Friday

WIFE NUMBER ONE

Whether it was at the age of three, or four, or six (he could never quite pinpoint the exact moment when he’d become aware of the world around him and his place within it), Skipper decided he wanted nothing more than to be a country and western singer. He wanted to be Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash. He wanted to wear a cowboy hat. He wanted to wear a bandana around his neck. He wanted to sing sad songs that told stories about men who had terrible trouble figuring out how to get along with women, at work, with whiskey.
It was the primal instinct of a small child in a much too buffeting world in which deciphering the politics of grade school society, the alphabet, and long division seemed well beyond impossible. Perhaps if it were today, he would have been diagnosed with A.D..D. or high-functioning autism, although one wonders, even if properly diagnosed, would life have turned out any differently? Back then the little boy was friendless, yelled at or ignored by teachers, parents, his two older brothers.
He kept his dream to himself. In temperament and aspirations, Clifton, New Jersey couldn’t have been further from Abilene or Branson, Missouri than if it had been situated on the edges of Borobadur. Jersey produced guys who could work the system, Sinatra, the Bruces, Willis and Springsteen, Jack Nicholson, Alan Ginsberg. This is what young males aspired to in The Garden State.
So when it came time to pick a college, Skipper chose one not only with modest entrance criteria but in a part of the country that he imagined would be more in keeping with the spirit of country music. And like many who arrive in Tempe, Arizona at the age of 18, Skipper immediately embarked upon reinventing himself.
He affected a cowboy hat, a bandana, boots, traded in his Levis for Wranglers. He dropped his Joisey mumble for a touch of a Western drawl. And he pulled out his acoustic Gibson, which he’d pretty much practiced in private for the last dozen years, for all the world to see.
The metamorphosis worked. With his thick, dirty blond hair, handlebar moustache, and extremely pale blue eyes, he looked like a natural in his new outfit, hunched over a guitar, a Marlboro glued to his lip, the ashes tumbling onto his denims, singing sad, slow songs in a whisper of a basso without a lot of emoting and carrying on. Males assumed he was the real thing, son of a cowboy perhaps, from some small signpost of a town in West Texas or eastern New Mexico, the first in his family to attend college. Females were drawn to him even more so, for he was handsome and gentle and musical.
It was as he’d always hoped and imagined, from ridicule back east to
something approaching genuine popularity here in Arizona, all in less than a few months. Attractive women were actually competing to go to bed with him. And because he was kind and passive and had a hard time saying no, he not infrequently had sex with the less attractive ones as well, particularly those who had always secretly yearned for a good-looking man over the bespectacled, nerdy doctor or accountant they were destined to wind up with,
A girl named Rachel, who sat next to him in freshman composition and was also from back east, invited him to her parents’ vacation home up in Carefree for the weekend. It had an outdoor Jacuzzi, she said, and looked out over a magnificent golf course and the mountains of Tonto National Forest. And the best thing about it was that her parents were back home in Philadelphia preparing for her kid brother’s bar mitzvah.
Rachel Blechner was tall and thin and bony, with a large nose and ears and thin curly hair through which it was too easy to see patches of pale white scalp. She certainly wasn’t the type of girl Skipper ever found himself fantasizing about, but he simply had had no idea how to turn down her invitation. And, in truth, he was drawn to the idea of rattling around what he imagined to be one of the large glass and stucco rancheros that were beginning to dot the Valley of the Sun.
The house was everything Skipper could have imagined, with a lap pool and a patio, and Rachel Blechner made Skipper make love to her in every nook and cranny of it, in the Jacuzzi, on her parents’ bed, outdoors on a chaise, indoors on the living room floor, standing up in the walk in shower that was bigger than the entire bathroom Skipper shared with his parents and two older siblings back in Clifton.
It seemed the mere sight of Skipper enflamed the young woman, and as the weekend wore on he knew that when she flopped down next to him in front of the TV, or while he was practicing his guitar out back, it wouldn’t be long before she was kneeling between his legs and unzipping his fly.
Back at school, Skipper tried avoiding the girl, but she would blindside him, suddenly showing up at his table in the student union, or falling in beside him as he walked back to his dorm from history class. It was as if she were devoting her entire week to tracking his every movement. He skipped English, their one shared class, and hid out in the game room of the student union, practicing pool shots. After awhile, he sensed someone watching him, and when he turned around, there was Rachel, hands on hips, looking at him with great concern.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” he mumbled.
“How come you didn’t come to class?”
In the way of a cowboy who sees a woman’s grilling him about his goings and comings as typical of the gender and unnecessarily meddlesome, Skipper chose not to answer, which was not at all easy for him.
Rachel came over and put her hand on his shoulder. “I was so worried about you, Skipper.” Her hand felt warm and comforting, and before he knew it they were necking furiously and he had to stop her from unzipping his fly.
After that, they would leave Tempe in Rachel’s Volvo as soon as they finished classes on Friday and not return until mid-morning on Monday. The Blechners had a caretaker who stocked the house whether Rachel’s parents were in town or not. There were always cases of Heineken in the family room refrigerator, bottles of Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker Black in the liquor cabinet, half gallons of Hagen Daas in the freezer, fresh fruit in the kitchen fridge. Skipper enjoyed the largesse, the views out over the golf course, the crisp, cool feeling of the desert at night, the rapacious sexual appetite of Rachel, her constant attention to his needs and wants; and after several weeks he ceased to see that she was what most people would think of as funny-looking. She was nice. She was warm. She was generous. And she seemed endlessly and insatiably excited by his body and his appearance. She literally could not keep her hands off him.
Thanksgiving was approaching. Rachel was going home for the holiday, returning on Sunday, and then flying back the very next weekend for her brother’s bar mitzvah. Skipper was a little surprised that she was not inviting him to come along but did not express his disappointment. It was not his way.
He rattled around the mostly empty dorm, one of the few students not going home for the holiday. He brought his guitar to the TV lounge and plucked his way through a mournful version of Crazy in front of the Detroit-Dallas game. A good-looking girl from Seattle stuck her head in, listened for a few bars, and told Skipper that she and a couple of other students were going down to Rowdy’s for hot turkey sandwiches. “Bring your guitar,” she told him.
While he was downing one beer after another, Skipper kept thinking this is costing me a buck fifty apiece while up at Rachel’s I’m drinking Heinekens free. By midnight, although he was finding the math a little tricky, he’d calculated he’d already spent over fifteen dollars. The pretty girl from Seattle urged him to get up on the Thanksgiving-darkened stage and sing a few songs. The other kids at the table started chanting Skipper, Skipper, and he was just whoozy enough to go along.
He played the first few bars of Whiskey River, which was the first song that had popped into his head, and almost immediately the crowd hushed. There was an odd drama to his singing, his voice deep but very quiet, which demanded that those who wanted to listen had really to pay attention. After half a dozen songs, Skipper tried to leave the stage; but perhaps because it was Thanksgiving, there was a special intimate atmosphere, with just about all of the patrons gathered close to the stage. They demanded one song after another, and it wasn’t till closing time, two a.m., that they let Skipper put his guitar back in its case.
The girl from Seattle drove him back to campus in her black Ford pick up truck and insisted he come with her to her room. She undressed, gyrating her pelvis close to his face. But Skipper was too drunk and exhausted to get an erection. In the morning he awoke to the girl’s going down on him, and this time he did get a hard on. But when she rolled him on top of her, he came just before entering her. After that, she told him he had to go because she wanted to hit the stores early and get a head start on her Christmas shopping. He said, “Good bye, see ya around,” as he left, but she didn’t say a word in response.
As planned, Skipper picked up Rachel at the airport in her Volvo. He found himself surprisingly glad to see her, and they hugged warmly. On the short drive to Tempe, Rachel suddenly turned to him and said, “I’m pregnant, Skipper. I told my father. We’re going to have to get married.” Skipper glanced over at her. She was staring at him expectantly, a bit anxiously, and he couldn’t help but think that she looked a touch like Big Bird. “Are you okay with that?” He turned his eyes back to the road and shrugged, cowboy style.
The week was a flurry of shopping, Rachel wielding her credit cards like Zubin Mehta. His only real input in choosing his various outfits, casual for the lunches and brunches, formal for the Bar Mitzvah and evening dinner, was that everything have a touch of westerness, fancy boots instead of loafers, a big cowboy buckle on all the belts.

“What do you weigh, about 190?” Rachel’s father asked seemingly moments after the young couple stepped through the front door of what appeared, at least to Skipper’s eye, to be a genuine mansion. Miles was scrutinizing him as would an anthropologist or an NFL scout.
“Yeah, ‘bout that,” said Skipper.
“Good, that’s good. Good forearms. How tall are you? Six one, six one and a half?”
“Last time I checked, a little over six two.”
“Really? That’s great. Did you hear that, Honey, Skipper’s over six two.”
“Don’t mind him,” said Rachel’s mother, Andrea. “He’s just about this close” – she held her thumb and forefinger about an eighth of an inch apart – “to being out of the closet.”
“My wife’s the comedienne in the family,” said Miles. “Oh, man, what a kid this is going to be. Rachel’s smarts and quickness – did you know she ran the sprints in high school (Skipper did not) – your size and strength, Skipper – I do believe we’re going to have a quarterback on our hands.”
“How do you even know it’s going to be a boy,” said the Bar Mitzvah strolling into the room. “Hi ya, Skipper, I’m Justin.” The child barely came up to Skipper’s armpits. He reached out and, taking Skipper’s big, beefy hand in his own slender, soft one, shook it with a surprising lack of vigor. “Dad’s the ultimate jock sniffer,” he confided.
“My own family, and I don’t get no respect,” said Miles a la Rodney Dangerfield.
Skipper’s head was spinning. He had prepared himself for a barely civil reception with no mention of Rachel’s pregnancy whatsoever. Not only did the Blechners seem to be okay with it, but apparently Skipper, despite being a gentile and still a minor, was just what they’d always had in mind. He let himself relax a little, making no attempt to keep up with the rat-a-tat-tat of the Blechner family discourse, knowing it would be futile.
Skipper had been to the Bar Mitzvah of an eighth grade classmate, but in comparison to Justin’s it was a desultory little affair in a small temple in a rundown section of Passaic. All the eighth grade boys sat together in the back row under the hostile glare of a middle-aged man with a shawl over his shoulders. Skipper and the boy sitting next to him were unable to stifle their laughter when their classmate’s voice cracked as he chanted from the Haftorah, and the man in the shawl snapped their ears with his finger.
But at this Bar Mitzvah, Skipper was celebrated, with most of the guests clamoring to meet him and congratulating him warmly on his and Rachel’s engagement. During the weekend, friends and relatives of the Blechners quizzed him on what field he wanted to get into after graduation. In his heart he knew it could be nothing but country music, but he sensed that his answer would be taken as a joke. “Something in engineering,” he said.
At Christmas time, Skipper and the Blechners headed in opposite directions. Skipper flew east to spend the two week break with his family back in Clifton, and his prospective in-laws, the Bar Mitzvah under their belt, headed west to spend the holidays at their Scottsdale home. Skipper debated whether to unveil his new western persona in the heart of Jersey, but decided he would have too much explaining to do and then take too much shit about it. So he pretty much stuck to his room, plucking his guitar and missing Rachel more than he imagined was possible. He yearned for the constant attention, the completely shameless and rapturous sex, and, of course, the nonchalant plentitude of the Blechner lifestyle. He wondered what Rachel was up to in the bosom of her family – golf, hot tubbing, dinners out, socializing with other well-heeled families in the gated community – and it filled him with jealousy. I’m her fiancé, he thought. It’s not right we’re not together.
In February, Skipper and Rachel were married in a quiet civil ceremony at Scottsdale City Hall. Afterward, over dinner at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Miles promised the young couple a huge wedding party back in Philadelphia, where they would collect the gifts and gelt that would get them off on the right foot.
Whenever the Blechners were in town, Miles, an avid and skilled golfer himself, insisted that Skipper come up to Carefree to work on Skipper’s game. “Christ,” he said, “If I was your size, Skip, I’d hit the ball 300 yards.”
Skipper had little interest or aptitude for the game. As comfortable as a guitar felt in his hands, a golf club felt alien. Try as he might, he was unable to hit the ball two hundred yards, a modest distance indeed for someone as young and strong and big. “God, look at those forearms,” said Miles. “What a waste, what a colossal waste.”
Sometimes, the two men would walk the Go-John trail off Carefree Highway. “I think we should name him Drew,” said Miles. “Drew Haskew. It’s the kind of name that says quarterback all over it. I can see the press picking it up. Drew Haskew. It’s fun to say.”
“Sure, great,” replied Skipper.
“I figure while you and Rachel are still in school, Mom and I’ll bring Drew back to Philly so you guys can concentrate on your studies.”
Skipper had no problem with that at all.
“As soon as Drew can sit up I’m going to put a football in his hands. I got a good feeling about this kid, Skipper.”
In early May, just as Skipper and the Blechner clan were getting ready to head back east for the summer, Rachel gave birth, prematurely, to a two and a half pound baby girl. Miles hired a private plane and flew mother and baby back to Philadelphia General, on whose board he sat. Skipper was dispatched to close up the Scottsdale house for the summer.
It took about a week of appointments with the plumber and exterminator and caretaker, but when he called Miles for further instructions, his father-in-law suggested he stay out west for a while. Rachel and the baby were making progress but were still extremely delicate. Better not to rock the boat. Skipper yearned to see his wife, or at least to talk to her on the phone, but he did not know how to stand up to Miles. So he stayed on in the Scottsdale ranchero, practicing his guitar and drinking up the Heinekens.
Thursday was open mike night at Harold’s over in Cave Creek, and as the summer wore on Skipper began to build up a bit of a following. So much so that Harold offered him a regular gig every Wednesday and Friday night, $50, all the beer he could drink, and whatever anybody stuffed in the tip jar. By the middle of July he was taking in over $300 bucks a week in cash, and he was bursting to tell Rachel of his success. But every time he called these days he got Miles or Andrea and was told this wasn’t a good time.
It was funny, at every show now, sitting right up front, there were at least half a dozen long-haired, sinewy girls poured into their Wranglers who were just dying to get to know him better, and all he wanted to do was hear Rachel’s voice. She always knew how to make him feel good when he was down, and being apart from her so long now he was starting to feel pretty down.
He woke up Friday morning and sat at the breakfast table, smoking Marlboros and drinking Heinekens. He was working up his courage to call the big house in Philadelphia and demand they put Rachel on the line, when a black Mercury Marquis pulled into the driveway. A man in a blue suit and a white shirt got out of the car.
“Are you Skipper Haskew?” he asked as Skipper opened the door. Skipper nodded. “I have a proposition to make to you.”
Rodney Lipscomb was a local Phoenix lawyer, contracted by Miles Blechner through one of the law firms he used back in Philadelphia. The proposition was in actuality a divorce agreement, the terms of which were simple and direct: if Skipper would agree to an immediate divorce from Rachel and give up all visitation rights to their daughter, Lipscomb would hand him a cashier’s check for $75,000 immediately upon Skipper’s signing several papers.
Skipper sat down at the kitchen table, taking deep breaths and trying not to pass out. “Can I get you a glass of water?” asked Lipscomb.
Skipper just shook his head. After a few minutes he asked, “Can I have a few days to think about it?”
“No. Mr. Blechner has instructed me to tell you that this is a one time offer. If you choose to contest the divorce, he will be forced to hire the very best matrimonial lawyers Phoenix has to offer.”
“Okay,” said Skipper. “Okay.”
Lipscomb handed him several sheaves of papers. Skipper uncapped a ballpoint pen. “Aren’t you going to read them?” asked Lipscomb.
“Nah, what the fuck.” And Skipper began signing. There were two separate agreements, and three copies of both of them. Each agreement needed to be signed in several different places and each page needed to be initialed. It took about fifteen minutes, and when Skipper was done he was sweating profusely. He wanted nothing more than to climb back in bed, but that was impossible. One of the stipulations of the second agreement, Lipscomb pointed out, was that Skipper vacate the premises immediately.

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