My wife moved in with you last month. You, a bald museum docent. Surely you know the story by now.
She comes home from the library at six or so, and I'm still running sausage through the grinder and sheathing them into the casings and twisting them at eight-inch intervals until I get the long sausage trains like in the cartoons. I have the air conditioner cranked up, even though it's almost November. Gus, our Irish Setter, I have tied up on the sidewalk, and he's staring at me through the window. I'm just churning out the sausages, hanging lengths from cupboard doors and the refrigerator handle and the backs of chairs. It's a one-bedroom apartment, so there's sausage everywhere, even in our bedroom, even hanging from the curtain rod in the bathroom. Everything smells like fresh sausage. I have to do this from home since I let my lease on the shop over in Turtle Bay lapse last month.
Well, this part you've probably heard about already, but here's how it actually happened. Karen walks in with Gus, and they both see these sausages hanging on everything. She can't even turn on the living room lamp without brushing up against a knackwurst. And Gus starts bucking around, trying to get at anything he can, and his hair is wafting about the whole apartment.
"Marty," Karen says, "get your sausages out of our bedroom right now!"
And I tell her it can't be helped but that I will soon. It's a couple grand worth of sausage hanging around here, and I'll have it in cold storage by morning. But right now she needs to get the dog out or he'll have a seizure from too much excitement.
"I'm not sleeping here with this smell tonight," she says. "Get the sausage out!"
"Karen," I say while I crank on the grinder, "This is my job. I have to. You know that." Gus is still flailing around, and Karen has to hold his leash up high, above her head, to keep him from getting at all that meat.
She stares at me for a long time. Just stares, this mean, ugly stare that says Marty, I want to pound your face into ground mutton. I've never seen this from her before, and didn't know she was capable of it. She's a librarian, but you know that.
I just keep on grinding out the sausage links, casing them up, twisting, and hanging. I have thirty pounds left, and I'm not wasting it. It's my job. You have a job, so you understand, I'm sure. I wouldn't tell you to stop docenting little kids at the museum. I wouldn't tell her to stop shelving her books.
So she leaves. She puts Gus in my station wagon, and she leaves. In the morning, I find a note taped to the mailbox, detailing the atrocities I've inflicted upon her for the past six years: how I always smelled like I'd just rolled around in a bucket of intestines; how we were probably the only people in New York who consistently had pepperoni logs stacked on the nightstand; how I was in our bathroom one time, brushing my teeth while her cousin was showering, and I tripped and fell into the curtain and ripped it off the hook and then had to break my fall, and one of my hands ended up grazing her nipple on the way down. There are others, but you get the idea. She hasn't been happy for years, our Karen. Apparently I'm like a contagion, and she should have quarantined herself a long time ago. She feels infected by me. And did I realize we haven't even made love for over a year? It's as if we just forgot to have kids. Mostly, we're just a bad fit, always have been. Square peg, rhombus hole. Close, but a little cockeyed. She's cosmopolitan, I'm rural.
But you, the bald museum docent—you're quiet and kind and, you make her sizzle with life again. You keep your beard trimmed and watch Charlie Rose. You own a shoe polish kit and never eat fried catfish. She can't waste any more time being unhappy and childless with me. Sizzle, she says. Do please understand.
And I know what you're probably wondering: Did her cousin have big nipples? Well, I'm not talking on that.
The apartment is in her name. She makes most of the payments, and I can't stay. I'd like to help you out, Marty, she says when I call to talk it over, but we're moving to his place in Gramercy, and we need the equity to expand. Do please understand.
She never used to talk like that—Do please understand—but apparently you bald museum docents talk like snooty assholes, and you've already started to rub off on her.
Since you've evicted me from my apartment, I scan the Post for a new place, spend an hour calling around. Lots of places have been rented already, which makes me think I should learn how to use the Internet at some point. A studio in Hell's Kitchen is listed at $1600 a month and this is close enough to Gramercy for me to occasionally bump into you in a planned-accidental sort of way.
"Any chance we could negotiate on the price?" I say to the woman. "I'm pretty handy. Can fix leaky pipes and trim you a nice pork shoulder each week."
"How much were you thinking?"
"I could swing $800 a month," I say. But even that would be pretty tight. Gus would have to eat squirrels from the park.
Then I try a studio over in Hoboken, but it's still over $1000 a month. The first thing I think is, No way I'm paying that much to live in New Jersey. I'd imagine living in Hoboken is a lot like standing on the balcony that overlooks a killer party. And telling people you live there is a lot like telling them you have Ebola. But you know all about the Jersey issue. You live in Gramercy.
Then I find an ad from out in Changewater. Way out in western Jersey, not far from where I grew up. I don't want to move that far away, but I also didn't want my wife to drop me and start playing kiss-me-where-I-pee with one of you bald museum docents. This is what the ad reads: Quiet NJ Livestock Farm. No noise, no polutn. One month labor for one room to sleep. No kids, no yap-dogs. I call. I can tell it's an old man because he speaks slowly and sounds angry that he's still alive. And he clicks his teeth, adjusting his dentures. It's an unmistakable sound, like ice clinking into a glass. My father used to do it. "It's a nice enough piece of land," he says. "You have to work it with me. That's the deal."
Apparently his daughter takes care of him, but she's a teacher and is leading a group of snot-noses on a trip to Europe for an entire month. He'll trade a month's rent for a month's work.
"Changewater," I say. "Is that near Califon?"
"No," he says. "Near Hampton."
"Oh," I say. "Near Asbury."
"No," he says. "It's near Hampton."
And that's how he talks. Kind of refreshing compared to you bald museum docent-types, but still kind of enough to make you want to murder his fucking rooster.
Then he tells me I can't be a city priss, have to be willing to kill hogs and fix fence rails and do other man-type work that you couldn't even spell. And I tell him that's why I called, that I grew up nearby and I run a butcher shop in the city. I can swing an axe and pull nails and hang drywall if he needs it. I can probably even show him a few things about butchering. I'm the perfect tenant for his situation. It's lucky our paths crossed.
"I don't like city people," he says. "You live there long enough you forget how to do anything but eat cheese and talk about paintings."
"I do have a dog," I say. "The ad says no pets."
"No," he says. "It says no yappy dogs. Is it a real dog or the kind that rides around in a purse?"
His name is Linus Houghton. Have you ever met a Linus? Or are they all Reginalds and Chersterfields at the museum? He walks with a jerky limp and has a splotchy, squished sort of face that looks a lot like a tomato left in the sun for a week. He's short and wiry and has perfect posture. He rarely speaks, but he sometimes gets this mischievous grin on his face, like he farted on your pillow when you weren't looking.
His place is tucked way off the main road, halfway up a hill and with thickets all around. Can't even see there's a house from the road. Driving up the long lane is like driving through the Holland Tunnel. The trees overhang and actually catch on the roof of my station wagon. Then I emerge into a wide swathe of pasture, hilly and green and muddy, bordered by a rickety split-rail fence. Hogs I can't see but I can smell. Sheep in the far pen and a few cattle beyond them. And for a moment it's refreshing, like walking back into my childhood. That smell.
This is the thing, bald museum docent: I slowly became one of those New Yorkers who never left the island. I made jokes about Jersey and sometimes wore a scarf. I stopped eating so much bologna. Thought playing the part might infect my blood somehow, squeeze the rustic out of me, morph me into a better husband somehow. I would have done way worse for our Karen. No such luck. She found you at some point. God knows when, but clearly long before the sausage incident. Probably closer to the nipple incident.
But here I am now, back in the country, breathing air so clear it feels cold as it hits my lungs. It reminds me real air shouldn't smell like soy sauce and burnt Styrofoam.
Linus stands on the porch. An unlit, hand-rolled cigarette hangs from his lips, and he talks as if he doesn't even notice it there.
"You New York?"
I nod and reach out my hand to him. "Marty," I say. He turns around and leads me inside. It's an original farmhouse: creaky floorboards, cracking wallpaper, that earthy smell that makes me wonder if he keeps a closet full of dirt somewhere.
"Your daughter is gone for a month?" I say.
He points to a bedroom. "Right here," he says. "Get changed into something you don't mind smelling like hog guts." He limps away.
There's a four-poster twin bed in the middle of the room with crocheted pillowcases and a stack of quilts on the chair in the corner. It reminds me of my old bedroom. We didn't have so much land as Linus seems to, but it was fine. I haven't been back there in ten years, not since my father caught the extra-bad variety of ass cancer and we had to sell it to pay for his treatments. That's when I moved to the city, met our Karen, and opened a butcher shop. Somewhere in between all of that I had to move the shop to our apartment, and I also accidentally touched my cousin-in-law's nipple. But those sorts of details start to blend together now that Karen is knocking boots with you.
I turn Gus loose in the yard, and he bolts off after some critter in the brush, just like he does in the park. He'll come back after a bit, though. He gets nervous when he hasn't sniffed me for a while.
Linus has a slaughter pen set up, right next to the hogs. Seems cruel to kill a boar right in front of his cousins, but it's convenient, and a hog doesn't know murder from a rusty carburetor choke. They'll even drink each other's blood if you don't separate them.
We stack the wood under the tub and light it and let it start bringing the water to a boil. Then Linus ties the hog off and pops him in the head with a .22 long and we roll him over and jab a knife into the sternum and twist to snag that main artery. We cinch him to the block-and-tackle, hoist him up over the blood pan, head down. I stop to watch him bleed out for a minute until I feel Linus glaring at me. I haven't done the actual slaughtering for a long time, and I forgot how much blood there is. The way its mouth hangs open makes it look like it's trying to squeal or gasp for air. We don't speak, just work like we ran out of things to say twenty years ago.
Soon we're scalding him and dragging the bell scrapers over him to rip the hair and scurf off all the way. That's the dirty work. Nothing like that stringy hog fur stuck to everything, kind of like pubic hair rolled in diarrhea and bacon grease. Probably why I stopped slaughtering them and just did the fine butchering. Once, when I was about seventeen, my father and I slaughtered a sow during the day, and then I took a girl out to the drive-in that night—her name was Brenda—and we were kissing with lots of tongue, and I was working on her bra when she noticed the dark scurf residue stuck under my nails and knuckle creases. I'd showered and used Lava soap and everything, but it's hard to get rid of that stuff, and naturally Brenda, who lived in town, screamed every combination of fear and hatred, and I never did get to see her jugs, which was bad enough, but I also had the kind of woody that was so puckered and veiny it actually hurt. You know the kind. You probably get those for our Karen, don't you? And of course a girl named Brenda who lives in town is never going to tug on the choad of a guy who has hog scurf under his nails, so I had to drive her home and then pull off the road to rub out the frustration. Even now feeling the scurf on my skin gives me this strange sensation of anger and shame and arousal that I fear Linus will somehow notice.
It's near dark before we've pulled the kidneys and heart and other organs out. Linus doesn't want to hang him overnight even though I tell him the pork will have a richer flavor.
"It ages just the same," he says. He clicks his dentures. "Lazy city people."
I don't want him thinking I'm lazy, so I start to hack him up and wrap the shanks and hocks and ribs and loins. My father was the best butcher I ever knew, cleaned every scrap, could squeeze an extra cut from a steer's nose and make it taste like sirloin. Linus isn't so talented, but he does okay. I show him a few things, about dipping the blade in cold water and keeping it moving with long strokes, about pitching it at the proper angles, about staying with the grain as long as possible. He pretends not to listen to me. "Don't play smart," he says. But before long he's moving faster and not wasting so much.
Mostly I can tell he's the kind of man who does everything himself. I imagine if I kept after him long enough, he could teach me how to make rocks. And he doesn't seem to tire. He hangs that hand-rolled cigarette from his dry lips and sets to work, never lighting it, just clenching it there and slowly chewing out the tobacco. And he's quiet in a sturdy old man sort of way, so quiet it makes you feel like a sissy when you start talking, like he outlasted you in some primal game of chess.
"I could take some of this into the city," I tell him. "Sell it for higher than market price. SoHo. Gramercy. Midtown West—those people love overpaying for anything."
Linus stares at me for a minute. He doesn't talk, just clenches that cigarette between his lips. "You trying to steal my pork?"
"No sir," I say, and I go back to work.
We slaughter two hogs a day for the first three days. "You do okay with that," Linus says, "so we'll stick with it. Don't want to confuse you."
Evenings, when we're finished working, I drive back into the city. It's a strange sensation: I don't miss the place, but I'm just so used to being there, it's like there's a gravitational pull I can't escape. Kind of like having a limp that slowly heals. You know, how you end up hobbling longer than you have to because you just get used to it? Gus isn't thrilled about the situation. He obeys when I open the car door and toss his leash in there, but in that lackadaisical, snooty way that reminds me he's a teenager in dog years. At first, we head toward the Natural History museum. I want to sniff you out, see the guy who's putting it to my wife.
I pretend Gus is a seeing-eye dog and that I'm blind, and I get away with it longer than you'd think. Just stick an arm in front and pretend to be groping for something. No one wants to question a blind man. But I'm sure they realize I can see just fine when I stare at this exhibit of early Neanderthal's hunting a woolly mammoth. It says not to touch, and I don't, but boy do I want to peel back the little huntress's tunic, get a peek at her chest. But I realize I'm an idiot. That kind of thing has gotten me into trouble before—touching someone else's nipple, which I swear was mostly an accident—and I guess touching the Neanderthal tit wouldn't really be sticking it to you the way I'd like. And that's really all I was after. On my way out, I ask the blue-blazered docent if one of his colleagues is bald and talks like a pretentious member of Parliament, but he ignores me. You can understand why, I guess. I wonder now, did they tell you about me later as you sat in your break room, eating your camembert and rye crackers?
I'm running low on money, so I grab some cheap Chinese noodles for dinner. Gus and I end up in Gramercy, wandering the streets. I mutter to myself, thinking of the things I can say when I do bump into the both of you. "Karen," I could say and remove my hat. "Look at all this hair!" Or I could tell her I'll start refilling the ice trays and taking her for bacon and pancakes on Saturdays. Or I could say something about not being a fossil, like you are, but I can't quite work out the phrasing, and I'm afraid I'll get it wrong and seem like an idiot rural who also happens to have a full head of hair.
I wander the side streets and alleys until I see her car—our car. The little Honda hatchback you're probably embarrassed about. It's on a tight one-way right next to the private park, surrounded by Volvos and Audis and glossy-black iron fences. I can't decide if I want to sit on it and wait for her or slash the tires. Gus sniffs around the doors because he smells her and probably thinks that means he'll get some food. So I wait for almost an hour, leaning against the car, planning my move. I have to be back to the farm in the morning, and it's a long drive. So I tear off a corner of the Chinese leftover box and leave a note under the windshield wiper: Let's talk, I write. Gus and I miss you. Call me. Then I write down the number from Linus Houghton's ad and start on my drive.
It's not like Karen and I ever had such a good thing going. Bad match from the start. You probably don't realize, though. Probably don't ask too many questions about me. You're a bald museum docent, used to doing the talking. She wanted to train me into some refined fop who liked art and Russian opera, you see, and I was pretty reluctant. She's so quiet and refined. Reads all those books and never talks too loud in a restaurant, even when I wear a flannel shirt under that Joseph Abboud sport coat she bought me. I do think she loved me at first. She was a city kid, grew up in a boxy Bronx high-rise, and here I was, a guy with calluses. She could feel cultured around a guy like that. Looking back, she probably started getting frustrated early on, though, when she realized I wasn't going to turn into some cosmopolitan dick.
Has she told you any of this? Told you about our silent fights we had, sitting across from each other at that little metal table we had, eating cold pastrami sandwiches, just glaring? Or what about all those nights we just threw our hands up and went to sleep because we were too tired to fight anymore? Or that President's Day weekend, 1993, when we drove up to Vermont, to that adorable little bed and breakfast with the wrap-around porch and the gingerbread trim. It had a petting zoo—cows, sheep, a couple pigs, a horse. All she wanted to do was feed the lambs, run her fingers through their soft coat, and so why did I go on explaining about how the different parts she was petting were really just different cuts? That's the scrag right there, dear. Kind of tough but okay for stew. And that—that's the fillet. I like the chump chops better, a little fattier, but most people like the fillet. That's what you'd order at the little restaurant down the street—the one you said that took reservations six months out and we would never get to try. She was awfully upset after that, which is probably fair. I apologized and everything, told her I'd take her to get that fillet soon, though I never did. Later that night she crawled on top of me and started gyrating. And I just went with it because who wouldn't? Even you would. But halfway through I realized she wasn't moaning so much as she was sobbing, and then I didn't know what to do, so I sat there for a minute before I started feeling dirty. Then I rolled her over and we sat quietly in the dark and didn't talk for a while.
On the drive home she told me I was like a chunk of deformed brass. She kept polishing me, thinking I'd stay like that. I'd be like gold. But after a couple weeks I'd be all tarnished again and she'd have to start over. That's called a metaphor, and she uses lots of those, being a librarian and all.
I wonder, did she tell you some skewed version of this? Or was she maybe too embarrassed? Or does my name not even come up?
I start suspecting something is wrong with Linus late that first week. We're up early mending fence, splitting firewood, clearing brush from trails in the woods. It's all refreshing work, and I'm taken back immediately to being a kid, trolling around the farm with my father, working those thick yellow calluses deep into the creases of my hands. And Linus starts to open up just a little, easing off the angry old man routine.
"A museum docent?" he says.
"A bald one," I tell him.
He shakes his head. "Never been to a museum myself."
"Well," I say. But I don't really tell him much more about you since I don't know much more. Just that you guide little kids around and don't have as much hair as I do.
"So when you drive in there at night, it's what, some kind of stalking?"
"Nothing like that," I tell him, but then I don't really explain any more since I don't know why exactly I do go in there or what I'd do if I bumped into you.
Anyway, while we're mending a length of split-rail and talking like this, Linus reaches too far for a flat blade screwdriver, and his forearm pops out from under his jacket. And it's messy looking: red and blistered, dark splotches like craters. Mix that with his old man wrinkles, and it starts to look like someone hit him with a load of buckshot and he never cleaned it, so it got all gangrened. Has to hurt like a real bastard.
Linus catches me staring, I know he does, and we both stop for just a minute. He looks down at his exposed arm, but he doesn't cover it because that would be too obvious.
"What you do," he says, "is buy her some sort of jewelry. A necklace, maybe, with a turquoise rock on it. Women love turquoise shit."
"Right," I say.
He stands and stretches, kind of nonchalant like, pulls his shirt back over his forearm. "You've been working out good," he says. "You go hard, don't need me training you. How's an extra hundred a week sound? On top of room and board."
I squint at him, trying to figure his angle, but I don't think too long. I need the money, and I tell him that'd be great if he can spare it.
"It's a deal," he says. "A hundred a week for the next few weeks so long as you keep working out. Get you back on your feet, maybe help you buy a turquoise rock."
I leave Gus with Linus that night when I drive in to the city. They seem to have hit it off: Gus gets his snout scratched, but he doesn't ask stupid human questions, doesn't stare at that rotting arm. As I drive that night, I can all but see Gus with his face on Linus's lap, the old man's gruesome looking arm draped around him, petting little circles, feeding him chunks of bologna while they listen to the radio.
I park near Baruch College and walk up and down the side streets until I see the little hatchback that you hate. At first I'm dismayed because it looks like my note is still stuck under the wipers, but then I realize it's a different note, one from Karen. Please, Marty, it says. Don't come around. Vick carries a stun rod for work, and I don't want him to use it on you. Hugs to Gus, Karen.
What's odd, though, is how small to Gus is, like she wrote Hugs as a sign-off but then realized it was inappropriate now and had to squeeze the other part in to make it more acceptable. I stare at it for a long time, how squished to Gus is.
So I write her another note on the back of hers, and I pin it under the wiper blade: Dogs can't hug, but I can. Call me. This is silly.
We trade more notes on the car. Karen doesn't call, but she responds. One of them says it's not fair to her, the way I'm writing nice notes now, that I have to stop. It's like I'm Lopakhin and she's Lyuba, and we're trying to keep on living in some cherry orchard even though we know we can't. She knows I don't read books like she does, but she still says things like that. Please do stop, Martin, she says.
You're oblivious to all of this, of course. No way she's telling you. Do please understand, Vick, I'm just writing little notes to Marty, but you're still the one who gets to see my nipples.
I ask Linus if his daughter has any books around so I can find out about Lopakhin.
"What?" he says.
"Doesn't she have some books around here or something?"
He looks confused. "Oh," he says. "My daughter. No. No books."
Then he limps outside and calls for Gus. And I sit there wondering about Linus, what his deal really is. He's a mysterious character, and I think I could live in his house for the next ten years and still not really understand him. Why he is how he is. That arm, his daughter, all of it. I think on that for a while, and I can't decide who I'm more like, Linus, or you. I guess neither. I'm some strange mixture who only erects half-walls around himself. And I don't know where that leaves me, where I should be or who I should be there with.
So I go to the library one evening, tired of talking around the issue. I'll make Karen tell me about Lopakhin, why I'm like him. But she's not there. Must have changed her schedule to eat dinner with you.
I ask a different librarian about Lopakhin. She helps me find this book, The Cherry Orchard, where I read half that damn thing to find out about him. He seems like a superior-type dick who really isn't. The kind of guy who drinks tea and would never cheer for the Mets because it wouldn't be proper, even though he wants to. But I guess that's the point. She likes the refined assholes who get offended by paper napkins and buy new furniture designed to look old. So, when I write her a note back, I mention something about how Lopakhin cares about Lyuba, you can tell he does, and isn't that worth something?
Then Linus's daughter apparently has a problem with her passport, and so she has to stay in Madrid a bit longer. He wants to know, could I maybe do the same? Maybe an extra week? He could use the help before winter sets in. And he'd be willing to up it to $200 that extra week.
I tell him sure, I could use the time to set up another place. I don't say anything about his daughter even though I want to. My role with Linus is pretty limited. I need the money, and he's offering enough that I keep my mouth shut. I tell him I can stay even longer if he needs it. I look down at his arm, the nasty one with the boils. I don't mean to, but I can't help it because I'm sure me being here helps a load, what with that arm being so torn up.
"No," he says. "Just a week."
It's getting colder now, thick frost in the mornings, but we still head out just after sunrise. Most mornings we spend out a ways from the house, splitting firewood. At first he insists on working the chainsaw himself while I drop the logs in the hydraulic splitter and stack them in the truck bed. But I can tell he's struggling with it. And so I offer to switch spots.
"I can handle a chainsaw just fine," I say. "Used to all the time. Why not let me take over, give your bad arm a rest."
He glares at me then, like I just insulted him. "My what?" he says.
"It's why I'm here, right?" I say.
"Your wife doesn't like you too much," he says. "That's why." Then he drops the chainsaw at his feet and motions for me to take over.
We go on like this for most of the morning, cutting up the better part of three maples without saying a word. Near noon, when the sun has peaked out just a bit, Linus rolls up his sleeves in a big, dramatic scene, as if to signal he can do whatever he likes now. And both arms are splotched with lesions and open sores and this white sort of mold-looking stuff all around them.
"Stare now," Linus says. "Get it out of your system."
And then I don't know what to do. Do I stare or not? And so I just glance over real quick, as if I see but don't really care too much one way or the other. I feel Linus staring at my back, but I just keep on cutting away, the sawdust blowing out the back end, clinging to my arm hair and every little crook in my body.
That night we're eating pork chops and applesauce when Linus tells me he won't be needing me that extra week after all. His daughter sorted out the passport problem. She'll be back in a few days. I should pack my things.
I stare at him for a while. He doesn't look at me, just keeps chomping away at his pork as if he doesn't care one way or the other.
"I can still help out around here," I say.
"Did you buy a turquoise rock yet?"
"Linus," I say.
"I don't run a boarding house, New York."
Gus wanders into the kitchen and starts sniffing at my leg. Linus tears off a hunk of meat and holds it out for him. He scratches Gus' ears, which just burns me up for some reason.
"To be clear," I say, "you don't have a daughter, right?"
He stops petting Gus. "To be clear," he says, "you did drop the hammer on your wife's cousin, right?"
And I don't answer that just the way he won't answer about his made-up daughter. I don't owe him an explanation just the same as he doesn't owe me one, I guess. I bet if you were sick the way he is and you needed help you wouldn't want anybody heaping their pity on you, either.
So I leave in the morning, and that's the last I see of Linus Houghton. I go back to the city, but it feels different. Dirtier, more crowded. Without Karen, it feels like I don't belong so much. Like a party I wasn't exactly invited to. So I find a place way out by Yonkers. It's a crummy room in a crummy house, but it works. When I scan the Post each week, I still see Linus' ad, exactly the same as it was when I first saw it. No yappy dogs. He probably has another guy working with him now, somebody else who can split logs and won't notice he's sick for a while.
Eventually I run into you, don't I, Vick the bald museum docent? Both of you. I'm walking my side streets, nowhere else I need to be. I'm looking for our little hatchback, a note tucked in my pocket apologizing for all the hanging sausages, and there you both are, sitting on a stoop, shoulders touching, smiling. A bottle of wine on the step below you. A log of crappy, pre-packaged salami at your feet. No frowns. Like a postcard you'd buy in a gift shop.
Karen stands when she sees me. "Marty," she says.
And then you stand up, too, don't you Vick? You aren't so bald as I thought you'd be. It's mostly just your forehead, and your hair is dark still. You're thin and have a strong jawline that I can even see through your trimmed beard. Younger than I expected, too. I'm not standing close enough, but I suspect you smell like Sean Connery would.
We stand there, awkward for a minute. Gus runs up the stoop and starts nuzzling on Karen. Then you say, "Martin. Would you care for a glass of Pinot?"
"No," I say.
"Are you certain?"
"Err, okay. Sure." Really, I just want him to stop with the talking.
You stand an extra beat, look at us both, then go inside, which seems like a classy move at the time, Vick.
I look at Karen. She seems thinner somehow. More fit. I think she dyed her hair, too, some shade of brownish-black. Auburn, maybe.
"You said I was like Lopakhin," I say, though I'm pretty sure I pronounce it wrong.
"Marty," she says, "you can't be here."
"Relax," I say. "I'm not going to pelt him with bratwursts."
"You need to leave," she says. "Right now."
But I'm not going anywhere. I came to apologize for some things, get answers to some others. "Look," I say, "about the meat smell. I'm awful sorry about that. I could get a new job."
"That's good," she says.
"No more hanging sausages from the lamp shades. No more cold meat storage in our bedroom."
"We don't have a bedroom," she says. "The place is already in escrow."
I guess it's at this point I realize there's no getting her back. She sold our house, lives with you, doesn't think too much about me. Maybe she didn't squeeze Gus into her note after all.
We stand there quietly. Gus licks Karen's hands like they're made out of butter. She won't look at me. "About your cousin," I say. "That was inappropriate. I did the wrong thing there."
Karen just nods, doesn't look up, but just moves her head a little bit.
You come back out. You're not holding a wine glass. You stand in the doorway, your arms crossed. You clear your throat. "You did what wrong thing there, Martin?"
I kneel down and reach out for Gus. I don't look at you or Karen. "You know," I say.
"I do, Martin. I know what there is to know."
And this is hard to hear, you—a total stranger—knowing these kinds of things about me. It feels like a betrayal, makes me want to bolt and never come back. It's hard knowing that while I was off with Linus Houghton on his leper colony, Karen was here with you, telling our story, explaining all the horrible things I've done. Explaining about her cousin and how, yes, I did a bad thing there. My version probably makes it sound a bit more benign than it was, I admit.
No one says anything.
You take a step out of the doorway. "Do you have anything else to add, Martin?" You reach into your back pocket and pull out your little stun rod.
But this only makes me angry. I take a step forward, and we have a little stare-off. "Marty," Karen says. "Marty you need to leave."
I stand still for bit longer, and it instantly reminds me of all those silent fights Karen and I had over the years. I don't think for a second you'll actually use your little weapon on me.
I reach forward to grab Gus's collar, but I guess I move too fast because you jump forward and jam that stun rod into my forearm. And it hurts worse than any cut I've ever given myself. Burns into my skin, and I can even smell melted flesh. I yelp and reach down to cover it with my hand, but this hurts even worse.
"Vick!" Karen says.
"Dammit!" I shout, and I want to attack you, but my arm hurts too bad. I shake it out for a minute, and you glare at me like you'll hit me another time if I take a step forward. You really enjoyed that, didn't you? So I hold my good arm out for Gus, and he comes.
"Fine," I say as we reach the last step. "Enjoy your shitty, grocery store salami and your city." And we leave.
You don't say anything. Karen doesn't say anything either, doesn't call after me to say goodbye. Doesn't even say goodbye to Gus. We walk down the street, in between the luxury cars and expensive brownstones, and I look down at my forearm. It's already blistering and purpled, and it'll be like that for a while. Might leave a scar, but it'll heal. I don't worry about it too much. Things will work out. I can't be a librarian or a bald museum docent, but people will always need meat. Not everyone can be one of those vegans. I'm sure I can snag a job in some deli in some crummy grocery store. No need to worry about me.
And you, bald museum docent. Vick. Do please be good to her. Take her to that little restaurant, get her the lamb fillet. Wear nice shoes and a sport coat. No flannels. Act like Lopakhin. Never stop wooing her, taking her to wine tastings and lectures. Make her sizzle with life every day. If she ever starts crying during sex, don't hesitate. Roll her over, ask her what's the matter, dear? Remind her there's no need to salvage anything, no secrets to protect, and you have all the time you need.
Title graphic: "Never Stop Wooing Her" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2012.