stop worrying so much. Terri’s got everything under control.”
“Jesus Christ, Len. What did they put in your cereal today?”
“I had eggs and biscuits.”
She pulled into the park and directed the Cutlass over the rutted road. “Let’s walk to the rose garden. It’ll clear your head. See how nice it is? You’re not cold, are you?”
“I’m fine. I’m fine.”
“How’s the leg?”
The fresh afternoon air. He got out of the car and took a few deep breaths, opening his arms the way they’d taught him in the Navy.
“Look at you, Len, doing exercises. Pretty soon you’ll be back in your house, back to normal. You won’t need me anymore. You’ll forget all about silly old Terri.”
“They won’t let me out. They got me locked up.”
“Naw, Len, they’re letting you out in a couple of days. Don’t be so suspicious. This is America. They can’t do anything bad to you. You have your civil liberties.”
“That’s what you think.” She didn’t know what they did when she wasn’t around. They came into his room at night like it was Grand Central Station. They stuck him like a pincushion with needles and tubes. Benjamin said they were just doing their job; they had to give him medication, check his blood pressure. But in the middle of the night? What was the sense of waking a man to check his pulse?
“Look at the trees, Len. Aren’t they beautiful?”
He shaded his eyes against the sun. What time of year was this? He didn’t know. Well, he knew, but he couldn’t think of it at the moment. They’d celebrated a milestone recently, a special meal. Terri Funkhouser had brought dinner and they’d eaten together in the lounge, turkey and gravy. Turkey. Of course, Thanksgiving, it was fall. The trees were bare, mostly. A few still had a shading of dry color. The fallen leaves were underfoot, crunching like peanut shells, as they crossed the wooden footbridge over the pond. Some ducks stood on the grass by the edge of the water. When he and Terri passed by, the ducks turned their heads in unison and looked the other way, as if insulted.
Terri Funkhouser clutched his arm, leading him down the gravel path through a series of vine-covered trestles. Up ahead, at the center of the rose garden, stood the wooden gazebo, the silver roof shimmering in the sunlight. Leonard exhaled heavily, feeling winded. The gazebo seemed far off.
“What’s the matter, Len? Your leg hurt?”
“Looking at the trees.”
“Aren’t they pretty? Dick Senior loved fall. That’s why he made us live in Connecticut all this time, why he wouldn’t go to Florida like everyone else. He liked the change of seasons. Fall is a time for reflection. I can still hear his voice. He was like you, Len, always saying the same things over and over.”
“I always liked Dick Senior.”
“See what I mean? Whenever I mention Dick Senior, you say, I always liked Dick Senior.”
“He was a good man. I always liked him.”
She cackled, startling him. That big laugh, you could hear it coming all the way up from her stomach. He’d say something, not expecting to be funny, and she would roar.
They ascended the wooden staircase to the center of the gazebo.
“Sit.” She tapped the bench next to her. “I’ve got something to tell you.”
Rosebushes, all around. Myra used to love coming here during the season. Red roses, they all looked the same to him. But Myra knew all the different names and where they came from. Climbers, tea roses, hybrid roses, big-headed English roses. She made them all grow. Her garden had been the envy of every woman in the neighborhood. Betty Amato, on the south side of the street, could manage only hostas and ferns. Stella Papadakis, next door, had a fenced-in garden, built on raised ground at the rear of her yard, but she grew only vegetables—tomatoes and cucumbers, beets and carrots—for her four children to gobble. A functional garden. But once her children grew and moved away, she gave it up; the patch lay abandoned, the fence broken in places, weeds growing three feet high. Not so with Myra. She’d made her garden every spring; even when she got sick, she had high school kids do the weeding and planting, giving orders from her lounge chair like a foreman.
“Len, I did it. I signed the house over to Dick Junior. What the hell, I figure. No use hanging on until the bitter end. I should’ve done it a long time ago.”
“You changed your mind.”
“It’s a woman’s prerogative, as they say. That Stefanie’s not so bad. She seems to care for Dickie, and God knows he needs someone to look after him. The other day she asked for my kugel recipe. The woman is useless in the kitchen. I had to take her through step by step. Maybe she was just buttering me up.”
“Don’t sign any papers. I’ll give Brendan McGowan a call. He’ll draw something up for you.”
“That’s sweet of you, Len, but it’s already done.”
“Where will you go?”
“Oh, anywhere. I like those condos over by Stop & Shop. They got a swimming pool and a CVS next door and a package store too. Everything a gal needs. One of my girlfriends lives there. Jenzie Boutilier.”
“I thought she died.”
“Bootsy died. Left her stocks and bonds worth millions.”
“What about Florida?”
“Dickie and Stefanie want to go to Florida, not me. I never liked Florida, not even to visit. Too many old people. Isn’t it funny how you get old but don’t think of yourself as old? I look around and say, When did everybody get so old? Not me, of course, everybody else. Where does the time go, Leonard Mandelbaum? Answer me that.”
“You look fine,” he said.
“I don’t know how it happened. I was always the young one. Dick Senior had twenty years on me. All of our friends too. The baby, they called me. So that’s how I saw myself. I believed them. What a fool I was. I let my life go by. Now everyone’s dead. For the last ten years I haven’t been able to put away my black dress. I got it hanging on the closet door, ready for the next funeral.”
“That’ll be mine.”
“Oh, Len, don’t say such things!”
It was a sunny day, but it got cold quickly if you stayed still. The sun passed behind a cloud for a few seconds and you nearly froze. Leonard kicked his right leg up and down. It felt like it was asleep, just the right leg, not the other. He would sit for a minute and lose all feeling, particularly at night, lying alone in his hospital bed.
“Your leg hurting?”
She leaned forward to massage him, digging in with those strong hands of hers. He’d gotten used to her roughness.
“Feels good,” he said.
“Yeah? Well, what are you going to do for me, buster?” she said, winking.
“You need a younger man.”
“Why do you say that?” she asked, her hands stopping.
“You’ve got needs.” He paused, lowering his voice even though there was no one in sight. “Women’s needs.”
“For Christ’s sake, Len. I haven’t felt anything down there in years. I just say that to be funny. Look at me. I’m a catastrophe.”
“And you’re blind.”
“You’ve always been beautiful. It’s the way God made you.”
Was it a betrayal to compliment another woman? Myra had always been jealous. She didn’t like him paying attention to other women. Sophia Loren, now there was a beauty. He’d said so once, watching a movie on television, and Myra had kicked him in the shin, hard. Is that the type of woman you want? she’d yelled. Well, go ahead. See if she’ll have you. She had stormed out of the room, deaf to his apologies. Didn’t she know that she was that type of woman? Her eyes, just as lovely? Her olive skin?
He turned, surprised to see Terri crying, tears bubbling from her eyes. She honked her nose, then fished for a handkerchief in her handbag, as big as a beach bag. What didn’t she have in there?
“No one’s told me that in forever. I forgot what it feels like.”
Told her what? He didn’t ask. He let her cry; he could tell she liked a good cry. But she’d made a mistake signing papers. Didn’t she know that? You can talk as much as you like, you can sing and dance if it makes you happy, but never sign your name to a piece of paper without forethought. You can’t take it back once it’s written in black and white. They got your signature, they got you. You can’t say, No, I didn’t mean it, I made a mistake.
“Bring me the papers. I’ll call Brendan McGowan. Maybe he can do something.”
“Don’t be silly, Len. He’s my son. I don’t need a lawyer to give him my house.”
“You don’t want a condominium. Too much noise. They play their radios all hours.”
“I’m not particular. I take a Valium and it’s lights out.”
“What about me?”
“You?” She patted his knee. “You’re all better.”
“They won’t let me out.”
“We already talked about this. You’re going home soon.” She clapped her hands together like a schoolteacher. “The doctor said to give you tests to check your memory. Here goes. Are you ready? Today is Monday. What comes after Monday?”
“Very good, Len. And after Tuesday?”
“No, Len. Halloween is a holiday—” She glanced at him, but he couldn’t keep a straight face. “Oh, be serious!”
He’d always liked teasing. Once he’d had Plimpton’s Stationery Store print calling cards for him, saying, The management kindly requests you to leave the premises immediately. Whenever he saw a friend at Scoler’s Restaurant or Dino’s Italian Ristorante, he would ask the waitress to deliver one of the cards. The looks on their faces! The shock and embarrassment and indignation! Then he’d walk over, grinning, his hand extended.
“Wednesday,” he said.
“Correct, and Thursday you go home, back to your very own house.”
“You come too. Benjamin says I need someone.”
“He’ll have people to look after you. But I can visit if you like.”
Leonard shook his head. Those nurses who came to care for Myra, she wasn’t a person to them. They didn’t listen to her; they picked her up like a sack of potatoes. She was sick, not stupid. He had fired three or four of them before the agency sent someone he liked, a Chinese woman. She could barely speak English, but she never missed the vein, like those others. Myra’s thin and spotted arms, covered with welts. It had broken his heart to see her so bruised.
“You come,” he said. “I don’t want anyone else.”
“You should talk to Benjamin about this.”
“No, it’s for the best,” he said. “You got no house. You signed the papers.”
“I’m not homeless, Len.”
He got up. “I want a taco.”
She rose, taking his arm. “Slow down there. Did you say taco?”
“Benjamin brings them home sometimes. You’ll like it.”
He had to stamp his right leg to get the blood flowing. It felt like dancing, that Irish dance. They called it a jig. It pleased him that he knew this word, jig.
“Dancing the jig,” he said.
“You lost your marbles? Stop jumping up and down like that, you’ll have a heart attack.”
“I’m light on my feet.”
“Leonard Mandelbaum. You’re full of surprises today, aren’t you?”
They started down the gravel path through the rows of roses. Were they going the right way? He didn’t know. He couldn’t remember. But she did, the woman he was with. She led him toward the vine-covered trestles in the distance, the sun blazing above like a halo, an entrance or an exit, he couldn’t tell which, to some other place.
* * *
ON MONDAY NIGHT Benjamin returned from a busy day at the dealership and went through the house, checking all the doors and windows. He still felt shaken by the burglary, so he poured himself a scotch and drank it in the den, flipping channels. With his second drink in hand, he felt himself beginning to doze on the couch.
The doorbell roused him. He turned off the TV and checked the time: almost ten. Who could it be, so late? Audrey?
Through the window he could see a figure standing on the porch. It wasn’t Audrey, he realized, feeling the excitement wash out of him. It was a girl wearing a hooded sweatshirt.
“Yes?” he said, opening the door.
She lowered the hood, revealing her face. “May I speak to the lady of the house?”
He took a closer look at her. He’d seen her only that one time, when she’d flipped him off in her driveway. But it was her, unmistakably. The dark hair, the Gypsy eyes. What was she doing on his front porch? “What’s up? Selling Girl Scout cookies?”
“Not exactly,” she said. “Do you know who I am?”
“I think so. You live in the farmhouse, right?”
She hesitated for a moment. “You won’t tell my mother, will you?”
“Tell her what?”
“About this.” She reached into her pocket and thrust her hand in front of his face. He peered into her open palm, his eyes narrowing. A ring. He took it from her and examined it under the light and then realized what it was: his mother’s sapphire. He studied her face but couldn’t read her expression.
“Come in,” he said.
She stepped past him into the hallway. She smelled earthy, as if she hadn’t washed in a week. In the hallway Yukon raised his head and sniffed at her as she passed.
Benjamin directed her to the kitchen table and pulled out a chair for her. He placed his drink and the ring on the table. He hadn’t even known it had been taken. “This was my mother’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary present. She only wore it on special nights, to weddings and galas.”
“Would you care to tell me how you got it?”
“Can’t you guess?”
“Did someone give it to you? A boy named Billy?”
Her eyes flared. “No,” she said. “Try again.”
“Emily. That’s your name, right?”
“Yeah. What’s yours?”
“How about I just call you Ben?”
She unzipped her sweatshirt and peeled it off, wrapping it around her waist. Beneath she wore a low-cut T-shirt, without a bra. She leaned forward, her breasts bulging. Benjamin sat back in his chair.
“You want me to believe you did it? Broke into my house?”
“Why would you do that?”
“To pay you back for fucking my mother.”
He felt the blood drain out of him. “That’s crazy.”
“Is it? I saw you. You and her together.”
“I don’t know what you saw—”
She reached for his glass and took a slug and set it back on the table. “Whiskey and ginger ale,” she said. “Yum.”
Benjamin felt a flash of panic. “I’m going to call your mother. I think she should hear this.”
“Good idea. You call Audrey. I’ll call my dad.” She took her cell phone out of her jeans and offered it to him. “He’s a lawyer. We’ll get the whole family together.”
He hesitated. “Look—”
“I didn’t think so.” She put the phone back in her pocket. “What do you want with her anyway? You could do a lot better.”
“The only thing I’ve done with your mother is walk the dog.”
“Is that what you call it? Sounds like something from the Kama Sutra.” Her face was pale under the fluorescent light. “I don’t blame her, though. You’re hot. You’re the hot older guy.”
It dawned on Benjamin that she was probably drunk. Her words sounded slurred and she kept blinking, as if trying to focus.
She said, “Wouldn’t you like someone younger? Me, for instance.”
“Cut it out.”
“What, you’re denying it? I saw you checking out my ass that day. That’s why I flipped you off. You’re a horny old fucker, aren’t you?”
He shook his head. “Your story doesn’t make sense. You break into my house and trash the place. Now you bring back a ring worth thousands of dollars?”
“So, why not keep it? Why not sell it?”
She shrugged. “I felt guilty.”
“You could’ve just left it in the mailbox if you felt so bad.”
“Didn’t think of that.”
“I don’t believe you. You’re covering up for your boyfriend, aren’t you? He broke in, didn’t he? That kid Billy.” Though it still didn’t make sense why she’d take the rap for him. But girls her age could be influenced by boys into doing stupid things.
“I took your fucking ring, okay? I steal things all the time. I took it and now I’m bringing it back. You should thank me instead of breaking my balls.”
“Fine. Thank you. Now you should go.”
She got up and strolled down the hallway toward the den. She kneeled beside Yukon and rubbed his stomach, and the dog turned over and put his legs in the air. “Would you mind if I warmed up in front of the fireplace?”
“Yes, I would mind.”
“Chill out, Ben. Don’t be so uptight. Go pour yourself another scotch. Get one for me too. I deserve a reward, don’t you think?”
He got up. “Ah. So that’s why you came to my house at this time of night. For money.”
She shook her head. “Not money. Something better.”
“Like what you do to Audrey.” She batted her eyes at him, looking like an actress in a soap opera. But he could see through the act. He didn’t know why she was pretending to flirt with him, or what she wanted from him, but he’d had enough. He didn’t like being played for a fool by a teenager. “That’s enough,” he said. “It’s time to go.” He took her elbow and led her toward the front door. Her skin was cold, surprisingly cold. At the door, she wheeled away from him with a sudden furious energy, swinging her arms and yelling, “Let go of me, motherfucker!”
And then she screamed—a scream so loud he would not have thought it possible. He waited for the sound to stop, unable to move. Yukon barked and jumped up to investigate. At that moment, she ran up the stairs and disappeared into his father’s bedroom. Benjamin went after her. “Hey, come back here!” As he reached the doorway, he caught sight of her rushing into his father’s bathroom, the door slamming behind her.
When he banged on the door, she called out, “You hurt my arm, asshole.”
She didn’t answer.
He tried the handle but it was locked. “Are you okay?” He heard water running in the sink. After a while he called her name.
She didn’t answer.
He sat on the edge of his father’s bed. The way she had screamed—like a madwoman. His neighbors had probably heard. Why would she yell like that? He had gripped her arm, but not hard enough to hurt her. Why had she locked herself in the bathroom? He couldn’t make sense of anything she was doing.
He knocked again. “Can you hear me?”
“Leave me alone,” she called. “I’ve got cramps.”
He couldn’t decide what to do, so he just waited. After a while he seemed to lose track of time. He paced around the room. He hadn’t done anything wrong, yet he felt sick with guilt. He should have called Audrey the moment the girl showed up. Why hadn’t he? Should he call her now? Otherwise, what—knock down the door?
As he was getting ready to dial Audrey’s number, the door swung open and Emily emerged. She’d put her sweatshirt back on, the hood around her head.
“If you tell my mother I was here . . .” The words came out heavy. “If you tell her any of this, I’ll say you raped me.”
“She won’t believe you.”
“Maybe not. But my father will.”
She brushed past him and went out of the room. He followed her to the top of the stairs and watched her go out the front door. Yukon appeared and stood in the open doorway, looking after her.
“Stay, boy,” he said, coming down the stairs.
This was the bill, he realized; this was the consequence for getting involved with a married woman: a visit from a deranged girl, threatening to accuse him of rape.
He looked out toward the street, but she was already gone from sight.
* * *
HE WENT INTO the den and turned on the TV. His hands, he noticed, were trembling. He felt jittery, unable to concentrate on the show. When he heard a car on the street he jumped up and went to the front window to look out. The car pulled into a driveway a few houses up. He needed to calm himself with a drink or, better yet, a joint. He realized he didn’t want to stay in the house, so he jumped up and got his keys and drove into town.
He parked on the street outside Max Baxter’s Fish Bar. Getting out he heard loud voices, and he turned to see a businessman, ranting into the pay phone on the corner. It was that kind of night, Benjamin figured. He went in and sat at the bar, ordering a scotch. It was a Monday, approaching 11:00 P.M., and the dining tables were empty, the kitchen closed. A group of waiters and dishwashers, dressed all in white, talked rowdily at a rear booth.
After the first scotch, Benjamin felt his nerves begin to loosen. To pay you back for fucking my mother. How could she know? Audrey, of course, would never tell her daughter something like that, but maybe the girl had overheard one of Audrey’s phone calls and figured it out. But how would she know about him, specifically, where he lived? Had Audrey written something in a journal, which her daughter had discovered? In any case, he didn’t believe that the girl had broken into his house. Her face had changed when he’d mentioned the boy’s name. Maybe this kid Billy was behind the entire crazy stunt. But why? What did she—or they—hope to gain by confronting him like that? She said she didn’t want money. And why had she given back the ring, the only valuable item they’d gotten away with?
The door opened and the businessman from the pay phone came in and sat at the other end of the bar, looking disheveled and red in the face. He ordered a tequila but the bartender refused. Benjamin felt for the guy. Drunk as he looked, he seemed to need it at least as badly as Benjamin needed his second glass of scotch.
As he sipped, a waiter appeared next to him and ordered a draft beer. He stood watching the basketball game. After a few quick gulps, he hiccuped loudly. A moment later he hiccuped again, as if making a joke.
Benjamin turned to him.
“Sorry,” the waiter said. “I can’t get rid of them.”
He was a young guy with curly blond hair. He reminded Benjamin of one of those guys back in college who could kick a Hacky Sack for five minutes without letting it fall. “How long have you had them?”
“You’ve had the hiccups for three days?”
The kid nodded. “I haven’t slept more than a couple hours the whole time.”
“Have you tried chewing a lemon?”
“I’ve tried everything you can think of. I even went to the hospital. The doctor yanked on my tongue and had me drink three seltzers—” A hiccup ripped through his body, causing him to wince. His voice was hoarse and dry. “Didn’t help.”
“That’s all they did for you?”
Benjamin noticed the bags under his eyes but still couldn’t help smiling when the kid burped and hiccuped at the same time. “That sounds awful.”
“Everyone thinks it’s funny. It’s not. Feels like my chest is gonna bust open.” The kid finished his beer and placed the glass on the bar. “Take it easy,” he said, heading for the door.
A few minutes later the bartender passed Benjamin his bill. “We’re closing soon,” he said.
Benjamin finished his drink and left before they turned up the lights. Outside, Wintonbury Center was silent, the traffic lights flashing yellow, the streets deserted. He stood on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette. He noticed the waiter, sitting at the bus stop near his car. The kid hiccuped, the loudest yet, like an otter’s mating call.
“Good one,” said Benjamin.
“Thanks, I guess. I just tried holding my breath for the hundredth time.”
“How about getting high? You try that yet?”
The kid smiled. “It’s funny you should mention that. I’ve been trying to get an angle on some weed ever since this started.”
Benjamin dropped his cigarette and stamped it out. “I can help you out in that department.”
Benjamin unlocked his car and signaled the kid to join him. The kid opened the passenger door and stuck his head inside. “You’re not a narc, are you?”
Benjamin laughed. “I’m a fucking car salesman.”
The kid climbed into the passenger seat and closed the door behind him.
Benjamin said, “Open the glove compartment. Look inside that yellow envelope.”
The waiter reached in and produced the joint. “Dude.”
“For medicinal purposes only.”
“Seriously? You got a prescription?”
“Nah. I get it from a mechanic in my shop. Fire it up.” Benjamin started the motor and turned on the heater. He fiddled with the radio, looking for music. The kid produced a Zippo and lit the joint, inhaling with a skilled ease, slow and deep.
“Yo,” he said, passing it over. He hiccuped an enormous cloud of smoke.
They both laughed. Benjamin brought the joint to his lips and sucked in. Just what the doctor ordered.
They sat with the headlights off, passing the joint. A Motown song came on the radio. Benjamin felt high almost immediately, listening to Marvin Gaye—the old Marvin, before he got divorced and bitter, before he went celibate, before he beat his old man and shot him to death. Or did he have that mixed up? Did Marvin shoot his old man? Or had the old man shot Marvin?
He passed the joint, and the kid dragged on it, and hiccuped.
“That didn’t work,” said Benjamin.
“But still,” said the kid. “A good try.”
Benjamin took a final puff and stubbed the roach in the ashtray. “Good luck with those hiccups.”
“Thanks, man,” the kid said, getting out. “You gotta be the coolest car salesman ever.”
“Yeah, let me know when you’re in the market for a Cadillac.”
What now? The thought of returning to the house brought on a rush of anxiety. He should tell Audrey about her daughter’s visit, he decided. If he didn’t, it meant he was guilty somehow. It meant he was hiding something. The girl might come back, break in, steal things, make accusations. He couldn’t let that happen. Let Audrey deal with her crazy daughter. If he warned Audrey now, she could confront her daughter before she told her father. Contain the situation, as they said in the movies.
He reached for his cell phone—and realized he’d left it behind in his haste to get out of the house. What the heck, he figured, he’d go old school. He fished a few quarters out of the cup holder and walked to the pay phone on the corner.
He dialed her number and the line rang and rang. He realized it was late—nearly midnight. She must be asleep. Her husband must be asleep next to her. He expected voice mail to kick in, but at last she answered and mumbled a groggy “Hello?”
“Benjamin? Is that you?”
“Yes. I’m sorry to call so late.”
“What time is it? Why are you—”
Before he could respond, he heard a clatter—and the line went dead. Had she hung up on him on purpose? Or a lost connection? He waited for a minute, giving her time to get out of bed, go into another room. He didn’t want to cause any trouble for her. But this was important. He couldn’t let it wait.
He slid two more quarters in the slot and dialed again. This time, she answered almost instantly, sounding much more awake.
“It’s me again.”
“What’s going on?”
“I’m calling about your daughter. It’s kind of an emergency.”
“Maybe that’s not the right word.”
“Should I get her? She’s packing for school. She’s driving back first thing tomorrow morning.”
What did she mean? Didn’t the girl go to high school in town, a mile down the road?
He cleared his throat. “I’m not sure how to tell you this—”
“What’s going on, Benjamin? You sound strange.”
Something wasn’t right. Her voice wasn’t hers. In his stoned condition it took him a while to figure it out.
“Benjamin? What’s wrong? What’s the emergency?”
He had called the wrong number. By habit, he’d dialed his wife. He found himself laughing at his predicament. “There’s no emergency. I just wanted to remind Sarah to check the oil. She always forgets.”
Judy was silent for a while. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes.” He paused. “Well, not really. I don’t know.”
“Are you having an anxiety attack?”
“Something like that.”
“Listen to me. There’s nothing to worry about. Sarah’s fine. David is too. He called and told me what you said to him. He said you creeped him out.”
He sighed. “I tell him I love him and it creeps him out. That’s priceless.”
“Not like that,” she said gently. “It was your tone. He said he never heard your voice like that before. He was worried.”
“You don’t sound fine. What’s that noise? Is that the TV?”
“I’m at a pay phone in Wintonbury Center.”
“A pay phone? Do those things still exist?”
“It’s one of the last of its kind. Like a snow leopard.” He took a deep breath. “I called because I was thinking how terrible it would be to lose him. Or Sarah. Or you.”
She paused for a few moments. “I think you should come over,” she said.
Her voice, so familiar. He felt some of the paranoia recede. He could picture her, sitting up in bed, wearing her blue sweatpants and his old Red Sox T-shirt. “Aren’t you sleepy?”
“Not at all. I had a lousy night.”
“Trouble with your divorce lawyer?”
“You could say that.”
“Things went downhill that fast?”
“Crazy, isn’t it? This dating thing. I don’t know how people do it.” She sighed. The Judy sigh. It had been her main manner of communication during the past few, difficult years. Once she started, nothing could change her mood. She would just get more and more irritated. But for once, he wasn’t the cause of her discontent.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“God, no. Thanks for asking. But no. I’d rather not waste any more breath on him.”
“Do you really want me—”
He stopped himself. He was stoned. She hated when he got stoned, or when he came home drunk and reeking of cigarettes. A bad time to make any sort of overture. At the intersection, the light changed. A police car cruised by slowly, the cop studying him.
“What?” said Judy.
“No,” she insisted. “Tell me.”
There was something different in her voice, a tone he hadn’t heard in a long time. A softness. The impartiality gone. The voice of his old friend, his partner. She had been on his side all those years, waiting for him.
“Something’s bothering you,” she said. “What is it?”
He thought of Audrey Martin. What could he say to her anyway? What could he tell her about her daughter that she didn’t already know?
He glanced at his watch. Late, but not too late. “Are you sure it’s a good idea for me to come over?”
“What about you?” she asked. “What about your love life?”
“I have no love life.”
“What about Aubrey?”
He emitted a dry laugh, almost against his will. “There is no Aubrey. I made the whole thing up.”
“I knew it!” she screeched. “I knew you were lying.”
“You were right.”
“Why would you lie?”
“To make you jealous.” Here we go again, he thought. Lie upon lie, rising like a layer cake.
“Well, it worked. Aubrey. That name drove me nuts. Leave it to you to come up with a name like that. I tried to find her on Google. How many Aubreys could there be in Wintonbury?”
“None,” he said.
“I even downloaded the song. Which came out in 1972, by the way.”
“You’re a terrible liar. You just make it up as you go along.”
A motorcycle went by, racing through its gears, drowning out all other sounds. “Wait a minute,” he said. He lit up a cigarette and took a drag. The motorcycle finally faded into the distance.
He said, “I was pissed off about your divorce lawyer. I couldn’t stop picturing him humping you with his hairy back.”
“Your back is hairy too.”
“Not like his. I pictured him like a baboon, thrusting and grinning.”
“Gross. You see? This is what you do to me. You turn me into a crazy person. You get my head spinning, trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not, until I just about lose my mind.”
“Isn’t it easier to just tell me the truth?”
“Yes. I suppose so.”
“Don’t do it anymore.”
“Lie to me.”
“No,” she insisted. “Promise me. I want you to think about it. I want you to understand the implications.”
He pondered this for a moment. Could he simply tell Judy the truth? About everything? Always?
“I’m high,” he blurted.
“I know. I knew that immediately. Your voice gets heavy.”
What about Audrey Martin? Should he come clean about that too? If he and Judy were to get back together—and he suddenly found himself hoping they might—then somewhere down the line, today, tomorrow, a year from now, he would slip and it would come out, and Judy would know that he had lied to her two seconds after promising never to lie to her again. Here goes, he thought. “You were right the first time. It was her.”
“Right about what?”
“Audrey Martin. The woman I dated.”
“Audrey Martin!” she screeched. “Of course! How could I forget that name? Audrey Martin had the finest ass in high school. You said that same fucking thing for years. I can’t believe you tracked her down as soon as you left me.”
“I didn’t leave. You kicked me out.”
“You cheated on me. I still have that Holiday Inn receipt to remind me, in case I ever considered taking you back.”
“Judy, I didn’t cheat. I got drunk across the street and checked in to sober up.”
“You’re lying again.”
“No. I’m not.”
He could hear Judy pausing on the other end of the line, weighing his words, the tone of his voice. Then she sighed, like she’d made a decision. “Well, that is a surprise.”
“You always think the worst of me.”
“With good reason. And I’m supposed to believe that she called you. This Audrey Martin with the fine ass.”
“I didn’t have to call her. She moved onto Leonard’s street. She and her husband bought the farmhouse on the corner.”
“That old firetrap?”
“Yeah. And I . . . I kidnapped her dog.”
“You did what?”
“Kidnapped her dog so I could meet her.”
Judy snorted. “You broke into her house and took her dog? Are you insane?”
“No, the thing got out by itself. But I saw it and lured it onto my lawn with a turkey leg. And then she came to retrieve the dog.”
“And one thing led to another.”
She paused, then laughed. “Thank you. For telling the truth. Isn’t that easier?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “It is.”
“Are you still seeing her?”
“No. That’s over.” As he said it, he realized it was true.
“Did you have sex with her?”
“How many times?”
He thought back over the past month—
“Just answer the question,” she said.
“I’m trying to remember.”
“How could you not remember?”
“There were multiple occasions.”
“Now you sound like my divorce lawyer.”
“How many times did you have sex with him?”
“Don’t change the subject. Tell me. Five times?”
“More than that.”
“Closer to twenty, I’d say.”
“Jesus, Benjamin. Twenty times in a month or so? You’re such a pig.”
“Was it good?”
“It was good, yes. But different.”
“I felt—I don’t know—distanced. Like a spectator.”
“That means you didn’t care about her. You were just fucking her for the fun of it.”
“If you say so.”
“Don’t sound so proud of it. But maybe you finally got her out of your system, Audrey with the fine ass, and all the others too.”
“Anyway, it’s over. It sort of ended tonight, in fact. I haven’t talked to her yet, but . . .” He hesitated. How much of this truth thing could he do? Judy had been his adviser all those years, she and Leonard. She had always known what to do whenever he got himself into a jam. “Her daughter—she has a seventeen-year-old daughter—”
“No. Of course not. Shut up and listen, will you? The daughter showed up at my front door tonight with Myra’s sapphire and confessed to robbing me.”
“She was the one?”
“She says she did it, but I don’t believe her.”
“It’s a long story.”
“For goodness’ sake, Benjamin. Come over. I want to hear this.”
“Are you sure it’s not too late?”
“It’s not too late. I’ll put on the porch light.”
He hung up. He checked his watch:
November 26, 2007
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Housebreaking includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Dan Pope. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
A pitch-perfect, smartly told, and completely gripping drama, Housebreaking explores the dark realities of modern suburbia as two families are on the verge of unraveling. Presented with the opportunity for a fresh start or a second chance, they’ll have to overcome adultery, divorce lawyers, and drugs among other threats to find their way and come out on the other side. Through the intersecting narratives of these troubled, funny, and highly sympathetic characters we are presented with a picture of life today that can be both disturbing and reassuring and forced to think a little more carefully about the mistakes we make and the secrets we keep.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. How would you interpret the significance of the title for this book? Why do you think the author chose that title?
2. The novel is broken into parts focusing on the Mandelbaum family and the Martin-Murray family. What did you think of the shifting perspectives and the structure of the story? How might the reading experience have been different with an omniscient narrator telling everyone’s story simultaneously?
3. Benjamin is back living in his childhood home when he comes across his high school crush, Audrey Martin. In a way, Benjamin’s separation from his wife puts him in a situation that may feel like he’s gone through a time warp, but also presents him with an unexpected second chance. Discuss this concept of a second chance as it applies to Benjamin’s story. How does it evolve and change for him? How is the idea of a second chance or fresh start relevant to other characters in the story?
4. Leonard reflects on his grief over losing Myra. For him, it seems as if moving on is impossible. His children can’t understand because, “For them, life was about looking ahead, about what would happen next.” At what point in life do you think you transition from looking ahead to looking back? Should you ever stop looking ahead?
5. Benjamin and Audrey’s lives took off in different directions after high school but then brought them both back onto the same street. How do you think Benjamin’s life has been affected by staying in and around Wintonbury? Do you live close to where you grew up, or would you want to? If not, have you been back? How has your perspective on your hometown changed as you’ve grown up?
6. Benjamin wonders, “Wasn’t lying to someone you loved sometimes the right thing to do? Who could bear to know the truth of what went on, day in, day out, in the other’s mind?” Do you agree? How important do you think total honesty is in a relationship?
7. Compare the grieving process for each of the Martin-Murray family members. Can you relate to any of their coping methods? How much do you think grief is at the root of each of their actions and behaviors?
8. Andrew “pondered Sampson’s proclivities for men and women. Odd, that lack of preference. Andrew could understand being gay a lot easier than being bi.” Discuss Andrew’s perspective here both in general and in light of his eventual “relationship” with Sampson. What do you think Andrew’s sexual orientation was?
9. Emily is coming down from a high as she looks into the mirror: “Her face stared back blankly from the dresser-top mirror. . . . Curious, this mask. How strange that people considered it Emily. She had been outside her body for four days.” Discuss the idea of one’s face being a mask. Have you ever felt that what you saw in the mirror was different from what other people were seeing?
10. Emily admits that “Later, she would look back and say that when she was seventeen, she tried to commit suicide but ended up killing only the parts of herself she no longer wanted.” Do you think Emily consciously tried to kill herself? Was it a cry for help? An accidental near-overdose?
11. Most of the characters are holding on to a secret at some point in the story—some secrets come out, some threaten to, others remain tucked away. What do you think the story suggests about how well we know our neighbors, our colleagues, and even our own families?
12. Discuss the image presented in Housebreaking of a modern family. How well do you think Wintonbury represents life in the suburbs today?
13. At the end of the book there is a sense that everything and nothing has changed. Discuss what may appear to be the same on the surface though perhaps irrevocably altered deeper down.
14. What do you think becomes of the Martin-Murray family after putting their house up for sale? What do you imagine happening for Audrey and Andrew?
15. Who, if anyone, do you think has a happy ending in Housebreaking?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. After hearing that Audrey Martin just moved in nearby, Benjamin digs out his high school yearbook to look at her senior photo and take a trip down memory lane. Do you have any of your high school yearbooks? If so, bring it in and share some of your high school photos, crushes, and memories with your book club.
2. When Emily is in the hospital, she has a near-death experience and believes she sees her brother in heaven. Do you know anyone with stories of near-death experiences or glimpses of afterlife? Have you ever felt a presence of someone who passed? Share your stories and any ideas you may have about the possibility of an afterlife.
3. Were you surprised at how easy it was for Emily to access prescription pills? National studies show that a teen is more likely to have abused a prescription drug than an illegal street drug. To learn more about prescription drug abuse, visit www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/prescription-drugs.html.
A Conversation with Dan Pope
What was your inspiration for Housebreaking?
A dog. She appeared by the back door of my parents’ house one evening over the holidays, howling. This happened about twenty years ago. I was home from graduate school. She was a malamute, a bit overweight, with heavy gray and white fur. She had somehow escaped from her home by breaking the link of her thirty-foot vinyl dog line, which was trailing behind her. Instinct—well, love—brought her to seek out my brother’s akita (the dog’s name was Saki). We let him outside to romp around with her for ten or twenty minutes, which ended with him making a half-hearted attempt at mounting her. She growled and hissed and they had to be separated. Then he came inside and happily went about his business, while the malamute stayed outside, sleeping on our front porch, apparently lovelorn. We let her into the house to warm up, but she immediately ate all the cat food and started on the dog bowl, which didn’t sit well with Saki the akita. So we had to put her out again. She stayed all night. The next morning, her owner appeared, a perfectly lovely woman with her son, who was in his teens. They lived two streets over. They’d been searching the neighborhood for their runaway. They gathered their dog and took her home.
A few days later, the malamute was back. The same interactions occurred: dog roughhousing, attempted humping, separation, reunification the next morning with rightful owner. This happened often—more than a handful of times, over a few years. The malamute had a talent for escape.
As I said, this happened a long time ago. I would see this woman and her son when I came home to visit my parents. The mother and son would take walks around the neighborhood after dinner. The boy was blessed with a wonderful nature, intelligence, good looks. I never really got to know him or his mother. But we exchanged phone numbers, and whenever the malamute would appear, we would let the dogs play, then call to inform the mother or son of her escape.
A few years later, the story appeared in the newspaper. The son had died in tragic circumstances overseas. It seemed impossible that this young man could be so suddenly gone. The dog disappeared around that time, too. I don’t know what became of her.
That experience—the dog, the tragedy of the son—was the first germ for the book, although I had no intention of writing this novel then. But much later, when I began to form an idea for a novel that took place in my hometown, that episode came to mind and became, in some way, the spine of the novel.
How did the experience of writing an adult novel compare with writing your first book, a coming-of-age novel?
Housebreaking was a more difficult book to write, for many reasons. My first novel is narrated by a twelve-year-old boy, and the entire book runs on the mania of his preteen voice. Housebreaking, in contrast, has various perspectives, from a seventeen-year-old girl to an eighty-four-year-old man, all of which circle around the same time frame—the autumn of 2007. Getting the time frame to cohere in the different sections and to orchestrate all that overlapping action was also challenging, in a headache-inducing kind of way.
Housebreaking is set in the same area of Connecticut where you live. Why did you choose to set your story close to home? How similar is Wintonbury to your own town?
When I was forty-four years old, I returned to Connecticut after the death of my father to help care for my mom. My hometown, West Hartford—particularly the north side of town—is a quiet, comfortable place. Wintonbury, the fictional town in the novel, is just a fictionalized name for West Hartford—fictionalized because I wanted to have the freedom to change the town landmarks and architecture for my own purposes.
For some reason, I tend to write at night. After dark the suburban neighborhood shuts down, even in summertime. I would go out for walks at odd times of night—midnight, 2:00 am—and I’d be more likely to see deer than people. Once, a pack of coyotes ran past me, jumping over a split-rail fence and disappearing across a lawn. Another time, a black bear lumbered by me on his way to some garbage cans. The houses were silent and dark. Once in a while you would see a blue glow of a TV or computer monitor through an upstairs window. I got stopped by police officers more than once on these late-night jaunts: “Do you live around here?” I couldn’t blame them. Anyone in the suburbs out that time of night is suspicious. “Trouble sleeping,” I would tell the cops. I didn’t want to admit the truth, that I stayed up to 4:00 in the morning writing a novel, every night, and that the air cleared my head when I got blocked. Writers are, in a way, weirdos; they don’t really fit into the suburban vibe.
Being back there, in the rooms where I grew up, summoned, of course, a host of old memories. But what struck me, more than the past, was the tragedy and pathos that managed to find its way into this peaceful, affluent place, not just to the town, which is fairly large, but to my street and the two or three neighboring streets. As I started thinking about the novel, a high school boy died in a car crash on a sleepy side street. A troubled kid from the next street got his hands on a handgun and shot it off on his front lawn. Someone started breaking into garages and vandalizing homes.
All of this stuff, in some way, shaped the book I was writing and the feeling that came upon me, so different from how I used to view my neighborhood as a boy, that the beautiful houses, the fine lawns, the orderly streets—it was all an illusion of sorts.
How did you decide to tell the story from different perspectives, and whose to include? Whose perspective was the most challenging for you to write?
Telling the story from the different perspectives seemed to arise naturally from the material. At one point, I intended to expand the perspectives to include some of the more peripheral characters (the neighbor Franky DiLorenzo and also, in a moment of craziness, the dog Yukon). But it quickly became clear that I should restrict the perspectives to the five main characters.
The most difficult perspective was Audrey’s, by far. She internalizes her grief, more than the other characters, so much that it makes her nearly mute. I had trouble getting past that grief to find the person inside. Her sadness is drowning out the person she was, and it was difficult to get her emotions other than grief to come to the surface.
Is there one character you relate to or sympathize with the most?
Oddly, I think Leonard Mandelbaum was the easiest to write, which must mean I sympathized with him the most. My dad had died a few years before I started the book, and so had a lot of others I knew from that generation—aunts and uncles, parents of friends. I guess I spent a lot of time listening to them as a child, so I had channeled their way of thinking and manner of speaking. Leonard represented to me that entire generation, sadly all gone now, or almost gone.
Both families in the story have a dog that features prominently—are you a dog lover as well? Do you have any pets?
Love dogs. Had them growing up, and my brother had the akita I mentioned earlier, who was a lot of work. So I haven’t had a dog lately, but I’m often reduced to gawking at passing dogs in the street or park, as if they were supermodels. That sort of natural beauty—it’s hard to pull your eyes away, whether husky or boxer or some breed in between.
Did you know all along how you would end the book, or did you come to it at some other point in the writing process?
The ending! It was definitely the most difficult part of the book to write. It seems so obvious now to me in retrospect. But I think getting the ending right took me at least a year or more. I went through every possible scenario and then came to this ending, which seemed the right one for these characters. I had a different ending in mind at the start, when I was plotting out the novel, but in the writing of it, the book took many different directions. So I had to rethink the ending (and the structure too, which is another story!).
Does the story end for you with the pages of this book, or do you imagine futures for any of your characters?
One of the reasons I wanted to set the book in 2007 is so I could take the characters forward eight years to the present at the end, to get an idea how they turn out. I intended to include much more about them in the now and future, but it didn’t seem right to do so in the final calculation. But yes, I do imagine their futures, in an end-of-American Graffiti way.
What do you find to be the most challenging and rewarding aspects of being a writer?
The answer to both those questions is the same, for me: doing the writing. It’s terribly challenging to do it every day. One of the best feelings for me is waking up the next day with the realization that, Oh, I did some work yesterday; I can’t wait to see how that looks. If I fail to get any work done on a particular day, it usually seems to me that the day has been irrevocably wasted, even if it happened to be a great day otherwise (say, a day at the beach or slumming in used bookstores). It’s a really terrible way to live, in some respects.
What other writers do you feel inspired by?
Inspired by is a complicated reaction. It eventually gets around to inspiration, but first there is the wonder of reading the book—say, off the top of my head, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, The Great Fire, Underworld, or anything by those authors or Denis Johnson, Alice Munro, James Salter, William Trevor—and then the feeling of devastation that sets in afterward. Devastation in the realization that, Okay, you could try every day for the rest of your life and never write anything even close to that! But, fortunately, I’ll muster the troops after a while and say, Well, you still can try, though, right?
What’s up next for you? Are you working on any new projects?
As I told my wonderful editor, Millicent Bennett, more than a year ago, “I’m working on four ideas for novels. Two of them are really good, and two of them are terrible ideas.” She said, after a moment, “Why don’t you just concentrate on the good ideas?” I had no answer for her then, or now, except to say that the bad ideas could be really fun to write. But, in short, I’m working on a novel, although I’m not sure at the moment which of the four ideas will win out.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Wonderful book. Even better than his first. Highly recommend.
Completely engrossing, emotional, and real. Housebreaking peels back the clean white layers of the American suburban experience to reveal something truly remarkable, a colorful world of complexity and emotion reminiscent of Tom Perotta and Wally Lamb at their best. But unlike these authors, Pope’s voice is uniquely funny and totally sincere. Pope never gets lost in the murky waters of suburban ennui, nor does he demonstrate disdain for the ordinary world he’s chosen to exist in. Even the darkest subjects, from impending divorce to the loss of a child “our personal 9/11,” are well-balanced with incredibly smart humor and enough levity to keep you turning the pages, craving more as the momentum of the story builds. You’ll fall in love with each character despite their flaws, and you’ll root for them to make the most of the cards they’re dealt. You may even find yourself consciously slowing down in order to appreciate the artfulness of Pope’s writing. It’s an old cliché that the last page of a book feels like losing a friend, but the personalities that Pope has created feel so genuine, you honestly won’t want to let them go.
Reading about the Mandelbaums, in the first half of the book, is both engrossing and comforting, because Pope shows how loveable people really are—even boring suburbanites! But it turns out we owe our encounter with the Mandelbaums to Pope’s grand symmetrical plot; they’re only there to interlock with the page-turning drama of the Martin-Murrays, who take up the second half of the book. The second half is gripping, but in an unpleasant way, and the Martin-Murray characters don’t ring true. Pope handles the Martin-Murray trauma-drama easily and forcefully, but I hope his creation of one incidental family to spoon into the other has revealed to him where his true mastery lies. More Mandelbaums and mild plots in suburbia, please. Show us how much there is to like under the placid surface.