Friday, September 01, 2006

Final Resting Places

If Fonzie hadn’t done his business on me, I’d still be living at the Kraus, conversing with grateful widows each afternoon and whittling away the nights with brewskis and weed. Anne and I would have continued our infrequent but pleasurable trysts, and I would have continued to amuse the residents and made myself useful. Days would pass with blissful regularity until I collected my inheritance and moved to Milwaukee.

But that stupid cocker spaniel couldn’t control his hormones, and my reputation was sullied. What kind of young man tries that with a dog? the residents whispered. A dog! I was a pervert, a sex fiend. Of course they would say that. The residents loved to talk. Gossip was their sustenance.

I can’t be accused of asking for it. On a sullen summer day as I walked the halls in boxers, Fonzie ran out of Wayne Chao’s room and attached himself to my bare left leg, shaking like a paint mixer. “What are you doing?” yelled Mr. Chao, who had shuffled outside. Fonzie had done this to a couple of nurses, though Mr. Chao had denied it.

“Nothing, Mr. Chao. Your dog just came on me.”

“You’ll regret that,” Wayne Chao snarled, as if the mutt was his Harvard-educated daughter and I’d planned the whole thing. Fonzie oozed down my shin and I hopped on one leg to a bathroom. Mr. Chao told anyone who’d listen that I’d spoilt his beloved, and he filed a complaint to Shelia, who ran the place.

Shelia is smart, probably too much for her own good. Her creative managerial efforts resulted in a Medicare investigation and two citations from state health inspectors. As the Kraus’s population dwindled, Shelia tried a new approach, reminding prospective customers and their families that the Kraus wasn’t “a nursing home. It’s an assisted-living community.”

Shelia renamed the place Phoenix Haven, but everyone still called it the Kraus, as in The Oberon R. Kraus Memorial Nursing Home. The late Mayor Kraus had governed Spottsville in the 1940s and was known for his generosity, kindness, and his secret wife and second set of children in Green Bay. The residents remembered Mayor Kraus and the songs and movies of their youth, though they forgot their room numbers and the names of the caretakers who bathed them. At the Tuesday Night Talent Show, right before Adolph Beerman was supposed to sing “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” Hiram Schmidt stood up, spread his gooseflesh arms like a possessed Lutheran minister, and cried, “Shelia, baby, I can’t cut the mustard, but I can still lick the jar.”

Shelia said nothing, but Adolph yelled back, “You lowdown son-of-a-bitch, I’m the star here.”

“I just want what’s coming to me,” Hiram whimpered. Like Mayor Kraus, the man had spent most of his 88 years trying to spread his genes across Wisconsin. He was slave to his habits.

I, too, was slave to my habits and sins: lust, sloth, and dealing weed, none of which were amenable to living in a nursing home. I had entered the Kraus after Mom threatened to leave the place. “I have to live with you in the house, that’s what the lawyer says,” she said.

“Screw that, we’re selling the house and I’m moving in with you,” I replied. Shelia procured a room in a deserted hallway laced with cobwebs and rivulets of mold.

There had been no opposition to my admission into the Kraus — I paid extra, they needed the money, and the codgers enjoyed my company. But everyone gossiped about my credentials. I carried ample weight among the emaciated; my shaggy brunette mane flopped beside gray hair and cue-ball pates; I towered above bodies humpbacked over walkers and flat on gurneys. Some said that I squandered my inheritance in my travels, which could not be true, but Mom heard the rumors and was not pleased.

So Doug became Oberon R. Kraus’s obedient son. I volunteered at events, helped serve dinner, and occasionally slept with Anne, a svelte nurse with eyes shaped like tadpoles who was married to her high-school sweetheart, the manager of Spottsville Tire Warehouse. I disinfected Mr. Hiberthal’s room and helped the paramedics lift his body off the floor. I stood sentry over bridge games, which were full of sharp bidding and wit, and I intercepted Mrs. Gammons every afternoon at 1:45 as she went to Shelia’s office to complain about the noisy neighbors. Once, I separated two ancient but determined men when they came to blows over a woman dead 28 years, then held them at bay until they forgot why they had fought. I talked to residents when they were lonely and bitter, and heard how much they hated the Kraus and the children who had put them there.

But my good deeds carried no truck with Shelia. Her office reeked of used furniture and plastic ferns. Shelia was playing with her wedding ring as if she still hadn’t grown accustomed to it.

“You’re sick, hitting an old man’s dog,” she said. A few residents were huddling outside, ears pressed to the window. Shelia waved them away.

“That retarded mutt came on my leg. Jesus H. Christ, I didn’t even hit the dog.”

“Doug, Doug. Cut the drama. Mr. Chao is old and sick. I mean, in the old days…” Shelia looked upward, eyes glazing over into a reverie of overflow bingo nights and waiting lists, of rejecting Chinese widows with unneutered dogs and piloting full bus shuttles to the Station Mall. Shelia often lost herself in the past when considering the present, a habit she picked up from the residents.

“Perhaps you should consider moving back to your house,” she said after a long pause. “I’ve talked about it with the directors.”

“I’ll be good,” I said. Shelia’s mouth bunched up like a bottle cap. We both knew how badly the Kraus needed the money.

The thing is, I liked Wayne Chao. I enjoyed hearing how his parents ended up in Spottsville instead of New York, about his wearing a “No, I Am Not” button during World War Two, how he took over the family grocery store (now closed) though he wanted to attend college. His daughter Sarah was a doctor in Boston, his son had gone to West Point. My father had taught the Chao kids in high school. He called them “smart as hell slant eyes.” (Dad apparently did not talk to strangers about me and Betsy.)

Sarah Chao and I were about the same age. She was a beauty who nobody dated in high school, fearful of the social repercussions. Sarah visited the Kraus every few months, trying to get her father to move to Boston. “She tells me that you were no dum-dum,” Wayne said, following one of Sarah’s visits. “Doesn’t know why you’re living in this place.”

“Maybe it was all that pot I smoked in college,” I said, watching Fonzie as he threw himself against his cage.

I left Shelia’s office and drove to a hill overlooking the old family farm. Holsteins grazed upon verdant undulations, milk-and-coal splotches covering their hides, warmed by sunlight as sweet and thick as cream. Far in the distance, a fungi-encrusted barn veered towards collapse; vermin had invaded and secured the grain silo.

Unlike Wayne Chao’s parents, who left Guangdong Province, my father never moved. He graduated with an associate’s degree from the community college, and remained on the farm until he got a job at Spottsville High teaching current events and coaching J.V. football. After Grandpa died, Dad and Aunt Marian sold the farm during the oil crisis for a sheik’s ransom. Often, I wondered what it would have been like to work the farm. I would rise at dawn, milk those cows in the distance, earn my keep with honest toil, and come home to a grateful wife who had cooked dinner, my kids running up to hug me. I might have been happy, content.

Doubt it, though.


Morris Stankiewicz, who I had known from high school metal shop, came to my room one night with “Nasty Nurses #27,” beer, and some pot I’d sold him.

“Man, I want to see some boning,” Morris said, sipping on a Schlitz, tapping his foot to a soundtrack that echoed wah-wah-wah-de-wah in the night. Morris worked at the brake factory, but they’d been cutting shifts and was scheduled to move the rest of its production to Vietnam within a year.

In high school Morris got stoned a lot and played air guitar, and he kept on strumming through adulthood. He’d play Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” on his stereo and yell, “Move over, Rover, and let MORRIS take over!” and think this was the coolest thing in the world.

Morris’s family had owned 600 acres until their loans were called in. He was one of the few people I had known from high school who hadn’t moved to Milwaukee or Minneapolis, or who wasn’t a crystal meth freak.

A buxom candy striper was about to fulfill Morris’s wishes when my door crept open. Droopy blue eyes glowed in the shadows. As I approached, the eyes receded—a woman jogged away, hands flapping at her wrists, unhinged in their daintiness. “Ohhh, ohhh!” she said, as if I were pursuing her.

“Who was that?” Morris asked.

“Some old lady wandering the halls,” I said, though I knew better.

“How do you get any, with all these old farts around?” Morris’s stare never left the screen.

Ida Kavenaugh entered the rec room the next day as I was stacking up exercise mats. She interested me because she had lived in New York. (Dad never took us on vacations, except for skiing in the Upper Peninsula and waterskiing in Wisconsin Dells.)

Ida had suffered several facelifts before her third husband died, a business fraud who left her without progeny but with a mountain of debt. She had subsequently decamped to the nursing home, in which her 81-year-old mother resided, though Ida was just 62 and full of bile.

Ida’s taut face and sordid past were the talk of the Kraus. Supposedly, she separated old men from their wallets with the promise of sex. There might have been some foundation to the rumors. Anne told me that Mrs. Kavenaugh was on blood pressure medication that made her hyperactive, nosy, and horny. Which I had already gathered: on several occasions, Ida Kavenaugh had approached me to talk, winking and grinning.

Shiny pink polish lacquered Ida’s speared fingernails, one of which she waved in my face. “Look, mister, I’m on to you. I may be older, but my eyes and ears work just peachy.”

“Yes, Mrs. Kavenaugh.”

“You have all those funny friends in there, watching those filthy movies and smoking that marijuana.” Her voice , low-pitched and with a lazy articulation that extended words in an un-Wisconsin-like fashion, sounded like it had been piped in from a phone sex line.

“I love movies, by the way,” she said. “Have you ever seen ‘Harold and Maude’?”

“Yes, Mrs. Kavenaugh. Ruth Gordon. Bud Cort.”

“Well, it’s a wonderful movie, you can learn a lot from it. And I’ll be watching you, buster.” It looked like fishhooks were pulling her lips backward. That was her way of smiling.

Mother and I ate dinner that evening in the cafeteria, at a Formica table with patterns of twinkling stars and bunny-tailed comets. Mrs. Karl banged a fist on her table, and protested loudly that the food was too dry, a complaint she lodged often to the chorus of boos. I held up a spoon of liquid peas to Mom’s mouth, but she turned away.

“Douglas, we should move back to the house,” she said, as always.

“We sold it, remember? This is our home.”

“If Anita Hansen wasn’t stealing my money…” Anita Hansen, the assistant to the executor of my father’s estate, was an able custodian of our money and did not trust me, since she suspected (correctly) that I dealt weed to her teenage son.

“Douglas, I remember something,” Mom said, a sudden crispness in her consonants. “We were living on Washington Street, near those ball fields.”

“Yes, our old house.”

“You used to talk about being a lawyer. You wanted to move, like Betsy. Why didn’t you?”

After receiving a B.A. from a little-known satellite of our esteemed state university, I moved to Milwaukee (over Father’s objections) with a couple of buddies. I had a few girlfriends and a stretch of screw-around jobs in the restaurant trade.

“Mom, you’re full of shit.”

“Don’t talk like that.”

“But it’s true, I was in Milwaukee, remember?”

Next to us, a woman lunged forward in her walker and rammed into a tray rack, sending plates of meals flying. Fonzie charged into the cafeteria – I shuddered — and attacked the food on the floor, slurping down chunks of Salisbury steak and puddles of starchy brown gravy. Wayne Chao came over to retrieve Fonzie, but he stopped at our table, leaning on a mahogany cane with one hand, brandishing an arthritic fist with the other.

“Watch out — the Chinaman knows karate!” Adolph Beerman yelled.

“You should move away,” Wayne said. “You’re a bad person.”

“Uh, I don’t think so, Mr. Chao,” I said, trying to sound smug. But Wayne Chao’s feebleness saddened me. I felt like a banker repossessing a farm.


If you don’t have a stupid fear, my father would say, you’re not human. Mine is fear of Home Depot. It’s because of the toilets, which sit atop a 25-foot high display angled toward the ground. One day, the steel pins anchoring the toilets will fail, fusillades of ceramic will crash down, and I will be crushed like a Gestapo boot on a stick of butter. Morris can spend hours strolling through Home Depot, inspecting hand sanders like they were objects d’art. He doesn’t worry about the toilets. (Perhaps I worry because someone like Morris affixed them.)

This phobia will be played out in old age: all objects above eye level are potentially fatal. Trees, clouds, overhead light fixtures. My as-yet-to-be-conceived children holding their hands above me in frustration as I slump in a wheelchair. You don’t change, you become more of what you already are. I saw this at the Kraus. Every resident suffered the fears and angst of earlier days, magnified to the degree that made DNA look like a spiral staircase you could climb to the attic.

As a result, the residents gleaned much comfort from the surroundings, as it embodied their better days. The Kraus is probably like most nursing homes built in the 1950s. Driveways lined with loblolly pine, a flat roof of cream gravel. Cinderblock walls painted a soft-serve vanilla and terrazzo tiles glued to the floor.

It was not as nice as our old house, not even as nice as the crummy Milwaukee apartments I inhabited at the tender age of 24, right before Dad died. I didn’t move into the Kraus of my own choice. Dad left me $229,457, but only if I moved to Spottsville and cared for Mom. (There was no such condition for Betsy, who only got half that amount, because she already lived in Cleveland with my sanctimonious brother-in-law and bratty nephews.) The will requires that I live with my mother, and Anita Hansen made some unpleasant remarks when I first moved Mom into the Kraus and put the house up for sale.

I hadn’t planned to stay long after Dad died, just long enough to help Mom settle in. Screw the money. Mom would leave me something. I wasn’t going to live in Spottsville again. Screw the moneyI meant it, I really did, with all the ignorant bravado of youth.

But after a couple of months, I had settled into a leisurely routine of partying late and sleeping in, which proved more agreeable than waiting tables, temping at law firms or postponing grad school. I drank in Spottsville’s stunted ambition; I was infused with the corn-cob aesthetic of cod fish boils and Packers season tickets. There were $2.75 pitchers at O’Houlihan’s and just enough willing ladies to satisfy my carnal desires. (After a few girls demanded a relationship, I only slept with married women.) I sold weed and worked part-time at the local Deere dealership, living with Mom at home, awaiting my inheritance.

And then I was three times 12 years old, living in the Kraus. I didn’t screw the money, the money screwed me.

“You’re a monster,” my brother-in-law said when I announced my plans to move into the nursing home with Mom.

But he’d grown up Shaker Heights, and did not appreciate the creaky stupefaction promised with each dawn, the calmness one associates with youth that I felt infused in me, for the first time, in my 30s.

Dad ensured our family did not enjoy such pleasant dullness. My father wasn’t a raging alcoholic, simply a manipulative one. “Betsy — I can’t believe she’s my daughter,” he drunkenly told me, after she had left for college. “My own daughter, a slut. You know what that was like, trying to teach, hearing that all around me?” Dad said I should stay in Spottsville, that he was proud of me.

A few weeks later, he called Betsy to complain that I was using drugs and stealing, Mom was threatening suicide, and he needed her at home. She didn’t take the bait.

For his current events classes, Dad ordered travel brochures and posters. He’d cut out pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Fuji and the Doge’s Palace, and paste them to swaths of lime-green cardboard. “Those poor kids aren’t going to ever see the world,” he’d say.

After my father retired, he took up bourbon and television full time. He was an avid viewer of “The People’s Court,” as it irritated the crap out of him. The world was full of real injustice: why do these busybodies sue each other over vandalized porch doors and dog bites? “Jesus H. Christ,” he’d say, throwing his hands high in the air. “Everybody suffers in the end.”

He wore his resentment in earth tones against his splotchy skin, his face aged like tobacco, voice croaking of Johnny Walker Red. “I got to admit, you were smart, getting out of here and going to Milwaukee,” he said a few months before his liver gave out. “I’d wish I’d been that smart. I guess you’re different.” He knew better.

Ida Kavenaugh entered my room without knocking and turned on the light. “Hello, sailor,” she said, looking at her feet, encased in furry pink slippers. “I couldn’t sleep. Are you up, Doug? You haven’t been smoking any marijuana, are you?”

“Uh, no, Mrs. Kavenaugh.” I had been partying with Morris earlier, and it felt like cotton was being pulled between my ears.

“Call me Ida,” she said. “That really isn’t right, smoking that stuff. It’s naughty.”

Ida took small steps towards me, her pale knees peeking through the slit of a silk bathrobe. She pulled a metal chair beneath her, next to the bed. Her unlined face was bright with rouge and lipstick and baby blue eye shadow; chopsticks pinned up her gray-blonde locks, which were dusted with glitter. She looked like an aging hooker about to give a dying man his last wish. “Tell me, baby, are you naughty?”

“What time is it, Mrs. Kavenaugh?”

“Oh, dear, I shouldn’t have come in so late,” she said.

“I’m really tired. Is there something you want to talk about?”

“Tell me, why do you live here? You’re young and handsome. What does your girlfriend think?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Can I come in bed with you? I’m cold.”

“Mrs. Kavenaugh—”

“Oh, Doug, I just have to say it. You’re a beautiful man! I haven’t been with a man in months, sweetie, and I just thought…”

She ran her hand along my leg. “You’re lonely, too.”

“I am?”

“You are, I can tell. Oh, Doug, I might be older than you, but I still have needs. I used to have a beautiful body, before my reduction — 36-24-36. Let me tell you, everybody wanted a piece of me, fella.”

“I’ll bet,” I said. “It’s late, Mrs. Kavenaugh.”

“I’m not Mrs. Kavenaugh anymore,” she said, her hand climbing up my thigh.

“We should stop. I’m not ready for this. We barely know each other.”

She cast what was supposed to be a seductive glance. Her face was pulled tight like a trampoline skin, showing wide-eyed dismay rather than animal lust. “I don’t want to stop, and you don’t want me to stop, do you?”

Honestly, I wanted her to stop. I’d seen Anne a few days earlier. There were enough of needy young women in Spottsville. There was nothing erotic in Mrs. Kavenaugh’s sagging flesh and pathetic attempts to stay young. I didn’t want Ida Kavenaugh in my bed, in my room.

But I didn’t order her out, either. Ida’s seductive pose was agony made flesh — she had followed the rules of the game, she’d escaped Spottsville with her looks and guile and nights like these with wealthy men. And now Ida was back in Spottsville, a refugee from the big city and her dreams. She’d failed. I’d seen that look in my father when he spoke of Grandpa. I’d seen that look in me.

I closed my eyes. “Don’t stop,” I said.


Shelia and Pete Hammonds were standing in my room, Shelia looking worried, Pete looking angry. Pete hated me for having taken Karen Schultz to senior prom, when everybody knew he was in love with her.

“This is ridiculous,” Shelia said. “Ida Kavenaugh is a crazy old bat and her meds make her wacky. She can’t even remember what she did last night, never mind a month ago. She was never even in here.”

“Actually, she did stop by,” I said, feeling as if I harbored no guilt.

“Well, that changes things,” Pete said, pulling out his handcuffs. “You’ll have to come with me.”

“Oh, come on, Pete,” I said.

“We can do it my way or the hard way. And it’s Officer Hammonds to you, asshole.”

“You’re still pissed I took Karen to prom.”

“Never crossed my mind,” he said, putting my wrists in a vise.

“Damnit, at least use the back door!” Shelia said.

But Officer Hammonds wanted revenge for a dance half our lives ago, and I made my perp walk before a horde of onlookers. In the lobby, Ida was waiting, black liner hollowing out her eyes. “That’s him! That’s the pervert! He tried to force himself on me! He tried to rape a dog!”

Ida’s timing was not accidental: it was the Kraus’s monthly open house, walls festooned with maize and red bunting, children and grandchildren wheeling around their elders, all staring at the hippie-haired, goateed man wearing a Wisconsin Badgers T-shirt and collapsed smile.

After I was released the next day, Pete Hammonds came to the Kraus and apologized, saying Ida Kavenaugh’s allegations had no basis in fact, and that there was no reason to worry about the safety of the residents. But it was too late. Nobody could leave their parents in a nursing home that had admitted a sex fiend and animal rapist, even though most knew I was innocent, even though I had been evicted. The Kraus closed eight months later.

Mother has an apartment with a nurse, and I live in the same complex, which keeps Anita Hansen happy. My life is still simple and carefree. Pete Hammonds felt so bad about what happened that we sometimes hang out, smoking the weed that I sold to teenagers and he subsequently seized on my information.

The weird thing is that I miss the Kraus. I dream of the putrid food, the pruned faces and wrecked bodies, the endless complaining and the memory loss, the constant smell of ammonia and probable death.

After I slept with Ida Kavenaugh, I thought what my Dad would have done. He would have pushed Ida aside, opened another bottle, and flicked on the television. That was the difference – I had been planting the seed of life, Dad would have drowned it in liquor.

I was haunted with the lost promise of what might of been. Because sleeping with Ida Kavenaugh meant more than a respite from Spottsville’s quotidian routine. With Ida, I would have developed some fortitude, my desire to leave would be rekindled, and we would have escaped. Like we were living a Bruce Springsteen song. She was dying to leave for more urbane surroundings; I had to leave Spottsville or resign myself to gratifying, abject rot. We would leave behind Home Depot and Morris Stankiewicz’s porn and the Kraus’s Tuesday night Bean Taco Fiesta. Ida was my kindred soul, stuck in a cesspool of busted hopes and dying souls. That’s what I thought, at least after she readjusted my groin. You and me, Ida, we were born to run.

I plied her with promises of marijuana, escape, and money, my father’s inheritance to come. This impressed her none. Ida had heard similar entreaties when she was 19 and skipped college to marry; she had heard the same when she was 20 and working as a waitress and a rich stranger offered her shelter in the Big Apple, whereupon she abandoned her husband of a year; she had heard this when she was 46 and given a final shot with a man who became her third husband, who said he owned several car dealerships and a fiberglass fabricating plant in upstate New York. I’ll take care of you babe, just let me take care of you.

Ida wanted to have sex when she was the pursuer, and took my subsequent desire as stalking. “You stay away from me, mister,” she said one night while I stood inside her doorway. “I’ve heard all that ‘Let’s run away, I’m rich’ malarkey before. We had our fun, but that was that. I’m not leaving this place and neither are you.” I learned later from Anne that Ida went off her blood pressure medication immediately after our rendezvous. She called the Spottsville police soon thereafter.

I spend many hours thinking about my isolation, the lack of career opportunities in Spottsville, the friends still in Milwaukee, now with families — the compost my dreams became. It’s then that I mourn what happened with Ida. But not because she held the promise of a fuller life elsewhere, not because she was my last best chance to leave. Even if we had stayed in the nursing home forever, I wanted to be Ida Kavenaugh’s young stud. I know, I know: this would have been equivalent to my Dad’s boozy retreat into oblivion, but it would have been for the greater good.

As Ida’s lover, I would have educated myself; I would have read the Kama Sutra and gotten into shape and learned how to please her; I would been made whole, given purpose, caressing her taut face and reduced breasts, tending to her needs while we made sweet love each night in a darkened wing of the Oberon R. Kraus Memorial Nursing Home. No one would have ever known, and it would have brought a little happiness to a bitter world before we reached our final resting places.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Last Dance

She doesn’t talk much after the fact, and Avi finds this attractive. He isn’t used to quiet ones, not that he’s been with many women — Roz, Chrissy, Sharon, and Melissa. That’s it, a lousy four. Roz doesn’t even count because chest hair grossed her out, and they’d only done it twice. Chrissy really doesn’t count, either, because all they’d done was have sex. He couldn’t really call that a relationship.

Avi draws Sonia close, and she nestles atop the forest of Avi’s chest. Sonia’s silence puzzles Avi; it is unlike their extended phone conversations or their initial meeting earlier that day, when they discussed the wreckage of Avi’s life at length, between bites of French toast and turkey bacon.

Melissa, who he’d married, had a similar build to Sonia, full breasts and wide hips. Trundles of black hair cascade from Sonia’s shoulders. She has quiet eyes, a strong chin, but small a nose, just like his wife. When he first saw Sonia’s picture, he feared it a hoax. The similarities to Melissa are quite remarkable, though Avi doubts if Sonia’s somewhat petite proboscis resulted from the wonder knife of Dr. Elwood Kaufman.

Conversely, Sonia is intense and mute during sex and its aftermath. No dirty talk, which Avi likes, but no yakking about floral arrangements, either. If he doesn’t count Internet porn, Avi hasn’t had sex since before his wedding, 15 months and 19 days ago. He’s gotten in the habit of counting such things.

Avi starts to say something about going to work the next day, but Sonia gently puts a hand on his mouth. She’s really taking this silence thing seriously, Avi thinks, but this observation takes him back to that awful night. Don’t be late, Tony. Avi sighs, he can’t help thinking about it. Don’t be late, Tony. The only people who might know what it means — if it means anything at all — are Melissa’s friends, but they profess ignorance. Don’t be late, Tony. Avi does not know its hidden message, its secret code, and he will never find out.

What Melissa said has inhabited his sleep and haunted his waking hours. Avi needs to drive those words out of his head, and he’s found the means to do it: sleep with Melissa’s physical twin and temperamental opposite.

It was a newspaper photo that delivered Sonia to Avi, and as he contemplates the odds that he would be here, naked with a woman other than his wife, 16 months after his wedding because of a picture in the paper, he is immediately consumed with the idea that it was meant to be. He feels stupid — and feminine — for such ideas. Avi had spoken with Sonia for months before meeting her, and he realizes that their long conversations and letters led, naturally, to Cupid’s deadly aim. Avi is falling in love. He believes it’s his right, or his obligation.

* * *

On a chilly Sunday morning, Melissa’s mother sees Avi and a stranger emerge from Kappy’s Bar & Grille. She ducks behind an Oldsmobile, recalling Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. Being that Melissa’s mother is silver-haired and has stuffed herself into a blue-and-white floral dress two sizes too small, nobody will mistake her for Sam Spade. But Audrey is light on her feet, and escapes detection. The couple – Audrey cannot believe they have the nerve to hold hands in public – gets into Avi’s car. They must have just left brunch after a night of wild, illegitimate sex! Melissa’s mother balls her fists so tightly that small half-moons rise where the nails dig into her fleshy palms.

Audrey has been betrayed, for herself, for Melissa. She’ll tell anyone who will listen that her son-in-law has cheated on her daughter. She is fully cognizant that Avi needs to move on and have a life, but of all the outrages inflicted upon her, this is the worst yet. She knows it isn’t right to feel such rage against Avi. She knows that Avi can’t be blamed for what happened. It was Saul who let Melissa down, after all. But it’s simpler for Audrey to blame someone who doesn’t live with her.

Her life has become an endurance race. Since the wedding, Melissa’s mother has packed on 40 pounds, stopped her power walks, won’t read her crime novels, and hasn’t watched a minute of Law & Order. Audrey barely speaks to Saul after how he’d acted, and the only reason she doesn’t leave is that she has nowhere else to go. Their only shared emotion involves the lawsuit against the photographer and the newspaper, which was filed for the double indignity of having Melissa’s photo taken and then enshrined in print.

Audrey sees the woman in Avi’s car as they drive away. The woman looks suspiciously like Melissa, with the hair and the nose and the figure, even. Audrey doesn’t know whether this is Avi’s way of being loyal or an elaborate form of torture. It doesn’t matter. Her glimpse of the strange woman lasts but a second, but it’s enough to start Melissa’s mother bawling.

* * *

Sonia is meeting Avi near where she’s staying, just outside the Chicago city limits. Sonia’s host – her freshman roommate from Northwestern, who she’d trust with her life — will be monitoring things from the bar. Sonia is ambivalent about meeting Avi, and she is usually not cautious. He’d initially called her out of the blue, just to say he appreciated her letter in the newspaper. Sonia felt as if she’d been stalked. She is usually the stalker.

But there was something in the stranger’s voice, a slight hesitation that she knew belonged to a tortured soul. They talked on the phone for hours, then exchanged e-mail and pictures, and now they’re meeting at Kappy’s.

Sonia wears a simple black sweater, blue jeans, and beige lipstick. She wants to look attractive but not glamorous; receptive but not desperate. She considers playing hard to get, though Sonia is aware that she’s constitutionally incapable of playing hard to get.

Sonia remembers seeing the photograph. The woman looked helpless, innocent, so much like her. And Jewish, too. Sonia had never written to a newspaper, nor had she posted to a blog, called talk radio, or otherwise broadcast her opinion. Her letter to the editor made Sonia feel connected to a broader world that she’d never been interested in engaging.

Still, Sonia’s interests ultimately reside in the crucible of her heart, and she turns her thoughts to Avi. In his pictures, he has hollow eyes that could belong to a French poet, a crooked nose, and a brown goatee that could use some trimming. Sonia knows that other women probably wouldn’t find him handsome, but to her Avi is striking, and his nose is a badge of character. Avi doesn’t read poetry, but he’s at least literate, even if he’s a consultant. (Or something. She wasn’t listening when he talked about his job.) You can’t fall in love with a picture and a voice; still, Sonia feels the familiar, inexorable pull. Sonia just doesn’t want to love Avi. She has to rescue him. The randomness of their meeting frightens her.

Then Sonia hears a voice, much richer and wrecked than over the telephone, a voice she instinctively can tell is wrapped in anguish.

Waiting for somebody, pretty lady?

Sonia turns. Avi is taller and huskier than she’d imagined. But his eyes are as dark and sensual as in his picture, and looking into them, a diorama of a future together splashes upon Sonia’s brain. In Chicago, where Avi lives. She waves her host away. Sonia is going to be fine. She only wishes she’d worn something sexier.

* * *

The letters are a variation upon a theme: Tasteless. Disgusting. Cancel my subscription. How could you run such a picture? Have you no dignity?

Avi hears about the responses to the picture, and has the paper sent him, a few months later. He underlines phrases that strike him, then ponders what they mean. Sonia Finebaum’s words have particular resonance. Perhaps your intention was to be humorous, but it simply exploited others’ pain, and furthermore is the type of “journalism” that is covertly anti-Semitic. And to have a headline like “The Last Dance” is simply unconscionable. As a young Jew, I had hoped that this type of bigotry had disappeared when my father was in his 20s.

This strikes Avi as indicative of his own muddled thoughts on the matter. He looks up Sonia Finebaum’s phone number — she’s a couple of hours outside of town — and calls, but hangs up before she answers. Avi knows what’s going on, and that he shouldn’t be doing it. She may be ugly or unpleasant or overweight, not that Avi doesn’t mind a few extra pounds on the ladies. He hasn’t seen family and friends in weeks, and crank calling isn’t the best strategy to break out of his isolation.

Among other things, Avi remembers the subject of these letters as a harridan of sorts, someone who pushed him into marriage, and it is comforting to grasp this distorted memory. His wife was loyal, funny, beautiful, voluptuous, and smart, but for now, Avi would rather remember the things that grate upon him. It’s better that way.

The newspaper is the only place where Avi has seen the photograph, and if it opens up fresh wounds for him, for Melissa’s parents, it’s like being roasted alive. Now, at least, they can sue the newspaper, since the litigation with the photography studio is going nowhere.

Avi never felt comfortable around Melissa’s family, with her noisy mother and distrustful father. The anger that still courses through Avi about Melissa would horrify them. But they don’t know what Melissa really said at the end.

He’s emptied his pain on his brother, parents, friends, and a therapist, but nothing has relieved him of that night, and Melissa’s final, perplexing words. So he decides to spill his soul to Sonia Finebaum as well, in a letter. Before he can mail the six-page, single-spaced treatise on the meaning of life, Avi spills coffee upon it. Immediately, he calls Sonia, and this time he does not hang up.

* * *

The editor-in-chief is a mean, violent son-of-a-bitch drunk who clocks reporters with glass ashtrays and once tossed a dead mouse at the restaurant critic after a review pissed off an advertiser. The editor-in-chief especially despises the layout getting ripped up at the last minute, especially when he’s at home drinking and has to drive back to the newsroom.

But Jerrod, four years out of J-school and in desperate need of change, doesn’t call the editor-in-chief when he ditches the page one shot of the president sticking out his tongue at the Canadian prime minister. The wedding picture will run instead, the woman’s head is tilted gently to the left, which conveys peace to Jerrod. The photographer had obviously jumped into the fray and snapped what he could; the composition is imprecise, the focus is blurry. Even a lowly assistant managing editor can ascertain this.

The provenance of the photo is in question, and Jerrod ignores the fact that the guy on the phone sounded like he had been wired on crystal meth for a week. For all Jerrod knows, the photographer did an elaborate computer alteration of a woman at rest. At least Jerrod had bargained the price down to $100. Jerrod knows that the editor-in-chief won’t care about who owns the rights to the photo, or that he had cut 95 percent off the asking price, or even that the picture will generate sacks of hate mail. All the editor-in-chief will care about was that Jerrod ripped up the layout at the last minute. This isn’t how an AME should conduct himself, but the other editor in charge that night has left early, entrusting Jerrod with duties he isn’t qualified to accept.

Jerrod hates his job, hates himself, and contemplates suicide. He had planned to stay Downstate-Sun of Herbertville, Ill., circulation 47,000, for a couple of years before greener pastures beckoned. Jerrod hasn’t been happy since he was at Medill, where he’d graduated 57 out of 129.

Jerrod announces at 11:49 that they’re going with the wedding photo, not the President. The editor-in-chief’s toady in layout calls the Man at home, but he’s passed out on eight shots of Old Grand Dad. The next day, the still-drunk editor-in-chief throws an empty bottle at Jerrod, and screams to get his shitcanned ass out of the newsroom, much to Jerrod’s relief.

* * *

It takes just a few minutes for Cevin to steal the film. She’s at work, and even he didn’t have to break in to the dump.

Before they met, Cevin had never heard about the pictures, a sort of paparazzi Holy Grail of wedding photos. Everybody thinks the film resides with her hippie-trippie parents, who live in some weird place like Freakistan, far from her employers and families and attorneys who want their grubby little hands on it. (Cevin can relate. He hates his lawyer with a passion.)

But she confided in Cevin that the film is in her Wicker Park apartment. Cevin’s relationship with this woman sits between the excitement of infatuation and the acceptance (or rejection) of the quotidian irritations that marks true love (or a breakup), which is the perfect time for making his move. They had bonded over the fact he was a photography major for a semester; they had bonded over their counter-cultural parents who gave them unusual names. “Cevin” is pronounced with a hard “c,” but strangers all call him “Seven.” She finds this wonderful, as many call her “Kyle,” inserting an “l” where there is none.

He unlocks the door and surveys the apartment. Today, he hasn’t snorted or smoked: when he’s on the job, Cevin needs to be clearheaded, aware of subtle clues. Behind a couch, her wedding portrait hangs on the wall, upside down. Her wedding-day smile is a sour rictus. Cevin knows of her bitterness and sense of irony toward weddings (despite the fact they’d met while she was shooting a Catholic wedding in the suburbs). He leans over the sofa, reaches behind the frame, and finds a roll of film taped to the back. He pulls the film off, and squeezes it in his palm; Cevin sees several months of high-grade snort embedded inside. He repeats his personal motto, which he always says aloud after hitting paydirt.

I put the confidence in Confidence Man.

He learned something during that one semester of photography, and he’ll develop the prints. The Star, Weekly World News, or, if he’s lucky, The Enquirer will pay six figures for what he’s got. He’s going to be rich, and it was a lot easier than filching her ATM card and PIN.

Of course, Cevin will sell the photo do this under the cloak of a pseudonym, demanding cash. In addition to knowing a thing or two about photography, Cevin knows he can’t afford to get busted again.

* * *

It’s inevitable that someone will fall in love with her. Khye thinks of it as an occupational hazard. She is cute, in an unthreatening, take-her-home-to-meet-Momma type of way: blonde, small-boned, small-breasted, brimming blue eyes. Men find her wholesome yet devilishly alluring. A pixie snapping pictures is irresistible.

Her suitor may be young and unattached, but he’s more likely to be married, over 50, and looking for a girl to make him feel young again. Usually in or related to the wedding party. Fathers of the bride, fathers of the groom, uncles, grandfathers. Always tanked. The old farts are transformed into quivering masses of flesh who will sacrifice their decades-long marriage to prove their virility, fueled by a few glasses of cheap pinot noir or chardonnay. In vino hornitas.

The pickup line will always concern Khye’s name. She was named for the Khyber Pass, where her parents conceived her, took war photos, reneged material goods, and dropped copious amounts of Orange Sunshine. American wedding photography and a Toyota Tercel is her filial revenge. Kyhe despises that they’re still married and she’s not.

Kyhe exits I-294 and is deposited onto something called Rand Road, a thoroughfare of mega-marts and strip malls either sparkling new or in spectacular disrepair. She’s never been in Arlington Heights. There’s an old racetrack and abandoned high school, and a Catholic church where she was supposed to have been 15 minutes ago. But Kyhe has never done a Catholic wedding where it’s not at least an hour behind schedule. It’s just another certainty.

Kyhe imagines what tonight’s suitor du jour will look like, and she wishes she hadn’t: instead, Kyhe recalls a Jewish wedding a few months ago. She has been trying to banish the memories, but the obsession can be unrelenting. The father of the bride propositioned Kyhe in a way so formal and pathetic that it still embarrasses her.

The parents wanted to hire the photographer who had worked a cousin’s wedding in Glencoe, but the bride insisted upon Khye — the wedding photos had to be real, Melissa said, not the typical shots of the blissful couple walking through Lincoln Park in wedding dress and tux and eating soft-serve vanilla in a sugar cone, pretending that they're happy about making fools of themselves in public, and Khye’s candids, infused with journalistic reportage and grainy-edged authenticity, were real.

They got real, Khye thinks, did they ever. Khye thought Melissa was smart and beautiful in a strong-featured kind of way, and took crap from nobody. The bride said she wasn’t going to stand for family portraits; the father, turning a shade of crimson familiar to Khye, grabbed the bride’s wrist and delivered an ultimatum that Khye had heard time and time again:

Young lady, I’m paying for this. If you have to have your damn photographer, she’s going to take the pictures I want.

Khye remembers the father winking at her as he spoke; she should have known it then. The groom, a morose fellow named Avi, was watching from across the room. Nobody seemed to miss him.

Khye took portraits before the ceremony as the father directed, but none were purchased, of course. The contacts (since destroyed) turned out nicely, the shots flattering the bride’s curves and not overplaying them. The light that afternoon was amber and perfect. Kyhe has a single print from the entire affair. The couple is standing before a stone wall, ivy in bloom. To the untrained eye, their smiles are as soft as warm butter, but Kyhe knows better. They’re not really smiling. She can spot a fake grin like a jeweler sniffing out paste – there’s no relaxation in the eyes, which emit a statuesque stillness. Khye has several names for it. Glassy-Eyed Joy. Love to Go. The Faces of Doom.

The bride’s body is turned starboard and the groom port, and it’s not the photographer instructing them to do so. Melissa is pulling to the future, Avi is clinging to the past; if Avi were a cartoon character, he’d run, leaving a trail of air and a yarmulke floating above where his head had been.

Khye could see that one picture and intuit that the marriage would fail. She knew it from hundreds of wedding photographs; she knew it from hers. Not that it matters now.

The lawsuit probably won’t amount to anything, but Khye worries. The family doesn’t have many demands, just for their deposit back, possession of the negatives, and the head of Khye the Atheist.

Khye turns off Rand Road, to an avenue of old crusty homes and thick maple. She likes this place more than Schaumburg or Hoffman Estates, cookie-cutter subdivisions where she often works. There is an air of decline in Arlington Heights, of worn-out homesteads, of middle-class flight. Khye finds the church; although she feels oddly vulnerable to the attention of single men, sure enough, they haven’t even started Mass.

* * *

Melissa’s father wears a black cummerbund tux, which he worked over with a lint roller with enough pressure to flatten blacktop. Saul wants to look good for the family, but more to impress the delicate flower of a photographer, who has created a firestorm of regret in his soul.

(Later, Saul realizes he should have listened to his wife, who didn’t want Khye simply because she was tiny and blonde, unlike his beloved Melissa.

Later, Saul realizes that there was no chance the photographer would return his love, but it seemed possible at the time: he could lose weight, he could get current with music and movies, he could take Viagra. He was only 68, and wasn’t 70 the new 50? And some women liked married men of his age. It seemed possible, if you chucked logic out the window, which usually happened with matters of the heart, did it not?

Later, Saul will think about the moment he approached Khye at the wedding, and his subsequent actions, then stare aimlessly at the television his wife will not join him in watching.)

Khye carries two cameras and equipment through the reception hall like he’d hauled gear at Inchon fifty years earlier. The sight makes him insane with desire. The ceremony goes off without a hitch, except for a moment when Avi dropped the ring and Melissa unleashed a snarl that seemed to shake the chuppah.

Drinks are served, people sit for dinner, and soon, he is making a toast. The father hates toasts. He doesn’t like being watched. Saul hasn’t written anything, and speaks just whatever pops into his head.

Audrey and I have dreamt of this moment. This is the happiest moment of my life. Avi is very lucky to have Melissa, and Melissa is very lucky to have him. They’re both very lucky people. Mazel tov.

The father steps off the podium, walks out of the reception hall, and sees Kyhe reloading film. This is his chance, his moment to live again, and he has prepared and rehearsed for it. But with each step towards Khye, words so diligently and lovingly prepared are erased from Saul’s brain, which has been failing him of late. Khye looks up with a stare like the breath of butterfly wings — Melissa’s father feels as if he’s going to die, like he’s 16 again and Khye is the first girl he’s ever asked out on a date. The father motions to her, and walks to a hotel conference room overlooking Lake Michigan. Skyscrapers and their glittering lights roll up the lakeshore like diamonds strung from downtown. This beauty does not inspire Saul. He swallows a vodka tonic whole. Kyhe enters, slinging her cameras to her sides, exposing her lithe figure, and the father is bequeathed with such terror and love that he can feel the earth move, on this, the day he has delivered his little girl to that same world beyond him.

Khye, well, I…you see…I was wondering…you see, well, let me say first of all that you have a beautiful name and are beautiful. I mean, you’re doing beautiful work.

Is something wrong?

No, no…well, see, but I’m not happy with…things. In my life. I thought—

Excuse me?

You’re a younger woman, I know, and I must look so old to you, but I was wondering, well, after all this was over…

Oh, sir. I’m flattered. But...

Khye looks at the floor and shakes her head in gentle parabolas. This only inflames the old man’s desire, but he can’t speak. Khye, Khye, I don’t love my wife, she’s a cow and rotten and controlling and we haven’t had sex in 18 years, not that I can’t do it. You don’t love your boyfriend, you don’t love your husband. I know you don’t, I can tell, I just can tell. You and I can be so happy. I may look old, but I still have it. I still have it.

But Khye bolts before he can speak. Saul chases her, but his sciatica rockets down his leg after a few steps, the familiar strains of klezmer music buffeting his ears. He can’t quit, not now, not that he’s gone this far. Saul got to show Khye that he’s young. He can do the things young men can do. He’ll lift her off the air, he’ll dance like a stallion.

The father grimly follows Khye back to the reception hall, his face looking the same as when he scaled a mud mountain and shot desperate fusillades at charging North Koreans.

* * *

Everyone is saying that this has to be the happiest day of his life, but there’s faint despair in Avi’s heart. At the same time his brand-new father-in-law is making a weddng proposition, Avi walks alone through hotel corridors in hopes of resolution, consumed with the idea that he has made a grievous, permanent error. The more Avi thinks about it, the more miserable he becomes, and that he must conceal his misery makes him more wretched still.

Avi loves Melissa like he loves the Cubs, Green Day, and good dental hygiene. They’ve dated three years, they’re 30, and it was time to marry or leave. Melissa has the attributes of a great wife: nice looks, nice bod, a sweet temperament, a ferocious intelligence, and she’s great in bed. Despite Melissa’s occasional turns as a control freak, Avi doesn’t know who could make a better wife – certainly not his old girlfriends. Marrying Melissa is the right thing to do. He’s just not thrilled about it.

But worse, Avi is convinced that Melissa is of like mind. She loves him, not passionately but in her own, practical way, and since they’re both of a certain age and they’d had bad experiences in the past, isn’t it time to settle down, like adults? Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do?

Avi turns a corner, descends three flights of stairs, and returns to the reception hall. He looks for his wife – unsettling how that word applies to Melissa now, she’s his wife – and Avi finds her, working the tables, talking with her Uncle Ralph and Aunt Ella from Tampa. He sits next to her, and she leans over and kisses him.

Hey, where have you been, baby? I’ve missed my husband.

There is an ease in her speech and a suppleness in her hands, which are not small, that strike Avi as sexy. Melissa looks supremely confident in her wedding dress, as if her curves were born into swaths of tulle. Avi suddenly feels protective and stupid, protective of his wife and stupid for harboring doubts about their union. Melissa smiles at him like she can’t believe her good fortune.

The fights and accusations, the wariness and distrust all disappear. If this is what love feels like, this is the most Ari has ever felt in love. Avi wants to say, This is our moment, but the words have already been given voice in their hearts.

Uncle Ralph raises his hand. They’d love to stay longer, but he needs to take Aunt Ella back to their room.

You are going to dance a hora before we leave, aren’t you, my girl?

Of course. Anything for you and Aunt Ella.

Soon, the room fills with the comforting strains of Hava Nagila, and guests flock to the dance floor. Bodies are flying, arms interlocked, concentric circles breathing in and out like membranes around two folding chairs.

Avi and Melissa sit in the chairs, and the maid of honor hands Melissa a linen. Several imposing young men who Avi barely knows descend upon his wife, lifting her. Several seconds pass before the crowd realizes that Avi is grounded. His brother, bad back and all, comes over, as does a cousin, and some friends. They surge up and Avi is thrown forward, bracing his palms atop yarmulked heads.

The newlyweds bounce like popcorn, and Melissa waves the napkin at Avi amid the squeals of the crowd and the strobe of Kyhe’s camera. Avi has never been happier.

Then Melissa’s father appears, pushing his way to the inner circle. Saul puts an hand underneath the chair, and tells someone to move aside.

I can handle it. I’m telling you, I can hold up my daughter!

Saul looks at Khye when he speaks, but she’s too busy taking pictures to notice. A young man obliges Saul and steps away, leaving but a fraction of Melissa’s weight in her father’s hands.

But the others, young men all, are not ready, and a disproportionate amount of bulk shifts to one side. Saul cannot hold up his end of the bargain, his sciatica burning, his grip failing. Melissa teeters and screams, a blast of clarinet drowning out her cries. Avi slaps the side of his chair, demanding to be let down. With the possibilities of Khye’s love slipping away, Saul pushes up as hard as he can, desperately trying to remain erect, and this ultimately decides the matter: the other men are gingerly trying to lower Melissa, the father is not, and she tumbles off backward off the chair, her white-shoed feet following her white-veiled head to the floor.

The father collapses. Avi leaps off his chair. People scream. Khye’s flash bounces through the darkened hall like old Tommy guns lighting up a garage shootout. The pictures will show a prone young woman, sporting a brief glimpse of a smile, blood oozing from her tilted head. Melissa’s brother grabs Khye and tries to take her camera, but she bites him on the hand and runs away.

Avi scrambles to his fallen wife, desperate. Her wrecked head is twitching; her eyes are distant. He leans over her. Melissa inhales and pushes out four words.

Don’t be late, Tony.

Avi grabs Melissa’s shoulders.

Tony? Who the hell is Tony?

Her eyes roll back in her sockets.

Melissa? Baby? Baby? Wake up. Wake up, goddamnit!

The following day, Melissa’s mother asks Avi what Melissa had said.

She loved me. She said she loved me.

Melissa never mentioned a Tony or Anthony in her past loves or friends or family or co-workers or piano teachers. After much thought, Avi decides not to bring up the matter of Melissa’s final words with anyone. He does this out of respect to his late wife. Avi will not suck the marrow out of cold bones.

His short term as Melissa’s husband was an honorable one. It’s not a bad thing to remember.

by Bookfraud