[a tasty portion from another novel, John Finn, written a while back. It seems to work by itself.]
It seems to me that if a novel isn’t about a man and a woman then it ought to be about why it’s not about a man and a woman. I’ve come to this conclusion rather slowly over the years.
Still, even if it’s true, the thought irritates me. It’s a little too pat. Wasn’t this just the kind of thing Chekhov liked to say?
Appropriately, this was what played in my mind as I drove up Interstate 93 toward Lebanon, New Hampshire on Tuesday. I was trying to come to an understanding of the character I had created for my eighteenth century loyalist, Izaak Andrews, without insinuating my own experience into the situation—No, that’s too strong. Insinuation is fine. You have to write what you know. What I did not want was for the situation in my own life to blind my understanding of what might have happened to Izaak. He was becoming a much more sympathetic character than I had originally imagined him to be.
He had lost so much for his beliefs. His home. His country. And he had lost a daughter.
I gave up the morning hours when I normally write so that I could drive to New Hampshire, but I couldn’t help myself from thinking it all through one more time. Sibelius was in the CD player and Chekhov was on my brain. Kind of a win-lose situation. I’d rather be thinking about Kipling or Twain but they seldom explored the dynamic between men and women. Yeats, perhaps. Yeats was good at asking such questions, but he never had any answers. Maybe that’s why he stuck to poetry. It seemed to me there was no way for me to write a novel about the murder of Mary Andrews without understanding the relationship with her father Izaak, and as much as I preferred their company, Mr. Twain and Mr. Kipling were not about to offer me any secrets. Maybe Mr. Trollope. But more likely I needed Mr. Chekhov.
I had called Gary Apple the day before. With Thanksgiving coming I figured to get this trip out of the way as soon as possible. The message on his answering machine sounded like it was about worn out. You could tell it was one of the old tape models. At least I had warned him I was coming.
He called back about ten minutes later.
“John. Is that you? Sonavabitch! How are you?”
“Never better. Great. Really great. I’m happy for the first time in my life, John. You should try it at least once before you die. Happy is good.”
“I hear you. You sound pretty good.”
There was a brief silence then where we both were thinking how to proceed. I had already bet my money on the fact that he had guessed my purpose and was going to make me tell him.
I guessed wrong. He went right at it. “So what made you call right out of the blue?”
“I wanted to talk to you.”
“I don’t want to talk about Zoe, John. If you want to talk about the price of rice in Canton, I’m your man, John. You know I like to talk to you. But not about Zoe.”
So then it was a matter of my approach. He would be ahead of me the whole way, so there was no point in being discreet or indirect.
“That’s not like you, Gary. You were always the one for plain truth. I’ve thought about calling you before, you know, but I have a suspicion you’ve never thought once about calling me. It was you that walked away more than ten years ago, Gary. I haven’t heard from you since. What’s up with that?”
I wondered what he was thinking then. He speaks quickly and seldom hesitates. He hesitated again.
Then he said, “It’s a new life, John. I have a new life. I just cut the ropes. That’s all. I cut all of them at one time because I knew it was the only way. And it worked.”
I told him, “Well, I guess you should’ve left the country Gary. New Hampshire isn’t far enough.”
“I’m not trying to hide, John. Zoe knows where I am. I’m close enough so the kids could visit if they wanted to. That was the plan. They seldom do. Todd was up a couple of times. Sally never bothered. What do you think’s up with that? Heh? You think dear Zoe might be responsible for that?”
I answered the question as best I could.
“I don’t think so. I think the kids feel betrayed. I’ve talked to Sally. You hurt her pretty bad.”
That got a silent break. He had to give that more than the easy dismissal.
“I think of her. I’ve called. She won’t come to the phone anymore, so I stopped.”
I remind him, “She says she wrote you.”
“Once. One letter. I wrote her back.”
“I saw your letter, Gary.”
He jumped on the words, “What’s that all about? Why are you looking at my private letters?”
“Because Sally showed it to me. She came around to my place one evening and talked to me. She’s a good kid.”
That was something he did not know and it caught him off-guard.
“Sally? By herself? She’s only sixteen. What did she come about? Is she having a problem with Zoe?”
“She wanted to talk about you.”
He was still off balance.
“I should call her.”
“Why. I’m her father. I have a right to call.”
I drew the picture. “After ten years, that may be a little shaky. Why don’t you write her a letter that’s longer than a paragraph. 33 words. She’d counted them. She’d written the number in the margin like a teacher’s mark.”
Gary is naturally pugnacious. He enjoys the fight. In college he was on the wrestling team for several years before he was dropped because he too often broke the rules to gain advantage. This was true in most of his dealings. You had to like him for his other qualities.
He said, “Look. John. This is none of your business.”
I said, “How do you figure that?”
“I don’t want you interfering in this.”
“Gary. Sally came to me. She needed someone to talk to. But you know, in her heart, she was hoping that I’d talk to you. She’s looking for some way to get through to you. And now I have this.” I was sitting at the table in my room when he called back. The papers were right there in an envelope in front of me. “Zoe gave me some papers she wants me to give you. She didn’t want to embarrass you by having a local Sheriff do it. You have to give her credit for that. I thought I’d drive up there tomorrow and get it done.”
He was answering loudly before I had finished.
“A subpoena! A fucking subpoena! You want to drive up here and serve me with papers? What? You’re working for the Court now, John?”
“No. As a favor for Zoe.”
There was no hesitation then. “Is that why Sally came to talk with you? Are you hanging around Zoe now? Is that it? You got lonely after Mary Ellen dumped you and you’re humping Zoe?”
I kept my own voice on the level. It was an effort.
“That’s not fair, Gary. You said you were happy for the first time in your life. That was not the remark of a happy man.”
I could see how it might matter to his interpretation of things. Perhaps he deserved an answer.
“No. She’s a friend, Gary. I met Zoe the day after I met you. Remember? You called it ‘the greatest double-date in history.’ Just because you walked away, doesn’t mean the rest of the world stops.”
He took a breath on that. His voice dropped. “Sorry. . . I’m sorry. . . That was stupid. You’re right. Beneath this happy shell is the same old Gary. . . But at least I prefer the shell.”
Gary Apple was a pre-med student at B.U. , when I met him. Despite discovering Chekhov in high school, and showing a considerable talent in several high school plays, he’d decided to become a doctor, just like his dad. It seemed like a good idea at the time, I suppose. Gary is a deeply compassionate fellow, but doctoring was not to be. And money didn’t interest him. His own dad had made that possible.
He had married Zoe on an impulse. I guess it takes two impulses. But in his case I think he just wanted to be taken seriously. Zoe takes everything seriously. Even the weather. And his father wouldn’t talk to him when he turned his back on medical school. All that became one of the keys to our friendship. We would talk about our fathers. We would talk about our wives. We could talk about the dynamics of the human condition. Naturally, Chekhov had a lot more to say about fathers, and women and wives than Kipling, so Gary did most of the talking. He always liked Chekhov.
It was in pre-med that Gary got into research on mental disorders and brain functioning and from there he had drifted into computer science. He got his Ph.D. at M.I.T in three years. He’s that smart. For his thesis he wrote a software program that duplicated specific brain functions and helped enable doctors to identify where a patient’s brain was misfiring.
At that point he took a teaching job at M.I.T. Zoe was pregnant and settling down was the responsible thing to do. That was the late 1990’s.
Our friendship was also based on an in common disrespect for authority in the beginning. I didn’t like Chekhov then and he didn’t like Kipling, so literature didn’t play much of a part. But I liked to give him my stories to read. He read quickly and he was never kind. I needed that. And for his own reasons, he was always willing to read them. I didn’t question my good fortune. A keen-eyed critic is hard to find.
As it happened, Mary Ellen and Zoe got along even better than we did. We used to see each other every week back then. I had been the best man at their wedding. It was like having an extended family. Our daughter Matty used to sleep over at their house. Sally would sleep over at ours. His boy Todd and my Sarah didn’t get along quite as well, but I think I’m happy about that. That boy has had his problems too.
Gary lives up a mountain road now on land that faces southwest to a turn in the Connecticut River overlooking neat rectangular fields. The river is dark at the center and gray with ice at the edges. The umber lines of fencing and uncut weeds edged the borders of the fields through a blank white tablet of recent snow. The Vermont highlands across, darkened with leafless trees, walled the river at the far side. It’s a sweet spot. There was no name on the mailbox at the gate. Just the number. The gate was closed and I had to get out to open it.
About 200 yards of icy gravel got me beyond a row of cedars and there was the house and Gary too, as well as a yellow Labrador retriever, standing outside waiting for me.
It’s a modified log cabin with the difference being that it has two narrow floors running along the edge of a steep rise. I could tell that every window in the place had a view of the valley.
A smaller pick-up, a bright red Ford Ranger, was parked alongside Gary’s old Suburban. That was the same beast he was riding when I last saw him. I figured the newer truck looked like it might belong to someone else.
He was smiling, at least. He took off his glove to shake my hand.
“Time for coffee?”
“Eggs? I’ve got fresh eggs. I’ve got sausage made by a fellow down the road. Milly bakes all our bread. Best bread I ever had.”
I was nodding at his every word. I said, “Milly?”
“I can’t live alone, John. You know me. I’m not that kind of animal.”
At that moment I had what is often called these days ‘an epiphany.’ Something greater than the parts of a simple realization. A discovery perhaps. I think I understood something. This often happens to me in conjunction with food. Or beer.
The kitchen was located at one end of the narrow house with windows on three sides. It has a twelve foot ceiling, and a round metal chimney at the center growing up from a wide copper hood. That one room was about three or four times the size of my whole apartment. I sat at a trestle table by the largest window on the river side and watched him cook.
He says, “I had my oatmeal this morning about six. We’ll call this lunch.”
He seemed to be pleased at the chance to cook up the meal. He asked me about my kids as his hands played across a gas griddle. I’ve seen him do this often enough in the past, over a grill in the back yard of the house in Newton during family get-togethers. My Matty and his Sally are still buddies, even though they live miles apart. They even went to the same summer camp. But these days it’s reduced to constant texting.
I stepped badly with my first question, “Where’s your wife?”
With her truck outside, I assumed she’d be there. I was assuming too much, of course.
He did not even look up from his work at the stove.
“We’re not married, John. We’re like. . . what? Private contractors. Milly is the daughter of an old hippie down in Claremont. She got tired of waking up with a buzz every morning from ambient smoke and left home when she was sixteen. She was working weekends at a diner in Littleton back when I was looking for this place. She sold me my chickens about a month after I set my trailer up on the ridge behind here.” He pointed out the window at the far side, up a rising field—snow whitened, and stubbled with the remains of a corn crop. “Then she decided to stick around to collect the eggs. We get along. But she thought she’d leave us alone given the subject matter. She does what she wants.”
And then I stepped wrong again, “Where do you work?”
He looked up at me for that one. “I don’t. I play. I do what I want.”
“Yes. Very nice.”
That caused a bit of quiet while I studied the room and the view and made the rather obvious assessment that this was all, indeed, very nice. And clearly the result of a lot of work by itself.
He set two oversized plates down at the table, along with two mugs of black coffee and pulled up his own chair close so that we were only a couple of feet apart.
“You know, I think I’m becoming a philosopher, John.” He smiled at his pronouncement. “You probably remember my disparaging of philosophers.”
I repeated it pretty much word for word from memory. “Idiots who think their assholes are singularities.”
He laughed at hearing his own joke retold.
“Right. Well, all of this is enough to make anyone think twice. You don’t have to be your old hero Thoreau to realize there are important elements not on the periodic table. I’ve gone over to the dark side, you might say. But what I‘m playing with up here is trying to understand what the hell is happening to civilization. You know—as in: is all that shit necessary?”
I figured Gary was trying to push the conversation into something he could manage. He’s smarter than I am. I’ve always known that much. But he doesn’t digest his knowledge very well.
The sausage was incredible. The bread was fantastic. Whatever argument he wanted to have, he’d already won.
I said, “Yeah. I think it’s necessary. You can’t just keep consuming without producing a certain amount of shit.”
This did not seem like an appropriate subject matter over such good food.
He says, “No. Listen. You know this. Philosophy—real philosophy—grows from a ‘love of knowledge.’ Right? But most ‘philosophies’ actually discourage the pursuit of knowledge in favor of perfecting ‘systems.”
I nodded in agreement without any idea where he was going. I repeated the word, “Systems,” to let him know I was listening. I was thinking that I should learn to bake bread if this was what I might get out of it.
He leaned over his plate to get closer. “We’re talking a set of theories here, or methods that simplify the categorization of knowledge or keep what’s learned within certain proscribed bounds. Pretty typical of this would be systems that use math as the key, for instance. I know you never liked math. We’ve had that conversation. So you’ll like this…”
I said, “Math is fine. It’s what people misuse it for that troubles me.”
I was actually trying to figure out the added taste in the sausage. I had just decided it must be sage. But he had both hands in the air now.
“The love of math is really an appreciation for the clean hard edges of the numbers and the absolute finish. The sum. The reproducible result, whether it’s useful or not. The sum becomes the goal. A philosophical theory put forward without the ‘proof’ of a sturdy mathematical equation is not even considered a serious challenge these days. . . And that, as you well know, is not much different than most theology. A Moslem philosopher has no interest in the work of his Christian counterpart any more than a mathematician has for a novelist. And with mathematicians, the effort to acquire knowledge—to comprehend the world about us—has long since been abandoned for the pursuit of confirmation—a translation of every aspect of existence into numbers similar to the reduction of data down to simple 0’s and 1’s for computation. You already know that too well. What occurs then is little more than a census—an accounting of the angels on the head of the pin.”
He took a breath. I took the opportunity. “And as I’ve said to you before, why bother?”
Gary shook his head with a quick impatience. “But I’ve been thinking about knowledge in a different way now, John. Like pieces of genetic code. All a matter of sequences and context. Not O’s and 1’s but some more flexible combination of A, U, G, C. Sequences that work together–”
I held my left hand up.
“You’re losing me Gary. Personally I think you should have stayed at M. I. T. You had a home there. You could go back. I bet they’d take you back even now. And I could stay here. I could look after this place for you. I’d feed the dog. I could learn to bake bread. I’ll bet. I could sit right here and write novels that nobody wants to publish just as easily as I can do it down there. Easier! I’ll bet I could.”
He looked up from his own plate, finally re-directed. He kept a pretty straight deadpan. “Maybe. But I don’t think you could handle Milly.”
I said, “Maybe not.”
He said, “It was a very comfortable life, you know. Very secure. Bought and paid for. The University is the ultimate womb.”
That was more to the point. He knew I knew him that well. Gary was never big on the safe move. I never saw him wrestle, but I’m pretty sure that was why he won more often than he lost.
I asked, “Is that why you left?”
He nodded, “Yes. Born again, you might say.”
“And life is good?”
“Better than good. I’ve actually felt moments of happiness. Glee. Ecstasy. And the sex is better too.”
I threw my next question out just to put things back into context. “Don’t you think you ought to be more involved in the world.”
He shrugged, “I am. Totally,” and took up another mouthful of eggs on a piece of bread.
“But you walked away from a good life by most standards. You walked away from your family. From your friends.”
He smiled for a moment, looking at me as if I should be smarter than that.
He said, “Friendships are like love affairs, really. More than people seem to think. You start off with a certain infatuation. You like the sound of a voice. A mannerism. You start paying attention. What you see strikes some primordial chord. You know? You like the person. It’s like our different standards of beauty. It’s not so easy as saying we get it from our parents. I’ve met your mother, John, remember? She looked nothing like Mary Ellen. I met your father. He was a lot like you, but he didn’t like me from the first. Remember? Anyway. You struck me as an interesting guy. At least that. And something else. I always knew where you were. No guessing. You were consistent. At some point though I guess that became a hobgoblin to me. Small minds, and all that.”
I wasn’t wanting to be drawn into argument.
“So, if I get this right, you started holding my small mind against me.”
He smiled, “Well, yes. You aren’t stupid, John. I know that. But you have a very narrow view of life. I couldn’t take it. Any more than I could take living in Newton anymore, and riding my bike down the Charles River every morning as if that bit of natural order made teaching at M. I. T. bearable.”
I wasn’t about to manage the conversation, but I thought I might channel it a bit. “I may be stupid as well, Gary. It seems to me that you chose the life you had. Every step of the way. You had commitments there. Vows. You walked away from your own word.”
He didn’t have to think about that. I imagine he has thought about all that a few thousand times.
“Yes! I did. I’d made a mistake. More than one. I was wrong. Same as you, my boy. Your marriage was no better than mine. Maybe worse. That was one more way we were alike. The difference is I didn’t hang around to wallow in my misery.”
The words that came to mind were the very ones I had heard from Gary’s mouth a hundred times.
“There is a natural cost to everything.”
His eyes widened with familiarity. “Yeah. Well. That’s why I think you are fundamentally a religious man, John. You see consequences very differently that I do. I’m not coming back. Metaphorically, or otherwise. I only have one life. I wanted a little happiness. I wanted it before I died. And I got it. If I got hit by a truck tomorrow, at least I got a taste of it. How about you John. How’s it working out for you?”
There really wasn’t any other answer for that.
“Not the way I wanted. True enough.”
Gary poked his fork at me across the table. “I warned you, John. Right? I told you how it would go down. When you told me you were going to quit teaching so you could write, I warned you. You were deciding more than the simple use of your time. It’d be the end your marriage. It’d be the end of all those other small consistencies of everyday life you cultivated so carefully. But you argued with me. And I thought, when push came to shove, you’d cave. You wouldn’t be able to get your mouth off of Mary Ellen’s tits—.”
I looked him back in the eye. “You said that. I remember that you used that exact vulgarity.”
He smirked. Gary has a convincing smirk. “Vulgar. Sex is not vulgar. Wasting a life is vulgar.”
I wasn’t going to pass on it. “Your use of sexual imagery is vulgar. It’s crude. You’ve always had that ability to be crude when you actually wanted to hit someone.”
Eyes can, in fact, flash. It’s the flare of the eyelids that opens the eye to the reflection of light. Just then, Gary and I were very close to going at each other’s throats across the table. And just as suddenly I realized, in another of those epiphanies, that Gary was my brother. As much as my actual brother Martin was, really. How many times had Martin and I gone at it over less important matters. And here was Gary, eye to eye with me, and I loved him. I had no idea why.
I sat back in my chair instead.
After a second he said, “I think you might have won that. . . You have about forty pounds on me. And it looks like you’ve been working out again.”
“No. We’d have both lost, I think.”
He looked out at the river just long enough to gather his thoughts.
“It’s all your fault, you know. I think that’s why Zoe has sent you up here. Punishment. She thinks you still owe her.”
“What’s that about?”
He shrugged at me. “I just move a little quicker that you do John. You told me you were going to quit teaching and start writing again, and then I used my vulgar metaphor about tits, but by that night—that very night when you told me you were going to quit teaching—while I was wishing Zoe had tits at least as big as Mary Ellen’s, I had made my own decision to get out. I knew you were right. I was killing myself. . . What was the word you used? Soul. You’ve always loved those religious tags. But I knew my soul was dying. You? You stayed on till the following June. How very responsible of you. But I didn’t even come back for my next semester at M.I.T. Remember? I just stayed long enough to get my shit together, and I was gone.”
“That was an ugly Christmas.”
“Yeah. It was.”
He had never told me until that moment that his decision to walk out on his life had begun with my own ideas about changing things. I had wondered. The coincidence of timing was there. But he had never spoken about his own decision to me.
I said, “I wonder if Zoe and Mary Ellen ever spoke about that?”
He shook his head. “My boy, they had that pegged from day one. I’m surprised Mary Ellen didn’t lay into you a few times about it.”
I told him why she might not have. “I think she was relieved. She was tired of fighting to keep things together. But I’m fairly certain Zoe was in a state of shock. She didn’t see it coming. Mary Ellen used to talk to Zoe about our problems. Zoe had always thought she had it made.”
Gary shrugged, “She did.”
It was a callous throwaway remark. There was no place to go with it. Any defense of Zoe at that point would have been counter-productive. My opinion on the matter was meaningless.
I finished my food. I drank the rest of my coffee and poured myself another cup. Gary sat there looking at his piece of the river.
Then he said, “Mid-life crisis. So prosaic. That’s what Zoe called it. And I let her believe that. There was no way to explain to her that what I was really doing was starting all over again. As if she had never existed. As if there was no Todd and no Sally. Nothing.”
I was not about to be satisfied with that. “Nothing except the royalties on your little brainstorm plus the family trust fund. That’s all.”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “Jealousy. I can appreciate that. Jealousy is a common enough human fault.”
I said, “True enough…”
He leaned back in his chair and scanned the room around us. “See this, John. I built this with my own hands. Every post. Every beam. I cut the trees down right back there on the side of that hill where the sheep are now. You can still see the stumps in the snow if you look. I lived in a trailer for two years while the wood dried. I designed it. Everything here except for Milly’s curtains and Milly’s underwear on the line by the fireplace in the living room is mine. It doesn’t get any better than this. Do you think Zoe would have made it through one black fly season up here? Heh? No. Because you don’t know her. But I do.”
This was a subtle attack. I was willing to argue this out. “Maybe. Maybe not. But she’s a friend. You don’t have to know it all to be a friend.”
He shook his head at me like I was a fool. “Women don’t make good friends John. Maybe to another women, but not to a guy. They do things you can’t begin to fathom. Mary Ellen should have taught you that much. You used to say she was your friend. Remember. But she never understood what you were about. Never.”
I came back with the easy punch. “No. Maybe. But then, some of my other friends didn’t do a lot better on that score.”
It wasn’t necessary.
“Right. Well, I was mistaken. I thought I did. I made some bad assumptions. I thought you were after something more in life than a job. I thought you might give me credit for that as well.”
Perhaps I should have given him that credit. But there seemed to be other priorities.
I said, “It’s a different world, I guess. I suppose it’s more your world than mine. People walk away from what they’ve done now. They have abortions today rather than face responsibility for their own actions. They decide that a life is not a life because it’s inconvenient. But you didn’t leave your kids in a bloody basket at the maternity ward. You took the responsibility long enough to make a few of us think you were the real deal—and then you dropped it.”
He raised his chin a bit. He does that before he enters a fight. But he stayed back in his chair.
His chin was still up when he answered. “Alright. Okay. Like I said. It was a mistake. But there didn’t seem to be any other way at the time. There was no math for it. No numbers at all. I just knew that night that I needed to go. Sally and Todd weren’t going to be any happier with me around regretting every minute. I made a mistake. There was no correction for it. It just had to end it before it was too late.”
I had thought about that myself. Back then. I thought about walking out a few hundred times a day. Especially after Gary just packed up that day and left without a word. I had seven thousand dollars of savings in the bank. I had thought about buying a motorcycle and just disappearing. That memory was there still, clear and bright. I had put it away with all the other baggage of that time. And here it was again. If it had not been for my girls I might have been gone and done it, just that way.
Gary only did what I had dreamed of doing. Could I be so hard on him for actually doing it?
And then, another epiphany. Certainly Des might have done as much to me. But that would mean that she had walked away from me as well. I really wasn’t ready to think about her doing that to me. This was something else to chew on at another time.
Gary was staring at me. “What are you thinking about?”
I decided I wasn’t going to tell him. I didn’t think he deserved to know anything about that.
I said, “But it’s not over. The kids are still there. You may not want to be part of their lives, but you are. And Zoe needs your help.”
He shook his head once, quickly.
“I gave her the house. I gave her every stinkin’ piece of property we owned. And she agreed to the child support. She signed that piece of paper. And, not that it’s any of your business, but she gets half my royalties. My lawyer sends out the check to her every six months.”
I said, “Things have changed. Taxes on the house have doubled since 2005. Todd wants to go to graduate school. And now Zoe has lost her job.”
Gary turned to me with a rather nasty look in his eye.
“My mother died in August. Did you know that, John? That’s what this is about. Zoe wants what my parents have left me.”
His parents had moved to Florida many years ago. His father had died last year. I had not heard anything about it. But I could guess then what the matter was.
“Zoe doesn’t want it. She wants you to put some part of it in the name of your children. That’s all.”
“She wants her hands on it.”
“You can work this out Gary. It’s not that hard.”
“It’s not that easy.”
He turned away from me, staring at the perfectly still picture of the river through the window until a crow entered the frame and found a perch on a fence post.
I waved my hand at what surrounded us. “Why aren’t you happier?”
The pretense of a smile was gone. He said, “I’m not stupid. I knew she’d want more in the end. That’s another thing about women, isn’t it. That’s the way they all are. Zoe’s been that way all her life. That’s why I set the divorce agreement up the way I did. I accepted that from the beginning. She got more than her share. I can’t help it if she lost her job. She should have seen that coming. I even warned her about that. And now the royalties aren’t what they used to be anyway. I told her: sell that damn house. It’s in her name. She doesn’t need to live in Newton. But she wants to be close to her friends. So there she is. And she can’t afford it. And she can’t sell it now the way she could have when the market was hotter. And she wants more from me.”
I made no attempt to deal with all that. I just listened.
He was angry again, the same way he had sounded on the phone. With every word he leaned closer. “Well, I’ll spend every last dollar I got from my parents for the best fuckin’ lawyer in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts if I have to and she won’t get a damn penny more out of it. She won’t get a dime. But I’ll have this.” He waved at the house around us. “This is in a trust. I’ll eat my own tomatoes and cook on a wood stove if I have to. And if she comes for this I’ll kill whoever she sends to take it. I’ll die here. You can tell her that.”
The pacifist I had once known had spoken.
I said, “I’ll tell her. But can I have another piece of bread first? I don’t know Milly, but I’m in love with her bread.”
He sat back. He smiled again, “Yeah. We have plenty of bread.”
I had hung my coat over the back of the chair and I pulled the manila envelope with Zoe’s court papers from the pocket and put it out on the table. When he came back with the cutting board and the rest of the loaf, he picked the envelope up without opening it and held it in one hand silently like a piece of evidence before dropping it to the table again.
He said, “So John. What the hell have you been doing since your divorce? Is that Connie Mac’s name I see on your car door? You work for Connie now?”
I cut a slab of butter for the bread. He got up again and grabbed a bottle of honey off a shelf and set it in front of me, before cutting another piece for himself.
I said, “Sort of. It’s his company. I took a partnership you might say. I’m just another security guard, really. For now. Mostly I get to sit at small desks in badly designed lobbies and ask people for their identification.”
He poured more coffee in my cup.
“Great! What a waste. John. What a fuckin’ waste! You were going to write great novels. Remember. What happened to your New Hampshire school teacher? Ely Morgan wasn’t it? What happened to Ely? You leave him in that damned Civil War cornfield?”
This surprised me. “You remember Ely?”
“Yeah. I liked Ely. I told you, all he needed—“
“Yeah. I remember. James Crockett said the same thing. Maybe you’re both right. I just wanted him to be a bit truer than that. That’s all. Why does every novel have to have a romance. What about Huckleberry Finn? Moby Dick?”
He shrugged, “Would either of those get published today? We’re in a lesser age, John. If there are enough explosions and the cars are fast enough I guess. But Mr. Chekhov would agree with Crockett. It’s all about love or it’s all about money. It’s the only way to tell the good from the bad.”
Wasn’t there a contradiction in Gary’s view of life? Or was it just the old Irish conundrum of Mr. Yeats: love was the matter, whether the woman was a muse, a succubus, or a wife. Chekhov never dared such questions unless he already had the answer. Like a good mathematician.
I once took a writing class. I lasted three or four sessions. Less than a month. I caught on to the instructor’s game and it made the whole exercise impossible. The son-of-a-bitch was a Chekhov geek. He knew nothing himself. Everything he said was a rip-off of the old Russian. I didn’t need to be paying $50 a week for that. I’d already read my share of Mr. Chekhov by then, courtesy of Gary Apple.
There are some days I think Chekhov is the greatest writer not named Shakespeare, and other days I believe he got what he deserved—a secondary part in a science fiction fantasy.
As it is, I debated a good bit of that over again on the ride back from New Hampshire. I wasn’t thinking about Izaak Andrews anymore. I was thinking about giving my sad Ely a wife after all. Someday. Maybe even next summer. But only after I’d figured out what happened to poor Mary Andrews four score and seven years before. Then I would try re-writing my Civil War novel. At least I could give my Ely somebody he’d left behind who might offer him a sense of direction. Especially if it was true north.