A Short Story

Joseph Epstein

Does his friend Larry Goodman know that Feldman knows he slept with his wife? Feldman himself knows because his wife Elaine told him. In words Feldman shall never forget this side of dementia, the day they decided on a divorce, Elaine, in their kitchen, announced: “You aren’t doing me any good, either in bed or out of it. And by the way, you should know that I slept with your great pal Larry Goodman.” On which triumphal words-triumphal to her, devastating to Feldman-she departed the room and drove off in her red Mazda convertible from the house on Lake Street in Wilmette. 

At first Feldman wondered if Elaine made up the story about sleeping with Larry. He didn’t, though, wonder too long. Not that Elaine was always truthful. She was full of little deceits; these helped to bring their marriage down. But the pleasure she took in saying she slept with Larry didn’t allow much room for doubt.

For Elaine the announcement struck a double wound. Not only did it make Feldman aware that he was a cuckold, a figure of humiliation every man wishes to avoid becoming, but she had brought this about through the agency of his oldest and dearest friend. Where they had done it, how frequently, with how much pleasure were details Elaine spared him, though this only added to the torture. 

Elaine was home most nights, so she and Larry must have met during the day. Since the Feldmans had children in school, with kids coming in and out of the house through the day, they must have met at his apartment at Sandburg Village, though they could have ducked into motels. Did they do the same things in bed that in better days Elaine and Feldman did? Did Larry have a few new tricks into which he initiated Elaine? Is it possible she offered Larry favours she never bestowed upon Feldman? Like a man unable to keep his tongue from probing an aching tooth, Feldman played and replayed various pornographic scenes his wife and best friend might have enacted together. This hideous, unending little home movie played in his mind for more than a year after Elaine and he divorced. Sheer mental masochism, all this, of course — but what’s a cuckold to do, if Feldman was in fact a cuckold?

A man knows his love is dead when he can imagine with equanimity his wife or lover making love with another man or, as must also be considered nowadays, with another woman. This Feldman eventually could do. He awoke one day a year or so after his divorce and no longer cared with whom Elaine slept, or how much pleasure it gave her, or if he compared well or badly with Larry or with any new lovers she might since have acquired. 

Apart from any effect that her fate might have had on his daughters — when they divorced Diane was eleven and Miriam nine — Elaine was no longer of any personal interest to Feldman. She was now the woman who endorsed and cashed his ample child-support cheques, nothing more. Were it not for his daughters, dark truth to tell, had Feldman learned that she had died in a car accident or on an operating table, he should not have been much moved. She was dead to him already. 

Feldman decided not to confront Larry with what Elaine had told him. He had no evidence beyond Elaine’s word, and while he felt the truth of his wife’s accusation in his own bones, this wasn’t evidence that would, so to speak, hold up in court. Bringing it up could destroy his friendship with Larry.

Feldman cared a lot more about Larry Goodman than he did about his ex-wife. He might have cared more about him even when he and Elaine were still married. They went back a long way, Feldman and Larry — to grade school, in fact. Feldman had already lost Elaine; he didn’t want to lose Larry, too.

How many times had Larry and Feldman been together since he and Elaine had been lovers, if in fact they were lovers, Feldman wondered? He had no way of knowing, since he didn’t know how long ago Larry and Elaine had begun their affair, if affair it truly was. An affair implied duration. For all he knew, they might have had sex together only once; it could have been a fling, a roll in the hay, a thing of the moment, wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. Elaine had said, Feldman recalled, that she “slept with”, not “had been sleeping with”, Larry.

Feldman replayed over and over Larry’s and his meetings during the past year or so of his marriage, in the hope of registering any change in his friend’s behaviour in Feldman’s company. Surely something would have been notice-able. Feldman felt fairly certain that he himself could not have kept his cool dining with someone with whose wife he had been having sex; but then he, Feldman, had never had sex with another man’s wife. 

Larry had been single for roughly fifteen years. He had had a disastrous first marriage, which he entered into at twenty-three and which lasted less than two years. No children came from the marriage, and the only effect on Larry of this marriage that Feldman could make out was a permanently low view of women. “In the end they’re all in business for themselves,” he remembered Larry telling him. When Feldman reported his own divorce to his old friend, Larry said that he was sorry for the girls, Diane and Miriam, but not for him. “You’ll be happier on your own,” he said. “Believe me.”

Larry Goodman and Allan Feldman first met when they were eleven. Feldman’s family had moved from Albany Park to Rogers Park, and, luck of the alphabetical draw, F coming before G, in class Allan Feldman sat in front of Larry Goodman. At that first morning’s recess, Larry introduced Feldman to his friends, and the two of them walked home together after school; they lived only a block apart. 

From the very beginning there was nothing the two of them couldn’t talk about: sports, girls, their vague ambitions. Larry was a kid with no meanness, no malice, to him. Feldman remembered Larry once telling him that he thought he couldn’t bring himself to hit another boy in the face. Feldman thought it the statement of a boy with a good heart, especially since at the time he felt he himself would have no difficulty in doing so, and often fantasised about doing it. Of course, Larry said nothing about kicking a guy in the nuts — which, in sleeping with Elaine, if he did, is what Larry had done to Feldman. 

In their friendship Larry and Feldman never asked much of each other, certainly not through their boyhood years. Nor did Feldman recall their burdening each other with their troubles.

Feldman had a ping-pong table in the finished basement of his house, and he and Larry played hours and hours of ping-pong together. Feldman didn’t remember those long games as competitions so much as their being in tandem, as if they were a doubles team, though each was playing on different sides of the table. Their rallies could run to sixty or seventy shots. In ping-pong as in life, they knew each other’s moves, all of them, or so Feldman thought. Elaine’s claim to have slept with Larry made him think otherwise. 

Feldman went to the University of Wisconsin, Larry to Illinois. Spring vacation of their junior year fell on the same week, and Larry proposed they take a tour of the great cat-houses of the Middle West. And so they did: beginning in Danville, moving on to Kankakee, Terre Haute, Steubenville, and Covington, in Kentucky. They drove Feldman’s mother’s Chevy Bel Air. What Feldman chiefly remembers of the trip is endless laughter. Once, outside Youngstown, Ohio, they were laughing so hard the Chevy went off the road and into a ditch. 

After college Larry went to work for an uncle in the cardboard box business. The uncle had no children, and the plan was that someday he, Larry, would take over the business, a lucrative one. The plan went up in flames when, a few years later, the uncle, a widower, remarried a strong-willed woman with two sons, whom his uncle brought into the business, leaving Larry odd man out. Around this time Larry’s marriage, to a girl he went to high school with named Marilyn Rothman, fell apart. 

Larry’s life was a shambles. He was working in a dead-end job and had just departed, at some cost, a childless and hopeless marriage. After his divorce, he began putting in lots of time at Rush Street bars, dedicating himself to the woman chase. He would sometimes show up for dinner at Feldman’s house in Wilmette with a stewardess or nurse in tow. He was by then in his mid-thirties, rather late for such antics. Elaine, strangely enough, used to make fun of him, at least to Feldman. His defence of his old friend was that he was going through tough times and would right himself soon enough. 

Feldman had gone to law school, at DePaul, and at the time of his divorce was working for a small firm in The Loop called Horowitz, Friedman & Simon. He would eventually go out on his own, doing estate planning, real-estate, and all-purpose law for individual clients. He made a decent living, but less than a killing. So when, in their early forties, Larry came to Feldman to borrow twenty grand, it was not an insignificant sum. Feldman came up with the money, and didn’t ask him what he needed it for; nor did Larry volunteer to tell him. Feldman’s suspicion was gambling debts.

This was roughly twenty years ago. In some ways Larry’s asking Feldman for the loan was a good sign, or so Feldman thought. Larry would never ask a favour of this magnitude of him if he had slept with his wife, or so he supposed. But then Feldman thought, if Larry had slept with Elaine, why not ask for a loan of twenty grand? In for a penny, in for a pounding was one of Feldman’s favourite sayings. In any case, Larry paid back the twenty thousand when he said he would. 

Feldman could not quite shake free of the awfulness of Larry’s betrayal, if betrayal it in fact was. Innumerable times he thought of calling Elaine, who was now living in Los Angeles, married to a man named Levinson working for the William Morris talent agency, and asking her if she had in fact slept with Larry, or instead just said so in the heat of the moment to add to his feeling of defeat in their marriage. He tried to word the way he would bring up the matter, but every rough draft he composed in his mind sounded utterly hopeless. “Oh, hi, Elaine, Allan here. I have been meaning for years to ask you if you were really serious when you told me that you had slept with Larry Goodman.” Or: “Oh, Elaine, quick question: what you said about having sex with Larry Goodman when we were married: a joke, right?” Or: “Not that it matters after all this time, Elaine, but I was wondering, did you mean it when you said, just before we broke up, you screwed my old friend Larry Goodman?” 

Twenty-eight years had passed since Elaine ended their marriage. Feldman would probably not have ended it himself, being conservative — or was it long-suffering? — by nature. He has remarried twice since. The first time, on the rebound, was a sad mistake, and lasted four miserable years. His third — and final — wife and Feldman married when they were both in their late forties, and their marriage has been satisfactory in every way. Feldman has had no other children. His daughters with Elaine survived the divorce, and both seem to have landed on their feet. Diane is a paediatrician, married to a heart surgeon, and living in Oregon, outside Portland; Miriam’s husband heads a hedge fund, and   they and their three kids live in Manhattan and appear to be flourishing. Elaine died of lung cancer three years ago. Feldman saw no need to trek out to Los Angeles to attend the           funeral.

Larry never remarried. So far as Feldman could tell, since his first marriage he never had a real or lasting relationship with a woman, though up through his early sixties he was still in the woman hunt. Then his health began to break down. He had an early hip replacement, and not long after a triple bypass. After his surgery, instead of losing weight as he was supposed to have done, he put on forty or so pounds.

Some of Feldman’s and Larry’s old intimacy leached away, as is perhaps normal over the long haul of years, even with close friends. They phoned each other less. Their lunches were more infrequent. Two or three months would pass without their seeing each other. They made it a point to go to at least one Bears game and one Cubs game every year. They still saw each other five or six times a year alone. More and more they now met at the funerals of old friends and acquaintances. 

When together they mostly talked about the old days. Sometimes they shifted into what Feldman called “crank”, which was to compare the way people live today with the way they did when they were growing up, and finding the latter, inevitably, much better. Talking crank, they agreed, can only be done with contemporaries, lest one sound, quite literally, a crank among the young. But when alone together they gave way to it, with much pleasure. 

They talked a lot about the kids they grew up with and what time and fate had done to them: the great athlete who died young of colon cancer, the nebbish who ended up a billionaire, the dazzlingly beautiful girl who turned out to be bi-polar and ended her life by suicide in her early fifties. 

Feldman thought less and less about the probability of Larry’s sleeping with Elaine. Meetings between them would go by without his thinking of it at all. Then something would trigger it. One day, sitting in their regular seats at Wrigley Field, Larry told Feldman that the last time he took his then ninety-one-year-old father to a Cubs game, the old man asked him who this new pitcher Gotteratti was. Larry hadn’t the faintest idea; then he looked up at the scoreboard and saw in neon letters the words, Gatorade Pitching Change. “That’s very amusing,” Feldman said, and suddenly found himself thinking about Larry sleeping with Elaine, and the rest of the afternoon was shot.

They would meet occasionally for lunch in Chinatown, at a restaurant Larry liked called Emperor’s Choice. He reminded Feldman that for six weeks one summer, when they were fourteen, he worked as a busboy at Pekin House, the local Cantonese restaurant. As a busboy, he was allowed to eat anything he wanted there after work, except shrimp dishes, shrimps being too expensive to fritter away on the help. He recalled the owner, a tall Chinese gent who with the passing of years began to dress, talk, and even look Jewish. He did a great imitation of him, using Yiddish words with a Chinese accent: “What you be, some kind messugarner?” Feldman began to laugh, and then thought: this guy, whom he liked so much, banged his wife. 

Why, Feldman wondered, didn’t he just clear the deck and ask him, “Larry, did you sleep with Elaine? More than thirty years have gone by, and please believe me I no longer care. Or at least I don’t care in any of the standard ways. I’m not jealous. I’m not angry. I’m not, I swear, in any way going to resent it. But I really would like to put a longstanding suspicion to rest.” 

Yet Feldman couldn’t bring himself to do it. He couldn’t, he supposed, because behind the simple question Did you sleep with Elaine? loomed the accusation of how could you have betrayed me, your closest friend, for a quick roll — or even several slow ones — in the hay? Behind the question Did you sleep with Elaine? lurked the more serious question of What kind of a son of a bitch are you?

A dirty mind never sleeps, somebody or other once said, and now Feldman saw Larry in his current physical state-artificial hip, bypass scars on his chest and leg, pot belly-making love to the then thirty-two-year-old, quite beautiful Elaine Feldman, née Lippman. It was the old porno show, but in historical montage. 

Feldman thought that if Larry and he had been drinkers, they might have got loaded one night, and Feldman could have thrown his arm around Larry and said (add your own best slurring diction here), “Nothing personal, kiddo, but do you remember the first time you schtupped my wife?” But they weren’t drinkers, and sober Feldman couldn’t even tell his old friend that he was worried about his having put on too much weight, that he was looking scruffy, and not taking decent care of himself. Feldman decided that living in ignorance about this matter was finally not crucial. He told himself that he had forgiven Larry, if he had really slept with his wife. Forgiving, though, was easier than forgetting, or so at least Feldman found.

Then two summers ago, sitting together in their regular Wrigley Field seats on the third-base side, at the seventh-inning stretch, Larry said, “Al, something important I’ve got to talk with you about. Do you have time for a drink after the game?” Feldman answered that of course he did, and to himself thought, at goddamn last, he’s going to tell me that he slept with Elaine, has felt terrible about it all these years and wants my forgiveness. 

After the game-the Cubs lost to the Braves 6-4-they went to a bar at the corner of Sheffield and Addison. The place was filled with people mostly in their twenties-attractive girls in cut-off jeans, guys with weightlifter arms-and noisy. Everyone seemed almost unbearably healthy. Lots of sexual vibrations in the air. As a non-contender in this game, Feldman felt even older than his age. He and Larry found two seats at the bar. They ordered beers, Heinekens. 

“Something I have to tell you, Al,” Larry said. “It’s been on my mind for a while.”

Between the seventh-inning stretch and this moment Feldman had been composing his forgiveness speech. It all happened a long time ago, it’s history, no harm done really, Larry was not to give it further thought, at this point in their lives it was nothing to worry about . . . 

“Three months ago,” Larry said, “I was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. I haven’t told anyone else.”

“Holy shit,” was all Feldman could say. 

“I’m terrified,” he said. “Take my advice and don’t Google up ALS. You won’t sleep that night.”

“Rotten luck!”

 ”I may have to call on you during the months ahead,” Larry said. “I haven’t minded living alone all these years, but now I have to start thinking about caregivers, nursing homes, hospices, the full goddamn catastrophe. With ALS taking away my speech and everything goddamn thing else, which it eventually does, I may not be in good enough shape to make some of these decisions, let alone express what I want.  I’m going to need help, especially towards the end when, I learn on Google, I won’t even notice that I’m crappin’ in my pants, if I’m wearing pants. I’m going to need you to stand by me, Al. There’s no one else I can call on.”

Were Larry’s eyes welling up? Feldman couldn’t be sure, because his own were. 

“You can count on me,” was all he could think to say.

“I knew that,” Larry said.

In the months ahead, Larry first lost the strength in his arms; then his legs went, forcing him into a wheelchair. This caused Feldman to hire a so-called caregiver for him: a Filipino in his fifties named Felix Phau. He charged $900 a week, and earned it. Felix’s job was to spoon-feed Larry, dress and undress him, carry him to bed at night, bath him, lift him on and off the toilet and clean him up afterwards. 

Feldman’s power of attorney, which Larry had arranged earlier, kicked in. Feldman wrote the weekly cheques for Felix, paid Larry’s utilities and condo assessment and other bills. Larry’s speech grew slurred, and soon the slurry slipped into the unintelligible. His head, which he could no longer keep up, dropped to his chest. 

Feldman came over two or three times a week, and spent much of Sunday with Larry, standing in for Felix whose day off it was. They sat with the television set on, tuned to baseball and football games. Feldman brought in Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald CDs to play for his old friend. Larry would grunt — more like a gurgle — and Feldman would guess from the grunts what he needed: the bathroom, water, his pureed food, the television turned off. Larry was dying the slow death by subtractions that we all fear. 

His speech now entirely gone, Larry’s only communication came through his blinking his eyes. Felix taught Feldman the crude system of communication he and Larry had worked out. Two blinks from Larry meant yes, three blinks no. One Sunday evening, Felix away and not expected back until ten, Feldman wheeled Larry in his chair into the bathroom, and lifted him onto the toilet. After he was done, he placed him back in his chair, and then set him on his back in bed. 

“Larry,” Feldman found himself saying, “Elaine, my first wife, you remember Elaine, Larry did you screw her?” Feldman hadn’t meant to ask it; it just came out.

Feldman looked down at his friend’s oddly serene face. 

Larry blinked twice. Feldman awaited a third blink but it never arrived. 

“Larry,” Feldman said, “are you sure? Are you saying that you did sleep with Elaine?”

No answer. Larry’s eyes were closed. 

“Look,” Feldman said, “even if you did, it doesn’t matter. It’s trivial, without consequence, doesn’t matter.” 

Larry’s eyes were closed. Was he asleep? Feldman couldn’t tell for certain. He left the room feeling that he shouldn’t have done what he did. 

The next morning, at seven, Felix called. “Mr Goodman die,” he said. “Try to wake but no possible. Die in sleep. Quiet death. Good blessing.”

Feldman thanked Felix for letting him know, and told him that Mr Goodman wanted him to have an extra month’s pay for all his good service, and that he would be over in an hour or two to relieve him of any further responsibility. 

After hanging up, Feldman walked into the kitchen to make coffee, and thought he had no satisfaction whatsoever from learning that his best friend, decades ago, had slept with his wife. He wished he had never found out. The truth, Feldman felt, doesn’t always set you free. Sometimes it just makes you feel lousy. 

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