Frank turned off one unlit narrow road onto another that led him past cornfields, dumpy trailer homes, and ranch homes. He drove by two and three story homes, and wooden homes with weathered exteriors, then stucco homes, brick homes, and others covered with siding — homes spaced wide apart from their neighbors followed by ones jammed together. The haphazard placement of old and new homes fit the disorder of his life these days.
He fidgeted with the radio dial. No music fit his mood, and he didn’t care about hot topics of conversation because no matter who ran for president or who took over first place in the National League East or what causes social activists yelled about, it wouldn’t affect his life; his life wouldn’t change after a presidential election; and it’d stay bleak and chaotic whether or not the Phillies won; and his problems didn’t vanish, no matter what social activists achieved. But he left the radio on anyhow, until he pulled into his driveway and slapped the on/off button to stop a noisy republican’s semi-incoherent rant. He’d arrived at his beige and green shuttered two-story house at three-zero-six Hollering Hill Road of Deal, Delaware.
According to the luminous dashboard clock that marked time five minutes slow it was four minutes after one. He’d always returned from star gazing by midnight. Not a light on in the house. Maggie had probably gone to sleep a long time ago, he told himself, and besides it was no big deal to return home a bit later than usual from stargazing. He shut off the ignition. Unsettling quiet surrounded him.
After sliding his telescope across the seat and slinging the carrying case straps onto his shoulder, he closed the driver side door, but too loudly. He worried about waking her because then he’d need to make explanations full of lies, and his lies never convinced anyone. He stepped on the cracked flagstones leading to his front door and told himself a lie: his fling with Dolores would actually help him workout the problems in his marriage and bring Maggie and him closer together because now that he’d gotten that pent up sexual energy out of his system, had satisfied his fantasies of experiencing sex with a vibrant woman, he could become more patient with Maggie, give her more time to bounce back to her old self.
Before he finished unlocking the door, he scolded himself for making himself worry unnecessarily. Why would Maggie develop suspicions? He’d never said or done anything that could’ve given her a clue about his previous flirtations and conversations with Dolores, had never mentioned the slightest thing about his new lover. He got home late; but so what? The wind had blown the cloud cover away, making such a clear night that he’d wanted to take advantage of it, he’d explain. But the inside of the house remained dark and quiet. No one stayed up, so he wouldn’t need to explain his lateness and she’d never know what time he came in if he walked up the stairs and slipped into bed without making noise.
He opened the closet door in the downstairs hallway and set his telescope inside it. He started to hang up his windbreaker.
Startled, he dropped the hanger and spun toward the living room. Caught — that’s all he could think at first. One realization led to another: now that they knew how late he’d stayed out, they’d see right through any lies; they’d sense his betrayal and underhandedness.
The boy emerged from the darkness. Frank couldn’t see the boy’s face clearly, but Ricky’s vigorous steps toward him conveyed his son’s alarm.
“Something’s wrong with Mom.”
Ricky hurried into the living room, and Frank followed him.
“Maggie,” Frank said. No response. To Ricky he said, “Why haven’t you turned on a light?”
“She yelled at me to turn it off.”
Frank snapped on the light next to the sofa. Maggie slouched so far down on the sofa that her head rested between the seat and back cushions. Her buttocks had slid almost to the sofa’s edge, and her legs dangled in a wide V. The pink bathrobe that she wore over her green pajamas reeked of alcohol, and damp spots dotted the middle of her pajama top.
“Maggie, wake up.” Frank gently shook her.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Ricky said. “And I went to the refrigerator. I, like, looked in here and heard her talking weird. I went to get you. Where’d you go?”
Frank took it as an accusation, not a question. He imagined that the boy knew about him having sex that night with Dolores, and shame gripped him. Frustration mounted because he couldn’t stop the flood of shame, even though, he told himself, he wasn’t to blame for the deprivation of his natural urges that’d led him to Dolores’s bed.
Frank pointed at Ricky. “Don’t blame me for this.”
Ricky retreated. His voice quivered: “I’m not.”
Frank’s shame intensified. He berated himself for shouting at Ricky, who hadn’t caused any trouble. But what right had Ricky to blame him for not preventing this scene with his mother from happening? And jeez — the kid probably even blamed him for the whole mess between Mom and Dad.
“She’s drunk. Passed out,” Frank said.
“But Mom doesn’t drink.”
“Maggie, you been drinking booze?”
“Where’d you go?” Ricky asked again.
“The hell away from here, goddamn it. That’s where the fuck I was.”
Tears sprung from Ricky’s eyes, and Frank’s shame grew for losing his temper. He couldn’t remember ever cursing at his son before; he’d always reprimanded Ricky with controlled words. The boy sprinted up the steps.
Ricky slammed his bedroom door shut. Maggie stirred.
“Hey,” she said. She scooted herself up.
“Zunk,” she said.
She rubbed streaks of mascara on her cheeks, and then grabbed his crotch. “Zunk azza zunk,” she said. She took her hand away before he could swat it.
“You scared Ricky. He didn’t know what was wrong.”
“Mommy’z zunk.” She giggled and burped. “There, now ‘e knowz whaz ‘ong.”
“What the hell’s gotten into you? You don’t drink, ever.”
She staggered past him. Since she’d never taken a single sip of alcohol in all the years that he’d known her, her staggering and slurred speech dumbfounded him. Her mottled face disgusted him. She rubbed her skinny behind shamelessly, and after colliding with the desk, a heap of papers fell. The fluttering papers triggered recollections of cold wind swirling through Dolores’s room, pressing his warm lips against hers, and sheet music scattering around their feet.
“Whazza hell’s gotten into you, Franky?”
Taunting him, was she? She staggered toward the kitchen, but he dashed toward her and blocked her path.
“What are you accusing me of?” He’d loaded his words with such vehemence that he drooled.
She jabbed his chest and burped.
He placed his hands on her shoulders, but removed them; he believed he might lose control of his temper and shake her.
“Don’t.” The voice came from the top of the steps.
The boy and the steps were out of his view, but he pictured Ricky sitting there, eyes whitened by the fear that his dad would hit his mother, even though he’d never hit her.
“Go to your room,” Frank said to Ricky.
Maggie staggered to the kitchen. Had Ricky also turned against him, he wondered, made him out to be a monster?
“Don’t, Mom,” Ricky said.
So, it occurred to Frank, Ricky’s plea wasn’t aimed at him — but at his mom. Hey, he thought, maybe the kid’s decided to take my side.
Frank heard the kitchen faucet’s trickling, a clock’s ticking on a countertop, and his wife’s gasps accompanying the shocks from the cold water that she splashed on her face.
He commanded Ricky again to return to his room, but not quite so forcefully now that the boy might become his ally.
“Accusing you of? Nothing,” she said in her slurred speech. “You’re perfect.”
“What do you mean?” But he understood the meaning of her sarcasm — that he’d become a lousy husband and she blamed him for her becoming a lousy wife.
He put his hands over his ears while she told him that she’d bought a bottle of booze two or three weeks ago.
“What’s the matter?” she said. “Don’t wanna hear any of this?”
“Shut up.” Her slurred speech disgusted and terrified him. She’d told him that she was an alcoholic as a teenager, had gone to AA for several years. But since she never mentioned any temptation to drink again or even talked about booze, he never imagined that she’d start drinking again. Would she stop? Could she control it? Was tonight an isolated incident, or would she keep getting drunk? Too many problems clobbered him already, for Christ’s sake. He didn’t need . . .
“Ricky, this is the last time I’m telling you. Go to . . .”
Ricky’s sobbing got too loud to ignore. Even Maggie heard him, Frank could tell. He pictured Ricky at the top of the steps, his hands tucked under his armpits, his arms squeezed tight against his ribs, rocking, tears spilling down his cheeks and throat.
“Both of you — stop.”
Maggie bumped his arm as she sprang toward the stairs, but she hurried back to him, put her face an inch from his and said, “See what you’ve done.”
The gall of the bitch. She spun and started to leave as quickly as her staggering legs could carry her from the room, but he reached out and grabbed her arm.
“What’d you say?” The malicious tone of his lowered voice held her with more force than his grip.
“Let go of me.”
He dug his nails into her pink bathrobe sleeve.
“Please,” Ricky said. His voice sounded as fearful as it would’ve if Frank held him, not her.
Maggie shrieked and slapped his arm.
The slap didn’t overpower his grip, but he let go. He wouldn’t hold onto her in any sense anymore — not as a lover, not as a spouse, not as a friend, or even as a combatant on whom he could unleash his anger. Not only did he want her to go, but he wanted to go too, go anywhere away from this nightmarish home. She staggered away.
Ricky stomped down the steps and crossed the living room, the palms of both hands pressed tight against his ears, snot running out his nose, his bare chest heaving, strands of his long hair falling into the blood on his cracked lips. He shook his head and kept repeating, “I can’t take it anymore.”
Maggie stumbled into the boy. Ricky’s hands remained over his ears, and his rant continued. He seemed unaware of the hand that Maggie placed on his arm to keep her balance.
“See how you’ve upset him?” she said.
In his mind Frank shouted back: Me? How I’ve upset him? But his need to comfort Ricky overrode his need to argue with Maggie. “Things’ll be different from now on.” He knew Ricky, with his ears covered, hadn’t heard him, so he approached him.
Ricky swatted his mother’s hand away. She staggered, lost her balance, and fell into a small table. A vase with artificial flowers spilled to the floor. Ricky uncovered his ears and faced his mother, but Frank turned his son toward him. He looked straight into Ricky’s eyes. “Everything is about to change for the better.”
“No, it’s not,” Ricky said. He dashed up the steps.
Maggie tried to push herself off the ground, lost her balance, and set the vase rolling across the beige carpet. Frank’s first impulse was to ignore her, let her lay there all night long in her drunken stupor, but he’d envisioned his future with such profound clarity that it displaced in time the harsh realities of that night; their argument seemed removed from the present, and the bitter feelings, the stings and anger that he’d felt in the heat of that argument tapered as they would’ve with the passage of time; it was as if he had the vantage point of months of separation from all that’d only moments ago transpired. He reached his hand out to her. Pathetic, that’s what she seemed to him; they’d become dismal partners in a marital tragedy. She ignored his extended hand, but he crouched behind her and lifted her.
“Where we going?” she said.
He kept hold of her and guided her up the steps. At the landing he let go. She swerved her way quickly toward Ricky’s bedroom door.
“Maggie, come to bed.”
She turned the doorknob and shoved the door.
She shouted –“Ricky” — and rattled the doorknob.
“Let him alone.”
She pounded on the door. “Ricky.” No answer and she pounded louder.
Frank put his hands over his ears, and before he realized that he was acting like his son, he even said, “I can’t take it anymore,” with as much anguish as Ricky had expressed, only without the hysterics and tears, but making-up for that with the rumbling force of his deep bass that rocked the hallway and snagged Maggie’s attention like a transformer on the telephone pole next to their home would’ve if it’d exploded during an electrical storm. But she only watched him for two seconds before she pounded on the door again.
“Ricky.” Then, to Frank she said, “I can’t take it anymore either.”
“Go away,” Ricky shouted behind the closed door.
Maggie said to Frank, “Tell him to open up.”
He studied her. “What the hell’s gotten into you?”
“If you hadn’t been in such a hurry to leave the house as soon as you got the dinner I cooked for you, maybe you’d know.”
“I asked if you wanted to see a movie. But like every other time I’ve tried to snap you out of it, you felt too damn tired to go.”
She hurried into their bedroom. He followed her. The only light came from the crescent of the moon that’d accompanied him on his walk along the shore, then into the bedroom of his illicit lover, and now into his home, and though it’d been spectacular glittering on the ocean waves and on the music stand in Dolores’s room, highlighting the milky skin of his lover, he couldn’t bear its intrusion into the room at the moment; he felt as if someone was spying on him and the moon seemed to almost possess a consciousness that he could read the thoughts of; it criticized him for his unfaithfulness, for his grandiose plans for Ricky, Dolores, and him to share a harmonious future, so he drew the ends of the drapes toward each other. He didn’t need light to see the bleakness of his circumstances.
“I’m no good to you.” Maggie’s words came from the bed, muffled by the pillow that she pressed her face into as she cried.
Out of habit of trying to comfort her during her sad escapades, though he’d been through too many of them too frequently in recent weeks to feel sincere in his efforts to console her, he placed his hand on the small of her back and gently massaged her. She continued to cry, apparently oblivious to his touch.
“You told me, a long time ago, you’d never drink booze. You said you couldn’t because you were a teenage alcoholic.”
“You hate me for doing it, don’t you?”
He kissed her head, disliking himself for continuing to play the role of a consoling husband, a role that he vowed he was playing for the last time, but perhaps since it was for the last time, he felt determined to play it if not sincerely, then at least correctly. He wouldn’t give her justifiable grounds to claim that he never showed concern for her.
“I don’t hate you.”
“Only because you don’t care at all about me. You hardly think about me.”
His fingers stiffened. He stopped rubbing her back and scratched his face with both hands.
“Where’d you get it?”
“Two weeks ago. I already told you that. But you never listen.”
“I asked where.”
She said nothing and began to snore loudly. The wind swooshing the tops of the oak trees at the side and back of the house settled him. Glad that the nightmarish episode was over, he could dream about Dolores. He started to relive their night in his mind as he stripped and eased himself into bed beside his wife, but instead of closing his eyes and letting such pleasant dreams take hold of him, he nudged his wife. “Can you stop drinking the booze?”
No response except a loud snore.
“Alcoholics, they can’t stop, can they? Not without help, rehab, and AA, stuff like that?”
She stayed asleep.
“It’s really over between us, isn’t it? We’re going to divorce. How’d this happen? Whatever happened to you? I tried. And I did listen. No matter how much I try to show I care, you say I don’t. Know how that makes me feel? Like what’s the use?”
A plane flew overhead. He imagined all the passengers onboard, people of different races and ages, from varied walks of life, but they all felt lonely and disappointed with their lives, and wherever the plane would land, no matter how much they expected changes for the better, they’d eventually become as frustrated with themselves and with others after they’d reached their destinations as before their departure. And though he didn’t want to think anymore about the plane, long after it’d faded away, he imagined people on board it, himself a passenger. He kept gazing out the plane, down at the earth, toward a two-story home on Hollering Hill Road with a man inside: his second self. The Frank Dare below was just like everyone else seated up and down the aisles, people stuck in their personal dramas and who kept exchanging one set of troublesome circumstances for another set of troublesome circumstances, with only momentary reprieves built on false hopes and misconceptions of what other people and places were really like. But the Frank Dare above the world knew better, had solutions to his troubles; he wasn’t headed toward disillusion like that Frank Dare. Frank, in his dreams, flew into his wonderful life ahead with Dolores Farewald.