“Don’t worry. there’ll be better days.”
“For both of us, I mean.”
“I know, or at least I hope. But you were going?”
She leaves. I putter around the house: sweep up, put away dishes, mop the kitchen and bathroom floors. She comes back.
“I got all the way to the bridge when I realized I forgot something.”
“Forgot to stay away.”
“Don’t be nasty. I’ll get it and then I’ll go, and I won’t be back.”
But she’s upstairs. Comes down with her hair dryer.
“Your hair dryer, no less. Oh, you really needed to come back for that.”
“I thought why bother buying one as long as I have one here. Because you weren’t planning on using it, were you?”
“Oh, sure, can’t you see me under it with my five hairs on top and short side hair. But what you should’ve thought in your car was why have a dryer at all?”
“You can’t let up?”
“You can’t dry your hair with a towel?”
“With a trowel, that’s how I’d like to dry your hair. Anyway, my dryer makes drying quick and easy. Saves me time for more important things.”
“Like prolonging affairs?”
“One affair. The others weren’t even minor romances. Not even mini-minor ones. Just tosses in the hay if there was hay.”
“A turn or toss in the sack, then.”
“If the sack’s supposed to be the mattress on the bed, then for most of them, that’s correct.”
“The sack is the bed. Old word for it, and the tossing or turning business, old expression. I think it comes from the navy—if not the expression, then the word, or maybe both.”
“You were in the navy?”
“You saying you didn’t know?”
“I thought it was the marines.”
“Navy. Private first class.”
“I know they don’t have privates.”
“Sailors don’t have privates? Oh, new joke if it isn’t an old one. They’ve privates, privies and privileges, as in liberties, or they did when I was junior grade.”
“You were an ensign, now I remember. Well, I salute you, Ensign Wilkerson, and say ahoy there or whatever the nautical term is for goodbye.”
“Shove off. Okeydoke and adieu, my dope, as the French navy might say,” and she leaves.
“Screw you too, once my hope, now my rope. Good riddance, my former deliverance, and…and…nothing. Just nothing.” I throw a coffee mug, only dish I didn’t wash and put away, through one of the front windows. She comes back.
“You know, I was opening my car door when I heard the crash. At first I thought let him get his anger out. It’s good for him. Then he’ll be calm, like seas are calm after a storm, which all junior grades are familiar with, right? Then I thought hell, I still own half this house, so my warning to you, Ensign Wilkerson, first-class jerk, is don’t go busting up any more of it or I’ll get my rear admiral on your ass, or whatever the legal officer is in navy talk, for more than just a divorce. In other words—”
“In other words, go hang myself or slit my own throat, you were going to say?”
“Ah, you were always so considerate and sweet: property more important than people, in your book. To that I say, screw property, yours and mine, jointly or singly held,” and I throw a lamp through another front window. She runs to the phone, looks in the directory, and dials.
“Police? I’m in your precinct—3035 Waverly—and my husband is tearing up our house and I want him arrested… Yes, it’s a domestic dispute. It always is if it’s between husband and wife, but that shouldn’t stop you from coming here. It’s half my house, and after he gets done destroying it, I fear he’s going to start on me… Good. Edith Wilkerson, his is Walt. Please hurry.” She hangs up.
“So you’re going to stay after all.”
“Till the police arrive and then just long enough to have you put away in jail or a mental institution. In fact, the hell with my beating it out of here. You’re the one who’ll have to go and be barred from this house for life, even if I’m the one who carried on and am ending this marriage.” She picks up the receiver and dials. “Mrs. Silbert, please.” That’s her lawyer. “Miriam? It’s Edith. Walt’s destroying our house. Literally, I mean. I was in the process of leaving… No, I don’t think his breaking up the place is natural.” I pick up the extension. “He’s on the extension so watch what you say. He’s already broken two front windows that are full pane, not little French ones, and I’ve called the police and would like you to be over here as soon as you can.”
“I can’t come now, Edith. I’m tied up all day.”
“Then get a writ out against him, or something, but quickly, because I don’t want him staying here. He’s going to wreck the whole house. I know it.”
“Did he threaten that?”
“Ask him. I told you he’s on the extension.”
“You also told me to watch what I say. Okay. Walt, this is Miriam Silbert, Edith’s lawyer who’s handling her divorce. You’ve received several letters from me and notices from the court with my name on them, so you know who I am. My question is, are you planning on doing further harm to the house?”
“And her lawyer. And the police who come here. Everything. The front and backyards and basement and Edith too. I am going to murder her.”
“Walt, just what you’re saying now could land you in jail for a while and provide even additional grounds for a divorce, so try to be reasonable and answer me.”
“All right. I’ll only murder her lawyer.”
“I’m serious, Walt. What my advice is—”
“Lawyers always have advice. Don’t you people have marital and social and psychological problems of your own?”
“Of course. I was born poor to insane parents and had a miserable childhood and adolescence and got divorced twice. That’s neither here nor there except for the experience and know-how and insights into human nature it gave me. Now I’m happy.”
“You know this creep Edith is supposedly in love with?”
“I am in love with him, no supposedly,” Edith says.
“Edith, let me talk to Walt. You’re in business, Walt. You know that a lawyer, even in court under oath, can’t divulge what a client’s told her. Especially not to the client’s contestant.”
“Her client, his contestant, party of the first tart, the second fart. Bull. Divulge. Bulge. Bilge. Reveal. God, you people are creeps. You ought to be her lover, not lawyer.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean? Little more of it, and you’ll be hauled into court by me.”
“It was nothing. Silliness. Senselessness. Man in distress. You were about to suggest? Perhaps that I leave this house for a hotel, agree to the divorce proceedings and give in to everything and make your work easier than pie eating, yes? Okay, I will. I did I do, and now I will. But no big settlement in her favor, you hear? I’ll pay half the divorce costs and that’s it. Two kids in college, and I’ll do my best to keep them there, but to pay only half. My share of the house and all its belongings I’ll give free and clear to the three of them, but let the kids work for the rest of their college costs if Edith can’t come up with it. It’ll do them good. You worked. I worked. Edith didn’t much, but she’ll have to now.”
“Times have changed, Walt,” Miriam says.
“Why? Because schools are much more expensive now? So pay is a lot more also than in your day or mine.”
“There aren’t that many available jobs for college students. That’s why they do unpaid internships.”
“Manure. Kids can always find work. Picking dead tree limbs out of pachysandra bushes or whatever pachysandra is. A ground covering. An herb. A friend of mine has a son who did that last month for four bucks an hour, imagine that?”
“Walt, I’m very busy. Appointments and meetings. We’ll talk about leaves and manure another time.”
“But I’m divulging the dog-eared ruth, Miriam, the ragtagged forsooth.”
“You are what?”
“Nothing. I’m crazy. Rather, feeling rather crazy today. Where’s the nearest lamp? There’s still one front window to blow out.”
“He’s left the phone, Miriam. I think he went looking for a lamp. Here he is, unplugging one now. No, ripping it out of the wall. Hold it. I’ve got to stop him.”
She tries to stop me. I shove her to the floor. She jumps up and grabs the lamp by the cord while I hold it by the top. Tug, pull. “Walt, Edith,” I hear Miriam on the phone. Edith now has the lamp by the base. I drag the lamp to the phone with Edith pulling back at her end and say into the receiver, “You don’t think I should do it, Miriam?”
“If you mean throw the lamp through the window, of course not.”
“Strangle Edith with the lamp cord, I mean.”
“Miriam, will you get someone here to restrain him?” Edith yells a few feet away from the phone.
“Walt, I’m hanging up now and calling the police to get over there right away. Maybe Edith didn’t tell them how serious it is.”
“Too late. They’re here.” I hang up. The doorbell rings. “Go answer it, please. I’m bushed, and you invited them.”
“Only when you put the lamp down and promise to back off.”
“I promise.” I put it down. She goes to the door. I throw the lamp through the one front window left. Two cops come in with drawn guns. “Welcome, strangers.”
“He’s tearing up the house,” Edith says.
“We can see,” one of them says. “You want to relax a second, Mr. Wilkerson?”
“And your names, my friendly police?”
“I said to relax. Now cool it.”
“I think I’m allowed to have your names. You’re in fact both supposed to be wearing name tags above your badges.”
“That’s in the city, not here in the county.” They’ve put away their guns.
“You want me to relax and cool it. I want your names.”
“As you say. Allen and John.”
“You were born and went through life without cognomens?”
“Those are our last. I’m Jim, and he’s Russell.”
“Howdy, fellas. I’m Walt Wilkerson. I live here. I broke those three windows, as you must’ve heard. You at least heard the third being broke. Or created those three holes. No, the panes will have to be replaced, so they’re more than holes; they’re broken for life. This is my wife, Edith. Show them the sunny side of your teeth, Edie. We were married twenty-one years ago, or are about a week shy of that anniversary date. Or maybe I’m just shy, but she’s not. For lately she’s had many dates and this month she’s taken up seriously with another man. Before then, just dates with others. Maybe six altogether. I can’t say she’s had those six altogether, though I’m sure in pairs and maybe even once as a trio they’ve been in the altogether. As you can see I’ve become quite torn up about it, which I’ve been demonstrating by tearing up this house. But they’re nothing-much affairs, the previous six. A night. Maybe two. A morning or three. A couple of summer weeks when she met them on the beach, and I could only come out weekends because I worked. We have two children who used to vacation with us when they were younger, Sue and Chuck. You can chuck Chuck, and though I don’t think Suzie’s thinking of suing me, I’m sure her mother and brother are. Insufferable kid, Chuck, but Sue’s okay. Both are away in college and spending plenty of money and getting so-so grades. Neither thinks much of me and my work or have much to speak about with me, and though the feeling wasn’t mutual, it’s become so the last year. I’m naturally mad at what’s happened to me, or if you listen to my wife, just mad naturally. Mostly because she told me last night about the quick six and this recent heartthrob and that he’s the main reason she instituted the divorce. Now she’s going to try to institutionalize me. Hot flash: fat chance. Edith, dear, could you get these men coffee and cake while we talk?”
“I wish they’d just take you away.”
“I think I’ve a better solution,” Jim says. “How about if we try to settle the dispute without your having to press charges or our booking him at the station house and both of you going through the whole court scene?”
“I’m sorry, fellas. If pressing charges is the single best way of getting him out of here, that’s what I want to do.”
“I won’t go without a row,” I say.
“Don’t tempt us,” Russell says. “So far we’ve let you run off at the mouth and scare the daylights out of us with your third broken window there, and now we’re having a nice discussion. But don’t speak about making tough.”
“I know judo and other martial arts.”
“No, he doesn’t,” she says, “or never showed it. It’s true he was in the navy during some Asian war, although I thought it was the marines. An ensign.”
“Long time ago. Garbage barge. Skippered it around the bigger ships and smaller destroyers. But I was a lousy sailor. Bad sea legs. I also can’t stand to fight. The judo and stuff was just for mental discipline and body tone. I’m really a peaceful man experiencing a painful crisis. But if your wife suddenly told you she’s slept with six other men in the last year and that she hates your guts and sight and said all this in the dark of your bedroom moments after you told her how much you still adore her and long to make love with her, I doubt either of you would have taken it any better than I.”
“I never married,” Russell says.
“Then you, Jim.”
“I was. To be honest, splitting up was the next best thing that ever happened to my wife and me, the first being our brood.”
“You see, Walt?” she says. “If the marriage isn’t working out, why postpone the divorce?”
“That’s how we felt, Mrs. Wilkerson.”
“Oh, do call her Edith,” I say. “Anything more than that, she’ll begin to mind.”
“We had three kids. Bing, bang and boom, that’s how quickly they seemed to come. But we’d gotten hitched too young. So, very amicably, no dillydallying with legal advice or anything, we decided, after we’d seriously talked it over, and have continued to honor our original arrangement once we knew the marriage was through—”
“Yes, yes,” I say, “that was you two, but with me it’s different. I still love my wife and think a reconciliation can be made.”
“That’s absurd and a lie, Walt,” she says.
“Will you just get these men some coffee?”
“No, thanks,” Jim says. “We just had breakfast.”
“I wouldn’t mind a cup,” Russell says.
“Heat up the Danish also. Please, they work hard and are probably hungry.” She goes into the kitchen. “Can I speak plainly with you guys, man to men?”
“Of course,” Jim says. “That’s what we’re also here for.”
“It’s not only my tender feelings for her or that I can’t see myself suddenly living alone after so many years of marriage, kids, barracks, college dorms and with my siblings and folks. Or even those six brief liaisons and now the one long one. But then when a woman tells you she’s never loved you and in fact could never stand you and you’re that and this when you always thought you were this and that, well—”
“You got agitated,” Jim says.
“The windows. The everything. I even threatened to kill her and her lawyer both.”
“Shouldn’t do that.”
“Don’t I know. It’s all wrong. But man—a person—is only human. If we didn’t get excited sometimes, we’d explode. Or we’d be automatons, if that word’s still used.”
“Even so—three windows. It’s going to cost a lot. This house jointly owned?”
“She can have everything—that’s not my point. But only after I bust a little more of it up first.”
“No can do,” Russell says. “The house has to be totally yours to destroy. Even if it is, if your destroying it is disturbing the peace of your neighbors, you’d be breaking another law and so can’t destroy your own house. It sounds unfair. You should be able to do with your own property what you want, right? But if you live around people, you have to show respect for them if that’s the norm of the land and the law.”
“Wait till your divorce settlement comes through,” Jim says. “Then, if you get the house and still feel the same way, do it with as little noise as possible and staying within the building safety code. Bust up the whole inside if you want—we won’t stop you. The outside might be a different story. For instance, something like a very neglected lawn or façade that’s beginning to depreciate the property value of the rest of the neighborhood, I think they can get you for that too.”
“Then I ought to swing along with the divorce, say all my threats were said in a fit of anger and I didn’t mean them, and try to get this house. If I do, I can do what I like inside it providing I don’t cause too much of a ruckus or make the place structurally unsound and its exterior isn’t visually offensive to my neighbors. I got it. Thanks a lot, guys. I think that should be all.”
“We have to speak to Mrs. Wilkerson first before we leave,” Russell says. He goes into the kitchen.
“You like your job?” I ask Jim.
“Very much, and it pays okay.”
“Me, I freelance now and have plenty of fun.”
“You meet them at bars?”
“Bars, parties, friends’ homes, work and on vacations. No shortage of great ladies out there, I found.”
“Still see the kids?”
“On my days off. I take them or just visit. My ex-wife has a much better disposition toward me when I get there, now that I’m gone.”
“Don’t you still desire her when you see her?”
“Why should I? I have my own women now, she her men, so between us it’s all business and concerns and tales of the kids. When you first divorce you can’t believe you’ll think this way, but soon it becomes second nature with you no matter how hard you fight it.”
“Can I get that down in writing?”
“As long as you don’t ask me to do it in blood. Look, to me, with your sense of humor and clear moments coming up more now than then, your problem is just emotional and temporary. Off the record, you’re still pretty young—not old, at least. So you have kids college age. So will I in twelve years. And you still got your energy and if you lose twenty pounds and keep jogging around a bit and let the hair on one side grow out and comb it over your head in a concealing way, you’ll have a good face and figure too. And living in this house and neighborhood must mean your standard of living’s way up there also, so you’ll survive. Better than that, you’ll thrive. Women go for guys with money to burn. Maybe we weren’t made for living with just one person all our lives. Something only this generation’s finding out.”
“Oh, they knew it in early Greece and ancient Rome.”
“There you are—you’ve brains, too. Think of your split-up as almost a renewed lease and blessing. But now let me ask you a few questions. You going to pack your bags now, go to the city and take a room there and let Mrs. Wilkerson live peacefully in the house for the time being? Because if you insist on staying and she presses charges to force you to leave, the judge, as they usually are with the wives, will be more sympathetic to her than to you.”
“Yes, I’m going to do exactly as you say.” I head for the door.
“Wait till Russell comes back. And don’t you think you should put on your socks and shoes?”
I get my keys off the wall hook and open the door.
“Now I said to hold it, Walt. That means stop right there.”
Their car’s blocking mine. Edith left the keys in hers, and I get in it. Jim and Russell rush up to the car as I back out of the driveway to the street. “I said to halt,” Jim says. He unsnaps his holster.
“Don’t be a fool,” Russell says. “We’ll get him later.”
I drive off, waving to them as I go. Edith is at the door. I drive down the street. There’s the tricycling McQuire kid and Gretchen raking her lawn. And the Beinstock triplets in their stroller, three of them in a row. Cute. Abe Eaton. Myra Skintell. Mrs. Nichols. “Hiya, Mrs. Nichols,” I yell out the window.
“Morning, Walt,” she says. Nice lady. Always there when we needed her or one of her children to baby-sit. All seemingly happily married couples and contented boys and girls. So Edith and I and our kids didn’t make it. Or at least I didn’t with them. So, that’s what happens sometimes.
I drive to town, park and go into the smoke shop where I know there’s a phone. Two men at the magazine stand look at me and then at each other as if they think I’m a bit off. Sure, the bare feet and the only shirt I have on is an undershirt and it’s late fall. Well, so I’m doing something out of the norm, but not against the law, I don’t think. I say to them, “You’d be in bare feet and only this skimpy shirt too if you went through what I did today. First my wife tells me about her six and one lovers. Next I knock out three front windows of my house and threaten not only her life but her lawyer’s. The cops are after me for fleeing what might be considered the scene of a crime, which is knocking out my windows and threatening my wife’s life or just escaping in her car—which might not be a crime if it’s considered jointly owned—but anyway, before they said I could go.”
“Shouldn’t you be going back to square things with them?” the younger man says.
“Mind your beeswax, Pete,” the other man says.
“He told us, so I’m just suggesting to him.”
“Do what I say and don’t get involved.”
“Ah, the attitude of the day,” I say. “Stay cool, your nose clean, hands off, once removed—no, I don’t know what I’m saying. But that’s what I hear a lot from the guests and call-in folks on the radio talk shows, going into the city and on my way back. You know, to and from work? But I don’t believe it, do you? We’re all still earth dwellers and not very far from our origins and so pretty much the same, isn’t that so?”
“What?” Pete said.
“Now I told you, Pete,” the other man says.
“My dad says to keep my trap shut, so I will, but I can’t make out half what you’re saying.”
“Your father? How nice. Hello, sir. Walt Wilkerson here. May I ask your name?”
“Hyram Falk. This is Pete.”
“Glad to meet you both.” I shake their hands. “What are you reading?”
“Just magazines,” Pete says.
“Good for you. Excuse me, I got to make an important phone call.” I dial information, get Miriam’s work number and call her. “Miriam, I’m about to make your job much easier and also make it possible for Edith to pay your exorbitant fees. I’m going to burn down my house now so she can collect all the insurance money from it and, though I’ll contest it to make it look authentic, grant a quick divorce because of the mental cruelty inflicted on her by my burning the house down with all her things in it.”
“Don’t, Walt,” she says. “The authorities will say you did it only to get the insurance money for Edith, and then she’ll get nothing. Besides, she called before and said your house is being watched and that the police of your town and the surrounding ones are out looking for you. She suggests, and I go along with it, that you plead temporary insanity and that I represent you in criminal court. Believe me, it all looks bad now, but everything will work out.”
I do. It doesn’t.