I got a call from the secretary to Mr. Such and Such, a young woman with a kindly, raspy voice. She asked me to hold the line, and then I was on the phone with Mr. Such and Such himself.
“I’m calling about Althea,” he said. “She’s living there now, isn’t she?”
“Is she there now?”
“I need to talk with you about her.”
“Who is this? How do you know Althea?”
I assumed it was one of her My Fair Lady fans.
“I’m her ex-husband. I’m the father of her two children. Listen, do you play golf?”
“Do you eat lunch?”
“Well, I’m in Charlotte, but I’ll be down that way later on this morning. Althea says you don’t drive. I can swing by and pick you up at the corner of Main and Hopkins at eleven. I know where you live, but I don’t want Althea to know about this. Don’t tell her I called.”
He swung by all right, in his Mercedes, took me to an Italian restaurant in Charlotte, ordered everything himself. This included beer – good stuff with a sweet taste and not so much fizz – like the stuff you can get in Europe.
He was a handsome, confident guy, one of these tall generic fellas with a narrow jaw and a jutting chin, a guy who obviously was an up-and-comer, an in-crowd type. He was a lawyer. He spent most of the trip to Charlotte on the phone, getting information, making decisions, re-arranging his calendar. No mental problems here; just, it appeared, one well-ordered success after another. Probably had a great job, a new house, a perfect lawn, a wonderful new wife. That secretary I talked to sounded smart and good looking. Probably had his kids in a great school. Impressive, impressive.
Except he also had Althea, his glitch in the past.
“I don’t want you to marry Althea. I’m sure you feel that it’s none of my business,” he said. “And ordinarily it would not be. But I’m involved in this because we had two children together. Ordinarily, the children would be under joint custody, but in this situation, she’s so damn screwed-up that she isn’t capable of taking care of them. Her expenses are taken care of, between her parents and me, at a modest level because she can’t handle money. That’s not an issue. At least not now, like it used to be. But the children. They are my concern. As little as she does for them, and as much as I do – that’s why I have a right to intervene here. I’ll be blunt. I’m worried about this. I’m willing to pay you off, substantially.”
I stuck a piece of tomato in my mouth, peeled off a hunk of artichoke, dipped it in the vinagrette and ate it, ate a little piece of fried squid, and took a swig of beer.
“Sorry,” I said. “We can either be friends or not be friends, but you’re not going to intimidate me. Not with money. I want to marry Althea. If I didn’t, somebody else would. You could go broke fast, trying to pay-off men who wanted to marry Althea.”
This guy thought he was impressing me, and he was, to an extent. But I had come up against far more powerful forces than this. My family, for one. Therapy. All those personal growth trainings. Depression. Anxiety. Hell, this guy didn’t know what confrontation was. He thought I would be sucked in by these shallow values, and he was wrong.
He sipped his beer, leaned back and smiled.
“Wouldn’t you like to know what that’s like? Being married to Althea?”
“You have your experiences, I have mine,” I said. “And never the twain shall meet.”
“The twains are meeting, right now.”
I noticed an old guy at the next table twisting a fork into a plate of spaghetti, trying to come up with a lump small enough to fit into his mouth.
“Whatever. You know what I mean. She’s a different person now. So are you. So am I. Life is just a series of experiences. Experience, experience, experience.” I puctuated these words with little chops, like I was doing some gentle karate on the table. “Those in the past, well, those are like dots, just dots in the past. They don’t really matter now. They don’t exist anymore.”
He leaned forward, gave me that hard lawyer look, the cross-examiner. “She screwed you good, didn’t she?”
“Too personal,” I said. “I have my integrity.”
“No, really? She fucked you blind, didn’t she? I’ll attest to that. When she’s on a roll, she can flat out do it better than any woman I’ve ever known. I still think about those times. Remember, I was married to her for five years, had two kids with her.”
“It’s more than that,” I said. “Integrity. Let’s have a little integrity here.”
He poked his plate with his fork, made a scratching sound.
“You want integrity? I’ll give you some integrity. I can tell you right now she won’t be faithful to you for one month after your married. Hell, I talked to her yesterday. She told me about this therapist who makes life simple, makes all her decisions for her. I’d say she’s in the sack with him right now.”
“She’s on medication,” I said. “She’s changed. They are making tremendous strides in the treatment of manic depressive disorder these days.”
“Bullshit. She doesn’t have good sense and never will. I don’t care what name they give it.”
“Well, you may not care, but I’ve got the same disorder, and I understand what she’s going through.”
He made a sound, a cut-off chuckle. He was amused, a snotty bastard.
“One time,” he said. “Althea went to the grocery store and came back two months later.”
“Was that before she was diagnosed?”
“That was five years ago. She had two babies to take care of.”
“We won’t have that problem.”
“Another time, she went to a dance class and was gone for two weeks. I tracked her down in Portland, and she had spent forty thousand dollars in the meantime.”
I said, “Portland is a nice town. She does have good taste, and great talent.”
“Jesus, don’t you hear this?”
“Hear this? I’ve lived this.”
“I’m trying to protect my children the best I can,” he said. “The wife I have now is good to them. Althea isn’t. But I’m also telling you this for your own good. You know she was married another time and it was annulled after two weeks.”
“And you still have feelings for Althea,” I said. I had heard that line somewhere before, on a soap opera, but it seemed to fit.
“Yeah, I feel a lot,” he said. “I feel like I need to safeguard my kids from both of you. They’ve already got a crazy mother to worry about. I don’t want them mixed-up with a nut case step-father too. I’ll give you ten thousand dollars not to marry her. Legal contract. You can still live with her as long as you like, or rather, as long as it lasts. I predict that won’t be long.”
“That’s because you’re a conceited bastard,” I said. “What you don’t know is that Althea has found somebody who understands her, and she is getting the kind of treatment she needs now. You would do well to see a psychiatrist yourself, do a little reading on bipolar illness. Your daughters might – probably will – inherit it.”
“The kids aren’t being raised the way she was raised.”
“Man, you’re living in the dark ages. I don’t want the money. I want to marry your ex-wife.”
“We’ll see about that,” he said. “Here, get a cab back to Templetown. I’m going back to work.”
“You’ve hardly started your lunch,” I said.
He snorted, stuck a fifty dollar bill on my plate, right atop my roasted potatoes, grabbed the check, got up, didn’t look at me, and left.
I finished the fritto misto and ordered another beer, took a little nap in the backseat of the cab on the way home, walked into the apartment and saw Althea there, smiling like hell. She was a little lively, I admit. She had picked a grocery bag full of flowers, had them spread out all over the table, and she had bought a dozen vases to put them in. She was sorting them in little piles, arranging the blossoms into some kind of color scheme. Always playing the artist; apparently, this was her little project for the day.
“I met your ex-husband,” I said.
“Ooo, what’d you think?”
“He’s a bastard.”
“Well, give him a break,” she said, flipping flowers like cards in a game of solitaire. “He’s a lot stupider than he looks.”
“Shit, he didn’t look so stupid to me.”
She kept it going with the flowers, just gave the thought about her husband another passing mumble.
“Well, he is. Believe me. He is.”