Before I dropped out—got kicked out, actually, another story for another time—I had a course in college about The Movie. That’s the way I remember it in the catalogue. Capitals T and M. Like it was The C(rucifixion) or The D(epression), instead of a chance to see a lot of foreign T(its) and A(ss) and know, at the end of it, how to smoke a cigarette through your ears.
The first day, the Professor—a blowhard, I thought, the sort who’s all hat and no cattle—drew a picture of a bent-over pyramid, or a lean-to, on the blackboard. “Inciting incident,” he said; with great flair, he pointed to the leg of the upslope. “Then rising action.” His pointer was going up now, about forty of us wondering what this critter had had for breakfast. “Then climax,” he said, pointer at the tip-top. “Then falling action.” Down we went, gaining speed, like falling off a skyscraper. “Then reversal.” A nasty crook in the trail, it looked like. “And denouement.” What my father would say was “all she wrote,” which is where, I used to hope, the ruinous are ruined, and the good go yonder into the sunset.
Yup, I was the happy ending type. Me, I rooted for the sodbuster to get the dance hall dolly (or vice versa), the dog to come home after a long adventure in the hinterlands, the mother to rise whole and happy from her death bed in the hospital. Now, however, I’m, well, a falling action guy, which is that moment, to use my ex-wife’s phrase, just after the feathers have hit the fan. You know what I’m talking about—that instant following what my long-gone Professor called the “showdown.” The dust ain’t quite settled, the bad guy lies still twitching in the dirt, and there’s one more piece of business, itself dire or nearly life-and-death, that Yancy, our older and wiser hero, needs and has the goddamn wherewithal to do. Lordy, something about that moment just makes me hum. The worst has happened, the best ain’t far away, and you can see the moral to all this back-and-forth coming at you like a high school band up Main Street.
Let me give you a for instance. Imagine a couple, man and wife. Somebody—har-de-har-har—like me maybe, and like my ex-wife Corrine. They’re in the early forties, married since The Stone Age. Two kids, both boys, both in high school. What else? They’re in their second house, mortgaged up the whazoo. He’s what we hereabouts in the desert call a “land man,” which is that person who goes out to find the heir, or the heir’s heir, to property that bigwigs at Sinclair or Shell Oil Company want the mineral rights to; the wife, she’s a kindergarten teacher, a whiz with papier-mâché and building blocks. They’re Protestants, as half-assed in this as they are in politics. They both look pretty good still, the pot they’re going to—we all go to pot eventually, right?—maybe a dozen years away. Only about thirty-five percent of their habits are bad. He likes Oso Negro rum a little too much. She laughs out loud at the TV. He smokes (more initials: LSMFT), and she has a puff or two when she’s feeling frisky. Normal folks, no? Just like your own damn self were you suddenly plucked out of your own life and made to go from A to Z for an hour and a half after the lights go out.
The thing is, though, this guy’s a peckerwood. Can’t keep it in his pants. No how, no way. For example, he’s over in El Paso or in the badlands outside Hagerman or up near Tatum—hellfire, could be anywhere there’s gas and crude oil to be accounted for—and sees a woman in the lounge of the Holiday Inn. Before you know it, he’s sweet-talking. One drink. Another. A little hootchy-kootchy on the dance floor. He’s a conversationalist, is what he is. Another lost art. Quick with the ha-ha-ha, quicker with his Visa card. One thing leads to another—ain’t this always the way, right?—and round midnight you can hear hoopla and heavy breathing coming from room 311 overlooking the pool. It’s not love, mind you. It’s just rooting and rutting and dipping the wick. It’s the animal parts of us, is all. The gland running off with the brain. Something about a strange woman in her panties and lacy bra that, till sunrise at least, puts our hero two or three steps closer to paradise.
Then one day he comes home and he can tell that his wife knows. Not the particulars—not yet anyway—just the headlines.
Naturally, he tries to make conversation. Tells how it was in Carlsbad. The son of the son of the son he found living in the rusted carcass of a ’68 Ford Fairlane behind the El Corral Bar. A drunk now worth nearly fifteen thousand dollars on account of acreage his daddy’s daddy owned in the wasteland.
“Took me six days,” he says to her. “A record.”
She doesn’t say much. No need to, he thinks. The girl’s name was Beth Ann, or Christine, or Suzi; and she was a clerk at the Bureau of Records in Dexter, or the secretary to the mayor of Clovis, or herself away from home and feeding herself out of somebody else’s checkbook. All that’s important is that the wife knows. You can smell the betrayal in the air.
“What’s for supper?” he asks.
She tells him, and then more time passes. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Links on a chain that one day has to end.
The thing I like about this whole business is how unexpected it is. No showdown at all. They’ve had the fight, just without the words and the tossed dishes. Now, they’re citizens of some weird country, is what they are. They’ve had the tragedy—fire, flood or famine—and, like all folks putting two with two, they’ve accepted the inevitability of four. It’s all math, friends. Us just numbers, with ding-dongs attached.
So the evening goes on. The sons come home from soccer practice or whatever, the supper gets eaten, Tom Brokaw has a half-hour of horror to share with them as Americans.
The husband doesn’t say much himself. He feels peaceful. The end is nigh, so he just lets himself rise, that moment I like coming to him in an hour or two.
The wife? Hell, I don’t know about her. Not a lick. She ain’t perfect—none of us is—but she’s a fine thing nonetheless. You’d want her as a neighbor, I’m sure. She can keep a confidence, for example. Or give you a lift to Walgreen’s if your car’s on the blink. Most of all, she’s got patience—maybe the way Midas had gold. Which probably explains why she stayed with this dipstick for so long. I could speculate, but I won’t. I’m about as good at guessing as a snake is at driving a tractor. She must’ve known all along, though. About Betty and Millie and whoever else there was to know about. Then something in her, the very her of her, went pop. Or snap. Or bang. Pick a noise, friends. That’s the sound of you going dry and cold inside.
So it’s eight p.m. now. Then nine. Time and more time piling up. Their sons are in their rooms. Homework and the like.
God knows what my old Professor would make of this period. He liked the artsy-fartsy stuff. Lots of camera angles and insufficient light to work by. Music, too. He loved the ooeey-gooey crapola in the background, said it was part of, quote, the vocabulary. Me, I just like thinking. Ruminating, my daddy called it. Which is X, then Z, and you trying to figure out what Y was.
It’s ten o’clock, then ten-fifteen.
“You want something to drink?” the wife says.
Good God, she’s a civil creature, no? So he says sure, this to and fro more than twenty percent marvelous to him.
In a moment, she’s back, Cuba Libres for the two of them and something else unexpected to say.
“So you found the guy?”
Indeed, he did, and says so, yet another rung on the ladder toward the moment when the villain takes it between the eyes.
“Went to every bar on Pisano Street,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe the losers in those joints. He’d been living out of that car for years. A regular hobo. Stunk to high heaven.”
Outside, a fierce wind has come up, a lot of real estate from Arizona now moving their way from the west. He’s got a full day tomorrow, records to search in city hall and a golf game at the Institute course in the afternoon. It’s a good life, he’s thinking. A full wallet, a new car to drive, and at least thirty more years to live on planet Earth. He ain’t a bastard, not really. The race has been run, friends, and he’s at the end of it.
“What’d you do today?” he says.
There’s a light in her eyes he hasn’t seen before, and for an instant he believes that she’s going to yell at him now.
“You being polite?” she says.
He is, and says so, the first of about ten million other words to go back and forth between them.
“The usual,” she says, and up another rung we go. Chit from him. Chat from her. Dialogue, in short. She’s serious, as is he, but it’s like code they’re talking, the stuff between the lines—the silences—more important than anything you might pay cash money to overhear. It’s common, is what it is. He sips his drink, she hers. Sip, sip, and sip. A throat is cleared. Another. Rung upon rung upon rung.
“So this is it,” she says at last.
This is the most intimate they’ve ever been, he thinks.
“Yes,” he says.
His answer seems to take about five minutes to reach her, then it does and he can see it register. The end of them. But for the paperwork and the dollars and the clothes to move out, the very end of them.
“I’m tired,” she says. “I’m going to bed.”
In case you weren’t paying attention, that was it. The showdown. A real modern one, from what I can tell. Not much whoop-de-do. Not a lot of, er, vocabulary to help you know what’s what. Then the part I like. Which is falling and one more surprise to know.
For a long time, he sits where he is. He’s not stricken, or otherwise bent in the heart. He’s content, I’ve decided. Like a fat man after a big meal. For the first time, maybe, he’s at peace. No more lies to tell. No more secrets to keep. Amazing, man. Abso-goddamn-lutely amazing.
In the bathroom, he brushes his teeth. The woman’s name was Selma, a student out at the ENMU branch, boobs as big as cantaloupes; or Mary Jo, a clerk for the Mode O’Day at the Mall near the Wal-Mart; or Something Something Fitzgerald, hair red as fire and a singing voice like Tammy Wynette. They were other countries, he thinks. Persia and Sweden and Shangri-La itself. They were tongues and lips and backsides new as dreamland. Lordy.
She’s not asleep, but makes no sound when he gets in bed beside her. It’s a big world, friends, and he’s in it, one of many lying on his back, the next day rising up clear from Never-Neverland. He feels clean, pure. Open him up and you’ll find only light inside.
Then she says what she says and his little movie takes a turn for the worse.
He could get a blanket, he says.
Friends, I’d give anything to be in her head at this moment. I’d like to know where the thought starts, in what muscle or cell or itty-bitty nerve. First, the thought. Then the goo to go with it. Then the brain to say it.
“Let’s make love,” she says.
Now it’s his turn to have an idea.
“You sure?” he says.
She laughs, another happenstance to think about later, and says she’s surer about this than she has been about anything for ten years.
“It won’t mean anything,” he says.
Of course it won’t, she says. Nothing does.
But, good God, it does. It’s reversal, is what it is. Because, praise Jesus, she’s the newest pretty maid. She’s that one from Ruidoso, the track groupie; and that one, the UPS driver, who lives on Missouri Avenue. She’s the blonde with the green high heels and the one who barks when she gets on top. She’s new. He’s in the room of a woman he only met an hour ago. She’s not from here. Hell, she’s from Mexico or Mars. Oh, she’s just new all over. New shoulders. New fanny. The newest woman to come into a life that only a minute before even my old wind-bag Professor would have known was going steadily toward the weepy music and the who-was-who.
Lee K. Abbott’s seventh collection of stories, Time, Space, and Massy Earth: New and Selected Stories, is forthcoming from Norton. He teaches at The Ohio State University.