I ‘m a fool.
I like the archaic sound of that, its link to a time of deep accountability, a time when deeds were the person and that bedrock of psyche and soul only gave you something to talk about over a few drinks.
I’m a fool. Or simply foolish? The Ploots – that was the name, the family name, a not uncommon name in our town. Her name was Sydney.
I thought the names of their twin daughters, Novella and Allevon, a bit odd until I found out Sydney and her husband had both been English teachers at one time. Originally, they’d settled on Sestina and Anapest for the twins, but decided the music there was harsh, too tough. The boy, though, the one who died at birth not long before all this happened, they’d named him Quatrain.
When I got to know the family the girls were in their teens, Novy and Alley – tall and olive-skinned, long bones and long black hair. The two teachers were no longer teaching and viewed themselves as having fallen on hard times. I found out later they’d lost their house, almost all their money, and the entirety of their reputation. I decided that qualified as hard times.
They lived across the hall from me, our building an old Victorian dowager now chopped up into apartments. Widowed I was and hurting, my bit of turf with its two rooms and small kitchen all of the world I cared to possess. I like things clean, but I had muscle aches and a bad knee and so had no desire to superintend anything larger than what I had.
Dick and Sydney, though – the parents of Novy and Alley – had to be feeling a property crunch since their place across the hall was bigger than mine only by one small bedroom.
We shared a bathroom down the hall, too, but the hours I keep are not normal so our paths never crossed on the usage of that room. The women smells there, however, the lotions and sprays and endocrine perfumes, I found them pleasing.
Sydney is thick-waisted and bosomy, her face pleasant but puffy in the way the years (or drink, though I decided in Sydney’s case it was simply years) always seem to pump some of us up. She likes a bright red lipstick, too, the way so many dark-haired women do. Dick, though, was clearly the source of the girls’ bones, the man six-foot seven as he told me once. I hadn’t asked his height, but I think it was one of those introductory things he liked to get out of the way early.
Alley was careless one night. That began it.
She left their apartment door and the front door to the house open. A skunk walked in and because they all panicked the animal sprayed. They did have sense enough to leave the doors open so that at some point the skunk left. Naturally enough, that gave our common hallway a powerful splash of character.
Dick came over and said to me, “I know it’s impossible, Henry, but can we stay with you tonight?”
He’d already talked to the landlady, Mrs. Nitchpit, and she said she’d have a fumigator over in the morning. Thoughtfully, Dick had set a box fan in a window to get the de-stenching started.
The four apartments upstairs – all one room efficiencies, all of them occupied by university students – were out of the question. Dick said, as well, that they couldn’t afford a motel.
Instinctively, in my mind, I laid out all the reasons why it wouldn’t work for them to stay with me, and then I said, “Of course you can.”
I’d also worked out the chaos that would ensue and decided I needed that. I’d become much too aware of myself as a hurting man studying trouble.
Sydney said, “Henry, this is really quite nice.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Very dark, big furniture,” she continued. “A man’s place, don’t you think so, Dick?”
I wondered how we’d manage Dick without falling all over his long legs. We were a crowd in my house. We were a multitude. I didn’t mind it.
“Sydney?” I said.
“I want you and Dick to take my bed. It’s really better that way. I’ll sleep on the couch and I’m sure the girls will find their own nooks and crannies.”
“Henry …” she began.
“Beyond argument,” I said. “I have lots of blankets and pillows and it will probably do me good to eavesdrop on some teenage girl conversation.”
She smiled then and said, “Don’t expect too much from that.”
My routine broken that night, and the Ploots finally calmed down from what would have to be a grand story in the future, I relaxed and listened to the family talk, scattered bits about Dick’s work as a security guard, about an aunt and uncle struggling with mutual cancers, something about work for Sydney so I assumed she was looking for a job.
By eleven we were all tired (it being a good three hours past my usual bedtime). Dick and Sydney went into my bedroom, and as the girls and I began our scattered bedding arrangements around my small living room, we became aware of a certain shift in the universe, perhaps gravity in one of its giddy modes.
Dick and Sydney were making love, loud love. In the dark, I heard the girls whispering.
Then one of them said, “They have to do that.”
The other one said, “Mom and Dad.”
“It’s all right,” I said.
I’d given myself permission not to get up at my usual three o’clock. At six I woke up.
Dick and Sydney were making love again, every stroke echoed by a panting gasp from Sydney with that followed by a whiney moan.
I wanted to get up and go to the bathroom, but didn’t want to wake the girls into that scene. Also, I was consummately firm in a manly way and thought it best to wait for subsidence either in myself or in my bedroom.
I wondered, instead, about what I might serve for breakfast. Not quite seeing myself as rescuer, I saw myself as host.
Sydney emerged from the bedroom wearing only one of the bath towels I keep on top of my dresser, and Dick’s, very large, shoes.
“My guess is that no one’s in the bathroom,” Sydney said.
“Shouldn’t be,” I said.
“Did you sleep well, Henry?” she said.
“I believe I did,” I said. “And you?”
“Just fine,” she said.
As she went out the door I noticed her towel didn’t cover any of her back side. A fine back side it was, too.
“Whew,” she said as she stepped into the hallway. “Stinky out here.”
It’s a solid old house, though. Very little of the skunk’s smell had penetrated into my place, and that had been taken care of by one of those little perfume things you plug into the wall. I do like to keep up on modern devices.
Mrs. Nitchpit came by my place at noon. Dick had gone off to work and the girls had gone off to school so Sydney and I were alone. She was pretty good about folding blankets and trying to tidy the place up a bit.
We’d heard activity next door and I’d seen a small van out on the street from some cleaning company.
“It’ll take a week,” Mrs. Nitchpit told Sydney and me.
“Oh my,” Sydney said. “A week?”
“Big job, they told me,” Mrs. Nitchpit said. “Carpets, furniture, walls. All the linens and clothing will have to be dry cleaned. They’ll take care of that, by the way. You have a lot of books, too.”
“Yes, we do,” Sydney said.
“They all have to be put out in the yard under the sun. I don’t think we got no rain coming up so that should work.”
“Mrs. Nitchpit?” Sydney said.
“What will all this cost?”
“Your insurance should cover it,” Mrs. Nitchpit said, “but I was told we’re lookin’ at about fifteen-hundred.”
“We don’t have any insurance,” Sydney said.
“Then I guess we’re lookin’ at a big bill,” Mrs. Nitchpit said.
Sydney’s eyes filled with tears as she turned away from Mrs. Nitchpit. She didn’t cry, but I’d never heard the word ‘fuck’ uttered with such honest dignity. I sensed these were not the first troubles this family had recently undergone.
“Maybe we should all just think about this awhile?” I said.
Mrs. Nitchpit closed up the apartment that day and had a locksmith come over to change the locks. She told Sydney they’d have to keep paying the rent because they were liable for those damages and she couldn’t – “no, sir” – rent it out until the place had been cleaned. She also said she couldn’t afford to pay for it herself and maybe let Dick and Sydney add something to the rent each month until it was paid off.
So I said of course they could stay with me for a second night, a gesture rewarded by Dick when he came home with a half dozen bags of groceries. Plenty of milk, coffee, snacks for the girls, meat, potatoes – even a six-pack of beer.
“We can’t eat you out of house and home, Henry,” Sydney said. “I mean, it’s not like we’re poor or anything. Just strapped with an unplanned expense.”
“I can understand that,” I said. “Do you have any credit cards?”
“We used to,” said Sydney.
I had a washer and dryer in the basement so there was no problem in keeping Dick’s uniform up to such standards as his work required. Alley and Novy had a greater problem in that they couldn’t keep wearing the same clothes to school every day, freshly washed or not. While they might have taken some things to the dry cleaners themselves, Mrs. Nitchpit knew about leverage and would not open the apartment. I thought Mrs. Nitchpit’s cranky attitude a bit tacky, but then I remembered she wouldn’t let her tenants use the yard for a little gardening or even sunbathing, nor would she let them use the empty two-car garage.
Sydney and I bought clothes then for two teenage girls. I learned quickly that I had no taste for what young girls wore, so Sydney did the choosing while I carried. Then she said, “Whoops.”
“That sounds like it has some meaning to it,” I said.
“Sure does, Henry,” she said. “My checkbook is locked in the apartment.”
“It’s all right,” I said. You’ve had enough troubles. Let me help out.”
I was not unaware of what was going on here, nor was it a burden for me to make the offer. If my current circumstances were modest, my resources were not. I’d retired with a little under a million dollars in various mutual funds. That amount, of course, is not as impressive as it used to be.
I cannot say I was innocent of carnal thoughts.
With Dick and Sydney going at it every night, and with the girls gradually feeling comfortable enough to render me harmless – to dress and undress, to belch, fart, yawn, or speak of intimate things in my presence – I felt an awakening of my own senses. My hurting heart needed a break. Widowed men weep very little, but self-pity is always lurking like a bad bump under the skin.
Still, the apartment was always warm, the flesh of all of us never hidden under a great deal of clothing. Legs, ankles, feet, thighs, pink toenail polish – the old man (me) never had to stare because the vista was everywhere.
Sydney, too, delivered an aura of weary use, her skin regularly mottled with love bruises. She wore an old slip and nothing else until around noon of each day.
Sydney, though, I just wasn’t sure that she liked all that action, as the young put it these days. For all the obvious passion, she seemed way too much “please” and “thank you” with her husband, even calling him father now and then. Eventually, I dismissed those thoughts and decided it was just like me to find a weak marriage in two people who couldn’t keep their hands off each other.
Of course they all smelled, too. Our bath and shower were regularly used, but this was a family smell: oils and sex and sweat and food preferences; the smell of feet and washed hair and deodorant, even the smell of school books and the leather satchel Dick carried his lunches in.
By the second week I’d lost all sense of intrusion. They all felt to me like some unique lotion bathing me and soothing away my necessary hurts.
One day, after Sydney and I had eaten some lunch, Sydney said to me, “Henry, take off your pants and go sit on the couch.”
While I had no idea what she had in mind, I knew what was on my mind and if the thoughts were jumbled, well, they were still good thoughts. My slacks hit the floor at about the same time as Sydney pulled up a small stool in front of the couch and sat on it. She wore only a skirt and a bra since she hadn’t quite finished dressing before we decided to have lunch.
Gently, she placed her hands on my damaged knee, gently she pressed her fingers into my flesh, then her palms.
She said, “We have no oil.”
Then she spit on my knee and continued the massage, spitting again and again when necessary. It was something my wife, Megan, would have done, and nothing in my small collection of painkillers could touch how good it felt.
“I saw you that day,” she said.
“When I fell?” I said.
“Yes. You got up. I thought you were okay,” Sydney said.
“So did I,” I said.
Ice. Snow. Walking stick (stray dog stick) in hand. Eyes glued to the ground with utmost concern, all possible precautions being taken, all possible precautions not enough: a twist, a jerk. One foot went out and I went down to a squat on my right leg. I felt no pain, only motion that didn’t belong. Treatment followed: an examination, X-rays, an MRI, surgery, physical therapy. I felt like a new song that sounded like a lot of old songs.
“This is quite comforting,” I said.
“Think of it as a hand job for your knee,” she said.
“I can do that,” I said.
Allevon and Novella seemed far better behaved than I’d been led to believe was the norm for teens at the time. Perhaps they were still new at the business of severance from all parental teachings, or perhaps they simply didn’t mind being the kids their parents had made them to be.
Or perhaps it was the devastation of Dick’s leaving, his simply not coming back here after work one day. It was an event Sydney said she hadn’t foreseen.
“I gave him everything he wanted,” Sydney said.
“I know,” I said.
“Not just sex, Henry,” she said, “though I hope you weren’t offended by all of that.”
“The girls …,” I began.
“Got used to it,” she said. “They made jokes with us about it. But more than that. When we got fired from Faith Rising Academy I just wanted to move on but Dick wanted to sue. I said no. He said yes. Then I said okay. We lost everything we had, including our house.”
“It wasn’t right, what the school did?” I said.
“Not only did our faith not rise,” she said, “it disappeared completely.”
This wasn’t an easy conversation but I tried to help her move it along.
“We all have that,” I said. “Belief is never a done deal. Sometimes it slips away from you.”
“We had a beautiful baby boy born dead,” she said. “Any parent who keeps their faith at such a time turns their whole life into a lie. Maybe we would have found it again, but there were things we said in our grief they couldn’t forgive.”
“So they kicked you out,” I said.
“That’s a fairly gentle way of putting it,” she said.
“And you sued.”
“And lost,” I said.
“Everything,” she said. “Our lawyers felt confident, but their lawyers said great damage had been done. They sued us back. We didn’t win.”
So they’d lost the baby, gotten gutted by the boss, skunked by nature, and Dick was doing fast oil changes for Valvoline – at first, the security guard job coming along a bit later. Without missing a beat, and with no disrespect to my wonderful Megan, I decided I was doing all right.
Dick left Sydney five-hundred dollars, about half of a paycheck. I thought about offering her the remainder she’d need to get her apartment fumigated, then realized she’d have nothing after that. She wasn’t working, and she seemed to know nothing else would be coming from Dick. I was the life raft. As she showed me the money we both seemed to know it had to go to the girls – normalcy for as long as it lasted.
“Henry?” she asked me that day.
“I think it would be a good idea to move the girls into the bedroom. Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“They need privacy at this age,” I said, “a place to be alone so they can learn who they’re alone with.”
“It’s a little different with twins,” she said. “But you’re not far off. I’ll sleep on the floor out here. You need the couch with your leg and all.”
“The floor?” I said. I guess for a moment I must have been thinking there were other options.
“It worked for the girls,” she said. “It’ll work for me. Anyway, I can look on it as punishment.”
“Maybe you should just look at it as a place to sleep,” I said.
Thus did I begin sleeping with only the second woman in my life – myself on the couch near the wall; Sydney on a mattress of two throw rugs near the front window.
Sydney, I discovered, slept in the nude.
“I’m old enough,” Sydney said to me a few days later. “I could be your wife.”
“My young wife,” I said, “very young.”
“Not that young,” she said.
“You’re not divorced, Sydney,” I said.
“I meant a wife for your bed,” she began, “and companionship and jokes and long talks about what makes us afraid. The wife of paper and public avowals, I don’t know if I could want that if I could have it. Didn’t seem to work the first time.”
“What makes you afraid, Sydney?” I said.
“You,” she said.
“Me?” I said.
“That you’ll ask us to leave,” she said. “That I won’t know what to do. That the girls and I will be standing in the front yard with our things all around us smelling musty and skunky, but there won’t be anyone to pick it all up and there won’t be any place to go. The girls, beyond humiliation by that time, will look to me for decisions and explanations, but I’ll only be able to say one thing.”
Sydney stopped then and looked at me. There were tears in her eyes.
“What’s that?” I said. “What’s the one thing?”
“I hope it doesn’t rain,” she said.
We both laughed then, her moment of doom quickly disguised as something funny, something I could of course deny with words of reassurance and help.
I wanted to say those things, to tell her that they were welcome to stay with me as long as it was necessary, that she didn’t have to find awkward ways to barter her body to keep my charity stoked, that she’d taken a cold emptiness and filled it with warmth, and that I even liked her girls – smart kids, sure enough, my connection to things I’d never thought before; very sexual, nubile, my interests purely (truly) aesthetic: cheerleader breasts and prom queen hips. I felt honored in being a witness to their maturing.
I said none of those things.
Alley and Novy, like Sydney, grew more and more relaxed. With no one in the apartment across from me, and separate entrances to the apartments upstairs, trips back and forth to the bathroom at the end of the hall might or might not require clothing for any one of them.
The girls, true to their times, wore those thong underpants, and I couldn’t help but notice that Sydney had shaved a considerable amount of her pubic hair – faddish, I knew that, and not an announcement as to availability.
Necessary school things, I guessed: a ring and a bangle in Alley’s navel, and three toe rings brightening Novy’s feet.
I was seeing much and enjoying my discomfort. Though none of us had any overseers forcing a schedule, I somehow knew that this dabbling in family intimacy would not last.
I went out for a long walk one day in the fall. Everything was turning, the ground crunchy with leaves, and a light breeze smelled of both harvest and the coming winter.
I thought about Sydney and the girls but not in a problematic way. They were a lightness to a self that could easily slip into dour and surly. Novy referred to me as “mom’s spare,” and Alley called me “Sortapop.”
Dick’s car, that day, was parked in front of the house as I walked back home. A large dent I hadn’t noticed before re-shaped his right front fender.
Inside my place the bedroom door was closed. Sounds emerged from there of service and duty.
“Marital needs trump etiquette every time,” I wanted to say out loud. I didn’t say it.
A need to pee took precedence over looking into some lunch in the middle of Dick and Sydney’s lovemaking.
I was hungry, though, and decided a simple peanut butter and jelly would do the job as I walked down the hall to the bathroom. There was no longer any terrible odor in the hallway since Mrs. Nitchpit had apparently found the resources to have the apartment fumigated. Alley and Novy had retrieved some of the books as they were lying out in the sun, but they knew enough not to grab too many, knew something of what it meant for one person to have a claim against another.
The apartment, however, remained locked. One day – I said nothing about this – I saw an ad in the paper for a furnished apartment. The phone number was that of Mrs. Nitchpit.
Sydney, naked, stood in the kitchenette as I walked back into the apartment from the bathroom. Looking out the front window, I saw that Dick’s car was gone.
“Hello, Henry,” Sydney said.
“So he’s still in town?” I said.
She had an old sweatshirt lying on the counter that she quickly slipped on. As I’ve suggested, the nakedness of these three females had become more and more a part of my life, but it was not yet something that any of us took for granted.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He just stopped by. We didn’t talk much.”
One night at around midnight I came back from the bathroom and Sydney, on her bed of carpeting and blankets in the corner, said, “Come here, old man.”
I walked over near her and said, “Can’t sleep?”
“My debt is huge,” she said. “Make love to me, Henry. It’s all I have to offer.”
I could think of no reason to refuse her, nor did it occur to me the one day to say anything when Sydney introduced herself to one of the students upstairs as my new wife.
“You must be my trophy wife,” I said to her later that day.
“God knows what you must have entered to win me,” she said.
In the coming months I saw no more of Dick, which is another way of saying I knew Sydney’s baby was mine.
I’d like to say that when she told me I immediately slipped into some mellow dirge on the serendipitous oddities of growing old, followed by a need to go find a brick wall somewhere, jump up on it, and pound my chest in triumph over all the forces of aging and deterioration. Truth is, I think my reaction was about the same as that of any younger man – wonder, surprise, fear, delight, and a thumping feeling, surely biological, that I ought to protect Sydney.
I wondered what Megan would think about it.
I thought she might be angry and think me an irresponsible goof, but then decided the dead can’t get angry. Besides, I had everything I needed to exercise a praiseworthy responsibility and I knew damn well I would do that. If Sydney’s divorce ever became final and she wanted me to marry her I would do that. I hadn’t tried to awaken something called love in the way Sydney and I were with each other, but we comforted each other, we talked with each other, we knew neither of us was going to get any prettier and that was all right. If I’d functioned well as rescuer, perhaps it was time to reverse that a bit and tell her that I needed her.
I thought Megan might think me some kind of fool, but fools aren’t always to be pitied. Eventually, I simply thought this was about the most amazing thing that had ever happened to me.
What neither Megan nor I nor Sydney foresaw were the reactions of Alley and Novy.
They simply left one day and didn’t come back. Sydney suspected they knew where Dick lived and had gone to be with him. She checked the school for absences a few days after that and was told there’d been no absences, that the girls’ attendance record was, in fact, exemplary.
You have all the morals of a politician and the practical
wisdom of a crack addict. We have to go. We love you.
Allevon & Novella Ploot
“So I don’t have to worry,” Sydney said.
“But it hurts you,” I said. “I can see that.”
“People keep leaving me,” she said. “They keep finding in my ways terrible errors – or something like that. My husband, my children, my career, all of them found me wanting. Even my little boy checked out – before he was born, Henry.”
We don’t like self-pity, but sometimes it has to be indulged or you go mad.
On my daily walks I give my mind permission to go wherever it wants: to think great thoughts; to suck itself into a blank stupor; to pick and choose the warts and flowers in my history, or to indulge in that greatest of all human passions – self-pity. I do that often, but only on my walks.
It’s hard, however, to listen to in someone else.
At the time, I wasn’t sure what I felt about Sydney other than feeling greatly comfortable around her. She’d endured much, kept survival going, kept her husband at least somewhere in the area, and managed to pull from me all manner of things I was in no way hesitant to give. A baby? Well, aren’t I a special sonofabitch?
I was old enough to know there was much in that baby’s life I’d probably never see, while at the same time I also knew I could provide a beginning of substance and quality. Maybe there were even things I could teach the child, if not soccer or tennis, maybe something about goodness in people or how you work at a job or why the sun feels so good on a cold winter’s day. This was all unique and it was wonderful. Never once, too, did I loop myself into all the failures between Megan and me over why we should or shouldn’t or could or couldn’t have kids. We hadn’t, that’s all, and we’d been happy. Pretty much.
Still, Sydney’s losses kept mounting, too.
I came home from the grocery store one day and found Sydney sitting on the couch with Alley and Novy standing in front of her. They were shouting. They were cruel. This baby, they said, would have the stink of failure.
It would have only half sisters, they said, and a demented father.
“Not yet,” I said, finally getting a feel for the conversation. “The dementia’s well off in the future. Maybe you’re being a little harsh, too, girls.”
“It’s all right, Henry,” Sydney said.
“Maybe not,” I said.
“You’ve offered us a lot, Henry,” she said. “That’s what the girls and I are arguing about.”
“What’s to argue?” I said. “It’s not like I’ve attached terrible conditions to the help I’m perfectly happy to give, that I am obliged to give, I might add.”
“Dick’s been in touch,” she said. “He thinks we should get back together, especially now.”
“Especially now?” I said.
“With my being pregnant,” she said.
Confused, I thought: With my baby. That’s how we used to put it though I was aware, well, that the words move around, the players shift their roles. Still, you knocked someone up, you took responsibility. Usually that meant you married the girl. Fair enough even if the mortality rate of those marriages was not good. All I’d offered Sydney was my presence and I’d hoped she’d make room for me.
“He thinks,” Sydney continued, “we should pull together now under these new circumstances. That’s what families do.”
Perhaps I wasn’t ready for nobility, at least not Dick’s nobility. Perhaps I’d read Sydney and her feelings all wrong. No doubt there are those who would call me selfish, or brazenly assert that Sydney’s infant was none of my business. Regardless, they might say, of how soft a financial cushion I might place under the child, Sydney had no guarantees that either my interest or my longevity would be sustained during all the years it took to put that child into a decent life. Fair enough, but for a time there I felt my own child being stolen right out from under me, taken by the gypsies or the trolls under the bridge.
“I’ve hurt you, Henry?” she said.
“That’s not the point,” I said. “It’s just that I’ve never been a father and I was looking forward to it. This is a great disappointment.”
“We’ll keep in touch, you know,” she said. “Even pictures, report cards, that sort of thing.”
I felt like I was in a convenience store, my wallet being gone through by a woman wearing a ski mask.
I’d had losses; of course I had, with Megan being the greatest loss of all. But you live with that, Mr. Trump. Even your skyscrapers will be gone in a hundred, maybe two-hundred years. Funny thing, I felt the loss of Sydney far less than that of the unborn child. Not that I didn’t care for her, but the bond between a father and child is one of granite and steel, that between a man and woman one of whimsy and tissue paper. I’d miss Sydney, but I was too old to begin the kind of legal shenanigans that would have given me a true role in the child’s life.
“I think you need to leave now,” I said to Sydney.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I know you are,” I said.
She told me Dick had an apartment now so maybe it was a good time to change everything and move on.
“It’s an expensive place down by the river,” she said. “Dick says he’ll have to charge me rent until we see if our marriage is going to keep. Do you think you could help me out with that, Henry?”
“No,” I said.
• • •
G. K. Wuori’s first collection of stories, Nude In Tub, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill and was purchased by the Book of the Month Club. His first novel, An American Outrage, was named Book of the Year (fiction) by ForeWord Magazine. In addition to numerous published stories, he is author of Now That I’m Ready To Tell You Everything, Infidelity, and, most recently, HoneyLee’s Girl.