He discovers two bananas, soft to the eye, still stem connected, blacking. He thinks about the heat they must be giving off along with their smell. These fermenting fruits can only partially be seen under a flattened, plastic half-and-half bottle lying on its side and an old pack of birthday invitations with a “Where’s Waldo?” motif, never used. An empty clay flowerpot growing a bit of dark green mold is on the corner of the sideboard. He wonders what might have happened if he had just kept everything clean on his own. That sideboard has not been relieved of its clutter in over two years since she left for good.
He remembers buying the bananas. It’s only been a week, he thinks. There were six in the beginning and they all started with the green stem of promise. He ate three and forgot the others. Bottles are waiting for recycling. Several are big gin double liters, one a plastic milk gallon. Others include: an empty vitamin jar, two Snapple peach teas, and a little bear honey thing he can’t figure out whether to call a bottle, a jar, or a sculpture. Everything’s plastic but the gins.
“All that liquid filtered through my body,” he thinks. “All those containers sitting on a horizontal plane and time has taken over – that and gravity.”
There’s more: a heart shaped tin for Valentine’s chocolates; three Starbuck’s travel mugs that have lost their lids; a bottle of carpenter’s glue so old the contents is turning pink; pieces of a fire alarm that he’d smashed almost six months ago when it malfunctioned; a box of Kleenex™ that had absorbed a coffee spill; a pair of welder’s goggles; and a pile of maybe a dozen old photos from his pro golf days, stuck together when one of the girls dumped orange drink on them.
He has come to hate the horizontal dimension. He knows he can’t hate time and that he needs gravity. But the horizontal is how the piles of shit just start to lay up and take over. The whole house is nothing but piles of crap, and now, after a year or more, everything looks broken. The only solution, he knows, is 1-800-Got-Junk and the box of black contractor bags he’s had sitting in his car on the back floor now for two months. They’re giving off a perfume from days in the boiling Philadelphia summer sun.
They had cleaned the house together every Saturday morning for over twelve years. Each Saturday afternoon he kissed her goodbye and drove to the club to give lessons. That was the best day of the week. Cleaning with her, clearing the horizontal surfaces, washing the kitchen floor, scrubbing the tub and sinks and johns. The girls watched television and she moved around near him chattering away about what they were doing, always thinking ahead to the next chore.
He would go to the club and give golf lessons to kids, thinking about her face and the sound of her voice, its chiming ring of intelligence. Guessing about what she was doing while he was away made him smile like an idiot. There were the simple things like mowing grass or taking the girls shopping at what she called the Big Store. She had hay blond hair that fell straight to her shoulders and a long face with sad eyes, but they were always sparkling when he looked into them – at least he’d thought so. Maybe this was just in his thoughts and dreams.
In those days, the golf lessons were all he had left of the game – that and the memories. They met at a tournament her company sponsored. He ended up losing his lead at the end, but the TV crews and reporters gave him the most attention anyway. He saw her watching and was struck by her calm pose and those sad eyes and her hair draped behind big ears for such a beauty. Her skin was freckly and somehow seemed to glow a honey gold in the sun, dark splotches absorbing the light, smooth skin reflecting.
It would have been different, he knew, if he’d stayed on the tour, even if he was in love with her. But he felt he needed to impress her. That was all it was. He went back and finished law school with a chunk of his money, then took jobs advising on real estate and development.
He never told her that he’d wanted to impress her. He just said that the golf days were over, which was true since it meant so much to impress her and be with her, and so little, back then, to play.
It’s wrong, of course, to try to impress those we love in such a big way and to keep it secret. She never understood what he’d done. He didn’t want her to know. He never understood until it was too late that trying to impress her meant he didn’t trust the love she told him that she had.
He moves a few wadded plastic grocery sacks and discovers the missing banana, now black, brown liquid, like coffee syrup, oozing under the stem tip. Puddles of liquid form on perfectly horizontal planes, he thinks. This kills him with longing, but he doesn’t know why. The liquid doesn’t run to the floor in a stream with gravity over time. There’s the balance thing on the horizontal. The purely horizontal. Nothing moves. Nothing flows after a while.
She was one of those women who doesn’t get excited watching her man competing to win on national television or even just in front of a crowd at a local country club. An old trophy lies on its side. He won it in his twenties. She stood and watched with a white wine in her hand, an approving smile, maybe, certainly her lips parted and her eyes following everything. It was always hard to tell.
“I expect you to do well,” she said once.
With her this wasn’t an apology. She said it flat and yet with grave meaning, and she only said it once but he thought about those words all the time and wondered if they were a statement of abiding faith or just a sort of computer-like statement of fact. She was also one of those women who didn’t say I love you very much, and when she did, she always seemed surprised.
He knows that part of love is the willingness to forgive no matter what, and to ignore and let go. He’d forgiven her dishonesty with other men. He’d forgiven her for stealing money from her clients and going to jail. He’d forgiven her for her despair and loneliness after that, and becoming a drunk of sorts and the things he learned of her past when she was in prison.
Ignoring the smell of cigarette smoke and the stink on her breath sometimes was almost hard, but he knew she was a different type of woman by that time. She was all there was and completely standing on her own in the world. She didn’t need anyone. Sometimes women get to that level, where they’re able to just take what they want and live how they feel.
After she left him, after Jamaica when she abandoned him to their girls and went off with Frederick – but before he understood she was breaking off into crazy – every Friday night he dropped the girls with her then went to McMennamin’s in Mt. Airy and had dinner with four other guys whose wives had left them too. He is late from standing in the kitchen, despising the horizontal and staring at the mess that is his house.
“Here he comes,” says Ken Murphy. “The man who lost at beauty, but wins here with us.”
He is prepared for something like this. They often give him credit for having the most beautiful ex-wife.
“Have a seat, man,” says Don Gold. “But I’ll tell you, it’s not about whose ex is the most beautiful. That’s cold just to even say. It’s about who once had the most beautiful wife. And I’m not just talking about the face. I mean Beauty, you know with a capital B. Why is it they become that much more astounding once they leave us?”
Dark, sardonic humor is a mainstay of the group. They have all been destroyed and beaten down by losing at love one way or the other.
“Danny wins either way,” says Ken Murphy. “You lost a beauty, no doubt, Dan, but you had her once. That’s gotta be enough.” He slaps Danny’s shoulder with the back of his hand and reaches for a buffalo wing.
“Beauty,” says Don Gold. “I can’t believe it worked for as long as it did. Now I have the kids on weekends and two whole weeks in August. And I get to stare at Jenny McMennamin every Friday night and wish I was young again.” He points at their waitress, the college-aged youngest daughter of the proprietor family. She is short with full, prominent breasts, red hair, large green cat’s eyes, and full ruby lips.
“You guys talk like they’re trophies,” says Ed Fowler. “Even the capital B thing, Goldie.”
Danny gratefully turns to Fowler when he says this. Fowler teaches high school history and came home to an empty kitchen one day. His wife had just wanted that part of her life and her clothes.
Danny wonders if this talk of beauty and Julia is about cheering him up. He is still the newest member of the group. A seven-month newbie. It is one thing in life to say you have spent a lot of time naked in bed with a beautiful, tall, athletic woman – a Beauty in every way. Few men get to say that. Fewer still have this truth acknowledged by their peers. They are telling him then, maybe after all, “Still, you were a lucky mother fucker!” He smiles at the ketchup and salt and pepper bottles in the middle of the table, understanding that he at one time in his life was indeed a lucky mother fucker. But things change and luck doesn’t so much run out. It maybe just gets lost in things somewhere.
Murphy leans back in his chair squinting at his beer on the table. “I have to say I fell in love with Margaret when I first laid eyes on her across a room. Right out of Wharton I was – smart, cagey, and cool as a cucumber. I saw her, though, and just rolled over. Jesus Margaret was something back then.”
“Is that what happened to you?” Marcus White says. “I’ve always wondered.” This raises a laugh around the table and Marcus looks pleased with himself.
After a few seconds of silence, Ed Fowler clears his throat, “So, Danny, how’s the final arrangements going? I mean with the decree.”
Danny is surprised by this question. He thinks about the house and the kitchen sideboard. He remembers kissing Julia on the neck as she put something in the trash. Her neck could be salty in the summer. He loved the scent of her hair kissing her from behind.
“I’m just asking, Danny, because you’re a lawyer and all. None of us are lawyers here. We all paid through the nose to give up half of our incomes or more, our houses, our kids, just because our wives were having affairs or, as Marcus here claims like a crazed mother fucker, so that she can watch what she wants on the television.”
“I’m telling you, man, that’s really what it came down to. I went to eighteen fucking months of couples counseling and the only thing I got out of it is that she hates sports.”
“But all that means is you needed more TVs,” says Ken Murphy. “How many times do we have to go over this?”
“She wasn’t having an affair! I’m telling you, man. I believe what she tells me. I guess I got that, too, out of that couples shit. You’re supposed to know when they’re telling you the truth.”
Ed Fowler says, “Danny, you don’t talk a lot at these little get-togethers. You really don’t. We’re all just wondering. Actually, we’re trying to get you to talk about it … because the decree is it, man. Once that’s in your hands and you’ve both signed off, it’s a done deal. But it’s also something to talk about. When you talk about it, you get to putting things behind you. It may not seem like it, but you’re in a new world and everything’s a clean slate. Know what I mean?”
“The decree?” Danny finally manages. “The decree.” He knows his voice is shaking. He watches Fowler work to sit back in his seat. Don Gold pulls the basket of wings closer and picks out several for his plate. Danny inhales and tries to smile, “I get the kids and the house. I gave her the Volvo. She gets four thousand a month. She has the kids Friday night through Saturday. They spend the night and I pick them up Sundays after breakfast.”
“That’s it?” asks Fowler. “You won?”
“I wouldn’t call it winning, Ed.”
“Yeah, but you got the life. I mean, four grand is a lot, but still, you got the house and the kids. You even got the best part of the week to yourself. I mean, you could take Jenny here home tonight when she gets off slinging beers for everyone and ball her brains out. You could do that. Man, you won.”
“The deal was her idea,” Danny hears himself saying, “only she didn’t want the money. I made her take the money. Enough anyway to pay rent and cover bills.”
“She didn’t ask for money?”
Danny feels anger welling up and reaches for his beer to steady his gut. “No.”
“Man!” Marcus White breathes.
Danny blinks then tries smiling around the table at each of them. “She’s a good woman,” he manages. “What can I say? She left me for another guy and she knows she destroyed our lives.” He sighs and takes another sip of beer. “She seems to be doing well enough. I don’t know how she makes money. Her …”
They stare at him, waiting.
“… her boyfriend Frederick drives limousines. He can’t make that much. But…”
Don Gold finally says, “We never met her, Dan, but we know. We’ve all been there.”
“It’s not the house or even the kids,” says Ken Murphy. “It’s just her, you know? I don’t even think I loved Annie there at the end, but I missed her a lot for that first two or three years. It felt like I’d lost a piece of me, you now?”
“Especially when the kids are away with her,” says Ed Fowler. “I can’t stand it. I mean I hated her so much once she left and then started in with her attorney and all the bullshit with the separation of everything. But when she would show up at the house and take the kids, I’d spend whatever time I was alone just depressed as shit. I gotta admit I felt sorry for myself.”
Danny can’t figure out if they want him to say more. He wants to talk about Frederick and how much he likes him. He wants to say that he has been surprised at how much he still loves Julia: that he isn’t mad at her; that he knows he should have expected this. He wonders if she stashed money away that they never found after she was arrested.
Jenny comes by the table and they order another pitcher of beer and two baskets of fries to pick at. Once she leaves, talk turns to waitresses and how to pick them up, then dating younger women. Marcus White is going out with a twenty-five year old from Rutgers medical school. Ed Fowler’s oldest daughter is twenty-one. They all shake their heads and smile knowingly at Marcus.
A Villanova game is on the TVs so the conversation moves to college basketball, then hockey. Danny participates and feels them paying closer attention to him and knows there is something about his having been a professional athlete. They talk about their injuries and compare ailments. Ed Fowler points out that they are supposed to be talking about what it’s like to have your wife walk out on you.
They all watch the game for a few minutes without talking. Finally, Ken Murphy tells them his wife likes to call him an asshole, but never in front of the kids. Marcus White laughs and points out that they’re all assholes except for Danny. This gets everyone laughing, but Danny doesn’t know why. He tries laughing too and asks Marcus to apologize. Everyone agrees that Danny isn’t an asshole, but that they are and that this is really just an asshole club and that probably makes Danny a virtual asshole for associating with them. Someone complains that McMennamin’s doesn’t serve pizza. They order two more baskets of wings and watch the game more intently as it winds down to the final two minutes.
When he gets home, Danny opens the back door of the car and lifts the box of trash bags from the floor. He is surprised at how heavy it is. He feels the burn of the wings in his gut and the blur of the beer in his head. He wonders if he can stay up all night and fill every bag with all the clutter. The next day is Saturday. He can sleep all day. The girls will still be with their mother and Frederick. He wonders why he likes Frederick so much. He figures it may have more to do with Frederick than anything.
To open the door he has to put the box down on the porch next to a bench. Julia would sit on that bench sometimes with the girls, reading to them. Now it is where he stacks the recycling buckets. He enters the house. The house smells of fermenting fruit and old magazines. He leaves the lights out as he ascends the stairs, careful not to knock piles of laundry over in the dark.
In bed, he can’t help chuckling about being a member of the Asshole Club, then rolls onto his side facing the wall. His last thought is that he left the box of bags on the porch. Then he falls asleep as fast as he can.