The Vault

We meet in the afternoon. Since Amy raises a young child, she’s the first to leave. I linger. Twice I stop at the hotel bar but it smells like formaldehyde, and after that I usually head back to the Vault—to where we began. Inside the Vault, business people unwind and I study the list of microbrews trying to match taste to moment. Here’s one: Orgiastic Eurotrash. How about this: Pubic Relations. Perfect. Amy’s PUBLIC relations. At the Vault I order a pint and wonder: Why am I running around with a married woman? Is this the new Joe Davenport?

The Vault’s located on Main Street in Frame, right outside Philadelphia. The speed limit is 25 miles an hour, and here’s where it gets strange. When I glance out the window, I see vehicles bolt by as if they’re on the Pennsy Turnpike. I do some of the obvious things actors do in bad movies: blink, rub my eyes, look away, take another swallow of Pubic Relations. Look again. Red and yellow tracers.

I examine the beer list. Pubic Relations, 9% alcohol. High octane, but this is only my second. “Do you see those lights out there?” I ask the bartender. He’s a kid in a black uniform, but he probably dresses in black all the time. A hipster. He glances over his shoulder and out the window as if at someone who mispronounced his name.

“Man down,” he decides.

I look again, and see an ambulance across the street, emergency lights flashing. I am not buying it. That is not what I’d just seen and I am not even buzzed.

Bar cacophony swells and I hear betting, guffaws, laughter in the mishmash. I look around and see new faces. When did they get here? There’s a backdoor, but that really doesn’t explain it. They came in and seated themselves and were served in a matter of seconds?

I am not as alarmed as you might think. I feel, not invulnerable exactly, but at least cosseted. I recently dreamed that I saw Jenny looking out at the Atlantic. Young Jenny, with the fair curly hair and smiling green eyes. As I approached my late wife, she graced me with her smile.

“It’s all going to be OK, Joe. You’re going to be OK.”

Was a time I hallucinated. But the last of those bipolar episodes occurred decades ago, and I’d outgrown them by 30. I am 55. Jenny’s death two years ago may have triggered a relapse.

“The scent of a woman!” the man next to me growls.

He’s about my age. And like me, he works out, his shoulders squaring his light coat. We’re very different, though. He wears a French beret, sports a goatee, and, when not quaffing, spreads his hands on the bar as if séancing. He stares ahead.

“Yeah, I mean you,” he says, jutting his index finger as if he’s about to poke me in the side. “You’ve been lucky.” His voice is a garbage disposal.

“Every now and then,” I say.

“Some perfumes stick to a guy. A whiff of divorce.”

I look at his reflection in the bar’s mirror. Clouded eyes, and the head radar-quivers. Blind. He reaches into his pocket, dons shades, turns to me.

“Better?”

“Doesn’t matter to me,” I say.

“Sure it does. I like freaking people out. Adds spice. Helps me unwind.”

“What do you do?”

“Own a construction business.”

“How many employees?”

I ask this a lot because I, myself, have never had an employee. My 24-year-old daughter now has employees.

“Let’s see, how many? Seventy” … pause … “seven.”

“Wow.”

“And if it wasn’t for the employees and the customers it would be a great business. But enough of this. Tell me about the lady.”

I edit a trade publication and have been on friendly email terms with Amy, who lives five minutes from my job. On Fridays, she works from home. We met here, at the Vault, a converted bank building, a few months ago ostensibly for business (my company is teetering; time to network) but really because I need to be close to a woman again, and not necessarily for sex (but, shit, I wouldn’t mind). I need that, even though I will never really let go of Jenny.

Judging from Amy’s LinkedIn photo, I’d pictured someone in her mid-50s, a bit frumpy, a bit worn. Well, the camera lies. Amy turns out to be a beach baby. Streaked blond hair, complexion that glows with outdoorsy vibrancy, blue you-can’t-look-away eyes and, though dressed in business casual, a body. I mean, the body. She takes care of herself. When we shake, her smile promises of mischievous doings on the day’s cusp. I am smitten, can you tell? Of course, she is married, something she points out early on. Has a 6-year-old boy. She had the child late, when she was 40.

I think: “We’ll chat. I’ll keep my distance. Maybe she has some single friends. If they look anything like her….”

A few in, though, and the conversation takes the disheartening turn that I’d become familiar with after other chance meetings with married women at bars. Honesty sidles up.

It’s a marriage on paper only. Friends tell me that I should have left him 10 years ago. No love, no hatred, just nothing.

I realize just how lucky Jenny and I had been. She was my favorite person to be with, and I, hers. I do what I usually do: Buy the next round (I’m buying all the rounds, actually) and say, “Here’s that you and Mark figure it out, Amy.” Clink.

Overhead lights dim, and sparky Christmasy bulbs brighten the bar. The hostess leads couples and contingents of work colleagues to high-backed chairs and round metal tables, and eyes everywhere squint at the whiteboarded list of the day’s foamy specials that are brewed on site.

Amy quaffs a full-bodied IPA called Combination. No wary sipping for this woman, no concern about calories. Good.

“I don’t like the man, let alone love him,” she says about her husband.

How is that some people get together in the first place? Amy tells me that when she and her son, Elijah, see a spider or ant in the house she makes sure to gently gather the insect up and set it free outside. She fears that somehow her son might become a serial killer, not because of any defect in the lad (he’s a gentle 6-year-old for God’s sake), but because such monsters start out torturing insects and animals. I find that a little cra-cra, but we all have our cracks.

Meanwhile, Mark is a hunter and a gun enthusiast. He spends too much time in his garage cradling and cleaning weapons and far too much time hunting. He can be gone for weeks. Amy thought that Elijah’s birth would change that, but no.

“He’s missing so many important moments in our son’s life,” she says. “And even when Mark’s home it’s as if he’s not there. He’s always too tired to play with him. I had to teach Elijah how to ride a bike.”

“I can’t imagine being that disengaged,” I say.

“He had a woman, years ago. Maybe still. I don’t even care anymore.”

I want to rub her back, and to show you how awkward I am I actually ask permission.

“May I touch you?”

She nods. 

I think as I massage this pretty woman: “Screw your principles for one night, Joe.” When she starts to leave, I whisper to her that if her company hired me (they seem interested), it would mean that we couldn’t date. She gives me a flirty slap on the shoulder.

Months go by, and Amy still pitches story ideas, being sure to copy my boss the editor-in-chief. OK, it’s back to business, I think. But once she sends me, and only me, this:

Hi Joejust a quick questiondo you get hit with a ton of pitches on Mondays? I’m trying to figure out the best strategy to share news. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Best!

ME

And then her usual automatic signoff with name, title, contact info. Men are notoriously stupid when it comes to registering undercurrents. “She totally likes me!” When really all she wanted to do was make her boyfriend jealous. So I know that she might not want to see me.

Still, the very next Wednesday I email Amy, asking if she’d like to meet at the Vault again. No answer. I email Thursday saying, “Did I mention it’s on me?” No answer. Finally, on Friday afternoon about 3, she responds:

Dang!!! – I’m going to have to rain check. Next week could Tuesday lunch work? Today is my b-day and the little guy is planning a paaaaarteeee.

We finally meet on a Friday afternoon and at a certain point I whisper this charmer: “The only other woman I’ve been with since my wife died told me that I should teach a course on how to give a girl oral sex.”

And that’s how Joe Davenport gets involved with a married woman.

“Ew,” my blind friend says. “That’s nasty.”

“I didn’t actually do it,” I lie. “Can I ask you….”

“Since birth, I’ve been blind,” he interrupts. “Name’s Gorgy Riverspoon.”

We shake. What the hell kind of name is Gorgy?

“What’s yours?”

My simple “Joe” revs up to “Joeeeeeeeohhh” instead because suddenly gunshots and screaming explode around us. Gorgy tightens his grip, holds me in place.

“It’s a song, Joe! Just a song!”

The clatter morphs into a guitar riff. I pull my hand loose.

Gorgy says, “I keep telling those schmucks not to play it, that we older guys—especially veterans who’d seen combat—it flips them out. I saw a few of them dive under tables.”

“Saw?”

“Yeah, I say ‘saw’ a lot, when I mean I gathered information through deductive faculties to reach certain conclusions. In other words, the bartender told me. He’s my eyes here.”

I notice for the first time that there’s no cane or seeing-eye dog. How does Gorgy get around?

The bartender fronts us. “I am really sorry about that.” The veneer of hipness droops to reveal an insecure young man. He fiddles with a remote and the song’s replaced with Adele’s’ “Someone Like You.”

“I thought you were supposed to trash that gun song,” Gorgy says, looking just to the side of the young man. The slant disorients the kid even more.

“We play it when we’re setting up,” he says, his voice quivering. “I forgot it was still looped.”

He’s not the only nervous one. I am still shaking. Take a pull of Pubic Relations.

Gorgy says: “Remember the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter?’” Gorgy sings, “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away.” Gorgy sounds like a dog playing tug-of-war. “Or how about the Beatles’ ‘Revolution’—begins with that scream? Well, the song that just assaulted us is their grandchild. Except the special effects these days….”

“I thought terrorists.”

“Joe, it’s Frame. We’re not a target. You a vet?”

I tried to join for the First Gulf War, but my mental health history….

“My two brothers fought,” I say.

“Here’s to them.”

He holds up his pint.

“Here it comes,” I say, leaning over and touching his glass.

“So the lady is married,” he says.

I sigh.

“My friend that is not going to end well.”

“What does end well, Gorgy? My marriage wasn’t perfect, not by any means, but cumulatively, a damn good marriage. That ended with cancer, and it wasn’t good.”

“I am truly sorry.”

I feel myself blush. It happens when I emote. Who doesn’t have their shit, their baggage, their millstones? My pain doesn’t rate that much attention. I am Icarus falling into the sea, and the world just stumbles on without notice. That’s how it should be. That’s how it is for everyone.

Gorgy says, “Shit gets complicated.”

“Does it?”

How many times have you heard that from people who wreck their lives? “It’s complicated.” It’s not complicated. After Jenny, the plan was to put off dating until my daughter moved out. She was 21 when she watched her mother die; I didn’t want to bring a third party—even a third party passing through—into the mix. Three and a half years later she’s still home and I miss having a woman in the crook of my arm.

I did for a time sneak-date a former colleague, but then the two-year anniversary of Jenny’s death came, and I realized I wasn’t ready. Anyway, I hated doing something behind my daughter’s back; I felt like a married man committing adultery. So I went into romantic hibernation.

Not such a bad fate, as it turns out. I am glad to be there for my child. She works a stressful job and sometimes she melts down. But when I am not with her, the hours tread slowly. I try to keep busy, not relive the past.

The future! The future! That’s what counts. Listen to this dream.

I rake leaves even as trees shower them down like tickertape. Smoke from nearby backyards tickles the air, and sunlight throbs the clouds. Suddenly, a little giggler darts by and belly-flops into the pile. I lay the rake down and go to pick up the rascal, whom I’m sure is my daughter from years ago. But it’s not. The toddler’s bright eyes look up: “It me, Grandpa!” I know—and I mean I know—that that will indeed be my grandchild someday. So I don’t believe in ghosts come back. I believe in heralds from the future.

“Look at that,” Amy says.

We’re at the Hampton again and she’s dressing to the side of the window watching first flurries dust a darkening December afternoon. We’re done, and in shadow except for a neon that flickers in the parking lot, making the beautiful woman look like an angel unsure about whether to appear.

“What are they calling for?” she asks.

“Maybe three inches.”  

“Just enough to be a pain. Fender-benders. Skidding.”

She’s finished getting ready but lingers by the view. Enveloped in slight hesitancy, a quietness that’s new to me, as if the layer covering the outside somehow cast its muffled influence into the room. My melancholy baby.

“How’s the little guy?” I ask.

“With my sister.”

“Not where, how?”

“He’s the best.”

I roll off the bed, walk over, put my arm about her shoulder. She looks up at me, lips tucked into a straight line like a teacher reacting to a student’s wisecrack.

“Mark suspects,” she says.

“Good,” I say. “This is your chance to escape a bad, bad situation.”

“For what, Joe? What are we doing?”

Eskimos have something like 40 words for snow and I wonder what they’d call this outside blowing about like strings in front of an air conditioner. I remember how Jenny, the schoolteacher, got so excited about the possibility of a day off.

I say, “We’re two souls enjoying the hell out of each other. The sex….”

“Yeah, the sex.”

“It’s strange,” I say. “I actually got jealous yesterday thinking that you might be with another man, and I don’t mean Mark.”

She smiles, but her eyes won’t participate.

“I don’t even have time for you!” she says.

But her unanswered question takes up space. What are we doing?

“No pressure, babe,” she says, patting me on the chest. “No pressure.”

“Has Mark said anything?”

“He looks at me.”

“Looks at you?”

“I mean really looks at me, not through me.”

Maybe this will be good for their relationship.

“In a threatening way? Did he ever hit you?”

“No. Never.”

“He must know it’s dead.”

“Maybe.”

“Amy, you deserve some happiness.”

“I do, don’t I? I do deserve to be happy!” The beautiful, mischievous smile returns; the eyes shine.

“That’s the Amy I know.”

“You mean the flack you know, Joe Davenport. How many of my pitches have you blown off?”

“Not anymore.”

“You only run with one or two a year, if I’m lucky.”

“I am not the editor.” For the hundredth time.

I leave about a half hour after her. It’s coming down, no longer just a dusting. Doppler underestimated. I won’t be visiting the Vault tonight. I brush a coating off my windshield, the stinging particles disperse like dust. I roll onto Route 332 just ahead of a snowplow and I’m happy about that. I am an impatient man. The streetlights halo the dizzying concoction. I drive past large, open fields. Farmers who refused to sell, pure and hopeful that somewhere down the line descendents will not cave.

And here’s where it becomes hairy—and somewhat embarrassing. I should not have reacted the way I did. I am really made of sterner stuff. When my daughter borrowed my car a few days ago, she must have changed radio stations, and she likes her music loud. When I hit the nob, I expect one of my country songs. Instead gunshots and explosions pulse through the speakers and I swerve, the car spins off the highway and into a rut along one of the fields. I realize too late that it’s that song from the Vault.

I hit the nob again as the car rocks and settles. I swallow a few times in the silence, beating back nausea. I’ve landed behind some high brush, hidden from the traffic. The plow that I’d been so happy to outpace a few minutes ago scrapes by. The door’s jammed against a bush and I emerge in hard-fought inches, and crawl up the little ravine. And when I reach the top, I behold a field and even in my confused and adrenaline-fueled state, I gasp at the folds of white that seem to stretch toward infinity.

I am underdressed for this escapade and I call AAA and get that straightened out. Because of the snow they might take a little longer than usual.

“How much longer?”

“He’ll call when he’s on his way.”

I could fight my way back into the car and turn the heat on. I will, in a few. Now, though I stand in awkward awe in snow kissing the ground like a cymbal being brushed. I gaze upon a transformed landscape where horses in the summer lazily graze, a rural space just a few miles outside a major metropolis. The large arc of a gray starless sky seems bolted at invisible extremities, a vault protecting treasured experience.  

I see something stumbling about the edge of visibility. At first I think it’s a deer, but no, it is definitely a man. He’s disoriented, walks one way, falls, picks himself up, stumbles in another direction. I will call 911 before I head out toward him, but then he disappears. I will still call 911.

I hadn’t been in such an intense situation—a situation that you’d think might require complete focus—since Jenny’s death. But Jenny’s moment invited memory to wander from touchstone to touchstone. Undercurrents abounded. It’s the same now. When survival and the rescue of a confused stranger should seal concentration, non sequiturs breach reality. I reach a conclusion about something totally unrelated to my current predicament. Amy’s Mark is in a bad way, I decide. I need to call it quits between she and me, or he could….

Just then my cell rings. Is it the tow?

A familiar voice growls, “Good decision.”

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