Fiction - Spring 2013


By Dennis McFarland | March 1, 2013


In Central Square, Merrifield was nearly taken out by a bus as he crossed Mass Ave in front of Town Hall. He’d paused in the crosswalk to look toward Boston, and for some reason he recalled the story of Increase Mather, who had reluctantly accepted a brief appointment as president of Harvard College back in 1685; Mather hadn’t relished a daily exile from the city to the crude farming village across the river (as Cambridge was then), or the long commute by horse and ferry it required. Merrifield—in the instant before the bus driver’s startling horn blast—had conjured up a clear vision, just across the avenue, of a grassy field and grazing sheep where the post office building now stood.

On River Street, the scene at the funeral home resembled at first glance a cocktail party. Libby & Hogan’s was a 19th-century mansion, and visitors had spilled out its front doors into a small courtyard. Beneath a silverbell tree, the mayor, an African-American woman, very smartly dressed in a navy blue suit, stood chatting with two uniformed policemen. As Merrifield approached, he felt a rush of dizziness and a sense of foreboding—which he thought strange, for the worst thing had already happened. The boy, after all, was dead.

He began to look for Mary Gamble, with whom he’d arranged to have dinner afterward, his first real date in more years than he cared to recall. They’d been good friends for a decade, and each had been single for half that long. Until recently, they had taught at the same high school—he American history, she poetry—and though she’d dodged all his prior romantic advances, claiming she wasn’t “ready,” somehow the occasion of his retirement, paired with the present tragedy, had brought her around. When he suggested dinner after the funeral home, she’d touched his new goatee (which had come in all white), smiled, nodded thoughtfully, and said yes. Now she felt to him much more than a bright light in an otherwise grim evening—he needed someone to talk to. His sense of foreboding seemed partner to a feeling of defeat that had been brewing all week long. Since the end-of-the-year assembly at the school and the news about the boy’s suicide, Merrifield had been sidestepping an ugly idea that his own life had been a waste, that he’d dutifully put one foot in front of the other with the hope that a fateful knock would sound unbidden at his door. But no knock had ever come, and the years had turned into more of the same and more of the same. He told himself that probably everybody of a certain age and facing a certain turn in the road felt this way. In vain, he continued to search for Mary Gamble among the visitors gathered outdoors. The sky had changed to a pale rose, the air now pleasantly cool, though he still felt clammy from walking across town in a suit and tie. He began to make his way through the throng and soon heard someone call his name.

Victor Oakar, the young Arab-American principal at the high school, moved alongside him and took his arm. “I’ve been waiting for someone to go inside with,” he said. “How are you, Gus? I understand you were close to Gabe Decato.”

“I wouldn’t have expected to see you here,” said Merrifield. “Gabe graduated a year before you arrived. You didn’t know him, did you?”

They stopped a few feet from the front stoop and the tall, black-painted double doors. Victor Oakar released Merrifield’s arm. “Well, no,” he said, “but of course I knew of him. I’m not here for kicks, Gus, believe me. The boy was one of the school’s most illustrious graduates. I’m here to pay my respects. I’m going to be late for an important family event, and my wife is furious with me. I thought it might make some small difference to the boy’s parents if they saw me here. Tell me if I’m wrong, and I’ll leave.”

“No,” said Merrifield, “that makes perfect sense, I suppose.”

Merrifield imagined that for Tony and Lisa Decato, the night would remain, at best, a blurry dream. But he thought it would be rude to say as much to Victor—the man was making an honest effort. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get this over with.”

Inside, it was a crush, airless, scented with perfume. Lots of dark woodwork and wainscoting, thick Persian carpets, muted floral wallpaper, and ornate sconces on the walls, dangerously positioned at eye level. Above all, the place was hot. The air conditioning was either on the fritz or simply inadequate. A crystal chandelier presided over a wide central hall, and the barely subdued noise of the crowd seemed on the brink of erupting into a roar. A barrier of heavy burgundy drapes ran along one side of the hall, opposite the spacious room where the Decato family was greeting visitors.

Merrifield and Victor Oakar made their way down the line of aunts and uncles and grandparents before coming to Tony Decato, who stood next to his brother, Scott, a big red-faced man whom Merrifield knew only by reputation as the family miscreant, in and out of AA, in and out of jail for drunk-and-disorderly. Scott was visibly relieved when Merrifield introduced Victor Oakar as the new principal at the high school—the suspicious Arab in their midst was not, after all, a terrorist. Victor shook both men’s hands, offered his condolences, then faded quickly into the crowd.

Tony pulled Merrifield into an embrace—he smelled of aftershave and whiskey. He was tall, handsome, and wealthy, a fish exporter, a fastidious man, and though even now he appeared composed, a narrow frieze of sweat around the top of his shirt collar seemed to betray him, heartbreakingly, Merrifield thought. “Gus,” was all Tony said at first, and then he added, “I hope you understand about the funeral, Gus. We decided to go private, immediate family only. Otherwise, it could turn into a circus.”

“Of course,” Merrifield said. “That’s absolutely the right thing.”

Tony turned to his brother and said, “Scott, would you take Gus back to where Lisa is. She’d want to see him.” In a lowered voice, he said to Merrifield, “Lisa’s not doing too well.”

“What about you, Tony?” asked Merrifield.

Tony embraced him again, digging his fingers into Merrifield’s back. “I’m going out of my mind,” he said into his ear. “But I can’t go out of my mind, can I? Somebody has to not go out of their mind, don’t they.”

Merrifield felt Scott tugging on his arm, but as he started to turn, Tony grabbed his other arm and drew him back again. “Gus,” he whispered, “see if you can find Tim Mullahone. He’s here somewhere, and I don’t think he looks okay. I’m worried about him. Reach out to him, will you?”

Merrifield nodded, and then he followed Scott into the hall. He noticed that the man’s dark pinstriped suit was too tight, and he imagined it was borrowed. A few feet down the hallway, Scott turned and put his arm around Merrifield’s shoulders. Softly, he said, “I’m afraid Lisa’s not exactly fit for public consumption. If you happen to run into her fucking psychopharmacologist, lemme know. I’ve got a couple of things I’d like to say to him.”

They passed a smaller parlor where the casket, festooned with sprays and wreaths, rested on a waist-high bier. To Merrifield’s shock and horror, the head-end of the casket stood open, lined with white padded satin. Merrifield scanned the small group of people inside for Mary Gamble, but she was not among them.

At last they reached a closed door near the end of the hall, opposite what looked to Merrifield like a darkened kitchen. Scott put his hand on the doorknob but paused. “Get this,” he said. “If he’d done it while he was deployed—if he’d shot himself on Afghan soil—his name would’ve been put on a war memorial. But because he did it stateside, his name won’t be included.”

“That doesn’t seem right,” said Merrifield.

Scott shrugged and said, “Them’s the rules.” He opened the door and ushered Merrifield into a small sitting room with a single window, two upholstered armchairs with a table in between, and a Chinese lamp with a black paper shade. Lisa Decato sat in one of the chairs, looking stunned. Another woman, who turned out to be Scott’s wife, Renee, sat in the other chair, looking frightened and lost. Without even introducing her to Merrifield, Scott dispatched his wife to the reception room.

“Gus, dear … Gus,” Lisa cried and began to stand, but thought the better of it and lowered herself back into the chair. Merrifield bent down and hugged her, awkwardly. Scott tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Stay with her till I get back, okay?”

Merrifield nodded, but Scott leaned closer and repeated into his ear, “Don’t leave her until I’m back.” He moved out of the room and closed the door.

The chair on the other side of the table seemed far away, so Merrifield found an ottoman against the wall and slid it close to Lisa’s chair. He sat so that their knees almost touched. The lamplight fell across her lap but left her face in shadow. She wore a black dress with a high neck and no jewelry—not even any rings on her fingers—and black heels. A black patent leather purse rested at her feet. In her early 40s, she was a great beauty, exquisitely groomed, the kind of woman who always seemed to have just emerged from an expensive spa. Her very dark hair was combed behind her ears, exposing her clear face and high forehead; she wore little makeup, and her truly astonishing dark brown eyes were so dilated they appeared fully black. She shook her head, smiled at Merrifield, and then frowned. She seemed not to be in control of the movements of her face. She reached for a plastic bottle of water on the lamp table, studiously uncapped it, took a sip, then returned the cap to the bottle and the bottle to the table with exaggerated care. When Merrifield held her hand, her grip was passive, lifeless.

“Gus,” she said, shaking her head again, “I’m so tired. So very very tired. My mother’s here somewhere, but she hasn’t been any help. She doesn’t seem to have the answer to anything I ask her. And she keeps eluding me. I don’t know why she bothered to come at all. She won’t even look me in the eye.”

She shook her head again—it seemed to Merrifield a kind of tic she’d developed. “I don’t know,” she said and sighed. “Everybody keeps telling me to rest … Lisa darling, you better rest … But the more I rest the more tired I get. I feel like everybody wishes I would just disappear, and the funny thing is … I kind of feel like I am disappearing.”

Merrifield could think of nothing to say except that he was sorry, so sorry.

“Oh, I know, Gus,” said Lisa. “Everybody’s sorry, but there’ve been so many people to deal with … Army people and policemen and medical people and funeral people and … it just feels like too much, and everything’s happening so fast.” Now she withdrew her hand and gripped the arms of the chair. “I wish I could make everything slow down. Do you think I’m disappearing, Gus?”

“No, Lisa, I don’t think you’re disappearing.”

“You see, I’m the only one … Well, everybody mostly saw the jock, you know … tough guy, All-Star, all that. Do you know he would never even watch a sad movie? Hated movies where anybody died, and do you know why? Because they made him cry. He absolutely dreaded crying. Why is that, Gus? Why do we teach our little boys to be ashamed of crying? Christ, I don’t even know what I’m saying. Most of the time I don’t even know … Oh, I know—about heroes and all that …”

“Lisa, if there’s anything I can do—”

“But there’s not,” she said, genuinely surprised, quickly shaking her head. “There’s nothing anybody can do. I wonder where they’ve put my purse.”

“It’s just here,” he said, and reached down for it and gave it to her.

“Oh, thank you,” she said. “Very much.”

She rooted around in the bag until she found what she wanted—a folded piece of tattered notebook paper. “There was this poem he wrote,” she said. “When he was … I don’t know … you know, a kid, and … Gus, dear, do you want to hear it?”

She passed him the piece of paper and said, “You follow along and see if I make a mistake. Because, you know …” She clasped her hands in her lap, squeezed her eyes shut, and said, “Well, I know it by heart.”

Merrifield unfolded the paper, which contained eight lines in blue ink, printed in the backward-slanting hand of a lefty but otherwise meticulous.

When I’m a man,” she began, and then recited the rest slowly, pausing frequently to swallow and catch her breath:

I hope to go
To faraway lands that I don’t know
Meet different kinds of people there
See how they live and love and share
The stories from our early days
About the strange and sleepy ways
We already knew each other in a dream
And how peculiar that did seem.

When she was done, she smiled again, then stared blankly at the wall behind Merrifield, who was not only speechless but physically weakened, trembling as he folded the paper back into its original rectangle. In the silence of the room he heard a white hum, like that of a small machine, and in it he seemed to apprehend a harsh lament concerning his own dereliction: Don’t be foolish, he’d said, you’re not the sort of boy who makes a good soldier—but wasn’t that precisely the kind of remark that would make a young man all the more determined? And surely he could have done more than make jokes—when the boy had asked Merrifield why he’d not served in Vietnam, he’d wisecracked about having “pre-traumatic stress syndrome” and said he was allergic to bullets.

Now he started to pass the poem back to Lisa, but she said she wanted him to have it. “No, Lisa,” he said, “I couldn’t possibly. Tomorrow you’re going to want it, and you won’t remember what’s become of it.”

“He would want you to have something,” she said.

“I can’t,” said Merrifield.

Keep it,” she said furiously.

“Well,” he said softly, slipping it inside his shirt pocket, “I guess I’ll just borrow it for a while.”

“He was so happy to be home,” she said after a moment. “Overjoyed to see Tony and me … But when he saw the girls … the twins … I don’t know … a kind of darkness came over him. I could tell he was having some kind of trouble being around the girls, and I tried … I tried to talk to him about it, but he just burst into tears … clammed up … said he didn’t want to be interrogated.” She pressed the balls of her hands into her eyes and whispered, “So I let it drop.”

She fell forward and grabbed him by the lapels, and this was the scene Scott Decato walked in on, Lisa tugging at Merrifield’s jacket and repeating, I just let it drop, I just let it drop …

Scott took charge, more gently and sympathetically than Merrifield would have predicted, lifted Lisa into his arms, calling her sweetheart, and said he was going to have Renee drive her home now, there was no point in her staying in this gloomy place—and asked Merrifield with a nod and a whisper to please get the door.

Merrifield held it open as they passed through, and Lisa said, her head lolling back against Scott’s shoulder, “Could you please find my daddy? I need to tell him something. It’s important.”

In the hall stood Mary Gamble, who turned, saw Merrifield, and came forward, looking distressed. He no longer felt, as he used to, that she put herself together beautifully just to torment him, but she did appear to have put herself together more beautifully than ever tonight. Apart from the perfect dress, he couldn’t have said what exactly she’d done—had she colored her hair? Did she often wear it pulled up off her neck like this? She said nothing but took his arm, leaned against him, and together they watched Scott escort Lisa Decato away, toward the front rooms, parting and hushing the crowd as they went. Merrifield could hear Scott crooning, “We’re gonna find him, sweetheart … We’re gonna find him right now.”

After a moment, Mary nodded toward the small parlor where the casket rested and said to Merrifield, “You didn’t go in there, did you?”

“God, no,” answered Merrifield. “Did you?”

She shook her head and said, “Why don’t we get you out of here?”

“There’s still something I have to do,” said Merrifield. “If you don’t mind waiting a little longer.”

He found him, in his dress blues, sitting on a stoop outside a set of French doors on the side of the house. He was alone, smoking a cigarette. The first line Merrifield thought to say was, “You know, those things will kill you,” but in the circumstances, it seemed like gallows humor, so he simply sat next to him and said, “Tim Mullahone.”

“Mr. Merrifield,” said the boy, smiling.

Merrifield remembered him less well than he did Gabe, but knew him to be Gabe’s best friend. Merrifield thought also that he’d undergone a change: he’d filled out, more man now than boy. He’d hooked his hat over one knee. The skin on his face, marked by several purplish bumps, had an oily sheen. Beads of sweat dotted his brow, his bare head softened and muted by pale blond stubble. Nicotine stains yellowed his fingers, and his nails had been so thoroughly chewed, a couple of them were bloody. He smoked with fervor and between drags pressed his lips together, draining them of color.

“You’re still on leave,” said Merrifield.

“One more day,” he answered. “I’ve got to report bright and early Monday morning.”

Merrifield, thinking a cut to the chase the best approach, said, “Tell me, Tim, how are you handling all this?”

Tim pulled another cigarette from his jacket pocket and lit it off the end of the one he already had, then stubbed the butt out on the concrete at his feet. He stared straight ahead for a moment and leaned forward, rested his forearms on his thighs, and lowered his head. Softly, without any emotion, he said, “He was a coward.”

“He wasn’t in his right mind, Tim,” said Merrifield.

Not lifting his head, the boy nodded, more in resignation than agreement; it was the sort of thing he’d already heard, a lame excuse. “How’s things at the school?” he said at last.

“Better than ever,” said Merrifield. “We have a new principal who’s doing a great job. And I’ve retired, you know.”

“No way,” he said, looking up. “Since when?”

“Since a few days ago. Taught my last class. There was an assembly in my honor.”

“Wow. Who’ll they ever get to take your place?”

“Not my problem,” said Merrifield.

Tim laughed and lowered his head again, staring down between his knees.

“Tim,” Merrifield said, “you know he really was out of his mind.”

“Yeah, whatever,” he said. “You want me to tell you the truth?”

He looked Merrifield in the eye for the first time. He said, “Everybody’s out of their mind. It comes with the territory. That’s the whole deal. Temporary insanity’s part of the job description, if you know what I mean.”

Now he stood up, startlingly tall, put on his hat, and tugged down the hem of his jacket.

“I guess those are some shiny shoes,” said Merrifield.

He laughed again and said, “Regulation.”

“You’re going?”

He sighed deeply and stared out at the street, knitting his brow, as if to say, Yes, going, but destination unknown. After a moment he gazed down at Merrifield. “I think I’ll take a walk,” he said. He dropped the cigarette, not even half-smoked, to the concrete and stepped on it, looking suddenly vulnerable. “You feel like a walk, Mr. Merrifield?”

“I’d like to, Tim,” said Merrifield, standing, “but I’m with somebody and we’ve got plans. I’m sorry.”

“No problem,” he said, and laughed. “I’ll probably just walk around a little bit and then … I’ve got, you know, plans later too.”

Merrifield wanted to say, Don’t go, but he couldn’t think what would follow from that. So he said, “What are you doing tomorrow?”

The boy shrugged his shoulders.

“Why don’t you give me a call?” said Merrifield. “I’m in the book.”

Tim Mullahone said, Sure, okay, and shook Merrifield’s hand, and Merrifield watched as he moved away toward the street. He was knock-kneed, a flaw that seemed to render him tragically assailable. He paused at the courtyard gate to light a cigarette. The streetlamps had just come on and changed to pinkish gold the cloud of smoke above him. Again Merrifield felt an impulse to call the boy back, but he only watched as Tim stepped onto the sidewalk and looked one way and the other, then set off in the direction of the river.

He suggested they pick up some takeout and walk back to his place. Apparently she’d anticipated a walk, for she’d brought along a pair of sandals in her bag and outside, on the sidewalk, she swapped these for the heels she’d worn inside the funeral home. She braced herself with one hand on his forearm, and as she bent forward, he could see, below the V in the back of her simple brown dress, the lacy trim of a black bra.

On the way to his building, they stopped at a Mexican restaurant near Inman Square, where she took care of the ordering and he paid. Once they were upstairs in his apartment, he removed his jacket and loosened his tie. They drank lemonade, Merrifield spiking his with beer. She’d visited his loft apartment once before, a school potluck, and now she admired, again, the wide-plank floors, the exposed brick, the large Mason Diggs painting of the blue bowl. They sat side by side on stools at the breakfast bar in the kitchen, and ate fresh tortillas and guacamole, along with a terrina de cangrejo and a wonderful pollo Yucateco.

“I had an email from him little more than a week ago,” Merrifield said. “He promised to drop by for a visit in the next few days.”

She placed her hand at the center of his back, between his shoulder blades. She was being kind, and he wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about her sympathy. He said, “Told me his dad was working on Sox tickets for the three of us.”

Removing her hand from his back, she left the stool and went to the open window near his desk. She put her head out the window, and after two or three gulps of air, she turned to face him, leaning against the sill; she found a manila folder on his desktop and began to fan herself with it.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“It’s nothing,” she said, waving her free hand dismissively. “Hot flashes … They come pretty regularly these days.”

“You should take hops for that,” he said.

“Actually, I find chaste tree works better for me.”

She returned to the counter now, and he noticed for the first time that her toenails, inside the honey-colored sandals, were painted bright pink. She took her seat and said, “Well, Gus, I think it’s good you’re not alone. I don’t think you should be alone.”

“What … you mean to say that after all these years … you’ve finally come to that conclusion?”

“I meant tonight,” she said.

“I know what you meant,” he said.

“I had him one term,” she said. “In my seminar. He wrote like an angel.”

“Yes, well, that may come in handy for him now.”

Soon they moved to the sofa, where she removed her sandals, drew her legs up onto the cushions, and talked for a while about her dead husband, plainly evading the more repellent details of his long illness, and also about her grown daughter, who’d married a Hawaiian banker and lived in Honolulu, halfway around the world. She tried to draw Merrifield out on the subject of his crazy deceased wife and why they’d never had any children, but recalling that he and Mary Gamble had grazed this topic on previous occasions that hadn’t led to sex, he demurred. After a brief silence, she looked at him, smiled, and said she had to be at St. Peter’s at 11 o’clock tomorrow morning.

“Okay,” he said, not sure if she meant she intended to stay the night or that she wanted to make an early night of it.

“You’ll need to drop me at my place by 10, so I’ll have time to change,” she said, clearing up the ambiguity.

“Okay,” he said again, and excused himself to visit the bathroom. As he passed through the bedroom, he was glad he’d thought to change the sheets. He removed his tie now and put on his slippers. He recalled having read somewhere in a magazine that menopausal women were advised, above all, to “stay sexy,” and he imagined she would be lovely and appreciative in bed. In the back of his mind there was a small niggling guilt that he was cashing in on Gabe Decato’s suicide, but he pushed it aside and went into the bathroom, where he opened the medicine chest, found the bottle of Levitra, and shook a tab into the palm of his hand.

Back on the sofa, he told her about his encounter with Gabe Decato’s drugged and distraught mother, stopping short of mentioning the boy’s poem, for he wanted to cry when he recalled it. Besides, she was welling up with tears. He asked her if she’d taught a kid named Tim Mullahone, a boy in Gabe’s class.

“I don’t remember anyone by that name,” she said.

“That’s who I needed to see before we left the funeral home.”

He told her about Tim Mullahone’s chain-smoking and his bloody fingernails and his calling his best and closest friend a coward.

“It was good of you to do it,” she said, reaching for his hand. “I’m sure it can’t have been easy.”

Merrifield felt the niggling guilt again and pulled his hand away, but not so quickly that it would seem a rejection. He offered her tea and brewed for her a relaxing concoction of his own devising, with stevia leaves and extracts from the roots of kava, sarsaparilla, and ginger.

Close to midnight they moved to the bedroom and made love, in the dark, and given the long drought, it was over for him too fast. He atoned with his hands—who knew she would get so delightfully loud?—kissed her afterward on the mouth (an intimate amen), and waited for her to fall asleep beside him. He wished he could switch on the TV to see how the Sox did that night—which he would have done if he’d been alone.

When at last Merrifield fell asleep, he dreamed he was in the school cafeteria with Victor Oakar; the two of them were cleaning up the mess left by the recent assembly commemorating Merrifield’s retirement. A storm raged outside the cafeteria’s tall black windows, and a branch of catalpa blossoms, strangely erotic, repeatedly brushed against one of the panes, smearing dots of rain in horizontal lines; it pressed against the pane harder and harder until at last it broke through. Victor Oakar, Johnny-on-the-spot with a broom and a dustpan, cried, “My God, Gus, would you look at all these shards!” and then, far in the back of the room, somebody was banging on a door, an insistent and frightening rapping. He knew he should answer it—after all, it was for him—but he felt afraid and tried to will himself awake. Failing at this, he became determined not to be a wimp. He knew who was behind the door and now went straight for it, crunching glass beneath his shoes. But when he opened it, he found not beautiful Gabe Decato, but pockmarked PFC Tim Mullahone. Dressed in the pale greens and tans of the ACU camouflage and a matching patrol cap cocked to one side, the boy held an M9 pistol, gleaming black in his right hand. When he lifted it and pointed the barrel at Merrifield’s third eye, Merrifield startled awake.

He must have cried out, for in the next moment naked Mary Gamble was laying her hand on his chest. “My God, Gus,” she said, “your heart is pounding.”

“I should’ve told him not to go. I wish I’d told him not to go.”

“Oh, Gus,” Mary said softly, moving her hand in a little circle over his heart. “You did tell him … You did tell him not to go.”

Merrifield removed her hand, less gently than he should have. “You don’t understand,” he said, throwing back the covers and sitting up on the edge of the mattress. “I’m sorry, but … Christ, what time is it, anyway?”

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