|Jan/Feb 2014 Fiction|
Image courtesy of British Library Photostream
When the results came in from their Informers, Tab proposed a toast and Abner lifted his glass, as did everyone else. All offered and accepted congratulations, even though, of course, none had done anything except support the winning candidate. But Abner could not help feeling wistful or worse, and it showed on his face. It would have been better if Belle had been there, he thought, and he felt acknowledgment of this in the hard, slightly painful grasp Tab took of his shoulder. His former brother-in-law had already seemed tight, as if he'd been bothered all evening by his sister's absence; it wasn't just that he was so happy their guy had won, the presidential candidate who'd promised peace.
"She would have been glad, too," Tab said about Belle.
"Yes, she would," Abner nodded, even though he wasn't sure. Belle had never cared much for politics—or parties, for that matter, two more things he and his wife had had in common and which had made her death from cancer a year ago that much harder to bear. Still, agreeing was one way to wiggle out of Tab's embrace: His host's thick fingers were now digging into Abner's arm, as if he meant to attach himself to Abner, since he could no longer touch, address, or see his sister. "I better be going," Abner said, swiveling enough so that Tab's fingers snapped free, the way a frozen fly does from a window sill when you finally dust it clean.
Tab placed a big wet kiss on Abner's cheek, one that smelled of Scotch and shrimp hors d'oeuvres, again as if saying goodbye to his sister and not him. Then he staggered away, chanting "We won, we won," words which seemed to have many meanings, though Abner was unsure what the others might be.
Approaching the front door, Abner reflexively checked his device to see what else their Informers had to say about the election. So many at the party were doing it that the little lights looked like candles in a funeral ritual held in the dimly lit living room.
"Would you mind giving me a lift?" someone asked as he put on his coat. "I could use a ride."
Abner turned. He saw a woman he didn't recognize: small, boyishly built, younger than he (early 30s, maybe) with dark hair frosted in places by blonde as if there were little poppies planted in it.
"Oh," he said, surprised both because he usually knew everyone at Tab's parties and that the woman's request was so helpless. "Uh, okay, sure. Why not?"
He drove them in the near-dark, with only a few lights left on in the suburban streets. Signe sat in silence, which perturbed Abner and made him speak up (Belle had once told him that people could be defined by how they responded to silence, and, as usual, she had been right). "Are you a friend of Tab's? I don't remember seeing you around."
"A friend of a friend. But my friend left early without telling me. Some friend."
"It's all right. I have a thing about being left early, I guess."
Signe explained that her husband had recently died—also of cancer—and that this had made her feel trapped between flights in an unfamiliar airport, as if her connection had been canceled and would never be rescheduled.
"Or something," she said, "I'm not being clear."
"No, no," Abner said. "I know just what you mean."
And he did. It wasn't enough that Signe had gone through the same trauma he had, but her analogy about the experience was the exact one that had occurred to him. It was uncanny, one of those things that suddenly make you feel close to a total stranger. Abner could see more lights going on in houses as he drove, as if in happy acknowledgment of what had occurred.
They spoke more as they went, and Abner found himself reducing his speed to make the trip last longer. Both were the youngest in their families, had been stammerers as children and bedwetters long after they should have stopped. Each had two older and bullying siblings of the same sex. His mother had ended up an alcoholic, her father had been one all along.
"Here," Signe said, suddenly and with regret, as if snapping out of a reverie they both were in. "Please, take a left. This is me."
Abner blinked, as if he, too, had just awakened. He was shocked to see where they were.
It was the other side of town, in a neighborhood he had never entered, not intentionally, anyway, had used only to turn around or take as a shortcut back to what he knew. He looked down to the passenger seat and saw with a start that Signe's device was on and sitting in her lap, its light like a small round X-ray of herself. On it, her Informers were celebrating the election of the other presidential candidate, the one who was warlike.
Now Abner was additionally stunned that Signe had been at the party. There was rarely if ever any fraternizing between those who believed one thing and another.
"It's peculiar, isn't it?" she said, as if he had spoken this aloud. "My friend said it was like entering enemy territory for me and thought it would be funny, a prank. She didn't know I'm not obsessed with current events. And look who I met."
She meant himself. He pulled up outside her house.
"Would you care to come in?" she asked, obviously overcoming shyness, something which had also plagued him his entire life.
"I'd like to," he blurted out. "But maybe next time."
And his even saying that was a sign of something big between them; both knew it would have to stay their secret.
A few weeks later, Abner was set up on a lunch date by his ex-brother-in-law. At first, he thought it was strange, if not unseemly, as if Tab were encouraging a posthumous infidelity. But maybe, he thought, Tab was being positive, compassionate, and forward-looking. Or else Tab was being controlling, allowing Abner to move ahead only if he, Tab, could be in charge of it. Abner didn't know. In any case, the image of a quizzical Belle seemed to appear in the air above the deli table as he ate with Edna, a woman Tab knew from work.
She was pretty, pleasant, and bright, divorced with two young children. She alluded to her ex-husband being depressed or at least moody and withdrawn, something which bothered Edna and about which she seemed judgmental. Abner began to suspect that she had been the one to initiate the break-up, in order to free herself from a husband she felt dragging her down. This disquieted Abner, since he tended to be downbeat himself and had emotional "issues" of his own.
Edna was active politically—kept on top of things all day, in other words—and spent much of the lunch on her device, excitedly discussing the peace talks of the new president (the one they believed had won), which were already in the works. The light from the object held in her hands reflected up onto her face, giving her a scary Jack-O-Lantern look. He wondered if she was so animated because she was nervous or because she was heavily invested in the information and just assumed he would be, too. He wasn't sure.
Abner had not turned on his own device, had not done so for days, had no idea what his Informers were saying was happening.
"This is on me," he said at the end, placing down his card. Edna fought him perfunctorily, then gave in with a smile. Paying made Abner feel less guilty, because he knew they had no future and she had seemed interested.
Afterward, right before dark, Abner found his way back to the other neighborhood, as if led by an invisible convoy in a dream. When he entered, a cop drove by, checking out his car, deciding if he belonged. Abner did not stop or even turn his head to see the remaining lawn signs for the other winning candidate. He acted as if he were right at home, for this was how he felt. The cop moved on.
Signe had left her living room curtain half-closed, as they had arranged, so he would know that she was home. Her door had been kept unlocked, and he went through it, as he had almost every night for the past few weeks.
Abner had learned that Signe hated the heat and liked air conditioning, was not vegetarian but took it easy on the meat, had a little wine every evening but had not smoked dope for years. There were many other things they shared, and he hoped he would find out more tonight, as he had all the other times.
Signe was standing in the vestibule and moved toward him as he entered and wrapped her arms around him. Then she closed the curtain all the way.
Signe enjoyed a fair amount of biting and spanking in bed, as he did, but liked to start soft, with nibbling kisses and tender stroking, so this was what they did once more as she drew him to the floor.
Tab had another party a month later. It was to celebrate the signing of their president's peace pact, which their Informers had announced. (Signe said hers was planning a ramp-up to war when she went on, just to check the weather.) It was the familiar crowd except, of course, for Signe, who wasn't invited this time by her friend. Abner saw that his former brother-in-law had again started drinking early and, barely an hour in, was already red-faced and weaving.
"So," Tab said, cornering Abner in a hallway and leaning his big body in to bar his escape, "Edna has been asking after you."
"Who? Oh." Abner nodded, self-consciously. He had never followed up with Tab after the lunch. "Is that right?"
"Yes. Weren't you going to call her? Didn't you hit it off? That's what she thought."
"It was fine," he said, evasively. "Maybe I'm not—maybe I'm just not ready yet."
It was a silly lie, but Abner felt uneasy telling Tab anything now. He had not mentioned who he was seeing and where. And, here, in a gathering of like-minded people—one which suddenly seemed loud and crowded, as if at that second it had shifted into a higher gear—it seemed unsafe. Abner had never felt that way in Tab's house before.
"You were seen," the other man said, his boozy breath brushing Abner's lips. "Coming from that street. I want you to know that."
Abner felt chilled hearing this, imprisoned in the space between the kitchen and the living room, Tab's wife Lee only steps away, cracking ice into a bowl and possibly about to turn their way.
"What would Belle say?" Tab whispered, his voice growing lower as his words became more accusatory, like a flame that got hotter the tinier it sank.
"I—I don't know," Abner answered, feeling his stammer threaten to return after, what, 25 years?
"Well, I do. I do know. She wouldn't like it. She wouldn't like what you're subscribing to now. And I meant that punt intentionally. That pun."
"I'm not subscribing to anything," Abner said, sincerely, for he had not switched any beliefs. "I think she would have given me her blessing." And this was something after much back-and-forth he had decided for himself.
Now he saw that his ex-brother-in-law was on the verge of tears, and not just from a sense of being betrayed, of Abner's taking on other ideas of the world. He was afraid of losing Abner, which would mean Belle would go with him for good, the way something swirls down a drain—an old wedding ring or something else invaluable—and can never be retrieved.
The feeling made Tab strike out at him, ram a fist into Abner's side that struck him like a knife thrust from someone's sleeve in a secret agent film. He said, right into Abner's ear, "Go on then. Go to those horrible people on the other side, if that's what you want. Just don't come back."
But when Abner peeled away, squinting in pain, his right rib sore from where Tab had punched him, he saw that the other man's face said the opposite: Don't go or, if you must, come back, I'll be here, where I always will be, waiting.
Abner drove without feeling it, oblivious to his feet touching pedals, his hands on the wheel. He drifted as if floating to the now-familiar street, the turn that would take him to where she was.
There was a new booth set up at the entrance to the area, as if a toll were being enacted. Seated at a table inside its glass, like someone presiding over everyone (or being punished?), was the cop Abner had often seen make his rounds. An automatic weapon leaned against the wall behind him. His device was unusually large and propped up on the table; it showed his president standing beside an electronic map of military movements.
The cop nodded at Abner and waved him ahead, urged him to hurry, as if he were the last one he could allow. Abner drove in, and two soldiers placed construction barriers at the mouth of the lane to prevent anyone from following.
Every house light he passed was on, as if all the streets were screaming. Other soldiers put sandbags where front lawns met sidewalks. Gas masks covered their faces. As Abner pulled into Signe's driveway, he knew that there was no going back, and it felt good.
The living room curtain was again half-closed; Abner walked toward the open door. Before he knocked, he looked up. He saw fighter planes of a hostile force hovering in the sky, bent on bombing them all into oblivion. Abner smiled, for now it looked like love.