THREE PASTORALES AND AN ECLOGUE
PASTORALE: THE NEAREST HORSE
Margaret Nealy thought that if only her mother would allow her to be called Peggy, like Peggy Mehan and Peggy Shields, she could be as breezy and vivacious as they were, but Margaret’s mother did not like the sound of “Peggy Nealy.” Margaret had fresh, clear skin (unlike Peggy Shields) and large, liquid eyes, but while the Peggies were lively and funny, Margaret was stolid and deliberate. When she was fourteen, she had to start wearing glasses.
Margaret still played with dolls after the other girls stopped. She would line them up on her bed, in random order, with each doll representing one of the stores along the South Boston street where her mother shopped. The doll on the left, whether it was one of the Barbies or the satin clown or little Heidi, was always the drugstore on the corner, the doll beside that was the bank next door, the third the beauty shop, and so on. Without touching them, only staring at each in turn, Margaret would imagine one of the neighborhood ladies getting money in the bank (Beach Barbie, perhaps), and then going into the beauty shop (the satin clown) to get her hair done.
By the time she went to college, in 1971, Margaret had put away her dolls, but she dealt with daily life in the same intense, yet remote way. Because her reactions were so cautious and under control, although she was surrounded by peers whose main preoccupation was experimenting with drugs and sex, she never smoked a joint, and remained a virgin.
After college, Margaret went to work as a teller in a suburban branch of a Providence bank. She lived alone in a small apartment in a town-house complex that was shielded from a six-lane highway by a sprawling Montgomery Ward’s. Her routine was very much like it had been in college: she drove up to Boston almost every Sunday to see her family; she had a few girlfriends, mostly other tellers, she would gossip to and occasionally watch television with; and there was always a man—and another waiting in the wings—who at first found her mysterious or refreshing or challenging, and then, after a while, gave up. She never had anything significant to say about these amours to the girls at the bank and—unlike the men who took her out—they always wondered what Margaret “was really like.”
In 1981 Paul Matteos was sent by IBM to set up a computer system for the bank. He was forty-five, tall, handsome, with black hair graying neatly at the temples—just like the men’s fashion models who posed in expensive suits. However, unlike the casual and charming executives pictured in the ads, Paul was susceptible and fervent. Thanks to his passionate nature, he was doing well at IBM, and he did well with Margaret for the same reason.
Twenty-four hours after asking her out for coffee, Paul told Margaret that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, even if it meant giving up his children (a girl and boy under ten whom he had kissed good-bye only two days ago). Margaret’s carefully structured psyche was not exactly swept away by the pitch of Paul’s desire, but it underwent some important adjustments. For example, the distinction she had always made between above-the-waist and below-the-waist vanished completely.
Within a year, Paul divorced his wife and married Margaret.
It was his second divorce, and Margaret, whose habitual caution had fostered a clear grasp of human nature, assumed that the time would come when Paul would find another woman and move on. In fact, she took this into account when she agreed to marry him. (As it turned out, she was wrong.)
They moved to a new colonial in the Housatonic Valley, an easy commute to IBM’s offices in Springfield.
After a short stint as a bank teller, Margaret took accounting courses at a community college, but soon was doing nothing but house-keeping, and contentedly wondered how she ever had had the time to do anything else.
Margaret and Paul had an apartment above their garage, which they sometimes rented to IBM-ers who were still house-hunting. In 1993, the wife of one of Paul’s colleagues, who was active in conservative Christian organizations, asked if they would mind putting up a Serbian refugee couple she was sponsoring.
The Drajovics were the most exotic people Margaret had ever met. Vera, whose wardrobe seemed to consist only of baggy black dresses, was fat and rosy-cheeked and smiled perpetually. Paul called her a “babushka.” Boban was small and wiry, with white hair shaved down to a crew-cut and the kind of long, droopy mustaches that, till then, Margaret had seen only in cartoons.
Once, when Margaret came to bring them fresh linen, she found Boban sitting at the kitchen table, drinking Polish vodka. Vera was in the next room, lying with her shoes off, watching the shopping channel. As Margaret passed, Boban clawed at her arm and pulled her down into the chair next to him.
“You mind me of my father,” he said.
Margaret smiled politely.
“You have big brain for taking careful of things. My father also. You know, I in prison for six years. Now, you ask why. Now, ask: why, Boban, why in prison for six years?”
“Politics?” ventured Margaret.
Boban shook his head and wagged his finger. “No. I in prison be, cause I no listen my father. I no listen father of my father. Is family saying. You understand?”
“My father, he say me, way his father say him, ‘Boban, you no forget, you no go do some thing without you first take careful, where is nearest river, where is nearest railroad, where is nearest horse.’” Boban beat time with his finger on Margaret’s wrist. “I no take careful, so I go prison six years.”
He looked up at Margaret and grinned. “You know, my father, he like you. If he not dead, he like to --.” Boban pursed his lips and made loud kissing noises.
After only a week, the Drajovics left. Their sponsor told Margaret and Paul that the Immigration Service had found out something about them and sent them back.
Soon afterwards, IBM down-sized and Paul was laid off. The rejection overwhelmed him. He lost weight, his hair began to fall out, his face became gaunt and lined, his eyes lethargic. He didn’t shave unless he had to.
One week-end, they went over to Boston for a wedding and Margaret’s mother took her aside and told her she should leave Paul.
“You didn’t leave Dad when he went downhill that time,” said Margaret.
“You’re only forty, Margaret,” said her mother. “And besides, I loved your father.”
Although she didn’t bother explaining it to her mother, Margaret had just as succinct a reason why she was staying with Paul. She had decided that she was just not the sort of person who would abandon an old man who had no one else to turn to, any more than she would abandon a sick cat in the road—that was exactly how she put it to herself. (As for love, Margaret thought that was something that was only in the movies.)
Paul had been given a substantial severance package, and they were able to live on their investments and the rent from the apartment, but just to get out of the house, Margaret began doing the accounts for some small businesses. One afternoon, as she was working on the computer at a locksmith’s; the locksmith was out on call and a UPS driver walked in with a package. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with an aristocratic face that reminded her of Paul—not the Paul she had ever known, but Paul as she imagined he must have been when he had “eloped” (that was the word he always used) with his first wife.
Margaret signed for the package, then pushed a box of Dunkin Donuts Nuggets across the counter. “Be my guest,” she said.
“No, thanks,” said the UPS man.
“I don’t want any more. Bring them home to your wife, or is she one of those women who watches her weight?”
The UPS man looked at her for a moment, then placed his palms on the counter and stared at the back of his hands. “She died last year,” he said. Margaret saw tears trailing down from his eyes. Without a thought in her head (for once), she jumped up, tipping over the swivel chair she had been sitting on, and put her arms around the man’s neck. She kissed his tears, then his lips, then somehow pulled all six feet of him up and over the counter and onto the floor. Through the crevices of their clothes they had brisk, exquisite intercourse.
Afterward, the UPS man smiled sheepishly. “My name’s Steve,” he said.
“Mine’s Peggy,” said Margaret.
They met two or three times a week at a motel across the border, in Connecticut.
Once, after sex, Steve idly said, “Maybe you’ll meet my kids some day.”
“Why should I want to meet your kids?” said Margaret.
The effect this had on Steve was to revive his erection.
Steve told Margaret he was sleeping with two other women, both of them friends of his wife, divorcees, also with small children. Margaret knew that sooner or later he would marry one of them. He did, and that was the end of that.
Paul had begun seeing a psychiatrist and trying out one brand of anti-depressant after another. He became finely attuned to their effects, reported on them in full to Margaret, and was offended when she evinced no interest. One night, he drove his Jeep Cherokee through a guard rail on the Massachusetts Turnpike and into a ravine. The autopsy showed that he had taken too many pills, of all kinds. Paul’s death was ruled accidental, but their friends wondered whether it had been suicide, and wondered even more whether Margaret wondered the same thing. Margaret did wonder about it a bit, but didn’t really see how it mattered, one way or the other.
PASTORALE: PUT IT IN THERE
Sex was the most important thing in Cliff Hasbrouk’s life. It wasn’t like that for his friends, he could tell by all the dirty jokes they told. Cliff didn’t like dirty jokes; they felt sacrilegious.
He was twenty-six before he met a woman, Val Vicenza, who liked sex as much as he did. After they were married, it got even better: they used drugs, bought a vibrator, and tied each other to the bed.
After they had kids, all that changed, of course.
Cliff, who used to go out one or two evenings a week to play poker or shoot pool, started going downtown, if things broke up early, to a bar where you could pick up prostitutes. One night, the only girl in the bar was a fat whore named Megan. She was really too fat for Cliff, but he was horny, and she had a sweet, pouty, little-girl kind of face. They went to her apartment, in a tenement on Main Street. Megan took off her clothes, lay face-down on the bed and pulled open the cheeks of her behind. “Put it in there,” she said.
Cliff felt a surge of excitement unlike anything he’d known before. This was what he had always wanted to do, only he had not known it till now.
Cliff worked at Hackett Electrical Supply. The which was always looking for people who would come to work early, and Cliff volunteered, because it came with the premium of an extra half-hour for lunch, giving him time to visit Megan. Hackett’s paid time-and-a-half for the seven-to-nine shift, so he was able to keep bringing home the same amount of money every Friday and have some left over to pay Megan with, although it still wasn’t enough for him to fuck her in the ass every time he saw her. She charged a hundred dollars for that. But Cliff could get a blow job or a hand job, and she always pulled open her buttocks and let him look.
One noon-time, as Cliff drove up to Megan’s, she was sitting on the front stoop with a man he didn’t recognize. She was wearing a mini-skirt, and her fat thighs shook like Jello as she hobbled over to the driver’s-side window on her spike heels. “That’s Brad,” she said. “I’ll see you upstairs when you’re through.” She leaned into the car and gave Cliff a lingering, wet kiss on the neck.
Brad was standing at the other window. He seemed like something out of the movies, with a tan that could have been painted on, blow-dried hair, and a small mustache, and he was wearing a denim shirt that looked as if it had just come out of the box, with sharp creases right up the sleeves.
Cliff rolled open the window. Brad handed him a piece of paper, and said, “Put it in black plastic garbage bags and leave them beside the fence, behind the dumpster, tomorrow night.”
Cliff looked at the paper. It was a typewritten list of about a thousand dollars worth of electrical equipment. He handed it back. “Go fuck yourself,” he said, and drove away.
Cliff never visited Megan again. He still fantasized about her, though, almost every day, for years, about her pulling open the cheeks of her behind and saying, “Put it in there.” Occasionally, he wondered if he could ask Val to do it, but it was too embarrassing just thinking about it, and he had to make himself think of something else.
When Cliff was old enough to collect social security, he retired from Hackett’s and began working part-time, off the books, for his brother-in-law, his sister’s husband, who owned three gas stations in the Valley.
One Sunday morning in May, a battered 1983 silver Continental pulled into the full service lane. It was Megan, although she clearly did not recognize Cliff. “Fill it up,” she said. Cliff felt that same surge of excitement from so many years ago. As he inserted the nozzle into the tank and felt it throb he grinned in pleasure.
When he went to get paid, he realized how stupid he had been. It wasn’t Megan. Megan would be over sixty now. It was just a fat young woman with childish, petulant lips.
Val was playing solitaire at the kitchen table when Cliff came home. She had taken her mother to church and still had on her nice green silk blouse with the high collar and the circle pin at the throat. She had taken off her skirt and stockings, and her slip had hiked up above her knees.
Cliff stared at her and wondered why the sex he had had with Megan seemed like it was just yesterday, while the wild times that he and Val had had seemed like something from another lifetime, from another person’s life.
Val looked up. “What is it?” she asked.
“Life sure is funny,” said Cliff.
Lucy McKenna’s parents, who were Quakers, responded to the McCarthy purges by inviting interesting people to dinner. The oddest was a man who weighed over three hundred pounds, smelt like dirty underwear and owned a shoe store in the Negro section of town, but most of them were Jewish professors from nearby colleges. The son of one of these, David Stern, was Lucy’s first lover. Lucy decided to go all the way with David Stern because it was clear that he regarded her solely as another sexual conquest, an attitude which she found refreshingly sophisticated.
After college, Lucy went to work at the Waverly Public Library, behind the reference desk. When a dark, attractive man in uniform came to inquire about French newspapers, Lucy easily deduced, thanks to local gossip, that this was Monty Ziegler, the black sheep of the wealthy Ziegler family, who was famous for having dropped out of Harvard to join the Navy, and now was coming home to join the family business. She found him quite fascinating.
Lucy and Monty were married in 1965, and moved into a large Victorian house a few miles out of town, which Monty whimsically named (with an elegantly wood-burned sign) “Two Mulberries in the Weeds.” The following year, their daughter, Lisette, was born. Lucy gave up her job at the library.
Monty worked at Ziegler Polyfabricating, but not every day, and when he did go in, it was just for an hour or two. He spent most of his time playing with the baby, cooking, gardening and decorating and redecorating the house. Lucy knew that most of Waverly took a patronizing attitude towards him but, comparing him with other men she knew, she considered him an ideal husband.
Once a week, Monty drove down to New York City, to go to an auction or a gallery, or to see old friends, usually not returning until the early hours of the morning. Lucy could hardly begrudge these jaunts to her model husband, especially since he would come home in an amorous mood, waking her up for the prolonged, imaginative love-making that was another of Monty's specialties.
When Lisette was sixteen and had her own car, Lucy went back to work at the library, which had become a large, regional institution. Its Board of Directors, all friends or acquaintances of the McKennas and the Zieglers, happily gave her the job of Chief Administrator, at an annual salary of almost fifty thousand dollars, with a corner office in a new, glass-encased building overlooking the Housatonic.
In 1985, Monty became ill. He began to see a specialist in Springfield, who was frustratingly vague whenever he spoke to Lucy about the nature of Monty’s ailment, which he referred to as “a rare blood infection.” Monty lost weight, broke out in ugly skin eruptions and always seemed to have a cold. Lucy considered quitting her job to care for him, but instead they hired a live-in housekeeper, Mrs. Markey, who had had some training as a nurse.
One evening, Mrs. Markey told Lucy that she was quitting. "I don't like being lied to," she said.
"I don't understand," said Lucy.
"Your husband does not have a rare blood infection," said Mrs. Markey.
Lucy thought she was implying that Monty was feigning illness.
"He has AIDS," said Mrs. Markey. Evidently, she had just read a description of the disease in a magazine.
Monroe Ziegler, after a long illness, began the obituary in the Waverly Pilgrim.
Lucy braced herself for the rumors, but none ever surfaced. After a few years, she was so comfortable speaking about the rare blood infection which Monty had probably picked up in the navy, that she thought she could even pass a lie-detector test.
At a fund-raising cocktail party for the library at one of the valley’s historic houses, Lucy met Albright Trevelyan, the superintendent of the area’s largest school district. He was from Ohio, but with his three-piece suit, bow tie and pencil-line mustache, he made Lucy think of a British intellectual. He was charming, well-read and a widower. He took Lucy to dinner at La Grenouille. Although she had long ago decided that if she had caught HIV from Monty, she would be dead by now, the week after she met Albright Trevelyan, Lucy took a day off to go to a clinic in Boston for a blood test, just to make sure.
Lucy married Albright, and in Albright’s tasteful, architect-designed home, perched high on a hill overlooking Route Seven, they became the golden couple of the Housatonic Valley. One summer, Lucy was approached by both the Republicans and the Democrats about running for Congress. She congratulated herself on having become a woman her parents would have been proud of.
This happy epoch ended abruptly one night in May, 2000, when Lucy was awakened by the telephone. A man with a foreign accent asked for Albright, who was still asleep beside her. “It’s four in the morning here,” she said.
“I know what time it is,” said the caller, not very politely. “It’s important.”
Lucy shook Albright awake. “An emergency,” she said.
“Hello?” said Albright, then gasped and slammed down the phone. His face was scarlet. Lucy thought he might be having a heart attack. “Fuck!” he shouted. Lucy had never heard him use the word.
Albright ran out of the room. Lucy slipped on her bathrobe and followed him. He had gone into his study and locked the door.
“Alby?” she said.
“I’m busy,” he barked.
Behind her, down the stairway, the ground floor of the house began to pulse with yellow light. “What are you doing in there?” She thought that Albright’s computer was causing the eerie glow.
The doorbell rang. On the doorstep Lucy found a woman and a man with identical little wallets open in front of them; behind them stood a State Trooper; behind him was a police car with a yellow light revolving on its roof.
Schools Chief Charged in Child Porn Sweep, was the headline in next evening’s Waverly Pilgrim. Lucy didn’t see it, though. She had taken a car service to LaGuardia Airport, where she caught the shuttle to Washington. Lisette, who ran a kennel in Virginia with her girlfriend, picked her up.
Lucy divorced Albright Trevelyan without seeing him or Waverly again. After a few months she moved from Lisette’s to a condo in Sarasota, Florida. In Florida she used her maiden name, joined a bridge club, and did volunteer teaching for a literacy program. To Lisette and the few Waverly friends she kept in touch with, she often said, “I just want to forget everything.”
One day, Lucy had gotten into her car and started out for the supermarket, but somehow had forgotten where she was going and found herself instead being pulled through an automatic car wash. All the car windows were open and foaming water spewed in at her from all directions. She threw herself beneath the steering wheel, screaming into the uproar, choking on the soapsuds that were filling the car. She was sure she was going to drown.
When the car finally rolled into the sunlight, Lucy flung herself out and stumbled, soaked and shivering, to the edge of the highway. A Mercedes convertible stopped, and a woman came out and put a sweater over her shoulders. The driver, an elderly man in a yellow golf cap, was excitedly talking into his phone. This struck Lucy as extremely funny. She began to giggle and, despite the cashmere sweater and the hot subtropical sun, her shivering got worse and worse.
Trooper Michael Connelly had not yet begun to tire, his blood still leapt forth from the wound in his thigh onto the bed of leaves, already drenched scarlet. “Why, Buster, why?” he asked.
“My dad called everyone Buster.”
“I mean, why did you shoot me?”
“Sorry, I have this habit of not paying attention to what other people are thinking.”
“You mean, you wouldn’t have done it if you’d known what we were thinking?”
“What we were thinking? What you and I were thinking?”
“No. What Connie Richter and I were thinking.”
“But she wasn’t thinking. She was already dead. You just had to look at her.”
Behind the two men, the torso of Trooper Constance Richter sloped up from neat, black boots almost buried in the leaves and down to a ball of blond hair lying on the brim of a blue Stetson.
“You asked why I shot you, remember?” said Buster. “I know it’s hard to think straight when you’re in the kind of situation you’re in. Generally, you’re pretty sharp, Mike, everybody knows that.”
“I’m not all that sharp. We didn’t see you. We were just looking around. You could have snuck away.”
Buster stared at a spot in the stand of thin tree trunks beyond them. He was a dark, compact man, dressed in denim, with a short brown beard. Brown hair, with glints of red, fringed his neck under the folds of a black watch cap. At his side, he balanced a long hunting rifle in his fist. “I could have done anything. I could have sung a song, I could have sung ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,’ I could have phoned my lawyer, or my sister, I could have shot myself.”
“So why, why, did you choose to do what you did?”
“Choose? I didn’t choose anything. You talk as if we’re actors in a movie and in a few minutes we’ll just pick up our checks and go out for a cup of coffee.” Buster laughed. “I’m pulling your leg. Oh, shit. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry you shot us, especially since you didn’t have to?”
“Sorry for using an idiomatic expression that might be construed as insensitive, considering your injury. Your serious injury. Your fatal injury.”
“It doesn’t have to be fatal. Just call it in. Then you can take off.” He had gone through this already, and it was getting stale. “Opal Road, point-seven-five miles west of the Parkway, just call it in.”
“The thing is, I always like to get a good head start.”
“It’s always only about you. You guys are all the same. You know, you’re a psychopath.”
“You can’t say that. Well, you can say it, but it’s completely nonsensical. You can say to someone, ‘You know it’s December third,’ or ‘You know what the name of my dog is,’ but how can you say what someone else knows about himself? What anyone knows about himself is so complex and fluid, it can never be put into words.”
“Please. It’s the right thing to do.”
“Right for you or right for me?”
“For each of us.”
“That assumes that we want the same thing. How can that be true?”
“Things change. You said it yourself, ‘fluid.’ When I came out here, when we came out here, Connie and me, sure, we wanted to catch you. It was our job. But what were you thinking, what did you want, when you shot us?”
“Two entirely different questions. What was I thinking--?”
“Forget that. What did you want? I would have thought you would have just wanted to get away.”
“You were hunting boar, Mike, not rabbit. You knew that. I wasn’t going to run away any more than you would have.”
“But we didn’t see you.”
“If you had, you wouldn’t have run away. You were Troopers.”
“I’m not a Trooper now, Buster, I’m not a Trooper anymore. I’m just some guy who’s dying here. You’re free, you’re safe, alone in the woods with a corpse and a dying man, you can do anything, anything, you can even save the man’s life, just take his belt and tie it tight around here, see, then call nine-one-one and disappear, go on and do whatever it is you were going to do, wherever you were going to do it.”
“The thing is, I planned on hanging around here until it was peaceful, if you’ll pardon the expression, then just taking my time. I guess I could go down to the Parkway right now and shoot the next person that drives by and take their car, and then call nine-one-one. That way, I could probably get to where I wanted to go without your bloodhounds and all after me.”
“Those dogs aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.”
“So, do you approve of that plan?”
Trooper Connelly turned his eyes toward the sky blazing white through the purple veins of the leafless treetops.
“This is real drama,” said Buster. “The dutiful trooper wrestling with the desperate dying man.”
“The civilized human being is wrestling with the desperate dying man. But there’s no wrestling going on in you. That’s what makes you a psychopath.”
“Before you were a desperate dying man, when you were still just a dutiful trooper, there wasn’t any wrestling going on in you either, was there? The civilized human being and the trooper, you could hardly tell one from the other, right? It’s the same with me. Criminals are a part of civilization, too. There wouldn’t be any laws if there weren’t people to break them. The big difference between you and me right now is that you’re desperate and I’m not.”
“It’s not being desperate that’s got me so torn up and conflicted, it’s because of what you said, what you said you would do if you called it in, going down to the Parkway and shooting someone, and when I said, ‘Please,’ when I said, ‘Please,’ that should have torn you up too, that’s when your doubt should have set in, but it didn’t.” With the exertion of conceptualizing, then expressing, this distinction, Trooper Connelly’s weakness caught up with him. As he lowered his cheek to the ground, his hat snapped to an awkward diagonal across his eyes. Buster shuffled forward through the leaves, grasped the hat by its brim, slipped it off and tossed it into the trees.
“Why?” muttered Trooper Connelly, “why did you do that? You won’t call it in, but you’ll do that. Why?”
“It looked funny,” said Buster, who remained squatting by the trooper, leaning on his rifle. “If things look funny, we naturally want to make them look right.”
A car on the Parkway whirred briefly. The trees shivered in the first sharp gusts of late afternoon. A shadow fell across the blue mound of Trooper Richter’s hip. Trooper Connelly began to mumble. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Buster cocked his head to the side and cupped his ear.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”
“Oh,” said Buster. “Wow.”