Friday

GOLF WIDOW

Miranda did not learn of her father’s death until three days after it occurred, when she called her mother for their bi-weekly Sunday afternoon phone conversation. Apparently in good health, he was felled at the age of 64 by what had at first appeared to be a mild heart attack. According to his wishes, her mother had had him cremated without a funeral.
“God, Mother, why didn’t you call me?”
“I didn’t want to bother you – you’re so busy with the children, and long distance is so expensive.”
“Do you still have the ashes?”
“I’m going to scatter them on the roses this weekend. The Hagstroms are coming over.”
“Don’t – wait till I come out.”
“Oh, dear, it’s such a long trip. You don’t have to.”
“I want to, for Christ sake.” Miranda found herself shouting, which had an oddly unfamiliar feel. After she’d hung up, though she racked her brain, she couldn’t recall having ever spoken so harshly to the woman. Was she upset at her father’s death? Or at how little upset she felt?
That afternoon Raymond arrived home from a long trip abroad, nearly three weeks in the far east marketing and selling wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers and such for his Uncle Harold’s hardware business. “My father died,” she told him as he moved about the bedroom unpacking, dumping his dirty laundry unceremoniously in large piles on the bedroom floor. He stopped in his tracks, his toilet kit in his hand.
“Really? That’s too bad. How old was the old boy?”
“Sixty-four. Heart attack.”
“Jesus – just going to hop in the shower.” Raymond continued toward the bathroom. “You’re not upset, are you?” Before Miranda had a chance to answer, she heard the shower come on.
That night, after dinner, she and Raymond sat in the den, the late news on the TV, he with his post-prandial cognac and Barron’s, Miranda folding a huge pile of the kids’ laundry. Suddenly, four year old Pamela appeared in the doorway. “I’m having trouble sleeping,” she articulated around the thumb in her mouth. She padded over to Miranda, who hauled the little child onto her lap amidst the pile of freshly washed still-warm-from-the-drier socks, underwear, corduroys and cuddled her in her arms.
“Hey, how did this little girl get into my laundry basket,” said Miranda, and Pamela giggled. “Was she hiding in my washing machine?” The child laughed delightedly. Miranda shot a glance over at Raymond, hoping to find him sharing in this extraordinary pleasure that she’d never had with her own mother, but his eyes were glued to the stock tables. “Raymond,” she said pointedly, “did you happen to see a beautiful four and one quarter year old girl with luscious curly hair crawl into our dryer by any chance?”
In anticipation of her father’s response, Pamela took her thumb out of her mouth, poised to burst into laughter once again. But when Raymond turned toward mother and child, he simply said, “What?”
Pamela plunged her thumb back into her mouth, sucking on it avidly and watching her father with her round, dark eyes with a look, at least to Miranda, that wondered, Who is this strange man sitting in my mother’s den?
The next morning, at ten minutes to nine, she called Raymond’s secretary Jo Ann, a twenty year old girl with a pronounced Queens accent, long legs, short skirts, and striking almond-shaped eyes set amidst an olive-complected face, to find out if he had any vacation time scheduled. “Isn’t this something you should be asking Ray yourself?” the young woman responded.
“Please check his calendar,” Miranda replied, a surge of fury flushing her cheeks. “Raymond lives by his calendar.”
Shortly after their wedding, while loading the washing machine, Miranda discovered lipstick on three pairs of Raymond’s immaculate Paul Stuart snow-white boxer shorts, a tangerine shade she would never have considered for herself. It hardly surprised her, for just several months before she had been seduced on an overnight flight to Tokyo by Raymond’s warm good looks and inviting blue eyes, his confidence, his absolute sense of entitlement to her body.
It was naïve to think that other women wouldn’t be as vulnerable, or that Raymond would in any way be constrained by the conventions of marriage. He was an unabashed hedonist, smoker of Cuban cigars, wine aficionado, lover of music and painting, money for what it could buy him, food, golf, fine linens, crystal glasses, rare leather-bound books. And, of course, beautiful, sexual women.
Several days after finding the tangerine lipstick on Raymond’s boxers, Miranda made a point to stop by his office. The first person she saw when stepping off the elevator on the 17th floor was the receptionist, a pretty young woman wearing tangerine lipstick. All during lunch, Miranda was consumed with finding just the right tone with which to bring up her discovery to Raymond. Nothing seemed right, probably because she realized there would be no way of really stopping him from fooling around. Why start a fight she couldn’t win?
Right from the start then, Miranda was resolved not to let Raymond’s dalliances – he was far too self-interested to have a genuine love affair – hurt her. If not loved in her marriage – could Raymond love anyone other than himself? – she at least felt, for the first time in her life, protected. Cared about. She was now among Raymond’s favored possessions – car, golf clubs, library, wife. Raymond encouraged her to go back to school, to get a nanny in addition to their cleaning woman. He valued his possessions and took good care of them.
Raymond’s secretary came back onto the line. “Third week in July – Ray’s got it penciled in for a fishing trip in Sun Valley.”
At dinner Thursday night at Ridgewood Golf Club Miranda waited till Raymond had finished his third glass of wine before informing him that they were going to spend the first half of his vacation driving out to visit her mother in the town of Chaska, just outside of Minneapolis. She could see a quick flicker of anger in Phayer’s eyes, but he was not the type of man to rant and rage. “It’s really just a two day drive,” she said hurriedly. “I’ve planned it all out. I’ve booked us a suite at the Drake in Chicago. We’ll take the kids up the Sears Tower. It’ll be a great way for them to see the country and get to know their other grandmother. After that you can go on to your fishing trip and fly home. I’ll drive the kids back myself.”
She could sense how little the idea appealed to him, trapped with the kids and her mother for several days, but she was determined to see it through. “Raymond, the kids need to spend some quality time with you. You’re like a stranger to them. It’s not good.”
Perhaps the one thing that most appealed to Miranda about Phayer was that, despite his complete disinterest in traditional family life, she felt safe with him. She did not worry that he would strike her, or curse her, or leave her, have sex with another woman in front of her, hit one of the children. She was fairly certain that if something were important enough to her, he would accede to her wishes.
And so on the 15th of July the entire Phayer family headed west in their freshly washed and simonized 1984 Country Squire station wagon. At the last minute, Raymond added his golf clubs along with his fly rods to the pile of duffel bags and suitcases on the luggage rack on top. Although the seating arrangement would be in a state of flux for the1,400 mile trip, they set out with Raymond driving, Dolly, their eldest, in the seat next to him, and Miranda in the back seat flanked by Pamela and Gilbert, the youngest.
The weather was hot and humid for the first several hours, then as they reached the western half of Pennsylvania, suddenly overcast and threatening. In Ohio, the rains came, torrential and sudden. On the way back to the car from the Wendy’s just outside Granville, they got drenched. The older kids complained they were freezing, but when Raymond turned off the air conditioning, the car was soon unbearably humid and stuffy.
At midnight, two and a half hours later than planned, they pulled in front of the Drake Hotel. The children were asleep, their faces and clothes smeared with chocolate and vanilla frozen yogurt from the Dairy Queen. The car was littered with food wrappers, Kleenex, diapers, toys. Miranda watched Phayer out of the corner of her eye, afraid that he was angry and holding the trip against her.
But Phayer was resolved to keep his cool. Miranda was right, of course, he hardly knew the children and, as he expected, felt very little for them. Clearly, they were cute and nice, but they were neither interesting, nor played golf. They had never read Updike or Malamud, didn’t know the slightest thing about a good medoc. He didn’t get angry when they whined or wanted to be picked up because they invariably turned to Miranda with their complaints. It never occurred to them that the dashing man they called Daddy would be of any help at all.
Phayer had mentally prepared himself to go along for the ride. It would be two days out, three days or so in Chaska, then off to Sun Valley for some truly exquisite fly fishing. And, of course, after that, back to work in his beloved city, its excitement, elegant tie and shirt shops, little Italian restaurants, its women sashaying down the street baring their midriffs.
So Phayer dug down deep for his patience and just kept smiling and ruffling heads, stopping at convenience stores and coming out with surprise heaps of Rollos and Lifesavers, ice pops and Hershey bars. That’s the key, he realized on the very first day, keep on buying the little buggers treats, that’s what they loved, sugar in all its various forms.
Phayer had always loved his ability to come up with upside-down ideas. Pediatricians and dentists warned against giving your kids a lot of sugar. Fuck ‘em – these are extreme conditions, traveling in a family van across country. Rather than defy their lust for candy, give in, give in, give in. The kids’ll love you for it, and you’ll love the peace and quiet, smiles and adulation that come with being a hero.
Phayer could tell even Miranda, conscientious mother that she was, was in awe of his approach. She, too, began emerging from 7 Elevens with packets of gum and hard candies. There was fluoride in the water….let’s put it to use. They arrived at 337 Sunset Street in Chaska, Minnesota on a Monday afternoon, in mid-July, just about 28 hours after leaving Ridgewood, New Jersey, only about six hours later than Miranda had originally planned.
Raymond tooted the horn in the driveway, and a few moments later the front door opened. Miranda’s mother stood behind the screen door, waving at all five of them as they spilled out of the station wagon. Miranda was hoping this woman who had adopted her some thirty odd years ago would sprint from the house and scoop her grandchildren into her arms. But she stood her ground, edging the screen door open only when Dolly reached the first step of the front stoop.
Once inside Miranda put down her handbag and pulled her mother to her, determined to bring to this woman some of the physical affection she witnessed among her New Jersey neighbors of Italian, Greek and Jewish descent. But her mother remained stiff and unyielding in her arms, even as Miranda pulled her ever closer. “I’m so sorry about” – here she pushed beyond her instinct to say father – “Daddy. It’s so sad, so sad.”
“Yes, well, these things happen,” said her mother.
Miranda glanced over at Raymond, who was smiling at her. He raised his eyebrows as if to say, Tough old bird, isn’t she?
Miranda suspected he liked that, a kindred spirit, not dribbling all over herself with blubbery emotion.
Early that evening, after the kids had napped and been bathed and dressed, the Hagstrams came over to help scatter her father’s ashes on his prized rose garden. Her mother had invited several other friends as well, including a handsome slender widow with a sinewy athletic build. Her name was Sally Linden, and when they shook hands, Miranda was surprised by her powerful grip.
During the brief memorial service, Miranda decided suddenly that she must say a few words. Her mother looked shocked, almost alarmed, as Miranda strode to the front of the group. “I don’t remember enough things about my father,” she intoned, “we never had heart-to-heart conversations, a father-daughter dance at my wedding. I don’t remember his comforting me when I didn’t make the cheerleading squad. I don’t even remember his reprimanding me when I got an F in geometry.” As she spoke, she sought out Raymond’s glance. “It’s so important for a father to make a connection with a child, to forge a relationship, to create some kind of guard-rail against the loneliness and the failures that life is always throwing at us.” Miranda’s words were unleashing in her a flood of sadness and she could hear her own voice beginning to break. She was somehow hoping that this would touch a chord in Raymond, but she saw that he was whispering with the widow Linden, oblivious to Miranda, and so she trailed off quite abruptly, embarrassed at her own public display of grief, which, when she thought about it, was much more for herself than the silent, inscrutable man she knew as her father.
They took turns, even the children, scattering the ashes around the base of the now dense and towering rose plants brimming with giant yellow and crimson and apricot flowers, so that when Miranda was finally handed the urn there was just a smattering of powder left. Her truncated eulogy had left her saddened and defeated. She smacked the bottom of the urn sharply and the soft evening wind blew the ashes onto her shoes. As they headed in to a buffet dinner of cold meats and uncooked string beans and peppers, she polished the tops of her shoes against the back of her bare legs, thinking it might deepen her connection with her absent dad. She imagined her skin absorbing her father’s DNA, mixing his blood with hers, forging a biological connection they’d never had in life.
The guests left early, Raymond holding the Linden woman’s hand between both his own as they said good-night. Miranda thought she heard the widow say, “Eight o’clock then,” as she stepped out the door. Before she could ask Raymond what it was about, her mother summoned her into the kitchen.
“Give me a hand cleaning up,” she said, and Miranda thrilled at the idea of spending some time alone with her.
“I’m heading up to bed. I’m bushed,” Raymond called in from the living room.
“Take the kids up, too,” Miranda shouted back. “They’re exhausted.”
There was a long pause. Miranda pictured the shock and reluctance on Raymond’s face, for she almost never assigned him such a chore. But she was certain he had picked up the resolve in her voice.
“Come on, children, bedtime,” she heard him say. In the seven years since they’d had their first child, she wasn’t sure she had ever heard him utter those words.
“Bring the things in from the parlor,” her mother commanded.
Miranda pushed through the swinging door and piled the uneaten food on a tray. “Where’s the Saran Wrap?” she asked.
“I’ll do that,” said her mother. “Get the rest of the dishes.”
When Miranda returned with the dirty dishes, the food had already been wrapped and put away. “I’ll help you load the dishwasher,” she said.
“That’s okay. Just see if anything needs wiping down.” She handed Miranda a damp cloth. By the time Miranda returned to the kitchen, the room was neat and tidied, the dishwasher running, the counters bare.
“I’m tired,” her mother said. She glanced at the clock. “Oh, my goodness, it’s almost ten – past my bedtime.” She headed for the stairs.
“Don’t you want a cup of tea or something?” Miranda asked.
“Oh, no, the caffeine keeps me up for hours.”
“You don’t have any herbal tea?”
“What’s that, dear?”
“You know, chamomile, something like that.”
“No, I’m afraid my generation has gotten by just fine with Tetley. Good night, dear.” She started up the stairs.
“Mom, wait.”
“What?”
“I want to talk.”
“Talk?”
“Yeah, I mean, Dad’s gone, you’re here alone. I thought maybe you’d want to come and live near us.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Miranda. I’m not going to be one of these doddering grandmothers that no one wants around. Now go to bed. It’s late.” She proceeded up the stairs as Miranda watched helplessly from the living room below.
Raymond was in bed reading Rabbit at Rest as she stepped into the bedroom she had grown up in. “I’m very excited,” he said. “That Linden woman has invited me to play at one of the truly great courses in the Midwest.”
“When?”
“Hazeltine. They play the U. S. Open there.”
“When?”
“They have a mixed member-guest every year, and guess who was going to be her guest this year?”
“I have no idea.”
“Your father.”
“When, for Christ sake?”
“Tomorrow.”
“Oh, Raymond, how can you do this?”
“I’m filling in for your goddamned father. He left the poor woman high and dry.”
Miranda turned her back on him and headed into the adjoining bathroom. She shut the door behind her.
“This is a spectacular event,” he shouted through the door. “I read about it in Golf Digest. They called it the best mixed member-guest in the country. It’s two days, you play five separate matches. About a quarter of the field are scratch golfers.” The sound of the sink being turned on full force drowned out his voice.
As agreed upon the night before, the Linden widow picked up Raymond at eight o’clock sharp. The two girls, Dolly and Pamela, trailed him out to the driveway and watched as he got his golf clubs out of the garage and placed them in the trunk of the silver BMW on the driveway. He patted them on the heads before getting into the car, and Miranda, observing from behind the front screen door, held Gilbert in her arms. “Wave good-bye to daddy,” she said as the car backed out of the driveway. This is the way it was going to be then, Raymond pleasant, kind, generous, but father lite. Never one who enjoyed sitting around and licking her wounds, Miranda promptly went upstairs and packed the kids’ suitcases.
After scouring the entire house, the finished basement upstairs, the little spare bedroom in the attic, she finally found her mother trimming dead leaves in the garden. “We’re leaving, Ma,” she said.
“I thought you were staying till Thursday.”
“Changed my mind.”
“But you just got here.”
“Yeah, well, it was basically just to say good-bye to Dad. Can I borrow your clippers?”
She took the shears from her mother and advanced upon the rose bushes. Gingerly, she reached out and held a stem heavy with outsized yellow flowers.
“Oh, don’t do that,” said her mother.
“Ma, there must be over five hundred flowers here.”
“We just don’t cut them, Miranda.”
“That’s absurd.” And as her mother watched grimly and in silence, she cut four of the largest roses from their stem. “I want each of the kids to have one in memory of Dad. Come and say good-bye.”
Her mother followed her to the station wagon, in which each of the children were already safety-belted in. Miranda opened the doors on the driver’s side and said, “Alright, say good-bye to Grandma, everybody.”
“Good-bye, Grandma,” they said.
Her mother waved at the kids. “Good-bye Pamela, Dolly, Gilbert,” she said.
“Stick your head in and kiss them,” ordered Miranda. Awkwardly, her mother did as she was told.
“Well, see you around,” said Miranda and got in behind the steering wheel. After she backed out of the driveway, she looked at the house and saw that her mother was still standing there, waving at them. An overwhelming sense of sadness came over her and she sniffled quietly as she drove down Sunset Street and made a right onto Haworth Avenue.
“Are you crying, Mommy?” asked Dolly, sitting in the front seat next to her.
“Yeah, a little bit.”
“Why?”
“Because….because….Grandma makes me sad,” she said.
“I don’t like her,” said Gilbert. “She’s mean.”
“No, she’s not mean, sweetie. She’s just….distant.”
They had the best time as they meandered back toward New Jersey, stopping at Arnie’s World’s Longest Hot Dog in Milwaukee, which, Miranda estimated, was about three inches shorter that the worlds’s longest hot dog at Rut’s Hut in Clifton. They explored Arlington Caves in northern Illinois, took a boat ride on the Chicago River, and happened upon a genuine, old-fashioned county fair as they crossed over the border into Indiana. They went on the Tilt-A-Whirl and ate cotton candy and stayed at a Holiday Inn in which the beds vibrated when you put a quarter in the slot.
The next morning they drove south and walked around the campus of Notre Dame. Then, when they rounded the bend of the southern coast of Lake Erie, they headed north up into Michigan and visited Ann Arbor. They had a wonderful lunch in the student union and Miranda was hoping that being in college towns was somehow planting a seed that one day would lead to outstanding academic achievement. They ended the day in Cleveland at the grand old Cleveland Plaza Hotel, the four of them staying up watching “Teen Witch” on television and then falling asleep on the king-sized bed. Miranda got up to pee at three thirty in the morning. When she came back into the room she stood over the bed for a moment, looking down at her three children, her heart aching with love for each of them, seeing some part of herself in each of their sleeping faces. Then she climbed ever so carefully over Pamela and found her place again between Dolly and Gilbert.
It suddenly occurred to her that it was more than likely that somewhere in the suburbs of Minneapolis, as she lay here with her children, that Raymond was lying with the Linden widow. Doesn’t know what he’s missing, she thought. She turned onto her side and fell promptly back to sleep.

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