A new short story by Joseph Epstein
It’s a mistake, somebody or other once said, to have three cats, for if you have three, why not five or six, or more? The same may be true of husbands and wives. If three, why not five or six? I’ve had three cats at various times in my life and, as it turns out, five husbands, so maybe there’s something to it. Five husbands, the number boggles the mind, whatever “boggles” means.
I also have ovarian cancer, or so I’ve just been told, which makes this as good a time as any to try to explain my life, if only to myself. The theme of my life, as I’ve known for a long while now, has been freedom, or at least the hope of gaining freedom, and just as it looks as if I have it, here comes my death sentence in the form of ovarian cancer.
I’ve always had a man problem, the problem being how to get away from them, beginning with my father. I grew up in a small town in north-central Arkansas, Batesville by name. A handsome man, my father had a beautiful but nutty sister, my Aunt Velma, and a kindly but retarded younger brother named Roscoe. Velma flounced and fluttered around and Roscoe walked the yard of their small house, with his kindly face behind which who knew what was going on. My father worked as a stone mason, always in business for himself, for he was too independent—“too damn mean,” he would have said—ever to work for anyone else.
Why my mother married him I haven’t the foggiest notion. My mother was reserved and artistic. She made beautiful quilts and also the uniforms for the cheerleaders and marching band at Batesville High. My father didn’t so much give her a hard time as mostly pretend she wasn’t there. When he wasn’t working, he was out hunting and fishing. He kept a large freezer stuffed with fish he had caught and rabbits and squirrels he had shot. The freezer was near our bathroom. For some reason my father never saw fit to put a door on our one bathroom, which was covered by a sliding drape, making for a terrible absence of privacy. I was ashamed to bring friends home from school, and so rarely did.
Daddy kept his drinking to the weekends, and he was not a happy drunk. He never beat my mother, nor my older sister Dottie and me, but on his rampages he did a pretty good job on our furniture and dishes and glassware. The effect of her marriage on my mother was to make her seem defeated, old before her time, and resigned—above all, stuck with a man who had no sense of what stirred her soul. I’m not sure thatI ever openly said it even to myself, but I decided never to be resigned in life, never to settle for a situation like my mother’s.
I hope I’m not giving the impression that I hated my father. I didn’t. He could be humorous, even affectionate. But I knew I wanted to get away from him. Dottie must have felt the same, for she left home at sixteen, to marry a man who sold potato chips and other snack foods on his truck route through the Ozarks. I made it until seventeen, when I left home four months pregnant with the first of my five children.
Van Willis was a high-school football star. The Willises were more middle-class, which I guess is to say more respectable, than our family. At least they had a door on their bathroom. Ernie Willis sold insurance; he was in Kiwanis. They were members of the second Baptist Church. They lived in a modest but well-maintained white house in a better part of town than we did. Ernie and Edna Willis were disappointed to learn that I was pregnant with Van’s child. They wanted something better for him and made no secret of it. Van, as they say, did the right thing, and we married while still in high school.
I should say here that I am not knock-out beautiful, but I must be sexy. I don’t think of myself as flirtatious, but I guess I suggest, in some mysterious way, availability. At least I have never had trouble attracting men. My third, my Jewish, husband used to call me zaftig, which he defined as having lots of curves and all in the right places.
I didn’t plan my pregnancy with Van. We made love on the back seat of his 1948 Plymouth and, with one exception, always used condoms. The exception, of course, proved the rule, or maybe I should say the fool. A fool is certainly what I felt walking the halls of Batesville High my last semester there pregnant. A fool and ashamed. After we married, Van and I found an apartment in town. Not long after graduation, and six weeks before our baby is to be born, he comes home to report that he has enlisted in the Navy. I could have—I really should have—killed him.
My mother stood by me through the birth of my first son—I seem only able to produce boys— moving into my small apartment for the first month after Donald was born. My father, less than pleased by the embarrassment that having a knocked-up daughter caused him among his pals, pretended the whole thing never happened, and was a no-show until his grandson was three months old. Around that time Van had finished boot camp, and was transferred to Norfolk, Virginia, from where he called to say that he had found an apartment for us, and would send money for Donald and me to meet him there in a month or so.
I took my little son on a Greyhound bus trip up to Norfolk, Virginia, to meet his father. Van was an awkward father at best. When I put Donald in his arms the expression on his face seemed to say, “Where did this come from?” I realised right then that even with the best will in the world it wasn’t going to work out. I was on my own. A girl of eighteen, with an infant child, and no job training of any kind. Meanwhile, Van informs me two weeks later that he is shipping out, to just where he isn’t certain.
Van is not gone two weeks and I wake at four in the morning, needing to throw up. Morning sickness. Pregnant again. I suppose I could have arranged an abortion, though in those days it would have meant a back-alley kitchen-table nightmare. So my second son, Allen, was born. He looked like his father, whom I suppose I was by now looking for some excuse to ditch. Van gave it to me by allowing me to discover that he was seeing another woman—a girl, actually—in Norfolk, the daughter of his chief petty officer.
So there I was, with two small kids, no work, and a husband—soon-to-be ex-husband—on enlisted man’s Navy pay. My only choice was to return home to Batesville, which I did. But life there soon became impossible. I left the children with my mother and returned to Norfolk, hoping to find work. The work I found was bar-tending. The bar was a large place called Jimmy’s that used women bartenders to attract sailors. The pay wasn’t great, but the tips from drunken customers helped a lot: tips from the tipsy, I used to call them.
One of the rules at Jimmy’s was that the help was not allowed to go out with the customers. But I broke it one night when a sailor named Mitchell Hendrix, a regular, finally prevailed on me to let him take me out to dinner. He was tall, slender, with a wide mouth and lips that had a slightly collagen look, long before anyone had ever heard of collagen. He had a mischievous sense of humour, Mitch did.
Mitch was from Bozeman, Montana, where, he told me, his father had been a state senator. His family had a ranch there and lots of land. Mitch was in the Navy because, at the age of twenty, after being caught stealing a car and holding up a garage, a judge in Bozeman gave him the choice of three years in jail or three years in the Navy. “Not much of a choice, really,” is the way he explained it to me that first night at dinner.
He was fun to be around. He liked to be in action, to have scams going. By this time my divorce from Van had come through. Mitch did not exactly move in with me, but he kept some civvies in my apartment and we were, outside of Jimmy’s, a couple. One of his games was to pretend to be my pimp. He would get young sailors to give him twenty dollars for a meeting with me, and then, after I didn’t show up, explain to them what an impossible bitch I was and somehow arrange to keep the money.
Mitch was also sexually adventurous. He taught me a trick or two—actually five or six— that I hadn’t known. I was myself never squeamish about sex; I enjoyed it. I suppose here I was a little ahead of my time. Anyhow it was after a marathon night of sex that he asked me to marry him and I, foolishly, agreed. I say foolishly because it should have been clear that Mitchell Hendrix, at twenty-two, was incapable of the least loyalty to anyone.
Not long after my marriage to Mitch I learned, from a long-distance telephone call from my mother, that Van Willis and his parents had taken my two little sons from her, and were going to court for permanent custody of them. I was twenty-three years old, with no money, working as a bartender, and six hundred miles away from Batesville. Mitch was no help. Neither was my father. I wanted to blame my mother for giving up the boys, but she was what she was, a weak woman, and it was probably my mistake for leaving them in her care in the first place.
Van and his parents won their custody case uncontended. I was given no visitation rights, nothing. While Van was still in the Navy—he turned out to be a thirty-year-career man—Donald and Allen lived with the Willises. My marriage to Mitch lasted all of eleven months, broken up by mutual consent when his three-year hitch was up, and he wanted to return to Montana without the extra baggage of a wife. I decided to return to Arkansas, not Batesville, which would have been too sad, and where I wasn’t likely to find work, but to Little Rock, ninety miles away. I was hoping that Van’s parents would allow me to spend some time with my kids.
I moved in with my sister Dottie and her husband Chester. I arrived at a time when Dottie was in the middle of a love affair with a married man named Lester Hoopston, who owned a laundromat in Little Rock. All my possessions were in a single suitcase, and I slept on Dottie’s couch in her living room. I was able to get a job as a waitress at a restaurant and lounge in the basement of the Hotel Marion in downtown Little Rock called the Garhole—called that because a garfish swam in a tank behind the bar.
Van’s parents did not make it easy to see my children. I took a bus up to Batesville every week to be with them, but the Willises would only allow me to see them in their presence, usually out in their large back yard, and then for no more than an hour or two. When it was time to leave, the children would ask me why I couldn’t take them with me. I had no explanation, except to promise them that someday they would live with me, a promise I had no real hope of making good on. I never left my boys without tears in my eyes.
I worked three hours during lunch and then returned to the Garhole to work from 5pm to 11pm. Guests of the hotel came down for drinks, and so did the men who worked at the nearby Arkansas Gazette. Politicians hung out there. Occasionally soldiers who worked at the recruiting office at 3rd and Main dropped in after work.
My style as a waitress was cheerful, and with men even slightly flirtatious, though I made it a policy not to go out with customers after work. This was a policy I broke when one day, at a table of soldiers—enlisted men—I found myself teasing a guy with the nametag Goldstein on his uniform about his drinking coffee when everyone else at the table was ordering beers. He had fine features, soft brown eyes and, I noticed, delicate hands. “With you nearby, what I do need alcohol for?” he said. I fluttered my eyelashes and went into my best obviously phoney plantation southerner act: “I declare, sir, you do say the kindest things.”
After this Goldstein left with his Army buddies. Half an hour later he returned alone, and asked if he might take me out to dinner one night. I told him that I worked nights, and didn’t get off till eleven. He asked if he could meet me after work that night, and I found myself saying, “Sure, OK, why not?”
We took a cab from the Marion fifteen or so blocks to his apartment on Louisiana Street, a quiet block backing onto the governor’s mansion. David Goldstein was his name. He had a large studio apartment, sparsely furnished—a couple of upholstered chairs, a small table for dining, a foldaway double bed in the closet— and uncluttered. No television set, but a stereo, lots of books, on the table and on the floor. He asked if I’d like him to open a bottle of wine, or if I would prefer a coke or something else.
We drank two bottles of wine and, seated far from each other, talked straight through until six the next morning. He had less than ten months to go on his military hitch; he had been drafted. He worked as a typist at the recruiting station on Main Street and 3rd. We talked about our backgrounds, our families. He was from Chicago, Jewish, had gone, he said, to Columbia College in New York City. He never asked me if I had gone to college. He told me that he wanted to be a writer, but was embarrassed to say this to most people because he hadn’t in fact published anything. He asked me what my ambition for myself was. I mumbled something about a peaceful and worry-free life. Truth is that I hadn’t had time to think about my ambition; nor had any man ever asked me about it before.
As the sun was coming up, I brought up the subject of my boys, and how I had lost custody of them. He told me that he couldn’t imagine anything worse, and said it in a way that made me believe he meant it. When I began to cry, he walked across the room, gave me his clean handkerchief, then returned to his chair.
Except for the owner of Jimmy’s in Norfolk, a brute called Lou Silverman, I had never known a Jew. I certainly had never met anyone like David Goldstein. At 6.30am he said that he had better shower and get ready for work at the recruiting station, where he had to report at 8am. If I wished to sleep in his apartment before going off to work myself, he said that would be fine. He set the alarm for me for 10.30am. He made no moves on me, none whatsoever. I wondered if he might be queer.
David called me during my lunch shift at the Garhole to say that he was knocked out from no sleep and probably going to fall asleep as soon as he got off work, but if I were free one night later in the week he’d like to take me to dinner. We agreed to meet on Wednesday, my night off, at McGeary’s, a BBQ restaurant on 12th and Main Street, at 6.30.
At dinner David asked me when I was next to see my kids and, if I didn’t mind, he would like to join me. I said that I was planning to go up to Batesville on Sunday afternoon. He said he’d borrow a friend’s car and drive me up there. I was hesitant, wasn’t at all sure how the Willises would look upon my arriving with another man, especially someone like David, but in the end I said sure, why not? He picked me up that Sunday morning in a green Ford. We drove the ninety miles to Batesville, talking mostly about his family who, he said, were Jewish and very middle class. He asked me lots of questions about how Van had been able to take my kids away from me. He was of course no lawyer, but he said he didn’t think such a thing would have been possible in Chicago courts.
I explained to Edna that I had brought a friend along to meet Donald and Allen, and to my relief she didn’t give me a hard time about it. David turned out to be great with them. He called Donald Monsieur Canard explaining that canard was French for duck, and that of course the world’s most famous Donald was Donald Duck. Allen he called “Allsy”. He played tag with them. He tried to teach the six-year-old Donald to catch. They really went for him. For the first time in all my meetings with my kids since I lost custody of them I did not leave them with a heavy heart.
When David dropped me off at Dottie’s, I was nervous about inviting him in. My sister’s life, with her squalid love affair, her naturally unhappy husband, and her two kids, the younger of whom was a genuine brat, was a mess. The house, on the far east side of Little Rock, was ramshackle, a badly-painted business with a slightly falling-in porch. I could see a look of critical disappointment as he looked at the place upon dropping me off. “We have to find you a better place to live,” he said, after I kissed him on the cheek and got out of the car.
I should tell you that until now David and I had not slept together. So he must have been more than a little surprised when I showed up at his apartment the next night, after work, at 11pm with a suitcase containing all my clothes and cosmetics.
“You said I needed to find a better place to live,” I told him, standing in his doorway. “And I think I know of one. With you.”
“Welcome home,” he said, and took my suit- case.
The first thing that impressed me about Da- vid was how unpossessive he was, even after we had begun sleeping together. Working at the Garhole, I kept odd hours, yet if I happened to come in at one or two in the morning—some- times I would unwind after work at an after- hours club downtown—he never asked where I had been or with whom. Nor did he ask me to share his rent. In some ways, he was the ideal boyfriend: always there when I wanted him, but never insisting that I be there.
David seemed to have a lot going on in his life. He was always reading or tapping away on his portable typewriter. He published an article, his first, in a small New York magazine, which pleased him a lot, though, he told me, it paid him all of twenty-five dollars. He never asked me to read it. Every Sunday he drove me up to see my kids.
One day David told me that, through an acquaintance of his on the Arkansas Gazette named Jerry Neil, he had arranged for us to see a lawyer in Batesville to get regular visitation rights for me, so that I wouldn’t be under sufferance of Van’s parents. The lawyer, Herbert Samson, was able to persuade the court to give me two weekends per month visitation, and a full month in the summer. I was very happy. I don’t know how much the lawyer charged. Da- vid paid the bill, and told me that I could pay him back later, which of course I never did.
Maybe I should be put up for chairwoman of the Unplanned Parenthood Association, but one morning not long after this I woke to dis- cover myself with morning sickness, which in my mind could mean only one thing: pregnancy. I used a diaphragm, but something or other about it obviously didn’t work. I faced the pros- pect of telling David that he was about to be a father, and without the least certainty about how he would take it.
Credit where credit is due, he took it well. He didn’t do the stupid thing and ask if I were sure the baby was his, which it was. He didn’t suggest my looking into getting an abortion. He only asked me if I was certain I was pregnant. I told him I knew my body and there could be no mistake. “We’ll get married,” he said, “as soon as possible.” Then he added: “My father will of course disown me, but maybe not forever.”
“What for?” I asked.
“For marrying a gentile,” he said. “No one in our family has ever done so.”
“Is he that religious?” I asked.
“He’s an atheist,” David said, “but that doesn’t matter. It’s complicated. I’ll explain it to you some day.” He never did.
We bought our two silver wedding rings from a small Jewish man named Kleiderman, who had a modest shop on Main Street and 6th. That same day we drove over to city hall, and were married by a justice of the peace, a kindly man who took a few minutes out to lecture us on the sacredness of marriage. I was touched by what he said, and so I think was David. When we came out of city hall, married, he had a park- ing ticket. Not, some might say, a good omen. And yet my marriage to David lasted almost nine years, much longer than either of my first two marriages.
In the fourth month of my pregnancy, we drove to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where David was formally discharged from the Army. As he predicted, his father did disown him, though David stayed in touch with his mother, who eventually convinced his father to forgive him. We moved into a furnished apartment in a dump of a building called the Sherwin Arms on the far north side of Chicago, a block or so from Sheri- dan Road. David got a job working on a trade magazine, and I spent my days walking the few blocks down to Lake Michigan, and drinking coffee in a little shop under the El.
David was getting up at 4.30am to write. He was having some success. Magazines, none of which I’d ever heard of, began to publish his articles and reviews of books. I didn’t have much luck reading what he wrote, though whether I did or not didn’t seem to bother him. He was ambitious. I had never been with, or for that matter before now even met, an ambitious man.
The Goldsteins treated me decently enough. Yet I couldn’t help feeling that they had some- thing else in mind for their only son than a twice-divorced woman with two children. They never questioned me about my past, which, in modified form, David had filled them in on. Only after our son—my third son—Richard was born did we begin to see more of David’s family. Despite their courtesy to me, I couldn’t help feeling an outsider among them. One day I heard my mother-in-law, on the phone, tell a friend that “My goya comes to clean on Wednesday”—David had filled me in on twenty or so words of Yiddish—and I thought, your other goya, your daughter-in-law, is here right now in your kitchen.
Richard was born with the help of a man named David Turow, who believed in induced labour, and delivered my son and five other kids on the same Tuesday. He must have golfed on the other afternoons. David said that in the waiting room the expectant fathers had a pool going on whose child would arrive in what order.
Based on his recent publications, David had been offered a job in New York on a small political magazine. He talked with me about it, but I could sense that he had already made up his mind to take it. And so we moved to New York. Because of the expense of Manhattan, he found us an apartment in a new building in Flushing, in Queens, and soon after I became pregnant with my fourth child. We had no health insurance, and so we joined an HMO in Jamaica, Queens, where I saw a quite nutty OB-Gyno doctor named Ephraim Berlin. I’d heard that soon after my fourth son, Joel, was born, they had to drag Dr Berlin off the premises of the hospital. What I’m getting at is that none of the births of my sons—and a fifth would turn up twelve years later—was an occasion for joyousness.
While we were living in New York, my first two sons, Donald and Allen, arrived for my summer visitation. Van, still in the Navy, now was living in Balston Spa in upstate New York. He had meanwhile remarried, to a woman from Louisiana, and when my boys arrived they were not in good shape. Under some questioning from David and me, we discovered that they were being badly mistreated by their step-mother, Allen especially. She locked him in closets and used to spank him with a hairbrush. The clothes she had sent with them were unpressed and barely clean. Donald’s glasses were held together with Scotch-tape.
“These kids aren’t going back,” David announced. He said that we were going to be in a custody fight for the boys. He told me that from the time he first met me he sensed a dark sad hole in my life because I did not live with my children, and that this was the perfect time to fill in that hole. My first husband’s monstrous wife had given us that chance.
At great expense—three thousand dollars, a lot of money in those days—we won. Donald and Allen came to live with us. Us included Richard and his baby brother Edward. David at this time was twenty-six, I was twenty-seven. Life with four young boys in New York was, in David’s word, “crushing”, and he decided that we would all do better to move back to Little Rock, where he thought he could get a job on the Arkansas Gazette.
I boarded a Greyhound bus with my four kids, and the plan was for David to follow a month later. He needed to give proper notice at his job, and to close up our apartment in Flushing, whose lease would be up in less than thirty days. I was to find a house to rent, and there was enough money for me to hire a nanny to watch the kids.
Back in Little Rock, I found myself stepping out on David. I would go down to the Garhole, as a customer now, and, along with an old friend, Linda Ferguson who went to high school with me, we would pick up men. All my cheating were one-night stands.
I can hear you asking why would you cheat on a man who had saved your children for you? Was the problem sex? Did you feel neglected? Was he cruel to you in any way? None of these things apply.
I know this is going to sound weird but I cheated on David because I didn’t want to feel beholden to him for returning my older boys to me. I cheated on him because I needed to prove to myself that I was bound to no one. I cheated on him for his fucking saintliness. David thought he was rescuing me, but he was wrong. He never really understood how important my freedom is to me, and until then neither did I.
We lived in Little Rock for two years. David wrote editorials for the Arkansas Gazette. He wrote a piece on poverty in America for The Atlantic magazine that got him the job of director of the anti-poverty program in Pulaski County, which included Little Rock, North Little Rock, and the surrounding area. The year was 1964, the time of the civil rights movement. All sorts of young people from New York, working summers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, were popping into and out of our house. David was conspiring to try to get them money for their projects.
A year or so later we moved to Chicago, where, through a man named Harry Ashmore, David got a job at Encyclopedia Britannica. He bought a house in suburb called Berwyn. Even though there weren’t any Jews, he moved us to Berwyn because two of my cousins, Pat and Shirley, my father’s brother Archy’s daughters, lived there; Archy had come up to Chicago after the war, and worked for General Electric in Cicero. David thought it might be more comfortable for me to have these cousins nearby. He must have sensed that our marriage was coming apart. I don’t know how much he really loved me, I do know that David hated failure, and among his hates a failed marriage scored high.
David was always telling me how smart I was, and at one point he suggested that I enroll in college. But where was I to find the patience at this point to sit in classrooms with kids fifteen years younger than me answering dopey questions and writing hopeless papers? I signed up for secretarial school, but lasted less than a month. My patience was growing less the older I got. Mostly I shopped, looking for antiques in second-hand furniture shops. Some days I would find myself at the Anti-Cruelty Society, from which twice I brought home dogs, one a storybook mutt named Luv, another time a large collie left by a young man who had to go off to Vietnam. We kept Luv, but David insisted I take back the collie.
I had all my sons, I had a lovely house, I had a successful husband, I had my cousins living nearby, but none of it did the trick. I began going out evenings, at first telling David I was visiting friends I had met at Anti-Cruelty. I don’t think he believed me from the first, and he certainly didn’t when I would return home at four in the morning. Once I told him that my mother was ill, and I needed to be with her for a week or so after she returned home from breast-cancer surgery. In fact, I used the ten days to drive down to New Orleans, and called him from there, telling him that my parents’ phone was out of order.
It was the late 1960s and feminism was in the air. I can’t say that I bought all the ideas bopping around about the suppression of women, the hopelessness of being a wife and mother, and the rest, but it did strengthen me in my decision to leave David. When we finally sat down to work out the details, he suggested that I take Donald and Allen and leave Richard and Joel, his own kids, with him.
“You take all four children,” I said, “or it’s no deal. Otherwise I’ll take all four and have you pay alimony and child support.” I knew how David’s conscience worked. He couldn’t bear the idea of living away from his sons. He agreed. I promised not to ask him for any alimony. He bought me a new yellow Volkswagen and gave me two thousand dollars. The plan was that he would get a divorce in Chicago on the grounds of desertion. Which was fine with me. I wanted only to get the hell away.
“Away” meant New Orleans, which I had enjoyed during my ten days there. New Orleans was southern but without any of the dreary Baptist unforgivingness hanging over it. I found a small apartment in the French Quarter, and took a job as a chambermaid in a place on Chartres Street. I didn’t mind the work and it felt good to be alone. I suppose I should say that I missed my kids, but I didn’t, at least not much. I sometimes wondered if they missed me. In later years I neglected to ask.
Ziggy Watkins, my fourth husband, was a musician, a clarinet player. I say “was”; I suppose he still is. I met him one night at Pat O’Brien’s, where he was playing. He was large, like I mean 280lbs large. Also a drinker, rum and coke his speciality, though he didn’t really need the coke, unless it was cocaine, for which he also had a powerful taste. Ziggy used to describe himself as a “happy cat”, which he was when he wasn’t drunk, which was most every evening. I see I forgot to mention that Ziggy was black. A white woman marrying a black man in those days still carried a certain shock factor. We’d been together maybe six weeks, when he said he wanted to marry me.
“Know it, sweet baby,” he told me, “We good together. Let’s make it a permanent deal.”
Ziggy was part of the inner circle of musicians in New Orleans. He taught me a lot of things, too, about music and drugs and blacks and New Orleans. He could be very seductive.
Only after we married did I learn that Ziggy, when fully tanked up, didn’t mind hitting women. I also learned that faithfulness to one woman was not an idea with any interest for him. Our marriage lasted less than eight months, when we had what Ziggy called a black divorce. “You cuts out the middleman,” Ziggy explained. In other words, no lawyers. A black divorce is when a husband closes the door and never returns. The only difference in my case is that the black divorce occurred when a white woman, me, closed the door and never returned. I never mentioned my marriage to Ziggy to anyone, and until now nobody knows anything about it. Of all my marriages, it was the most stupid. I can’t even explain it to myself.
With the help of fifteen hundred dollars from David I left New Orleans for Las Vegas. A terrible place, but lots of work available. I was able to get a job first at a dry cleaner, then not long after I found a better one working the buffet at Caesar’s Palace, refilling and cleaning up the food on display after the attacks upon it by depressed gamblers, gluttons and assorted freeloaders. I began playing a little blackjack myself in other casinos, and found I wasn’t too bad at it, some nights taking home a couple hundred bucks or so.
Las Vegas is, as someone I met at Caesar’s once told me, a mecca for losers. They come from all over. Everyone seemed to have a story of nearly hitting it rich, nearly scoring big, coming this close to a swell life. But you didn’t have to look too closely to see that they were all sad cases, flops, suckers. Every one was running away from something or other. I suppose I was too, though I couldn’t have told you exactly what it was.
Lloyd Blakely was a member of the hotel worker’s union—a handyman of sorts. He did twenty years in the Air Force as an enlisted man, where he worked with flight simulators. He had been retired for the past ten years. He was black. Do you suppose that black men know when white women have been with black men? Since my relationship with Ziggy, I sensed black men coming on to me more than in the past. Not that Lloyd did. He was a large gentle man—one of nature’s teddy bears. But whenever he was in the buffet area of Caesar’s, he would stop to talk with me, until one day he asked me if I would care to have dinner with him.
At dinner I learned that Lloyd, who was in his early fifties, had never married. He had family in Houston, three sisters and a brother, a mother and father still living. He was devoted to them. He owned a small house just outside Las Vegas. He liked to cook. He wasn’t church-going, but the church was important to him in his upbringing, he said. He was a square, but a sweet one. I found my heart going out to him.
How is that some very attractive, even very smart women can’t seem to close on marriage? However appealing they may seem, men don’t finally ask them to marry them. Others of us attract not just men but husbands. Men want to marry us. To protect us? To save us? To have exclusive rights to us? Who knows? Getting men to want to marry somehow wasn’t my problem, though maybe, now that I think of it, it was.
All I know is that, roughly a month after our first dinner together, I became Mrs Lloyd Blakely. Life with Lloyd was calm. Calm seemed just fine. Lloyd made a decent living. I kept my job at Caesar’s Palace. When we visited his family in Houston, I asked him to withhold all the information about my previous marriages. The Blakelys seemed to like me well enough. (I don’t think the same could have been said if I had brought Lloyd back to Batesville to meet my father, which I never did.) My only complaint about my new husband was that, as a fix-it man, he was a pack rat, and would bring home lengths of cable, cannisters, wiring, lumber and other things that were no longer useful at the casinos at which he worked.
Lloyd never said so openly, but he wanted a child—really wanted one. I hadn’t exactly proved the model mother, but maybe now, settled at last, with no pressure on me things would be different. I was forty-three, late for child bearing, yet all my pregnancies—after the initial morning sickness—and births had gone smoothly. So I became pregnant. Lloyd was hoping for a boy, and I told him not to worry— boys were all I was able to produce.
And we did have a boy, Matthew, who turned out to be badly brain-damaged. We had him at a nearby military hospital, and all I can remember is the OB-Gyno man yelling at one of the nurses and leaving the operating room. I later heard that my child’s umbilical cord wound around his neck, choking off his oxygen. You apparently can’t sue the US government for malpractice. What the government did offer was care for my poor baby.
The extent of the damage to Matthew, who turned out to be beautiful, as so many biracial children I’ve noticed are, was pretty complete. He lost just about all powers of locomotion. He was never able to speak. We couldn’t even be sure if he had sight or not. The decision arose about whether to institutionalise Matthew, or care for him at home. Lloyd wouldn’t hear about institutions, where the child’s life was certain to be shortened. Matthew lived to be twenty-nine, and died less than a year after Lloyd died of his third heart attack.
Much of the responsibility for taking care of our child fell to Lloyd. He wanted it that way. He rigged up special contraptions for the child to sit comfortably in. He bathed him. He cleaned him. He moved his own bed into Matthew’s room, so that he could help him if he was uncomfortable during the night. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t do anything—I fed Matthew, I washed and changed his clothes—but Lloyd was the main guy.
I can easily imagine anyone reading this thinking that Matthew was my just deserts for being not much of a mother to my other children. The truth is that Donald, now living in Oregon, no longer wished to speak with me or any of his brothers. Allen had two marriages, and his second wife wanted nothing to do with me because I had married a black man. Richard turned out to be like his father, David, a good student type. He’d gone to college, and afterwards made a lot of money working for some stockmarket company in San Francisco. He stayed in touch with me, and would occasionally help me out with a few thousand dollars, but I know he felt I had made a mess of my life. Joel, my fourth child, who had been wild as a teenager, died in a car accident in his late twenties in Chicago. I wasn’t able to attend the funeral.
I’ve tried to be as candid as I know how here, and so I had better go on to say that, after Matthew was born, I began to drink in a way I hadn’t done before. I was always what Mitchell, my second husband, called a short hitter, by which he meant that it didn’t take more than two or three drinks to get me flying. But now I looked forward to the haze curtain that alcohol drew across the sadness of my life with my broken, feelingless last child.
Lloyd understood, or at least he pretended to, when I would go off for two or three days alone and get quietly snockered. I don’t say that he liked it, but he put up with it. What was he going to do about it, anyhow? I had put on weight—maybe 50 or 60lbs—and men no longer hit on me the way they once did, so at least he didn’t have to be jealous. I was as little interested in men as they now were in me. Things had got beyond the stage of guilt and repentance in Lloyd’s and my marriage. I would come home from one of my little benders and pick up the old routine as if nothing had happened. After a while Lloyd stopped asking where I had been.
I watched Lloyd die. He was lifting a steel beam from the back of his pickup, when he stopped, the beam dropped to the street, he clutched his heart and fell forward. I ran out to the street, but he was already gone. He was the husband I was married longest to, and he also treated me best. Ours was hardly an ideal marriage, if such a thing exists. We’d long ago stopped making love or having long conversations. What held us together was our poor sad child.
After Lloyd’s death, I had to put Matthew into an institution. I visited him there, at first every day, then once a week, then less than that. When I would arrive, he made a gurgling sound. I’d put my index finger in his hand, and he grasped it tightly. There was no way that, without Lloyd’s help, I could have brought Matthew home. He died three weeks before his thirtieth birthday, roughly five months after his father.
I put our house on the market, and moved into a studio apartment closer to the main drag. I was, finally, free to live as I wished—for the first time since I was seventeen and had become pregnant with Donald. I luxuriated in it. I stayed up late, drinking and watching old movies on television. I woke when I pleased. I took walks, played a little blackjack, ate what I wanted when I wanted. I thought about my life, where I had been and what I had done. I’d planned on living this way—quietly, freely—for another ten years or so. Then I started noting a bloating and loss of appetite and having to go to the bathroom all the time. I’m not one for rushing off to doctors at the least jigeroo in my health. When I started bleeding vaginally, I knew something was up. What it was, as I’ve already told you, was ovarian cancer.
I’m told that I can buy some extra time if I’m willing to put myself through chemotherapy. I’ve decided against it. With Matthew gone, no one is dependent on me. I don’t really have all that much to look forward to. I’ll be seventy-three next month, and I don’t figure to grow more beautiful or much smarter.
Was it freedom I longed for? Or was I only running away from responsibility? Maybe I had responsibility thrown on me too early in life: a stupid father, a meek mother, a baby to worry about at seventeen. When I think of having had five husbands even I am a bit amazed. Maybe I should have dug in and made the best of one of them. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t settle. Was I wrong? I honestly don’t know. Now, with time running out, I’m pretty sure I’m never going to know.