SWITCHYARD: The Fiction of ROBERT MORGAN FISHER
Robert Morgan Fisher (www.robertmorganfisher.com) is a writer/musician. His fiction has been published in Spindrift, Snake Nation Review, Seattle Review, Caffeine and right here in Bluerailroad. He has two unpublished award-winning novels and just completed a third. He tries to crank out one thematically-linked collection of short stories per year.
“Don’t You Want To Go To Mars?” is from Robert’s unpublished collection, YOU STAY HERE, stories servicing the idea that the children of warriors in our country learn the grace and caution that come from a permanent sense of estrangement.
He’s written for TV, radio and film and stands at the forefront of the neo-narrative songwriting movement, where he has penned several award-winning story songs. Robert lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two sons.
Robert posts videos of his stories, excerpts and companions songs to certain stories at:
Don’t You Want To Go To Mars?
DURELL HAS A HEADACHE BECAUSE someone made vanilla-flavored coffee. He didn’t even take a sip, just raising the cup to his mouth and inhaling the smell was enough. Still, he wants caffeine so badly he’s almost tempted, against all logic, to chug it anyway. Instead, he leaves the teachers’ lounge and hurries back to his office, head throbbing, where he’ll ingest his caffeine in pill form. Massaging temples, poking pressure points, Durell leans back and contemplates framed picture of wife and son, waits for his four o’clock to show.
The picture was taken at Six Flags Over Texas up in Arlington two years ago. Aliyah was about to ship out to Samarra with the 4th Infantry and her hair was cut close, almost bald. She joked about being nappy-headed. The hairdo accentuated Aliyah’s eyes: a pair of polished onyx orbs under brows arched in an A-frame of maternal wonder. The picture is also valued for the way it captures her mouth’s tendency to go Mona Lisa; a sideways smile squeezing out the most delicate of cheek dimples. Taury, their son, then had the beginnings of what is now a full-blown afro. He calls it his “space helmet.” Durell smiles in spite of the pain, which is like a doweling of hard wood creaking inside his head. He puts the pills back in his desk, ruefully noting the half-eaten dark chocolate bar. Like vanilla-flavored coffee, it is also a migraine trigger. But he can’t stop hurting himself, it seems. He understands the need to push limits; it’s the first thing he looks for in the middle school kids he counsels: where did they detour from logical straight and narrow? And here in central Texas, where you have to crack a book to see where the county lines are drawn and get a sense of enclosure, 360 degrees in every direction tells you that boundaries are for eggheads and not even worthy of abstraction.
This afternoon Durell has already had three meetings. The first was with a divorced Latina whose 7th-grade dyslexic daughter is being held back because her reading skills aren’t even at the first grade level. The second, a white father expressing outrage that his son’s 1.2 GPA got him booted off the football team. The last, and probable precursor of the migraine, were the imperious parents of a vicious cyber-bullying blonde-haired blue-eyed cheerleader.
Next up: Lurlene, mother of tattooed and skin-headed Maddox Spivey, a miserable loner; the kind of kid you fear might one day show up at school wearing a black trench coat concealing automatic weapons and an enemies list. His father, Lanny Spivey, is doing 15-20 in Huntsville for armed robbery, a fact that has attracted a lot of unwanted peer attention. Durell has met with Maddox twice before and now feels that bringing mom into the mix might help. He looks at the name in his appointment book: Lurlene. No two ways about it, that is a classic redneck name. He internally amends that to “hillbilly,” out of a sense of decorum – then changes it back to redneck. What the hell, it is a redneck name. Call it what it is. Doesn’t mean she’s a redneck, but forewarned is forearmed. He makes the vow of the oppressed to keep an open mind, lest the pot call the kettle … etcetera.
As expected, there is a noticeable difference in Maddox’s demeanor when he enters Durell’s office with his mother. How could there not be? Something humbling about having the person who used to wipe your butt standing next to you. Lurlene’s eyes are amethyst-lavender and her hair peroxide blonde. She’s wearing a Hooters T-shirt like it was custom-made for her. From the face, Durell guesses her age to be early 30s, but the body is much younger. There’s a hard, Nordic beauty to her face that explodes when she smiles. Her teeth are big and white, as if bleach from the hair job seeped into her head.
“Well,” she says after they all settle into their seats. “Here we are.”
“Yes. How are you doing, Maddox?”
Maddox shrugs and says: “’kay.”
The talk is of test scores and scuffles. Lurlene listens intently, occasionally stroking the back of Maddox’s neck. He’s got both elbows on his knees, head supported by hands underneath the jaw in an attitude of awkward fatigue. Not once does he make eye contact with his counselor. Lurlene’s eyes, however, are locked tight onto Durell’s. She nods slowly to everything as if afraid to break her gaze.
“What do you think about all this, Maddox?” she says, her eyes still on Durell.
“Why don’t you give your mother and me few minutes?” says Durell. Maddox seizes the opportunity to exit. Lurlene relaxes, smiles. She shifts her gaze to a novelty paperweight on Durell’s desk: an oversized Excedrin Tablet.
“Vitamin E?” she says, referring to the large E carved into the top.
“Excedrin,” he smiles.
“Oh.” She puts it back. “You must get big headaches.”
“Got one now,” he massages his temples.
“I hope it’s not –”
“No-no-no, nothing to do with Maddox. It’s just been one of those days. I ate chocolate.”
“It’s a migraine trigger.”
“Then why eat it?”
“I like it,” he chuckles, wincing as his heart rate quickens, aggravating the pounding.
“I’m the same way with cigarettes.”
“I used to smoke,” he says. “A cigarette would be great right now. It actually helps.”
She pulls out a pack of Kools. “Take one.”
“No, I shouldn’t.”
“Come on, do something nice for yourself.”
Reluctantly, he takes the coffin-nail and puts it in his shirt pocket.
“No problem.” She examines the Six Flags picture. “Is this your wife?”
“Yes. She’s in Iraq.”
“That’s Taurean – Taury for short.”
“He’s got your good looks.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Spivey.”
“Lurlene. Sorry.” Durell knows they should talk about Maddox, but he’s curious about the home situation. “What’s going on with Mr. Spivey?”
“Well, you know Lanny’s in Huntsville.”
“And he can rot there for all I care.”
“That’s not fair, I know.”
“So you’ve got some hostility about it. That’s understandable.”
“I think Maddox has some hostility too.”
“I know,” she sighs.
“I’d like to try and redirect those emotions.”
Durell can see he’s almost over her head with redirect.
“What I mean is … he needs an outlet for those feelings. Any interest in sports, music, things like that?”
“I thought the problem was grades.”
“Well yes, but my philosophy is that certain activities prime the pump, you know? Improves the sense of self-worth. Then the grades improve.”
“His father used to take him hunting.”
Durell smiles, “Something without guns, preferably.”
She smiles back. “Gotcha.”
“What does he do after school?”
Durell pictures Grand Theft Auto: decapitations, pistol-whippings, rapes …
“Tell you what,” he gets up. “You think about it and let’s meet again in a week.”
“Great. I have to get to work anyway.”
“Where do you work?”
She indicates her T-shirt. As a manicured fingernail scrapes the E in Hooters, the nipple hardens visibly underneath.
“Gotcha,” he says. Durell politely pats his shirt pocket and adds: “Thanks.”
He smokes the Kool in his car, windows down so as not to stink up the Saturn. It’s the first time the cigarette lighter has ever been used. Lurlene Spivey … hmmm. Durell’s not stupid, he knows when he’s being hit on. She is of a type he’s seen before: extremely white married women who dig black guys on the side. And Lurlene is so white she’s almost transparent. Tawdry erotic scenarios play out before his eyes – he’s only human. He’s taken enough psychology courses to know what’s going on here: Lurlene is angry with her redneck husband for landing himself in the hoosegow and she wants to do a little payback. What better way than to get it on with a brother? The inherent dangers in this situation are numerous and sobering, but they are also intriguing. He knows that in the hollow of night, he’ll have more time to sort complexities. For now, he’s content to revel in the flattering sensation of being pursued. He tosses the butt out the window because the ashtray is full of coins.
Durell’s migraine pain is manageable by the time he pulls up to Taury’s school. The boy stands waiting behind the fence, backpack on. He runs to the car, climbs in, buckles up. Taury started riding up front just this year. When Aliyah comes home, Taury will have to sit in back again. But for now, Durell loves having the boy at his side where he can reach around and give him a hug whenever he pleases.
“I smell smoke.” Taury wrinkles his nose.
“Did you finish your homework?”
“You’re supposed to do it before I get here, you know that.”
“Don’t you want to go to Mars?”
Up until two months ago, Taury was a math prodigy. The slippage in performance has been dramatic and Durell just can’t account for it. Ever since Taury was a toddler, Durell has encouraged a love of numbers and science. The time is coming, and it’s going to be soon, when we’re going to send a man to Mars, he’d tell the child. No one could have predicted in 1959 that ten years later we were going to conquer the Moon. But we did. So I want you to be ready, son. Astronauts start out as pilots, and to be a pilot you have to excel at math. Those who are good at math will be first in line to explore the universe. Taury’s first toy in the crib was an oversized calculator. He knew his multiplication tables up to a thousand by the time he was five; he was doing long division by age six. When Taury’s vision tested at 20/20, Durell was ecstatic – for pilots are required to have perfect peepers. Now, at the age of ten, he’s mastered algebra and had just started calculus and trigonometry when the current apathy appeared out of nowhere.
Durell himself knows only a little about math. He’s just a facilitator, a fan. A year ago, just before Aliyah shipped out, he got Taury into a special after-school program for gifted kids. Taury’s mentor, a retired aerospace engineer named Fred Yakamoto, said Taury’s left-brain capability was so strong he’d be surprised if “underneath that afro his head wasn’t all lopsided!” When Taury was in third grade, he surpassed Durell’s limited math knowledge and Dad could no longer directly help with homework – a proud if not disconcerting moment for Durell.
Officially, Taury and Durell are Aliyah’s dependents. They could afford to live off-base, but settled in Fort Hood Enlisted Housing to economize. Aliyah made Staff Sergeant a month ago, which is a higher rank than Durell held when he resigned three years ago to pursue a civilian career, so there’s been a little bump in household income. But it’s never enough. Durell got his counseling credentials by attending night school while they were stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. When Aliyah was transferred to Fort Hood, there was the faint hope in Durell’s mind that moving west would somehow keep her out of Iraq; like she might be able to elude the gravitational pull of the Mideast maelstrom. But as soon as they got settled, the 104th was activated and off she went. That was almost a year ago.
Taury settles in to do homework at his favorite workstation, the kitchen table. Durell fixes the boy a healthy snack: apple slices, jack cheese – and of course, Tang. Durell is annoyed that the homework hasn’t been done yet. It’s going to cut into father-son time, delay dinner. The worst part is that Taury long ago broke free of Durell’s intellectual orbit; he’s in deep space these days, totally on his own. The homework has to be done with his after-school mentor around. Now it’s going to be tedious. Walls will be hit. Durell will be nothing more than the arbiter of when it’s time to give up and move on. While Taury works, Durell checks the snail mail. Nothing from Aliyah. He will wait to check e-mail until after Taury’s finished. He goes to the living room, puts on the national news at low volume. Somebody blew up a market in Haditha. What used to be a leading story is now sandwiched in between the stock market and weather. Taury usually needs help at least once every five minutes, so when the newscast ends without him making even a single plea for assistance, Durell goes in to check on him.
Taury sits there, drumming a pencil on the table. The snack is the only thing he’s finished.
“What’s going on?”
Taury shrugs. The motion of the shoulders reminds Durell of Maddox Spivey.
“Taurean, what is the problem?”
“Look at me when I talk to you, son.”
Taury looks up. The tortured look in his eyes douses the flame of Durell’s anger.
“Talk to me.”
“I miss Mom.”
Durell sits down and says, “Me too.” Durell tries to put himself in Taury’s shoes. “It must be a lot harder for you than for me.”
Taury nods. Tears seem imminent.
“And we’re coming up on one year, aren’t we?” says Durell. “That must carry a lot of weight with a numbers guy like you.”
Another nod. It seems like a stupid thing to say, but Durell says it anyway:
“They can’t keep her there forever.”
“When is she coming back?”
This is a cheat; Taury’s studied just enough physics to know that Time is relative. They go to the master bedroom and fire up the computer, but there is nothing from Aliyah. It’s been three weeks. Durell opens the pictures folder and does a slideshow. One of Taury’s favorite pictures shows Aliyah up close and gritty. Her eyes are dark, bloodshot; surrounding skin smudged like two windows in a burned-out house. It was a cell phone photo, self-portrait. In the background the landscape is rubicund, dessicated – an Eden for The God of War. It makes one thirsty just looking at it. The naked fear in Aliyah’s face prompts Durell to think she intended the picture just for his eyes. But there was no caveat accompanying the picture, so he showed it to Taury who quickly became obsessed. His son has a need to see that picture every day. Durell came close to deleting the image, but now he too feels that daily need. It’s not an easy picture to look at, yet he can’t tear his eyes away. He tried using it as a screensaver on his work computer, but kept hearing dark carousel music in his head each time it appeared.
To mute that music, Durell allows Taury to log onto the Space Camp website for a few minutes before steering him back to the kitchen table. Taury promises to double time it tomorrow and get caught up. Somehow Durell doesn’t believe him. Dad makes fish sticks for dinner (“brain food”), which they eat on TV trays while watching a Nova about a Doomsday Asteroid that may or may not hit the earth in 2036. Durell wonders if perhaps his son will be part of a special team sent up to divert the asteroid, a la that movie with Bruce Willis. Not if he doesn’t get on the ball with his math.
Taury takes a bath, brushes his teeth and gets in bed. Sometimes Durell lets
him stay up late and they watch The Right Stuff, but not tonight. He tucks the boy in and Taury says his prayers while Durell watches, smiling. Durell is agnostic, but Aliyah made him promise that Taury would do a bedtime prayer. They’re also supposed to say grace when they eat, but Durell let that slide months ago. Taury’s face, framed by bushy hair sunk inside the white pillow, reminds Durell of baby days, when he used to swaddle his infant son. There was never a tighter and faster swaddler than Durell, he is sure of it. He plants a kiss on the boy’s forehead.
“Do you think there’s a heaven?” says Taury.
“I don’t know.”
“Mom said there is.”
“A lot of people say so.”
“What about you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you believe in God?”
Durell smiles. “I believe it’s very possible.”
“Einstein said the universe is not only stranger than we imagine but stranger than we can imagine.”
“He should know.”
“Maybe Mars is heaven.”
“Maybe you’ll find out someday, Taury.”
“Maybe. If Mars is heaven, what do you think is hell?”
“I don’t know. Mercury maybe.”
“Yeah. Or Venus.”
“Or the sun!” says Taury.
“Or the center of the earth!”
“Yeah,” Taury grins. “I love you, Pop.”
“Love you too, Rain Man.” Taury’s never seen the movie, but his math talents remind Durell of Dustin Hoffman’s savant, hence the nickname. All Taury knows is that Rain Man is supposedly a magical guy who’s good with numbers. When Taury finally sees the movie in a few years, Durell will have to make a few clarifications.
Goodnight kiss, lights out.
Durell channel surfs for a half hour, to give him a little cushion of privacy. After checking in to make sure the boy is asleep, he goes back to the computer. He closes the door, draws the blinds and visits the ritual sites he knows by heart, the places that provide a pathway to animal release. He has no guilt; it’s a necessary act of physical maintenance. But it always leaves him a little dispirited. Especially since tonight he supplements those fantasies with visions of Lurlene Spivey.
When he’s done with himself, he purges the browser, checks e-mail one last time and heads for the shower. Aliyah’s shampoo, bath gel, loofa … they all seem to stare at Durell. It’s not that he wishes they weren’t there, he wishes Aliyah were here to use them. And him. Yes, he would like to be used. He imagines Lurlene in the shower. It should be Aliyah he envisions, he knows that, but Lurlene is accessible, local. It seems the entire night will be backlit by Lurlene. That’s just not right. What would his wife say? She’d say Do you what you have to do, baby. Meaning: fantasize away. Whatever gets you through the night. But what would she say if Durell confessed that he sometimes has trouble remembering Aliyah’s face? Sure, there are pictures aplenty on the computer, on his cell phone, in frames, photo albums, on the fridge, etcetera. But ever since she sent that scary combat picture it’s been different. Like what she was really saying was: This is who I am now. Don’t expect the old Aliyah to ever come home again. Not only is that frightening, but it’s also emasculating on a certain level. She’s hinted at some of the things she’s seen. And done. Every warrior, even a former short-timer like Durell, has an innate need for action – even just a taste. It’s bred into you from the moment of induction, the idea that soldiering is a job and there’s nothing better in the world than the chance to perform that job, to apply your skills in a violent way. It’s something Durell heard and didn’t believe going in – but knew for a fact going out. He never got that opportunity to really test himself like a soldier should. On one level it’s crazy to regret it. But part of him wishes there’d been something, even a simple skirmish. The closest he came was practice – maneuvers, war games. Just imagining the fights he and Aliyah are going to have, with that unspoken shortcoming as subtext, almost reprises his migraine.
There was another dad down the street in the same situation as Durell. His wife came home two months ago and went right into psychiatric care. Then they did couples counseling. Now they’re splitting up. He’s getting the kids. Durell never really spoke to the guy, Chuck is his name, but from some of the neighbors Durell learned that Chuck’s wife had been raped by two guys in her unit. At first, Durell didn’t believe it. He’d heard of that happening, but it just didn’t seem possible. No, they assured him, it really happened. Durell’s disbelief was rooted in the fact that Chuck hadn’t gone out and castrated the guys responsible. But the more Durell tried to tell himself that that’s what he’d do – what any man would do – the more he came to understand that it just wasn’t that simple. He couldn’t even begin to picture Aliyah recovering from something like that. It would be a rape of him too, wouldn’t it? It would be murder. Also, putting himself in Chuck’s shoes, he could easily see Aliyah preventing him from exacting revenge; she’d cite legal issues, due process, military regulations – not in defense of her attackers, but as a survival strategy, a way to put it all behind her as quickly as possible and not prolong the agony. But implicit in all of it would be the simple accusation: You weren’t there.
He checks e-mail again. A message from Aliyah:
I’m OK. Miss U.
Lurlene calls the next day, says she wants to meet with Durell “one on one.”
Her voice on the phone is warm cognac poured into his ear.
He says that’s fine and sets a meeting time.
He hangs up.
Durell tries to write an equation of the situation. He gives himself, wife and child a specific quantifiable value. He also quantifies Lurlene. And sex. He tries to assign a value to her incarcerated husband – then gets frustrated and starts over. He makes two columns, one labeled SEX, the other CELIBATE. There are a dozen good reasons for fidelity, and only one that makes the case for fooling around. The word in the SEX column is Pleasure. That word, that idea, seems to have the density of a collapsed star compared to the factors under CELIBATE (could get fired, she gets pregnant, STD’s, convict husband, crazy son, etcetera …). Pleasure has an inordinately high value for some reason. Additionally, there are hidden, phantom coefficients and variables. But on its own, pleasure almost trumps everything else. Whoever designed our procreative equipment knew what they were doing. He knows the trajectory of this thing: last night was loins, getting it out of his system the obvious way, or trying to; now it’s the head – thinking through all possible outcomes in a seriocomic, semi-scientific way. Unless he’s misreading the situation, which he is not, the results are inconclusive.
Lurlene has prepared well: Hooters shirt replaced by a tube top under a blouse tied off to reveal midriff. She sports a pierced belly button and some kind of tattoo creeping out the waistband of her jeans. Hair washed and teased, plenty of makeup but not too slutty. It’s late winter but she is tanned from top to bottom and it doesn’t look like it came out of a bottle. Her aroma redolent of Kools mixed with Victoria’s Secret Body Spray.
“How’s your head?”
“Better. Have a seat?”
“I was thinking we could go someplace where we could talk.”
He gets up, takes one step, halts.
“Why don’t you meet me out front? I have to make one quick phone call.”
She exits and Durell waits. After a suitable amount of time passes, he peeks out the window, sees her waiting on the sidewalk, digging into her purse. He walks past reception to join her out front.
“Let me get my car,” he says as she smokes a Kool. “I’ll be right back.”
He seriously considers driving home, abandoning this foolishness. But he’s curious, drawn to the danger. He whips the Saturn up to the curb, she grinds out her cigarette underfoot, gets in and they drive off.
“Where to?” he asks, then quickly amends: “How about Starbucks?”
She doesn’t wear a seatbelt, turns sideways to face him, striking a coquettish pose.
“You look nice,” he offers.
“Thanks. So do you.”
“What are we doing here?”
“Going to Starbucks.”
“You know what I mean.”
She smiles, arches her back. Those nipples again.
“We can just turn around if you want.”
He studies her, trying to be cool. He turns her words around in his mind, and as he does this, turn around becomes fool around …
“No,” he says, “we can talk.”
At Starbucks, he orders two Venti-sized coffees. Lurlene asks for some ice on the side. He tries to buy a chocolate chip brownie, but Lurlene won’t let him.
“You’re not allowed, remember?”
On the store sound system, Sinatra’s singing Fly Me to the Moon. Durell stops off at the condiment bar to add milk and sugar. He offers some to Lurlene, she shakes her head. They take a seat outside, as far back as possible, in the shade.
“So, let’s talk,” he says, hands folded on the table.
She covers his hands with hers. They are smooth, soft, cool and her left ring finger sports a barely visible indentation where her wedding band used to be.
“Well, I think Maddox –“
“About you. I want to know more about you.”
“Look, Lurlene …”
“Don’t you ever get lonesome?”
“Don’t you ever just want to talk to someone?”
She pours a glassful of ice into hot coffee. The crackling and shattering is like an electric discharge. Durell relaxes somewhat, takes a long pull off his Venti. Of course there’s nothing wrong with talking, he knows that. He welcomes the opportunity. He’s made no real friends since they moved here. Between Aliyah’s departure and caring for Taury, who’s had time to cultivate friends? The first jolt of caffeine hits his head and vocal cords, uncorking a gush of gratitude.
“Absolutely,” he says. “I’m glad you’ve reached out.”
Flashy smile from Lurlene. “We’re in the same boat,” she says.
The conversation moves along at an earnest, caffeinated clip. Durell smokes several of her Kools. On the surface, everything Durell suspects about this woman is true: white trash all the way, no apologies or self-consciousness about that fact. It’s admirable in a way. She’s been victimized by her spouse, by the system, same as Durell … Lurlene and Durell are in the same boat, there’s no denying it. Still, there’s something dangerous swimming under the surface of this woman, some dimension that a cozy coffee klatch can’t quite expose. Durell’s curiosity has his mind racing almost as fast as his heart; erotic, titillating scenarios flash across his eyes like subtitles in a kinky foreign film. It just can’t be helped. When she says: “I mean, don’t you ever get angry?” Durell nods his head automatically, not really thinking about where the question’s coming from or where Lurlene is taking the conversation. He is amiable, agreeable and it’s a pleasurable feeling.
“I mean,” she says, “don’t you ever just want to grab the first hot piece of ass you can find and say fuck-all!? I know I do.”
She takes a sip of coffee, mouth cocked into a half-grin. Durell nods again, automatically. He catches himself too late, looks down, embarrassed.
“Yeah, well …”
He’s aroused and tries to hide it as he goes inside to use the bathroom. His pee smells of caffeine and nicotine, like it could fuel a rocket. When he comes back, she’s up and ready to go.
“I’ve got to go to work and I’m totally wired.”
“Your car’s at the school, right?”
She remains chatty on the ride back. Far from being annoyed, Durell’s surprised by how much he misses real conversation with a woman. Not the everyday chit-chat with teachers at work. That doesn’t count. You have to keep your guard up in those situations – it’s never real. This feels … well, more intimate. He’s kind of sad at the thought of parting. Lurlene must pick up on this because, as he coasts up to her car – a battered Plymouth Satellite – she swoops: hand on his knee, full mouth kiss with tongue. Squibs of light fulgurate across his field of vision. But he welcomes the kiss and gives back in such a way that there’s no mistaking the left turn they just took.
“Bye,” she whispers.
His lips make a noiseless B-motion.
Heart hammers as he parks the car. Those squibs of light he saw with Lurlene have moved to the periphery, where they continue to flicker and now seem to foretell a crushing migraine. He feels the first tingle of tension move up the left side of his brain as he approaches the school entrance. Classes are letting out, buses lining up. Instinctively, he searches the crowd for Maddox, but doesn’t see him. In the reception area, he stops at the water cooler, carries the cup to his office, closes and locks the door. He debates whether or not to take a pill. It’s just more caffeine, isn’t it? There’s really only one cure: he undoes his pants, quickly and efficiently finds release into a tissue, putting aside for now all conventional professional assumptions about people who do this in areas where they might get caught. He allows wanton thoughts of Lurlene to flood his mind, to spill over.
And anger. Yes. She’s right. There is that.
That night, he watches Taury once again trying to do his math work. Again, he didn’t do it after school. Taury tried, but Fred Yakamoto didn’t show. The boy isn’t blocked by lack of understanding, in Durell’s opinion, it’s lack of will. The spark of intellectual curiosity has dimmed for some reason. Durell picks up the paper, tries to focus on the problems, to see something obvious that maybe Taury’s missing. But it’s all sines, integrals, coordinates … might as well be Chinese. Durell’s head hurts so badly that he sets up Taury in front of the TV to watch a documentary DVD about how the Apollo Program, with only a few missteps, put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. Aldrin in particular was obsessed with the word rendezvous; the docking of Eagle to Columbia was critical to bringing everyone home. Buzz brought the word up in almost every conversation, people recall, rattled off the mathematical calculations like words to his favorite song. Durell listens from the next room, thinking: Our kind of guy. He lies on the bed, heating pad tethered to his head, wondering about the sexual needs of astronauts. Did the Apollo 11 guys feel any kind of eros when Eagle stabbed into Columbia? Durell writhes not just from headache pain but with what he lacks in every part of his soul.
After putting Taury to bed, he takes a long, hot bath. Too much pain for self-gratification, he goes introspective instead. Can I get away with this? He stares at the walls, loneliness echoing. The tiles seem fragile, like he could put his fist through them without even trying. The surrogate womb of bathwater goes cold, forcing an early exit.
Tomorrow’s going to be a crazy day, he can just feel it.
She calls the next morning at precisely 10:10 – the time displayed in all clock and watch advertisements. For years, Durell theorized that 10:10 was the only time perceived by Madison Avenue as neither too late nor too early. The truth, he recently found out, is that it’s the time that best displays the company logo and 10:10 also gives the subliminal perception of a smile. Durell is not smiling despite the thrill of anticipation chilling his abdomen. He still has a horrible headache. Now is the time to scrub the mission, he knows that, and I’ve got a headache is the classic cliché to halt countdown to assignation. But the hope that she might call was the only thing that got him out of bed. Durell checks his appointments: nothing until after school lets out. And he can cancel those easily enough (the Marine Captain father of a soft-spoken sissy whose classmates have accused him of being gay because he probably is, and the usual academic stragglers). He didn’t even need to be here today. Sometimes he fills in for teachers when a substitute cannot be located. The students like him and he feels appreciated in those situations. Durell has always enjoyed the feeling of being available, accessible.
“I have to see you again,” she says.
An hour later, he’s at the Super 8 Motel in Killeen. When he knocks on the designated door, she answers in her underwear.
“Hi,” she smiles.
“Hi. I came here to tell you that I can’t do this.”
She pulls him into the room by his waistband, closes the door. She kisses him and says, “Awww.”
“I have a hell of a headache.”
“Do you want to lie down?” she says, leading him to the bed.
He settles onto the bed. There was never a more comfortable lay-down. She stands before him, hand on her hip. The tattoo he’d seen sprouting up her midriff turns out to be a quarter-moon with a face in profile bedecked with flowers and vines. The fairytale face is smiling, but its skin is moldy green. He looks for stretch marks in the surrounding skin, sees none, absurdly wishing that she had them because it would remind him of his wife.
“No funny business, okay?” he says. “I’m just here to talk.”
“Durell honey? I’m half-naked in a motel – the funny business has already begun.”
He takes in the image of her, and allows: “You’re so pretty.”
She turns on that incendiary smile, slides down beside him. He tenses.
“You should do something about that.”
She nuzzles his neck.
“Then why are you here?”
He has no answer.
“You mean to tell me,” she murmurs, “that you came all this way just to tell me … we’re not gonna do it?”
His body can’t help but respond. She touches him. He removes her hand. She laughs. What am I doing here? he asks himself. Something stupid.
Lurlene’s digging around in her purse. He thinks it’s for cigarettes, but when she pulls out a glass pipe the pounding in his head takes on a metallic tenor.
“No,” he says.
“This will make your head feel better.”
She shrugs, loads the glass pipe with meth.
“Have you ever?”
“I hardly do meth. But the sex is unbelievable.”
He’s still not sold. She doesn’t wait for him. Lighting the pipe, she adds:
“I never slam it.”
She means injecting. Like that’s supposed to make everything okay. Durell watches with disapproving fascination. Lurlene’s eyes glaze like a snake when shedding its skin, as if some primordial meth membrane has been activated.
She grins, speaking words of smoke: “We have achieved liftoff.” Then she scrambles over, crablike. He snaps into a sitting position, afraid. But instead of straddling, she just leans into him and shivers: “Hold me.”
Maybe it’s the smoke in the air, maybe it’s the touch of her body, but the pain in his head briefly subsides. When she kisses him, he can taste euphoria.
“Please fuck me. Please.”
Something about the pleading in her voice. It sounds so pitiful. Despite his reluctance, his desire to do the right thing, he starts to undo his shirt. She’s got his belt, shoes and pants off before he’s even on the second shirt button. She peels off what little underwear she has on and presents herself, ass up. He moves in behind.
“Do it!” she yells.
“Condom,” he says.
Her hand plunges into her purse, feels around and pulls out a fistful of Trojans. Durell’s gratitude that things will be somewhat “safe” emboldens him. It gets him over that last little hurdle of doubt, to where he can take his cue from her and give in to that idea of fuck-all. He enters. Her moans come loud, rhythmic and fast.
“Fuck me …”
“Right.” He doesn’t know what else to say.
“Call me bitch …”
“Get mad, Durell!”
“Call me BITCH!”
“Harder! Mean it!”
Now he really is mad. From out of nowhere, he shouts:
“DO THE MATH, BITCH!”
Taking this to be a kind of raunchy, ethnic argot, Lurlene goes with it:
“Oh yes! Do that math!”
Durell knows what’s coming; when you soar too close to the sun, the wings melt. The passionate expelling of anger is a high-pressure weather system to remedy the low. But the winds and lightning it creates are ephemeral and only make room for another, more intense low. There will be no afterglow, just a cyclonic massing of bad feeling. Almost immediately upon coming, the horror begins to seep in. The full shame of what he’s done, what he’s killed in his marriage. The white, bunched sheets are bones of trust strewn about the bed. He wants to punch himself in the face, like Aliyah would do if she were here. Already, he’s bargaining with his better self, strategizing secret repentance and amends. He doesn’t see a deity off to one side, wagging a finger – Durell’s more practical. He intuits a rent in the fabric of something abstract yet precious that he worked a long time to weave. And even if he mends it in such a way as to escape detection from Aliyah, he will always know that it’s there.
An entirely new kind of headache takes over, one with fresh fuel upon which to feed. He falls on the bed, rolls over on his side, back to her, flings the spent condom in disgust.
“Are you okay?” she says.
She puts a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
Durell says nothing. If it were up to him, Lurlene would get dressed quickly and leave, but it is her motel room. He knows he’s the one who should leave but he’s paralyzed with sadness.
“I mean,” she says, “I’m sorry you feel bad. But I’m glad we did it.”
“Good for you.”
She spoons him. Despite his cold shoulder, she persists. Durell doesn’t deserve her or anyone else’s tenderness. He tries to fling off her arm but she won’t allow it. Now he’s really getting mad, like he might hit her, but she holds on tight. He feels Lurlene’s tears between his shoulder blades. And when Taury’s face enters his thoughts, Durell begins to cry as well – thinking of the lie (or truth) he will have to tell when his son someday asks if Dad was ever unfaithful. And in this manner, after all selfish fluids have been purged, he is able to turn and face this woman, this relative stranger and actually have the honest conversation neither was able to have, but that both of them so desperately needed. She massages the places on his head he directs her to, and it assuages the pain. They share a cigarette, as he listens to the story of her life. It’s a story that holds few surprises, but in a way feels like a carrying case in which he can more easily transport, if not conceal, the trouble he has found. Red beams of late afternoon sun leak through the closed curtain, giving the room the feel of a brick oven. He knows Taury is waiting.
The words running through his mind ever since the sex, This can never happen again, finally pass his lips.
“I understand,” she says.
“I’m not cut out for this.”
But in there, somewhere, is the understanding that once you’ve been to the well it’s easy to come back. For a moment, there is the wish that somehow Lurlene might … disappear. Despite the tender maturity of the moment, her apparent acceptance of the boundaries he’s laying down, there’s the fact that a dead lover is a silent one. Who’s to say what this woman might do some lonely night when, tweaked on crank, she decides to track him down and call him at home? Or show up on his doorstep, screaming and incoherent. The weight of this new burden squeezes further words from his lips.
“You have to promise you’ll never say anything to anyone about this.”
“A lot of people could get hurt.”
“I mean, I don’t … I don’t –”
“Give it a rest, okay? Jesus. You think I’m some kind of psycho bitch? We fucked, okay?!”
She gets up, starts to put her clothes on.
“Sorry,” he says. “I’m new to this.”
“Not sure what you think I am.”
He looks at the purse. It’s like she can read his mind.
“I told you, that’s not a habit.”
“How often do you smoke it?”
“None of your fucking business!”
She’s shimmying into her jeans now.
“You’re the first man I’ve been with since Lanny went away.”
He sits up, doesn’t do a good job of hiding his surprise.
“Hey,” she relaxes, forces a smile. “Look, I know I talk some shit, but … I was –” she laughs, embarrassed. “I was just trying to get laid, you know?”
She wipes away a tear, still chuckling, abashed. He comes to her.
“Me too,” he says. “We were lonely.”
“Yeah.” Now she breaks down totally, every falseness dissolving as if she’d suddenly turned around, got a good look at herself, and became Lot’s wife. It’s a thorough, silent cry and Durell holds her gladly, contributing a tear of his own, thinking: Still lonely. He wonders if Lanny ever held her like this. Not likely – but who’s to say? Each mind a self-contained planet in isolated orbit around a death star, even as we rut. Durell thinks these thoughts, wishing he could say them aloud, but he knows it would only come off as cheap philosophy, lame rationale.
At last, he starts to pull on his clothes.
“What do you do at Hooters, anyway?”
Her ears catch the confused tone.
“You ever been?”
“Didja think it’s a titty-bar?”
“I’ve never been there.”
“No way,” she sits down, twirls a pump by the heel before putting it on. “When Lanny got sent up it was either Hooters or the pole.”
“Dancin’ naked. You know. Like at the Dollhouse.”
“I got a kid, you know?” she says. “This is more respectable.”
Every billboard, store sign, car … every driver and certainly every woman seems different through the eyes of the new adulterer. Shame and opportunity fight like two cats in a bag within the mind of a man who’s broken his vows. He replays the sex in his head, allowing himself to compartmentalize stolen pleasures of the afternoon, store them for future consideration. This was, and will be known as, his affair. As such, it has an intrinsic value and malignancy. If one were to fast-forward several years, Durell could see how this might be viewed as one of those character-building moments, especially if he is able to keep it hidden, to avoid blurting it out in some misguided moment of marital candor. To keep Lurlene Spivey at arm’s length where she belongs; to protect his wife from that thing which he knows only now has no meaning, but would mean everything to Aliyah.
His son is waiting, sitting on the ground behind the fence. Fred Yakamoto sits alongside, open book of Calculus problems on his lap.
“Sorry I’m late,” Durell calls out.
“That’s okay,” says Fred, rising to his feet, brushing dirt off his pants. “Gave me and Taury a little extra time to get caught up.”
It seems to Durell that where he’s been for the last several hours must be obvious to Fred, as if images of himself and Lurlene in flagrante delicto were tattooed all over his face. Fred smiles. To Durell, it’s almost a leer.
“Met with the mother of a student,” says Durell. He’s sweating and inexplicably out of breath.
“Right. Okay,” says Fred. “We really made some progress today, didn’t we?”
Taury nods, gets in.
“Thanks, Fred. Sorry again.”
Fred gives a dismissive, forgiving wave and a wink. The Saturn pulls away and merges into traffic. Durell takes Taury to Captain D’s for some brain food. On the way, they pass Hooters and it grinds Durell to think that the memory of today will forever pop up in his head whenever he sees the name.
“So Fred got you caught up?”
“He explain what you were doing wrong?”
“He gave me the answer first, then I was able to figure it out.”
At the table, waiting on baskets of catfish, hush puppies and coleslaw, Taury takes out the calculus book and plays with the problems, exerting newfound mastery over process, showing off for his father. He doesn’t ask about Durell’s day, as he sometimes does, and for this Durell feels a minute, incalculable measure of gratitude. But that does not prevent Durell himself from checking his own work. Checking and double checking. Not just for today but for the last 76 hours, and beyond. He covers the last eleven months, eight years of marriage – his entire life. There are no easy answers, but Durell is learning: once you have the probable outcome, it’s much easier to figure out the equation by working backwards.
The companion song to this story can be heard here: