Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Zeuxis

 

J. P. Taylor and Kevin Carroll have been best of friends since their grammar school days at St. Francis De Sales.  In their forties now, both still live in Belle Harbor, Queens, only four blocks from one another.  They share a number of predilections and affinities, but people who know them well would say that more than anything else it’s their sense of humor that defines their friendship.  They have been practical jokers since childhood, their preferred targets each other.  The more outrageous the joke, the better they like it, perpetrator or recipient making little difference.  Not surprisingly, their long-suffering wives, J. P.’s Peg and Kevin’s Angela, are rarely so amused.  At best they’ll roll their eyes and smile wearily like mothers of cute but exhausting little boys; more generally they’ll refuse, absolutely refuse, to give the wretched creatures the satisfaction of any reaction whatsoever; tears are rare but not unheard of.  Last Wednesday night:  tears. 

It began earlier that afternoon at Vino’s on 116th Street.  Their offices—Kevin is a lawyer and J. P. a dentist—are just across from each other on the circle at 120th and the Boulevard, and they frequently meet for lunch.  Kevin couldn’t stop complaining about his cable TV service.  It had gotten so bad he was about to go back to his old cable provider, which had been no great shakes.  “It’s like going back to an old girlfriend,” he said.  “There was a reason you broke up in the first place.”  The test was going to be the interleague game between the Mets and the Yankees that night.  “If that bitch screws up again, forget it, I’m going to drop her.”  The next day J. P.  received an email from Kevin:  “That bitch went out on me for the last time.  I’m going back to my old girlfriend.”  Laughing so hard the monitor blurred in his tears, J. P. forwarded the email to Kevin’s wife.

When he got home from the office that evening, the first thing Kevin noticed was the silence.  His son, Jimmy (named after J[ames] P[atrick] Taylor),at seventeen was too old to come running to greet him, but at least Kevin could count on rap music, or whatever they called that stuff, to be shaking the walls.  Instead, Jimmy descended the stairs long enough to take one worried look at his father before retreating back toward his bedroom.

Puzzled, Kevin went into the kitchen.  Angela was at the sink, washing up just enough dishes to account for Jimmy’s dinner.  It wasn’t unusual for Jimmy to eat early, but where was Kevin and Angela’s dinner?

Angela turned to him.  Her eyes were red and face blotchy.

“What have I ever in my life done to you to deserve being called a bitch?  Huh?  Tell me!  What have I ever done to deserve that?”

“Angela, what—?”

She grabbed up a sheet of paper by the sink and shoved it in Kevin’s face hard enough to give him a puffy lip. 

“What have I done?  What have I ever done?  How on earth can you possibly believe I’ve been going out on you?  When would I have the time?  I’ve spent the last twenty years raising your children and cooking your food and cleaning your house and putting up with your shit!  And I’m a bitch?  Oh sure, go ahead and laugh.  How can you laugh?  Are you just crazy? Or are you drinking again?  I won’t put up with that, Kevin.  Not again. Not ever again.”

The tone of the foregoing could best be described as shocked hurt, which changed to shrieking rage at the point Kevin, reading the email, realized what J. P. had done, then staggered backward and bellowed laughter up at the ceiling.

Angela threw what happened to be in her hand—a dishtowel; she wished it’d been the chef’s knife—at Kevin and ran out of the kitchen.

Kevin read the email again, dumbstruck with admiration but resolved to go J. P. one better, then went after his wife.

He found her in the living room standing with her face to the wall behind the wing chair, like a naughty child being punished by her mother.  Her shoulders were jerking, but she was making no sound.  For a moment he felt sorry for having laughed, but then he remembered the email, had to cover his mouth and get himself under control before speaking.

“Angela, honey, don’t be silly.  Look, it was a joke, one of that idiot J. P.’s practical jokes.  We were talking about our lousy cable service at lunch yesterday.  A bitch, that’s what I called our cable service.”

“Cable service, yeah, right,” she said.

“You’ve heard me cuss it a million times.”

“Yeah, right.”

“I called it a son of a bitch in front of you last night, remember?”

“Yeah, right.”

One of Angela’s favorite strategies in fights was to say “yeah, right” in response to whatever Kevin said.  She’d do it twenty times in a row, but it’d only take three or four to infuriate him.  He took a deep breath before continuing.

“How could you possibly think I’d suspect you of anything?  You’re the only love of my life, you know that.”

“Yeah, right, the only one except for your old girlfriend, you mean.”

“That?  The old girlfriend bit?”  Once again he was distracted by admiration for the brilliance of J. P.’s gambit.  But he suppressed a giggle.  “That was the old cable company.  I said I’d go back to it even though it’d be like going back to an old girlfriend, you know, not too satisfying the first time around.”

“Yeah, right.”

Angela finally turned away from the wall and came out from behind the chair, shoving her palm out at him like a running back stiff-arming a linebacker.

“Come on, Angela, you know I’ve never been unfaithful to you.”

She walked into the hallway, saying back over her shoulder, “How would you know?  You have whole years of your life you don’t remember”—which wasn’t true, but he wasn’t going to open up that particular can of worms.

She turned and took two steps back into the living room.  “Where did you see her?  Just tell me that.  Where did you see her?”

He held his palms up and shook his head in bafflement.  “Angela, what the hell are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about Nina Textor.”

“Nina—?”

“I know she’s here, Kevin.  I saw her with my own eyes at The Sand Dollar in Breezy Point.  She didn’t recognize me, but I recognized her and asked around.  Her husband’s a bond daddy in the city.  They live in Neponset, on the beach block.  But then I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.”

“Nina Textor?”

They’d all gone to Niagara University together, Kevin, J. P., Angela, and J. P.’s first wife, Cathy.  Kevin and J. P. had long talked of going to St. John’s or Fordham, but for a practical joke, Kevin sent in an application to Niagara in J. P.’s name.  When J. P. received a letter of acceptance, Kevin almost ruptured himself laughing—although why being accepted to a school one hadn’t applied to was necessarily funny was lost on everyone except Kevin and J. P. , who laughed at least as long as Kevin and promptly sent in an application in Kevin’s name.  When Kevin too was accepted, they decided in was the wish of the Great God Zeuxis—their own private god, named after the Greek artist who laughed himself to death—that they attend Niagara.  So they did.

They loved it.  They wore their freshman beanies even when they didn’t have to, drank beer at the Rathskeller on campus and down at The Shack, cheered on the Purple Eagles, and for the first time since grammar school had real live females in their classes.

In regard to the latter, J. P. always had better luck than Kevin.  Despite being gregarious and kind of cute in a round-faced, ginger-haired Irish sort of way, Kevin was very shy with les femmes.  He was a normal, red-blooded, horny male when talking about them, but when trying to talk to them they became ethereal beings surrounded by a radiant nimbus impenetrable by mere mortals such as Kevin.  J. P., who had three sisters, said it was due to the fact that Kevin—whose mother died when he was a baby and who had only the older brother—grew up in a house without women.  Callow Kevin idolized them instead of seeing them for what they in reality were:  bitches and witches.  J. P. called Nina Textor, with her black hair, dangerous black eyes, black nail polish, and blood-red lipstick, “the most beautiful goddamn witch in the world.”

Kevin fell for her hard, overcame his shyness to ask her out.  (Most of his previous dates had been set up by J. P.)  They dated almost all Kevin’s sophomore year (Nina was a freshman).  His efforts to “nail her” became legendary in the men’s dorm.  She’d seem willing—more than willing—but at the last moment would come up with some excuse.  J. P. kept these listed on a sheet of poster board affixed to the door of his and Kevin’s room.  J. P. would of course add his own fanciful hypotheses (“born with ice-cube maker where vagina should be,” etc.) and Kevin would laugh.  “It’s either laugh or cry,” he’d say.  It wasn’t that sex was so important.  He was afraid she just didn’t like him enough to go all the way, indeed was about to break up with him.

That spring she did.  J. P. kept a close watch on him because he took it hard, hard.  That summer back in Belle Harbor, both working over at Riis Park tending the grounds and cleaning toilets, J. P. tried everything to get his friend out of his black mood.  Drinking great quantities of beer seemed to help a bit.

Next fall the most beautiful goddamn witch in the world was back at Niagara.  Kevin attempted a rapprochement, but she wasn’t interested.  Before Thanksgiving, though, Nina withdrew from school.  Rumor had it she’d transferred to Alfred University.  “That bitch wasn’t even Catholic,” someone said.

Kevin tried to come back to the land of the living.  Angela Konwicki, who’d been in Kevin and J. P.’s circle of friends, helped a lot.  She didn’t mind people saying she’d caught Kevin on the rebound.  He was a sweet guy, and as long as she caught him somehow, it was all good.

They got engaged at the end of their senior year and married while Kevin was in law school at Fordham.  J. P. was already married to Cathy by then, a shock to everybody because he didn’t seem to be the marrying type.  That was demonstrably wrong, though.  He liked marrying and did it frequently.  Peg, who’d been his dental assistant, was his third wife.  Sometimes he introduced her as “the future ex-Mrs. Taylor.”  It was an old joke, but Kevin invariably laughed.  Peg didn’t.

*  *  *

When Angela dropped the Nina Textor bombshell, Kevin’s shocked reaction told her that he had not in fact known that Nina was living nearby.  But it also told her that he obviously still loved her.  It was Nina he carried in his heart of hearts, had all these years.  Angela ran upstairs to their bedroom, crying.

She was wrong, though.  He did not love her, never had, really.  Call it an infatuation, maybe, or something even simpler than that:  Nina was his first girlfriend.  They’d walked hand in hand under the gold-and-ruby-leaved maples on the Niagara campus.  She had carried his books for him after he had that bad shoulder separation playing club football.  That winter when the Niagara River froze, they stood at the wall above the falls, and Kevin said, “Let’s walk across,” and Nina had laughed and said, “You’re crazy,” but he knew she was really saying, “You’re wonderful.”  Then she broke up with him, and he suspected that the world would never be that young and fresh and wonderful again.  He was right.

*  *  *

Kevin began driving up and down the streets of Neponset and twice went to Breezy Point for lunch at The Sand Dollar in hopes of seeing Nina.  He didn’t want to talk to her, just see her.  Although his common sense told him otherwise, his heart told him the years couldn’t possibly have done to Nina what they’d done to him.

It was only after he’d given up searching that he ran into her, in the produce section at Waldbaum’s.  He was actually able to form words:  “Nina!  I heard you were living here now.”

She peered at him, tilted her head, frowned.  He was shaken.  He’d had hair back then, of course, and twenty fewer pounds, and then those terrible wars with the bottle had done things to his face, bad things.  But for Nina not to recognize him!

Finally, she saved him:  “Kevin?  My God, I had no idea you were living here.”

He resisted an urge to apologize for still living in the Rockaways, as if it were a sign of his failure in life.  Instead, he laughed—tried to laugh—and said, “Yeah, we moved back here after law school.”

“J. P.’s living here, too?”

Kevin was taken aback.  He’d meant Angela, of course.  But then Nina had left school before he and Angela had started to date.

“I mean Angela Konwicki and me.  You remember Angela don’t you?  Yeah, we got married, have three kids.  Jimmy, the youngest, he’s still at home.  J. P., though, yeah, he lives here, too.  Cronston and 132nd.  He’s a dentist.”

“My God,” she said, apparently stunned at the thought of J. P. being a dentist.  She looked down at the cucumber in her hand as if she couldn’t imagine how it’d gotten there.  Then she looked back up at Kevin.

“So you two are still friends?” she said.

“Sure, best friends, like always.”

“Good, good, I’m so glad.  I was worried that, you know, I mean after he and I back then, you know . . . .”

They went right on talking, amiably, Kevin with a friendly smile combined with just the slightest wry arching of the eyebrows as if to indicate, Hoo boy, oh yes, the way we were then.  Nina felt bad for the way she’d treated him—she just couldn’t help herself—but then she’d suffered, too.

“You left Niagara when you two broke up.”

“No, I left Niagara when I got pregnant.”

*  *  *

The next day the heat broke, the air was cool and bright, and Kevin and J. P. met outside J. P.’s office and walked down to The Spinnaker on Newport for lunch.

Although Kevin had lain awake half the night visualizing the confrontation, he still wasn’t sure what he was going to say to J. P.  He tried to work up a righteous anger but couldn’t manage it.  He was more curious than anything else.  Where had they “done it”?  The cheap motels in Niagara Falls?  In J. P.’s old VW with the broken heater?  He tried to picture them doing it up against the wall of some empty classroom or even in their dorm room when Kevin was at golf practice.   Kevin said to himself that when they got to The Spinnaker he’d order a black coffee and throw it in J. P.’s face.  Instead, he ordered a club sandwich but couldn’t eat it.

“What are you smiling at?” J. P., sitting across from him at the window table, said.

“Was I smiling?”  His face felt numb, like he’d had a shot of Novocain.   “Must be the Mets’ three errors last night.”

“The Mets are no occasion for smiling.”

“Laugh about it or cry about it.”

“You got a point there, my friend.”

Kevin took a big gulp of iced tea.  “Guess who I saw at Waldbaum’s yesterday?  Nina Textor!  How about that?  Ol’ Nina.”

“Oh.  That’s why you haven’t touched your . . . sandwich,” J. P. said, perfect timing for a snappy comeback, but it was spoiled by J. P., like an asthmatic starved for air, having to take a breath before “sandwich.”

They sat there awhile.

Kevin thought J. P. would break the silence by apologizing.  “I’m sorry,” he’d say, and Kevin would really unload on him, or take a swing at him, or just get up and walk out.  Instead, staring out the window as if there were something of mild interest out there, J. P. asked, “How did she look?”

“I don’t know,” Kevin said because he’d been so stunned to be suddenly face to face with her, and then that brief devastating conversation, that he hadn’t really looked at Nina at all.  But he thought a moment and said, “She looked forty-two.”

J. P. closed his eyes and nodded as if that was just what he’d expected, and that’s when Kevin forgave him.

The years had done in J. P., too.  He wasn’t an alcoholic like Kevin, or at least not a confessed one, but he had the pasty, unhealthy look of an abuser of some sort, and in fact Kevin had his suspicions, alcohol or worse than alcohol.  And then there was the woman thing.  Kevin had always said, now there’s one guy who has no trouble with women, but he knew it wasn’t true.  J. P. had married three women and scored with countless others, had two daughters, and was estranged from all of them, wives and lovers and daughters.  Well, he was still married to Peg, but everyone knew it was just a matter of time.  None of his women had ever made him happy.  There it was:  J. P. had never been happy.  Had Kevin?  Well, maybe when they were boys on Rockaway beach, burying each other in the sand.

Maybe it wasn’t Kevin but J. P. who’d been truly in love with Nina Textor.  She was his one and only love but had gotten pregnant and her parents made her come home and . . . whatever.  Whatever had happened.  It’s always something.

Probably it had all started as one of J. P.’s practical jokes, nailing the girl Kevin had been trying and failing for months with.  Ha ha.

“J. P., the Great God Zeuxis, you know?” Kevin said.  “What do you think he was laughing at, anyway?”

J. P. looked out the window, as if the answer might be found in the ragged Rose of Sharon hedge fronting the boarded-up house across the street.  Then he turned back and peered down at his hands, fingertips just touching the edge of the table.  Kevin watched him a moment, then looked down at his club sandwich.  Someone observing them from across the room might have thought they had their heads bowed in prayer.  In fact, they did.

 

 

Dennis Vannatta has published stories in many magazines and anthologies, including Chariton Review, Boulevard, Antioch Review, and Pushcart XV, and four collections:  This Time, This Place and Prayers for the Dead, both by White Pine Press; Lives of the Artists by Livingston Press; and Rockaway Children: Stories, by Rising Star Press.  His novel, Around Centralia Square, was recently published by Cave Hollow Press.