Fiction - Summer 2018

We Can’t Make You Whole Again

By Stephen Goodwin | June 4, 2018
Photo illustration by David Herbick; iStock
Photo illustration by David Herbick; iStock

Dougie Curtis did not want to sell Plum Point. The property on the Rhode Island coast—two acres on a promontory, a rickety yellow house with black shutters, ghostly pilings that showed where a dock had once reached out into the sound—had been in the family for decades. He hadn’t been aware it was for sale until his oldest brother, George, called him to say that he’d received an offer of $2.8 million. A particular kind of solemnity entered his deep voice whenever he spoke about money, as if others could not be trusted to grasp its significance. The yellow house had been built during the Great Depression by their grandfather and left to his two daughters, and as the family scattered and branched out, the ownership had been divided and subdivided into ever-thinner slices. Despite his many fuckups, Dougie still owned a piece of it, two and a half percent. Dougie’s share would amount to $70,000. A very tidy little windfall, George said. The forced laugh sounded like it had issued from a dungeon: heh heh heh. “You could get yourself a spiffy new van,” George said, and chortled again. The man was 70-plus years old and still failed to grasp the difference between teasing and insult.

Dougie said he’d sleep on it. To sell Plum Point was inconceivable, though he could certainly use the money. He was the baby of the family, the darling, the one with the golden voice and quick wit, and he’d turned out to be the failure—he was a painter. Not an artist, a painting contractor. He wore white bib overalls as a sort of hair shirt, or a badge of reverse snobbery, or both. He drove a white, unwashed Econoline van with ladders racked on the roof and duct tape holding the vinyl seats together. On his rare social visits to his brother’s house—they’d grown up in Washington and still lived there—George had asked him to park in the driveway behind the house, not on the street in his posh neighborhood.

George, the family plodder, had prospered as a lawyer. For many years he’d been the head of the family association that managed Plum Point, handling the financial and legal matters, the repairs, the maintenance, the annual assessments, the vacation assignments. When his children were growing up, he made sure that they had the place during the prime of the summer season. Now that he was semi-retired, George and his wife had become world travelers, and they’d bought a place in South Carolina on a golf course that, he couldn’t help reminding you, was ranked No. 17 in the world. The other two siblings—a brother in California, a sister in Chicago—no longer had much attachment to Plum Point. Both of them, and George, too, had cast their lot with the families of their spouses.

Dougie was the only one who’d never had a family of his own. Married once, no children, three women who had really mattered. Now 62, he lived quietly and mostly soberly with Mary Mac in the small, shabby house he’d bought with the inheritance from his mother (quite a bit less than he’d expected). They’d met at an AA meeting—reconnected, rather, since she’d long ago been a roadie and remembered Dougie as a hometown star during the 1970s, a fixture at the Georgetown clubs in Washington, the white guy with soulful eyes, a crooked nose, a smoky, sexy voice, and the balls to sing anything. He’d cover songs by Dylan, McCartney, Van Morrison, James Taylor, anybody. A few times, when he’d had enough cocaine to feel immortal, he’d strutted around like Freddie Mercury, and he did so many Otis Redding songs that one of his girlfriends had started calling him Otis, a nickname that followed him for years. Dougie’s voice had plenty of emotion, and he managed to project both danger and vulnerability. He fronted his own band, Last Call, and did everything the record scouts advised him to do: wrote a couple of his own songs, recorded two singles, jerked people around to try to get a certain sound from the band, went on the road to open for big names in big arenas. He knocked on the golden doors, and they never swung open. The verdict on Dougie Curtis was that he was a terrific cover artist who hadn’t figured out his own sound.

It took him 15 years to admit to himself that he wasn’t going to make it. In rehab and AA, there were plenty of others whose stories and dreams weren’t much different from his own, a bunch of old rockers who’d been part of the Georgetown club scene before the waterfront got gentrified and M Street turned into a high-end shopping experience. Dougie and his buddies felt that they’d come along at a time when most popular music was still actually music, not techno-junk, and they liked to get together now and then to jam and bullshit about the old days, the girls and the dealers and the various bastards, the scouts and club owners and booking agents who screwed them over. They went to AA meetings together. They helped each other out when they could. Several were in the building trades—that’s how Dougie got started as a painter. They played poker and sometimes, to humor Dougie, they played long, raucous trivia games. He was the kind of Jeopardy! fan who shouts out the answers and makes scornful remarks about the contestants on TV. He was an avid reader of magazines and had strong opinions about TV drama. On a few occasions, Last Call—what was left of the original group, plus a few replacements—rehearsed and played for a big 50th or 60th birthday party or the wedding of someone they knew, or the wedding of someone’s kid. They were hanging on, barely, as a nostalgia band.

The crown of Dougie’s year came in October when a bunch of them drove up to Rhode Island for a weekend at Plum Point. He was the host, planner, and social director of the trip—a buddy trip, though women sometimes came along. They feasted on lobsters at the big round table in the yellow house, a table that had been there since the place was built. They chartered a boat to fish for blues and stripers, and Dougie tried to get everyone to take a swim in the ocean every afternoon, a cleansing ritual his mother had always insisted upon. Out past the breakers, facing the horizon as he watched the wave sets build, Dougie said what his mother always said when she led him out there, “What the hell, let’s swim all the way to Portugal.” He loved swimming in the Atlantic, and even at his age, his pals had to admit, he was a champion body surfer. He hadn’t lost his gift for catching a wave. That was bliss, that moment when he felt himself lifted up by the salt sea, weightless in the water, before being fired toward the shore, king of the mighty ocean!

How could he sell the place?

George kept pressing him. When Dougie didn’t take his calls, George started sending texts marked urgent. Dougie thought about showing them to Mary Mac, but their schedules were out of sync. By the time he got home from his painting job, she was out at an AA meeting. She’d been going to meetings for years, and her dedication to the 12-step program could feel like a reproach. Dougie had cycled in and out of AA, lasting long enough once to get his two-year medallion. Lately his attendance had fallen off. AA made him feel sorry for himself, he told Mary Mac, and he couldn’t take the holier-than-thou attitude of some of the lifers. He didn’t see why he had to deny himself a glass of wine now and then.

Mary Mac didn’t argue with him. Anyone could see at a glance that she was kind. She had a warm, open smile that seemed to come from deep down. Yet she wasn’t exactly cheery—there was a seriousness in her manner, a composure that seemed hard-won. At meetings, Dougie noticed how many people seemed to direct their stories toward her, as if she was the one whose help and approval they sought. She spoke infrequently, in a quiet voice that made people sit still and pay attention. He began to think of her as an Earth Mother type, sympathetic and strong and protective. Not his type, really. But he soon realized that part of what kept him going to the meetings was the hope of seeing her. In the old days, she had a mane of tobacco-brown hair down to her ass, and she still wore it long, in a loose bun, and it was now an even darker brown, a color from a bottle, a color that the paint manufacturers would have called mocha brown, or java brown, or dark mahogany. She’d all but given up makeup. The hair was her one vanity, and during meetings she kept fussing with it, pinning it up, patting it, collecting loose strands in her fingertips, unpinning the bun, reshaping it, pinning it up again.

As her story came out, he learned that she’d never had children, that her drug of choice had always been alcohol. At one point, she was drinking six bottles of wine a day and weighed 175 lbs. Everyone laughed when she said she’d lost more weight than Oprah and still couldn’t get on the damn show. She’d been married once, to a wonderful man, a mechanic who had recently died. He’d had early onset Alzheimer’s, and his care and treatment had sucked up everything—house, nest egg, IRA—and left her more than $100,000 in debt. She’d been working as a waitress at a vegetarian restaurant, Food for Thought, and one night she mentioned that she was trying to find a new apartment.

Dougie offered to take her in. By this time they’d had coffee together a few times, and he had an empty bedroom. His buddies gave him rafts of shit when they heard about the arrangement and made mock bets about how long it would remain Platonic. At first, it did feel a little strange, living with a woman as a roommate, but Mary Mac made it easy. She was gone a lot, at work or at the library, learning about bankruptcy law—it took her two years to get the court to declare her legally bankrupt and forgive her debts.

Inevitably, she and Dougie became lovers, a pair of old sexual adventurers who laughed about needing blue pills and plenty of lube. There was new life in the dingy little house that he kept saying he’d paint but never did. Inside, Mary Mac kept it cleaner and tidier than it had ever been, and Dougie ate better, too. Mary Mac bought the groceries and cooked the meals. He paid the mortgage and all the utilities. Sometimes they went out for dinner at a restaurant where Dougie knew the chef. Mary Mac had a degree in music and got him so interested in jazz piano that he started trying to learn it, noodling away many a night on the upright in the so-called living room—it was really a music room. Miraculously, after years of sending out résumés, Mary Mac got two jobs at once, one as director of the music program for grades K-4 at a private school and a summer job running a kids’ arts program at a city park.

Still, in Dougie’s mind they were not a couple, not exactly. They continued to sleep in separate bedrooms—they were just used to it. He worried that Mary Mac was too dependent on him. She was a believer in speaking her emotions, and told him every day how grateful she was that they’d found each other. Their refrigerator was covered with magnets printed with uplifting quotations. At the conclusion of their phone conversations, she always said, Love you, and he felt obliged to answer with the same words, but he had to squeeze them out. They managed their money separately. Even if they hadn’t made a shambles of their lives, they were at an age when some things simply remained private. Both of them had pasts.


It was July, and Dougie was painting the interior of a trophy house for one of his most loyal clients, Shelley. He had kept himself up-to-date with the ever more elaborate techniques that rich people wanted, and much of his business came from a core of clients who called on him whenever they moved or redecorated. Small world—many of them he’d known since his childhood or his club days. They were nearly all women, of course. Once upon a time, he’d flirted with them—a few, like Shelley, he’d had affairs with—and now he bickered with them about colors and glazes and textures and finishes. Shelley wanted the walls of the dining room painted a delicate, mottled rose so that they looked like the walls of a 500-year-old building in the Piazza Navona.

That morning, he finished up the trim in the dining room. He’d painted the windows and the built-in shelving and let Israel, his only employee, take care of the baseboards. At his age, he was not going to spend hours on his knees. Israel was about 40, reliable, mustachioed, the father of three girls, fast and meticulous, willing to do the scut work. Dougie paid top dollar to keep him.

When they took a break, Dougie let himself look at his phone. It was close to 11. Four new messages from George.

The most recent: Ignoring me is not going to work.

Dougie tapped in: It’s working so far.

Immediately a bubble appeared with the floating dots. George pounced.

It’s not just me. 22 entities have a stake in this. 21 of us are ready to accept this offer. Two point eight million.

Gosh. That’s a boatload of money! BTW is an entity the same as a person?

This is a cash offer. We could close tomorrow.

Dougie waited, curious to see how long it would take George to send the next text. About five seconds.

We are not going to get another offer this clean. The buyer is willing to take the place as is. Places like PP can sit on the market for years.

Get real. Waterfront property is gold. Even I know that.

We’ve been putting this off for too long. PP is an albatross. It’s a full time job trying to run the association and keep the place from falling down. Getting people to pay their assessments is pulling teeth.

That was a whack at him. Dougie had objected to several assessments or just been unable to pay.

Poor Georgie. Maybe you should let someone else take over.

I don’t think you realize how far gone the place is. It’s a fire hazard. It should be rewired. It needs a new roof. The pipes are ancient.

I could live there for a year and fix it up.

Very funny. I think it’s going to be a teardown.


The thought of the house being torn down—disappearing—touched a nerve of surprise and sorrow.

Let me put it this way. There will either be a large assessment next year, and you’ll have to write a check. Or you can agree to this offer and get a check for 70K.


It’s a fair price.

What’s your share? Oh wait. I just figured it out. 756K!

I held my equity instead of treating it like an ATM.

We started with equal shares. One eighth each. 12.5%.

I have a complete record of all the transactions and adjustments if you’re interested.

It’s not as if I blew the money. I went to rehab. Twice.

Yes, I know. We carried you.

Carried me????? You made me beg and then made me pay.

I respect you for getting sober.

The place was worth a fraction of what it is now. I own 10% less than I once did. That’s worth $280,000. How much cash did I draw? $50,000?

Your share was fairly valued at the time. I have spent thousands of my own money over and above the assessments without expecting any adjustment or recompense.

Shrewd! It’s gonna pay off now big time.

Dougie hit send and turned off his phone. These exchanges with George left him crazy with anger and with a tightness in his chest and throat—almost 20 years without smoking and he craved a cigarette. And a drink. Why did he always feel he had to stick it to George? And oh yeah, he ended up sticking it to himself. Though aware of Israel’s funny look—Dougie had yelled asshole a few times while texting—he walked to the pantry where the booze was kept. Shelley and her husband appeared to be vodka lovers and owned several frosted bottles of Grey Goose in different flavors. One rule he tried to keep was no drinking on the job, but this wouldn’t be the first time he’d broken it. Dougie poured himself a measure of Le Melon in a short glass that had a nice heft to it, and then lifted the glass toward Israel. “Join me?”

“Too early,” he said, shaking his head.

“My brother,” he said to Israel. “You know, George. Georgie Porgie, puddin’ and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry. Jorge.”

The nursery rhyme was probably lost on Israel, but he got the general drift of Dougie’s remark.

Dougie tapped his crooked nose. “Jorge did this. He broke my nose.”

“Jorge did? How he did that?”

“He socked me.” Dougie threw a fake punch. “Pow. Right in the nose.”

“It looks good,” Israel said. “Makes you look like a tough guy.”

Dougie fought back the urge to refill his glass. “I used to think so, too. You know, the girls. The girls liked it.”

Some of them said so, anyway. He was stupidly proud of that boxer’s nose. His trademark. He half believed what he’d told people, that it improved his voice, gave it a rich timbre. When Dougie was thinking about dropping out of college, George had taken it upon himself to drive down to Virginia to reason with him, showing up without warning in Dougie’s dorm room late one Saturday afternoon when Dougie was in bed with a girl, stoned and stinking of sex. George hauled the girl out of bed, covered her with a blanket, and pushed her out the door. Out, wench! Some code of honor must have prevented him from engaging with a naked person, and he insisted that Dougie put on his underwear. Seated in his boxers on the edge of the bed, Dougie tried to keep a straight face as George loomed over him and gave him the lecture about letting the family down and throwing his life away. Pothead! He was a pothead!

Who could keep a straight face with a brother like that? Dougie heard himself laughing, and the next thing he knew, George had slugged him, blood was gushing down his front, and he could move the nose back and forth like a toggle switch.

For years, he and George didn’t speak to each other, and it took their mother’s death to bring about an attempt at reconciliation. Now, when he went to George’s house for holiday meals, Dougie was expected to sing for his supper, and George would say to his children—or lately, grandchildren—that Dougie was the rock star in the family, heh heh heh. At the baby grand in George’s house, once their mother’s piano, Dougie played the Christmas carols and, at George’s request, sang some of the music that she had loved, the clever, sophisticated show tunes with rhymes sharp as razors. It surprised Dougie that George remembered so many of the lyrics, and his brother could halfway carry a tune. They’d reminisce about the days when she made them sing and tried to teach them to dance. But if they talked for long about her, their glamorous, needy mother, George would remind him that she’d been an alcoholic, and that would be the end of the conversation.

He poured himself another drink. The sensation was electric and soothing, like a barber placing a heated towel on his head. He knew that George was legally right about the matter of ownership. He was always right legally. Dougie drank the melon vodka and experienced what he thought of as a binge aura, the drinker’s version of a migraine aura. The onset. The tracks trembling as the train approached. He’d tried out the phrase at an AA meeting, and someone laughed and said, “Dude, that’s not an aura. You’re just thirsty.” He should probably get on his phone right away and find a meeting he could go to. It was lunchtime and there had to be a meeting someplace nearby. He held up the bottles of vodka and read off the flavors—L’Orange, Le Citron, La Poire, Le Melon—pronouncing them in the cartoonish French accent he’d learned as a schoolboy.

He tried the Cherry Noir.

He checked his phone. Three new messages.

I’ve talked to some of the others. We are increasing your share by a full percentage point. You can do the math. That will bring your share to 3.5%. 98K.

Aha! The assumptive close.

Hold your fucking horses, George.

Are you there? Please answer.

And the third message, sent just minutes earlier: Tell me where you are and I will come to you. This matter must be taken care of by COB today.

Dougie replied: Which others did you talk to? Just curious how you decided that one percent was the right adjustment. I started out with 12.5%.

We can’t make you whole again.

It took Dougie a while to decide to reply with an emoji, the sad one with tears.

I have talked to Tim and Trisha and we are all aware of your situation. Nobody wants to see you without a pot to piss in.

Dougie sent a couple of smiley-face emojis. Gee thanks bro. Feeling warm all over.

Do you have anything at all put away for retirement?

He sent the sad-faced emoji again.

Do you have a 401K? Do you have any plan at all?

Yes! My plan is to drop dead with a paintbrush in my hand.

And if that doesn’t work out?

I see where you’re going—YOU will have to step in. Big brother to the rescue yet again!

There was a lengthy pause. Then:

Try to be reasonable. This can be win-win for everybody.

Win-win. Love it! Make me whole and we got us a deal. Talk it over with the others, and then my people and your people can get together to work out the details. Over and out.

Dougie put down his phone and helped himself to another pop of the Cherry Noir. He wasn’t going to be able to stop them from selling Plum Point.

From the pantry, he could see that Israel had stepped over to the side windows that looked out over the driveway. “Hey, boss,” he called. “Miss Mary coming.”

Mary Mac? Dougie went to the window himself, and there was her car, her little blue beater, and there she was herself, in her park outfit, blue shirt, khaki shorts, sandals. She headed toward the back door with her head lowered and a paper bag held like a football. She was supposed to be at work. Dougie felt the front pocket of his overalls—no mints. He ducked into the powder room looking for some kind of mouthwash or breath sweetener. Nothing. Yeah, well, okay, he was busted. The best he could do was wash his hands and face. Out in the kitchen, Israel and Mary Mac greeted each other in Spanish, and he heard Israel thanking her for something. For pretty combs for his daughter’s hair. Señora Mary, muy bonita. When did she meet his daughter?

“Hey, honey,” Mary Mac said when Dougie emerged. “How’s it going?”

“I thought you worked today.”

“I do, but we’ve been starting at three while it’s so hot. Didn’t I tell you?”

Had she? She’d taken her sunglasses off and she looked hot. Sweat glistened on her lip and dampened her hairline. The instant after her eyes met his, she looked down and started unwrapping his sandwich and arranging the paper napkins, trying to pretend they needed her attention. What radar she had for drinking!

“I’ve had a couple of drinks,” Dougie said.

She nodded.

“You might have noticed.”

She looked up warily, and did the thing with her hair, hands behind her head. “What happened? Is something wrong?”

“Plum Point,” he said. “They want to sell it. George wants to sell it. Le Plum! Le Plum! Au revoir, le Plum.” He was waving goodbye.

“They can’t sell it, can they? Not unless you agree.”

Si,” he said, but the question was annoying. He didn’t feel like explaining how the arrangement worked.

Israel was backing away, holding a sandwich and can of Coke. He was going to eat outside, he said, in the shade. Muchas gracias, Señora Mary. Muchas gracias.

When the door closed behind him, Mary Mac asked, “So it’s really going to happen? That place means so much to you—it’s your happy place.”

Happy place, good god. She was talking to him in the voice she used to console distressed eight-year-olds.

He said, “I haven’t agreed to anything, but they keep raising the offer. This is what they call the horns of a dilemma, eh?”

“The seller keeps raising the offer?”

“George. George keeps raising the offer—the amount I’d get. Big brother has my best interests at heart, yes he does. He’s worried about my retirement plan.”

“I am too,” she said.

“Win-win. I say dilemma, George says win-win. If I sell, he gets something like a million dollars. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!”

“I thought it was divided into shares.”

“It is, and I have an itty-bitty share. Itty-bitty, teensy-weensy.” He smacked his forehead with the heel of his hand. “Fucking wastrel.”

She was standing beside the kitchen island, a slab of marble the size of a pool table, covered with plastic now. The chandelier over the island was wrapped in plastic, too. “Did this just happen today?”

“George, you mean? We’ve been talking, as they say. You know, feeling each other out.”

Mary Mac did not have a poker face, definitely did not. “Were you going to tell me about it?”

“Yes. Yes, of course I was. When the time was right.”

“When would that be?”

“You weren’t home. You were out doing good works. Holding somebody’s hand, I don’t know. I don’t remember you telling me where you were that night. You expect me to tell you about everything?”

“I would have told you about something this important.”

“It’s just about money,” he said.

“I don’t believe that,” she said. “I can see how upset you are.”

“Really? It shows? I guess I am upset. I’m destitute. They’re buying me out for 100K. Not even—98K, that’s what they offered. I mean, fuck, you’d think George could’ve rounded up.”

Mary Mac placed her hands on the plastic sheeting as if she were going to play a keyboard, and studied them for a few seconds. Nice hands. “If someone offered me that much money, I’d tell you.”

“Well, that’s not going to happen, is it? So we’ll never know.”

“You’re cruel when you drink.”

“I think I’m entitled to a drink on the day I have to give up my happy place.”

“I should go,” she said. “I can’t talk to you now.”

“I’d say it’s a very good time to talk. You’ve caught me at a moment when I have a lot to say.”

Mary Mac’s eyes were cloudy with tears. “I have to tell you I’m mad—yes, I am. I’m angry. Not because you won’t stop drinking, even though I pray every day that you will stop. I’m angry because you don’t talk to me. You leave me out. We should make decisions like this together.”

“Decisions like what? Is Plum Point where you spent your childhood? Do you have a beachfront property that you haven’t told me about?”

“We have to decide how we’re going to live. I know what happens when you run out of money. I’m not doing that again.”

“Oh, that’s right, I remember, you went bankrupt. I’m sure you understand these things much better than I do.”

Mary Mac’s hands started to curl into fists, but she took a breath, glanced down at them, and went into what Dougie thought of as her meeting mode, so sincere and measured that you didn’t dare doubt her. She said she was afraid. Every single day she was afraid that something would happen, that one of them would get sick or hurt. She had tried not to let him see how she worried.

“Trouble,” he said, remembering a line from a song. “Trouble, I can see you, hiding behind that tree.”

Mary Mac paused, looked toward the door, and pressed on. She was going to finish this, Dougie realized. It sounded like she’d been rehearsing. He’d been a saint to take her in, she said. She didn’t want to be a burden to him. But they were getting older. They were at an age when things did happen to people.

“You mean they die?” he asked with sarcastic cheer.

“Yes, they die.”

“My plan is to drop dead with a paintbrush in my hand. That’s what I told George, and now I’m telling you. See? I don’t want to keep anything from you.”

“We don’t have any plans,” she said, raising her voice slightly, and a few tears ran down her cheeks. “We haven’t done anything. We don’t have any insurance. We have no money put aside, no plan, nothing. This is denial, Dougie. Are you blind?”

Her hair fell loose around her neck, and she reached up to fix it, letting her eyes travel around the kitchen again, the 12-foot ceiling, the island, the chandelier, the fans, the marble, the wall of windows looking out over an infinity pool. “Have you ever listened to yourself talking to Shelley?” she asked. “I have. I hear how you flirt with her. You flatter her. She’s your customer. She’s a paying customer. I’m the one who loves you.”

“I never realized you were so jealous,” he said.

“My god,” Mary Mac said. “Is that what you think I just said?”

She made a sound, less like a sob than a laugh. She picked up a paper napkin and began dabbing at her eyes and cheeks. A silence filled the kitchen, and Dougie knew that something had shifted. When she had composed herself, she said flatly, “You still think you’re special. You still think you’re special, and I’m not good enough for you. That’s what it comes down to. I’m not smart enough, or rich enough, or interesting enough—I don’t know. Just not good enough.”

She raised her hands to catch a few loose strands of hair and said, not really talking to him, “I must look a wreck.” Then, she was gone.


Hours later, when Dougie awoke in his own bed, it was almost dark. A sliver of pink sunset showed in the window. For several minutes he lay still, listening to the laboring sound of the air conditioner in the window. The only clothes he had on were his boxers and one sock. It took him a while to remember that two of his friends had come to Shelley’s and then, after he’d tried to get them to have a drink with him, they’d driven him home. Mary Mac had called them.

He listened for her—not a sound. The house was empty. When he went to the bathroom, he saw himself in the mirror over the sink. His friends had written on his forehead with a Sharpie: idiot. He could smell himself, a stink of booze, sweat, paint, and mineral spirits. Though he spent a long time in the shower, scrubbing himself, the chemical residues had seeped deep into his pores, and on his hands the discoloration showed like a faint covering of gauze. It wasn’t possible to get them really clean.

At the sink, he gave up on removing the last traces of ink from his forehead. The Sharpie scrawl was there if he looked closely. Dougie took his time shaving. Once upon a time, he’d been considered good-looking, and now he looked ancient and defeated. The bones of his face—a Neanderthal face, they used to joke in the Curtis family—seemed more prominent than ever. A skull. Beneath the heavy brow, his eyes were bloodshot and brimming with remorse, and he would go to his death with that crooked nose. Some things could never be set right. Dougie had a premonition that he needed to do something he had never been able to before, that maybe no one can ever do, prepare himself for a grievous loss.

The house was stuffy downstairs. Dougie couldn’t remember the last time he’d used an iron, but he found the thing along with the laundry items. On the kitchen table, he spread out a towel, dampened it, and attempted to iron the wrinkles out of a white shirt and a pair of black pants. Except for the dark suit he wore to funerals, these were the best clothes he had. When he was dressed, he stood at the window at the front of the house, watching the headlights of the few cars moving slowly under the trees that lined the dark street, looking for the blue beater. Lovers had left him before, but the loss of Mary Mac would be death.

The piano bench was right behind him, and he sat down. When he thought of playing something to make the time pass, it occurred to him that he and Mary Mac didn’t have a song. They’d listened to a lot of music together, and there were songs they both liked, but not a song that was theirs. The song that came to mind now was “Try a Little Tenderness,” one of his standbys, a song he often used to close out a set. He’d always heard it the way Otis Redding sang it, with the driving beat and the throb of the brass behind him, and that’s how he’d tried to sing it, too, letting the sound build until it turned into a frenzy, working it for cheers and applause. He’d sung that song to the women in the crowd, trying to make them love him.

But now he was the one waiting, and he seemed for the first time to grasp that the song was really directed toward men, pleading with them to pay heed to their weary women. It was written for fools like him, who needed drums and trumpets to awaken them to sorrow, to care, to love, to tenderness.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus