After a series of misadventures, including banishment from the Villa Mondare, Jack (accompanied by the nightscape painter, Leonara) finds himself back in the US.
We separated at the revolving doors, exchanged phone numbers and shared a gypsy cab into the city. The otherwise silent driver was the first to notice. “There’s been a pink Cadillac following us for the past three miles,” he said. “I’ll try to lose him for you if that’s what you want.”
I studied the Cadillac through the back window, recognized one of the airport security people as the driver. “Lose him,” I said.
“Whatever,” Leonora said.
The driver, who had an eastern European name with no recognizable vowels, warmed to his task. He got off the highway, indicating his destination at the last possible moment, and made a series of sudden haphazard turns, throwing us together in the back seat in compelling ways. The next jolt separated us, but the following intricate maneuver brought us together even more persuasively.
We rode at dangerous speeds through back alleys, jumped a fence or two, crashed our way through the back wall of a garage, and damaged a few unwary parked cars. If I weren’t inescapably tangled with Leonora and my hands were not otherwise occupied, I would have applauded the performance.
When the dust cleared, our oversized pursuer was still in the driver’s rear-view mirror.
“There must be more than one of them,” he said, “or this guy is top of the line.”
It was a glum realization and we each in turn be moaned our lot.
“We’ll pretend he doesn’t exist,” I said. “It’s worked for me before. Just drop us at the nearest motel.” I was intent on taking to its conclusion what circumstance had set in motion.
“I finish what I start,” the driver said, “or my name isn’t whatever it says my name is.”
I started to protest, but Leonora deflected my argument with a kiss.
So we drove awhile on back roads with a sense of purpose that made us feel we were getting somewhere. After a while, the driver admitted ruefully and with some reluctance to our being hopelessly lost.
It was Leonora’s suggestion, but the driver took it up immediately as his own. “Why don’t we just follow the pink Cadillac,” she said.
“They seem to know where we’re going.”
Once we got ourselves behind the Cadillac, discovering its two occupants in heated dispute, our former pursuer seemed to have no problem accepting its new role. It led us on the grimmest possible version of a merry chase. Eventually, we found ourselves on the highway going against the traffic. Survival seemed a low percentage option.
The more it tried to lose us with cunning maneuvers, the more determined our driver became to hang on its tail.
Eventually, it pulled up in front of my former house (or a similar house on a much too similar street), and we took the parking space two doors down.
We hunkered down in the cab waiting for the people in the pink Cadillac to make the first move. They seemed to be waiting for us to do the same.
Our driver, exhausted from his exertions, had fallen asleep, and his snoring sounded as if it were a jazz riff.
And so, caught in the grip of our long standing circumstantial passion—actually it was a reconnection this time—Leonora and I spent our first night back in the city, waiting for someone else to make the first move.
In the morning, the pink Cadillac was gone, taking with it our most persistent topic of conversation. We didn’t have sufficient cash to pay off the cab driver, who had run up a huge tab on the meter, so Leonora stayed in the cab as a hostage to our debt, as I warily approached my former residence.
It was no great surprise that the lock refused to entertain my key, so I leaned on the buzzer.
A man I knew slightly in other circumstances answered the door. “I hope you’re not selling anything,” he said, and then he recognized me and closed the door in my face.
I leaned on the buzzer with renewed persistence.
The same man answered, a woman who bore Molly an uncanny resemblance standing behind him with her arms crossed in front of her.
“What in God’s name do you want?” he asked.
“I want to know what’s going on,” I said. “I used to live in this house. The woman standing behind you used to be my wife.”
I had no answer to the question of “And,” so we faced each other angrily, perhaps uncomprehendingly, without benefit of language. “Look,” I said, which was everything I had to say.
“If there is nothing else,” he said and would have closed the door in my face yet again if I hadn’t gotten my foot in the requisite space.
There was something else, something lucidly inchoate that I was unable to imagine into words.
“Darling, I’ll phone the police,” said the familiar voice behind him.
“I don’t think that will be necessary, sweetheart,” he said and I had to restrain myself from thanking him.
Leonora, who had worked her way to the bottom step of the stoop, climbed up alongside me. I sensed some kind of belligerent energy coming off her, which set off a distant alarm.
“You might be a little more civilized about this, you prick,” she said, her arm puckered in the air like a cat’s paw.
“I’d ask you in,” Molly said, “but the place is an unholy mess.”
“Nothing can be gained from this,” my replacement, Donald, said, once again locking my foot in the vice of the door. The woman who resembled Molly disappeared briefly, returning with an oversized shopping bag which she thrust in my direction between the man’s arm and his side.
“This is probably what you came for,” Donald said in Molly’s voice. Perhaps he was lip-synching for her. I was too close to the scene to make an exact determination.
When I reached for the bag, the hand extending it withdrew. “You have to move your foot first,” someone said. “Don’t be a sucker,” Leonora said, which made everyone laugh.
After that, after the shared laugh, the tone of things changed and we were invited inside to see the improvements they had made in my exile.
“I was hoping to see an unholy mess,” Leonora whispered in my ear. “You know, I’m beginning to like these people.”
As we toured the house, which seemed pretty much as I remembered it, we were invited into the kitchen for coffee.
Donald, who seemed to be wearing one of my old jackets, asked if he could interview me for his new book, which dealt, as far as I could understand his explanation, with the sexual behavior of the recently divorced.
I said no, said it twice by my count, but as Molly laterreported, Donald’s success in life had been dependent on never taking no for an answer.
Molly muttered something to Leonora and they were gone before I had actually seen them leave.
“Shall we begin,” Donald said, straddling the chair opposite mine. He riffled through the pages of a notebook before settling on a question. “How often did you pleasure yourself during the first month of your separation from your former mate?” Donald asked, reading the question from a notebook.
It was none of his business, but I could see telling him that was not an acceptable response. “I don’t remember exactly,” I said.
“More than ten times?” he asked.
I went through the motions of thinking about it. “Well…” I said.
“More than 15?”
“More than 20?”
“It’s possible,” I said.
“I’ll take that for a yes,” he said, writing something down that seemed longer than the word Yes. “How many times did you have sex with another person during that first month?”
“One,” I confessed, stretching the truth.
“What was the gender of your partner?”
“Man or woman?”
“Was she younger than your former wife or older?”
“I don’t know…? Younger, I suppose.”
He smiled inappropriately. “Was this someone you had met when you were still living with your wife?”
“I’d rather not answer that,” I said, perhaps unnecessarily wary.
“I’ll take that as a Yes,” he said.
“If you do,” I said, “you could well be making a mistake.”
“This kind of fencing is not much use to either of us,” he said. “I promise you that your name will not appear with your answers. My assumption is that if you hadn’t met this partner before you and Molly separated, you would have no problem telling me that.”
We got no further with the interview. Without announcing themselves first, the women reappeared.
“How’s it going?” Leonora asked. “Getting a lot of good stuff?”
“We’ll probably need another 20 to 30 minutes,” Donald said.
“Don’t be such a stick, Donald,” Molly said, giving him a light kick in the leg. “Jake looks all talked out to me. Beside he’s never been able to tell the truth for more than 15 minutes on end.” Leonora laughed on cue while Donald studied his notes.
Odd, I thought, she had never called me Jake before. Was this the wrong house? Was she the wrong former
Donald never finished the interview with me, but said when I reminded him, that he had used his God-given gift for empathy to fill in the remaining answers for me. I was planning to ask him if he had done the same with other subjects as well—the man had no shortage of overweening confidence—but I never got the chance, since he and Leonora disappeared together the next day.
“Hey, it’s like déjà vu,” I said to Molly, referring to our being alone together, but she was not so easily consoled and at the same time locked in denial.
“He always comes back,” she said, “dragging his tail behind him.”
I didn’t know what she meant. “Are you saying that he’s done this before?” I asked.
“Never,” she said, “though he tends to be absent-minded and sometimes loses his way.” She giggled at a memory that excluded me. “You know, it could be circumstantial that Donald and your floosie are missing at the same time. What’s your opinion?”
“Could be they both lost their way,” I said.
“When we were this official couple,” she said, “you were never this supportive. It seems to me you’ve matured since our break-up.” She offered me her hand for safekeeping.
Later, after a dinner of leftovers, which seemed fitting, sitting close to me on our old couch, she mentioned that she happened to glance at Donald’s notes from his interview with me and she had a question of her own she wanted to ask.
I knew no good would come of it, though I pretended I had no objection to being asked another question.
“Okay,” she said. “This other partner of female gender you mention, okay, this so-called younger person, was she on the scene before we were smart enough to separate?”
I saw no point in hesitating. “No,” I said.
She laughed and pointed a finger at me. “That’s not what you told Donald. There’s no reason any more not to tell the truth I’d appreciate it as an old friend—tell me the truth just this once.”
I could not remember what I told Donald nor was I sure what the truth was, the combination making me uneasy. I told the only truth I knew. “I don’t like being interrogated,” I said.
“Is that because lying makes you uncomfortable?” she asked.
After our first five intermittently blissful years together, Molly tended to put the most unflattering interpretations to the motives for my behavior. It didn’t help that she was at times (not that I ever admitted it) disconcertingly on the mark. It’s hard to live with someone so relentlessly intuitive. Eventually I confessed the worst, usually through the evasions of denial.
Caught up in nostalgia, I said to her, “When I was living with you, you were the only woman I ever loved.”
“Liar,” she said, and turned her face away so I wouldn’t notice that she was almost crying. I could tell that she wanted to throw something at me, and I left the room to save her from her worst instincts.
When Donald wasn’t interviewing for his sex book, he gave private classes in Self-confidence and Public Speaking to corporate executives on the rise. In the interest of continuity and contributing to the upkeep of the house, Molly suggested that I take on Donald’s students until the prodigal managed his return.
I let it be known that self-confidence and public speaking were not areas of my expertise, but Molly said in the larger context, that hardly mattered. She said self-confidence should be everyone’s expertise, and she gave me a book Donald had written on the subject called, “You Are The Best You Even If You Don’t Know It,” which I found difficult to penetrate though I read almost every word, dozing from time to time but managing to get the pages turned. I had a sense of accomplishment when I finished the book, let myself believe I was ready to take on whatever came my way.
I had taught some over the years, but I had never imagined myself teaching Donald’s subject.
I tried different approaches. With my first client, a shy stutterer in his early 30s, who had inherited his hated father’s business, I did most of the talking, invented an expertise for my character that of course had no basis outside of the imagination’s presumption. After listening to 20 minutes or so of my inspirational prattle, the client got up from his chair and walked to the door.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“Please,” he said, speaking with more fluency than he had when he came in. “You sound just like my father.” I suppose I knew what he meant. In any event, I had been so full of myself during my encouraging talk, his walking out on me was a crushing blow.
I took the opposite tack with my next client, kept silent through most of the session while the man, a baby-faced hotshot executive still in his 20’s, famous for his mercurial rise in the movie business, recited his shortcomings. At the end of the hour, he asked me my opinion on what he had been saying.
Having mostly tuned out through most of his tiresome recitation, I said that I mostly agreed with his assessment.
“Then why does everyone else in the world think I’m so great?” he said with unexpected belligerence.
“I can’t imagine,” I said.
“I get what you’re doing, man,” he said. “It’s brilliant, man, but I hate that kind of low-rent psychology. Totally hate it. I don’t have to take shit from anyone, man, and that includes you.” He was a small man, but he stood in front of me, stood over me, with his fists balled. “When I feel this way, I want to kick someone’s ass.”
I played the hand dealt me. “Aces, man,” I said. “That’s precisely the response we were looking for.”
Later, after super-brat left, prancing out on the balls of his feet, I reported to Molly that I was getting the hang of the self-confidence racket.
“I was listening in,” she said, “and let me be the first to tell you, you have a long way to go to fill Donald’s shoes.”
When she said that, I realized that I was at the time actually wearing a pair of Donald’s shoes, which aside from pinching the small toe on my right foot, were a near perfect fit. “I’m open to pointers,” I said grudgingly.
“You have to be tougher with them,” she said. “Let them know who’s calling the plays.”
I let her remark echo in my head, listening for murmurs of irony, but I heard none. “Is that right?” I said, a further prodding.
She continued in her sternest manner. “I’ll assume that’s a rhetorical question,” she said. “Didn’t you read Donald’s book? You have to teach by example, Jake, show them from the way you handle yourself the virtues of self-confidence.”
“Fuck off,” I roared at her.
Eventually, when she returned to the den after her composure had been restored, her tears dried, she said with unmediated dislike, “Well, maybe you’re not as hopeless as I thought.”
For a flickering moment, my confidence soared off the charts. And so I made my long delayed move, which led to a hectic chase around the apartment, chairs and tables flying in our wake, everything that had been together coming apart, questions and answers, unexpressed feelings, pages of a long discarded uncompleted manuscript.
And then one morning, Molly went to the drugstore for some unspecified items and didn’t return. Confident to the point of insentience, I waited three days without undue concern, with barely diminishing expectation, expecting her to walk through the door at any
On the fourth day, I accepted the possibility that she might not be coming back.
On the fifth day, with a sense of urgency, I gave up the house to search for her, armed with the only headshot of her I could find. It was the bruised photo that lived in my wallet and was, by unreliable estimation, 30 years out of date.
When I showed the photo to our local druggist—we actually had two local druggists—he said he couldn’t be sure, and that he was a man made uncomfortable by uncertainties.
“I’m looking for an older version of this woman,” I said.
“I understand,” he said, “but as students of aging have discovered, no two people grow older in exactly the same way.”
I had never known him before to be so exacting. “Did you see anyone like her?” I asked. “Anyone remotely resembling her?”
“Oh that’s a different question altogether,” he said. “If it comes to that, I’ve probably seen a lot of women like her.”
I couldn’t imagine what he meant, but I persisted in my questioning. “Did a woman resembling her come in three days ago at about this time of day?”
When I handed him the photo again, he glanced at it briefly and then slipped it into a drawer under the counter. “It’s not impossible,” he mumbled, and turned to a woman who had just come in with a prescription to be filled.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like the picture back,” I said and then repeated in a louder voice when he continued to ignore me. And then repeated again.
Under the guise of waiting on his other customer, he pretended that I was invisible and without voice. I found that intolerable.
My patience as always on short leash, I stepped behind the counter to reclaim the photo of Molly which, stuffed into an oversubscribed drawer, had attached itself to a random condom. While I was trying to detach the condom, a storewide alarm went off.
The blast of sound unnerved me. The photo with the condom hanging from it like an appendage held delicately between thumb and forefinger, I ran from the store.
I noted a police car coming down the street, and I ducked into a phone booth, where I hung out in a debilitating crouch until two cops emerged from the police car, completed their business in the drugstore and drove off. During this extended period, I worked at liberating the condom from the photo with limited success.
When I entered the second and larger of the two local drugstores, there was a cop already there, browsing among the mouthwashes. I couldn’t turn around and leave without attracting the wrong kind of attention. I picked up a package of aspirin and then in another aisle, a nail clipper from a low shelf only to discover the oversized cop standing behind and above me. “I use my teeth,” he said.
It took a moment for the context to fill itself in. “That’s very funny,” I said.
“Of all the opportunities out there for a man of my size,” he said, “there were only two that attracted me, police officer or late night tv host.”
“And which did you choose?” I asked, the question escaping the restraints of better judgment.
His eyes turned mean. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you,” he whispered, “never to get sassy with a man carrying a gun?”
“It was meant as a joke,” I said. “Like you, I also wanted to be a stand-up comic.”
“You’d never make it with that joke.” He had his hand now on the butt of his gun, “You’re not the condom thief, are you, there’s an all points alarm out for, eh?”
I looked at him in disbelief, wondered if I could make it out the door before he could unholster his weapon.
“Are you the perp who goes from pharmacy to pharmacy, stealing party hats?” he asked. “Have I got your number, Jack, or what?”
“Not at all,” I said with the over-earnest conviction of a poor liar.
“Don’t get so worked up,” he said, cackling. “I was justpulling your middle leg. I had assumed, stupid me, that you knew the drill.” He took something off a shelf—a box of condoms perhaps—and stuffed whatever it was in his jacket pocket and made a hasty exit.
A woman working the check-out, no one I’d ever seenbefore beckoned in my direction, and it took awhile for me to realize that it was me she was requesting. “Are you the guy looking for his wife?” she whispered to me when I approached.
“She’s no longer my wife,” I said, “but yes.”
“I thought you were the one,” she said, shielding her mouth with her hand. “Two men came in just as she was paying her bill and she went off with them. I don’t believe…it didn’t look to me like she wanted…”
When she stopped in mid-sentence, I realized that someone who disapproved of this conversation was standing behind me. It was the owner of the store, the pharmacist Dr. Andsons. “Is there a problem?” he asked.
“What do you mean by problem?” I said, taking the crumpled photo out of my pocket, the condom still hanging to it by a thread. “Have you seen this woman in the last few days?” I asked.
“Who wants to know?” he said, looking everywhere but at the picture itself. “I’ll tell you this, I may have seen that rubber in its prior life. If I didn’t sell the nasty things, I wouldn’t allow them in the store. What’s the condom got to do with the woman as if I couldn’t guess?”
“Forget the condom,” I said. “There’s only a circumstantial connection.”
“That’s a line that’s made the rounds.”
I held one edge of the picture while he held the other, studying the photo with an almost frightening intensity. “This is my picture,” he said. He tried to kiss it but the condom got in his way and he drew his head back in disgust. “This woman, Alma, disappeared from my life 25 years ago. What’s your connection to this, Bo.”
“This woman has nothing to do with you,” I said. “This is a picture of Molly, my former wife Molly. She left the house three days ago to go to the drugstore and I haven’t seen her since.”
“She never liked the name Alma,” he said, still clutching his corner of the photo, “she thought it too arty-farty. It washer one fault. So that may explain the change of name, okay? Whatever she chooses to call herself, I still miss her. Hell, I’d take her back in a nanosecond.” He tugged on the photo and came away with the attached condom half of it. His elegiac moment was replaced by self-righteous anger. “I’ll give you 30 seconds to get your keester out of here before I call the police,” he said, and started counting. I let 20 seconds elapse before making my exit.
My half a picture in hand, I went back to the house, hoping someone might have returned in my absence, Molly in particular, though I had long since given up being absolute. I would have settled with reasonable contentment for anyone.
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Brooklyn native Jonathan Baumbach is the author of 3 collections of short stories and 11 novels including Reruns, B, Seperate Hours, Babble, Chez Charlotte & Emily and On the Way to My Father's Funeral. His stories have been anthologized in O.Henry Prize Stories, Great Pool Stories, Best American Stories, Full Court, All Our Secrets are the Same, Best of TriQuarterly among other.