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Tracking The Family Beast

by Po Bronson

first published in ZYZZYVA: west coast writers & artists


Like the water-bound beasts lawyers are so often compared to, Klacker, Lipmann et al. had swallowed Deb whole. Klacker had 230 lawyers on three floors of the BofA building, and Deb---onetime queen of the Golden Gate Park tennis ladders---wouldn’t stay on the bottom floor long. At home, my desk, her desk, our bookcases, and our tabletops were all buried under Criminal Procedure and Mason v. Richmond and the agonizing briefs that turn socially conscious law students into the money grubbers we are all too familiar with. She had traded in our Saturday matches for days at the library searching for restatements of "cases of, pertaining to, or affected by vicarious liability as it applied to food packaging." Over re-warmed dinners I had prepared with the Deb I once knew in mind---fettuccine with marinated mushrooms in wine sauce---the Deb I knew now spoke of "interfacing with clientele" and "implementing objective criteria on a go-forward basis," lingo that pained my young ears to hear. First six pounds lighter, then eight, then twelve, Deb was making it up the organization but disappearing in the process. We weren’t happy. When together we used f-words often, mine being "fuck" and her being "firm," as in "The Firm" and her loyalty to it. It was a price she was willing to pay, but her struggling author/husband---your narrator, Bobby Joe Edmunds---proved incapable of.

I tried! Sort of. I made it through years one through four, each worse than the one prior, keeping my lip stiff and my backbone rigid and trying to think of a future when we could look back and laugh at how hard it had been. I tried to be sympathetic to her motivation---climbing to the top was just her way of survival---but that couldn’t comfort me for long. Nor did it comfort me to find, from the marriage counselor The Firm referred me to, that my plight was common and shared by many. "So what!" I shouted, a man of eloquent and elevated diction reduced to blubbering rage. A line was being drawn in my life, at first blurry but increasingly sharp, a line that separated my love for her from the integrity of life my father had once, among other things, taught me to seek out. He had also taught me, by example, that love is impossible to sustain. I had heard his arguments with my mother and every girlfriend of his I’d known. I had heard his monologue on Blake Island, the week we went camping the summer after the divorce, telling me that all good things come to an end. So when I looked, I saw life as a tornado, risky and dangerous and fundamentally unstable. And I saw the studio apartments and lost jobs and repossessed sports cars of a man I was the spitting image of.

Now I was at risk of losing not only my love for Deb but also the spontaneous wit and open heart that makes a young man a young writer.

I could go on forever here, but my complaints are already exaggerated by anger, while my own role in our undoing is ignored. In truth, it was a difficult time. I was full of indecision when I woke in the morning, not sure why I should climb out from under the covers or what I would do if I did, and for this I blamed Deb: I didn’t consider that my job was godawful boring or that I was frustrated with my unpublishable fiction. I began to think that 28 was a dreadfully young age to have lost the lust for life, and I pegged Deb as the cause of my woes.

Once again my real life sneaked its way into my work, culminating in a piece handed over to Forest Henning when we asked to see what each other had been writing since I’d seen her last. Hers was a near-perfect story based on her year-long adventure in Africa, while mine was a heavy-handed tale set in the late years of the last century: Orin Ringling----trapper, trader, and all-around mountain man---waits for his wife in the log cabin he built overlooking the Klamath Lakes. She has taken the mule and sled down the mountain to Grand Falls for supplies---only a half day’s hike each way---but she has not returned. Orin waits and waits, knowing that he should go after her but knowing how much she loves Grand Falls, how she loves the organ player at Whiskey Jack’s, how she likes the flannel sheets and flowered wallpaper in the Gold River Hotel, how she gazes so fondly at the Southern Pacific train that steams to San Francisco. While he waits for her, he fells, chops, and stacks firewood for the oncoming winter, which he knows will be very cold. Gradually, we are led to believe, by the size of his woodpile, now as tall as the cabin next to it, that he has been waiting not a matter of hours but rather months.

"You’ve changed," Forest said, first thing, when we met at a North Beach cafe to discuss our fiction. She was wearing a gauzy print skirt without the leggings underneath that make the style acceptable in public. When our coffees came, she pulled a fifth of tequila from her knapsack and poured a shot into her mug. It was 12:30 in the afternoon. We were two blocks from where I slaved as a copywriter for KL Computronics. Forest was exactly my age, but at that moment I was aware of how little age has to do with the size of the world one has come to know. "Why, Bobby Joe," she said, "why?"

"Why what?"

"Why are you married to it?"

"To what?"

"The Firm, for chrissakes!" Forest mentioned the Tswana tribe of the Mabutsane Delta in Botswana, Africa, where men can take as many wives as they have fingers to wear wedding rings on.

I said that I’d missed her point.

She lit a cigarette and took several deep drags. "I’m just saying that in many cultures, sowing one’s oats is encouraged."

This was a come-on (even my inexperienced ears could tell that) and I was honest, both to her and to myself, with unexpected wisdom that shot the truth of why I hadn’t betrayed Deb earlier. "Sowing one’s oats," I repeated. "I wouldn’t know where to start."

What followed more closely resembles a dream that the honest-to-god real life it was, and, for a period, I had no more control over myself than I do in my nightmares. Your mild-mannered, middle-American narrator split from one man into two: the first, the very thoughtful do-gooder Deb had always wanted as a husband, and the second, a creature that spent his afternoons not at KL Computronics but in a sleazy hotel room. At night I quit swearing, took interest in Deb’s damage computations and discovery procedures, and massaged the tight muscles of her neck until she fell asleep. By day I stared---stared at cracks in the bare plaster walls, stared at the filthy curtains over our rented-room window, stared at the striped mattress where Ms. Henning and I committed waistline hanky-panky bizarre varieties. The Robert J. Edmunds of my evenings drank only water with his dinner and remained devoted to his featherweight spouse. The Bobby Joe of my afternoons drank whiskey for his lunch and devoted himself to carnal pleasures. Each man carried a bitter distaste for and low opinion of the other, but otherwise Robert J. thought no more of what Bobby Joe had done that day than he did of what he’d eaten for breakfast or which tie he’s worn to work. It was scary, I tell you, this dream I could not wake up from. What I’d expected from an affair---a little bad sex and a lot of time whispering on the telephone---bore no relation to the evolutional regression I suffered. That part of my brain regularly entrusted with keeping the reptile subjugated to the human had blown its fuse, and for a week I crept the earth with plate belly and a scaly tail and bug eyes that could see in the dark.

Time, that yesterday-today-tomorrow dimension we have no control over, simply disappeared. My past with Debbie seemed as relevant as Thermopylae; our planned future---two kids named Morgan and DeeDee, plus an adopted Salvadoran named Paco; a library full of my published novels; a summer cabin near Jackson Hole to retreat to from the stress of Deb’s political career---now seemed as desirable as paying taxes. I began to vest some hope in a new future with Forest: I would return to Africa with her, this time to explore the western coast, where I would send dispatches to major magazines about pygmy worship rituals and the civil war in Cameroon.

But, as quickly as she entered my life, Forest vanished. On the Friday of that torrid week, Bobby Joe arrived at Room 23 at the prearranged time. Forest normally spent her mornings in there writing on yellow legal pads---an irony that at the time escaped me---but the bed was without sheets and the one window---which she always kept wide open---was closed to the sill. The house manager hadn’t seen her, nor had the janitor, so from the lobby, Bobby Joe called her parents’ house, where she had been living since her return from Africa. He was told by her mother---who did not remember either time they’d met---that Forest had been offered a job in Irvine and had flown to Los Angeles that morning---to live with her old boyfriend Carl. Yes, Forest had known about the job for quite some time, at least a month.

Wait a minute, Bobby Joe wanted to say. Just wait. Wait! But time had begun again on him, he could feel it as thick as ocean water. He looked into the receiver of the phone in his hand, then at the red knee-high boots of the wigged whore standing outside the front door, then down the dark hallway where room 23 had cracked his life wide open. After a moment it was no longer the low-life Bobby Joe standing there, but rather your unlucky narrator, me, an empty vessel, as new to that hotel as man is to Mars. My memory of how I’d gotten there was vague, as was the day of the week and the amount of money in my wallet. My heartbeat was rapid, sweat dripped off my brow, and my hands shook when I reached for the phone receiver again. I could have called Deb to make a date for dinner, or I could have called KL Computronics and said I would be back at the office in an hour. I could have gone back to the life I’d once know. I wanted to. But I knew I’d done something wrong, very wrong, and that it would be a very long time getting the oil and water of me back together.

The call I made was awkward. "There’s been some trouble," I said, when my father---then living with a woman in her Queen Anne apartment back in Seattle---answered the phone and asked what had become of me the last few months.

"Is it money?" he said.

"It’s not money."

"Nobody’s in the hospital?"

I said that no, it wasn’t that either. The prostitute with the red boots came inside the door and sat down on the vinyl couch in the lobby.

And Dad said, "You know, you got married very young. I’d been to war before I got married, and I still didn’t get it all out of me."

"Get what out of you?"

Dad paused then, and I could hear over the phone a drawer being opened and the pages of a day planner being flipped through. "Look at this," he said. "I’ll be in your neck of the woods in a couple days. I’m doing a lot of business with the Japanese." To convince me, he mentioned the name of a new Japanese-owned hotel in my city that he sometimes stays at, and a few dynamics of the way the Japanese value risk differently than American insurers. "These next few days are not as important as they may seem," he said. He cleared his throat. "I’m not supposed to do this," he said, but he did, which was to give me his corporate AmEx number and the address of the aforementioned hotel. Then he told me to drink lots of water and take care to fold whatever clothes I might take off at night.

In those two days I called Deb several times from my father’s hotel to explain why I could not come home, but each time my gibberish fell short of the truth and the call ended with Deb cutting me off. To capture the two-headedness of the time, I tried metaphors of Greek mythology and Chinese Buddhism, as well as the evolutionary phrases I have used here, but Deb heard the words "other woman" and "occasional intimacy" and decided she’d heard enough. When angry, she used the names of Klacker’s divorce attorneys; when sad she talked about the walking ability of her two-year-old niece. I rode the hotel’s marble elevators several hours each night, punching every one of the 45 floors. Every morning a maid service polished my loafers and pressed my shirt while I swam in the pool, which was on the roof under glass. Dad had called ahead and stocked the refrigerator with liter bottles of cranberry Calistoga. I slept the first night---or three hours of it---in the bathtub under blankets, and the second night sitting upright in a lounge chair with the sound of cable movies turned low. When I woke up---around ten that Monday morning---the television was off and Dad was pulling back the drapes.

He looked splendid. "I caught an early flight," he said. We made small talk to calm our unease---I needed him, but life had proven that my father was not someone who could be leaned on. He told me his new fighting weight, 195, his corresponding pant size, 38, and the details of the health regimen that kept him there. When I told him I’d been paddling around a little bit in the pool upstairs, his eyebrows lifted and a grin came over his face.

In minutes we were in the weight room on 45, me in newly purchased, bright-white, hotel sweatwear, and Dad in his UW purple-and-gold. Pumping iron is not my specialty, and after each of my father’s sets I had to drop the weight several notches just to squeeze out four or five reps. But after one trip around the Universal I felt better, and after a second trip---with all that blood in my muscles---I actually felt strong, almost confident, nearly clearheaded. Dad spotted me while I bench-pressed, and he looked deep into my eyes as I struggled through a half-dozen lat pulls. He didn’t ask any questions about what had happened, but when we moved from the weight room into the steam room, the part about carnal pleasure in room 23 came out with the sweat from my pores.

"I’m not who I thought I was," I confessed. "I didn’t think I could do this sort of thing."

The steam built up around us. My father’s advice at first was simple. It focused on only the everyday details of my life. He repeated the instructions to fold my clothes. He added that I should be at my office at nine sharp every morning even if I only twiddled a pencil through my fingers. Exercise was good; hard liquor was bad. "Just because one leg of your table falls off, you don’t kick out the other three legs trying to save the one." This was advice, he admitted, that he hadn’t managed to apply when he had been in my position so many years ago. I began a mental list hung, as a mnemonic, on the things I take traveling: waxed dental floss, black shoe polish, an alarm clock, safety razor, dark socks, and clean underwear. He told me to keep the pleasures of my life in mind, and he made me affirm a few of these out loud---Screaming Jay Hawkins, the view from the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, Tuesday-night basketball at the USF gym.

"Some lessons are easier to learn than others," Dad said. He took a deep breath and pushed the sweat off his forehead. His cheeks were red. "I’m thinking of that first Christmas apart when you---you would have been twelve, I think. I don’t think you’ve heard this before." And Dad, who has a way of setting his stories before getting to his point, told me of the borrowed Volkswagen Squareback he drove on this wintery night, which had no heater or defroster, but was safe on ice because the engine sat over the rear wheels. There were miles of treacherous roads, he said, between our house and the Three Coins restaurant near the airport, where he had spent the afternoon drinking with strangers. My mother, he said, had decided to forgive him. She had invited him to come back, to come back home on Christmas Eve. They’d been separated six weeks, and the man driving that car was very glad that time was over. To dramatize it, as if it needed further drama, he’d put on a red silk hat and stuffed a sofa cushion into his red shirt. "This was 17 years ago," he said, "and I still think about it all the time."

St. Nick got out of the Volkswagen in front of his small home with a Nordstrom's sack of gifts for his sons. for his oldest boy, 14, a bicycle tachometer and an album by a band called Kansas. For his youngest, 9, a Rock-Em, Sock-Em Robot set. For his middle boy, 12, an orange polyester ski parka with zippered sleeve cuffs. He walked up the driveway and cut across the lawn, stiff with frost. "I was almost there," he said. "I got right up on that porch." Through the small, fogged window in the door he could see the light from the candles on the mantel and the blinking, colored lights strung on the tree. "I’m not who I thought I was, either," he said, his voice sad and heavy with memory. "If I’d just rung the bell, we might have turned out differently." Instead he set down the gifts and got back into the Volkswagen. In half an hour he was back at the Three Coins, slurping champagne from soda glasses and trading stories with his new-found friends. "It was crazy," he said. "So many people with nowhere else to go, all drunk and needy as a newborn."

As I listened, a part of me was back camping with Dad on Blake Island, a belly full of steak and my first shots of whiskey. In the steam, on the 45th floor of this Japanese-owned hotel, I could feel myself coming whole again. The boy in me was meeting the man. For a moment life escaped its randomness. But I feared, suddenly, that Dad’s confession had come to an end, so I asked him if he remembered the stories people told in that bar Christmas Eve.

"Do I?" he laughed. He questioned whether bears still crap in the woods, then laughed again. "But I don’t know if it would help you any to hear them."

I assured him that it would, coming from him. I was feeling better, at least momentarily, to know that there were people in this world like me, so many people.

Dad smiled. He took another white towel off a stack in the corner and draped it over his shoulders. "What the hell," he said, "we’re in no hurry here."