by Po Bronson
first published in ZYZZYVA: west coast writers & artists
Like the water-bound beasts lawyers are so often compared to,
Klacker, Lipmann et al. had swallowed Deb whole. Klacker had 230 lawyers on three floors
of the BofA building, and Deb---onetime queen of the Golden Gate Park tennis
ladders---wouldnt stay on the bottom floor long. At home, my desk, her desk, our
bookcases, and our tabletops were all buried under Criminal Procedure and Mason
v. Richmond and the agonizing briefs that turn socially conscious law students into
the money grubbers we are all too familiar with. She had traded in our Saturday matches
for days at the library searching for restatements of "cases of, pertaining to, or
affected by vicarious liability as it applied to food packaging." Over re-warmed
dinners I had prepared with the Deb I once knew in mind---fettuccine with marinated
mushrooms in wine sauce---the Deb I knew now spoke of "interfacing with
clientele" and "implementing objective criteria on a go-forward basis,"
lingo that pained my young ears to hear. First six pounds lighter, then eight, then
twelve, Deb was making it up the organization but disappearing in the process. We
werent happy. When together we used f-words often, mine being "fuck" and
her being "firm," as in "The Firm" and her loyalty to it. It was a
price she was willing to pay, but her struggling author/husband---your narrator, Bobby Joe
Edmunds---proved incapable of.
I tried! Sort of. I made it through years one through four, each
worse than the one prior, keeping my lip stiff and my backbone rigid and trying to think
of a future when we could look back and laugh at how hard it had been. I tried to be
sympathetic to her motivation---climbing to the top was just her way of survival---but
that couldnt comfort me for long. Nor did it comfort me to find, from the marriage
counselor The Firm referred me to, that my plight was common and shared by many. "So
what!" I shouted, a man of eloquent and elevated diction reduced to blubbering rage.
A line was being drawn in my life, at first blurry but increasingly sharp, a line that
separated my love for her from the integrity of life my father had once, among other
things, taught me to seek out. He had also taught me, by example, that love is impossible
to sustain. I had heard his arguments with my mother and every girlfriend of his Id
known. I had heard his monologue on Blake Island, the week we went camping the summer
after the divorce, telling me that all good things come to an end. So when I looked, I saw
life as a tornado, risky and dangerous and fundamentally unstable. And I saw the studio
apartments and lost jobs and repossessed sports cars of a man I was the spitting image of.
Now I was at risk of losing not only my love for Deb but also the
spontaneous wit and open heart that makes a young man a young writer.
I could go on forever here, but my complaints are already
exaggerated by anger, while my own role in our undoing is ignored. In truth, it was a
difficult time. I was full of indecision when I woke in the morning, not sure why I should
climb out from under the covers or what I would do if I did, and for this I blamed Deb: I
didnt consider that my job was godawful boring or that I was frustrated with my
unpublishable fiction. I began to think that 28 was a dreadfully young age to have lost
the lust for life, and I pegged Deb as the cause of my woes.
Once again my real life sneaked its way into my work, culminating in
a piece handed over to Forest Henning when we asked to see what each other had been
writing since Id seen her last. Hers was a near-perfect story based on her year-long
adventure in Africa, while mine was a heavy-handed tale set in the late years of the last
century: Orin Ringling----trapper, trader, and all-around mountain man---waits for his
wife in the log cabin he built overlooking the Klamath Lakes. She has taken the mule and
sled down the mountain to Grand Falls for supplies---only a half days hike each
way---but she has not returned. Orin waits and waits, knowing that he should go after her
but knowing how much she loves Grand Falls, how she loves the organ player at Whiskey
Jacks, how she likes the flannel sheets and flowered wallpaper in the Gold River
Hotel, how she gazes so fondly at the Southern Pacific train that steams to San Francisco.
While he waits for her, he fells, chops, and stacks firewood for the oncoming winter,
which he knows will be very cold. Gradually, we are led to believe, by the size of his
woodpile, now as tall as the cabin next to it, that he has been waiting not a matter of
hours but rather months.
"Youve changed," Forest said, first thing, when we
met at a North Beach cafe to discuss our fiction. She was wearing a gauzy print skirt
without the leggings underneath that make the style acceptable in public. When our coffees
came, she pulled a fifth of tequila from her knapsack and poured a shot into her mug. It
was 12:30 in the afternoon. We were two blocks from where I slaved as a copywriter for KL
Computronics. Forest was exactly my age, but at that moment I was aware of how little age
has to do with the size of the world one has come to know. "Why, Bobby Joe," she
"Why are you married to it?"
"The Firm, for chrissakes!" Forest mentioned the Tswana
tribe of the Mabutsane Delta in Botswana, Africa, where men can take as many wives as they
have fingers to wear wedding rings on.
I said that Id missed her point.
She lit a cigarette and took several deep drags. "Im just
saying that in many cultures, sowing ones oats is encouraged."
This was a come-on (even my inexperienced ears could tell that) and
I was honest, both to her and to myself, with unexpected wisdom that shot the truth of why
I hadnt betrayed Deb earlier. "Sowing ones oats," I repeated.
"I wouldnt know where to start."
What followed more closely resembles a dream that the honest-to-god
real life it was, and, for a period, I had no more control over myself than I do in my
nightmares. Your mild-mannered, middle-American narrator split from one man into two: the
first, the very thoughtful do-gooder Deb had always wanted as a husband, and the second, a
creature that spent his afternoons not at KL Computronics but in a sleazy hotel room. At
night I quit swearing, took interest in Debs damage computations and discovery
procedures, and massaged the tight muscles of her neck until she fell asleep. By day I
stared---stared at cracks in the bare plaster walls, stared at the filthy curtains over
our rented-room window, stared at the striped mattress where Ms. Henning and I committed
waistline hanky-panky bizarre varieties. The Robert J. Edmunds of my evenings drank only
water with his dinner and remained devoted to his featherweight spouse. The Bobby Joe of
my afternoons drank whiskey for his lunch and devoted himself to carnal pleasures. Each
man carried a bitter distaste for and low opinion of the other, but otherwise Robert J.
thought no more of what Bobby Joe had done that day than he did of what hed eaten
for breakfast or which tie hes worn to work. It was scary, I tell you, this dream I
could not wake up from. What Id expected from an affair---a little bad sex and a lot
of time whispering on the telephone---bore no relation to the evolutional regression I
suffered. That part of my brain regularly entrusted with keeping the reptile subjugated to
the human had blown its fuse, and for a week I crept the earth with plate belly and a
scaly tail and bug eyes that could see in the dark.
Time, that yesterday-today-tomorrow dimension we have no control
over, simply disappeared. My past with Debbie seemed as relevant as
planned future---two kids named Morgan and DeeDee, plus an adopted Salvadoran named
a library full of my published novels; a summer cabin near Jackson Hole to retreat to from
the stress of Debs political career---now seemed as desirable as paying taxes. I
began to vest some hope in a new future with Forest: I would return to Africa with her,
this time to explore the western coast, where I would send dispatches to major magazines
about pygmy worship rituals and the civil war in Cameroon.
But, as quickly as she entered my life, Forest vanished. On the
Friday of that torrid week, Bobby Joe arrived at Room 23 at the prearranged time. Forest
normally spent her mornings in there writing on yellow legal pads---an irony that at the
time escaped me---but the bed was without sheets and the one window---which she always
kept wide open---was closed to the sill. The house manager hadnt seen her, nor had
the janitor, so from the lobby, Bobby Joe called her parents house, where she had
been living since her return from Africa. He was told by her mother---who did not remember
either time theyd met---that Forest had been offered a job in Irvine and had flown
to Los Angeles that morning---to live with her old boyfriend Carl. Yes, Forest had known
about the job for quite some time, at least a month.
Wait a minute, Bobby Joe wanted to say. Just wait. Wait! But time
had begun again on him, he could feel it as thick as ocean water. He looked into the
receiver of the phone in his hand, then at the red knee-high boots of the wigged whore
standing outside the front door, then down the dark hallway where room 23 had cracked his
life wide open. After a moment it was no longer the low-life Bobby Joe standing there, but
rather your unlucky narrator, me, an empty vessel, as new to that hotel as man is to Mars.
My memory of how Id gotten there was vague, as was the day of the week and the
amount of money in my wallet. My heartbeat was rapid, sweat dripped off my brow, and my
hands shook when I reached for the phone receiver again. I could have called Deb to make a
date for dinner, or I could have called KL Computronics and said I would be back at the
office in an hour. I could have gone back to the life Id once know. I wanted to. But
I knew Id done something wrong, very wrong, and that it would be a very long time
getting the oil and water of me back together.
The call I made was awkward. "Theres been some
trouble," I said, when my father---then living with a woman in her Queen Anne
apartment back in Seattle---answered the phone and asked what had become of me the last
"Is it money?" he said.
"Its not money."
"Nobodys in the hospital?"
I said that no, it wasnt that either. The prostitute with the
red boots came inside the door and sat down on the vinyl couch in the lobby.
And Dad said, "You know, you got married very young. Id
been to war before I got married, and I still didnt get it all out of me."
"Get what out of you?"
Dad paused then, and I could hear over the phone a drawer being
opened and the pages of a day planner being flipped through. "Look at this," he
said. "Ill be in your neck of the woods in a couple days. Im doing a lot
of business with the Japanese." To convince me, he mentioned the name of a new
Japanese-owned hotel in my city that he sometimes stays at, and a few dynamics of the way
the Japanese value risk differently than American insurers. "These next few days are
not as important as they may seem," he said. He cleared his throat. "Im
not supposed to do this," he said, but he did, which was to give me his corporate
AmEx number and the address of the aforementioned hotel. Then he told me to drink lots of
water and take care to fold whatever clothes I might take off at night.
In those two days I called Deb several times from my fathers
hotel to explain why I could not come home, but each time my gibberish fell short of the
truth and the call ended with Deb cutting me off. To capture the two-headedness of the
time, I tried metaphors of Greek mythology and Chinese Buddhism, as well as the
evolutionary phrases I have used here, but Deb heard the words "other woman" and
"occasional intimacy" and decided shed heard enough. When angry, she used
the names of Klackers divorce attorneys; when sad she talked about the walking
ability of her two-year-old niece. I rode the hotels marble elevators several hours
each night, punching every one of the 45 floors. Every morning a maid service polished my
loafers and pressed my shirt while I swam in the pool, which was on the roof under glass.
Dad had called ahead and stocked the refrigerator with liter bottles of cranberry
Calistoga. I slept the first night---or three hours of it---in the bathtub under blankets,
and the second night sitting upright in a lounge chair with the sound of cable movies
turned low. When I woke up---around ten that Monday morning---the television was off and
Dad was pulling back the drapes.
He looked splendid. "I caught an early flight," he said.
We made small talk to calm our unease---I needed him, but life had proven that my father
was not someone who could be leaned on. He told me his new fighting weight, 195, his
corresponding pant size, 38, and the details of the health regimen that kept him there.
When I told him Id been paddling around a little bit in the pool upstairs, his
eyebrows lifted and a grin came over his face.
In minutes we were in the weight room on 45, me in newly purchased,
bright-white, hotel sweatwear, and Dad in his UW purple-and-gold. Pumping iron is not my
specialty, and after each of my fathers sets I had to drop the weight several
notches just to squeeze out four or five reps. But after one trip around the Universal I
felt better, and after a second trip---with all that blood in my muscles---I actually felt
strong, almost confident, nearly clearheaded. Dad spotted me while I bench-pressed, and he
looked deep into my eyes as I struggled through a half-dozen lat pulls. He didnt ask
any questions about what had happened, but when we moved from the weight room into the
steam room, the part about carnal pleasure in room 23 came out with the sweat from my
"Im not who I thought I was," I confessed. "I
didnt think I could do this sort of thing."
The steam built up around us. My fathers advice at first was
simple. It focused on only the everyday details of my life. He repeated the instructions
to fold my clothes. He added that I should be at my office at nine sharp every morning
even if I only twiddled a pencil through my fingers. Exercise was good; hard liquor was
bad. "Just because one leg of your table falls off, you dont kick out the other
three legs trying to save the one." This was advice, he admitted, that he hadnt
managed to apply when he had been in my position so many years ago. I began a mental list
hung, as a mnemonic, on the things I take traveling: waxed dental floss, black shoe
polish, an alarm clock, safety razor, dark socks, and clean underwear. He told me to keep
the pleasures of my life in mind, and he made me affirm a few of these out
loud---Screaming Jay Hawkins, the view from the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge,
Tuesday-night basketball at the USF gym.
"Some lessons are easier to learn than others," Dad said.
He took a deep breath and pushed the sweat off his forehead. His cheeks were red.
"Im thinking of that first Christmas apart when you---you would have been
twelve, I think. I dont think youve heard this before." And Dad, who has
a way of setting his stories before getting to his point, told me of the borrowed
Volkswagen Squareback he drove on this wintery night, which had no heater or defroster,
but was safe on ice because the engine sat over the rear wheels. There were miles of
treacherous roads, he said, between our house and the Three Coins restaurant near the
airport, where he had spent the afternoon drinking with strangers. My mother, he said, had
decided to forgive him. She had invited him to come back, to come back home on Christmas
Eve. Theyd been separated six weeks, and the man driving that car was very glad that
time was over. To dramatize it, as if it needed further drama, hed put on a red silk
hat and stuffed a sofa cushion into his red shirt. "This was 17 years ago," he
said, "and I still think about it all the time."
St. Nick got out of the Volkswagen in front of his small home with a
Nordstrom's sack of gifts for his sons. for his oldest boy, 14, a bicycle tachometer and
an album by a band called Kansas. For his youngest, 9, a Rock-Em, Sock-Em Robot set. For
his middle boy, 12, an orange polyester ski parka with zippered sleeve cuffs. He walked up
the driveway and cut across the lawn, stiff with frost. "I was almost there," he
said. "I got right up on that porch." Through the small, fogged window in the
door he could see the light from the candles on the mantel and the blinking, colored
lights strung on the tree. "Im not who I thought I was, either," he said,
his voice sad and heavy with memory. "If Id just rung the bell, we might have
turned out differently." Instead he set down the gifts and got back into the
Volkswagen. In half an hour he was back at the Three Coins, slurping champagne from soda
glasses and trading stories with his new-found friends. "It was crazy," he said.
"So many people with nowhere else to go, all drunk and needy as a newborn."
As I listened, a part of me was back camping with Dad on Blake
Island, a belly full of steak and my first shots of whiskey. In the steam, on the 45th
floor of this Japanese-owned hotel, I could feel myself coming whole again. The boy in me
was meeting the man. For a moment life escaped its randomness. But I feared, suddenly,
that Dads confession had come to an end, so I asked him if he remembered the stories
people told in that bar Christmas Eve.
"Do I?" he laughed. He questioned whether bears still crap
in the woods, then laughed again. "But I dont know if it would help you any to
I assured him that it would, coming from him. I was feeling better,
at least momentarily, to know that there were people in this world like me, so many
Dad smiled. He took another white towel off a stack in the corner
and draped it over his shoulders. "What the hell," he said, "were in
no hurry here."