Mason Morgan shut off the car and looked over at his wife, Sara. Seven-thirty on a Saturday night in April. It was her fifty-second birthday.
She had been laughing and joking with Terry, their son, just moments before. Now she raised her eyebrows at Morgan as he hesitated. Not a discouraging look exactly, but not encouraging, either—good-humored impatience, maybe. She said, “You’re not going to call me a ‘lady of a certain age’ again, are you?”
He had tried that earlier in the day and she had all but ground her teeth at him. “I was going to say…” He was going to say, in part because it was true, You’re as beautiful to me today as you were twenty-nine years ago. But at the last moment his nerve failed him. Sara had never been an easy woman.
“Twenty-nine years?” he said, because he had to say something. It wasn’t a smart topic to raise, not with her, not these days, but lately it had been on his mind—time and change and continuity and all that. “You know what I mean? Twenty-nine?”
“‘Fraid so,” she said, after what seemed a long pause.
“I’ll give you two lovebirds a little privacy,” Terry said.
The sound of his door punctuated the silence. A sad, tired little smile crossed her face. I know all about those twenty-nine years, it said.
“Not that I’m complaining, understand,” Morgan said. Across the parking lot their old friend Katie Officer was climbing from her car; she was joining them for dinner. “Just, sometimes it seems impossible.”
“Yes,” Sara said. “Yes it does.”
How bleak she makes it sound, he thought. Like twenty-nine years in Siberia. Another silence opened up. “Well, for what it’s worth,” he began; it was his habit to fill silences. “I think you’re as beautiful—”
“We ought to get inside.” She patted his hand. “Katie’ll wonder what’s happened to us.”
“Dad get all meaningful on you?” Terry asked, a moment later. They were making their way across the parking lot.
Sara said, “Only a little. We’re going to have fun anyway, aren’t we, old timer?”
“But no speeches, right? No speeches, no memory lane, no gloom.” Terry held up the champagne. “It’s supposed to be a party, right?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Morgan said, trying to keep his tone light. “Maybe I’ll make a little speech if the spirit moves me.” Of their two children, it was Janice who made sense to him—but Janice was married and lived in Wisconsin. Terry was home on spring break.
“He promised he wouldn’t,” Sara said. “And no ‘Happy Birthday,’ either.”
Much later that evening—Sunday morning, in fact—in a joint called Shorty’s, Morgan ordered a margarita.
The late hour brought to mind the night, years and years before, when he and Mike Officer put away an entire bottle of Jagermeister. Jesus-God, what a night. Not long before Janice was born. One last blow-out—though why they had picked Jagermeister he could no longer remember.
“And a cup of coffee,” he told the bartender. He’d been driving around, more or less at random, for the last couple hours, a strange feeling in his chest, like having a small balloon inside, a bursting feeling, half pleasant, half not. He’d drawn several hundred dollars from an ATM and purchased a sack full of supplies, beer and beef jerky and so on, his idea being, at least at first, to keep on driving. Because why the hell not? That was the feeling in his chest: why the hell not? Things could hardly get worse, after all.
Of course he’d been drinking, but even allowing for that it was clear to him that whatever he did—went to Janice in Eau Claire, visited his parents, drove in circles—it really didn’t matter.
Their waiter introduced himself. Would they care for a drink while they looked at the menu? They would indeed—and Morgan was pleased to see Sara taking charge of the wine list, something she used to enjoy doing. It amused him too that Terry had to show ID.
Morgan ordered Jameson neat—not an old-timer’s drink, he didn’t think. “Salud,” he said.
Sara said to Katie, “You look great, girl. I like your hair.”
“Oh, this stuff,” Katie said, and ran her hand over it. “The real me, at last.” She shrugged. “But I thought, Why keep hiding it, you know?”
Katie’s older son lived with his family in Boston, and she talked of her recent visit—the museums, the ethnic restaurants, the bookstores, the grandchildren. Morgan meanwhile found himself trying to recall the name of the airport there. He’d been to Boston once, fifteen years ago, some conference or other, he couldn’t remember what. The traffic he remembered, and a long tunnel. But the name of the airport…When he finally came up with it—“Logan, right? Logan Airport?”—the other three looked at him, half surprised, half amused. Then Terry got a solid laugh from the ladies by saying, “If you say so, Pop.”
“Earth to Mason,” Sara said; Morgan caught the look she traded with Terry.
It turned out that Katie had been explaining, and she now summarized for Morgan, that she wasn’t sleeping much these days. It was the strangest thing, she said, but she just wasn’t tired. Four or five hours, she said; then she was wide awake.
“It sounds like torture,” Morgan said. “I need seven at least.”
“Well, that’s what’s odd—it’s not torture. I’m not sleepy, I don’t feel like a zombie. I’m just…awake. I don’t even know whether what I have qualifies as insomnia.”
Sara said, “You’ve tapped some hidden reserve.”
“Maybe you have superpowers,” said Terry.
Katie said that the good thing, aside from the fact that it didn’t seem to be wearing her down, was that she was getting lots of reading done. But it was strange, she repeated. She’d never had trouble like this before. And to tell the truth—she faltered—it made her feel kind of guilty. “To feel good, you know? Maybe I should be…”
She brushed at the corner of an eye, then managed an embarrassed little smile. “Look at me,” she said. “Skeleton at the feast.”
“Nonsense,” Morgan said. “You’re not allowed to worry about things like that. Not with us.”
“You look great,” Sara said. “Mike would certainly approve.”
“A hundred percent,” Morgan said, and raised his glass to her. “Sleep or no sleep.”
A free, floaty feeling; it made him want to shout, or laugh, or shout with laughter, and when he checked his phone and found that she had not called, he did laugh. The bartender gave him a weary nod. Of course she had not called. Why the hell would she?
The margarita was poor, but the coffee was crap. Burned, stale. Almost comically bad. Yet somehow he liked it; the badder, the better. Tonight it seemed just right. He took one last look at his phone, then dropped it into the margarita. It looked funny there, alongside the lime.
It’s called screwing the pooch, he heard Mike say. And you, my friend, have fair and squarely screwed the pooch.
The bartender said, “Long night?”
“Pretty long, yeah.” Morgan suddenly felt conspicuous; the place was quiet and mostly empty. “But, you know”—he wiped at an eye—“kind of funny, too, when you step back.”
It was a total disaster, is what it was. He had blood on his cuff, for God’s sake, and the blood—it was Terry’s. His son’s blood! Morgan began to shake again with laughter. “Jesus fucking Christ!” the boy had said, springing up. The sound of his chair tipping over. The look Sara gave him, and her voice, too, sharp as a blade.
No, it was a disaster. Absolute. She wouldn’t forgive him—ever. Not in a thousand years. He’d ripped the fabric, cracked the bell, whatever—screwed the pooch. But somehow, if you stepped back…And the fact that it was funny when it shouldn’t have been only made it funnier.
A new world record in the pooch-screw! A pooch-screwing machine, ladies and gentlemen!
The bartender poured more coffee. “I like to see a guy having a good time.”
“What I’d like someone to tell me,” Katie said, “is what’s the big deal about Wuthering Heights. Can any of you tell me? One of the girls in my book club just goes on and on about it, so I thought, All right already.” She looked around the table with mock astonishment. “But I do not get it.”
Neither Morgan nor Sara could help her.
“So much agonizing. On every page.” Romantic despair contorted her face. “‘Heathcliff! Heathcliff!’”
Morgan looked at his son.
“Hey, don’t look at me,” said the boy.
“Honestly, I thought I was going to scream. If I had seen one more exclamation point…”
Morgan said, “You haven’t read Wuthering Heights?” What did English majors do?—besides fight injustice and stop wars and so forth. “What am I spending my money on, anyway?”
“Mason,” Sara said.
“I’m kidding.” Which was true, it wasn’t really a money issue, or not simply a money issue. “But I mean, Wuthering Heights. Isn’t it one of the classics?”
“If you believe in that sort of thing, I suppose.” Terry drank from his beer. “Really, the whole…you know, the ideology is pretty questionable, if you ask me. The ideology of the classic.”
Sara laughed. “What on earth does that mean?”
“It sounds important,” said Katie.
“It’s elitist, Mom. It’s undemocratic.”
He drank as much as he could stand of Shorty’s coffee, then ordered a gin and tonic. For all his drinking, so much more than usual, he still felt clear in his head.
His hilarity had worn off; now he contemplated his next move. Drive to the cemetery where his father and mother lay? He had enough money and enough Red Bull. But when he got there, then what?
His poor mother, dead at forty-seven. He recalled, with an odd affection, the time she had pulled off her old cardigan and driven him out of the house with it, him and his smart mouth, the big buttons clacking against his skull. He couldn’t remember what he had said or done, but he remembered those damn buttons.
It’s elitist, Mom. He could not imagine talking to her that way. Throwing fancy words at her, down at her—sort of laughing at her. Ideology, Mom.
Or at Artie? Ha, Dad, very funny. Terry had been with Morgan earlier in the day when Morgan bought the champagne. No sooner was the transaction completed than the boy started in. How much? For that? You’ve got to be kidding—for one bottle? That’s repulsive. That’s obscene.
Blah blah blah.
The waiter returned with the pâté, the plate of artisan cheeses, and the bread basket. He reminded them of his name, then asked if they’d like to hear the specials. Morgan ordered his steak well done. That was one thing, maybe the only thing, he had in common with the old man—he liked his food cooked.
“Why do they make such a point of introducing themselves?” Morgan said. “What does it matter to us if he’s Colin or Jim or whatever?”
“Gee, I don’t know, Dad—friendliness, maybe? Make the customer feel welcome?”
“My dad,” Katie said. “Bless his heart, he was such a country boy. He never got to many restaurants”—she indicated the room where they sat—“like this one. Even a tablecloth was fancy to him. But Mike and I would take him sometimes, toward the end of his life, and he’d always call the waiters by name.” She laughed. “He wasn’t teasing them, he was being friendly. He was one of those old men who talk to everyone they meet, you know. And he thought that’s what they wanted, the waiters.” She had a way of wrinkling her nose when she tried to stifle a laugh. “He’d say, ‘Well, Chris, I think I’m going to have the chicken.’ Or ‘Chris, could I get a little more water?’”
Sara said, “Tell about that time we took your dad.”
“Oh,” Morgan said. The request took him by surprise. “Katie’s heard that story, I bet. Probably a half-dozen times.”
It was possible. As a younger man Morgan had rather featured his Artie stories, most of which dealt with the old man’s refusals and obsessions, occasionally his brutalities. The time he asked Morgan if he was “a little funny”—hand-gestures accompanied the word—because Morgan didn’t play sports and was shy around girls. The room and board he charged Morgan, beginning on his seventeenth birthday. His belief, expressed many times, that people “ran off and hid in some college” because they were afraid to work. The time he looked Morgan in the eye and said, also about college, “Not with my money, boy. No sir. Time for you to grow up and get serious.”
Now it seemed to Morgan that he’d been pretty slow, culpably slow, to see those stories for what they were: a license to congratulate himself, a kind of inverted bragging. Hey, friends, have I told you lately about the shit I survived as a kid?
And slower still to see the more serious problem: that the stories were false. Not lies; the details were accurate. But somehow the stories were not. They left out too much. And the left-out parts made all the difference.
In any case it was easy to make fun, especially of your parents. That’s how it seemed to him now.
On the other hand, he could not remember the last time Sara had asked him to tell a story. If anything, these days she tried to keep him from talking. Nor, for that matter, could he remember the last time she had enjoyed or pretended to enjoy herself as much as she was enjoying or pretending to enjoy herself now. And Katie, ever the good sport, didn’t seem averse. So he told the peppermill story, and told it as if he still thought it pretty funny.
“Well,” he said, “this was around his birthday—his last birthday, as it turned out. Before Janice was born.” He looked to Sara. “Remember how dressed up he was?”
“No. But I remember we took him to the Zider Zee.”
“That’s right, with the big windmill. The Zider Zee. Sort of nice, sort of corny.”
“Like this place,” said Terry.
“Behave, you,” said his mother.
Or the time he called Terry to tell him that Mike O. was sick. Was it just a year ago? “That’s a tough break, man,” Terry had said. Just like that, and in a tone of voice Morgan well remembered: tough break. As if they were talking about a missed putt.
Pancreatic cancer. Fifty-fucking-three years old: talk about injustice, talk about out-fucking-rageous. (Morgan ordered another gin and tonic.) But these days Terry was an activist, so one man’s death didn’t rate. There was a war to stop, and to hear Terry tell it, he and his college chums were going to stop it. Petitions and slogans and marches. “Protest actions,” whatever those were.
Poor Katie, with her haggard eyes and old-lady’s hair. She looked like she’d been dragged around behind a jeep. Well, not that bad, but bad. No one should be allowed to accuse her of kidding herself, not after the year she’d been though.
Which was not to say the boy deserved to be shot in the face or anything. Just that there were complicating factors.
And as for Sara—well, it wasn’t fair, a question like that. You could wrong-foot anybody with a question like that.
Morgan said, “Anyway.” He finished his drink, then stared a moment into his ice—with, he hoped, a bittersweet-memories-of-crusty-old-dad look on his face.
“So anyway. So we’re sitting there, the three of us. Artie’s all dressed up. Knot in his tie as big as a fist.” Morgan never discovered if the old man had tied it himself or got the help of some orderly; neither seemed likely. “Now, by this point my pop was pretty sick; he wasn’t that old, but he was much sicker than any of us realized, and almost completely deaf. Forty years a machinist, in the days before OSHA. So we’re sitting there, complete silence, the best of friends, having a great time, and all of a sudden I hear him say, ‘What is that?’ Sort of a croak, and pretty loud. And I think, Great, here we go. He’s spotted a Mexican or a black person or something.”
“A man with long hair,” Sara said.
“Or an interracial couple, God help us. But no—I look and I see he’s pointing at something on our table.”
Morgan caught the waiter’s eye. “Bring me another one just like the other one,” he said. He grinned and shrugged when Sara gave him a look.
“So anyway, the old man says ‘What’s that?’ and I look and see, and it’s the pepper mill; he’s pointing at the pepper mill.” Morgan glared and croaked, to the amusement of the ladies.
“You’d have thought it was a piece of garbage,” Sara said.
“‘What’s that?’ he says. Loud voice, you know, very harsh. So I show him.” Morgan picked up the pepper mill and demonstrated; he gave every appearance of enjoying himself. “‘It’s a pepper mill, Dad. For pepper.’ I have to speak up, right. ‘A. Pep. Per. Mill.’ Like talking to a rock, you know. ‘You turn this end, out comes the pepper.’ And I grind a little into my hand, so he can see what it is.”
But he was thinking, Easy to make fun. The waiter set down his drink. Easy to kick a dead man. He hid for a moment behind his drink, and behind a little chuckle, as if anticipating his punch line, and got his grin back in place.
“So I show him.” He extended his hand. “I show him the pepper. And he just stares at it. Long time. Then he looks me in the eye, dead level—and he says, in that same loud croak, ‘No pepper.’”
“You’d have thought it was a dead dog,” Sara said.
“No pepper,” Morgan said again, and got another laugh. Even Terry was laughing.
“Or an old shoe.”
Katie said, “Bless his heart—he had his likes and his dislikes, didn’t he?”
“That he did,” Morgan said. “He did indeed.” Because that was the point, surely: what can you do about your likes and dislikes?
He made another dent in his whiskey. “My father’s last words to me: ‘No pepper.’” And it was true, in a way; if there were other words, Morgan didn’t remember them.
“A shot of Jagermeister,” he said, “and then I’ll go.” In Mike’s honor, he told himself. The one person in the whole universe who, if he weren’t dead, would have sat with him and listened and laughed and understood—would have fucking understood the whole situation.
And in honor of that Jagermeister night long ago, and of their younger, stronger selves. A freer time. When even a dumbass idea wasn’t out of the question.
It occurred to him that he was, perhaps, drunker than he felt.
As if overhearing, the bartender cocked his head. “You know, I don’t believe I’m going to serve you. No offense, understand. But not unless you want to give me your keys.”
This surprised Morgan, and rather pleased him. Another first! “Hey, no problem,” he said, “I hear you.” Plus he knew he had a few beers left in the car. “I hear you. But listen—don’t worry about me. Steady as a rock, seriously. I’m fine.”
He held out his hand, then laughed at his trembling. “I’m a little out of practice, maybe.”
The bartender gave him that bartender look, blank and level.
“But hey, no problem. It’s the thought that counts, right?” An inch or so of ice and watery tonic remained at the bottom of his glass; he raised it. “To dumbass ideas.”
“You worry me more and more.”
Katie said, “Oh, I’m not trying to excuse it. Not at all. I think it’s horrible. Repulsive. I see those pictures and I think, That’s not my America.”
“Oh but it is,” said Terry, with an unpleasant little laugh. He swirled the last swallow of beer at the bottom of his glass—a man-of-the-world gesture, Morgan thought.
“But what I mean is, they have a difficult job. Especially a few years back, when all this was going on.”
“It’s still going on. Right now. Don’t kid yourself.”
“But not to the same extent, I don’t think.”
“Worse.” Terry laughed. “Worse now than ever. They lie to us constantly.”
Morgan leaned across to Katie and said, in a stage whisper, “Terry’s an activist. He knows all about this stuff.”
“Don’t, Mason,” Sara said.
“Just kidding,” he said, and raised his glass to his son. “But Katie’s right, right? There was an investigation into the whole business. Congressional hearings and so on.”
“Oh sure,” Terry said. “Congressional hearings.”
Morgan laughed again, then shrugged. “I’m okay, really. I’m solid. It’s just—I sort of broke my son’s nose tonight.”
This seemed to get the bartender’s attention, maybe even to impress him. He nodded, as if to acknowledge the seriousness of the revelation.
“So, you know, things are kind of weird.”
“They call the cops on you?”
The question took Morgan by surprise. “No, no,” he said. “Things didn’t get that far out of hand.”
“You’re lucky, man.” His expression suggested Morgan didn’t know how lucky. “I broke my girlfriend’s jaw? Spent fifteen months in Rocky Point Correctional.”
Now it was the bartender’s turn to shrug. “Second offense.”
The desserts and the coffees arrived. Sara opened her gifts. And Terry started in again on the champagne.
“I’m kind of appalled by that stuff,” he said, though he smiled. “I mean, happy birthday and all, but it’s pretty gross when you think about it.”
Morgan was untwisting the wire basket that held in the cork. “This stuff? This is Veuve Cliquot. Not gross at all.”
He had given some thought to his toast. They could hardly accuse him of making a speech: To Sara Lynn, wife, mother, friend. Forever thirty-nine in our hearts—he would pause—and as lovely as ever. He had gone back and forth on including the words best friend, but as the moment approached he thought, Don’t press your luck.
“Fifty bucks for a few mouthfuls of fermented grape juice? It’s absurd.”
“Forty-five,” Morgan said. He looked at Sara: “And worth every penny, I might add.” Maybe he would say “best friend” after all.
“It’s just so—American. So I’m-the-center-of-the-world.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Katie said, using one of Mike’s old lines.
“C’mon,” said Sara. “It’s fun, it’s champagne.”
“And actually,” Morgan said, showing him the label, “it’s French.”
“Ha,” Terry said, no longer smiling. “Very funny.”
Before he could stop himself, Morgan said, “Give us a break, boy.”
Sara said, a tone in her voice, “Mason.”
“It’s your mother’s birthday, for God’s sake.” He flashed a big, though possibly unconvincing, smile. “Let’s save the world tomorrow.”
And Terry said, “Dad—” There was a rhetorical little snort in the pause that followed. “I mean, do you have any idea”—his tone suggesting that of course Morgan had no idea, in fact could have no idea—“how many mouths fifty dollars would feed in Kandahar Province?”
And Morgan, God help him, Morgan leveled the bottle at him. Right in his face. “Watch it, college boy,” he said. “This thing’s loaded.”
He held up pretty well, all things considered. The cops were nice, they called him Sir and everything. In Morgan’s opinion he’d been driving fine, if a little fast, and he was pretty sure he passed the field test. He had felt his hilarity come back, like a fit or seizure, as he stood there on one foot, freezing his ass off on a lonely stretch of Kansas road. “Steady as a rock,” he said, or maybe even shouted. Apparently he blew a pretty high number, however. “Tonight’s one surprise after another,” he said when they told him they had to take him in.
Even the handcuffs made him laugh. He said, “Do I look like a flight risk?” but they didn’t answer. Later he said, “My parents are buried in Thornton. I was on my way to Thornton.” They didn’t respond to that either.
No, everything was fine until they put him in the cell. They really do put you in a cell, he thought, and the door really does clang, just like in the movies. Benches around the wall. Graffiti. Open toilet. Guy in the far corner, using his jacket for a pillow. And he thought, Oh fuck.
He hadn’t cried in forty years, maybe more. Not for his mother, certainly not for the old man, not for Mike. Not at the restaurant, sitting there alone among the bloody napkins and the half-eaten desserts, drinking that champagne, her words ringing in his ears. Not even then.
Oh good lord, oh how stupid, oh look what I’ve done, of course I didn’t mean, oh what an idiot…A babbling brook of apologies. Terry, bloody shirt, ice-pack. Katie, looking stricken, trying to help. Sara, all but quivering with rage.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to drive,” she said to Katie. She wouldn’t so much as look at Morgan.
But finally she did, and then he wished she hadn’t. He didn’t even want to know the emotions that went into a look like that. “What is the matter with you?” she said. The way her lips curled—he’d never forget it. “What is the matter with you?”
Now, sitting in jail at four in the morning or whatever, drunk, blood on his cuff, he thought it a perfectly fair question. Though unanswerable. His head hurt too.
He tried to concentrate instead on the cops going sleepily about their business—highway patrol, he guessed they were. The place was very quiet, like a hospital in the middle of the night. He felt extremely lonely.
What in fact was the matter with him? Would he ever know? And if he knew, would it make any difference?
Morgan was startled to see his cellmate standing before him. A regular guy, he looked like—not a bum. A little red around the eyes maybe. He offered Morgan a cigarette, which Morgan took though he hadn’t smoked in years.
After a time the man said, “You got anybody to call?”
“My wife,” he said. If there was another way out, he couldn’t think of it. “I could call my wife.”
“Hoo boy.” The words hung there a while. “Is she cool?”
Morgan waited a beat, then said, “Hoo boy.” They both enjoyed that more than they might have in other circumstances.
“Sounds like a wife,” the man said. “Mine, anyway. Ex-wife.”
“She used to be cool. But we’ve been married twenty-nine years.”
“Ah, they get fed up,” the man said. “And you know…” He gestured with both hands, as if to say, Look around. “Who can blame them?”
“Your name wouldn’t happen to be Mike, would it?”
“Carl.” They shook, then Carl pulled out his cigarettes again. “But on the other hand, who the fuck doesn’t get fed up? You know what I mean? Sooner or later?”
It was hang himself with his shoe laces, or call her. That was it, those were his choices. Quit or carry on.
“You know,” Morgan said, after a time, “how you tell yourself sometimes, ‘Well, at least it can’t get any worse’? You know?”
They enjoyed that one, too. “Worse?” Morgan said, between gusts. “It can’t get worse. How could it possibly…?”
At last Carl said, “Things can always get worse.” He cleared his throat, wiped an eye. “That’s a rule, man. That’s a fucking law.”