by Jack Alcott
|part 2 of 4|
Later that night, on the drive home, Jean told me she thought the Austins’ marriage was in trouble.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t like the way Candice treats him,” she said. “It’s not right.”
“She’s always been sarcastic. That’s how she is, that’s her personality.”
“No. She’s so cold and clipped with him. He doesn’t deserve that.”
I had to agree with her. Jimmy was a good guy, always warm, friendly and funny. Candice seemed angry with him for some reason. “Maybe it’s just a phase, something they’ll get over.”
“I really hope so,” Jean answered. “But something feels wrong.”
“Yeah, she’s trying to contact aliens, “ I snickered. Jean didn’t think it was funny, though.
We didn’t see the Austins for a couple of months after that. Something was always coming up — vacations, business trips, the kids were sick with the Coxsackie virus, etc. — the usual domestic churn. We saw the Greys a couple of times, though, and Candice’s alien-attractor would inevitably come up and we’d have another good laugh.
It was especially topical because the UFOs were back in the news again, with several recent sightings over the local reservoirs that supplied New York City. Were the bug-eyed monsters plotting to poison the metropolis? Naw, we decided they were just thirsty after crossing the vast desert of space.
We all agreed we missed the Austins and wondered what they thought of the latest extraterrestrial visits.
Then, on a perfect Sunday morning in early October, a red Ferrari convertible fishtailed into my driveway, gravel flying before the driver hit the brakes as the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” came screaming out of tortured radio speakers.
I was in the yard trying to fix my lawnmower, and I didn’t immediately recognize the guy behind the wheel. When he started waving at me to come over, I realized it was Jimmy. He was wearing a black bandana with tiny white skulls on it and a black T-shirt with the Rolling Stones’ libidinous lips-and-tongue logo. He’d let his hair grow, too, and it trailed like wings from behind his ears. He pushed his mirror-shades down his nose, winked at me, and turned the volume down on the radio.
“C’mon, man, it’s my birthday; let’s go for a ride!”
“Let me check with the wife,” I said, welcoming any excuse to abandon the mower.
A few minutes later I was a passenger in the two-seater as it hurtled along twisty old roads, past tumbledown stonewalls and under overhanging branches ablaze with fall foliage. Jimmy raced the Ferrari around turns without bothering to downshift, getting uncomfortably close to some of the ancient, gnarly tree roots that seemed to heave up from the earth.
He was sticking to back roads, former cow paths a hundred years ago, with names like Foggintown, Farm-to-Market and Sodom. The latter got its name from the bars and brothels that used to cluster along it when it was a playground for Brewster’s hardworking farmers, railroad men and miners.
“This baby drives like a dream,” Jimmy shouted as he whipped around another curve, grinning at me from under the sky-blue void reflected in his sunglasses.
“Yeah, it’s great,” I yelled back as he revved the engine down a straightaway. “Where’d you get the money for this?”
“It’s a lease, just for the day,” he answered. “Wasn’t that much. I’ve always wanted one, though.”
“Nice,” I said, trying not to tell him to slow down as yet another curve loomed up. I didn’t want to spoil his high.
“It’s my fortieth today, you know,” he said. “It sucks. I had to do something to celebrate. Something different, a little edgier.” He hit the accelerator and I watched the needle jump to sixty-five mph. We were on a dirt road now that didn’t look familiar and was barely wide enough for two cars to pass.
“Maybe you better take it easy around this next turn.’’
It wasn’t what he wanted to hear; he wanted a buddy who’d tell him to gun it and to hell with everything, take a risk, live dangerously, put the pedal to the metal, man. I was too old for that crap — and I wanted to get older.
“Ah, c’mon, buddy, don’t wimp out on me,” he said. “This feels so good.” He stepped on the pedal and the Ferrari bolted forward like it was lifting off; I instinctively clutched the padded leather dashboard.
I guess he noticed how pale I was because he let up on the gas and drove in silence for a few hundred yards at a less nerve-rattling speed. He cut onto Fields Lane, another packed-dirt road that was nothing more than ruts and well-worn grooves.
“Candice is having an affair,” he said.
I waited for him to say more, but he was quiet. I turned to say something — anything really — because I had no idea how to respond. He beat me to it anyway.
“Yeah, The Master of the Hunt bagged my wife. That sucks, too.”
Riding horses was among the Austins’ many hobbies, and they had two Morgans, I think they’re called — I don’t know anything about the horsey set. And really, it was Candice who loved the animals, and Jimmy indulged her.
She joined a South Salem riding club without Jimmy — he wasn’t interested — and she often spent weekend mornings in the fall on fox hunts. I don’t get it, but the upper classes around here and in Westchester get off on chasing foxes around the woods. They gallop down the horse trails playing dress-up in their jodhpurs and red blazers and black helmets, their hounds baying for blood.
From what I’ve seen, they’re a bunch of phony Wall Street jerks, real estate moguls and rich poseurs who use their ostentatious equestrian displays to show off their “class.” I mean, who can afford that crap and why bother anyway?
Well, Candice worshipped the riding rituals, and would frankly tell you she admired the rich for simply being rich. Anyway, The Master of the Hunt is the alpha male who heads up the fox hunt. In this case, he was a well-known playboy and scion of a family that made a fortune in the fast-food hamburger business.
I don’t need to name the company; let’s just say its advertising icon is an idiotic red-haired clown and it’s as American as, well, the cheeseburger. His daddy owned more of the corporation’s franchise restaurants than anyone else in the northeast, and was reputedly worth at least $400 million.
The family ached, no doubt, to put decades of rancid burger grease and bad food behind them as they pranced around the countryside on thoroughbred horses while wearing scarlet jackets and living in an overheated fantasy of leftover British colonialism. America is a weird place.
So beautiful Candice had caught The Master’s eye, and went for it. It wasn’t hard to tell that Jimmy was devastated.
“I know everything,” Jimmy was saying as we came up behind a gray-haired couple of Sunday drivers sputtering along in a Buick doing the speed limit, which was twenty-five. Jimmy was right on their bumper. “The Master’s wife found out and sent me all the e-mails between ‘em. You wouldn’t believe it; nothing but sex talk. Really crazy stuff, too — and they each used cute nicknames; he was Ken, she was Lila. I’m not freakin’ kidding. It was out of control — she loved this guy, would do anything for him.”
He was peering at me again over his shiny, inscrutable shades, and I almost expected him to suddenly give his belly laugh and announce he was yanking my chain; it was all a big joke, yuk, yuk, yuk. But then I saw the tears sliding down from behind his glasses, wet and cruelly glittering in the sunshine.
All I could do was slink a little deeper into my bucket seat and mutter that I was sorry, it was horrible.
“How could she do this to me? I’ve never cared for anyone but her. What did I do wrong? What’s wrong with me?” His face was slick with tears now, and he let out a sob and then gunned the Ferrari around the Buick, veering so close to the other car he forced it onto the shoulder. Then he hit the accelerator hard and we were flying up the road again. It began to occur to me that he was thinking about killing himself, maybe wrapping the Ferrari around a tree for a big dramatic exit from all his pain.
I asked him to please slow down.
He didn’t flinch and didn’t acknowledge that he heard me, just stared straight ahead. Who knows what was going through his head; too many ugly thoughts, I’m sure. But he slowed down, not to the speed limit, but close enough, and I let the tension go and eased back in my seat.
“I’m really sorry, Jimbo. I don’t know what to tell you. You deserve better.”
“What is it about our society that makes it so easy for this to happen? Do we have too many freedoms, are we too decadent?”
There he was, trying to analyze it from the cool distance of his intellect. The poison was bound to sink back into his heart at any moment.
“It’s been going on forever, Jimmy. It can happen anytime, anywhere.”
“Yeah, I know it. But it hurts so bad, man. Why would she do this to me? Why would she do it to our kids? I mean something like this, it’s like throwing a hand grenade into the middle of your family. And the worst part is, the shrapnel will keep causing damage down through the years.”
I understood that; I’m from a broken family myself (and so was Jimmy, in fact) and I saw some awful scenes between my mom and dad, memories that still wake me at 3 a.m. These are scars that will never fade.
“It’s broken my heart and spirit,’’ he said. “Something’s missing now, dead maybe. You ever see an old tree that’s fallen over and right there in its center, the heartwood’s gone?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Well, that’s me. And yet, I don’t think I can leave her. I couldn’t do that to my kids, I love them too much, I love their future to much... I think it’s easier to tell a child his mother’s dead than it is to tell him you’re getting divorced — don’t you? ”
An unsettling comment, but with a certain splintery truth.
“Might be,” I replied, remembering all the nights I lay in bed listening to my parents fight, and wishing they were both dead so I’d be free of everything, all the screaming and sarcasm and insults; free from all the pain they inflicted on each other, and on me.
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2009 by Jack Alcott