Carl Casper and his wife of twenty-odd years mounted the stairs to an upstairs window to scrutinize a neighbor sunning herself by a recently installed pool. “At her age she shouldn’t wear her hair so long,” Betty Casper said. “How old do you think she is?”
“However old she is,” Carl Casper said, “she doesn’t look it.”
A heavy moment passed. “She cheats on her husband.”
“You don’t know that for a fact.”
“She’s the type, you can tell. And we both agree she’s a flake. Stuff she writes is off the wall.”
“I find it interesting. Sometimes.”
Shifting position on a chaise, the woman drew her legs up and massaged one calf and then the other. Betty Casper grew overly conscious of runaway capillaries on her own less shapely legs. Shod in sandals, she noted the need to repaint her toenails and, stepping back, began to cry.
Carl Casper followed her down the stairs. “What the hell’s the matter?”
She whirled. “That woman and I are probably the same age, but she looks a damn-sight better than I do. If the two of us were standing side-by-side, men would see her and never notice me.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Don’t keep telling me what I don’t know.” She ran a hand under the hem of her jersey. She no longer believed that childbearing marks and a surgical scar gave her abdomen the appearance of a sacred text. “I’ve had children and paid the price.” The Caspers had two sons, both somewhat overgrown. When not at boarding school, they were at summer camp. “That woman’s never had any.”
“You don’t know—”
He stopped himself and trailed her into the sort of kitchen seen in magazine illustrations. Sunlight deluged a bow window that harbored a breakfast table of scrubbed oak, on which tangerines and plums shared a bowl. Copper utensils hung from pegs, and the aroma of crushed herbs clung to the air. Betty Casper positioned herself near a display of cutlery.
“When I was in high school, all I wanted was you. Now I don’t know. You were handsome then. Now you’re getting a double chin.”
“Are you telling me something?”
“We both want more. You want that woman, and I don’t know what I want.”
That woman was born forty-some years ago. Her mother, underage and unmarried, high on a hallucinogen, died during the difficult birth. Her father was anybody’s guess. Her grandmother, Millie Karpowicz, named her Ginger, dressed her like a doll, and loved her to pieces.
“There’s just the two of us, honey. You and me against the big bad world.” Millie Karpowicz was widowed, her husband the victim of an industrial accident, for which she received a sizable settlement, most of it socked away. “We’ll never starve, baby. Now look at me and smile.”
A flash bulb popped as she took a picture of little Ginger at play with geometric pieces of silicon, snow-white and weightless, that had fitted around the floor-model TV set she had bought, cash on the barrelhead.
Ginger Karpowicz was a lovely-looking child and quicker than other girls in her class. In second grade Sister Theresa Marie knelt to her level and said, “You never know your future, Ginger, too many variables. But I’d bet on yours.”
“What are variables, Sister?”
“They’re like rocks in the road. Learn to go around them.”
In the third grade, after a visit to the basement, a euphemism for the toilet, the janitor motioned her to one side and whispered words she knew were bad. “My grandmother says if someone says something like that to me, I should punch hard as I can in the balls.”
“That so?” The janitor smiled and loomed over her.
“Then she says I’m s’posed to scream loud as I can.”
And she did.
She and her grandmother watched sitcoms together and never missed the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ginger wanted to be Mary when she grew up and wished Mr. Grant were her father, right now, forever. “Who do you think my father was, Nana?”
“I don’t think it matters.”
“Don’t you have any idea?”
“No, and neither did your mother.”
“Tell me about my mother.”
“Another time, baby. I don’t want to become sad.”
Millie Karpowicz winced when she found Ginger sitting rapt before the TV and watching a female rock singer whose hair was dazzle, whose eyes were dime-store gems, and whose screeching songs sounded like multiple murders followed by suicides. She dug out old albums, and together they listened to Billie Holiday’s No Regrets and Peggy Lee’s Where Can I Go Without You.
“Those are sad, Nana.”
“But real, sweetheart. And you could hear the words.”
“Did you love Grandpa?”
“All my heart.”
By the time Ginger reached her thirteenth birthday she was too developed to avoid notice. Men tightened their expressions as if to hide criminal intent, and boys gawked. Many of the boys, her grandmother noted, had hog faces and fat behinds from shoveling down too many beef burgers and French fries and swilling too many sugary drinks that subjected them to burps and farts and God knows what else would come in later life.
At fourteen she said to her grandmother, “If I could travel back in time, I’d introduce myself to my mother so we could get to know each other, a little bit anyway.”
“You wouldn’t get along.”
“She was your age when she lost her dad. He had spoiled her silly, and afterward everything I did was wrong, like I didn’t even have the right to grieve. The memory of him belonged only to her. Then she started hanging out with the wrong crowd and got into drugs. That’s when she stopped knowing me.”
“I’m sorry, Nana.”
“Traveling back in time is bad business. People would know all the horror ahead and never take a step forward.”
Ginger moved from parochial school to public high school and excelled. At a parent-teacher conference Miss Conley, who taught English, greeted Millie Karpowicz warmly and said, “The girl has a superb mind.”
Millie Karpowicz beamed. “She got it from her grandfather.”
“I wouldn’t count yourself out.”
Intimidated by Ginger’s beauty and brains, most boys kept their distance. Those who approached her failed to impress her—showoffs, mostly jocks who thought they were God’s gift, one of whom left lewd notes in her desk. “No originality,” she told her best friend, Mary Alice, a top student like herself, who later, however, got pregnant by one of the jocks and left school.
Ginger moved on and became an associate editor of the school paper and wrote a teen column that ran Saturdays in the local daily, for which she was paid by the inch, with her grandmother applying a ruler to make sure she wasn’t cheated.
The class president, Ambrose Crenshaw III, whose red hair topped his bony height, got up nerve to ask her to the senior prom, and she joined the galaxy of girls in pastel gowns attached to the arms of boys in ill-fitting dinner jackets parading for the cameras in the school gym.
After the prom, crushing her corsage, Ambrose Crenshaw III got fresh, as if what he was after was his due, but she promptly put him in his place.
Graduation was held the last week in May under a sky of fair-weather clouds at the football stadium. Top honors and awards alternated between her and Ambrose Crenshaw III, though her best friend Mary Alice certainly would have shared in them were she not giving birth.
Millie Karpowicz said, “I’m so proud of you.” And, eyes tearing over, she took a picture of Ginger in cap and gown, diploma in hand.
“What’s the matter, Nana?”
“Have I been a good nanny?”
“More than that, you’ve been a wonderful mum.”
“The husband’s a cold fish,” Betty Casper said.
“That’s what bankers are,” Carl Casper said. “Their lives revolve around money. Otherwise they’re worthless.”
He remembered the day the couple moved in, two loads of fine furniture, their house the nicest in the neighborhood. Expecting to see children, either teen or pre-teen, he had seen none and merely glimpsed the husband, who pulled up in a Porsche, conferred briefly with the movers, and drove off, leaving his wife to oversee. In a dress of blue hyacinth, she was springtime.
“And she’s never been friendly,” Betty Casper said.
He was silent, full of thought.
“Even when I brought over a loaf of banana bread to welcome her to the neighborhood, she didn’t invite me in. Claimed she was working on something. Did you hear me, Carl?”
A lustful adolescent, Carl had imagined nuns out of their habits, not the nuns who rapped his knuckles in school but those who romped naked inside his hot head. Now, aging, his waist widening, he lusted after the woman next door.
“Yes, I heard you,” he said, though he hadn’t.
“I saw her on her patio the other day. I swear she was smoking a joint. I mean, you could tell it was a joint by the way she dragged on it.”
After the pool was put in, he hoped with all his heart she would swim au naturel, for he had already imagined her as one of his naked nuns, but he was disappointed. Her bathing suit was one piece, the kind his wife wore.
His wife said, “I don’t know why The Valley News runs that silly column of hers. She writes under her maiden name. Karpowicz! Her husband probably doesn’t want her using his name. Can’t blame him. What do you think she is, Carl? Polish? Jewish?”
“I’m just asking, for God’s sake.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Stuff she writes sounds like she’s an atheist.”
He climbed the stairs to his home office, activated his computer, read an e-mail from a client, then rose sharply and strode to the window for a pleasure he’d been denying himself. But the woman wasn’t at the pool or anywhere in sight, disappointing him, depriving him. He heard his wife ascending the stairs.
Her voice struck from behind. “You love her!”
“I what? I don’t even know her.”
He spoke to the computer screen, Betty Casper to the back of his head. “But I know you. Last night . . .”
“What about last night?”
“Were you thinking of her when . . .”
“What d’you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean,” Betty Casper said and returned to the stairs.
The computer screen, which had gone blank, returned a confusing image of someone he didn’t know. Who the hell are you? It was some man acquiring an extra chin while losing his hair.
Ginger Karpowicz spent four years at Boston University, during which time she had two roommates. Both were from New Jersey. One maintained that the Old Testament god was churlish while the Christian god in the guise of Jesus was a Jew-gilded Greek, Socrates made divine. The other roommate was a baseball fan who frequently quoted Yogi Berra. The future ain’t what it used to be.
Ginger, taking as many literature courses as possible, adored Djuana Barnes and on a weekend home quoted her favorite line to her grandmother. Dreams have only the pigmentation of fact. “What the hell am I supposed to make of that?” Millie Karpowicz asked.
Ginger quoted Jorge Luis Borges. While we are asleep in this world, we are awake in another; in this way, every man is two men. “Don’t go highfalutin on me, darling. I used to change your shitty diapers.”
Her first lover, a teaching assistant with exceptionally clean-cut features, as if computer-enhanced to look all-American, said, “How did you stay a virgin for so long?” The question unduly irked her.
“I was waiting for someone like you.” She ran a quick hand down the front of her blouse, checking buttons. “My mistake.”
“Don’t get mad. How’d you like to marry me?”
“In a pig’s ass, as my grandmother would say.”
When her next lover, a PhD candidate, didn’t work out, she wondered whether sex was special to others but not to her. After the act, she complained, she felt more vanquished than satisfied. One of her roommates said, “You just haven’t met the right guy yet. He comes along, you’re gonna love it.”
In the summer before her final year, she interned at the Boston Herald and hated it. It was a tabloid with a predictable attitude, well to the right, and she didn’t last. The editor who fired her told her she was in the wrong business.
After graduation she rented a basement apartment in Boston’s South End and went through a series of jobs. She was an editorial assistant at a struggling celebrity magazine that owed her money when it folded. At a high-tech corporation she wrote the CEO’s speeches and dodged his advances until one evening she agreed to have dinner with him. Afterwards, in his hotel suite, his hands trembled when he touched her, as if she were too great a gift. She came to the same conclusion and spurned him.
Her next job was at Boston World, a city magazine, where she met the man she thought she might marry, her boss, Paul Hannah. Except he was already married. Damn! Which didn’t stop her from having dinner with him and listening to the start of a piece he was working on. Darwin opened our eyes to the dog-eat-dog world around us, and Freud uncapped our skulls to the horror inside our heads.
“He’s not for you,” a coworker told her, and she knew that. When he neglected his meds, his brain misfired fiction for fact and pushed reality down a rabbit hole. “I’m not violent,” he said over oysters at Maison Robert. “Just impetuous. Never should’ve hired you.”
“I was enthralled the moment I laid eyes on you.”
“Do you say that to all your female hires?”
“Only beautiful Polacks. And you’re the first. Tell me about your hopes and dreams.” Immediately he screwed his face tight in concentration, as if ready to etymologize her every word for the deepest meaning. As if in sickness he had an extra sense.
She said, “It would all be bullshit.”
On a visit home, she told her grandmother about him. The good and the bad. “He’s brilliant . . . He’s crazy. . . He’s . . .”
Millie Karpowicz was alarmed. “What kind of crazy?”
“Bipolar.” Ginger hesitated. “And he’s married.”
“Good God, girl! What’s the matter with you?”
“I love him.”
With neither warning nor explanation, Paul Hannah disappeared for nine working days. His secretary covered for him, and so did others. On the tenth day he appeared with stitches in his face, nothing he would talk about, though his wife confided to his secretary that police had found him in the street. In the privacy of his office, he said to Ginger, “I’m no good to anyone.”
“You don’t stay on your meds,” Ginger scolded.
“You don’t know what it’s like. You’d have to be in my head.”
“Then help me to understand.”
“Help you? How can I help you? I’m fucking buggy.”
The day she decided to give notice, Paul Hannah was sitting at his desk as if in a catatonic daze, though he may merely have been deep in thought. She looked in and said, “Are you home?”
He spoke slowly. “Truths, no matter how small, are enormous.”
“I’m leaving. Quitting.”
“You prove my point. While breaking my heart.”
“May I assume you’ll give me a good reference?”
“How can I not? You’re my best writer.”
Standing on the Cambridge side of the Charles River, against a chill fall wind that sounded like a holler for help and would’ve bowled her over had she not clutched the rail, she began composing her last piece for Boston World. The first line stressed a mood.
November is a bone begging for a dog.
The air suggested rain. “My hair,” Betty Casper gasped. “I don’t want it ruined.”
She and an old friend, Phyllis McNulty, hustled through the town parking area to the Lantern Brunch, where they were partial to the omelets. Phyllis McNulty, who had a small inane face and an overlarge bosom, smiled when served an omelet shot with bits of bacon and onion and loaded with mushrooms. Betty Casper’s ham-and-cheese omelet arrived inside a huge puff of pastry. Applying a napkin to a corner of her mouth, she said, “I used to be pretty, didn’t I? In high school you had the boobs, but I was the beauty.”
A little miffed, Phyllis McNulty said nothing.
“I’ve got some flab on my arms. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”
Phyllis McNulty certainly had. “Not really.”
“How’s Ed?” Ed was no prize, as Betty Casper knew full well.
Phyllis McNulty tasted her tea and dabbed her lips with her napkin. “Ed’s Ed.”
“I don‘t know who’s got it worse—you or I. Carl does most of his work at home now. Hardly ever goes into the office. That’s because he likes to peek at our neighbor in her bathing suit. You know who I mean.”
“The one who writes for the paper? The banker’s wife?”
“If you call that writing. And some banker. He’s a cuckold.”
Phyllis McNulty watched Betty Casper hollow out the puff of pastry. “Is Carl home now?”
Betty Casper smiled with satisfaction. “Yes, but she won’t be at the pool. It’s raining.”
Carl Casper was not at home. He was on his neighbor’s property. He had seen the husband leave and later, when a light rain began, he watched the wife tool away in her Porsche, the same color as her husband’s. Impulsively, he left his house and, breaching a hedge of yews, trespassed onto her property and detected through the mist shrouding the pool the ghost of her presence and the scent of her lotion. Had she materialized, he’d have confessed his love and his lust.
Ornamental trees springing out of tubs lined the patio. The back door, as he’d hoped, was unlocked. Standing inside, he listened carefully, for the house hummed as if she were still in it. Then he forced himself forward. The kitchen was immense, the floor terracotta tile, over which his footsteps echoed. Hung like a weapon was a large frying pan chased with the manufacturer’s name, which gave him a start. An intruder, he pictured himself being slammed in the head, his skull reduced to pieces of pottery. What am I doing here?
He mounted stairs, the carpeting deadening his steps, his legs trembling, as if lurking at the top were her husband, her lover, or maybe Norman Bates. God help me.
Instinctively he found his way to the spacious master bedroom, and breathed in her air, her voice, her doings. He stared hard at the outsize dresser mirror, as if he might retrieve all the images recorded in it, a possibility that thrilled him. The bed looked big enough for the whole neighborhood and was too much to behold. He was close enough to the dresser to open a drawer and sift through her underthings, but he would never do that. That’s not who I am.
The bathroom door was ajar. He visualized her in the shower, in the tub, but not on the toilet. Never would he invade her privacy that way. He spoke in a soft voice to her picture on one of the bureaus. “I love you.”
She spoke back. You’re quite a guy, Carl.
Another voice, quite phantom, said, You’re pathetic, that’s what you are.
Ginger Karpowicz missed the fifth anniversary reunion of her high school class, the tenth one too, but made it to the fifteenth. Some faces she needed moments to recognize, but there was no mistaking the bony height of Ambrose Crenshaw III, though his red hair had receded. Smoothed back, it looked wet. He told her he was a banker in Boston, lived in a high-rise condo on the waterfront, and was unmarried. “I notice you’re not wearing a ring.” he said, pleased.
They danced, he somewhat awkwardly. Separating, they mingled but soon got back together. He bought her a drink and escorted her to a table, where their knees bumped. “Please,” he said, “bring me up to date.”
She told him about her employment at Boston World but nothing about Paul Hannah, and she spoke about her subsequent two years at the Hartford Courant but didn’t mention an underheated love affair with a state legislator, which she broke off. She despised being the other woman. She skimmed over stints with the Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and with a trade magazine in New Jersey. She was back in the area because of her grandmother’s deteriorating health.
“She must be pretty old.”
“Not that old at all,” Ginger said, “but she’s has problems.”
“Sorry to hear that.” He waited a moment, then spoke in a significant voice. “I have to tell you something, Ginger. You did me great honor by letting me take you to the prom. We were Beauty and the Brain. Others began viewing me in a bigger way.”
“How odd,” Ginger said. “I never thought of you as Beauty.”
He smiled, unsure how deep the irony went. “But I should warn you. I’m set in my ways, and I’m not demonstrative.”
“Why are you telling me this, Ambrose?”
“I want to be the most important person in your life.”
She spoke lightly. “You might have an outside chance of coming in second, but my grandmother’s first.”
The next day, earlier than usual, she visited her grandmother in the hospital’s cardiac care unit. Millie Karpowicz, always trim and well-coiffed, had never looked her age; now she did. Swiftly Ginger leaned over the bed. “How are you doing, Nana?”
“Mind if I don’t answer that?” They squeezed hands. Millie Karpowicz’s eyes widened. “I look at you, I see your mother if she’d lived.”
“I’ve been so lucky.”
“No, I have. I’ve always had you, but if something happens to me, you’ll be alone. I mean, all alone. That’s what worries me.”
“Then you have to get better.”
“No, darling. You’ll have to be strong.”
A week later Millie Karpowicz died of congestive heart failure. Displayed at the funeral home was the starched face of a dolled-up corpse. Ginger bent over the casket. Not her Nana! Nana, where are you?
A week after the funeral, Ambrose Crenshaw III proposed marriage, and she accepted. They married in a civil ceremony and left for a honeymoon in Hawaii. Sitting first-class on a jumbo jet and sipping champagne, he said, “Do you love me, Ginger?”
She didn’t know, or didn’t want to know. “Do I have to?”
In their honeymoon suite they didn’t fuse. They merely fornicated, with no heated energy, no music. “Have I disappointed you?” he asked.
“Don’t be silly.”
“I’m sure you expected more. You’re more experienced.”
“You just insulted me, Ambrose.”
“I didn’t mean to.” He was abjectly contrite. “I’ll do better next time.”
“Don’t make a chore of it.”
After her move into his Boston condo, they tried to have a child, an Ambrose IV if a son, but she failed to conceive, maybe her fault, maybe his. He was uncomfortable discussing the matter, and for whatever the reason neither sought medical advice. She moved on to other things, teaching a journalism course at Bunker Hill Community College and freelancing for Boston World, long under new editorship. Where was Paul Hannah? No one seemed to know or care. The new editor especially liked her first submission in which she called the Hancock and the Pru the city’s modern castles and the office buildings along the harbor elaborate fortresses of show, more military than corporate in their pomp.
Dining in a North End restaurant, about which she was writing a piece, her husband leaned over his pasta and asked if she had ever smoked marijuana. “A few times,” she said, “When I was young.”
“I never have.”
She tore bread and buttered a chunk. “Why are you asking me this, Ambrose?”
“Promise you’ll never make a fool of me.”
“Why would I do that?”
He didn’t know. He said, “Forgive me.”
A year later, in the same restaurant, he told her he was sick of Boston, fed up with unnerving traffic, clogged tunnels, choked arteries, and overloaded bridges, all made worse by the clamor of the Big Dig. Ginger said, “Tell me what you want to do.”
He’d had offers, and after a lengthy negotiation he was named investment officer at Bradford Trust in Haverhill, a move that took them both back to their roots, though he preferred that they live in nearby Andover, a tiny town suitable for a man of his standing. He chose the house, the most impressive in the neighborhood, with all the luxuries and extras, except for a swimming pool. “I can remedy that,” he told her.
He thought it advantageous if she joined things in town. Friends of the Library, for instance, She saw no problem with that. He listed other things. “Don’t overload me, Ambrose. I’m a working woman.” She didn’t have to be, he reminded her. “Trust me, Ambrose. I do.” Reluctantly she agreed to accompany him to services at the Congregational church on Elm Street, where the minister expounded on perfect bliss awaiting the faithful. On the way out, Ginger shook the minister’s hand. “I loved your sermon, Reverend, but keep in mind that malcontents are everywhere. If there’s a heaven, we’re sure to find some there.”
Walking toward his Porsche, her husband said, “That wasn’t necessary.”
“For me it was.”
Sitting by the pool, she took a call on her cell phone and felt her shoulders tense. The voice, which she recognized at once, was Paul Hannah’s. How did he get her cell number? Why ask? He had his ways. “I’m married, Paul.”
“I know. I’ve Googled you through the years. You’ve moved around.”
“Apparently so have you. Where are you now?”
“Valley News.” He paused. “I know, it’s a comedown.”
She felt bad for him. It was a struggling weekly, a throwaway, Andover included in the circulation area.
“I could use your help, Ginger. Hear me out before you say anything. Write a column for me, something offbeat, controversial, any topic you want. I need to spice the paper up, get people reading it.” When she didn’t answer, he said, “Don’t make me beg.”
She got her best ideas by the pool, the sun in her face, eyes closed. In her first column, the minister in mind, she equated Christian hubris with male chauvinism in giving God a human face and making it masculine, and she defined Heaven as the sum of all good memories tainted by none of the terrible ones. She ended with her own kind of irony. If we stood face to face with God, we would become fiction and God would become fact. Role reversal.
Paul Hannah liked it. Her husband said, “Please don’t embarrass me.”
“I’ll use my maiden name.”
She had a drink with Paul Hannah in the lounge at the Andover Inn. She ate her olive and then his. After they clinked glasses, he said, “I’ve never gotten over you.”
“Time you did. Are you on your meds?”
"You are my meds.”
Carl Casper crouched at the upstairs window. Leaves were turning, birds departing in a sky of traveling clouds. His wife, coming up the stairs, said, “She won’t be at the pool much longer.”
He rose stiffly. “She’s not there now. Probably won’t be again. Pool’s covered over.”
Betty Casper spoke from the top of the stairs. “Poor baby. Can’t fill your eyes anymore with Polish pastry.”
Ensconced at her computer, Ginger Karpowicz wrote of lost leaves and changing seasons. Autumn is the autopsy of summer. Ambrose Crenshaw III said, “Why can’t you write things that matter to people?”
One evening Carl Casper followed Ginger Karpowicz from a distance while never totally losing sight of her Porsche until she ran a red light. He made quick turns and, God guiding him, glimpsed the Porsche settled in near the Andover Inn. Parked well away, he watched every step of her stride along a pathway and waited several minutes before following. Inside the lounge, he spotted her sitting with a man who looked neither reliable nor reasonable, and he shuddered when she plucked the olive from the man’s drink and ate it.
You could do better. You could have me!
On a bright November day Paul Hannah said, “So this is where you live.” Her computer was on the fritz, and he had stopped by to pick up her column. “Beautiful place.” Trailing her into the room she used as an office, he glanced out the window at the covered-up pool. “Nifty. Just walk out the back and dive in. Ever swim in the buff?”
She shook her head. “I suspect my neighbors are voyeurs.” Before she could react, he stepped toward her, and in the next moment she was solid in his arms. She said, “Where are we going with this, Paul?”
“Are we talking minutes or years?”
“One is apples and the other oranges.”
Over omelets at the Lantern Brunch, Betty Casper said, “He’s cheating on me in his head.”
“Better there than in the Polack’s bed,” Phyllis McNulty said.
“She wouldn’t give him a second look. You’d think he’d know that.” Betty Casper watched a man dip a doughnut into his coffee and eat the wet part. “It’s getting out of hand. I think he’s stalking her.”
“Jesus, Betty. He could get himself in trouble.”
“This is what I have to put up with. And there could be something worse, but I won’t go into it.”
Phyllis McNulty reached out and patted her friend’s ring-encrusted hand. “You have to do something.”
“I know that.”
“A word to the wise might work.” Phyllis McNulty advised.
Ambrose Crenshaw III was perusing the annual report of an up-and-coming company in the Midwest when his secretary stepped into his office and spoke in lowered tones. A woman was on the line, wanted to speak to him but wouldn’t say who she was. Said it was important. An emergency. He took the call, and a woman said, “Things are going on with your wife that you should know about. I’ll say no more.”
And Betty Casper didn’t.
Her computer fixed, Ginger Karpowicz was forwarding a couple of columns in advance to Paul Hannah. She wanted a lull, time to think, time not to think. In the first column she posed a question. Are we closer to the monkey than the monkey is to us? She knew that Paul Hannah would like the piece, but perhaps no one else would. The second piece was written with her grandmother in mind. Death, though a dear friend at the end, is the stranger we live with all our lives.
She and her husband attended Sunday service, at the conclusion of which the minister stationed himself at the door and said, “What words of wisdom do you have for me today, Mrs. Crenshaw?”
Ginger smiled. “Let’s face it, Reverend, the whole of Heaven may not be worth a single day on Earth.”
On the way to their car, his Porsche, her husband said, “Still up to your tricks, I see.” At home his voice turned darker and deeper on a different subject. “This editor of yours, this Hannah, you worked for him before?”
“Long time ago.”
“I checked up on him. He’s a loony.”
She closed the door of the closet where she had hung her coat. He still had his on. “And why did you check up on him, Ambrose?”
“Is there a reason I shouldn’t have?”
“Shows a lack of trust.”
He removed his topcoat, but instead of hanging it up he slung it over his shoulders, the empty arms dangling as if from a life of their own. “Has Hannah ever been in this house?”
“I told you when. The time I had the problem with the computer.”
An odd smile made his mouth look broken. “Did you have sex with him?”
That’s what a man and a woman do. “Of course not.”
A drizzly Monday. Watching her drive off, Carl Casper knew she was leaving for a hair appointment, for he had means to pick up conversations on her cordless phone. Five minutes later he entered her house through the patio, headed straight up the staircase to the master bedroom to breathe her air, her smells, and was already giddy when he got there. He was not the sort to paw lingerie, but what was the harm? His fingers caressed underpants not unlike his wife’s except these bore Ginger Karpowicz’s wear. Impulsively he shed his shirt, his shoes, and then, at full throttle, everything else. With the seizure of a smile, he stumbled to the mirror that stored her images and added the starkness of his own.
The huge bed awaited, and there was no one to stop him. Throwing back the spread, casting aside top covers, he bounded into her side of the magnificent bed and luxuriated in silky sheets. No mistaking it was her side, his senses told him so and his skin verified it. Lying where only she could have lain, conjuring up her warmth, he embraced her as only a lover could. Phantom thighs clenched him, calves locked him in. Ginger! Sounds coming from him were half hers. He knew he was staining the sheets and couldn’t help himself.
The owner of the hair salon, a woman named Barbara, was shortening and reshaping Ginger Karpowicz’s hair, coloring to come. Catching Ginger’s eye in the mirror, she said, “I always read your column, Mrs. Crenshaw, but I don’t always know what you’re saying.”
“I don‘t always know myself.”
Barbara stepped back a moment to view her progress. “Do you believe all those things you write?”
“When I’m writing them, I do. Later I may wonder.”
She ran a smoothing hand over Ginger’s hair. “You said shadows are blackboards that can’t bear the weight of chalk. I’m just curious. What does that mean?”
“Doesn’t have to mean anything, Barbara. Just has to sound nice.”
“You look sad, Mrs. Crenshaw.”
“Do I? Actually I’m happy.”
Ambrose Crenshaw III guided his Porsche into the driveway, saw that hers was gone, and wondered whether it was a ploy, part of the plot to make a fool of him. He scurried through drizzle with his topcoat thrown over his shoulders, sleeves flailing, and entered the house quietly, took a deep breath, and put all his senses to work as he climbed the staircase, for he had seen Psycho, had watched Martin Balsam mount similar stairs, and had witnessed the shrieking horror at the top. In his hand was a fully loaded revolver plucked from the glove box of his Porsche.
He tiptoed into the master bedroom and with a start saw hairy legs leaping from the covers. Saw a hairy ass. Saw the man himself. Not the editor, not Paul Hannah. So who was it? Jesus Christ, his fat-ass neighbor!
“It’s not what you think,” Carl Casper gasped.
“It never is.” He resented people who consumed more than their share of space and breathed more air than entitled to. He aimed the revolver chest-high. “Where is she?”
“She’s not home.” Carl Casper scarcely got the words out. “Please don’t hurt me.”
He found the man unworthy. A blob of animality. An insult. He tightened his hold on the revolver. Might even have cocked it. Yes, he had! Carl Casper began to cry. “Shut up!” The man was a piece of shit. Not worth the effort. Not worth a single bullet. “Get out of here!”
Frantically, gratefully, Carl Casper started to dress.
“No!” He waved the revolver. “Take your clothes with you!” Carl Casper stumbled out of the bedroom. Slipped and skidded. Almost tumbled down the stairs. Left by the patio. Left behind a shoe and a sock. Didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.
Ambrose Crenshaw III cautiously descended the staircase, seated himself on the bottom stair, and, holding the revolver with the hammer at the ready, waited for his wife to come home.