Fiction

The Curse of the Davenports

David Gates

I’d come back to Connecticut just once: to stand with my mother and Wayne—Phyllis was already a liability in public—at the veterans’ cemetery in Middletown. My mother sold our house in West Hartford, bought a condo in Santa Barbara, and told me she wanted her ashes scattered in the Pacific: better to end up among the sharks and the oil slicks than among the military.

I was still a graduate student when Sarah came to Berkeley as an assistant professor, with witch-black hair and Katharine Hepburn cheekbones, and we reinvented the traditional academic scandal; a few of her colleagues even came to our wedding, when she was already pregnant with Seth, the flower of our unprotection. What a bad boy I was, and what a bad girl I made her be. We had a cottage in Oakland, with the old Sears Roebuck gingerbread; during Seth’s nap time, we’d open our bedroom window to let in the scent of eucalyptus and edify the neighbors. If I’m sentimentalizing those days, bear with me. When Seth was eight, I started taking him to A’s games, and nobody gave us shit for not standing during the national anthem. My thesis (“Cattle Are Actors: Archetype and Artifice in Red River”) never got me a job there—who in the Bay Area didn’t want to teach film? But I made some money copyediting and reviewed movies for a free weekly, in a column I called Be Generous, Mr. Spade. My takedown of Titanic got more letters than any other piece in 1997.

But when Sarah got an offer from Yale, what could I say? They even sweetened the deal with a job of sorts for me, teaching composition alongside the TAs, and the weekly wanted me to keep sending in reviews. Like the good sport I think I hoped to be, I amused our acquaintances with a theory that New Haven wasn’t part of Connecticut really, but a free city like Danzig or Trieste—no, better, West Berlin way in the middle of East Germany. A realtor showed us a turreted stone palazzo in what might eventually become a safe neighborhood, where we could live like New York Review of Books dissidents under house arrest.

But Sarah had seen enough smashed car windows in Oakland, and those genteel towns up the shoreline called out to her: the Congregational churches, the white-clapboard colonials, the maple trees, and, God help us, the occasional American flag. Besides—cue the screechy shower music—Seth was starting high school. She found us a Federal house in Guilford, only a couple of exits from Clinton, where Wayne still lived, with foot-wide, honey-colored floorboards. “Just promise me we’ll never own a Volvo,” I said, and we never did. (See below.)

So how long would you give it? I handed my freshmen bad grades and they handed me bad evaluations, much as the daughters of Eve bruised the Serpent’s head while he bruised their heels. I quit my column after I overheard Sarah at a party telling one of her new colleagues that it was “a wonderful outlet for him.” We had her department chair and his partner over, and, many drinks into the evening, I’m afraid I went off on a thing about how the money boys had run the fucking school ever since Cotton Mather grabbed his ankles and bent over for old Elihu Yale. When the gents took their leave, Sarah asked me if I’d lost my mind. In fact, I was seeing a shrink by then. You see where this is heading. Picnic-lightning version: TA, Gene Tierney overbite.

Sarah kept the house and the Saab; I kept my old Subaru, took Seth on alternate weekends, and wrote her a check every month. She could have made sure my job didn’t get renewed, but the Gene Tierney episode had given her a taste for the moral high ground, if that’s not too pissy to say. Had it not been for Wayne’s kindness (pride, fall) I might have stayed at my weekly-rates refuge up near the Wilbur Cross until Seth finished high school. And when Wayne came back ... but this is a sentence God alone could finish.

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