Mary Marcus’s Stories
The Change in Elizabeth
When Elizabeth awakens in the dark, she isn’t in her usual bed. She’s lying in her driveway in Pacific Palisades with her head brushing up against the hedge of fragrant star jasmine that grows alongside the turnaround. Andy has been predicting for years that her running would lead to something like this. Elizabeth can’t remember running or collapsing. Could it be at long last she has decided to leave and just not gotten very far? She tries as hard as she can to figure out what has driven her to this particular spot. Probably it’s all just a dream.
Presently the sun begins to rise in the sky, casting down its first tender beams of warmth. It is March and California in the morning is still quite chilly. She feels her whole body covered in a light blanket of dew and her eyes misted over. She tries to move when she discovers her legs are gone. She doesn’t seem to have arms either. Though not in any real pain Elizabeth feels extraordinarily stiff. Not even after the two times she ran the marathon has she ever been so stiff. Moving her mouth is also impossible. Though she isn’t wearing her glasses she can see quite well, but her eyelids won’t close. Her peripheral vision is gone as well. The sound of birds and the occasional passing car means she can hear. Best to lie still, she decides, until someone notices.
Elizabeth drifts in and out of consciousness, aware of the world in a distant way. Occasionally, a leaf falls, tickling her back. A dark shadow swoops down dropping small pellets on her frame. She knows positively it’s morning when she hears a high-pitched peal of laughter. Her internal clock accurate to the minute, tells her it is seven twenty-five. Time for the private school bus to stop across the street. And soon after that Andy will find her when he comes to warm up his Porsche.
Elizabeth waits. Now there’s another trill drowned out by the flatulent whoosh of the yellow bus idling at the curb. Lately, the sound of children’s voices can bring tears to her eyes; and sometimes after that, a bit of a sweat, slightly less intense than a running sweat on a warm morning. Elizabeth awaits the familiar reaction. If anything she feels colder than usual.
Something has definitely changed. Elizabeth had sensed it coming last fall when her daughter left for college. And known for sure, when her brown poodle died last month and she had gone down to the ocean to spread her ashes. Elizabeth never asks herself who she misses more, her youngest daughter who dutifully phones once a week or her old dog Wilma who had run with her, slept with her and always been glad to see her. She knows too, if Wilma were alive, she wouldn’t be lying here in the driveway buried in the hedges. Wilma would bark and bark until someone noticed.
Elizabeth attempts a deep breath, and recognizes that her breath is not the same either. She tries again. There is air inside her, though it isn’t what she recognizes as breath. She can hear, however. A quite familiar: click, snap rattle. Andy is shaking the front door of their house (worth at latest estimate 2.5 million) to insure that it is properly locked.
A bird chirps. A dog barks in the distance. Her husband is walking toward her, first on the soft silent lawn and now scraping along, Italian tasseled loafers against the pebbled concrete. Elizabeth feels something going off inside her that sounds like a bleep. And now the oddest thing of all, Andy is looking right at her with love in his eyes and running his hand tenderly down the length of her. Elizabeth has not seen this particular look on her husband’s face in years, still less felt that possessive hand against her body. Why now, when she lies helplessly in the driveway?
Andy whistles a little tune, as he lets himself in and sits firmly down. Elizabeth feels something long and narrow sliding inside. Her insides do a flip and she makes a sound at last. Now her husband releases another place deep within her. When he shifts into reverse and they roll down the hill, it comes to Elizabeth in one of her last moments of purely human comprehension, that Andy has total control over her every movement… and Elizabeth such as she knew her, is over.
The Royal Palms against the intensely blue sky, the carefully tended yards maintained by low-paid men with power tools, the flowers whose petals are promptly removed once they hit the ground…none of these aspects of her neighborhood interest Elizabeth now. She feels the road; she feels the wind blowing along her sleek silver body. And of course, Andy seated down on her, Andy the one with all the power. “Come on baby,” he whispers. “Let’s pass this prick.” Elizabeth obeys, humming along, with Andy’s small veined hands grasping her. Unquestionably, they belong together, Andy understands her at last. And for her part, she understands him as well. It’s so easy!
Sadly, for Elizabeth, she’s been at odds for quite some time not just with Andy, but her children too. It had been a relief when her youngest daughter and most severe critic had left for college last fall. Although her daughter always behaved decently in front of Andy (and Elizabeth had blessed her for that) not a week passed for years without one or more insulting suggestion. “Mom, your clothes don’t work,” “everybody streaks their hair, why don’t you?” “Why do you let Dad talk to you that way? “Why don’t you hire a decorator….get a personal shopper, at least get a new bra, a pedicure, a manicure, a cool pair of jeans. Mom, you look like such a dork.”
Once in a while Elizabeth wondered why none of her children turned out even remotely like herself. Not that she would wish such a fate on anyone. When they were young they had adored her, especially her younger daughter. Still, once they grew past adolescence they blamed her for not being able to keep up with the world they traveled in. Though she’s was always in better physical shape than the whole lot of them — Elizabeth never possessed the polish and shine necessary for the wife of a very successful attorney in Los Angeles. Even less, the natural competitiveness it takes to play a good game of tennis and maneuver three upwardly mobile children through the right prep schools and colleges. The children figured out years ago she was of little use to them in the world. They relied on Elizabeth for her good food and her easy way with money. Peculiar how she can see the years passing away, as the trees and street signs are now passing by. She’s interested in what she sees, though she doesn’t care as she used to. When her hair had gone gray. Andy’s had gotten darker. She can also see her hard lanky body—so different from the sleek silver one of today– – and Andy’s soft white one with the spare tire of fat around the middle. She and Andy were never one of those cozy couples that begin to look alike in later years. It wasn’t Andy’s body she had minded, but his mind, filled for so long now, with ideas best suited for the junkyard. Last fall, on the day her daughter boarded the plane for college, Elizabeth moved her things into the empty room downstairs off the kitchen. Her new slot in the maid’s room suited her much better than the master’s bedroom as she had called the huge padded suite with its king and fifteen thousand dollar flat screen TV. Wilma had liked it better too. Elizabeth had expected Andy to ask and was prepared to say that the TV kept her awake, or she didn’t want to keep disturbing him at five thirty in the morning when she got up to run… or to make a polite reference to his snoring, though in truth, Andy’s snoring was no where near as loud as Wilma’s. But Andy never asked. When her children returned home for the holidays, they didn’t ask either. Which was just as well for her, though exceedingly cold Elizabeth had thought at the time. Like many women of her generation, she respected the appearance of marriage: particularly the conjugal bed. Never go to sleep angry…wear a pretty nightgown. Always kiss him goodnight.
It is some distance from her block lined with a double row of Royal Palms down the mountain to Sunset Boulevard, the street Andy always takes to work. Elizabeth never liked driving. Brought up in New York City, she had not learned to drive until she was thirty with a brand new station wagon and three children to transport mindlessly from activity to activity, as if she were an automaton, certainly not a person. It made no sense to her then, fresh from New York and the life of the streets, how in Los Angeles only the very disenfranchised depended on public transportation. The beautiful weather perfect for walking, yet instead, everyone drove. Not that there was anyplace to walk. Elizabeth had been able to do her editing work from home once they moved to Los Angeles. Fed Ex and the fax machine had enabled this, and for the past couple of years email. Unlike Andy, she hardly drove anywhere. Speeding happily along now, she can’t imagine her dislike. What in the world could be more satisfying than Andy planted down on her, his hands guiding her with a great satisfying rush onto Sunset Boulevard?
Cars all around them, on the side, ahead of them, the colors and shapes dance before her with dizzying beauty. They stop at the light on Mandeville Canyon. Andy turns on the radio. Together they listen companionably to the World News on National Public Radio. First gear, second gear they are picking up speed. How easy it is to follow his commands, just by the press of his toe or the nuance of his hand. It does not occur to Elizabeth to disobey. Doing what Andy wants seems as natural to her as the road under her wheels, and the top grade oil and high-octane gas she runs on.
Andy is wearing a head set. His phone in the palm of his hand; he’s pressing for a pre-coded call, then shouting,
“Dawn, wake up, Dawn,” Andy is peevish, little boy-like, which she remembers from long ago is the signal that he’s turned on. It’s not difficult for Elizabeth to put it all together, even with her significant loss of brain cells. The name Dawn goes along with the hair dyes and the brow trims and the ab-cruncher Elizabeth had over a year ago appropriated for her own daily training sessions. Dawn, of course, went along with her own unacknowledged exit from the master’s bedroom. Elizabeth could see now, she’d been driven from it.
Though automobiles cannot remember, they do retain a sense of the miles they have traveled as well as an idea of place. Elizabeth comprehends this, as she had once understood how far her running legs could take them. It’s perfectly clear that Andy has possessed a key to someone else for a long time now. Elizabeth can see herself parked in Beverly Hills outside an apartment building with the address in script above a row of plaster palm trees.
The next thing she knows they are turning off Sunset onto a street with large houses some of which have similar Porsches parked in the driveway. Somewhere in that time, Elizabeth’s mind shut down. In life she had been like that too, steering away from what she did not want to face. In a fleeting way she also understands her other self is passing. The change she’s been waiting for has come. But the change had been coming for a long time.
Automobiles rest a lot. She discovers this the first day when Andy drives her down to the dark place underneath the building and puts her in the slot where his name is painted in bold black blocks.
Her first morning passes slowly. So does the one after that. Soon all mornings are the same, though once in a while Andy takes her out for a run at lunch, always to Dawn’s apartment. And so she grows used to being like a helpless infant who eats, sleeps and moves about only through the power of others. Yet, even with all the waiting it is exciting to be something she has never been before. Many men approach her in the dark confines of the underground garage. Though one and all they know not to touch, only to admire. Out on the suburban streets, dogs sometimes chase her, barking at her viciously. This frightens and confuses Elizabeth. She has a faint memory of a dog that had loved her. Yes loved her and licked her. But she can no longer remember the animal’s name.
Him is Andy. Herself is a silver Porsche. Once she had been something else, but then, no one touched her. Now young boys with strong brown arms wash and rub her, and after cream, lovingly towel dry her. And Andy actually watches them, making sure they do a good job, once in a while even pitching in with his own damp rag. It isn’t just the car wash boys. Men of all ages continue to smile at her. Not just in the garage and car wash, but everywhere they go. All of them want to possess her. But, it is Andy she waits for, his key in the lock, just as long ago she had waited for his key in the lock in their first apartment on Central Park West. Now like then, the feel of Andy’s weight bearing down is wonderful. She lives for his feet on the pedals, the gentle but firm way he releases the clutch. Best of all, most wonderful of all, Andy is happy with her at last, singing in the morning, on the way to work, singing late at night on the way home from Dawn’s apartment in Beverly Hills. Another beautiful thing. He always comes home with her. Not Dawn in her tight T shirts and tight little pants that show off her shapely butt to such advantage. Andy wants her Elizabeth, above anything on earth.
“You’re right up there with my dick, baby,” he told her just last night, downshifting as they drove up Beverly Glen.
The first person Andy told was his tennis partner.
“What do you mean, Elizabeth’s gone?”
“I said she’s gone. Probably running across the country like Forest Gump, though I’m sure knowing Elizabeth, no one will ever turn her into a movie. Why her disappearing like this is the one interesting thing she’s ever done.”
“But is she really gone? Did she leave a note? Are her things out of the house?”
“No to all your questions. She hasn’t taken a thing, not a stitch of clothing or even forty bucks from the cash machine. She left her credit cards and her phone. Since she’s been hoarding her own salary for years, she might well be on some Island off in the Caribbean running a health retreat for misfits like herself.”
“But, Andy, maybe someone kidnapped her. She could be tied up somewhere getting raped by a homicidal maniac.”
“Can you imagine anyone in their right mind raping Elizabeth?”
“No, frankly. But rape isn’t about sex. It’s an issue of anger.”
“And can you imagine anyone feeling that strongly about Elizabeth?”
“So you can see why I’m not concerned.”
“You’re really not worried?”
“No, why should I be?”
“She’s your wife, that’s why.”
“I’m sure when she wants to she’ll get in touch with me. Probably through her lawyer. Listen, you want to play on Saturday, Dawn can bring a friend?”
“I don’t know. Call me at the end of the week and we’ll see. My wrist has been bothering me. Anyway, I really do think you ought to call the police. How long has she been missing?”
“About a week.”
“Promise me, you’ll call the police. I mean get real Andy, if she turns up dead, and you didn’t report her missing, guess who they’ll suspect? It’s not as if you and Dawn have been discreet”
“Okay, Okay, but I gotta hang up now, you’re breaking up.”
Elizabeth loves the mornings just sitting in the driveway doing nothing, while Andy warms her up.
He smells so fresh: soap, after-shave, deodorant, that special cream he puts in his hair. With his back resting against her, Elizabeth appreciates the fine scratch of a starched shirt tickling her. Andy always carefully removes his suit jacket and drapes it over her protectively, the very first thing after he opens her door. And now, the moment she waits for, coming to life, rolling over, moving down the hill under trees and blue sky, as if it were just the two of them– the last two beings left on earth.
“Are you up, Dawn?”
“Listen, I’m not going to be able to see you for a few days. Not until this thing with Elizabeth gets cleared up.”
“What do you mean? You always said Elizabeth doesn’t care what you do. We’ve been going out in public for ages.”
“Wait, Dawn? Dawn did you hear that…no I didn’t honk the damn horn went off by itself. Hey wait, just a second, the Porsche’s doing something else.”
“Andy, Andy can you hear me?”
“Yeah. The clutch just slipped, I felt like it wasn’t engaging at all. Elizabeth has flown the coop. No one knows where she is. I’ve got to call the cops and so I need to lie low for a while until we can locate her. I’ll call you just as soon as that happens.”
“But Andy, what about–?”
“Look, I can’t talk now. I’ll call you the end of the week. Soon. Of course I love you babe. Fuck—the car is going crazy again.”
That night, Elizabeth is the last one left in the dark underground garage. The same thing happens the next night and the next. On the fourth night, when Andy jumps in, he slams the door, and gives her no time to warm up. Not a single word of endearment either. He keeps his coat to himself also; never thinking she might be cold. Their happy nights are gone, they now drive in silence. His little hands are cold and indifferent.
Soon it becomes clear, the longer Andy stays away, and the less attention he gives her, the harder it is to keep going. Elizabeth tries to tell him through every means available to her. But he won’t listen. Her horn blasting angers him. He’s not above grinding her gears. Then one night someone brushes by setting off her safety device system. Elizabeth sits in the dark garage screaming and screaming for hours. He doesn’t notice this either. He begins smoking foul fat cigars and crushing them out on her. She knows she looks dirty and neglected, but Andy doesn’t take her for her weekly wash and shine. He doesn’t empty out her ashtray. With no one to wash and rub her, she lives under a coat of grime and soon loses her color.
Late one night, when Andy slides the key in and turns it, Elizabeth can’t roll over. Not even when he coaxes her, “come on, come on, baby, I know you can do it.”
Elizabeth can’t make herself roll over for him. They are all alone in the dark when Andy strikes her against the wheel and calls her “you cunt!” Right afterwards, he rests his forehead against her, clutching at her. A tear falls to the floor leaving a spot about the size of a dime.
“Fucking krauts,” Andy hollers, striking her again. The blows grow stronger until Elizabeth’s soft skin is torn. His feet pummel her. But she can’t really feel his blows. He’s got the little phone in his hand, but it is fading out, and she understands she’s losing the power to hear as well. In any case, she’s dying. Someone else had died too. Someone she could no longer remember.
When Elizabeth awakens she’s suspended high in the air, completely immobilized. A man, not Andy, is underneath her, attaching things to her. He’s surprisingly kind. Though it’s hard to understand what he’s saying, she knows by the tone of his voice, and the soft touch of his hands, that he cares. “It’s okay, baby,” he tells her, you can tell Papa what’s the matter-”
He is patient for most of a day. Elizabeth can feel a slight stirring inside her. But by four thirty, he gets angry at her too. He calls her a bitch, and like Andy did, a cunt. He also calls her a lemon and piece of German shit.
“I’ll give you one last chance to roll over babe, but that’s it.”
Sometime later, he lowers Elizabeth to the ground, shifts her into neutral and with the help of two other strong men, they ease her into one corner of the garage. One of the men engages the emergency brake, and another one covers her with a soft blue cover.
Since no one could ever figure out how to make Elizabeth move again, she didn’t end up in a used car lot, or belonging to one of Andy’s children or to Dawn.
Though she’s a new model Porsche with nothing clearly wrong with her, the garage ends up selling Elizabeth virtually as junk to a company that specializes in props for stunt men. Elizabeth’s last act as an automobile is to catch fire and roll down a barren stretch of mountain in the Baja. What’s left of her burnt out frame remains–a couple of vultures often land on her back that once was silver, but now is burnt out and gray.
Andy’s wife, Elizabeth, has never been found. The LA Times ran two features on the disappearance of the Palisades runner. Both insinuated Andy is the prime suspect. Within six months of her disappearance, the law firm where he had been partner for years asked him to resign. His favorite daughter discovered she had loved her mother and vowed never to speak to him again. Though there had been quite a lot of money in stocks and bonds, the market took a sharp turn down, at precisely the moment when Andy needed to sell. A 5.6 earthquake took care of the house in the Palisades Andy had re-financed for two and a half times what he paid for it. By then, Dawn had long since taken up with his tennis partner. After all was said and done, he ended up moving to Phoenix, and working for a group of lawyers who advertise on television. A couple of times a week, he visits a woman his own age who does the books for the organization with whom he has affiliated.
At least twice a month, sometimes more, LAPD gets a call concerning Elizabeth. But to this day no one has ever found a trace of her. Andy doesn’t know exactly why, but he’s positive no one will. Though he never dreamed about Elizabeth when they were married, Andy dreams of her now. In the dreams she’s always far away from him, running on her long, runner’s legs in the distance, forever out of his reach.
He now drives a beige econo-box.
The Change in Elizabeth first appeared in North Atlantic Review
My life changed on the second night of Passover in the Jewish year 5751. I’m not sure what the calendar year was; though it was the early nineties, before the earthquake. Why do I remember the religious year in my mind, and not the calendar year? Even going to the trouble of creating a mnemonic as I used to in law school? Fifty-seven rhymes with heaven and fifty-one’s the one. Danny was forty-seven, add ten and that’s another way I remember the year. It was after dinner and we were in the big living room on Mandeville Canyon Road. Danny was still upstairs. I was in the leather chair by the floor lamp, looking through a motorcycle magazine I had picked up on my way home from the office. Ellen and my mother were sitting close together looking through a pile of out-of-focus shots Mom had taken on a recent cruise. Once in a while I heard the wife say soothingly, “that’s a beautiful picture,” or “you must have had a wonderful trip.” Ellen was good with my mother. She was the one who wrote and sent up to date pictures of our son and remembered her birthday; even the day my father died with a proper Yortzeit candle. Though Mom never came out and said it, she must have known she’d struck pure gold with Ellen. What real Jewish daughter would show the respect to the religion and to the mother in law that this former Methodist from Texas did?
I was studying a two-page color spread of the Harley model I wanted: Fifteen grand with the bright purple paint job and a real beauty. I’d been made partner in the law firm last year, so I could afford to express my individuality, up to a point. Especially since many of our movie industry clients were bikers. I was imagining the jealous faces of my colleagues when I walked in the door, fresh from the Harley, striping off the leather jacket. Also on my mind was Michele Katz Cohen, the wife of my senior partner. I didn’t care if her tits could win a lawsuit; her ass and legs were real.
Everybody wears helmets now, but back then, real Harley men didn’t. And that’s what I wanted to be. But, I knew it would not be fair to Ellen and Justin and the new kid we were trying so hard to have, not to wear a helmet. I was telling myself I wouldn’t drive the Porsche without a seat belt, and was a helmet, really any different than a seat belt? The disquieting news the hair transplant expert had recently told me was also a factor. Swimming, riding with the top down, sailing, even showering were all risky activities without proper head protection. At six grand per woven and transplanted row, my hairline was becoming (next to my house) my single largest investment. Ironically, the state of California had very recently solved the problem for me. I now had to by law protect my next to largest investment. But, since I’m trying to tell the truth here, I intended to complain about it as strenuously as any tattooed Hell’s Angel from Topanga Canyon.
Mom said, “The flowers were spectacular.” Danny’s deep laugh floated down from upstairs, followed by Justin’s high pitched little squeal. I was surprised that Danny had showed up for Ellen’s Passover, though he lived in Vegas, we weren’t close and hadn’t seen each other since our father died over a year ago.
Mom said, “The water was crystal clear.” I turned a few pages of the magazine.
I was studying the classified ads when I heard the dusty sound of Danny’s boots coming down the tile steps. He swaggered in the room, in his old suede cowboy jacket with some of the fringe missing, and his dirty, cracked Western boots.
Danny was seven years older than I. His wavy black hair showed no signs of the male pattern baldness I had caught like some terminal disease in my early thirties. Baldness comes from the mother’s side of the family and usually strikes all male offspring. Danny lucked out and the gene passed him by. A lot of other genes in our family had passed him by too. Still, when I looked at his thick black hair, shot through with glints of silver, not even the fact that I made more money in a month that he did in a good year, made me feel any better.
When did it hit me that Danny was probably gambling again? Last night there hadn’t been much opportunity to notice him with all the people and the confusion; although I did take in the fact that he wasn’t wearing his gold Rolex or his chains. He was driving a real piece of shit too. Knowing my brother he had probably already gone through his share of Dad’s money. Our mother was strong as an ox so Danny wouldn’t be seeing a windfall like the last one any time soon. That’s when it came to me. Danny was acting like an Uncle with Justin, putting on all his charm at the Passover dinner because he needed money to pay the loan sharks, to get his watch out of hock, to pay the rent, to eat probably. Why else come for Passover? Danny had even less religious feeling than I did. As a boy, he had refused at the last moment to be Bar Mitzvah, though he completed his studies and the party had been planned. He had been married once by a minister and he other time in Vegas. As for family feeling, little as he liked me, Danny truly hated Mom.
Still, last night’s Passover would not have been the same without him. It was Danny who had hidden the afikoman, caroused with the children; and Danny who had drank and laughed and gotten silly. Everybody loved him. Especially Michele Katz Cohen, All through the dinner she stared at Danny in his cowboy get up like she hadn’t seen a real man in years. It was obvious if Danny had said the word, Michele would have happily gone down on her knees in the guest bathroom.
I can see it, like a movie I was in, scene by scene. Danny standing by my chair looking down. I can smell his awful smell of b.o. and cigarettes. I remember wondering how Michele Katz Cohen could actually like that smell. Then Danny started to sing and like his laugh, it was a sound I’d known all my life. But my brother’s singing never made me feel left out of the joke. Danny’s voice was great. He was always able to imitate anyone: Elvis, Frank Sinatra, John Lee Hooker. Standing there, that second night of Passover in 5751, he brings out his best Arlo Guthrie imitation. “I don’t want a pickle, I just want to ride my motorsicle.” Then he asked, “you gonna get yourself a motorsicle, Dickie?”
Danny was the only person left on earth who ever called me Dickie.
“Feel like stretching your legs?”
“No thanks,” I replied. I refused to make it that easy for him to hit me up for money.
Turning some more pages, I began an article on used bikes. Six thousand bucks for a used Harley Sporster that was certain to hold its value. I had been this close to buying a Sportster my first year out of law school, but Dad talked me out of it. If I had that bike, it would be a classic today.
“Ma, Ellen?” Danny called out across the room. “Anybody for a stroll?”
Mom and Ellen answered “no thank you,” at the same time, like a Jewish Mother chorus. How had it happened? How had my mild, lank haired wife from some cow town in Texas, learned to sound exactly like my mother?
“Want to rent a dirty movie?”
“No thank you!”
“Want to get high and do it down and dirty?”
“No thank you.”
“Wanna take a Jacuzzi?”
“We better not, you know what the doctor said about the sperm count.”
Ellen was wild to have another baby, but I just couldn’t knock her up. We didn’t know who the guilty party was, though being Ellen, she was taking all the blame. She no longer drank coffee, alcohol, ate white sugar and she was presently off wheat and dairy products. Instead of making her look younger, the new healthy regime was giving my wife a dull, puffy look. She had stopped running (fearing it would cause an early miscarriage) and her weight was way up. She had the beginnings of what would no doubt blossom any day now into authentic Jewish thighs.
“Want to fuck you wife tonight?”
“No thank you!”
If only it were that simple.
For the second night of 5751 just happened to fall on the crucial midpoint in Ellen’s cycle. We’d been keeping track for almost a year. If she did not conceive soon, she was determined to undertake the full set of high tech fertility rites. Then instead of thermometers, fourteenth days and mandatory sex, the real shit would hit the fan. There would be sperm counts, in vitro fertilization at ten grand per pop, the whole long ugly list of official sounding names that meant no more transplants, not a chance of a Harley—in short—the end of everything as far as I was concerned. One of my partners at the law firm had gone through the whole degrading process and had conceived nothing more than a bill resembling the budget for a small country. In the end, they adopted one of those little girls from China who turned out to have learning disabilities. I’ll never forget Alice taking out a pen at one our parties and actually drawing a likeness of Leon’s sperm slide for everyone to see. It looked like three little commas in a wide field of white. Would Ellen do that to me?
The front door slammed. I could hear Danny’s cowboy boots on the path that led to the street, and the roar of a high-powered engine coming up the hill.
Mandeville Canyon Road doesn’t have sidewalks. It’s dangerous to walk with the steady stream of Porsches, BMW’s and Land Rovers going sixty up the steep, dark hill. I knew my brother was old enough not to be warned. Still, what if he got run over? Danny was due to leave in the morning; back to one of his construction jobs in Vegas. And Mom would be heading back East the following day. If Danny got himself run over I would be stuck with the old bag forever. It was everything I could do not to run out of the house screaming, “careful, Danny, careful!”
Instead, I got up to get a drink of water, and the Consumer Report I’d left in my briefcase. We were all working on computers by then, but the net hadn’t yet come in the way it did several years later. I had bought the motorcycle report, not like today when I would have downloaded the info. Coming back in the living room, I heard Mom say, “Just relax. You need to find something to take your mind off it, dear.”
Furious at Ellen, I wondered what would she do next: Sell tickets? Still, what did it matter anymore if Gertie and the entire law firm stood at our bedroom door with video cameras? Our fucking days were over. I hated doing it missionary style with the pillow under her ass like the book recommended. What had happened to the good old days of tongues and tits and dark desires? I knew in my heart, there was something wrong with this clinical manufacturing of a baby. Wasn’t that why it wasn’t working?
I dozed off for a moment. When the door slammed, I woke up with a start. Danny was coming toward me with a big grin on his face. He smelled like a college dorm room: reeking of pot. Then, Ellen and Mom came back in the room, carefully balancing teacups in the way women do. Danny sat down, folding his knees under him on the Navaho rug near me and reached for a deck of cards on the end table. Before dinner my brother had had been showing Justin how to make card houses.
“I saw a coyote,” Danny told us, “he was up there on the cliffs behind the house, a big guy.”
Ellen sat down. Her teacup began to rattle. “Please don’t mention coyotes to Justin, Danny. One ate his brand new kitty cat I gave him for Chanukah.”
I hated Ellen’s careful pronunciation of Chanukah. She always paused over Jewish words she had trouble saying. She slipped and called it Christmas several times during the season, which always made me laugh.
My wife turned to me, “have a nice sleep?
“Yeah, I guess so.” I picked up the motorcycle report once again.
Danny began to build one of his card houses. When we were little, I used to believe he possessed some magic power in his fingertips. Danny’s houses almost never fell down. It was always Danny who destroyed them with a sweep of his hand when he grew bored. I learned early on not to trust Danny for that reason alone. How could you trust someone who could destroy something beautiful and so hard to do?
Mom said, “Danny should have been an architect.” As if my brother was a young college drop out, not the forty-seven-year old construction worker on the floor with more than half his life shot. Danny’s face registered nothing except how stoned he was.
He was singing, “the buzzing of the bees and the lemonade tree in the big rock candy mountain.” You never heard Ma suggesting he become a singer.
“Got any more cards, Dickie?”
I shook my head.
“Too bad, Danny said. Then with a light sweep of his hand he leveled his beautiful castle.
In spite of myself, I winced.
Ellen said, “that was nice of you to teach Justin to build card houses.”
Danny didn’t answer her right away. Instead he gathered up his cards and shuffled, presently setting up a game of solitaire. You could see the card shark in him in the expert way he handled the deck. I wondered what he looked like when was losing. Did his hands tremble? Did he sweat?
“Justin’s a good little fellow,” he said “He wants to come work construction jobs with me.”
“God forbid!” Mom belted out. Danny didn’t look up from his cards. I watched him place the red queen on the black king. Then he said pleasantly, “I told Justin about the birds and the bees tonight. The little dude had the right idea, but he needed help.” Then Danny sang, “you got the right string baby, but the wrong yoyo.”
Mom, never one to be subtle, gasped and dropped her pictures on the floor.
“How specific did you get?” I asked him quietly.
Danny laughed, “I told him the guy pokes his pecker in the girl’s pussy.”
From the floor where she was picking up photos, Ellen said, “He’s been trying find out about that for months.” She sounded heartbroken and bewildered as if she couldn’t comprehend her sudden loss.
Finally Ellen said to no one in particular, as if she was speaking aloud to an empty room,
“I didn’t want to give him too much information he couldn’t handle. I wasn’t hiding anything. I just thought he wasn’t ready.”
I felt like shouting at Ellen for acting like the guilty party. Why wasn’t old Gertie speaking up?
Danny began to sing, “like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.” In spite of how mad I was at him, I still admired his Dylan imitation.
Mom said to Ellen, “here, dear, give me your hand.”
Mom was short and since Dad had died she’d let her herself go. But when she stood up that night she seemed tall, and almost regal. A dignified older whom you couldn’t help but respect. I was more than a little disappointed she hadn’t lost it with Danny.
“Goodnight,” Ma announced like a queen. Then she left. Every single scuff of her slow way up the Mexican tile stairs filled the room; it seemed to take forever.
Ellen left the room shortly after Ma. My wife didn’t give me the usual peck on the cheek or say goodnight to Danny. With her gone, the room was really peaceful. The dishwasher clicked to the quieter drying stage. No cars come up the hill. I thumbed through Consumer Report; Danny lost a game of solitaire far and square. Presently I heard the heavy groaning of pipes, which meant that Ellen was in the shower.
That’s when it happened: a terrified scream coming from Justin’s room. Danny and I looked at each other; I got to my feet and shot up the stairs. Mom was standing at Justin’s door, in her God awful flowered bathrobe; her face greasy and her thin gray hair flattened into tiny little pin curls. I felt like I ought to reach out and pat her, but the hideous way she looked kept me away. I said, “Don’t worry, Ma, I’ll take care of him.”
By this point the screaming had turned into heartbroken sobbing. Heading toward my son’s bed, I stepped on something squishy and I felt like screaming myself. When I looked down, I saw it was Jason’s stuffed octopus. In fact, the whole floor of his room was covered in the stuffed animals Justin always kept close to him while he slept.
My son was sitting straight up with his eyes closed. He was holding his prick with one hand. I took his other hand. “It’s okay,” I said, “Daddy’s here.”
Justin’s eyes fluttered open. I saw them gleaming wide and terrified in the weird green room lit only by his night light.
“I was falling and falling,” he whimpered.
Part of me wanted to cry out, “I’m falling too, we’re all falling, son. You’re just lucky you still have someone to catch you.”
I patted my son’s head. “You’re safe and Daddy will protect you.”
Justin let his head drop. I tucked the blankets around him. Before I left the room, I picked up his stuffed animals and repositioned them around him, hating my brother for wrecking his peace.
When I opened the door to our bedroom, the room was dark and the TV was on. The glow illuminated Ellen who was sitting up in bed, her legs stretched out in front on her. She had on her pink terry bathrobe that made her look like a whale; a matching towel around her head and on her feet, rabbit slippers with big ears. Ellen wasn’t someone who could get away with looking cutesy. Not that I would tell her this and be deliberately hurtful. Even so—and this was a big even so—her failure of judgment was starting to bug me and bug me bad. Other men had wives who knew how to dress. Arthur had Michele several years older than Ellen and look at her.
I lay down on my side of the king. Ellen was watching her favorite show. Tonight’s episode was taking place in a hospital. One of the women characters had cancer. The doctor on the screen was telling the actress they’d have to remove
her ovaries, her womb and tubes and in spite of my revulsion, I was interested. Ellen was sitting up, her knees drawn to her chest, sobbing. I even felt a few tears forming in the corner of my own eyes. While I knew I was watching some scriptwriter’s idea of real life, I was afraid or maybe it was some kind of hint of what was coming.
After the news, Ellen turned off the TV. Then she disappeared for a while into the bathroom. When she came out her hair was combed and shiny. She sat down and took off the slippers and removed her bathrobe. Under it she had on a knee length novelty T-shirt from Knott’s Berry Farm. Usually if we were scheduled to fuck for a baby, she’d dress up in one of her nightgowns. Still, the bandage on her shin was a give away. Ellen always shaved her legs on reproduction nights.
Ellen settled herself under the covers. Part of me wanted to make small talk, and just tell my wife about my day. The other part of me felt like shouting. But there was no time for either of these things. I was supposed to do what I had done last month at this time. And the month before and the month before. And, what I did during a two week period last summer when we did it once every forty-eight hours, after we’d been told that was the way to keep the sperm going. For me, that meant turn out the light, think about Michele Katz Cohen, then stick it in. Once we got going, Ellen would raise her legs and wrap them around me because it helped the sperm hit the mark. We didn’t bother kissing anymore.
A faint smell of shampoo came from Ellen’s freshly washed hair spread out against the pillow. Once I had loved her for her reticence, just as I loved her lank, silky hair. Now her patience struck me as a dull, hostile means of getting what she wanted. Who did she think she was anyway? Fucking Gandhi? I felt like shouting, “speak your mind! Tell me I’m a shit if you want to. At least get your hair permed in Beverly Hills like every other broad in this town. Above all, lose weight, you cow!”
Instead, I reached under the covers and put my hand on my prick. Michele on my Harley in a black leather skirt, matching boots, but no underwear or top? I tried it for a second or two, but the image wouldn’t click. I couldn’t bring the fantasy into focus. How could I with Danny still awake downstairs, pacing around, opening cabinets, guzzling my booze, the single malt, no doubt?
I sat up and reached for my book, but I couldn’t focus on it either.
My whole life was flashing before me, the way they say it does, right before you die. First there had been the rules of my parents. Behave well, do it our way, not Danny’s way. That’s how you earn our love and respect. Away from home it had been the same. At school: neat papers, raising my hand. Not talking out of turn, always doing my homework and handing in papers on time, never once going unprepared, from the earliest spelling quizzes in grade school to passing the law boards second in my class. All of the years of sacrifice and hard work and for what, I wondered now, this?
Ellen turned off her light. I kept my eyes focused on the book in front of me reading the same page over and over. Ellen didn’t ask me to turn out the light, she could hold out longer than anyone. That’s what made our marriage so maddening. She had tricked me all these years into thinking it was me, Richard, who had the upper hand. All along it was Ellen who controlled me. Take tonight. If I didn’t reach for her, she would not mention it.
But, come the fourteenth day of her next cycle, I would be expected to perform again. If my performance wasn’t satisfactory, it would be only a matter of time before I would be forced to perform in a test tube. Ellen never resorted to begging and pleading. But boy did she ever have me jumping through the hoops.
I turned out the bedside lamp, but I didn’t reach for her. A fire engine sounded from a distance. Below our bedroom window that faced the hills, I heard the crackle of dead leaves. It had not rained for the past year. The hills behind our house were tinged that deadly rust color. Coyotes were coming closer to the houses in their search for food and water. It was only April and the hills looked like September. A careless flick of a match could set off a conflagration. I lay there in bed listening. Once more I heard the crisp rustling of leaves and now coming toward the house, quick light steps over dead dry brush and eroding earth.
I slipped out of bed as quietly as possible, and tiptoed over to the window. The full moon cast a shadow of light across the hills. Coming down, I saw, three scraggly coyotes. Coyotes are solitary animals. What did this triumvirate mean? They seemed to be making their way to my house. For once, I wished I had a gun.
I heard the kitchen door shut softly. Danny was standing right below me, I figured, going outside for a smoke.
I looked out the window. The shadow of my brother loomed out over the hill. His shadow was as tall as the house, the size of a good size tree. From its outline, I could make out that my brother was holding a short thick stick in his hand. It came to me then, the coyotes were coming for Danny. Danny belonged to them as he had never belonged to any of us. I could see him making his way up into the hills, returning on all fours once in a while to forage for food and water.
From the bed, Ellen called out, “Richard, what in the world’s going on?” That’s when the first shot rang out. I turned back in time to see the enormous shadow of my brother with his arm out assassination style. Then, there was a second shocking blast, so loud I would not have been surprised to see the house in shambles all around me. Right before the third shot rang out, the one Danny turned on himself; I finally realized what was happening. But by then it was too late. Justin cried out. Then my mom came rushing into our room with a face ten thousand years old.
Now, years later, when I return to that moment at the window, I can remember thinking it was just like Danny to kill two coyotes and then himself. It was a Danny way to go; a gambler’s way to go. But then, when it was happening, I just stood there. My job was to keep Mom from the window.
I turned to face them. Justin’s rhythmic screaming filled the room. But the two women stood senseless in the doorway. Ellen had her arms around the
stunned old lady. Abruptly, Justin’s screaming stopped. Except for the soft mewing sounds the women were making, the room was wonderfully blissfully silent. For a moment it was possible to believe it was all some bad dream, one that would vanish like Justin’s nightmares.
I picked up the phone and dialed the police. Then I went into my walk in closet and got dressed. A young motorcycle cop arrived first. I liked him because he winced when he saw Danny and did not ask any stupid questions. The officers who arrived by car were older and nasty. They kept asking me whether I knew about the gun, whether I had a fight with Danny; they even wanted to question Ellen and Mom. The last set of people pulled up in a van. They hauled away what was left of Danny and told me they’d get in touch.
The motorcycle cop was the last to leave. By now it was close to daylight though the stars were out and the sky was midnight blue. According to Jewish law we needed to bury Danny as soon as possible. But when would the cops let him go?
I stood and watched the cop make his way to the Harley he had parked near the front door. I calculated that the cop was just about the same age I had been when I wanted my first Harley.
“That’s the X frame with the rubber mounts, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Yeah,” the cop told me, “it’s really great.”
I was watching him pull on the helmet, then mount the bike.
“You into Harley’s?” he asked.
“Used to be,” I told him, “but since the helmet law passed, it’s not the same anymore.”
The cop nodded his helmeted head. “Your real motorcycle people feel like that.”
I said, “I guess we do.”
The engine roared on. The cop called out over the noise, “I’m real sorry about your brother, sir.”
5751 first appeared in FICTION, Number 54