Gary M. Almeter

'Holly'

Photo courtesy of  Diana on Flikr

Photo courtesy of Diana on Flikr

By Gary Almeter

Holly’s curiosity about the contestants never waned. Sometimes, as the contestants were pondering how much the big screen television cost, or as Bob was explaining how to play Cliffhanger, Holly would wonder a variety of questions. “Who does this person love?” “Who, if anyone, does she wake up next to every morning?” “What did your mother call you as a baby?” “Are you a good girl?” “How do you treat your wife?” “Do you drink too much?” "What kind of man was your father?"

 

Holly had red hair, that brilliant iridescent rusty orange color, which both belied its humble Texas origins and solidified her unique girl-next-door-meets-Hollywood-glamour charm. She came to be known as the clumsy one; the one who provided comic relief. While she understood the need, she grew to resent this role because she wasn’t really that clumsy. Task anyone with parading up and down a sleek and highly-illuminated sound stage in an effort to transform ordinary household items into concupiscent objects of desire and that person will drop an item or two in a decade. So yeah, clumsy was a misnomer. That notwithstanding, she did recognize that her name by itself did connote a certain frivolity and effervescence since it was one of the plants most associated with the Christmas season and also the first two syllables of “holiday.”      

The house where Holly grew up, the house that her father built, is still there, on the corner of Hacienda and Magnolia Streets. The manager of a fast food restaurant lives in it today. Aluminum siding has replaced the cedar shingles and a closed in porch has replaced the veranda where they used to sit. Holly likes old words like that—words her grandparents used to say like veranda, foliage, rubbish, and shears. The shed and the fence and the barn are all gone as are the shade trees and the adjacent fields, upon which dozens of houses, split-level ranchers clearly built in the 1970s, now stand. Without the tall elms there are unobstructed views to the backyards, the clotheslines, the swimming pools, the trampolines. Where Holly grew up, people decorated their yards with big rocks and drove big trucks and believed that when they talked to God he listened to them exclusively.  

The first time Holly saw snow she was 12 years old. She was brushing her recently washed hair and for inspiration, had a little transistor radio tuned to a Top 40 station. She was using her hairbrush as a microphone and singing along to Petula Clark’s “Downtown” when she heard her mother jubilantly exclaiming from downstairs that it was snowing. Holly rushed outside. Everyone else on their street spent the next half hour or so gazing upwards with tongues outstretched, taking running starts and sliding on the street pavement, and generally frolicking about. Holly was also staring up when Larry Cooper, a new kid a grade above Holly in school who had just moved to their street from Atlanta and who Holly thought was fresh, came over and old Holly that he was in love with her. The snow didn’t stick at all. In the midst of making a snow angel, Holly saw that her still-wet hair had frozen which, when considered in conjunction with Larry Cooper’s proclamation, made her laugh. Her mother had freshly laundered dungarees on the clothesline and those had also frozen. 

As it turned out, Larry Cooper’s mother was sick so his parents sent him to live with his aunt. One day Larry asked Holly to the movies. After some efforts and orchestrations on the part of Holly’s mother and Larry’s aunt, it was agreed that they would go see “Beach Blanket Bingo” starring Frankie and Annette. Larry’s aunt, who everyone fancied a suppressor of such exuberance, had advocated they go see “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” which chronicled the life of Jesus Christ. At the movies, Larry told Holly that his uncle had lost his job and that he was likely going back to Atlanta. When at the theater, which in its day was one of the nicer ones, Holly had difficulty not focusing on the marble black and white checkered floor, gleaming brass railings, and red velvet ropes embellishing the lobby. Holly remembers Larry telling her that he was moving back to Atlanta and thinking only that the red plush on the chairs had balded to such a degree as to render them almost unusable. 

Holly’s mother was Miss San Antonio Bexar County Outstanding Teen in 1948. She did not have iridescent rust colored hair but did have the same iridescent smile that she passed down to Holly, but she was a real beauty. She had brown hair with glimmers of bronze in it and blue-blue eyes that held within them an infinite capacity for chastisement. To chastise Holly she did not have to speak, her eyes did it all with one piercing gaze. But when she approved of something that Holly did, everything about her seemed to soften. The stream of bluish light emanated from her eyes was like a melting delphinium. Holly recalls being five and watching her mother get ready for an evening out. Her mother wore a silver-fox fur piece and a white kettle hat and a silk dress and her father wore a tuxedo. Holly’s mother dabbed some Chanel on Holly’s wrists.

 

If I don’t like it here I can always leave, Holly had thought when she first arrived in Los Angeles.  

Leaving San Antonio was the first time she had ever left anyplace without feeling totally bereft at the departure. The only thing that terrified her about living in Los Angeles was thinking of her parents’ demise, that her parents would die while she was away, that they would die alone (which was ridiculous in light of the fact that they had a sizable family nearby), that they would die before Holly would have kids. They would go about the minutiae of their daily lives thinking that Holly had moved to Los Angeles as a means of escape rather as a destination.  

The rental agent who showed Holly her first apartment was named Mr. Voltura. He spoke with a slight British accent and taught mathematics at the community college at night. He told Holly that he was not supposed to show the apartment as its former tenant had just died and the entire contents of the apartment was part of an estate that still needed to be appraised. He said he was making an exception for her. When they entered it, the apartment looked like it had been ravage. All the drawers were open and there was grime on top of every single surface. As Holly walked around the entrance and what would soon be her living room, the decedent’s brother emerged from the bedroom and told them that he was trying to get things in order. He told Holly that his sister, the former tenant, was a nurse and that her friends and patients were always giving her things to thank her for things that she had done for them. The brother, who Holly pictured sleeping atop the sofa covered with invoices and old financial documents, told Holly that if she wanted anything she could take it. 

Her first roommate J.D. was an enthusiastic production assistant for a company that made pornographic films. Holly saw his ad for a roommate on a bulletin board. He would come from work wearing a carpenter’s belt repurposed and filled with porn accouterments: dildos, lotions, lip balms, towels, lubes of varying scents and viscosities, hair brushes, and spray bottles. He would sometimes wash and disinfect the dildos while the two watched television. Holly got her own place when she got the role on the show.

Holly never married. She had a number of lovers and a less significant number of boyfriends while she lived in Los Angeles, including one of the stars of “M*A*S*H” who I won’t name because that would just be poor form and I generally don’t like to gossip. They dated before the era of omnipresent paparazzi so no one knew about it. Her singleness made the on-air flirtation with the contestants, especially the ones in the military, that much more endearing. Her mother said that Holly never had any taste in men. Holly broke up with the only one Holly’s mother ever liked shortly after she told Holly that she liked him. As justification, Holly told her mother that he was dull. The thing is, Holly had really liked him too but such an admission would have felt like acquiescence to her mother who had not wanted her to move to Los Angeles. The boyfriend—his name was Denis—was Russian. His family had moved from Latvia where his father had worked in a Riga Autobus Factory when the factory was destroyed in a war of some sort.

She kept a pile of paperback books on her nightstand. The book tower featured Russian literature mostly, “The Brothers Karamozov” and “Anna Karenina” among them. Denis went to Tufts University and majored in Russian Language and Literature. He had also been a member of the Tufts Beelzebubs, Tufts University’s premiere all-male a cappella group, and frequently regaled Holly with stories of their a cappella triumphs. She had heard him speaking Russian once and it made her feel so naughty. She dated him during the xenophobic Reagan years. It was so unlike her on-screen persona. 

 

After Holly had to literally push Bob off of her, she filled out a sexual harassment complaint form. By the time she had sat down in the offices of Mark Goodson and Bill Todman she had lost her nervousness. Mr. Goodson lifted the pink sheet of paper and shook it at her.

“Do you recognize this?” he asked. 

“Yes,” she said.”  That is the sexual harassment complaint form I filled out.”

“It would appear to name Bob on the complaint,” Mr. Todman chimed in. 

“Yes,” Holly said.

They went on to explain everything that Bob had done for people and what a nice guy he was and how everyone looked up to him and how sometimes innocuous things like remarking on someone’s clothes might be construed as sexual innuendo when in reality, there was no such innuendo attached.

Holly wanted to say that this was far greater than mere innuendo and that she was often scared to come to work. Bob had made his intentions quite clear and that really the police should be called. All she said was, “I’m sorry.” She twisted her lips, as if she had tasted something foul that he just had to spit out , and walked out of the office.  

She used to resent the other two ladies with whom she was, and would perpetually be, associated. With the help of her therapist, that resentment has now dissipated. She thinks about them with some frequency and with fondness. Nonetheless, in light of geography and the passage of time she rarely sees them and was surprised when Dian called her and asked if she and Janice could visit for a few days. They were both still in Los Angeles and doing well. 

She bought the home that she now lives with the money she got in the settlement. “Millions,” she told Ann Curry on NBC’s “Today Show” after telling Ann how she lost everything during the decade-long court battle. She had to fill the home from scratch and while so doing would, with great frequency, happen upon products she once coyly caressed on national television. She reveled in it—walking up and down Best Buy and gingerly massaging the Whirlpool refrigerators, the Amana washers and dryers, the GE self-cleaning ovens. With great flourish she walked through the Bed Bath and Beyond at the Alamo Quarry Shopping Center and caressed the Hamilton Beach coffee maker, the Cuisinart blender, and Kitchen-Aid toaster before she put them in her cart. She even bought a Michael C. Fina diamond necklace for herself just because. She stocked her pantry with foodstuffs she never would eat—Chef-Boyardee ravioli, Sue Bee honey, and Jif peanut butter—as a celebratory and defiant punctuation mark to the years she spent shilling that shit on the show.

She rarely watches television so, when in need of ambient noise to fill the home, she listens to The Beatles. Her parents, Beatles devotees, listened to them non-stop when she was growing up. This made them anomalies in San Antonio where most people listened to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. She can’t think of her father without picturing him with a cigarette in his mouth. She recalls the smoking and the cigarettes fondly in a good, 1950s, “we are an indomitable species” sort of way. He had rust colored hair too. Holly has also inherited his mannerisms. He was both elated and disappointed when she told him she was going to Hollywood. She also pictured her mother with a dishtowel in her hands.

 

Holly found herself slowly drinking coffee in her kitchen with the two women mentioned earlier. She notices that Dian’s tits are less perky and Janice’s skin isn’t as luminous, but that is of no consequence to these old buddies who each secretly suspect the feeling they have for each other is more akin to what veterans might feel. They are remembering the past, talking about Bob, Rod, and Johnny as though saying their names would summon them from the dead. They all had issues with Bob. Holly was prudent and judicious, and had no patience for any sort of wrongdoing. After her complaint, she had simply tried to disassociate herself with what was happening until he asked her to lie with respect to Dian’s suit against him. They sat outside and drank mimosas remembering contestants they abhorred or adored or for whom they felt profound sympathy. They recalled those t-shirts with iron-on fuzzy letters evincing the contestant’s devotion to Bob, and how Bob would make people who guessed the price of the item up for bids with precision dig deep into his pocket and pull out a hundred dollar bill. They did this all day.

That night after dinner, they sat on the terrace and watched the sun set. Barrels of bright orange poppies separated the flagstones form the lawn that sloped down the hill to the lake, where it ended abruptly as if it were a scene in a child’s coloring book. 

Holly gathered up the dishes, carried them to the sink, sprinkled them with dish soap, adjusted the water. She let it run while she took some paper towels from the dispenser next to the sink and wiped the kitchen table down. Janice and Dian were upstairs packing. It was almost time to drive them to the airport and Holly wondered if she would drop them off at the departing flights gates or park her car and walk in and wait with them.

For the first time since she has known these women, the threat of betrayal is not widely felt, does not seem to invade every conversation and every meal. They had survived the chronic and perpetual threats that come from being models in Hollywood and the perpetual litigation that came as a result of Bob. For several years there was no communication whatsoever and at court dates and depositions and hearings they would sometimes not acknowledge one another and studiously look the other way. But they were still intimately bound up and to one another. Holly noticed how their posture as each of them sat in their chair—leaning forward arms on knees—made their bellies bulge. This would have made Holly sad at one time but currently didn’t. She couldn’t even recall when she last felt sad. 

 

People recognize her with some frequency when she is out and about in San Antonio. Sometimes people see her and point and say “Holly!!” or “Come on down!!” Other times people will say something akin to “I know you from somewhere” and then go through their mental Rolodex until they get it. Most of the time she feels people stare, wonder, and point. Her thirty-pound weight gain was well documented in public court documents. She wanted it that way. She’s in her 60s now.

It’s hard for a woman of limited means to plan her own demise. She learned that during that time she lived in her car and would entertain thoughts of suicide at odd times. Not when she was sleep deprived and gazing up at the stars when parked outside Concepcion Park; not when “Eleanor Rigby” came on the oldies radio station she usually listened to and she had to simultaneously think about how lonely she was and about her father playing the record in happier times; not when she was hungry. Depression is mean. It hits you when you least expect it. It hit her at times like when she saw kids jump roping. Or the tree that reminded her of the tree in the backyard of her childhood home.

But what could she have done? Her car was not reliable enough to accelerate to a speed that would guarantee her death if she tried to wrap it around a telephone pole at 110 m.p.h., and she could not afford prescription pills. She could neither afford nor tolerate the idea of putting a gun in her mouth. She wasn’t going to jump off anything because that method invariably gave you seconds of lucidity to regret what you had done. So she stuck with it, the lawsuit and the living. 

Oddly, the worst thing about living in your car after losing your home while in the midst of a protracted lawsuit with a beloved game show host and a television network isn’t the actual living. It was actually quite cozy. You get accustomed to the contours of the seats and figure out how precisely to arrange your jean jacket against the window to achieve maximum support. You figure out which parks and Wal-Mart stores to get to and when to get them to guarantee a safe spot underneath a street lamp of some sort. The tough part of living in your car is getting out of your car. The toughest part was walking into a gas station restroom with your toothbrush and toothpaste and deodorant in a plastic bag so that onlookers could only assume that you were living in your car. Moving about in the presence of other humans feeling the exposure, the humiliation, the embarrassment. Otherwise, you were shielded by a roof and four doors.

 

Holly stops with some frequency at the Neiman Marcus at the Shops at La Cantera and buys bags for people. Holly likes the Tory Burch tote bags. They’re luxury items and probably impractical but she feels that you need that sort of stuff the most at hard times. She delivers them to the Battered Women and Children’s Center. Holly will also stop at CVS and buy enough toothpaste and deodorant and lotion—the good brands—to fill up the bags.

Now and again, she will pick up a product once featured on the show.  Holly will secretly hold the item, as if to a camera, and smile before she defiantly and triumphantly drops it into her shopping basket.    

Gary M. Almeter is an attorney and has been published in McSweeney's and The Good Men Project. He lives in Baltimore, Md. with his wife, three children, and beagle. Also check out his short stories "The Love Song of JFK Jr.," "Goodbye, Buster Bucheit," and his writing playlist

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ORIGINAL FICTION ARCHIVE

'Goodbye, Buster Bucheit'

Photo credit:  Tim Hetrick

Photo credit: Tim Hetrick

By Gary M. Almeter

Buster Bucheit died on May 20, 1980, the 199th day of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Arnold’s Little League team had been slated to have a game that evening and had to forfeit when neither Buster, nor his son Chuck, showed up. Arnold went home that evening, turned on the news and saw a poster board, rudimentary by today’s standards, which said “Day 199” behind John Chancellor’s right shoulder. Arnold thought the numbering odd, more like the price of a Broyhill recliner on “The Price is Right” than a standard by which people measured days. 

Iranian militants had nothing to do with Buster’s demise, nor did any of the other international skullduggeries or domestic crises that peppered that era. Buster was not a character in Watergate or ABSCAM and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, had never met Jim Jones. Buster’s death was an accident, insofar as no one was ever criminally charged or civilly sued. Arnold always suspected that Buster, a man he genuinely liked, was more likely than not the victim of something more nefarious than mere negligence but something falling below any criminal standard. Something in between what happens when country folk operate sophisticated equipment and a sort of vicious hazing.

Buster wasn’t his real name. It was Charles. Arnold thought that Charles just didn’t suit him, so Arnold started calling him Buster. To himself and then to his family. Buster was his Little League coach—the first coach of any type Arnold had ever had and his first introduction to the concept of teamwork.  

Arnold was ten years old in 1980, the minimum age for little league in his small town, and had only just met Buster at the first practice that March. It was odd to see someone new in a town as small as Auslandersville so at the outset Arnold was intrigued by Buster. There were no tryouts because only eleven kids signed up. Arnold had done so reluctantly. His mother read about the league in the church bulletin, wanted Arnold to be part of a team, told Arnold he was playing, and dropped him off at the diamond behind the church. There was Buster, talking baseball. 

Years later, Kevin Costner would make playing baseball in cornfields look poignant and nostalgic. Noble even. It was none of those things to Arnold at that age. Cornfields bordered two sides of the Auslandersville diamond. At that time of year, they were newly plowed and freshly manured. An over-the-rickety-wood-plank-fence home run meant retrieving a ball that had more likely than not landed in a pile of fresh cow shit. Smells also included piss and fecal residue of deer, skunks, woodchucks, and every other animal that country folk deemed acceptable to dwell.

The baseball diamond also abutted the church cemetery.  It was still cold in March, but not cold enough to keep the playing surface from being muddy. There was no backstop, just the old shed where in the old days they used to park the congregation’s horse and buggies. Neighboring farmers mowed the grass whenever they had a hankerin’.

Before the days of Under Armour and the proliferation of moisture wicking fabrics, kids like Arnold’s teammates wore jeans and hooded sweatshirts with unyielding iron-on patches declaring their allegiance to International Harvester tractors or Dekalb corn seed. They hung those sweatshirts, jackets, and the batting helmets on the crosses that sanctified and adorned the concrete headstones. Arnold invariably wore his “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” sweatshirt and his “Mork and Mindy” suspenders to the first practice and kept to himself. 

There was a lot going on back then in Auslandersville despite being just as removed from the international skullduggeries of the day as Buster. There were lots of countries that were pissing righteous Americans off, and folks like those in towns like Auslandersville relished and reveled in their ability to feel part of the zeitgeist by hating along. As much as they prided themselves on being separate and apart from the world, the townspeople also yearned to be included, to be both immune and relevant. 

Auslandersville was located about 40 miles west of Buffalo, an odd little city which was becoming even smaller and sadder with each factory closing and steel mill downsizing, and the subsequent loss of each tavern and family that supported those factories because “the goddamned Japs” had figured out a way to make the steel cheaper than God-fearing red-blooded Americans. Arnold listened while grown-ups got drunk and played cards. He heard snippets of portions of remnants of this talk evincing something that teetered between bewilderment and disdain.

This was also mere weeks after the U.S. hockey team’s Miracle on Ice. Those “commie bastard Russians” were defeated just a few hours north in Lake Placid. The Cold War was in full swing and a man named Ronald Reagan was in the midst of a near sweep of GOP primaries, promising a return to greatness which, underneath the polish, was a cowboy’s country swagger. 

It was also around this time that people kept track of how many days a country named Iran was holding American hostages. Fifty-two in all. Nick Pfenning’s son joined the Marines and was stationed in the Middle East somewhere. Nick could spare a son or two on the farm as he had eight sons in all. After church Nick would educate people about what was happening. It was also around this time that folks began seeing a nefarious looking truck driving through the town. It was hand-painted brown with the sort of leftover paint that one would find in a barn. Old beaten-up pick-up trucks, like Chevys or Dodges with rusted doors and hand-made wooden flat beds on the back, were not uncommon in Auslandersville. What was unusual about this one was that it had a crude representation of the finger, or “bird” (five humps, spray painted white, with the middle hump longer than the two on either side of it) painted on one side and the words, “Hey Iran,” spray painted on the other. Kids called it “the finger,” but Arnold had no idea what that meant. Arnold asked his mother and she told him it was a “very bad insult” and that Arnold should never to use it.       

It’s astonishing how kids are expected to navigate the world with what little information they have. Arnold knew so little about everything. We all know so little. Especially about what other people go through. What other people are going through. What other people have been through. The shit through which other people routinely go. The shit through that one must traverse.

The “Hey Iran” truck, incidentally, belonged to one of the Muhlfeld boys.

Buster was new in town and, even at ten years old, Arnold could tell that Buster was a man perpetually out of place. Buster was a larger man, overweight but not quite obese. His girth was anomalous in Auslandersville, a town of men who were perpetually fit from a perpetual regimen of plowing fields, harvesting alfalfa, chasing cows, and lifting tractor tires and sacks of grain. He drove an itty bitty little Datsun in a town where everyone drove balls-out Chevys and Fords. And, what’s more, he didn’t even fit into the tiny car. He would open the door, hold onto the hood, set his feet, and then do this pivot and lunge move to get his ass in the car. He used a piece of twine to fasten the muffler of his Datsun onto its undercarriage in a town where people instinctually took to their welders to fix such a thing. His too-blue Wrangler jeans, work boots, and burgundy Members Only jacket looked nothing like what they saw Billy Martin, Earl Weaver, and Tony LaRussa wear on television. His last name, pronounced “Boo” (like what a ghost says) and “kite” (like what Ben Franklin used to discover electricity) neither looked nor sounded like the names in a town filled with German farmers. You know, names with too-prominent consonants like Armbruster, Geissler, Vogel, and Keiffer that make everyone sound constipated. He made jokes and played baseball in a town where people chewed tobacco and took weather, corn, and tractors and the analysis thereof very seriously.

Buster was well suited for his role as coach though. He could hit a baseball over the fence consistently. He showed the boys how to stop ground balls by putting a knee on the ground. When Arnold misread a fly ball and caught it with his eye, Buster stopped practice, led him to the bench, and got some ice. The next practice, Buster brought in a pirate’s eye patch for him. Buster was goofy in a town that neither appreciated goofiness nor engaged in it. He had a round jolly face, tight curly hair, floppy jowls, a hearty laugh, and a friendly wavy moustache. But he also had a bumper sticker that read, “They Will Get My Gun When They Pry My Cold Dead Finger Off the Trigger.” He was like a friendly pachyderm that had just joined the Charlie Daniels Band. 

Buster’s son Chuck was also on the team.  Arnold had never seen him before because Chuck went to a school in the city near where his mother lived. He looked like the kid in a story about a kid and his wooden shoes and windmill that Arnold’s aunt had brought him from a semester abroad in Norway. He had blond hair, blue eyes, and perfectly square, symmetrical features. Chuck had an enthusiasm and boisterousness that Arnold both envied and resented. Though the resentment eroded somewhat when Arnold saw him take an envelope of Big League Chew out of the back pocket of his too-tight jeans, take out a large handful, and stuff it in his mouth.

“Do you have to chew like a pig?” Buster had asked when he saw the bulge in Chuck’s cheek.

This was not the sort of talk between father and son to which Arnold was accustomed. Chuck turned red and spit the wad of gum into the cemetery. It was the first and only time Arnold saw Chuck look embarrassed.

At that first practice, this kid asked Buster,

“Where do you work?”

 “I used to work at the steel mill,” Buster said. “But have been out of work for the past few months.” 

Buster was also, therefore, not a farmer, like everyone else. Arnold couldn’t help but picture Buster with a bandana on his head next to his best co-worker friend, putting his baseball glove on a bottle of Schotz Beer, and waving goodbye to it as a lively song about making Buster’s dreams come true played over the factory PA system. Arnold wondered to myself if Buster was more Laverne than Shirley or more Shirley than Laverne. He concluded that Buster was definitely more of a Laverne—neither polished nor apologetic, fiercely loyal, and prone to mischief.

“The Japs put an end to that,” Chuck replied in an effort to curry favor with his father.

Arnold’s resentment was reignited when Chuck started to play catcher, a position for which he was uniquely and inarguably suited. Like Buster, he was large. He could throw to second while squatting and could hit the ball over the fence with frequency. Chuck was a favorite of the guys on the team, the new kid, a natural leader, a good teammate.

“I don’t need a cup to protect my balls,” Chuck has said when Buster told them about how they had to get a cup to protect their ten-year-old balls. “I need a Tupperware bowl.”

Everyone laughed.

As the season dragged on, Arnold grew to vigorously dislike Chuck. Arnold rolled his eyes at Chuck’s “Dukes of Hazzard” discourse and was disgusted by his "Dukes of Hazzard" t-shirt with the General Lee on the front, his aluminum bat, and his cool, mesh Yankees cap. On the bench, Chuck would try to engage him in conversation about the game, favorite television shows, and the weather. Arnold would ignore him or move down the bench. Chuck spat when he talked and was about twice as big as Arnold was, so that his meaty arm and leg engulfed Arnold’s. 

Arnold preferred reading to playing baseball. Or doing anything outside. He was ambivalent about the Miracle on Ice and was neither a leader nor big enough to exert any influence and inevitably resented those who did. Arnold couldn’t understand the notion that he didn’t live with his mother. Arnold imagined him and Buster waking up every morning face-down on the sofa, each in last night’s clothes, one leg drooping above a carpet strewn with ice cream containers and empty bags of Fritos, a crust of spit caking the throw pillows under their snoring, tobacco stained mouths while the late night test pattern on their television filled the room with a multi-hued glow.

Arnold was jealous of his name, the monosyllabity of it, its simplicity, the way it connoted toughness, the way it was a synonym for the word throw, the way it rhymed with words like “buck” and “truck”—mighty things to which mighty boys should aspire. Arnold was named after a great-grandfather who passed away a week before he was born. And in 1980, his name suffered the rare double-defect of being the name of the then-omnipresent precocious fish-out-of-water black kid on “Diff’rent Strokes” and of being one of those fucked up words like orange or purple that literally rhymed with no other words forcing kids to new depths of mean spiritedness. Note this was also before Arnold Schwarzenegger became a household word synonymous with toughness, which would have offered some redemption. 

So kids said “Arnold” with a tone, almost like they sang it, but one you sing with disdain. Arnold had an aversion to Chuck because he fit in so effortlessly even though he went to a different school. He wrestled with teammates and talked about the nuances between a GMC and a Ford F-150. He was boisterous, confident, and made friends easily. Chuck squatted over home plate to assume his position as catcher and his butt crack showed. Some kids laughed, but he didn’t give a shit.

Arnold discovery of hate led him to believe that it was common, perhaps even expected, for people to hate easily and hate often for reasons that clearly required no reasoning. As such, Arnold started developing his own aversions; kids who wore digital watches, kids who didn’t catch on in math class as quickly as he thought they should, kids who could make their fingers do the Mork thing like when he said, “Nano, Nano,” and kids whose parents eschewed tenets of nutrition and gave them Reese’s cups in their lunch. 

The Sunday following that inaugural practice was Easter Sunday. Arnold’s church was hosting the cantata, and churches from all over the region were coming to sing songs about the resurrection. It was odd seeing Buster, who just days prior had taught Arnold and his teammates how to protect their scrotums, standing at the altar in a white turtleneck singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” It cemented Arnold’s devotion to him. It was as though Butch Cassidy was singing with the Osmonds.            

The baseball season proceeded smoothly. Chuck played catcher and hit home runs. Arnold was, to his own amazement, rather adept at baseball and played second base, a coveted infield position that he played in a surprisingly authoritative manner. Whenever someone tried to steal second, Chuck would throw the ball to Arnold, and, more often than not, they would get the runner out. While trotting off the field Chuck would make it a point to say, “Hey nice tag Arnold.” Arnold usually said, “Thanks,” or nothing at all. He certainly never said, “Great throw,” or anything to acknowledge Chuck’s efforts.   

The thing is, Buster and Chuck both really liked Arnold.  When it was time to travel to games, Buster usually offered to drive him. Once when Buster drove Arnold to a game in a similarly small town, the trio got into the tiny Datsun that smelled of sweat, baseball leather, and dirt, and Buster, with a flourish that belied his embarrassment, quickly threw away a Burger King cup filled with spit and chewing tobacco. 

On the way home from that game they stopped at Judy’s Dairy Shack for ice cream cones. 

“Coach Bucheit, I don’t have any money,” Arnold had said. 

“Don’t worry about it,” the coach had replied.

When they got to the dairy shack window Judy herself was in there smoking a cigarette by the soft serve dispenser.

“Arnold order whatever you want,” Buster said.

“I’d like a small dish of maple walnut in a dish,” Arnold said timidly. 

Chuck, who had ordered a large twisty cone and was standing behind Arnold licking it vigorously and looking appalled at his selection.

“Maple walnut? Who gets maple walnut?”

Arnold ignored him. 

“Maple walnut? What are you an eighty-year-old man?”  

Funny how a person questioning your choice of ice cream can make you hate them. Don’t these ice cream questioners know this? When has such a question ever garnered a positive reaction? When has the person fielding the question ever thoughtfully and prayerfully considered the questioner’s analysis and switched ice creams?    

 “I just like it,” Arnold said, capitulating.    

The boys got back in the car while Buster paid Judy. The driver’s side door opened and in lurched Buster with a large twisty cone with sprinkles and off they went.

“Dad, have you ever heard of a kid getting Maple walnut ice cream?” Chuck asked, eager for his father’s approval.

“Jesus Christ, Chuck,” Buster replied. “Not everyone has to like everything you like.” 

Arnold was taken with the notion that Buster got sprinkles. Such an indulgence for an unemployed Little League coach. So very colorful for a man perpetually in Wrangler blue jeans and a white t-shirt. Like a large mustachioed Johnny Cash replacing Gene Wilder in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Arnold thought about Chuck many years later when the senior Senator from Utah’s chief of staff looked at Arnold’s veggie burger as they ate lunch together in the Russell Senate Office Building and suggested Arnold was trying “too damn hard to mollify PETA.” 

At the night of the night, as a parting “fuck you” to Chuck, Arnold left his dish and plastic spoon in the back seat of Buster’s Datsun in the hopes that Chuck would have to clean it. The following week, Arnold’s mother gave him $1.75 to give Buster at practice. When Arnold approached him with the money in his outstretched hand, Buster politely refused. That forced Arnold to sheepishly tell him that his mother told him to “not take no for an answer.” Arnold was relieved when Buster accepted. The fat rolls rode up his wrist as he wedged the three quarters into his Wranglers. Arnold wondered then if Buster was poor, something he hadn’t considered because the vision Arnold had of Buster always had him surrounded by candy wrappers.    

At some point in the early part of May, Buster started working for the town highway department. Though he arrived at practice far more exhausted, and maybe a tinge defeated, than when he didn’t have a job. His job was to fill in potholes. Arnold would sometimes see him on the town’s half dozen or so paved roads as Arnold road home on the bus and happened to look up from whatever book he was reading. Buster would walk behind a large dump truck and shoveling hot asphalt into the numerous and sizable potholes that had materialized during the upstate New York. It looked torturous. The other men on his crew were usually smoking or sleeping in the cab part of the truck while Buster sweated like a motherfucker. 

Arnold woke up on the morning of May 21, walked downstairs to get breakfast, and found his parents sitting at the table. They told him that Coach Bucheit was dead. His father said that he had been pinned by a dump truck on Centerville Road. Arnold neither asked for nor sought any additional information, but it was all the kids on the bus that morning would talk about. An authority on such matters said that he was shoveling the asphalt into potholes on Flanders Hill Road when the brakes of the truck from which he was shoveling gave out and ran him over. Someone else equally knowledgeable about such things said that his father told him that the truck had tipped over and a truckload of hot asphalt had spilled over and onto Coach Bucheit. It didn’t matter really. All Arnold could think of was the men in the front of the truck snoozing while Buster worked and died.

A few days later, Arnold was once again part of a reptilian parade of yellow buses that winded its way down the town’s Main Street at 3:15 p.m. on any given weekday. Arnold saw Chuck standing outside the Hillcrest Funeral Home.

He leaned against one of the pillars there and wore an ill-fitting blue blazer. It was hot outside, so the bus’s windows were open. A few kids yelled, “Hey Chuck,” or give him a Fonzie thumbs up. Chuck smiled, nodded, and returned the thumbs up. Arnold saw this play out a few times as the buses passed by.

Chuck saw Arnold. Arnold saw Chuck. And then Arnold gave him the finger. A big-old, motherfucking, ten-year-old middle finger. Chuck, on the steps of the funeral home, just looked at him with sad and bewildered eyes. Arnold looked down at the metal “Happy Days” lunch box on his lap, coated with purple glaze from the purple drink that had exploded, feeling simultaneously slightly ashamed and slightly triumphant.  

If Chuck told anyone that Arnold gave him the finger while he was standing on the front steps of the funeral home, Arnold never heard about it.    

Chuck went to live with his mother in Buffalo and didn’t play any more baseball for Auslandersville. For the remainder of the season, no one talked about Buster or his accident. Buster was technically an outsider, so it wasn’t as though they had lost one of their own. Nick’s father Jim, a farmer who could spare evenings since he had plenty of sons who could assume evening cow milking duties, took over as head coach. Jim was unlike Buster in most ways. He was a thin man, which prompted Arnold to think about calling him Slim Jim. Arnold decided against it and never gave him a nickname.

Arnold didn’t see Chuck for more than twenty years.

***

When he did see Chuck again, Arnold was thirty-one and working in Washington, DC for a Senator (who we should ostensibly keep anonymous but whose identity will be apparent to anyone who read or heard anything resembling news in the last decade; especially in light of the fact this narrative relies on the fact he is from New York).  The Senator promised his constituents and his wife (who, a formidable politician in her own right, was really fucking pissed) and the party leaders that he would, in exchange for their support and in an effort to regain their trust, seek treatment for undisclosed addiction and personal issues after being found in a hotel room with a Brazilian hooker, her dead pimp, and a bunch of cocaine.

Arnold’s capacity and general propensity for loathing had diminished about zero percent in the decades since, so the Senator, as a boss and a person, was the target of a great deal of his hatred. This was the summer before 9/11 when people had an insatiable appetite for this type of shit. A summer littered with such scandals that precipitated a wave of pessimism, ill will, and the presumption that people, thanks in no small measure to the heralded Senator, were generally rather shitty.

But Arnold liked the ancillary parts of the job. It paid well and afforded him access to people and a modicum of prestige. And a means, he thought, to fully an irreversibly extricate himself from whence he came.    

Some years prior, Arnold left Auslandersville for Princeton. The admissions committee actually cited his origins as a contributing factor for his acceptance (cementing Arnold’s idea that Auslandersville was more like a third-world country than a place suitable for human habitat). Arnold flourished at Princeton and, as they say, rarely, if ever, looked back. It was there Arnold met and befriended the Senator’s son and when Arnold needed a job the Senator hired him as a speechwriter jack-of-all-trades sort of thing. 

Of the many degrading things that Arnold was tasked during that tumultuous summer of 2001 was arranging the Senator’s smooth transition to the treatment facility, which had to be done in days to minimize the fallout. The Senator chose Creekside Behavioral Health and Addictions Center because it was in New York State, about 40 miles south of Buffalo in an old mansion on Lake Erie that had once been a summer home for one of the captains of industry who had prospered in Buffalo in the 1920s. It was far enough away from his native New York City to minimize paparazzi. Arnold was tasked with making sure that the Senator would have as much privacy as possible. Since a big part of Creekside’s program was trips off campus to serenity inducing hiking trails and nature preserves, Arnold needed to make sure that the van windows were appropriately tinted and paparazzi proof. That was his job. To tint the Senator’s fucking windows. 

The Senator had two sons. Tap (Yale) and Tanner (Princeton). Both douchebags. The Senator was the sort of person who would (and did) buy a Yale Lacrosse windbreaker and a Princeton Lacrosse windbreaker, pay a seamstress to cut each in quarters, then switch and resew the quarters so that he was left with two windbreakers each composed of two Yale quadrants and two Princeton quadrants so that he could wear it to the one fucking annual meeting of the two schools and walk around New Haven like he owned the fucking place and cheer on his son Tap for one half of the game and then cheer for Tanner for the other. This was the pinnacle of douche. Arnold secretly took the fucking half-Yale-half-Princeton-all-douche windbreaker from his office and sneaked it into the bag the Senator would be bring for his thirty-day stint at Creekside to further amplify the Senator’s imminent demise.  Also sort of douchey. 

Anyway, Arnold found a place, the ridiculously named “Falcon’s Auto Painting and Custom Upholstery” to tint the windows. It was near Creekside, and the owner, the ridiculously named Herman Falcon, assured him that he had enough High-Performance Charcoal Window Tint in stock and that he could coerce “one of his bozos” to work overnight so the Creekside vans would be ready for the Senator’s arrival the next morning. 

Arnold flew to Buffalo, took a shuttle to Creekside, met their director, and made sure their facilities were adequate and adequately prepared for whatever media attention they might get. He then had to stop by Falcon’s to make sure at least one of the vans would be ready for him to pick the Senator up from the airport early the next morning. 

Falcon’s seemed far from everywhere but was only about a fifteen-minute drive from Creekside. One of the Creekside workers drove him east, away from Lake Erie, through some sort of town center, past a bunch of abandoned houses and storefronts and an old brick library, then out of the town center and over to Falcon’s. The road out of town was lined with apple trees and overhead waterfalls of flowering towering shrubs of some kind, fragrant sweet pepperbushes probably. In a few minutes, the paved remnants of the old lake side town gave way to a wide sleepy road lined with corn stalks and not long thereafter they pulled into the dirt driveway of an old shop with an old painted sign that said “Falcon’s.” There were three of those vintage Mobil gas pumps out front, like in an Edward Hopper painting. They were rusty, had broken gauge windows, and were clearly not functional, though one could discern they were once red and noble and as such, still commanded a modicum of reverence. Like heralded robot ghost sentries, retired but still standing at attention, to protect the auto repair and upholstery place from invaders.

Getting out of the car driven by the Creekside liaison was like stepping out of the present and into that Edward Hopper painting. It was around 9:00 p.m. when Arnold walked in and found a fleet of four white Creekside passenger vans spread out like patients etherized on an operating room table. It was hot as fuck, especially for that late at night, way too hot to be without air conditioning, as Falcon’s clearly was. 

As Arnold took off his jacket and loosened his tie he heard someone apologize for the heat saying that the AC shut down automatically at 8:00 p.m. Arnold turned around and saw a large man with a “Chuck” patch on a blue and white striped collared shirt that had grease stains up and down the front. They introduced themselves though Arnold knew right away who it was.  If Chuck recognized Arnold or if his name rang any bells, he didn’t show it. Chuck had the same perfectly square, symmetrical face, as though he had worn his catcher’s mask throughout adolescence and his head and grown into and around it.

“Ordinarily, the window tinting process was a simple one,” Chuck said. “You measure the window, cut the film with an X-Acto Knife, stick it on the window, and then squeegee it smooth. Under ordinary circumstances I’d be done in a few hours, but in light of this goddamn humidity, the tint is bubbling like a motherfucker so I gotta squeegee the fuck out of it and it’s gonna take a lot longer than usual.” 

“Of course it is,” Arnold said.

“The override for the AC timer was in the boss’s office,” Chuck said, as perspiration dripped off his forehead and onto a piece of the tinting film that he was cutting which he wiped vigorously with some sort of chamois cloth. “I was lucky he let me keep the radio on.” 

Chuck went on to explain that when doing big jobs like this one he liked to do all the back windows at one time, then all the driver side rear windows at one time, then all the passenger side rear windows until he had worked his way up to the front windshield. This, he said, was so he didn’t have to take the same measurements multiple times. It made sense but it also meant Arnold was going to have to stay there until the job was done. So clearly both men he had no choice but to sweat and squeegee like the compliant motherfuckers they were. 

Arnold took some papers out of his briefcase probably worth more money than Chuck made in a week. Chuck kept working, cutting, squeegeeing, and pasting. And the country radio station played something by Kenny Chesney, Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, or whoever the fuck it was.  

Something happens to a place at night. The shop, which flourished by day, seemed strangely forlorn. The daytime jingle-jangle of metal tools and the omnipresent whirring of air compressors were replaced by nothing but intermittent grunts and late-night country radio. The shop walls, covered with motor oil signs, girlie calendars and license plates belonging to a different era, certainly fostered Arnold’s sense that he was far from home. Shadows made from the one streetlamp on the wisteria ivy growing frolicked on the windows, opaque with decades of dust and repair shop residue during, as though taunting the two men stuck inside.   

They did not speak much to each other for the first several hours. Arnold made some phone calls. Chuck took a break around 1:00 a.m. and there was some country song on the radio apparently sung by Faith Hill.

“What I wouldn’t do to be Tim McGraw,” Chuck said. 

Arnold looked at him, annoyed, perplexed, and only slightly amused. 

“Tim McGraw is married to Faith Hill you know,” Chuck explained. “I wonder whether Tim eats Faith’s pussy. Of course he does because how could you not eat such great pussy. I bet Tim just goes to town on Faith’s motherfucking pussy and goddamn what I wouldn’t do to Faith Hill’s pussy if given the chance to eat that shit myself I would tear that shit up.” 

Given the forethought Chuck had clearly expended on this issue, it would seem that such conversations were neither anomalous nor cause for embarrassment at the shop. 

“I don’t have any comment on that Chuck,” Arnold said.  And having exhausted the discourse on Faith Hill’s lady-parts, they resumed their work or more accurately, Arnold did his work while Chuck did his.  On the cusp of disgust, at his companion and at the state of things in general, Arnold realized he had heard similar conversations about the ferocity with which one might eat another’s pussy, though such conversations were conducted in far more refined, even heralded, settings.

Chuck, who had been diligently applying window tint all night in an effort to preserve the Senator’s ego, broke another silence some time later. 

“My dad used to tell me that people don’t change,” he said.  

Arnold looked at him with nervous puzzlement and said, “I wouldn’t disagree with that.” 

Chuck went back to his sweaty window tinting. 

“You were such a dick to me when we were kids,” Chuck said a few stupid country songs later. He said this in something between an inexplicable southern drawl, further slowed and muffled by a mouthful of chew and exhaustion, and a kid’s aggrieved pronouncement, like in that commercial when the kid says, “you sunk my battleship.” But it was a grown up’s voice so it contained a sufficient amount of grown up intolerance so was delivered in a tone akin to, “You sunk my fucking battleship you fucking prick.”  

While the boisterousness and confidence Arnold loathed so readily in the spring of 1980 had diminished, Chuck still didn’t give a fuck about what anyone thought. And hadn’t changed.  He spat when he talked. You could see his butt crack when he squatted over the rolls of window tint and cut out his shapes. And he didn’t give a fuck. 

“It’s not okay to call me, a paying client, a dick,” Arnold said.

“It’s also not okay for you, whether a paying client or a kid, to be a dick,” he replied. 

Such truth from the mouth of Chuck. 

Arnold looked at him and shifted in his seat a little bit but couldn’t muster anything to say to question or combat Chuck’s assessment. It was jarring, being recognized, and acknowledged after luxuriating in presumed anonymity for so many hours. Arnold dealt with fucking senators for fuck’s sake but nevertheless somehow felt smaller than Chuck, this ghost from the past. Arnold gathered up the papers upon which he had been working, timidly closed his briefcase and sat up in an effort to appear larger.   

“I’m sorry,” Arnold exhaled. “I was.”

“You was what?” Chuck asked.

“An asshole. A dick. Mean,” Arnold replied. 

“We were kids. That was a messed up time for me anyways,” Chuck replied, with kindness, in a voice that belied the scope of how messed up that time was. Bo and Luke Duke’s perpetual skirmishes with Boss Hogg were messed up; losing a parent is incomprehensible.    

“I think I just hated that town, Chuck,” Arnold said. “And I took it all out on you.  Because you let me. “ 

“You were dad’s favorite,” Chuck said. 

“I don’t know about that,” Arnold said. “I know that some people love small towns. I don’t. I get that everybody knows everybody and there’s a real community that you can’t and don’t get in other places and people take care of each other and all that John Cougar Mellencamp bullshit. If you’re like me, though, and don’t fit in, a small town can be a prison.” 

 “That’s why dad liked you so much,” Chuck interrupted. “You didn’t fit in.”    

“Why did he even live there?” Arnold asked. “Why’d he let people treat him like that?”

“It was cheap,” Chuck said. “And he was tired of the city. He loved Auslandersville.” 

“I get that,” Arnold said. “Though it’s tough for me never understood why people loved small towns. And why I was constantly told I was supposed to. I hated the idea of knowing everyone.”    

 “People were always real nice to me,” Chuck said. “I loved it there.”   

“It showed. And that bugged me,” Arnold said. “I could never understand how you were from somewhere else, and went to school somewhere else and yet fit in so effortlessly.

“What can I say?” Chuck asked through an impossible wide smile that revealed teeth slathered with chew. “I’m just a natural born leader.”            

Arnold could not physically go back to the cruddy baseball diamond in his cruddy hometown in 1980 and start a conversation with Chuck. Or to the tiny, silver Datsun outside the ice cream place and ask him what his favorite truck was. Who is favorite singer was. His favorite episode of “Dukes of Hazzard.” He also could not go back to the bus ride home and stop himself from giving a bereaved Chuck the finger. But Arnold asked Chuck to sit down and as he did so, Chuck became the young person with a baseball uniform t-shirt, muddy pants, and a catcher’s mask who was squatting behind home plate brusquely and loudly uttering baseball batting heckles and coating the bars of his catcher’s mask with spit. Through the cacophonous memories, Arnold apologized to him. And it occurred to him that every single moment of someone’s life is a crucial one. 

“Do you remember that night we got ice cream cones at that rat infested shack?” Arnold asked when he was done with the first van.

“Sure,” Chuck replied. 

“So do I,” Arnold said. 

Had it not been 2:00 a.m., Arnold probably would have asked Chuck if he wanted to get some ice cream. So Arnold just signed a carbon invoice on a greasy clipboard, got the keys for a van, shook Chuck’s hand, and drove away.

***

So that was the day when Arnold was sitting in a repair shop, feeling annoyed but omniscient, when, in a break between two worlds, a memory came to him and rebuilt some months. Months during that Iranian Hostage Crisis that, unlike the current skullduggeries of today, Arnold thought had receded. Arnold realized that the fact Buster died during the Iranian hostage crisis was more significant than one might suspect. It seems to have been the beginning of an era, probably every generation has one, wherein he learned how to hate and hate well. 

Gary M. Almeter is an attorney and has been published in McSweeney's and The Good Men Project. He lives in Baltimore, Md. with his wife, three children, and beagle. Also check out his short story "The Love Song of JFK Jr." and his writing playlist

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'The Love Song of JFK Jr.'

Photo via Flikr

Photo via Flikr

By Gary M. Almeter

She wore a shimmery yellow sundress, with a thin orange belt and orange shoes, slipped on quickly in the few minutes she gave herself to get dressed. Shirin tended to overestimate the time she had remaining to get ready on these quiet Saturday mornings. So after having a cup of coffee and yogurt and walking the dog, she always ended up rushing through her shower and make-up regimen.

She would typically arrive around seven on those mornings when she was tasked with opening The Singing Mermaids before a busy Saturday. The day had started out like any other on which she had to work. Navid had not been in bed next to her when she woke up. Today he was in Bahrain but it was just as likely that he would be somewhere on the Maryland Country Club’s front nine or at his uncle’s restaurant near the Inner Harbor.

She passed two Starbucks on the ten-minute drive to the Singing Mermaids, but she usually stopped at Dunkin' Donuts, picked up a box of munchkins for the staff , her coffee, and chatted with Sagar, who was always finishing up his overnight shift around 7:00 a.m.

There was a time when she would have detested the artless tasks required in preparing a hair salon for a day of shampooing, beautifying, highlighting, cutting, spraying, and teasing. But in the aftermath of their move from Iran, she grew to enjoy and even find some amusement in such seemingly inconsequential tasks. Savoring the small pleasures of life was a learned behavior, the near-pulmonary rhythms of the salon she created by turning on the lights and the washing tubs and the drying chairs provided tranquility before the tumult of the day began. She flipped the drying chair hoods up so they stood at attention like war horses lined up and rearing, readying themselves for battle. She segregated the curlers by size, replenished the gels and sprays and mousses and pomades, and detangled the cords of her curling irons and blow dryers.

She found the preparation soothing; a nice respite before the onslaught of vanity from her customers, some of Baltimore County’s most refined ladies, began in earnest. Their overly high expectations regarding their metamorphoses could be grating, and Shirin rarely thought of herself as a transformative figure.

Despite the perpetual presence of colleagues and customers, this was a lonely job. People imagine that women who work in shops like this are closer than they really are, imagine them opening up like they can’t do with their husbands, talking about fears and hopes and aspirations and disappointments. But they don’t. Conversations were about George Clooney and sales at Nordstrom and hair trends and Jennifer Aniston and shoes, like a People magazine come to life.

The opening protocols included preparing the salon’s reception area: straightening the magazines, lighting a few of the scented candles, replenishing the mints jar, and turning on the television. That’s when she heard the news.

Shirin sat down on the leather sofa, turned the television to CNN, and watched the hovering helicopters make hypnotic ripples somewhere in the Atlantic. She sipped her coffee as she watched the news in the salon reception area. Her first appointment was not until nine. Then she had a wedding party coming in at ten for a spate of up-dos.

*          *          *

Some miles away, Andrew was waking up. The left side of his face and most of his body were stuck to the vinyl cushions of the sun-porch glider, as though, overnight, the cushions’ bright orange hibiscus flowers had secreted some sort of adhesive. But it was just sweat. And a little bit of drool. As the story of that evening wended its way through the narrative of his personal history, what he did would be described as passing out. He had been drunk the night before, drunker than a man should be on the eve of his wedding. But the decision to sleep on the glider (his grandparents called it a davenport) in the sun porch–that hybrid of a room which was neither a porch nor a full-fledged room, equally tethered to the lawn and the living room–was a conscious and well-reasoned one. His grandparents were staying with them for the wedding and had taken his room. His mother had made up a twin bed in the spare room, but, at the end of the night, he just didn’t feel like going upstairs and seeing his grandparents’ health and beauty aids scattered around his bathroom–the plastic denture cases, the denture adhesive, the creams and the odd medicinal, menthol, ether-ized scents they emitted. His grandparents were lovely. Their presence, however, felt invasive. And their health and beauty aids were a reminder of mortality’s slow and perpetual march, its chronic imminence.

He woke with that jarring sensation of not knowing where he was for a few seconds, like stopping on a Ferris wheel mid-revolution; you look for a horizon line of some sort and noting that, albeit for a second, and you realize your location is a precarious one in light of the whirring sound of the under-greased set of iron gears and the fact that a carnival worker in a Black Sabbath t-shirt and a self-administered Ozzy tattoo on his knuckles is in charge of your fate. The whirring in Andrew’s head was from lots of wine and some vodka gimlets at the rehearsal, which he had drunk as a declaration that he had outgrown beer. These were followed by lots of beer on the back deck of his parents’ house and, after ignoring his brothers’ warnings about Elaina’s disappointment with a hung over groom, a few shots.

He had no idea where he was until he saw the familiar drape of the beige canvas sheet covering the 1964 Jaguar MKII behind his neighbor Quinn’s garage. The cover, while it protected the pristine turquoise paint, also rendered the car less like the sleek driving machine it was (or was meant to be) and more like a cord of firewood or old propane tank or some other discarded backyard accouterments. Mr. Quinn was outside watering the row of hydrangeas that ran from his driveway, past his 64 Jag and along his garage. As a result, he was only about seven or eight feet from Andrew, who could hear him whistling Barry Manilow’s “Daybreak.” He wondered if this was Quinn’s retribution for having been kept awake the night before, retribution of the passive aggressive sort favored by people from good stock–too well bred for confrontation but self-important enough to make their displeasure known. They had been loud the night before, doing funnels off the porch, the volume of the music increasing in direct proportion to their increasing drunkenness, with his buddies dropping more than a few F-bombs. Quinn could clearly see him this morning. Andrew wondered if Emily Post could have predicted such a scenario, a man waking up hung over and remorseful in a fishbowl on his wedding day stuck to tropical vinyl foliage, and what she might have suggested would be the appropriate salutation to a neighbor watering his hydrangeas.

Like a Ferris wheel making its slow descent to drop him off, the previous night and the day’s forthcoming events came into view. A wedding. His wedding. No less jolting than an abrupt Ferris wheel stop.

Andrew was a lucky man; if one were able and inclined to assess the ratio of his angels to his demons. Such an assessment would yield a clear surplus of angels, of gifts, of assets, of things which can only be given and not learned. Despite his good fortune, he had an overarching vision of himself as something different, something more significant, more the result of impatience than ability, adeptness, or ambition.

Everything about the room he was in confirmed his good fortune: the smell (a familiar potpourri of chlorine, grass, booze, and leather), the Persian rug on the fieldstone floor, the photo of his grandfather shaking hands with Orioles manager Earl Weaver hanging over his head, the wicker chair with a cushion made of the same hibiscus vinyl to which he was currently stuck, and the built-in book cases against the wall with the set of obsolete encyclopedias. A breeze came in through the open window and it became apparent that this morning was one of the most temperate and gentle days the mid-Atlantic region had ever conferred.

Not one to enjoy breezes or be affected by blue skies, he, realizing he was waking up later than he had wanted to, stood up and walked into the kitchen. His dad and his grandparents were seated around the breakfast table watching the helicopter make ripples in the waters off

Martha’s Vineyard. His mother was cutting peaches at the kitchen counter.

“No way,” said Andrew as he came to understand what was happening. “No fucking way.”

He and his fiancée, Elaina, had been everywhere together for the last ten years. They went to classes together in high school. He went to her house for holidays. She went to his. They went to the prom together. They went to the mall, football games, basketball games, lacrosse games, the movies, the 4th of July fireworks together. They went to Princeton together. They got jobs in Baltimore together. They went to happy hour, went to the new Camden Yards, went to parties at apartments of kids who had taken jobs at Johns Hopkins, Legg Mason, and T. Rowe Price. He asked her dad for permission to marry her while the two played tennis. Andrew had won. He orchestrated a proposal at an Orioles game and had invited scores of family and friends. They were slated to honeymoon in Hawaii. Surely the first of several such beaches they would visit together in their married life.

“That poor woman,” Andrew’s mother said when a file photo of Caroline and her three children appeared on the news.

“Poor me.” Andrew said. “This is all I am going to hear about for the rest of my fucking life.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Andrew’s father asked in the chiding voice he used when Andrew was being melodramatic.

It had nothing to do with Andrew’s use of “fuck.” While not encouraged, its use was tolerated.

“I guarantee you right now Elaina is talking about how this has ruined her wedding day,” replied Andrew. “In her condition there is no way she will be able to cope with this.”

“What condition is that, sir?” His father asked condescendingly.

“Just perpetually on the cusp of a nervous breakdown with all this wedding bullshit.” Andrew replied.

“I think you might be exaggerating just a little bit,” his mother said, defensively.

He regretted having to badmouth Elaina on their wedding day. He was sorry to have cursed in front of his grandmother. He didn’t want to be labeled a jerk. He knew that he would be there for her no matter what. But why did she have to be so goddamned self-centered all the time.

The only good thing about this epiphany–that he’d be dealing with a sullen bride for the next few days–is that it seemed to diminish the intensity of his hangover. Both, however, diminished the day.

*          *          *

Shirin had just finished giving a fairly standard perm when Elaina and her bridal party walked into the Singing Mermaids, looking more melancholy than a bridal party should.

Elaina had been a plain girl, nearly ugly but not quite, but had emerged from puberty looking like a kind of imperfect movie star. Her mother once told her that she looked like Michelle Pfeiffer had Pfeiffer been a few sizes bigger with a more oblong head, closer-set eyes, and redder, less perfect skin.

Andrew loved her nonetheless. Because of her “independent spirit and hearty laugh” he often said. She couldn’t tell when Andrew’s disinterest began. There is so much to say in a courtship, but so much unsaid. Andrew and Elaina were the sort to assume that there would always be other times, other occasions, other years. She thought it something shy of apathy but something more insidious than mere naiveté. And wondered if his nonchalance was merely the byproduct of momentum. Maybe he already knew the answers to questions she wished he would have asked. A slow and inevitable decline that began that unidentifiable first time he felt contained.

This feeling of second-ness continued that morning as the Singing Mermaids buzzed with news of the lost hunk. Elaina greeted Shirin who looked at her sympathetically. She took a seat and sat silent amidst the cacophony as Shirin began to replicate the up-do they had practiced last week. Ladies approached Elaina and commented on how beautiful she and her bridesmaids looked and extended their assurance that “it” was no big deal. Some lady next to Elaina was talking about how she had been to Martha’s Vineyard once; another said that she had shaken Robert Kennedy’s hand when he visited her college in upstate New York in 1968.

Elaina, her own legs stuck to the black vinyl of a swiveling salon chair, knew she was not that type of bride who had fretted and nagged and cajoled and demanded spotlights or obsessed about shoe colors and grosgrain ribbons; she let Andrew pick music and agreed to have photos taken at Camden Yards. But sharing her wedding day with a cataclysmic event seemed too significant. A day of events, one in her life, one in theirs. One she had planned, and one they had not. Though there was a kind of inevitability in both. What had each been travelling to? One to a wedding on Martha’s Vineyard. The other to her own wedding and a life of ease, of sunsets and dooryards and sprinkled streets.

But how easy would life be with Andrew? He was talking about getting his MBA. It was clear they’d never be leaving Baltimore. And at times he treated her with what resembled disdain.

One woman, with a mud mask and cucumbers on her face, lamented the loss of the hunk. The older ladies talked about his father and where they were when they heard he had been shot. Elaina closed her eyes as Shirin released another torrent of hairspray and could picture nothing but boats bobbing up and down, hoping, wandering through the sound in a state of more panic and sorrow than summer typically belied. She could hear sound bites on the television, “son of the assassinated president,” “approximately a dozen aircraft involved in the search,” “passengers in the missing plane” mixed with sound bites from those near her, “a little higher here,” “a little less Kim Basinger and a little more Grace Kelly,” “redder lipstick,” “smokier eye.” Elaina suddenly felt no affinity for any of them. There wasn’t a single person in the entire place with whom she felt a thing in common any more. Toward most she felt nothing but disdain.

On the large television screen fastened to the salon’s wall, there was a photo of the couple, now presumed dead, walking out of the church on their own wedding day, that picture where he is kissing her hand as they emerge from that church on Cumberland Island. Its memory now clouded by calamity. As Elaina’s wedding soon would be.

Elaina recalled the days when her life with Andrew seemed happy, when their world had been small, and building a life together meant navigating social milieus with proficiency and agreeing on what music to listen to in the car. But she also recalled the constant battle in her heart even then. How she felt drawn to this conventional happiness, how she felt that she loved Andrew more than she had ever loved anyone in her entire life, how the life toward which she was headed was possible, that she might actually be able to do it. And yet, she was also perpetually aware of the other, more deeply seated part of her nature that wanted to run away, not out of fear but out of an eagerness for adventure. A part of her believed that it was not possible after all, that it would and could only end in catastrophe.

She had never looked at Andrew the way Carolyn looked at John when they walked out of that church. And to the best of her recollection he had never looked at her like that. His eyes generally told her that she was part of the formula. She thought of that line that said the greatest hazard of all was losing one’s self, how it can occur very quietly in the world as if it were nothing at all. In the midst of this lost plane. How their loss had been noticed. How hers had not. Then she thought of them unbegrudgingly, saw them riding seaward on the waves without regret, thought of the allure of flight, and the spirit that prompted the flight in the first place. She thought of this man who had been scared of nothing–or was more afraid of that which waited for him if he spent his whole life with his feet on the ground.

There was a moment, the sort of moment that creates a juncture between the before and after, but not even really a moment, more of just a flicker of a modicum of recognition, that happened between Shirin and Elaina. Amidst the mirth and chaos and sadness and incredulity that was happening at the Singing Mermaids that morning. While Shirin was teasing and pulling and spraying and twisting, her eye caught Elaina’s in the mirror. Shirin’s face, perhaps involuntarily, provided a look, one that told Elaina that the hole created by isolation gets bigger, meaner, and more inescapable, with each passing day. It creates this hole where most emotions and feelings just keep vanishing soundlessly and irretrievably.

Elaina stood up and hugged Shirin then ran from the Singing Mermaids. One strand of hair had escaped from her up-do and flowed behind her in the breeze her running created. She left the bridesmaids and the ripples and Andrew behind her, along with that which she had been trying not to imagine.

Gary M. Almeter is an attorney and has been published in McSweeney's and The Good Men Project. He lives in Baltimore, Md. with his wife, three children, and beagle.

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