Issue 159, Fall 2001
When Jane left me for Barry Kramer, it was a dark and heavy sort of hurt, but she had not been happy in our house anyway, and I felt that there was little to be done. Jane and I seemed stricken by the son of ardent spitefulness that comes to light only after many years of tender acquaintance, and our marriage collapsed beneath the weight of our frequent and spirited bickering. We fought about big things and we fought about little things, and by the time she and Barry fell in together everything was just about wrecked already.
Barry had been her teacher in a class about how to relax, something he did before he started his business of going around to companies and showing the managers how to keep the lines of communication open. I had ignored the advice of friends and encouraged her relationship with Barry because her sessions with him did seem to calm her somewhat and also made her less inclined to drink herself into high dudgeon and curse the sorry state of our family. But it was not a pleasant surprise when I came home early one day and found them doing a massage on the living-room floor where the midwinter sun hit the carpet just so. When the door rattled open and I came in with our daughter, Marie, they both jumped up with fluid, unnatural speediness, like a movie running backwards, and laid on about how Barry was just showing off some new shiatsu moves. Barry had even put his hands on my neck to show me, and that was when I lashed out with the piece of hose I'd brought home to stick on the bath spigot. A scene ensued. I shouted curse words and made my daughter cry. I broke some things. I made extravagant threats of violence, and Jane left with Barry and Marie. I remember her standing in the doorway with an armful of clothes, her jaw muscles sticking out like scallop shells and her telling me, “You will rue this day.”
And it was true, I had rued it, but, after a while, neither often nor deeply. I sold the house I'd shared with Jane and Marie and bought a place outside of town, a little redone shotgun home on six acres with a tiny creek running through the back yard. It was fine out there, except for a million black wasps chewing holes in the wood siding. Those little mothers made an awful grinding racket and sometimes had me screaming at them in my empty house. On weekend afternoons when feelings of failure and regret could not be kept at bay, I got some satisfaction walking around and squirting poison up those holes.
I dug myself a garden, and a stray cat I grew to like would come around to sulk in the corn. I tried to get back in the habit of talking to ladies, and for a while, I had a setup going with a molten young sweetheart from my office. She was a sexual miracle, it's true, but she soon put me off with her foul mouth and her habit of calling me up in the middle of the night to just sit there and breathe into the phone, trying to disguise her helplessness as something mysterious and slick. I couldn't help her, and she couldn't help me, so I cut that whole business off-though I wished later I'd had the good sense to take her naked photograph.
For a time I was spotted in bars and restaurants in town, working hard to be a friend to women young and old. I called up bygone female acquaintances from the time before Jane, but they wouldn't see me. They were older now and worried, I guess, that I was just trying to get them to come out and misbehave. Or maybe they'd heard about how things with my family had gone so seriously sour, and they didn't care to hitch on with a dude in the middle of a rearrangement. I started having a lot more beer and tried to grunt out a mess of si,t-ups every day so my physique wouldn't get out of control.
I saw Jane once each month, the day I came by to borrow Marie. Jane was prettier now that she'd stopped drinking and was on this herbal habit Barry had gotten her into. She was warm and concerned about me in a way that wasn't absolutely kind. “I was sorry to see you sneaking around our neighborhood the other night” is a thing she said one time.
"That old junker of yours, it sounds like you got somebody in a suit of armor dragging underneath. You need to get a new car if you're going to make spying on people a regular thing.” I said I had just been enjoying a ride, which was true. Jane said she'd talked about me to a doctor friend of ours, and she was nice enough to tell me he didn't think much of her idea that I'd gone a little bit insane.
Praise be, she took off for the summer, to Seattle with Barry on business, to Eugene, Oregon and Sedona, Arizona, and then back here and off again after to a retreat up in the mountains to experience some karmic episodes. She surprised me with a phone call early one morning in September. I was awake already. The wasps were out there doing their thing.
"We had an accident up here at the ashram,” she said.
"I need you to come get Marie. Barry too, if that's all right.”
I got hot with her, thinking that little Marie had hurt herself while the grown-ups were off grooving on the nectar of supreme instruction, but Jane said no no no, it was Barry.
He had fallen off the roof or something, and now he had to come home because he couldn't do any decent postures on a busted ankle. She explained that Barry was not in a way to operate a clutch pedal or to pitch in on babysitting while Jane was on a session. It would really help, she said, if I would come and do chis thing.
I did not like driving my car too far past the city limits, and I was not overly excited by the notion of a long car ride with Barry Kramer. But I took it kindly that Jane thought I was worth asking for a favor. It was her sort of olive branch.
I told her okay.
The retreat was up in the western part of the state, far away from where I was living. By the time I got there I had a medium-bad headache, and a muscle pain spooling up at the base of my spine.
This was a pleasant spot. A wide field of brilliant goldenrod running up on a lake the color of new blue jeans and thick black woods all over. I'd read in the papers about a woman who died near here under strange circumstances.
She'd been found left in some brush, her body pretty torn up. The reporters had painted it like her husband had done it, but just before they booked him, a hunter killed a black bear with part of the lady's hat in its stomach, a funny kind of good news for the husband.
I walked down to the compound. I passed a young woman sitting on a picnic table with a baby at her breast. Little kids were doing the bat-hang in a wooden jungle gym. I met a boy who was hoeing up a pea patch who said that yes he knew my ex-wife and pointed at the canvas hut where she was staying.
Barry was sitting on the floor in there with his bad foot up on a bench. He watched me come in. His beard had more white hairs in it than when I'd seen him last, but he was still a handsome man. No belly, smooth skin, full head of hair, better looking than me. “Hi there, Ed,” he said.
The foot looked awful: black from big toe to shin with a swirling, purple galaxy of a bruise over his anklebone.
I went and shook his hand. “Probably just need to chop that thing off, huh?” I said.
He looked at his foot and made a gesture like he was waving away a smell. “It's just a bad sprain. Nothing to it.
Just need to give it some R and R and let the body do the rest. The pisser is I was going to stay through the first and, of course, now my deposit's down the tubes. That's what really chaps me. You might think it's all peace and love in a place like this, but, believe me, these hippie types still count every bean. These people make a killing. If I told you what people shell out to come here, I guarantee you'd think I was full of it.”
The door slammed and Marie came in. When she saw me she cocked her head and gave a fretful look. Then she smiled and held out her arms for me to swatch her up. She showed me a poison-ivy rash on the back of her hand. The skin there was raw and sticky. I set her down again.
"Hey, Barry, I might like to say hi to Jane, if you know where she's at,” I said. I hadn't told her yet that I'd filed papers at work for a move to Miami, where a new branch was opening up. I'd get a raise, if that job came through, and I'd have some people working under me. I wanted to catch her up on that.
Barry shook his head. “Sorry, no can do,” he said. “She's doing an isolation.”
"Mmhm. Okay,” I said. “Maybe I can just stick my head in and say hey real quick.”
"Gee, I'm afraid not,” he said in a gentle voice. “She's not allowed visitors right now. Maybe you'd like to leave a note.”
I thought about it. “No, I guess not. I guess let's just go.”
Barry pulled himself up on a crutch that looked homemade.
He put on a big show of wanting to carry his duffel bag himself, and he struggled on up the path. The duffel kept sliding off his shoulder, and he'd do a kind of hula move with his hip to keep it from sliding all the way. After the bag fell into a puddle on the path, he agreed to let me take it, but he was not gracious about it and even seemed sort of angered by the gesture.
We reached the car, and I held the door open for him, but he didn't climb in right away. He stood there rocking on his crutch, gazing off at the sky and the fields and the fall trees starting to go the color of sherbet. He rubbed his sooty beard and took in loud, greedy breaths. “This is really what it's all about,” he said. “Clean air. Getting the poisons out. You can't buy that. Can't sell it in a drugstore. Takes these crazy gizmos called trees.”
A flock of geese rose from the far side of the lake and drifted into a spotty boomerang formation overhead. Barry hoisted Marie up so she could see better. There wasn't anything awkward or ostentatious in the way he lifted up my daughter. One arm slid naturally across her shoulders, the other caught her in the crook of her knees, and he propped her against his stomach in a way that suggested he'd held her like this many times before. She seemed not to notice him. She sat there with the glow of sunset on her, watching the flying geese. She was tugging absently on his ear with her scabby little hand. We stood there for a while and listened to the geese talking to each other, a noise like lots of hinges creaking.
I put the front seat up so Barry could crawl into the back and stretch out. He had a hard time getting in. He stuck his crutch in first and used it to brace against as he eased himself into the car. He made pained noises, like someone getting into a tub of really hot water. As he leaned against the crutch, it hung up on the seat and ripped a little hole in the vinyl. Barry looked at me to see if I'd seen it.
"Whoops-a-daisy,” he said. “That a big deal?”
I looked at the hole in the seat, a little frown-shaped tear below the armrest.
"No, I guess not,” I said, reaching down and running my finger over the hole.
He pulled his billfold out. “Christ, I'm a klutz. I can give you some cash, if you like. “ "No,” I said. “No sweat.”
He put the billfold back. “Thank God for old cars, huh?”
Barry said, grinning at me like I was his good friend.
I strapped Marie into the shotgun seat, and we drove out of there. Soon we were rolling along the ridge that runs parallel to the state line. I tapped Marie to point out a stony crag of dark rock that reached high into the horizon over to the west. “Looks like an old birthday cake,” I said to her.
Marie pointed at it too and nodded.
"You know what that is?” Barry said. “That's actually the hardened lava from an old volcano. The outer layers of sediment weather much faster, so it just leaves you with a sort of cast of the core of the mountain. Pretty amazing.”
"Yeah,” I said. “I read something about that.”
Soon Barry dozed off, and I could hear a faint teakettle whistle every time he exhaled. I don't have a big car, and Barry was leaning his head on the window just behind my seat. I was sure I could feel the black bristles of his beard doi~g an electrostatic number the back of my neck. I could smell him, sweat and soap and something like sour milk.
I asked a lot of people about Barry when Jane took up with him. I got in touch with a lady who'd made love with Barry one time, and she said the weird stink of him remained a distastful memory for her, which I was pleased to hear. She also said that he had a huge banana, that he did breathing exercises beforehand and that afterwards he'd gone in the kitchen and made a beet salad.
I suppose I might not have disliked Barry if I'd known him under different circumstances, but, like most men I know, it set me on edge to think of this other man doing things with a woman who had once been my wife and also my best friend. There is a strong, wicked temptation here to consider the sweet things you' re missing out on, newfound freedoms be damned. It's a thought that gathers momentum as it goes, and soon you are recollecting things about your ex-wife that you really ought not to be. Her warm fullness of a Sunday morning, her little belly slumping against the small of your back, and her woozy way of murmuring as she wakes up from a dream. You don't want to think of these things when other, more malign thoughts can steal so easily into the frame. Barry Kramer, for instance, tucking a yellow thumbnail under the scalloped elastic of her striped bikini underpants, shucking them off in a slow, graceful move connoting the righteous gravity of sense pleasures and maybe saying something about lotus blossoms, and your ex lying flat against the sheet. You don't want to imagine how she lifts her hips up off the bed, her open-mouthed anticipatory shivers, or Barry rearing up in a sun salute between the splayed knees of your ex-wife, his face stretched in the ecstatic grin of a tiki god tagging nooky. You do not want to admit the possibility of hovering butterflies or the jade stalk or the door of the holy abode, when you can remember one time, a few times actually, when you came home late with a lot of corn liquor in you and you nudged your then not yet exwife on the shoulder and said something like, “Mama, can we poon?”
It made me feel queasy. I shook off a shiver and I reached over and patted Marie on the head. She was starting to doze.